Truthout Stories Sun, 04 Oct 2015 07:05:50 -0400 en-gb Job Growth Surprisingly Weak in September

The Labor Department reported the economy created just 142,000 jobs in September, well below most forecasts. Furthermore, the prior two months' numbers were revised down as well, bringing the average for the last three months to 167,000. In addition, there was a drop in the length of the average workweek of 0.1 hour causing the index of aggregate hours to decline by 0.2 percent. This drop, combined with a modest fall in the average hourly wage, led to a 0.3 percent decline in the average weekly wage.

The household survey also showed a weak picture of the labor market. While the unemployment rate was unchanged there was a drop of 0.2 percentage points in both the labor force participation rate and the employment to population ratio. The share of unemployment due to people who voluntarily quit their jobs remained at the low 9.8 percent rate of August, a level typically seen in recessions. The one piece of clear good news in the survey was a drop of 447,000 in the number of people working part-time for economic reasons. This number is erratic, but this is an unusually large one-month decline.

On the whole this report suggests the labor market is considerably weaker than had been generally believed. It is likely to make it much more difficult for the Federal Reserve Board to raise rates this year.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 12:23:22 -0400
"This Changes Everything": Film Reimagines Vast Challenge of Climate Change

As we mark the third anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in the nation's history, are we prepared for another extreme weather event, which researchers say are becoming more frequent with the effects of climate change? 2015 is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, and nine of the 10 hottest months since record keeping began in 1880 have occurred since 2005. We speak to the duo behind the new film, This Changes Everything, which re-imagines the vast challenge of climate change. The documentary is directed by filmmaker Avi Lewis and inspired by journalist Naomi Klein's international best-selling book by the same name. Over the course of four years, the pair traveled to nine countries on five continents to profile communities on the front lines of the climate justice movement - from Montana's Powder River Basin to the Alberta tar sands, from the coast of South India to Beijing and beyond.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The East Coast of the United States may have dodged a bullet this time, as forecasters say Hurricane Joaquin may not make landfall due to a northerly turn. The Category 4 storm is, however, hammering the Bahamas, and heavy rains have already caused massive flooding in Charleston, South Carolina.

But as we mark the third anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in the nation's history, are we prepared for another extreme weather event, which researchers say are becoming more frequent with the effects of climate change? 2015 is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a report showing that July was the single warmest month in history, and nine of the 10 hottest months since record keeping began in 1880 have occurred since 2005.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we spend the remainder of the hour looking at a remarkable new film that re-imagines the vast challenge of climate change. The film is called This Changes Everything. It's directed by Avi Lewis and inspired by Naomi Klein's international best-selling book by the same title. Over the course of four years, the filmmakers traveled to nine countries on five continents to profile communities on the front lines of the climate justice movement - from Montana's Powder River Basin to the Alberta tar sands, from the coast of South India to Beijing and beyond. This is the film's trailer.

MARC MORANO: The majority of the human race does not see global warming as a serious threat. Celebrate! Climate legislation is dead.

UNIDENTIFIED: We in the Global North, with less than 20 percent of the population, are responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are drilling all over the place.

UNIDENTIFIED: On the other side of the world, those people who are the most affected by climate change, most affected by environmental injustice, have the least responsibility for creating this crisis in the first place.

FISHERMAN: [translated] This is our livelihood. This is the water we drink.

ALICE BOWS-LARKIN: The amount of fossil fuel that we're combusting year on year is growing. We're going in completely the wrong direction.

NAOMI KLEIN: I've spent six years wandering through the wreckage caused by the carbon in the air and the economic system that put it there.

KEVIN ANDERSON: That old paradigm will be forced to change, either by the environment around us or by us.

PROTESTERS: We are all ... part of this movement!

PROTESTER: [translated] This is our wetland.

UNIDENTIFIED: When you see communities who are thrown into the front line, you see the incredible transformation. They become stronger. They stand up.

NAOMI KLEIN: So here's the big question: What if global warming isn't only a crisis? What if it's the best chance we are ever going to get to build a better world? Change or be changed.

SUNITA NARAIN: There are limits. Let's celebrate the limits, because we could reinvent a different future.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the epic new documentary, This Changes Everything. The film opens tonight at the IFC Center here in New York City. Last month, it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.

For more, we're joined by Avi Lewis, the film's director and producer. He was previously a host for Al Jazeera's show Fault Lines. And we're also joined by the film's narrator, Naomi Klein, and writer. She's a journalist and best-selling author of the book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Her past books include No Logo and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, it's great to have you with us today together on the U.S. premiere of the film. So, talk about this film. You have been on this journey, Naomi, writing the book, and now to have the cameras following you, and in places you hadn't even gone, but that you have extensively written about and analyzed. Talk about what you're doing with the film?

NAOMI KLEIN: So the idea for the film was to do things a little bit differently. Usually what happens is, you write a book, and then a film is made maybe after. That's what happened with The Shock Doctrine: The [book] was completed, and then it was optioned, and Michael Winterbottom made a film about it. In this - and there's something kind of inherently flawed about that process, because you're retracing your steps. You're going back to places. And, in a way, you're sort of - you know, you're mimicking this process of discovery, because, you know, as anyone who's read the book knows, you've already come to those conclusions. So what we wanted to do with this project was Avi and I wanted to work on it together really from the beginning. So we started while - working together on it, actually, while Avi was still working at Al Jazeera. We went to cover the BP disaster together. We went to Bolivia together to cover the Peoples Conference on Climate Change. And then Avi left Al Jazeera to work on this full-time. And so, people who have read the book or skimmed the book, are familiar with it, will see things that are very recognizable. You know, there's a chapter in the book about my trip to the Heartland conference on - you know, the climate change denier kind of ground zero. And Avi and his crew were filming on that trip, so there are scenes that will be familiar. But it's very different to be in the room to see the people who are quoted, to see a whole new dimension. Same with reporting that is in the book on geoengineering. But I think the thing that a film can do so much better than a book, frankly, is really bring us into the heart of the social movements that are the final section of the book. And, you know, it's one thing to read about it - "Oh, these movements are rising up" - but it's something very different to be immersed in the energy of social movements that are fighting and winning these epic struggles against fossil fuel companies. And, you know, I'm so grateful to Avi and the whole crew for having stuck with this project for now five years to bring that to people.

AVI LEWIS: There's another thing in the film - there's another thing that film can do that books just can't: The look on Naomi's face in the cutaway in the climate deniers' conference is pretty unforgettable. That alone was worth the experience.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the other thing a film can do, obviously, is capture, in a way that a book really can't, the actual beauty of the planet that is being violated by this rampant industrialization, and the haunting pictures that you have are unbelievable. I wanted to ask you about the challenge of being able to put the content of the book into a film.

AVI LEWIS: Well, you know, luckily, I wasn't trying to take 500 pages of Naomi Klein and force it into a film, because those 500 pages weren't written when we started shooting. But the kernel of the idea was there. And I think, you know, we talked a lot at the beginning of the process of making nature a character in the film. And I think it's true that when you see communities who are defending their land and their air and their water, defining rights for communities, and actually challenging the economic logic behind the exploitation of nature, and enacting community-scale alternatives at the same time - the "no" against extraction and the "yes," as well - you know, you see the people, but you also need to know what they're protecting. And one of the reasons that we shot around the world and made the decision to go epic, as Amy said, is because the scope of Naomi's argument is vast. The scope of this challenge is global. And the scope of the resistance rising up is global, too. And you need to get that feeling that really these things are happening around the world, and they're happening in beautiful places that people love. And film has a unique way of touching the heart and the mind at the same time, so we tried to like, you know, bring people to the places.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get a quick question in on AP's change in their stylebook, if you've heard about this. It was just issued, a staff memo from AP Stylebook editor Sally Jacobsen, David Minthorn and Paula Froke. "We have reviewed our entry on global warming as part of our efforts to continually update the Stylebook to reflect language usage and accuracy. We are adding a brief description of those who don't accept climate science or dispute the world is warming from man-made forces: Our guidance is to use climate change doubters or those who reject mainstream climate science and to avoid the use of skeptics or deniers." Your response, Naomi Klein? Clearly, Heartland and others weighing in here.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. I mean, I think it's good that they are not using "skeptic," because "skeptic" actually has a positive connotation. We should all be skeptical. We should all be skeptical about science, you know, any scientific claim. And we should be rigorous about it. And, you know, indeed, it's a phrase that's celebrated in the scientific community. So, you know, I agree with them about no longer using "skeptic."

But these are climate change deniers. They are denying the overwhelming scientific evidence. They are denying the real human impacts. And, you know, that look on my face at the Heartland conference, I mean, I think - and I tried to capture this in the book - what I found most disturbing about immersing myself in that context was the real lightheartedness, you know, and you see that in the film. They're sort of laughing in the face of the problem. And what I took away from that experience and the extraordinary contradictory scientific claims being made, with no attempt to resolve them - this is not a rigorous scientific conference. You know, one person is blaming sunspots. One person is saying it's not happening. One person is saying it is happening, but we shouldn't worry about it. The overwhelming feeling, though, is that we are going to be fine. Right? And so, I think the most disturbing denial is the reality of the massive human costs that we are already seeing. We are coming close to the end of what looks to be the hottest year on record. We saw thousands of people die in heat waves in India. You know, this is not about people dying in the future, though it is about that, too. It's about a massive death toll in the present. We're seeing climate change act as an accelerant for conflicts. This is true for Syria. It's fueling the refugee crisis. So, I think people should be held accountable for that, and I disagree with not calling it "climate change denial."

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the other powerful aspects of the film is when you actually chronicle the people who are benefiting from the rampant industrialization, especially in the Alberta tar sands -


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: - where you interview the people who are making $100,000, $300,000, $400,000 a year, and you realize that there is a constituency - I mean, classical Marxists would call it labor aristocracy - that is actually benefiting from this enormous - and they provide a political support for the continued, unbridled expansion.

AVI LEWIS: You know, Juan -

NAOMI KLEIN: It's complicated.

AVI LEWIS: It is complicated. And people in Alberta, who live next to that biggest industrial project on Earth, have been very anxious about the pace of development and the costs of that project for a long time. And, you know, the oil and gas industry is a very conformist culture. And if you speak about renewable energy, you really get slapped down. It's like a - there's a bit of a locker room thing happening there. But the number of workers who told us off camera that they would rather be building wind turbines and putting up - installing solar panels was remarkable. They wouldn't say it on camera, except for this one amazing guy in the film who's a boilermaker named Lliam Hildebrand, who started an organization called Iron and Earth, where he's organizing tar sands workers in support of renewable energy. And he's building support fast. And there's a huge constituency up there, especially now that the oil industry is laying off thousands and thousands of people, of workers in that industry who would rather go home and tell their kids what they did that day and feel proud of it.

NAOMI KLEIN: And there was actually a poll that just came out a couple of days ago in Canada, polling Albertans, where the tar sands are, showing that Albertans support a carbon tax. They overwhelmingly support more investments in renewable energy. There's an exhaustion in Alberta just about the boom-and-bust cycle, the roller coaster of that boom that we chronicle. I mean, we were there during the peak of the boom. The money was just flowing in. We were interviewing these kids going, "This is nuts. I'm making way too much money." That's what they were saying.

AVI LEWIS: It's true.

NAOMI KLEIN: They were kind of laughing, but you know. These are like 24-year-old kids, you know? Sorry, I mean young men. But we also interviewed a lot of workers who just talked about the kind of sadness of the place, right? Almost nobody who you meet in Fort McMurray is from Fort McMurray or has any intention of staying in Fort McMurray. People talk about their time there as, you know, "I'm on the four-month plan," "I'm on the six-month plan," "I'm on, you know, maybe the five-year plan," which is all - and the plan is always the same: Go in, work as hard as you possibly can, get as much money as you can, and get the hell out. Right? So in the film -

AMY GOODMAN: And see if you have a family to come back to.

NAOMI KLEIN: Exactly. I mean, this is hardly heaven. It's that there aren't better choices out there for a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to break, then come back to another clip from This Changes Everything. Stay with us.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Thirst for Truth: Who's to Blame for Flint's Water Crisis?

In April 2014, while under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager who had nearly complete control over all decisions regarding operation of the city, Flint, Michigan, left the Detroit water system and began using the Flint River as its primary source of municipal water. It was a purely money-saving decision that has proved to be a total disaster. There have been severe problems with the city's water ever since the switch was made. Recently, independent researchers have found high levels of lead in both the water and the city's children.

In this documentary city officials are asked hard questions about who is responsible for this catastrophic decision and the public health crisis that it led to.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Greek Collective Critiques Consumption Amid Crisis

This is an ethnographic film about Skoros, an anti-consumerist collective in Exarcheia, Athens that was established in 2008, right before the beginning of the Crisis. It runs a space where people can come and give, take, or give and take goods and exchange services without any expectations of reciprocity.

Originally, Skoros emerged as a response to an increasingly commercialized and consumerist (Athenian) society. It represented an experimentation with doing things differently: by gifting, sharing, and exchanging; and by foregrounding the values of communality, degrowth, solidarity and social justice.

A few months after Skoros' opening I was in Athens for my sabbatical research on forms of consumer-oriented activism and I enthusiastically joined the collective. Back then, it was rather easier to apply conventional critiques of consumerism, not least because Athens appeared conspicuously wealthier, a world-class consumer city. Shopping in super-sized malls and fredoccino-fuelled encounters became cultural norms, not searching for second-hand items or socialising with strangers in grotty-looking places. I remember, for example, observing people that would reluctantly enter, take an item and then insist on donating whatever they considered to be the equivalent market value. Skoros' idea was too radical for them to grasp.

Of course there were also other visitors that refused to entertain the idea of Skoros. As Heracles explains in the documentary, they were those who brought and those who took too many things. Both were a "problem," the former because they simply wanted to alleviate their middle-class guilt (as is the case in many charity shops); and the latter because they in effect promoted alternative over-consumption. "Limits" soon had to be imposed in respect to the maximum number of items one could both bring and/or take, a containing - yet somewhat contentious - solution.  

Despite its problems, Skoros proved to be a very popular, and in this sense successful, place. As Nancy puts it, "this is something important that Skoros has achieved. Perhaps because it found itself in this area, in this location, as a neighbourhood shop and not within a squat or a social centre. It opened its doors to the neighbourhood, people walked in. In fact, many of those who came were people who had never done something like this before."

But then came the Crisis, as Zoe explains: "It suddenly dawned upon us: "Resistance? To what exactly? Things are different now." Put differently, the Crisis imposed a different kind of "here and now," one focused less on trying to do things differently and more on urgency, a need to provide solidarity to an increasing number of people who were approaching and falling below the poverty line. Skoros's critique of consumer needs became somewhat redundant. As a leaflet back in December 2011 wrote ."..How can we insist that 'we are not a charity' when poverty is next to us, around and above us and it is growing massively? How to counterpropose solidarity and community when the crisis isolates individuals and makes them turn against each other?..." More recently, solidarity has also had to be channelled to the thousands of Syrian refugees who have reached the ports of Athens.

Throughout the crisis anti-consumption, as originally understood, was no longer relevant; it had to be re-evaluated and redefined. This film is produced and directed almost entirely by members of the collective, in an attempt to narrate the evolution of what seemed to be a rather simple idea.

The film is also about the power of people to exercise agency in the face of formidable socio-economic circumstances, it is about solidarity/ies, and the collective joys of doing things differently.   

Written by Andreas Chatzidakis & Pauline Maclaran

Research: Andreas Chatzidakis, Pauline Maclaran, Alexandros Korpas Prelorentzos

Project Supervision: Andreas Chatzidakis

Shot and directed by Athina Souli

Produced by Zoe Kanelopoulou

Executive producers: Andreas Chatzidakis & Pauline Maclaran

Sound operator: Giorgos Politakis

Edited by Stavros Symeonidis

Music Supervision: Elena Fornaro

Graphics: Lito Valiatza

Intervieweees (in order of appearance): Nancy Palta, Dora Kotsaka, Zoe Kanelopoulou, Elena Fornaro, Vanda Davetta, Heidi Zotika, visitor from Ghana, Lito Valiatza, Lila Kaniari, Babis Kavouras, Iraklis Panagoulis, Alexandros Korpas Prelorentz.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Miles to Go Before They Rest: Voices From the Croatia-Serbia Border Crossing

A few kilometres from the small Serbian border town of Sid, a dirt track through corn and turnip fields serves as a passage for tens of thousands of women, men and children seeking refuge and lives of greater possibility. The unofficial border crossing between Serbia and Croatia is surrounded by verdant, sun-lit fields, with apple orchards in the distance and a calm that brings temporary respite to those who have been on the road for weeks, or months. For a moment, the travelers manage to put aside the threat of militarised borders and the recent memory of dehumanising conditions along the way as they stop to drink freshly pressed apple cider handed out by a local farmer, chat, and rest before they continue on.

Parents carry small children in their arms, toddlers on hips, and on their backs rucksacks containing possessions salvaged from lives interrupted. Narin, a teacher from Mosul, hesitates as she and her group of survivors, Iraqi Yazidis and Kurds, approach the lone border police car stationed at the point where a corn field in Serbia becomes, a few metres onwards, a corn field in Croatia. "Every step away from Iraq, from the massacres of our people and those we left behind, has been so difficult," she says. "This seems too easy - we've forgotten what it is like to feel safe."

Fatima, pregnant with her third child, arrives exhausted, but despite the heat, dust and distance reminisces about family excursions to her parents' village in Syria. Mohammed Ali, her three-year-old son, runs ahead. He's wearing flip-flops, shorts and an over-sized vest, dragging behind him an over-stuffed blue unicorn given to him by volunteers at another border crossing. "He never lets go of that unicorn," Fatima says. "He feeds it and sleeps next to it and tells it stories about our journey".

Mahmoud, a Palestinian student from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, holding the hand of his young nephew, says: "This is our fate. We are experiencing what our grandparents and parents experienced. But with each generation, each exile, we are being scattered further away from home".

Later, during the seven hours spent waiting in the heat for their names to be registered by comparatively sympathetic Croatian border police, Mahmoud sings songs of loss, struggle and love to those sitting around him.

Starting at sunrise, the buses arrive, bringing a continuous flow of those seeking refuge from a multitude of situations involving war and conflict, persecution and general precariousness. A constant amongst them all, however, is the sense of dislocation and often vulnerability, expressed in words and questions and requests for reassurances, in the tensing of shoulders and tight inhalations of breath as painful memories from the past - both distant and recent - are recalled.

Kamaal and Sabiha, a middle-aged Kurdish couple from Mosul are accompanied by their cousin, the dignified Jamaal, who struggles down the dirt road on crutches. Kamaal had been in hospital recovering from a heart attack when Mosul was taken over by ISIS over a year ago. He, Sabiha and their eldest son rushed home to find their home ransacked and their four teenage children gone, including their thirteen-year-old daughter. They stayed on in Iraq searching for them for almost a year before leaving, in the hopes that perhaps their search will be more effective from the outside. As we walk Sabiha begins to cry. Her husband puts his arms around her, his own shoulders heaving. Later they cross the border arm in arm, Jamaal limping beside them.

The young, the elderly, those in wheelchairs carried by friends and family, the wounded, families, solo travelers, young couples holding hands disembark from buses in one quiet border town in Serbia and travel the next few kilometres on foot into another quiet border town in Croatia. From there, in the degrading, exhausting chaos of the weather-exposed Tovarnik train station, the better organised and welcoming volunteer-run rest-camp next to it, or in a recently established government-run processing camp, they will wait long days for transport that will hopefully take them a step closer to their final destinations - and to the extended family, friends or support networks that await some of them there.

Later, as night begins to fall, those arriving voice apprehension and doubt. The path is unmarked except for the presence of a handful of volunteers, and those walking now seek reassurance that the path and its surroundings really have been cleared of land mines, that they will not be detained, that they will not encounter police brutality, accounts of which have filtered back from those who were stranded in Horgos and Roszke at the Hungarian border.

Beneath a striking, star-filled night sky, Khalid, a 77-year old Circassian great-grandfather from Quneitra accompanied by his extended family, walks with a walking stick and politely refuses our offers of help with the large bag he carries on his back. "Continue to trust yourselves and each other," he advises fellow travellers. "We are strong and will face whatever difficulties lie ahead of us as we have faced everything else on this journey."

A group of Eritrean women and a lone traveler from Congo share a bag of oranges among themselves. "We have travelled from further away and are more used to the hardships of travelling and to walking long distances," says Mariam, a 22-year old nursing student. "We are young and strong but it is so difficult to see how all these children suffer."

A young Iraqi boy pleads with his father, who is already carrying his younger brother and their luggage, to carry him. His feet, like those of many others, are blistered and raw, every step painful. He sobs and begs and then cries silently as his father apologetically pulls him onwards, worried that the border might close, leaving them stranded. We take the boy to the medical tent and hurriedly dress and bandage his feet. Then they continue on into the night.

Zaynab and Mustafa, two children in wheelchairs, are ferried through the fields with their families in a volunteer's van. Mustafa's mother speaks of the difficulties they've faced over the past weeks. The overloaded rubber dinghy in which they crossed the Aegean Sea to Lesvos had begun to sink, and in order to keep it afloat for the final few hundreds of metres to shore they were forced to get rid of any excess weight they could by throwing their possessions overboard. She had to convince their fellow passengers to make an exception for Mustafa's heavy wheelchair. Sleeping on the streets and in temporary camps makes keeping him clean impossible. "I feel like I am failing him," she says. "I cannot change or bathe him regularly, and he feels very embarrassed when I have to do so without privacy."

Rima, a young law student from Aleppo, Syrian, and a mother herself, accompanies 8-year old Hiba, recently orphaned. Hiba's remaining family live in Sweden and are awaiting her. She looks around, wide-eyed, at the hundreds of people walking with them through the fields. The stars above and thin crescent moon are insufficient to light up the path, and the walkers rely on the lights of mobile phones to help them stay together as certain family members slow down, exhausted from their travels and the hundreds of kilometres many of them have already covered on foot.

For many of those making the crossing, the journey is far from over, and they are acutely aware of the heavily securitised borders to be crossed, the humiliating conditions they'll still have to endure. But the resilience, courage and strength of those seeking refuge is immeasurable, as they walk through these fields, down the roads and through the borders that will take them towards hoped-for possibilities that allow them to rebuild lives of dignity.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Who's the Guy in the White Suit Next to All Those Billionaires?

Many of you know the words: "And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." So sayeth Jesus in the New Testament's Book of Matthew, Chapter 19, Verse 24.

But if you were taking a close look at and giving a careful listen to some of those surrounding Pope Francis during his visit here in New York last week, you could practically hear joints pop and muscles groan as the superwealthy contorted themselves to thread the needle and purchase their way into the pontiff's good graces. Camels? These wealthy dromedaries gave a new meaning to Hump Day.

Notwithstanding his encounter with notorious, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, the pope's visit to the United States last week was a success, with millions turning out to get even a glimpse of him. But some had much better views than others. In fact, since before the Reformation, when the Catholic Church sold indulgences - pre-paid, non-stop tickets to heaven for affluent sinners - there has not often been such a display of ecclesiastic, conspicuous consumption and genuflection.

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

All of which, of course, is more than ironic when you think about the things Pope Francis has said and written about the rich and poor, some of which he expressed during last week's papal tour.

Back in November 2013, the pope wrote that, "While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few… A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules."

Ideas like that got Kenneth Langone, billionaire founder of Home Depot and major political bankroller of New Jersey's Chris Christie, a little hot under the collar. You may remember that last year he created a stir when he told Politico that he hoped a rise in populist sentiment against the one percent was not working, "because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don't survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy."

A year before, in 2013, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan had enlisted the DIY plutocrat to help raise $175 million to restore the grand and elegant St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, but in an interview Langone gave to the money network CNBC, he said one of his high rolling potential donors was concerned that the pope was being overly critical of market economies as "exclusionary" and attacking a "culture of prosperity… incapable of feeling compassion for the poor."

So Langone complained to Cardinal Dolan, and this is how the cardinal says he replied: "'Well, Ken, that would be a misunderstanding of the Holy Father's message. The pope loves poor people. He also loves rich people…' So I said, 'Ken, thanks for bringing it to my attention. We've gotta correct to make sure this gentleman understands the Holy Father's message properly.' And then I think he's gonna say, 'Oh, OK. If that's the case, count me in for St. Patrick's Cathedral.'"

"Oh, OK?" Oh, brother. Wonder how Pope Francis would have responded to that bit of priestly pragmatism? After all, Francis is the one who wrote, "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

But sure enough, there in the exclusive crowd at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue Thursday night, hanging out as the Vicar of Christ celebrated Vespers, was Kenneth Langone, soaking it all in. There, too, reportedly, were a couple of other crony capitalists and St. Patrick's fundraisers - Frank Bisignano, president and CEO of First Data Corp., and Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America.

Bisignano, known as "Wall Street's Mr. Fix-It" used to work for Citigroup and for Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and reportedly received annual compensation at First Data to the tune of $9.3 million. Moynihan was paid $13 million for 2014, down from $14 million in 2013. Last year, Bank of America, the second largest in the country - but the most hated - made a record-breaking $16.65 billion settlement with the Justice Department to pay up for allegations of unloading toxic mortgage investments during the housing boom. Nice.

But of all the fat cats suddenly in the thrall of the People's Pope, one was the most impressive. Watching Francis on television Friday afternoon as he met with kids up in East Harlem at Our Lady Queen of Angels primary school, I noticed a well-dressed man hovering near the pontiff. A politician, a government or Vatican official, I wondered? Nope, it was none other than Stephen Schwarzman, head of the giant private equity firm Blackstone.

He was paid a whopping $690 million last year and last week, he and his wife donated $40 million to pay for scholarships to New York City's Catholic schools. A generous gift for sure, but as Bill Moyers and I wrote in 2012, this is the same Stephen Schwarzman "whose agents in 2006 launched a predatory raid on a travel company in Colorado. His fund bought it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just seven months - one of the quickest returns on capital ever for such a deal."

"To celebrate his 60th birthday Mr. Schwarzman rented the Park Avenue Armory here in New York at a cost of $3 million, including a gospel choir led by Patti LaBelle that serenaded him with 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands.' Does he ever - his net worth is estimated at nearly $5 billion."

As The Wall Street Journal reported, "The Armory's entrance [was] hung with banners painted to replicate Mr. Schwarzman's sprawling Park Avenue apartment. A brass band and children clad in military uniforms ushered in guests… The menu included lobster, baked Alaska and a 2004 Louis Jadot Chassagne Montrachet, among other fine wines."

It must have seemed like Heaven to some. And what makes this billionaire's proximity to the pope all the more surreal is that just the morning before, Francis had spoken to Congress in reverent tones of two outspoken, radical, New York Catholics; activist and organizer Dorothy Day - co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement - and Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton, each of whom embraced poverty, social justice and resistance.

"We believe in an economy based on human needs rather than on the profit motive," Day wrote, and Merton worried about "the versatile blandishments of money." Day wished the church's bounty to be spread among the needy and not spent on cathedrals and ephemera. And Merton wrote, "It is easy enough to tell the poor to accept their poverty as God's will when you yourself have warm clothes and plenty of food and medical care and a roof over your head and no worry about the rent. But if you want them to believe you, try to share some of their poverty and see if you can accept it as God's will yourself."

Whether the irony struck Stephen Schwarzman is unknown. He himself was probably in too much of a hurry for contemplation. After East Harlem, he rushed off to the White House and that state dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. His plus-one was Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund manager who infamously told employees they should be like hyenas stalking wildebeest: "It is good for both the hyenas who are operating in their self-interest and the interest of the greater system… because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution (i.e., the natural process of improvement)."

There you have it. In the Bible - right before the camel and the eye of a needle, Jesus says, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." Masters of the Universe like Dalio and Schwarzman prefer the Law of the Jungle, buying proximity to holiness and assuaging guilt with cash, all the while upholding savage nature red in tooth and claw.

By the way, Schwarzman's wife gave the White House dinner a pass. She had a better deal: an excellent, paid in advance seat at the pope's mass in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden.

Opinion Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Conservative State "Think Tanks" Will Spin ALEC's 2016 Agenda

(Photo: Money via Shutterstock)(Photo: Money via Shutterstock)

This week, a shadowy network of state-based, right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups will convene with Koch operatives and other big donors in Grand Rapids, Michigan to coordinate their 2016 agenda for all 50 states.

The State Policy Network (SPN) is a network of state-branded groups, like the Civitas Institute in North Carolina and the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, which appear to be independent yet actually are operating from the same national playbook. SPN plays a key role in driving the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) agenda, particularly by providing academic-like cover for ALEC's corporate-friendly policies.

Union-busting, attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, privatization of higher education, and other items are on the SPN meeting agenda this week, offering a preview of the right-wing state legislative strategy for 2016.

The importance of the sprawling SPN network cannot be understated. SPN and its affiliates take in more than $80 million cumulatively each year, and documents provided to The Guardian in 2013 show that SPN coordinates fundraising for the supposedly "independent" groups, from Maine's Heritage Policy Center to Kentucky's Bluegrass Institute.

A significant chunk of the funding for SPN and its affiliates flows through Donors Trust and Donors Capitol, which are "donor-advised funds" that give funders an added layer of anonymity. Known funders of SPN and its affiliates include a number of usual suspects, such as the billionaire Koch brothers and the Wisconsin-based Bradley Foundation, as well as big tobacco companies like Altria/Phillip Morris and telecommunications players like AT&T and Time Warner. SPN's president, Tracie Sharp, has noted that "grants are driven by donor intent," and that "the donors have a very specific idea of what they want to happen."

This week's meeting will take place at a resort named for Amway, the company that fueled the enormous wealth of the DeVos family, which has underwritten parts of the SPN-ALEC agenda.

Coordinated, National Effort Advances ALEC Agenda

ALEC and SPN are, for the most part, interconnected, which is little wonder, given that SPN was housed with ALEC at the Heritage Foundation when it was founded in the late 1980s. Indeed, the topics discussed at this week's SPN meeting overlap significantly with the agenda at ALEC's annual meeting in July.

Where ALEC connects lobbyists with state legislators and promotes corporate-drafted model legislation, SPN affiliates provide the ground support. After an ALEC bill is introduced in a state, the SPN affiliates create the appearance of in-state support for the effort, generating "studies" or "news" stories purporting to show the benefits of the legislation or drumming up a façade of grassroots support.

The enactment of right-to-work in Wisconsin this year provides a good example of this coordinated effort.

Wisconsin ALEC politicians introduced a word-for-word copy of the ALEC "Right to Work Act" in early February. A week later, one of the SPN affiliates, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), published a "study" from ALEC Scholar Richard Vedder purporting to show that right-to-work would be great for Wisconsin's economy. (The study was very similar to reports that Vedder penned for SPN affiliates in Minnesota and Ohio).

David Koch's Americans for Prosperity - an SPN associate member - dropped at least $1 million in pro-right to work TV ads. Groups associated with SPN, like Michigan's Mackinac Center and the Heritage Foundation, testified in favor of the Wisconsin bill. And SPN member the MacIver Institute was "a leading voice during Wisconsin's battle to become the 25th Right to Work state in the country," according to a recent SPN publication.

And throughout the Wisconsin right to work debate, the Koch-connected Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity - an SPN associate member that operates state-based "news" sites on the platform - published stories on its "Wisconsin Watchdog" website boosting right to work and deriding protesters.

All of those same groups - ALEC, WPRI, AFP, Mackinac Center, Heritage, MacIver Institute, Franklin Center/ - will be represented at this week's meeting, as will representatives of the funders that backed these policies, like the Charles G. Koch Foundation and Koch Industries' lobbying arm.

Right to work in Michigan followed a similar pattern in 2013, with the SPN member in the state, the Mackinac Center, playing a key role in laying the groundwork for the measure and promoting the word-for-word ALEC right to work act. Later that year, SPN singled out the Mackinac Center's president, Joseph Lehman, for its highest award, the "Roe Award," for his group's role in making Michigan a right to work state. (Notably, despite being credited for this legislative victory, Mackinac told the IRS it did zero lobbying in 2013.)

As the failure of Scott Walker's presidential bid indicated, bashing unions may have limited resonance among the electorate - but it remains a top priority for big donors, and in turn, remains a top priority for SPN and ALEC.

SPN has several anti-union sessions at this week's meeting, including one called "Labor Unions in the Modern Workplace" featuring Rebecca Friedrichs, the plaintiff in the upcoming US Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association that could eviscerate public sector unions.

Attacking the EPA Clean Power Plan

A major priority for ALEC and SPN in recent months has been pushing back on the Environmental Protection Agency's "Clean Power Plan," which is a set of rules limiting carbon dioxide pollution from coal plants.

This week, SPN will hold two separate sessions attacking the Clean Power Plan rules, with presentations from groups like the Koch-backed Independent Women's Forum and the coal industry front group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

SPN member the Beacon Hill Institute has been central to the anti-Clean Power Plan effort, generating studies purporting to show the costs of the EPA plan - but without actually analyzing the plan. In February, The Guardian revealed that the notorious PR flak Richard Berman (called "Dr. Evil" by 60 Minutes) was secretly funding the Beacon Hill Institute studies, which were released and promoted by SPN member think tanks.

So far in 2015, Beacon Hill has released seven "studies" purporting to show the impact of the Clean Power Plan rules in seven states, in partnership with seven SPN member think tanks. As Media Matters has described, those include:

  • Iowa: Public Interest Institute, February 2015
  • Louisiana: Pelican Institute for Public Policy, February 2015
  • New Mexico: The Rio Grande Foundation, January 2015
  • North Carolina: The Civitas Institute, January 2015
  • South Carolina: Palmetto Promise Institute (formerly Palmetto Policy Forum), February 2015
  • Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, March 2015
  • Wisconsin: MacIver Institute for Public Policy, January 2015

ALEC has also been organizing a state-level campaign against the rules. The group organized legislators to press their state attorneys general into joining litigation backed by the energy industry that challenges the regulations, adopted a model resolution attacking the plan, and adopted a model bill that would create new hurdles for the Plan's implementation. At its most recent meeting, ALEC adopted the "Environmental Impact Litigation Act," a bill that effectively allows corporate interests to hire a state's Department of Justice as their own private attorneys. The bill creates a corporate-backed fund for states to sue over federal environmental laws - such as the Clean Power Plan - guided by an "environmental impact litigation advisory committee" made up of political appointees and representatives of "individuals representing agriculture and energy trade commissions."

Privatizing Higher Ed

Another session, called "Winning the War of Ideas in Higher Education: a Toolkit for State Reformers," is sponsored by the Pope Center for Higher Education, one of the many North Carolina-based institutions founded and funded by billionaire discount store magnate Art Pope, a close associate of the Koch brothers and an ALEC alum. Pope is credited with flipping North Carolina's legislature to Republican control in the 2010 elections, and bankrolling Governor Pat McCrory's win in 2012 (for which Pope was rewarded by being appointed budget director). Pope is also on the board of the Bradley Foundation and previously chaired David Koch's Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

This session is described in the SPN agenda as informing attendees "how your state can improve higher education- by limiting spending, fostering competition and protecting students' civil liberties. Successful reforms in North Carolina can be a model for your state."

By most measures, North Carolina is hardly a model for higher education policy. Since 2008, the state has cut its higher education spending per-student by 25 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Public Priorities, and tuition has gone up by nearly 35 percent over the same period. The state and university have additionally limited financial assistance for low-income students.

Yet according to those leading the presentation - Jay Schalin and Jenna Robinson of the John W. Pope Center - the crisis in higher education isn't cost or access. As The Nation reported earlier this year, Schalin says the main problem with higher education "has to do with the ideas that are being discussed and promoted," those being "multiculturalism, collectivism, left-wing post-modernism."

North Carolina is a "model" for SPN because it is ground zero for the right-wing attach on academia. Art Pope's network has led the charge not only to slash education funding in North Carolina - under the theory that higher education is an economic good, and that "subsidized" low tuition distorts the market - but also to shut down programs housed at the university that advocated for the poor and promoted civil engagement, and to instead create privately-funded education programs that advance the ideology of billionaire donors like Pope.

Earlier this year, the Pope Center for Higher Education released a report entitled "Renewal in the University" celebrating privately-funded centers that promote "the morality of capitalism" in order to balance "academia's gradual purging" of courses dedicated to "liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives."

It looks an awful lot like a calculated quest for power: cut public funding for universities, creating a financial shortfall, making it impossible for universities to turn-down funding from billionaires like the Popes and Kochs - even when strings are attached. It is a slow means of privatizing universities, of giving billionaires the ability to pull the strings at public universities, and to reshape academia in order to advance a personal ideological agenda.

Freeing the Poor and Learning From Amway

Other sessions include:

  • "The Lessons from Amway for Nonprofits," modeled after the multi-level marketing scheme that made the DeVos family billionaires. The DeVos' are big funders of some SPN member organizations as well as school privatization efforts, and Betsy DeVos herself will be speaking at SPN on how "to revolutionize the country's antiquated education model."
  • A workshop attacking municipal broadband (a longtime ALEC priority) sponsored by telecom industry front group "Coalition for the New Economy." The session will be moderated by a representative of the "news" site Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity/
  • "Freeing the Poor from the Government Poverty Trap through Policy Solutions and Private Services," which will include a presentation from the Foundation for Government Accountability, the Florida-based group best known for promoting welfare drug testing laws that critics say humiliate the poor.
  • A session highlighting a purported "lack of respect for job creators in many state policies," and a discussion of "how to build respect for job creators, remove barriers to employment and address this foremost concern of Americans."
  • "Case Studies in Effective Executive Branch Outreach," with presentations from groups like the Illinois Policy Institute and Ohio's Buckeye Institute.
  • "Free Market Approaches to Lowering Health Care Costs and Improving Access," with a presentation from the Cato Institute's Michael Cannon, who developed the challenge to the Affordable Care Act that was rejected by the US Supreme Court in King v. Burwell.
News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After Oregon Shooting, President Obama Says Gun Laws Need to Change

A visibly upset President Barack Obama decried the mass shooting in Oregon on Thursday, saying the US has grown "numb" to a constant spate of gun deaths and challenging Congress, voters and gun owners to do something about it.

"Our thoughts and prayers are not enough," Obama said. "It's not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America - next week, or a couple of months from now."

He said the country's response has become routine: "We've become numb to this.

"We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston," he said. "It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun."

Obama spoke in the briefing room at the White House after a gunman at an Oregon community college killed at least 10 people. It was by some accounts the 15th mass shooting Obama has addressed as president, including a June shooting in a Charleston, S.C. church that killed nine, including the pastor.

He said his critics would accuse him of politicizing the issue, but said he didn't care.

"This is something we should politicize, it is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic," he said. He challenged news organizations to compare the number of Americans killed by terror attacks to the number killed by gun violence.

"This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America," Obama said. "We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction."

He argued that when Americans are killed in mine disasters, it works to make mines safer and the US has seatbelt laws to save lives.

"The notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations doesn't make sense," he said.

He said he "hoped and prayed" it would be the last shooting he has to address as president, but added that, based on his experience "there is no guarantee."

Congress rejected much of Obama's call for an aggressive gun-control plan in the wake of a Connecticut elementary school shooting, but he asked Thursday for voters to look at how they can convince Congress to change the law.

"If you think this is a problem, then you should expect your elected officials to reflect your views," he said.

But Obama did not say he would lead such a charge. In the wake of the 2012 shooting he and vice president Joe Biden had made an aggressive pitch to ban assault weapons, limit ammunition magazines to 10 rounds, require background checks on all gun purchases, penalize those who buy guns from unlicensed dealers, hire 1,000 more school resource officers and spend millions more on training, research and counseling.

He did say that "each time this happens I'm going to bring this up," but said he needed Congress, state legislatures and governors to work with him.

Obama said there is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in the US, and he argued that tighter restrictions in some US cities and states and other countries have proved effective.

He sarcastically said he could already see the press releases issued by those opposed to new restrictions: "We need more guns, fewer gun safety laws. Does anybody really believe that?"

He didn't name the nation's most powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, which has vehemently opposed gun restrictions, but he asked responsible gun owners whether their views are reflected by "the organization that suggests it's speaking" for them.

Critics have questioned whether additional restrictions on guns would curb any of the shootings, suggesting that existing laws should first be enforced before more regulations are adopted.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Common Solvent Keeps Killing Workers, Consumers

Johnathan Welch was 18 and working through lunch when the fumes killed him, stealing oxygen from his brain and stopping his heart. The chemical linked to his death in 1999 wasn't a newly discovered hazard, nor was it hard to acquire. Methylene chloride can still be bought today. And it's still killing people.

(Photo: Methylene Chloride via shutterstock)(Photo: Methylene Chloride via shutterstock)This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, DC.

Johnathan Welch was 18 and working through lunch when the fumes killed him, stealing oxygen from his brain, stopping his heart.

The chemical linked to his death in 1999 wasn't a newly discovered hazard, nor was it hard to acquire. Methylene chloride, which triggered similar deaths dating as far back as the 1940s, could be bought barely diluted in products on retail shelves.

It still can. And it's still killing people.

The solvent is common in paint strippers, widely available products with labels that warn of cancer risks but do not make clear the possibility of rapid death. In areas where the fumes can concentrate, workers and consumers risk asphyxiation or a heart attack while taking care of seemingly routine tasks.

That hazard prompted the European Union to pull methylene chloride paint strippers from general use in 2011. For reasons that aren't clear, regulatory agencies in the United States have not followed suit - or even required better warnings - despite decades of evidence about the dangers, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found.

A Center analysis identified at least 56 accidental exposure deaths linked to methylene chloride since 1980 in the US Thirty-one occurred before Johnathan Welch died, 24 after. The most recent was in July. Many involved paint strippers; in other cases victims used the chemical for tasks such as cleaning and gluing carpet, according to death investigations and autopsy reports the Center obtained through Freedom of Information Act and state open records requests.

Teenagers on the job, a mother of four, workers nearing retirement, an 80-year-old man - the toxic vapors took them all. A Colorado resident one year older than Welch was killed his first day at a furniture-stripping shop. Three South Carolina workers were felled in a single incident in 1986. Church maintenance employee Steve Duarte, 24, survived the Iraq War only to be killed in 2010 while stripping a baptismal pool in California.

"People have died, it poses this cancer threat … and everybody knows it's a bad chemical, and yet nobody does anything," said Katy Wolf, who recommends safer alternatives to toxic chemicals as director of the nonprofit Institute for Research and Technical Assistance in California. "It's appalling and irresponsible."

Two Medical College of Wisconsin researchers writing in The Journal of the American Medical Association criticized the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency for remaining "mute" on methylene chloride's ability to trigger a heart attack. Year of publication: 1976.

The EPA says it does intend to take action. It is working on a rule - expected to be proposed early next year - that could stiffen warning labels on paint strippers containing the chemical, add certain restrictions or ban the products. But any regulation would come more than 30 years after the agency first considered such possibilities for methylene chloride.

The industry is lobbying against a rule, saying the chemical already is well-regulated and remains the most effective way to remove paint.

Faye Graul, executive director of the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, a trade group that includes methylene chloride manufacturers, said the way to stop the string of deaths is simple: "Proper use of the product." Labels on the cans warn against using in areas that aren't well ventilated.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, for its part, denied a 1985 petition to ban the chemical in household products, when the issue was cancer, requiring instead a carcinogen warning that appears on cans in fine print. And CPSC staff shrugged off requests by California and Washington state officials in 2012 to consider stiffer regulation in response to the recurring deaths, later contending that the problem is an occupational one - even though consumers have died, too.

"To provide information to the public concerning this matter, CPSC has produced a paint stripper pamphlet," an agency toxicologist wrote to the state officials in letters obtained by the Center.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration tightened its rules for on-the-job exposures to methylene chloride in 1997. But OSHA standards don't cover consumers or the self-employed, and many of the recent fatalities happened at sites that are virtually invisible to the agency until there's a death - inside residential bathrooms where lone workers strip tubs of old, chipped finishes.

Methylene chloride offers a case study in how products that pose major risks remain on store shelves. Stuart M. Statler, who helped write the Consumer Product Safety Act and served as a Republican commissioner on the CPSC from 1979 to 1986, said too often companies don't prioritize safety, seeing it as a needless cost. And agencies are unlikely to force the point with bans. He doesn't see that changing.

"The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of deregulation," said Statler, now a product safety and regulatory consultant.

"Too Hazardous" Outside Controlled Settings

Methylene chloride, also called dichloromethane, is briskly efficient in all that it does. It softens old paint in minutes, allowing the coating to be scraped off. But if its fumes build up in an enclosed space, it can kill in minutes, too.

The California Department of Public Health, in its appeal to the CPSC, said the continuing deaths suggest methylene chloride is "too hazardous to be used outside of engineered industrial environments" - exactly what the European Union concluded about the chemical in paint strippers. While these products can be bought at home-improvement and general retail stores across the US, the specialty respirators and polyvinyl-alcohol gloves needed to handle them safely cannot, the Department of Public Health says.

Even workers wearing respiratory protection have succumbed. Levi Weppler, 30, who left a widow pregnant with their first child, was among those found dead with a respirator on, slumped over the Ohio bathtub he was refinishing in 2011. The cartridge-style device he used to filter the air wasn't enough: Only a full-face respirator with a separate air supply, or exhaust ventilation to remove the fumes, is sufficient, OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say.

By 1985, US agencies considered methylene chloride a probable human carcinogen - the Food and Drug Administration banned it in hairspray as a result. But the rapid-death problem was identified even earlier. In 1976, NIOSH noted that reports of such fatalities dated to 1947, when four men using the chemical for hops extraction were "overcome" and one of them died.

Dr. Kenneth Rosenman, chief of Michigan State University's Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, helped identify the more recent trend of bathtub fatalities from methylene chloride in a 2012 paper that has galvanized efforts by public-health officials.

They fear the fume risk isn't widely known.

"It's not surprising to the scientists who have studied methylene chloride in paint strippers when used in small spaces, but I think it's surprising to the worker and consumer who can purchase the product off the shelf," said Dr. Robert Harrison, chief of the California Department of Public Health's occupational health surveillance program.

Methylene chloride exposure triggers regular calls to the nation's poison control centers. They handled more than 2,700 such cases in the five years ending in 2013, the most recent data.

The number involving inhalation wasn't recorded, but almost all the exposures were accidental. Hundreds involved children. And about 950 of the exposed people went to the hospital or sought other medical treatment, according to a Center analysis of American Association of Poison Control Centers reports.

The death toll compiled by the Center, meanwhile, almost certainly is an undercount. Poison control centers don't hear about all incidents. OSHA tracks workplace fatalities, but not cases involving the self-employed or consumers. And Rosenman is sure the true cause of death for some methylene chloride victims is missed, given the chemical's ability to trigger a heart attack.

Paint-stripping powerhouse W.M. Barr & Co., an employee-owned company in Tennessee that makes several methylene chloride brands, including ones linked to six worker deaths since 2006, sees the safety issue differently.

Barr's founder helped the Navy develop the product during World War II to avoid fire hazards after a deadly incident on a ship involving a flammable paint stripper, according to Barr's vice president of risk management, Mike Cooley. Methylene chloride is nonflammable. Several million cans of paint stripper containing the chemical are sold in the US each year, Cooley wrote in an email to the Center.

"One cannot but help conclude that for the vast, vast majority of consumers, the products were and continue to be safe," he wrote. "Like many products, there are hazards related to the use of [methylene chloride] paint removers. However when used in the proper setting and as directed, they are not only effective but safe."

Swift Death

Setting aside longer-term health concerns, such as cancer, the danger posed by methylene chloride is its one-two punch when fumes accumulate. Because it turns into carbon monoxide in the body, it can starve the heart of oxygen and prompt an attack. The chemical also acts as an anesthetic at high doses: Its victims slump over, no longer breathing, because the respiratory centers of their brains switch off.

An open flame, meanwhile, can transform methylene chloride to phosgene. That's the poisonous gas used to deadly effect during World War I, responsible for more fatalities than chlorine and mustard gas combined. (Whether methylene chloride became phosgene in any of the deaths the Center tracked isn't clear; full records were not available in all cases.)

The 1986 triple-fatality shows how swiftly death can come.

Several contracting firms were working on projects at a dam pumping station in Laurens, South Carolina. One had employees applying paint stripper to an underground area, described by OSHA in records as a basement and a pumping pit. Those workers managed to evacuate after the fumes built up, but when one man went back in, he was overcome so quickly he couldn't get out.

He died. The emergency medical responder who tried to rescue him had to be hospitalized. Two of another contractor's employees went through the same exercise, one entering the area to turn on the sump pump and passing out, the other felled while checking on him, according to OSHA records. The first man survived; the would-be rescuer did not.

To top it off, an electrician working aboveground "heard an unusual noise," according to OSHA, and died in the basement when he went to see what it was.

Four years ago at a California paint company, Gary de la Peña discovered a co-worker lying unconscious in a nine-foot-deep paint-mixing tank. The man had been cleaning it with paint stripper and collapsed. De la Peña rushed in, pulled off his colleague's useless respirator and put him over one shoulder to carry him out. That's all he remembers. Already - in just a matter of seconds - the fumes had overcome him, too. 

The man he was trying to save died. De la Peña, now 49 and living in Mexico City, still doesn't know how he survived. He was in the tank for at least 45 minutes, green foam flowing from his mouth when he was finally pulled out. He had to be resuscitated and was hospitalized for four days, according to a state investigation

He wasn't able to finish his medical treatments before his immigration status forced him back to Mexico. His health has never been the same. 

"I guess it attacked my nervous system," said de la Peña, who knew nothing about methylene chloride until after his brush with it. "It's a really dangerous chemical." 

Sufficiently concentrated, methylene chloride will kill anyone. But people with heart conditions face higher risks because it doesn't take as much carbon monoxide to trigger an attack. Smokers can be affected more quickly, too, given their already-elevated carbon monoxide levels.

In one incident, detailed in the 1976 Journal of the American Medical Association article, a 66-year-old retiree had three heart attacks - the last one fatal - that each began as he was stripping a large chest of drawers. 

"Nobody warned him," said Rosenman, the Michigan State professor.

What Agencies Have Done - and Left Undone

Judy Braiman remembers reading about the heart-attack risk in the 1970s, probably in that same JAMA article. Around 1977, her Empire State Consumer Association in New York petitioned the CPSC to require a warning on methylene chloride paint strippers that "particular care … must be exercised by persons with heart problems or impaired lung function" because carbon monoxide would form in the body from use. The CPSC, alarmed, announced that its staff was drafting a proposed warning.

Braiman, a former CPSC advisor and president of the since-renamed Empire State Consumer Project, clearly remembers seeing the carbon monoxide cautions appear on cans afterward - only to disappear a few years later. The CPSC never did require them, the agency says. 

Today, some labels tell customers with heart problems to check with a physician before using paint strippers. The Center could find none that specifically warned about carbon monoxide or heart attacks.

Alex Filip, a spokesman for the CPSC, said by email that he doesn't have much information on the agency's methylene chloride work in the 1970s because the staffers involved are all gone. As to why the commission didn't consider regulation more recently, he suggested that its hands are tied - something that was not communicated to the state officials in the letters responding to their requests for help.

"One fact that stands out in our early investigation is that the injury and death information indicates that this is largely a workplace issue, which is outside of our jurisdiction," Filip wrote. CPSC staff tell him their review of epidemiology data found no people who died as a result of using the products as consumers, and they believe the agency's stance on warning labels is "still appropriate."

Yet deaths from the solvent that involve consumers, though far harder to track than worker fatalities, have occurred in the US The CPSC, in fact, said in its 1978 announcement of proposed warnings that it was aware of "at least three" heart-attack deaths among people using methylene chloride paint strippers in 1976 alone. In 1990, a coroner blamed the chemical after Julette "Julie" Jenkins, a 28-year-old Ohio woman who had been stripping a desk in her attic, dropped dead on the first floor, teacup in hand. And an 80-year-old man died from unintentionally inhaling methylene chloride in 2013, the poison control center system reported.

As the CPSC notes, another agency is working on the issue now - the EPA. Paint strippers with methylene chloride are a test case, one of a handful of chemical uses the EPA recently assessed in hopes of using the weak Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, to actually control toxic substances.

"About one person per year over the last dozen years or so has died, usually in an enclosed space like a bathroom," Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said of methylene chloride strippers. "Certainly [that] is what jumped out at us. But when we did the assessment, we also found cancer risks."

The solvent industry opposes the effort. After the EPA identified methylene chloride in 2012 as a chemical it intended to assess, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance told the agency it was "mystified" by the attention. Methylene chloride "is more than adequately regulated" already, wrote Graul, the group's executive director.

Paint stripper warning labels, in Spanish as well as English, all advise against using the products in poorly ventilated areas, she said in a recent interview. Some give bathrooms as an example.

"There are precautions on how to use it, how not to use it," Graul said. "Amateurs were taking it and stripping bathtubs with it, with no ventilation, and there were fatalities as a result."

But a Center review of products sold at 15 home-improvement stores in the Baltimore-Washington region did not turn up any that explained, on the label, the potentially fatal consequences of using without sufficient airflow. The closest to it: that "intentional misuse" - so-called huffing to get a chemical high - could result in death.

This story is part of Environmental Justice, Denied. A look at the environmental problems that disproportionately affect communities of color. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.

Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400
LGBT "Pods" Won't Keep Trans and Queer People in Immigration Detention Safe

Christina Lopez is an undocumented Peruvian trans woman being held in a "GBT pod" in the immigration detention center in Santa Ana, California. She needs medication for Hepatitis C, but after repeated requests, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to deny her access to them.

Lopez's medical crisis is the latest in the ongoing denial of basic needs for trans women and other LGBTQI people in immigration detention. Hers is one of many cases which are leading LGBTQI activists across the country to demand freedom for LGBTQI people from immigration detention.

This summer, ICE released a memo announcing a shift in policy that moved towards creating different options for transgender women who have been detained in men's detention facilities, even suggesting that there was a possibility that trans women could be held in women's detention centers. Getting trans women out of men's detention centers is an obvious win - it's well-known that trans women face major amounts of sexual violence in detention centers, and it's inherently transmisogynistic to keep trans women locked up with men in the first place.

Since the memo was released, however, it has become clear that this means the creation of new spaces called "GBT pods" in detention centers, specifically for trans women and gay and bisexual men. Lopez is housed in a GBT pod, and her case illuminates that they are not a viable alternative. "It's been shown that ICE isn't capable of caring for folks in general, but especially trans women. So that includes medical neglect, sexual assault by peers and sexual assault by guards," said Jamila Hammami, Executive Director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP), which supports detained and formerly detained immigrants in New York.

The only way for LGBTQI immigrants to be safe is for them to be released from immigration detention.

Jennicet Gutiérrez, an organizer with Familia Trans Queer Liberation Movement, publicly called on President Obama earlier this year to release transgender women from detention centers, and she said stories she had heard from undocumented trans women who had been in detention centers inspired her to speak out. She told Autostraddle, "With the mistreatment, the lack of medical care, and the horrible stories I heard when I spoke to undocumented trans women who were released from detention centers… To me it was very critical at that moment to raise my voice on behalf of the undocumented trans and queer LGBTQ community."

"They Treat Us Badly Either Way"

The theory behind GBT pods is that, since the people detained there will not be with the general population, and the guards will have special "sensitivity" training, they will be safe. But GBT pods are not a new concept, and they don't have a track record that lives up to their claims of safety. The staff at the Santa Ana GBT pod, which has existed for several years, have been reported to have told detained trans women to "act male" or use their "male voice." The same investigation by CIVIC found that women in the facility were frequently subject to full body cavity searches, often by male guards.

The ICE memo issued earlier this summer reiterated the need for proper training for those entrusted with the care of transgender women, however, there is little guarantee this will happen, or that if it does happen, it will be effective or administered with comprehensive oversight. Santa Ana's GBT pod isn't the only one with a spotty record. Around the country GBT pods, "alternative lifestyle tanks," and other special units for GBT people have each found their own special ways to exclude, isolate and abuse GBT inmates. It's all but impossible to find a story where GBT people haven't been subject to harassment and abuse, whether or not they are in a special section, whether or not their guards have been "trained" on caring for GBT inmates.

So far, the public information about where GBT pods will be is limited. Reports from Hammami and Rita*, a currently detained trans woman seeking asylum, who was recently moved to Santa Ana, suggest that they've expanded the number of people at the GBT pod in Santa Ana. There is also a "makeshift" GBT pod in the detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It seems that there is a larger GBT pod on track to open in Adelanto, California, which is about an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles. This has bad implications for people who will be detained there, as Adelanto is notorious for subpar medical care, and it is owned by a private company, which also makes for less transparency and accountability when it comes to conditions and compliance with ICE policy.

Rita wrote to me about her experience in the men's detention center in Eloy, Arizona, and then in the GBT pod in Santa Ana. At Eloy, she was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions by guards. She was finally transferred to the GBT pod in Santa Ana, California this summer, but it is unclear if her transfer was a result of new ICE policy or because of action Rita took on her own behalf to demand her transfer. "Here we are only trans women… they are bringing more trans women from other detention centers and I think that's good," Rita told me. But she also said there seemed to be little concern over the fact that LGBTQI immigrants are considered vulnerable, confirming the continued practice of full body cavity searches. "They treat us badly either way, and without conscience," she wrote.

"Support Makes a Difference"

In late August, activists and organizers from across the US and Canada came together at the second Queering Immigration conference, put on by QDEP. Groups included Mariposas sin Fronteras from Tucson, Arcoiris Liberation Team and Arizona Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project from Phoenix, Immigration EqualityDetention Watch NetworkUnited We Dream, and Mason Dreamers, all of which work with the undocumented community in different ways. Connected to the conference, QDEP organized an action outside ICE Headquarters in New York City, demanding an end to GBT pods.

Several of the people who spoke at the rally shared about their experiences in detention. One speaker stressed the urgency and timeliness of the protest, pointing out that ICE is actively developing policy and protocol around detaining LGBTQI people.

The action called on ICE to release all LGBTQI immigrants from detention, echoing the calls from the Free Nicoll Week of Action earlier this year, as well as Gutierrez's call to the president. This demand is directed at ICE and the president because immigrants are detained at the discretion of policy they create and enforce. Immigration detention is not the same as prison - people are held there not as a part of a sentence for a crime, but in order to contain them while their immigration cases are determined.

Also at the conference, Karolina and Joselyn, two trans Latina activists who work with QDEP and Mariposas Sin Fronteras, spoke about their experiences and gave tips to what would be actually helpful to trans women who have been or are currently detained. These ideas included helping people access basic needs, like housing, food and healthcare, raising money for bail funds, and visiting or sending letters to incarcerated LGBT people.

Karolina and Joselyn's discussion painted a broader picture of the needs for undocumented queer and trans people - getting them out of detention is a huge and critical step, but making sure their basic needs are met outside of detention is a fight unto itself. Karolina and Josselyn discussed facing discrimination in their job searches, housing challenges and healthcare. Healthcare is a huge battle for undocumented queer and trans people. Trans and queer citizens and legal residents face huge barriers in the US healthcare system to begin with. Undocumented people are additionally excluded from government-funded healthcare programs like Medicaid, and can also be put at risk for deportation in hospitals and doctors' offices, like we saw last week when Blanca Borrego was arrested at her gynecologist's office after the office staff called the police because of her ID.

Gutiérrez also discussed the challenges facing trans women upon their release from detention centers:

"People are released from detention centers and there are very few resources we have at the moment. …When one of our sisters is released and she doesn't have any family support, we come together as a community and we try to help them get back on their feet and reintegrate into society. But this is an issue that organizations have been working on throughout the US for the past two to three years. It's nothing new."

Many local groups do outreach through direct visitation and letter writing with people in detention centers. Gutiérrez spoke to the importance of that support: "That support makes a difference. I spoke to Jimela, who was in detention for about six months… she opened up about how much it gave her hope [to have someone reach out to her] and helped her feel really really good."

But ultimately, Gutiérrez said, "I think one of the biggest things is to put pressure on [ICE] to release them."

To get Christina Lopez the care she needs, Familia TQLM, Not1More Deportation, and GetEQUAL have organized a petition for her release. Their work continues alongside other groups organizing across the country, both to support detained LGBTQI immigrants and those who have been recently released, and to pressure ICE to end LGBTQI detention.

*Note: To protect her privacy and safety while she is detained and her case is open, Rita's name has been changed. Rita's words have also been translated from Spanish - special thanks to Audrey for helping with translation.

News Fri, 02 Oct 2015 00:00:00 -0400