Truthout Stories http://www.truth-out.org Mon, 20 Apr 2015 21:27:56 -0400 en-gb This 4/20 Should Be a Wake-Up Call to End the Racist "War on Drugs" http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30320-this-4-20-should-be-a-wake-up-call-to-end-the-racist-war-on-drugs http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30320-this-4-20-should-be-a-wake-up-call-to-end-the-racist-war-on-drugs

The war on drugs decimates communities of color, breaks apart families and brings violence into already poverty-stricken neighborhoods. (Photo via Shutterstock)The war on drugs decimates communities of color, breaks apart families and brings violence into already poverty-stricken neighborhoods. (Photo: Hands Up via Shutterstock)

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The war on drugs isn't a war on drugs. It's a war on people, and this weekend it claimed its latest victim.

On Sunday morning, exactly one week after an encounter with police left him with 80 percent of his spine severed at his neck, Baltimore Resident Freddie Gray died at a local hospital.

He was just 27 years old.

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

At this time, we still don't know exactly how Gray suffered his "catastrophic" injuries, but video from the moment of his arrest shows him screaming out in pain, and according to family lawyer William Murphy, he was detained at a nearby police station for more than an hour before medics were finally called.

Something bad happened, and it's hopefully only a matter of time before we find out what.

To make matters worse, Baltimore police officials admitted today that the reasons for Gray's arrest are still "vague," and that cops probably just thought that he was "immediately involved or had been recently involved in criminal activity."

In other words, Freddie Gray was probably just guilty of being Black in a neighborhood known for its drug problems.

Thanks to Nixon and Reagan's war on drugs, this is the reality that millions of people of color live with everyday all across the US.

They live in fear of law enforcement because law enforcement, instead of trying to protect them, acts like an occupying force.

And, like all occupying forces throughout history, it treats everyday civilians, criminal or not, like they're the enemy.

In this type of situation, collateral damage casualties aren't just likely, they're inevitable.

The irony, of course, is that White people are just as likely, if not more likely, than Black people to use drugs like marijuana.

But because of the racist war on drugs, it's Black people who make up the lion's share of marijuana arrests.

On the one hand, this looks like a big time policy failure, but since the war on drugs was arguably always - even back in the 1930s when it all started - about criminalizing Black bodies to appease White racists. And in that context, there's an argument to be made that it's worked out exactly as planned.

Whatever you think about the real origins of the war on drugs, though, it's obvious that it hasn't made the US a healthier or a more drug-free country.

Instead, it's left us with the single largest prison population in the world, something that people on all sides of the aisle agree is unsustainable in the long run.

But make no mistake - this is not about getting high.

This is about people's lives.

The war on drugs decimates communities of color, breaks apart families and brings violence into already poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

It also prevent us from solving the underlying problems associated with substance abuse, and, if anything makes these problems worse because it passes the buck on to a prison system that doesn't know how to deal with curing addiction.

But that's only part of the story when it comes to how the war on drugs is harming public health.

People also have the right to get well, and criminalizing drugs, especially naturally-occurring ones like pot, prevents them from doing so.

We now know that marijuana, the drug at the epicenter of the war on drugs, has a number of medical benefits.

Americans should have the right to enjoy these medical benefits without having to worry about the government coming to take away their kids, as does Kansas-based medical marijuana activist Shona Banda.

After her 11-year-old son spoke out about his mom using medical marijuana during a school-run drug-education class, Banda was arrested and now faces a long, drawn-out custody battle with the state.

This is just one example of the casual cruelty of the war on drugs, and on this 4/20 should be a wake-up call that it's time to end this insanity for good.

Like all wars, the war on drugs has always been and always will be a war on people.

And while evidence from European countries like Portugal show that it's possible to legalize all drugs without starting the apocalypse, that's probably not going to happen anytime soon here in the United States.

So let's start with marijuana, which has always been at the epicenter of drug war despite being less harmful than alcohol.

If you really want to celebrate 4/20, call your congressman today and tell them to end modern-day prohibition once and for all.

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Opinion Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Gulf Fishermen Still Struggling Five Years After the BP Spill http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30319-gulf-fishermen-still-struggling-five-years-after-the-bp-spill http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30319-gulf-fishermen-still-struggling-five-years-after-the-bp-spill

Five years after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Truthout goes onboard a small fishing boat in the Gulf to find out how the catastrophic spill is still impacting the local economy. Small fishing families are still struggling with the ongoing impacts of the spill.

Captain Bien Do and Thao Vu on board Do's fishing boat off the Mississippi coast Gulf of Mexico. Do has been fishing in the Gulf since he came to United States from Vietnam in 1990, and Vu is an advocate for the local Vietnamese fishing community. Vu says small fishing operations are still struggling with the "ongoing impacts" of the BP oil spill. (Photo: Mike Ludvig)Captain Bien Do and Thao Vu on board Do's fishing boat off the Mississippi coast Gulf of Mexico. Do has been fishing in the Gulf since he came to United States from Vietnam in 1990, and Vu is an advocate for the local Vietnamese fishing community. Vu says small fishing operations are still struggling with the "ongoing impacts" of the BP oil spill. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)This story could not have been published without the support of readers like you. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and fund more stories like it!

Captain Bien Do and a member of his crew drag a green net from the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico and onto the deck of their modest fishing boat, which set off from a small marina in Gautier, Mississippi, on Friday morning, three days before the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic BP oil spill. Captain Do is quite spry at the age of 76, and he's been fishing in the Gulf since he came to the United States from Vietnam in 1990.

Do and his crew dump the catch into a plastic basket. A few stingrays are removed and thrown back. Crew members pick through the remaining sea life. There's a pile of small fish and tiny squid, and four shrimp. Do's crew is looking for shrimp.

The shrimping season won't open in Mississippi waters until June, but Do's crew received special permission from the US Coast Guard to trawl with small nets to test out some potential shrimping spots where the Pascagoula Bay empties into the Gulf. With only four shrimp netted during the first test run, things aren't looking so good.

To see more stories like this, visit "Planet or Profit?"

"The past several years, it hasn't been the same," said Thau Vu, a community advocate who works with Vietnamese fishers in the area and invited a small group of journalists, activists and researchers onto Do's boat.

It's been five years since an explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, followed by an unprecedented amount of chemical dispersants used to clear the oil from the surface. Vu says that fishermen and women are still reporting that it's hard to find large quantities of shrimp concentrated in one area, making trawling a challenge.

"In fact, there are ongoing impacts [from the spill]," Vu said.

Losing Income

Shrimping isn't the only challenge. Vu says that state officials determine the length of the oyster season based on the health of the population, and before the spill, the oyster season in Mississippi would typically run from September or October to April or May. In the years closely following the 2010 spill, state officials put heavy restrictions on oyster harvesting, and this year the state ended the season in March, with a 10-sack daily limit.

"In the past five years, if the [oyster] reefs have been closed like that, you've lost a big part of your income," Vu said.

Vu says that oysters can make up 85 percent of a fisher's income, or about $40,000 to $45,000 a year, and that's before paying for costs such as boat maintenance and docking fees.

Smaller catches and shorter seasons don't just impact small fishing operations. Seafood harvested from the Gulf must be transported, prepared and sold at markets and restaurants, providing jobs throughout local communities that are dependent on the work that fishers like Do and his crew do on a daily basis.

"To get it from the waters to the dinner table, there is a lot of work involved," Vu said.

A Botched Claims Process

Vu says that the claims process arising from class action settlements with BP to compensate thousands of people and businesses that suffered economic losses resulting from the spill was set up in 2010, before impacts to the fishing industry were well known.  

"Once you took a 'quick pay,' you weren't eligible [to file a claim]," Vu said. "Smaller boats had to take the money to survive, with nothing coming down the road."

Vu was referring to offers made by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, which was replaced by a court-supervised settlement program in 2012. Individuals in economic distress were offered a one-time payment of $5,000, and $25,000 for businesses, if they signed an agreement saying they would not sue BP or file claims in the future.

"So, some people felt rushed to get a check, and there were a lot of language access issues," said Vu, referring in part to the many Vietnamese fishers she works with in the region. The members of Do's crew, for instance, are not fluent in English.

As Truthout has reported, watchdogs and claimants have since cried foul over the deals and are currently suing Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney originally appointed by the Obama administration to administer BP's $20 billion compensation fund.

Listen to the Fishers

Bien Do and a fellow fisherman trawl for shrimp in Gulf waters. (Photo: Mike Ludvig)Bien Do and a fellow fisherman trawl for shrimp in Gulf waters. (Photo: Mike Ludwig) Inside the cabin of Do's boat, Tuat Nigeyen is visibly frustrated as she speaks with journalists and researchers, with Vu translating. The second test trawl only brought in a few more than a dozen shrimp, bringing the day's catch to about 20 shrimp total.

She points to a bottle of dishwashing liquid near the sink and explains that small fishing boats can get in trouble with state authorities if they use too much and it enters the water. Then why, she wonders, did the government allow BP to spray nearly 2 million gallons of dispersants into the Gulf to clean up the oil?

"So, what are all those academic degrees for?" Nigeyen demands. "Do they not know that the sheer volume of dispersants hurt the ecosystems? There is no fairness and justice."

The Environmental Protection Agency calls the use of dispersants an "environmental trade-off" because the chemicals reduce risks to shorelines and organisms at the surface, but admits that "the long term effects on aquatic life are unknown." The agency has required BP to monitor the impacts of dispersants.

A National Wildlife Federation (NWF) report released in late March notes that dispersants do not reduce the amount of oil in the environment; they simply break the oil down into tiny droplets. Dispersants can reduce the number of animals that are oiled and keep oil off of beaches, but increase the likelihood that underwater organisms are exposed to harmful compounds in oil.

These compounds make their way up the food chains, and oil and dispersant compounds have been found in the eggs of white pelicans nesting in faraway states such as Minnesota and Illinois, according to the report.

BP recently dismissed the report and accused the NWF of ignoring five years of research and government data showing that "damages were limited and the Gulf is undergoing a strong recovery." The Gulf environment, the company contends, is "returning to its baseline condition."

Crucial damage assessments continue to be tied up in litigation, and independent scientists say that much more research is needed to understand the full impact of the spill on the Gulf.

Nigeyen, however, is certain that the dispersants continue to impact fishing, but at public meetings, cleanup officials downplay their impacts and blame other problems, such as agricultural runoff.

"The destruction to the fisheries has not been comprehensively acknowledged," Nigeyen said. "It has been downplayed."

If state and local authorities want to understand the true impacts of the spill and the best way to restore the environment, Nigeyen says, they should be listening to the people who know best - the fishermen and women who depend on the waters, day in and day out.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
FBI Informant Exposes Sting Operation Targeting Innocent Americans in New "(T)ERROR" Documentary http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30313-fbi-informant-exposes-sting-operation-targeting-innocent-americans-in-new-t-error-documentary http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30313-fbi-informant-exposes-sting-operation-targeting-innocent-americans-in-new-t-error-documentary

We spend the hour with an explosive new film that shines a bright light on the FBI's shadowy use of informants in its counterterrorism sting operations. These undercover operatives are meant to root out would-be terrorists before they attack. Since 9/11, they have been used to prosecute at least 158 people. But critics argue they often target the wrong people, "including those with intellectual and mental disabilities, and the indigent." "(T)ERROR" goes inside the world of a particular informant who has played a key role in several major terrorism cases. It does so while he is in the middle of carrying out his latest sting operation. It came together when two independent filmmakers gained unprecedented access to follow Saeed Torres, whose undercover name is "Shariff," a 63-year-old former black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he monitors a white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. Torres knew one of the directors, Lyric Cabral, and after he came out to her as an informant, he agreed to share his story, without informing his superiors. As the film unfolds, al-Akili begins to post on his Facebook page that he suspects the FBI is targeting him. The filmmakers used this an opportunity to approach him, and soon find themselves interviewing him at the same time they are also documenting "Shariff" monitoring him. During this time each man remains unaware that the filmmakers are talking to the other one. We get the rest of the story when we are joined by the filmmakers who co-directed "(T)ERROR," Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe, and play part of an interview with al-Akili from federal prison. Al-Akili was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI "entrapment" sting. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. We are also joined by Steve Downs, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms. He works with Project SALAM, which published a report last year called "Inventing Terrorists: The Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution." He is also representing imprisoned Pakistani scientist Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. We are also joined by Marlene, the mother of Tarik Shah, who was arrested in 2005 after a joint FBI/NYPD sting operation that also involved Saeed "Shariff" Torres. She details in the film how Shah thought Shariff was his close friend, but he was actually an FBI informant.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today we look at an explosive new film that shines a bright light on the FBI's shadowy use of informants in its counterterrorism sting operations. These undercover operatives are meant to root out would-be terrorists before they attack. Since 9/11, they've been used to prosecute at least 158 people. But critics argue they're often targeting the wrong people. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found the FBI has focused on, quote, "particularly vulnerable people, including those with intellectual and mental disabilities, and the indigent."

Well, a new documentary that just premiered here in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival takes us inside the world of a particular informant who has played a key role in several major terrorism cases. And it does so while he's in the middle of carrying out his latest sting operation. It's called (T)ERROR; the T is in parentheses, to put the emphasis on "error." It came together when two independent filmmakers gained unprecedented access to follow Saeed Torres, aka Shariff, a 63-year-old former black revolutionary turned FBI informant, as he monitors a white Muslim convert named Khalifah al-Akili. Torres knew one of the directors, Lyric Cabral, and after he came out to her as an informant, he agreed to share his story, without informing his superiors. In this clip from the film, the other director, David Felix Sutcliffe, interviews Shariff inside the FBI safe house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the operation is underway.

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: How exactly do they train you to kind of prepare you?

SAEED TORRES: They don't train me for nothing. It's how I use the language. If they train me, I would never get what I wanted to get, because they're strictly textbook. There's a difference between telling somebody and making a suggestion. See, entrapment is if I go and tell him, "Yo, come on, let's go rob a bank," and you know that was not his intention, that was my intention. So I'm entrapping him. I don't make the suggestions. I may go to him and say, "Damn, there's a lot of money in there, boy. I see all them [bleep] dropping off all that damn money." And he feeds into it, and he go, "[bleep] I'd sure like to take that."

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: What about your current target? Are your handlers trying to suggest that you -

SAEED TORRES: I don't suggest anything. I wait 'til as we speak and to get to know each other, what we speak about. So when he brought up camping, that was my key opening right there. The door opened up for me to make a suggestion now. I said, "Yeah, oh, that's cool, man. We could all go camping." I said, you know, why don't we just go a little further? We could train the man like we do in the military.

AMY GOODMAN: That's a clip from (T)ERROR of Saeed Torres, aka Shariff, an FBI informant who portrays himself as a radicalized Muslim in order to monitor Khalifa al-Akili. As the film unfolds, al-Akili begins to post on his Facebook page he suspects the FBI is targeting him. The filmmakers use this as an opportunity to approach him and soon find themselves interviewing him at the same time that they are interviewing Shariff monitoring him. During this time, each man remains unaware that the filmmakers are talking to the other one.

Well, to pick up the story, we're joined by the two filmmakers, who co-directed (T)ERROR, Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe. In a minute, we'll also get a call from the federal prison where Khalifa al-Akili is being held. As the film shows, al-Akili was arrested just days after he emailed civil rights groups to say he believed he was the target of an FBI entrapment sting. He is now serving eight years in federal prison for illegally possessing a gun after having previous felony convictions for selling drugs. He was not arrested on terrorism charges.

David and Lyric, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Tell us about this story, Lyric, how you discovered it.

LYRIC CABRAL: Sure. Well, I met Saeed's forward-facing self. I met his double life, if you will. I was studying photography. I was living in a small brownstone in Harlem. And Saeed was my neighbor. While he was my neighbor - excuse me - I would have frequent visits to his apartment. We would engage in conversations about politics, about current events.

One day, he abruptly disappeared. This was at the end of three years of conversing. He abruptly disappeared. It was May 28, 2005. I was staring into an empty apartment, wondering where he went, when I got a call from him. He said, "I'm no longer in New York. If anyone asks - comes to you asking about me, any information, please give me a call. Get their information for me." When I said, "Why?" he said, "Come to South Carolina. I've relocated. I have something to tell you."

And when I went to South Carolina, he confessed to me that the apartment in which we had been conversing was, in essence, an FBI safe house. The rent was being paid by the FBI. It was wired with audio and video surveillance. And he told me that, "Do you remember Tarik?" And I said, "Yes. Tarik Shah?" He said, "Tarik is now in jail on suspicions of terrorism." And at the time that I met Saeed in - between 2002 and 2005, it was sort of the height of his career. He was involved in two active counterterrorism investigations, one being the domestic investigation of Tarik Shah, the other the international -

AMY GOODMAN: Tarik Shah, who was a musician?

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: Yeah.

LYRIC R. CABRAL: And the other being the international investigation based in Germany of Sheikh al-Moayad.

AMY GOODMAN: And you didn't know this at the time.

LYRIC R. CABRAL: No, I just knew that he was a well-dressed man who said that he worked for the Legal Aid Society. He sort of -

AMY GOODMAN: He said he worked for Legal Aid.

LYRIC R. CABRAL: He did.

AMY GOODMAN: This FBI informant?

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Did he work at Legal Aid?

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes, yes. The FBI - what happened, the FBI took him from his job with the promise of doubling his pay, after the first World Trade Center attack. And so that's sort of why -

AMY GOODMAN: So was he working at Legal Aid and being an FBI informant at the same time?

LYRIC R. CABRAL: That's a good question. I believe so. I believe so. He always has some type of supplementary income.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how - he left.

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you reconnect with him? And what year was it that he left Harlem?

LYRIC R. CABRAL: He left Harlem in 2005, immediately after Tarik Shah's arrest. I went that summer, in like June or July, to South Carolina to visit him. And, I mean, it wasn't really an issue of reconnecting, because I always called. I knew there was tremendous potential there for his story, yet I was completely repulsed that he had put me in a position where I was actively surveiled by the FBI. And so, for about 10 years, I really called him once a month - "How are you? Where are you?" - until David articulated the strong desire to make a film about informants.

AMY GOODMAN: So, David, explain how you came into this picture.

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: So, Lyric and I actually met right around that same time in 2005. We were both working at an after-school arts program in Harlem. And one of our students was arrested by the FBI, a 16-year-old Muslim girl named Adama Bah. And that arrest kind of shocked everyone in the community, shocked Lyric and I. And watching what happened to her as a result of her arrest - her father was deported; the government tried to deport her for several years. She -

AMY GOODMAN: And she was from?

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: She was from Guinea, West Africa, 16 years old. And she, all of a sudden, had to kind of be the primary caretaker of her family. Her mother did not speak English and had difficulty finding work, so she had to drop out of school - Adama - to take care of her four younger siblings. And so, while working on this film about her, I started to notice, you know, the other counterterrorism cases that were popping up, and seeing, in case after case after case, informants being sent into communities not to uncover terrorist cells, but to kind of create plots and cultivate arrests that the FBI could then use to swoop in and justify a victory in the war on terror. And while kind of observing these cases, I just thought, you know, dramatically, that would be a fascinating story to explore, the relationships that are being set up between these two - these two individuals, a target and an informant, the informant knowing that this person is ultimately going to be arrested as a consequence of this relationship.

AMY GOODMAN: When you started talking to Shariff - that was his aka name - Saeed Torres, for the film, you had not gotten in touch with Khalifah, his target in Pittsburgh, yet?

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: No.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let's talk about, Lyric, you convincing Saeed to go on camera. I mean, this is - you are getting him in the middle of a sting. The FBI doesn't know about this?

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Presumably. We have - we, as filmmakers, sought comment from the FBI. We have yet to hear comment. But we presume that - you know, we had Saeed's wholehearted cooperation. This film really comes from his desire to tell his story and get his story on the record.

AMY GOODMAN: Even as he is doing another sting? Because that's how you're -

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: That's what's so astounding about this film.

DAVID FELIX SUTCLIFFE: And I think it didn't entirely make sense to us, either, at the time. We said, "Why would this person agree to participate in this film?" But we didn't want to question that, initially said, "Let's take advantage of this opportunity." But ultimately, what we realized was, at the height of his career, Saeed was making hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know, working on multiple investigations. But in 2005, after having to testify in the case of Rafiq Sabir, who was Tarik Shah's co-defendant, his identity was exposed, and everyone in the New York Muslim community became aware that he was actually an informant. At that point, he left New York and no longer had the social connections that made him valuable as an asset to the FBI. So when we met up with him several years later, he was making - he was barely getting reimbursed for gas money and was struggling to kind of make those large paychecks, those enormous paychecks, that he had been making previously in his career, which I think is what prompted him to agree to participate in this film.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Lyric, how did you get in touch with his target? Presumably, Shariff did not tell you who he was now surveiling, monitoring.

LYRIC R. CABRAL: Well, early on, we were committed to sort of documenting the investigation wherever it may go and, as journalists, getting as close to the investigation as we could. And we sought legal consultation early on from the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who sort of told us our parameters as journalists. And as such - Khalifah had a public Facebook profile, which was frequently checked by the FBI and by Saeed. And because it was public and Saeed shared that information with us, we began to check his profile. And increasingly, while we were documenting the investigation, Khalifah began to articulate suspicions on his public Facebook page, very interesting status updates like "The Feds think they can send anyone to me. They must think I'm Willie Lump-Lump," things like this. So he would start to articulate that he thought that he was the target of an FBI investigation. And ultimately, his suspicions became more detailed. And when he finally articulated a name, Saeed, that - you know, the name of the informant that he thought was targeting him, we sort of felt comfortable, as journalists, reaching out to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we're going to go to break. When we come back, we're going to hear both from Shariff and from Khalifah - from Khalifah in jail. Shariff, we have from the film, (T)ERROR. Lyric Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe are the directors. Stay with us.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Test Mutiny: Tens of Thousands of New York Parents Revolt Against Standardized Exams http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30312-test-mutiny-tens-of-thousands-of-new-york-parents-revolt-against-standardized-exams http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30312-test-mutiny-tens-of-thousands-of-new-york-parents-revolt-against-standardized-exams

In an act of mass civil disobedience, tens of thousands of parents in New York state had their children boycott the annual English Language Arts exam this week. At some Long Island and upstate school districts, abstention levels reached 80 percent. Protest organizers say at least 155,000 pupils opted out - and that is with only half of school districts tallied so far. The action is seen as a significant challenge to the education agenda of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and to standardized testing nationwide. More than a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, educators, parents and students nationwide are protesting the preponderant reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, saying it gives undue importance to ambiguous data and compromises learning in favor of test prep. We speak to Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks Public Schools in Long Island, and parent Toni Smith-Thompson, who led the boycott against standardized testing at Central Park East 1 Elementary School in East Harlem.

TRANSCRIPT:

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In an act of mass civil disobedience, tens of thousands of parents in New York state had their children boycott the annual English Language Arts exam this week. At some Long Island and upstate school districts, abstention levels reached 80 percent. Protest organizers say at least 155,000 pupils opted out, and that's with only half of school districts tallied so far. The action is seen as a significant challenge to the education agenda of Governor Andrew Cuomo and to standardized testing nationwide.

AMY GOODMAN: More than a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind, educators, parents and students nationwide are protesting the preponderant reliance on high-stakes standardized testing, saying it gives undue importance to ambiguous data and compromises learning in favor of test prep. Teachers' unions have also raised concerns about linking students' test results to teacher evaluation scores. In January, special education teacher Jia Lee from the Earth School in New York City testified before the Senate about why half of the parents at her school are opting out of high-stakes testing.

JIA LEE: Last year, over 50 percent of our parents at our school refused to allow their children to take the New York state Common Core Assessments, what we now have known nationally as "opting out." In New York state, at least, these tests have changed from year to year. The cut scores have changed from year to year, which makes them flawed and invalid. When parents and educators have voiced concerns, they've been accused of coddling. I want to challenge that assumption. The great crime is that the focus on testing has taken valuable resources and time away from programming, social studies, arts and physical education, special education services and ELL programs. At my school, we no longer have a librarian, and our Parent Association works full-time to fund the needed arts and music programs that are not covered by our budget any longer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Earlier this month, New York approved a New York state budget containing many controversial educational changes backed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. These include revisions to teacher evaluations, new rules for the dismissal of teachers deemed ineffective, and changes to the process by which the state can shutter schools it deems failures.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we're joined now by two guests. Jack Bierwirth is the superintendent of Herricks Public Schools. Toni Smith-Thompson led the boycott against standardized testing at Central Park East 1 Elementary School, where she's co-president of the Parents Association. She recently wrote a piece for People's World called "Gutting teacher tenure hurts the children."

So, I want to welcome Dr. Jack Bierwirth and Toni Smith-Thompson. Dr. Bierwirth, you're the superintendent of an entire school system.

JACK BIERWIRTH: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You supported the opt-out?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Legally, I can't. But I absolutely understand what the parents and teachers are concerned about. I am involved on a lot of things statewide, and we've expressed deep concerns about the tests that New York state has put together and also about the evaluation system of teachers and administrators. Teachers ought to be evaluated. Principals ought to be evaluated. Kids ought to be assessed. But there are much better ways of doing both.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What are some of your main concerns? Because clearly standardized testing has become a major battleground across the state and across the nation. What are your concerns as an educator and administrator about the quality and the importance of these tests?

JACK BIERWIRTH: And a parent. I've always - I mean, people said, "Isn't it terrible to teach to the test?" Well, it isn't, if what's being measured on the test is what parents and teachers want the kids to know, because if you're teaching to something that really assesses fairly and accurately the things that we want our kids, whether they're our students or our own kids - if it's measuring that, then there's no problem with teaching to the test. The problem is that the current assessments are unbelievably long, and there are real questions about how valid they are. And given the time that they're given and when we get the results, they're almost useless.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about that, the gap in time? Can you explain that, for those who don't know?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Well, in New Jersey, the tests, the PARCC tests, were given in the end of February, the beginning of March. In New York, they're being given in April, three months before the end of the school year. Parents and teachers don't get the results until the end of August. I mean, when I was a kid and when I first started teaching, you tested at the end of the year to see how well the kids were doing over the course of the year, and that was part of what you sat down with a teacher and discussed. How did the year go? How did your kids do on biology? How did your kids compare with the other kids who were taking biology? But if you're testing in April, and teachers are going to get scores based - even assuming that they were accurate, they're being measured on six months' worth of their work and three months' worth of the teacher of the prior year's work.

AMY GOODMAN: Who writes these tests? And what about the actual quality of the tests? What about those who say the kids got to know this stuff?

JACK BIERWIRTH: I think you can do a whole lot better. I think that it's been demonstrated that you can create a whole lot better assessments. I think where education ought to be headed is online adaptive tests where it adjusts for the students' competence. And you can do that in 45 minutes or an hour and have results as the kids are walking out, and have results that teachers can use, parents can use. I'm not going to name the name of the tests, but there are plenty of tests out there. And there are plenty of other countries that have come up with much better assessment systems that teachers value and that parents value.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Toni Smith-Thompson, I wanted to ask you about - your school is in East Harlem.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As I said in my column in the Daily News on Wednesday and again today, is that this is an extraordinary act by so many parents, because every individual parent has to send a letter into the school -

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: - saying, "I want my child exempted, or not taking this test." So, everyone has to take an affirmative action.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk about what happened in your school.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: So, we've had a number of students at the school opt out for the past few years, a small number, so parents were already concerned about these tests - again, the length of the tests, the quality of the tests, that they were not age-appropriate. But this year, with the addition of these high stakes attached to the teacher evaluations, really just took it over the top. Kids started talking about, "If I fail, my teacher will get fired." And kids should not be put in that position. And so, really, some of the conversations were started by the kids having conversations in class about what it means to have knowledge and education and power. And they started conversations about whether or not these tests would be valuable for them. And the parents and the teachers echoed those conversations. And we took the initiative to organize a series of informational meetings, to connect with GLE, and to really get the information out to parents. And for most parents, once we had the information about what was in the tests, the length of the tests, like eight hours - plus, you know, for most schools, months of test prep - it was a no-brainer.

AMY GOODMAN: Toni Smith -

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were were the results at your school?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Almost 80 percent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Eighty percent did not -

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Opt-out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Opted out.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are your kids?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: I have two school-age kids, fourth grade and kindergarten.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain their response. Presumably, the kindergartners don't have these tests.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, you never know these days.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Right, you never know.

AMY GOODMAN: You sort of seat-belt them in.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: You know, it's interesting. At the beginning of the year, when testing was first - first came up, my fourth grader asked if she would be taking the test and said she didn't want to. So I left the decision to her, as many parents did. And then, as more information began to unfold about these tests, which is very hard because they're so secretive, when it got to that point, I decided, "I'm just going to make the decision for you; this is not a decision that I feel like you are going to have to make on your own, to weigh all of these pros and cons. You're just not going to take this test." And she was totally fine with that. And we were really proactive in the school to have conversations with the kids, so that the kids were clear that it didn't mean anything for them and their peers that some of them were taking the tests and some of them weren't, so it didn't become this -

AMY GOODMAN: Do they just not go to school that day?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: No, they all went to school, and there were just alternative activities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I'd like to ask you about the secrecy issue here of these tests. I got a copy of the instructions that New York City teachers received on giving this test. And in my column today, I quote that teachers were warned not to, quote, "read, review, or duplicate the contents of secure test material before, during, or after [test] administration." Now, I've never heard of a teacher being told that she can't read the very test she's administering. And what about this issue of Pearson, the company, insisting on complete secrecy of the test, and also not even releasing publicly some of the data that independent researchers could be able to assess the quality of the tests?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Let me answer that, but I want to go back for half a second, if I could. There are a lot of parents who are having their kids take the test. That doesn't mean that they're supporting the test. And so, I hope that as this unfolds, that people, that the powers that be understand that there's widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of what's going on in New York state, whether people are having their kids take the tests or not.

And now to your question, based on my roles, as far as I can see it, the basic problem is that New York state is - and other states are not investing the amount of money that they need to in the tests to develop large banks of questions. And because they're not paying for very many questions, then they can't release very many, because if they did, then they couldn't have other versions of the test. There's another assessment that we use, for example, that has a huge databank of questions. And one of the people who was one of the leaders of that organization told me that he could publicly release every single question and every single answer, and that it would make no difference, because with hundreds of thousands of questions, no kids - there's no point in memorizing the test. Part of our problem is that we're doing this on the cheap. And with a limited number of questions, then you have to be secret about what you've got, because you're going to have to use those tests - you're going to have to use those questions again.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this week, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, appeared on the MSNBC show, All In with Chris Hayes. She defended high-stakes testing.

MERRYL TISCH: The intent of the test is to give a snapshot of performance and allow parents to know where their children are at any given point in their educational career as compared to their peers. If you talk about income inequality in this country, income inequality is directly tied to the achievement gap for our poor students. Those students, if they are not given access and opportunity to high-quality education, they simply cannot move along at a continuum.

AMY GOODMAN: Merryl Tisch went on to suggest school testing informs teachers how much students are progressing, the same way doctors' visits tell parents how much their child is growing. Toni Smith-Thompson?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: I don't think that's an accurate comparison. I mean, when you go for a checkup at the doctor, number one, doctors are not graded and fired based on how healthy patients are. And, you know, I don't know. I just - I'm not sure. I just - I don't think it's an accurate comparison at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we go to news of what has taken place in Atlanta, Georgia? Former educators in Atlanta have been given prison sentences of up to seven years for their roles in a massive cheating scandal at public schools. Prosecutors say teachers were forced to modify incorrect answers. Students were even allowed to fix their responses during exams. Twenty-one other defendants avoided trial with plea deals, but the nine sentenced to jail rejected sentencing agreements so they can appeal. It's said to be one of the largest school cheating scandals in US history. Donald Bullock, an educator who reached a plea deal, apologized for his role.

DONALD BULLOCK: I, Donald Bullock, do hereby sincerely apologize to the students, my fellow staff members, parents and the Atlanta Public School System, as well as the greater metropolitan Atlanta community, for my involvement in the 2009 CRC Administration, resulting in cheating or other dysfunctional acts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Dr. Jack Bierwirth, you're the superintendent of schools. Can you talk about what's happened there? Do you know the superintendent there?

JACK BIERWIRTH: Yeah, actually, I did. Her mother and my mother went to the same church, although we didn't know that for a long time, and followed our careers. And, yes, I knew her fairly well. It's really sad. As a country, we need to figure out how to make our schools better and how to improve instruction. And as a number of really smart people have said, we're not going to fire our way to excellence. And we're not going to really - beating up on kids, beating up on parents isn't going to improve the schools. What improves schools around the world is now much clearer than when I started my profession; it's now much clearer than it was 20 years ago. And you don't get it by rating teachers as a 78 or a 79; you do it by hiring really good people and putting a massive amount of effort into professional development.

And there are high stakes, but the high stakes should be fair ones, that measure kids accurately, that reflect what parents and teachers want kids to know and be able to do. Regents Exams are much higher stakes than three-through-eight tests. But it's a system that people understood, that people value. It's a test that is given at the end of the year. It's not a student's whole grade. It's 20 percent or 25 percent of a student's grade. It's what they did in papers. But the test is important. It's very high-stakes. But interestingly, you can get the results of that test usually within two or three days, not four months, not five months.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, one of the interesting things that has surprised me is the extent to this which the revolt against standardized testing has occurred even more in the suburbs - in Long Island, in the suburbs of Rochester, in the suburbs of Buffalo, in school districts that formerly were not considered to have problems. And in reality, what's happened is, in 2009, state tests in New York showed over 70 percent of all schools, the kids were at proficient levels. Suddenly, the test was changed the following year, and the numbers dropped statewide to 57 percent. Then they introduced a new curriculum a few years later, and now the proficiency has dropped to 30 percent. So, in a few years, just by changing the test and the curriculum, you're suddenly told the majority of the schools in New York state, that they're failing. And I think that's had an impact on these parents who are paying high taxes in the suburbs, isn't it? In term - for their schools.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: Yeah.

JACK BIERWIRTH: Although I'll tell you that my rural - my colleagues in rural, small rural school districts, who didn't experience it at the beginning, are now experiencing it to a higher degree, many of them, than we are in the suburbs. Even if everything that the state is doing is 100 percent correct, the opt-out and the protests are indicative of a massive failure on the part of the state to persuade people that what they're doing is right. I don't accept the first part, but even if you did, shouldn't people take a step back and say, "We've really done a terrible job explaining what we're doing and why it's important to them as teachers and to kids"? It's gotten bigger each year the last several years, I think, because people don't buy the explanations they're given.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you grade the Obama administration on education?

JACK BIERWIRTH: D.

AMY GOODMAN: Toni Smith-Thompson?

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: I probably know less than you do, but I think the current course of education is totally wrong. And I would echo what you said, that the impact of these tests - I mean, the movement has gained traction this year, but really the impact of these tests has been felt for years, under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the schools that have been disproportionately impacted are struggling schools, struggling students, English-language learners, students with special needs. And schools have been closed, teachers and students displaced and funneled into already other struggling schools. And so, I mean, when you talk about the achievement gap, these are some of the things to think about. It's not just blame the teacher because the kids are not performing. There are so many other factors.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to leave it there, but we're definitely not going to leave the story there. We will continue to follow these protests in education in this country. I want to thank Dr. Jack Bierwirth, superintendent of Herricks Public Schools in Long Island, New York, and Toni Smith-Thompson, who led the boycott against standardized testing at Central Park [East] 1 Elementary School, where she's co-president of the Parents Association. We'll link to your piece in People's World called "Gutting teacher tenure hurts the children." And we'll also link to your articles, Juan, in the New York Daily News. Your piece, "Tests Mutiny," was on the cover of the New York Daily News on Wednesday. Today's column, "Surge of the opt-out movement against English Language Arts exam is act of mass civil disobedience." This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a minute.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Norris Make the Case for Reparations http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30311-ta-nehisi-coates-and-michelle-norris-make-the-case-for-reparations http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30311-ta-nehisi-coates-and-michelle-norris-make-the-case-for-reparations

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writer, journalist and educator, is also a senior editor for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. His recent piece titled "The Case for Reparations" intricately and provocatively traces the history of racism in the United States from slavery to recent examples of housing discrimination. The much-lauded piece set a single-day traffic record for a magazine article on The Atlantic's website, and the attention it has garnered has given Coates a greater forum to wrestle with questions of identity - both blackness and whiteness. The event was followed by a talk with Michele Norris.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
On the News With Thom Hartmann: Workers Join the "Fight for $15" Movement, and More http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30308-on-the-news-with-thom-hartmann-thousands-of-workers-join-the-fight-for-15-movement-and-more http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30308-on-the-news-with-thom-hartmann-thousands-of-workers-join-the-fight-for-15-movement-and-more

In today's On the News segment: Thousands of workers across the US took part in mass protests in more than 200 cities; in the European Union, regulators are actually standing up to corporate monopolies; in the richest nation on Earth, the number of homeless children has grown by 60 percent in the last six years; and more.

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

TRANSCRIPT:

Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of Economic and Labor News...

You need to know this. Last week, thousands of workers across the country took part in mass protests in more than 200 cities. From New York to Los Angeles to New Orleans, low-wage workers joined the Fight for $15 movement and called for the right to unionize and for livable wages. In addition to fighting for better lives for themselves, it turns out that these workers are also fighting to save taxpayers about $150 billion a year. According to a recent report from the University of California, Berkeley, poverty wages aren't just hurting workers, they're costing us a fortune. Even working full-time, a parent making minimum wage doesn't earn enough to live above the poverty line, and that means we have to make up the difference. When corporations skimp on wages, taxpayers pick up the tab for public assistance programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance. While it's extremely important that our nation has a strong social safety net to make sure that people don't starve in the streets, it's also imperative that these programs exist for more than just corporate welfare. The fight for higher wages isn't just about these low-wage workers - it's about all of us and our entire economy. Corporations used to pay workers enough to support themselves, but businesses have pushed that cost on to us. Cheating workers out of a livable wage denies them the dignity that they deserve, and it's time for each and every one of us to stand up and demand a change. When low-wage workers earn enough to survive, our entire nation does better, and it's up to us to join the fight and help make that happen.

Here in the US, we're supposed to appreciate massive corporations that dominate a market. In the European Union (EU), however, regulators actually stand up to corporate monopolies. Last week, the EU Competition Commission opened an antitrust investigation into Google's business practices. Officials say that the giant tech firm gives itself an "unfair advantage" over competitors by "systematically favoring its own comparison shopping product in its general search results pages." In other words, Google prioritizes their own products in search results, which makes it harder for competitors to sell to consumers. In a statement about the charges, officials said, "The Commission's preliminary view is that such conduct infringes [on] EU antitrust rules because it stifles competition and harms consumers." If Google is found to have violated the law, they could fave up to $6 billion in fines and have to change their businesses practices in the EU. It's no secret that this massive company dominates the market in much of the world, and it would be remarkable if our own country stood up to this tech monopoly.

In the richest nation on Earth, the number of homeless children has grown by 60 percent in the last six years. And, according to Paul Buchheit over at AlterNet, our country's wealth has grown by $30 trillion during that same time period. While the 1% continues to stockpile cash, our nation has one of the highest child-poverty rates in the developed world. According to UNICEF, "Children's material well-being is the highest in the Netherlands and in the four Nordic countries, and [the] lowest in Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and the United States." Yet, despite these staggering statistics, Republicans in Congress want to slash the budgets for food stamps, Head Start and public education even more. Is this what they mean when they talk about "American Exceptionalism?" If we can afford to give the wealthy more tax breaks, we can afford to make sure that kids have enough to eat. And, if they say that we can afford another senseless war, they shouldn't have a problem with funding the programs that protect our kids.

According to a recent survey from Gallup, right now, about nine out of 10 American adults can say that they have health insurance. Thanks to Obamacare, the uninsured rate continues to drop, and the number of people going without health-care coverage continues to decline. And, the researchers explained that the biggest change in the uninsured rate has occurred in groups that have previously struggled to obtain insurance, like minorities and low-income Americans. In an interview with the Associated Press, Dan Witters, the research director for Gallup's poll, said, "The Affordable Care Act had three major objectives: increase coverage, slow the rate of increase in costs, and improve health." He added, "The first one is clearly a win. Coverage is increasing; there is no question about it." However, the uninsured rate could drop by another two points if Republican lawmakers would just stop blocking the Medicaid expansion in their states. Expanding health care shouldn't be controversial, it should be celebrated as an US victory, and we should keep pushing until everyone in our country has access to the healthcare that they deserve.

And finally... When it comes to elections, every state should take a clue from Montana. Last week, that state's legislature passed a sweeping bipartisan campaign finance bill, which will put an end to the flood of so-called "dark money" in their elections. That's the electoral spending done by nonprofit groups, and it has plagued Montana's state-wide elections since 2007. Even before the disastrous Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, and earlier ruling allowed nonprofits to collect corporate money and use it to manipulate politics in that state. This new legislation will require all groups to disclose their donors - regardless of their nonprofit status - if they spend money in elections within 60 days of the vote. In a statement about the new bill, Gov. Steve Bullock said, "Montana elections are about to become the most transparent in the nation, requiring those trying to influence our elections to come out of the dark money shadows." He added, "Our elections should be decided by Montanans, no shadowy dark money groups." The only question is whether our federal lawmakers will be brave enough to follow Montana and stand up to the big money that has corrupted our political system.

And that's the way it is - for the week of April 20, 2015 - I'm Thom Hartmann - on the Economic and Labor News.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Climate Change Threatens More Than Two-Thirds of Rabbit Species http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30307-climate-change-threatens-more-than-two-thirds-of-rabbit-species http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30307-climate-change-threatens-more-than-two-thirds-of-rabbit-species

Climate change will have major effects on the ecology and distribution of many animal species. Now new research suggests that rabbits will be particularly hard hit as climatic changes alter their habitat over the coming decades.

Rabbits, hares and pikas could become this century's new climate migrants - with up to two-thirds of species forced to relocate. There are almost certainly going to be extinctions among some of the more sensitive and less adaptable species.

Rabbits and their relatives hares (referred to in North America as jackrabbits) and the lesser known pikas belong to a group of mammals known as lagomorphs - of which there are 87 species worldwide.

Lagomorphs are particularly interesting to ecologists - and those of my colleagues who work in Global Food Security - as they are a major human food resource, valued game species, agricultural pests, model lab animals and key elements in food webs.

You can find rabbits, hares and pikas almost everywhere, across a huge range of environmental conditions. They're native to all continents except Antarctica, found from the equator to the Arctic, and from sea level to the very top of the Himalayas.

A quarter of lagomorphs are already listed as threatened, and 13 species are endangered or critically endangered. We were particularly interested in how predicted changes in climate would affect this already highly vulnerable group.

In our study, colleagues from Queen's University Belfast and I collated all known records of lagomorph species worldwide. Environmental conditions such as temperature or rainfall were correlated with the sites where each species occurred to establish the suitable habitat within which each can persist. Widely accepted climate models of projected future conditions were then used to extrapolate how suitable habitat would change.

The results, published in the open access scientific journal PLOS ONE suggest that two-thirds of all lagomorph species will be affected. Rabbits, hares and jackrabbits are likely to shift towards the poles with little change in the total size of their range - the geographical area in which the species can be found.

Pikas meanwhile, are likely to shift to ever higher altitudes as the lower slopes warm up leading to huge range declines. This is likely to lead to the extinction of some such as Kozlov's PikaOchotona koslowi, a mysterious species unique to China.

Of course the animals won't just remain still while the climate changes around them - moving towards the poles or to higher ground is a standard strategy to track shifts in suitable habitat. Rabbits, hares and jackrabbits can move long distances and can potentially move to cooler conditions without losing too much of their range; the effects of such shifts on ecosystems are largely unknown but likely to cause significant disruption.

The smaller and less bouncy pikas won't be so lucky. Pikas inhabit generally cooler conditions in the high mountains of the Himalayas or Rockies and will be driven further upwards until no suitable habitat remains. My colleague Neil Reid, a conservation biologist and lagomorph expert at Queen's, points out that "they will likely be pushed off the top of the mountains, literally, with total extinction the most probable outcome."

Species traits can be useful indicators of potential responses to climate change, yet have rarely been linked to changes in distributions. Smaller-bodied species were more likely to exhibit range contractions and shifts to higher ground, but species capable of having large numbers of offspring were more likely to shift towards the poles.

The effect of climate change on lagomorphs is predicted to be so substantial that almost a third of the Earth's land area (31.5 million km2) will lose at least one species by 2100. It is predicted that northern China will lose up to ten species, whereas Montana and North Dakota in North America are likely to gain up to five species - climate rabbit refugees perhaps, fleeing the ever-warming southern states and Mexico. Generally, species on islands and mountains will be the hardest hit by changing temperatures.

However predictive models are simplified versions of reality and as such are rough approximations of what seems likely to happen. Those we used did not account for the complexity of ecological systems, such as how species - like plants or predators - interact with lagomorphs.

Moreover, small burrowing species such as the Pygmy rabbit Brachylagus idahoensis may be able to shelter from the effects of climate change, while larger species like the European hare Lepus europaeus may have to adapt to mitigate the effects of warming temperatures - for example in the way that the Antelope jackrabbit Lepus alleni uses its long ears to shed excess heat.

So we have to be careful in the interpretation of our models - but the consistency of the results across all lagomorph species does not paint a good picture of the future for the group.

Conservation strategies, such as assisted migration - where humans deliberately move species to areas of more suitable conditions, pre-empting future changes - may be one of the few options to save highly range-restricted species, even if it is highly controversial.

Collection of more species records, particularly for already rare species, as well as targeting data-deficient geographic regions (such as Russia) will be vital in increasing our knowledge of the most threatened lagomorphs and informing future conservation management.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Protesters Bring Ongoing "Situation" to New FERC Chairman http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30306-protestors-bring-ongoing-situation-to-new-ferc-chairman http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30306-protestors-bring-ongoing-situation-to-new-ferc-chairman

At his first meeting as FERC Chairman, Commissioner Norman Bay gave the cold shoulder to demonstrators who repeatedly interrupted him to protest what they say is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's rubber stamp approach to regulation.

"Oh my God, we have a situation here. The situation is not going away," shouted protestor Charles Chandler. "There is no democracy here. You just ignore what I write on my computer."

"Well, I guess one wouldn't be the chairman of FERC without having to deal with protesters," Bay said, after the first of six were escorted out of the room one at a time.

Video of protests at FERC meeting.

Bay was acknowledging a new reality for the formerly obscure agency. As former FERC Chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur put it, "We have a situation here." FERC has come to the forefront as gas infrastructure projects have increased exponentially. Pipelines, compressor stations and LNG terminals face "unprecedented opposition" instead of typically smooth approval.

"Commissioner Bay, FERC truly needs to be about public, not corporate interests, not the interests of the fossil fuel industry," said Ted Glick, National Campaign Director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, as security led him out of the room. "FERC is a rubber stamp for the gas industry. Commissioner Bay, you need to lead in ways that may be new to FERC."

But by clicking off his microphone and staring into space every time a demonstrator stood up to voice their objections, Chairman Bay signalled that FERC was not open to new ways.

"Interrupting these open meetings does not help your cause," he said, stating that out-of-turn comments could be regarded as ex parte communication.

If the Commission wanted to appear responsive to the public, it did not help its cause either. Aggressively brushing off an ongoing "situation" may lend credence to the claim that it turns a deaf ear to people's concerns. A main complaint is that industry has ample access to FERC - the agency even gives seminars to help with applications - while community members cram to get up to speed with complicated laws and procedures. A recent article in Greenwire pointed out the close ties between FERC and the gas industry.

Bay said that he would like to respect the protestors' First Amendment rights, but they will have to comply with agency rules of conduct. He gave no indication that he thought FERC's process was insufficient. Submitting written comments to FERC during designated comment periods is the best way to get results, Bay said.

Some of the protestors at today's meeting condemned the Commission's approval of the Cove Point LNG export terminal conversion.

"As a kindergarten teacher I am here for the children. I am concerned because they are unable to breathe in Calvert County," said protestor Sean Glenn. "I am here for their future, the future that you are destroying. The air is so precious and made more so by all the expansion of extracted dirty energy projects which you approved."

The EPA has issued an F rating for air quality in Calvert County, MD, where Cove Point LNG is located; when completed, the facility will emit an additional 20.4 tons of pollutants per year. Dominion Resources was required to purchase emission credits allowing them to expel more pollutants.

In a statement, community coalition group We Are Cove Point demanded that FERC halt construction on the Cove Point terminal until it ruled on a request for rehearing on the approval certificate.

We Are Cove Point also called the rule FERC issued in March to suppress outbursts at Commission meetings "an industry friendly gag rule."

Former Chairman Cheryl LaFleur got a chummy send-off from her head position with a gift of a photo of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for the Massachusetts native. She will remain on the Commission. FERC staff also said farewell to Deputy Chief Judge Bobbie McCartney.

The Commissioners meeting planned for May is not likely to be interruption-free. Beyond Extreme Energy, a coalition group which says it represents "frontline communities" affected by the gas infrastructure which FERC approves, has called for 10 days of protest at FERC headquarters in Washington, DC in May, including the Commission meeting.

Last November, Beyond Extreme Energy blockaded FERC headquarters for a full work week and contributed to protests at construction sites for Cove Point LNG.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Gulf Victims Suing BP Disaster's Compensation Czar http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30305-gulf-victims-suing-bp-disaster-s-compensation-czar http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30305-gulf-victims-suing-bp-disaster-s-compensation-czar

Oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico is burned in an attempt to quell its spread, June 16, 2010. (Photo: Kris Krüg)Oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico is burned in an attempt to quell its spread, June 16, 2010. (Photo: Kris Krüg)Shortly after BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, 2010, one of the most politically well-connected attorneys in the United States was appointed to administer the $20 billion fund to, in theory, pay compensation to those harmed by BP's catastrophe.

President Obama and BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, agreed that attorney Kenneth Feinberg should head the fund. Feinberg would later be chosen, also by Obama, to oversee the compensation of the top executives of the banks that were bailed out with US tax dollars in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

He has, almost needless to say, been accused of being a fox guarding a chicken house.

Feinberg's firm was paid $1.25 million per month by BP - that we know of (Feinberg refused to disclose the full amount of his compensation and the details of his deal with BP) - to run the so-called Gulf Coast Claims Facility.

Oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico is burned in an attempt to quell its spread, June 16, 2010. (Photo: Kris Krüg)Oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico is burned in an attempt to quell its spread, June 16, 2010. (Photo: Kris Krüg)Help Truthout keep publishing stories like this: They can't be found in corporate media! Make a tax-deductible donation today.

Shortly after BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico began on April 20, 2010, one of the most politically well-connected attorneys in the United States was appointed to administer the $20 billion fund to, in theory, pay compensation to those harmed by BP's catastrophe.

President Obama and BP's chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, agreed that attorney Kenneth Feinberg should head the fund. Feinberg would later be chosen, also by Obama, to oversee the compensation of the top executives of the banks that were bailed out with US tax dollars in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

He has, almost needless to say, been accused of being a fox guarding a chicken house.

Feinberg's firm was paid $1.25 million per month by BP - that we know of (Feinberg refused to disclose the full amount of his compensation and the details of his deal with BP) - to run the so-called Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).

To see more stories like this, visit "Planet or Profit?"

In essence, BP paid Feinberg $1.25 million a month to limit their liability in the wake of the single largest marine oil disaster in US history.

Outrage against Feinberg escalated enough, that by December 2010, the Center for Justice and Democracy sent a letter to BP CEO Bob Dudley expressing concern over "serious new issues raised about the lack of transparency and potential conflicts of interest related to the administration of the Gulf Coast Claims Facility," and pointed out the obvious conflict of interest:

Mr. Feinberg, employed by BP, has decided on his own authority that all claims recipients must release all companies who caused this disaster from any and all legal responsibility, no matter how grossly negligent they were. This sweeping release, which assigns victims' claims to BP, benefits only one actor: BP - the company that happens to pay Mr. Feinberg's salary.

Countless numbers of people along the Gulf Coast with claims against BP became increasingly enraged in their accusations that Feinberg was little more than a BP shill, and demanded that Feinberg stop claiming he was on their side, and not BP's.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2011, the federal judge presiding over BP's oil disaster litigation ruled that Feinberg was not independent of BP and could no longer claim he was, as Feinberg had been promising victims that he was their lawyer and did not answer to BP.

And now he is being sued by people he claimed to have represented against BP.

"In the cases such as BP, Feinberg should be exposed for what he is, the defendant's attorney protecting them at all costs to the detriment of the claimants," Maurie Salvesen, who is suing Feinberg's firm, told Truthout.

The Sham Agency

Salvesen, who has received no compensation from BP despite incurring major financial losses due to the oil disaster, explained that the option to receive compensation through the settlement agreement was not open to him due to "the onerous conditions therein which precluded me receiving any compensation under that agreement. My claim filed with GCCF was ignored and dismissed out of hand save for the 'go away' offer."

The offer which Salvesen references was one the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF) offered claimants who were in economic distress. If an individual was willing to sign a "release" of all future claims and promised not to sue BP, they would receive a one-time payment of $5,000. For companies, it was $25,000.

"In no way was Feinberg ever fair to anyone save BP."

"As stated by the District Court, Feinberg was declared to be a representative of BP and could not represent himself to be anything other (i.e. fair and impartial agent to settle claims)," Salvesen said. "No party I know of was ever dealt with fairly by him via the GCCF. This sham agency offered the payouts to any claimant that had a claim that appeared valid with a cursory examination. I was offered such payment. In no way was Feinberg ever fair to anyone save BP."

New Orleans Attorney Daniel Becnel has been heavily involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill class action, which he now considers to be deeply flawed.

The self-proclaimed "King of Torts" has been a representative in several notable class actions including the Tobacco Master Settlement in 1998 that saw tobacco companies pay $365 million to a class of smokers.

The litigation against BP is the largest class action lawsuit in history, with tens of billions of dollars in damages that is supposed to make whole hundreds of thousands of plaintiffs.

Becnel was the attorney who initially filed suit in federal court only eight days after the oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

But now Becnel has nothing but criticism for the GCCF and the committee of lawyers that was orchestrated to supposedly make people "whole."

That committee, the Plaintiff's Steering Committee (PSC), engineered a settlement that BP accepted in August 2012, which included a $660 million payout for the lawyers, as well as their receiving a percentage of each claim that was paid out.

"In the BP case, they were out to make money," Becnel said of the PSC. "And not a little bit of money, a lot of money."

Attorney Brian Donovan with the Donovan Law Group in Tampa, Florida, is representing several clients, including Salvesen, who have filed lawsuits against Feinberg.

"Daniel Becnel is correct," Donovan told Truthout. "The goal of the PSC has been obvious in the way they have handled the case from the beginning. And just as the PSC was out to make a lot of money from the beginning, the same is true for Kenneth Feinberg."

Truthout reported on an example of this in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

"In the BP case, they were out to make money. And not a little bit of money, a lot of money."

Gulf Coast fishermen and others with lost income claims against BP are outraged by an announcement that the $20 billion government-administered claim fund would subtract money they earn by working on the cleanup effort from any future damage claims against BP. The move, according to lawyers in Louisiana working on behalf of Louisiana fishermen and others affected by the BP oil disaster, contradicted an earlier BP statement in which the company promised it would do no such thing.

It was Feinberg who told cleanup workers, vast numbers of whom now have chronic health problems, that the wages earned working on BP's cleanup would be deducted from their claims against BP.

"We are the only law firm to file suit against Kenneth R. Feinberg, et al. asserting claims for gross negligence, negligence, negligence per se, fraud, fraudulent inducement, promissory estoppel, and unjust enrichment," Donovan told Truthout.

MDL 2179

Donovan's lawsuit against Feinberg emphasizes what is known as the multi-district litigation (MDL) 2179.

MDLs promote judicial economy by consolidating large numbers of similar cases that are pending in the courts.

Donovan believes MDL 2179, which is comprised of thousands of claims against BP, is a "faux" MDL, and believe it limits BP's liability, grants excessive compensation to the members of the PSC and grossly fails to compensate the plaintiffs themselves.

On August 10, 2010, the US Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) formally established MDL 2179. In its transfer order, the JPML states, "Centralization may also facilitate closer coordination with Kenneth Feinberg's administration of the BP compensation fund."

The entire compensation system is flawed in favor of BP and Feinberg.

"The JPML made it clear, from the very beginning, that the purpose of centralization was not merely to eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pre-trial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary; and serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the more just and efficient conduct of the BP oil spill cases," Donovan told Truthout. "Here, the purpose of centralization was to maximize judicial efficiency via the creation of a 'faux' class settlement wrapped in a 'faux' MDL."

According to Donovan, on August 23, 2010, Feinberg's firm, Feinberg Rozen LLP, doing business as the GCCF, replaced the claims process that BP had established to fulfill its obligations as a responsible party pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90).

Donovan described the precedent established by the JPML and the MDL 2179 to Truthout.

"A 'Responsible Party' under the OPA90 may now enter into a contract with a politically well-connected third party 'Claims Administrator,' (i.e. Kenneth R. Feinberg and Feinberg Rozen, LLP)," he said. "This third party 'Administrator/Straw Person,' directly and excessively compensated by the party responsible for the oil spill incident, may totally disregard OPA90, operate the claims process of the responsible party as fraudulently and negligently as it desires for the sole purpose of limiting the liability of, and providing closure to, the responsible party, and the third party 'Administrator/Straw Person' shall never be held accountable for its tortious acts."

Hence, he believes the entire compensation system is flawed in favor of BP and Feinberg, whose operation of the GCCF has allowed BP to control, manage and settle its liabilities on highly preferential terms.

Interestingly, the MDL 2179 court has inexplicably refused to permit formal discovery on Feinberg, et al., and the PSC has also refused to conduct formal discovery on Feinberg.

As bad as this is for people seeking compensation from BP, Donovan said, "the collusive nature of MDL 2179 has resulted in America's loss of faith in the entire federal judicial system."

"A Travesty"

John Mavrogiannis owned a marine salvage business in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

"When the spill occurred my business dried up overnight," he told Truthout.

Initially, he believed Feinberg's promises that the GCCF was an independent program, and that Feinberg was not beholden to BP.

"This misrepresentation, above all the others, harmed my business and me personally."

"Mr. Feinberg's numerous statements of 'I am not a government official; I am not a BP official' have been now proven to be an intentional misrepresentation with intent to deceive," said Mavrogiannis, who has also filed an individual lawsuit against Feinberg.

He believes, rightly, that courts and attorneys have a constitutional responsibility to be trustworthy, and any intentional misrepresentations should thus be considered a form of misconduct, as well as an ethical violation.

"This misrepresentation, above all the others, harmed my business and me personally the most, as all my business decisions immediately after the spill were formed on false promises that he [Feinberg] was looking out for my best interest - when in fact he was attempting to minimize BP's liability," Mavrogiannis said of why he decided to sue.

Having believed Feinberg, Mavrogiannis went on with business as usual, investing more money in his business as many of his clients, who also were expecting checks from the GCCF, expected to pay him, but then ultimately could not due to their lack of compensation.

Mavrogiannis explained what happened to him, which was common for people and businesses across the impact zone of BP's disaster.

"Had Mr. Feinberg kept his word of 'making us whole' we could have easily had $250,000 or more in additional revenue for tax year 2010," he explained. "Instead, he kept the purse strings closed for most claimants which scared everyone from spending which snowballed into a decrease in revenue for most in the industry and region."

On a personal level, Mavrogiannis has spent all of his savings to live, is suffering physically from having to forego several medical procedures, has put his business up for sale, and his credit is ruined from his inability to pay his bills on time.

"I now see and understand that Feinberg's actions and words have been carefully crafted to ensure that the claimants' demise be hastened so that they would be forced to accept a low-ball offer and sign a release as quickly as possible before the truth of the extent of the damage done by the spill became known," Mavrogiannis said.

BP's disaster caused such a dramatic collapse of his business, Mavrogiannis was unable to take steps to prevent the total failure that was to come.

"Instead, I believed Feinberg and was buying when I should have been (albeit in vain) trying to sell inventory," he said. "I feel that it is a travesty that Mr. Feinberg, who is an officer of the courts, should be able to get away with misrepresenting himself and his motives in the way that he did."
 
Continuing to Suffer Damages

Donovan believes Feinberg, by making numerous false statements of material fact to plaintiffs, "Breached his legal duty to plaintiffs, failed to exercise reasonable care, and acted with reckless, willful, and wanton disregard for the business and livelihood of plaintiffs in his negligent operation of GCCF's claim intake, claim review, claim evaluation and claim settlement and payment services."

He even believes that Feinberg knew, or at least should have known, that his actions, which are commonly referred to as an "expedited EAP denial tactic" as well as a "delay, deny, defend" tactic, "would foreseeably result in the financial ruin of plaintiffs and cause irreversible damage to the economic interests of plaintiffs."

Thus, "As a direct and proximate result of Feinberg's conduct, plaintiffs have suffered legal injury and damages, in an amount to be proven at trial, including, but not limited to, loss of profit, loss of business reputation, loss of livelihood, loss of income, and other economic loss," he added.

"The GCCF denied payment to approximately 61.46 percent of the claimants."

As far as his firm's lawsuits against Feinberg, Donovan said that Feinberg retained the law firm Goodwin Procter, LLP of Washington, DC, and the suits have subsequently been transferred into the MDL 2179, or as Donovan puts it, the lawsuits against Feinberg have been "warehoused."

If one looks at some GCCF statistics, it might be hard to argue against claims that Feinberg essentially acted as a defense attorney for BP, and served the oil giant well in limiting their liability.

GCCF status report data indicates that a total of 574,379 unique claimants filed claims with the GCCF during the period from approximately August 23, 2010, to March 7, 2012, and the GCCF paid 221,358 of these claimants only.

"In sum, the GCCF denied payment to approximately 61.46 percent of the claimants who filed claims," Donovan said. "The average total amount paid per claimant was a paltry $27,466.47."

But that's not the end of the statistics.

"The GCCF forced 84.68 percent of the claimants to sign a 'Release and Covenant Not to Sue' in which the claimant agreed not to sue BP and all other potentially liable parties," Donovan said. "Only 15.31 percent of the claimants were not required to sign a 'Release and Covenant Not to Sue' in order to be paid."

Donovan said that Feinberg's "Release and Covenant Not to Sue" thus excluded approximately 200,000 BP oil disaster victims from the MDL 2179 settlement agreement.

He feels that nothing short of a complete overhaul of the current system by which compensation is being dispensed will suffice.

"At this point, Judge Barbier would have to admit he made a mistake by hearing the case under admiralty or maritime law rather than under the OPA," Donovan said. "Alternatively, starting from scratch, which will never happen at this late date, would require that the JPML replace Barbier with a three-judge panel, replace all members of the MDL 2179 PSC, replace the 'fund administrator' and supporting accounting firms, and have all BP oil spill victims refile under OPA guidelines and not Feinberg's protocols."

Saving all of that, Donovan said, "At the very least, the truth about MDL 2179 must be told so the plaintiffs in future MDLs are offered settlements which are fair, reasonable and adequate, and which have been entered into without collusion between the parties."

In the meantime, five years after BP's disaster began, those suffering physically and financially from it continue to languish, and the disaster is far from over.

Donovan now refers to two kinds of victims left in the wake of BP's disaster.

"BP oil spill victims and Feinberg victims continue to suffer damages from three separate sources," he said. "Once from the oil spill, the environmental and economic damages of which have devastated their way of life, then again by being left in financial ruin as a direct result of Feinberg's tortious acts, and a third time for daring to demand justice, which will consume their time, energy and hopes for years to come if they are held hostage by protracted litigation."

On June 1, 2010, BP board chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg stated, "[President Obama] is frustrated because he cares about the small people, and we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are greedy companies or don't care, but that is not the case in BP. We care about the small people."

Feinberg's firm headed the GCCF from June 16, 2010, until March 8, 2012, and was paid at least $25 million for doing so by BP.

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News Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Road to Ruin http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30304-the-road-to-ruin http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30304-the-road-to-ruin

The race for the White House delivers either Republican presidents who favor the rich or Democrats who also favor the rich, but not as much.

That harsh whine you hear in the background - like a buzzsaw getting ready for a log to come down the chute - is the vast right-wing conspiracy revving its engines.

America Rising, an opposition research Super PAC that lives to trash the Clintons, dashed off a press release challenging the notion that Hillary was going to "drive to Iowa" to start her campaign as she said she would. Hillary doesn't drive, it said. Someone would have to drive her.

Not exactly the Teapot Dome on the scandal meter. But it's a start.

Observers say that the main thrust of the Republican strategy will be an effort to make her into a Democratic Mitt Romney - rich, privileged, and clueless as to how real people live.

"How can she relate to the cost of gas?" asked Republican strategist Kevin Madden. "How can she relate to rising food prices when she doesn't shop herself?"

And Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican hopeful, is about to run a series of ads accusing Clinton of "representing the worst of the Washington machine" that's "destroying the American dream."

In contrast, the former Hillary Rodham seems to be in a Mr. Rogers mood. She's wandering around Iowa, meeting people, and saying, "It's a lovely day in the neighborhood. Will you be my friend?"

Her announcement, by way of a video, was so low-key as to be boring. She made the obligatory genuflection to hard-working American families who are "struggling to get ahead." She promised to be their champion. Ho hum.

Expect all of this to change in the coming months. The Republicans say they're not going to get personal, but they won't be able to help themselves. That conspiracy won't let them.

You're about to be inundated by a veritable tsunami of campaign garbage coming from the dozens of right-wing organizations that have been collecting ammunition for just such an assault. Whitewater, Troopergate, Vince Foster (If you don't remember that White House aide, look up the name. Hillary Clinton was supposed to have killed him), sex in the White House, sex out of the White House, Travelgate, Benghazi, email-gate, her jet-setting ways.

All of this baggage and paranoia will come flooding back in its rancid glory. Lies will be mixed with truth, truth with exaggeration. There will be a lot of outright fantasy.

My own personal favorite anti-Clinton story is Bill's former lover who claimed that the Clintons had killed her cat.

It's the Republican way. Before, during, and after an election they attempt to delegitimize the opposition. Carter, Dukakis, Kerry, Clinton, and Obama all got the same treatment. It's the only arrow in the Republican quiver.

At some point, however, Hillary will have to come out of her shell and go on the counter-attack. And I think she can do that. For one thing, she's got a shot at amassing a reported $2.5-billion war chest.

So what if she's rich? Pretty much all presidential candidates are rich. So what if she's out of touch? Do you think Jeb Bush shops for his own dinner or washes the dishes every night? And if he did, how much better would he be able to deal with Iran?

The thing that this campaign will demonstrate yet again is that the way we choose U.S. presidents is broken.

We require our candidates to go around with a tin cup begging for money, promising this to that group and that to this other one. And then we expect them to be honest and principled once in office.

That's unrealistic. If you're lucky, you get a semi-honest, semi-principled person who campaigns for high-minded goals, without conviction.

Although I will never understand how the Republicans figure that getting rid of health insurance for millions of people qualifies as high-minded.

The ultimate result is either Republican presidents who favor the rich or Democrats who also favor the rich, but not as much.

I just don't think that's what the framers of the Constitution had in mind. At least I hope not.

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Opinion Mon, 20 Apr 2015 00:00:00 -0400