Truthout Stories Mon, 27 Jul 2015 21:30:03 -0400 en-gb Why Is The New York Times Swiftboating J Street for Supporting Iran Deal?

Demonstrators waving an Israeli flag protest the Iranian nuclear deal in New York, July 22, 2015. Despite opposition from pro-Israel groups and Republicans, the majority of US Jews back the deal. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)Demonstrators waving an Israeli flag protest the Iranian nuclear deal in New York, July 22, 2015. Despite opposition from pro-Israel groups and Republicans, the majority of US Jews back the deal. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

On July 23, the New York Times published an op-ed by Shmuel Rosner, political editor at The Jewish Journal and a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, which made the following claim:

"There are American organizations (such as J Street) that support goals that barely any Israeli agrees with, that nevertheless flaunt the pro-Israel label."

No explanation was given of what these goals are, nor was any evidence given that "barely any Israeli" agrees with these goals.

While New York Times editors didn't make Shmuel Rosner specify what the alleged goals of J Street are that "barely any Israeli" agrees with, context suggests the most obvious explanation: J Street has backed the Obama administration's diplomacy with Iran and is backing the Iran nuclear deal, and that's why opponents of the Iran nuclear deal are attacking J Street and saying that J Street's claim to be "pro-Israel" is dubious.

So let's assume that this is about diplomacy with Iran and the Iran nuclear deal. (The New York Times should certainly clarify this; you can urge them to do so here.)

Should the New York Times have allowed Shmuel Rosner to assert without evidence that J Street's backing of the Iran nuclear deal represents "barely any Israeli" and calls into question whether J Street is "pro-Israel?"

Here, here, here and here are examples of senior members of the Israeli national security establishment speaking in support of the Iran nuclear deal. Think about their US counterparts, and imagine that someone claimed that "barely any American" held a view that all those people held. Would the New York Times print such a claim?

Moreover, polling data indicates that the majority of US Jews back the deal. So if Rosner's standard for "pro-Israel" is opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, then according to Rosner's standard, the majority of US Jews would not be "pro-Israel," which proves that Rosner's standard would be absurd. If someone claimed that the majority of US Jews are not "pro-Israel," would the New York Times print that claim?

It is a kind of swiftboating to claim that J Street is not "pro-Israel" because it backs the Iran nuclear deal, when senior members of the Israeli national security establishment and the majority of US Jews support the deal.

And this swiftboating concerns everyone who supports diplomacy with Iran, because for many congressional Democrats, "J Street supports this" is a marker for "it's relatively safe for congressional Democrats to stand with the Obama administration on this, without too much fear of being attacked as 'anti-Israel.'" J Street is protecting Democrats who support diplomacy. The opponents of diplomacy are attacking the J Street shield.

Some people cynically dismiss concerns about the New York Times regarding war and peace: What do you expect from the New York Times? Judy Miller, blah blah blah. This response, while perhaps seeming "radical," is counterproductive to efforts to promote peace. The New York Times has too much power to promote war for people who want less war to ignore it. The New York Times has more power to promote war than most members of Congress. Most members of Congress are pretty jazzed if the New York Times reports something that they say on a single day. The New York Times is shaping debate on war and peace every single day more than most individual members of Congress are on a very good day.

If we want to prevent war in the future, we need to take seriously any hint of warmongering at the Times, and that includes any swiftboating of advocates for diplomacy.

Perhaps you might think: Well, it's an opinion piece, that's that guy's opinion, he's entitled to his opinion.

But the New York Times claims to fact-check its op-eds; indeed, they fact-check letters to the editor. According to the Times, people are not allowed to say whatever they want in the Times, even in an opinion piece.

I know this intimately from personal experience of submitting letters to the New York Times. I have had the following experience repeatedly: I submitted a letter to the Times; the Times expressed interest in printing the letter; they then presented me with an edited version of my letter that was substantially different from the letter that I submitted, claiming that this was necessary to comply with their standards for factual accuracy. When I provided evidence for the factual claims that they were disputing, they said: this is the letter that we're willing to print, take it or leave it. At that point, I have always capitulated, on the theory that it would be better to have the Times print its version of my letter than no letter at all.

A sharp example when this occurred is publicly documented. In April 2000, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, by his own later account, was a dogmatic "free trader," someone who supported anything labeled "free trade" without bothering to examine the actual details. Subsequently, emulating the exemplary John Maynard Keynes, he changed his mind in the light of new evidence. But in April 2000, Krugman attacked me by name in his Times column, as a representative of people who were then protesting the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In Krugman's account, my criticism of the World Bank's role in the destruction of Mozambique's cashew nut processing industry was ignorant of economics (actually, it was someone else's criticism, I had forwarded an article by a Mozambique expert to the people managing the protesters' website.) Krugman's argument was: Robert Naiman is ignorant, therefore all the protesters are ignorant, therefore the protesters' concerns can be dismissed.

I figured that having been attacked in the New York Times by name, I had the right of response. I asked for an op-ed, and was told that the Times doesn't allow op-eds in response to columns, but that I could send a (much shorter) letter to the editor, which I did. You can see here both the letter that I sent and the Times-written letter that the Times agreed to publish instead. (I experienced some vindication when a Washington Post reporter went to Mozambique to investigate and wrote this; a Mozambican official had suggested to me that I try to recruit a reporter to settle the dispute. Harvard development economist Dani Rodrik later wrote this.)

I bring this up now not to revisit the fight with Krugman, who as far as I am concerned has reformed his ways and is now an ally beyond measure to the critics of the IMF and the corporate-managed trade agenda, but to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the New York Times does not take the position that you or I can write whatever we want in an opinion piece at the Times.

Critics of the Iran deal are talking about the president of the United States like this. There is a group of people that they are trying to organize and inflame with claims that Obama is "anti-Israel" and the Iran nuclear deal is "anti-Israel" and people who support the Iran nuclear deal are "anti-Israel." The support of J Street for the Iran deal is a big obstacle to this story line. That's why these people are going after J Street. The big crime of J Street for the Iran nuclear deal opponents is that J Street is defending President Obama. They're swiftboating J Street as part of their project of swiftboating President Obama.

You can urge New York Times editors to investigate this unsubstantiated attack on J Street here.

Opinion Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Obama Visits Ethiopia and Kenya to Discuss Counterterrorism, Gay Rights, Jobs

Obama arrived Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for talks with leaders on counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab in Somalia, and human rights abuses and looming famine in neighboring South Sudan. His visit marks the first by a sitting US president to Ethiopia, which is home to the African Union, and also to Kenya, his father's birthplace. In a major speech Sunday in the capital of Nairobi, Obama referred to himself as a "Kenyan American" and joked about critics who said he was there to look for his birth certificate. We go to Nairobi for an update from Aggrey Mutambo, a reporter at the Daily Nation, the principal English-language newspaper in Kenya. He covered Obama's visit for the paper. We are also joined by Salim Lone, a Kenyan journalist, political adviser and former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. From 2005 to 2012, he was the spokesperson for then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga of Kenya.


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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman. We end today's show looking at President Obama's visit to Africa. He arrived Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for talks with leaders on counterterrorism efforts against al-Shabab in Somalia, and human rights abuses and looming famine in neighboring South Sudan. Obama's visit marks the first by a sitting US president to Ethiopia, which is home to the African Union. Later today, he'll hold talks there with leaders of Kenya and Uganda. Not scheduled to attend the meetings is Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the current chair of the African Union.

This comes as Obama has concluded his first visit to his father's birthplace of Kenya since taking office. In a major speech Sunday in the capital, Nairobi, he referred to himself as a "Kenyan American" and included many details of his personal history in his speech, while urging the country to deal with issues ranging from corruption to sexism. Speaking to a packed stadium filled with nearly 5,000 cheering Kenyans, Obama emphasized a message of optimism to Kenyans, especially youth.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to the people of Kenya, particularly the youth, I believe there is no limit to what you can achieve. A young, ambitious Kenyan today should not have to do what my grandfather did and serve a foreign master. You don't need to do what my father did and leave your home in order to get a good education and access to opportunity. Because of Kenya's progress, because of your potential, you can build your future right here, right now.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the significance of President Obama's Africa visit, we're joined now by two guests. In Nairobi, Kenya, Aggrey Mutambo is with us, reporter at the Daily Nation, principal English-language newspaper in Kenya. He covered Obama's visit for the paper. And via Democracy Now! video stream from Princeton, New Jersey, Salim Lone is a Kenyan journalist, political adviser and former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. From 2005 to '12, he was a spokesperson for then-prime minister of Kenya, Raila Odinga.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let's begin in Nairobi, Kenya. Talk about the significance of the trip and the response of Kenyans, Aggrey Mutambo, if you can share what took place this weekend.

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Thank you for having me on the show. The visit by the president of the United States was very significant in two ways here. First of all, it involved an image-boosting scenario for Kenya, given the fact that there has been a lot of issues related to the security and whether it was proper for people to come to Nairobi and other parts of the country, where there has been a lot of terrorism incidents. Secondly, the president, when he came to Nairobi, he helped address some of the issues which have been raised here by the civil society, given - such as civil liberties, corruption and other issues, like press freedom. So, his coming here has been seen as one way of helping boost the voice of the civil society in expressing these issues, which have been a great concern to people. To the government side, of course, it has been used to show that Kenya is indeed safe and not a banana republic, as many people may have thought. That is according to the government's side. So, it's [inaudible] -

AMY GOODMAN: Aggrey, I wanted to go to -


AMY GOODMAN: - President Obama urging Kenyans to embrace gay rights.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you look at the history of countries around the world, when you start treating people differently, not because of any harm they're doing anybody, but because they're different, that's the path whereby freedoms begin to erode, and bad things happen. And when a government gets in the habit of treating people differently, those habits can spread. ...

So, I'm unequivocal on this. If somebody is a law-abiding citizen who is going about their business and working in a job and obeying the traffic signs and doing all the other things that good citizens are supposed to do, and not harming anybody, the idea that they are going to be treated differently or abused because of who they love is wrong. Full stop.

AMY GOODMAN: In responding to President Obama's comments, the Kenyan president, Kenyatta, said the two countries share a lot in common, but not everything, called gay rights a, quote, "non-issue" for Kenyans.

PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: Just like President Obama, I think we also need to be able to speak frankly about some of these things. And the fact of the matter is that Kenya and the United States, we share so many values. Our common love for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families, these are things that we share. But there are some things that we must admit we don't share, our culture, our societies don't accept. It's very difficult for us to be able to impose on people that which they themselves do not accept. This is why I repeatedly say that for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue. We want to focus on other areas that are day-to-day living for our people.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Aggrey Mutambo, can you elaborate on this interaction?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Yes. The president's response indicates the kind of controversy associated with the issues of homosexuality here, mainly because many people see gay rights within the prism of morality, and mostly they borrow those virtues from religious scriptures. If you walk around in Nairobi, you will find that many people live according to the teachings of their religious scriptures - the Bible, the Qur'an, for example - so most of those people see that allowing gays to have the same freedoms as them is like going against the teachings of those religious scriptures.

But also, those religious organizations are very influential here in shaping the kind of politics that politicians may want to pursue. This was very evident, for example, during the formation of the current constitution, where the Catholic Church was very much opposed to the inclusion of those gay rights. The initial drafts had proposed that marriage not be defined within the lens of man and woman. But the church insisted that this had to be included. So, the fact that it was passed after the push by these religious organizations, which initially argued that the new constitution was going to allow these rights, shows that politicians are just answerable to what these organizations push for.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Obama - not all things were serious there - joking during his speech in Nairobi about questions about where he was born.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I suspect that some of my critics back home are suggesting that I'm back here to look for my birth certificate. That is not the case.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama speaking in Nairobi, Kenya. Salim Lone is also with us. He is a Kenyan journalist, political adviser, former director of the News and Media Division of the United Nations. Can you talk, Salim, about the significance of President Obama, the first sitting US president's trip to both Kenya and, as well, Ethiopia, as well as addressing the African Union, and what he is doing in these places?

SALIM LONE: Well, first of all, I just want to repeat what Aggrey said, that this was an incredible visit for Kenya - and for him. I think many people have said that they haven't seen President Obama so happy for three consecutive days. I mean, he really loved being at home and talking to people, and he spoke very, very honestly on a number of urgent issues that Kenyans are trying to address.

At the same time, I think, sticking to Kenya for the moment, his trip there was a huge boost for President Uhuru Kenyatta. I think some of you might know that there are a number of issues that surrounded his legitimacy, first because of his trial at the ICC for crimes against humanity, which was dropped recently. In addition, the last election, which brought him to power, was, like the one before that, deeply disputed. And he was struggling with these issues, plus the issue of terrorism and the fact of Kenyan soldiers who are occupying a large swath of southern Somalia, which in turn has made Kenyans pay a very bloody price. That invasion was supposed to keep Kenya and Kenyans more secure, but in fact over 400 Kenyans have died since the invasion began, with virtually none having died before. So this is very good for Uhuru Kenyatta. But as I said, the president raised a number of issues about human rights, about suppression of democracy; whether it will influence Uhuru Kenyatta, we are not so sure.

But I think the second issue, which concerns the AU as a whole, Africa as a whole and, of course, Kenya itself, which has been a victim of terrorism since 1998 - as you'll recall, that was the greatest terrorist attack, the most number of people killed, over 200 people, when the Kenya - the US Embassy in Kenya was attacked. And we are doing in East Africa, in fighting the al-Shabab, what the world has been doing in fighting terrorism generally, meaning using primarily force and, in the process, seeing terrorism get much, much worse everywhere. You know, they used to be small, hidden cells of terrorists, and now they control large swaths of countries. And that's exactly what's happening in East Africa, too, that we are - we've invaded Kenya - I mean, we've invaded Somalia, for our own political reasons. Obviously, it is not improving security in Kenya. And that's an issue that President Obama, unfortunately, came out on the wrong side, supporting the invasion of Somalia, continuing the drone strikes, and this is a problem. We need to tackle the scourge of terrorism. It is the greatest scourge that humanity faces at the moment, apart from wars, of course, unlawful wars in particular. But to tackle this scourge, we must do it right, and not do it in ways which are actually making it a much more relevant factor in our daily lives. Kenyans are really suffering from this insecurity.

AMY GOODMAN: Aggrey Mutambo in Nairobi, can you talk about Kenyans' perception of the impact of the counterterrorism efforts?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Of course, the fight against terrorism here has elicited a lot of debate, because when the police go hunting for those suspects, it has always come out within the lines of human rights violations. Reports have been published by Amnesty International, for example, accusing the police of harassing people suspected to be terror suspects. Some people have disappeared mysteriously. So, it is the same reason that human rights organizations here have said - had urged President Obama to tell the Kenyan authorities that fighting terrorism should not go with diluting people's rights. So, it is true that people perceive terrorism as having a very big economic impact here. We have had a lot of lives lost, for example, property destroyed. But again, there are other voices which are saying that the counterterrorism measures being adopted by the government here are, in fact, adding salt to the wound.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking about the issue of counterterrorism.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: On security, the United States and Kenya are already strong partners, and today we reaffirm that we stand united in the face of terrorism. Earlier, I had the opportunity to meet with survivors and families of victims of the bombing of our US Embassy in 1998. In the face of despicable violence, such as the attack on Garissa University College and the Westgate Mall, the Kenyan people have shown incredible resolve and remarkable resilience.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in Nairobi. Aggrey Mutambo, were you at these attacks, either at Westgate or at the University of Garissa?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Yes, I was there. I covered both the Westgate attack and the Garissa University attack. And what came out at that time was the confusion, maybe, from the authorities here in the way they were responding. Of course, President Kenyatta has argued that the issue of terror is a new phenomenon, and the way they react to it has had a lot of problems. But at Westgate and Garissa, perhaps, my observation is if there had been an earlier response, many people's lives may have been saved.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, President Obama visited family there, right? His step-grandmother, his half-sister. Can you talk about the significance of this? He had an extended family dinner?

AGGREY MUTAMBO: Yes. There had been hope that he would go to the village where his father was born, but I think he was trying to compensate for the fact that he couldn't go to the village, so he met here with some of the relatives from his extended family. And they shared local delicacies here, which is partly traditional here. Whenever a guest comes, people do share those kind of delicacies to show the significance of that guest. So, I think the president was just trying to live within the traditions of his father.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Salim Lone, now President Obama is in Addis Ababa. He's in Ethiopia. How Ethiopia fits into this picture?

SALIM LONE: Well, Ethiopia is an economic dynamo and has enabled even Kenya to do better because of its own growth. I think the problem in Ethiopia has been the lack of democracy there. But at the same time, I think all of us recognize that you live in a world that you have, and you cannot keep on hoping for a better world, so you struggle and you struggle. But Ethiopia, apart from some terror bandits in Somalia, for example, when it invaded and destroyed a very moderate Islamic Courts Union, which seemed to be bringing peace to Somalia, in 2006, with US help, of course. So Ethiopia is the head of the - you know, it's the seat of the African Union and a very, very important player, the second-largest population in Africa. So it's a tough call for Obama, knowing what he's trying to do in the US, making major changes in so many US policies, and yet, on this issue of terrorism, I think he has not got the right message. Basically, he -

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

SALIM LONE: - and the US don't have a vision of the world. I mean, that's one of the greatest problems we have in the world at the moment. It's that the West, especially US, has no vision for how to address these awful problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim Lone, we're going to have to leave it there, Kenyan journalist, as well as Aggrey Mutambo, speaking to us from Nairobi.

News Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Black Lives Matter Convergence Ends With Police Pepper-Spraying Teen

More than a thousand Black Lives Matter supporters converged in Cleveland, Ohio, this weekend for a historic conference to raise national attention about police brutality and other pressing issues, including immigration rights, economic justice and LGBTQ rights. During the opening ceremony, family members of more than 20 African Americans killed by police took to the stage to speak about why they continue to fight for justice. Democracy Now!'s Messiah Rhodes was on the ground in Cleveland, Ohio, and spoke to several conference participants who say it was "a learning space, a healing space, a politicizing space, a radicalizing space." The event ended with a stark reminder of how much work remains to be done. On Sunday, a crowd of participants witnessed a police officer attempting to arrest a 14-year-old boy for alleged intoxication. The Black Lives Matter participants blocked the squad car and tried to get the child out. One of the officers then began pepper-spraying the crowd. The video has since gone viral.


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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to what happened this weekend in Cleveland, Ohio, where about a thousand Black Lives Matter supporters gathered for an historic conference to raise national attention about police brutality and other pressing issues, including immigration rights, economic justice and LGBTQ rights. Democracy Now! spoke Friday to three of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is Opal Tometi. But we will turn to the clip of people speaking at the conference in Cleveland.

CHERRELL BROWN: Cherrell Brown. I'm with several different organizations. Right now I currently teach social justice with Sadie Nash Leadership. We've been through a lot this year, you know, since August - and before then. And it's trauma compacted on trauma for people who are in black communities, right? So, this has been a learning space, a healing space, a politicizing space, a radicalizing space. We get to love upon each other, affirm each other, check each other, hold each other, hold each other accountable. And I think that's really important in sustaining us moving forward. There is collective healing in not having to worry about filtering yourself or worrying about, at least in some instances, not feeling unsafe, right? Because you're amongst family.

MARSHALL EDWARD CONWAY: Marshall Edward Conway, a former political prisoner for the last 44 years. I don't believe that black freedom can exist without world freedom. We need to free the planet. We need to free the human race. We need to work together across all the different lines. And it is only because of creating a space for everybody to be a human being can we be a human being and have black freedom. We need to work together. For years, women has been taking the lead in this. We need to involve ourselves. We need to engage ourselves. We need to put aside our moralistic or ideological differences, and realize that as a black community we are all under threat. We're under the threat of genocide. We are under the threat of mass incarceration. We are under the threat of impoverishment. And we definitely have a community that's collapsing. And if we don't come together, reach out to the youth, to the elders, to every segment of the community, then we're going to be in real trouble.

BREE CAMPBELL: My name is Bree Campbell, and I'm from Detroit, Michigan. I work for the University of Michigan SexLab, and I am a fellow at the National LGBTQ Task Force. I'm a trans woman of color, and I wanted to make sure that in this movement, that we are included, because we are left out of a lot of things. And it's really sad that there are times when I want to express the sorrow that's going on for people of color in the community, but feel very left out a lot of times when it comes to conversations about, like, Black Lives Matter, violence against women, violence against trans women. So I'm here not only to build capacity, but I'm also here to make sure that trans voices are brought to the table.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Messiah Rhodes for that report from the inaugural Movement for Black Lives conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Well, conference-goers ended the weekend with a stark reminder of how much work needs to be done. When the event ended around 5:00 p.m. Sunday, a crowd of participants witnessed a police officer attempting to arrest a 14-year-old boy for alleged intoxication. The Black Lives Matter participants blocked the squad car, tried to get the child out. One of the officers then began pepper-spraying the crowd. The video has since gone viral.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we're going to Nairobi, Kenya, to talk about the president's first trip to Kenya - a first US president's trip to Kenya - President Obama has been there before - and then his trip to Ethiopia. Stay with us.

News Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Young Black Man Talks to His Mom About the Traffic Stop That Almost Killed Him

In this StoryCorps interview, Alex Landau remembers a 2009 encounter with Denver law enforcement when he was pulled over for making an illegal left turn. Landau, an African American man raised by white adoptive parents, hadn't experienced issues with police until the night he was beaten to within an inch of his life.

"I figure everything is okay… I've already been patted down and plus there's three officers on the scene," Landau, who was cooperative, recalls thinking just before he was attacked. According to a lawsuit filed against the officers, who were not criminally charged, Landau was beaten with fists, flashlights, and a radio. He received 45 stitches. (Two of the officers have since been fired for using excessive force in other cases).

When Landau's mother found him at the police station, she screamed.

Watch Landau and his mother discuss how that night changed their worldview, in the interview below. (Warning: This video contains disturbing images and quotes racist language).

News Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Social Security Trustees' Report Lacks the Usual Panic

(Photo: Social Security via Shutterstock)(Photo: Social Security via Shutterstock)

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Every year the Social Security trustees issue their report on the financial condition of the program. In the past this release was generally accompanied by some serious deep breathing as reporters warned of multi-trillion dollar shortfalls and the impending bankruptcy of the program. This could be accompanied by appeals on behalf of our children by politicians and advocates of cuts to Social Security.

The panic was largely absent from the reporting this year. There was a modest improvement in the program's finances with the new projections now showing the combined Old Age and Disability programs would first face a shortfall in 2034, one year later than in the prior year's report.

But the modest difference in projections can't explain the change in coverage. It is more likely that the reporters and editors responsible for the coverage have become a bit more sophisticated in dealing with the topic over the years.

For more than two decades there have been well-funded efforts to try to scare the public into supporting cuts in Social Security and/or privatizing the program. The most visible person in this effort has been private equity billionaire Peter Peterson, but many other wealthy individuals have signed up for the cause.

The basic story was that demographics would make Social Security unaffordable. The retirement of the baby boomer generation would decrease the ratio of workers to retirees imposing an impossible burden on our children. This nightmare was pressed home with the talk of shortfalls in the "trillions" of dollars, which is scary, since that is a lot of money.

The scare story could easily be dismantled for anyone willing to take the time to think it through. Yes, the ratio of workers to retirees will fall in the decades ahead, but it has also fallen during the last five decades. That has not prevented both workers and retirees from enjoying large gains in living standards during this period.

Furthermore, while the multi-trillion dollar shortfalls may be lots of money, they are not especially large relative to the size of our economy. In fact, the projected shortfall for Social Security is well under of 1.0 percent of future GDP, a considerably smaller burden than the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A remarkably under-reported aspect of this story is the sharp falloff in the projection of the combined Social Security and Medicare shortfall. Back in 2008, the combined shortfall for these programs was projected at 2.2 percent of future GDP. In the most recent projections the 75-year shortfall in these programs was projected at less than 1.3 percent of GDP. The main reason is a sharp slowing in health-care costs, which translates into large savings for Medicare.

Insofar as there is a basis for concern about the living standards of our children and grandchildren it has nothing to do with Social Security and Medicare. A far more important issue will be whether the upward redistribution of income that we have seen in the last 35 years continues into the future. The trustees project that real wages will on average increase by more than 34 percent over the next two decades. This projected wage increase dwarfs any plausible increase in taxes that might be needed to pay for Social Security and Medicare. However the problem since 1980 has been that most workers have not shared in wage growth, with the overwhelming majority of pay increases going to those at the top of the income distribution.

This has been the result of trade, labor and employment policies that have been designed to benefit the high end of the income distribution at the expense of ordinary workers. For example, our trade policy is designed to put our manufacturing workers in direct competition with low-paid workers from the developing world. This has the predicted and actual effect of lowering their wages along with the wages of the non-college educated work force more generally. Meanwhile, we deliberately protect doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals from the same sort of competition.

Similarly, the Federal Reserve Board has a policy of raising interest rates to slow job growth when unemployment falls low enough to give workers enough bargaining power to get pay increases. The only period in the last four decades where workers saw real wage gains was when the Fed relaxed this policy in the late 1990s and allowed the unemployment rate to fall below 4.0 percent.

If we allow these upwardly redistributive policies to remain in place, we will have to apologize to our children and grandchildren, since the rich will continue to get most of the gains from economic growth. Cutting Social Security benefits, which will mostly affect our children's retirement (almost no one suggests large cuts in benefits for current retirees), is not a way to make up for this enormous failure.

Opinion Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
What "Orange Is the New Black" Tells Us About Sexual Abuse in Women's Prisons and How to Stop It

Trigger warning: The entire article talks about sexual assaults and abuse.
Spoiler warning: Episodes 10 to 13 are discussed in detail.

In this season's "Orange Is the New Black," viewers are introduced to a host of new characters, including a prison guard who claims to be in love with - and regularly rapes - Pennsatucky, the woman assigned to drive the prison van. Even if Pennsatucky were to report the rapes, her friend Boo points out, it's her word against his. And who will the prison administration take more seriously? A woman imprisoned for a crime or a guard whom they saw fit to hire? At best, she will simply be disbelieved; at worst, she would be punished by being placed in solitary confinement and then being transferred to a harsher prison.

Meanwhile, the woman has van duty every day with the guard, an assignment that takes them out of the prison and away from any potential witnesses or watchful eyes. "He's got you," her friend Boo says.

This kind of scenario isn't limited to fictional television series. We don't know how often it occurs in real-life women's prisons to real-life women, but the little that we do know indicates that it's more than a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. In both men's and women's prisons, sexual abuse is more likely to occur at the hands of staff members rather than other prisoners.

I've written before about ways in which women who are not in prison have organized to prevent gender violence. But tactics and strategies that work on the outside don't necessarily fly behind prison walls. Keep in mind that prisons are sites of total control. Movement is limited - and sometimes strictly controlled. So, while people on the outside can utilize tactics like banding together for safety, avoiding being alone with certain people or avoiding isolated areas, these strategies don't work in an environment in which staff have the ability to give orders.

Those who refuse risk being charged with "disobeying a direct order," which usually is punished with time in solitary confinement. Having such a charge on their record can also be held against them during a parole hearing, which means an even longer prison sentence. There is little to no opportunity for a person to explain that they disobeyed that direct order because they feared sexual assault. Even if there were, as Boo rightly pointed out, it's the word of a prisoner against the word of a staff member. And physically defending yourself? In prison, that's called "assault on an officer" and not only lands a person in solitary confinement, but garners an additional charge with the very real threat of more time in prison and, for the rest of their stay, unrelenting harassment and abuse from other prison staff.

Despite these limitations, people in women's prisons (not every person in a women's prison identifies as a woman) have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. In 1996, after the passage of Measure 11, a mandatory sentencing law, women's incarceration in Oregon increased dramatically. Unable to handle the sharp influx of women, the state contracted with private prison company Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, to house 78 of these women. That year, Barrilee Bannister and 77 other women were transferred to a CCA-run prison for men in Arizona. When they first arrived, Bannister recalled having to walk past a line of prison staff members who gawked, whistled and made lewd comments at them. But that wasn't the only form of sexual harassment and abuse that the women would endure.

Weeks after their arrival, Bannister said that a captain visited several women (including her) in a cell, bringing marijuana with him. They all smoked and, when he left, the captain left the remainder with the women. Shortly after, he returned with other officers, announcing that they were searching the cell for contraband. But, they said, if the women preformed a strip tease, they would not conduct the search.

Knowing that being caught with marijuana would mean an additional charge and an increase in the amount of time they had to spend in prison, the women began to strip. After that, she said that officers frequently brought marijuana and other items that the women were not supposed to have. In exchange, the women would perform strip teases.

But it didn't stop at strip teases. Soon, officers began raping women. But Bannister and the other women refused to silently accept this new reality. Bannister contacted friends and outside organizations and told them what was happening. They, in turn, contacted media. The negative publicity led to an investigation and the women's return to Oregon - and out of the CCA prison. The women filed a federal lawsuit against CCA, eventually winning a public apology, a promise of stricter rules to prevent sexual abuse, and the reimbursement of attorney fees.

Sexual abuse isn't a problem only in private prisons. It's a frequent occurrence in publicly-run prisons as well. But women in publicly-run prisons have also banded together to try and stop the abuse.

In Battered Women's Justice, Patricia Gagne describes how women in an Ohio prison were dealing with the same dilemma. In the mid-1990s, one particular guard seemed to have it in for one particular woman. Her cellmate recalled that he constantly harassed her. He also threatened her and her friends - if they attempted to report his behavior, he would plant cocaine among their possessions. Scared, the women kept quiet. But after he assaulted the woman, her friends knew they could no longer keep quiet. They filed a complaint with the administration and testified before the grand jury, which eventually led to the guard's arrest and conviction.

Their actions also had a ripple effect. "We could never clean up the penitentiary or never change a lot of people's minds," the woman stated. But, she continued, after that guard was arrested and convicted, "a lot of the nastiness and that vulgarness … was seeming to cease a little bit and to ease up a little bit, because they began to get nervous. And more women stood up, and two other officers were escorted off because the women found enough courage to stand up."

In Michigan, sexual assault in women's prisons was so pervasive that the US Department of Justice stepped in and launched an investigation. It found that "nearly every woman … interviewee reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards," including rape, sexual assault, impregnation, abusive pat frisks and violations of privacy. The Justice Department initiated legal action against the state in 1997 on the grounds that Michigan was "violating the constitutional rights of inmates incarcerated in Michigan women's prisons to be free from sexual misconduct and unlawful invasions of privacy."

But women inside the prison system didn't wait for the Justice Department. They filed suits on their own - both individually (as in the case of Stacy Barker) and collectively. In 1996, 31 women (including Stacy Barker) in Michigan's two women's prisons filed Nunn v. MDOC, charging that they had been subjected to sexual assault, sexual harassment, violations of their privacy, physical threats, assaults and retaliation by male prison staff. They also charged that prison officials had been aware of this abuse, but had done little to investigate or prevent it. Four years later, in 2000, the Michigan Department of Corrections signed a settlement agreement that banned cross-gender pat-down searches, meaning that male guards were no longer allowed to pat search women, and limited the circumstances in which male guards could transport women or remain with them in medical examining rooms. The settlement also limited staff allowed in the housing units, where women might be in states of dress or undress, to female guards.

That same year, women also filed Neal v. MDOC, a class-action lawsuit. Nearly 440 women who had experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault, invasions of privacy and retaliation for reporting staff misconduct signed onto the suit. In 2007, nine years after it had been filed, the case went to trial. The jury awarded the women more than $30 million. In July 2009, a settlement was reached for $100 million to be distributed to the class members - in other words, any woman incarcerated in Michigan who had suffered any of the experiences listed in the suit - and their attorneys.

These are specific instances that have been written about. But that doesn't mean that they're the only methods people have used to keep themselves and each other safe. In "Orange is the New Black," Pennsatucky and Boo come up with a creative solution that enables her to escape from her driving duties - and the accompanying sexual assaults. It's not a tactic that would necessarily make headlines or that she would even be able to tell others without jeopardizing her own escape.

From years of talking to people who have spent time in women's prisons, I've learned that stories of resistance actions - whether individual acts or collective organizing - often remain undocumented. Creative strategies may be passed down by word of mouth and the prison grapevine, but unless someone takes the time to talk with people and ask them specifically about what they did to challenge and change conditions, those stories rarely make it past prison walls.

Opinion Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How to Stop Post-Disaster Funding From Being a Disaster

A recent report from ProPublica reveals that the American Red Cross raised half a billion dollars for Haiti after the earthquake of 2010 and built just six homes there. Similar stories are likely to emerge from Nepal following the devastating earthquake and aftershocks in April and May of this year. The road to post-disaster recovery is paved with mismanaged funds and botched projects. Many large international agencies, often lacking local connections, have a dismal track record.

There is a pressing need to directly support communities following a catastrophe. There is also a widespread, compassionate desire to give. The question is, how do we avoid the six homes scenario?

As advocates for disrupting status quo philanthropy and amplifying outside-the-box, effective and creative funding, we explore how the underlying values of Indie Philanthropy - trust and balance in relationships, collaboration, experimentation, and empowerment - can shift post-disaster funding practices. What are the most effective models and practices for funding? Clear directives come from our interviews with Trishala Deb, the Asia Regional Director of International Development Exchange, which strengthens grassroots efforts for poverty alleviation and justice, and Beverly Bell from Other Worlds, which supports global movements for economic and social alternatives. Deb has worked in the post-disaster context of Nepal, and Bell in Haiti and New Orleans.                                       

Be critically engaged.

Bell: Ask lots of questions. Do serious homework about whether the group approaching you has a record of trustworthiness, whether it is accountable to local communities, what exactly it plans to do with the money, and what its politics are. The Red Cross will likely siphon off your dollars, as it did with huge amounts of money in New Orleans after the flood and in Haiti after the earthquake. A lot of right-wing organizations will use your donation in ways that undermine progressive agendas - and what happens after disasters is very political, all about who gets the power and the money. If they are right-wing and evangelical Christians…well, you can guess. Follow your money.

Support grassroots, community-led programs.

Deb: Look for the grassroots organizations. Look for the people who have been building and repairing their own homes and communities. There's always a way to find the effort on the ground that potentially makes a huge difference for people.

Bell: Support community-led programs. A study conducted by Grantmakers without Borders found what many of us did ourselves: local and grassroots organizations are by far the most effective in delivering aid and services. If they are progressive to boot, they may be working to ensure that the most vulnerable and excluded have power in shaping their own solutions and in determining the country's redevelopment model.

Trust that those living the situation know best about what they need.

Deb: Our belief is that larger societal change comes from grassroots organizations that represent local residents. People living and working in their own communities and geographies have the knowledge and strategies to build their communities, as well as an understanding of the barriers to development. We will never walk into a community with an action plan.

Is it better not to give at all than to give to the wrong outcome, or where there's no infrastructure for distribution?

Deb: IDEX has been partnering with Women Awareness Center Nepal and ASHA Nepal for about 11 years. When the earthquake happened, we were able to send out money within a week through these organizations, knowing it was channeled directly to their member cooperatives since they already know how to make community-based decisions around their recovery priorities. Both of the organizations with whom we work are deeply invested in developing layers of local leaders. That is the best-case scenario for any recovery. What we don't want to see is money going in where there's no infrastructure for distribution.

Bell: If you are reading this article, you have a good chance of finding a contact who can connect you with a group that can use your money in powerful ways. If not, then use your funds to help other progressive international movements. Better not to give than to give to the wrong outcome. In Haiti, we all wished that most of the aid had never been given.

Listen and learn.

Deb: There's so much donors can learn from partners in times of crisis. I want to encourage all my colleagues in philanthropy around the world to embrace the opportunities for learning and the various paces of learning. For example, in the first two months after the quake there were so many five- to ten- minute conversations that enabled us to understand their capacity and degree of crisis. Then things settled down and they were busy with their recovery work and it was important to honor their time there as well. Our main job is to listen.  

Adopt a broader and deeper analysis that helps you support work to resolve the structural problems that create vulnerability and poverty in the first place.

Bell: When we talk about 'natural' disasters, beyond the event of nature, what happens in the aftermath is usually unnatural, highly political phenomena that exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. To guide your and others' efforts, learn and share the priorities and analyses of social movements and organized communities. Most important of all, go beyond giving aid to supporting local movements in resolving the structural problems that created their vulnerability and poverty in the first place. This means connecting with sources that organize solidarity, and challenging US government policies and corporate tyranny playing out in disaster capitalism.

Long-term and general operating funding is important.

Deb: We understand that long-term funding is always more important than short-term funding. It helps communities plan. We always provide support through general operating funding and our grants are not connected to outcomes. The groups are then able to adapt to changes that may occur over time. This approach is a manifestation of our trust in our partners, a reciprocal trust.  

Avoid having expectations around one set of goals.

Deb: We must understand the cultural assumptions we have and appreciate the cultural context and specificity of the places we're working in as much as we can. With this type of approach, we don't get sucked into an expectation of one set of goals for all of the organizations we're working with. Each organization and location is really different. There is a potential for the most impact when we appreciate these differences.

Last notes for the novice.

Bell: First, support what those directly impacted are doing instead of starting your own initiative. Second, at every step, promote mechanisms and opportunities for communities, especially of those whose voices go unheard, to take the lead. Third, act with care and deliberation instead of acting as fast as possible. Fourth, avoid material aid unless you have a direct and reliable connection with the group who has asked of for it; otherwise, you may be putting local production out of work or just feeding a giant sidewalk sale.

A word on why to use an Indie Philanthropy approach when funding post-disaster.

Bell: Indie Philanthropy addresses a lot of the principles that I have seen work in places in crisis, either natural disasters or political ones. In a nutshell, these principles are: Trust that those living the situation know best about what they need. Help shift power dynamics so that those impacted get to be part of the decision-making. Be as transparent and accountable as you expect your grantee to be to you. Be willing to take risks.

In the world of post-disaster funding, good intentions are at best simply not enough, and at worst, actually harmful. The crux is to be an engaged ally as much as a funder. Listen to, support and trust those who are already doing effective work locally.

Opinion Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Mr. Obama Goes to Prison ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400 Stop Securing the Border and Start Valuing Migrants' Lives

Border enforcement isn't just a counterproductive waste of taxpayers' money; it's also lethal. A quarter century's buildup on the border has forced would-be crossers to take more dangerous routes through the Southwest's deserts and mountains. At least 5,607 people died while attempting to enter the country between 1994 and 2008, mostly along these new, riskier routes. It's time to end this irrational policy.

17 May, 2007: A helicopter patrols the US-Mexico border near Campo, California. (Photo: Qbac07)A helicopter patrols the US-Mexico border near Campo, California, May 17, 2007. (Photo: Qbac07)

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US billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is not the only politician intent on barricading the southwestern border of the United States. Calls for "regaining control of our border" are commonplace in US political discourse, routinely repeated by both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The most recent proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform" is a good example. The bill, which passed the Senate in June 2013 but was blocked by House Republicans as "dangerously liberal," included provisions for doubling the current number of Border Patrol agents and adding $30 billion to the border enforcement budget over the next ten years.

Border enforcement was actually a major cause of the very phenomenon it was supposed to prevent.

The general public overwhelmingly backs these calls for more enforcement. While a survey the Pew Research Center conducted in May found respondents generally supportive of immigrants - 72 percent said undocumented people now living here should be allowed to stay - 80 percent thought "a lot" or "more" could be done to reduce unauthorized immigration at the borders.

This support continues despite a complete lack of evidence that an increase is necessary or that it would be effective - or even that there's an actual "crisis" of people crossing the border. What the facts show, on the contrary, is that the current policy is expensive and counterproductive and needs to be rolled back.

The Buildup on the Border

The US government began stepping up border enforcement in the mid-1980s. There were a total of 2,268 Border Patrol agents in 1980; by 2012 the Border Patrol had funding for 21,370 agents, nearly 10 times as many as 20 years earlier. The Border Patrol's annual budget was $263 million in 1990; by 2014 it had jumped thirteen-fold to $3.6 billion. The Border Patrol is only one part of Customs and Border Protection, the agency that handles border enforcement; Customs and Border Protection’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 was $13.1 billion, nearly twice what it was just a decade earlier.

When politicians demand a border wall, they fail to note that the US had already built 651 miles of fencing as of February 2012; the estimated cost of the fence's construction and its maintenance over the next 20 years is $6.5 billion. When they demand a "crackdown" on border crossing, the politicians don't mention that the government has been imposing criminal sentences on border crossers since 2005; the program, code-named "Operation Streamline," had processed 208,939 people by the end of 2012. While it's hard to estimate the total bill for Streamline, it could be costing us as much as $300 million a year just through the increase it has created in the federal prison population.

It seems fair to ask what this massive border build-up has accomplished. In fact, for most of the time that border enforcement was being stepped up, the number of undocumented immigrants in the country was increasing dramatically; the unauthorized population tripled between 1990 and 2008, from 3.5 million to 11.9 million.

"Defense industries" - both US and Israeli - have been busily pitching weapons, vehicles, helicopters, drones and various science-fiction devices for the border.

Academic studies explain why this would happen. The University of California San Diego's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies has found that border enforcement is a deterrent, but not a very strong one for people considering their first trip into the United States. Migrants and potential migrants surveyed in southern Mexico said they were aware of the harsher enforcement measures at the border but that this wasn't an important influence on whether they decided to leave for the north.

On the other hand, while border enforcement doesn't do much to keep undocumented immigrants out of the United States, the studies indicate that it has been very effective at keeping them in once they arrive.

Reasons for Decreased Migration

Before the increase in border security, the flow of migration from Mexico - the main source of unauthorized immigration - tended to be circular. Many migrants from Mexico would work in the United States a few months each year and then return home with extra cash. When border crossing became riskier and more expensive in the 1990s, migrants were more likely to settle down here, and they often sent for their families to join them. In other words, border enforcement was actually a major cause of the very phenomenon it was supposed to prevent.

But the trend has now reversed. The number of apprehensions on the border has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years and is continuing to fall: during the first half of this fiscal year (from October 2014 through March 2015) the rate was down 28 percent from the same period the year before.

Increased border enforcement also means increased incarceration for immigrants, and this means more business for the private prison industry.

Enforcement advocates claim this is chiefly because of their policies, but the statistics don't support this. The state of the US economy is almost certainly a more important factor. The rate of border crossings over the past quarter century has regularly fluctuated, according to the employment rate in the United States, with dips during the 2001 recession and then a larger decline starting in 2007 as the housing boom collapsed and construction jobs disappeared. The job market has remained weak since then, despite a technical recovery from the 2007-2009 recession.

But the most important factor, according to a study in the International Migration Review in November 2014, has been the aging of Mexico's population, the result of a dramatic decline in the country's birth rate over the past 40 years. There's less border crossing simply because there are fewer members of the younger demographic that has tended to fuel immigration in the past. The study's authors concluded that the United States "spent $35 billion in constant dollars on border enforcement between 1970 and 2010 in a vain effort to bring about a decline in undocumented migration that was already built into Mexico's demography."

Corporate Investments in Increased Border Enforcement

If border enforcement has been such a colossal failure, why do US politicians constantly call for more of it?

One obvious reason is that border enforcement is quite profitable for powerful business interests. In September 2006, for example, the Boeing corporation won a contract worth an estimated $2.5 billion to set up the "Secure Border Initiative Network" (SBInet), a web of new surveillance technology and sensors with real-time communications systems. After spending $1 billion on this "virtual fence," the government scrapped the project in January 2011, saying it "does not meet current standards for viability and cost effectiveness."

The growing number of Border Patrol agents translates to more guns and other equipment, and the "defense industries" - both US and Israeli - have been busily pitching weapons, vehicles, helicopters, drones and various science-fiction devices for the border. This is especially important as the US military reduces its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. "So as the wars are winding down, we're trying to find more applications for this technology here in the US," a division manager from the Applied Research Associates firm explained to the Huffington Post in April.

Increased border enforcement also means increased incarceration for immigrants - Operation Streamline is one example - and this means more business for the private prison industry. In the decade leading up to 2013, just three of these companies poured out some $45 million in various lobbying efforts. Recipients of funds from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the country's largest private prison company, include such rabidly anti-immigrant Republicans as Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.

Amped-up border anxiety has political uses as well. As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, an expert on immigration patterns, remarked to Truthout in an email, "Politicians find the symbolic trope of an 'invasion of illegal aliens' too useful to give up." Xenophobic and irrational fears of invasion, violation and disease from foreign and dark-skinned people have historically provided a good tool for distracting the US population from the real failures of the political system.

Sometimes this exploitation of border fears turns farcical. In August 2014, Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey, then a member of the House of Representatives, suggested that Central American minors might be carrying the Ebola virus. Gingrey, formerly a practicing physician, apparently didn't know that no Ebola cases had ever been reported in Latin America. But there's nothing funny about claims from people like Donald Trump and right-wing columnist Ann Coulter that immigrants are rapists. These slanders appeal to the same part of the national psyche as white racists' fraudulent rape charges against African Americans, the rationalization for thousands of lynchings in the 19th and 20th centuries and, most recently, for Dylann Roof's murder of nine worshippers at an historic African-American church in June.

The Real Border Crisis

Can anything be done to counter the widespread acceptance of the "securing our border" narrative?

"Someone - a prominent politician or journalist - has to say that the 'emperor has no clothes,'" Prof. Massey suggests. "[I]llegal migration from Mexico is over and will not be coming back." But activists can do a lot on their own, both by informing the general public and by putting pressure on politicians and reporters, in the same way that LGBT activists have turned public opinion around in ways few people thought possible even a decade ago.

One important step would be for immigrant rights activists to stop viewing border enforcement as a bargaining chip that can be exchanged for broader legalization of undocumented immigrants, as has happened in mainstream immigration reform proposals like the 2013 bill. "You have to inoculate the broader movement against trading away the border," Bob Libal, executive director of the nonprofit organization Grassroots Leadership, said in a phone interview.

Border enforcement isn't just a counterproductive waste of taxpayers' money; it's also lethal.

Above all, we need to remember that border enforcement isn't just a counterproductive waste of taxpayers' money; it's also lethal. A quarter century's buildup on the border has forced would-be crossers to take more dangerous routes through the Southwest's deserts and mountains. At least 5,607 people died while attempting to enter the country between 1994 and 2008, mostly along these new, riskier routes. University of California, San Diego professor Wayne Cornelius has noted that the death toll at the border just in the decade from 1993 to 2003 was more than 10 times as high as the number of people killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall in its 28-year history. The deaths have continued even as the rate of border crossings fell: an average of 360 people died this way each year in 2010 and 2011.

This is the real border crisis, and we shouldn't be able to sleep comfortably at night as long as we know that an irrational enforcement policy is killing hundreds of human beings each year for the supposed crime of wanting to get a job or to reunite with friends and family.

News Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Spreading a Minimum Wage Increase From Los Angeles to the Whole Country

Our economy has long been out of balance. Workers' efforts across the country create wealth, but the profits don't get to the working people who produce them. Correcting that so that workers are paid enough to sustain their families and make ends meet, is not easy. It requires changing rules that unfairly favor the rich and are written by politicians beholden to the wealthy. That's why the recent move by Los Angeles to raise the minimum wage to $15 is so meaningful. 

Conceived and fought for by workers and grassroots organizations, the $15 minimum wage is a people-powered victory that will improve the lives of Angelenos for generations. More importantly, this victory signals an irreversible change in the broader fight for a decent wage in cities around the country. It inspires hope that we can finally make work pay enough to live on. 

The brave families that fought for change include people like Sandra Arzu, a single mother who works for Health Care Agency at $9 per hour - barely enough to survive in Los Angeles. It is people like Sandra and their families who power the country's second-largest city.

Just like Sandra, other mothers, brothers, sales representatives and servers around the country deserve the opportunity to sustain their families. Everyone who works hard should be able to make ends meet.

We came together in Los Angeles for our families, but also to join something bigger than us. We saw what was done in other cities - San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle have all raised their minimum wage recently - and we picked up on that momentum.

Through organizing and hard work, our communities stood together and demanded change. Organizations like Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the Center for Popular Democracy, and our partners and allies brought workers to the forefront and helped make history.

The result speaks for itself: an increase in the minimum wage in yearly increments, reaching $15 by 2020 for large employers. Businesses with 25 or fewer employees will have more time, until 2021. A recent study with comparable figures shows that almost 800,000 people stand to benefit. That's more than 40 percent of LA's workforce. And there will be further increases to the minimum wage with rising consumer prices, meaning that minimum wage workers won't fall further behind. It's not hyperbole; this is a victory for generations of Angelenos to come.

In New York, there is a vibrant Fight for $15 movement that has already led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo taking initial steps in favor of an increase in wages for tipped workers. Organizers in Oregon and Washington, DC are gearing up to make minimum wage fights a big part of their agendas next year. Other cities looking at increases include Portland, Maine, Olympia; Tacoma, Washington; and Sacramento and Davis, California.

Here is some of what this could mean across the country. No one will get rich off a $15 minimum wage; it adds up to just over $31,000 per year for a full-time worker. But there will be enormous benefit for local economies and household budgets. Poverty will be reduced.

According to the National Employment Law Project, a full 42 percent of U.S. workers make less than $15 per hour. People of color are overrepresented in jobs paying less than $15 an hour, and female workers make up 54.7 percent of those making less than $15 per hour, even though they make up less than half of the overall U.S. workforce. African-American workers make up about are about 12 percent of the total workforce, but they account for 15 percent of the sub-$15-wage workforce. Latinos constitute 16.5 percent of the workforce, but account for almost 23 percent of workers making less than $15 per hour. Inequality is never acceptable, and a $15 minimum wage would mean enormous progress in fighting it.

Ultimately, the fight in LA and around the country is about determining what kind of country we want to live in. In LA, we did it, and we continue the fight across the country until everyone who works can make ends meet and have a say in their future. The future for the fight for $15, our households and children looks a little brighter thanks to the victory here. We can't wait to see what our friends in other cities will do to take this fight further.

Opinion Mon, 27 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400