Truthout Stories Tue, 28 Apr 2015 10:23:54 -0400 en-gb To Protect and to Sever ]]> Art Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Challenging American Exceptionalism

President Barack Obama enters the House Chamber for the State of the Union address, at the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20 2015. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The New York Times)President Barack Obama enters the House Chamber for the State of the Union address, at the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20 2015. (Photo: Jabin Botsford / The New York Times)

President Barack Obama stood behind the podium and apologized for inadvertently killing two Western hostages - including one American - during a drone strike in Pakistan. Obama said, “one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.” In his 2015 state of the union address, Obama described America as “exceptional.” When he spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, he said, “Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional.”

American exceptionalism reflects the belief that Americans are somehow better than everyone else. This view reared its head after the 2013 leak of a Department of Justice White Paper that describes circumstances under which the President can order the targeted killing of U.S. citizens. There had been little public concern in this country about drone strikes that killed people in other countries. But when it was revealed that U.S. citizens could be targeted, Americans were outraged. This motivated Senator Rand Paul to launch his 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination for CIA director.

It is this double standard that moved Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write a letter to the editor of the New York Times, in which he asked, “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?” (When I saw that letter, I immediately invited Archbishop Tutu to write the foreword to my book, “Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues.” He graciously agreed and he elaborates on that sentiment in the foreword).

Obama insists that the CIA and the U.S. military are very careful to avoid civilian casualties. In May 2013, he declared in a speech at the National Defense University, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.” 

Nevertheless, of the nearly 3,852 people killed by drone strikes, 476 have reportedly been civilians. The Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), which examined nine drone strikes in Yemen, concluded that civilians were killed in every one. Amrit Singh, a senior legal officer at OSJI and primary author of the report, said “We’ve found evidence that President Obama’s standard is not being met on the ground.”

In 2013, the administration released a fact sheet with an additional requirement that “capture is not feasible” before a targeted killing can be carried out. Yet the OSJI also questioned whether this rule is being followed. Suspected terrorist Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, a U.S. citizen, was on the Pentagon’s “kill list” but he was ultimately arrested by Pakistani security forces and will be tried in a U.S. federal court. “This is an example that capturing can be done,” according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The fact sheet also specifies that in order to use lethal force, the target must pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” But the leaked Justice Department White Paper says that a U.S. citizen can be killed even when there is no “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” This renders the imminency requirement a nullity. Moreover, if there is such a low bar for targeting a citizen, query whether there is any bar at all for killing foreigners.

There must also be “near certainty” that the terrorist target is present. Yet the CIA did not even know who it was slaying when the two hostages were killed. This was a “signature strike,” that targets “suspicious compounds” in areas controlled by “militants.” Zenko says, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the [U.S.] government does not know their names.” So how can one determine with any certainty that a target is present when the CIA is not even targeting individuals?

Contrary to popular opinion, the use of drones does not result in fewer civilian casualties than manned bombers. A study based on classified military data, conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, concluded that the use of drones in Afghanistan caused 10 times more civilian deaths than manned fighter aircraft.

Moreover, a panel with experienced specialists from both the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations issued a 77-page report for the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, which found there was no indication that drone strikes had advanced “long-term U.S. security interests.” 

Nonetheless, the Obama administration maintains a double standard for apologies to the families of drone victims. “The White House is setting a dangerous precedent – that if you are western and hit by accident we’ll say we are sorry,” said Reprieve attorney Alka Pradhan, “but we’ll put up a stone wall of silence if you are a Yemeni or Pakistani civilian who lost an innocent loved one. Inconsistencies like this are seen around the world as hypocritical, and do the United States’ image real harm.”

It is not just the U.S. image that is suffering. Drone strikes create more enemies of the United States. While Faisal Shahzad was pleading guilty to trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, he told the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”

Americans are justifiably outraged when we hear about ISIS beheading western journalists. Former CIA lawyer Vicki Divoll, who now teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2009, “People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator [drone] strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one.” But Americans don’t see the images of the drone victims or hear the stories of their survivors. If we did, we might be more sympathetic to the damage our drone bombs are wreaking in our name.

Drone strikes are illegal when conducted off the battlefield. They should be outlawed. Obama, like Bush before him, opportunistically defines the whole world as a battlefield.

The guarantee of due process in the U.S. Constitution as well as in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights must be honored, not just in its breach. That means arrest and fair trial, not summary execution. What we really need is a complete reassessment of Obama’s continuation of Bush’s “war on terror.” Until we overhaul our foreign policy and stop invading other countries, changing their regimes, occupying, torturing and indefinitely detaining their people, and uncritically supporting other countries that illegally occupy other peoples’ lands, we will never be safe from terrorism.

Opinion Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Rise of Privatized Policing: How Crisis Capitalism Created Crisis Cops

Private security in wealthy man's pocket(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

The ranks of privatized police forces in the United States have swelled since the September 11, 2001, attacks, now dwarfing the public sector. With more private security guards than public police officers, what are the consequences for safety and accountability?

Private security in wealthy man's pocket(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

On February 13, 2014, Thomas Michalak and Cheryl LaBash, who organize with Moratorium NOW!, a coalition fighting foreclosures, evictions and water shutoffs in Detroit, fired off some quick tweets encouraging others to join their group in a demonstration opposing the state-appointed emergency management of Detroit's bankruptcy. They'd planned the protest for the next day, at Detroit's Campus Martius Park.

LaBash, a retired city employee, tweeted from Moratorium NOW!'s account that activists were planning to meet at the park to hand out flyers and circulate the group's petition calling on Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to make big banks pay the brunt of Detroit's debt obligations, and to protect the city's pensions (including her own).

What the two didn't know was that operators at a private surveillance center in downtown Detroit's Chase Tower were watching their tweets closely behind their bevy of computer monitors.

The surveillance center is operated by a subsidiary of Rock Ventures, which serves as the umbrella entity for Quicken Loans CEO and mega-developer billionaire Dan Gilbert's business and real estate investments. The center works in partnership with the Detroit Police Department (DPD) and private security firms to monitor surveillance footage from 300 cameras covering more than 2 million square feet of property Gilbert owns in downtown Detroit.

"I said, 'Isn't this public property?' and [the security guard] said, 'Yes, but it's privately managed.'"

The next day, when a group of four activists, including Michalak and LaBash, headed over to the park's historic Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument to pass out flyers as planned, they were quickly confronted by a private security guard with Guardsmark, the security firm hired by Detroit 300 Conservancy, which privately manages the city-owned park. The guard asked the group to leave and warned them they would be arrested if they refused.

"I said, 'Isn't this public property?' and [the security guard] said, 'Yes, but it's privately managed,'" Moratorium NOW! organizer Abayomi Azikiwe told Truthout about the confrontation.

A DPD officer parked across the street backed up the security guard, telling the activists from his patrol vehicle that their activities were against park rules, but the four weren't convinced as they argued with the cop while standing beneath the park's red light pole banners proclaiming the space "Detroit's Gathering Place."

The confrontation served as a stark reminder of the chilling implications of exactly what the activists were there to fight: the mass privatization of Detroit's public services and assets in the aftermath of the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in the United States.

"They have an agenda of suppressing dissent in the downtown area because they're trying to protect an image of Detroit which we don't agree with," Azikiwe said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan took up the group's case, filing a federal lawsuit in January against the Detroit 300 Conservancy and Guardsmark, and the City of Detroit has agreed this month on a series of interim rules safeguarding First Amendment activities at all of the city's public parks, regardless of whether they are managed privately or publicly.

Private entities are working in concert with the DPD to create a mostly privatized, "quasi-surveillance state" in downtown Detroit.

The city, while not technically a defendant in the suit, is representing the DPD officer who backed up the security guard, and introduced the new rules to help settle the case, which has not yet been dismissed. Officers and private security guards will now reportedly be trained to enforce rules allowing groups to gather, leaflet and demonstrate at all the city's public parks.

"With the continued privatization of government functions in Detroit and throughout the country, we thought it was critical to establish the principle that our constitutional rights cannot be outsourced out of existence," said Michael Steinberg, the ACLU of Michigan's legal director who represented the activists in the case.

Steinberg said that private entities such as Detroit 300 Conservancy and Guardsmark are working in concert with Gilbert's Rock Ventures subsidiaries and the DPD to create a mostly privatized, "quasi-surveillance state" in downtown Detroit - setting up a "frightening" situation for dissenters in the area.

An ongoing series of crises in Detroit fueled by the city's state-imposed bankruptcy filing in 2013, including most recently the devastating water shutoffs and the looming possibility of water privatization, has created an intense sequence of neoliberal shocks on Detroit's populace, and provide a cogent example of author Naomi Klein's "shock doctrine" theory at its worst.  Her theory describes a strategy in which neoconservatives exploit crises to advance neoliberal policies as the public remains too distraught and caught up with disasters to effectively resist such policies.

Detroit's desperate, increased reliance on private security and a private-public surveillance partnership in monitoring dissenters provides a model backdrop to the kind of crisis capitalism at work not just in Detroit, but across the United States, as the ranks of privatized police forces continue to surge since the September 11, 2001, attacks, now dwarfing the public sector as budgets for police departments experience cuts throughout the nation.

However, the policing cuts haven't happened uniformly across the country since the economic downturn of 2008. A 2013 report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that police department budgets nationally have been recovering since 2010. Of the 416 police agencies that responded to two PERF surveys in 2010 and 2012, 51 percent reported budget cuts, down from 78 percent in 2010.

But such cuts haven't resulted in less policing; rather, they've resulted in an overall shift to private policing.  

Steinberg says he expects to see more cases involving private security firms infringing on constitutionally protected activity as the numbers of security guards continue to climb. "Unfortunately, I think it's going to take more cases like our Campus Martius case to establish limits [on private police]," he told Truthout.

While many on the libertarian-right have hailed private police as a solution to systemic police violence because the security industry is "driven by efficiency and threats from liability," a closer look at the industry reveals that guards receive only a fraction of the training required for municipal cops. Plus, shootings by private armed guards are rarely reported and investigated, and citizens' legal protections in encounters with guards remain unclear.

The private security industry is so poorly regulated, in fact, that only about a dozen state regulatory agencies require security guards to file firearm discharge reports.

The Rise of Private Police

The use of private police is, of course, nothing new. Most prominently in US history, industrial magnates Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller relied on such forces as the infamous Pinkertons, known for breaking labor strikes and infiltrating unions, to protect their business interests.

Nineteenth century industrialists' reliance on such forces came to be so great that in the late 1890s, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency employed more private agents than there were soldiers in the standing army. Today, the numbers of security guards still rival the number of people on active duty in the armed forces, and completely eclipse the number of municipal police officers on duty.

The armed security industry is increasingly supplementing public police forces in many poor urban areas.

The numbers of private security guards began to grow in the 1970s, but the industry has boomed since the September 11, 2001, attacks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 1.1 million private security guards in the US, overshadowing the Bureau's count of 640,000 public police officers. Some of the United States' largest private police forces regularly patrol college campuses, such as the University of Chicago Police Department, which has jurisdiction over more than 65,000 Chicago residents and has the same power to search, ticket, arrest and detain citizens as a municipal police force.

Other private security forces patrol both upscale neighborhoods on behalf of wealthy homeowners' associations and low-income housing projects - sometimes being contracted with grant money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to police poor residents. Armed guards also patrol corporate office complexes and museums.

The armed security industry is increasingly supplementing public police forces in many poor urban areas, in places such as Oakland, New Orleans, Baltimore and Atlanta. Some small towns like Foley, Minnesota, are going beyond simply supplementing their police departments, opting instead to replace them with private security entirely.

As private police forces gain jurisdiction over campuses, parking lots, neighborhoods and even entire towns, cash-strapped local and state governments turning to such firms as an answer to their budget woes are increasingly granting the industry traditional police powers, including the ability to make arrests - a function that used to be the sole province of municipal policing.

The provisions of some states, such as Virginia, allow private citizens to petition courts for such police powers, but how such authority is granted typically varies from state to state.

"The DPD has become an extension almost, of Rock Ventures."

Private security guards increasingly resemble traditional beat cops, calling themselves police, wearing similar uniforms, flashing badges and driving patrol vehicles with flashing lights. Not only do many citizens frequently mistake private guards for public cops, but often even magistrates and judges do as well.

In most states, private guards almost always work closely with municipal police departments, exchanging information and often turning over felony-level crimes to the city department to handle. Oftentimes, armed security guards are off-duty police officers who have been contracted by a government agency, or are moonlighting for private firms.

In Detroit, activists and lawyers say the private security industry and municipal police are entwined. Nicholas Klaus, who is the student national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and worked on the Campus Martius case for a time, told Truthout that DPD officers have been instructed to take direction and dispatch from Gilbert's Rock Ventures command center. "The DPD has become an extension almost, of Rock Ventures," he said.

A DPD public relations representative told Truthout that the department's Secondary Employment in Uniform Program allows private vendors such as Rock Ventures to use off-duty DPD officers to work in a law enforcement capacity for their businesses. The program was established by city ordinance. "When working with a vendor, they may call and request us to do certain things, and we receive command from them, however, if it's a criminal matter, we touch base with our police department," said DPD Officer Nicole Kirkwood.

Lax Regulation Allows Dangerous Guards on the Streets

An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in collaboration with CNN shows that many state regulators "repeatedly ignore or fail to thoroughly investigate guard-related shootings, leaving inadequately trained, traumatized or potentially dangerous guards on the job."

Other CIR investigations have found that lax oversight has allowed many ex-municipal officers who were fired due to misconduct or brutality to easily find new jobs as armed guards. State regulators have also allowed ex-felons who have been barred from owning a gun to work as private guards, including those who have been convicted of domestic violence.

How the armed security industry is regulated varies from state to state, but according to the CIR/CNN investigation, only 12 states require armed guards to file firearm discharge reports. If a company fails to report a shooting, there are seldom any consequences.

Of the states that require such reports, the problems found mirror common problems associated with municipal police misconduct, violations of civil rights, excessive force and shooting cases that have sparked a national debate about police tactics in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, including armed guards "shooting at fleeing suspects, shoplifters and moving cars and into crowded shopping malls, apartment complexes and parking lots."

Armed guards are typically required to receive only a small fraction of the training municipal police must undergo.

While it remains standard that every shooting by a municipal cop is automatically investigated, either by an independent agency or by the department's internal affairs unit, in the vast majority of states, armed-guard shootings are not reported and rarely investigated. Only two states - Florida and Virginia - regularly investigate such shootings, according to the CIR investigation.

Typically, regulatory agencies tasked with monitoring the private security industry only take action when a conviction of an armed guard has been secured in the courts first. Regulators usually rely on slow criminal investigations to determine whether or not a firearm license should be revoked.

The CIR investigation found more news reports of armed-guard shootings than discharge reports filed with the regulating agency in at least four states: Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin. Some state regulators reported that they have yet to collect their first firearm discharge report.

While armed-guard shootings are rarely investigated and reported, such shootings may occur, in part, because security guards are often "chronically undertrained," according to a 2012 study from the University of Illinois College of Law and the University of California. Armed guards are typically required to receive only a small fraction of the training municipal police must undergo to work as beat cops.

It was concerns over training standards in the 1970s, which initially prompted states to create regulating agencies that would require firearm discharge reports for private guards. Now, renewed concerns over lax oversight and training has again prompted bills in state legislatures aiming to close the regulatory gap between private security guards and their public counterparts.

In February, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would increase the number of training hours private citizens, known as "special conservators of the peace" or "SCOPS," must undergo from 40 to 130 hours. In March, California lawmakers heard testimony regarding oversight of the private security industry as part of an ongoing review by the joint oversight committees of the state's regulating agency. And in Arizona, a state senator is also pushing for more stringent background checks for armed guards in that state, saying he is prepared to introduce legislation that would change a policy allowing those who've been banned from owning guns to become armed security guards.

Moreover, there are few accountability mechanisms outside the court system available to citizens who have been wronged during an encounter with a security guard. While the courts remain the primary vehicle for citizens to redress grievances, many laws that establish protections from municipal police don't necessarily apply to the private sector.

Outsourcing Accountability

Like municipal policing, the private security sector is plagued with misconduct and cases of armed-guard fatal shootings and violence, including widespread racial profiling and routine violations of civil rights.

In 1995, a security guard at a Best Buy named Ricky Coleman, who was unlicensed, untrained and possessed a violent criminal record, strangled a fraud suspect to death as another guard restrained him.

More recently, residents of one Baltimore neighborhood filed a lawsuit for $25 million in 2012 against an Ohio-based security company, alleging its guards had routinely violated their civil rights, stopping and arresting residents illegally.

In one particularly abhorrent example, Colorado prisoner Angela Weishoff filed suit in January against an armed security guard who sexually assaulted her at a hospital, only 15 minutes after she gave birth in 2012.

"Abuses of power, brutality and illegal behavior are much more common among private security guards than real police."

Security expert Bruce Schneier maintains that these types of "[a]buses of power, brutality, and illegal behavior are much more common among private security guards than real police." Such a claim is hard to verify because many - likely most, even - incidents go unreported.

What exactly are one's rights during an encounter with a private security guard? The answer, in many instances, is fuzzy, as the lawyers and private security experts contend that many laws designed to establish due process and other legal protections from municipal police don't apply to private citizens serving as "SCOPS" or the private security industry.

According to Klaus, the National Lawyers Guild student leader, in most cases, a citizen cannot bring a suit against a private individual for a constitutional violation. He said a federal law known as Section 1983, which allows citizens to bring claims against the police through the Fourteenth Amendment over civil rights violations (including misconduct, interrogation methods and evidence collection), simply does not apply to private security personnel.

A private individual can be held liable in some civil conspiracy cases, but Klaus says it is often difficult to prove a private individual and a cop worked together for the express purpose of depriving somebody of their constitutional rights.

"So if you're walking by Dan Gilbert's building and the security guards rough you up because they don't like your politics, you can't sue them in federal court for violating your First or Fourth Amendment rights," Klaus said. "And I think that's what [business owners] want. It's less constitutional liability. They see that as an impediment to their business."

Those who feel they have been wronged by private guards may have no other option but to complain to the guards' supervisors.

In the ongoing Campus Martius case, ACLU attorneys have brought just such a claim, arguing that under Section 1983, the private groups named as defendants are constitutionally liable for First Amendment violations because they "were performing public functions of managing a public park." The case also argues the DPD conspired to deprive activists of their free speech rights. The crucial difference in the ongoing Campus Martius case and others like it may come down to the fact that Campus Martius Park is owned, ultimately, by the city of Detroit.

While a complaint regarding a municipal officer can be taken to an elected board of police commissioners (who may or may not have subpoena power), no such formal mechanism exists for the private security industry. Those who feel they have been wronged by private guards may have no other option but to complain to the guards' supervisors.

"Unfortunately, businesses are not going to lend a very friendly ear to complaints about their private security forces," the ACLU's Steinberg told Truthout.

The Police Assessment Resource Center's (PARC) Private Policing & Consulting project provides assessments to private security firms about potentially problematic policies that could render firms liable, including policies that could lead to racial profiling and illicit arrests by security guards.

PARC's deputy director Matthew Barge told Truthout that it's up to private security firms to come up with internal accountability and reporting mechanisms; he works with private firms to put those policies in place.

Barge says private security firms should follow the example of many municipal police departments across the United States that have taken steps to make their public accountability processes transparent and accessible to the public in recent years, especially the process by which citizens can make complaints.

"One thing that we tell agencies of all stripes is that the time to kind of think through what happens when a major incident may occur really is now," Barge said. "You want to have something on the books, a standard operating procedure."

But even if private security firms establish robust internal procedures, their accountability mechanisms remain fundamentally different from municipal departments operating with taxpayer dollars. Private firms are contracted and work on behalf of corporations, not taxpayers, and therefore can't be compelled to open up their records to the public, even when, in many cases, they are performing public functions.

The Freedom of Information Act and other state open records laws typically don't apply to private security firms. Another ongoing ACLU case in Massachusetts demonstrates the problem, as attorneys there sued the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) in June 2014 after NEMLEC refused to answer their public records request for documents related to the organization's SWAT team. NEMLEC claims it is not subject to the Massachusetts public records law, despite receiving government grants and taxpayer money to buy military gear.

Another crucial difference is that the private sector has wider latitude to collect private information. According to security expert Schneier, the same kind of information the government is prohibited from collecting from citizens can be collected by the private sector - and then sold to the police.

Crisis Cops for Crisis Capitalists

Taken together, such little regulatory oversight and near impunity under the law constitutes an emerging paradigm of neoliberal policing under which the private sector buys influence and exacerbates the already violent and racist culture of public policing.

Even a private individual who simply volunteers for a municipal department can curry such favor to the detriment of public safety and accountability - as the recent shooting death of Eric Harris in Tulsa by Reserve Deputy Robert Bates makes clear. Bates' donations to the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office have been widely received as a pay-to-play scheme resulting in another tragic loss of life. That Bates has been allowed to vacation in the Bahamas for a month following the shooting further exemplifies the prioritization of wealth and privilege over accountability in a neoliberal criminal legal framework.

In Detroit, some see Klein's "shock doctrine" at work in the creation of a privatized surveillance apparatus operating to protect the business interests of mega-billionaires like Quicken Loans' Dan Gilbert. Klaus outlined the role Gilbert played in the racialized subprime mortgage lending scheme, which created the financial conditions for Detroit's revenue problems, hitting the city hard in 2008.

In two separate cases in 2011, awards of $3 million and $2 million were meted out by courts in Ohio and West Virginia to former Quicken Loans customers who judges ruled were victims of predatory lending.

In 2013, the Obama administration appointed Gilbert chairman of the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. He pledged to assist the city in tearing down blighted properties - essentially pledging to clean up a mess that his company had, in part, created.

The MFI-Miami reviewed Detroit mortgage filings and found that 70.6 percent of 75 homes listing Quicken Loans as the mortgage holder went into foreclosure within 24 to 36 months of being sold on the secondary housing market.

Now, Gilbert is being rewarded for his exploits with private security contracts and an ever-expanding private-public surveillance system designed to protect and ensure his plans for Detroit's redevelopment - and no end appears to be in sight.

"In Detroit, it's justice for those, and safety for those, that can afford it," Klaus said.

News Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Iraq's Female Citizens: Prisoners of War

Yanar Mohammed. (Photo: Joost Bataille / Mohammed. (Photo: Joost Bataille /

Iraqi woman human rights defender Yanar Mohammed spoke to Jennifer Allsopp at the Nobel Women's Initiative conference about grassroots responses to the atrocities women are facing under ISIS.

On the second day of the Nobel Women's Initiative conference on building global support for women human rights defenders, the 100 participants delivered a sobering and urgent message: history is still repeating itself. Watching the military-industrial complex wreak havoc in the Middle East, reflected Shirin Ebadi, holder of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, is like 'rewinding a movie.' Women human rights defenders from across the globe were in agreement: the incalculable suffering of the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have taught us, once and for all, that bombs lead to suffering, and never peace.

In her keynote speech, Shirin reflected on what a different world might have looked like if, in response to the atrocities of September 11th, the United States and its allies had built schools in Afghanistan in memory of the victims instead of retaliating with war and occupation. 'You can't fight an ideology by bombing it', she told us, speaking of the heinous war crimes currently being committed by the Islamic State. 'If a terrorist is taken out, his children will replace him. We must throw books not bombs.'

One participant who knows first-hand the horrors that come from forgetting history, and from erasing women from history in particular, is Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and Director of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq. I spoke to hear about the situation in her country 12 years after I first marched for peace in London, and 12 years since the war on terror began.

Jennifer Allsopp: Yanar, what is the situation of women's human rights in Iraq right now?

Yanar Mohammed: The new update of 2014-2015 is, of course, the attack of ISIS. But this is rooted in recent history. It is the direct result of all the politics that came into Iraq with the occupation. The US empowered the Shi'a Islamic political groups and marginalised a big part of the country who were recognised as Sunni people. It was only to be expected that the next step would be for the sectarian religious dynamics to surface, for one religious group to be fighting another religious group. The leading members of ISIS were either tortured in US military prisons or in the prisons of the Shi'a government which the Americans put in place. When you torture a person for long periods you might get a very passionate human rights defender but most probably you will get a beast whose only concern is to seek his revenge in the best way possible. And that's what happened with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was in Bucca prison, being tortured by the Americans and being prepared for his next role in life, head of ISIS. Before 2003, none of us knew which part of the country was Sunni and which part was Shi'a. This was something new to Iraq and we are reaping the results at this point. Women's wellbeing has paid the price.

As well as the crisis of ISIS we're dealing with other fallout from the last war, like the ongoing crisis of Iraqi orphans. There are 5 million Iraqi orphans of war, and tens of thousands of them have been trafficked in the last decade. Five million orphans growing into teenagers is a very big difficulty for any society. Young women growing into situations with no parents are usually material for exploitation in the brothels. Many do not have proper identification papers. Although the law is not against giving them papers, whenever they go to any governmental establishment and ask for them they are asked to bring their father or their brother, when they don't have anybody. They reside in the worst houses in Iraq and they are exploited on a daily basis because they do not have access to citizenship. It's been more than 10 years since this started. The exploited female teenager's right to citizenship is a major, major issue.

JA: Before the emergence of ISIS, were things improving at all for women in Iraq?

YM: We saw some relative peace in the previous years, relative in the sense that the capital was in control and the major cities had peace, but the religious parties always held the upper hand. They didn't let a single year pass without surprising us. The last time was in 2013 when the Ministry of Justice announced their intention to introduce the Al Jaafari law, which is the Shi'a Islamist law for personal status that rules family life. This law would allow the marriage of a 9 year old girl, the humiliating treatment of women in matters of marriage and divorce, and generally to treat women like objects, not as human beings. This law is hundreds of years old and they wanted to make it a reality for us now; they want to abort hundreds of years of improvement in Iraq.

JA: How did the women's movement respond?

YM: We demonstrated. We spoke over our radio. We have a community radio in Baghdad called Al Musawat, which means Equality radio. We spoke out very strongly. We had slogans that said 'we will not allow you to rape our young daughters.' We explained to the public what the law means and we were able to gather quite some opposition against it so that the government eventually had to announce that it will not be passed "at this point." They say it needs to be amended, but this is an excuse for them to hide the draft of the law. Eventually we were ordered to close the radio on the pretext that our "registration was not complete." So yes, even before ISIS, the government's attack on women's rights and women's status in law kept us busy.

JA: How has the women's human rights movement in Iraq evolved in response to ISIS?

YM: When ISIS took over the Northern city of Mosul in June last year, which is the second biggest city in the country, that was a landmark for us all, that really was a landmark. We felt: the government is not the only oppressor of women, there is a new group which has emerged and which has turned gigantic, which is claiming a big part of the country. We were aware that the political situation was not secure and that our safety was not guaranteed. Many of us have our families in the parts of Iraq which ISIS has taken over. My father's family is from the city of Telafar, which was taken by ISIS, and I have thousands of relatives who are homeless now.

And what has ISIS done to the women in the cities they have conquered? Direct enslavement, humiliation and turning women into concubines to be bought and sold. This was something nobody expected to see in Iraq. In the beginning, in 2003, there was the Iraqi resistance, which didn't want the US occupation, then they developed Al Qaeda, but even then it was never this monstrous, this inhumane and as misogynistic as what we're seeing now under ISIS.

We began immediately contacting the women in Mosul and in the other cities that were occupied. We set up a network of women in that city to whom we speak continuously. We try to be in touch with their difficulties and to be of use to those who face direct attacks. We also set up a coalition for ending the trafficking of Iraqi women and we came up with two recommendations. The first one was to gain legal status for our shelters for women and the second recommendation was that the Iraqi government recognise the Yazidi women's enslavement and their status as prisoners of war who have been tortured by the enemy, and to give them benefits as such. We have had many wars with other countries and when a prisoner comes back they get many benefits, they get a house, they get a salary and we want the Iraqi government to do this for the Yazidi women so that they can have the social status that would allow a good future, a good family and a good status in society.

The women of Yazidi faith in my country have witnessed the most horrific practices, things that not many women in modern times have seen. A few months ago, I made a trip to the Kurdish part of the county, to where the women who were enslaved by ISIS had run away. I sat down with women in the Kadhiya camp and asked them about their experiences. A girl as young as 15 had been bought and sold more than ten times, from one ISIS fighter to another. She was raped by all those men. I asked her, "what was your most difficult moment during those two months that you were detained there?" She said, "it was the moments when one man would be selling me to the other and they would stand around me and look at me as a piece of meat on which they would be jumping the next day." She told me that one of the fighters who had bought her would pray daily; after he finished prayer he would come and rape her. She told me stories that I would never expect to hear in a country where people were used to living peacefully with each other. We did have dictators, we did have times of war but it never reached the point where one person, or a group, would be attacking another group and would be enslaving all the women of that group.

JA: Are your recommendations being recognised, is the coalition having an impact?

YM: We're still working on it. We started the coalition in its embryonic shape last September but in January and March the campaign picked up and we are beginning to see some results. The campaign has many aspects but the shelter is the most important one. At the very start of the war on Iraq our organisation made it known that we intended to start a shelter for women at risk, but the government did not allow us to do that, they said it was illegal. But from that time until now, with the support of our sisters in the international community and with the support of some actors like the Dutch government and the EU, we have been able to do it anyway. We've set up three women's shelters in Baghdad and two in Karbala for the refugee women who are escaping ISIS, in addition to one LGBT shelter in Baghdad. So although they try to illegalise our sheltering activity, in practice we've persevered and we've been able to multiply them. This is crucial. It means that, at this moment, when a woman feels threatened by honour killing, by domestic abuse and political oppression, they are knocking on our doors and they know there is the network that will protect them and be there for them.

We see different kinds of things. Two months ago a woman came to me, her name is Zainab. She was in charge of a meeting hall in Baghdad and she's extremely good looking. She was accused of being corrupt and of taking bribes by some officials who wanted to have sex with her. So they put her in prison, they made her go through very humiliating treatment, and when she left prison she felt she was threatened. She came and knocked on our doors and asked if we could protect her. So she is staying with us in one of our shelters and her daughter comes to visit her from time to time.

JA: And what's the next step for you? What would you like to see happen in the next year?

YM: In the next year I would like to see a law legalising women's shelters in Iraq. I would like to see our radio being opened again as a result of the pressure that we're putting on the governmental body that could allow this. I would like to see the Iraqi government guarantee social insurance for the Yazidi women who were enslaved and to recognise their status as prisoners of war.

News Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Michael Eric Dyson: Crab in a Barrel

Michael Eric Dyson wasn't just defending President Obama when he unleashed his torrential rant against Cornel West. Dyson was demonstrating his loyalty to Power, in general. "Dyson's infantile need to reveal personal details about his one-time friend is based on his own vindictiveness but also on a desire to stay in the good graces of the powerful people West has admonished."

How does one dissect Michael Eric Dyson's 10,000-word screed against Cornel West? Not only is the attack purely personal, an act of bitter malice, but Dyson uses The New Republic, an openly racist organ, as his platform.

The title, "The Ghost of Cornel West," is rather odd. No one except Dyson was aware that West had declined, even figuratively. Cornel West is the author or co-author of twenty-three books. He is a sought after advocate and is called upon by people all over the world to speak for them and with them as they struggle against police brutality, occupation and environmental destruction. West is a voice of principled conscience and is highly respected.

Of course no one is liked or respected by everyone and degrees of dislike are closely related to the opponents one chooses. Dyson's infantile need to reveal personal details about his one-time friend is partly based on his own vindictiveness but also on a desire to stay in the good graces of the powerful people West has admonished.

Despite having supported Barack Obama's campaign in 2008, West has pointedly criticized the president's policies. Unlike Dyson, his critiques are based on facts, actions taken, and visible outcomes. When Michael Brown's killer was not indicted by a Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury West made this comment. "Ferguson signifies the end of the age of Obama. It is a very sad end. We began with tremendous hope and we end with great despair." It is clear that West is acknowledging and mourning the misplaced trust that he and millions of other people placed in the Obama presidency.

But there is also something even more insidious going on with Dyson and his ilk. He and many other Obamaphiles not only insist on standing by their man, but they go to great lengths to discredit and disparage anyone who doesn't share their infatuation.

Dyson and other critics rarely take on the substance of West's statements. Their outrage is based on loyalty to the cult of black success which is epitomized by Obama's election. They protect him and their friends who have found themselves in West's rhetorical cross hairs.

This most recent act of character assassination is significant in another way. The New Republic was for many years owned by Martin Peretz, a founding father of neo-liberalism. The only black writers who appeared in TNR were right wingers like Shelby Steele, John McWhorter and Randall Kennedy. Of course TNR should never live down its role in publishing excerpts from The Bell Curve, a book of discredited scholarly value which posited that black people are genetically inferior to other races.

Neither is Dyson the first to lambast West in the pages of TNR. In a 1995 article, "The Unreal World of Cornel West," the author states that West's books are "almost completely worthless." Now under new ownership, TNR is trying to improve its image and in January 2015 admitted its past racism. Giving Dyson a stage for his attack on a man who embodies black Americans struggle for self-determination proves that the apology was meaningless. Dyson has chosen sides. He stands with our enemies against one of our champions.

Black critics of Obama are often labeled as "haters" or "crabs in a barrel." Like the crustaceans who can't escape because they pull each other down, Dyson looks at West and is consumed with a bizarre, jealous rage. Dyson is a talking head who indulges in endless and meaningless verbiage while West chooses to stand with the oppressed and the voiceless. Dyson is an empty suit and a first class suck up. Rather than accept his role as a well paid and mediocre intellect he decided to pull Cornel West down. If there is a crab in the barrel in this sorry episode, it is Michael Eric Dyson.

Opinion Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Case That Blew the Lid Off the World Bank's Secret Courts

The system of closed-door trade tribunals has been around for decades now, nestled like a ticking time bomb into hundreds of smaller bilateral trade agreements between nations. (Photo: Backbone Campaign)The system of closed-door trade tribunals has been around for decades now, nestled like a ticking time bomb into hundreds of smaller bilateral trade agreements between nations. (Photo: Backbone Campaign)

There's an international awakening afoot about a radical expansion of corporate power - one that sits at the center of two historic global trade deals nearing completion.

One focuses the United States toward Europe - that's the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - and the other toward Asia, in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both would establish broad new rights for foreign corporations to sue governments for vast sums whenever nations change their public policies in ways that could potentially impact corporate profits.

These cases would not be handled by domestic courts, with their relative transparency, but in special, secretive international tribunals.

It's a stupendously powerful tool and a double win for the corporations: It's a money machine that loots public treasuries and a potent tool to stifle unwelcome regulations, all wrapped in one. As Senator Elizabeth Warren recently wrote in the Washington Post, "Giving foreign corporations special rights to challenge our laws outside of our legal system would be a bad deal." But it's a deal US lawmakers are rapidly preparing to make as they debate extending "fast-track" trade promotion authority to President Barack Obama.

The system of closed-door trade tribunals has been around for decades now, nestled like a ticking time bomb into hundreds of smaller bilateral trade agreements between nations. But not so long ago, the trade tribunal system wasn't the stuff of high-profile op-eds by US senators. It was virtually unknown except among a small cadre of international lawyers and trade specialists.

The case that brought the system into broad public view was born 15 years ago this month on the streets of a city high in the Andes. How that case was won holds powerful lessons today for the battles over the TTIP, the TPP, and the effort to hand global corporations enormous new legal powers.

The Water Revolt

It started here in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2000, when citizens rebelled against the takeover of their public water system by a foreign corporation.

In what became known as the Cochabamba Water Revolt, thousands of Bolivians faced down bullets and batons to take back their water from Bechtel, the California engineering giant. Within weeks of taking over the local public water system, Bechtel's Bolivian company had hit water users with price increases averaging more than 50 percent, and often far higher. Families faced stark choices between keeping water running from the tap or food on the table.

So they rebelled.

Protesters shut down this city of half-a-million people three times with blockades and general strikes. The right-wing government sent in soldiers and police to defend Bechtel's contract, killing a teenage boy and leaving hundreds of others wounded. But the protests only increased, and finally Bechtel was forced to flee Bolivia, returning the water to public hands.

A year later, however, Bechtel struck back - this time in a World Bank trade court. The company demanded not only the $1 million it had invested in the country, but a full $50 million - the rest being the future "profits" the company claimed it had forgone by leaving.

Bechtel's case against Bolivia sparked a second rebellion. This one was global and just as powerful, a citizen action campaign that stretched worldwide. In the end, Bechtel would walk away not with the $50 million that it demanded from Bolivians, but just 30 cents and a badly damaged public image. The case also ripped the mask off a system of secret trade courts that today sits at the heart of the trade debate.

A System Designed for Corporate Advantage

Here in Bolivia, a soccer team from anywhere else would be foolish to play a match against a Bolivian team in La Paz, the nation's capital. At nearly 13,000 feet above the sea, most foreigners find it a serious challenge just to climb a staircase, much less chase a ball for 90 minutes.

The legal venue chosen by Bechtel - the World Bank's International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) - has a similar quality. It's a playing field tilted deeply to corporate advantage.

It's no small irony that Bechtel went to the World Bank, since it was the World Bank that set the Cochabamba Water Revolt in motion to begin with.

In 1997, World Bank officials made the privatization of Cochabamba's public water system a condition of loans the bank was issuing to expand water service in the country. So Bolivia's government was compelled to offer a 40-year lease to Bechtel, complete with a guaranteed annual profit of 16 percent - a gouging deal backed by the willingness of the government to shoot its own people if required.

The World Bank's ICSID and other international tribunal systems are a corporate dream. The tribunals that decide these cases are made up of lawyers who move from being highly paid corporate defenders in one case to supposedly impartial judges in the next, a blatant conflict of interest. It's a system where testimony is commonly sealed and where cases are heard thousands of miles away from the communities involved.

Unsurprisingly, corporations win either a full or partial victory more than half the time.

The Court of Public Opinion

The citizen campaign that took on Bechtel refused to wage its fight in the confines of Bechtel's carefully chosen judicial comfort zone.

The organization I run, the Democracy Center, and our Bolivian and global allies took aim at Bechtel instead on the battlefield where citizen movements do best: the court of public opinion. That campaign became a powerful early prototype for how to organize in the age of the Internet, driven not so much by an orchestrated grand plan as by sheer, viral inspiration.

Through our own articles and our work with journalists from the New Yorker, PBS, and elsewhere, the Democracy Center kept telling, over and over again, the powerful narrative of a David and Goliath victory on the streets of Cochabamba. Water Revolt leaders from Bolivia also traveled across the world to share their story directly.

We hung that story not just around Bechtel's corporate neck, but the neck of its CEO and namesake, Riley Bechtel. We even released his personal email address to thousands of people. As people reached out to us to get involved, we armed them with the hard evidence and some advice on strategy, encouraging them to take whatever action they were moved to take that could build pressure on the corporation.

The result was a beautiful, global spectacle of citizen power.

In San Francisco, activists shut down Bechtel's headquarters by chaining themselves together in the lobby. A local coalition also got the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a city resolution calling on Bechtel to drop its Bolivia case - just as the company was negotiating a major city contract.

In Amsterdam, people mounted a ladder outside Bechtel's local office and renamed the street for the teenager killed by soldiers during the Cochabamba Revolt. In Washington, protesters picketed the house of the president of Bechtel's Bolivian water subsidiary. At the South Africa Earth Summit, Bolivian activist Marcela Olivera recruited organizations to join a "Citizens Petition to the World Bank" calling on Bechtel to drop the case. EarthJustice filed a legal petition demanding public participation, and the Institute for Policy Studies mobilized Washington NGOs.

From one corner of the world to another, Bechtel was seized upon by angry Lilliputians tying a mighty corporate Gulliver to the ground.

The Power of Storytelling

In January 2006, besieged Bechtel officials flew to Bolivia and signed a deal with the Bolivian government under which it dropped its World Bank case for two shiny 1 boliviano coins - the cost of a local bus fare. No other major corporation, before or since, has ever been forced to drop such a major trade case by a campaign of citizen pressure waged against it.

In the end, Bechtel was defeated by something very simple: a story. It was a narrative about people fighting for their water, and of a corporation content to see them killed in order to squeeze the poor for profits it never earned. The mighty corporation could never escape the moral power of that story. We hit Bechtel with it using not just one tactic, but every tactic we could think of - from legal briefs to direct action. We didn't waste time debating which approach was more worthy.

The trade battles before us today, including the TPP and TTIP, must also be fought with stories that lift the issue above technical jargon and into popular understanding.

And there's no shortage of stories to tell. The tobacco giant Phillip Morris demands $2 billion from Uruguay for the sin of strengthening health warnings on cigarette packages. The people of El Salvador face a $300-million case from a Canadian-Australian mining company because El Salvadorans were able to block toxic mining operations. Germany faces a demand of €700 million from a nuclear energy company because, in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, popular movements won a moratorium on new nuclear power plants in the country.

Telling the stories of cases like these is essential to building a broader public understanding of what's at issue in these arcane negotiations: a corporate power play against basic democracy.

"It is impossible to overstate the impact of the people's victory in Cochabamba against Bechtel," Noami Klein observed recently. "At a time when winning real victories seemed like a distant dream, we suddenly saw that it was still possible to win, even against a giant US multinational." In the battle of the Bolivian people against Bechtel, David beat Goliath not only once, but twice. In the midst of the current battles on trade, the spirit of both those victories and their concrete lessons well deserve our remembrance.

News Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
House Gives $334 Billion Tax Break to 25 Richest Americans

Silver platter(Image: Silver platter via Shutterstock)

The House of Representatives gave 25 of the nation's billionaires a $334 billion tax break on April 16 when it voted 240-179 to repeal the estate tax. The nearly 100-year old tax raises $27 billion a year for the US government. Of the 2,662,000 Americans who died in 2013, just 3,700 of their estates paid any estate tax - one out of every 700 estates.

Of the nation's 25 wealthiest billionaires, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Carl Icahn have all campaigned publicly to keep a strong estate tax. In contrast, the Mars family has been a big funder of efforts to repeal the tax.  

The repeal would allow the nation's wealthiest citizens to pass on all of their enormous wealth to their heirs with no taxes paid. The chart below outlines how much the 25 richest Americans would owe if their entire estates were subject to a 40 percent tax rate - after the first $5.4 million in wealth was excluded.

Billionaire Wealth Source Wealth 
(in $ Billions)
Estate Tax @ 40%
(In $ Billions)
Bill Gates Microsoft 81.0 32.4
Warren Buffett Berkshire Hathaway 67.0 26.8
Larry Ellison Oracle 50.0 20.0
Charles Koch Inherited -- Koch Industries 42.0 16.8
David Koch Inherited -- Koch Industries 42.0 16.8
Christy Walton Inherited -- Walmart 38.0 15.2
Jim Walton Inherited -- Walmart 36.0 14.4
Michael Bloomberg Bloomberg plc 35.0 14.0
Alice Walton Inherited -- Walmart 34.9 14.0
S Robson Walton Inherited -- Walmart 34.8 13.9
Mark Zuckerberg Facebook 34.0 13.6
Sheldon Adelson Las Vegas Sands 32.0 12.8
Larry Page Google 31.5 12.6
Sergey Brin Google 31.0 12.4
Jeff Bezos 30.5 12.2
Carl Icahn Icahn Enterprises (private equity) 26.0 10.4
George Soros Soros Asset Management 24.0 9.6
Steve Ballmer Microsoft 22.5 9.0
Forrest Mars Jr Inherited - Mars Candy 22.0 8.8
Jacqueline Mars Inherited - Mars Candy 22.0 8.8
John Mars Inherited - Mars Candy 22.0 8.8
Len Blavanik Access Industries (private equity) 21.5 8.6
Phil Knight NIKE 19.9 8.0
Michael Dell Dell Computer 17.7 7.1
Laurene Powell Jobs Inherited -- Apple 16.6 6.6
    Total 333.6

Source: Forbes 400

What Would You Do With $334 Billion?

  • We could expand opportunities for the next generation.
    • For the next nine years, we could give every new US baby $1,000 at birth and $500 more each year until he or she turns 18, creating a pool of funds to help pay for college or vocational training, to start a business, or to buy a first home.
  • Or we could cut college debt for young adults.
    • We could cut the nation's student debt by a third, providing $25,000 of individual debt relief for more than 13 million Americans.
  • Or we could simply repair a lot of schools, bridges, and sewer systems.
    • We could repair or replace all of the nation's deficient school buildings, bringing them up to 21st century standards so that all of our children have the opportunity to succeed ($270 billion). There'd be enough left over to repair or replace almost all of our structurally deficient bridges ($76 billion).
    • We could fix our leaking wastewater and sewer systems, ending dangerous outflows of sewage into lakes, rivers, and oceans ($298 billion), with enough left over to repair or replace 4,000 US dams that are at risk of failure ($20 billion).

Repealing the Estate Tax Destroys a Powerful Charitable Incentive

Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and George Soros all have large foundations that are expected to receive a large share of their estates when they die. If they hold to these plans, they will pay far less in estate taxes than shown in the chart above. Bequests to charities are fully deductible from estate taxes and reduce the overall amount of tax owed. Because of this, charitable giving is one of the most common estate planning strategies. Last year, estates contributed more than $27 billion to universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and other community nonprofits. Eliminating the estate tax means that at least some of this money will probably be redirected to family members or friends.

Rather Than Repealing the Estate Tax, We Should Strengthen It

The House repeal vote is only one threat facing our nation's most progressive tax. The wealthy also avoid taxes through loopholes and tax shelters that highly paid trusts and estates consultants and lawyers have devised to allow families to shield even more than the $10.8 million that estates are currently allowed.

Billionaires like Sheldon Adelson have used a special trust known as the grantor retained annuity trust (GRAT) to shield nearly $8 billion of assets, saving nearly $3 billion in federal estate taxes, according to an analysis by Bloomberg journalist Zach Mider. Ironically, the GRAT was adopted to prevent another tax dodging technique known as the Grantor Retained Income Trust (GRIT). The GRAT loophole has cost the US Treasury an estimated $100 billion since 2000.Tax dodging through GRAT and other loopholes, coupled with a dramatic increase in exemptions and lower tax rates on millionaires and billionaires as a result of the Bush tax cuts of 2003, resulted in the estate tax collecting just half the revenue in 2014 that it collected in 2000 (inflation adjusted).

Almost all the gains from growth and productivity over the past 30 years were taken by the wealthiest 1 percent.  But instead of requiring them to pay into the system from which they so richly benefitted, we've allowed them to channel their great wealth into campaign finance gifts. These gifts allow them to  curry favor with politicians who will cut their taxes and then tell middle America that they have to pay more for basic services or go without.

Who Is Congress Working For?

Have a look at the voting record for the House bill (HR 1105). If your representative voted in favor of estate tax repeal, ask why he or she is voting for the interests of the wealthiest 0.2 percent of Americans instead of the rest of us.

When you write or call, you might also want to pass along this assessment penned by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank: "Never in the history of plutocracy has so much been given away to so few who need it so little."

News Tue, 28 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Fast Track" Flouts the Constitution

If the Obama administration gets its way, Congress won't even get a chance to really debate the TPP before it becomes the law of the land. (Photo: Backbone Campaign)If the Obama administration gets its way, Congress won't even get a chance to really debate the Trans-Pacific Partnership before it becomes the law of the land. (Photo: Backbone Campaign)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren isn't backing down one inch in her fight with President Obama over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

On Saturday, just a few days after the president accused her of spreading "misinformation," about the TPP trade deal I like to call SHAFTA, the Massachusetts senator hit back hard in a letter to the White House.

While the Obama administration has, she pointed out, given 500 or so corporate lobbyists inside access to TPP negotiations, it has left the public completely in the dark.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.

In fact, as Senator Warren went on to write, "It is currently illegal for the press, experts, advocates, or the general public to review the text of this agreement. And while ... Members of Congress may 'walk over ... and read the text of the agreement' - as we have done - [we] are prohibited by law from discussing the specifics of that text in public."

That's right - members of Congress, the elected representatives of "We the People" can't talk to the public about the biggest trade treaty in US history.

And Senator Warren isn't making this up, as the Obama administration would have you believe, just to score political points.

A few years ago, before the TPP even became the hot-button issue it is now, Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio came on this show and talked about the kind of crazy hoops he had to jump through just to look at one of the more than 20 chapters in a draft version of the deal.

If you thought that was bad, though, here's the real kicker: If the Obama administration gets its way, Congress won't even get a chance to really debate the TPP before it becomes the law of the land.

That's because right now, with the full backing of the White House, the House and Senate are considering bills that would give President Obama "fast-track" powers in regards to the TPP and all other trade deals from now until the end of his time in office - and for the first four years of the next president.

If Congress does give President Obama fast-track power, our elected representatives wouldn't be allowed to make any amendments whatsoever to trade deals like the TPP.

Instead, the treaty would be sent right to the floor where it would only have to pass a simple up-or-down vote after debate limited to eight minutes per member.

This, to paraphrase Joe Biden, is a big f**ing deal
We need Congress to have as much say as possible about what goes into the final version of the TPP because, as it is right now, the TPP is a stalking horse for the corporate elite.

What little we know about it comes from leaks, and those leaks show that it's basically a grab bag of all the terrible things Big Business has always wanted but is too scared to ask for in public.

The TPP would give big pharmaceutical companies virtual monopoly patent power, gut environmental and financial rules and, according to Wikileaks, let corporations sue countries in international courts over regulations that those corporations don't like.

Sounds scary, right? You bet, which is exactly why Senator Warren wants Congress to reject fast track altogether and have a real debate about the TPP.

But the issues with fast track go deeper than just what is or what isn't in the TPP.

Ultimately, what's really the problem with fast track is that it would prevent the Senate from performing one of its most important constitutional obligations: giving its advice and consent to international treaties.

You see, although its supporters call it a "deal" or an "agreement," the TPP is really a treaty because it's an agreement between our government and a group of foreign governments over how they want to interact with each other.

And under the Constitution, treaties have to be approved by two-thirds of the Senate to go into effect.

But that wouldn't need to happen if Congress gives President Obama fast-track powers.

If Congress grants President Obama fast-track powers, the TPP would instead just have to pass a simple majority vote to become law.

In other words, it would no longer have to pass the two-thirds approval muster required by the Constitution.

This is something everyone, whether they're a Republican or Democrat, can agree is wrong.

The founders gave the Senate advice and consent powers for a reason, and there's no reason to throw those powers out the window just to make a few corporate lobbyists happy.

So call your elected representative today to tell them that you support the Constitution, and therefore oppose fast-track powers for the TPP.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 16:44:57 -0400
Arab-American and Muslim-American Opposition Could Stop "Fast-Track" Trade Bill

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Washington, March 2, 2015. Long before the latest election in Israel, Netanyahu was a polarizing figure among American Jews, but even many of his supporters said they were appalled at the prime minister’s warning about Arab voters and his renunciation of a two-state solution. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Washington, March 2, 2015. Long before the latest election in Israel, Netanyahu was a polarizing figure among US Jews, but even many of his supporters said they were appalled at the prime minister's warning about Arab voters and his renunciation of a two-state solution. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

In 2010, the Census Bureau estimated that there were 1.7 million Americans of Arab descent. The Arab American Institute thinks this was an undercount, and puts the number now at about 3.7 million. The Pew Research Center says that there are about 2.4 million Americans who identify as Muslim. We can safely say that there are "millions" of Americans who identify as Arab, Muslim or both.

If a big chunk of these people decided to engage Washington to move US policy towards the Palestinians in the direction of more justice, could they have an impact?

A lot of people will tell you that there's no point in trying. The pro-Netanyahu lobby is too powerful in Congress, they say.

It's true that the pro-Netanyahu lobby is perceived, not without some justification, as one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. However, until now, the pro-Netanyahu lobby has not faced meaningful grassroots opposition in Congress on questions of US policy towards the Palestinians at the edge of their grasp. It's easy to be perceived as powerful if serious opponents don't show up to fight you on issues that could matter.

We've seen on the issue of diplomacy with Iran that the pro-Netanyahu lobby was not unbeatable. There have been two agreements with Iran so far, both of which the pro-Netanyahu lobby did not like, and both of which the pro-Netanyahu lobby could not stop. In the case of diplomacy with Iran, the pro-Netanyahu lobby has faced powerful opposition, led by the president, but including many members of Congress and outside groups. That's the key thing that made the pro-Netanyahu lobby beatable: the fact that they faced serious opposition.

Now there is a test case before us to see if serious opposition to the pro-Netanyahu lobby on US policy towards the Palestinians can develop. The pro-Netanyahu lobby has attached language to the trade bill package before Congress that seeks to block European sanctions against Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

One reason that this should be a winnable fight is that even if people who care whether Palestinians live or die do nothing, the "Fast-Track" bill may go down to defeat anyway. Most Democrats hate it. The entire labor movement and most environmentalists are against it. People who care about access to essential medicines for poor people are against it. If a new bunch of people who aren't otherwise involved in "trade" fights got involved on the no side, it could make a difference, because the forces in play are already roughly matched. It's not like we'll be fighting AIPAC alone. Now we'll be fighting on the same side as the AFL-CIO.

A second reason that this should be a winnable fight is that the pro-Netanyahu lobby is reaching beyond the edge of its usual grasp. Although the pro-Netanyahu lobby supports the settlements, they usually try to pretend otherwise. That's why an AIPAC press release praising the legislation doesn't mention the settlements. That's why they're trying to stay below the radar on this pro-settlement effort; the Jewish Daily Forward calls it a "stealth move," and notes [my emphasis]:

This week's congressional committee measures appear to be the first-ever formal step toward U.S. government recognition of the settlements' legitimacy. None of the Capitol Hill sources contacted appeared to be aware of the explosive significance of the "territories under the control of Israel" clause.
European boycott efforts currently in effect or in the pipeline that might fall under the new congressional measures are nearly all limited to the settlements, not to Israel proper. Moreover, the United States already has stiff measures on the books, going back to the 1970s, that target boycotts against Israel. The sole effect of the new congressional measures, therefore, is to extend U.S. protection to the settlements "in territories controlled by Israel."

You can add your voice to the settlement critics opposing "Fast Track" here.

Opinion Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Chronicle of Woe: US Policing Culture From Iraq and Vietnam to Jon Burge's Chicago

Given the recent report from The Washington Post on the number of people killed in US police shootings over the last decade, there is an obvious need for police training and the culture of policing to move beyond current practice and operations.

It is perhaps time for a broader national discussion about the culture of policing and law enforcement practices that have fostered the distrust and unease between police and the increasingly diverse communities that they must serve and protect in the United States. (Photo: Amnesty Finland)It is perhaps time for a broader national discussion about the culture of policing and law enforcement practices that have fostered the distrust and unease between police and increasingly diverse communities. (Photo: Amnesty Finland)

The Washington Post newspaper published a feature article titled "Thousands Dead, Few Prosecuted" on April 11, which explored the still evolving drama of police shootings of people across the United States and the low level of convictions for such incidents by officers across the country. According to the article, only 54 officers have been charged - and the majority of them have been acquitted or cleared - in a context of thousands having been killed in such incidents since 2005. It is one indication of the extent to which dubious practices have become established in the culture and operations of US law enforcement agencies.

On April 13, 2015, four employees of Blackwater, a private US security firm contracted by the US government, were sentenced to long prison terms for the murder of Iraqi civilians in 2007. The New York Times reported the men had been among several private US security guards who fired into Baghdad's crowded Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, and in October 2014 they were convicted of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in what prosecutors called a wartime atrocity. Yet, as they awaited sentences that they knew would send them to prison for most, if not all, of their lives, they defiantly asserted their innocence.

This incident followed upon the widespread publication of reports about torture and abuse at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, in which US military personnel were involved. Further, in March 2010, Harper's Magazine published a report by Scott Horton - "The Guantánamo 'Suicides': A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle" - which raised serious questions about official accounts of the deaths of detainees at the notorious facility used to detain suspects in the US war on terror.

The fetish for the criminalization, imprisonment and killing of citizens needs to be explored at every level.

The cumulative impact of these reports has been to raise serious questions about, and scrutiny of, the training and practices of US personnel in civilian law enforcement and military agencies and the veterans of these agencies hired by private security contractors. When the August 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer triggered sometimes violent protests and the police deployed military surplus equipment and vehicles to confront the protesters, it was evident that the culture and practices of law enforcement needed to be revisited. It would seem that the "rule of law" needs to be restored in a society where current legislation and law enforcement practices have created a situation in which, according to The Economist, "America has around 5% of the world's population, and 25% of its prisoners." The fetish for the criminalization, imprisonment and killing of citizens needs to be explored at every level - federal, state and local - to devise a strategy for lifting the society beyond its current image and practice. In effect, the United States as a country will have to revisit its culture of policing and the waste of resources and lives that this culture represents for a society that, paradoxically, espouses its commitment to freedom as a national virtue on the global stage.

This issue assumes even greater urgency in light of the decision by the City of Chicago and its mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, to pay a settlement of $5.5 million to victims of torture conducted by a former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge, who left the police force in 1993 as a result of torture allegations. Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in 2010. His career trajectory offers an interesting insight into the culture of policing that has become a part of contemporary American life. Burge volunteered for service in Vietnam in 1968 and according to a story carried in The Washington Post:

What, exactly, Burge did in Vietnam is a bit of a mystery. In its 2005 profile of Burge, the Chicago Reader suggests Burge may have honed his torture techniques on suspected Vietcong soldiers and sympathizers. Multiple members of Burge's Ninth Military Police Company told the newspaper that they had either witnessed or heard of interrogations using a "field phone" similar to the black box Burge would later be accused of using. In what they called "the Bell telephone hour," soldiers would shock prisoners in an attempt to obtain information.

Whatever he did in Vietnam, Burge was honorably discharged in 1969. When he applied to the Chicago Police Department later that year, the officer assigned to do a background check praised Burge as "all man." Burge was hired in 1970 and was promoted to detective two years later.

That's when the torture allegedly began.

More than 120 people - mostly African-American men - have accused Burge of shocking, beating or suffocating them into confessing.

Burge had gone to Vietnam in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre by the US military, which occurred in March 1968. It was perhaps a measure of the casual brutality of a failed war that Burge became involved in the use of torture. He later adopted similar practices in the Chicago police force for more than two decades and was promoted to a high rank over the course of his career. The Burge case also poses a very interesting question about the culture of policing as it pertains to the rule of law in the United States: To what extent does the culture of policing within the United States reflect the practices and culture of its military abroad? Is it mere coincidence that Burge was accused overwhelmingly by African Americans of torture during his career in Chicago, following the report of his torture of Vietcong soldiers and their presumed allies/sympathizers in Vietnam?

This question assumes a particular importance when it is recalled that the use of procedures that violate due process in police investigations was articulated by Justice Hugo Black's opinion for the US Supreme Court in the 1940 case, Chambers v. State of Florida, 309 U.S. 227. In that case, citing the record of police interrogation of the defendants as a violation of due process, Black reversed the decision of the Florida courts to impose death sentences upon four African Americans for murder. In his statement Black declared:

Tyrannical governments had immemorially utilized dictatorial criminal procedure and punishment to make scape goats of the weak, or of helpless political, religious, or racial minorities and those who differed, who would not conform and who resisted tyranny.

Three decades later, Burge began to build a career as a police officer adept in the use of torture. It has required decades for his victims to be acknowledged officially and offered compensation for the abuse by the City of Chicago, and Burge's career raises fundamental questions about the culture of policing in the contemporary United States. Further, the recent discovery of a facility that has reportedly been used since the late 1990s by the Chicago Police Department for detention and interrogation of detainees without any official record of such activity speaks to illegal police operations in Chicago. In effect, Burge left the department in 1993, but the facility for illegal detentions was in use several years later. Did Burge's success encourage his colleagues and a subsequent generation of police officers in Chicago to embrace his commitment to the use of extralegal practices, perhaps including torture?

The further irony of this contrast between Hugo Black and Jon Burge is that Black was a son of the Jim Crow South who showed his disdain for Southern law enforcement practices in the 1940 Chambers v. Florida decision. On the other hand, Burge was a product of the North who came of age during the period after the 1954 Brown decision, which dismissed segregation as legal doctrine. Three decades after a progressive Southern jurist had moved the federal judiciary forward on the issue of due process for detainees and suspects, the Northern law enforcement official began his career in the Chicago Police Department and sought to perpetuate the morbid terror of the Jim Crow regime.

Burge built a career as a police officer adept in the use of torture.

The longevity of Burge's career and the impunity afforded him - even after his dismissal from the Chicago Police Department in 1993 - raises a fundamental question about the culture of policing in the United States. If, as The Washington Post recently reported, thousands of police killings in a decade have resulted in 54 indictments, how can this situation be addressed?

The Burge case highlights the need for one possible approach: an exploration of the culture of policing through an examination of the recruitment practices, personality profiles of officers and the socialization processes that inform police behavior at both individual and systemic levels. The revelation of the scale of the problem across the country - and the apparent lack of serious efforts to address the problem - would suggest that police recruitment, training and operational procedures need to be examined to identify the reasons for the current culture of US policing.

The history of US race relations carries within it many of the seeds of the pathologies that continue to define the society and, in this case of police killings, it is perhaps useful to look at some of the early findings on this issue of police abuse. In the seminal compendium on US race relations, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Gunnar Myrdal explored the ways in which Southern law enforcement and the local courts had shaped the "rule of law" in the region:

... he (the Southern police officer) stands not only for civic order as defined in formal laws and regulations, but also for "white supremacy" and the whole set of social customs associated with this concept. In the traditions of the region a break of the caste rules against one white person is conceived of as an aggression against white society and, indeed, as a potential threat to every other white individual....

To enable the policeman to carry out this function, the courts are supposed to back him even when he proceeds far outside normal police activity. His word must be taken against Negroes without regard for formal legal rules of evidence, even when there are additional circumstantial facts supporting the contention of the Negro party. That this is so is freely admitted in conversation with both judges and police officers in the South. (1)

This issue of deference to the use of extralegal practices by police officers has not been restricted to the Jim Crow South. There is the recent case of Eric Garner, a man subjected to a chokehold by a police officer in New York City in 2014, whose death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. The grand jury in New York that heard the evidence in the case subsequently determined that there should be no prosecution of the police for Garner's death.

In the current context of American life, it is to the credit of The Washington Post that it has published the analysis of the disparities between the deaths of people killed by police officers and the number of officers indicted and ultimately sanctioned for these deaths. It is perhaps time for a broader national discussion about the culture of policing and law enforcement practices that have fostered the distrust and unease between police and the increasingly diverse communities that they must serve and protect in the United States. It is also important to recognize that notwithstanding millions of Americans of every hue electing President Barack Obama, contemporary America continues to live in the shadow of Jim Crow. (2) For those prognosticators who perceived that Obama's ascent to the presidency represented the emergence of a postracial United States, it is perhaps time to revisit their assessments. (3)


1. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944), p. 535.

2. See Bill Quigley, "Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System," The Huffington Post, and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York, The New Press, 2012.

3. NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr remarked in 2008: "Welcome to the latest buzz word in the political lexicon, post-racial. It is what Senator Barack Obama signals in his victory speech in South Carolina when he tells of the woman who used to work for segregationist Strom Thurmond and now, knocks on doors for the Obama campaign."

News Mon, 27 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400