Truthout Stories Mon, 22 Dec 2014 10:00:03 -0500 en-gb The War to Start All Wars: The 25th Anniversary of the Forgotten Invasion of Panama

As we end another year of endless war in Washington, it might be the perfect time to reflect on the War That Started All Wars - or at least the war that started all of Washington’s post-Cold War wars: the invasion of Panama. Twenty-five years ago this month, early on the morning of December 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause.

A U.S. Army M113 armored personnel carrier guards a street near the destroyed Panamanian Defense Force headquarters building during the second day of Operation Just Cause.A U.S. Army M113 armored personnel carrier guards a street near the destroyed Panamanian Defense Force headquarters building during the second day of Operation Just Cause. (Photo: PH1(SW) J. Elliott / DoD)

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As we end another year of endless war in Washington, it might be the perfect time to reflect on the War That Started All Wars -- or at least the war that started all of Washington’s post-Cold War wars: the invasion of Panama.

Twenty-five years ago this month, early on the morning of December 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause, sending tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft into Panama to execute a warrant of arrest against its leader, Manuel Noriega, on charges of drug trafficking. Those troops quickly secured all important strategic installations, including the main airport in Panama City, various military bases, and ports. Noriega went into hiding before surrendering on January 3rd and was then officially extradited to the United States to stand trial. Soon after, most of the U.S. invaders withdrew from the country.

In and out. Fast and simple. An entrance plan and an exit strategy all wrapped in one. And it worked, making Operation Just Cause one of the most successful military actions in U.S. history. At least in tactical terms.

There were casualties. More than 20 U.S. soldiers were killed and 300-500 Panamanian combatants died as well.  Disagreement exists over how many civilians perished. Washington claimed that few died.  In the “low hundreds,” the Pentagon’s Southern Command said.  But others charged that U.S. officials didn’t bother to count the dead in El Chorrillo, a poor Panama City barrio that U.S. planes indiscriminately bombed because it was thought to be a bastion of support for Noriega. Grassroots human-rights organizations claimed thousands of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced.

As Human Rights Watch wrote, even conservative estimates of civilian fatalities suggested “that the rule of proportionality and the duty to minimize harm to civilians… were not faithfully observed by the invading U.S. forces.” That may have been putting it mildly when it came to the indiscriminant bombing of a civilian population, but the point at least was made. Civilians were given no notice. The Cobra and Apache helicopters that came over the ridge didn’t bother to announce their pending arrival by blasting Wagner’s "Ride of the Valkyries" (as in Apocalypse Now). The University of Panama’s seismograph marked 442 major explosions in the first 12 hours of the invasion, about one major bomb blast every two minutes. Fires engulfed the mostly wooden homes, destroying about 4,000 residences. Some residents began to call El Chorrillo “Guernica” or “little Hiroshima.” Shortly after hostilities ended, bulldozers excavated mass graves and shoveled in the bodies. “Buried like dogs,” said the mother of one of the civilian dead.

Sandwiched between the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the commencement of the first Gulf War on January 17, 1991, Operation Just Cause might seem a curio from a nearly forgotten era, its anniversary hardly worth a mention. So many earth-shattering events have happened since. But the invasion of Panama should be remembered in a big way.  After all, it helps explain many of those events. In fact, you can’t begin to fully grasp the slippery slope of American militarism in the post-9/11 era -- how unilateral, preemptory “regime change” became an acceptable foreign policy option, how “democracy promotion” became a staple of defense strategy, and how war became a branded public spectacle -- without understanding Panama.

Our Man in Panama

Operation Just Cause was carried out unilaterally, sanctioned neither by the United Nations nor the Organization of American States (OAS).  In addition, the invasion was the first post-Cold War military operation justified in the name of democracy -- “militant democracy,” as George Will approvingly called what the Pentagon would unilaterally install in Panama.

The campaign to capture Noriega, however, didn’t start with such grand ambitions. For years, as Saddam Hussein had been Washington’s man in Iraq, so Noriega was a CIA asset and Washington ally in Panama.  He was a key player in the shadowy network of anti-communists, tyrants, and drug runners that made up what would become Iran-Contra. That, in case you’ve forgotten, was a conspiracy involving President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council to sell high-tech missiles to the Ayatollahs in Iran and then divert their payments to support anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua in order to destabilize the Sandinista government there. Noriega’s usefulness to Washington came to an end in 1986, after journalist Seymour Hersh published an investigation in the New York Times linking him to drug trafficking. It turned out that the Panamanian autocrat had been working both sides. He was “our man,” but apparently was also passing on intelligence about us to Cuba.

Still, when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated president in January 1989, Panama was not high on his foreign policy agenda. Referring to the process by which Noriega, in less than a year, would become America’s most wanted autocrat, Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft said: “I can’t really describe the course of events that led us this way... Noriega, was he running drugs and stuff? Sure, but so were a lot of other people. Was he thumbing his nose at the United States? Yeah, yeah.”

The Keystone Kops...

Domestic politics provided the tipping point to military action. For most of 1989, Bush administration officials had been half-heartedly calling for a coup against Noriega. Still, they were caught completely caught off guard when, in October, just such a coup started unfolding. The White House was, at that moment, remarkably in the dark. It had no clear intel about what was actually happening. ''All of us agreed at that point that we simply had very little to go on,'' Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney later reported. “There was a lot of confusion at the time because there was a lot of confusion in Panama.''

“We were sort of the Keystone Kops,” was the way Scowcroft remembered it, not knowing what to do or whom to support. When Noriega regained the upper hand, Bush came under intense criticism in Congress and the media. This, in turn, spurred him to act. Scowcroft recalls the momentum that led to the invasion: “Maybe we were looking for an opportunity to show that we were not as messed up as the Congress kept saying we were, or as timid as a number of people said.” The administration had to find a way to respond, as Scowcroft put it, to the “whole wimp factor.”

Momentum built for action, and so did the pressure to find a suitable justification for action after the fact. Shortly after the failed coup, Cheney claimed on PBS’s Newshour that the only objectives the U.S. had in Panama were to “safeguard American lives” and “protect American interests” by defending that crucial passageway from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, the Panama Canal. “We are not there,” he emphasized, “to remake the Panamanian government.” He also noted that the White House had no plans to act unilaterally against the wishes of the Organization of American States to extract Noriega from the country. The “hue and cry and the outrage that we would hear from one end of the hemisphere to the other,” he said, “…raises serious doubts about the course of that action.”

That was mid-October. What a difference two months would make. By December 20th, the campaign against Noriega had gone from accidental -- Keystone Kops bumbling in the dark -- to transformative: the Bush administration would end up remaking the Panamanian government and, in the process, international law.

...Start a Wild Fire

Cheney wasn’t wrong about the “hue and cry.” Everysingle country other than the United States in the Organization of American States voted against the invasion of Panama, but by then it couldn’t have mattered less. Bush acted anyway.

What changed everything was the fall of the Berlin Wall just over a month before the invasion. Paradoxically, as the Soviet Union’s influence in itsbackyard (eastern Europe) unraveled, it left Washington with more room to maneuver in its backyard (Latin America). The collapse of Soviet-style Communism also gave the White House an opportunity to go on the ideological and moral offense. And at that moment, the invasion of Panama happened to stand at the head of the line.

As with most military actions, the invaders had a number of justifications to offer, but at that moment the goal of installing a “democratic” regime in power suddenly flipped to the top of the list. In adopting that rationale for making war, Washington was in effect radically revising the terms of international diplomacy. At the heart of its argument was the idea that democracy (as defined by the Bush administration) trumped the principle of national sovereignty.

Latin American nations immediately recognized the threat. After all, according to historian John Coatsworth, the U.S. overthrew 41 governments in Latin America between 1898 and 1994, and many of those regime changes were ostensibly carried out, as Woodrow Wilson once put it in reference to Mexico, to teach Latin Americans “to elect good men.” Their resistance only gave Bush’s ambassador to the OAS, Luigi Einaudi, a chance to up the ethical ante. He quickly and explicitly tied the assault on Panama to the wave of democracy movements then sweeping Eastern Europe. “Today we are... living in historic times,” he lectured his fellow OAS delegates, two days after the invasion, “a time when a great principle is spreading across the world like wildfire. That principle, as we all know, is the revolutionary idea that people, not governments, are sovereign.”

Einaudi’s remarks hit on all the points that would become so familiar early in the next century in George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda”: the idea that democracy, as defined by Washington, was a universal value; that “history” represented a movement toward the fulfillment of that value; and that any nation or person who stood in the path of such fulfillment would be swept away.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Einaudi said, democracy had acquired the “force of historical necessity.” It went without saying that the United States, within a year the official victor in the Cold War and the “sole superpower” left on Planet Earth, would be the executor of that necessity.  Bush’s ambassador reminded his fellow delegates that the “great democratic tide which is now sweeping the globe” had actually started in Latin America, with human rights movements working to end abuses by military juntas and dictators.  The fact that Latin American’s freedom fighters had largely been fighting against U.S.-backed anti-communist rightwing death-squad states was lost on the ambassador.

In the case of Panama, “democracy” quickly worked its way up the shortlist of casus belli.

In his December 20th address to the nation announcing the invasion, President Bush gave “democracy” as his second reason for going to war, just behind safeguarding American lives but ahead of combatting drug trafficking or protecting the Panama Canal. By the next day, at a press conference, democracy had leapt to the top of the list and so the president began his opening remarks this way: “Our efforts to support the democratic processes in Panama and to ensure continued safety of American citizens is now moving into its second day.”

George Will, the conservative pundit, was quick to realize the significance of this new post-Cold War rationale for military action. In a syndicated column headlined, “Drugs and Canal Are Secondary: Restoring Democracy Was Reason Enough to Act,” he praised the invasion for “stressing… the restoration of democracy,” adding that, by doing so, “the president put himself squarely in a tradition with a distinguished pedigree. It holds that America’s fundamental national interest is to be America, and the nation’s identity (its sense of its self, its peculiar purposefulness) is inseparable from a commitment to the spread -- not the aggressive universalization, but the civilized advancement -- of the proposition to which we, unique among nations, are, as the greatest American said, dedicated.”

That was fast. From Keystone Kops to Thomas Paine in just two months, as the White House seized the moment to radically revise the terms by which the U.S. engaged the world. In so doing, it overthrew not just Manuel Noriega but what, for half a century, had been the bedrock foundation of the liberal multilateral order: the ideal of national sovereignty.

Darkness Unto Light

The way the invasion was reported represented a qualitative leap in scale, intensity, and visibility when compared to past military actions. Think of the illegal bombing of Cambodia ordered by Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in 1969 and conducted for more than five years in complete secrecy, or of the time lag between actual fighting in South Vietnam and the moment, often a day later, when it was reported.

In contrast, the war in Panama was covered with a you-are-there immediacy, a remarkable burst of shock-and-awe journalism (before the phrase “shock and awe” was even invented) meant to capture and keep the public’s attention. Operation Just Cause was “one of the shortest armed conflicts in American military history,” writes Brigadier General John Brown, a historian at the United States Army Center of Military History. It was also “extraordinarily complex, involving the deployment of thousands of personnel and equipment from distant military installations and striking almost two-dozen objectives within a 24-hour period of time… Just Cause represented a bold new era in American military force projection: speed, mass, and precision, coupled with immediate public visibility.”

Well, a certain kind of visibility at least. The devastation of El Chorrillo was, of course, ignored by the U.S. media.

In this sense, the invasion of Panama was the forgotten warm-up for the first Gulf War, which took place a little over a year later.  That assault was specifically designed for all the world to see. “Smart bombs” lit up the sky over Baghdad as the TV cameras rolled. Featured were new night-vision equipment, real-time satellite communications, and cable TV (as well as former U.S. commanders ready to narrate the war in the style of football announcers, right down to instant replays). All of this allowed for public consumption of a techno-display of apparent omnipotence that, at least for a short time, helped consolidate mass approval and was meant as both a lesson and a warning for the rest of the world. “By God,” Bush said in triumph, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

It was a heady form of triumphalism that would teach those in Washington exactly the wrong lessons about war and the world.

Justice Is Our Brand

In the mythology of American militarism that has taken hold since George W. Bush’s disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, his father, George H.W. Bush, is often held up as a paragon of prudence -- especially when compared to the later reckless lunacy of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. After all, their agenda held that it was the messianic duty of the United States to rid the world not just of “evil-doers” but “evil” itself.  In contrast, Bush Senior, we are told, recognized the limits of American power.  He was a realist and his circumscribed Gulf War was a “war of necessity” where his son’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic “war of choice.” But it was H.W. who first rolled out a “freedom agenda” to legitimize the illegal invasion of Panama.

Likewise, the moderation of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Colin Powell, has often been contrasted favorably with the rashness of the neocons in the post-9/11 years. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, however, Powell was hot for getting Noriega. In discussions leading up to the invasion, he advocated forcefully for military action, believing it offered an opportunity to try out what would later become known as “the Powell Doctrine.” Meant to ensure that there would never again be another Vietnam or any kind of American military defeat, that doctrine was to rely on a set of test questions for any potential operation involving ground troops that would limit military operations to defined objectives. Among them were: Is the action in response to a direct threat to national security? Do we have a clear goal? Is there an exit strategy?

It was Powell who first let the new style of American war go to his head and pushed for a more exalted name to brand the war with, one that undermined the very idea of those “limits” he was theoretically trying to establish. Following Pentagon practice, the operational plan to capture Noriega was to go by the meaningless name of “Blue Spoon.” That, Powell wrote in My American Journey, was “hardly a rousing call to arms… [So] we kicked around a number of ideas and finally settled on... Just Cause. Along with the inspirational ring, I liked something else about it. Even our severest critics would have to utter ‘Just Cause’ while denouncing us.”

Since the pursuit of justice is infinite, it’s hard to see what your exit strategy is once you claim it as your “cause.” Remember, George W. Bush’s original name for his Global War on Terror was to be the less-than-modest Operation Infinite Justice

Powell says he hesitated on the eve of the invasion, wondering if it really was the best course of action, but let out a “whoop and a holler” when he learned that Noriega had been found. A new Panamanian president had already been sworn in at Fort Clayton, a U.S. military base in the Canal Zone, hours beforethe invasion began.

Here’s the lesson Powell took from Panama: the invasion, he wrote, confirmed all his “convictions over the preceding twenty years, since the days of doubt over Vietnam. Have a clear political objective and stick to it. Use all the force necessary, and do not apologize for going in big if that is what it takes... As I write these words, almost six years after Just Cause, Mr. Noriega, convicted on the drug charges contained in the indictments, sits in an American prison cell. Panama has a new security force, and the country is still a democracy.”

That assessment was made in 1995. From a later vantage point, history’s judgment is not so sanguine. As George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering said about Operation Just Cause: “Having used force in Panama... there was a propensity in Washington to think that force could provide a result more rapidly, more effectively, more surgically than diplomacy.” The easy capture of Noriega meant "the notion that the international community had to be engaged... was ignored."

"Iraq in 2003 was all of that shortsightedness in spades,” Pickering said. “We were going to do it all ourselves." And we did.

The road to Baghdad, in other words, ran through Panama City.  It was George H.W. Bush’s invasion of that small, poor country 25 years ago that inaugurated the age of preemptive unilateralism, using “democracy” and “freedom” as both justifications for war and a branding opportunity. Later, after 9/11, when George W. insisted that the ideal of national sovereignty was a thing of the past, when he said nothing -- certainly not the opinion of the international community -- could stand in the way of the “great mission” of the United States to “extend the benefits of freedom across the globe,” all he was doing was throwing more fuel on the “wildfire” sparked by his father.  A wildfire some in Panama likened to a “little Hiroshima.”

Opinion Mon, 22 Dec 2014 09:59:13 -0500
The Trade Agreement Pinatas

In recent weeks many labor, environmental, and consumer groups have stepped up their criticisms of the Obama administration’s plans for pushing fast-track trade negotiating authority. The purpose of fast-track is to allow the administration to negotiate to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact and then hand both deals to Congress on a take it or leave it basis. Under the fast-track rules there would be no opportunity for amendments or delays.

Uncle Sam pinata(Image: Uncle Sam pinata via Shutterstock)Show your support for independent news and help Truthout survive. Click here to fund more stories like this one!

In recent weeks many labor, environmental, and consumer groups have stepped up their criticisms of the Obama administration’s plans for pushing fast-track trade negotiating authority. The purpose of fast-track is to allow the administration to negotiate to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) and then hand both deals to Congress on a take it or leave it basis.

Under the fast-track rules there would be no opportunity for amendments or delays. The deal must be voted up or down in a narrow time-frame. The idea is that with the bulk of the business community promising large campaign contributions to supporters and threatening to punish opponents, most members of Congress would find it difficult to vote no.

Furthermore, the elite media can be counted on to do its part. It will use both the news and opinion sections to denounce opponents of whatever deal is produced as Neanderthal protectionists. As Thomas Friedman once famously said in reference to his support of CAFTA, “I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.” Others in the media may be too sophisticated to express themselves so bluntly, but undoubtedly most share Friedman’s view. Under such circumstances, there will be few politicians prepared to stand up for principle or their constituents and vote against the pacts regardless of what it is in them.

Since many traditional Democratic constituencies strongly oppose these deals it is reasonable to ask why the Obama administration is so intent on pushing them. The answer is simple: money.

There is a well-known argument for free trade familiar to anyone who sat through an intro econ class. Free trade allows countries to specialize in the goods and services in which they are best at producing. They can then trade for other items. This makes the world richer.

While not everyone gains in the textbook story, the winners are supposed to gain enough that they compensate the losers and still be better off themselves. This could then mean that everyone is better off.

The real world trade story is considerably more complicated, in part because the winners never actually compensate the losers, but that is really aside the point here. In TPP and TTIP we are not talking about the textbook trade story. The actual trade barriers between the United States and the countries in these deals, with few exceptions, are already quite low. This means that there is little to be gained by lowering them still further.

TPP and TTIP are about getting special deals for businesses that they would have difficulty getting through the normal political process. For example, oil and gas companies that think they should be able to drill everywhere may be able to get rules that prevent national or state governments from restricting their activities. This could mean, for example, that New York State would have to compensate potential frackers for the ban that Governor Cuomo imposed last week.

Similarly, the financial industry will be looking to roll back the sort of regulations put in place through Dodd-Frank and similar legislation in other countries. Again, if governments want to ensure that their financial system is safe, they may have to pay the banks for the privilege.

The pharmaceutical industry and entertainment industries will get longer and stronger patent and copyright protection. And the food and pesticide industries will be able to able to limit the ability of governments to impose safety and environmental regulations.

Best of all, these trade deals will set up a new legal structure that goes outside existing system in the United States and elsewhere. All the businesses that didn’t think German or British courts could be trusted to give them a fair deal can turn to the investor-state dispute settlement tribunals established as part of these trade pacts. These tribunals will effectively make their own law. The trade deals allow no appeal back to U.S. courts or the courts of any other country that is included.

In short, these trade deals are a real bonanza for business. And it is a bonanza that the Obama administration is betting that they will be happy to pay for big time when it comes to the 2016 elections.

It takes lots of money to run a campaign. If the Democrats can show business that it can come through for it pushing massive trade deals like TPP and TTIP, then they expect that the businesses that benefit will reward them at campaign contribution time.

That’s the basic story behind these trade deals which would otherwise look like both bad politics and bad policy for the Democrats. President Obama and other party leaders are prepared to ignore whatever harm the deals will do to the country and the world, with the hope that they amply rewarded in campaign contributions.

Opinion Mon, 22 Dec 2014 09:33:06 -0500
Four Ways 2014 Was a Pivotal Year for the Internet

The death of the internet is at hand.

Sound familiar? That’s what Internet pioneer Robert Metcalfe predicted in 1995 when he wrote that spiraling demands on the fledgling network would cause the Internet to “catastrophically collapse” by 1996.

Metcalfe, of course, was dead wrong: The internet is still chugging along, with a predicted 3 billion users by year’s end.

Still, the internet’s fate feels distinctly uncertain as 2014 draws to a close. At stake is whether the internet remains a democratic, user-powered network — or falls under the control of a few powerful entities.

Here are the four internet issues that played leading roles this year:

1. Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is hard-wired into the internet as we know it. In a neutral network, users control their experience without their Internet service providers interfering, filtering, or censoring. This revolutionary principle is under attack from the phone and cable companies that control access in the United States.

In a court decision last January, Verizon successfully challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to protect net neutrality, setting in motion a year-long effort to restore the agency’s authority. More than 4 million Americans, including President Barack Obama, have contacted the FCC, with the overwhelming majority demanding real net neutrality protections.

Watch for a decision on the matter as early as January 2015. Momentum is now swinging in favor of keeping the internet open — thanks in large part to the forceful public response.

2. Consolidation

The internet is designed to function as a decentralized network — meaning that control over information doesn’t fall into the hands of a few gatekeepers, but instead rests with everyone who goes online.

This has enabled diverse voices to flourish. It’s amplified the concerns of protesters from Ferguson to Hong Kong, given underrepresented communities a platform, and allowed startup businesses to reach millions of new customers.

What’s missing is choice among internet-access providers: Too many communities can choose from only one or two. We need policies that will foster competition, which in turn would lower costs, improve services, and ensure that no single company gains too much control over content.

This year, Comcast and AT&T are attempting to consolidate their control over all-things-Internet. Comcast, the largest U.S. cable company, wants to gobble up the second largest, Time Warner Cable. If regulators approve the Comcast merger, the company would become the only traditional cable provider available to nearly two-thirds of Americans.

Meanwhile, AT&T wants to take over DIRECTV.

It’s up to the FCC and the Justice Department to block these mergers, which would create colossal, monopoly-minded behemoths. The government’s blessing of these deals would teleport us back to a time when just a few media moguls controlled most public discourse.

3. Online Privacy

In 2013, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposed mass spying programs that violate our civil liberties. This wholesale invasion of privacy has chilled free expression online.

There were signs of hope that 2014 would bring new legislation to rein in these government snooping powers. The USA Freedom Act, while imperfect, would have curtailed the NSA’s bulk collection of our phone records and required more oversight and transparency of its surveillance programs.

The Senate, however, voted not to consider the bill in November, leaving everyone at the mercy of an agency with a voracious appetite for data.

4. Community Networks

With big internet providers like Comcast gaining notoriety for dismal customer service, municipal broadband networks have gained traction everywhere from New York City to Monmouth, Oregon.

It’s easy to see why: The big providers often refuse to build networks in low-income or rural communities where potential customers can’t afford to pay their sky-high rates.

The rise of homegrown internet infrastructure has prompted industry lobbyists to introduce state-level legislation to smother such efforts. There are at least 20 such statutes on the books. But in June, the FCC stepped in with a plan to preempt these state laws, giving communities the support they need to affordably connect more people.

If you value free speech, keep an eye on these four issues as 2015 gets underway. To ensure an internet that’s open, fast, secure, and affordable, contact the FCC, call your members of Congress, and support efforts to build a network that works for everyone.

Opinion Sun, 21 Dec 2014 12:25:11 -0500
Why USAID Could Never Spark a Hip Hop Revolution in Cuba

Any attempt to engineer a US-affiliated movement from above is destined to be revealed for the farce that it is.

Between 2006 and 2007, I received numerous visits from two State Department officials at my home in Harlem, New York. I had just written a book on Cuban cultural production, with a large section on rap. I was never home when they came, so they left messages with my neighbors, telling them I should urgently contact them. When they finally found me at home one day, I agreed to meet with them at a nearby Starbucks. During the meeting, they wanted to know about my research on Cuban rap. One of the agents, a male, said that he enjoyed Cuban rap, he listened to it frequently and wanted to know what my favorite groups were. The other, a woman, pressed me for more details about my work in Cuba. I didn’t give out any information. I told them that anything I could say on the topic was already written in my book. After this meeting, the harassment continued. I finally sought out a human rights lawyer, Michael Smith. He informed me that it is never advisable to meet with an agent of the government alone, and that if an agent should try to make contact, one should have a lawyer write to the agent on one’s behalf. Smith then sent them a letter saying that I did not wish to speak to them anymore, and that if they had any questions, they could contact him directly. We didn’t hear from them again.

So last week, when the AP news story broke about USAID infiltrating Cuban rap groups between 2009 and 2010, I was not surprised. Infiltration is something that Cuban rappers have been wary of for some time. Navigating the legions of foreign journalists, producers, researchers, and artists has always been a challenge for Cuban rappers, especially during the heyday of the movement in the early 2000s, and there was sometimes a suspicion of people who didn’t enter the scene through someone known to the community. But in the latter half of the 2000s, when many rappers were emigrating and foreign contacts and state support were drying up, Cuban rappers were more vulnerable to the likes of outside actors like USAID, who sought to infiltrate the movement and manipulate it to its own ends.

But the USAID mission to “spark” a “pro-democracy” movement of Cuban rappers was bound to fail for many reasons. Cubans already had a movement. Over the last several decades, Cuban hip hoppers have built a multi-faceted movement that raises issues of racism within Cuban society, provides a channel of expression for Afro-Cuban youth, makes connections with activists and celebrated artists around the globe, and has had a long-lasting impact on Cuban cultural production. It was an organic movement built from the ground up, from the streets and the housing projects. Cuban rap is hope, and anger, and poetry, and no U.S. agency could create that.

The Cuban hip hop movement was not trying to overthrow the Castro government. Artists found ways to work within the system, while making their criticisms in veiled ways, or even openly at times. The “Hip Hop Revolución” that they talk about is one that is in dialogue with the historic Cuban revolution, and youth have been putting pressure on their leaders to live up to the promises of that revolution. Even the younger, more confrontational artists like Los Aldeanos, one of the groups that USAID tried to infiltrate, didn’t see themselves as trying to topple the government. That was never part of their agenda.

Pro-democracy means something completely different to Cuban rappers than it does to USAID. For Cuban rappers, democracy has been about a more full sense of participation and recognition within their society. It has been about being able to influence policy and express their ideas about racism, inequality, and the contradictions that free market policies have brought to an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucratic socialism. It has been about trying to rethink what revolution might mean for the next generation and how they could see that in practice. For USAID, democracy promotion means overthrowing the Cuban government and ushering in a free market regime friendly to the United States. Those two goals have never been and could never be compatible.

The documents secured by the AP reveal a frightening level of manipulation of Cuban rappers by USAID. Like with ZunZuneo, the failed Cuban twitter project also engineered by USAID, the actions of this agency put Cubans at risk of state repression and threatened a closure of the critical spaces that rappers had already built and defended. USAID realizes the power of culture to provide a powerful political voice for young people. What it doesn’t realize is that in a society shaped by successive generations of revolutionary projects, any attempt to engineer a U.S.-affiliated movement from above is destined to be revealed for the farce that it is.

News Sun, 21 Dec 2014 11:57:04 -0500
Truthout Interviews Michael Meurer on Torture Photos and Uruguay Thwarting Supply-Side Austerity Policies

Will Truthout’s mission continue in 2015 and beyond? That depends on you. Make a tax-deductible donation now to sustain our work!

Torture(Image: electron; Edited: JR/TO)Truthout contributor Michael Meurer talks about the release of 2,000 photographs of the US torture of prisoners and the ways in which Uruguay has drawn neoliberal wrath for thwarting supply-side economics and corporate governance.

With the release of the US Senate Select Committee report on the CIA's detention and interrogation program, Truthout contributor Michael Meurer puts the spotlight on the still unreleased photographs evidencing torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meurer, in his Truthout piece and in this interview, insists that the time is now to release these photos with the goal of getting as complete a picture of what the US government was thinking and doing during this period so we don't repeat these policies in the future.

In the second half of the interview, the discussion focuses on the country of Uruguay to highlight the ways in which the government is coming under economic attack by neoliberal (or supply-side) international bankers for deviating from austerity programs. Uruguay has also become a lightning rod for the global financial elite because the country is challenging the legitimacy of international trade tribunals that lie at the heart of the proposed TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade agreements. Meurer's Uruguay article also highlights the country's aggressive anti-smoking campaign and how Uruguay has to defend itself in a lawsuit brought by Philip Morris for the images and labels that are on packs of cigarettes. This lawsuit is not being heard in Uruguay's domestic court system. Rather, the country has to defend itself in Washington DC at an international trade tribunal funded by the World Bank – a legal change that augurs ill for state sovereignty in the future. In the 1990s, George H.W. Bush had a slogan for this kind of supply-side corporate governance. He called it "a new world order" and what's happening in Uruguay exemplifies the shape and form of that order and the disintegration of the social safety net in many countries affected by policies designed to protect global financial and corporate interests - not the human citizens of any state.

News Sun, 21 Dec 2014 11:48:13 -0500
The Unspeakable in Afghanistan

Marines exit a CH-53E Super Stallion as they are inserted into a training area in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 2, 2014.Marines exit a CH-53E Super Stallion as they are inserted into a training area in Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 2, 2014. (Photo: Sgt. Frances Johnson / US Marine Corps)

2014 marks the deadliest year in Afghanistan for civilians, fighters, and foreigners. The situation has reached a new low as the myth of the Afghan state continues. Thirteen years into America’s longest war, the international community argues that Afghanistan is growing stronger, despite nearly all indicators suggesting otherwise. Most recently, the central government failed (again) to conduct fair and organized elections or demonstrate their sovereignty. Instead, John Kerry flew into the country and arranged new national leadership. The cameras rolled and a unity government was declared.  Foreign leaders meeting in London decided on new aid packages and financing for the nascent ‘unity government.’ Within days, the United Nations helped broker a deal to keep foreign forces in the country, while simultaneously President Obama declared the war was ending—even as he increased the number of troops on the ground. In Afghanistan, President Ghani dissolved the cabinet and many people are speculating the 2015 parliamentary elections will be postponed.

The Taliban and other insurgent groups continue to gain traction and have pulled increasing parts of the country under their control. Throughout the provinces, and even in some of the major cities, the Taliban have begun collecting taxes and are working to secure key roadways. Kabul—a city that has been called the most fortified city on earth—has been on edge due to multiple suicide bombings. The attacks on various targets, ranging from high schools to houses for foreign workers, the military, and even the office of Kabul’s police chief have clearly communicated the ability of anti-government forces to strike at will. In response to the growing crisis, the Emergency Hospital in Kabul has been forced to stop treating non-trauma patients in order continue to treat the growing number of people harmed by guns, bombs, suicide explosions, and mines.

After four years of traveling to Afghanistan to conduct interviews, I have heard ordinary Afghans whisper about Afghanistan as a failing state, even as the media has touted growth, development, and democracy. Using dark humor to comment on current conditions Afghans joke that everything is working as it should; they acknowledge an unspeakable reality. They point out that more than 101,000 foreign forces trained to fight and use violence who have used their training well—by using violence; that arms merchants have ensured that all parties can continue fighting for years to come by supplying weapons to all sides; that foreign funders backing resistance groups and mercenaries can complete their missions—resulting in both increased violence and an absence of accountability; that the international NGO community implements programs and has profited from over $100 billion in aid; and that the majority of those investments ended up deposited  in foreign bank accounts, primarily benefiting  foreigners and a few elite Afghans. Further, many of the supposedly “impartial” international bodies, as well as some of the major NGOs, have aligned themselves with various fighting forces. Thus even basic humanitarian aid has become militarized and politicized. For the ordinary Afghan the reality is clear. Thirteen years of investing in militarization and liberalization has left the country in the hands of foreign powers, ineffective NGOs, and infighting between many of the same warlords and Taliban. The result is the current unstable, deteriorating situation rather than a sovereign state.

Yet, during my trips to Afghanistan, I have also heard another unspeakable whispered, in contrast to the narrative told by mainstream media. That is, that there is another possibility, that the old way has not worked, and it is time for change; that nonviolence may  resolve some of the challenges facing the country. In Kabul, the Border Free Center—a community center in which young people can explore their role in improving society,–is exploring the use of nonviolence to engage in serious attempts at peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. These young adults are engaging in demonstration projects to show how different ethnic groups can work and live together. They are creating alternative economies that do not rely on violence in order to provide livelihoods for all Afghans, especially vulnerable widows and children. They are educating street children and developing plans to decrease weapons in the country. They are working to preserve the environment and to create model organic farms to show how to heal the land. Their work is demonstrating the unspeakable in Afghanistan—that when people engage in the work of peace, real progress can be achieved.

Perhaps if the last 13 years had been less focused on foreign political motives and military aid and more focused on initiatives like the Border Free Center, the situation in Afghanistan might be different. If energies were focused on peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding, perhaps people could acknowledge the reality of the situation and create a true transformation of the Afghan state.

Opinion Sun, 21 Dec 2014 11:42:04 -0500
Take the Chains Off: The Struggle for Racial Justice Continues

Protesters in Seattle, December 6.Protesters in Seattle, December 6. (Photo: scottlum)

We jumped in front of traffic. Car headlights blinded us; we held up our hands and yelled, “I can’t breathe.” These were the last words of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old Black man who was strangled to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island. Running between cars, we slapped high-fives with drivers and held signs above our heads.

On December 3, thousands flooded the New York streets after news broke that Pantaleo had not been indicted after murdering Garner. It was the second time in 10 days that a grand jury refused to charge a white cop who killed an unarmed Black man. On November 24 officer Darren Wilson was cleared in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The two non-indictments, back to back, ignited our sadness into rage; again we saw deadly abuses of power go unpunished.

Even as I write this, somewhere in America a Black man or woman is being beaten or killed by the police. Most die invisibly. For a few, a rough video of their assault or death will surface and their faces will be framed in protest signs. Each new murder swells the movement that compels us to stage mass die-ins in transit hubs and malls, torch stores and block highways. The people are rising against the state, demanding justice it cannot give and the state cannot crush the protests without risking more rebellion.

A great collision is coming, driven by a question that has been asked repeatedly for nearly four centuries. It was asked by 19 Africans, enslaved in the English colony of Jamestown in 1619, and is being asked again by the protesters across the nation. Can Black life be valued in America?

Why Ferguson Matters

“Let me see your driver’s license,” the cop told me. I handed it over; he swiped it and then handcuffed me. In 2011, a warrant was issued for my arrest because I did not pay a fine for drinking beer in a park. 

I spent the night in jail. More men came in, sullen and hard-faced, arrested like me for an outstanding warrant on a minor violation. Staring at the walls, we cursed the police. I knew the mounting anger in that cell was present around the country.  

In the United States there are nearly 1 million law enforcement officers stacked like a giant pyramid of power at the federal, state, county and city levels who are charged with keeping order in a nation of 316 million citizens. They glide through neighborhoods in patrol cars. They stand on street corners in pairs, badges flashing. They watch us.

But the crime they see is a warped vision of the crime that exists. In the eyes of U.S. police, criminality is visible if contrasted against brown skin. While patrolling highways and streets, they miss vast amounts of ongoing crime committed by whites and especially, wealthy whites. Let the suspect be Black and they will be stopped and frisked, their car inspected, their papers run through the system. The NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet states that white people use illegal drugs five times more often than Black people even though Blacks are jailed at 10 times the rate.

The police crisscross Black, Latino, poor and immigrant neighborhoods and come down hardest on those that are most vulnerable. In Gotham alone, during the 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, the New York Civil Liberties Union reported that the New York Police Department (NYPD) conducted nearly 5 million stops and frisks. A quarter of them involved young Black men, who comprise less than 2 percent of the city’s population. 

The goal remains the same under liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio as it was under Bloomberg. It was best summed up by Bloomberg’s top cop Ray Kelly, who said to state Senator Eric Adams that he wanted to “instill fear in them [Black youth] that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police.”

The police don’t just want to watch us; they want us to know it and to internalize it and watch ourselves, afraid that the smallest misdemeanor can begin an unstoppable descent toward prison. After I was arrested, my time came for court. The officers took me out of the cell and drove me to the judge. As we talked, I asked them about this mass arrest policy.

“We call it the snowball effect,” one of them said. “You know, it just begins small like a ticket and then another citation, some jail time and next thing you know…boom!” I slumped back in the seat, dizzy with anger and blurted, “If you have a name for how bad it is why don’t you stop it!”

“Policy,” he said and looked away. “Policy.”

And every time a cop stops and frisks us, harasses us for sleeping on the train, writes a ticket, embarrasses us in public — it traumatizes the body, fills it with combustible pain. It’s hard to understand if you don’t experience it. Remember Eric Garner telling the police officers, “Please just leave me alone”? Did you know he brought a civil suit against the NYPD for doing a cavity search for drugs in 2007, right in broad daylight as people walked by? Nothing was found. He wrote of the “injuries to his manhood” caused by the officer searching his rectum and genitals for “his own personal pleasure.”

Ferguson matters because every city in America has a Ferguson inside it. A people enraged at the handprints left by police on their bodies, losing money to tickets, losing jobs to jail time, burying the dead and then being blamed for it. The flames in that small town can spread across the nation. Malcolm X once joked that during slavery, when the master’s house caught fire, field slaves prayed for wind. Many of us are praying now.

The Feedback Loop of Violence

“Black on black crime is the reason for the heavy police presence in the black community,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on Meet the Press in November. “White police officers wouldn’t be there if you weren’t killing each other.”

Conservatives say the high Black crime rate is the real danger, not rogue white cops. The danger is gangsta rap or single mothers or dumb hood drama. Biological racism in which one race is better than others has been replaced with cultural racism in which one culture is better than another. Conservatives believe in hierarchy, an order that keeps everyone in their proper place. Black culture is the low point in that hierarchy; it is a cauldron of icky morals, drowning everyone in it or close by.

Jason Riley, a Black writer at the Wall Street Journal who wrote Please Stop Helping Us, followed this tradition in his article “The Other Ferguson Tragedy.” He wrote, “Homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men, who are 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be murdered. And while you’d never know it watching MSNBC, the police are not to blame.”

The Black homicide rate is part of a feedback loop of oppression. It’s the effect of multiple forces, but is framed by conservatives as a cause. The first of these forces is poverty. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ August jobs report said the Black unemployment rate is at 11 percent, compared to the 5.3 percent rate for whites. During the four decades the bureau has kept records on it, Black unemployment has always been higher, a sign that we’re dealing with intergenerational poverty. Nearly 30 percent of Black people are poor. If you do the math, it’s nearly 13 million people out of 42 million.

The image of urban ghettos that resemble warzones is a staple in the public imagination. What the protests in Ferguson show is that segregation followed people of color into the suburbs. Brown University sociologist John Logan described in a recent report, “Separate and Unequal in Suburbia,” the movement of people of color from cities into the older inner rings of suburbs, and the poverty many of them live with. It is often reflected in failing schools that are underfunded, understaffed and have low graduation rates.

And then there’s geography. Much of urban crime is public. Poor families are packed into small apartments and that density “squeezes” crime out into public space. Beefs start in the street. Drug dealing and addiction are in the street. The fight for turf is in the street. All of which makes it visible and easier to police. 

Much of suburban crime, on the other hand, is private. Drug use, sexual assault and violence happen inside homes, where the police don’t often go. Waves of crime roll through the suburbs but go unreported, giving white America a false veneer of safety and innocence. That veneer is being blown apart by the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite, where whites describe their crimes and the soft treatment they’ve received from police.

Suburban neighborhoods of color, however, don’t get this “benign neglect.” As the crisis in Ferguson blew up, the New York Times editorialized, “The police in St. Louis County’s many municipalities systematically target poor and minority citizens for street and traffic stops — partly to generate fines — which has the effect of both bankrupting and criminalizing whole communities.”

Police are overpolicing poor neighborhoods of color. Decades ago, Black and Latino neighborhoods were neglected, something rapper Flavor Flav of Public Enemy made fun of in his song “911 is a Joke”: “Now I dialed 911 a long time ago. Don’t you see how late they’re reactin’. They only come and they come when they wanna.”

The switch to overpolicing accompanied the rise of the “broken windows” theory, which compels law enforcement to target low-level crimes. As the logic goes, going after low-level offenders will prevent larger crimes. Nice in theory, but in practice it creates the “snowball” effect. Danette Chavis of National Action Against Police Brutality said, “Blacks and Hispanics are arrested on the accusation of a crime. They keep them in jail and tell them…if you plead the lesser charge we’ll let you go. But that’s the trick…once you cop a plea you just got got by the city. Now you got a record, you deemed as a criminal which will serve as your death warrant.”

And then there is the conservative cult of the individual. When liberals point at the structural oppression in society, it’s ballyhooed as an evasion of personal responsibility. But crime, particularly robbery and gang-related homicide, is a form of agency. It’s just a reactionary one. It doesn’t reflect the leftist goal of making society more equal. It reflects the conservative vision of an isolated self, driven by personal gain.

The Strain Theory in sociology posits that if an individual believes in the goals of society but doesn’t have the means to attain them, crime can be the result. A very clear parallel exists between Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches novel, Ragged Dick, and Jay-Z’s rap career — except in Jigga’s case he got “his” by selling drugs as a youth and then rapping about it as an adult. A dimension of Black crime exists that is not a threat against capitalism but a celebration of it.

And finally there is our gun culture. We’ve drooled over guns ever since European settlers expanded westward in North America and massacred the indigenous peoples they found in their way. The gun was and remains a symbol of freedom, so it circulates with little regulation and flows into poor neighborhoods. Some 300 million guns exist in America. It’s not a “Black” problem, but the problems Black people face, like poverty, depression and rage, become more dangerous when a gun is used to solve them. 

Yet these effects of structural racism and economic inequality get turned around and recycled as a cause. After his NBC interview, Giuliani doubled down and said, “If there were a lot of murders in a community, we put a lot of police officers there. If I had put all my police officers on Park Avenue and none in Harlem, thousands and thousands more blacks would have been killed.”

We needed jobs, not cops. We needed affordable housing, not cops. We needed gun laws. We needed drug rehabilitation centers and childcare. We still do.

License to Kill

That police have a license to kill is a social fact. Compare two cases. In November 2012, 47-year-old Michael Dunn, who was not a cop, got into a yelling match over loud music with four Black teens in a car. He pulled out a gun and shot at them, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. He said it seemed Davis was pulling out a gun. But no weapon was found. Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder. 

This December Phoenix police officer Mark Rine shot and killed 34-year-old Rumain Brisbon after mistaking a bottle of pills in his pocket for a gun. He was Black, and no gun was found on him either. Considering how hard it’s proven to be to indict a cop, Rine probably won’t be held accountable. 

The reason is that officers represent the state, which has a monopoly on legitimate violence. And that legitimacy is derived from it being the only supposedly neutral and universal social body that in an electoral democracy represents everyone equally. It comes from the consent of the governed. 

Yet in practice the state plays an inherently conservative role. It maintains law and order in an unequal society, so the contradictions roil it from inside. It must suppress the very people who are the source of its legitimacy. And it does this by shielding its own agents from public accountability while demonizing its victims. The formula is the same for the cops who shoot unarmed civilians, the CIA agents who torture detainees and the drone pilots who kill innocent people while targeting terrorists. Up and down the chain of command, an aura of untouchability obscures abuses of power.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture exposed instances of detainees being beaten, force-fed though their anuses, chained to walls in stress positions and denied sleep for days. It also revealed that President Bush was told about the “full nature” of the torture in April 2006. Yet he said on camera in October 2007, “This government does not torture people.”

You know he won’t be indicted. The president embodies the same unaccountable violence as the cop in the street. And today, even as President Obama directs muted calls for calm toward Black people dealing with police violence, he inflicts it on people of color overseas. Obama is the Darren Wilson of the world.

Crime and Innocence 

“Killer cops must go to jail,” yelled Franclot Graham, the father of Ramarley Graham, a Black teen who in 2012 was chased by the NYPD into his grandmother’s home without a warrant and shot dead. No gun was found, just a small bag of weed. On Saturday, December 13, tens of thousands of New Yorkers came out for the Millions March against police brutality in Manhattan. “Go to jail,” Graham said, referring to the police officer who killed his son. “Go to jail!” The crowd repeated. 

The call for justice is building in Black America and beyond. Players for the St. Louis Rams came onto the football field with their hands up in honor of Michael Brown. LeBron James wore a shirt on court that read, “I Can’t Breathe.” The burgeoning movement, led by young Black activists, is challenging the narrative of crime and innocence in America. It’s flipping the script, using the social consensus about the preciousness of life to challenge the hypocrisy of the state. 

Occupy Wall Street exposed the guilt of elites as they waged class war on the poor. Feminists have targeted colleges and the military, exposing male supremacy and the epidemic of rape hidden from view in these institutions. Fast-food workers are calling out the economic violence they endure as their bosses make astronomical profits. Everywhere people are laying claim to universal values and marshalling them against the institutions that have exploited those values as an alibi for their power.

It begins not with ideas but experience. If you’re wondering why this new movement is happening, let me ask you to look at your hands. For a moment, please think of the person you love most in this life. Imagine holding them. Take a slow breath; exhale everything but them from your mind. Maybe you see a lover, a sibling or a parent. Can you almost feel the warmth of their skin?

Keep looking at your hands, holding the person you love. Now imagine them killed. And the murderer walking away. Do you feel helpless? Do you feel sadness weighing in your body?

The heaviness in your palms is what we lift to the sky. Cops who kill unarmed Black men go free, one after the other. It’s why we march through the streets yelling, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It’s why we shout the names of our dead. We show our hands because we’re scared of being killed by officers who have been given license to kill Black people and go unpunished. 

I’m asking you to take this weight from us. I’m asking you to hold your hands up too.


The newspaper Naomi Klein calls "utterly unique," full of insightful dispatches from around the world, The Indypendent offers a fresh take on today's events.

Opinion Sun, 21 Dec 2014 11:08:03 -0500
Ferguson Reverberates Around the World

Protestors hold images of Michael Brown, left, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, right, during a march to protest their deaths in New York, Dec. 13, 2014. A march in Washington also drew thousands on a day evoking the civil rights struggles of the past. (Photo: Yana Paskova / The New York Times) Protesters hold images of Michael Brown, left, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, right, during a march to protest their deaths in New York, December 13, 2014. A march in Washington also drew thousands on a day evoking the civil rights struggles of the past. (Photo: Yana Paskova / The New York Times)

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

At Black Agenda Report we understand the importance of making connections between domestic and international issues and finding common cause with people around the world. That is why we work in partnership with groups such as the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC). UNAC didn’t fall prey to the inertia many supposedly antiwar organizations experienced after Barack Obama’s presidential victory. Its members know that the wars abroad and at home occur precisely because of actions taken by Democrats and Republicans working together to advance the interests of the banksters, defense contractors and other malefactors against the interests of people all over the world. This columnist joined a UNAC delegation invited to a conference in Moscow sponsored by the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia.

I was asked to speak about the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath of protest which spread from that small town to thousands more across the country. The Ferguson protests seized the attention of people all over the world and gave them a sense of the unvarnished truth of black American life.

Our host organization and members of the Russian media were all curious about Ferguson and what it meant. They asked what our legal system can do to stop police brutality. They wanted to know why the police have military equipment. They were curious about Barack Obama’s relationship with the constituency that supported him the most and why their needs are still not adequately addressed. The questions were many and varied and show that the United States is not the paragon of virtue and benevolent exceptionalism that it claims to be.

In my remarks at the December 13th conference I made it clear that the militarization of local police departments is not new and is directly tied to the government’s destruction of the black liberation movement of the 1960s. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams emerged after the urban rebellions and exchanges of gunfire between the Black Panther Party and police departments around the country.

It is true that the Pentagon’s 1033 Program accelerated the supply of military equipment given to the police, but it was not a new experience for black Americans. Police on the beat, like Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, are a modern day slave patrol, using the slightest infraction or none at all to arrest, assault and even kill on a daily basis.

I spoke not just about Michael Brown but about Eric Garner who was choked to death while crying out that he couldn’t breathe and Akai Gurley whose only crime was taking the stairs in his public housing apartment building when police were on patrol. Even children like twelve year-old Tamir Rice armed with toy guns aren’t safe from police murder if they have black skin.

The world needs to know not only that America’s promise of justice for all is a lie but that it is expressed against the rest of the world, too. The anti-globalization group came into being in response to the United States and NATO attacks on the Russian government and interference in the domestic crisis in Ukraine. It is also ironic that the United States senate report on torture was released during the same week as the Moscow conference. It is not coincidental that a country which developed an officially sanctioned policy of torture is also the world leader in mass incarceration, defense spending and aggression towards the world community.

The United States still occupies Iraq and Afghanistan with troops and has used proxies to destroy Libya, Somalia, Haiti and Syria. Now Russia, though it is stronger than those other nations, has also been marked for destruction by the West. The United States has connived with its ally Saudi Arabia to lower the price of oil and do even further damage to Russia’s energy production sector. Congress has proposed even more sanctions in an effort to destroy that nation’s economy and turn it into a vassal state along with every other country that won’t submit to pax Americana.

What next? That is the question that conference participants often asked. What will happen after Ferguson? How long will the protests continue? It is difficult to make predictions and create hypothetical scenarios, but it is clear that people in a small Missouri town have changed the paradigm.

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder will not be given deference should they choose not to pursue federal prosecution in the Michael Brown case. They are finally being taken to task and will not be able to explain a decision to let Darren Wilson get away with murder.

I told my hosts and local media that the American system guarantees presidents like Barack Obama. The person who emerges atop the political heap does so by agreeing tacitly and explicitly to maintain the status quo for the rulers in the 1%. White supremacy is followed only by worship of money as the very foundation of American life. A black president will do as little as a white one, perhaps even less, in order to separate himself the group which arrived in chains and still lives at the margins.

It is important for activists in this country to strengthen their coalitions abroad. It is a vital step in making critical change and freeing people from police brutality, CIA “black” sites, mass imprisonment and the wanton destruction of other nations and their people. There is no substitute for direct and personal interaction. It makes us all less susceptible to the lies and manipulations which do the world such great harm.

Opinion Sun, 21 Dec 2014 10:11:57 -0500
Utah Land Defenders Stand Up to Dirty Politics

New technologies like fracking - along with government subsidies - have ushered in an energy boom reliant on extreme extraction methods to produce oil and natural gas. Now the Uinta Basin is ground zero for what threatens to become the next phase in extreme energy extraction: strip mining for tar sands and oil shale.

After clear-cutting trees and sagebrush, U.S. Oil Sands digs open-pit mines to test their tar sands extraction process. If the company starts producing tar sands on a commercial scale, 32,000 acres in Utah’s Uintah Basin could be covered with these pits, along with tailings ponds that would store huge amounts of waste water and chemicals used in the extraction process. (Courtesy of Before It Starts)After clear-cutting trees and sagebrush, US Oil Sands digs open-pit mines to test their tar sands extraction process. If the company starts producing tar sands on a commercial scale, 32,000 acres in Utah's Uintah Basin could be covered with these pits, along with tailings ponds that would store huge amounts of waste water and chemicals used in the extraction process. (Photo courtesy of Utah Tar Sands Resistance)

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Also see: Subsidy Spotlight: Publicly Funding a Utah Disaster in the Making

Lauren Wood grew up in a family of river guides in the Uinta Basin region of Utah. She navigates tributaries of the Colorado River like her urban counterparts navigate subway systems. She learned to ride a horse, and then drive a car, on the Tavaputs Plateau. And she can name most any gorge or gully in the place she calls home.

But this landscape so familiar to her has transformed over the past decade to one in which drill rigs are more common than cattle herds, and methane emissions have degraded the air quality in this wilderness region to rival that of Los Angeles.

New technologies like fracking––along with government subsidies––have ushered in an energy boom reliant on extreme extraction methods to produce oil and natural gas. Now the Uinta Basin is ground zero for what threatens to become the next phase in extreme energy extraction: strip mining for tar sands and oil shale.

Tar sands are a sticky mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen that can be processed into fuel, but require more refining than conventional crude oil, releasing more greenhouse gases and toxins in the process. Despite the fact that Canadian tar sands mining is pushing the Earth toward disastrous climate change, some companies are moving forward with tar sands mining projects in the United States.

Oil shale, not to be confused with shale oil (which is oil released by fracking), is a solid mixture of chemical compounds––called kerogen––inside sedimentary rock. When heated at high enough temperatures, it’s possible to break the kerogen down into liquid hydrocarbons and release them from the rock. This requires a whole lot of fuel just to make more fuel, and also promises to drastically worsen the effects of climate change.

Part one of this article delved into the history of how, in the past, taxpayers have footed costly bills for government-sponsored tar sands and oil shale development that never turned out to be commercially viable. The last of these projects fizzled out in the 1980s. Now, thanks in large part to a provision in the Energy Policy Act of 2005––written by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch––oil shale and tar sands are back on the table.

Red Leaf Resources and U.S. Oil Sands are two companies that have led the renewed crusade to develop oil shale and tar sands in the United States. Red Leaf leases Utah state land for its oil shale mine site near the Tavaputs Plateau in Uintah County. A few miles away, straddling the boundaries of the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, sits the tar sands mine site of Canadian-based U.S. Oil Sands.

In 2008, one of Red Leaf’s Vice Presidents, Laura Nelson, teamed up with a U.S. Oil Sands Executive to co-write a white paper for the Utah Mining Association (UMA), a lobbying group. In it, they spelled out the ways that state and federal governments should subsidize tar sands and oil shale development. Since then, several of their recommendations––including millions of dollars in tax breaks, leasing public land at rock-bottom prices, and government-funded infrastructure projects––have become reality.

A twenty-year tax holiday for tar sands and oil shale

The same year the Utah Mining Association (UMA) white paper came out, a new PAC called The Quality Jobs Coalition registered in Utah.

Of the six listed PAC members, three are former UMA presidents. In 2008, The Quality Jobs Coalition spent over $50,000 in donations to 28 candidates for the Utah legislature, the majority of whom won.

In the following legislative session, one of those candidates introduced a bill that began as a measure to create tax credits for renewable energy projects, (even though it included and emphasized nuclear energy), but was renamed and expanded to incentivize alternative energy projects, including oil shale and tar sands.

The original bill’s tax credits were projected to be valued at $2.6 million in annual revenue for the first two years. With tar sands and oil shale included, that estimate ballooned to $5 million annually for the first few years, and an incredible $360 million annually down the road.

That’s equal to six percent of the 2015 budget for Utah’s General Fund and Education Fund––the two pools of money from which funds are diverted in order to cover the cost of the huge refunds these tax breaks offer.

Companies that take advantage of the Alternative Energy Development Incentive get to write off 75 percent of their state taxes annually for up to twenty years.

And manufacturers of oil shale and tar sands equipment get a completely free ride with the Alternative Energy Manufacturing Incentive, which offers a  full 100 percent state tax refund for up to twenty years.

Royalties buy taxpayers a Road to Nowhere (except a tar sands mine)

Taxes or no taxes, there is still revenue to be made from royalties. More than seventy percent of Utah is public land, and when extractive industries mine or drill on it, they have to pay a certain percentage of their profits to the state and federal governments.

In Utah, that money goes into a Mineral Lease Fund, which gets distributed to various agencies for projects that offset the local impacts of fossil fuel extraction. For example: health services for kids whose asthma is triggered by the ridiculously high ozone levels in the Uinta Basin.

But fossil fuel companies often try to twist the scenario to benefit themselves.

In 2010, Red Leaf Resource’s oil shale research and development site was nestled amongst vegetation in Utah's Uintah Basin region. Now the surrounding acreage looks like a desert, as the company has clear cut a huge swath of the 1,600 acres it leases from the state in order to mine sedimentary rock with deposits of bitumen inside. (Courtesy of EcoFlight).In 2010, Red Leaf Resource's oil shale research and development site was nestled amongst vegetation in Utah's Uintah Basin region. Now the surrounding acreage looks like a desert, as the company has clear cut a huge swath of the 1,600 acres it leases from the state in order to mine sedimentary rock with deposits of bitumen inside. (Photo: courtesy of EcoFlight)

In 2007, Red Leaf founder Todd Dana attended a meeting of Uintah County Commissioners and Vernal City Council, where he said, “delivery is an important concern and it is critical to get the oil south to the railroad for transportation.”

Commissioner Mike McKee responded, “One of the greatest needs is the repair of Seep Ridge Road.”

At that time, Seep Ridge Road was mostly gravel. Starting southwest of Vernal, it wound about seventy miles south, through Ute tribal lands, across the Tavaputs Plateau to the Book Cliffs, an escarpment so steep it’s almost non-traversable by car.

Only hunters, backpackers, ranchers, and locals were generally using the road until Red Leaf and U.S. Oil Sands came on the scene and Seep Ridge Road became the main access point for their mine sites.

So when the county moved forward with a multi-million dollar revamp of the road, to be paid for with money from the Mineral Lease Fund, critics dubbed it The Road To Nowhere, and pointed out the obvious: public coffers were being drained for the sole benefit of the oil shale and tar sands companies.

This November, the last phase of construction was completed and a ribbon cutting held on what’s now a forty-foot-wide highway through the wilderness, made for semi-trucks and megaloads, paid for with $86.5 million in public funds.

Oil shale on stolen––and public––land

Red Leaf was also implicated in a 2012 scandal that brought corporate governance in the Uintah Basin to a new level.

Four years earlier, in 2008, the Bureau of Land Management had announced a plan to open up two million acres of public lands (including land that was part of the Uinta-Ouray Reservation until the Homestead Act divvied it up between white settlers and the government) for oil shale development in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. The plan also allotted 431,000 acres for tar sands development in Utah.

The original plan amounted to a huge subsidy to these industries because royalties were set at only five percent––less than half the standard rate for conventional oil and gas.

But public pressure led the BLM to re-assess the plan, and in 2012 they announced a new one that significantly curtailed the amount of land up for grabs.

That’s when Uintah County leaders held an illegal meeting at the Golden Age Senior Center in Vernal, Utah.

The remains of a bird are mired in an oily pool at the site of a tar sands test mine. (Courtesy of Before It Starts)The remains of a bird are mired in an oily pool at the site of a tar sands test mine. (Photo: courtesy of Utah Tar Sands Resistance)

Among the the thirty-two people in attendance were county officials from Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming; a lobbyist from Red Leaf and another oil shale company; the director of a national oil shale lobby group; a board member of a nonprofit with ties to Red Leaf; an official from the Uintah-Ouray Reservation; and the George W. Bush-era BLM Director who oversaw the original land lease proposal and was an adviser to Utah Governor Gary Herbert at the time of the meeting.

Behind closed doors––in violation of the state’s sunshine laws––they crafted a plan for elected officials from each county to pass resolutions opposing the BLM plan. In follow-up emails they shared draft resolutions that could serve as models for the industry to push in the relevant counties. In little more than a month, the resolutions were passed and officials from six counties held a joint press conference lauding their actions.

When an open records request brought the meeting to light, public outcry caused some County Commissioners to rescind the resolutions. But their actions had the intended effect; the BLM conducted yet another assessment and expanded their plan to offer a total of 830,000 acres of public land for oil shale and tar sands development. This time, the agency didn’t set a royalty rate at all.

Tar sands and oil shale election money

A key player in all of this is Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee. In 2006, the year before the Seep Ridge Road project took off, he reported zero contributions to his election campaign. In 2014––eight years into the region’s oil and gas boom––he reported $20,096, possibly a record for Uintah County, where local campaigns rarely garner more than $10,000.

$5,000 of McKee’s campaign money came from Uintah Resources, which Todd Dana founded in 2009 after selling his share of Red Leaf. Another $5,000 came from an oilfield equipment company, and several thousands more from various companies and individuals in the fossil fuel industry.

Laura Nelson, the Red Leaf VP who co-wrote the Utah Mining Association white paper, has circled through a revolving door from the Utah state house to Red Leaf, and back to the state house––this time as Director of Utah’s Office of Energy Development.

It’s worth mentioning that Nelson contributed $5,000 to Governor Herbert’s campaign in 2012 (when she was still an employee of Red Leaf), and that other Red Leaf executives, their main lobbyist, and the company itself, have donated a combined $26,000 to Herbert’s campaigns and his PAC.

So it’s no surprise that earlier this year, at the third annual Governor’s Energy Development Summit, Herbert announced that oil shale and tar sands were second on his list of five energy priorities for 2015.

That was on June third. On July 21––the same day Nelson was appointed Director of Energy Development––twenty-one people were arrested at the U.S. Oil Sands mine site.

The land defenders

They started arriving in May––dozens of people from all over Utah and all over the country––to camp together on the Tavaputs Plateau. From the encampment, they could hike two miles to the U.S. Oil Sands site to monitor developments and plan actions.

Land defenders block the road leading to a tar sands mine site. The protest prevented the company U.S. Oil Sands from clearing vegetation on land where it plans to dig open pit mines and tailings ponds for toxic waste.Land defenders block the road leading to a tar sands mine site. The protest prevented the company US Oil Sands from clearing vegetation on land where it plans to dig open pit mines and tailings ponds for toxic waste.

In the early morning hours of July 21, fifteen people entered a fenced-off cage where U.S. Oil Sands kept equipment used for clear-cutting. They chained themselves to machinery and the fence, as sixty more people surrounded the area with banners and blockaded the road.

By the middle of the afternoon, twenty-one people were in jail and two were hospitalized with injuries inflicted by police. But no land on the Tavaputs Plateau was leveled that day.

“It’s a pretty emotional thing to be up there and see people actually stopping it from happening,” says Lauren Wood, the river guide and a co-founder of Peaceful Uprising. Peaceful Uprising is one of the groups that organized the action camp, along with Tar Sands Resistance and Canyon Country Rising Tide.

Parts of U.S. Oil Sands mine site extend onto Ute tribal lands. The Environmental Protection Agency warned the company in June that it didn’t have permission to operate on Ute land. On July 21, 2014, fifteen people chained themselves to a fence and to machinery on the tar sands mine site operated by U.S. Oil Sands.Parts of US Oil Sands mine site extend onto Ute tribal lands. The Environmental Protection Agency warned the company in June that it didn't have permission to operate on Ute land. On July 21, 2014, fifteen people chained themselves to a fence and to machinery on the tar sands mine site operated by US Oil Sands.

Aside from the immediate impact and thrill of a day-long work stoppage, the groups are confident that the cumulative effect of their persistence will be to stop the mines.

Will Munger works as a cowboy in the Uintah Basin, where tar sands and oil shale development are threatening water sources critical to ranching and agriculture. (Courtesy of Will Munger)Will Munger works as a cowboy in the Uintah Basin, where tar sands and oil shale development are threatening water sources critical to ranching and agriculture. (Courtesy of Will Munger)Red Leaf, U.S. Oil Sands and the other companies pioneering tar sands and oil shale development are small and financially precarious, even with the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on their projects.

The land defenders say that with enough pushback, investors may get nervous. Stock prices can tank. There really is a window of time for preventing a U.S. tar sands and oil shale industry.

Another land defender, Will Munger, works as a cowboy on the Tavaputs Plateau and camped out at the protest site.

Munger takes a long view of the past and the future when he talks about the relationships between climate change, government, and corporations.

“The West has been defined by these boom and bust cycles since colonization,” he says.

“What we need out here in the desert is a way of relating to the land and relating to each other where there is a stable, functional economy that preserves the ecosystems that keep us alive. Not schemes that are part of this economic model that looks at short-term profit over long-term sustainability.”

There were a few more actions and arrests in the months after July. By the end of October, the last of the campers had packed up as development at the mines slowed down and winter set in.

But they’ll be back come spring, and anyone is welcome to join them.

News Sun, 21 Dec 2014 09:59:20 -0500
Fallen Heroes of 2014

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

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

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

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


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