Truthout Stories Mon, 26 Jan 2015 09:41:46 -0500 en-gb Kymone Freeman: #DC Ferguson, Poet, Playwright and Guerilla Artist

“Until the lions have their historians; the tales of the hunt will continue to glorify the hunters.” – Afrikan Proverb

Papi Kymone Freeman (guerrilla artist) is one of the leaders of #DC Ferguson, an organization devoted to exposing police terror in the Washington, DC area. Kymone, alone with Eugene Puryear, Salim Adafo and Kenny Nero have led non-violent demonstrations that have shut down major economic arteries in the nation’s capitol. Kymone is the director of the National Black LUV Festival that has since become the largest annual AIDS mobilization in Washington, DC. He has authored a collection of poetry entitled Blood.Sweat.Tears.

Kymone is in the process of completing a one-man show called “Whites Only,” a show where, according to Kymone “white folks can witness an angry Black man in therapy from the sanctuary of their seat.” He is also the subject of a chapter in the book entitled: Beat of a Different Drum: The Untold Stories of African Americans Forging Their Own Paths in Work and Life.

Kymone’s dedication to art and activism led him to accept the position of New York City spokesperson and official poet of the anti-war independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader during his campaign in ’04. A scholarship received from the American Friends Service Committee allowed him to spend the summer in Nairobi, Kenya for an international leadership conference. He used his time in Kenya to hone his skills as a playwright. He received the 22nd Annual Larry Neal Award for Drama for the successful play Prison Poetry that has appeared at the Historic Lincoln Theatre and Source Theatre during the Hip Hop Theatre Festival, THEARC Theatre, Oak Hill Juvenile Detention Facility and several college campuses where his work has been included in the Black History curriculum of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He has conducted production workshops at the National Black Theatre Festival and Institute of Policy Studies.

He is currently Program Director of We ACT Radio 1480 AM DC’s new progressive radio station.

Who is Kymone Freeman? Where were you born and where did you go to school?

I am the eldest grandson of Lily Ann Lewis who climbed the steps of the Washington Monument just to show me the highest point in the city to tell me I can do anything. I am an angry Black man in therapy, an autodidact, a guerilla artist, an activist and currently this country’s poorest media mogul. I have produced poetry, theatre, festivals, TV, film, and radio.

I am one of the few indigenous natives of DC. I was born in DC General Hospital and initially raised in my maternal grandmother’s house at 624 Kentucky Ave SE. I grew up during the soulful 70’s but the crack epidemic and violence of the 80’s, along with the death of my grandmother, forced me to attend school in North Carolina and in Alexandria, Virginia.

When did you decide to get involved in political struggle?

I am a product of the Million Man March that gave us the charge to go back to our communities to #dosomething. The fact that no crime was committed in DC for over 48 hours because of the brotherhood and unity that was displayed there is a lost footnote in history but a month later I witnessed the murder of my cousin at a cabaret that I hosted. It was then that I decided to dedicate my life to begin to synthesize my reality with the greater possibilities.

How has your involvement in politics changed your life?

My involvement with politics first began with the case of Mumia Abu Jamal. After reading Death Blossoms I learned more about his case and realized he was innocent and attended my first marches and rallies. I marched in DC, Philly and to the prison he was originally being held at while he was on death row. That activism lead me to the precursor of the explosion of the prison industrial complex which is the War on Drugs.

This enabled me to draw immediate conclusions from my experiences and why I was seeing the devastation of drugs and violence in my community in the 80s with the materialism that drove my generation to early graves and massive incarceration in the 90’s.

During this period I discovered poetry and found my voice to articulate the rage and passion I had regarding these issues. I say this because art is political. My pursuit as an artist also began to open another dimension in my thinking and expanded my circle of friends who didn’t think like the hustlers and government employees I was surrounded by. They were independent thinkers who lived life on their own terms which provided me a reference point to one day escape the plantation confines of a 9 to 5.

With my two passions Art and Politics I decided to combine them with a festival to address the pandemic of AIDS in DC that had claimed the lives of both my Aunt and Uncle. The Black L.U.V. Festival ( was launched in 1997 and I have since produced 12 festivals. This independent festival was the foundation that introduced me to all the contacts that I would later need to break free from a 9 to 5 to speak truth to power full time. It was through those efforts to organize the festival that I met Kevin Zeese, then the Executive Director of Common Sense for Drug Policy, who mentored me, opened his home to me, and gave me the necessary support for me to make the transition. He sponsored me to attend several People of Color and the War on Drugs Conferences held in various cities across the country produced by the Drug Policy Alliance and Deborah Peterson Small.

What is the mission of We Act Radio?

It was also through the organizing of the Black L.U.V. Festival that I met my business partner Alex Lawson with whom I co-founded We Act Radio, DC’s only independent radio station. Alex was with DC Fights Back, an AIDS advocacy, group that helped me assemble several AIDS Mobile Units to turn the festival into the largest annual AIDS testing event in DC for six years. On November the 11th, 2011 at 11am we launched We Act Radio on MLK Ave SE Washington, DC.

Our mission is dedicated to raising up the stories and voices of those historically excluded from the media.

How does WeAct Radio contribute to educating the community regarding political events?

We Act Radio is an independent radio station that produces original content and provides broadcast media outlet services to the progressive community of Washington, DC and beyond. Everyone comes to DC to protest, march, rally, or hold press conferences. We offer live streaming services at cost to ensure that the content provider is not solely relying upon what other media outlets chooses to broadcast but rather distributing their content in its entirety amongst our platform.

In addition, We Act Radio functions as a community anchor institution in one of the most underserved areas of the nation's capital by partnering with the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as the DC Summer Youth Employment Program to offer Media Arts training classes to at-risk youth every summer for the past three years we have been in operation to effectively contribute to the political education of our young people.

The Anacostia studios of We Act Radio are also large enough to host community events whether produced ourselves are by other individuals or organizations. We host open mics, debates, live productions, film screenings, political education classes and, most recently, have partnered with the National Black United Front to host the N’Joya Weusi Saturday School for extracurricular S.T.E.M. activities for children.

Please share a story of resistance in your work that embodies hope for you.

Spending a week in Ferguson and St. Louis as an independent media outlet after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson I was impressed with the level of commitment from the young people there responding on the ground by beginning to organize their community and politicizing themselves with no fear of an overwhelming show of force by the military industrial complex. This was even a bigger inspiration for me and the hope for the future of our youth than that of the launch of the Occupy Movement in Zuccotti Park that spread around the country and around the world because, finally, young Black people were involved and taking leadership.

But the greatest single story of resistance for me is from Mo Costello, the owner of MoKaBe Coffeehouse that received death threats in St. Louis and was tear-gassed twice just for providing a “Safe Space” for protestors.

In the spirit of John Brown, she risked her livelihood and the safety of not only herself but that of her three children that helped run the family-owned business. I personally saw the police intimidation she and her family faced and despite all that they still chose to support the community and the #BlackLivesMatter cause by operating as an oasis surrounded by a desert of injustice.

What role do you play at WeAct Radio? How has this changed your life and influenced your political activities?

I am the Program Director, the General Manager, and sometimes janitor. I have a paid staff of two and a volunteer staff of two. My life has changed from working for others to working for myself. This alone will greatly alter the thinking of any individual. I remember when I was still picking cotton at the Postal plantation, my manager told me that I don’t get paid to think. Well, now I do.

As an independent media outlet, we don’t just cover stories, we produce content. I am free to break stories I find relevant like the Public Duty Doctrine that states that the government has no duty to provide emergency services including 911 to the general public, but rather it is a “courtesy” it extends. Only fires are excluded from this admission of civic immunity simply to avoid the potential of civil lawsuits against the city for damages in wrongful death cases due to neglect or malpractice. Most people are unaware of this and no major media outlet will ever cover this aspect even in the case of Cedric Mills who had a heart attack and was refused medical attention by emergency personnel and left to die on the street.

Most people don’t know that courts have ruled that the police can legally lie to you and that the media has no legal obligation to tell the truth. They assume the validity of a police report and whatever version they see on the 6 o’clock news.

In your opinion, how is the struggle for justice in Ferguson and the struggle around police terror in Washington, DC interrelated?

First of all, “An injustice anywhere; is a threat to justice everywhere” so I never categorize or compartmentalize various aspects of the struggle separately. I view them all as pieces in one big chess game. There are of course some favorite pieces that I choose to use more than others, but I must pay attention to them all.

In a specific response to #DCFerguson, which is the hashtag we have chose to use locally, we obviously feel very strongly about the interrelatedness of all the cases of police terror and their intersection on the national level that falls at the doorsteps of the DOJ and the White House. DC is the perfect collage of local, national and international affairs.

While all of our problems are either local or national, we now see that Malcolm X was right in his assessment that our only hope for justice is on the world stage.

How can we connect these issues?

We must begin by controlling the narrative and the branding. We should avoid ever repeating talking points from the establishment who effectively sets the limits of the agenda by defining the narrative and deciding the brand words to be used.

For example, by calling a protest against police brutality an “anti-police protest” the establishment has effectively minimized the amount of support you can expect to receive from the public.

If the #BlackLivesMatter movement began referring openly to their cause as the “New Anti-Apartheid” movement they would have effectively conjured up all the aspects that joined the various levels of oppression that manifested itself during the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the tools used to eliminate it. This alone would put the system itself on trial and elevate the debate beyond the realm of good cop vs bad cop to investigate a system that refuses to distinguish between the two and rewards bad behavior when applied to communities of color in general and poor people in particular.

You testified during the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Please summarize what you said.

I basically amplified the demands for community control over the police. I accused them of dancing all around the mulberry bush exchanging pleasantries with talks of new training or stating dwindling crime statistics being offered as proof that what they are doing is working instead of directly addressing the issue at hand of an out of control police force and a corrupt grand jury system that refuses to put a leash on killer cops as long as the victims are Black or Latino.

If the Commission had allowed you additional time, what would you have added to your statement?

I wish I had time to read all the names of unarmed Black people killed by White police officers and all the names of unarmed White people killed by Black police officers.

Is the Commission a hoax? If so, do you think Black folks should participate in it?

Carmen Perez, Executive Director of the Gathering for Justice, said “There is a crisis between police and communities of color.” However, the majority of those on the Commission and particularly those in leadership are not treating it as such. Whether or not the purpose of the President’s Task Force is to continue a policy of “Benign Neglect” by circling the wagons to prevent any true radical police reforms while providing lip service to a decades old issue remains to be seen, but yes we should participate because this is where the current debate is being held.

How can we leverage the Commission process to the advantage of the Black Community?

I was very disappointed that there were no protestors present during the townhall. They purposefully minimized the likelihood of this by hosting it as a 9-5 event rather than (2) evening events which would have resulted in greater community involvement. There are allies to be made whether on the Task Force or in attendance and enemies to be identified. We are in need of intel and data collection just like our adversaries.

Therefore, there should absolutely be a more concerted effort to take these proceedings over and if necessary bumrush the mics like they did at Rev. Al Sharpton’s national demonstration in DC if they continue to avoid the discussion of community control over the police.

What are the challenges facing #DCFerguson and the overall police terror movement?

How do we enforce demands? How do we escalate the calls for justice? How do we protect ourselves? Who are our allies? How do we force the police to share power with the community? How do we fund an organization truly committed to these values?

All these questions must begin to be addressed.

What is the basis of your hope that WeAct Radio or #DCFerguson can move the struggle for black liberation forward?

Hope is a drug and was also the name of a slave ship. But hope got a bi-racial president elected and as the “People’s Pastor” the Reverend Herbert Daughtry of the House of the Lord in Brooklyn, NYC told me, “I am addicted to hope.”

Our hope is echoed in the last words of the late great Dr. Vincent Harding, the author of MLK’s Beyond Vietnam Speech, when I interviewed him last year on April 4th the 47th anniversary of that speech and shortly before his death later that same month when he said, “Don’t be overwhelmed for too long, because we have work to do. Stay strong.”

For more information about Kymone Freeman:

Testimony before Presidential Commission on Policing:

News Mon, 26 Jan 2015 09:06:05 -0500
New Front Opens in Cold War of the Koreas: Restaurants

If North Korea prides itself on the West never quite knowing what it will do next, there is a fantastic new example worth savouring. Plans are reportedly afoot to open a North Korean restaurant in Scotland – the first in the UK and second in Europe after Amsterdam. They are both part of the same chain, which is otherwise concentrated in Asia and owned by the North Korean government as a means of raising extra funds.

The Kim Jong-un regime would certainly be capitalising on the growing popularity of Korean food. It may still be considered more exotic than Chinese and Japanese fare, but this is changing fast. In the US, the average price of a meal in a Korean restaurant has been constantly rising for the past two decades, in what is a sign of growing prestige. It continued to climb even after 2010, when the prices of Japanese restaurants began to drop.

Changing US restaurant prices

(Image: Krishnendu Ray)(Image: Krishnendu Ray)

This may be partly a result of the Korean Cuisine (Hansik) Promotion Campaign, which was initiated by the South Korean government in 2009 with the goal of turning Korean food into one of the five most popular ethnic cuisines in the world by 2017. The plan is currently being rethought after receiving much criticism in the media, but there are nonetheless plenty of signs that the country’s cuisine is on the rise.

Seoul nights

London has more than its fair share of Korean restaurants. The Camden area has so many that it is sometimes informally known as Little Seoul. But until a few years ago, these restaurants were primarily patronised by Korean and Japanese businessmen. One of the key drivers for this changing was the arrival of Bibigo in 2012 – not in Camden but in Soho, in the middle of town.

Camden’s Korean preponderance

(Image: University of Leiden)(Image: University of Leiden)

Bibigo clearly caters to a local clientele hungry for an exotic experience. It was the first European outlet of the South Korean restaurant chain, managed by C J CheilJedang, Korea’s number-one food and bio business, and was followed by a second London opening in the Angel area last week.

The business launched in 2010 as one of the strategies of the government’s promotion campaign and has since also expanded to Beijing, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Singapore and Tokyo. What has worked for the South Korean government, clearly their northern neighbours think can work for them too.

North Korean restaurants are a relatively new addition to the global gastronomic scene. They began to emerge in north China during the 1990s and a decade later began to spring up in Jakarta, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and other cities across Asia. The Amsterdam restaurant opened in 2012, before closing and reopening in a different location in 2013.

Southern rice and northern noodles

Culinary culture in the Korean peninsula developed locally for centuries, leading to noticeable differences in ingredients and flavours. The food of the northern provinces tended to be less spicy due to the colder climate, for example.

The consumption of noodles is more widespread, since rice agriculture flourished primarily in the south. The most celebrated North Korean dish today is raengmyeon (“cold noodles”), a vinegary dish that comes in various varieties with chewy noodles made from either buckwheat or sweet potato. It only began to be consumed in the south after it was popularised by the North Korean refugees who flocked there after the Korean war (1950-1953).

But what will really distinguish a North Korean restaurant from one dishing up southern fare is the ambience and the song-and-dance routines, which are a unique mix of folklore and Stalinism, with added karakoe. The actual menus will not be much different, on the other hand. For example, the one in Amsterdam offers the Korean classics, such as pulgogi (thin slices of marinated beef grilled at the table), kimchi (pickled vegetables), and pibimpap (rice mixed with vegetables) – as well as sushi and sashimi, which are Japanese but are often served in Korean restaurants in the US to capitalise on the popularity of that cuisine.

North Korea’s marketing advantage

Just because the menus might be similar, this by no means implies that there are parallels in the contemporary culinary culture of North and South Korea. Affluence, the food processing industry and foreign culinary trends have transformed dietary life of South Korea since the 1980s, which has widened the breach with its North Korean neighbour at the same time.

Ironically the image of North Korea as the “nostalgic past”, good old Korea frozen in time, has grown into a powerful marketing tool for North Korean products on sale in South Korea.

With both Korean governments now pushing their countries' cuisines, it raises questions about who owns the property rights to Korean food. Where lies the legitimate source of the authentic Korean culinary tradition? This means that dining at a North Korean restaurant, whether in Amsterdam, Beijing, Hanoi or Scotland is much more than a culinary delight and exotic experience. It is a lesson in history and global politics as well.

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 11:56:52 -0500
With Syriza, the Greek People Can Revive Hope in Europe

Translated Sunday, January 25, 2015, by Isabelle Métral.

For Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s candidate, an absolute majority in Parliament would be an asset in order to impose a renegotiation of the Greek debt. The radical Left’s leader promises to set up “a government for all Greek people” if his party comes first in Sunday’s election.

From our special correspondent in Athens:

Syriza is well and truly set to get into the saddle. The last twenty-five opinion polls broadcast by the Greek media all point in the same direction: the anti-austerity Left is in pole position. On the eve of a crucial general election, it even pulls further ahead of conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy. The only question is how much leeway will electors give Alexis Tsipras’ party in Parliament. Short of the absolute majority, Syriza would have to seek alliances in a confusing scene where split-offs cloud party lines as a result of the political crisis. “The stronger Syriza will come out, the safer the country’s future,” Alexis Tsipras insisted in Thessalonike last Tuesday and in Patras last Wednesday. Addressing thousands of supporters, he asked electors to give him a clear majority so that he can implement Syriza’s Leftist platform without having to negotiate and settle for less.

By all appearances, all the international pressure and threats from international financial institutions, all Brussels’ warnings have only fueled the Greeks’ determination to push austerity policies down under. Hence the aggressive radical strategy chosen by Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy. A leading figure in association with the disastrous policies dictated by the Troika (the European Central bank, the IMF, the European Commission), the Greek prime minister is hoping to hedge his losses by posing as the guardian of Greece’s future in the EU. “To initiate a conflict with Europe would be disastrous for Greece,” he insists, without ever assessing the results of the incumbent team’s policies. Never mind that they are disastrous from a social point of view, with an unemployment rate that stands at 27% (and peaks at 50% among young people), and are also significantly heavier on the lower classes. The social distress has worsened into a real humanitarian crisis, where an increasing proportion of the population are unable to meet their elementary needs in terms of food, health, and housing. Those that have newly fallen below the poverty line depend on the solidarity of their families and on volunteer social networks for keeping barely afloat.

Public services sold off to multinationals.

The austerity policies have spread their poison in the country’s economy. 90,000 small and medium-sized companies have been driven out of business between 2008 and 2011. The country’s frail productive foundation has gone bust, while public companies ahave been sold off to multinationals, pension funds and the Greek financial top-brass. To Yannis Eustathopoulos, an economist who works for the General Labour Confederation’s Labour Institute, the policies that have been implemented over the last five years “have contributed to a new model of economic growth based on the degradation of labour, of social rights, of the environment, and of territorial cohesion,” without these mutations however resulting in an alleviation of the public debt. It now stands at 175% of the GDP, against 113% in 2009 before the crisis. As to the 226,7 billion euro in aid granted by the Troïka since 2010 – in exchange for a stringent structural adjustment program – they have on the whole directly or indirectly benefited the financial sector.

In view of this poor track record, the statement of Wolfgang Schaüble, German Finance Minister, exhorting the Greek people to keep to the track of austerity and “accept the Troika’s control”, is ill received. Indeed it gives momentum to the campaign of Alexis Tsipras, who maintains that the only solution lies in “the cancellation of the greater part” of the debt since it is “unsustainable” and in its “restructuring” with a growth tag attached to it. Whereas the Right, which finds renegotiation unrealistic, waves the specter of “Grexit”, Syriza’s leader declares himself ready for a show of strength, even if the tactics were to lead Greece to exit from the euro zone if needs be. “Where would the line be drawn? How many suicides, how many school and hospital closures would we accept to take? Would 150 euro be the tolerable minimum for wages, and 100 euro for pensions? And how many million unemployed people and poor people? If you ask us the question, we will give you a clear answer: the euro must be compatible with dignity, justice, and solidarity,” Tsipras declared yesterday in his address to the Greek diaspora.

If Tsipras should not win the absolute majority, however, he would have to seek an agreement with other political forces. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) has so far been opposed to the principle of collaborating with Syriza. But this week it made a short step in the direction of a conditional support, no doubt to reassure its electors who might opt for a Syriza vote. “Of course, if circumstances permit and if the government proposes a law to stop the regression, we shall support it,” Dimitris Koutsoubas, the party’s secretary promises. But he stakes a clear limit: “If the Communist party openly supports this kind of government, it will lose the trust the people have placed in us; this would just alienate the people’s feelings - as has been the case with other communist parties that have supported governments.”

Pasok’s social democrats at a loss to reposition themselves

Practically wiped out by their support of the memorandums that laid down the austerity measures and by the impopularity of the incumbent coalition, Pasok’s social democrats seek to reposition themselves. Evangelos Venizelos, the vice prime minister and Foreign secretary says he is ready to support “ a national unity government” that included “supporters of the country’s European future”. A similar move towards Syriza was made by Stavros Théodorakis, a former famous TV figure that opted for politics and founded To Potami (the river) – a party that advocates “social policies” and a strict negotiation of the public debt”. Tsipras himself promises to set up a government for all Greeks if his party comes first in the polls - without the supporters of the memorandum. [1]


1. The "memorandum" is the document issued by the European Commission, setting forth their demands for crippling austerity policies put into place in 2011. The "memorandum" quickly became the focus for the popular discontent that arose in May 2010. The European Commission describes the memorandum in different terms.

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 11:14:27 -0500
Effort to Make the "Right to Vote" a True Constitutional Right

Vote signs(Image: Keith Ivey, justgrimes, debaird™, Erik (HASH) Hersman; Edited: JR / TO)

In an effort to undo the work being done in numerous states and counties to disenfranchise groups of voters, two progressive House members are aiming to make a promise that is implicit in the Constitution explicit – by calling on Congress to pass a “right to vote” constitutional amendment.

Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) unveiled their amendment at a press conference. “We need to have an affirmative right to vote… a minimum voting standard,” Pocan said, and that’s what this amendment is offering.

“The Pocan-Ellison Right to Vote Amendment would amend the Constitution to provide all Americans the affirmative right to vote and empower Congress to protect this right,” according to a statement on Pocan’s website.

The right to vote is not directly enshrined in the Constitution. The 14th and 15th constitutional amendments dictate that voting cannot be denied based on race, the 19th Amendment based on gender, and the 24th Amendment prohibits poll taxes. Each of these amendments has extended the right to vote; however, because the U.S. does not have a national voting process, states and localities currently make their own voting laws.

There are federal statutes that uphold the right to vote, most notably the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, in June 2013 the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. This section offered guidelines to states that have a history of undermining people’s right to vote, primarily based on race, and required these states to clear changes in their voting rules with the Justice Department. Since this provision was removed, conservative legislatures have successfully passed a series of voting changes, such as voter-ID laws and limits on absentee and non-Election-Day balloting.

Pocan said the disenfranchisement tactics that have been used in the past few years are “making it harder and harder for people to vote.”

Here is the text of the amendment:

SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.

SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.

Ellison, in discussing the likelihood that this amendment would pass, pointed to other constitutional amendments that required time and effort of both politicians and activists “Americans just wouldn’t stop pushing for more rights for more people,” he said. “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Civil rights veteran Rev. Jesse Jackson also attended and discussed the work he’s been doing at the city level to garner local government support for the Amendment. Due to his advocacy, local counties are passing Right to Vote resolutions.

Julie Fernandez, Senior Policy Analyst for the Open Society Foundation, discussed the need for laws regarding voter’s rights to have higher standards of scrutiny. If this amendment passes, strict legal scrutiny will be applied to any attempt to disenfranchise voters. “Voting should be the place where we’re all equal,” she said.

Voting should be how any American can be involved and have a say in the laws that govern them. If this Amendment passes, it will give Americans the constitutional right many assume they already have, and will stop the Republican assault on voting rights. If you believe that everyone should have the right to vote, consider researching further and getting involved. Local governments, campuses, and organizations are all signing resolutions and are interested in your participation. FairVote has also initiated a Pledge to Stand With Voters. Click here to learn more and sign.

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 10:26:07 -0500
Why Campaign Finance Reform Is the First Issue That We Must Address

Capitol Building - SOLD(Photo: takomabibelot/Flickr)

President Obama punctuated his State of the Union with a repeated refrain: “Surely we can agree.” With that mantra, he reminded us of our basic, universally shared values, foremost among them the inherent worth of every American life and the importance of giving all citizens a chance to succeed.

When the president enumerated what these values mean in practice - calling for child care, sick leave, equal pay, lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage - it was safe to assume the American public was nodding along. Indeed, a new poll released today by the Make It Work campaign, an advocacy group, finds that the vast majority of likely 2016 voters strongly support reforms like the ones Obama outlined.

“These ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families,” Obama said. “That is a fact. And that’s what all of us - Republicans and Democrats alike - were sent here to do.”

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

But while ordinary citizens overwhelmingly want tax breaks for the middle class, better wages and mandatory sick leave, many politicians are not interested in passing these reforms - because the super-wealthy individuals and powerful special interests funding our elections do not. This explains why Senate Republicans blocked the Fair Minimum Wage Act last year and have defeated the Paycheck Fairness Act four times since 2013.

The sad truth is this: Politicians of all stripes are beholden to their donors, not the American public. And as long as special interest groups and extremely wealthy individuals continue to bankroll campaigns, they’ll be the only ones getting what they want.

Nonetheless, some continue to fight for change. Today, exactly five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave outside interest groups unlimited ability to fund-raise and influence elections, legislators reintroduced a “Defending Democracy” package of campaign finance reforms.

These bills and amendments are “about restoring confidence in our democracy and ending this unfettered spending by anonymous donors that overwhelms the rights of individual Americans to be heard,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) in a press release.

The package, which has the support of at least 29 reform groups, includes the following proposed bills:

The Empowering Citizens Act reforms the presidential public financing system, creates a congressional public financing system, shuts down individual-candidate super PACs and prohibits coordination between candidates and outside spending groups. Sponsors: Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

The DISCLOSE Act closes dark-money loopholes by requiring groups that spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures to file disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission. Sponsors: Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The Democracy for All Amendment provides Congress and individual states with the authority to regulate campaign finance and distinguish between people and artificial entities. Key sponsors: Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

The Real-Time Transparency Act requires all political committees to disclose contributions of $1,000 or more. Sponsors: Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).

The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act requires nonprofit organizations making campaign expenditures to disclose donors of $5,000 or more. Sponsor: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

The Shareholder Protection Act requires corporations to disclose election-related spending to shareholders and the public, even if the money goes indirectly through a third party. Sponsors: Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Capuano (D-MA).

Five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision we’ve witnessed the most expensive elections ever, the rise of dark money and more than $1 billion in unlimited contributions into federal elections through super PACs.

To be sure, this reintroduced package of legislative remedies stands an infinitesimal chance of passage in the new GOP-led Congress. But there is value in keeping these common-sense reforms on the front burner, to reinforce where both parties stand on the most vital issue of our time for our democracy. Surely we can agree that our country should no longer be bought and sold by America’s moneyed interests at the expense of everyone else.

Opinion Sun, 25 Jan 2015 10:15:30 -0500
Humanity's Future: Below Replacement Fertility?

United Nations, January 15, 2015 - Is below replacement level fertility the future for humanity? The answer to this seemingly simple question regarding human reproduction is not only of considerable demographic concern, but also has enormous social, economic and environmental consequences for the planet.

Aside from a global mortality catastrophe, the future size of the world’s population is determined basically by the number of children women bear. If the average number of births per woman remains more than about two, world population continues to increase.

However, if women on average have less than two births, then world population eventually decreases. A fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman under low mortality conditions is the replacement level, which over time results in population stabilisation.

Throughout most of human history women bore many children. In addition to offsetting high rates of infant and child mortality, a large number of children provided valuable assistance, needed labour and personal meaning to rural households as well as old-age support to parents.

At the beginning of the 20th century average global fertility was still about six births per woman. By 1950 world fertility had declined slightly to five births per woman, with less than a handful of countries having rates below the replacement level (Figure 1).

2015 0125fert (Source: United Nations Population Division)

At that time, most of the largest countries, such as Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey, had rates of six or more births per woman. In addition, 29 countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Rwanda, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, had average fertility rates of seven or more births per woman.

As a result of the high fertility rates and comparatively low death rates, world population grew very rapidly during the 20th century, especially in the second half. World population nearly quadrupled during the past century, an unprecedented demographic phenomenon, increasing from 1.6 to 6.1 billion.

Also during the past 50 years, historic declines in fertility rates occurred, resulting in a halving of the world’s average rate to 2.5 births per woman. Those remarkable fertility declines are unequivocal and widespread, with lower rates in virtually every country.

In 1950, 101 countries, or 44 percent of world population, had a fertility rate of six or more births per woman. Today 12 countries – with all but two in sub-Saharan Africa, representing five percent of world population – have a fertility rate of six or more births per woman.

In addition, the transition from high fertility to below replacement levels took place in all European countries as well as in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States. The transition to below replacement fertility also occurred across a broad and diverse range of developing countries, including Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Iran, Lebanon, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Tunisia and Vietnam. In sum, 75 countries, or close to half of the world’s population, are experiencing fertility rates below the replacement level (Figure 1).

With regard to future fertility levels, two key questions stand out. First, will countries with below replacement fertility remain at those levels? And second, in the coming decades will the remaining 126 countries also end up with below replacement fertility?

While future fertility rebounds cannot be ruled out, the general pattern over the last five decades has been unmistakable: once fertility falls below the replacement level, it tends to stay there. That trend has especially been the case for the many countries where fertility has fallen below 1.6 births per woman, such as Canada, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Some countries consider sustained below replacement fertility as a threat to their economies and societies and have attempted to return to at least the replacement level through various pro-natalist policies, programmes and incentives, including reduced taxes, subsidised care for children and bonuses. However, such government attempts have by and large not achieved their objectives.

The forces that brought about declines in fertility to historic lows are widely recognised and include lower mortality rates, increased urbanisation, widespread education, improvements in the status of women, availability of modern contraceptives and delayed marriage and childbearing.

Other important factors include the costs of childrearing, employment and economic independence of women, divorce and separation, the decline of marriage, co-habitation, childless lifestyles and the need to save for longer years of retirement and elder care. Those forces and factors are likely to continue and become increasingly widespread globally.

According to United Nations medium-variant population projections, by mid-century the number of countries with below replacement fertility is expected to nearly double, reaching 139 countries (Figure 1). Together those countries will account for 75 percent of the world’s population at that time.

Some of the populous countries expected to fall below the replacement fertility level by 2050 include Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. Looking further into the future, below replacement fertility is expected in 184 countries by the end of the century, with the global fertility rate falling below two births per woman (Figure 1).

It is certainly difficult to imagine rapid transitions to low fertility in today’s high-fertility countries, such as Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, where average rates are more than six births per woman. However, rapid transitions from high to low fertility levels have happened in diverse social, economic and political settings.

With social and economic development, including those forces favouring low fertility, and the changing lifestyles of women and men, the transition to below replacement fertility in nearly all the remaining countries with high birth rates may well occur in the coming decades of the 21st century.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 09:42:32 -0500
The Next Big Progressive Battle: A Living Wage

Part of a global protest held on May 15, 2014 against exploitative labor practices.Part of a global protest held on May 15, 2014 against exploitative labor practices. (Photo: Bob Simpson/Flickr)

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On New Year’s Day, 20 states raised their minimum wages. That leaves a lot of states that aren’t increasing the minimum wage - along with the federal government.

Even some of those employees who are getting increases don’t have much to celebrate. Workers in Florida might barely notice their 12-cents-an-hour raise. And the extra 15 cents an hour in Montana, Arizona, and Missouri will be wiped out with inflation and climbing costs before the first paycheck is deposited.

U.S. legislators have refused since 2009 to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour - not even close to enough for full-time workers to make ends meet.

To put it bluntly, minimum wage is a poverty wage. Yet only 29 states have minimum wage rates higher than the federal rate - and some just barely.

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Although Congress turned a deaf ear, activists took up the challenge. “Fight for $15” movements across the country won among the most powerful progressive victories of 2014.

Cheers to cities like Seattle and San Francisco with minimum wage plans that will increase rates to $15 an hour in the next few years. Huge congratulations to voters in Oakland, California, as well in Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, and others who voted for significant minimum wage increases.

But the truth is, while it’s a great start, none of these increases goes far enough, or lifts workers out of poverty fast enough. What’s needed is a living wage that allows full-time workers to cover their basic needs and have a little savings left over in case of an emergency.

The Job Gap Economic Prosperity series - a collection of research reports by the Alliance for a Just Society - shows that a living wage comes to over $15 an hour for a single adult in most states studied. A parent supporting a child needs to earn closer to $22 or $23 an hour.

Women and people of color are least likely to earn a living wage, with half or more working full-time and not making enough to make ends meet.

Poverty-level pay is taken for granted at restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, and major retailers like Wal-Mart, that would rather invest in government lobbyists to keep wages low than in their employees.

“If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” Obama implored Congress in his latest State of the Union address. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

The sub-minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for 24 long years. Imagine going to work every day, hoping beyond hope that the tips will make up for the tiny hourly wage. No worker should be a second-class employee.

Refusing to pay employees a wage they can live on isn’t a business plan. Paying employees enough so they can shop or dine at your business or neighboring businesses and grow the local economy - now that’s smart.

A full-time job should lead to financial stability, not poverty. We must continue to push Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and abolish the separate tipped minimum wage.

In the meantime, keep up the “Fight for $15.” We know that we can motivate our mayors, city councils, and state legislators by speaking out, sharing our stories, and presenting the facts. Most importantly, we have to vote.

Let’s make 2015 the year for $15 - and really have something to celebrate next New Year.

Opinion Sun, 25 Jan 2015 09:31:47 -0500
Eighty People Control Half of the World's Wealth and All of the Elected Officials

Today, the bulk of the wealth is in the hands of just 80 people. Global poverty has continued to rise and it’s only going to get worse. Oxfam has predicted that if we do nothing, the wealthiest one percent of the world will control the same amount of wealth as the other 99 percent do combined.

World Economic Forum(Photo: World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell; Edited: JR / TO)

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The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting began in Davos, Switzerland.  The meeting convenes “global leaders from across business, government, international organizations, academia and civil society for strategic dialogues which map the key transformations reshaping the world.”  The hope is that the dialogue will lead to action on the part of the participating nations to improve conditions in their own communities, with an understanding that we are all globally connected.  The idea is that the actions in one community can affect another anywhere in the world.

The current state of global economic inequality shows just how tenuous that connection is.

In what has now become tradition, Oxfam International, a confederation of organizations dedicated to fighting poverty, issued a report on the current state of economic inequality. Last year’s report sent shockwaves through the world by announcing that just 85 people controlled the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3 billion people combined.  That was even more dramatic than 2010 when it took 388 people to control that much wealth.

Today, the bulk of the wealth is in the hands of just 80 people.

The reasons for the dramatic change are much as they have always been. The global recession had disproportionate negative effects on those in the middle and bottom of the economic scale. As most of the population slid down the scale, the recovery went quickly upwards. While the majority of the population relied on income, which decreased or disappeared, the rich had assets. Those assets grew in value just as the returns on investments began to bounce back. The rich got richer simply because with assets, it’s difficult to not remain wealthy.

Oxfam releases the report every year just as global leaders gather in Davos because the key to reversing the trend lies in the hands of government. The problem requires a coordinated global effort to tackle inequality, such as punishing tax dodging by corporations and wealthy individuals. Other initiatives include: Universal public services (i.e. health and education), shifting the burden of taxation from labor and consumption to capital and wealth, living wages, equal pay, and adequate safety nets that include a minimum income.

Interestingly, many of these policies have been promoted – and rejected – here in America.

Thirty-five of the 80 individuals controlling wealth hold American passports. Many of the names are familiar, such as Bill Gates, the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame, George Soros, Warren Buffett, both Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. It is also no surprise that many of these names are often seen on the same donor lists of politicians across the nation, Congress and our recent presidents. The Oxfam report notes than nearly 12 percent of political contributions come from the list of 80 billionaires.

In the first few weeks of the 114th Congress, legislation was introduced to roll back regulations on Wall Street, as well as consumer protection laws that have been in place. While voters have repeatedly said they want improved education, universal healthcare and a real chance at the American dream, our elected officials seem to not hear the public’s demands. These same elected officials are dependent on the money from the wealthiest, but are also responsible for creating policies that would reverse the flow of that wealth towards a more equitable distribution.

What we have here is not a failure to communicate but a clear and dangerous conflict of interest.

The inability to invest in assets, such as houses, savings, or highly expensive art has left the majority of the world with little to show for their hard work.  Global poverty has continued to rise and it’s only going to get worse. Oxfam has predicted that if we do nothing, the wealthiest one percent of the world will control the same amount of wealth as the other 99 percent do combined.

The estimated time of arrival for this global wealth distribution is next year.

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 09:24:03 -0500
US Army Special Forces Officially Recruit for "Mission for God"

(Image Copyright 2015, Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)(Image Copyright 2015, Military Religious Freedom Foundation.) "That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time."

(2nd paragraph, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, composed by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, enacted into Virginia law on January 16, 1786)

"Get this U.S. Army and get it well: The United States armed forces may surely fight and kill "for Country" and our legitimate national security interests. But our troops do NOT fight and kill for ANYONE'S "God" or related supernatural deity. In the preparation of this Op Ed, I exposed a number of senior active duty U.S. military leaders to the photo of this poster, including several active duty chaplains. To a man and woman, they were collectively ALL aghast that it was actually real and being used to lure young Americans into the Army's special forces."

C'mon, seriously? That freaking picture just says it ALL.

What an abysmal affront to "National Religious Freedom Day" which is to be celebrated tomorrow, January 16, 2015.

Having headed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) for nearly a decade, we've been exposed to all sorts of unholy, unconstitutional cocktails inextricably mixing the intoxicating aroma of fundamentalist religion (almost always a wretched thing called "Dominion Christianity") with the dense and deep-pocketed foundations of the State. However, even WE at MRFF were hardly prepared for the stunning, unconstitutional disgrace we confirmed from client reports as recently as yesterday.

There it was; an in-your-face, proselytizing, U.S. Army officially-approved ( recruiting poster on prominent display at an Armed Forces Career Center in Phoenix, Arizona. That outrageously ghastly graphic encapsulates precisely that which we've been ceaselessly calling the attention of the American people to for all this time. The poster astoundingly displays the shoulder tabs of the U.S. Special Forces (i.e. Green Berets), Rangers and Airborne troopers accompanied by the seethingly sectarian slogan "ON A MISSION FOR BOTH GOD AND COUNTRY."

(Wait a damn minute. Phoenix? Arizona? Army Special Forces? "Mission For......God"? My first thoughts were of Pat Tillman.)

Excuse me? "GOD and country?" Ahem, well, just WHOSE "god" might that be, U.S. Army?

Let me fairly go out on a limb here and gamble that it is neither the god of Islam nor the god(s) of Hinduism? No way it's Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto, Native American Spiritualist or The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I believe it's a very safe bet to presume that the Army is pretending to refer to the "Judeo-Christian" god, and by THAT worn out and duplicitously deceptive label, of course, I really mean what the Army REALLY means; only the "Christian" god, Jesus. Unfortunately, as the experts will tell you, there are literally multiple tens of thousands of distinctly separate denominations of Christianity in existence. So, once again, the question is begged as to exactly WHICH "God" the U.S. Army Special Forces are boldly, publicly and eagerly recruiting for?

The military chaplaincy's motto is "Pro Deo et Patria" (Latin, meaning "For God and Country") but, hey, that's for noncombatant chaplains. THIS revolting Army recruiting poster is VERY specifically designed for the elite Special Forces universe of Green Berets, Rangers, Delta Force, Airborne etc. These recruiting targets populate the far, far end of the Army universe, indeed light years away, from the recruitment of non-weapons carrying chaplains.

It has consistently been MRFF's experience through the many years that there is always a greater population of Constitution-breaching, fundamentalist/Dominionist Christians in the special forces of the DoD; Navy SEALs, Air Force PJs, USMC Force Recon and the Army's designated recruiting targets of this very poster. (Remember the international controversy about those VERY same words being spoken by the Navy SEAL who shot Bin Laden in conjunction with "Geronimo, Geronimo"?)

Even the Pope himself has decried on multiple occasions the reprehensible, medieval idea that one can kill in God's name – even going so far as to say that the concept, "simply, is blasphemy". Yet here we have the most lethal killing machine devised in the history of humankind proudly extolling the virtue of what can only be described as "Holy Wars."

This unconstitutional catastrophe comes at a time, no less, when world leaders as diverse as Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu are marching together, arm in arm, in Paris and uniting behind the values of secular respect, religious tolerance, freedom of the press and all related basic civil rights. However, this incomprehensibly STUPID, and brazenly sectarian poster of American religious dominance at Marine Corps Recruiting Substation Paradise Valley universally destroys any credibility that the United States government is wholly devoted to these very basic democratic and human values.

Get this U.S. Army and get it well: The United States armed forces may surely fight and kill "for Country" and our legitimate national security interests. But our troops do NOT fight and kill for ANYONE'S "God" or related supernatural deity. In the preparation of this Op Ed, I exposed a number of senior active duty U.S. military leaders to the photo of this poster, including several active duty chaplains. To a man and woman, they were collectively ALL aghast that it was actually real and being used to lure young Americans into the Army's special forces.

In fact, this Poster of Shame lends incredible and irrefutable credence to what MRFF has been insisting from our very inception, which is that there exists a brutal, sectarian, Christian fundamentalist reign exercised within the United States Armed Forces, constituting a de facto Dominionist fifth column. In fact, it's often so brazen that it's not even very "fifth columny" anymore. Facts have borne out this assertion, in absolute spades. For example, we've seen the distribution of millenarian Left Behind video games to active-duty troops serving in Iraq. We've heard the anguished cries of servicemembers forced to attend hokey "Christian Rock" concerts on pain of "lockdown" and other forms of military retribution. We've seen the so-called "Jesus Rifles" which MRFF blew the whistle on, where Trijicon riflescopes were inscribed with specific New Testament Bible references engraved into the metal casings on nearly a million high-powered rifle sights. Oh, and if "Jesus Rifles" isn't enough of a bafflingly bizarre and contemptible example, there was the "Jesus Loves Nukes" mandatory indoctrination course that was used to train USAF nuclear missile launch officers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Time and time again, we've been forced to go toe-to-toe with the United States Air Force Academy administration over its practically countless, savage offenses against the United States Constitution. Likewise, a recurring battle of ours has been one waged against the persistent usage of "Crusader" symbolism, evoking the brutal Western Christian colonization and merciless subjugation of Muslim nations during the Middle Ages. Our foundation submitted a very comprehensive accompanying document when I testified before the House Armed Services Committee in the United States Congress this past November. Our MRFF testimony unequivocally shows that all of the unconstitutional wickedness above is just a mere taste, indeed only the nuanced tip of a very large and exceedingly precarious iceberg of colossal, national security dangers.

Does our aggressive fight against fundamentalist Christian extremism, triumphalism and supremacy in our nation's armed forces, as so vividly displayed in this official Army recruiting poster, infuriate those who promote such bloody rancor and discord? Always and of course. Comes with the territory. You can decide whether it's worth it because we at MRFF already have decided that it most assuredly IS.

Yet here we find ourselves, ignominiously once again, faced with a disgracefully sectarian message of religious exceptionalism bearing the official U.S. Army stamp of approval. This painfully pathetic poster will no doubt serve, generally, as a red flag of limitless propaganda and, more specifically, as a recruiting bonanza of unbridled proportions for precisely those villains whom the world has united against in Paris, i.e. the Salafi-Jihadists such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic State, and myriad other backwards fundamentalists. As if immeasurably emboldening our Islamic enemies wasn't bad enough, this deplorable poster will enrage our Islamic allies and eviscerate our own service members' unit cohesion, good order, morale, discipline and military readiness.

Long story short, the poster at the Phoenix armed forces recruitment hub is an absolutely abominable slap in the face of everyone who's ever taken the time to digest, understand, and swear the servicemembers' sacred oath to protect and defend the United States Constitution, let alone those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the values, rights, and protections contained therein.

And speaking of "ultimate sacrifice," I wonder what Pat Tillman would have said about that stinking poster of unconstitutional malfeasance in his beloved city and state of Phoenix, Arizona? Somehow, I don't think he'd agree that he was on a "Mission For God" when he courageously gave his life for his country in combat as a proud member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, what might another Arizonan do about this; Senator John McCain, the brand new Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? Don't hold your breath for him to lift a finger of even tepid protest against this recruiting poster. If anything, he'd likely applaud.

The world trembles in shock over the horrific crimes of murderous, fundamentalist, Islamic religiosity in one part of the globe. What of our own House here in America? Here in the States, we should spare no effort to aggressively investigate and ferociously uproot the vast legions of fundamentalist (Dominionist), Christian extremists who seek to smother our OWN secular, constitutional, American republic in the blood-drenched, theocratic "Crusader" memes of a once dark and distant era.

Sadly today, given our enormous arsenal of WMDs, even darker. And not so "distant" anymore.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:44:12 -0500
Fighting Extremism With Schools, Not Guns

Karachi - As a wave of outrage, crossing Pakistan's national borders, continues a month after the Dec. 16 attack on a school in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, some citizens are turning away from collective expressions of anger, and beginning the hard work of building grassroots alternatives to terrorism and militancy.

While many millions of people are lashing out at the Taliban for going on a bloody rampage in a school in the province's capital, Peshawar, killing 141 people including 132 uniformed children in what is being billed as the group's single deadliest attack to date, The Citizens Foundation (TFC), a local non-profit, has reacted quite differently.

Rather than join the chorus calling for stiff penalties for the attackers, it busied itself with a pledge to build 141 Schools for Peace, one in the name of each person who lost their life on that terrible day.

"We dedicate this effort to the children of Pakistan, their right to education and their dreams of a peaceful future," Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of TCF, said in an email launching the campaign.

"With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani," he added.

In their war against western, secular education, which the group has denounced as "un-Islamic", the Pakistan Taliban have destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012, claimed responsibility for the near-fatal shooting of teenaged education advocate Malala Yousafzai and issued numerous edicts against the right of women and girls to receive proper schooling.

In their latest assault on education, nine militants went on an eight-hour-long killing spree, throwing hand grenades into the teeming school premises and firing indiscriminately at any moving target. They claim the attack was a response to the military operation aimed at rooting out the Taliban currently underway in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

While armed groups and government forces answer violence with more of the same, the active citizens who comprise TCF want to shift focus away from bloodshed and onto longer-term solutions for the future of this deeply troubled country.

The charity, which began in 1995, has completed 1,000 school 'units', typically a primary or secondary institution capable of accommodating up to 180 pupils, all built from scratch in the most impoverished areas of some 100 towns and cities across Pakistan.

The 7,700 teachers employed by the NGO go through a rigorous training programme before placement, and the organisation maintains a strict 50:50 male-female ratio for the 145,000 students who are now benefitting from a free education, according to TCF Vice President Zia Akhter Abbas.

In a country where 25.02 million school-aged children – of which 13.7 million (55 percent) are girls – do not receive any form of education, experts say TCF's initiative may well act as a game changer in the years to come, especially given that the government spends just 2.1 percent of its GDP on education.

"Our job is to ensure that wherever we have our schools, there are no out-of-school children, especially girls," Abbas told IPS. "We believe the change in society will come automatically once these educated and enlightened children grow up into responsible adults."

He added that the schools are designed to "serve as a beacon of light restricting the advance of extremism in our society."

The project has received widespread support from a broad spectrum of Pakistani society. Twenty-four-year-old Usman Riaz, a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston who recently donated the proceeds of his jam-packed concerts in Karachi to TCF's efforts, says the Schools for Peace are a "wonderful way to honor the innocent victims".

But it will take more than one-off charitable donations to make the scheme a reality. It costs about 15 million rupees (148,000 dollars) to build and equip each new school, so the total bill for all 141 institutions stands at some 21 million dollars.

With a track record of building 40-50 schools a year, however, the NGO is confident that it will honor its pledge within three years.

Combating extremism

Besides immortalizing the victims of the Taliban's attack, experts here say that shifting the focus away from terrorism and onto education will help combat a growing pulse of religious extremism.

The prominent Pakistani educationist and rights activist A.H. Nayyar told IPS that it is crucial for the country to begin educating children who would otherwise be turned into "fodder for extremists".

In fact, part of the government's 20-point National Action Plan – agreed upon by all political parties dedicated to completely eradicating terrorism – includes plans to register and regulate all seminaries, known here as madrassas, in a bid to combat extremism at its root.

With thousands of such religious institutions springing up across the country to fill a void in the school systems, policy-makers are concerned about the indoctrination of children at a young age, with distorted interpretations of religious texts and the teaching of intolerance playing a major role in these schools.

Some sources say that between two and three million students are enrolled at the nearly 20,000 madrassas spread across Pakistan; others say this is a conservative estimate.

While there is some talk about bringing these institutions under the umbrella of the public school system, experts like Nayyar believe this will do little to combat the "forcible teaching of [...] false and distorted history, excessive emphasis on Islamic teachings to the extent of including them in textbooks of all the subjects, explicit teaching of jihad and militancy, hate material against other nations, peoples of other faiths, etc, [and] excessive glorification of the military and wars."

Nayyar and other independent scholars have been at the forefront of calling for an overhaul of the public school curriculum, which they believe is at odds with the goals of a modern, progressive nation.

But until policy-makers and politicians jump on the bandwagon, independent efforts like the work of TCF will lead the way.

News Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:22:16 -0500