Truthout Stories Sat, 20 Dec 2014 23:46:14 -0500 en-gb Fallen Heroes of 2014

Hundreds of social justice advocates and organizers passed away in 2014, leaving their work behind as their legacy, but often also leaving an irreplaceable hole in their movements.

In this week's edition of Making Contact you'll hear about the life and work of social justice leaders, many who spent their entire lives fighting for racial and economic justice, and though they've passed away they inspire us to do our work today.

Black Liberation activists like Chokwe Lumumba, Darby Tillis freed from wrongful conviction and imprisonment, Yuri Kochiyama anti-imperialist supporter for political prisoners, and young George Carter who was a "rethinker" of schools in New Orleans.

On today's edition of Making Contact we honor and revisit the lives of just a few of those fallen heroes who passed away this year.


  • Chokwe Lumumba, former mayor of Jackson MS
  • Morgan Powell, Bronx River Sankofa founder
  • Charity Hicks, Detroit People's Water Board co-founder
  • Darby Tillis, death penalty opponent
  • Yuri Kochiyama, civil rights activist
  • Ted Gullickson, San Francisco Tenants Union director
  • George Carter; Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools participant
  • Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues
  • Eddie Ellis, prison reform advocate
  • Mark Naison, Fordham University African-American history professor
  • Lila Cabbil, Rosa Parks Institute president emeritus
  • Diane Fujino, author of Heartbeat of Struggle, the revolutionary life of Yuri Kochiyama
  • Taiyo Na, author
  • Randy Shaw, Tenderloin Housing Clinic executive director
  • Qasim Davis, Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools project manager
  • Perry Cobb, Darby Tillis' co-defendant
  • Dr. Divine Pryor, executive Director of the center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions
News Sat, 20 Dec 2014 13:47:37 -0500
Who's Afraid of Shareholder Democracy?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of biggest corporate trade associations, and ALEC, one of biggest corporate lobbying groups are both startlingly hostile to shareholders. At two recent meetings in Washington DC, these two powerful groups -- who frequently hold themselves out as speaking for the business community -- grumbled about shareholders being too pushy.

In particular ALEC and the Chamber don't like that one of the top topics of shareholder resolutions over the past few years has been transparency of political spending both in elections and in lobbying expenditures. Just this year, five public firms witnessed a majority of their shareholders vote in favor of such political transparency. Those firms in case you were curious are Sallie Mae, Lorillard and Valero Energy, where a majority voted for disclosure of lobbying — and Dean Foods and Smith & Wesson, where a majority voted for disclosure of campaign spending.

Ownership, as they say, has its privileges. One of the points of buying stock rather than just loaning a company money is by actually buying a little piece of the firm, the shareholder gets a tiny voice in how that firm is run. Apparently the Chamber and ALEC do not appreciate shareholders, well, acting like they own the joint.

Of course, shareholders don't get to run the firm day to day, but they do get to pipe up once a year at the annual general meeting (AGM) by voting on the board of directors, the auditor, management proposals and shareholder proposals.

As reported in Bloomberg BNA by Kenneth P. Doyle, this attention by shareholders on corporate political spending is rubbing the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce the wrong way. "The whole thing comes down to efforts by some to stop the business community" complained President Thomas Donahue at a December 3rd conference sponsored by the U.S. Chamber Foundation.

Meanwhile the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was also meeting in DC on December 3rd and they too were peevish about shareholders having the temerity to ask where corporate money in being used in politics. As reported by PR Watch, at the ALEC meeting there was a workshop titled "Playing the Shame Game: A Campaign that Threatens Corporate Free Speech."

This is all a little surreal since these are shareholders after all who at the end of the day would like a reasonable return on their investment, like any good capitalist. If anyone is for businesses turning a profit, it is the people whose life savings are tied up in these firms and thus it is reasonable to ask if money spent on politics is money spent wisely.

From the press reports of these two DC meetings, it sounds like the Chamber and ALEC may be pining for the 1950s. Back then, shareholders almost never brought up social issues on the proxy. One of the few exceptions was James Peck, a white civil rights activist who had the "crazy" idea that blacks and whites are equal. Peck partnered with black civil rights lawyer Bayard Rustin to ask Greyhound to desegregate its buses through the corporate proxy card. James Peck failed at every turn in the early 1950s. He was met with a wall of resistance from the company, the SEC and the courts. And it was like that for other shareholders for two more decades.

This all changed with a case called Medical Committee for Human Rights v. SEC brought by shareholders of Dow who complained about its production of napalm during the Vietnam War. The case was litigated up to the D.C. Circuit in 1970. The court found that the shareholders should be able to vote on a broader array of issues because:

[w]e think that there is a clear and compelling distinction between management's legitimate need for freedom to apply its expertise in matters of day-to-day business judgment, and management's patently illegitimate claim of power to treat modern corporations with their vast resources as personal satrapies implementing personal political or moral predilections.

A key factor in the case was the fact that Dow's own documents showed "that the decision to continue manufacturing and marketing napalm was made not because of business considerations, but in spite of them..." The Dow case was a turning point in the rights of shareholders. Shortly thereafter the SEC revised its rules to allow political and social shareholder proposals.

And shareholders have been exercising this right ever since. Now in a typical year, hundreds of shareholder proposals are filed at firms. Today many of the shareholder resolutions are about sustainability and environmental issues like climate change, greenhouse gases, pollution, genetically modified food, and impacts on public health of manufacturing.

A report from the Sustainable Investment Institute (Si2) which tracks these things noted, "[i]nvestors concerned with environmental and social issues filed 454 shareholder proposals at U.S. companies in 2014, a big jump from 402 in 2013 and far more than in any previous year."

Ever since Citizens United in 2010 there has been a notable uptick in shareholder resolutions on the transparency of political spending. And the votes on political transparency this year averaged (as of August 2014) 23.7%. This is remarkably high given how broadly public companies are held. Which might explain why some corporate groups who are fond of spending secretive "dark money" are having a toddler style temper tantrum just because shareholders are exercising their right to vote their proxies.

The alternative to the private ordering that shareholders are engaged in is a generally applicable rule from the SEC providing uniform disclosure of corporate political spending, which is also popular among shareholders if a short review of the over one million comments filed at the SEC is any indication.

If the Chamber and ALEC bristle at shareholder democracy where there is an actual ownership stake, one can only imagine what they think of real democracy where every citizen over 18 no matter how rich or poor, investors and non-investors alike, gets to vote.

News Sat, 20 Dec 2014 13:23:07 -0500
Unbelievable: Telecoms Claim They're Worried About Your Bill!

Update: Since this article was written the two false pillars of the PPI study have disappeared. Brian Fung of the Washington Post sums up the claim that investment would decrease with Title II with his reporting on how executives from the telecoms say Title II will not impact their investment plans. The other pillar was the claim that there would be increased taxes but Congress has extended the tax exemption for the Internet so now that claim has also disappeared. After final passage of the omnibus spending bill, Free Press published: Congress Puts to Rest the Great Internet Tax Hoax of 2014: Phone and cable industry misinformation about Title II once again fails to stand up to scrutiny, which puts the nail in the coffin of this telecom falsehood. The bottom line: Title II will not increase taxes or the bills of consumers. Let's watch and see if the cable lobbyists stop the big advertising campaign based on this phony study.

The 'false-on-its-face' telecom claim of increased costs to consumers is designed to protect their unregulated monopolies that charge too much and provide terrible service.

The Citizens of the Internet Can Defeat the Telecom Mafia

In a claim that must have people laughing out loud, the telecom and broadband providers are fighting net neutrality by claiming that they will raise the rates of consumers! It is hard to believe that even telecom lobbyists, well-paid to mislead Congress and regulators, could make this claim without smirking as cable bills have been rising at four times the rate of inflation without net neutrality.

Now they claim to be concerned about consumer costs. Why? Because they want to protect their monopolies that currently allow them to gouge consumers and provide sub-par service.

The telecoms remind us of the mafia: "If you reclassify the Internet as a public utility, it's gonna cost you." It is time to stand up to these bullies. The Internet community is strong enough to defeat them in any arena. The truth is that the FCC will be able to control telecom costs if they reclassify the Internet because Title II gives the FCC the power to control the fees they charge, and the telecoms know and fear this. 

The falseness of the telecom claim is obvious on its face, but because some in Congress are well paid to believe the lies of the industry, we need to debunk them. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) spends $19.8 million annually on lobbying making it the fifth largest spender in Washington, DC (Comcast, AT&T and Verizon combined spent an addition $48 billion). As far as political donations, during the 2013-2014 election cycle Comcast gave $3.4 million, AT&T $3.1 million, Verizon $2.6 million and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association $1.8 million. So, Congress hears a lot of lies from people who pay them well to listen.

But there is strong evidence that the politics have changed and the people of the Internet can defeat the dollars of the telecoms in Congress. The Internet community can also debunk their lies, no matter how much they spend to tell them.

No amount of money will turn telecom lies into truths

First, anyone with basic common sense knows that the real problem regarding cost of cable and Internet access is unregulated monopolies. When consumers have no choice, monopolies can charge whatever price they want and not worry about the quality of their service or how they treat consumers.

Every American has experienced the dramatic rate increases in fees from telecoms but the numbers are still shocking. Last year cable rates increased at 6.5% while inflation was 1.7%. The average annual rate increase since 1995 has been 6.1%, consistently higher than inflation.

As to their dismal service, Informit reports that the US ranks 31st in the world in download speeds; our connection speed is worse than Estonia, Slovakia and Uruguay among many others; and we rank 48th in upload speeds making us worse than countries like Zimbabwe and Armenia.

The US pays too much for Internet services that deliver less than other countries because during the Clinton era the Telecommunications Act of 1996 became law which allowed major providers to split up markets for the purpose of regional monopolization. Then in 2002, Michael Powell's FCC reclassified the Internet as an information service removing the Title II powers needed to regulate these monopolies. The result: unregulated monopolies that gouge consumers and provide lousy service.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index of 2014, which reviews 43 household consumer industries, finds that customer satisfaction from cable and broadband providers is the lowest among all the industries surveyed. The average for all industries was 75.6 in satisfaction out of 100, while the cable companies had a score of 63. Customer satisfaction from these companies continues to decline with drops in satisfaction across the board. Comcast and Time Warner Cable plunged 8% and 14%, respectively, to very low ACSI scores in the 50s. Comcast and Time Warner Cable both score lower for Internet service compared to their pay TV ratings. In fact Comcast earned Consumerist's 'Worst Company in America' title twice, first in 2010 and again this year, 2014, beating out Monsanto, a company most associated with the word "evil."

Because the telecom and broadband providers are so unpopular and have no credibility when it comes to keeping consumer costs down, they had to find a front group to do their dirty work. They found a perfect front group in the misnamed "Progressive" Policy Institute. PPI is the think tank for the big business Democratic corporatists, the Democratic Leadership Conference. The DLC was successful in getting big business money, especially from Wall Street and the telecoms into the Democratic Party. PPI was organized to support the DLC and advocates Wall Street friendly policies that favor de-regulation and corporatization. PPI justifies big business friendly policies with phony progressive rhetoric. AT&T has been funding PPI since its founding in 2000. As Phillip Dampier wrote "PPI would likely not exist without its corporate sponsors — among them AT&T, hardly a disinterested player in the telecommunications policy debate."

PPI gave the telecom industry the "research" they wanted for a false propaganda campaign in a last ditch effort to stop reclassifying the Internet as a common carrier under Title II so that net neutrality could once again become the law of the land. The study makes the false claim that Title II net neutrality regulations will result in $15 billion in various new Federal and State taxes and fees. These are totally made up numbers from a completely false fantasy thesis that Title II will mean less investment and slower innovation that would result from reclassification.

Indeed, Edward Wyatt of the New York Times reports that a Verizon executive debunked the myth of less investment under Title II at the annual UBS media and communications investment conference. He reports that Francis J. Shammo, Verizon's chief financial officer, said "the company planned to continue to invest in its FiOS fiber-optic network and its wireless systems regardless of the outcome of the broadband debate." Shammo specifically said that the broadband debate "does not influence the way we invest."

As John Eggerton reported in MediaChannel, FCC Chair, Tom Wheeler is now saying Title II will not threaten investment: "When Verizon makes that kind of statement, I think it is logical. I think it is reflected in what various Wall Street analysts have said in terms of Title II being less of a bugaboo if it is done correctly." Matt Wood of Free Press provides more details telling us Wheeler said "that broadband investment in Title II services remains high, that auction revenues are booming despite him telling CTIA that mobile Net Neutrality would be stronger, and even noted that wireless voice has been subject to Sections 201/202 for twenty years."

This is consistent with the history of Internet investment as the evidence shows investment was greater when the Internet was classified as a common carrier under Title II. The telecoms build on this false claim with more false claims telling consumers through their allies in the corporate media that there would be a $19 per month increase in fees to the consumer for Internet access. They are now running advertisements with a scary graphic wherever there is an article about Title II and net neutrality in places like The Hill.

Does a Lie Repeated Become the Truth?

But it is all false. It is just a lie repeated with a megaphone of big money spending and corporate media allies. This will be an excellent test of the "Big Lie" theory, that a lie repeated becomes the truth.

Congress has, as predicted by almost everyone, extended the tax exemption for the Internet. Prior to the extension, Tech Dirt explained the false basis for the claim because it was based on the slim potential of increased taxes, with had nothing to do with Title II but was based on the tax exemption:

"On the state level, Internet access has long received a Congressional exemption that's set to expire December 11 — an issue totally unrelated to the Title II push. Congress can make sure the exemption is extended, keeping state sales taxes far away from broadband access. If they don't, again, it has nothing to do with Title II. Realize this, and nearly all of the PPI's estimate of $15 billion in new taxes as a direct result of Title II goes up in smoke right out of the gate."

Tim Karr of Free Press points out in a tweet the irony of the advertisement appearing on the same page in the Washington Post where the ad is debunked. The budget bill passed by Congress ends the possibility of increased taxes as Congress extended the exemption. There was never any doubt this tax exemption extension would pass, but the telecoms needed a scare story so they made one up.

Free Press explains the falsehood, a "mistake" that is really an attempt to mislead, as coming "from ignoring the difference between services that cross state lines and those that exist entirely within one state." They explain: If Congress extends and updates the Internet Tax Freedom Act and the FCC declines to include broadband in the [universal service] revenue base at this time, the increase would be exactly zero. Congress has now extended the Tax Freedom Act, so another false foundation of the PPI study is removed.

In fact, the FCC could take various actions to prevent unreasonable fee increases under Title II. Free Press points out that the FCC could waive the requirement for providers to contribute a portion of their retail broadband revenues to the federal Universal Service Fund. PPI chooses to ignore the basic truth about Title II regulation; it gives the FCC flexibility in regulating the industry, including keeping costs down.

Free Press sums up the facts and concludes there would be no increase in taxes or fees as a result of reclassification under Title II and net neutrality regulations, explaining:

"The bottom line is this: If the FCC does nothing more than stick with precedent and designate broadband as an interstate telecom service, the average potential increase in taxes and fees per household would be far less than PPI estimates. If Congress extends and updates the Internet Tax Freedom Act and the FCC declines to include broadband in the revenue base at this time, the increase would be exactly zero."

What It All Means: People of the Internet Will Defeat The Telecom Mafia

The telecom and broadband providers are desperate to keep their unregulated monopolies that can raise prices and provide lousy service without any retribution from the consumers or government. They pay big money to elected officials to serve as a shield to regulation. They keep the FCC in fear of Congress and the courts. It is our job – the millions of people who are demanding net neutrality to be organized and mobilized to defend the FCC when it reclassifies.

When it comes to the courts, in Verizon, when the court threw out the net neutrality rules, it made it clear that only Title II reclassification would give the FCC the authority to regulate the Internet and prevent fast lanes and slow lanes. Court decisions make it evident that the easiest to defend net neutrality rules will be if the Internet is reclassified under Title II. There is no other legal path that gives the FCC a strong legal foundation that is defendable in court.

When it comes to Congress, recent experience shows the people are the dominant power on Internet issues. The politics of the Internet has changed: the people of the Internet can defeat the dollars of the telecoms. This has been seen in repeated battles over SOPA and PIPA and will be seen in net neutrality as well. Larry Downes wrote in Forbes analyzing the new political power of the Internet: "A new and profoundly different political force has emerged ... a constituency that identifies itself not by local interests but as citizens of the Internet."

This new political power has shown itself over reclassification and net neutrality, where it produced nearly 4 million comments to the FCC, far eclipsing any previous rulemaking; overwhelmingly, literally 99% of the comments, supported net neutrality. The Internet can generate emails, petitions and phone calls and it has been a key factor in mobilizing people to take action.

The FCC does not have to fear the telecom and broadband providers. Their old school 'pay to play' politics will fail with the reality of people power that can be organized rapidly and coordinated on the Internet. Indeed, the Internet can make sure that their massive political spending will create a boomerang against elected officials who take donations from the telecoms. Politicians will find telecom dollars will cost them votes.

And, the politics is on the side of the Internet community. Both political parties want the funding of Silicon Valley and the votes of Internet citizens. Polls show people across the political spectrum – Republicans, Democrats and independents – support net neutrality. Republicans are quickly learning they must be on the side of the Internet. People want an open Internet with equal access for all.

The politics comes down to this: side with the most hated corporations in America or side with millions of people and the funders of the future, the Internet corporations made up of entrepreneurs, start-ups and innovators. The Internet has already shown its current political power, but more importantly, it is obvious which side is the political power of the future.

The FCC should go forward in confidence that Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T are political powers of the past that should be taken on and not feared. The Internet will be on the FCC's side if they do the right thing.

News Sat, 20 Dec 2014 12:43:33 -0500
Subsidy Spotlight: Publicly Funding a Utah Disaster in the Making

A green stegosaurus graces the logo of Uintah County, Utah, a gateway to the famed Dinosaur National Monument, where breathtaking landscapes and fossils preserved in sandstone attract thousands of visitors every year.

That logo has taken on new meaning over the past decade as prehistoric remains have attracted a different crowd. Now oil and gas executives are flocking to the Uinta Basin in Eastern Utah, as new technologies––and support from the government––offer the dubious possibility of digging up the region's vast deposits of oil shale and tar sands.

Canadian production of tar sands on a massive scale has familiarized the American public with the petroleum substance that's comprised of sand, clay, water, and bitumen which, after several rounds of energy-intensive refining, can be turned into fuel that burns dirtier than conventional crude oil, releasing more carbon, heavy metals, and sulphur in the process.

But tar sands production has never happened on a commercial scale within the United States, and less attention is paid to domestic reserves––even though several tar sands mining projects have been in the works for a number of years.

In Utah, there's an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil within the state's tar sands deposits (that's a little more than twice the total amount of petroleum consumed in the U.S. in 2013). These tar sands are lower quality than Canada's, and would require even more processing––using large quantities of fuel just to make more fuel. One report puts it this way, "Every time you fill your car with gas from made-in-Utah tar sands...pour an extra 4 or 5 gallons on the ground."

Oil shale is even less promising. Not to be confused with shale oil (which is oil released by fracking), oil shale is fossil matter that hasn't been in the ground long enough to turn into oil. It's basically sedimentary rock with deposits of solid chemical compounds called kerogen inside.

If exposed to extremely high temperatures, it's possible to convert the kerogen into a liquid hydrocarbon and squeeze it out of the rock. That requires strip-mining the oil shale from the ground and using lots of fuel just to create enough heat to extract the hydrocarbons, which then requires even more energy to refine before it's a usable petroleum product.

In nearly a century of speculation, oil shale has never been proven commercially viable. But with a national fervor for domestic fuel production in the U.S., and an estimated 1.8 trillion barrels of oil within oil shale deposits in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming (enough to tip the scale toward assured climate disaster), oil shale is getting another push.

The push is coming from companies that want to strip mine some of the West's most iconic landscapes for tar sands and oil shale. It's coming from officials at every level of government with financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. But the people bottom-lining the advancement of oil shale and tar sands production, like it or not, are taxpayers.

Through public land leases, infrastructure subsidies, and some very expensive tax breaks, taxpayer money is supporting what could become one of the dirtiest, most destructive chapters in American energy history.

Oil shale on stolen land

Forrest Cuch talks about the year 1905 so vividly it's as if he lived it. That's the year Utah's Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation was divvied up to white settlers under the Homestead Act, reducing the tribal territory where Cuch––a member of the Ute tribe––lives from 4.3 million acres to just half a million.

"That was a very traumatic time in our history. Some of our people went to war over that," Cuch, formerly the Director of Utah's Division of Indian Affairs, said in a phone interview. "They ventured up north to join an alliance with the Lakota people. When they got up there they found that the powerful Lakota people were also defeated."

Once the fighting was quelled, it wasn't long before the federal government claimed a chunk of the reservation for the Naval Oil Shale Reserves, which was intended to serve as a backup fuel source for the military. The Defense Department didn't attempt to use oil shale from the reserves until the 1970s, and then their experiments weren't successful.

In the 1980s Congress allocated up to $88 billion to the Department of Energy for a program to develop unconventional fuels, including tar sands and oil shale. The DOE shelled out $7 billion in the form of loan and price guarantees to oil shale projects in the Uinta Basin and parts of Colorado. All of the projects folded within a few years, and the DOE program was dissolved.

Meanwhile, the Naval Oil Shale Reserves remained undeveloped, and in 2000, the federal government returned 84,000 acres to the Ute Tribe.

By that time, the Uinta Basin had become a locus of conventional oil and gas production, and the reservation had become what Cuch describes as "a checkerboard." Rather than one contiguous swath of land, tribal acreage was interspersed with state, federal and private land, all marred with oil and gas wells.

"It's made relationships very difficult here," Cuch says. "The local [non-Native] folks and the tribal elders fight over jurisdiction. The racism is very prevalent and has created lots of problems."

Now a Salt Lake City-based company called Red Leaf Resources is among those clamoring for land and mineral rights in the Uinta Basin, and they're looking to repeat history. The company claims it has developed a commercially viable oil shale mine on 1,600 acres of land leased from the state.

A few miles away, straddling reservation boundaries, sits a 6,000 acre site where a Canadian company called U.S. Oil Sands has clear cut part of the land for their open pit tar sands mines.

These companies, along with a handful of others, have leased tens of thousands more acres in the Uinta Basin for further exploration and development of oil shale and tar sands.

Ozone as bad as Los Angeles

Red Leaf and U.S. Oil Sands entered the picture at a time when the land and communities of the Uinta Basin were already under industrial duress, thanks to an energy boom ushered in by fracking.

In recent years, methane from nearly 16,000 oil and gas wells, combined with emissions from heavier truck traffic have contributed to ozone levels that are now worse than in Los Angeles, and often are twice as high as federal standards allow.

In the Uinta Basin, you're far more likely to see a herd of elk crossing a country lane than bumper-to-bumper traffic filling an intersection. But in less than a decade, the air quality in this rural wilderness has deteriorated to become worse than one of the largest cities in the U.S.

In the dead of winter, when temperatures range from zero to twenty below, Cuch's seven-year-old grandson keeps an inhaler close at hand. His asthma is severely triggered by pollution trapped at ground level by a frequently occurring phenomenon called inversion, wherein warmer air traps cold air and pollution beneath it, preventing them from circulating normally.

A 2012 report showed that rates of hospitalizations for asthma the Uinta Basin were double the state average. And now some are questioning whether the pollution is at the root of a spike in infant deaths and stillbirths in the region.

"As far distant as the ocean itself."

Water is another casualty of the region's oil and gas boom.

Lauren Wood grew up in a family of river guides when melon farming was more common than fracking on the banks of the Green River, which cuts through the Uinta Basin. Now she's a third generation river guide, but her livelihood is changing as the fossil fuel industry scales up in the region she calls home.

"We've had some really low water years," Wood says. "There've been seasons when it's been windy all day long and I'm literally dragging my boat across gravel because there's not enough water in the stream to even float on. And its not because there's not water, its because we are using so much of it for these extraction projects."

According to Western Resource Advocates, in 2010 the state had permitted more water for pending projects than is actually available, creating a deficit that could amount to as much as 140,000 acre-feet. In the second driest state in the nation, this alone could spell disaster.

That's no obstacle to Red Leaf founder Todd Dana, who testified about the importance of federal support for oil shale development in a 2011 hearing before the House Committee on Natural Resources.

In a form he filled out prior to testifying, Dana described himself as a, "self taught, highly successful oil shale expert." He then delivered a bizarre rant that devolved from blaming environmentalists for wars in the Middle East to asserting that, "Anyone worried about the water availability can simply buy the water."

He went on, "Water can and will be piped to the region from long distance if necessary widely available from Utah Lake, The Great Salt Lake and even as far distant as the ocean itself [sic]. Water is not a problem for oil shale. Every comment to the contrary is just environmental activism without the economic understanding of importing the water."

Fossil fuel executives, policy analysts, and just plain folks – all in one.

Unfortunately, fossil fuel executives like Dana can make such outlandish statements and still wield considerable influence. Since Dana founded Red Leaf in 2006, the company has gone full force through revolving doors, across a lot of astroturf, and into a morass of campaign finances – pushing oil shale and tar sands development every step of the way.

In 2007, Red Leaf entered a revolving door with Utah's state government by hiring the governor's energy advisor, Laura Nelson, as a vice president.

Nelson also had connections in the federal government: she served as a member of Department of Energy's Unconventional Fuels Task Force, which was established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to accelerate tar sands and oil shale development.

In 2008, Nelson teamed up with a U.S. Oil Sands executive to co-author a white paper for the Utah Mining Association (UMA), a lobbying group whose membership includes both Red Leaf and U.S. Oil Sands.

The paper outlined policy recommendations for all levels of government that included permitting mining on public lands, offering tax incentives, and subsidizing infrastructure to facilitate oil shale and tar sands mining.

The UMA white paper also stressed the need for crafting a PR plan to distinguish Utah tar sands mining from the "negative image" associated with Canadian tar sands, advising that, "For Utah's oil shale/tar sands industry to gain a foothold and grow to the point where it's self-sustaining, first impressions made to regulators, legislators and the general public must be positive."

Perhaps to that end, Laura Nelson sits on the board of a nonprofit called Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale (ECCOS) that registered with the IRS the same year the UMA white paper came out.

A Greenpeace investigation recently revealed the nonprofit to be the project of a PR consulting firm called EIS Solutions, which has ties to the Koch brothers and specializes in astroturfing efforts (big money disguised as grassroots support for a policy or politician) in favor of fracking and other extreme energy projects.

In addition to sharing an address with EIS, as Greenpeace reports, ECCOS's latest tax forms show that the entirety of the group's spending in 2012––$105,368––went to EIS. Their reported activity included attending hearings and speaking engagements, at the local, state and national levels, relating to "the responsible development of oil shale."

The astroturfing has paid off. In the years since the memo came out and ECCO materialized, oil shale and tar sands projects in Utah have benefited from subsidies in several of the areas Nelson and her colleague at U.S. Oil Sands outlined: from millions of dollars in tax breaks, to public land giveaways, and an expensive new road for transporting oil shale and tar sands crude out of the Uinta Basin.

News Sat, 20 Dec 2014 11:57:41 -0500
The Invasion of Panama and the Proclamation of a Lone Superpower Above the Law

Twenty five years ago, before dawn on December 20, 1989, U.S. forces descended on Panama City and unleashed one of the most violent, destructive terror attacks of the century. U.S. soldiers killed more people than were killed on 9/11. They systematically burned apartment buildings and shot people indiscriminately in the streets. Dead bodies were piled on top of each other; many were burned before identification. The aggression was condemned internationally, but the message was clear: the United States military was free to do whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted, and they would not be bound by ethics or laws.

The invasion and ensuing occupation produced gruesome scenes: "People burning to death in the incinerated dwellings, leaping from windows, running in panic through the streets, cut down in cross fire, crushed by tanks, human fragments everywhere," writes William Blum. [1]

Years later the New York Times interviewed a survivor of the invasion, Sayira Marín, whose "hands still tremble" when she remembers the destruction of her neighborhood.

"I take pills to calm down," Marín told the paper. "It has gotten worse in recent days. There are nights when I jump out of bed screaming. Sometimes I have dreams of murder. Ugly things."

In the spring of 1989, a wave of revolutions had swept across the Eastern bloc. In November, the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War was over. No country was even a fraction as powerful as the United States. Rather than ushering in an era of peace and demilitarization, U.S. military planners intensified their expansion of global hegemony. They were pathological about preventing any rival to their complete military and economic domination.

U.S. government officials needed to put the world on notice. At the same time, President George H.W. Bush's needed to shed his image as a "wimp." So they did what any schoolyard bully would: pick out the smallest, weakest target you can find and beat him to a bloody pulp. The victim is irrelevant; the point is the impression you make on the people around you.

Panama was an easy target because the U.S. already had a large military force in 18 bases around the country. Until 1979, the occupied Panama Canal Zone had been sovereign territory of the United States. The Panama Canal was scheduled to be turned over to Panama partially in 1990 and fully in 2000. The U.S. military would be able to crush a hapless opponent and ensure control over a vital strategic asset.

Washington began disseminating propaganda about "human rights abuses" and drug trafficking by President Manuel Noriega. Most of the allegations were true, and they had all been willingly supported by the U.S. government while Noriega was a CIA asset receiving more than $100,000 per year. But when Noriega was less than enthusiastic about helping the CIA and their terrorist Contra army wage war against the civilian population in Nicaragua, things changed.

"It's all quite predictable, as study after study shows," Noam Chomsky writes. "A brutal tyrant crosses the line from admirable friend to 'villain' and 'scum' when he commits the crime of independence."

Some of the worst human rights abuses in the world from the early 1960s to 1980s did originate in Panama - from the U.S. instructors and training manuals at the U.S.'s infamous School of the Americas (nicknamed the School of the Assassins), located in Panama until 1984. It was at the SOA where the U.S. military trained the murderers of the six Jesuit scholars and many other members of dictatorships, death squads and paramilitary forces from all over Latin America.

The documentary The Panama Deception demonstrates how the media uncritically adopted U.S. government propaganda, echoing accusations of human rights violations and drug trafficking while ignoring international law and the prohibition against the use of force in the UN Charter. The Academy Award-winning film exposed what the corporate media refused to: the lies and distortions, the hypocrisy, the dead bodies, the survivors' harrowing tales, and the complete impunity of the U.S. military to suppress the truth.

The propaganda started with the concoction of a pretext for the invasion. The U.S. military had been sending aggressive patrols into the Panama City streets, trying to elicit a response.

"Provocations against the Panamanian people by United States military troops were very frequent in Panama," said Sabrina Virgo, National Labor Organizer, who was in Panama before the invasion. She said the provocations were intended "to create an international incident... have United States troops just hassle the Panamanian people until an incident resulted. And from that incident the United States could then say they were going into Panama for the protection of American life, which is exactly what happened. [2]

After a group of Marines on patrol ran a roadblock and were fired on by Panamanian troops, one U.S. soldier was killed. The group, nicknamed the "Hard Chargers," was known for their provocative actions against Panamanian troops. Four days later, the invasion began. [3]

Targeting Civilians and Journalists

Elizabeth Montgomery, narrating The Panama Deception, says: "It soon became clear that the objectives were not limited only to military targets. According to witnesses, many of the surrounding residential neighborhoods were deliberately attacked and destroyed." [4]

Witnesses recounted U.S. soldiers setting residential buildings on fire. Video footage shows the charred remains of rows of housing complexes in El Chorillo, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"The North Americans began burning down El Chorillo at about 6:30 in the morning. They would throw a small device into a house and it would catch on fire," recounted an anonymous witness in the film. "They would burn a house, and then move to another and begin the process all over again. They burned from one street to the next. They coordinated the burning through walkie-talkies." [5]

People were crushed by tanks, captured Panamanians were executed on the street, and bodies were piled together and burned. Survivors were reportedly hired to fill mass graves for $6 per body.

Spanish fotographer Juantxu Rodríguez of El País was shot and killed by an American soldier. Journalist Maruja Torres recounted the incident in the Spanish newspaper the next day.

"'Get back!' the U.S. soldier yelled from his painted face brandishing his weapon. We identified ourselves as journalists, guests at the Marriot," she wrote. "'We just want to pick up our things.' He didn't pay attention. The hotel, like all of them, had been taken over by U.S. troops. Those young marines were on the verge of hysteria. There was not a single Panamanian around, just defenseless journalists. Juantxu ran out running toward the hotel taking photos, the rest of us took shelter behind the cars. Juantxu didn't return."

While the professed aim of the operation was to capture Noriega, there is ample evidence that destroying the Panamanian Defense Forces and terrifying the local population into submission were at least equally important goals.

American officials had been told the precise location of Noriega three hours after the operation began - before the killing in El Chorillo - by a European diplomat. The diplomat told the Los Angeles Times he was "100% certain" of Noriega's location "but when I called, SouthCom (the U.S. Southern military command) said it had other priorities."

No one knows the exact number of people who were killed during the invasion of Panama. The best estimates are at least 2,000 to 3,000 Panamanians, but this may be a conservative figure, according to a Central American Human Rights Commission (COEDHUCA) report.

The report stated that "most of these deaths could have been prevented had the US troops taken appropriate measures to ensure the lives of civilians and had obeyed the international legal norms of warfare."

The CODEHUCA report documented massively "disproportionate use of military force," "indiscriminate and intentional attacks against civilians" and destruction of poor, densely-populated neighborhoods such as El Chorillo and San Miguelito. This gratuitous, systematic violence could not conceivably be connected to the professed military mission.

When asked at a news conference whether it was worth sending people to die (Americans, of course, not thousands of Panamanians) to capture Noriega, President George H.W. Bush replied: "Every human life is precious. And yet I have to answer, yes, it has been worth it."

'Flagrant Violation of International Law'

Several days later, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the invasion. But the United States – joined by allies Great Britain and France – vetoed it. American and European officials argued the invasion was justified and should be praised for removing Noriega from power. Other countries saw a dangerous precedent.

"The Soviet Union and third world council members argued that the invasion must be condemned because it breaks the ban on the use of force set down in the United Nations Charter," wrote the New York Times.

After this, on December 29, the General Assembly voted 75 to 20 with 40 abstentions in a resolution calling the intervention in Panama a "flagrant violation of international law and of the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the States."

The Organization of American States passed a similar resolution by a margin of 20-1. In explaining the U.S.'s lone vote against the measure, a State Department spokesperson said: "We are disappointed that the OAS missed a historic opportunity to get beyond its traditional narrow concern over 'nonintervention.'"

In the ensuing occupation, CODEHUCA claimed that "the US has not respected fundamental legal and human rights" in Panama. The violations occurred on a "massive scale" and included "illegal detentions of citizens, unconstitutional property searches, illegal lay-offs of public and private employees, and ... tight control of the Panamanian media."

Despite the international outrage, Bush enjoyed a political boost from the aggression. His poll numbers shot to record highs not seen "since Presidents Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower." The President had authorized crimes against the peace and war crimes. Rather than being held accountable, he benefitted. So did the Pentagon and defense contractors who desperately needed a new raison d' etre after the fall of Communism.

No longer able to use the fear-mongering Cold War rationales it had for the last 40 years, Washington found a new propaganda tool to justify its aggressive military interventions and occupations. Washington was able to appropriate human rights language to create the contradictory, fictional notion of "humanitarian intervention."

"Washington was desperate for new ideological weapons to justify – both at home and abroad – its global strategies," writes James Peck. "A new humanitarian ethos legitimizing massive interventions – including war – emerged in the 1990s only after Washington had been pushing such an approach for some time." [6]

The stage was set for the even more horrific invasion of Iraq the following summer. Operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia, the NATO bombing of Serbia, Iraq (again), and the Bush and Obama interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq (a third time), Pakistan, Libya, Somalia (again), Yemen, Iraq (a fourth time) and Syria would follow.

The invasion of Panama caused unthinkable devastation to the people of Panama. Because of the U.S. military's obstruction, the full extent of the death and destruction will never be known. The damage done to the legitimacy of international law compounded the devastation exponentially.

Indisputably, the U.S. invasion was aggression against a sovereign nation. Aggressive war was defined in the Nuremberg Trials as the "supreme international crime," different from other crimes (like genocide or terrorism) in that it contains "the accumulated evil of the whole." People convicted of waging aggressive war were sentenced to death by hanging.

Twenty five years later, the man who ordered the invasion of Panama, George H.W. Bush, enjoys a luxurious retirement at his Houston and Kennebunkport estates. He is considered by mainstream U.S. pundits to be a foreign policy moderate.

Works Cited:

[1] Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II - Updated Through 2003. Common Courage Press, 2008.

[2] The Panama Deception. Dir. Barbara Trent. Empowerment Project, 1992. Film. Retrieved from, (30:54)

[3] Ibid (31:40)

[4] Ibid (34:08)

[5] Ibid (37:06)

[6] Peck, James. Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights. Metropolitan Books, 2011.

Opinion Sat, 20 Dec 2014 09:46:31 -0500
The Beginning of the End of the Cold War

A Cuban flag flies over a street in Havana, Dec. 19, 2014. President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba this week has snatched a major cudgel from his critics and potentially restored some of Washington’s influence in Latin America. (The New York Times)A Cuban flag flies over a street in Havana, Dec. 19, 2014. President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba this week has snatched a major cudgel from his critics and potentially restored some of Washington’s influence in Latin America. (The New York Times)

The generations-old war against Cuba - which Castro won, by the way, hands down - appears to be coming to an end.

A Cuban flag flies over a street in Havana, Dec. 19, 2014. President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba this week has snatched a major cudgel from his critics and potentially restored some of Washington’s influence in Latin America. (The New York Times)A Cuban flag flies over a street in Havana, Dec. 19, 2014. President Barack Obama’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba this week has snatched a major cudgel from his critics and potentially restored some of Washington’s influence in Latin America. (The New York Times)

Like everything we’ve published in 2014, this story was made possible by our readers! Will you join the community that supports Truthout by donating today?

I was walking home from grammar school one day beneath the bright blue ceiling of a late September afternoon. My street lay across the top of a hill and enjoyed a commanding view of the Brighton neighborhoods leading into downtown Boston. A storm was out to sea east beyond the city, and the clouds towered in the distant sky. At some point I looked in that direction, and stopped dead in my tracks, because one cumulus formation seemed the very definition of a mushroom cloud, and a trick of light and distance made it appear to be right over the city. I ran all the way home, terrified.

One night not long after, I was looking out the windows that faced the city. The distant buildings were beautiful in the evening light, but as I watched, a bright dot appeared in the sky. It was solid, unblinking, and moving fast toward downtown. My breath caught, and my hands tightened on the windowsill as I waited to be incinerated by a wall of nuclear fire.

One could, I suppose, chalk it up to the overactive imagination of a boy. The cloud above the city was just that, and not the aftermath of a nuclear strike. The light streaking toward downtown was a helicopter, or a plane headed for Logan Airport, and not a missile carrying destruction in its nosecone. But for a child mired during his formative years in the Reagan-era hysterics of the Cold War, a boy conditioned to listen for the sirens that could erupt at any moment to announce onrushing nuclear doom, these little hallucinations were daily fare. Living in constant low-grade fear of the possibility that "The Day After" would one day no longer be televised fiction was, as it turns out, the price of doing business.

These memories have been much on my mind as I watch these new and frankly remarkable developments unfolding between the United States and Cuba. My generation missed that whole show completely - the Cuban Missile Crisis happened nine years before I was born - and people my age are required to be students of history to understand what all the damned static is about in the first place. Read every book, watch every old white-knuckle black-and-white news broadcast from that time, however, and in the end those who did not go through that particular period are still left blinking in confusion under wrinkled brows: What's the big deal? Why did this take so long?

Answers: Serious human rights concerns, the politics of Florida and its Electoral College votes, and the lingering grip of the Cold War itself - the embedded policies that came from it, and the enduring influence of those who miss not only the simplistic binary polarity between "good" and "bad" it represented, but also the astonishing taxpayer cash spigot it provided. The reasons why the world has seemingly gone utterly and completely berserk in the years since the Berlin Wall came down are due in massive degree to the acts and actions of powerful nations during the Cold War, but there is a certain breed of cat that misses those days anyway, because the bright definitions at play helped the world make some semblance of sense. Plus, of course, dudes got mad paid.

As noted, I was not on the planet when Cuba was the flashpoint of doom and the most important island on the planet. Cuba, for me, has frankly been a topic that a few people rage heatedly over while everyone else basically shrugs because they don't understand what the fuss is about. I had to put some work in to understand it.

I did, however, get my own full budget of Cold War paranoia during the bedlam of the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations. Reagan, most specifically, was the one who very deliberately made me think I would be consumed by a wall of fire at practically any moment. We didn't do duck-and-cover at my grammar school, but every so often the teachers would herd us into the basement for a "special" fire drill, and we'd all huddle in a concrete room with the yellow and black "Fallout Shelter" sign on the door. Even at that age, knowing full well our close proximity to an obvious nuclear target, the futility of the gesture left an impression.

The Soviet Union may be gone, but the Cold War never really ended. This is a nation that needs an enemy, and beneath the bright blue ceiling of another September day thirteen years ago, a new one was established. Our haywire economy requires a state of permanent war; we lost it for a time when the Wall fell, but found it again when the Towers fell. The savage irony is that those Towers came down thanks to the chesswork of Cold Warriors who thought they could control the beast they created in Afghanistan in their desire to undo the Soviets. By any measurable standard, the United States of America, its people, its politics and its profiteering ethos stand as a bent monument to that era, which never really ended, but only metastasized into the so-called "War on Terror."

Yet the generations-old war against Cuba - which Castro won, by the way, hands down - appears to be coming to an end. This has to be a good thing, has to be made into a good thing, has to count for something beyond an opportunity for table-pounders to raise their voices and yell about Communists from the close end of the long, echoing corridor of history. The president is to be commended. At a bare minimum, we will soon hopefully have one less thing to argue about.

Opinion Sat, 20 Dec 2014 09:21:17 -0500
Your Holiday Guide to Avoiding Slave Labor

(Photo: David Leggett)(Photo: David Leggett)

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Pope Francis got into the holiday spirit this year by calling on shoppers not to buy products made by modern-day slaves.

This is, of course, excellent advice. Odds are, most of us — whether Catholic or not — would love to take it.

But how? Most products don't come with tags specifying whether or not slave labor was used in their production.

There are a few agricultural products in particular — including many popular stocking stuffers — that are notorious for using slave labor. Fortunately, you can avoid buying them with a little bit of thought.

Take chocolate, for instance. In 2012, CNN reported that half-a-million child slaves work on cacao plantations in the Ivory Coast, which supplies nearly 40 percent of the world's chocolate.

I did buy fancy truffles for a number of people on my gift list. Maybe you plan to as well.

The good news is that avoiding dubious chocolate sources is easy: Simply opt for Fair Trade-certified chocolate. The certification process ensures traceability and responsibility in the supply chain, and it means slightly better prices for cacao farmers.

Then there's shrimp. Earlier this year, The Guardian reported on widespread modern-day slavery in the Thai shrimp farming industry. Shrimp sold in the United States comes from domestic and foreign sources, both farmed and wild, but Thailand is a major supplier.

You probably didn't plan to put any shrimp under your Christmas tree, but if you're considering serving shrimp cocktail at a holiday party, check the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guide to find a responsible source. (Or just serve something other than shrimp, because many sources of this popular seafood are, quite frankly, disgusting.)

Another item that comes to mind is palm oil. And there's a good chance — whether you realize it or not — that you've slipped a palm oil product into a loved one's stocking.

Palm oil is found in a large number of processed foods, cosmetics, and even candles.

It can be produced ethically — and some brands, like Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, source their palm oil responsibly. But in far too many cases it comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where deforestation from palm oil production endangers orangutans, tigers, and a magnificent rainforest ecosystem.

Yet this is a haphazard and likely incomplete list of products to avoid. The easiest way to ensure that your gifts benefit your community and the workers who produced them is to buy locally.

That can mean purchasing handmade, unique products from Etsy, shopping at local stores or craft fairs, or giving loved ones experiences instead of things. A trip to see a musical or a sports game is a great gift, especially for a kid who already has more toys than he or she could ever play with.

One of the best gifts I've ever given was a set of "coupons from Santa" for my then-boyfriend's kids to do things like stay up late, pick the movie the family would watch, or choose what we had for dinner. It cost nothing to write them up and drop them into the kids' stockings, and they absolutely loved them.

As we thoughtfully buy gifts for our loved ones in festive stores this season, it's hard to remember the people who make the products we buy — especially given the lack of transparency in the supply chain. But a bit of extra thought can help us take the Pope's advice, without sacrificing the quality of gifts we purchase.

Opinion Sat, 20 Dec 2014 11:04:29 -0500
Darren Wilson Wasn't the First: A Short History of Killer Cops Let Off the Hook

December 3, 3014: A sign at the "Ferguson to Madison" Movement, a silent vigil was held for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and many more. (Photo: Kaitlyn Veto)December 3, 3014: A sign at the "Ferguson to Madison" Movement, a silent vigil was held for Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and many more. (Photo: Kaitlyn Veto)

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The Ferguson grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of African-American teenager Michael Brown is heartless but unsurprising. But it is important to place the case in context with the history of police violence investigations and prosecutions in high profile cases—and the systemic and racist police brutality that continues to plague the nation. In doing so, there are lessons for the movement for justice in the Michael Brown case, as well as for those who are engaged in the broader struggle against law enforcement violence.

What follows, then, is a brief history of similar high profile cases where public outrage compelled the justice system to confront acts of racially motivated police violence—with, to say the least, less than satisfactory results.


Over the past 45 years, Chicago has been a prime example of official indifference and cover-up when it comes to prosecuting the police for wanton brutality and torture.

On December 4, 1969, Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were slain in a police raid that implicated the Cook County State's Attorney and the FBI's Cointelpro program. A public outcry led to a Federal Civil Rights investigation. Despite finding that the raiding police fired more than 90 shots to one by the Panthers, the Grand Jury in 1970 did not indict, but rather issued a report that equally blamed the police perpetrators and the Panther victims.

Outrage at this decision led to the appointment of a Special Prosecutor who, in the face of extreme official resistance, obtained an indictment against the police and the State's Attorneys who planned and executed the raid—not for murder and attempted murder, but rather for obstruction of justice.

The case came to trial in front of a politically connected judge who dismissed the case without even requiring that the charged officials put on a defense. Again, the outrage, particularly in the African-American community was so extreme that the chief prosecutor, Edward V. Hanrahan, was voted out of office a week after the verdict was rendered in 1972.

The Jon Burge police torture scandal provides another stark example. Evidence that had been unearthed over the years demonstrated that a crew of predominately white Chicago police detectives, led by Jon Burge, tortured at least 120 African-American men from 1972 to 1991.

Cook County State's Attorney Richard M. Daley was tendered powerful evidence of this torture as early as 1982, but did not investigate or prosecute Burge and his men. Daley's office continued to use confessions tortured from the victims to send scores of them to prison—10 of whom went to death row, though they were later saved by a death penalty moratorium in 2000 and by a grant of clemency in 2003 by then-Governor George Ryan—during the next seven years.

In 1989, the local U.S. Attorneys' office declined to prosecute, as did the Department of Justice in 1996 and Cook County State's Attorney Richard Devine for the five years directly thereafter. In 2001, due to continuing public pressure, a politically connected Special Prosecutor was appointed to investigate the torture. But after a four year, $7 million investigation, he too refused to indict, instead issuing what is widely considered to be a whitewash report that absolved Daley, Devine, and numerous high Chicago police officials.

Finally, in 2008 the U.S. Attorney indicted Burge for perjury and obstruction of justice, and he was convicted in 2010, and sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison. However, the U.S. Attorney has subsequently declined to prosecute Burge's confederates for similar offenses.

New Orleans

Chicago is by no means an isolated example of how difficult it is to obtain justice for wanton police violence through the judicial system. In New Orleans, a crew of white detectives responded to the killing of a white police officer in 1980 by terrorizing the black community of Algiers, killing four innocent people and torturing numerous others by "booking and bagging" them: beating suspects with telephone books and suffocating them with bags over their heads.

Seven officers were indicted by the Department of Justice for civil rights violations arising from the torture of one of the victims and three were convicted. No officers were charged for the four killings or for the other acts of torture.

In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, an NOPD officer fatally shot an unarmed black man named Henry Glover, then several of his fellow officers burned his body to cover-up their crime. NOPD officers also shot and killed two unarmed black men on the Danziger Bridge.

After state authorities botched their investigation, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department indicted the officers involved in the two cases and obtained convictions of some of the main police actors. However, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned the verdict in the Glover case, and the trial judge, citing government misconduct, took the extraordinary step of granting the convicted officers a new trial in the Danziger case.

New York

In 1997, an NYPD officer sexually assaulted a Haitian-American man named Abner Louima in a precinct station bathroom by shoving a broken broomstick up his rectum. Louima's attacker was subsequently charged with federal civil rights violations, while three of his police accomplices were charged with covering up the crimes.

After Louima's attacker pleaded guilty, his accomplices were convicted, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their convictions on the grounds that the lawyers who represented the officers had a conflict of interest. After they were convicted a second time, the Appeals Court again overturned their convictions—this time on the basis that there was insufficient evidence of intent.

In 1999, four officers from the NYPD's Street Crimes Unit fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant who was reaching for his wallet, hitting him 19 times. The officers were indicted for second degree murder and the case was moved to upstate New York, where a jury acquitted the officers.

In July of this year, NYPD officers arrested an African-American man named Eric Garner, allegedly for selling untaxed cigarettes. They put a prohibited chokehold on him, forced him to the ground face first with his hands behind his back, and shoved his face into the pavement, where he died a few minutes later of a heart attack. The deadly assault, which was captured on videotape, is now under investigation by a Special Grand Jury empaneled by the District Attorney's Office.

Los Angeles

Among the most notorious cases was the brutal 1991 beating of Rodney King by five LAPD officers. A videotape captured most of the brutality and also showed several other officers standing by and doing nothing to stop the pummeling of a defenseless black man.

Four officers were charged at the state level with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. The trial was moved to a predominantly white suburban county, and three of the officers were acquitted of all charges, while the fourth was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon and other lesser charges. But the jury failed to reach a verdict on his use of excessive force.

After an angry uprising in the Africa- American community of Los Angeles that left 53 dead and around 2,000 injured, the U.S. Justice Department indicted the four officers, and a federal jury convicted two of them, while acquitting the other two.

This past August, LAPD officers fatally shot an unarmed mentally ill African-American man named Ezell Ford, who witnesses said was shot in the back while lying on the ground. Despite massive protests, there has been no grand jury investigation to date, the autopsy report is yet to be released, and the LAPD has not completed its investigation.


In Oakland, California in the late 1990s, a unit of police officers dubbed the "Rough Riders" systematically beat, framed and planted narcotics on African Americans whom they claimed were dealing drugs. Four of the "Riders" were indicted by the District Attorney's Office, and the trial was moved to a suburban county. The ringleader fled the country, and was tried in absentia.

After a year-long trial before a bitterly divided jury on which there were no blacks, the officers were acquitted of eight charges, and the jury was hung on the remaining 27 counts. At the urging of then-Mayor Jerry Brown, the officers were not re-tried.

Also in Oakland, in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 2009, a BART officer shot and killed a young black man named Oscar Grant, who was lying face down, unarmed, in a busy transit station. The shooting was videotaped, and led to militant protests in Oakland.

Another jury with no black members rejected the charge of murder and instead found the officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter. As a result, Oscar Grant's killer spent less than a year behind bars. The Department of Justice subsequently opened a civil rights investigation, but no charges were brought.


From 2007-2012 in Milwaukee, a unit of white police officers, spurred on by the Department's CompStat program of aggressive policing, stopped and illegally body cavity searched more than 70 African-American men whom they claimed to be investigating for drug dealing. In conducting these searches, most commonly performed on the street, the searching officer reached inside the men's underwear, and probed their anuses and genitals.

After this highly illegal practice came to light, the unit's ringleader, Michael Vagnini, was indicted by the Milwaukee County District Attorney on numerous counts of sexual assault, illegal searches, and official misconduct, while three of the other unit officers were also charged for participating in two of the searches. The unit's sergeant and several other members of the unit, all of whom were present for many of the searches, were not charged.

The charged officers were permitted to plead guilty to the lesser included offenses of official misconduct and illegal strip searches, with Vagnini receiving a 36-month sentence while the other three received sentences that totaled, collectively, less than a month in jail. By pleading guilty, they also received promises that they would not be charged with federal civil rights violations.

Pattern and Practice Investigations

These high profile cases represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cases where racist police violence has not been subjected to equal justice under the law.

Recently, the Justice Department declined to prosecute Little Rock, Arkansas, officers who shot and killed Eugene Ellison, an elderly African American man who was walking out of his home with a cane in his hand, while there have been documented reports of unarmed black men recently being shot down by the police in Chicago; Houston; San Antonio; Beaver Creek, Ohio; and Sarasota, Florida.

In 1994, the United States Congress, recognizing that police misconduct and violence was systemic in many parts of the country, passed 42 U.S. Code Section 14141, which empowered the Justice Department to file suit against police departments alleging patterns and practices of unconstitutional conduct, and to obtain wide ranging court orders, consent decrees, and independent monitors in order to implement reforms to those practices.

Although understaffed, the Pattern and Practice Unit of the Justice Department has attacked systemic and discriminatory deficiencies in police hiring, supervision, and monitoring in numerous police departments over the past 20 years. A particularly egregious act or series of acts of police violence often prompts the Unit to initiate an investigation, and its lawyers have obtained consent decrees or court orders in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Ohio, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Oakland, and Miami.

Last month, lawyers handling the Little Rock cases requested that the DOJ do a pattern and investigation of the LRPD, and the Unit is reportedly now investigating the practices of the Ferguson Police Department. While these investigations are not a panacea, they offer a mechanism for exposing and reforming blatantly unconstitutional police practices, and have also demonstrated how pervasive the problem systemic police violence continues to be.

In light of this history, the pre-ordained failure of a biased local prosecutor to obtain an indictment against Darren Wilson should not surprise us. But the movement for justice for Michael Brown has brought widespread attention to the nationwide problem of systemic and racist police violence and highlighted the movement that has come together to battle against it.

Just two weeks ago, the Brown case, along with the Burge torture cases, was presented to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva. The movement should now turn its attention to the Department of Justice, demanding a federal civil rights indictment against Wilson a full scale pattern and practice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, and, more broadly, an end to systemic and racist police violence.

As the history of the battle against racist police violence so pointedly teaches, the public outcry and agitation must continue not only in Ferguson but across the nation. Because as Frederick Douglas rightly stated many years ago, power concedes nothing without a demand.

News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 13:41:36 -0500
In Border Disaster, Advocates Seek Names of the Dead

With her daughter missing, Dalila can’t give up hope.

“Sometimes I think … I’m going to find her alive, somewhere, where she might be recovering. A hospital, a shelter.”

Dalila, who lives in Oregon and works as a cleaner, asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons. She came to the US on a visa nine years ago from El Salvador. In late 2013, Dalila paid a man $3,500 to take her 24-year-old daughter from El Salvador to the US, with the promise to pay another $3,500 when her daughter arrived.

Mother and daughter were never reunited. On Dec. 26, 2013, Dalila’s daughter sent her a text message saying she was about to start walking from McAllen, Texas, to Houston.

Thoughts of what might have happened to her daughter during that 350-mile journey haunt Dalila: “That is what keeps me up at night; that is what is most painful about it all – that I imagine my daughter crying, asking for help.”

Nearly 6,000 people have died crossing the southern border into the US since 1998, according to reports from the US Border Patrol. Violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America push migrants to leave, while family ties and economic opportunities pull them to the US

Many don’t survive the journey. So many bodies have been found – in deserts, rivers and on ranchlands – that local authorities have struggled to deal with the remains.

In southern Arizona, cemetery space used to bury the unidentified filled up, so legislators changed a law so that unidentified remains could be cremated. The morgue at the Pima County, Ariz., medical examiner’s office was expanded to accommodate the need.

The number of people who’ve died while crossing into Arizona went down in 2014, but human rights groups say the flow of migrants is being funneled into Texas, where the border area comprises about 30 poor, rural counties, like Brooks County (pop. 7,223).

In June, forensic anthropologists working in Brooks County discovered the unidentified remains of migrants buried in mass graves in the Sacred Heart cemetery.

Some of the remains were comingled and bones were found in shopping bags and trash bags, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

Such revelations spurred changes in how Brooks County handles unidentified remains, but they also cast light on the magnitude of migrant deaths and disappearances.

If hundreds of people perished in plane crashes in the desert, it would make headlines and garner federal support, said Robin Reineke, founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Ariz.

“In other disasters, there is a disaster response agency where people will come in and manage things,” she said.

Show of Force

Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, said the migrant-deaths disaster is the product of US government efforts to “seal” the border between Mexico and the US

The first of those efforts, Operation Hold the Line, began in El Paso in 1993. By concentrating agents and technology in urban areas, the Border Patrol created a “show of force” to deter people from crossing the border illegally. The approach was expanded in 1994 to San Diego under the name Operation Gatekeeper.

Citing a decline in the number of apprehensions, Border Patrol called deterrence a success.

But human rights groups say people continued to cross into the US, taking riskier routes and paying smugglers to help them.

“Actually the numbers of people crossing into the deserts, the mountains, they were not deterred,” Garcia said. “What you saw was people dying.”

Deaths increased almost immediately following increased border fortification, according to a 2014 report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The causes of deaths changed, too. After Gatekeeper was put into operation, for example, migrant deaths by drowning and exposure rose significantly at the California-Mexico border, the report said.

Prior to border fortification, migrant deaths were occasional and circumstantial, Garcia said. These days, they’re commonplace. When a body is found in the Rio Grande, “It’s like, OK, there’s another floater in the river.”

The death of thousands of migrants is met with apathy, Garcia said.

“If you had that many Canadians – White people – dying, this would be a different story.”

Missing Information

Dalila wants to put an end to the waiting and wondering. She made a missing-person report to Colibrí Center for Human Rights in hopes of finding out what happened to her daughter.

“Whatever it is, alive or dead, I want to be done with this,” she said.

Colibrí founder Robin Reineke is among a coalition of scientists, students and human rights activists working to collect better data from the remains of unidentified border crossers so that they can be positively matched with those reported missing.

Reineke and her colleagues have made 100 positive identifications from remains since 2006.

That leaves about 900 other John and Jane Does found in Arizona alone. Funerals will not be held for them; their families will likely never be notified.

“They have been made invisible many times,” Reineke said.

Clock Is Ticking

When an undocumented migrant dies trying to cross the US-Mexico border, the clock begins ticking. If the body is found before it has decomposed or been eaten by animals, investigators can determine the person’s weight and find scars or tattoos that might aid in identification. There’s also a better chance that clothing and personal items will be found.

“What we have to go on is pretty much in direct proportion to the condition of the remains when they were found,” said Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory Hess.

Despite its relatively small population of 6.6 million, Arizona ranks third in the US, behind California and New York, for number of unidentified remains.

In 2010, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office saw a spike in the number of unidentified remains coming in. And, with that spike, came people searching for loved ones.

“We get families who show up in the parking lot,” Hess said.

The families had come to the wrong agency to file a missing-person report.

“It’s not like you could search those parameters in the records we use to house our cases. It’s not made for that,” Hess said.

At that time, Reineke was a graduate student working with University of Arizona anthropologist Bruce Anderson to centralize missing-migrant data from southern Arizona. She collected data from consulates – including paper records – and took reports from families.

“The breakdown of the case is most of the families of missing migrants can’t go to police, either because they are afraid of getting reported or because they are in Mexico or Central America,” she said.

Sometimes, the family will choose a delegate who is bilingual or has secure legal status in the US to make the report.

“Other times,” she said, “we can sense the person [making the report] is terrified.”

Colibrí, a nonprofit that grew out of this work, receives as many as 60 reports from families each week and also collects missing-person reports from consulates, nonprofits, journalists and BORSTAR, the Border Patrol’s search-and-rescue unit.

“We’re really just trying to be a clearinghouse of all this data so medical examiners across the border will have an easy list,” Reineke said.

Little is easy about determining migrants’ identities. In 2008, the body of a young woman was brought in to the Pima County ME’s office. Found with the body was an ID card, and the face of the woman matched the photo on the ID, which also had a name. Despite all this, Reineke was unable to locate the woman’s family.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of the data not being comprehensive,” she said.

On one hand is the information collected from the remains. On the other, is missing-person information. One or the other – or both – may be missing or incomplete.

Family members may not file a missing-person report because they are estranged from the relative, involved in the drug trade or too scared, because of their own undocumented status, to make a report.

Information about the remains of unidentified bodies is often inconsistent, since there is no universal protocol on how an unidentified body is handled.

“The way death investigations work is very fragmented. Who is doing this [DNA sampling] depends on where you live,” Hess said.

Pima County takes DNA samples from all unidentified remains, but, as Hess points out, “a physical DNA sample can be useful only insofar as there are other samples with which to compare it.”

In the US, databases of DNA are linked to law enforcement. CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, is managed by the FBI.

It contains DNA profiles of people who have been arrested, convicted offenders, and family members of missing persons.

Hess and his colleagues sometimes take DNA from unidentified remains and enter the information into CODIS.

“Sometimes that comes back as a hit,” he said. “But then again, do we know the name is a real name, or something that they made up?”

Investigators can also take fingerprints and send them to the Border Patrol, but even a match there can be inconclusive as border crossers often use false identities and addresses.

Dental records are likewise unhelpful because the population of border crosses often has had little access to dental care.

“A Mass Disaster”

Kate Spradley knows all too well the challenges of unidentified remains. A forensic anthropologist at Texas State University, she is conducting an analysis of the remains of 65 unidentified border crossers exhumed from Brooks County’s Sacred Heart cemetery.

The project, she said, is “a mass disaster that was dropped off at our lab.”

Texas state law requires DNA sampling of all unidentified remains, but the law, Spradley said, is rarely enforced.

Texas has 254 counties, only 13 of which have medical examiners, and those examiners serve only their own counties, Spradley said. There are three medical examiners in the border area. An autopsy of unidentified remains costs about $1,500, plus another $1,500 for transport.

“They don’t have the resources to process those deaths,” Spradley said of border counties.

As a result, no one knows for sure how many unidentified border crossers are buried in Texas cemeteries.

“I think whatever number is out there is very much an underestimation,” Spradley said.

News Fri, 19 Dec 2014 12:19:56 -0500
Elizabeth Warren and the Independent Community Bankers of America Are Right: Antonio Weiss Should Not Become Undersecretary for Domestic Finance

Antonio Weiss has been nominated to become Undersecretary for Domestic Finance at the Treasury Department. A growing number of people and organizations have expressed reservations about this potential appointment, which requires Senate confirmation – including Senator Dick Durbin (D., IL), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D.,NH), Senator Joe Manchin (D., WV), the American Federation of Teachers (in a press release on December 17th), and other groups. And, from another part of the political spectrum, the Independent Community Bankers of America has also come out strongly against Mr. Weiss.

In a speech last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren detailed her concerns about Mr. Weiss's background:

"He [Mr. Weiss] has focused on international corporate mergers and companies buying and selling each other. It may be interesting, challenging work, but it does not sufficiently qualify him to oversee consumer protection and domestic regulatory functions at the Treasury that are a critical part of the job."

And Senator Warren made it clear that the Weiss nomination needs to be seen in this broader context:

"Time after time in government, the Wall Street view prevails, and time after time, conflicting views are crowded out."

A line must be drawn and, as Senator Warren said on Friday evening, with regard to the Wall Street view that what is good for executives at big banks is good for the country,

"Enough is enough."

The latest round of pushback from Weiss supporters against Senator Warren makes three points. First, this administration is not captured by the Wall Street view. Second, Mr. Weiss is not captured by the Wall Street view. And, third, that Mr. Weiss is so perfectly qualified for the job that all these broader issues are irrelevant or even illegitimate. None of these points has a substantive basis or can withstand scrutiny. The ICBA, AFT, and Senators Durbin, Machin, Shaheen, and Warren are right to continue opposing Mr. Weiss's appointment.

On the extent of capture of this administration by the Wall Street view, the facts are straightforward. The Obama administration has continually refused to put forward any potential nominee for a senior position who has shown serious backbone with regard to financial reform. There appears to be a litmus test. If you want to be tough on reform – in the sense of confronting Too Big To Fail head-on or even just reducing the reckless risks that big banks take with derivatives – you cannot have a senior administration job.

A few reformers have, of course, managed to get through. Gary Gensler took financial reform seriously and implemented the Dodd-Frank law as chair at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The administration seems to have been surprised by how tough he was – and they did not reappoint him. Janet Yellen became chair of the Federal Reserve Board, but only because the White House could not get sufficient support for Larry Summers. And Tom Hoenig and Jeremiah Norton are strong voices for sensible policy at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation – but they were both put in office by the Republicans.

There is no balance of views at the top of the US Treasury. The Wall Street view – what's good for the people who run big banks is good for the country – is fully in control. The most recent demonstration of this point came just last week, when House Republicans proposed to repeal Section 716 of Dodd-Frank – a direct attempt to help Citigroup and other megabanks by allowing them to run more dangerous derivatives out of their insured banks (and therefore create more downside risks for taxpayers and the broader economy). Treasury and the administration not only did not oppose this measure – they actively undermined House Democrats and Senator Warren in their attempts to stick up for Section 716. There is no backbone on financial reform at Treasury.

Regarding Mr. Weiss himself, the reasonable question is: to what extent does he believe in any version of the Wall Street view?

We know many things about Mr. Weiss but we don't know everything. Therefore any reasonable observer faces a signal extraction problem – there is plenty of noise and distraction, but what are his real views? Here is what we have to work with:

  • Weiss has no known competence on anything to do with financial regulation. There is no track record.
  • Weiss has never communicated, in public or private, on financial reform issues with anyone who has worked hard against the Wall Street view over the past six years (or ever).
  • Weiss's employment has involved advising on international mergers and acquisitions for 20 years. Lazard, his firm, does deals involving big banks – and it hires plenty of people who previously worked at global megabanks such as Citigroup.
  • Many people who live and work in this kind of milieu share some version of the Wall Street view. For example, some of the most vociferous defenders of Citigroup are people in smaller financial firms and in law firms (and in think tanks) who make their living from the Citi ecosystem (and the implicit government subsidies that keep this bizarre and dangerous structure going).
  • Not everyone who has worked in finance believes in the Wall Street view (e.g., Gary Gensler). But at this point – six years after the crisis – most of the serious skeptics regarding the supposed advantages of megabanks have made their voices heard, at least in private.
  • Weiss is associated with Robert Rubin, for example through a paper (on fiscal issues) they both signed that was produced by the Center for American Progress. Mr. Rubin has, while in office during the 1990s, while at Citigroup during the 2000s, and still today, consistently exhibited a strong version of the Wall Street view.
  • Rubin has exerted great apparent influence on this administration, including by directly or indirectly encouraging the White House to hire people with minimal public track records on financial reform – who then prove to be profoundly disappointing by siding repeatedly with the big Wall Street players.
  • More broadly, the attitude of the Obama administration on financial reform has been profoundly disappointing – including, now, not even going to bat for their own legislation.
  • Everyone on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has at this point been appointed or re-appointed by the Obama administration. The only person on that Board who definitely does not share the Wall Street view is Janet Yellen.
  • The administration has steadfastly refused to take seriously any potential appointees to the Fed Board of Governors who would be tough on the Wall Street view. There have long been two vacancies on the Board – and the administration will not advance a single person who worries about the profound risks created by big banks or any kind of proven willingness to implement the Dodd-Frank reforms.

In recent days, Mr. Weiss's supporters have sought to rally support through two outside letters that stress Mr. Weiss's supposed qualifications for the job. But both these letters further weaken the case for Mr. Weiss – seen in terms of the signal extraction problem, these interventions strengthen the likelihood that Mr. Weiss shares a disturbing version of the Wall Street view.

One letter, dated December 11, is from four former Undersecretaries for Domestic Finance. The authors concede that Mr. Weiss has no experience in managing the national debt so, by their own definition, the issue is whether Mr. Weiss is suited to a key position relative to financial regulation. Their argument comes down to this:

"Mr. Weiss has spent a quarter century operating in financial markets, including more than 20 years at Lazard, the last five of which as Global Head of Investment Banking. He has specific expertise advising companies how to grow, and how to finance that growth. Lazard is not a money center or lending bank and does not engage in sales and trading. Mr. Weiss has been deeply involved on behalf of large and small client companies in negotiating every type of financing, from debt and equity through more complex structures."

All this says is: he worked on Wall Street, knows about corporate finance, and did not directly get bailed out in 2008-09. But there is no definite or specific information here that helps us understand or verify whether Mr. Weiss at all shares, or even deeply believes in, the Wall Street view – an important part of which now is "bailouts are fine" and "the government made money"; completely ignoring the costs of the financial crisis to the broader economy and to ordinary Americans.

The fact that Mr. Weiss's strong supporters would send a letter devoid of relevant information on this point should itself be interpreted as a signal. If Mr. Weiss were at all skeptical of megabanks, now would be a good time to communicate that point – and we see nothing of the kind.

The second letter, dated December 12, is from the Partnership for New York City, which is an organization comprised primarily of leading New York-based companies – naturally heavily weighted towards finance. The membership of the Partnership includes all the Too Big To Fail banks, although most of them chose not to sign this letter (with the exception of Morgan Stanley).

Instead, the prominent names among those signing include top Wall Street lawyers, people at financial firms that do a lot of business with TBTF banks as partners or counterparties, and former executives from the largest global megabanks (including the former chairman of Citigroup). Many of these individuals have no material interest in seeing an end to the distortive government subsidies associated with any financial firm perceived as being Too Big To Fail. Indeed, the net worth, status, and professional opportunities for many on the Partnership's letter are presumably closely tied to the fortunes of TBTF banks. These are smart, rational people with a good grip on how the world works – it does not seem unreasonable to think many of them wish to continue receiving, indirectly, the benefits of implicit taxpayer support provided to the likes of Citigroup.

Similar views to those of high-profile individuals in the Partnership for New York are not underrepresented in this administration and in this Treasury Department. Many of these people have access also to the very top of the White House.

And, as matter of routine, an influential subset of this group also appoints, oversees, and can actually remove from office one of our most important financial regulators, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. A major part of our modern difficulties can be traced back to the fact that the New York Fed has become completely captured by the Wall Street view. (Senator Jack Reed has a legislative proposal that would help deal with this problem by reducing the powers of the Board of the New York Fed, where the banking sector still holds the reins.)

It is hard to see the letter from the Partnership for New York as anything other than confirmation of the points made by opponents of Mr. Weiss. Camden R. Fine, president of the ICBA, put it this way:

"While Mr. Weiss has impressive credentials as a top Wall Street executive specializing in international mergers and acquisitions, Wall Street is already well represented at Treasury, and the narrow focus of Mr. Weiss's professional experience is a serious concern for ICBA and community banks nationwide."

Senator Warren agrees completely, with slightly different wording:

"It's all about the revolving door – that well-oiled mechanism that sends Wall Street executives to make policies in the government and that sends government policymakers straight to Wall Street. Weiss defenders are all in, loudly defending the revolving door and telling America how lucky we are that Wall Street is willing to run the economy and the government."

As argued by his opponents and as confirmed by the public statements of his strongest supporters, Antonio Weiss does not have the right background, qualifications, or – as far as anyone can reasonably determine – views to become Undersecretary for Domestic Finance.

Opinion Fri, 19 Dec 2014 11:34:38 -0500