Truthout Stories Wed, 01 Apr 2015 18:47:13 -0400 en-gb Who's on Your Side - Elizabeth Warren or Jamie Dimon?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and fellow Democratic Senators discuss a bill addressing student loan debt, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 5, 2014. (Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times)Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and fellow Democratic Senators discuss a bill addressing student loan debt, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 5, 2014. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk / The New York Times)

The history of the US includes the history of many people confronting corporate power and winning.

In fact, the whole reason the colonists started the United States was because individuals and small businesses wanted to fight back against the dominant corporation of the day, the British East India Company.

Here's a little history lesson you won't see on Fox so-called News...

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

By the 1770s, the British East India Company, despite being the most powerful corporation in the world, was essentially bankrupt and faced fierce competition from small-business owners who were cutting into its tea trade with North America.

And so it lobbied the Parliament of Great Britain to pass the Tea Act of 1773.

This act gave the British East India Company total control over the North American tea trade, exempted it from having to pay taxes on exported tea, and gave it a refund on any tea it was unable to sell.

It was the largest corporate tax cut in the history of the world, and set up the East India Company to pull a Walmart and put all the small, local tea shops across the US out of business.

Not surprisingly, this really angered the colonists.

They were furious at seeing their business undercut to help out a big corporation, and so a group of them in Boston known as the Sons of Liberty decided to take action.

On the night of December 16, 1773, they stormed a group of ships docked in Boston Harbor and tossed chest upon chest of East India tea into the freezing winter water.

The events of that night, now known as the Boston Tea Party, set off another chain of events that eventually led to the Declaration of Independence and the creation of our republic.

That's right, conservatives: The American Revolution started with an act of corporate vandalism by the good citizens of Boston!

The Boston Tea Party is just one example, though, of a much larger trend in US history.

And that trend is the trend of "We the People" taking action, both through movement politics and through our democratic government, against entrenched corporate power.

From the 1770s until, really, the Reagan era, Americans rose up every few decades or so to reclaim our democracy from the economic royalists who'd hijacked it.

The Jeffersonian Revolution of 1800, Jackson's Bank War, the Progressive Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the New Deal of the 19-teens and the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Great Society of the 1960s – all of these pivotal turning points in our nation's history are examples of "We the People" and our elected representatives taking on the billionaires and winning.

But ever since the Reagan era, something strange has happened.

With a few notable exceptions, it's the corporations that now call the shots, and they can pretty much do whatever they want.

Things have gotten so bad that a captain of industry can sit in the office of US senator and basically flip her the bird.

In a new afterword to her book, A Fighting Chance, Elizabeth Warren tells an amazing story about an encounter she had in 2013 with JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon.

After an argument about whether JPMorgan was over-regulated, the conversation quickly turned to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency Senator Warren helped set up.

At that point, she writes,

Our exchange heated up quickly... Dimon told me what he thought it would take to get Congress to confirm a [CFPB] director, terms that included gutting the agency's power to regulate banks like his... I told him that if that happened, "I think you guys are breaking the law."

Suddenly Dimon got quiet. He leaned back and slowly smiled. "So hit me with a fine. We can afford it."

Wow, I mean - wow.

If that doesn't demonstrate how much corporate power has usurped government power, I don't know what does.

If billionaires like Jamie Dimon can walk into the office of a US senator and mock her to her face, something is truly rotten in at the core of US democracy.

Ever since the Boston Tea Party, the way we as Americans supposedly determine whether our government is behaving in an appropriate fashion is whether it's protecting "We The People" - us average citizens.

Today, thanks to the Supreme Court saying that industry can use money to distort politics, our government no longer looks out for average citizens, but instead promotes and protects the interests of the rich and powerful.

Sure, some politicians like Elizabeth Warren do speak out about issues that affect everyday people, but by and large, corporations and the rich get their way, much as they did over 200 years ago when the British parliament passed the Tea Act.

The solution, of course, is to get money out of politics once and for all.

Go to to find out more.

Opinion Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Seattle City Council Is Fighting the TPP's Fast-Track: An Interview With Kshama Sawant

The Seattle City Council resoundingly approved a resolution Monday evening cementing its opposition to so-called Fast Track authority that's needed to speed passage of corporate-friendly, rights-trampling trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Indiana Scrambles to Contain Growing Corporate, Public Outcry Over Anti-LGBT "Religious Freedom" Law

As the state of Indiana faces increasing pressure to repeal a new religious freedom law, Arkansas lawmakers have passed a similar bill that critics say could allow business owners to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers in the name of religious freedom. Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he plans to sign the bill into law. On Tuesday, the CEO of Walmart, Arkansas’s largest corporation, called for Hutchinson to veto the bill. Walmart joins a growing number of corporations opposing the religious freedom bills. Nine chief executive officers, including the heads of Apple, Angie’s List and Eli Lilly, have spoken out in protest. A number of states and cities have also taken action, banning officials from traveling to Indiana. On Tuesday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said he stood by the law but urged lawmakers to work on reforming its language. We go to Indianapolis to speak with Indiana State Senate Democratic leader Tim Lanane, who led his party’s opposition to the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" before its passage.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As the state of Indiana faces increasing pressure to repeal a new religious freedom law, Arkansas lawmakers have passed a similar bill that critics say could allow business owners to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers in the name of religious freedom. Republican Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson, has said he plans to sign the bill into law. On Tuesday, the CEO of Wal-Mart, Arkansas’s largest corporation, called for the governor to veto the bill. Wal-Mart joins a growing number of corporations opposing the religious freedom bills. Apple, Angie’s List, Eli Lilly, Gap, Marriot, NASCAR and the NCAA have asked Indiana state officials to take immediate action to ensure the act will not sanction or encourage discrimination. Unlike other states with similar laws, Indiana and Arkansas grant corporations the right to religious freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: A number of states and cities have also taken action. On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned non-essential state travel to Indiana in support of LGBT members. New York City has done the same. The states of Connecticut and Washington had already banned official travel to Indiana as have San Francisco, Seattle and Denver. At a news conference, Tuesday, Indiana’s Republican Governor Mike Pence said he stood by the law but urged lawmakers to work on reforming the language.

GOV. MIKE PENCE: This legislation was designed to ensure the vitality of religious liberty in the Hoosier state. I believe Hoosiers are entitled to the same protections that have been in place in our federal courts for the last 20-plus years, and in the law in 30 other states, but clearly, clearly there has been misunderstanding and confusion, and mischaracterization of this law. And I come before you today to say how we are going to address that. I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe. I believe every Hoosier shares that conviction. But, as I said, we’ve got a perception problem here, because some people have a different view, and we intend to correct that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On the campaign trail, potential Republican candidates including Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have defended Governor Pence and Indiana’s law. In a statement, Cruz said, "Indiana is giving voice to millions of courageous conservatives across this country who are deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks upon our personal liberties."

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Indiana legislation, we go to Indianapolis to talk to Tim Lanane, Indiana Senate Democratic Leader. He has led the Democratic opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you start out by giving us the legislative history? How did this bill get introduced? What was in reaction to?

SEN. TIM LANANE: Well, that is a very good question. And thank you very much for having me on the program today. The timing of this, one has to look at that, because, you know, last year, the state of Indiana basically rejected an amendment which had been proposed, really, for a long time, for a number of years, to amend its constitution to ban a gay marriage, to ban same-sex couples from marrying. Then, the opposition, of course, to that, the opposition — I should say the proponents of such an amendment, are now the same people that are the proponents for the RFRA law.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I fully support, and my caucus, the Democratic Senate Caucus, fully supports the idea of religious freedom, and the right to practice your religion free from interference from the government, but unfortunately, in response to, I feel, the rejection of the marriage amendment last year, comes this bill, which is written much broader than any of the other RFRA laws, including the federal law, that was signed decades ago, and causes one to look at the language involved to see what could be the implications or the ramifications of this, and this is what has caused the concern, because there is a belief that the law is written in such a fashion that it could, unfortunately, allow for discrimination against the LGBT community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Senator Lanane, what are some of the differences between — the supporters of this bill say it’s not much different from the federal law that was passed decades ago. What are some of those specific differences?

SEN. TIM LANANE: Several very important differences. One, of course is just the definition of who can apply the law, and the definition of a person who is to be protected, as you might say, underneath the law, is so broad, that it includes, basically, not only a real person, but any business entity under the sun — partnerships, limited liability corporations, all corporations, basically, would have the right to bring suit if they desired underneath the act, and there — that is another substantial difference between the federal law because the federal law is written in such a way that it is not allowable for a private individual to bring a suit. The government could intervene and do such, but this law is written in such a fashion that we feel it would allow for lawsuits between private individuals, even. The definition of what is a religious practice is very broad. So, there are some very substantial differences between the Indiana RFRA law and all other laws.

Another major substantial difference is that many of these states that have enacted their own less broad, if you will, more narrow RFRA laws, also to make sure that no one is discriminated against, at the same time include within their civil rights acts protection specifically for sexual orientation or the LGBT community. We do not have that in the state of Indiana, and that is a major gap that exists in the state of Indiana when it comes to protecting members of the LGBT community.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to ABC News , Sunday, Indiana Governor Pence defended the law. He said both Presidents Clinton, Obama have supported versions of the law, as have 19 other states besides Indiana.

GOV. MICHAEL PENCE: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into federal law by President Clinton more than 20 years ago and it lays out a framework for ensuring that a very high level of scrutiny is given anytime government action in pinches on the religious liberty of any American. After that, some 19 states followed that, adopted that statute, and after last year’s Hobby Lobby case, Indiana, properly, brought the same version that, then state Senator Barack Obama, voted for in Illinois before our legislature, and I was proud to sign it into law last week.

AMY GOODMAN: Tim Lanane, I was wondering if you can respond to, well, why the signing was private, but, the photograph of that signing, and the people who were there — GLAAD, particularly, focused on this, the group against defamation of gays and lesbians, talking about including Micah Clark who refers to a license plate benefitting and LGBT youth center to a plate promoting smoking, Curt Smith, standing with the governor, who equates homosexuality with bestiality and adultery, Ali. Eric Miller, while attempting to defeat to defeat federal hate crimes laws protecting LGBT people, falsely claimed pedophilia is a sexual orientation on par with homosexuality.

SEN. TIM LANANE: Well, yes, and of course that raises concern because those are the three exact individuals who led groups that opposed, or I should say who were the proponents for amending our Constitution last year to ban same-sex marriage, and they have had a long-standing history of anti-gay legislation that they want to see adopted in the state of Indiana, and there they stand, immediately behind the governor in this picture.

Further, they have said, publicly, that they believe this RFRA bill will allow for businesses to discriminate, if you will, against gays, to refuse services to gays. They put right on their websites that this will now allow a florist or a baker to refuse to participate in a gay marriage, a reception, if you will, following the marriage, even. So, this is a very dangerous type of discussion, and of course it leads to people questioning the motives or the reason for a RFRA bill that is written so broadly. This is, again, why we have said you need to do several things. We have said repeal and protect. That would be the best thing, send the boldest message. If they don’t want to do that, well then you’ve got to at least repair that — the RFRA bill, but you must immediately moved to put protection for the LGBT community in our civil rights act.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Senator Lanane, the firestorm that has erupted in the past few days around this issue, especially with the eyes of the sports world being focused on Indiana this weekend with the final four college basketball championship in Indianapolis, what’s — could you comment on the national pressure now on Governor pence to make a change here.

SEN. TIM LANANE: Well, there is national pressure, and so, people are watching throughout the nation, throughout the world. What is Indiana going to do in response to this? Perhaps we didn’t see the extent of this reaction. We warned — the Senate Democrats warned on the floor of the Senate when we considered this bill that we thought there would be an outrage that would occur. We did not see the depth of it.
But, nonetheless, it is here now, it’s real, and we have to react to it, it’s costing us money.

We have conventions that are being canceled. We have all of these companies threatening to withhold their business in the state, or to drawback on their connections with our state, and this, we do not need, because, Indiana is a good state, and we have people. And what I have heard since then is a grassroots from the people of Indiana saying this is not what Indiana is about.

Please, let’s make it clear that in Indiana we don’t want discrimination, and whatever we need to discrimination. Whatever we need to do, — dissemination. Whatever we need to do, let’s do that to make that the official policy of the state of Indiana. I am confident we can do that. I am going to be asking the governor and the Republican leaders, let’s take this bold action we need to to put it officially in our policy in the state of Indiana, we shall not discriminate against any person.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to an Indiana protester who is advocating for recalling the legislators who supported the law.

PROTESTOR: We can recall this governor, we can recall the 63 legislators that voted yes, we can recall the 40 senators and we can take back our state from those people trying to take us back 70 years.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the protests have been massive over the weekend and continue through the week and continue through the week. That’s people on the ground protesting, but it’s not just a progressive/conservative divide. As you’re pointing out, these large corporations — Angie’s List has said it will not continue a $40 million expansion. Everyone from Marriott to the Gap. This is a kind of response — have you ever seen before? And I’m wondering how it’s playing out in the state Senate, in the General assembly. What are the Republicans doing there? Have they ever seen their traditional supporters attack them like this?

SEN. TIM LANANE: I don’t think so. I don’t think they have ever seen the depth of this type of a reaction. So, they are, I think, in a little bit of a crisis mode, or maybe a lot of a crisis mode. They are not exactly sure what to do. We have tried to, as the Democrats, to propose to them ways that we think we can send the message that will try to calm the storms, as one of the Republican leaders put it, that we need to do, but I think, right now, I am afraid that they believe a Band-Aid approach to this is going to be enough, and I am almost certain that is not what those corporations are looking for. They are looking for major steps to be taken to affirm the fact that in the state of Indiana, overwhelmingly, people are against discrimination, and we can do that. We just have to do it now, and it has to take bold action, which I am hoping Republican leaders will come, and legislators will come to a realization.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you introduced repeal?

SEN. TIM LANANE: We have already had the language drafted to do that, we’ve also had the language drafted to add to our Indiana civil rights act, as a protected class, sexual orientation. So, we’ve provided, I think, a pathway forward on this. And it’s not only just a pathway to alleviate the crisis here immediately, but, it’s a pathway for the future of the state of Indiana. This is where Indiana needs to go. It’s with the people of Indiana want to go, I think, by and large. So, now is the time. This is an historic moment for the state of Indiana. It is time for us to move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Tim Lanane, thanks so much for being with us. Tim Lanane is Indiana Senate Democratic Leader. He led Democratic opposition to Indiana’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFRA before its passage. He has continued to decry the controversial initiative as Indiana business leaders, universities, civil rights groups, faith leaders, states and cities across the country have joined the protest. This is Democracy Now!. We’ll be back in a minute with 150 years of The Nation magazine. Stay with us.

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Great Game in Afghanistan: The US Is Losing Out

Afghani President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. In the new foreign policy that Ghani recently outlined, the United States finds itself consigned to the third of the five Afghani President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. In the new foreign policy that Ghani recently outlined, the United States finds itself consigned to the third of the five "circles" of importance. (Photo: US Institute of Peace)

Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years -- and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.

In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan was the focus of “the Great Game” between the imperial powers of that era, Britain and Czarist Russia, and so it is again.  Washington, the planet’s “sole superpower,” having spent an estimated $1 trillion and sacrificed the lives of 2,150 soldiers fighting the Taliban in the longest overseas war in its history, finds itself increasingly and embarrassingly consigned to observer status in the region, even while its soldiers and contractors still occupy Afghan bases, train Afghan forces, and organize night raids against the Taliban.

In the new foreign policy that Ghani recently outlined, the United States finds itself consigned to the third of the five circles of importance.  The first circle contains neighboring countries, including China with its common border with Afghanistan, and the second is restricted to the countries of the Islamic world.

In the new politics of Afghanistan under Ghani, as the chances for peace talks between his government and the unbeaten Taliban brighten, the Obama administration finds itself gradually but unmistakably being reduced to the status of bystander. Meanwhile, credit for those potential peace talks goes to the Chinese leadership, which has received a Taliban delegation in Beijing twice in recent months, and to Ghani, who has dulled the hostility of the rabidly anti-Indian Taliban by reversing the pro-India, anti-Pakistan policies of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

How to Influence Afghans

Within a month of taking office in late September, Ghani flew not to Washington -- he made his obligatory trip there only last week -- but to Beijing. There he declared China “a strategic partner in the short term, medium term, long term, and very long term.” In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping called his Afghan counterpart “an old friend of the Chinese people,” whom he hailed for being prepared to work toward “a new era of cooperation” and for planning to take economic development “to a new depth.”

As an official of the World Bank for 11 years, Ghani had dealt with the Chinese government frequently. This time, he left Beijing with a pledge of 2 billion yuan ($327 million) in economic aid for Afghanistan through 2017.

The upbeat statements of the two presidents need to be seen against the backdrop of the twenty-first-century Great Game in the region in which, after 13 years of American war, Chinese corporations are the ones setting records in signing up large investment deals. In 2007, the Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper Corporation, a consortium, won a $4.4 billion contract to mine copper at Aynak, 24 miles southeast of Kabul. Four years later, China National Petroleum Corporation in a joint venture with a local company, Watan Oil & Gas, secured the right to develop three oil blocks in northwestern Afghanistan with a plan to invest $400 million.

In stark contrast, 70 U.S. companies had invested a mere $75 million by 2012, according to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency. What Washington policymakers find galling is that China has not contributed a single yuan to pacify insurgency-ridden Afghanistan or participated in the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in that country, and yet its corporations continue to benefit from the security provided by the presence of American soldiers.

In the other equally important realm of soft power, when it came to gaining popularity among Afghans through economic aid, New Delhi outperformed Washington in every way. Though at $2 billion, its assistance to Kabul was a fraction of what Washington poured into building the country’s infrastructure of roads, schools, and health clinics, the impact of India’s assistance was much greater. This was so partly because it involved little waste and corruption.

Continuing the practice dating back to the pre-Taliban era, the Indian government channeled its development aid for the building of wells, schools, and health clinics directly into the Afghan government’s budget. This procedure was dramatically different from the one followed by the U.S. and its allies. They funneled their aid money directly to civilian contractors or to approved local and foreign nongovernmental organizations with little or no oversight. The result was massive fraud and corruption.

By funding the building of a new parliamentary complex on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, at the cost of $140 million, India provided a highly visible example of its generosity. This gesture also served to set it off publicly from its regional rival, Pakistan. It has, after all, been a functioning multiparty democracy since independence (except for a 19-month hiatus under emergency rule in 1975-76). In contrast, the military in Pakistan has overthrown its civilian government three times, administering the country for 31 years since its founding in August 1947 following the partition of British India.

That partition took place in the midst of horrendous communal violence between Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, resulting in an estimated 750,000 deaths and the migration of 12 million people across the freshly delineated borders between the two newly formed countries. Within two months of this unprecedented bloodletting, war had broken out between the new neighbors when the Hindu Maharaja of the Muslim-majority native state of Kashmir joined predominantly Hindu India.

A United Nations-brokered ceasefire came into effect in January 1950. By then, India controlled about two-fifths of Kashmir and repeated its earlier promise that, once normal conditions returned to the disturbed province, a plebiscite would be held in all of Kashmir in which its inhabitants could opt for either India or Pakistan. That plebiscite did not take place because of subsequent Indian foot-dragging. Pakistan’s attempts in 1965 and 1999 to alter the status quo in Kashmir militarily failed. Little wonder that relations between the two neighbors, which openly declared themselves nuclear powers in 1998, have remained tense to hostile, punctuated by periodic exchanges of fire across the heavily militarized border in Kashmir.

A Great Game in the Neighborhood

After the U.S. drove the Taliban regime from Kabul in 2001, a contemporary version of the great game emerged in Afghanistan, as Pakistan and India became involved in a proxy war there. Most of the Taliban’s leaders fled to Pakistan, then ruled by General Pervez Musharraf who was also the chief of army staff. In Pakistan, they were protected by the military’s intelligence service, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Following the almost wholesale diversion of Washington’s military and intelligence resources to invade and occupy Iraq in March 2003, the Taliban leadership, headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar, started rebuilding its movement.

The direct election of Hamid Karzai in 2004 as president of post-Taliban Afghanistan buoyed New Delhi. Karzai had spent seven years in India as a university student. During his stay, he became fluent in Urdu and Hindi, as well as an addict of Bollywood movies and North Indian cuisine. He also came to admire the country’s democratic system. Within two months of assuming the Afghan presidency, he paid a state visit to India.

As the Afghan Taliban, led by its Pakistan-based leadership, regrouped and rearmed, and its insurgency against the Kabul government gathered momentum, relations between Karzai and Musharraf turned testy. To defuse the situation, they met in Islamabad in February 2006. Karzai handed the general a list of Taliban militants, including Mullah Omar, allegedly living in Pakistan. When no action followed -- with Musharraf later claiming that most of the information was old and useless -- his government leaked the list to the media.

On his part, Musharraf started complaining about an anti-Pakistani conspiracy being hatched by the Afghan defense and intelligence ministries, each run by pro-Delhi figures. In an interview with Newsweek Internationalin September, Musharraf claimed that Mullah Omar was actually in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, which meant that “the center of gravity of this [Taliban] movement is in Afghanistan.” Karzai retorted, “Mullah Omar is for sure in Quetta in Pakistan... We have even given [Musharraf] the GPS numbers of his house... and the telephone numbers.”  And so it went.

Last month, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Musharraf, now confined to a villa in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, pointed out that India and Pakistan were then in a proxy war on Afghan soil that fed the conflict there. The role his government and the subsequent ones played in nurturing the Taliban and allied militant groups operating in Afghanistan, he argued, was a legitimate counterweight to the acts of rival India. “There are enemies of Pakistan that have to be countered,” he said. “Certainly if there’s an enemy of mine, I will use somebody [else] to counter him.”

Given this zero-sum relationship between the two leading South Asian nations, the increasingly bitter quarrel between Karzai and Musharraf (and his successors) proved music to the ears of policymakers in New Delhi. They were also aware that their country was already far ahead in the Afghan popularity sweepstakes. According to a 2009 opinion poll done by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, for example, 91% of Afghans had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Pakistan. The corresponding figure for India was 21%.

During his second term as president, Karzai capitalized on this popular sentiment. In October 2011, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and he signed an agreement for a “strategic partnership” in which India was, among other things, to “assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping, and capacity-building programs for Afghan National Security Forces.”

Pakistani leaders, who regard Afghanistan as their country’s backyard, were alarmed. Their apprehension increased when a news item in the Dubai-based newspaper, the National, cited a report in Jane's Defense Weekly that up to 30,000 recruits from the Afghan security forces were to be flown to India for training over a three-year period. There, they would be equipped with assault rifles and other small arms. Later, rocket launchers, light artillery, and even retrofitted Soviet T-55 tanks might be transferred to them.

There was great anxiety in Islamabad at the prospect of future Afghan commanders being indoctrinated by its mortal rival when Karzai had rejected repeated Pakistani offers to train Afghan army cadets at its military academy. This drove Pakistan’s military strategists to firm up their plans for a worst-case scenario: a two-front assault on the country from India in the east and an Indian-Afghan military alliance in the west.

To their relief, the figure mentioned by Jane's Defense Weekly proved to be wildly inflated. During a Karzai visit to India in December 2013, the two governments announced that the 350 army and police personnel then being trained there annually would be raised to 1,000 in the future and that the focus of their training would be on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Islamabad was no less relieved to learn that, facing increased security risks in Afghanistan, a consortium of Indian companies had scaled back its investment to mine iron ore there from a projected $10.3 billion to $1.5 billion.

On the China front, invited by President Xi, Karzai attended the summit conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Beijing in June 2012. There the two leaders issued a joint statement on a “China-Afghanistan Strategic and Cooperative Partnership.” Three months later, China’s internal security chief, Zhou Yongka, visited Kabul and signed a range of Sino-Afghan economic and security agreements that included the training of a modest 300 Afghan police officers over the following four years.

A year later, during another Karzai visit to Beijing, Xi announced a grant of 200 million yuan ($32 million) to Afghanistan for 2013 and offered to host the annual 14-nation regional conference on Afghanistan, the first of which had been held in Istanbul in November 2011.

And so the stage was set for a major twist in both the Great Game in Asia and its limited version being played in Afghanistan. 

The China Card

A telling irony is that Afghan President Ghani has been America’s favorite, especially given the spats that Washington had with Karzai, who regularlydenounced U.S. air strikes, banned night raids in his country, and refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would keep U.S. forces there for up to a decade or more.  On taking office, Ghani promptly signed the agreement, and then tried to neutralize its impact by actively courting China and Pakistan.

As a start, Ghani made sure to arrive in Beijing just before the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan began on October 31, 2014. In his talks with Xi, he reportedly expressed his readiness to confer with the Afghan Taliban and urged the Chinese leader to encourage the Pakistani government to pressure the Taliban’s leaders into peace talks with his administration. He evidently got a receptive response.

Unlike Washington, which has had wildly fluctuating relations with Islamabad, Beijing has a lot more leverage there. Pakistan regards China, its main supplier of arms, as an all-weather ally of the first order. In May 2011, when Pakistan protested that Washington hadn’t given the slightest hint that it would launch its clandestine operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, there was silence in capitals across the planet -- except in Beijing. It supported Pakistan’s complaint. This led that country's ambassador to China, Masood Khan, to describe Sino-Pakistani relations in the most laudatory of terms. “We say it is higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey, and so on.”

China has its own security concerns. It is increasingly worried about Islamist radicalism among its Uighur population in the autonomous region of Xinjiang adjoining Pakistan. Menacingly, the Islamic State has vowed to “liberate” Xinjiang. Beijing is eager to see training camps run by Uighur Islamist terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistan border shut down, which can only be done with the active cooperation of the Afghan Taliban and its ally, the Pakistani Taliban.

In line with his foreign policy of giving first priority to neighbors, Ghani traveled to Islamabad in late November. There, after meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he broke diplomatic protocol by calling on General Raheel Sharif, the powerful chief of army staff, who has the last word on matters of national security. His gesture alarmed the pro-India lobby in Afghanistan, but was applauded by Pakistan’s officials and media.

Later Ghani suspended an order for heavy weapons Karzai had placed with India. In a further sign that he was disengaging himself from India’s embrace, he has so far shown no interest in visiting New Delhi. “Ashraf Ghani is a balanced man,” remarked Musharraf, adding, “I think he’s a great hope” for Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif has responded positively, altering a long-held Pakistani policy of encouraging the Taliban to stick to a hard line on peace talks. The December 16th killing of 132 Pakistani students, most of them the children of army officers, at the Army Public School in Peshawar helped this process. The leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a homegrown organization close to the Afghan Taliban, masterminded the massacre. In its wake, Sharif declared that there were no longer “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists.”

Ghani welcomed that statement. Reversing Karzai’s policy, he ordered his security forces to begin working closely with their Pakistani counterparts to pacify the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border. General Sharif reciprocated by visiting Kabul and holding high-level talks with Afghan officials.  Ghani then further changed his country’s policies by sending a symbolic six Afghan army cadets to Pakistan’s military academy for training.

In this way, Ghani seems to be creating an environment conducive to the holding of formal peace talks with the Taliban later this year. If so, a new chapter could unfold in war-torn Afghanistan in which the Chinese role would only grow, while the United States might end up as a footnote in the long history of that country.

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let's Start by Ditching "It"

Calling the natural world “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. Here's what we can say instead.

Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. But we've forgotten. There are many forces arrayed to help us forget—even the language we speak.

I'm a beginning student of my native Anishinaabe language, trying to reclaim what was washed from the mouths of children in the Indian Boarding Schools. Children like my grandfather. So I'm paying a lot of attention to grammar lately. Grammar is how we chart relationships through language, including our relationship with the Earth.

Imagine your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and someone says, "Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair." We might snicker at such a mistake; at the same time we recoil. In English, we never refer to a person as "it." Such a grammatical error would be a profound act of disrespect. "It" robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a thing.

And yet in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way: as "it." The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth. In English, a being is either a human or an "it."

Objectification of the natural world reinforces the notion that our species is somehow more deserving of the gifts of the world than the other 8.7 million species with whom we share the planet. Using "it" absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation. When Sugar Maple is an "it" we give ourselves permission to pick up the saw. "It" means it doesn't matter.

But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages, it's impossible to speak of Sugar Maple as "it." We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family.

What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies? We'd be less lonely. We'd feel like we belonged. We'd be smarter.

In indigenous ways of knowing, other species are recognized not only as persons, but also as teachers who can inspire how we might live. We can learn a new solar economy from plants, medicines from mycelia, and architecture from the ants. By learning from other species, we might even learn humility.

Colonization, we know, attempts to replace indigenous cultures with the culture of the settler. One of its tools is linguistic imperialism, or the overwriting of language and names. Among the many examples of linguistic imperialism, perhaps none is more pernicious than the replacement of the language of nature as subject with the language of nature as object. We can see the consequences all around us as we enter an age of extinction precipitated by how we think and how we live.

Let me make here a modest proposal for the transformation of the English language, a kind of reverse linguistic imperialism, a shift in worldview through the humble work of the pronoun. Might the path to sustainability be marked by grammar?

Language has always been changeable and adaptive. We lose words we don't need anymore and invent the ones we need. We don't need a worldview of Earth beings as objects anymore. That thinking has led us to the precipice of climate chaos and mass extinction. We need a new language that reflects the life-affirming world we want. A new language, with its roots in an ancient way of thinking.

If sharing is to happen, it has to be done right, with mutual respect. So, I talked to my elders. I was pointedly reminded that our language carries no responsibility to heal the society that systematically sought to exterminate it. At the same time, others counsel that "the reason we have held on to our traditional teachings is because one day, the whole world will need them." I think that both are true.

English is a secular language, to which words are added at will. But Anishinaabe is different. Fluent speaker and spiritual teacher Stewart King reminds us that the language is sacred, a gift to the People to care for one another and for the Creation. It grows and adapts too, but through a careful protocol that respects the sanctity of the language.

He suggested that the proper Anishinaabe word for beings of the living earth would be Bemaadiziiaaki. I wanted to run through the woods calling it out, so grateful that this word exists. But I also recognized that this beautiful word would not easily find its way to take the place of "it." We need a simple new English word to carry the meaning offered by the indigenous one. Inspired by the grammar of animacy and with full recognition of its Anishinaabe roots, might we hear the new pronoun at the end of Bemaadiziiaaki, nestled in the part of the word that means land?

"Ki" to signify a being of the living earth. Not "he" or "she," but "ki." So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, "Ohthat beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring." And we'll need a plural pronoun, too, for those Earth beings. Let's make that new pronoun "kin." So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, "Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon."

Language can be a tool for cultural transformation. Make no mistake: "Ki" and "kin" are revolutionary pronouns. Words have power to shape our thoughts and our actions. On behalf of the living world, let us learn the grammar of animacy. We can keep "it" to speak of bulldozers and paperclips, but every time we say "ki," let our words reaffirm our respect and kinship with the more-than-human world. Let us speak of the beings of Earth as the "kin" they are.

]]> (Erica Moriarty) Opinion Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Pledges for Humanitarian Aid to Syria Fall Short of Target by Billions

Kuwait City - When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stood before 78 potential donors at the Bayan Palace in Kuwait Tuesday, his appeal for funds had an ominous ring to it: the Syrian people, he remarked, "are victims of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time."

Four out of five Syrians live in poverty, misery and deprivation, he said.

And the devastated country, now in its fifth turbulent year of a seemingly never-ending civil war, has lost nearly four decades of human development.

A relentless, ruthless war is destroying Syria, the secretary-general continued. "The violence has left so many Syrians without homes, without schools, without hospitals, and without hope," Ban added.

Still, his appeal for a hefty 8.4 billion dollars in humanitarian aid fell short of its target – despite great-hearted efforts by three major donors: the European Commission (EC) and its member states (with a contribution of nearly one billion dollars), the United States (507 million dollars) and Kuwait (500 million dollars).

Several international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities, including the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the Qatar Red Crescent Society and the Islamic Charity Organisation of Kuwait, jointly pledged about 500 million dollars.

At the end of the day, the third international pledging conference for humanitarian aid to Syria was able to raise only about 3.8 billion dollars against an anticipated 8.4 billion dollars.

Without expressing his disappointment, Ban said the kind of commitments made at the conference will make a profound difference to the four million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries and the five million still trapped without food or medical help in hard-to-reach besieged areas in the war ravaged country.

The U.N. chief also praised the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, for hosting the pledging conference – for the third consecutive year.

The first conference in 2013 generated 1.2 billion dollars in pledges and in 2014 about 2.4 billion dollars – with Kuwait as the major donor at both conferences.

"This is yet another example of the vital, life-saving leadership that Kuwait has [shown] to help those in dire need around the world," he added, describing the Emir as one of the world's "humanitarian leaders."

In his address, the Emir implicitly criticised the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – for their collective failure to bring about a political settlement in Syria.

"The international community, and in particular the Security Council, has failed to find a solution that would put an end to this conflict, and spare the blood of our brethren, and maintain the entity of a country, which [has] been injured by the talons of discord and torn apart by the fangs of terrorism," he added.

Valerie Amos, the outgoing under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said people have experienced "breathtaking levels of violence and savagery in Syria."

"While we cannot bring peace, this funding will help humanitarian organisations deliver life-saving food, water, shelter, health services and other relief to millions of people in urgent need," she added.

After announcing his pledge, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides said the situation in Syria is worsening every day and it is becoming increasingly difficult for humanitarian organisations to reach those in need.

Since the start of the conflict in Syria, more than 11.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, including 3.9 million who fled to neighbouring countries, and more than 12 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance inside Syria alone – an increase of 30 percent compared to one year ago, he added.

The countries where Syrians have sought refuge include Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.

Andy Baker, Oxfam's regional programme manager based in Jordan, told IPS the whole exercise "is not a game of numbers" – it involves people's lives.

He said those caught up in the conflict have to make difficult choices: either take a leaking boat to Europe, ask the children to be breadwinners, or arrange early marriages for their daughters.

"The ultimate choice for them is to take that leaking boat," he said.

In a "full fair share analysis for funding," Oxfam has calculated that nearly half the world's top donors didn't give their fair share of aid in 2014, based on the size of their economies, including Russia (seven percent), Australia (28 percent), and Japan (29 percent).

Governments that gave their fair share and beyond included Kuwait (1,107 percent), United Arab Emirates (391 percent), Norway (254 percent), UK (166 percent), Germany (111 percent) and the U.S. (97 percent).

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Straights Only?" Indiana Faces Boycotts, Protests Over Anti-LGBT "Religious Freedom" Law

Indiana is facing boycotts and fierce criticism following Gov. Mike Pence’s new measure that could sanction discrimination by allowing business owners to refuse service to LGBT customers in the name of "religious freedom." Connecticut is the first state to officially boycott Indiana over the move, now San Francisco and Seattle have also imposed bans on city-funded travel to the state. Nine chief executive officers, including the heads of Angie’s List and Eli Lilly, wrote letters asking Indiana state officials to "take immediate action" to ensure the act will not sanction or encourage discrimination. On Saturday, thousands of people marched in Indianapolis calling for Pence’s resignation. Critics have called for a boycott, and some, including former NBA star Charles Barkley, are calling for the upcoming Final Four college basketball championship, to be moved out of state. Supporters of the legislation have said 19 other states have similar laws and that Indiana is attracting undue criticism. Pence has said he will seek a new measure to "clarify the intent" of his new law, though he added that LGBT protections are "not on my agenda." We are joined by Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.


AARON MATÉ: Indiana has come under fierce criticism after Governor Mike Pence signed into law a new Religious Freedom Restoration Act that could sanction anti-LGBT discrimination, it could allow business owners to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender customers in the name of religious freedom. The move has drawn widespread outrage with Connecticut becoming the first state to officially boycott Indiana over the move, followed by Washington State, San Francisco and Seattle. They have also imposed bans on city-funded travel to the state. Nine chief executive officers, including the heads of Angie’s List and Eli Lilly, wrote letters asking Indiana state officials to take immediate action to ensure the act will not sanction or encourage discrimination. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, the world’s most profitable company, slammed Indiana’s law and others like it, likening it to the Jim Crow laws of the American South. Cook wrote, in the The Washington Post that Apple would oppose the measure, saying, "The days of segregation and discrimination marked by 'Whites Only' signs on shop doors, water fountains and restrooms must remain deep in our past. We must never return to any semblance of that time. America must be a land of opportunity for everyone."

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, thousands marched in Indianapolis calling for Governor Pence’s resignation. And former NBA star Charles Barkley, is calling for the upcoming Final Four college basketball championship games to be moved out of state. Speaking to ABC News, Pence refused to answer whether it will be illegal to discriminate against LGBT people.

GOV. MICHAEL PENCE: This is not about discrimination, this is about empowering to confront government overreach, George.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me try to pin you down — let me try to pin you down here on it, because your supporters say it would. And so, yes or no, if a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple at their wedding, is that legal now in Indiana?

GOV. MICHAEL PENCE: George, this is where this debate has gone with misinformation, and frankly —

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It’s just a question. Yes or no?

GOV. MICHAEL PENCE: Well, well, there’s been shameless rhetoric about my state and about this law and about its intention all over the internet. People are trying to make it about one particular issue, and now you’re doing that as well.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s ABC 's George Stephanopoulos questioning Governor Pence who says he'll now seek a new measure to clarify the intent of his new law, though, he noted LGBT protections are, "not on my agenda." For more, we are joined by Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. Welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this so-called Religious Freedom Law.

EUNICE RHO: Thank you for having me. So, Indiana is now the 20th state to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but, it is different from where this debate originally began. As you may remember, in 1993, there was a federal law that passed Congress following a Native American who smoked peyote as part of his religious ritual and then was dismissed from his job and then denied unemployment benefits. He challenged that decision as a burden on his religious beliefs and the Supreme Court ruled against the Native American religious believer. So, in response to that, Congress enacted the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

AMY GOODMAN: This was under President Clinton, he signed off on it.

EUNICE RHO: This was under President Clinton, yes —

AMY GOODMAN: And is what Pence keeps citing, we’re not doing anything different that Clinton did or 20 other states.

EUNICE RHO: Right, and I have to be very honest and say the ACLU was part of that very broad and very diverse coalition. Fast-forward to 2015, we’re in a completely different context. This law, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act in Indiana was introduced last year once the legislature failed to pass a ban on same-sex marriage. They followed it up in 2015 because they didn’t pass it last year, and this time around, the legislators swore up and down, the leadership said we are not intending for this law to be used to discriminate, and so we said great. We support religious freedom, we don’t want it to be used to discriminate either. Let’s clarify this, let’s put it in the bill, and every single one of those amendments was voted down by the legislature that swore to us that they did not want this to be used to discriminate. And then, at the signing ceremony that Governor Pence held, he had two representative from organizations that are widely known in the state of Indiana to be very anti-gay, and, in fact, justify their support of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, justify their support, by saying that it can be used and it will be used to discriminate against LGBT people. So, I think all of Governor Pence’s declaration, unfortunately, are refuted by the evidence to the contrary.

AARON MATÉ: What exactly could this law do? And what about the argument that Amy mentioned, which is that Pence says that 20 other states have this on the books?

EUNICE RHO: Sure, so, again, the context in Indiana being so different, and in terms of what the law can do, it allows anyone to voice a religious objection to any law or policy on the books and would require the court to resolve that dispute, but, the test that the court has to apply is very stringent and it is difficult for the defending party because they have to show whatever policy that is being challenged furthers a compelling governmental interest, and applying that policy to the person who is trying to challenge it is the only way of achieving that interest.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about that picture you referred to of the private signing ceremony, the single graphic, writes GLAAD — that’s the group against gay and lesbian discrimination — one simple graphic, they say, shows the anti-LGBT animus behind Indiana’s law. They say that among those who were at this private signing ceremony were Micah Clark, Curt Smith, and Eric Miller, and then they cited what some of them have said; Kurt Smith equating homosexuality with bestiality and adultery, Eric Miller saying pedophilia is a sexual orientation on par with homosexuality. These are the men who are standing right next to Governor Pence in this private ceremony signing the bill.

EUNICE RHO: It is incredibly unfortunate that these are the people that he chose to represent in the photo that the governor’s office issued after its private signing ceremony. But, I would like to point out, there is now a vigorous effort to try to mitigate the damage that has been done to Indiana both economically and just reputationaly. There is an effort to update the existing state civil rights laws to include protections for LGBT people, and to update the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that has just been passed, as well, to be sure that it cannot be used to discriminate, and this is an ongoing effort. The Indiana legislature has a month left in its session. I think the governor and the legislature have a real opportunity to fix this problem and ensure that Indiana is again open for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Arkansas next?

EUNICE RHO: Yes, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Arkansas has passed the legislature, it is headed to the governor’s office.

AMY GOODMAN: The governor says he will sign. We will see what will happens with — I mean, it’s not just the people that Governor Pence expected to be opposed to this. He has got the largest corporations in his state, he’s got the NCAA, he’s got major boycotts being announced by other states not sending workers, state employees from Connecticut on the public dime, to Indiana.

EUNICE RHO: You know, I think we have been incredibly heartened, I think we all have been, by the public outcry, especially from the business community. I think this really signals a widespread understanding that LGBT equality is an American value that we should all uphold. And I’m especially encouraged by the fact that the CEOs were not just sending statements of support, but actually putting their money where their mouths are.

AARON MATÉ: And it signals that corporations have a lot of influence and power over politics and policy decisions.

EUNICE RHO: Absolutely, and I think that other states that are contemplating similar laws like Arkansas or North Carolina or Nevada and elsewhere, really need to pay attention to Indiana, and their legislators and governors in those states should understand that this is not only what the public wants, but it’s also not what is sound for their state economies.

AMY GOODMAN: Would it be solved by simply making LGBT people protected, that they can’t be discriminated against, or does it simply need to be revoked, and should that happen in other states? Should the federal religious freedom law simply be overturned?

EUNICE RHO: I think one of the most encouraging parts of the dialogue is it is encouraging the re-examination of not only the Indiana law, but existing laws in other states. In states that have LGBT protection statewide, they should consider updating their Religious Freedom Restoration Acts to make it crystal clear to the courts that their civil rights laws are not up to debate. These laws should not at all be used to discriminate or harm against their state’s citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Eunice Rho for joining us. Advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. She works with ALCU offices across the country in their lobbying and advocacy work on laws pertaining to religious freedom. And of course, we will continue what’s happening in Indiana and across the states around this country.

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Gay Mafia" ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Los Angeles Teachers Escalate Action to Demand Fair Treatment

Fifteen thousand teachers, counselors, and other members of United Teachers Los Angeles filled downtown's Grand Park on February 26 to demand a fair contract for themselves and their students.

"I am here to tell you that I am sick of not having enough of anything—especially teachers," Beverly'anne Ogorro, a student at Dorsey High School, told the cheering crowd.

A week before the rally, UTLA had declared impasse. Its negotiations with the nation's second-largest school district, LA Unified, covering 31,000 employees, are now in mediation.

"I feel disappointed and betrayed by the district. We took pay cuts to help the district get through a tough time," said Leticia Duggan, a teacher in the pre-Kindergarten School Readiness Language Development Program. She walked the picket line with her six-year-old daughter, a public school student.

"I think the demands that we are making are more than fair," Duggan said. "We're not asking for something outrageous. We are asking for cleaner and safer schools, for a payback of wages we lost three years in a row."

Teachers and support staff lost ground in their last contract, signed right after the 2008 economic crisis and after courts blocked a planned one-day strike. It expired three years ago. A shortened school year and numerous furlough days between 2008 and 2011 also hit members in the wallet.

Classes of 45

After 20 bargaining sessions since the summer, the district has made no offers on class-size caps or staffing ratios. It's continuing to stand by its offer of a 5 percent salary increase—though teachers have gone without a raise for eight years.

Three thousand middle and high school classrooms have more than 45 students apiece, according to the superintendent's own report.

"When did it become radical to have class sizes that you can actually teach in? When did it become radical to have staffing, and to pay people back after eight years of nothing?" UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl asked.

The high-energy, diverse crowd—educators in red T-shirts, nurses in white coats, students with banners and noisemakers—flooded onto Broadway as the chants grew louder, demanding that the district and board bargain in good faith.

Speakers included rank-and-file members of the negotiating and organizing teams, parents, high school students, community members, and presidents of the National Education Association, California Federation of Teachers, and California Teachers Association. (UTLA is affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT.)

The rally followed districtwide picketing February 12 at 850 schools. Members, parents, and community allies also signed an open letter to the school board, supporting the educators' 12 demands on salary, working conditions, and the learning environment.

Schools Students Deserve

The contract campaign strategy reflects the vision of the local's new leaders, who swept into office last March on the Union Power slate. Since taking over, they've emphasized member organizing and partnering with parents and the community.

The new leaders have mobilized around a platform they call "The Schools LA Students Deserve," modeled on a similar initiative by the Chicago Teachers Union. Demands include safe, clean, and fully staffed schools, smaller class sizes, a commitment to arts, music, and physical education, and good salaries and benefits to encourage teacher retention.

Members ratified this platform in a 2013 referendum that called on the union to mount a contract campaign, starting by working with community groups and parents to identify shared issues. It also demanded UTLA put more resources into both member and community organizing and plan a series of escalating actions.

After the Union Power slate won office, this program became the basis for its contract campaign.

Since the union declared impasse, each of its eight areas has begun holding trainings for chapter chairs—the elected leaders at each school site—and activists. UTLA plans a series of escalating actions, including faculty meeting boycotts, beginning March 24.

Caucus Activities

Meanwhile, the Union Power caucus has been holding its own general membership meetings every month. Attendance ranges from 15 to 40 people.

The ongoing caucus was created after Union Power's election win to channel energy into member organizing for the demands the slate had campaigned on. Any UTLA member can join. Recent discussions have been zeroing in on which demands are top priorities in the areas of working conditions and learning conditions.

The caucus is also working to engage newer teachers in the union. In February it held a meeting for student teachers and those with one to two years of experience to discuss the contract demands and the connection between social justice education and unionism.

LA teachers hope their renewed willingness to fight—not just for themselves, but for their students and communities—will be enough to turn the tide.

"The recession, the cuts to the bones at schools, the attacks on public services, the increasingly savage racism and economic inequalities that our students face," declared Caputo-Pearl at the February rally, "all of those have set us back, and we're not going to take it anymore."


New book from Labor Notes: How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. "A beacon to all rank-and-file members on how to bring democracy to their locals." Buy one today, only $15.

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Student Debt Strikers Grow in Number and in Power

Today, there are over 100 debt strikers. Their goal is to ramp up pressure on the Department of Education to relieve not just the debt they incurred, but all Corinthian students’ loans and declare that for-profit colleges are not, in fact, too big to fail. (Photo: Student Debt via Shutterstock)Today, there are more than 100 debt strikers. Their goal is to ramp up pressure on the Department of Education to relieve not just the debt they incurred, but all Corinthian students' loans and declare that for-profit colleges are not, in fact, too big to fail. (Photo: Student Debt via Shutterstock)

Just over a month ago, Waging Nonviolence reported that 15 former students of Corinthian Colleges — the beleaguered, notorious for-profit higher education system — were going on strike; not from their jobs, or from class, but from their debt. Today, there are over 100 debt strikers. Their goal is to ramp up pressure on the Department of Education to relieve not just the debt they incurred, but all Corinthian students’ loans and declare that for-profit colleges are not, in fact, too big to fail.

“We had hundreds and hundreds of requests to join the strike,” said Debt Collective organizer Ann Larson. With the initial announcement, the group invited potential strikers to sign up on their website to become part of the Corinthian Collective. A team of dozens of volunteers then sorted through strike requests in a “rigorous process,” informing debtors about the consequences of striking, reading over bills from their lenders and asking them to write up brief biographies and statements about why they were striking.

The Debt Collective, which the 106 strikers belong to, is a product of the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt, which has made headlines over the last several years for buying up private debt on the market for low prices and promptly absolving it. The $13 million in Corinthian students’ debt that the group purchased back in February cost just $1.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, which is suing Corinthian for $570 million in predatory lending damages, has invited the strikers to a meeting in Washington, D.C., set to take place tomorrow. The Department of Education has further granted the collective’s request for a meeting on Tuesday while they are in the nation’s capital.

Ann Bowers, a 54-year old striker from Fort Myers, Fla., is in Washington, D.C., today for the meeting, and has been excited to see the response last month’s announcement has generated. “People are taking notice, and that’s very encouraging,” she said. “People are paying attention.”

Beyond the CFPB, the Corinthian system has been subject to some 200 lawsuits at the state and federal level, and delisted from Nasdaq for failing to file regularly with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Perhaps most deviously, Corinthian is charged with inflating its tuition to collect more money from students, encouraging them to take out additional private loans to fill in the gaps left by federal grants. By law, for-profit colleges are only allowed to get 90 percent of their budgets from federal funds, meaning that pumping students for other loans — either through the GI Bill, third party or in-house lending — is a veritable gold mine for companies that leaves students with outrageous debt burdens.

Adding insult to injury, Larson said that 30 percent of Corinthian students come from families making less than $10,000. “The people that suffer,” she added, “are the people at the very bottom of the income scale.”

The Corinthian 106, as they are now known, will also use a new legal strategy in dealing with the Department of Education. Under a little-known regulation called the Defense of Repayment law, students are eligible for a full discharge on their loans and refund of money paid if the schools they attended have violated state consumer protection laws. To date, 300 people have filed Defense of Repayment forms under the Debt Collective banner, which will be turned into the Department of Education in advance of the strikers’ meeting on Tuesday. The department will have 30 days to respond.

“If they delay, we will push them,” said Debt Collective organizer Luke Herrine. “We will protest, we send in more applications, we will add more people to the ranks of the strikers, we will make life hard for them.”

That said, even without the Defense of Repayment filings, the Department of Education has the statutory power to wipe out Corinthian students’ loans, as Larson pointed out. Since its founding, the Debt Collective has called on the Department of Education to do just that. “They’re supposed to regulate education,” Bowers noted, “and I feel they did not do their job correctly.”

The department has threatened to remove Corinthian’s funding before, but instead chose to broker a controversial deal between the system and the Educational Credit Management Corporation, or ECMC, a federal debt collection contractor. Under the agreement, ECMC would buy-out half of Corinthian’s campuses and all of its student loans, with the government and the company essentially handing over the keys. In turn, the campuses will remain open and ECMC will forgive $480 million of Corinthian students’ debt, reducing principal loan amounts by 40 percent over “an unspecified amount of years.”

Critics of the deal have raised concerns that a collection agency has no business running an educational institution. Borrowers with federal and private loans, as well, will see little benefit from the agreement, as their debt is not held by Corinthian itself, but by either the Department of Education or private lenders such as Navient, formerly known as Sallie Mae. Therefore, even if Corinthian crumbles and loses its already scant accreditation under ECMC’s inexperienced management, the Department of Education and companies like Navient will continue to collect on former students’ loans by any means necessary. Also worth noting is that ECMC has played a crucial role in making student debt harder to escape, lobbying extensively for more stringent definitions of “undue hardship,” a factor that needs to be proven in order for loan recipients to declare bankruptcy — now virtually impossible for most student loan borrowers.

“Where was the Department of Education when Corinthian began preying on students?” striker Mallory Heiney asked in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month. Heiney, who said she sold plasma to buy groceries and make interest-only payments, added, “Corinthian Colleges had the option to threaten bankruptcy, sell its campuses and wash its hands of its financial problems. But students are stuck with their debt.”

News Wed, 01 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400