Truthout Stories Thu, 30 Jul 2015 10:14:37 -0400 en-gb A Surveillance Bill in Cybersecurity Clothing

Almost every day, Americans learn about how some major institution has been hacked. The privacy of millions has been compromised. Now the Senate is poised to consider a bill that purportedly will enhance protection, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act ("CISA"). Don't let the name fool you. CISA is a surveillance bill masquerading as cybersecurity reform.

First, CISA sets vague criteria for private companies to determine when a "cyber threat" exists. Companies can share user information with any federal agency when they believe there is a threat. Federal agencies, in turn, must immediately share all cyber threat information with the National Security Agency ("NSA"). Because this sharing occurs instantaneously, there is no attempt even to remove consumers' sensitive, personally identifiable information. The law also explicitly supersedes existing privacy laws that limit the government's collection of citizens' data, some of which were past responses to earlier governmental abuses.

In addition, when companies share information with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), they receive protection from legal liability. This means that individuals whose information is revealed have no ability to challenge the data collection and distribution. Moreover, federal agencies and law enforcement are not limited to using the information for cybersecurity and national security purposes. Instead, they may use the data for any purpose, including ordinary criminal prosecutions, thereby bypassing both legal and constitutional protections.

Finally, CISA gives private companies the ability to engage in defensive tactics called "countermeasures" to combat cybersecurity threats. Under the proposal, companies have essentially free rein to undertake these aggressive maneuvers as long as they are technically confined to their own systems and do not "intentionally" destroy other entities' systems. They may, however, still have significant effects on other networks, further undermining cybersecurity.

For instance, cyber attackers often hide behind innocent bystanders, masking their true identity. CISA would allow a company that has been hacked to hack the attacker back. If the hacker is posing as an entity on a different network — for instance, a hospital or an emergency responder — the private company could damage the innocent network. Normally, this behavior would be against the law, but CISA amends current law to allow for these defensive operations. Because the defensive attacks would exploit system vulnerabilities and create new ones, CISA makes the Internet infrastructure less secure, not more.

If the government truly wanted to increase cybersecurity, it could start by mandating that federal agencies practice expert-recommended cyber hygiene. Even basic measures that cybersecurity experts consider necessary are not discussed in CISA. For example, most experts recommend Internet users update software regularly, a piece of advice that is usually disregarded. Users can encrypt data, which makes it less valuable to hackers. They can also set strong passwords and use multi-factor authentication systems for sensitive data, which requires additional steps to access the data. These strategies, which slow hackers down and make hacking targets less attractive, could prevent 80 to 90 percent of cyber attacks. In fact, such measures could have prevented the breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and several other attacks.

CISA threatens personal liberty and makes the Internet less secure. The law encourages private entities to share vast troves of consumer data with federal agencies with no net gain for cybersecurity. Instead, consumer data will be more vulnerable to attack, particularly since there is no guarantee that the federal government will be a better custodian of consumer data than OPM was with employee data. The Senate should recognize CISA for what it is: a surveillance and privacy-killing bill in cybersecurity clothing.

News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Hidden Origins of Syria's Civil War

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, nearly a quarter million people have perished and fully half of the country's inhabitants have been forced from their homes, creating the worst refugee crisis in the past quarter century. Meanwhile, the continuing advance of brutal Islamist factions — which a leading CIA officer in 2013 termed the "top current threat to U.S. national security" — makes the chances of restoring peace and human rights seem more remote than ever.

Many parties are to blame, but certainly among them are interventionists in the United States and its allies who rationalized supporting the Islamist opposition — and refusing to embrace serious peace negotiations — on the grounds that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a uniquely evil dictator. That image of Assad grew directly out of his regime's brutal response to civilian protests that began in early 2011, soon after the start of the Arab Spring.

Summarizing the conventional wisdom, the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect notes that "The crisis in Syria was prompted by protests in mid-March 2011 calling for the release of political prisoners. National security forces responded to widespread, initially peaceful demonstrations with brutal violence. From summer 2011 onwards, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad refused to halt attacks and implement the meaningful reforms demanded by protestors. In July 2011, accounts emerged from witnesses, victims, the media, and civil society that government forces had subjected civilians to arbitrary detention, torture, and the deployment and use of heavy artillery."

That August, following critical reports about the regime's crimes, President Barack Obama joined European leaders in demanding that Assad "face the reality of the complete rejection of his regime by the Syrian people" and "step aside." Washington imposed new economic sanctions, prompting Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar al-Jaafari to assert that the United States "is launching a humanitarian and diplomatic war against us."

But the convention wisdom — that "the protest movement in Syria was overwhelmingly peaceful until September 2011" — is wrong, or at best incomplete. In fact, opposition to the government had turned violent almost from the start, and was likely aimed at provoking a harsh reaction to polarize the country.

Although nothing justifies the myriad crimes committed by state forces then and since, facts ignored by most media and government accounts suggest that responsibility for the horrors in Syria is widely shared. The facts undercut the rationale behind inflexible demands for "regime change" from Western and Gulf leaders that closed the door on serious negotiations and opened the way to mass slaughter and the rise of today's Islamist-dominated opposition.

A Violent Start

The city of Dara'a, near the Jordanian border, was the epicenter of protests that triggered Syria's civil war in 2011. Anti-government sentiment had been growing due to a recent influx of angry and desperate families dispossessed by what one expert called "the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago."

In early March 2011, police in the city arrested and severely beat several high school students for painting anti-government graffiti on a wall. No doubt inspired by the Arab Spring, protesters gathered at a local mosque and began to march for political rights and an end to corruption, chanting "God, Syria, Freedom." Syrian police reportedly responded with water cannons, batons and even gunfire to disperse the marchers, killing three protesters. The government news agency claimed that "infiltrators" among the marchers had smashed cars, destroyed other property and attacked police, causing "chaos and riots."

Matters went from bad to worse when demonstrators fought back. As one Israeli journalist reported, "In an uncharacteristic gesture intended to ease tensions the government offered to release the detained students, but seven police officers were killed, and the Baath Party Headquarters and courthouse were torched, in renewed violence." Around the beginning of April, according to another account, gunmen set a sophisticated ambush, killing perhaps two dozen government troops headed for Dara'a.

President Assad tried to calm the situation by sending senior government officials with family roots in the city to emphasize his personal commitment to prosecute those responsible for shooting protesters. He fired the provincial governor and a general in the political security force for their role. The government also released the children whose arrest had triggered the protests in the first place.

Assad also announced several national reforms. As summarized by the UN's independent commission of inquiry on Syria, "These steps included the formation of a new Government, the lifting of the state of emergency, the abolition of the Supreme State Security Court, the granting of general amnesties and new regulations on the right of citizens to participate in peaceful demonstrations."

His response failed to satisfy protesters who took to the streets and declared the city a "liberated zone." As political scientist Charles Tripp has observed, "this was too great a challenge to the authorities, and at the end of April, a military operation was put in motion with the aim of reasserting government control, whatever the cost in human life."

The Assad regime reacted ruthlessly, laying siege to the town with tanks and soldiers. Security forces cut water, electricity and phone lines, and posted snipers on rooftops, according to residents quoted by The New York Times. At the same time however, according to another report, unknown gunmen in Dara'a killed 19 Syrian soldiers.

Meanwhile, protests had begun spreading to other towns, fed by social media campaigns. By late April, government forces had reportedly killed several hundred protesters. Dozens of their own were killed as well.

In early April, for example, nine Syrian soldiers on their way to quell demonstrations in Banyas were ambushed and gunned down on the highway outside of town. Western news media suggested they were killed by Syrian security forces for refusing to fire on demonstrators, a fanciful tale that was analyzed and demolished by Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

An opposition leader based in Paris, who urged local demonstrators to remain non-violent, told Landis that he had been approached by three groups "to provide money and weapons to the rebels in Syria." They included "several pro-American Syrian opposers" whom he refused to name. He declared that anyone providing money and weapons to the rebels was "pushing them to commit suicide," a prescient warning.

The Failure to Report

As Landis concluded, "Western press and analysts did not want to recognize that armed elements were becoming active. They preferred to tell a simple story of good people fighting bad people. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the opposition was peaceful and was being met with deadly government force and snipers. One only wonders why that story could not have been told without also covering the reality – that armed elements, whose agenda was not peaceful, were also playing a role."

He also accused the Western press of similarly misreporting a massacre of government security forces in early June, 2011, in the city of Jeser al-Shagour — a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold near the Turkish border — where some 140 members of the police and security forces were slaughtered.

Several Western news accounts uncritically recited claims from local activists that the victims had mutinied against their commanders and been killed by government forces. But video footage of the fighting was "fairly conclusive in corroborating the original government version of events: the soldiers stationed in the town were overrun by armed and organized opposition," Landis noted.

In the city of Hama, another video emerged, showing rebels dumping the bodies of soldiers off a highway bridge. As CNN reported on Aug. 2, 2011, "One prominent anti-government activist, who asked not to be named because of the dangers that could arise from the release of the information, told CNN the state TV account was correct. The bodies are those of Syrian secret police killed by Syrian fighters from Iraq who have joined the anti-government fight."

The same activist insisted that such anti-government violence was the exception, not the rule, but admitted that it gave "credence to the Syrian government's assertion that it is targeting 'armed gangs.'"

Shortly thereafter, an analyst at the private intelligence firm Stratfor warned colleagues not to be misled by opposition propaganda: "The opposition must find ways to keep the Arab Spring narrative going, and so the steady flow of news relating to regime brutality and opposition strength is to be expected. Although it is certain that protesters and civilians are being killed, there is little evidence of massive brutality compared to . . . other state crackdowns in the region. Stratfor has also not seen signs of heavy weapons being used to massacre civilians or significant battle damage, although tank mounted .50 caliber weapons have been used to disperse protesters."

That August — just days before Western leaders called on Assad to quit — Landis rightly predicted that the regime would not simply step aside quietly and let the opposition take over:

"Syria's divisions are too deep. The fear of revenge and ethnic cleansing will galvanize those who have backed the present order for decades. Had the Syrian leadership been willing to hand over power peacefully or establish some sort of constitutional convention, it would have done so already. The poverty and loss of dignity for so many Syrians is a crushing part of Syrian reality. . . .

"Syria is filled with people who have little to lose, who have little education, and few prospects of improving their chances for a better and more dignified life. The potential for violence and lawlessness is large. Most worrying is the lack of leadership among opposition forces."

But rather than heeding such advice and seeking to promote dialogue and reconciliation, the United States and other Western powers — along with their allies in Turkey and the Gulf states — chose confrontation and a deepening civil war. As former CIA intelligence analyst Philip Giraldi warned in December 2011,

"Americans should be concerned about what is happening in Syria, if only because it threatens to become another undeclared war like Libya but much, much worse. . . . NATO is already clandestinely engaged in the Syrian conflict, with Turkey taking the lead as U.S. proxy. . . . Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi's arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi's army.

"Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers."

What to Conclude?

What should one make of these facts? First, even if opposition propaganda sometimes inflated the case against the Damascus regime, there can be no reason to doubt the many reports by United Nations and private human rights organizations that government forces — accustomed to decades of authoritarian rule — " committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property."

However, the deadly provocations against Syrian government forces put an entirely different cast on the origins of the conflict. Furthermore, some human rights organizations also acknowledge that armed opposition forces began committing crimes against civilians by the summer of 2011. In March 2012, Human Rights Watch sent an "open letter" to leaders of the Syrian opposition, decrying "crimes and other abuses committed by armed opposition elements," including the kidnapping and detention of government supporters, the use of torture and the execution of security force members and civilians, and sectarian attacks against Shias and Alawites.

Western media did not ignore such reports, but significantly underplayed them, no doubt wanting to maintain focus on the larger (and simpler) narrative of Assad's evil. (In much the same way, Western media sympathetic to the Ukrainian opposition underplayed the role of rightist violence in the putsch that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.)

In choosing to cite human rights selectively as their rationale for regime change, Western governments — including the Obama administration — followed longstanding double standards. Many of the U.S-backed states involved in the anti-Assad campaign, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, have also committed gross human rights violations and war crimes, whether at home or in neighboring territories and states such as Gaza, Yemen and Lebanon.

In Syria as in Libya and Iraq, human rights became a convenient bludgeon for supporting the longstanding ambition of U.S. neoconservatives to topple critical Arab regimes as part of their grand plan for remaking the map of the Middle East. The worthy cause of saving lives perversely enabled a much greater sacrifice of Syrian lives.

History shows that war itself is the greatest threat of all to human rights. Surely our common "responsibility to protect" should start with efforts to limit the start and expansion of armed conflicts, not to inflame them in humanity's name.

Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Time Out Corner ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Happy 50th Birthday, Medicare! Next Steps in the Fight for Universal Health Care

In 1965, the authors of Medicare intended to create a social insurance fund to cover all Americans, not just seniors. We still need such a single-payer program. We have to go beyond the Affordable Care Act. Too many people are still suffering and dying prematurely.

Dr. Jorge Cornielle examines a patient at Boston Road Medical Center in New York, Jan. 21, 2015. (Edwin J. Torres/The New York Times)Dr. Jorge Cornielle examines a patient at Boston Road Medical Center in New York, January 21, 2015. (Edwin J. Torres/The New York Times)

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I love to celebrate birthdays, but this year there's one birthday that really needs a special pie - not a cake, but a pie. Medicare turns 50 today, on July 30.

For the last 14 years, I've practiced primary care pediatrics at a community health center located just two miles north of the White House. I love what I do, but not necessarily how I have to do it.

I'm grateful to practice alongside colleagues who share my commitment to provide high-quality, comprehensive care to all, regardless of their ability to pay, their employment status or the language they speak.

But I am frustrated when patient after patient gets inadequate treatment - not because I'm not working hard, but because of the irrationality and cruelty of the complicated way in which we pay for care.

I am disheartened when a 15-year-old patient is asked to spend $800 so she can be seen at the concussion specialty clinic to help her recover from a lacrosse-related head injury, or when my uninsured 17-year-old patient is refused a postoperative follow-up visit with his surgeon.

The private insurers' primary mission is to create "value" for their shareholders, not to provide care.

Growing up in Texas, I was taught to embrace words like "self-determination" and "freedom," even if the real world didn't always measure up to those ideals. But something sunk in, and now I find myself wanting to be free to practice medicine without the bureaucratic shackles imposed on all of us by the private insurance companies and other for-profit players in US health care.

The private insurers' primary mission is to create "value" for their shareholders, not to provide care. They maximize their profits by enrolling the healthy, avoiding the sick, denying claims, increasing premiums and erecting barriers to care like co-pays, high deductibles, bureaucratic thickets and narrow networks.

These private-insurer practices are good for neither patients nor physicians. Patients suffer needlessly, and doctors are afflicted by endless bureaucratic paperwork, contributing to burnout.

The Affordable Care Act hasn't changed this picture very much.

But back to Texas. My home state is also the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed Medicare into law 50 years ago. Medicare has since become one of our nation's most beloved social programs.

Traditional Medicare offers important lessons. It runs on very low overhead - around 2 percent, versus the 12 to 15 percent overhead typical of the big private insurers. It allows seniors to go to the doctor and hospital of their choice. It controls costs better than private insurers do, even though it serves the oldest and sickest segments of our population.

If only all my patients were covered by a single, simple program like Medicare. The administrative savings would be immense - more than $375 billion annually, according to a recent study. That's more than enough money to cover everyone's medically necessary care with no co-pays or deductibles.

In point of fact, in 1965, the authors of Medicare intended to create a social insurance fund to cover all Americans, not just seniors. We still need such a single-payer program. We have to go beyond the Affordable Care Act. Too many people are still suffering and dying prematurely.

As a patient, imagine never again having to worry about whether the doctor's office, hospital or pharmacy takes your insurance, because there is only one insurance, improved and expanded Medicare for all, which pays all the bills.

As a provider of health care, imagine never again having to worry about being paid for the services you provide. Imagine working for yourself and having the freedom to set your hours most conducive to your lifestyle and to that of your patients. Imagine the autonomy of running your own practice, or at the very least, spending less time on paperwork hassles.

This is no pipe dream. Medicare points the way. We merely need the political will to enact legislation like H.R. 676, the Improved and Expanded Medicare for All Act, into law.

And that birthday pie I spoke about? When it comes to Medicare, the three crucial ingredients are to protect it, improve it and expand it (pie). Let's celebrate Medicare's birthday by extending it to all.

Opinion Thu, 30 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Say Her Name: Protesters in Chicago Demand Justice for Sandra Bland

Activists are demanding justice for Sandra Bland, a Black woman and activist who died in police custody on July 13. Last night in Illinois, protesters raised up Bland's illuminated name from a bridge over the Chicago River, arguing the system is ultimately responsible for her death.

The Chicago Light Brigade and Project NIA lifted up Sandra Bland's name over the Chicago River, on July 28, 2015. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)The Chicago Light Brigade and Project NIA lifted up Sandra Bland's name over the Chicago River, on July 28, 2015. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

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This week, from Dallas to San Diego to the Midwest, activists and community members around the United States are answering a national call to demand justice for Sandra Bland, a Black woman and activist who died in police custody on July 13.

In Chicago, protesters lifted up Sandra Bland's name on Michigan Avenue on July 28, as hundreds of protesters lined a bridge over the Chicago River, urging those who believe Black lives matter to "say her name." While a great deal of public discourse has focused on whether or not Sandra Bland committed suicide, or died as a result of police brutality, participants in Tuesday night's event carried a broader message - that the system was responsible for Sandra Bland's death regardless of the specifics of her death. In the words of organizer Mariame Kaba, "I don't care about the CSI version of how she died. The system killed her. The rest is superfluous."

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Attendees loudly stated - through speech, song and imagery - that Sandra Bland's unlawful arrest was, in of itself, an act of violence and a manifestation of a culture of anti-Blackness in US policing. Connections were also drawn between Black and Indigenous struggles, with the name of Sarah Lee Circle Bear - an Indigenous woman who recently died in a jail cell - being called out alongside that of Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd, an unarmed Black woman shot down by police in Chicago, whose family continues to seek justice.

(Photo: Kelly Hayes)(Photo: Kelly Hayes)

As the crowd marched over the bridge carrying lights large and small, echoes of "This Little Light of Mine" could be heard along the shoreline. As more pictures of solidarity actions emerge in the coming days, and Black August events kick off nationwide, organizers here in Chicago and around the country hope that more people will take to the streets to say the names of the fallen, and demand a world where arrests like Sandra Bland's are unthinkable. In the words of local organizer Page May, "I just want to live. I just want to be free."

News Wed, 29 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Shortchanging Rural Americans

Rural America has a greater need for investment but is getting less of it, according to two new reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One analysis found more than one in four rural children lives in poverty. That number jumps to one in three or higher across much of the South, where manufacturing boomed in the 1990s but plummeted during the severe recession that began in 2007. The decline of the manufacturing sector wiped out jobs with living wages and tax revenue to fund infrastructure needs. Many municipalities find themselves stretched so thin, they're forced to cut basic services.

People who battle inequality in the rural South are witnessing these economic trends and their impacts on struggling families. Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama Executive Director Sophia Bracy Harris says the squeeze on public funding perpetuates the cycle of poverty. "Poor communities, low income, disenfranchised communities, particularly rural communities, people of color, where the concentration of people of color, really get the poorest, the smallest amount of funds coming out of the system. So there is no way for people to pull themselves out of poverty when you have a system that really poorly educates the citizenry. Those are the same communities that lack economic development. ... So when you combine poor education...the lack of economic opportunities and access to jobs where you can take care of your families, poor systems or nonexistent systems of transportation for basic things such as employment or getting to healthcare facilities, you have created a system that really is compounded by poverty."

Remote parts of Georgia are feeling the same pinch. "This is a high poverty area, not a lot of resources, lack of jobs, infrastructure, housing, opportunities, training. Education is a challenge," said John Littles, Executive Director of McIntosh SEED. "For the last 20 years, there has not been a significant difference in the government to the people. Basically, local government spends on roads, fire department or fire trucks - so any resource that is not geared toward changing conditions in the communities, job creation, continuing education, just those opportunities for families to have a better way of living."

Aside from the obvious strain on services, shortchanging rural communities causes subtle psychological harm, according to former SWGAP Business Development Specialist Daa'iyah Salaam. "There is infrastructure that we take for granted - roads, access to health care, access to books, a full school week – things that we don't even think about. For some communities, these are very real issues that they have to fight against every day," Salaam said. "There's so much that we have here that we don't value because other people have told us that we don't matter. If you're not in Atlanta, you don't matter. If you're not even in Savannah or Columbus, we don't matter. No one pays attention to us down here, and so we tend to not pay attention to us. In a perfect world, I would see us valuing ourselves, just as much as other communities value themselves."

Not helping conditions in these impoverished areas is the disproportionately small share of philanthropic support they receive. USDA economists analyzed grants from 1,400 of the largest foundations from 2005 to 2010 and concluded just 5.5 to 7.5 percent benefit rural counties, even though 19 percent of Americans live there. Researchers also found rural grantmaking favors counties with already reasonably well-funded nonprofits with the capacity to court foundation support. "This illustrates circularity in the process of community development - funds are needed to develop local capacity, which is needed to raise funds. This type of circularity may be at the root of problems of persistent poverty in some rural areas," wrote the author, John L. Pender.

Why is the philanthropic sector underinvesting in rural? Some speculate it's because urban funding formulas don't work outside of cities. "One funder said, 'What's the number of full-time jobs that you're creating?' And we kept butting our heads against that one because in an urban area, you may be able to create 400 jobs and you have that number, but you don't understand the significance of having maybe 40 part-time jobs and what that means in a rural place that has no industry," said McIntosh SEED Project Manager Cheryl Peterson. "We want funders to understand that there are challenges associated with being in the rural South, and you have to invest differently and you can't use the one-size-fits-all approach. ... It may not be the same numbers that you get when you invest in an urban area, but the impact that you're having in the life of the people in those communities is significant and well worth the investment."

And those investments are likely to take longer, says Littles. "A lot of times, programs come in to the rural South and don't invest enough; they don't allow it to develop because of all the underlying conditions that exist, and so they pull out immediately. The talent is already there. It just takes time to shape it; it takes time to nurture it and be consistent with working with those folks, and those folks having access to you on a continuous basis. We understand the investments and they need results, but sometimes there are obstacles that lie ahead before you can get to those results. Once those are addressed and those barriers are removed, then you can address the real issues and bring about the changes that are needed in rural communities. So we ask for longer-term investments, we ask for patience and for investors to come and be a part of those investments and see what they're investing in."

Salaam wants grantmakers to know rural economic development efforts don't lend themselves to a widget-counting mindset. "Funders, because they can't measure and see where their money is going, they have shied away from here, whereas if you're in an urban area, there are more resources, there are more evaluative methods they can use to say, 'Okay, we've served this number of kids and they ate this amount of fresh fruit, or we've done this.'"

She has a straightforward response to anyone who questions the value of rural investment: "Why should we have to ask the question of why we should care about rural people? For the simple fact that rural people are people. Rural America has built the industrialized America, and we tend to forget that, and rural America really mirrors where we're headed, as far as this country. When we don't pay attention to those things, big issues, come up, rise up, and we tend to be caught off guard, when in fact we just haven't paid attention to how they've manifested themselves over the years. So rural America is just as important as urban America because it really is the foundation of how this country was built. And I think it always will be."

News Wed, 29 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Fighting Both Sides of the Same War: Is Turkey Using Attacks on the Islamic State as Cover for Assault on Kurds?

Turkish jets have reportedly launched their heaviest assault on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq since airstrikes began last week, effectively ending a two-year truce. Over the past week, the Turkish military has launched combat operations on two fronts: one against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria, and another against Kurds inside Turkey and in northern Iraq, where Kurdish groups have been fighting against the Islamic State. This means Turkey is now essentially bombing both sides of the same war. During an emergency session of NATO in Brussels Tuesday, the body offered support for Turkey's military campaigns, although some member states expressed unease over the crackdown against the Kurds. Turkey's attacks on the Kurds come just a month after the pro-Kurdish opposition People's Democratic Party won 13 percent of the vote, helping to deprive President Tayyip Erdogan's AKP Party of a majority in the parliament for the first time since 2002. Over the past week, Turkey has detained more than 1,000 people in a series of raids, many targeting members of Kurdish groups. We speak to Kani Xulam, Director of the American Kurdish Information Network.


AMY GOODMAN: Turkish jets have reportedly launched their heaviest assault on Kurdish militants in northern Iraq since airstrikes began last week, effectively ending a two-year truce. Over the past week, the Turkish military has launched combat operations on two fronts: one against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria, also called Daesh, another against Kurds inside Turkey and in northern Iraq, where Kurdish groups have been fighting against the Islamic State. This means Turkey is now essentially bombing both sides of the same war.

During an emergency session of NATO in Brussels Tuesday, the body offered support for Turkey’s military campaigns, although some member states expressed unease over the crackdown against the Kurds. Turkey and the United States both consider the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, to be a terrorist organization, but the group and its allies has been given credit over the past year for helping in the fight against the Islamic State. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance stands in strong solidarity with Turkey, which recently opened up its air bases to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State.

JENS STOLTENBERG: Terrorism in all its forms can never be tolerated or justified. It is right and timely that we hold this meeting today to address the instability on Turkey’s doorstep and on NATO’s border. NATO is following developments very closely, and we stand in strong solidarity with our ally, Turkey.

AMY GOODMAN: Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds come just a month after the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party won 13 percent of the vote, helping to deprive the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party of a majority in the Parliament for the first time since 2002. Over the past week, Turkey has detained more than a thousand people in a series of raids, many targeting members of Kurdish groups. On Tuesday, President Erdogan said it is impossible to continue the peace process with Kurdish militants.

PRESIDENT TAYYIP ERDOGAN: [translated] It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood. There should have been a national unity and brotherhood. Brotherhood comes above the peace process, and it is a very comprehensive subject. I want our people to be sure of that. Those who walk in the countryside and in big cities wearing masks and carrying guns and patrol bombs will get the necessary response from our security forces and judiciary bodies.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Turkey, the Kurds and the fight against the Islamic State, we’re joined by Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network in Washington, D.C.

Kani, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what’s happening right now in Turkey and this very rare meeting of NATO and what Turkey is doing?

KANI XULAM: I can. Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So explain what’s taken place this week.

KANI XULAM: Well, first, the NATO general secretary’s comment that the instability is at the border of Turkey or at NATO’s doorstep, as he put it, is really—is inside Turkey. For the last 31 years, there has been a big conflict inside Turkey between the Kurds and the Turks. Over 40,000 people have been killed. And unfortunately, the NATO general secretary didn’t really mention that.

As far as the problem or the rise of ISIS and the—Turkey’s decision to allow its air base to be used against it, for a year now, Kurds on the ground, inside Syria especially and also inside Iraq, have been fighting ISIS. By some accounts, they are the most effective ground troops, the boots on the ground, that the U.S. has cooperated with, and ISIS has had major setbacks. All of a sudden, now Turkey wants to join this fight. But it really doesn’t want to fight ISIS; it wants to fight the Kurds. So, I don’t know what’s going on at the White House, hoping that Turkey would fight ISIS. It doesn’t. It doesn’t want to. It doesn’t have the desire. It doesn’t have the wish.

And also, soliciting Turkish help to fight ISIS is like using a bloody towel to clean the mess in the kitchen, if you will, to mop the floor, if you will. For two years, three years, some 15,000 foreign fighters used Turkey as a stepping stone to go into Iraq, to go into Syria. And Turkey was hoping that they would basically topple Assad, turn Syria into a client state for Turkey, for Ankara, and also fight the Kurds. You know, Turkey wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. And now that these fighters are being degraded, in the words of President Obama, by the YPG and the PKK and the peshmerga, Turkey doesn’t know what’s—you know, is very unhappy about it. That’s why it called this meeting in Brussels.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by State Department spokesperson John Kirby. Speaking Monday, he said Turkey’s actions against the PKK were self-defense and had no connection to Turkey’s fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, against ISIL.

JOHN KIRBY: We are grateful for Turkey’s cooperation against ISIL to include now use of some of their bases for coalition aircraft to go against targets, ISIL targets, particularly in Syria. So we’re grateful for that support. So, separate and distinct from that, Turkey has continued to come under attack by PKK terrorists, and we recognize their right to defend themselves against those attacks. And it was in retaliation for recent attacks by the PKK that Turkey conducted these most recent strikes. ... I understand the coincidence of all of this, but it is just that. The attacks against the PKK were in retaliations for attacks they, the Turks, endured. And what they’re doing against ISIL in Syria, I’ll let them speak to, but obviously we welcome all coalition members’ efforts against ISIL, particularly in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s State Department spokesperson John Kirby. Kani Xulam, your response?

KANI XULAM: You know, on July 20, a suicide bomber went to a meeting in Suruc, Turkey, a town just miles away from Kobani, the Stalingrad of the Kurds, if you will. Last year, ISIS almost took it over, and thanks to the United States government dropped air—airdrops on October 19, 2014, and the town that had been occupied 80 percent by ISIS, the Kurds fought back, house to house, street to street, and kicked out these Daesh and ISIS supporters, sent them back to Raqqa, if you will.

As far—this recent incident, on July 20, when one ISIS sympathizer or militant went to this meeting where these Kurdish activists from western Turkey, from Kurdistan, from Kurds, wanted to go to Kobani and build a playground for the kids. They wanted to build a school. And 32 of them were killed. And supposedly because of that, Turkey entered the war. And guess what it did. It went after the PKK inside Iraq, you know, 400 places, sorties, as opposed to several, according to the British accounts, British press media. And ISIS—according to British media again, ISIS spokesperson have said, "Well, Turkey just bombed a couple of empty buildings." So, the desire is not there. The enthusiasm is not there. I mean, Turkey views Assad as a greater threat. Assad, for all his faults, have never enslaved people, have never sold women in the markets. Daesh has done that. ISIS has done that.

And then, as far as the spokesperson for the State Department, you know, he should also talk about the people who get killed inside Turkey, and he should also condemn—you know, there’s a ceasefire. For two-and-a-half years, guns have gone silent. But close to a dozen, close to, you know, 20 Kurdish activists have been killed in the meantime, and I wish he would also condemn that and say that Turkey should give peace a chance and, you know, resolve this issue. And if it cannot resolve this issue, it cannot resolve the issue inside Syria. It has to—there has to be peace at home. A house has to be united inside before it can venture out and help, you know, next-door neighbor Syria or Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Turkey allowing the U.S. to use Incirlik, the air base, and if you think that ties into what’s going on here in the attack on the Kurds?

KANI XULAM: I think it does. It is significant. Incirlik is only 100 to 200 miles away from Raqqa, the Islamic basis, the so-called Islamic State basis. And President Obama, you know, wants to tackle this issue and address this issue, and he wishes to leave a good legacy and maybe hope that Islamic State will be degraded and destroyed on his watch. The problem is, he has picked the wrong partner. You know, he should have supported the Kurds, who are willing to fight them and have fought them and have a good record fighting them.

And so, you know, he hopes for the good, but I think, at the end of the day, he may—just like a lot of people at the Obama administration thought Iraq was lost to Iran, and the Bush administration did that, and Turkey might be lost, too, because the fault lines that are in Syria, the Sunni-Alevi or Sunni-Shiite fault line, and then the minority issue of Kurds—Arab majority, Kurdish minority—and also in Iraq, the same fault lines are in Turkey. There are 12 million Alevis in Turkey. There are 20 million Kurds in Turkey. And there is a Sunni domination in Turkey, and that has to come to an end. If NATO wants to have a stable partner, it needs to address this issue. It cannot—you know, some of the members, like Germany and U.K., have urged Turkey to be proportionate, if you will, and address this issue in a sanely manner.

But Erdogan, in the last election, lost the majority. He was hoping to get 400 deputies in the Parliament, and he was hoping to become, you know, next to an absolute ruler in the country. And now he’s—with this war, he’s trying to raise jingoistic feelings and then call for early elections in November and hope and pray he will get the 400 votes—deputies. And he might do that. He might be able to do that, too. But I think—I don’t think NATO should help him do that. I don’t think U.S. should help him do that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party.

SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS: [translated] What is our unforgivable crime? Our only crime is winning 13 percent of the votes and reflecting the people’s wish at the ballot box and for the Parliament. I am saying, in brackets, there is no other wrongdoing they can blame us for. We fought for the development of democracy, removing injustice, and making the principles of quality and freedom our permanent life system. ... Mr. President, you panicked because the PKK was going to disarm itself. You stopped it. It seems if PKK members come down from the mountains with their weapons, he will tell them to stop. He has no intention. I am saying very clearly, brothers, citizens, everyone living in Turkey has to know that the president of this country has stopped and prevented the disarmament of the PKK.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. Kani Xulam, can you expound on that?

KANI XULAM: Well, two things. One is he’s been compared to Obama, but I’d like to think that he’s actually better than Obama. At least he says things like "You cannot clean blood with blood." He is the—Turkey should count its blessings for having Selahattin Demirtas as the leader of the Kurdish party, the most scrupulous person you could have in Turkish politics.

Turkish government—the Turkish president now says, for example, "We should lift the immunity of these deputies"—he’s referring to Kurdish deputies—"and then we should prosecute them for having links to the PKK." And Selahattin Demirtas said, "Fine, we’ll come to you, and let’s make a deal. Lift the immunity of all the deputies, 550 of them." And many of the members of the AKP party are accused of siphoning millions of dollars. Some of the cabinet members last December were caught red-handed with millions of dollars stashed in shoeboxes in their homes. And now the government doesn’t want to prosecute them. And because they lost the majority, if a coalition government comes into power, the members of the opposition parties are saying, "We want to investigate that." And so, Erdogan is panicking, is panicking that the prosecution might come, that he might actually go to jail. And he deserves to go to jail. You know, if a cabinet member is found with millions of dollars stashed in shoeboxes in his home, any president would have said that person should go to jail, that person should be discredited. Erdogan is covering, you know, is basically protecting them.

And that is this—you know, these are the issues that President Obama should address. These are the issues that the NATO secretary general should address, rather than saying that the problem is outside of Turkey. There are problems inside Turkey, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Kani Xulam, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a judge in California has issued a major ruling that could see hundreds of immigrant women and children freed from detention prisons in Texas. We’ll bring you the latest. Stay with us.

News Wed, 29 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Deplorable": Federal Judge Condemns Texas Detention Centers for Immigrant Families

In what could be a major victory for human rights advocates here in the United States, a federal judge has issued a harsh condemnation of the mass detention of immigrant women and children, calling conditions in the privately-run prisons "deplorable." The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gives the Obama administration 90 days to either release the more than 2,000 women and children being held in two Texas facilities or to show just cause to continue holding them. Immigration lawyers say the ruling has already had a "groundbreaking" impact as Texas judges have started ordering women and children's release without bond, though many have been forced to wear electronic ankle monitors. Republicans are calling on the Obama administration to appeal the ruling. We speak to longtime immigration lawyer Barbara Hines who represents many clients who are detained in the Karnes and Dilley detention centers in Texas.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn right now to the issue of immigration, what could be a major victory for human rights advocates here in the United States. A federal judge has issued a harsh condemnation of the mass detention of immigrant women and children, calling conditions in privately run facilities "deplorable." The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee gives the Obama administration 90 days to either release the more than 2,000 women and children being held in two Texas prisons or to show just cause to continue holding them. Immigration lawyers say the ruling has already had a "groundbreaking" impact as Texas judges have started ordering women and children’s release without bond, though many have been forced to wear electronic ankle monitors. Republicans are calling on the Obama administration to appeal the ruling. But at a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and House Judiciary Committee—and House Judiciary Democrats said the practice must end. This is Congressmember Judy Chu, Democrat of California.

REP. JUDY CHU: I was one of the eight who visited the Karnes and Dilley detention center. And when I saw the Dilley detention center, I was so shocked at how isolated and barren it was. The first thing I thought was that they looked so much like the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II. I saw the sterile barracks, the muddy dirt pathways, the mass institutionalized cafeteria, and the guards everywhere. And I was shocked and so very moved by the desperate pleas of hundreds of mothers who came out to say, "Release me, I am not a criminal," and who scratched out picket signs that were written on their pillowcases and bedsheets.

I also remembered how the Japanese-American internment camps were pitched the American public as though the federal government was doing this for the safety of Japanese Americans. A similar argument has been made in the government’s case for detaining families, mainly from Central America fleeing unspeakable violence. The Department of Homeland Security repeatedly justified detaining families for deterrence reasons, to send a message that others weren’t welcome. Well, after much pressure and a federal court ruling that such a policy was unconstitutional, I am happy to say that DHS has finally reversed course and will no longer be using detention in that way. And just like we have to call the Japanese-American internment camps for what it was—a prison for people who were not criminals—we have to call the Karnes and Dilley detention center what they really are: prisons for people who are not criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those who testified Tuesday about conditions for women and children in detention was a recently released mother named Sonia Hernández. She explained how, after she came with her three children from El Salvador to escape violence and threats to their lives, she was detained 315 days, until June 9th of this year, at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes, Texas, which she compared to a prison.

SONIA HERNÁNDEZ: When my children would get sick, like when they had a fever sometimes as high as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the only thing that I could do was to put them in the bath or in the shower in order to lower their fever. When they were hungry, I had to buy instant soup to be able to give them noodle soup. Sometimes immigration would see that I looked like I was doing really badly, like I wasn’t doing well, and they would tell me that I should go to the psychiatrist. And I would respond to them, "The psychiatrist isn’t going to resolve my problems. The only thing that will resolve my problems is to be freed from this place."

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined now from Washington, D.C., by two guests, including one who has inside knowledge of the conditions at Karnes. Olivia López is a longtime social worker who began working at Karnes last October but decided to leave her position in April after she says it was clear she had been hired to give the appearance of a well-supported medical unit. She says her efforts to improve documentation of the mothers’ care and concerns were repeatedly blocked.

We’re also joined by Barbara Hines, longtime immigration lawyer with many clients who are detained in family detention centers in Texas. She’s formerly with the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, now a fellow at the Emerson Collective.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! You both testified yesterday at the congressional hearing. Let’s begin with Barbara Hines. Talk about the significance of Judge Gee’s ruling. Did you expect this? And what is the scope of it?

BARBARA HINES: Well, I’m very pleased with Judge Gee’s ruling. I think what Judge Gee’s ruling does is confirm what advocates have been saying since last June and what members of Congress have been saying, is that running these detention camps is a violation of the Flores settlement, which was a settlement that was entered in 1996 regarding the treatment of children. And the most important pieces of Judge Gee’s ruling are, number one, that children cannot be housed in secured, unlicensed facilities. These are facilities that do not have a child welfare license from the state of Texas, and there is—or—and there is absolutely no independent oversight. The other thing that Judge Gee recognized is that children should be released—there’s a preference for release—family unity is very important, and that children should be released to their parents. And in this case, it would be parents who are detained with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is the timeline here?

BARBARA HINES: Well, Judge Gee gave the government until August 3rd to respond and then a certain amount of time—I think it’s one week—for the government to respond. And she proposes that the government has an implementation program within 90 days, because, really, we have now been running illegal detention camps for more than one year. So I hope that the government and the Obama administration will as quickly as possible accede to Judge Gee’s ruling.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the ankle bracelets, Barbara Hines, that these women, if they are released, are forced to wear?


AMY GOODMAN: What are they? Who makes them?

BARBARA HINES: OK. So, first of all, they’re not really ankle bracelets. I think "bracelets" really doesn’t represent what these are. The women use the word "grillete" in Spanish, which is a shackle. They are very cumbersome. The batteries don’t work. The cords are very, very short. Women are like almost chained to the wall trying to keep these things charged. The government, just like they have done since last summer, is they never have an individualized determination of flight risk. So, asylum seekers, there should be a presumption that they should be released. So, instead of saying no bond, what ICE is doing, in a coercive way, is telling women, "The only way you can get out is to have an ankle shackle put on your leg."

I can give you an example of one of our clients. Her husband is a lawful permanent resident, so she has significant family ties in this country. She was released on an ankle shackle, and her leg swoll up because it was put on too tightly. Her daughter says that people look at her when they walk out, because normally the people that have these ankle monitors are prisoners. And these are women that have suffered such tremendous trauma. Their children have suffered such tremendous trauma. And without asking—making an individualized determination whether there are certainly other less intrusive methods for release of the women. So, I think they’re a significant problem and not the answer to how to deal with asylum seekers, mothers and children, fleeing violence in Central America.

AMY GOODMAN: The ankle shackles are made by what company?

BARBARA HINES: Well, they’re made by the BI company. And I just recently learned that the BI company was bought out by GEO, and GEO is the private prison company that runs Karnes. So, as you can see, this is—there’s a lot—this is intimately tied into the private prison industry.

AMY GOODMAN: So they profit either way, whether they’re in prison at Karnes—GEO runs the prison—or if they have these ankle shackles put on them.

BARBARA HINES: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt from an interview with 19-year-old Lilian Oliva Bardales, who was detained at the detention center at Karnes County, Texas. She came to the U.S. with her four-year-old son seeking asylum from her abusive husband. After she was held for months and grew despondent, she tried to cut her wrists. In an interview with McClatchy, she described what happened when she was put on suicide watch.

LILIAN OLIVA BARDALES: [translated] When they said, "Remove your clothes to put this on, as a punishment," they told me, "If you don’t undress, we’ll see who is in charge, you or us. We’re going to rip your clothes off." So, since I was afraid of that, I had to take my clothes off. I cried. I didn’t eat. My life was very sad in that place. I felt like absolutely nothing in that country. And they didn’t give me the support when I needed it most.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Lilian Oliva Bardales, formerly held at the GEO Group detention center in Karnes County. Not long after she attempted suicide, she was deported to her home country of Honduras. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties has opened an investigation into her case. How does something like this happen, Barbara Hines?

BARBARA HINES: Well, RAICES and the Karnes Pro Bono Project and other lawyers were actually involved in Lilian’s case. And we were desperately trying to get hold of her, so we could get papers signed, so that we could take over her case—she had been represented by another lawyer—and we were denied access to her.

This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Several weeks later, we represented another client, who also was put on the suicide watch. And what I just heard from Lillian is hauntingly familiar and so similar to what our second client spoke about when she was put into isolation and separated from her child, while the GEO—or, the medical unit watched her, their alleged suicide watch.

How does this happen? One of the reasons is because GEO is a for-profit prison, so you can cut corners or you want to cut corners whenever you can. It’s a coercive environment. It is a jail. This is not a family residential center. It’s a joke to call this a residential center. And we’ve had so many complaints, both at the Karnes facility, the Berks facility in Pennsylvania, and Dilley, over inadequate medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to immigrant rights attorney Barbara Hines. Usually, we speak to her in Austin. She’s in Washington, where she testified yesterday before Congress. We’re going to break, and when we come back, we are also joined by Olivia López, who is a longtime social worker. She’ll describe what she experienced when she went inside this detention center. Stay with us.

News Wed, 29 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Migrants Are Drowning as They Flee War and Poverty; Will Europe Continue Its Sea Rescues?

Migrants Are Drowning as They Flee War and Poverty; Will Europe Continue Its Sea Rescues? (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Migrants are fleeing war and poverty across the Middle East and Africa, and now the mass migration itself has erupted into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. While a temporary expansion of European aid and search-and-rescue missions appears to have led to a decline in the migrant death rate, it's unclear whether these efforts will continue.

Migrants Are Drowning as They Flee War and Poverty; Will Europe Continue Its Sea Rescues? (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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As European officials squabble over monetary policy and football scandals, the ghosts of war and imperialism haunt the continent's jagged maritime border.

This year, the Mediterranean has swallowed more than 1,800 souls. Many took their last gasps while clinging to ramshackle boats a few miles off the shores of Libya, just short of the salvation they sought in Europe. Migrants are fleeing violence, war and epidemic poverty across the Middle East and Africa, from the Syrian battlefields to Eritrea's autocratic regime - and now the mass migration itself has erupted into a full-blown humanitarian crisis on the West's doorstep.

"People keep coming, and it's important that resources to save them remain out there."

In a single shipwreck in April, about 800 migrants died, splashing images across the media worldwide of desperate survivors clustered on the Italian shore. European Union ministers were shamed into hastily boosting funding for Mediterranean rescue operations - one step toward compensating for the consequences of their controversial decision to shut down search-and-rescue operations months earlier.

But while this temporary expansion of aid appears to have led to a sharp drop in the migrant death rate, it's unclear whether these minimal efforts will be maintained.

Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International's Italy researcher, said neither the mass migrations nor the related hazards show any sign of abating. "We are seeing hundreds and thousands of people at a time, coming on, all the time," she said. "People keep coming, and it's important that resources to save them remain out there."

For many, the tip of Italy's coastline is the last stop in a harrowing itinerary across Africa and through some of the world's worst combat zones. Mamadou, 28, was rescued a year ago from a boat off the coast of Italy after escaping Libya. His journey began when he fled political troubles in his home country, Gambia. Like countless other fellow African migrants, he then made multiple, increasingly desperate moves across the region on the way to Europe. He initially hoped to work for a while in Libya after being targeted for violence due to political conflict, he said. He did odd household jobs for a while. But soon the outbreak of civil war - sparked in part by the NATO-led ouster of the Qaddafi regime - intersected with an undercurrent of anti-Black racism in Libyan society, and exploded into widespread attacks on migrant workers.

"Libyan people, they treat Black people like slaves," he says, recounting the exploitation he and other Black laborers suffered. "They don't give you a single cent; they don't give you nothing." As conflict encircled them, migrants became easy targets for armed groups. Mamadou says they were bandits in civilian clothing who assaulted and robbed African migrants. He packed onto a rickety boat in June 2014 with scores of others and nearly drowned before being rescued by an aid mission. Today, he lives in the sprawling Mineo migrant center in rural Sicily, which is known for shoddy conditions and links to trafficking networks. Along with about 3,200 other migrants, he is awaiting an asylum hearing.

As European officials debate migration policy in terms of state "security," they often portray the teeming migrant facilities and makeshift encampments dotting the streets of European cities as a problem dumped on the continent from "over there." But the stream of migrant bodies attests to global social crises that are directly linked to the economic and military policies of the West. Of the 137,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in the first half of 2015, a third are escaping war in Syria. Thousands of refugees have also fled to Europe from Afghanistan and Iraq. They have endured intense trauma in war zones or at the hands of abusive traffickers; many women report being sexually assaulted.

A Deadly Journey

Migration levels appear to be rising overall while the risks of the journey escalate, with well over 200,000 crossings in 2014 - about a tenfold increase from 2012.

The Mediterranean is one of several entry points into Europe. Tens of thousands have come by land through other "frontline" countries such as Greece. Since border states are often relatively poor themselves, most migrants try to move on to wealthier countries like Germany, Sweden or Britain. But under EU law, migrants seeking asylum are generally supposed to remain in the first EU country they enter. Many become stuck in legal purgatory in a border state, navigating a chaotic immigration bureaucracy known for arbitrary and inhumane treatment. Some will eventually obtain asylum. The many who are rejected may go underground and seek unauthorized work. Activists say that a more rational policy would allow people to apply for visas before they make the treacherous journey; the current system simply encourages people to risk death in transit and suffering in detention.

"I knew that the journey would be very dangerous and difficult, especially for my daughter. But what was the alternative?"

Many families are split before even reaching Europe. Agnes fled with her husband from Eritrea's conscription system, which is known for pressing youth into draconian military service, and spent three years in Sudan trying to scrape up the money to get to Europe. Unable to afford the journey, her husband stayed behind while Agnes and their toddler daughter traveled to Tripoli by car, packed with other migrants "like animals," she later recalled in a testimony for Doctors Without Borders, "beaten with bare hands, with sticks, with guns."

After spending months detained in a squalid house with 600 or 700 other migrants, "being beaten every day," she finally paid her captors $1,700 to secure passage across the Mediterranean on a hot, suffocating boat, and was rescued by humanitarian aid workers. "I knew that the journey would be very dangerous and difficult, especially for my daughter," she stated. "But what was the alternative? We could not survive in Eritrea or Sudan."

Another young Eritrean, Freshgy, similarly journeyed through Sudan and then Libya by truck. He recalled seeing fellow migrants get "left to die in the desert" along the way, being robbed and held captive in a packed compound, where migrants languished in suffocating squalor and women were raped. Eventually his family paid ransom so he could board a doomed boat with about 550 others.

After he was rescued in Italy, Freshgy testified, "I have many friends and relatives who came to Europe before me. I knew how dangerous the travel is - they had told me on Facebook and Messenger. But I had no choice. In Sudan there is no peace. In Ethiopia there is no peace. In Libya there is no government ... this is the only choice we have: to cross the sea by the help of god."

Migrants keep finding their way to shore, dead or alive. Some smugglers, who run sophisticated, lucrative trafficking networks across the region, are reportedly abandoning vessels at sea, leaving their human cargo to the mercy of passing ships. Now many arrive on small rubber dinghies - presumably easier to obtain than the usual wooden fishing vessels.

European Search-and-Rescue Missions

Under public pressure, EU authorities have expanded the maritime patrols into more active search-and-rescue missions, rather than leaving migrants' fate to chance. Since European maritime authorities and private aid groups have intensified their efforts, there have been only 99 deaths from late April through late June. The number of migrants coming to Europe has simultaneously risen sharply, from fewer than 28,000 from January to April, to over 42,000 between May and June, according to Amnesty.

European authorities now confront the more complex ethical and logistical challenge of resettling survivors across different countries. So far, officials have only agreed to relocate 40,000 people, plus another 22,000 new refugee resettlements - a sliver of the total population in need, particularly long-term refugees like Syrians fleeing civil war.

"The smugglers are exploiting a situation that has been in part created by the policies that the European governments have taken."

Meanwhile, amid high unemployment and tightened welfare budgets, populist xenophobic undercurrents are rising across the continent, especially in countries like France, where right-wing, anti-Muslim nationalist movements are gaining momentum. European leaders have vowed to get "tough" on migration by filtering out so-called "economic migrants" and distinguishing them from those with "genuine" asylum claims (a murky rhetorical distinction that elevates fleeing war and persecution over fleeing crushing poverty). Officials have even weighed deploying military interventions off Libya's coast, to supposedly stop smugglers at the source - a proposal activists criticize as both ineffective and cruel.

In De Pieri's view, officials should acknowledge that "the smugglers are exploiting a situation that has been in part created by the policies that the European governments have taken in the past years, effectively sealing off the land borders and refusing to offer considerable amounts of resettlement and humanitarian places in Europe - so that people have effectively been channeled toward the sea route."

And the borders grow tighter by the day. In recent years, immigration authorities in Greece and Hungary have further militarized enforcement efforts, ramping up security patrols or erecting more border fencing. But rather than deterring migration, these trends simply drive people to try to enter Europe by boat, leading to more hazardous passages across the continent.

Untold numbers of men, women and children perish before they even approach Europe. According to Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, "the sea crossing is only the last leg of a much lengthier journey which often requires an arduous crossing of the Sahara, where many die unremarked." Statistically, most people displaced by social or economic disaster tend to stay within their regions. Europe's migrants represent just the outer edge of a phalanx of desperation spanning the global South.

Grassroots Pressure for Migrant Justice

Frustrated by their governments' passive response, however, grassroots activists have organized in solidarity with migrants, raising a human rights challenge to what they see as Europe's dereliction of global social responsibility. Advocates have provided direct aid and social support to camps of migrants stranded at the French Port of Calais. Others press for policy reforms with campaigns to raise awareness of the underlying drivers of the crisis, including conflict, oppression and dysfunctional asylum and detention systems, widely decried for abusive and unjust treatment of migrants.

Following the April mass drowning incident, activists from Brighton to Brussels organized staged mourning protests - demonstrations of public outrage to pressure EU officials to address the Mediterranean deaths.

Presenting the chilling image of ceremonial body bags on a sandy beach, Amnesty UK director Kate Allen proclaimed to "Fortress Europe": "The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone, and this is only the start of the summer. If they had been holiday makers, instead of migrants, imagine the response."

"You have to leave to save your life."

For now, Europe's migrants are suspended between rising desperation abroad and sinking hope on strange shores. While European leaders try to differentiate proper asylum seekers from other desperate sojourners, migrants themselves don't distinguish between forced and "economic" migration. In the midst of war and mass deprivation, the only option is to keep moving, with fleeting faith that they'll eventually reach safety.

"You have to leave to save your life," Mamadou said. "You have no [other] choice, because your life is left up to you. You take it."

Today, about a year since he was plucked from the Mediterranean waters, Mamadou waits patiently for his hearing. He has picked up a little Italian, he said, and plans eventually to find work in Europe.

But he is alone and does not know when it will be safe to return to Gambia, where family and community remain. "I hope to see them again," he said. "I hope that our government will go out very soon." Asked about his prospects for asylum, he responded quickly, almost reflexively: "Yeah, I'm hopeful."

At this point, what else could he say?

News Thu, 30 Jul 2015 09:13:26 -0400
Candidates Ignore the Role Race Plays in Determining Who Thrives and Who Struggles

Earlier this month, presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley were booed and heckled by liberal activists at a town hall discussion at the Netroots Nation annual conference.

Why would attendees at a gathering of left-leaning progressives commandeer the microphone on stage and shout down Democratic White House contenders? Because Sanders and O'Malley, like the rest of the candidates, have built political platforms that largely ignore race.

The activists at the Netroots meeting were angry because Sanders and O'Malley have failed to respond to racial criminal justice issues, largely ignoring recent high-profile cases – such as the death in police custody of Sandra Bland – and police misconduct involving blacks. Instead, the candidates have focused on economic reforms. But those platforms ignore race too.

Sanders eventually denounced the circumstances surrounding the Sandra Bland arrest and has called for police reforms, and Hillary Clinton now appears to have embraced the Black Lives Matter movement.

Still, none of the White House hopefuls has publicly discussed the role that demographics – particularly race – play in determining who will thrive, and who will struggle, in today's economy.

Cookie-Cutter Platforms

Sanders, who is a socialist and the most progressive candidate in the presidential race, has characterized the well-documented wealth and income gaps as "grotesquely" unfair. His proposed solutions, though, are generic and race-neutral ones, like raising the minimum wage or creating jobs in low-income neighborhoods.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton's recently announced economic policy platform largely steers clear of race and instead focuses on stagnating middle-class wages.

Few Republicans have discussed racial justice issues either, and Jeb Bush has now dismissed the Black Lives Matter movement as merely a "slogan."

But, about eight months before he launched his presidential campaign, Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican, wrote an op-ed that discusses the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The opinion, written in response to the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, argues that "[a]nyone who thinks race does not skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention."

Since announcing his candidacy for president, though, Rand has largely avoided discussing racial criminal justice issues. While his official web page refers to an "unjust criminal justice system," his campaign has not focused on how the criminal justice system disproportionately harms black Americans.

Likewise, rather than focusing on police misconduct as a cause for the recent riots in Baltimore, he instead suggested that they resulted from a breakdown in family structure, a lack of fathers and the lack of a moral code in society.

While Republican candidate Rick Perry mentioned black poverty in a recent speech, his response was also a race-neutral one that focused on giving people at the bottom of the economic ladder a chance to climb.

For the most part, the candidates' proposals to address income and wage inequality are generic and nonracial: raise the minimum wage, expand social security, tax the ultra-rich or increase the earned income tax credit. None of the proposals acknowledges that, because of the widening wealth gap, race and ethnicity have now become almost decisive factors in determining whether a family will thrive or struggle financially.

Who Thrives and Who Struggles

The authors of a series of essays recently issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis show that race remains a powerful, if not conclusive, predictor of whether you will be a financial "thriver" or "struggler."

After analyzing data collected in the Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances from 1989 to 2013, the authors found that about a quarter of American families are financially thriving, while the other 75% are struggling.

Thriving families are middle-aged, white or Asian college graduates who have above-average incomes and have amassed enormous amounts of wealth. In contrast, strugglers are young, black or Hispanic, are less educated, have little or no wealth and work in low-wage jobs. The essays reveal that income – and particularly wealth – gaps among whites, blacks and Hispanics are staggering.

Average income for blacks and Hispanics is 40% lower than for whites. Even worse, average wealth held by Hispanic and black families is 90% lower. While the presidential candidates' proposals to increase the minimum wage might help close the income gap, a little more take-home pay would do little to close the staggering wealth gap.

The essays also reveal that wealth patterns for racial groups have changed little over the last 25 years and, except for Asian families, may now be permanent. For example, from 1989 to 2013, white families have consistently held the greatest amount of wealth, followed by Asian, then Hispanic, and finally black families. Although Asian family wealth has steadily increased over the 25-year period because of higher college completion rates for young Asians, financial patterns have remained virtually unchanged for whites, Hispanics and blacks.

Race-Neutral Solutions Won't Address the Roots

Increasing college graduate rates for blacks and Latinos or making colleges free (as Sanders has proposed) are race-neutral solutions that could ostensibly close the wealth gap. But, even if more young blacks and Latinos receive college degrees, the wealth gaps won't go away.

The Fed researchers considered whether education, rather than race, was the main cause for the wealth gap. They found that age and education play only small roles in explaining the gaps. Racial and ethnic differences in financial well-being remain even after accounting for the age and educational attainment of the head of the family.

In the last decade, the US population became more racially and ethnically diverse than it has ever been. If political leaders continue to ignore widening wealth inequality, the gaps may become permanent, and that could be destabilizing both politically and economically. It will be harder to boost the economy in the future if blacks and Latinos are permanently relegated to an economic underclass that has little wealth.

It is not particularly surprising that the presidential hopefuls shy away from saying that race may determine a family's financial well-being. Though a recent New York Times poll now shows that most Americans think race relations in this country are generally bad, making such a statement in a political climate that purports to be colorblind might quickly end the candidate's presidential aspirations.

Until politicians are willing to admit that whether you thrive or struggle financially may be influenced by your race, however, the United States will remain racially split into groups of a few haves – and a lot of have-nots.

The Conversation

Opinion Wed, 29 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400