Truthout Stories Mon, 31 Aug 2015 09:13:52 -0400 en-gb Prosecutors Practice Racism in US Courts

In early June of this year, the State Bar of Texas stripped Charles Sebesta of his law license and formally disbarred him. His crime? Prosecutorial misconduct that led to the wrongful conviction of exonerated death row prisoner Anthony Graves.

Graves was released in 2010 after spending 19 years in prison and on death row. A federal appeals court had ordered a new trial for him in 2006, and over the intervening years prosecutors in Washington-Burleson county found that they had no credible evidence with which to re-try and convict him. The main witness against Graves had recanted his testimony and claimed that Sebesta had coerced him into making false statements.

Since his release, Graves has fought for Sebesta to be sanctioned. For his part, Sebesta continued to make claims about Graves' guilt to the media as recently as January. Taking advantage of a new law, Graves was finally able to file a grievance against Sebesta, resulting in an investigation and subsequent hearings which culminated in the former prosecutor's expulsion from the bar.

Speaking to Texas Monthly's Executive Editor Pamela Colloff after the decision, Graves said, "I never thought that a young, African American man from the projects could file a grievance against a powerful, white DA in Texas and win."

Prosecutors facing consequences for misconduct is very rare. They hold one of the most powerful positions in the criminal justice system and have operated with very little scrutiny for decades. But that is starting to change.

Prosecutorial Power and Racism

This year has seen an explosion of outrage at the murders of unarmed people of color at the hands of the police. The anger at the cops has been coupled with an outcry against the unwillingness of prosecutors to pursue charges against police officers in cases like those of Eric Garner in New York City or Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Now, questions are coming to the fore about how prosecutors fit into the racist system of criminal justice that many call the New Jim Crow.

A new study released by the Women Donors Network (WDN) reveals that out of 2,437 elected prosecutors, 95 percent are white and 79 percent are white men. Sixty percent of states have zero elected Black prosecutors. In 14 states, all elected prosecutors are white.

Discussing the reason for the study, WDN President Donna Hall said:

Americans are taking a new look at the relationship between race, gender and criminal justice--in the failures to indict police officers from Ferguson to Staten Island, the rogue prosecutions of women who terminated their pregnancies from Indiana to Idaho, and in the epidemic of mass incarceration. Elected prosecutors have an enormous influence on the pursuit of justice in America, yet 79 percent of them are white men whose life experiences do not reflect those of most Americans.

Prosecutors have enormous power in the criminal justice system. After someone is arrested, prosecutors' discretion allows them to decide whether to file charges, what charges to file and what kinds of sentences to pursue. There is no oversight over their offices and little data is collected on how their decisions are made.

It has been historically hard to prove racial bias among prosecutors because of this lack of data. But the raw numbers regarding incarceration are revealing: While Black people make up only 13 percent of the population, 37 percent of people in prison are Black. Meanwhile, Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated for the same crime as their white counterparts.

Post-conviction, the same disparities continue in sentencing. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, sentences for Black defendants are 10 percent longer than those for white defendants convicted of the same crime. Black defendants are 21 percent more likely to be given mandatory-minimum sentences than whites.

Perhaps nothing is more revealing of the racial bias in sentencing than the way that death sentences are imposed. People of color are vastly overrepresented on death row as compared to the U.S. population, accounting for 43 percent of the executions carried out since 1976.

Study after study has shown that the race of the victim is the biggest determining factor in a potential death penalty case. White victims make up half of all murder victims, yet 80 percent of death penalty cases involve a white victim. In the 1,412 executions carried out since 1976, just 31 cases have involved a Black victim and white defendant. It seems that in the eyes of prosecutors, some lives matter more than others.

Prosecutors alone decide whether or not to seek the death penalty. For many prosecutors, winning death penalty convictions meant a boost to their political careers. This political benefit has often resulted in egregious misconduct by prosecutors, such as suppressing evidence, coercing witnesses through plea deals and excluding people of color from juries.

The Supreme Court outlawed discrimination in jury selection in the landmark Batson vs. Kentucky decision in 1986. Under the decision, defendants are allowed to challenge a decision to strike a juror if it seems like it was motivated by race. However, all prosecutors have to do is argue that they struck a juror for some other "race-neutral" reason, and then it's up to the judge to decide whether it was an improper strike. Over the years, a system of devising "race-neutral" reasons to target jurors of color has been rampantly abused.

This June, the high court agreed to hear the case of Timothy Tyler Foster. Foster was convicted in Georgia by an all-white jury--an all-too-common scenario in a murder case involving a Black defendant and a white victim. The state's claim that race played no role in striking jurors is comical, as Foster's lawyers have discussed in their petition to the court which highlights the prosecution's notes from jury selection:

(1) marked the name of each Black prospective juror in green highlighter on four different copies of the jury list; (2) circled the word "BLACK" next to the "Race" question on the juror questionnaires of five Black prospective jurors; (3) identified three Black prospective jurors as 'B#1,' 'B#2,' and 'B#3'; (4) ranked the Black prospective jurors against each other in case "it comes down to having to pick one of the Black jurors"; and (5) created strike lists that contradict the 'race-neutral' explanation provided by the prosecution for its strike of one of the Black prospective jurors.

As recently as 2004, prosecutors in Texas were given instructions on how to exclude people of color from juries using "race-neutral" pretenses.

Prosecutors' unique place in the justice system has led to other, more grotesque abuses of power. For example, a culture of celebrating death sentences in district attorneys' offices is common, especially in the South.

One of the most notable examples is in Jefferson Parish in Louisiana. In 2003, as a murder trial for Lawrence Jacobs, Jr. began, parish prosecutors walked into the court wearing macabre neckties--one featuring the grim reaper and another depicting a noose. When the defendant's father objected, the men were told by superiors to remove the ties. There were however no further sanctions, although prosecutors had apparently worn the ties at a number of previous court proceedings.

The New York Times reported in 2003 that the Jefferson Parish office also regularly held parties after they obtained a death sentence. The office took up a collection to buy a plaque with the name of the condemned person and a picture of a needle. One defense attorney reported seeing the plaques in the office of a prosecutor-turned-judge.

Other outrages included a prosecutor in nearby Orleans Parish who kept an electric chair on his desk, an office in Texas that formed a "Silver Needle Society," and an office in Baton Rouge that celebrated death sentences at office parties replete with steak and Jim Beam.

Pursuing Injustice

While gruesome, these displays are just the most outward manifestation of an outlaw culture among prosecutors, who are rarely sanctioned for their role in wrongful convictions.

In 2003, the Center for Public Integrity looked at more than 11,000 cases involving misconduct since 1970. They found that in only about 2,000 cases did an appeals court find that prosecutorial misconduct warranted the overturning of a conviction. Fewer than 50 prosecutors were sanctioned professionally for their actions.

In 2010, USA Today published the results of an investigation of 201 federal cases concerning misconduct by prosecutors. They found that just one prosecutor "was barred even temporarily from practicing law for misconduct."

The disbarment of Charles Sebesta is an important case of what could be a growing trend of prosecutors facing the music for their misuse of the law.

The sanctioning of Sebesta came only a few years after the criminal conviction of another Texas prosecutor, Ken Anderson. Anderson presided for years as the district attorney--and later served as judge--in Williamson County, just outside of Austin, Texas. But it was his role in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, that made Anderson infamous.

Anderson went to trial in 2013, accused of hiding crucial evidence of Morton's innocence. He was found guilty, stripped of his law license and, in an unprecedented decision, sentenced to 10 days in jail. While he ultimately served just three of those days, the move sent shock waves through the system. Pamela Colloff reported extensively on the outcome of the case. "Regardless of whether justice was served, a single, extraordinary fact...will ensure accountability," she wrote in Texas Monthly. "Innocence Project director Barry Scheck told reporters that the current Williamson County D.A., Jana Duty, had agreed to allow an independent review of every single case that Anderson had ever prosecuted. The audit will hopefully answer the question that many people have wondered since Morton's exoneration in 2011. Was Anderson's misconduct in the Morton case the exception or the rule? "

Anthony Graves is hopeful for a similar outcome for Sebesta. As he told Colloff in June, "I think this is a great first step. But a lot of people in Washington and Burleson counties were prosecuted and convicted by Charles Sebesta, and some of them are still behind bars. All of those cases need to be examined, too."

Fixing a Broken System

The sanctioning of these prosecutors in Texas, combined with the report from WDN, raise real questions about how prosecutorial misconduct can be combatted. Some commentators have called for more diversity in prosecutors' offices. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative made this case in an interview with NPR in early July. Discussing the fact that most district attorney candidates run unopposed, he said, "There's no one running against them. I think that we can do some things to turn this around. I think, first of all, district attorneys in position today have the opportunity to begin prioritizing diversity and identifying people within their offices who are women and people of color to succeed them."

Stevenson also addressed some of the reasons people of color don't pursue jobs as prosecutors: "I actually have had lots of students and others enter the prosecution profession. They say 'I want to change things from the inside.' And what they typically report is that the culture of many of these offices is so hostile to being more responsive to the needs of poor people and people of color that they can't make the change that they seek."

Most would argue that more diversity in the profession is needed. Yet there are limits to how effective an electoral strategy can be. Since the civil rights movement, the strategy of electing more people of color to political office hasn't necessarily led to improved conditions in the communities they serve.

In 1970, there were just 1,469 Black elected officials in the U.S. Today there are over 10,000. But by many indices, the condition of Black life in America has stagnated or worsened in this time period. Poverty in the Black community is still double the national poverty rate, for example, and the homeownership rate among Black people has remained stagnant since 1970.

Police departments have also diversified--but the "thin blue line" continues to prevail. Police culture is still dominated by a culture of closed ranks, as we have seen in virtually every police murder that's made the news.

The advent of the Black Lives Matter movement has posed a real challenge to police culture--which also has the potential to push prosecutors to take action in cases of police killings. The indictment and conviction of officer Johannes Mehserle, who killed Oscar Grant in Oakland in 2009, is one example of the difference a movement can make in pushing prosecutors to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, there are fights for policy reforms, especially at the state level. In Texas, the high-profile shenanigans of Ken Anderson and Charles Sebesta led to the Michael Morton Act, enacted in 2013, that takes aim at prosecutors' abuse of the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to hand over any evidence that might be favorable to the defense. But the rule is written in such a way that prosecutors have tremendous discretion in deciding what they think constitutes Brady evidence. Suppression of evidence is rampant under the system, something the Morton Act aims to change.

As Pamela Colloff stated:

The key thing the Act does is force every DA's office to have an open file policy--meaning that all prosecutors must hand over every piece of evidence they collect, no matter what. Now they can no longer do things like withhold witness statements.

Of course there's always going to be prosecutorial discretion. You can't take that out of the equation. But if you enact reforms which require prosecutors to be more transparent, that could help change the win-at-all-costs culture that exists in some DA's offices. These sorts of reforms need to be enacted not just in Texas, but nationally.

Colloff also highlighted the change in the public's perception of prosecutors, and the need for state bars to take action against unscrupulous officials:

There's been a huge shift in the way people view prosecutors--they do believe there are prosecutors that are guilty. Now the Texas State Bar has belatedly and begrudgingly shown that it will take decisive action against prosecutors that don't play by the rules, including powerful elected district attorneys.

Such campaigns for reforms like the Michael Morton Act in Texas, linked with the growing movement against police killings, show the way forward in the struggle to combat racism in the criminal justice system--and, ultimately, to dismantle the New Jim Crow.

Opinion Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Hungry for Justice: Chicago Residents Go on Hunger Strike for Education

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

Why is there a hunger strike generating headlines on the South side of Chicago?

Why are parents and community members starving themselves to the point of collapse and being hospitalized?

Why are bureaucrats unmoved by their plight - with some failing to so much as halt a meeting when an ailing community member is carried out on a stretcher?

There's no explanation that anyone should be able to live with, but here's a brief breakdown, for anyone who doesn't understand:

This is how it works in Chicago. A 23-year old white woman rides her bicycle to the Board of Education and asks for a green technology and global citizenship-themed school. The powers that be rubber stamp the proposal before you can blink. Today, the Academy for Global Citizenship Charter School steals space and resources from an existing neighborhood school like a growing cancer. This cancer is looking to spread onto nearby land, which once held a whole community of public housing - LeClaire Courts. It's now leveled. An empty lot where only the whisper of the promise "right of return" can be heard on the wind.

Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)This is how it works in Chicago. A community group made up of Black residents of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood go to the Board of Education to ask for a green technology and global citizenship themed school. The powers that be ignore that proposal, just as they have ignored the people of this community for years. For decades. Forever.

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) - the group at the core of the fight for Dyett High School - has been fighting for the schools in their neighborhood for over 50 years. They fought when the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) tried to change their local neighborhood high school into a selective enrollment school that would only serve a limited number of students from the community. They fought to turn Dyett, at one time a local middle school, to be turned into an open enrollment high school that would serve all children in the area. They fought when the Board of Ed began a mass program of school closures following the wake of public housing demolition called Renaissance 2010 2010, which eventually closed 20 schools in the Bronzeville area. They fought as CPS gave incentives to privately-run, undemocratic, outsider charter operators to throw up shiny new privately-run charter schools in a failed attempt to attract a new middle class of gentrifiers and to push out the undesirable low-income residents. They fought when CPS attempted to sabotage Dyett High School from the very beginning with lack of funding, constant churn, and threat of closure. And they fought when CPS finally voted to close the school in a slow-death fade-out over three years.

The members of KOCO have done everything in their power to save this school, the last open enrollment high school that serves their community. They have spoken at the Board of Education numerous times. They have partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago to produce reports on the destabilization of Dyett. They have held press conferences. They have run the former head of KOCO to become the State Representative of the area. They mobilized the youth to speak out powerfully about their right to a quality education. They have marched alongside the Chicago Teachers Union to save all schools facing closure. KOCO helped organize for an Elected Representative School Board in Chicago, instead of our current biased mayoral appointed corporate Board. They have been on television and radio and media more times than you can count. They have partnered with organizations across the country fighting school closures and racist school policy in a "Journey for Justice," visiting places like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington DC. They held sit-ins outside the local alderman's office. They held sit-ins outside the mayor's office. They have been arrested. But every time, their voices were ignored.

When CPS announced that Dyett would finally be phased-out, the community came together and created a proposal for it to be reopened. That was never part of CPS' plan. But the people fighting for Dyett were so unstoppably determined, CPS agreed to a "Request For Proposals" (RFP) process instead. RFPs are typically a way to turn over public control of a school to private operators. CPS has used this faux "community input" model as a way to pretend at democracy with the outcome predetermined numerous times. The Dyett folks were outraged that CPS was once again silencing them, this time threatening for outsiders and private entities to come in and take over the school they had fought for over 15 years to reclaim for the community. So KOCO and the newly-formed Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School fought on.

They jumped through the hoops CPS put up and created a clearer vision for the school calling it the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. In order to improve their proposal, they arranged partnerships with UIC's education department, Chicago Botanic Gardens, and the nearby DuSable Museum. They used their strong community connections to build relationships with all of Dyett's feeder elementary schools to ensure the curriculum was aligned-naming that network the Bronzeville Global Achievers Village. It was clearly the best proposal.

But then came the final straw. CPS would not even do its own RPF process honestly. They stalled and pushed back the hearing dates again and again, with seemingly no intention of going through with the deal.

So twelve brave members of the Dyett Coalition began the most radical strategy yet. They stopped eating, a hunger strike of protest against this twisted, racist system that has denied their children an equitable education for too long. These parents, grandparents, Local School Council representatives, teachers, and activists decided to put their own health at risk to save Dyett.

The Dyett Twelve have not stayed silent in their protest. Every day, huddled in chairs outside the school, they hold "teach-ins" where the hunger strikers along with a growing number of supporters speak truth to power. They have spoken loud and clear about the racism of the treatment of black citizens by the Board of Education. The Dyett Twelve have shouted out the injustices happening in schools serving black and brown children in this city. They have looked to their elders, who were fighting for better schools sixty years ago and asked, "How is it 2015 and we are still forced to put our bodies on the line to get an education for our children?" They have gone to the Board hungry and weak and told the glaring truth: that they have not been granted this proposal because they "made the mistake of being born black."

People all over the globe have responded to this hunger strike with outpourings of support. Places like South Africa, Chile, and Puerto Rico are sending solidarity photos. Twitter and Facebook are alight with the hashtags #FightForDyett and #WeAreDyett, which are topping the trending charts. But the hunger strikers are becoming dangerously ill. Three members have already been rushed to the hospital.

On Thursday, a letter signed by 17 doctors and nurses, including a retired chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, was delivered to Rahm Emanuel's office. The letter urged him to take action to end the hunger strike, saying in part, "We consider the current situation to be a deepening health emergency in our city. It is one you can abate by reaching out to the strikers, entertaining their grievances and accepting their proposal."

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

Emanuel's only response thus far has been to stress how underutilized the area's schools are. Under-utilization is a familiar refrain in Chicago, where the Emanuel administration has repeated the same talking point in the face of countless pleas from community members, begging not to lose their schools and clinics. The argument is often taken at face value by those who aren't aware that efforts to drive people away from public resources and community hubs, such as schools and public clinics, are fueled by a city-wide push toward privatization. The "new Chicago" that Emanuel has long claimed to be building caters to private interests, even as residents who've lost their clinics fall through the cracks, and perish, just as they warned they would. Children lose their music and art programs, their teachers and their school librarians - and finally their schools, which have long been the beating hearts of their communities. Emanuel's response today has thus far been no different than it was when mental health clinic patient Helen Morley warned him, "You're killing us!" in 2012.

Morley later died after losing her clinic, just as she predicted.

Once again, the mayor's efforts to shuffle community members through his reimagined, profit driven Chicago have become a matter of life and death. Once again, a struggle for dignity, survival and community itself is playing out in the public eye, garnering headlines and prompting widespread pleas that the mayor rethink his position. But the great question remains: How far will Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board go to deny this community a fully public, democratic school? Will CPS continue to force these justice seekers to put their lives on the line in order to complete the neoliberal takeover of prime Lakefront property? When will CPS do what is right and approve the Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School proposal? This is how it works in Chicago. The powerful try to crush the people. And the people resist.

Opinion Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Green Activism in Palestine

Land is key to the ongoing occupation in Palestine. Wars have been fought over territory and legal battles have spun out for decades over matters as basic as accessing a plot. Despite land being such a major issue, the human cost of occupation means that the environmental cost is forgotten not just by Western outsiders like myself, but also by Palestinians themselves.

The destruction of olive trees has, of course, become almost a symbol of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The cultural significance of olive branches as messages of peace add a metaphorical layer to the trials Palestinian farmers face when their income and heritage is destroyed. (Read the Journal's 2002 report on this issue here). However, there are many other native plants and wildlife that too, are an integral part of Palestinian history and culture.

While walking in the hills around Ramallah with a group of friends recently, I ran into Saleh Totah, an activist who co-founded Mashjar Juthour, a 2.5 acre arboretum and eco-park on the Thahr al Okda hillside. Totah and his partner, Morgan Cooper, started Mashjar Juthour, which translates roughly as "the Roots Arboretum," in 2013 as a permaculture education project seeking to re-establish the diverse range of flora that flourished in Palestine years ago, but which has been lost in conflict and in ignorance.

The project is one of many that have cropped up in Palestine in recent years, including rooftop gardens and fish farms, that hope to reconnect the people in this conflict-ridden region with their natural environment and inspire Palestinians to work towards a sustainable future for themselves and their land.

That day, and on a subsequent visit when we helped to clear stones, we heard about the different plants growing in the Mashjar: Palestinian oak with its edible acorns, orchids which are used to make the drink salep, tiny, wild peas which we ate from the pod. Many of Mashjar's plants have a dual purpose. They make the land itself rich and sustainable while also providing sustenance. Lentils, for example, are grown for food and at the same time return nitrogen to the soil for hungry trees.

The diverse range of plants found in Mashjar Juthour is unusual in Palestine. The hills around the park are filled almost exclusively with olives. There is little room for any other kind of tree to grow.

"People see value only in the olive tree," says Cooper. "It's a major source of income, so farmers clear the land of all the other trees in order for the olive trees to live without other trees competing."

Partly, this is due to the challenge of accessing land. Olives are hardy, and once they reach maturity they can survive with little maintenance. This is a necessity for the many farmers who require permits, rarely granted, to access their land that has been enveloped behind the Israeli barrier wall.  This rationale is understandable, but it means that much of the traditional knowledge in sustainable farming – what we would call permaculture – has been lost. And that loss  makes Palestinians more dependent on imports for everything beyond olive oil products.

It's not just farmers with land outside across the wall who are affected. The West Bank itself was divided in 1990s, with the vast majority, about 60 percent, being designated as Area C, under Israeli occupation. On this land, the Palestinian Authority controls only health and educational matters. For every other aspect of life here, Israel is the governing authority.

The problems this causes - whether it's the lack of protection for Palestinian villagers, unplanned waste disposal that sees settlement sewage tainting Palestinian crops, or withholding of development permits - mean that people are too afraid or too frustrated to connect with the land.

"Area C has compacted the Palestinian alienation from land and it's so uncommon to see Palestinians picnicking or even hiking," Cooper says. "We don't access nature. And we're losing so much of the knowledge we have about it, without even realizing it, because most of us are totally distracted with the greater struggles of living under occupation."

The result of this is a shocking lack of environmental awareness, not just among farmers or landowners, but the wider Palestinian community. One obvious indicator is the widespread littering. The road from Ramallah to Mashjar, a winding path through hills lined with old stone huts and terraces of olive trees, would appear Biblical were it not strewn with candy wrappers and energy drink cans.

"It's a complete lack of awareness we have about the environment and the negative effect we have on it," Cooper says. The issue is compounded because the road is in Area C, so the Palestinian Authority isn't allowed to provide waste disposal services, she explains. "Instead it is the responsibility of the [Israeli authorities]. And they simply don't take that responsibility. So what happens to waste, then?"

The Mashjar project aims to use education to reverse Palestinians' loss of knowledge about the environment and of how to take care of it.

"The idea is to get our community back to nature, to remind them of the very important relationship we have always had to the environment around us, and especially to bring back the traditional knowledge and natural heritage of Palestine," Cooper says.

With a small team of mostly volunteers, Cooper and Totah have painstakingly rehabilitated the 2.5 acres of land. The park now boasts 60 species of trees, including native oaks, kaykabs, caroubs, maples, and pines. To get people out of the city and into the wild, Mashjar runs events in its arboretum: workshops, family days, guided walks and one-off events like an astronomy camp.

Cooper hopes that their schemes will encourage environmental stewardship and make food sovereignty part of the Palestinian human rights movement. It seems like their efforts have been bearing some fruit. After they've visited the Mashjar, children start to chide each other for littering, Cooper tells me. But, just a couple of acres and limited human resources, are hampering the Mashjar's ambitions .

"We have a huge vision, but that needs capacity and we just don't have capacity," Cooper says. "We have requests for more activities and workshops, for guided walks and camps, but we simply can't. Further, we're starting from square one, taking on questions like 'what is waste' and 'why should we care about the environment at all?' "

Cooper and Totah are now looking to expand the Mashjar Juthour's land and get more local educators involved in the project.

News Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Male Fish in North Carolina Rivers Found to Have Female Parts

The Pee Dee River in North Carolina. A US Geological Survey study in 2009 showed intersex male fish in nine US river basins and found that the Pee Dee River basin had the highest rate of intersex fish at 80 percent.The Pee Dee River in North Carolina. A US Geological Survey study in 2009 showed intersex male fish in nine US river basins and found that the Pee Dee River basin had the highest rate of intersex fish at 80 percent. (Photo: Justin Shearer/Flickr)

Male black bass and some sunfish in North Carolina rivers and streams are developing eggs in their testes, which can cause reproductive problems and potentially threaten populations, according to unpublished research.

The research adds to growing evidence that exposure to estrogen compounds is feminizing male fish across the U.S. and suggests that North Carolina fish might be particularly at risk.

"It's a very interesting study and certainly adds to our understanding of what's potentially going on in our rivers and with the intersex fish," said Vicki Blazer, a U.S. Geological Survey fish biologist who was not involved in the study.

North Carolina State University researchers tested 20 streams and rivers throughout North Carolina during the 2012 spawning season for contaminants known to disrupt endocrine systems, such as industrial chemicals and pesticides. They also tested black bass - largemouth and smallmouth bass - and sunfish in the rivers for "intersex" characteristics, looking for eggs in the testes of males.

More than 60 percent of the 81 black bass tested intersex, while 10 percent of the 185 sunfish were intersex. They detected 43 percent of the 135 contaminants they were looking for throughout the state. Crystal Lee Pow, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University who helped lead the work, said they are still analyzing differences between waterways so aren't yet disclosing the impacted rivers.

The results are worrisome. In past studies, male fish with eggs have had reduced fertility and sperm production. In addition, male fish are critical for the survival of developing black bass and sunfish.

"Males guard the nest, create spawning nests for young, and guard fertilized eggs," Lee Pow said. " Males are crucial for hatching success, and their male behavior could be altered by exposure to contaminants and the presence of the intersex condition."

The research was in part spurred by a U.S. Geological Survey study in 2009 that showed intersex male fish in nine U.S. river basins and found that the Pee Dee River basin - which spans North Carolina and South Carolina - had the highest rate of intersex fish (80 percent).

The suspected culprits of the sex changes are endocrine disrupting compounds. This includes hormones, industrial chemicals and pesticides that are or mimic estrogen hormones. These compounds enter rivers and streams via permitted effluents, stormwater and agricultural runoff, and wastewater treatment plants, where excreted birth control and natural estrogens pass through relatively un-altered.

"There are also a lot of concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina," Lee Pow said, adding that previous research at North Carolina State found that waste from pigs, which is held in lagoons, can run off into streams after it is applied to land. "The [pig] waste is chock-full of estrogens," she said.

It's unclear why the black bass had such a higher intersex rate, but it's an important finding that shows not all species are impacted the same, said Dana Kolpin, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist.

Blazer, who has been investigating intersex fish in the Potomac River basin and Chesapeake Bay drainage area, said Lee Pow's findings are similar to hers - bass seem more prone to intersex characteristics.

"We've compared bass to white suckers, brown bullhead, and we rarely see intersex in the suckers and bullhead, even at the same sites where we see bass that are intersex," Blazer said.

Researchers don't know why the bass are more susceptible, however, it is probably either the timing and location of where they spawn, or something about their physiology that is more sensitive, Blazer said.

Donald Tillitt, a U.S. Geological Survey toxicologist, said he and colleagues dosed adult largemouth bass with a synthetic estrogen found in birth control pills with levels commonly found in the environment and were able to induce intersex fish.

"The dominant idea has been that intersex is instigated in early life exposures as the gonads are developing," Tillitt said about the unpublished research. "But this suggests they're still susceptible as adults."

The presence of intersex black bass in North Carolina was linked to chemicals that are hydrophobic, meaning those that prefer separating from water such as the common contaminant polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

But Blazer cautioned that it is "important for people to understand that what could be inducing intersex at one site might be different than at another site."

The concern with an impacted reproductive system is the overall fish population and ability to properly reproduce. Blazer said bass are a long-living fish and produce a lot of sperm, so it would take a few years for population impacts to take place.

Susan Massengale, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said in an emailed response that the new study was "useful for understanding what may potentially affect aquatic life," adding that it would be interesting to know the rivers tested and whether the tested fish had reduced ability to reproduce.

She said "this is one part of a picture that will emerge over time" as research fills in the blanks on the levels of these compounds that impact the fish and how to stop or treat the compounds before they affect species.

Kolpin said, with a growing body of evidence of endocrine disrupting compounds in U.S. waterways impacting fish, there may soon be action in trying to curb the problem.

"The next five years we should gain even more knowledge and eventually I think there will be something done to prevent contaminants getting into these waterways in the first place," he said. "It's better to prevent them than trying to treat water after the fact."

News Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Seattle Made Dark Alleys Safer - by Throwing Parties in Them

I'm sitting in the office of Todd Vogel, director of the International Sustainability Institute in Seattle, as he walks behind his desk and pulls something out of a drawer. He comes back to where I'm sitting and lays the object on the table between us. It's small and brass, with some scotch tape wrapped around one end. I have no idea what I'm holding in my hand until Vogel cheerily chimes in:

"It's a crack pipe."


The pipe is a memento from the alley behind the office. Vogel found it not long after he moved into the space off the alley in 2008.

It soon became apparent that the alley was not a great place to be: Further down the way was a cardboard box used as a makeshift toilet. Once, he saw a pool of blood and the apparent weapon, a pointy umbrella; later he learned one of the neighbors had been keeping a log of all the police reports that were made about the space.

Vogel asked an architect friend what he should do. "She said the answer was simple: All I needed to do was put people in it [the alley]," said Vogel.

So Vogel began staging events like music performances and art shows. The alley slowly began to change from a place where crime happened to a place pedestrians walked through. In June, the ISI won an innovation award for the Alley Network Project from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"Just the idea of using an alley for something other than garbage collection turns people's heads" said Liz Stenning, public realm director for the Alliance of Pioneer Square, a nonprofit that has helped build the alley project. "But they're not just utilitarian in function, they can be places for people to meet neighbors and be together."

Alleyways have long posed a safety threat in Seattle. In April, the city decided that to curb the crime that occurred on these streets, it would be easier to shut them down, using them only for garbage pickup and restricting them from public use. Some of the city's most problematic alleys remain blocked today. Similar strategies have been used in Baltimore and Napa Valley.

Having the alley closed down was not a viable solution to Vogel. Twenty-seven percent of spaces open to the public are "right of way," meaning that cars drive on nearly a third of the public space open to everyday people. To close the alleys would be to detract even further from the spaces available for the community to gather in.

Vogel started with a small poetry reading. Sixty people showed up. It was the first in a series of events that included music performances, readings, cat adoptions, circus acts, and doggy costume parties. A few neighbors had liked the idea and helped orchestrate the first events. Soon, nearby business owners began to contribute as well. Windows that were previously boarded up were now open, a cinder block wall that blocked a doorway was removed, and neighbors put in planters and contributed to the upkeep.

"If you treat it as a place where nobody goes, then you're inviting illicit activity and you're inviting people not to respect it" said Vogel, who noted seeing changes in his "backyard." "The healthy activity meant that the unhealthy activity was self-policing."

They decided to rename the street Nord Alley.

In the summer of 2010, there was a demand to screen the World Cup games. Using the back of a U-Haul and a projector to create a lightbox, the daytime showings packed in more than 200 people into the small, narrow road to cheer on their favorite soccer teams.

 Other building tenants who wanted to transform their alleyways began to take notice and implement a similar program. The city of Seattle responded by allowing art to be permanently installed on the walls so that people would have a reason to walk the alley even if there was no event. The city has also worked with Vogel and ISI to redesign and repave the roads, improving accessibility while keeping the historic elements intact.

"It's a theoretical thing to say, 'put people in an alley and watch it grow.' It's something completely different to actually see it happen," said Vogel.

The idea has spread to six alleys in Seattle and has brought city planners from places like Chicago who want to observe how the residents had turned the alleys around.

Stenning and the Alliance hope to bring local business owners into the effort by getting them to open up their back doors and create seating outside. They recently helped refurbish nearby Occidental Square with 60 bright green tables, a public piano, and foosball tables.

Before, the square resembled an empty lot more than a place for people to meet. There was nowhere to sit and most of the businesses on the block hadn't made use of the area.

William Broadley, who goes by Bill, is a retiree who spends his nights in a nearby shelter and his days in the park. He said the square was once unused, but since the remodeling it fills up everyday.

"It's great," he said of the new changes."You should see it during a Sounders [soccer] game. The whole place gets packed and everyone is talking to each other."

News Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Puerto Rico: The Financial Implications of Dependency

A street in San Juan, Puerto Rico.A street in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The economic crisis in Puerto Rico is a result of dubious policy decisions by the Puerto Rican government and Washington. (Photo: Jack Delano)

On Monday, August 3, Puerto Rico's Public Finance Corporation defaulted on a $58 million USD bond payment, the island's first debt nonpayment in its 117 years as a U.S. territory. Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro García Padilla has called the $72 billion USD debt "not payable."

A report by former IMF economist Anne Krueger sponsored by the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico offered a neoliberal analysis of the situation. To Krueger, Puerto Rico's problems stem from the commonwealth's too high minimum wage and overly generous welfare benefits.[1] A somewhat less reticent report sponsored by a group of hedge fund managers, who control a significant chunk of Puerto Rican debt, recommended outright austerity measures such as making sharp cuts to education and health care.[2]

However, these neoliberal prescriptions are far from offering a viable solution to Puerto Rico's current troubles, which actually grow out of more complex, long-term causes, especially the island's lack of autonomy in constructing its own economic policies. Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States continues to be one of colonial-style dependency, serving to assure the overwhelming influence of powerful U.S. economic interests. The twentieth-century colonial policies, which allowed corporations to extract wealth from the island through foreign ownership of land and other productive property, have helped pave the way for a new chapter in the history of colonialism, characterized by exploitative debt obligations which largely benefit Wall Street.

A Colonial History: The Role of U.S. Capital

Puerto Rico became a North American colonial experiment when the Spanish-American War ended the island's eight days of independence in July 1898. Since then, Puerto Rico has been steadily transformed into a reserve for U.S. capital. The process got a boost in 1899 when Hurricane San Ciriaco destroyed the island's farmlands at a time when coffee was the principle export. U.S. banks swooped in and began to loan money to impacted coffee farmers, but, in lieu of any usury laws, extortionate interest rates led to mass defaults and farm foreclosures.[3] As the coffee sector fell into steep decline, sugar, a capital-intensive crop, became the dominant export by 1901, transforming Puerto Rico into a one-crop economy selling almost exclusively to the United States. By 1930, 41 out of 146 sugar mills produced 97 percent of the output, and 11 of the 41 were owned by four U.S. corporations which held over half of Puerto Rico's arable land. Between 1927 and 1928, these four companies produced over 51 percent of the island's sugar, with the United States dominating the industry and, in turn, the majority of the island's wealth.[4]

Modern U.S. capital has taken several steps to ensure its domination of the territory's wealth. The infamous Jones Act of 1920 still requires that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried on U.S. ships. Since the mainland is the island's primary import and export partner, the Jones Act ensures that the domestic U.S. shipping industry remains protected from foreign competition and obtains enormous profits through this trade partnership.[5] Moreover, Puerto Rico's notorious tax policies, including the Revenue Act of 1921, have turned the island into a corporate haven. In 1976, the creation of IRS Section 936 tax code enhanced the tax breaks that U.S. corporations enjoyed.[6] To promote investment, the law allowed U.S. companies to operate in Puerto Rico without paying corporate taxes at all, attracting especially pharmaceutical companies.

Initially, the 1976 provision was successful in making the commonwealth a hub for U.S. investment and pharmaceutical manufacturing.[7] However, in 2006 the tax break expired, setting off a recession that has helped fuel the current debt crisis. Companies deserted the island in droves, causing employment to fall 10 percentage points between 2006 and 2010, and an emigrating labor force drained the island's tax base.[8]

As the Center for the New Economy points out, in Puerto Rico today "both production and consumption are dominated by the foreign sector," and, therefore, "most of the income derived from the manufacturing and sale of exports accrues to and is repatriated by absentee owners, with little impact on the local economy."[9] In addition, Jacobin Magazine notes that, "a substantial amount of wealth created in the island is extracted and not reinvested," and about one-third of the island's GNP is "repatriated back to the U.S."[10] Meanwhile, Puerto Rico has turned to regressive imposts to gather revenue, with its sales tax two percentage points higher than that in Tennessee, the state with the next highest rate. This is a particularly harsh impost on the poor, given that the island's GNP is less than half that of Mississippi, the mainland's poorest state.[11]

A Neo-Colonial Present: The Role of U.S. Vultures

Due to the tax breaks on U.S. subsidiaries in contrast to the island's high domestic corporate tax rates, Puerto Rico never had the opportunity to develop its internal private sector. As a result, when Section 936 expired, the government became the island's largest employer but found itself in desperate need of investment to fund its projects.[12]

The solution came in 2012 in the form of two laws passed under the conservative administration of Governor Luis Fortuño, which continue to be implemented during the present administration of the more moderate Governor García Padilla. The laws provide new tax incentives to wealthy investors. [13] One, the Export Services Act, offers hedge funds a low 4 percent tax rate, and the other, the Individual Investors Act, provides investors 100 percent tax exemptions on all dividends, interest, and capital gains on the condition that the investor lived on the island for half a year.[14]

The two new tax breaks immediately drew in hordes of wealthy investors, enticed by the chance to buy up triple-tax exempt bonds from the public sector. Government bonds initially drew in mutual funds, which rely more on the economy's performance, but for the past year they have been traded in secondary markets at lower levels, attracting hedge and vulture funds with no authentic interest in the island's economic development.[15] Vulture funds, the speculative, more extreme subcategory of hedge funds, are particularly drawn to countries that are predicted to be facing economic crises and possible default. These investors buy high-risk distressed bonds for pennies on the dollar, only to later demand full repayment of the debt, walking away with billions in winnings. One such predator is DoubleLine Capital's Jeffrey Gundlach, who profited off of the housing crisis in 2008 by buying distressed municipal bonds as the U.S. economy fell into recession. Gundlach, comparing the crisis on the mainland to the one in Puerto Rico, encouraged investors to begin buying the territory's bonds in May when they fell to about 78 cents on the dollar, according to Bloomberg Business.[16]

CNN Money reports that hedge funds currently hold about $15 billion USD of Puerto Rico's $72 billion USD debt, while the Puerto Rico-based Centro del Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism; CPI) estimates that hedge and vulture funds together may hold up to 50 percent of the debt. One can be certain that these investors will keep close watch over any payment plan or debt restructuring in order to guarantee themselves a substantial profit.[17] Indeed, hedge and vulture funds have already begun lobbying against any measure that would enhance the Puerto Rican government's autonomy to seek a measured plan for handling its growing debt.

Unable to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy due to the island's territorial status, García Padilla enacted a debt-restructuring law called the Puerto Rico Public Corporations Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act. The law resembled bankruptcy, as it sought some level of protection from bondholders; it claimed to be a "solution to ensure that vital public services such as the delivery of electricity, gas and clean water are not interrupted in the short-term" and proposed negotiations between the public corporations and their creditors.[18] However, a group of investors, who at the time held about $2 billion USD of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority's debt, sued the commonwealth in federal court, claiming that the law would interfere with their contractual rights. In February, the court struck the recovery act down as unconstitutional.[19]

A similar situation began almost a decade ago in the case of vulture funds in Argentina, when the South American nation defaulted twice on its massive debt. When President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's administration defaulted again in 2012, a group of vulture funds led by billionaire investor Paul Singer sued the Argentinian government in New York's South District Court, refusing to accept the debt restructuring. One of the principle hedge funds involved in the lawsuit, Aurelius Capital, also currently holds a portion of Puerto Rico's debt, according to a report by CPI.[20] The court ruled in favor of the vultures, and the Argentinian economy remains deeply troubled as the government is forced to make 100 percent repayments for bonds that were bought at a fraction of the price.[21] While the U.S. government argued in favor of Argentina, the Obama Administration refrained from taking any concrete action in attempting to relieve the crisis, even though, as The Guardian noted, Obama could have adjourned Singer's lawsuit simply by telling the district court that it "interferes with the president's sole authority to conduct foreign policy."[22]

Perhaps Obama's inaction was in part due to the immense lobbying power of hedge fund managers like Singer, one of the most influential contributors to Republican candidates.[23] There are similar lobbyists on the Democratic side, such as Robert Raben, former Assistant Attorney General under President Clinton and the executive director of a group called the American Task Force Argentina (AFTA), which represents the vulture funds suing Argentina. Raben's influential lobbying firm has received over $2 million USD from AFTA, and the latter "has spent nearly $4 million lobbying the White House, Treasury Department and U.S. Congress."[24] These relationships reveal an unsettling truth: The forces of big capital often override a U.S. policymaker's principles of sovereign rights and fair diplomacy. A similar relationship between policy and capital has driven the crisis in Puerto Rico. As the CPI report notes, the "hedge and vulture fund representatives visit the offices of legislators at the Capitol constantly."[25]


Puerto Rico's confrontation with vulture funds may not reach the same impasse as in Argentina. Indeed, Washington might even have some incentive to protect the territory from what Governor García Padilla has called a "death spiral," as a complete collapse of the economy would render this colonial experiment a failure in the eyes of the Hemisphere. However, even if the commonwealth were granted Chapter 9 rights, Puerto Rico would remain bound by the chains of dependency. The crisis in Puerto Rico is a result of dubious policy decisions by the Puerto Rican government and Washington. United States' colonial policies imposed on the island throughout the past century have turned Puerto Rico into a haven for cheap manufacturing. No amount of micromanagement of the ailing economy, by the IMF or by independent hedge fund managers, can cure Puerto Rico's colonial crisis. Until Puerto Rico enjoys the right to shape its own economic policies, it will continue to suffer the predations of largely unregulated, U.S. capital. And the vultures will continue to circle.






[4] James L. Dietz. Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development. 103-109



















[23] Ibid.



News Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Setting Aside Half the Earth for "Rewilding": The Ethical Dimension

Wildlife corridors: four propsals to 'rewild' portions of North America.Wildlife corridors: four propsals to "rewild" portions of North America. (Photo: Smithsonian Institute)

A much-anticipated book in conservation and natural science circles is EO Wilson's Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, which is due early next year. It builds on his proposal to set aside half the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity.

The famous biologist and naturalist would do this by establishing huge biodiversity parks to protect, restore and connect habitats at a continental scale. Local people would be integrated into these parks as environmental educators, managers and rangers - a model drawn from existing large-scale conservation projects such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica.

The backdrop for this discussion is that we are in the sixth great extinction event in earth's history. More species are being lost today than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs. There is no mystery as to why this is happening: it is a direct result of human depredations, habitat destruction, overpopulation, resource depletion, urban sprawl and climate change.

Wilson is one of the world's premier natural scientists - an expert on ants, the father of island biogeography, apostle of the notion that humans share a bond with other species (biophilia) and a herald about the danger posed by extinction. On these and other matters he is also an eloquent writer, having written numerous books on biodiversity, science, and society. So when Wilson started to talk about half-Earth several years ago, people started to listen.

As a scholar of ethics and public policy with an interest in animals and the environment, I have been following the discussion of half-Earth for some time. I like the idea and think it is feasible. Yet it suffers from a major blind spot: a human-centric view on the value of life. Wilson's entry into this debate, and his seeming evolution on matters of ethics, is an invitation to explore how people ought to live with each other, other animals and the natural world, particularly if vast tracts are set aside for wildlife.

The Ethics of Wilson's Volte-Face

I heard Wilson speak for the first time in Washington, DC in the early 2000s. At that talk, Wilson was resigned to the inevitable loss of much of the world's biodiversity. So he advocated a global biodiversity survey that would sample and store the world's biotic heritage. In this way, we might still benefit from biodiversity's genetic information in terms of biomedical research, and perhaps, someday, revive an extinct species or two.

Not a bad idea in and of itself. Still, it was a drearily fatalistic speech, and one entirely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility to the world of nonhuman animals and nature.

What is striking about Wilson's argument for half-Earth is not the apparent about-face from cataloging biodiversity to restoring it. It is the moral dimension he attaches to it. In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.

The half-Earth proposal prompts people to consider the role of humans in nature. The half-Earth proposal prompts people to consider the role of humans in nature. (Photo: Jenny Tañedo/Flickr)

To my ear, this sounds great, but I am not exactly sure how far it goes. In the past, Wilson's discussions of conservation ethics appear to me clearly anthropocentric. They espouse the notion that we are exceptional creatures at the apex of evolution, the sole species that has intrinsic value in and of ourselves, and thus we are to be privileged above all other species.

In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature's only value is what it can do for people - extrinsic value.

For example, in his 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, Wilson argues for "the necessity of a robust and richly textured anthropocentric ethics apart from the issues of rights [for other animals or ecosystems] - one based on the hereditary needs of our own species. In addition to the well-documented utilitarian potential of wild species, the diversity of life has immense aesthetic and spiritual value."

The passage indicates Wilson's long-held view that biodiversity is important because of what it does for humanity, including the resources, beauty and spirituality people find in nature. It sidesteps questions of whether animals and the rest of nature have intrinsic value apart from human use.

His evolving position, as reflected in the half-Earth proposal, seems much more in tune with what ethicist call non-anthropocentrism - that humanity is simply one marvelous but no more special outcome of evolution; that other beings, species and/or ecosystems also have intrinsic value; and that there is no reason to automatically privilege us over the rest of life.

Consider this recent statement by Wilson:

What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that's the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we're humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

The non-anthropocentric view does not deny that biodiversity and nature provide material, aesthetic and spiritual "resources." Rather, it holds there is something more - that the community of life has value independent of the resources it provides humanity. Non-anthropocentric ethics requires, therefore, a more caring approach to people's impact on the planet. Whether Wilson is really leaving anthropocentrism behind, time will tell. But for my part, I at least welcome his opening up possibilities to discuss less prejudicial views of animals and the rest of nature.

The 50 Percent Solution

It is interesting to note that half-Earth is not a new idea. In North America, the half-Earth concept first arose in the 1990s as a discussion about wilderness in the deep ecology movement. Various nonprofits that arose out of that movement continued to develop the idea, in particular the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the Wild Foundation.

These organizations use a mix of conservation science, education and public policy initiatives to promote protecting and restoring continental-scale habitats and corridors, all with an eye to preserving the native flora and fauna of North America. One example is ongoing work to connect the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystems along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife.Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife. (Photo: British Columbia Ministry of Transportation/Flickr)

When I was a graduate student, the term half-Earth had not yet been used, but the idea was in the air. My classmates and I referred to it as the "50% solution." We chose this term because of the work of Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider's 1994 book, Savings Nature's Legacy. Amongst other things, the book documents that, depending on the species and ecosystems in question, approximately 30% to 70% of the original habitats of the Earth would be necessary to sustain our planet's biodiversity. So splitting the difference, we discussed the 50% solution to describe this need.

This leads directly into my third point. The engagement of Wilson and others with the idea of half-Earth and rewilding presupposes but does not fully articulate the need for an urban vision, one where cities are ecological, sustainable and resilient. Indeed, Wilson has yet to spell out what we do with the people and infrastructure that are not devoted to maintaining and teaching about his proposed biodiversity parks. This is not a criticism, but an urgent question for ongoing and creative thinking.

Humans are urbanizing like never before. Today, the majority of people live in cities, and by the end of the 21st century, over 90% of people will live in a metropolitan area. If we are to meet the compelling needs of human beings, we have to remake cities into sustainable and resilient "humanitats" that produce a good life.

Such a good life is not to be measured in simple gross domestic product or consumption, but rather in well-being - freedom, true equality, housing, health, education, recreation, meaningful work, community, sustainable energy, urban farming, green infrastructure, open space in the form of parks and refuges, contact with companion and wild animals, and a culture that values and respects the natural world.

To do all this in the context of saving half the Earth for its own sake is a tall order. Yet it is a challenge that we are up to if we have the will and ethical vision to value and coexist in a more-than-human world.

The Conversation

Opinion Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After a Disaster Like Katrina, Water, Food and Shelter Are Not Enough

Damage to homes and property in Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, LA, September 18, 2005.Damage to homes and property in Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana, September 18, 2005. (Photo: Andrea Booher/FEMA)

I can barely believe it was 10 years ago that Hurricane Katrina upended our corner of the world. Almost 2,000 lives were lost, and there are damages of $108 billion and counting, making it the costliest hurricane in US history.

In the terrible aftermath of a natural disaster, everyone recognizes the importance of water, food, and shelter as a first response. But one thing many people don't think about is this: Providing access to expert civil legal help is absolutely essential to rebuilding communities and lives.

Immediately after Katrina, people who had lost their jobs needed help getting their final paychecks from businesses and employers that no longer existed. Some landlords rented out damaged and dangerous properties with the promise of quick repairs that never happened. Other landlords found it profitable to rent out the same residence simultaneously to different desperate families

Moreover, a year after the storm, FEMA, claiming it overpaid thousands of hurricane victims, sent more than 150,000 collection letters. Insurance companies claimed that much of the damage was due to flooding, and that the policies they had issued did not cover those losses. And, to qualify for repair funds, people whose family records had been destroyed by the storm or who had never officially filed documents in probate court suddenly needed to prove they owned houses that had been passed down for generations. These challenges were amplified for the region's most financially vulnerable individuals and families.

For 10 years, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), a civil legal aid organization I run, has been on the front lines helping people recover from the storm. When a landlord displaced nearly 300 families in order to charge higher rent, we challenged him in court. When lack of clear property titles threatened the ability of homeowners to access millions of rebuilding funds administered by the government, our staff and volunteer attorneys helped them clear the legal hurdles. As scam contractors exploited families who were trying to rebuild their homes, legal aid attorneys held them accountable in court. I'm proud to say we have provided assistance to nearly 400,000 people. We continue to represent Katrina survivors today, as Katrina remains our single largest civil legal aid challenge in our nation's history.

Unfortunately, we haven't learned our lesson about the importance of providing civil legal aid after disasters. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, only $1 million out of the $60 billion appropriated by Congress was earmarked for civil legal aid.

If you have doubts about why we should make sure people have legal help, consider this: even today, SLLS is battling shady contractors who never rebuilt roofs or kitchens as promised, but took their customers' money and skipped town. And FEMA - still claiming they overpaid people - is taking money from seniors' social security checks.

I acknowledge that having access to a lawyer or some sort of legal support is not a magic fix. But it is an underappreciated model for how we should react to future disasters. Just as we have rebuilt even stronger levees to protect New Orleans, we should strengthen civil legal aid to protect our nation's families and increase access to justice.

Opinion Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: The Case of Zygmunt Bauman

Zygmunt Bauman at Festival Filosofia 2010.Zygmunt Bauman at Festival Filosofia 2010. (Photo: Città Di Modena/Flickr)

The recent charge against renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman alleging repetitive counts of "self-plagiarism" represents a shift in academia from engaging with political ideas to waging personal attacks - a form of intellectual violence that plagues the academy, according to Evans and Giroux.

Zygmunt Bauman at Festival Filosofia 2010.Zygmunt Bauman at Festival Filosofia 2010. (Photo: Città Di Modena/Flickr)

In a recent study published in the Times Higher Education supplement, the world-renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman was charged with repetitive counts of "self-plagiarism." As Peter Walsh and David Lehmann of Cambridge University claimed to have discovered, following an alleged meticulous reading of some 29 of Bauman's works, "substantial quantities of material … appear to have been copied near-verbatim and without acknowledgement from at least one of the other books sampled. Several books contain very substantial quantities of text - running into several thousands of words, and in the worst case almost twenty thousand - that have been reused from earlier Bauman books without acknowledgement." This recycling of prose, they argue, constitutes a monstrous "deception" on the part of the author, undermining one of the fundamental pillars of credible scholarship - the ability to cite with authenticating safeguards.

But what is really the charge here? Why would an emeritus reader at Cambridge University and doctoral student spend so much energy investigating and attempting to reveal questionable failures of another scholar? There was no doubt a personal agenda at work here (Walsh had already leveled such an accusation at Bauman's work beforehand). That much is clear. This sordid affair however speaks more broadly to the tensions and conflicts so endemic to the neoliberal university today. It strikes at the heart of what passes for credible intellectual inquiry and scholarship, and reveals more purposefully the shift from engaging with the ideas that embody a life, especially one rooted in a quest for political and economic justice, to the penchant for personal attacks that seek to bring into question the character and credibility of respected authors. This is more than the passing of judgment from a moral position that is upheld by histories of elitism and privilege. It is tantamount to a form of intellectual violence wrapped in objective scholarship that plagues the academy. Within the neoliberal university, not only has the personal become the only politics that matters when politics is even addressed, it has also become a strident form of careerism in which getting ahead at any costs mirrors the market itself.

To read more articles in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

Anybody who is familiar with Bauman's tremendous corpus will appreciate the repetition in his narrative and prose. This is especially the case in his later works with his deployment of the metaphorical term "liquid," which has been purposefully applied to many of the various facets of late modern societies - from economy, terror and weather to social and personal relations. The concern here however is not one of repetition as an act of plagiarism, as if the latter term is the only category to employ in this case. It's what Bauman embodies as a public intellectual and critical scholar who is less concerned with hierarchy and deference, than he is for offering a fundamental challenge to established doctrine. But then again this is a methodological assault, one that is purposely designed to camouflage both the authors' politics and what actually counts in the relationship between scholarship and the need to address broader social issues.

This sordid affair ... is tantamount to a form of intellectual violence wrapped in objective scholarship.

Personally we have never once felt "deceived" by any of Bauman's important works. Yes, there is repetition. By why is that such an issue? There is of course much to be said for reading the same ideas with a different angle of vision and in a different context. But there is even something more critical at stake here, namely, the formation and subsequent authentication of "thought processes" and "regimes of truth." Citations are deemed essential to academic practices in terms of pointing to authoritative sources of factual claims, while giving due credit to the labors of others. Leaving aside well-established concerns with the need to cite particular authorities, as if this process were objective and certain (with the evident racial, gender and class bias this invariably produces), what is being further demanded here is the need to give due credit to oneself? Bauman is thus seen as guilty of not citing, well, Bauman! Why, we might ask, is this necessary, if not to simply further authenticate a system of intellectual propriety and policing that is less concerned with pushing forward intellectual boundaries than maintaining what is right and proper to think. The lesson here is clear. For thinking to be meaningful whatsoever, it needs to conform to the set parameters and rules of the game. As Walsh openly admits in his defense, "Age and reputation should not exempt anyone from the normal standards of academic scholarship." There is a curious if not revealing silence here regarding the history of power relations that define alleged "normal standards of academic scholarship." After all, left theorists have been punished for decades in the academy for publishing either controversial political work or for not publishing in "acceptable" academic journals or publishing houses that are often extremely conservative and mirror the reigning ideology and professionalism of the academy.

Any student of the history of intellectual forms of violence will no doubt appreciate the discursive move being deployed here. The invocation of "the norm" is the surest way to suffocate different ways of thinking about and interrogating the world. Often sanctified in some universal regalia (as recycled here by Walsh's all too familiar insistence), as if to indicate the natural and uncontroversial order of things, normalization is the mask of mastery for those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. What becomes proper to thought as such is already set out in advance, hence framing in a very narrowly contrived way what it means to think and act with a conformist diligence.

The real task is not to count repeated ideas but to ask how an author's work gains in meaning over time as it is understood in terms of earlier interventions and evolving changing contexts.

Might we not insist here that the accusers follow their own demands for scientific veracity? Maybe they ought to conduct a qualitative study of his readership to see how many actually feel "misled" in the way they take as conclusive? Personally, we remain humbled and privileged to have come to know Bauman and his work. That he still has the energy, dedication and fight to challenge oppression and injustice should be the source for affirmation and not critique. We are not suggesting here that Bauman's ideas should not be put under the critical microscope. They certainly should. But we need to be mindful of much greater deceptions. The recycling of ideas and passing it off as original by claiming some positivist ascription of an "objective reality" is problematic enough. The pride taken by some in academia today to instigate forms of public shaming that are tantamount to a Stasi witch hunt is unacceptable.

For what we elect to term the "gated intellectuals" of consumer laden capitalism - for whom every thought has to be new and packaged in a glittering endnote, preferably a shiny illumination and display of what might be called the culture of positivism or empiricist hysteria - Bauman has been charged with the alleged insidious crime of repeating some of his own work. Of course, we all repeat ideas in our work, and theorists such as Slavoj Zizek even make such repetitions central to how they define their work. We would argue that is a perfect case of strategic repetition. But, Bauman according to the academic police squad at Cambridge University has plagiarized his own work. We have read almost all of Bauman's work, have taken endless notes on it, and always learn something even if some issues are reworked. Who doesn't rework important themes in their work?

Of course, in the world of the orthodox empiricist these kinds of questions are only discussed in terms that are quantified, not thought through so as to ask how such work further deepens and layers complex ideas, concepts and paradigms. The real task is not to count repeated ideas but to ask how an author's work gains in meaning over time as it is understood in terms of earlier interventions and evolving changing contexts. Reading an author's work in terms of its assemblage of formations, especially with regard to how it articulates with larger issues that are evolving over time, is a crucial critical task, but not one empiricists are concerned about. They are bean counters who eschew substance for the reification of method. They now inhabit the academy and mimic the work of accountants who inhabit the small rooms of factories making No. 2 pencils.

First, strategic repetition is important not only to mediate the overabundance of information that people confront, but also to reach as many audiences as possible. Strategic repetition is all the more necessary in a world in which there is an immediate access to an abundance of digital-visual information often making it all the more difficult for readers to pay attention to or even follow the development of a logically connected argument. Bauman's use of strategic repetition makes it easier for the reader to follow his narratives, keep focused on the argument and reflect on the material being read. Second, the apostles of data mining, empirical banking methods and a reductionistic instrumentality abhor Bauman's kind of critical argumentation; their interests are in reducing the value of scholarship to the trade in information that provides useful predictions for corporations and the Defense Department. Grasping ideas means thinking through them carefully and is less the result of an emphasis on merging empirical methods with arid calculations obsessed with alleged repetitions than it is an attempt to encourage acts of translation, awe and insight. Bauman's scholarship attempts to expand the imagination and to elevate language to an act of resistance to the dumbing down of intelligence that assumes that data is all that matters. And this is precisely what Bauman has mastered with his use of strategic repetition.

Bauman once explained how his writing is like walking into the same room through a different door. This metaphor illuminates how he is not tirelessly repeating his work, he is building on it, expanding it, and endlessly trying to refigure its implications under changing circumstances. This charge against Bauman is truly despicable and is a reactionary ideological critique dressed up as a discourse about method and indebted to the tired legacy of depoliticized empiricism. What these guardians of orthodoxy really are afraid of is hearing his ideas over and over again, recognizing that they are reaching more and more audiences while modeling not what is euphemistically called scholarship but the role scholars might play as public intellectuals who address important social issues. Self-plagiarism of ideas is a preposterous idea. The willful plagiarism of policing methods to authenticate what is proper to thought is what reproduces intellectual servitude; now that's a problem that demands our vigilance and needs to be critiqued!

None of us own our ideas. They are always the product of many conversations that too often go unacknowledged.

The point is also further stressed by JPE Harper-Scott, who, writing in Open Democracy, notes that the real charge against Bauman is that his depictive self-plagiarism ultimately constitutes a "sin against capitalism, one of whose doctrines is that there must always be new things to sell so that the consumer can buy with confidence." It is then as Harper-Scott rightly observes, part of a broader intellectual shift that cannot be divorced from the changing institutional settings in which the personal criticisms originate and assume the status of a "public concern," even though at their ideological core is a desire to destroy anything of the commons.

We are not suggesting here that the demands for previously unpublished originality are unimportant in certain contexts. There is a clear appreciation that academic journals demand this consideration. Bauman is actually exemplary in this regard. Students are also subject to the same criteria, as self-plagiarism is deemed problematic by most academic institutions in assessment criteria. This however is set as a means for expanding student awareness and critical insight, not to limit understanding and knowledge. What is more important here is precisely the "standardization" (a term Walsh refers to) of critical thinking and public engagement. Bauman understands better than most that no piece of work can speak in a universal language. There is a need in fact to write the same ideas in different ways such that one is respectful of the audience and doesn't assume homogeneous readership. The problem of course is that Bauman doesn't conform to the standardization of thought as set out in normalized academic protocols. In short, there is a profound failure here to grasp that he fully understands the value of writing in different media, for different audiences, with varying languages and critical insight. Bauman exemplifies a conceptual persona who has truly broken out of the ivory tower and its outdated insistence that academics simply write for academics or established forms of power. That's what really perturbs.

We are also mindful here that there is a danger of countering a pernicious critique with a more authenticating position to hyper-moralize critical thought. Anybody can be a critic. That's not in question. What concerns us is the ethics of critical engagement, especially the difference between those who invoke a critical position in order to set out the parameters of thought, against those whose critical dispositions are tasked with liberating what it means to think and act in the world with ethical care and political awareness in terms of its consequences. We could do no better here than cite Bauman's final words from his wonderful book Collateral Damages:

Dialogue is a difficult art. It means engaging in conversation with the intention of jointly clarifying the issues, rather than having them one's own way; of multiplying voices, rather than reducing their number; of widening the set of possibilities, rather than aiming at a wholesale consensus (that relic of monotheistic dreams stripped of politically incorrect coercion); of jointly pursuing understanding, instead of aiming at the others defeat; and all in all being animated by the wish to keep the conversation going, rather than by a desire to grind it to a halt. (p.172)

Given that Bauman has no interest in being part of some quantifiable research assessment exercise (which has notably led to the valorization of positivist methodologies in the United Kingdom), these concerns with "self-plagiarism" only really matter in an age where thought has to become quantifiable like any other property. It is worth reminding that none of us own our ideas. They are always the product of many conversations that too often go unacknowledged. Ideas in this regard always belong to the commons. A much greater deception as such is the processes through which thought becomes objectified and commodified as though all previous thoughts and ideas are now obsolete. As such, these demands for "rigor" have less to do with understanding the contested genealogies of complex thought systems, than reference a domesticated term so often deployed to validate methodological approaches that end up conforming to the status quo. The parallels with Eric Dyson's criticisms of Cornel West are all too apparent. [1]

Such character assassinations ... point to the neoliberal assault on global academia.

There is a bankrupt civility at work here, disingenuous in its complicity with the intellectual forms of violence it authors and yet blinded to the moral coma it attempts to impose. What is abandoned in this particular case is the very notion that the public intellectual might have a role to play in resisting authoritarian politics and the tyrannies of instrumental reason that promotes isolationism over collegiality. This is the civility of authoritarian voices that mask their intellectual violence with weak handshakes; apologies for their necessary assassinations; forced smiles, and mellowed voices. Like the punishment dished out to a recalcitrant child through instrumental rulings or outright public shaming, more "mature" ways of thinking about the world (the authoritarian default) must eventually be shown to be the natural basis for authority and rule. In this instance, intellectual violence undermines the possibility for engaging scholarship through the use of rigorous theory, impassioned narrative, and a discourse that challenges the unethical grammars of suffering produced by neoliberal modes of instrumental rationality that have overtaken the academy, if not modernity itself. What we are dealing with here is a kind of neoliberal violence that produces what Frank B. Wilderson III has called "the discourse of embodied incapacity." [2]

Such character assassinations should not therefore be viewed in isolation or removed from political struggles. They point to the neoliberal assault on global academia that is now so pervasive and potentially dangerous in its effects that it is must be viewed as more than a "cause for concern." While the system in the United States of America, for instance, has been at the forefront of policies that have tied academic merit to market-driven performance indicators, the ideologically driven transformations underway in the United Kingdom point in an equally worrying direction, as the need for policy entrepreneurship increasingly becomes the norm. The closures of entire philosophy programs signify the most visible shift away from reflective thinking to the embrace of a dumbed-down approach to humanities education that has no time for anything beyond the objectively neutralizing and politically compromising deceit of pseudo-scientific paradigms.

Instrumentalism in the service of corporate needs and financial profit now dominates university modes of governance, teaching, research, and the vocabulary of consumerism used to describe students and their relationship to each other and the larger world. One consequence, as the Bauman Affair shows, is that discourses, ideas, values, and social relations that push against the grain, redefine the boundaries of the sensible, and reclaim the connection between knowledge and power in the interest of social change too often become not only inconvenient but also rapidly accelerate to being viewed as dangerous. But since there is little appetite to engage the ideas at any substantive level beyond the superficial, following an all too familiar move, criticism turns instead to questions of individual pathology and character deficiencies. This is a textbook power play. This is a form of intellectual violence that empties words of their meaning and takes on the mantle of shaming.

Intellectuals are continually forced to make choices (sometimes against our better judgments). In truth there are no clear lines drawn in the sand. And yet as Paolo Freire insisted, one is invariably drawn into an entire history of struggle the moment our critical ideas are expressed as force and put out into the public realm to the disruption of orthodox thinking. There is however a clear warning from history: Our intellectual allegiances should be less concerned with ideological dogmatism. There is, after all, no force more micro-fascist or intellectually violent than the self-imposed thought police who take it upon themselves to be the voices of political and intellectual purity. Bauman's pedagogy has always insisted that the task of educators is to make sure that the future points to a more socially just world, a world in which the discourses of critique and possibility, in conjunction with the values of freedom and equality, function to alter, as part of a broader democratic project, the grounds upon which life is lived. This is hardly a prescription for intellectual short cuts or taking the easy road: it embodies a lifelong commitment to a project that as Stanley Aronowitz has observed, continues to give education its most valued purpose and meaning, which in part is "to encourage human agency, not mold it in the manner of Pygmalion." [3]

Figures such as Bauman remain important as ever. This is especially the case in the contemporary conjuncture in which neoliberalism arrogantly proclaims that there are no alternatives. Such an ethical disposition, as Foucault critically maintained, requires waging an ongoing fight against fascism in all its forms: "not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini - which was able to use the desire of the masses so effectively - but also the fascism in us all, in our heads, and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us." [4] Precisely, in other words, the types of petty punishments and normalized practices of public shaming and violations that take direct aim at the dignity and value of a fellow human.

Academics and public intellectuals have an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to unsettle and oppose all orthodoxies, to make problematic the common-sense assumptions that often shape students' lives and their understanding of the world. But we also have a responsibility to energize students to come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Higher education, in this instance, as Bauman continually reminds us, cannot be removed from the hard realities of those political, economic and social forces that both support it and consistently, though in diverse ways, attempt to shape its sense of mission and purpose. Politics is not alien to the university setting - politics is central to comprehending the institutional, economic, ideological and social forces that give academia its meaning and direction. Politics also references the outgrowth of historical conflicts that mark higher education as an important site of struggle. Rather than the scourge of either education or academic research, politics is a primary register of their complex relation to matters of power, ideology, freedom, justice and democracy. None of which are raised as issues in this latest intellectual assault.

We don't steal our own work. On the contrary, we expand its reach, and build on it, thereby making it more relevant as the contexts that produce it change.

To get a sense of the real absurdity of all this, just imagine for a moment a reworking of the United Kingdom's Independent newspaper's headline, "World's leading sociologist accused of copying his own work" but instead of referring to Bauman the sociologist, we wrote of Van Gogh, Francis Bacon or Pablo Picasso. Our indignation at the claim (which could be rightly made if one considers the use of the same techniques and repetitive imagery) would require no further justification on account of its patent idiocy and sensational provocation without any grasp of the form. Critical thinking is no different. Indeed as Bauman himself acknowledges in his aptly titled book The Art of Life, one of the most deceptive claims regarding politics, sociology and philosophy has been their reductionist assignation to the realm of "social science." These fields of inquiry should instead be seen as an art form that is integral to the creation of new ways of thinking about the world and its poetic and creative modes of existence. They cannot be so easily reduced into the quantifiable matrix without stripping life of its all too human qualities.

The hidden structure of politics in these charges is the refusal of the gated surveillance academics to use their time figuring out how capitalism and its empiricist acolytes recycle the same dreadful ideologies about the market over and over again. Unlike Bauman's work, which uses deftly what might be called strategic repetition, the methodological embrace of citations and the obsession with repetition amounts to what Marcuse once called "scholarshit" - truly a crime against justice and social responsibility.

This charge against Bauman is truly despicable. It's a reactionary ideological critique dressed up as the celebration of method and a back-door defense of a sterile empiricism and culture of positivism. This is a discourse that enshrines data, correlations, and performance, while eschewing matters of substance, social problems, and power. As Murray Pomerance points out, plagiarism is a form of theft, and we don't steal our own work. On the contrary, we expand its reach, and build on it, thereby making it more relevant as the contexts that produce it change. What these guys really are afraid of is hearing his ideas over and over again, recognizing that they are reaching more and more audiences. Theft has nothing to do with strategic repetition in the interest of clarity, expanding and deepening an issue, or building upon one's own work. On the contrary, theft is about claiming false ownership, allowing power to steal one's integrity, and engaging in those corrupt practices that erase any sense of justice.

In the world of gated intellectuals who thrive in a university landscape increasingly wedded to data banks, thought itself becomes another casualty of disposability. Metrics now merges with a business culture that has little time for anything that cannot be quantified. Matters of identity, justice, power and equality - if not freedom itself - are reduced resources for generating data, developing surveys and measuring intellectual output. The value of what an intellectual such as Bauman writes or says is irrelevant in a neoliberal world in which personal smears parade as scientific understanding and the stripped-down discourse of empiricism is presented as truth. Scholarship, intellectual output, and engagement with social problems are all interventions that travel in a variety of forms. It is the richness of the forms and the substance of the arguments that matter. The Cambridge surveillance team seems to have missed this point - or is it more that they willfully buried it? Utilitarianism has always shared an easy space with contempt for intellectual and politically insightful work, or what Richard Hofstadter once called the "life of the mind."

Maybe what is really at stake here is not the reworking of ideas but a kind of hostility to critical pedagogy and modes of writing that push against the grain not once but over and over again. There is a kind of toxic ideology at work in this charge against Bauman - one that not only trivializes what counts as scholarship but also elevates matters of surveillance and policing to a normalized standard of evaluation.

Certainly the authors of the pernicious article about Bauman could do with reading Deleuze's Difference and Repetition to have a modicum of philosophical appreciation here - or better still, at least be honest about their own methodological plagiarism, which since the dawn of the humanities, continues to produce self-anointing thought police who operate more like micro fascists, policing what is acceptable to thinking, and whose all too political agenda's are less concerned with the quality of the work, than condemning those who provide a fundamental challenge to their sense of privilege and their self-imposed illusions of grandeur. So a reality check is needed for the likes of Walsh and Lehmann. You are not standing on the shoulders of giants. You are but one entry in the employment inventory of intellectual surveillance.

Note: A version of this piece was previously published on CounterPunch.


1. Henry A. Giroux, "The Perils of Being a Public Intellectual," CounterPunch (April 27, 2015). Online:

2. Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 30.

3. Stanley Aronowitz, "Introduction," in Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), p. 7.

4. Michel Foucault, "Preface" in Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London, Continuum: 2003) p. xv.

Opinion Sun, 30 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Shock Doctrine: A Look at the Mass Privatization of NOLA Schools in Storm's Wake and Its Effects Today

Just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the city fired 7,500 public school teachers, launching a new push to privatize the school system and build a network of charter schools. Many accused lawmakers of trying to break the powerful United Teachers of New Orleans union. Today former President George W. Bush will return to the city to speak at the Warren Easton Charter High School. We speak to the New Orleans actor and activist Wendell Pierce, whose mother was a teacher and union member for 40 years, as well Gary Rivlin, author of Katrina: After the Flood. He recently wrote a piece for The New York Times titled "Why New Orleans’s Black Residents Are Still Underwater After Katrina."


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we are joined by three guests here: Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights; Gary Rivlin, author of Katrina: After the [Flood]; and Wendell Pierce, the actor and also author of The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken.

Gary Rivlin, I’d like to start with you on this segment, the issue on education. One of the most astonishing things that occurred in the weeks after the storm was a decision of the then-governor, Kathleen Blanco, to close the entire public school system and reopen a recovery authority school system. Could you talk about what happened to the schools, the privatization and the creation of all these charter schools in New Orleans, and what’s been the result 10 years later?

GARY RIVLIN: It makes me think of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, the opportunity that a disaster presents. The governor had wanted to take over many of the local schools in New Orleans prior to Katrina, and she had taken over a few of the worst-performing schools. Katrina happens, and within two months the state had taken over virtually every public school in New Orleans.

And, you know, the real problem is that for years, for six, seven years, it just was chaos. Here are people who were displaced. You know, they’re struggling to come home, and they just want a sense of place, a sense of home. There are no neighborhood schools anymore. People would sign up for one school, a charter school, and it would be closed a year or two later, and they have to go find another. Parent after parent told me the story of their child at a bus stop at 6:00 a.m. in the dark to, you know, take two buses to get to their school every day. It just—it was chaos.

There was cherry picking. You know, I mean, nowadays we all know that schools are measured by how high their scores are. And so, especially early on—it’s gotten a little bit better, but especially early on, they would just refuse some students. The highest expulsion rate in the country was in Orleans Parish schools. Why? Because they wanted to improve their numbers. You know, there was a lawsuit that the schools were not doing their duty of taking care of the special needs students. It was settled a year or two ago, and seemingly it’s gotten better.

But, you know, it’s just like a generation of kids who it had endured. You know, they’re eight, 10, 12 years old at the time of Katrina. They see that the government doesn’t care about them. They’re scattered to the wind, some of them, you know, under gunpoint. I mean, remember, people were being brought on planes, on buses, with armed soldiers as if they were prisoners, sent somewhere off without being told where they’re going. You know, they’re living disembodied for several months, for a couple years. And, you know, they come back to chaos. There’s traumatized kids in this traumatized system.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to put this question to Wendell Pierce. It was a piece that appeared in Chicago by an editorial board member of the Chicago Tribune. Her name was—is Kristen McQueary. She wrote a piece about Chicago’s financial crisis, titled "In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina." She wrote, quote, "I find [myself] wishing for a storm in Chicago—an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto [the] rooftops." She later apologized for offending the city of New Orleans. Wendell Pierce, you’re a New Orleans native. Your parents are from New Orleans. Your grandparents are from New Orleans. Can you respond to this? And also talk about the struggle for who has made it in the last 10 years in New Orleans and who hasn’t, what communities have thrived, and the fact that 100,000 African-American New Orleanians are no longer in New Orleans.

WENDELL PIERCE: First of all, I found that editorial so offensive. I called it "blasphemously evil" for someone to wish for a disaster that killed over 1,800 people as a way to cleanse their city of some sort of political policies that she disagreed with. Not only was the writer offensive and owed the city and all of those who lost relatives 10 years ago an apology, but I can’t believe that the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board allowed it to go into print. So that was the thing that was really offensive.

And just doubling back on what Gary was saying about the education system, I want you to remember that the United Teachers of New Orleans, the union that my mother was a part of all of her life, her 40 years of teaching in the school system, was one of the largest unions and most powerful unions in the state of Louisiana. It was predominantly African-American and women. And when the floodwaters were still rising in New Orleans, the first official—one of the first official acts that the governor did was to fire all the teachers. It wasn’t by happenstance, it was by design. You saw the political manipulations and taking advantage of the crisis, as it were.

And we should not let the education reform that is happening in New Orleans go unchallenged, because just in October of last year, the Cowen Institute at Tulane, that put out a study and released data on the progress of the charter school system now, actually had to admit that they cooked the books, that they changed the data to make sure that it looked better, because what’s happening is a raid, a raid of the treasury, of the money set aside for public education to be given to private companies, private companies in education. And then they’re changing—they’re changing the status quo to make sure that they keep their charters, to make sure that they keep the flow of money coming into the corporation. Remember, the first rule of law when it works—in a business or in a corporation, is to make a profit. And the only way you make a profit if you’re a charter school is to keep that charter. And the only way you keep that charter is to make sure that you give the appearance that you are not failing.

And they’re leaving a lot of people and a lot of kids on the way—on the side. And they’re leaving them in a worse position than they were before. If you don’t go to the most needy children in your society and help them—as Gary was saying before, the disabled and special needs and special education kids were not having any of their needs met, because it is not required in so many of the charters to even have that sort of part in your education system. So, a lot of people are being left behind.

I have, in Pontchartrain Park, a community development corporation, where we, residents, initiated our own reconstruction, but—as we got the properties that were sold back in the Road Home program in our community of Pontchartrain Park, so that we can put them back into commerce. But we are restricted to only selling to low-income, 80 percent average median income and below. I have no problem with bringing in low-income people to the community. That’s how my parents got a chance at first getting their first home in the 1950s. But what’s happening is to make sure that you displace people who have been forced out of public housing and have only certain areas that they can have access to homes, because then public housing is only one-third public housing anymore, the other two-thirds is now market rate.

And it’s taken all 10 years to rebuild those public housings. I call it displacement by delay. You know, it took so long for us to even reconstitute public housing in New Orleans, that 10 years, if somebody hasn’t, you know, placed roots in Atlanta or Texas or wherever they were displaced to, the likelihood of them coming back is very small. So, it’s by design, it’s by policy. You know, I say in my book, my grandparents always taught us there are those who don’t have your best interest at heart, and there are people in positions of power and policymakers who don’t have all the city’s best interests at heart. And they’re constituting policy and taking actions to make sure that only certain communities are coming back and other communities are suffering.

News Fri, 28 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400