Truthout Stories Wed, 01 Apr 2015 02:02:07 -0400 en-gb When Is the Next Ice Age?

Iced over(Image: Iced over via Shutterstock)

Remember the blockbuster hit The Day After Tomorrow? Well, thanks to climate change, that doomsday scenario could become reality, albeit a bit more slowly than in the movie.

Back in 2004, I wrote a piece for Common Dreams, where I talked about the possibility of the Gulf Stream slowing or shutting down, and the resulting chaos that would cause.

The Gulf Stream is a very powerful and warm ocean current that runs from the Pacific, around the coast of Africa, and all the way up the Atlantic to the region just off Greenland and northern Europe.

It influences the weather and climate all the way from Africa to North America to Europe.

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

Basically, if you look at a globe, you'll see that the latitude of much of Europe and Scandinavia is the same as that of Alaska and permafrost-locked parts of northern Canada and central Siberia.

But Europe has a climate that's more similar to that of the central United States than northern Canada or Siberia. So why is that?

It's all because of the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream brings warm surface ocean waters up from the Pacific, around Africa, and up through the equator into northern regions of the globe that otherwise would be so cold, that even in the summer, they'd be trapped in ice.

If it were to stop flowing - to stop bringing all that heat to the northern hemisphere - much of Europe would have the climate of Alaska.

And now, scientists are suggesting that because of climate change and global warming, the Gulf Stream is indeed slowing down.

What I hinted at back in 2004 may be becoming reality, and that's really bad news for our planet.

Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that recent changes in the Gulf Stream are likely coming from the cold, fresh waters coming from the melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland.

As Science World Report points out,

"It's likely that freshwater coming off of the Greenland ice sheet is diluting saltwater and disturbing the oceanic circulation. Less saline water is less dense and therefore has less tendency to sink into the deep. This means that the human-caused mass-loss of the Greenland ice sheet may be slowing down the Atlantic overturning."

In plain English, thanks to man-made climate change and global warming, the Greenland ice sheet and polar ice caps are melting, and all of that fresh water is flowing into the ocean, throwing the Gulf Stream and the warm waters it brings with it out-of-whack.

If climate change continues to rear its ugly head and the Greenland ice sheet and polar ice caps continue to melt, more and more fresh water will flow into the northern Atlantic Ocean, causing the Gulf Stream to slow down, and potentially shut down altogether.

If the Gulf Stream were to stop flowing today, the result could be sudden and dramatic.

Winter would set in for the eastern half of North America and all of Europe and Siberia, and never go away.

Within a few short years, those regions would become uninhabitable, and nearly 2 billion humans would starve, freeze to death or have to relocate.

Civilization as we know it probably couldn't withstand the impact of such a crushing blow.

Much of the northern hemisphere could literally look like a scene out of The Day After Tomorrow.

New York City would be under ice. Boston would be under ice. London would be under ice. And the list goes on.

So, add a potential new ice age to the list of the devastating effects of climate change and global warming.

And while that's happening in the northern climes, equatorial regions from Mexico to northern Africa to Asia will be turning to desert - because even if it gets colder in one place (like it did in the eastern US this last winter), the entire planet itself is still getting warmer.

It's bad enough that the Gulf Stream may be slowing down.

But if we want to prevent a new ice age for much of the planet, then we need to put a price on carbon now to fight back against climate change - the greatest threat our human species has ever faced.

Opinion Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Climate Change: When It's All in the Family

Picture a day when the world's most-watched video features a senior oil executive on a stage with his family at one of the popular TED community-conversation events, saying, "For years, my kids have told me the work I do threatens their futures. I didn't pay much attention. Now I realize they're right. I see the long-term danger of overloading our air with carbon dioxide. Most of our underground reserves can't ever be used. I want to stay at my company and help find a way out."

How might that moment arrive?

Last year we got a preview, when the Rockefeller family stunned the media and markets by announcing it will sell all its investments in coal and tar sands. Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Steven Heintz invoked the family's moral responsibility, then summoned up founding father John D., saying, "I'm convinced that if he were alive today - he was an innovative, forward-looking businessman - he would recognize that the opportunity in the future is clean energy technology, and he'd be leading the business charge to get us to that economy."

Family influence isn't new. Back in the 1930s, when Henry Ford disagreed with his only son Edsel, then president of Ford Motor Co., and wouldn't negotiate with unions, Henry's wife Clara's Lysistrata moment turned the tide. She threatened to leave him. Henry said, "What could I do?"

I tried it in my family. Growing up, hearing my father cough his lungs out every morning, I pleaded with him to stop smoking - for his sake and mine. I wanted to believe that I, his son, could reach him.

Could heartfelt pleas from family members move the people who run the world to an urgent response to our climate crisis? This goes way beyond hat-tips by people invoking their grandchildren (or now, as they realize we're already experiencing climate change, citing their children's futures). It's a reverse commute: family members influencing how their leader-parents think.

That's what happened to South Carolina U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis from "perhaps the reddest district in the reddest state." In a TEDx video he says his son Robert, on turning 18, told him "Dad, I'll vote for you. But you're going to clean up your act on the environment." He explains, "I had this new constituency: my son, his four sisters, his mother, all agreed. And all of them could change the locks on the doors." After losing re-election in 2011, Inglis founded RepublicEn to involve conservatives as "energy optimists and climate realists."

It's hard to imagine getting the ear of leaders of the oil, gas and coal industries. After all, as the writer Upton Sinclair famously said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Yet given how quickly we need to change so much, we need buy-in from at least some leaders of the world's wealthiest industry.

I've met oil executives who agree that climate change is happening, and that their industry is a major cause. Still, despite all they know, they find a way to sleep at night, and not worry about their families' futures. One vice president recently told me he believes we soon can affordably capture and bury carbon dioxide. Most analysts say if this techno-fix can ever be done at global scale, even from coal-fired power plants, it will come too late.

Among people who recognize that catastrophic climate change will threaten our freedom to live, the families and friends of movers and shakers have a unique opportunity. They can spur what may have already begun. Which spouses are already talking to their partners? How many kids are asking their parents tough questions? Who will move the first industry CEO to come out on climate change - perhaps alongside a senator from a mining or drilling state, both surrounded by their families?

If you're eager to act on climate change, I ask you to engage with people whose opinions and behavior you might affect. And, especially if you are one or two degrees of separation from the families of powerful, influential people, consider enlisting them. What a difference they could make, for their place in global history and for all our futures!

Opinion Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Court Steps in to #SaveH2B, but Is the US Guestworker Program Worth Saving?

On March 18, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced it would resume processing applications for the H-2B guestworker program after a two-week suspension. The DOL abruptly halted processing H-2B applications earlier this month after a Florida federal district court ruling left the program without any formal regulations; the agency began processing applications again when the court granted its request to stay the ruling until April 15 to allow the guestworker program to continue. The announcement prompted a collective sigh of relief among employers and workers who depend on H-2B jobs. 

Also see: Department of Labor Freezes Guestworker Program After Court Ruling

The program, which brings foreign workers to the U.S. to fill temporary labor shortages, is commonly used in landscaping, forestry, carnivals, seafood and hospitality. News of its shutdown—which did not come with a clear end date—sent these industries into a frenzy and inspired the Twitter hashtag #saveH2B. Many of the #saveH2B tweeters were landscaping companies, by far the biggest users of H-2B.

Despite the stay allowing the program to continue functioning, H-2B is not out of the woods yet. The stay lasts only through April 15, and new regulations aren’t slated to come out until April 30. That means another two-week suspension is likely, and it could be longer if the regulations are delayed.

The seeds of the suspension were planted in Bayou Lawn and Landscape Services v. Solis, a lawsuit H-2B employers and industry representatives filed asking the Florida court to block H-2B regulations that the DOL issued in 2012. Those regulations included worker protections that a set of 2008 regulations, issued in the twilight hours of the Bush administration, did not: workers were guaranteed contracts, three-fourths of the hours in those contracts (as guestworkers are not actually guaranteed the full number of hours listed in their contracts) and reimbursement for travel to and from the U.S., for example.

The plaintiffs said only the Department of Homeland Security, not DOL, has authority to regulate the H-2B program. The court agreed and blocked the 2012 regulations, but left the 2008 regulations in place. Noting that employers never objected to the 2008 regulations, workers’ advocates say the employers’ real complaint was not DOL’s lack of authority to issue regulations but the fact that the 2012 rule included worker protections. Once the court had blocked the 2012 rule, however, workers’ advocates argued that it should block the 2008 rule as well. It did so on March 4, leading to the temporary shutdown of the program.

One of the most frequent #saveH2B tweeters was the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET). PLANET was a plaintiff in Bayou Lawn, the case that blocked the 2012 rule—and indirectly prompted the program’s shutdown and the call to save H-2B. The landscaping association's comments seemed to confirm workers’ advocates’ claims that Bayou Lawn was primarily intended to prevent the worker-friendly 2012 rule. PLANET says on its website, “We need to ensure that none of the 2012 H-2B program” regulations make their way into the interim rule set to come out on April 30. Tom Delaney, PLANET’s director of government affairs, says that rule is too demanding of employers. “It will kill the program,” he says. 

Not all guestworker advocates think that would be a bad thing. While one faction of advocates calls for a rule modeled on the 2012 regulations, another would prefer to see the program die.

“I say let H-2B disappear for a while,” tweeted Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Although the EPI supported the 2012 regulations, Costa doubts the need for the program. He says data over the past 15 years shows that in the top H-2B occupations, “unemployment rates are really, really high—I’m talking double digits at least — ... and the wages have been completely flat.” Employers are only supposed to use H-2B workers if they cannot find U.S. workers first. But high unemployment and stagnant wages “are not the indicators of some big national labor shortage,” Costa says.

He adds that not only are guestworker programs unnecessary for low-skill, temporary jobs, but they’re often abusive. “There’s a growing global consensus that temporary worker programs are a version of slavery, or lead to it in many cases,” Costa says, citing extreme abuses in places like Qatar. He could just as easily have chosen a domestic example: last month five Indian H-2B workers won a $14 million settlement for forced labor and human trafficking.

Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Right Alliance (MIRA), agrees. MIRA is part of a coalition called the Dignity Campaign that calls for more immigrant- and worker-friendly alternatives to existing proposals for comprehensive immigration reform. It proposes ending guestworker programs, including H-2B, after five years.

One problem with the guestworker model, Chandler says, is that it weakens workers’ ability to bargain collectively and assert their rights. “It undermines the power that they have,” he says, “because the workers are divided.”

He and Costa agree that if there are real labor shortages, foreign workers should be able to enter the U.S. with a path to citizenship and the freedom to change employers—both of which they lack under H-2B. In times of high domestic unemployment, visas for foreign workers could be reduced or suspended.

Jim Knoepp, who runs the Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), agrees with these criticisms of guestworker programs. The SPLC, a nonprofit civil rights organization, has been equally damning in its criticism. Its report on H-2B and its agricultural counterpart H-2A, “Close to Slavery,” documents widespread debt bondage, wage violations, squalid conditions and lack of medical care. But it was also among the groups that urged a new, more protective rule modeled on the 2012 regulations.

Knoepp isn’t against abolishing guestworker programs in theory. “If employers can’t agree to some basic protections for these workers, maybe the program really should be ended,” he says. But he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “You need to work within what the political climate provides right now,” says Knoepp. “It’s not going to end, and it needs to be fixed so that you don’t continue to see these abuses.”

While many H-2B workers are unhappy with the abuse and exploitation they suffer on the job, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want the program to go away. Adarely Ponce Hernandez has worked various H-2B jobs, most recently crawfish processing in Louisiana. She knows firsthand some of the problems with the program, having been defrauded three times by false recruiters for H-2B jobs.

But she told me that her community in the Mexican state of Hidalgo depends on the jobs. Her only employment comes from working in the U.S. “The majority of women who go are single mothers,” she says. “The people who are going to be most affected by this will be their kids.”

News Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
What the Atlantic Coast Should Brace for if Offshore Drilling Gets Approved

A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Large-scale spills like this one are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental impacts of offshore drilling.A ship floats amongst a sea of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Large-scale spills like this one are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental impacts of offshore drilling. (Photo: kris krüg)

On March 26, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and the Gulf Future Coalition held a conference call on which people of the Gulf Coast talked about what Atlantic Coast residents can expect if the proposal to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic from Virginia to Georgia wins federal approval.

Among those who spoke was Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist based in Louisiana and a technical adviser for the Louisiana Environmental Action Network. She has won numerous accolades for her work helping communities affected by the oil and gas industry, including a MacArthur "Genius Grant" and a Global Exchange Human Rights Award.

Subra described in detail the environmental impacts that Southeastern Atlantic Coast residents would face from offshore oil and gas development and the associated industrialization of the region. We are sharing her prepared remarks in full, edited only to fix typos and other minor details.

* * *

Coastal Conversation: Mid-Atlantic States - Impacts of Offshore Drilling

By Wilma Subra, Subra Company

Offshore exploration, drilling and production will produce large quantities of oil and natural gas resources and has the potential to result in an economic boom to the coastal states along the Atlantic Ocean.

However, along with the economic aspects, huge permanent environmental damage and destruction will occur over the short and long term.

Exploration, drilling and production in the offshore area will result in:

* contamination of offshore waters

* disruption of the sea bed including clearing of the seabed, cracks, fissures and hydrocarbon seeps

* produced water/saltwater leaks and spills of high salt content fluids (much higher than ocean water) containing heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and radioactive components that will disrupt, damage and destroy the aquatic and benthic organisms in the water column and bottom sediments of the offshore environment.

Spills and leaks of hydrocarbons and toxic heavy metals will occur from the drilling and production rigs and the boats servicing the rigs. Hundreds of spills and leaks occur on a daily basis in the offshore area of the Gulf of Mexico.

Changes in the offshore environment will occur due to the presence and activities occurring on each of the rigs:

* Physical and chemical-based negative impacts to marine ecosystems

* Disruption of the seabed in the area of the rig footprint

* Bioaccumulation of toxic substances from the drilling and production activities into the marine environment

* Air and water pollution from the equipment on the rigs and on the vessels servicing the rigs, flares burning and releasing large quantities of air emissions of unburned hydrocarbons and products of incomplete combustion.

Pipeline Networks

A network of pipelines [is] required to connect the rigs to the mainland for the transportation of oil and gas resources and in some cases, waste products.

The pipelines disrupt the sea bottom ecosystems, physical and structural integrity of the sea bottom, and water flow patterns.

As the pipelines travel through the estuaries and on land, their transportation routes are heavily damaged. The physical and structural disruption of the environment becomes even greater. Marshlands and wetlands are disrupted and begin to erode and the coastline moves inland.

The offshore and coastal areas will be forever damaged and destroyed.

Waste Generated by Exploration, Drilling and Production of Oil and Gas

In the offshore area the following types of waste will be generated in large quantities due to exploration, drilling and production of oil and gas:

* Produced water

* Drill cuttings

* Oil- and water-based drilling muds

* Drilling fluids

* Production formation oily sands and solids

* Deck drainage

* Well treatment, completion and workover fluids

* Tank bottoms and sludges

* Naturally occurring radioactive waste

Onshore Waste Management, Treatment and Disposal Facilities to Handle the Generated Oil and Gas Waste Streams

Class II injection wells dispose of:

* produced water

* flowback water and fracturing fluids

* waste streams completion, workover and stimulation fluids

* washout water

* pipeline test water

* crude oil spill clean-up waste

Land farms for solid and semi-solid waste streams

Landfills for solid and semi-solid waste streams and solidified liquid
waste streams

Physical and chemical treating facilities

Oil and gas waste recycling facilities

Naturally occurring radioactive materials treatment and disposal facilities

Processing facilities for the oil and gas brought onshore in pipelines and vessels

Natural gas processing plants

* Sweeten the gas streams to reduce the sulfur content and dry the gas to remove the moisture. The glycol dehydration units at gas processing plants release very large quantities of benzene, a known human cancer-causing agent.

Crude oil separation facilities

* Remove the produced water portion of production and production sands from the crude oil.

Crude oil storage, processing and distribution facilities

* There are large quantities of waste streams generated from these processing facilities, including air emissions released and flared from the facilities, process wastewater discharged from the facilities and solids and semi-solid waste streams.

Other Infrastructure


* Construct rig superstructure, oceangoing service vessels and rig equipment.

Service companies

* Provide wireline services, fracking equipment and services, anchor mechanisms, drilling muds and chemicals, generators, and a whole host of equipment needed by the offshore rigs.


These are just a few of the environmental impacts offshore and onshore that will result when offshore exploration, drilling and production comes into an area.

To connect the produced resources to end users in the United States and other countries, pipeline networks will be required to be established, [and] liquefied natural gas export facilities may be proposed along the coastal areas to export liquefied natural gas to free trade and non-free trade countries.

Industrial facilities such as gas to liquid facilities may want to locate in the area to take advantage of the abundant quantity of natural gas.

Storage tank terminals will spring up to store and supply the crude oil produced off shore.

Rail lines and loop systems may be constructed to ship the produced crude by rail to areas not adequately serviced by pipelines.

Many of these facilities may be targeted for locations in environmental justice communities as well as in residential, recreational and nature preserves based on physical locations to connect to existing infrastructure.

The physical environment will be severely negatively impacted, in the name of progress and [with] little to no consideration of the impacts.

News Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Grabbing Africa's Seeds: USAID, EU and Gates Foundation Back Agribusiness Seed Takeover

GMO seeds falling through hands(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)The latest salvo in the battle over Africa's seed systems has been fired with the Gates Foundation and USAID playing puppet-masters to Africa's governments - now meeting in Addis Ababa - as they drive forward corporation-friendly seed regulations that exclude and marginalize the small farmers whose seeds and labour feed the continent.


A battle is currently being waged over Africa's seed systems. After decades of neglect and weak investment in African agriculture, there is renewed interest in funding African agriculture.

These new investments take the form of philanthropic and international development aid as well as private investment funds. They are based on the potentially huge profitability of African agriculture - and seed systems are a key target.

Right now ministers are co-ordinating their next steps at the 34th COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa) Intergovernmental Committee meeting that kicked off March 22, in preparation for the main Summit that started yesterday and ends today.

COMESA's key aim is to pave the way for a "Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) in 2017 under the auspices of the African Union" with uniform regulations, including on agricultural products, seeds and GMOs.

A recent meeting on biotechnology and biosafety was held to establish a "COMESA biotechnology and biosafety policy implementation plan" (COMBIP) to roll out from 2015-2019, "leading to increased biotechnology applications and agricultural commodity trade in the region."

But read between the lines and its real purpose was to facilitate the planting and commercialization of GMO crops in Africa all at one go, instead of country by country. USAID Regional representatives for East Africa, based in Nairobi, were present to monitor the process and ensure the desired outcome.

And on the agenda for the main COMESA Summit is the approval of a 'Master Plan' for the implementation of the COMESA Harmonised Seed Trade Regulations agreed last year in Kinshasa.

The regulations, according to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, "will greatly facilitate agricultural transformation in the COMESA member states towards industrialization of farming systems based on the logic of the highly controversial, failed and hopelessly doomed Green Revolution model of agriculture."

They "promote only one type of seed breeding, namely industrial seed breeding involving the use of advanced breeding technologies. The entire orientation of the seed Regulations is towards genetically uniform, commercially bred varieties in terms of seed quality control and variety registration."

No place for small farmers!

"What is very clear is that small farmers in Africa, seeking to develop or maintain varieties, create local seed enterprises or cultivate locally adapted varieties are excluded from the proposed COMESA Seed Certification System and Variety Release System, because these varieties willnot fulfill the requirements for distinctness, uniformity and stability (DUS).

"Landraces or farmers' varieties usually display a high degree of genetic heterogeneity and are adapted to the local environment under which they were developed. In addition, such varieties are not necessarily distinct from each other."

COMESA's key agricultural objectives are to raise production by 6% per year, "integrate farmers into the market economy", make Africa a "strategic player in agricultural science and technology development".

To this end USAID is funding COMESA programmes for 'Coordinated Agricultural Research and Technology Interventions' and 'A Regional Approach Towards Biotechnology' - in other words, to create uniform corporation-friendly regulations for seeds, agro-chemicals and GMOs across the region.

More than 80% of Africa's seed supply currently comes from millions of small-scale farmers recycling and exchanging seed from year to year. This seed meets very diverse needs in very diverse conditions.

Farmers know the quality of 'recycled' seed, selected and saved from their own crops. It is cheap and readily available. New varieties can be introduced through informal trade within villages and beyond. This system may not be perfect, but it has been broadly functional for generations.

The so-called 'formal' seed sector is a relatively new addition in Africa and has a narrow focus on commercial crops, especially hybrid maize. This commercial seed may offer yield advantages, but only in the right conditions, e.g. when coupled with continuous use of synthetic fertilizer, irrigation, larger pieces of land and mono-cropping - the Green Revolution package.

Seed production in the formal sector goes through a number of stages, starting with breeders' and pre-basic seed which has high varietal purity; then foundation / basic seed, which is a bulking up of the breeders' seed; then larger quantities of certified seed are produced for retail sale to farmers.

In most countries in Africa, the public sector was responsible for certified seed production and distribution. Lack of resources, especially following structural adjustment imposed by the World Bank and IMF in the 1980s and 1990s, reduced the effectiveness of this system.

As a result, availability of certified seed was sometimes limited and farmers often found it difficult to access this seed. Farmers continued relying on the tried and trusted seed saved on their farms and exchanged with one another.

The new commercialisation agenda

The new commercialisation agenda is based on the premise that the public sector is inherently incapable of meeting farmer requirements for quality seed.

This agenda is led by USAID and other G8 countries especially through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and philanthropic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) working hand in hand with multinational corporations (MNCs) including Monsanto, Syngenta, Yara and others.

The EU also funded a key programme, now concluded, the 'COMESA Regional Agro-Inputs Programme' (COMRAP), to the tune of €20 million, which aims to "reach farmers in each country to improve their sustainable access to agro-inputs and services", "strengthen the capacity for the improvement of seed quality" and "harmonise seed trade regulations throughout the COMESA region".

The first line of attack was to argue for the privatisation of certified seed production and distribution, ostensibly to generate competition. This was identified as a profitable niche in a sector otherwise characterised by low demand, partly because farmers did not have the resources to pay for commercial seed, and partly because their seed needs were already being met through existing systems of production and distribution managed by farmers themselves.

Over the past two decades, a long and slow process of seed law reviews, sponsored by USAID and the G8, BMGF and others has secured this space for private companies to profit from seed production.

This opened the door to MNC involvement in seed production, including the acquisition of every sizeable seed enterprise on the continent. The focus remained on hybrid maize and a few other commercial crops with high demand at national level, or niche on demand.

It now appears that phase two of the commercialisation agenda is being launched. This begins the process of privatising the production of early generation seed (EGS), the breeder and foundation seed.

Already plant variety protection laws are being enacted to allow for private ownership of germplasm previously in the public domain. Now Green Revolution pundits are looking for opportunities to remove public control of potentially profitable processes in EGS production.

Gates, USAID and Deloitte study ways to commercialise early generation seed production

To this end, BMGF and USAID commissioned US strategy consulting firm Monitor-Deloitte to identify private business opportunities in EGS production. The study was conducted in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia on maize, rice, sorghum, cowpea, common beans, cassava and sweet potato.

BMGF and USAID have handpicked an elite group to meet behind closed doors in London in March 2015 to discuss the consultant's report and to strategise on how to open up another front in the battle to turn African seed into a profit-making venture for MNCs.

What is remarkable about this meeting is that there are very few Africans present. Those who are there mostly represent private sector interests, including seed companies and traders' associations. There are no farmer representatives.

This raises serious concerns about the transparency and accountability of these processes. The image of colonial robber barons meeting in secret to carve up the African continent arises unbidden in the mind.

Private sector cherry picking with public subsidy

The Deloitte report exposes a typical approach of private sector 'cherry picking', where private companies identify profitable activities for their own involvement.

While complaining incessantly about "heavy state involvement" they still insist on selected heavy state involvement to cover unprofitable interventions so that the private sector can take the profitable activities.

These include establishing systems, developing institutions, and even engaging in some productive activities where profits are unlikely but which are needed to allow the profit-making scheme to function.

The report uses cowpea production in Ghana as an example of where the public sector should carry the extremely expensive breeder seed costs to allow the private sector to profit in seed multiplication and distribution.

Breeder seed is prohibitively costly because of low multiplication rates and low demand. But the demand that exists is nonetheless lucrative, so the private sector wants to be involved in those parts of the production process identified as profitable.

Where the whole chain is profitable, Deloitte proposes the public sector be locked out of the production process. Examples are hybrid maize or closed value chains where there is strong but limited demand and early production processes are also potentially profitable, for example hybrid sorghum for brewing.

Deloitte's proposal to "channel government and donor financing into supporting mechanisms for private investment in seed production" is a route to effectively subsidising MNCs at the expense of building farmer capacity and resilience to produce quality seed to meet their own context-specific needs.

Active role for farmers disregarded

A potential role for farmers in production or distribution of seed is not even considered in the study, from conception to results. Indeed farmers are viewed only as passive consumers of seed produced by others for a profit.

While we can acknowledge that farmer-managed systems are not perfect, these systems have survived through extremely adverse conditions. They undoubtedly form a base for seed production and distribution that can be built on. But they require support, especially from public R&D and extension services.

There is a growing movement in Africa to reassert the enduring importance of farmer-managed seed systems. Even under ideal circumstances, MNCs will not venture into the production of many small crops where demand is fragmented nationally but is very strong in local pockets.

The MNC business model of economies of scale and standardised products cannot respond to the diverse needs of asset-poor but dynamic African farmers.

Rather than engaging in partnerships with MNCs with dubious long-term benefits for farmers, it will be far better for the public sector to orient the capacity and resources at its disposal to work directly with farmers to build on existing seed production and distribution activities.

News Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Impunity Fuels Abuse in Immigrant Detention Centers in Spain

Trial of five police officers for alleged sexual abuse against immigrants held in the detention centre in the southern Spanish city of Málaga. This case is just one of many reported of mistreatment in these centres, whose closure is demanded by human rights groups. (Photo: Inés Benítez/IPS)Trial of five police officers for alleged sexual abuse against immigrants held in the detention centre in the southern Spanish city of Málaga. This case is just one of many reported of mistreatment in these centres, whose closure is demanded by human rights groups. (Photo: Inés Benítez/IPS)

Málaga, Spain - “They mistreat you, they don’t respect you. I’ve seen beatings, suffering, and you can’t defend yourself. When you’re locked in there it’s as if you were in another world,” Salif Sy, a Senegalese man who in 2011 spent eight days in an immigrant detention centre (CIE) in Madrid, told IPS.

Behind the walls of Spain’s eight CIEs, immigrants are frequent victims of abuse and mistreatment by the national police, who are in charge of guarding them, national and international human rights organisations warn.

They also complain about hurdles thrown in the way of investigations of reports of abuse, and about the prevailing impunity.

In the southern city of Málaga, five police officers are on trial for alleged sexual abuse of women held in the local CIE, in 2006. The centre operated in an old military garrison and was shut down when the dilapidated building was condemned in June 2012. A hearing of the trial was held Mar. 5.

“The police would hold parties, where they would take advantage of the inmates sexually. It’s disgusting,” Jaime Ernesto Rodríguez, the attorney for three women who are protected witnesses in the case, told IPS. The accused face possible sentences of 27 years. The verdict is expected in April.

“Two of the agents had access to the lists of women who were coming in and they would choose,” said the lawyer for the three women, from Brazil, Honduras and Venezuela, who were deported to their home countries in 2006, despite the opposition put up by their attorney and several organisations.

Spain’s immigration law states that the CIEs are “public establishments of a non-penitentiary nature…for the detention and custody of foreigners subject to deportation orders.” It stipulates that no one can be held for more than 60 days.

But non-governmental organisations say the CIEs are “prisons in disguise,” where human rights violations are rampant.

Their demand that the centres be shut down was bolstered by the position taken by the new government of Greece.

The deputy interior minister of Greece, Yannis Panousis, announced Feb. 14 that the five immigrant detention centres in his country would gradually be closed, after a 28-year-old Pakistani citizen committed suicide in one of the centres the day before.

The latest accusation in Spain was filed on Feb. 3 for the alleged torture of Mohamed Rezine Zohuir of Algeria and Ben Yunes Sabbar of Morocco, who were detained in January in the CIE of the southeastern city of Valencia, lawyer Andrés García Berrio of the legal team of the campaign Tanquem Els Cies (Close the CIEs, in the Valencian language), told IPS.

He said the case is under investigation and that there are photos documenting injuries on the two men’s heads and faces, which the CIE authorities claim were self-inflicted.

In 2014, immigrants held in the CIE filed 40 formal complaints of abuse by police.

“Any complaint of mistreatment should be promptly, exhaustively and impartially investigated,” Amnesty International Spain’s head of domestic policy, Virginia Álvarez, told IPS. “We are concerned about the lack of adequate oversight and accountability mechanisms.”

In November 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Committee asked the Spanish government for explanations in the cases of alleged mistreatment in the CIEs and excessive use of force by the immigration authorities.

Spain’s interior minister, Jorge Fernández Díaz, denied in a Feb. 22 interview that there were cases of torture in the CIEs.

“How could torture happen in the CIEs?” he said. “I would bet my life on the fact that no torture is being committed. And if anyone did commit such a barbaric act, they would be committing a crime. False reports have been made.”

But according to García Berrio, “there is no willingness on the part of the Interior Ministry to resolve this situation.” He also complained about “hurdles being set in the way of the investigations,” citing as examples two cases in which security camera footage that served as evidence “went missing due to supposed technical problems.”

In the CIEs there have been “aberrations,” said Rodríguez, the lawyer. He mentioned the case of the Brazilian immigrant, who is one of the protected witnesses in the trial against the police officers in the Málaga CIE. When she was taken to the centre, she had a high-risk pregnancy, and suffered a miscarriage while awaiting deportation.

Rodríguez filed a complaint against the police for omission of duty to aid a person in distress, which was thrown out.

“Impunity surrounds abuses by police in the CIEs,” the president of the non-governmental Spanish Association for the Human Right to Peace, Carlos Villán, told IPS. He said the agents “have not received adequate training, and they are not warned that torture and mistreatment are prohibited by both Spanish and international law.”

People held in the CIEs have died due to “inadequate detention conditions and lack of medical care,” said Villán, who did not mention a precise number.

“There have been suicides, rapes,” activist Luís Pernía, president of the Platform of Solidarity with the Immigrants of Málaga, an umbrella group made up of some 20 organisations, told IPS. “Many people have suffered all kinds of abuse in Málaga’s CIE for decades, and there is a legal vacuum.”

On Mar. 14, 2014, Spain’s Council of Ministers approved the regulations for the operation of the CIEs. Until then the inmates were in a legal vacuum without specific regulations such as those used to guarantee the basic rights of inmates in prisons.

But Villán believes that despite the regulations, “those who torture still have guaranteed impunity when they abuse people who are in especially vulnerable situations – undocumented immigrants, isolated from their families and friends, without money to pay a lawyer, and without knowledge of Spain’s legal system, let alone international law.”

“There is racism and a lot of suffering in the CIE,” said Salif Sy, who reached Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, from Senegal, in a boat in 2006.

A few weeks before he was detained in 2011, Sy, who was heavily involved in different associations where he was living in the southeast Spanish city of Albacete, played King Balthazar in the city’s traditional Three Wise Men parade. Pressure from different organisations and his many friends blocked his deportation.

“We are all immigrants, we are all equals, I have to keep fighting for the people who will come after me,” said Sy, who is married to the Spanish woman who was his girlfriend when he was picked up by the authorities in their home in 2011.

Of the 49,406 foreign nationals detained in 2013 for breaking Spain’s immigration law, 9,002 were held in the CIEs and 4,726 were finally deported, according to the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture report published by the ombudsperson’s office in 2014.

Amnesty International’s Álvarez said people are detained in the CIEs “in the full knowledge that they cannot be deported if there is no repatriation agreement with their countries, along with people who are sick, possible victims of people trafficking, or potential asylum seekers; their human rights are being violated.”


Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

News Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Capitol Dome ]]> Art Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Ring of Snitches: How Detroit Police Slapped False Murder Convictions on Young Black Men

Man in profile with emergency lights(Image: Man profile, emergency lights via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO)

One jailhouse informant for the Detroit Police Department sent Lacino Hamilton to prison. Now, Hamilton's fight to be released has revealed systemic corruption allegedly perpetrated by police, prosecutors and prisoner informants hoping for more lenient sentences.

Man in profile with emergency lights(Image: Man profile, emergency lights via Shutterstock; Edited: JR/TO)

It was the middle of July in 1994, outside an old strip club on Detroit's West Side, when Lonnie Bell admitted to his friend Christopher Brooks that he had killed somebody.

The two young men, both drug dealers, had been friends for a year. Less than a week earlier, while Brooks was selling crack outside of a laundromat in the East Side, he happened to see Bell leaving a home where police later discovered the body of Willa B. Bias shot to death. Brooks casually mentioned what he'd seen as the two of them relaxed in the strip club. According to Brooks, Bell was mum at first, but then invited Brooks to blow lines of cocaine in his Ford Bronco. Inside the car, Bell confessed to the murder.

The informant was part of a ring of jailhouse informants - or "snitches" - that allegedly received lenient sentences.

He said he killed Bias because she was supposed to be dead, possibly for the $70,000 in drug money her foster son kept hidden in the basement. He also told Brooks that if he ever told anyone what he saw, he'd lay Brooks' corpse next to the woman's. Brooks was so shaken - Bell had a reputation as a cold, careful killer - that he soon decamped for Monroe, Michigan, fearing Bell would kill him if he stayed in Detroit. Brooks says he never told anybody about what he saw until 2013, the year he was contacted by an independent investigator reassessing the murder case. Brooks says he is coming forward now because he believes the wrong man is in prison for Bias' death.

Today, Lonnie Bell is dead, a casualty of Detroit's gang warfare. The man imprisoned for Bias' murder is Lacino Hamilton, her foster son, who grew up in her home and was 19 years old when she was killed. Hamilton, now 40, has always maintained his innocence, and he says he loved his foster mother - whom he simply refers to as mom. Without a retrial, the earliest he can expect to be let out of prison is 2046, when he will be 71.

Hamilton's murder conviction hinged on two pieces of evidence: a coerced statement, and testimony from a jailhouse informant claiming that Hamilton confessed to the murder while awaiting trial in his jail cell. But according to affidavits, courthouse transcripts, letters and internal memos obtained by Truthout, the informant - who is long deceased - may have received incentives from Detroit police to falsely testify against a number of individuals. These documents also suggest that the informant was part of a ring of jailhouse informants - or "snitches" - that allegedly received lenient sentences as well as food, drugs, sex and special privileges from detectives in the Detroit Police Department's homicide division in return for making statements against dozens of prisoners eventually convicted of murder.

Jailhouse Informants "Lie Primarily in Exchange for Lenience"

A 2005 report published by the Northwestern University School of Law traced the first documented use of "snitch testimony" in the United States to 1819, when the state of Vermont convicted Jesse Boorn for murder based on testimony from his cellmate. The cellmate told a judge that Boorn confessed to the crime inside their jail cell while awaiting his trial. In exchange for testifying, the cellmate was freed after Boorn's trial, and Boorn was sentenced to the gallows.

This basic reward system underpinning jailhouse informant testimony persists into the present day. It's not difficult to imagine why a prisoner informant would lie about overhearing a confession if it means real material benefits.

Snitch testimony was paramount in 45.9 percent of 111 death row exonerations since the late 1970s.

"Informants lie primarily in exchange for lenience for their own crimes, although sometimes they lie for money," according to a report from Golden Gate University Law Review. While informants are motivated to falsify testimony for material reward, prosecutors are often motivated to make those informants sound believable to a judge. Testimony from a single jailhouse informant is enough to convict a person for a charge as serious as murder, according to Valerie Newman, assistant defender in Michigan's State Appellate Defender Office.

"You can be convicted on any credible evidence ruled as admissible," she told Truthout. "If a judge rules it's admissible and a jury believes it, you can be convicted. People find it hard to believe people can be sent to prison for the rest of their lives based on this kind of testimony."

They can also be killed. The Northwestern report found that snitch testimony was paramount in 45.9 percent of 111 death row exonerations since the late 1970s, making it the leading cause of wrongful convictions in US capital cases. As DNA detection became more sophisticated in the late 1990s, waves of prisoners were exonerated, and some states began examining their use of jailhouse informants. The Innocence Project, a group that investigates innocence claims in decades-old cases, claims that in 15 percent of all wrongful conviction cases overturned by DNA testing, statements from people with incentives to testify were critical evidence used to convict a person.

These relatively recent revelations have moved some states to examine the use of jailhouse informant testimony. In a broad review of all state defendants wrongfully convicted of capital murder, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment found that prosecution often "relied unduly on the uncorroborated testimony of a witness with something to gain," including "in-custody informants," and passed a law preventing death sentences if a conviction was based on "uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice or a jail-house snitch." Similarly, California reopened 225 cases in 1989 after an informant blew the lid off the way Los Angeles prosecutors fed prewritten testimonies to informants, and the state later adopted a law requiring informant testimony be held to higher proof standards.

Whistleblower in the Homicide Division

While these higher standards can sometimes backfire, in places like Michigan, where there are no regulations for using informant testimony beyond prosecutors knowing and admitting to it, there has never been a serious investigation into the systematic use of jailhouse informants by police and prosecutors. Claudia Whitman, director of the National Death Row Assistance Network of CURE (NDRAN), believes some cases would be overturned following a serious re-examination.

"In the two cases [from Detroit] I have worked on in depth, jailhouse informants were major players in the state obtaining convictions," she told Truthout, acknowledging that while using informant testimony is not illegal, it is known to be highly inaccurate.

Police routinely hid exculpatory evidence from prosecutors and judges.

On at least one occasion, the veneer of secrecy over the Detroit Police Department's homicide division was punctured, giving a fleeting glimpse of systemic corruption. In 1997, Detroit native Dwight Carl Love was freed from a Michigan prison after 15 years. He wasn't exonerated by DNA tests, but through the efforts of a tenacious defense attorney named Sarah Hunter with a whistleblower inside Detroit's homicide unit. Based on a tip from the whistleblower, Hunter forced Detroit police to turn over evidence they'd hidden from trial that supported Love's innocence. He was exonerated - as other men would be in later years - because of the police department's failure to present exculpatory evidence to the court.

According to an affidavit from Hunter, the whistleblower, who allegedly committed suicide less than a year after meeting the attorney, told Hunter that police routinely hid exculpatory evidence from prosecutors and judges. In the years after Hunter obtained the Love evidence, she claimed to Claudia Whitman that Detroit police intimidated her by beating prisoners if they spoke to her. Neither she nor the police responded to Truthout's request for comment.

Snitches on the Ninth Floor

Besides the attorney and the whistleblower, evidence of systemic corruption within Detroit's homicide unit in the mid-1990s comes from alleged informants themselves. Their claims involve dozens of cases of men who are still in prisons across Michigan.

Before Jonathan Hewitt was sentenced to four years in prison in 1994, he says he spent months in a cell on the ninth floor of the Detroit Police Department waiting for his trial. While there, he claims, homicide detectives offered him and at least six other prisoners food and drink, conjugal visits, time to watch television and, most importantly, the promise of lenient sentences if they testified against other prisoners also being held in the jail cells on the ninth floor. Hewitt says police told informants that a deal for their reduced sentences would be hatched after the suspect's trial, so that they would not have to acknowledge it in court, which could have swayed jurors' away from a conviction.

Allen estimated that over 100 people who were convicted of murder were "set up" by Detroit police based on false testimony.

"The Detectives would provide me with the necessary information, but just they wanted me to try and convince a couple prisoners to tell me about their cases - murder [cases] only," Hewitt wrote in an affidavit in 2011. In a phone interview with Truthout, he said detectives supplied him and other informants with prewritten statements to memorize before the preliminary hearings of the accused men. In those statements, informants would say that the accused person confessed to their crime in a way that "filled in" the details detectives were missing to connect the suspect to their crime. Often, Hewitt said, informants had familial or fraternal connections to the men they snitched on, indicating they were all scooped up from the same underclass milieu.

It's hard to gauge how many cases from that time relied on informant testimony, and how critically. Hewitt estimated that between just two informants he personally knew, upwards of 30 men were convicted of murder in the mid-1990s. By another account, from Detroit Police Sgt. Dale Collins in the homicide division, a single informant helped police with at least 20 cases before July 1994.

In 2013, a defense attorney looking into a prisoner's innocence claim hired a private attorney to interview another admitted snitch in 1994, Edward Allen. Allen told the investigator that police witnesses on the ninth floor of the Detroit Police Department were allowed visitors who brought food and drugs from outside, and claims he even had sex with one of the homicide detectives. He also reveals in a letter to a federal circuit judge that he spent two years imprisoned on the ninth floor, and hoped to extract a favorable plea deal for helping police with five different cases.

Allen estimated in another letter to Larry Smith, a man convicted largely because of Allen's testimony, that over 100 people who were convicted of murder were "set up" by Detroit police based on false informant testimony. He also admitted to falsifying his testimony against Smith, who is still incarcerated. Allen, who is currently incarcerated, was released from prison in 2008 but sentenced to three years in 2012 after violating his probation.

The Memo

Eventually, some of the defense attorneys for men incriminated by snitches approached the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office with concerns about certain informants. In February 1995, the deputy chief assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, Robert Agacinski, wrote to his supervisor expressing concern over the department's use of informants. He noted that two detectives in the homicide department, Dale Collins and Bill Rice, had approached prosecutors to ask that they reduce a sentence for two informants, a request the district attorney turned down.

"I don't know how to reconcile or accept this. I just don't know how, so I don't try."

If an investigation had found that police were promising informants lenient sentences - which is outside of their authority - or working with prosecutors to fabricate informant's testimony, it could have resulted in evidentiary hearings, jump-starting the process of overturning convictions. But Agacinski, who recently headed the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission, says nothing was ever done to address the concerns he outlined.

"I was low-middle-ranking management. I wasn't part of top level," he told Truthout. "Nobody ever told me anything else and I have no idea if [the memo] was acted upon."

One informant Agacinski mentioned by name in the memo was Lacino Hamilton's snitch, Olivera Rico Cowen, a man living with AIDS. In July 1994, three weeks before Hamilton was arrested for his foster mother's murder, Cowen was granted a radically reduced sentence for cooperating with homicide detectives. Instead of serving five to 15 years in prison, he would only have to do a year - as long as he continued to cooperate with homicide investigators.

But Cowen didn't live that long. He spent the last months of his life on the ninth floor of the police department, loyally trying to coerce a confession out of Hamilton.

"Reading and Rebelling"

Lacino Hamilton rejects the legitimacy of the entire carceral system, and says his resistance to the system's dictates has likely made his life harder in his current prison, the already violent Kinross Correctional Facility. Over the last 19 years, Hamilton frequently bounced around different prisons until ending up at Kinross, near the Canadian border.

"I don't know how to reconcile or accept this. I just don't know how, so I don't try," he told Truthout, adding that he spent much of his time "reading and rebelling."

Even after nearly two decades of imprisonment, Hamilton rages against prisons, police and a whole social order founded on oppression.

"How some of us live is not a mistake; neither is it the product of a broken system," he wrote in an essay from prison. "We live like that because it is profitable to a lot of people businesses: pawn shops, pay-day loan services, slum lords, creditors, social services, and others who traffic in misery."

Homicide detectives and a prisoner conspired to pressure him into testifying against Hamilton.

These days, Hamilton has reason to feel optimistic. After writing to thousands of journalists, lawyers and colleges to plead his case, he finally got in touch with Claudia Whitman from the NDRAN, who supplied this reporter with most of the documents behind this story. Whitman also made contact with Christopher Brooks, the prisoner who says he knows who really killed Hamilton's foster mother. With Whitman's help, Hamilton was able to convince an up-and-coming attorney to work to overturn his conviction pro bono. Mary Chartier said her firm vetted the case before taking it on.

"If we think someone is wrongfully convicted, we really put the resources of the firm behind the client," she told Truthout. "If we're going to take on this case for free, it means we really believe in it."

Hamilton was imprisoned with a man named Darnell Thompson, who claims he was threatened by police into pinning the crime on Hamilton. In an affidavit reviewed by Truthout, Thompson said that homicide detectives and prisoner Olivera Rico Cowen conspired to pressure him into testifying against Hamilton. Thompson, who was 18 at the time, says he was coerced into signing a statement against Hamilton, but he later refused to testify against Hamilton in court. But Thompson's statement, as well as Cowen's testimony and testimony about Hamilton's character by a neighbor, were enough for a jury to convict Hamilton to a maximum of 80 years in prison.

Chartier says Cowen's testimony was a critical reason for the conviction, even though he was also instrumental in six other murder convictions, according to court documents.

Patterns and Practices

Documents pertinent to Hamilton's case also suggest there may be many more prisoners in Michigan convicted because of the Detroit Police Department's jailhouse informants. They include Larry Smith, the man to whom informant Edward Allen admitted falsifying testimony in a 2002 letter.

Like Hamilton, Smith wrote to lawyers and journalists for years before somebody responded. When he was 18, he claims he was detained for murder without an attorney, which he says allowed police to fabricate a statement by him. Allen later corroborated that fabricated statement at Smith's trial. Smith's current attorney, Mary Owens, says they are wading through the appeals process now.

"In many cases, even if all the witnesses have recanted, or if a person claims innocence, it's still difficult to [overturn a conviction]," she told Truthout. "The courts are more concerned with whether the trial has been procedurally proper."

When the snitch ring on the ninth floor was busiest, Detroit police were casting a wide net over neighborhoods.

But in recent years, as challenges to US police as an institution have risen in the media and the streets, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has more publicly scrutinized police across the country, most memorably in Ferguson. Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, is hopeful that the old snitch cases in Detroit could be reviewed by the DOJ, given its recent investigations.

"If we could find those patterns and practices, [the DOJ] would be willing to use it as a template for looking at the department and the way it infuses this behavior," he said, adding that he and a federal monitor had met with prisoners from Detroit with "questionable convictions."

Yet even if federal investigators do get involved, legal sources tell Truthout any lawsuit that follows would likely only affect future policies and practices, not grant relief for currently incarcerated people alleging past harm.

Backdrop of Corruption

Federal intervention in Detroit police affairs would not be new; in fact, the police have been under a federal "consent decree," which is the DOJ's official method of addressing civil rights abuses by law enforcement. Police under a consent decree are audited every quarter by a court-appointed monitor to assess their progress on reforms. Detroit's decree was put into effect after the Detroit Free Press exposed that Detroit police had the highest number of fatal shootings by police in the United States.

Despite the pretense of oversight, in 2008, the FBI uncovered a romantic affair between the federal monitor and the city's now-imprisoned mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. The monitor and her team were replaced in 2009 by the current monitor, Robert Warshaw. The city will exit the decree in 2016.

In addition to the affair scandal, evidence of corruption in the homicide department emerged in 2008. An audit by Michigan State Police into the DPD's crime lab revealed that police made assumptions about "the entirety of all items [in a case] based on the analysis of only a few," likely resulting in erroneous convictions. The lab's closure led to yet another scandal three years later: The Detroit Free Press discovered that the lab, and all the evidence in it, including sealed evidence bags, ballistic tests and investigative reports, had simply been abandoned and left open to anybody who wanted to go inside. Evidence was allowed to degrade, touching hundreds of cases.


Lacino Hamilton was part of a generation that grew up in the so-called "crack era," and before going to prison, he sold drugs in order to build a life for himself in a dying city. As in Congress and major cities across the country, Detroit's answer to the social fallout of drugs and poverty was more aggressive policing and sentencing. It fell on homicide detectives in the lockup craze of the mid-1990s to funnel Black youth from the streets into the prison system.

Around the time when the snitch ring on the ninth floor was busiest, Detroit police were casting a wide net over entire neighborhoods that bore the worst effects of divestment and disrepair. This is, in fact, how Hamilton describes his arrest: He wasn't singled out after his foster mother's murder, but picked up alongside many other young Black men after she was killed. He was originally picked up for questioning in an unrelated case, before detectives allegedly pinned the murder on him when they couldn't pin it on another suspect.

Hamilton says the reason his original defense attorney did not challenge the prosecutor's use of an informant corresponds to some of the reasons Black communities around the nation still suffer at the hands of the state: neglect and an assumption of disposability.

"By now, the demonstrative wasting away of Black life in urban areas, such as Detroit, has become an historical and social fact, called neglect," he wrote in an email to Truthout. "I mean what else can it be? Society places little to no value on Black lives. And what people don't value, they don't bother with ... I'm in prison because no one wondered, cared, or took the time to ask how a handful of serial offenders [snitches] could show up in court again and again to have received unsolicited confessions - neglect."

News Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Why the House of Representatives Doesn't Represent the US Public

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) discusses President Barack Obama’s executive actions addressing immigration reform, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21, 2014. (Jabin Botsford/The New York Times)Speaker of the House John Boehner discusses President Obama's executive actions addressing immigration reform, at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 21, 2014. (Jabin Botsford/The New York Times)

One of the really weird ironies of politics these days is the huge divergence between what the US people actually want and what the radical right-wingers in Washington actually do.

You won't hear this on "Fox So-Called News," but right now the US people are as progressive as they ever have been.

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

Don't believe me? Just check the polls.

The Progressive Change Institute recently asked likely 2016 voters about their views on a bunch of big issues, and it turns out that everyday citizens overwhelmingly support some of the most liberal policies around.

  • 71 percent of the US public supports giving all students access to a debt-free college education.
  • 70 percent support expanding Social Security.
  • 71 percent support a massive infrastructure spending program aimed at rebuilding out broken roads and bridges and putting people back to work.
  • 59 percent support raising taxes on the wealthy so that millionaires pay the same amount in taxes as they did during the Reagan administration.
  • 77 percent support giving every US child free pre-K education.

And the list goes on.

  • 58 percent of Americans support breaking up the big banks.
  • 59 percent, meanwhile, support a basic guaranteed minimum income while a still higher percentage - 70 percent - support the creation of a "Green New Deal" that would see the government invest hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy.

Oh, and if that wasn't enough, support on Capitol Hill for the Congressional Progressive Caucus' (CPC) annual budget, which would put into place many of these very same liberal policies, is growing.

A full 40 percent of House Democrats supported the CPC budget in 2012, 43 percent supported it in 2013, 44 percent supported it in 2014 and more than half - 51.5 percent - support it this year.

In other words, progressive values aren't just popular with everyday citizens - they're also popular, and increasingly more popular, with one of our two major parties, the Democratic one.

But all this begs the question: If more than half of congressional Democrats and way more than half of all citizens support doing things like expanding Social Security and making college free for all, why aren't those policies becoming law?

Why, in our democracy, is the will of the people not being heard?

The answer is both simple and tragic - we no longer actually live in a democracy.

We live in an oligarchy.

Thanks to the Supreme Court's long war against campaign finance law, the billionaires and economic royalists now have more control over our political system than they have in almost a century.

This isn't opinion; it's objective and quantifiable fact.

A study released last year by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, for example, found the following:

A proposed policy change with low support among the US economic elite (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time.

It really is all about money in politics.

Since billionaires like Charles and David Koch can now pretty much buy their own politicians, along with billions in advertising and PR, it's their views that get heard in Congress, and it's their views that become law.

And because real progressive policies so often cut into the power of the rich, they only very rarely become law in this "Brave New World" of ours.

The United States has and always will be a progressive nation, but if we don't do something right now to reign in the corrupting influence of big money, it won't matter whether 70 percent or 30 percent of citizens want to break up the big banks.

So go to Move to Amend right now to get money out of politics once and for all.

Opinion Mon, 30 Mar 2015 15:53:28 -0400
The Fight Against High-Stakes Testing: A Civil Rights Movement

Jesse Hagopian, history teacher and editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, talks about the fight against high-stakes testing, the roots of that testing in eugenics movement and its insidious anti-democratic and anti-labor social goals.

(Image: Haymarket Books)(Image: Haymarket Books)"We are experiencing the largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes standardized testing in US history," according to Jesse Hagopian, high school history teacher, education writer and editor of More Than a Score. This remarkable book introduces the educators, students, parents and others who make up the resistance movement pushing back against the corporate "testocracy." Click here to order More Than a Score today by making a donation to Truthout!

The largest ongoing revolt against high-stakes testing in history is currently being waged by teachers, students, parents and administrators at schools across the United States.

Jesse Hagopian is part of it. A history teacher and the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School in Seattle, Hagopian and his colleagues made history in 2013, when they chose to boycott their region's standardized test, the MAP.

"I think that we have to see this movement against high-stakes standardized testing as a civil rights movement."

Administered via computer, the MAP test (which stands for Measures of Academic Progress), is given to some 3 million students across the United States and the world. When Garfield's teachers and students boycotted the MAP, they faced threats from the superintendent of schools, but they had the support of their Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and local schools.

"To see students standing up for their own education ... was a powerful moment," Hagopian told the Laura Flanders Show recently.

Garfield's boycott helped inspire acts of resistance across the nation, many of which are written up in More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, edited by Hagopian and published by Haymarket Press.

In this conversation, Hagopian describes what went into the Garfield boycott, the first resisters (who, he says, are the wealthy who send their kids elsewhere) and the origins of standardized testing in the eugenics movement of the early 1900s. He also imagines an education system fit for a more cooperative economy.

"I think that we have to see this movement against high-stakes standardized testing as a civil rights movement," says Hagopian in this interview.

Watch Jesse Hagopian's interview in full on The Laura Flanders Show, which airs at 9 pm Eastern and Pacific on KCET/LINKtv, (DIRECTV, ch. 375 & DISH Network ch. 9410); in English and Spanish on TeleSUR, or online, with comprehensive archives at

Laura Flanders: You call yourself a member of a movement of "test-defiers."

Jesse Hagopian: That's right.

Special spelling, tell us what you mean.

We're a group that is refusing to give high-stakes standardized tests, refusing to take high-stakes standardized tests, opting our children out of these tests, and we're up against the testocracy, what I call the corporate education reformers who are trying to reduce the intellectual process of teaching and learning to a single number that they can then use to punish teachers and students, deny our kids graduation, bust up the teachers' unions, label the schools "failing" and then close them, like we've seen in Chicago or Philadelphia, with scores of schools closed.

What were the risks faced by your students, fellow teachers, even administrators there at [Garfield High School] as they considered this boycott in 2013?

When we took the vote to decide whether or not to refuse to give the MAP test, teachers right away asked me, "What are the consequences we're going to face?" Everyone knew this test was not giving us useful feedback to drive instruction. They knew it was a waste of our teaching and learning time, but the question they had for me was what's going to happen if we refuse, and I couldn't sugarcoat it. I let them know. We have a progressive discipline policy, but especially if you're in a tested subject, and you refuse to give [the test], you could be terminated.

For their kids? They want the arts. They want creativity and critical thinking taught in the classroom. But for our kids, they want this rote memorization.

In fact, when we announced that we were going to refuse to give this test, the superintendent issued a threat of a 10-day suspension without pay.

It was really the mass resistance of other schools joining the boycott; of our PTA voting unanimously to support our boycott; and the students themselves staging a sit-in in their classroom, refusing to get up and go to the library to take this computer-generated test, that kept us safe.

You wrote about it in the book. You are in a different room, and you've done all this organizing, and it comes to the question of, are the students going to walk to the library and take that test? Were you confident?

It was an incredible moment at Garfield High School because we knew the success of the boycott rested in the students' hands at that point. Administrators were told by the superintendent they had to go door to door and pull kids out of class and march them off to the computer lab, and when students heard their name called out and refused to get up, or some of the students went to the lab but then they just hit the A key over and over again so the scores were invalidated because the test was done in 30 seconds, it was really the linchpin of the resistance, and to see students standing up for their own education to say, "I want to be in my teacher's class right now and take a test that actually is aligned to my curriculum, take an exam that actually means something to what I've been learning," was a powerful moment.

So why did they take those risks, those teachers, the students, the parents? George Bush is in favor of standardized testing, high-stakes testing. Barack Obama is in favor of it. What do you know that they don't?

Well, they don't actually send their kids to schools that use these exams. I've often said that actually, the MAP test boycott didn't start at my school at Garfield High School; in fact, it began at Lakeside High School, a school down the road, where Bill Gates went, where he sends his kids, because they never administered the exam, and they wouldn't do that to their own children, reduce teaching and learning to this score and teach to the test.

Instead, they have a system called performance-based assessment that is far superior to high-stakes standardized tests. It's an incredible model which is much like when you get your PhD.

For their kids? They want the arts. They want creativity and critical thinking taught in the classroom. But for our kids, they want this rote memorization, and that contradiction I think is what led to the MAP test boycott. And the MAP test boycott helped inspire an entire country as we saw more boycotts break out in the wake of ours across the nation.

And yet Bill Gates has been very influential in pushing this testing regime.

Absolutely. I mean, he's invested hundreds of millions of dollars, upwards of $200 million to implement the Common Core [curriculum] and the high-stakes test that are attached to it - the PARCC and Smarter Balanced [tests]. We've seen one man who uses his fortune and his wealth to manipulate and subvert the democratic process of education and to impose his will over the democratic will of the community.

Talk about what you want instead. You talked about testing or evaluating that is in line with the curriculum as one of the teachers' goals. Sometimes critics of standardized tests are people who were against testing all together. What are you for?

Right. Absolutely. Teachers invented testing, and we're not against assessment. We have to have ways to know how our students are doing. I'm actually here in New York to visit the [New York Performance Standards Consortium], which is an incredible group of some 28 schools across New York that have a waiver and don't have to give the state standardized tests. Instead, they have a system called  performance-based assessment that is far superior to high-stakes standardized tests. It's an incredible model ,which is much like when you get your PhD. You do research over time. You develop a thesis. If your evidence doesn't match your thesis, you have to revise your thesis. You work with a mentor, a teacher; collaborate with peers, and at the end of a period of time, you present your research and you defend your thesis much like a PhD candidate would defend their dissertation.

A major goal of the 1% in this country is to bust unions and to make America a low-wage economy that can compete with China.

These students at the New York Consortium Schools are doing this in every subject. I think the proof is that the New York Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates. They have their students of color performing and graduating at higher rates, going to college at higher rates, staying in college at higher rates, and the New York Consortium Schools have larger numbers of students who are at-risk and have special needs. If the corporate education reformers truly were about improving achievement for all students, they would be flying the principals of these New York Consortium Schools all over the nation to talk about why this assessment model and the inquiry-based classrooms that lead to it are creating such incredible outcomes for our students, but that's not their goal at all.

Talk about goals. You referred to the corporate education reformers. Obviously, there's a moneymaking piece in this. George Bush's brother Neil was very invested in the company that was creating the test that that administration was pushing. But there's another agenda here, too, that you allude to in the book.


What's that?

I think there's the people who directly want to profiteer from the selling of the test. That's part of what's driving it, but I think that there are larger goals at play here. One is that the teachers' unions are the last major national unions, the biggest unions left in America. I think especially after the 2008 Great Recession, that a major goal of the 1% in this country is to bust unions and to make America a low-wage economy that can compete with China.

Just to play devil's advocate for a moment, if unions have been protecting bad teachers and their jobs . . . isn't it time for a change? Don't we need some changes?

Well, I would say that due process is a lot different than a job for a life - as that we're often painted the teachers' union movement with. I would also invite critics of the teachers' unions to look at some important statistics. The South, large swaths of the South don't have teachers' unions. Are those schools outperforming the schools in the North?

This drive for high-stakes testing is about training an entire population that knowledge is the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices from a prescribed list of answers that are given by the elite.

Well, by the measures of test scores that the corporate reformers hold so dearly, no. Actually, the unionized schools are performing better on the test scores, which completely debunks their logic and exposes the real quest of the corporate reformer, which is I think to bust the teachers' unions. Also, to label our schools failing so that they can privatize them, right?

If in Chicago, they label the schools failing, mostly in Black and Brown neighborhoods, and then they move the charter schools in and have private operators use public funds to run them.

The last part of what I think is behind this drive for high-stakes testing is about training an entire population that knowledge is the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices from a prescribed list of answers that are given by the elite. We want to reframe that and say that actually, knowledge and wisdom are about empowering students to solve the problems they face in the world today from myriad disasters that we face, from mass incarceration to climate change. These problems won't be solved unless we can develop critical thinking and imagination skills in the classroom.

Where did these tests come from, historically speaking? IQ testing and what's come since came in at a particular moment in history, particularly when it comes to race relations.

That's absolutely right, and I think that's an important history that lays bare the lies of the testocracy today. They say that these tests are about closing the achievement gap, but if you know that these tests actually enter the public schools in the early 1900s, tests that were developed out of IQ tests that were first used during World War I to separate the officers from the grunt soldiers, and then a man named Carl Brigham was one of the men who developed those IQ tests. He taught at Princeton University and then he developed the SAT test.

When we say that Black lives matter, we're not just saying that young Black people shouldn't be shot down in the street with impunity and no accountability for the police. We're saying that we need culturally relevant curriculum.

Carl Brigham was an open eugenicist, a white supremacist whose whole premise of these tests were about ranking and sorting the races to prove that white men were smarter than women, were smarter than immigrants, were smarter than African-Americans. And now we see the same A, B, C, D bubble testing that was brought into the public schools by eugenicists. They're claiming that these are going to be the tests that close the achievement gap, and I say that's nonsense.

Talk about the future of this movement that you're a part of. Many people involved in your struggles were also out in the streets in Seattle and elsewhere in the #BlackLivesMatter protests around policing. The stories in your book come from teachers and administrators and parents about what's going on locally. There's a world of trouble coming to this status quo I would say.

I hope you're right. I think you are.

But how do you see it playing out and where do you see the connections?

Yeah. I think that we have to see this movement against high-stakes standardized testing as a civil rights movement, and I think that the people that are a part of this movement to end high-stakes standardized testing would do well to study the racist origins of this test and to make connections between these tests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

There's a recent study that came out of Boston University that shows the number one outcome of exit exams in high school to graduate is increased incarceration rates. We're seeing the school-to-prison pipeline being built with these high-stakes tests, and so part of our movement must have an antiracist message. We need to say that when we say that Black lives matter, we're not just saying that young Black people shouldn't be shot down in the street with impunity and no accountability for the police. We're saying that we need culturally relevant curriculum. We need a nurturing education system that's fully funded and develops the capacity of all of our students, especially those who have have been historically discriminated against. I would say the #BlackLivesMatter movement would also do well to join in with this movement against high-stakes standardized testing and say that we want more for our students.

If you were going to redefine education or redesign it for a more group-oriented economy, how would it change?

It would look quite different. It would be about inquiry-based classrooms where students are asked open-ended questions, and they're asked to bring in their experience, and they're asked to do problem-based learning, where we discuss problems that we face in our society, and we look to the different disciplines to help address those problems. We would have interdisciplinary classes, so that if we wanted to tackle a problem like climate change, we could have courses designed where we integrate history of coal extraction and the Industrial Revolution together with science classes that look at issues around climate change and have a more holistic approach.

I didn't know that you were going to say that, but it does sound an awful lot like what Bill Gates says Common Core is about.

Yeah. Except for he tells a lot of fibs, right? The problem is that he's attached to the same old high-stakes standardized tests with the A,B,C,D answers to Common Core, which then drive the curriculum towards teaching kids how to eliminate wrong answer choices rather than solving problems we face in our communities. I think that we need to move towards a student-centered approach and listen to teachers and have teachers and educators be the ones driving education reform like we're seeing with the Consortium Schools here in New York, like we're seeing at my high school, where we rejected the test and are now moving to implement alternatives.

All right. Jesse Hagopian, thank you so much for coming. Good luck with the book

Progressive Picks Tue, 31 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400