Truthout Stories Mon, 02 Mar 2015 14:19:04 -0500 en-gb Antiquities Scholar: Islamic State's Destruction of Museum and Library Is Cultural and Ethnic Cleansing

Video has surfaced showing militants from the Islamic State destroying ancient artifacts at a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Men are seen toppling statues and using sledgehammers and drills to destroy the artifacts. The Guardian reports one of the statues destroyed was a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century B.C. The Islamic State has also reportedly destroyed the Mosul public library, which housed more than 8,000 rare books and manuscripts. On Thursday, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, called for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage. "I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq’s millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. We speak to Zainab Bahrani, professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archeology at Columbia University. She has worked extensively in Iraq, including periods as senior adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture and a UNESCO consultant.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Iraq, where video has surfaced showing militants from the Islamic State destroying ancient artifacts at a museum in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Men are seen toppling statues and using sledgehammers and drills to destroy the artifacts. The Guardian reports one of the statues destroyed was a winged-bull Assyrian protective deity that dates back to the 9th century B.C.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thurday, UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, called for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said, quote, "I condemn this as a deliberate attack against Iraq’s millennial history and culture, and as an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred."

UNESCO has also warned about the self-proclaimed Islamic State generating income from the looting and smuggling of cultural heritage items. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council banned all trade in antiquities from wartorn Syria and reaffirmed a ban on Iraqi artifact sales from about a decade ago.

Joining us here in New York is Zainab Bahrani, professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archeology at Columbia University. She has worked extensively in Iraq, including periods as senior adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Culture and, back in 2004 or so, a UNESCO consultant.

We welcome you, Professor Bahrani, to Democracy Now! Talk about what is happening, the significance—let’s start with the Mosul museum.

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, the Mosul museum is a major museum in the Middle East. It’s one of the largest museums in the area, and it has a remarkable collection of finds that date back to the Neolithic era and continue into the Islamic period, so covering thousands of years, going back to about 8,000 B.C.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your reaction when we saw the video yesterday?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, I think we, all of us who are in the field, were completely horrified. I mean, of course we expected that something like this might happen, ever since ISIS took over the area, took over Mosul. But to see it actually happen was devastating.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is their rationale or their reasons for doing this?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, the rationale seems to be, from what they are saying on the video, that these are idols, and therefore they are false gods and should be destroyed. But, to me, this actually doesn’t make that much sense, since, of course, a lot of this cultural heritage and these antiquities have been visible since the seventh century A.D., and they have been there unharmed. So, it’s not really clear why now this should happen.

AMY GOODMAN: On the one hand, the rationale of it being heretical, right, the false idols—


AMY GOODMAN: —and on the other hand, it’s believed—I mean, I can’t confirm this myself independently—that the militants have sold the ancient artifacts on the black market?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, it seems to be that there is a great deal of selling of antiquities by ISIL. And this has been confirmed by certain people who are watching the trade in antiquities. So they are selling antiquities. One of the arguments is that the objects they destroyed yesterday were the larger pieces that could not be moved out and sold, so they were more likely to be able to destroy them.

I think that a great deal of the discussion here in the West, and perhaps throughout the world, has focused on the looting rather than the issue of cultural cleansing. The destruction of monuments on site is also something to be concerned about. I mean, the looting for the antiquities market, which is an illicit international market, is very important to consider, because this is very destructive. But the blowing up of shrines and monuments on site is really horrendous, and this is a form of cultural cleansing, certainly, but also ethnic cleansing.


ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, it’s a form of ethnic cleansing because this is a region of the world—Mesopotamia has always been a multicultural, mutli-ethnic, multilinguistic and multireligious community, the entirety of the country. And what’s happening now is that diversity is being wiped out. So when you wipe out people’s monuments and heritage, you erase any record of their ever having been there. And it’s a way of creating a terra nulla, if you will, a kind of an empty land that you can conquer and then claim that there was nothing there before. So it’s a general erasure and rewriting of history of Mesopotamia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, UNESCO’s director-general expressed outrage following the Islamic State’s attack on the Mosul museum. Irina Bokova said, quote, "This attack is far more than a cultural tragedy—this is also a security issue as it fuels sectarianism, violent extremism and conflict in Iraq. ... The systematic destruction of iconic components of Iraq’s rich and diverse heritage that we have been witnessing over the past months is intolerable and it must stop immediately." And, of course, Iraq went—Iraq went through similar problems—not at this scale—during the—in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, the disorder that followed, when there was also some destruction and looting that occurred.

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Well, I think that’s right. And I think too many people have forgotten that all of this actually began a long time ago. Of course, the scale now is far greater, and the slaughter that’s taking place of human beings is truly horrendous, but the rewriting of Iraq’s history and the erasure of its past actually started with the 2003 war, if not even with the earlier one. So there has been a great deal of destruction of heritage sites, and the attempt to say that this is ingrained in the culture. I think one large problem is that pundits here in the West often say, "Well, these acts are grounded, are based, in the historical reality of Iraq, of Mesopotamia. This is a kind of an internal fight between Shia and Sunni peoples, and we should just mind our own business and leave it alone." But it seems to me that this is completely misguided, because what we are saying is that this is based in history. We’re trying to say—the pundits are trying to say that this is based in a historical reality, when it’s not. It’s a complete rewriting of what was the historical reality. Now, let’s take, for example, the idea of the resurrection of a medieval Islamic state. So, of course, here, everybody says, "Well, they are truly barbaric. They are medieval." But everybody who has read history knows that in the Abbasid empire, the caliphs of the Abbasids valued scholarship. They translated Greek classical texts. They loved the arts and promoted arts and architecture. So, it’s actually quite false to say that in the Middle Ages they were opposed to these things.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Professor Bahrani, going back to 2003, the day after Baghdad fell, that famous scene of the looters coming from the Iraqi museum—


AMY GOODMAN: —and the criticism of the U.S. for not protecting the museum. Going back to that time, declaring that freedom is "untidy," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the looting in Iraq was a result of "pent-up feelings" of oppression, that it would subside as Iraqis adjusted to life without Saddam Hussein. He said, "Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here." Looting, he said, was not uncommon for countries that experience significant social upheaval. Rumsfeld said, "Stuff happens."

ZAINAB BAHRANI: I remember his statements very well. I also remember that he was quite taken aback that there was more than one vase in the entire country. And he seemed to have not realized that Iraq is Mesopotamia, the cradle of the world’s civilization. And how he did not know that, I’m really not sure. But he was clearly very mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the historical legacy of Muslims protecting antiquities, knowledge, philosophy, science?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: Absolutely. I mean, it’s not my specific area of expertise, because I’m a specialist in the pre-Islamic past, but I know enough to know that this heritage has always been there, that Islamic geographers and travelers and historians have written about places like Babylon and Nineveh in the Middle Ages. The caliphs, the Abbasid caliphs especially, supported the scholarship of the ancient Greek classical texts and philosophy and the sciences, in a way that is truly unparalleled not just in the history of Iraq, but, I would say, in a great part of the world. It’s one of the high points of the world’s history of scholarly knowledge.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s been the reaction in the rest of the—throughout the rest of the Middle East, of other governments and civil society organizations after they’ve heard about this from yesterday?

ZAINAB BAHRANI: I think that most of the news that I’ve heard from all over the Middle East is that people are horrified, that everybody is taken aback, because nobody was expecting this extent of just senseless destruction. Of course, this is a very small thing to consider after the mass slaughter, the kidnapping, the rapes, the torture, the daily murdering. So, this is really very much just a kind of a last straw on top of a terrible annihilation of people.

But what I want to stress is that the destruction of this sculpture, of the heritage sites and the ancient Assyrian and Hadrian sculpture that we saw destroyed in the video, that this is not just about the past. This is about a destruction and an erasure of the history of the people of Iraq, as a way to say that they never belonged here.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Zainab Bahrani, professor of Near Eastern and East Mediterranean art and archaeology at Columbia University. Her most recent book is called The Infinite Image: Art, Time and the Aesthetic Dimension in Antiquity.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to Pasco, Washington. It was there that police killed Antonio Zambrano-Montes. Cellphone video shows him putting up his hands. He was unarmed. Stay with us.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 12:41:24 -0500
Police Killing of Unarmed Mexican Farmworker in Washington State Sparks Protest

Authorities in Pasco, Washington, have revealed police fired 17 shots at Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed Mexican farmworker who was shot dead on February 10. Cellphone video shows Zambrano turning to face police and raising his hands before he is shot. The shooting has sparked weeks of protests. Live from Pasco, we speak with Felix Vargas, chairman of Consejo Latino, a group of local businessmen in Pasco who are working with Zambrano’s family. We also talk to Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state and a member of the Community Police Commission in Seattle.


AMY GOODMAN: After our next segment, we’ll talk about Governor Scott Walker comparing unions to the self-proclaimed Islamic State. But first, this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, for the second time in about two weeks, the Mexican government has expressed outrage over police shootings of unarmed immigrants by police officers in the United States. Mexican authorities say police in Grapevine, Texas, violated a decades-old treaty by waiting four days to inform them of the killing of Rubén García Villalpando. Police say they shot García early Saturday morning during a traffic stop, after he defied orders to halt and walked toward a patrol car with his hands in the air. García’s attorney and a local activist described their account of the shooting to news station KDFW.

CARLOS QUINTANILLA: When the officers said, "Don’t move, mother F," he stayed there. And for one reason or another, Rubén begins to walk towards a police officer, and that one second passed, and the officer fired twice—pop, pop—and Rubén was dead.

DOMINGO GARCIA: When this video is released, you will show that there is a man, who has no prior criminal record, a wife and four children, who puts his hands on his head, and is shot through twice because he asked the officer to treat him with respect and dignity and not to be calling him "mother F," multiple times.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The shooting in Texas comes just 10 days after the police killing of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington. Zambrano was reportedly throwing rocks at police officers when he was killed. The incident happened at a busy intersection. Several eyewitnesses recorded cellphone video that shows Zambrano turning to face police, raising his hands before he’s shot. On Thursday, authorities confirmed how many times they fired at Zambrano. This is Sergeant Ken Lattin of the Kennewick County Police Department.

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Ultimately—this was a question that you had had—we’ve determined that they fired their weapons 17 times. Seventeen rounds were fired. Of those, five or six rounds struck Mr. Zambrano. We say five or six rounds because there’s obviously been two autopsies: one by—conducted by the medical examiner that was brought in by the coroner, and then, as Mr. Sant specified last week, the body was released to the family, they brought in their own independent pathologist to do an autopsy. And so, those results of both autopsies are not yet complete. Without going into any sort of gruesome detail, it’s not easy to determine, when you look at entry wounds and exit wounds, for sure, how many rounds.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pasco police also said Zambrano was not shot in the back, contradicting an independent autopsy by the victim’s family that found two entry wounds on the back of his body—one on the back his right arm and another in his buttocks. Zambrano’s family has now hired the attorney for Michael Brown’s family in Ferguson, Missouri, Benjamin Crump, who visited Pasco to meet with them this week. Pasco is about, oh, three-and-a-half hours southeast of Seattle.

All of this comes as the Mexican government reports 75 Mexicans have been killed by law officers in the United States since 2006.

For more, we go to Pasco, Washington, where we’re joined by Felix Vargas, the chairman of Consejo Latino, a group of local businessmen in Pasco who are working with Zambrano’s family and helping to call for justice in his shooting death. Vargas is a retired U.S. diplomat and Army colonel.

And we’re joined in Seattle by Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state and a member of the Community Police Commission in Seattle. She wrote a letter urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the fatal police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, saying the local police probe is needlessly focusing on his activities prior to the incident.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go directly to Pasco. Felix Vargas, explain what happened and the fact there’s so much video of this. It was during rush hour?

FELIX VARGAS: Yes, it was. A crowded intersection, downtown Pasco, a gentleman is seen throwing rocks at cars. Police are called. There’s a minor scuffle. And then you see the gentleman running across the street away from the police. The police draw their weapons and fire an initial volley of shots at him. It appears that they hit him. He gets to the other side of the street, he turns left, heads west. The police are in pursuit of him, three, four yards behind him. He’s wounded. He turns around, appears to raise his arms up. He does not have a knife or a gun in his hand. And then he is effectively executed by the second volley of shots. In all, as you said, 17 shots were fired. The initial autopsy shows that five to six rounds made impact. We have a second autopsy, which was performed by the family’s forensic examiner, and that shows seven to eight impacts on the body. So, that is what has happened. It has really disturbed this community as never before.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mr. Vargas, what has been so far the reaction of local authorities in terms of the police officers involved?

FELIX VARGAS: Well, the authorities have promised to withhold judgment until a police investigation of the police shooting takes place. There’s a special investigative unit, which is set up, excluding the participation by the Pasco police. But that particular unit is talking to witnesses and doing their own investigation. They do emphasize that this will be an impartial, objective investigation. That is really the process, after which the Franklin County prosecutor will determine if there are sufficient grounds to levy charges against the three police shooters, and then the case will go to trial. There’s also a call for a coroner’s inquest after this particular investigation. It is simply not a credible investigation—I need to add that.

AMY GOODMAN: Why isn’t it credible?

FELIX VARGAS: It’s not credible because it involves a group of police officers, who are brothers in uniform of the perpetrators of the shooting. It is not credible because in the last six months we’ve had four incidents, including this one; in the three previous incidents, the police have been exonerated. There is one other example of a shooting here six months ago of a young man also who suffered from mental illness, as did Antonio Zambrano, and also suffered from substance abuse—similar circumstances, again, shot with excessive—by excessive use of force here by the police. There is an inherent conflict of interest here whenever you have a police organization investigating its own. We need a higher-level investigation here, and that can only come from the Department of Justice here, that the—you know, that the community can have some reasonable grounds to believe that it will be independent. So, it’s important that we have this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the general state of relations in your part of the state, there’s been, obviously, a growing population of Mexican, especially Mexican, population as a result of the large agriculture there in the area. Can you talk about the state of relations in Washington?

FELIX VARGAS: Well, the state of relations is really quite good. We do have a city of 68,000, 60 percent of which are Hispanic. They’re drawn here primarily because of our very vibrant agricultural economy that we have here. And we really haven’t had any incidents. There is some unease with the police, because they don’t have enough certified language speakers. It is a police made up primarily of Anglo policemen. So, the relations are cordial. I wouldn’t say they’re warm. We have, as an organization, tried to improve that relationship and to build confidence within the community towards the police force. We met with the police chief two weeks before the incident to review his policies and procedures and to assure ourselves that we will not have an incident similar to the one in Ferguson. We received assurances that the training, the protocols were all in place to avoid this kind of situation. We’re greatly disappointed, really, in the leadership of the police chief, because we simply do not know if he knows what goes on within his police force.

AMY GOODMAN: You are a leading member of the community, a businessman, former military. Are you calling for the police chief to step down?

FELIX VARGAS: Not at this point. You know, there are things that have happened which caused us to believe that he’s not in control of his police force. It’s premature to do that. I think we need to let certain investigatory practices proceed. We would like to see active engagement by the Department of Justice in this regard. While the police chief has, I think, some lack in credibility, we’re not prepared to call for his—for him to step down at this point. We may do so later on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re also joined by Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state and a member of the Community Police Commission in Seattle. She wrote a letter urging the Justice Department to launch an investigation into the shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, saying the local police probe was needlessly focusing on his activities prior to the incident. Could you—Jennifer, could you summarize your concerns for us?

JENNIFER SHAW: Well, sure, and thank you for reaching out to us. You know, we’re seeing across the country a real need for a culture change within our police departments. As Mr. Vargas points out, it is concerning to have police investigating their own, and particularly the notion of trying to find something wrong with the person that was shot as a justification for the shooting. We saw the same thing with Trayvon Martin. There was comments about he smoked pot. Other—you know, the comments about Michael Brown, that he had engaged in other criminal activity, at a time when the officer wasn’t even aware of it. So it’s really not relevant what the victim of the shooting was doing two weeks ago, or two weeks prior to the shooting, and to have that be what appears to be the primary focus is really concerning. It’s also concerning that the police officers that were involved in the shooting have still not been interviewed by the investigators.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what needs to happen right now, Jennifer Shaw?

JENNIFER SHAW: Well, certainly, there needs to be a full and impartial investigation of this incident, but also there needs to be a review of the current policies and practices and training within the Pasco Police Department. What we’re seeing in Washington, and really across the country, is that police departments have been using outdated use-of-force policies. Their training is really much more focused on how to use force, not how to avoid using force. And so, tragically, we keep seeing these kinds of incidents.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Sergeant Ken Lattin of the Kennewick County Police Department answering questions during Thursday’s news conference.

REPORTER: Have you interviewed the three officers?

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Good question. So as we’ve—that seems to be a big question each week. And we’ve got to have all the information before they sit down with those, so they’ve got to get those transcriptions done, so that the lead investigator that will sit down and interview with the officers has all the information. So, that—we’re not to that point yet. It’s still being set up.

REPORTER: So all the other witnesses that you want to talk to would be interviewed first, all that material transcribed—

SGT. KEN LATTIN: Absolutely.

REPORTER: —and the three officers will be the last people you interview?


AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Shaw, your comment on this? The witnesses will be interviewed first, and then the officers will be interviewed last.

JENNIFER SHAW: Well, when you think of any other investigation of a shooting by an individual, of another individual, with witnesses around, imagine that the police would wait 10 days, two weeks, before interviewing the person who was doing the shooting. It seems unreasonable. It seems, actually, kind of dangerous, for public safety purposes, to wait that long for the witnesses—or, for the officers to sit down and kind of read through everything and come up with a story. I mean, the idea of an investigation is to find out what happened from everybody that was involved. And it seems like these officers are being given special consideration because they’re police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Shaw, we want to thank you for joining us from the Washington ACLU in Seattle, and, Felix Vargas, for joining us from your home in Pasco, Washington, with Consejo Latino. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we move on to our last segment. Juan?

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 12:36:33 -0500
On the News With Thom Hartmann: Students Are Taking On College Debt, and More

In today's On the News segment: If corporations paid back their full debt to society, they'd be paying each of our households about $10,000 a year; it appears another discriminatory ban in the military may be changed; students are taking on college debt, demanding relief for their federal student loans; and more.

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


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

You need to know this. When I say that it's time to make corporations pay their fair share, you're probably thinking taxes. But, if corporations paid back their full debt to society, they'd be paying each of our households about $10,000 a year. That figure comes from Paul Buchheit over at Alternet, and he says, "That estimate is based on facts, not the conservative-style emotion that might deny the responsibility for any debt to the American people." Using data from the National Science Foundation, Paul calculated that about half of that yearly stipend would be our return for all the public money invested in research. About 30 percent of all development, applied, and basic research is paid for by the tax payers, and thirty percent of $2 trillion in annual corporate profit works out to $5,000 a year for each household. Another two grand would be payment for pollution and other disaster relief costs paid for by John Q. Taxpayer, and it would reimburse the American public for things like drilling for oil on public lands and cleaning up toxic chemical spills. In addition to the $2 trillion stashed in offshore tax havens, corporations rake in tons of cash in direct and indirect subsidies. So, the remaining $3,000 would reimburse us for corporate welfare and tax dodging, like overseas tax havens and government subsidies to giant, corporate industries. When we add all that up, it comes to $10,000 per household, per year – and it's a pretty "small-c" conservative estimate. That's the real price of corporate power in the U.S., and that's a cost being paid by the American public. Corporations used to return these public investments in the form of larger paychecks and pensions and benefits. Today, they simply buy back their own stocks and call workers greedy for demanding a living wage. We give them the opportunity to do business in our great nation, so if the corporations won't pay up the way they used to, perhaps it's time they simply cut each of our households a $10,000 check.

It seems like only yesterday that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy came to an end in our military. And now, it appears that one more discriminatory ban may be changed as well. At a recent town hall event in Afghanistan, our new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that he doesn't believe gender identity should disqualify someone from military service. According to the Williams Institute, there are more than 15,000 transgender active duty service members or reservists, and more than 130,000 transgender retirees and veterans. Many of these individuals were willing to give their lives to defend our country, and they should never have to hide who they are. The question about transgender service came from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, who works with an LGBT military family organization and has cared for many transgender service members as an office in Navy Health Care. Cmdr. Ehrenfeld said, "I am continually struck by how these individuals, who risk their lives every day to support our mission, live not in fear of the enemy, but rather in fear of being discovered for who they are." Perhaps our newest Defense Secretary will help bring this discrimination to an end.

The frigid temperatures last month were particularly daunting for the homeless. One New York City charity wanted to do something about that, but the Port Authority blocked their efforts. Volunteers from Saxon/Hart went to Grand Central Terminal and other train and bus stations to hand out blankets to the homeless, but they were told that the Port Authority didn't "want the homeless to get too comfortable there." Temperatures in New York City dropped to single digits in February, and wind chills were even colder. A Saxon/Hart spokesperson said, "We weren't trying to make people more comfortable in the station, we just wanted people not to freeze." Of course, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey released a statement saying that they are "committed to assisting the homeless," but their actions say otherwise. In the richest nation on Earth, no one should be freezing to death in the winter, and groups like Saxon/Hart should be applauded – not turned away.

Do you want to know which restaurants pay their workers a living wage? Well, there's an app for that. The ROC United Diner's Guide app will show you the restaurants near you, how they pay workers, and whether or not they provide benefits. And, that app will even allow you to report on the working conditions of restaurants you visit, such as noting server-to-diner ratios and tipping policies. Despite waves of protests and increased social awareness, many food service workers still get paid only $2.13 an hour, and they're taxed on tips they may or may not even earn. While we should never give up the fight to ensure all workers earn a living wage, in the mean time, we can make sure that businesses are rewarded for treating employees well. Restaurants all over our country are moving away from tips and paying all workers well, and we should be giving them our business when we can.

And finally... Students are taking on college debt. Fifteen young people who attended Everest College, a subsidiary of Corinthian, are refusing to pay for the useless degrees they got from that university. Corinthian is under investigation by state and federal officials because of their predatory lending practices, and as such the college is providing students with relief for their private loans. However, the so-called "Corinthian 15" are demanding relief for their federal student loans as well. Nathan Hornes, one of the students who refuses to pay, said, "I did not get the education that I was promised. I did not receive any knowledge that I could use in my day-to-day life, to get a career." Like graduates of so many for-profit institutions, Nathan and the rest of the Corinthian 15 realized that they were duped, and they're doing something about it. Standing up to for-profit colleges is a great place to start in the fight for affordable higher education.

And that's the way it is - for the week of March 2, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann – on the Economic and Labor News.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 11:13:45 -0500
Going Off the Rails: There's No Safe Way to Haul Oil by the Trainload

 2015.3.2.Greco.MainWhen you play by their rules, you lose every time. Big Oil's Lethal Game, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

When 27 CSX tanker cars loaded with fracked North Dakota crude tumbled onto a West Virginia riverbank on President’s Day, the ensuing fireballs leveled a house and forced hundreds of people to flee amid a heavy snowstorm.

Even though 19 of the derailed cars — each carrying 30,000 gallons of oil — erupted into flames, nobody died in this particular disaster. But it may have fired a fatal shot into the argument that trains can “safely” haul crude across North America.

After most of these increasingly frequent accidents, critics urge the government to make operators use “safer” tanker cars. Yet the cars that went off the rails, exploded into flames, and then smoldered for days alongside the Kanawha River were the new-and-improved model.

Slower speeds are also billed as a way to increase oil train safety. Yet this one was chugging along at just 33 miles per hour in a 50-mph zone when it tumbled off-track between the aptly named towns of Boomer and Mount Carbon.

Given its quick growth, many Americans don’t get how big the oil-by-rail industry is or why they should worry about its risks. The number of crude carloads chugging across the nation rocketed from 9,500 in 2008 to 500,000 last year.

The advocacy group Oil Change International created an interactive map of oil train routes you can use to see if any run past your house. It looks like a giant spider web stretched from coast to coast.

Foes of oil-by-rail oppose the industry’s new reliance on what they call “bomb trains” because of how easily tanker cars can detonate when they go off the rails and how prone they are to doing that.

Some 1.4 million gallons of oil spilled in U.S. rail accidents in 2013 — more in one year than over the previous four decades combined. A record 141 of these accidents occurred in 2014.

Proponents of building pipelines are trying to take advantage of conflagrations like that nightmarish scene in West Virginia. The best alternative to hauling oil by rail, they say, is to push it through stationary pipelines.

There are many problems with that argument. For one thing, ruptured pipelines spill more oil than wrecked tanker cars. Besides, the crude now traveling by rail is mainly drilled in North Dakota, where the local industry doesn’t appear eager to be boxed into pipeline routes.

Last year, a Koch Industries firm gave up after trying to build a pipeline that would transport North Dakota’s crude. So did a company called Enterprise Product Partners. Some observers say that given the brief lifespan of individual fracking wells, oil companies may prefer crude-by-rail’s flexibility.

Building more pipelines, including the ill-fated Keystone XL, would just squander money as the nation’s energy outlook evolves. Many business leaders are embracing the ongoing transition away from oil, gas, and coal by betting on green energy.

Even Warren Buffett’s starting to get on board. In addition to shedding its $3.7-billion stake in ExxonMobil, his Berkshire Hathaway holding company is pouring $30 billion into solar and wind power.

Meanwhile, the federal government is lumbering toward mandating the new tanker car design and leaving it up to individual states, counties, towns, and cities to muddle through their own oil-by-rail regulations.

What will it take to pull the brakes on this recklessness?

About 1,000 people live in Mount Carbon and Boomer, the largest towns directly impacted by the CSX accident. What if that train, ferrying 3.1 million gallons of oil, or another like it had derailed in a densely populated neighborhood? One of those fireballs could set Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, or Seattle ablaze.

Surely that would be it for the crude-by-rail business. Do we have to wait until a big city erupts into a fossil-fueled inferno before this madness reaches the end of the line?

Opinion Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:38:41 -0500
Women Over 65 Own Nearly a Third of Iowa's Farmland - Can They Prevent the Next Dust Bowl?

2015.3.2.Iowa.mainIn Iowa alone, women own about 14 million acres of farmland. (Photo: Trent . / Flickr)

So many older women are inheriting farms that some experts believe training them in land conservation may be society's best bet in protecting the food supply.

In her late 50s, Alice Ramsay returned to the Iowa farm where she’d grown up. She had graduated college in Missouri and spent most of her adulthood in Colorado employed as a teacher. But after her parents passed away, she bought up the inherited land from her brother and sister, and, in 2000, she moved back.

“I’d been gone for 30 years and I never had an idea I would come back to the farm—never ever,” Ramsay says. “But here I am. So I had to start at the ground level and go from there.”

Ramsay, now 72, first needed to get caught up on what was happening on the land she now owned, about 20 miles west of Des Moines. It was about 180 acres of hilly land that sloped down to the South Raccoon River. The rolling landscape made the land challenging to farm, and soil and water runoff from the higher ground constituted an ongoing issue. Oak savannas grew near the river, and grasslands surrounded a pond. A country road cut through the middle of the property.

A farmer had been renting the whole farm, where he grew corn and beans and raised cattle. Like her father, who bought the farm in 1943 and worked on it until his death, in 1992, Ramsay valued the conservation of this special place, a philosophy reinforced during her 10 years volunteering with a wildlife and education organization. “My purpose was to come back and do what’s right for the land,” she says.

Ramsay speaks like the former educator she is—with a curious mind and authoritative tone. But it wasn’t easy for her to walk up to the farmer who worked this land and direct him on the best ways to protect soil diversity, native wildlife, and water; he wasn’t necessarily considering the environmental impact when he farmed, partly because no one had asked him to. It was intimidating to walk up to a seasoned farmer and start poking around. And Ramsay didn’t know much about it to begin with.

She is not alone. Thousands of other women throughout the United States are in similar situations. In Iowa alone, women own about 14 million acres of farmland, which is significant because the health of the nation’s soil is crucial to the productivity of its farms and in feeding a growing population. In fact, so many older women are inheriting farms that some experts believe training them in land conservation may be our society’s best defense against Dust Bowls of the future.

Removing barriers, planting seeds

The nonprofit Women, Food and Agriculture Network reaches out to people like Ramsay through a program called Women Caring for the Land. More than 2,000 women have participated in the program, which piloted in 2008. The typical participant is a woman over 65 years old who owns farmland but has never worked in the fields. Many have inherited their land and are suddenly tasked with managing it; although some have been farm wives, most were left out of the decision-making process.

The program, which is funded in part by a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, teaches them how to practice conservation with a focus on soil health.

Jean Eells, an Iowa State Soil Conservation Committee member since 2002, developed the program after becoming aware of the lack of women landowners interested in conservation programs. “What fascinated me was how women as landowners were so invisible to the process,” Eells says. “Being invisible does two things: You think you don’t have any responsibilities [and] you’re just left out.”

Women Caring for the Land operates in seven Midwestern states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin—and 70 percent of its participants have so far made improvements on a total of about 50,000 acres. These include direct changes to land management, like planting cover crops, installing buffer strips, taking land that borders a river out of cultivation, restoring wetlands, and planting native wildflowers for pollinator habitat. But they can also include contractual changes and training—things like writing conservation practices into the lease, or meeting with a representative of the NRCS to review the farm plan.

Women Caring for the Land meetings are held in the style of a peer-to-peer learning circle, where each participant tells the story of her farmland, her goals, and her dreams for the land. “There’s a lot of emotions in these meetings because it’s the first time a lot of them have been in an environment where they can ask questions or share their stories … because they feel disenfranchised,” says Lynn Heuss, program coordinator for the Women, Food and Agriculture Network. “It’s a man’s world.”

Participants then visit farms—run by men or women—to see good conservation practices firsthand. They also get the chance to handle unfamiliar tools such as a soil penetrometer. This tool measures what’s called soil compaction, a major concern among farmers as it can suppress air and water from the soil and reduce crop yield.

This program may become even more critical as farmers get older. In the United States, the average age has risen to almost 60, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture. At the time of the 2012 census, one-third of farmers were 65 years or older, and many of them will be retiring soon.

“Until I went to these meetings, I didn’t feel like I could say a lot,” Ramsay says. She has since taken several steps, including voicing concern to her farmer tenant about erosion—her land is on a hill and soil washes down—and requesting a visit from an NRCS representative for advice on how to address the issue. She’s also talked to her farmer about using cover crops, which help keep nutrients in the soil and reduce erosion, thereby keeping it healthy during the nongrowing months; Ramsay says he’s been amenable to all the changes. She wants to leave the land in good shape for her three adult children, who will one day inherit it.

“We’re not doing anything different than what the men do,” Ramsay says. “We’re just taking more responsibility for our land.”

Focusing on soil health

Tillage and plowing are major sources of soil erosion, and were blamed for the 1930s Dust Bowl, when a severe drought in the Great Plains turned loose soil into dust that blackened the skies and displaced tens of thousands of farmers. Additionally, carbon dioxide is stored in soil, and when stirred up can be released into the atmosphere.

Through a program it runs called the National Resources Conservation Service, the USDA provides technical and financial assistance for soil health efforts, such as with the three-year grant to Women Caring for the Land.

The program launched in Iowa because a 2012 report by researchers at Iowa State University showed a need for educating women landowners on conservation. The report notes several significant trends in land ownership, including that women over the age of 65 own about 30 percent of the state’s farmland; women landowners also own more of the state’s rented farmland.

Although the act of renting land doesn’t necessarily preclude a tenant from caring about long-term investments in conservation, this arrangement can complicate those efforts. That’s why it’s so important for women landowners to become more informed and empowered, Eells says. Because if they don’t know the ins and outs of soil conservation, and they struggle to talk to their farmers about environmental stewardship, their hopes for better practices may never be implemented. And that puts the future of the American food supply at risk.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:25:35 -0500
Big Oil’s Lethal Game ]]> Art Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:11:07 -0500 Peace and Planet: The Wind and Rain of Nuclear Weapons Abolition

Wrecked framework of the Museum of Science and Industry in Hiroshima, Japan, shortly after the dropping of an atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945. (Photo via framework of the Museum of Science and Industry in Hiroshima, Japan, shortly after the dropping of an atomic bomb on August 6th, 1945. (Photo: Everett Historical /

In this address commemorating Bikini Day, March 1, 1954, the author lays out the strategy that will lead to the Peace and Planet Mobilization for a Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World, to be held April 26 in New York, on the eve and first days of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Bikini Day Commemoration - Japan Council Against A- & H-Bombs (Gensuikyo)

The 70th anniversary of the still-indescribable and unaccounted for crimes of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombings, and the 51st anniversary of the Bikini H-bomb test - 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs - provide opportunities for reflection. Equally important, they encourage us to redouble our commitments to eliminate these abominable weapons whose detonation - intentional or accidental - would inflict hell in its many forms and could end all life as we know it. This is a time to mourn the Bravo H-bomb's victims, and to rededicate ourselves to life and to human survival.

For three decades it has been my unique privilege to return to Shizuoka, Yaizu City, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Tokyo to make my small contributions to the Japanese and international movements for nuclear weapons abolition. I have learned from you in ways that have helped to build consciousness and the antinuclear, peace justice and freedom movements in the United States.

Here in Japan, I have been touched by the extraordinary courage and steadfastness of people like Oishi Mataschchi, who survived Bravo; Watanabe Chieko, Yamaguchi Senji, Tainaguchi Sumiteru, and Hibakusha [A-bomb survivors] like my good friend Kayashige Junko. I've also learned from the steadfastness of the Japanese nuclear abolitionists, anti-bases and peace activists, making your courage and steadfastness my own. So, as I begin, may I greet you with a most profound Arigatou gozaimasu [Thank you].

We face renewed nuclear arms races among all of the world's nuclear powers, and most dangerously, renewed US-Russian tensions - including the exercising of their nuclear arsenals in the struggle over Ukraine's future, a conflict instigated by NATO and European Union expansion.

I have painful words to speak today, so let me begin by honoring some of our victories. They remind us that people's movements can and do prevail. With the help of the Japanese peace movement and international allies, Hibakusha, who feared to show their faces, have become a powerful force in the world, speaking in the halls of the United Nations, from the podium in the UN General Assembly and being repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Our movement halted the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, whose fallout poisoned down-winders near and far, even thousands of miles away. In the 1980s, our movements forced what we now know was a temporary freeze in the US-Soviet arms race that had brought human survival within a hair's breadth of extinction. That movement played a major role in ending the Cold War. And in Kobe, Boston, New York, San Francisco and other cities, we prevented our harbors from being transformed into nuclear weapons bases. Since then, we have changed the international debate and discourse from politically safe but potentially omnicidal arms control to focus on the ifs, hows and whens of completely eliminating the world's nuclear weapons.

Friends, we again find ourselves living and struggling in perilous times. Warning of the increasingly imminent dangers of nuclear war and climate change, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight. We face renewed nuclear arms races among all of the world's nuclear powers, and most dangerously, renewed US-Russian tensions - including the exercising of their nuclear arsenals in the struggle over Ukraine's future, a conflict instigated by NATO and European Union expansion. And recent studies demonstrate that a relatively small nuclear exchange of 50 to 100 nuclear weapons, say in a war between India and Pakistan, could result in global cooling, famine and the deaths of up to 2 billion people across the Northern Hemisphere.

Against the massive, evil and seemingly unresponsive power of our so-called national security states, and here I include the Abe government as well as the nuclear powers, what is the ultimate source of our hope? Certainly, the vision of a nuclear weapons- and bases-free world, which we know is possible and which can serve as a foundation of true human security. Certainly, the history of our victories. And certainly, people's instinctual drive for our species' survival.

I take hope from our movements' victories, including those of the Civil Rights- and Vietnam-era peace movements. And over the decades, I have come to more fully understand the truth of an Italian antifascist novel I read as a high school student. In Bread and Wine, Ignazio Silone wrote:

In the Land of Propaganda . . . a man, any man, any little man who goes on thinking with his own head, imperils the public order . . . it is enough for one little man to say 'No! to murmur 'No!' in his neighbor's ear, or write 'No!' on the wall at night and public order is endangered.

And if they catch him and kill him . . .

Killing a man who says 'No!' is a risky business . . . because even a corpse can go on whispering "No! No! No! with a persistence and obstinacy that only certain corpses are capable of. And how can you silence a corpse?

Think of the power of Koboyama Aikichi's, the Daigo Fukuryu Maru's radioman, words that reverberate to this day across Japan and the world: "May I be the last victim of nuclear weapons." Or those of Watanabe Chieko, Yamaguchi Senji, and so many other Hibakusha, whose vision, courage and contributions have been beacons to a nuclear-free future.

Friends, in a recent statement written by Jayantha Dhanapala, the president of the 1995 NPT Review Conference, and Sergio Duarte, the former UN High Commissioner for Disarmament, they warn that many nations "are concerned with the growing risks to the integrity and credibility of the [NPT - Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] Treaty." They warn that this "lynchpin of international peace and security," which requires good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, is now under "a great shadow" with some of the nuclear powers disavowing the 13 steps agreed to during the 2000 Review conference, with the failure to implement the 64 steps of the 2010 Action Plan, and especially with the "lack of decisive progress on the implementation of the 2010 recommendations on the Middle East, as well as deterioration in the international situation."

All of these realities point to the seminal importance of our having as powerful an impact on April's NPT Review Conference as we can and to using the occasion as a unique opportunity to build our movements for nuclear weapons abolition.

They have reason for concern. Confronted by NATO's expansion to its borders and its conventional and high-tech weapons inferiority, Putin's Russia relies increasingly on its nuclear arsenal. Despite the recent reaffirmation of the Obama administration's commitment to work for a nuclear weapons-free world, the US is on track to spend at least a trillion dollars - a million millions - over the next 30 years to modernize its omnicidal nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. Tensions in East Asia are among the most likely triggers for 21st century great power war. And who among us has complete confidence that India-Pakistani tensions, Israeli arrogance, and terrorist threats will be contained. As Eric Schlosser reports, there have been so many nuclear weapons accidents that our survival is more a result of luck than of considered policy decisions.

All of these realities point to the seminal importance of our having as powerful an impact on April's NPT Review Conference as we can, and to using the occasion as a unique opportunity to build our movements for nuclear weapons abolition, for peace, justice and environmental sustainability for the longer term.

It is critically important that inside and outside the halls of power, we make our demands in inspiring ways that communicate our vision and commitment; engage diplomats, ordinary citizens and the world's press; and carry the world's hopes and expectations for a nuclear free world with our millions of petition signatures and omnipresence.

Friends, as Japanese society struggles with the legacies of its Fifteen Year War, now 70 years past, in the United States we are still in the midst of what is now our Fourteen Year War, begun with the Bush and Cheney exploitation of the murderous crimes of September 11, 2001. The US movement has grown older. Not unlike George Orwell's 1984, we now have a younger generation who have known - and often ignored - war on the empire's periphery for all of their conscious lives. For many of them, war and the existence of nuclear weapons are as constant and natural as the ocean's tides and the turning of the seasons.

This helps to explain why we are also using what we call the Peace and Planet mobilization for the NPT Review Conference to build new foundations and to create new vitality for our movement. New movement formations have been created at the state and national levels, older networks are being revitalized, and with our inspired social media Fact Countdown - using Facebook and Twitter technologies that I'll confess not to fully understand - we are reaching and engaging the rising generation, without whose energies we cannot prevail. To broaden and to increase our collective power, we are working to create more issue-integrated movements, engaging and joining with economic, social and racial justice activists and those committed to reversing climate change.

I wish that all of you could join our actions, which will include the International Peace & Planet Conference for a Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World at the historic Cooper Union in New York. Our speakers will engage us from podiums once used by the former slave and abolitionist Fredrick Douglas, President Lincoln, and others who have played critical roles in the struggles for human security and justice.

We'll be rallying and marching - with Hibakusha in the lead - to the United Nations, where our millions of petitions will be presented. Religious leaders will hold an interfaith service for nuclear weapons abolition. We will launch a global peace wave for nuclear weapons abolition that will move from time zone to time zone around the world. There will be presentations and demonstrations at the sites of the nuclear powers' delegations to the United Nations, and lobbying inside the UN Many members of Gensuikyo's delegation will be hosted in communities from Boston to San Francisco, where you will meet, inspire and encourage our grassroots activists and local organizations.

Friends, it is heartening to know that our efforts are already having their impacts. When I spoke with a political officer in UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane's office a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the Hibakusha Tainiguchi Sumeteru and Thurlow Setsuko will be honored and speaking at the beginning of our conference. The officer responded almost immediately that she knew that they have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Our analyses, actions and commitments are already reverberating in the halls of power.

In our organizing, we are also looking beyond the NPT Review, to our struggles which we know must be longer-term. All of the organizing, petition circulating, educational forums, media interviews and articles, social media campaigns, conversations and network building needed to impact the NPT Review Conference, will also forge our relationships, skills, local and international organizations for the future. And, as has been the case since the petition campaign that followed the Bikini H-Bomb and the first World Conference against A- & H-Bombs, Gensuikyo will serve as a beacon and driving force for the creation of a nuclear-weapons free world.

Let me conclude by serving as a small bridge from one abolitionist movement to another. When he played his major political and inspirational roles in building the abolitionist movement that ended slavery in the United States, Frederick Douglas taught that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." He also taught that "If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

Friends, on to New York and to the nuclear-free world that we and all future generations deserve!

Opinion Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:14:12 -0500
Telecom Strikers Win Limits on Outsourcing

FairPoint workers in New England have ratified a new contract, ending the longest U.S. telecom strike in decades.

The walkout began October 17. Workers voted up the deal over the weekend and will be back on the job this Wednesday, after 18 weeks away.

The 1,700 workers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine staff call centers and build and maintain phone and Internet lines. Most are represented by the Electrical Workers (IBEW), which has a local in each state; the 300 call center workers in all three states are members of Communications Workers (CWA) Local 1400.

The unions’ key goals were to curtail work transfers—FairPoint’s practice of moving work around among the three states, which has often forced workers to move or quit—and subcontracting.

“I’ve seen contractors doing bad, dangerous work,” said Sherry Willey, an IBEW member in Vermont. “Contractors come in and do the work and then—boom—they’re done… It’s dangerous for the regular workers who will go back and do maintenance.”

The company’s final offer, imposed at the end of August, had no protections against subcontracting or work transfers. It also created a two-tier wage system for new hires, eliminated new-hire pensions, froze current workers’ pensions, and increased health care costs.

The newly ratified agreement limits subcontracting, mandating that it not cause layoffs or erode the bargaining unit. Work transfers are restricted to 0.9 percent of the annual work.

“I think we came out pretty darn good,” said Willey.

The union refused two-tier wages. But the four-year deal does wipe out pensions for new hires, and cuts in half current workers’ future accruals. For workers retiring more than 30 months after the signing, retiree health benefits will vanish too. Management accepted the union’s proposal on health care—which increases costs to employees, though not as much as the imposed contract did.

“It’s a compromise,” said Glenn Brackett, an IBEW business agent in New Hampshire. “Both sides are equally unhappy.”

Not So Fair

North Carolina-based FairPoint bought Verizon’s New England operations in 2008 despite a campaign by local unions to stop the sale.

As the unions expected, the company was ill-equipped to grow so fast. It quickly went under, declaring bankruptcy in 2011.

Wall Street investment firms pulled the company out of bankruptcy. Now six of them hold a majority of FairPoint’s stock; the biggest shareholder is a private equity firm called Angelo, Gordon.

Workers believe that after slashing costs and pocketing the resulting windfall, the owners plan to sell off what’s left of the company—exactly the kind of behavior private equity firms are known for.

Hawaiian Telcom went through a near-identical chain of events in 2011 and 2012: sold off by Verizon, it went into bankruptcy, and investors swooped in and imposed a brutal contract.

“These are vulture capitalists,” said Mike O’Day in Vermont, a district vice-president of Local 1400. “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I was on the bargaining team for Verizon in 2003.”

Built a Network

Months before the strike, the unions started gearing up for a tough contract campaign.

“I’m not sure exactly in the other states how it went, but in Maine we’re more organized and mobilized than we’ve ever been,” said IBEW member Julie Dawkins.

Members work all over the three states, sometimes in groups as small as three. To keep everyone plugged into the contract campaign, “well before bargaining, we trained mobilizers,” said Amy Masciola, who was hired by the four locals to coordinate action.

The locals worked with Masciola, who’s based in Maine, to train activists as chairs, coordinators, and mobilizers in a communication network. Each person had about 10 people to keep informed.

Diane Winton, president of the Maine IBEW local, said the system helped build relationships and quickly disseminate updates: “Our members are much more well-informed than they were in the past.”

As bargaining heated up, Mainers held informational pickets every Thursday morning, giving way to daily pickets once the strike began. They wore red and took group photos, “solidarity selfies,” for the “Fairness at FairPoint” Facebook page.

The unions recruited members “who were comfortable with public speaking,” Winton said, to tell others about their fight. About 50 Maine-based “road warriors” have gone out to speak at nearby union halls and labor council meetings.

Strike Funds Scarce

When the strike began, workers had to shift from just telling their story to asking for financial support.

Strikers in Vermont collected unemployment. Those in Maine and New Hampshire never persuaded state governments to grant them eligibility.

CWA's national strike fund, created after the 1989 NYNEX strike, supported Local 1400 members. But IBEW has no similar fund; instead it typically depends on members’ individual savings.

That was augmented by a shared solidarity relief fund the four locals set up. Donations topped $350,000.

“When they [FairPoint] went into bankruptcy, we started telling people way back then, ‘you need to start putting money away,’” said Dawkins.

Some people did. “I felt the general pulse a long time ago,” says Jeff Dorn, an IBEW steward in Maine. “My wife and I set money aside, starting a couple years back.”

Still, “I feel really bad for Maine and New Hampshire,” said Willey, in Vermont. Even with unemployment and savings, it was tough for her and her husband—who both struck.

Dawkins served on the rank-and-file committee that reviewed applications for solidarity relief funds. “We unfortunately are seeing people that, no matter how prepared they were, they’re running out of money,” she said in early February.

In Vermont, CWA members seemed to bear the brunt of fundraising. “I feel like the IBEW leadership is pretty absent, and it’s a shame,” said Teamster Jim Fouts during the strike. Fouts is a member of a Vermont Labor Solidarity Committee, a network of activists organized during the 2014 bus driver strike, which mobilized to support the FairPoint strikers too.

Chasing Scabs

Just 11 union members crossed the picket lines.

Some couldn’t have, even if they’d wanted to. After the strike began, call center work was moved to Ohio and Florida.

The scab workforce doing IBEW members’ work was contracted through another company. Willey believes many were telecom workers who’d been fired in other states.

IBEW members formed “mobile pickets,” she said, to follow the scabs and protest at their jobsites. They were easy to spot: FairPoint put them all up in the same hotels, and they came with work trucks or rental vans.

When Dorn and his co-strikers realized scabs were hiding out in offices, waiting for picketers to go home, they “broke up into two teams, morning and afternoon.” In the middle of each day, the afternoon team would get a call from the morning crew, and “myself and my partner would go pick up where they left off,” said Dorn.

Even late in the strike, Dawkins said her local still had picketers seven days a week at almost all locations, though their numbers lagged a bit as some sought work to pay the bills.

Friends, family, and members of other local unions and community groups joined pickets and rallies.

Meanwhile, according to local press, customer complaints ticked up. An outage took down Vermont’s 911 system in November, prompting an ongoing investigation by the state’s public service department. The union did its best to let customers know how to file complaints with public agencies.

The Silent Treatment

In January, the unions and management agreed to federal mediation. Members were relieved to know that the two sides were back at the table—but for weeks, that’s about all they knew.

Local bargainers said a “gag order” prevented them from sharing what happened in mediation. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said mediators do not have the power to impose a gag order—but parties in mediation may agree to keep their negotiations secret.

Pickets continued, but the “gag order” demobilized members. Some strikers said they worried that if they said anything bad about FairPoint in the press, the company would walk away from mediation.

In New Hampshire, CWA Steward Stephanie Hanscomb said the union “tapered off things like public rallies in public squares once in federal mediation.”

“Both sides have agreed to a ceasefire. We can still mobile picket, but… we really can’t do anything to disparage the company,” Winton explained during this period. “It’s frustrating to the members.”

As members prepare to return to work, some of this frustration has dissipated. “We’re a lot stronger of a union now,” Willey says. She wonders if workers at Hawaiian Telcom could have protected their pensions if they’d struck too.

Deregulation's Effects

Part of the backstory to this fight is the decades-long unraveling of any meaningful regulation of public utilities. Back when there was just one phone company, in exchange for its legalized monopoly that company had to accept tight government oversight over its service and prices.

But the 1984 breakup of the Bell System began a steady retreat from public control. A 2012 law change even took away the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission’s power to force companies to fix service problems. The commission still accepts customer complaints, but mostly can’t do anything about them.

Both unions backed bills last year in the Maine statehouse. Current law mandates that mergers (including the sale of telecom companies) “do no harm” to state residents. Based on the unions’ hunch that FairPoint will be sold again, “we wanted to change that standard to ‘public good,’” Amy Masciola said.

The other bill demanded that companies keep call centers in state. Diane Winton said her local mobilized members to contact their legislators, pack the room for hearings, and speak on the bills—but neither became law.

This year in Maine and New Hampshire the unions will support legislation to impose automatic cost penalties on the company at fault for service failures. Getting customers better service would likely require FairPoint to maintain a significant local workforce.


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News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 10:05:14 -0500
Latest Cyber Bank Robbery Demonstrates That Government Prefers Crappy Tech Security for Its Own Benefit

Sloppy engineering and covert backdoors are allowed to happen.

“Software flaws account for a majority of the compromises organizations around the world experience." —Shon Harris, CISSP Exam Guide, Sixth Edition 

A gang of cyber thieves known as the Carbanak Ring recently made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in an online bank robbery that spanned the globe. They launched their caper with a salvo of malicious emails. The very fact that such a simple approach was effective demonstrates how cyber intrusions are enabled by a hi-tech sector which offloads the cost of its sloppy engineering onto the public. Never mind the industry-wide campaign of subversion conducted by government spies. Poor cyber security doesn’t just appear out of thin air. No sir, it’s baked in.

News of the theft broke a few days back in the New York Times which reported that over 100 banks in 30 countries had been hit by intruders. According to the Times they gained access to corporate networks by sending bank employees emails laced with malicious attachments. This is a technique known as phishing, or spear-phishing if the e-mail recipients are specifically targeted.

Additional facts provided by the computer forensic specialists at Moscow-based firm Kaspersky indicate that the attacker’s spear-phishing operation leveraged specially crafted Microsoft Word documents which capitalized on security holes in the Windows operating system. For technical wonks, here are the gory details:

“All observed cases used spear phishing emails with Microsoft Word 97 – 2003 (.doc) files attached or CPL files. The doc files exploit both Microsoft Office (CVE-2012-0158 and CVE-2013-3906) and Microsoft Word (CVE- 2014-1761).”

Kaspersky’s findings highlight an issue the mainstream press is loath to address. While it’s true that people often click on things they shouldn’t, like infected email attachments, having users shoulder all of the responsibility is a pointless exercise in blaming the victim. Users should be able to open documents. That’s what documents were made for: to be opened. The same holds with regard to passwords and web browser hyperlinks. Software can be implemented to enforce password complexity requirements so that users choose strong passwords. Likewise users should be able to click on web links without ending up on the receiving end of a drive-by download.

The sad truth is that cyberattacks like the one chronicled by Kaspersky flourish due to sloppy engineering. For instance, intruders commonly rely on unpatched flaws, known as zero-day bugs, to steal data and wreak havoc. It’s part of the public record that the Stuxnet worm developed by the NSA utilized multiple zero-day flaws, as did the Equation Group’s malware. So go ahead, hector users until they’re paranoid and erect all the digital safeguards you want. Malicious software payloads wielding zero-day bugs will sail through your defenses as if they weren’t even there.

One reason sub-standard engineering is so commonplace is that security isn’t a genuine priority for most high-tech vendors. It’s more of sales pitch, a branding scheme used to entice more susceptible members of the audience. Why spend money auditing code when it’s more lucrative to simply push new products out into circulation as quickly as possible?

Existing market incentives encourage this stance as high-tech vendors are allowed, by law, to treat security incidents as a negative externality. Ever wonder what’s buried in the fine print of most End User License Agreements (EULAs)? Now you know. When a bank is hacked as a result of poorly designed software, it’s the bank that pays to clean up the mess, not the software company that sold them the faulty apps. Until this changes and high-tech companies are held financially liable for their engineering screwups, we can expect the ongoing parade of massive data breaches to continue unabated.

But there’s another more sinister reason why cyber security sucks: private sector monoliths like RSA collaborate with spies to construct hidden backdoors. In an effort to steal secrets, the spies at Fort Meade have worked with major American high-tech companies and gotten them to embed subtle yet intentional flaws in their products.

Some of these backdoors go all the way down to the hardware, where they’re accessed using obscure firmware hacks. As someone who has built rootkits, I can attest that the hardware-level stuff is nasty: it can bridge air-gaps, successfully resist eradication and persist across multiple platforms. The underlying attack vector is so powerful that strong encryption is of little protection. If U.S. spies can manipulate a machine’s firmware, as described in leaked NSA documents, swiping an encryption passcode is a cakewalk.

It’s ironic that U.S. officials complained loudly about Chinese companies embedding backdoors in their products when classified documents reveal the United States is a truly prolific actor in this domain. During the uproar following the first round of Snowden leaks, President Obama made symbolic gestures about changing the NSA’s predilection for zero-day bugs only to leave a gaping loophole for cases which demonstrated “a clear national security or law enforcement need.”

So if you’re wondering what’s behind the never-ending stream of high-profile cyber-attacks? Bad security isn’t an unfortunate accident. It’s a matter of official policy. A top-down scheme that benefits a small circle of spies at the expense of society’s collective well-being. Computer security for the 1%.

News Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:57:07 -0500
My War on Terror: Letter to an Unknown US Patriot

 2015.3.2.TomDispatch.main (Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: The US Army)

Dear American Patriot,

I wish I knew your name. I’ve been thinking about you, about all of us actually and our country, and meaning to write for a while to explain myself.  Let me start this way: you should feel free to call me an American nationalist.  It may sound ugly as hell, but it’s one way I do think of myself. True, we Americans usually reserve the more kindly word “patriot” for ourselves and use “nationalist” to diss other people who exhibit special feeling for their country.  In the extreme, it’s “superpatriot” for us and “ultranationalist” for them.

In any case, here’s how my particular form of nationalism manifests itself. I feel a responsibility for the acts of this country that I don’t feel for those of other states or groups.  When, for instance, a wedding party blows up thanks to a Taliban roadside bomb, or the Islamic State cuts some poor captive’s head off, or Bashar al-Assad’s air force drops barrel bombs on civilians, or the Russians jail a political activist, or some other group or state commits some similar set of crimes, I’m not surprised.  Human barbarity, as well as the arbitrary cruelty of state power, are unending facts of history. They should be opposed, but am I shocked? No.

Still -- and I accept the irrationality of this -- when my country wipes out wedding parties in other lands or organizes torture regimes and offshore prison systems where anything goes, or tries to jail yet another whistleblower, when it acts cruelly, arbitrarily, or barbarically, I feel shock and wonder why more Americans don’t have the same reaction.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t blame myself for the commission of such acts, but as an American, I do feel a special responsibility to do something about them, or at least to speak out against them -- as it should be the responsibility of others in their localities to deal with their particular sets of barbarians.

So think of my last 12 years running as my own modest war on terror -- American terror.  We don’t, of course, like to think of ourselves as barbaric, and terror is, almost by definition, a set of un-American acts that others are eager to commit against us.  “They” want to take us out in our malls and backyards.  We would never commit such acts, not knowingly, not with malice aforethought.  It matters little here that, from wedding parties to funerals, women to children, we have, in fact, continued to take “them” out in their backyards quite regularly.

Most Americans would admit that this country makes mistakes. Despite our best efforts, we do sometimes produce what we like to call “collateral damage” as we go after the evildoers, but a terror regime? Not us. Never.

And this is part of the reason I’m writing you. I keep wondering how, in these years, it’s been possible to hold onto such fictions so successfully. I wonder why, at least some of the time, you aren’t jumping out of your skin over what we do, rather than what they’ve done or might prospectively do to us.

Let’s start with an uncomfortable fact of our world that few here care to mention: in one way or another, Washington has been complicit in the creation or strengthening of just about every extreme terror outfit across the Greater Middle East. If we weren’t their parents, in crucial cases we were at least their midwives or foster parents.

Start in the 1980s with the urge of President Ronald Reagan and his fundamentalist Catholic spymaster, CIA Director William Casey, to make allies of fundamentalist Islamic movements at a time when their extreme (and extremist) piety seemed attractively anticommunist.  In that decade, in Afghanistan in particular, Reagan and Casey put money, arms, and training where their hearts and mouths were and promoted the most extreme Islamists who were ready to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose, a Vietnam in reverse.

To accomplish this, Washington also allied itself with an extreme religious state, Saudi Arabia, as well as Pakistan’s less than savory intelligence service.  The result was major support for men -- President Reagan hailed them as “freedom fighters” and said of a visiting group of them in 1985, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers" -- some of whom are now fighting us in Afghanistan, and indirectly for what came to be known as al-Qaeda, an organization which emerged from the American-Saudi hothouse of the Afghan War.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

Similarly, American fingerprints are all over the new Islamic State (IS) or “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.  Its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, came into existence in the chaos and civil strife that followed the American invasion and occupation of that country, after Saddam Hussein’s military had been disbanded and hundreds of thousands of trained Sunni personnel tossed out onto the streets of Iraq’s cities.  Much of the leadership of the Islamic State met, grew close, and trained potential recruits at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.  Without the acts of the Bush administration, IS would, in fact, have been inconceivable.  In the same fashion, the U.S. (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, including a seven-month bombing campaign, helped create the conditions for the growth of extreme militias in parts of that country, as the U.S. drone assassination campaign in Yemen has visibly strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In other words, each of the terror organizations we categorize as the unimaginably barbaric Other has a curiously intimate, if generally unexplored, relationship with us.  In addition, in these years, it’s been clear (at least to those living in the Greater Middle East) that such groups had no monopoly on barbarity.  Washington’s extreme acts were legion in the region, ranging from its CIA torture chambers (although we called them “black sites”) to Abu Ghraib, from global kidnappings to images of a U.S. helicopter gunning down civilians in the streets of Baghdad.  There were also a range of well-publicized vengeful acts of war, including videos of U.S. troops laughing while urinating on enemy corpses, trophy photos of body parts taken by American soldiers as souvenirs, photos of a 12-member “kill team” that hunted Afghans “for sport,” and a striking “lone wolf” nighttime terror rampage by an American staff sergeant in Afghanistan who killed 16 villagers, mainly women and children. And that’s just for starters.

Then there’s one matter that TomDispatch has been alone here in focusing on. By my count, American airpower has blown away parts or all of at least eight wedding parties in three countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen), killing at least several hundred revelers over the years, without the slightest shock or upset in the U.S.

That’s one reason I’m writing you: the lack of reaction here. Can you imagine what would happen if the planes and drones from another country had wiped out eight weddings here in perhaps a dozen years?

On a larger scale, Washington’s invasions, occupations, interventions, bombings, and raids since 9/11 have resulted in a rising tide of civilian deaths and exiles in a fragmenting region.  All of this, including those drone assassination campaigns in the backlands of the planet, adds up to a panorama of barbarism and terror that we seldom acknowledge as such.  Of course, the terror outfits we love to hate also love to hate us and have often leapt to embrace the extremity of our acts, including adopting both the orange jumpsuits of Guantánamo and the CIA’s waterboarding for their own symbolic purposes.

Perhaps above all, Americans don’t imagine drones, the sexiest high-tech weapons around, as purveyors of terror.  Yet our grimly named Predators and Reapers armed with “Hellfire” missiles, their pilots safe from harm thousands of miles away, buzz daily over the Pakistani tribal backlands and rural Yemen spreading terror below. That this is so should be indisputable, at least based on accounts from the ground.

In fact, Washington’s drone assassins might fit into a category we normally only apply to Them: “lone wolf” terrorists searching for targets to blow away.  In our case, it’s people who have what Washington identifies as behavioral “traits” associated with terror suspects. They are eliminated in “signature strikes.” So here’s my question to you: Why is it that Americans generally don’t grasp the impact of such a new form of warfare in the Islamic world, especially when, at the movies (as in the Terminator films), we usually root against the machines and for the humans scurrying underfoot?  The word American drone operators use to label their dead victims -- “bugsplat” -- reveals much.  The term goes back at least to the non-drone shock-and-awe air attacks that began the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and reflects a disturbing sense of God-like, all-seeing power over the “insects” below.

Of course, part of the reason so little of this sinks in here is that all such acts, no matter how extreme, have been folded into a single comforting framework.  You know the one I mean: the need for the national security state to keep Americans “safe” from terror. I think you’d agree that, by now, this is a sacrosanct principle of the post-9/11 era that's helped expand the national security state to a size unimaginable even in the Cold War years when this country had another imperial enemy.

Safety and security are much abused terms in our American world.  The attacks of 9/11 created what might be thought of as a national version of PTSD from which we’ve never recovered, and yet the dangers of Islamic terrorism, while perfectly real, are relatively minor.  Leave aside the truly threatening things in American life and take instead an obscure example of what I mean.  Even the most modest research suggests that toddlers who find guns may kill or wound more Americans in a typical year than terrorists do.  And yet the media deals with death-by-toddler as an oddity story, not a national crisis, whether the result is the death of a mother in a Wal-Mart in Idaho or the wounding of a father and mother in an Albuquerque motel.  Nor does the government regularly hype the dangers of “lone wolf” toddlers.  And despite such killings, the legality of “carrying” guns (for “safety” -- of course! -- from unspecified non-toddler bad guys) is barely questioned in this country as the practice spreads rapidly both in numbers and in the kinds of places to which such weapons can be brought.

And don’t even waste your time thinking about the more than 30,000 deaths by vehicle each year.  Americans coexist with such spectacular levels of carnage without significant complaint so that car culture can continue in the usual fashion.  Yet let some distant terror group issue an absurd threat by video -- most recently, al-Shabab in Somalia warning of an attack on the Mall of America in Minnesota -- and the media alarm bells go off; the government issues warnings; the head of the Department of Homeland Security (worrying about his budget tied up in Congress) takes to TV to warn shoppers to be “particularly careful”; and pundits debate just how serious this danger may be.  Forget that the only thing al-Shabab can hope for is that a disturbed doofus living somewhere in Minnesota might pick up one of the guns floating so freely around this society and head for that mall to do his damnedest.

And in the constant panic over our safety in situations where very little danger actually exists, our own barbarity, seen as a series of defensive acts to ensure our security, disappears in a sea of alarm. 

So how to respond? I doubt you agree with me this far, so my response probably carries little weight with you. Nonetheless, let me offer it, with a caveat of sorts. Despite what you might imagine, I’m neither a pacifist, nor do I believe in a perfect world.  And no, I wouldn’t disband the U.S. military.  It’s clear enough that a strong, defensive-minded military is a necessity on this planet.

After 13 years, though, it should be obvious that this country’s military-first policies throughout the Greater Middle East and widening areas of Africa have been a disastrous bust. I have no doubt that a far less barbaric, less extreme, less militaristic foreign policy would, in purely pragmatic terms, also be a more effective one on every imaginable score -- unless, of course, your value system happens to center on the continued building up of the national security state and the reinforcement of its “security” or of the military-industrial complex and its “security.” In that case, the necessity for our barbarity as well as theirs becomes clearer in a flash.

Otherwise, despite much that we’ve heard in this new century, my suspicion is that what's right and moral is also what's practical and realistic.  In that light, let me offer, with commentary, my version of the Ten Commandments for a better American world (and a better world generally). Admittedly, in this day and age, it could easily be the Twenty or Thirty Commandments, but being classically minded, let me just stick with 10.

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D'oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country -- Iran -- with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none -- not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous -- has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?

If you want to boil these commandments down to a single injunction, it might simply be: Don’t do it! Or in a moment when nothing Washington does isn’t, it seems, done again: Stop and think before acting!

Of course, there’s no way to know what a national security policy based on these 10 commandments might really be like, not when Washington is so thoroughly invested in repeating its failed acts.  It’s now deep into Iraq War 3.0, intent on further slowing the “withdrawal” from Afghanistan, and pursuing the usual drone assassination strategies, as from South Asia to Iraq, Yemen, and Libya things only worsen and jihadist organizations grow stronger.

Yet campaign 2016 is already shaping up as a contest among candidates who represent more of the same, much more of the same, and even more than that of the same. One of them has tellingly brought back as his advisers much of the cast of characters who planned the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Even if the above commandments weren’t to add up to a more practical, safer, and more secure foreign (and domestic) policy, I would still be convinced that this was a better, saner way to go. As Americans demonstrate regularly when it comes to just about anything but terrorism, life is a danger zone and living with some level of insecurity is the human condition.  Making our safety and security ultimate values is a grotesque mistake. It essentially ensures a future state that bears no relation whatsoever to a democratic polity or to the values this country has championed.  Much that Americans once professed to cherish, from liberties to privacy, has already been lost along the way.

In your heart, you must know much of this, however you process it. I hope, under the circumstances, you’ll give some thought to what that word “patriot” should really mean in this country right now.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Engelhardt 

P.S. In my own war on terror, I’ve recently been thinking that a few “thou shalts” are in order. To give you an example: Thou shalt honor the heroes of our American world -- and no, I’m not talking about the U.S. military! I mean people like journalist James Risen, who barely avoided jail for doing his job as a reporter and has now dedicated his life to “fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder,” or activist Kathy Kelly who is at present in a federal prison in Kentucky for having protested American drone strikes at an Air Force base in Missouri.

Opinion Mon, 02 Mar 2015 09:50:20 -0500