Truthout Stories Sat, 31 Jan 2015 12:40:19 -0500 en-gb Mourners for Black Queer and Trans Lives Attacked by Castro Bar

"We are here because the gay community has been silent. We need you in the streets with us. We honor the lives of murdered black trans women and queers."

These were the words that Toad Hall, a bar in San Francisco's Castro District, chose to silence this Saturday. These were the words that provoked a white bar patron to hurl a trashcan at a group of queer and trans people of color.

This group of queer and trans people of color, supported by white allies, had taken to the bars and the streets to challenge mainstream gay communities and organizations to take action against anti-Black racism. The Castro, specifically, is known for being hostile to queer and trans people of color, perpetuating anti-black racism through its cultural norms and practices. Similarly, mainstream gay organizations continue to align themselves with white, middle-class experiences at the expense of their most marginalized community members. And despite having radical roots in the struggles of queer and trans people of color, such as Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, mainstream gay organizations continue to de-center race and racism from their work. Except when it is convenient and profitable, that is.

We entered Toad Hall and the SF Badlands Bar to invite the mostly white clientele of these bars to join us in affirming that Black Lives Matter. Instead, we were met with unabashed hostility. We chose Toad Hall because of its history of displacing Black gay community from the Castro. Wearing red for blood—red for STOP—we held photos of murdered Black trans women and queers next to flameless candles and led a ritual of mourning. Forming a circle in the middle of the dance floor, we looked outward to face the bar patrons whom we wanted to challenge, speak to, and move. In the faces of the crowd, we saw a sea of mixed responses— ambivalence, rage, compassion, confusion, and discomfort.

"Toad Hall, which side are you on? Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!"

We began to chant the message we came to share. The DJ gave us the middle finger and cranked up the music to an ear-splitting level. The energy shifted. It became tense. Our bodies and voices were taking up necessary space. Our presence was threatening the bar management's complicity with histories of racism in the Castro. Our words were unsettling the leisure of Toad Hall patrons who have through inaction been complicit with a society that condones state-sponsored violence against Black lives.

As we called out the mainstream gay community's complicity with white supremacy and transphobia, we experienced violence and aggression. Things escalated over the course of the ten minutes we were on the dance floor. What began as micro-aggressions, such as turning up the music, turned into physical violence and verbal attacks. Bar patrons yelled derogatory names. Someone threw a glass. Doors slammed. Finally, a white bar patron hurled a large trashcan into the center of our circle, hitting two of us in the back and on the head.

We wanted to mourn. We wanted to draw connections between the radical history of the Castro and current struggles for Black liberation. We wanted to reveal how silence and complicity align with state-sanctioned violence against Black queer and trans people. And it was clear Toad Hall was not on the freedom side. Our presence revealed the deep rifts between the movement for queer and trans people of color liberation—which is intimately entwined with the broader struggle for Black liberation—and white mainstream gay communities.

The hostility we faced has not deterred us. We will continue to make space for our mourning and resistance. And we will continue to challenge white-dominated LGBT institutions to recognize their role in this movement along the way.

Whether or not you are able to join actions in the streets, join us in this effort by signing our open letter to LGBT organizations nationwide. Our letter stands next to other nation-wide efforts to put pressure on mainstream LGBT organizations to take concrete action against anti-black racism. And while some mainstream LGBT organizations have publically offered their condolences and support for Michael Brown and his family, these gestures are not enough. We need LGBT organizations to be committed to challenging anti-black racism and violence in every aspect of their work; we need LGBT organizations to be invested in a movement in which all Black lives matter.

News Sat, 31 Jan 2015 12:09:59 -0500
Say It Ain't So

What should sports fans do when our heroes turn out to be frauds?

Maybe you grew up watching Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire breaking home run records, as I did, only to find out that they (and just about everyone else in professional baseball) had been using performance-enhancing drugs.

Perhaps you also remember the 2000 Spanish Paralympics basketball team. Ten of the 12 members of the team feigned mental disabilities to win gold medals in a sports scandal that will likely go down as one of the most depraved and insidious in history.

Further back, maybe you even watched the point-shaving scandal of the 1978-'79 Boston College basketball team unfold.

Even if you don't like sports, you've probably heard about "Deflategate."

NFL officials recently found that the New England Patriots' game footballs were inflated to levels below the league's required minimum during a 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts. That win sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

Under-inflated footballs are easier for quarterbacks and running backs to grip and for wide receivers to catch, especially in cold weather. By letting a little air out of the balls that only they used, someone in the Patriots' organization (yet to be determined) gave them a little boost.

Given the score, that maneuver almost certainly didn't impact the final outcome of the game.

But this scandal raises an even more troubling question than if the cheating had been more flagrant: Is there any length to which certain players, coaches, and administrators won't go to gain an unfair advantage?

This isn't even the first major Patriots' scandal of the decade, after all.

Whether it's George Brett violating regulations for smearing pine tar on baseball bats, or Rosie Ruiz jumping out of the crowd to "win" the 1980 Boston Marathon, it seems like there's no corner that can't be cut.

Fans and players alike tout "love of the game" as the primary motivator for athletes. But playing fair and square has become an exception rather than the rule.

So, league officials and regulators in all sports must tackle this quandary: Will they crack down on cheating once and for all in the name of fair play?

The sports community is standing at a fork in the road. Which path they choose will speak volumes about their priorities.

One is a system that works tirelessly to enforce rules and create accountability so that everyone has a fair shot and nice guys don't always finish last.

The other looks more like professional wrestling, where fans understand that the game is rigged from the get-go. It's entertainment, not sports.

As a lifelong sports fan, I want to believe that championships are rewarded to those who played the best, not who cheated the best.

Opinion Sat, 31 Jan 2015 11:47:21 -0500
Texas Town at Center of Latest Earthquake Swarm Questions Fracking Impact

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January has been a shaky month for Irving, Texas. Twelve earthquakes rattled the city during a 48-hour period at the end of the first week of the new year.

"It was very scary. I was at my job on the 4th floor in a cubicle surrounded by glass," Tonya Rochelle Tatum, a loan specialist who works in Irving, told DeSmogBlog. "One quake seemed like it lasted five minutes. No one knew what to do."

The earthquake swarm shows no sign of stopping. On January 21, five more quakes struck.

The quakes are relatively small, all of them registering under 4 on the Richter Scale. None has caused significant damage to property or resulted in bodily harm — but that hasn't stopped people from worrying about their personal safety and property.

A Dallas suburb, Irving sits atop the Barnett Shale, a geologic formation rich in natural gas. Seismic activity is not something the region is known for, and the fact that the earthquakes are now in the news has many fearing their home values will drop.

Residents want to know what is causing the quakes, the likelihood they may increase in size and if anything can be done to stop them. A public meeting held January 21 by city officials to address the earthquakes and other issues overflowed the 250-person capacity of the Irving Arts Center.

"Everywhere they're fracking they have earthquakes," someone in the audience yelled out, according to the Dallas Morning News.

As in Oklahoma, where over 400 quakes rattled the state last year, officials had no answers for anxious residents and no plan of action. Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne simply reminded residents that there hasn't been fracking in Irving for years and that the city had never permitted wastewater to be injected underground.

Crack that opened in a home in Edmond, Oklahoma after an earthquake hit. (Photo: ©2014 Julie DermanskyCrack that opened in a home in Edmond, Oklahoma after an earthquake hit. (Photo: ©2014 Julie Dermansky

However, earthquakes do not respect municipal boundaries, and fracking industry activities — including the use of waste disposal wells, where wastewater from fracking sites is injected at high pressure into wells deep underground — is commonplace throughout the region surrounding the Dallas-Fort Worth metro center.

Texas Railroad Commission Refuses To Investigate

Earthquakes began in the Barnett Shale region only after the start of the fracking boom in 2008. Seismic activity has been reported in Arlington, Fort Worth, Cleburne and the Azle area, where last year they experienced an earthquake swarm.

The Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, came up with new rules for wastewater injection wells in October 2014. However, the regulators don't believe there is scientific proof the wells have caused the earthquakes, rejecting a moratorium on their use in the Azle area, which was called for by some citizens.

The Commission decided not to investigate the seismic activity around Irving, according to StateImpact Texas, although spokesperson Ramona Nye says the Commission is monitoring the situation. "Specifically, there are no disposal wells in Dallas County, and there is only one natural gas well in the vicinity, and it is an inactive well," Nye said.

If approved, the latest budget proposal by Joe Strauss, Republican Texas Speaker of the House, would fund a "TexNet Seismic Monitoring Program" at the University of Austin. The program would improve Texas' seismic monitoring network and help get to the bottom of what is causing the surge in earthquakes.

Tonya Rochelle Tatum and Kyev Tatum outside the Harmony Missionary Baptist Church. (Photo: ©2015 Julie Dermansky)Tonya Rochelle Tatum and Kyev Tatum outside the Harmony Missionary Baptist Church. (Photo: ©2015 Julie Dermansky)

Tatum has no doubt that the quakes are being caused by the fracking industry. Her husband, pastor and civil right activist Kyev Tatum, has been doing community outreach on the consequences of fracking for years. The Fort Worth church they worship in has cracks they believe were caused by seismic activity.

Pastor Frank Douglas Lawson Sr. points out a crack in the wall of his church that opened after the fracking started. (Photo: ©2015 Julie Dermansky)Pastor Frank Douglas Lawson Sr. points out a crack in the wall of his church that opened after the fracking started. (Photo: ©2015 Julie Dermansky)

Irving sits above dormant fault lines. "Wherever we live, there are faults in the earth, so there is always a risk of earthquakes," Brian Stump, a Southern Methodist University seismology professor, told Fox News. He is part of a team tasked with determining whether the earthquakes in Irving are the result of the fracking industry or natural events. Stump concedes that wastewater disposal can trigger small earthquakes, but the question of the cause of the quakes in Irving is still open.

"It is not a good sign we are having this many earthquakes at this frequency," Mohamed Veya, a software engineer who works in Irving, told DeSmogBlog. Whenever he feels a quake, he confirms it on the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) site. He is waiting to see what the USGS concludes the cause to be before passing judgment.

Concerns About Quakes In Oklahoma

The U.S. Geological Survey has not yet determined if the Irving quakes are industry related, either, but has stated that wastewater injection into deep geologic formations is a likely contributing factor to the increase in seismic activity.

The phenomenon known as "injection-induced seismicity" has been documented for nearly half a century, according to the USGS. In a recent report, the agency warned that the chances of a magnitude 5.5 or greater quake in central Oklahoma are rising due to the increasing seismic activity.

Already this year, 65 quakes over magnitude 3 have rattled Central Oklahoma, according to the tally kept by Stop Fracking Oklahoma. Concerns about the quakes are increasingly raised by residents.

A motion to ban oil and gas drilling in some parts of Stillwater was considered at a recent council meeting, but ultimately the council was split on rezoning an area to prevent mining activity including oil and gas.

Meanwhile, politicians in Oklahoma have introduced a new bill that would eliminate home rule to prevent municipalities from banning any facet of the fracking industry. Home rule gives municipalities control over zoning, and has been citied as a legal argument in fracking bans passed in New York State.

Anti-fracking Oklahoma activist Angela Spotts at a fracking industry site near her home on the outskirts of Stillwater, Oklahoma  (Photo: ©2014 Julie Dermansky)Anti-fracking Oklahoma activist Angela Spotts at a fracking industry site near her home on the outskirts of Stillwater, Oklahoma (Photo: ©2014 Julie Dermansky)

"The new bill shows they are scared of us because our numbers our growing," Angela Spotts, Oklahoma homeowner and one of the founders of Stop Fracking Payne County," told DeSmogBlog.

Almost no one Spotts meets has any doubt the fracking industry is the cause of the quakes. However, many of these same people are unwilling to speak out since they or their family members work in the oil and gas industry. The same is true for those living in the Barnett Shale region in Texas.

Pastor KyevTatum, an anti fracking and civil rights activist next to a fracking site in Fort Worth Texas. (Photo: ©2015 Julie Dermansky)Pastor KyevTatum, an anti fracking and civil rights activist next to a fracking site in Fort Worth Texas. (Photo: ©2015 Julie Dermansky)

Pastor Tatum has no doubt that the quakes are connected to the fracking industry, either. Referring to those in the area unwilling to make the connection, Tatum says, "It is like you are in a bad relationship that you know is bad but you just don't do anything about it. God is a simple god. He made nothing complicated. We have made it complicated, so when you mess with his earth you cause things to happen." Twelve earthquakes in less than 48 hours is his proof.

News Sat, 31 Jan 2015 09:31:48 -0500
Shut It Down Now! Former Nuclear Plant Technician Bob Rowen on Nuclear Power

Bob Rowen was a Humboldt PG&E IBEW 1245 nuclear control technician at the power plant. He talks about being a control technician at the plant and what happened when he began to stand up for health and safety as a whistleblower. His fight to protect the workers and the community cost him his job when he raised health and safety concerns and he along with another nuclear control technician Forrest Williams were retaliated against and illegally terminated. He also recounts an effort to set up a criminal conspiracy frame-up by PG&E to charge him with planning to blow up the plant and a false document was sent to the FBI to blacklist him throughout the country to prevent him from working in any other nuclear plant in the US. He also reports on the role of his union IBEW 1245 and the media when a reporter from NBC Donald Widener tried to cover the story and was retaliated against by PG&E in actions that destroyed his career.

Rowen has written a book about his struggle called My Humboldt Diary: A True Story of Betrayal of the Public Trust, Nuclear Power at Humboldt Bay.

News Fri, 30 Jan 2015 12:12:03 -0500
"It Started as Just a Hope": Robert Redford on Founding the Sundance Film Festival

We speak with director, actor and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford about the festival’s history, now celebrating its 31st anniversary. Sundance is now among the largest film festivals in the country, with some 50,000 attendees. However, it looked very different when it began more than three decades ago. "The first year, there was maybe 150 people that showed up. We had one theater, maybe 10 documentaries and 20 films, and now it’s grown to the point where it’s kind of like a wild horse," Redford says. We also discuss the festival’s efforts to promote women, people of color and young people — on both sides of the camera. This comes as the latest "Celluloid Ceiling" report from researchers at San Diego State University has found men directed 93 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2014. Women directed just 7 percent, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 1998.


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

AMY GOODMAN: So you have a film, Robert Redford, that is premiering here at the Sundance Film Festival, and that’s pretty rare for you. I mean, you’re constantly—

ROBERT REDFORD: It’s very rare. Wasn’t my idea.

AMY GOODMAN: —premiering in Hollywood.

ROBERT REDFORD: It wasn’t my idea.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this film that—well, you were supposed to do this with Paul Newman?

ROBERT REDFORD: Once upon a time, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you chose the person who most reminded you of Paul Newman to replace him?

ROBERT REDFORD: No, no, it was originally—look, the history of this project goes back about 14 years—that’s how far—right after 2000. When I read the book by Bill Bryson, I literally laughed out loud, and I saw it as a possible third picture for Paul and I to do, because it had the same—it had the same tone, but a different environment. So I thought, "Well, that would be good." But then, as time went on, getting a script, that took a long time; getting a director, that took a long time; and then Paul’s health declined. And so, pretty soon it was obvious that he couldn’t do it. He said, "I can’t do it."

So the first thing that came to my mind was Nick Nolte, because I think that Nick—Nick and I are roughly the same age. I think we started—I personally think he’s a good actor, and I think he’s smart. He’s really interesting. Maybe a little undisciplined, but that’s sort of what makes it fun. So, he and I, I think, had very similar backgrounds when we were both young. I was—I was off the rails when I was young, and I pulled it together.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you pull it together?

ROBERT REDFORD: I just got—I came back from Europe. I went to Europe to study art, and it was a dark period. And I came back, and I decided I really needed to focus on a healthier life, got married, had children, started a career. That’s what did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk more about the film, mentioning Paul, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it’s where you got the name for this festival?

ROBERT REDFORD: Well, yeah. I did not want it. I didn’t want it. I thought it was too self-serving. And so, the group that I was involved with, we were looking for a name for the area. And Sundance came up, and I said, "Well, it’s a great name, but I don’t want to use it, because it looks like it’s self-serving, because of the film." They said, "Well, it’s just a great name. It’s just a great name," and tried to use all kinds of reasons why it should be used. "If you get up to the top of the mountain, the sun dances on the snow." And I said, "Ugh, I don’t think it’s a good idea." But I was outvoted. I think it is a great name. I was just afraid of there being too much association, that I was looking to capitalize on the film. I said, "What if the film is a disaster?"

AMY GOODMAN: Can you believe that the Sundance Film Festival is 31 years old?


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think of it as one of your children?

ROBERT REDFORD: You know, it’s interesting. I think of it—because it started—it was a big idea back in 1985. It was a big idea with a small start, because there was no support. There was only one theater in Park City. Sundance, the place, is not here in Park City; it’s 40 miles away, higher up in the mountains, tucked away. It’s where our lab programs are. That’s where the development process is. That’s where our nonprofit, Sundance Development, for the documentaries and the film and the theater and so forth, music. Park City works out for us because they have something we need, which is theatrical distribution capability, and we give them something they need, which is a venue to attract people. So, the first year, there was maybe 150 people that showed up. We had one theater, maybe 10 documentaries and 20 films. And now it’s grown to the point where it’s kind of like a wild horse. I can’t begrudge it. I mean, that was the dream. It started as just a hope. Then, when it became a reality, it started to have its own momentum.

AMY GOODMAN: And the point of it? Since you certainly, you know, have great acclaim in Hollywood, you didn’t need another venue, as all the creative ways you participate in the film industry, as director, as an actor. So why Sundance? You had it made.

ROBERT REDFORD: Well, it wasn’t so much about me. It was what I saw happening with the industry. During the '60s and ’70s, particularly during the ’70s, studios controlled film. And in those days, many studios would allow smaller films to be made under their banner. And I was very fortunate because some of the stories that I wanted to tell, about the country that I grew up in, went into the gray area. You know, during the Second World War, which is my first memory, it was a lot of red, white and blue. You know, we were—there were a lot of slogans, and we were supporting the soldiers off to war. I had family that was in the war, family that had died in the war. So when it was over, there was such a lot of propaganda about what a wonderful country we were to have this and to have that. I thought, it is a great country, and I'm pretty lucky to live in it, but as I grew up and heard slogans like "It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but it’s how you play the game," and I realized that was a lie. Everything mattered, just if you won or not. And I realized that this was a country that is very much about winning.

And so, I decided I wanted to make a—I wanted to make a film about what I would call the grayer area of America, where it’s more complex, issues are more complex. So, the first one was Downhill Racer. And I was able to do that because I was doing a larger film at Warner Bros. And then The Candidate. I wanted to do a film about—back in 1970, that said we elect people not by substance, but by cosmetics, and it’s how you look, and that had a lot to do with it. And I wanted to make that point—a person not at all qualified, but he looked like he was, but he wasn’t. And so, it was about that. And then other films about the American West, the settling of the American West by mountain men, then All the President’s Men. So those were films that I was allowed to make if I was doing a larger film.

But then it changed. In 1980, the industry began to be more centralized, and they were following the youth market, because that’s where the money was, which I understand. But it looked like it was going to be at the expense of some of those other films that were more about the humanistic side of cinema, stories about America, American way of life, complex stories. And so, in my mind, I thought that was very valuable. I thought that’s a wonderful use of film. You can have the big blockbusters. You can have—with technology coming along, creating more special effects possibilities, you knew that they were going to use that, and that’s great. But I felt it was going to be at the expense of giving up those other kinds of films, so that’s what led to Sundance.

And I thought, "Well, what if we can start a development process where young artists can have a voice, but we can help them develop their skills so they can at least get their films made?" That was the labs that started in 1980. Then, once that happened and we started a development process at Sundance, suddenly we realized that we were helping them develop their skills so that they could get their films made, but there was nowhere to go, because the mainstream had not allowed any space for them. And that led to the idea of a festival. So, originally, it was just an idea that maybe we can have a community of filmmakers coming together and share each other’s work. And maybe if we were lucky, somebody will come, and somebody else will come.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about diversity in all sorts of ways. There’s a big discussion at Sundance in promoting women, for example, in the film industry—

ROBERT REDFORD: Very much so.

AMY GOODMAN: —on both sides of the camera. One of the women who talks about how important Sundance has been in her life is Ava DuVernay. In 2012, she won best director, the first African-American woman to win best director. That was—

ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, she’s on our board.



AMY GOODMAN: And now the controversy over Selma. I mean, she has been nominated—the film, for best film, for the Oscars. As for best director, she didn’t get it. David Oyelowo did not get nominated for best actor. And it led to this hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. And many have cited the 2012 survey conducted by the L.A. Times that found Oscar voters are 94 percent white, 76 percent male and an average age of 63 years old. Your thoughts about this?

ROBERT REDFORD: I’m older than that. That’s my first thought. I don’t occupy myself with what the Academy is doing or what its criteria is. I’m a member of the Academy, but I don’t really occupy myself with what its thinking is, because if it gets controversial, I don’t know that I know enough about what prompts it. I do believe in diversity. I think diversity is healthy. I think diversity in film is really healthy. And I remember—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the Academy needs to diversify?

ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, I do, yeah. I think it’s only healthy. I mean, there was a while when you didn’t have any women directing. Now you have women stepping up, which I think is really important. I think the future would be quite well—do quite well with focusing on women and young people. I think the youth of tomorrow, I think we need to spend time thinking about them, particularly on the environment. You know, if we’re going to be polluting this planet, what are we doing for the new generation? What are we giving them to work with? And the same thing in film. You know, young people have new ideas, and you want to create space for them to develop. And women, I think, have a lot to bring [inaudible]. The country needs more nurturing, that’s for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Robert Redford, Oscar-winning director, actor, environmentalist, founder of the Sundance Film Festival, now in its 31st year. I spoke to him Wednesday night here in Park City, Utah. Here at Sundance in 2013, for the first time, women directed 50 percent of films in the U.S. dramatic competition. That stands in stark contrast to Hollywood, where women filmmakers actually appear to have lost ground over the last 17 years. The latest "Celluloid Ceiling" report from researchers at San Diego State University found men directed 93 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2014. Women directed just 7 percent, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 1998. Again, that was 17 years ago. Sundance alumni Laura Poitras, director of Citizenfour, and Gillian Robespierre, director of Obvious Child, and Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, were among just 17 women directors whose films broke into the top 250 highest-grossing films this past year. When we come back, we speak to Robert Redford about his new film here at Sundance, A Walk in the Woods. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s "Glory" from the film Selma. The song sung by John Legend and Common has been nominated for an Academy Award. The film Selma has been nominated for best film.

News Fri, 30 Jan 2015 11:42:51 -0500
Moving Your Money: An Interview With Finance Expert Michael Shuman

Why is it so hard to invest your money locally? Grassroots activists trying to build economic alternatives in the US encourage investing in the businesses in your neighborhood, instead of in far-off corporations. It turns out that it's not so easy to move your money; there are even laws against it in the US. We talk with local finance expert Michael Shuman, and profile a grassroots success story CERO Group that's funding its start-up without deep pockets or Wall St cash. All that and a few thoughts on the NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg you won't find in the US media.

News Fri, 30 Jan 2015 11:38:24 -0500
The Death Penalty: Chaotic Tedium

Georgia is set to execute a man with an IQ of 70. Oklahoma is scheduled to execute a man whose guilt is questionable. California continues to fill up its Death Row.



(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Death Row is a place of excruciating order, relentless tedium. Days are measured in minutes, motion in inches. When turmoil erupts, it does so at the periphery. Usually. This week is an exception: Turmoil is inside and out, North, South, East and West.

Georgia is set to execute a man with an IQ of 70.

Oklahoma is scheduled to execute a man whose guilt is far from certain.

Massachusetts, where the death penalty was abolished 65 years ago, is being forced to empanel a federal court jury for the Boston Marathon Bombing case, limiting its members to persons not opposed to execution - a minority of the state's population.

California, where the last execution took place nine years ago, continues to fill its inactive Death Row by issuing more death sentences than any other state. There are now 749 residents on Death Row.

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the brief of Death Row inmates in Oklahoma, arguing that the drug planned to sedate them will constitute torture. That the drug is the same used in the only other states that actually practice execution by lethal injection - Florida, Texas, Ohio and Missouri - puts all future executions by that mode into question.

It is impossible to avoid the question: Who is served by this chaos?

Is it the victims' families? Not according to the mother of the child killed by the man Oklahoma executed last week. She wanted nothing to do with the killing. Not according to Bud Welch, father of a victim of Timothy McVeigh, who said it was more important for him to be able to forgive McVeigh than to kill him. Not according to the hundreds of members of the Forgiveness Project and Murder Victims Families For Human Rights who wash their hands of the process and argue that the death penalty prolongs and deepens their agony.

Is it the state? Not if budget is considered. A case that includes the death penalty option carries exponentially higher court costs (These vary from state to state, with the average being double the expense at the first trial and 10 times the expense through appeals).

Is it the local community? Not if deterrence is the goal. The death penalty has no impact on reducing violent crime or restoring civil order following a trauma.

Is it the federal government? Not if efficiency is the goal. The cost is greater, the effort more, the outcome predictably biased by race and class and the likelihood that the sentence will be carried out extremely low. Only three of the 74 people sentenced to death since 1988 have been executed.

Is it the nation? Not if international opinion matters. Most industrialized nations have abandoned execution as a form of punishment and consider the US bizarrely behind the times. In fact, the crisis about drugs for lethal injection began when pharmaceutical companies in Europe refused to provide drugs that will be used to kill.

Is it the American people? Not if squeamishness regarding method is a measure. Americans who tell Gallop pollsters they favor execution want it to be painless, clean, simple and distant. They choose lethal injection over earlier forms that troubled them - electrocution, hanging, burning at the stake, stoning, beheading and such.

That lethal injection is not all they hoped forces the question. In fact, when Gallop changes the question to, "If you could choose between these two approaches, life in prison without parole, or the death penalty," support drops. To be sure, people who have performed heinous acts or constitute a threat to society should never be restored to freedom, but killing such criminals has proven counterproductive.

In 1972, when the Supreme Court instituted its moratorium in Furman v. Georgia, it did so stating that the death penalty, as practiced in the United States, was "arbitrary and capricious." Data show it remains so. It is also now chaotic. It is time to stop pretending a value-centered democracy can execute its citizens in a way that honors national commitment to dignity for the individual, regardless of who the person is or what that person has done. The time for a national solution is now.

Opinion Sat, 31 Jan 2015 11:42:48 -0500
National Donors Pick Winners in State Elections

If money is influence, the Republican Governors Association wielded more of it than anyone else last year in state elections nationwide.

The group, led in 2014 by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, gave roughly $69 million to candidates, political parties and independent groups — more than double its Democratic counterpart — as it tried to elect Republicans to the top office in as many states as possible. The group gave more than any other donor to state-level elections last year — from races for governor to legislator to supreme court justice.

The association applied an effective strategy that's becoming more common: giving money using multiple paths to circumvent limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties, a Center for Public Integrity analysis has found.

In addition to the money it spent directly on TV ads and other campaign efforts, the group gave about $14 million to candidates including Illinois' new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. It also gave more than $3 million to state parties, including those in Texas and Maine.

The bulk of the checks it wrote, however, totaling about $50 million, went to other political groups that in turn spent the money on state races.

Its efforts largely paid off. Republicans gained four governorships in 2014 and only lost two, leaving them holding the reins in 31 states.

The group "was designed to supplement what candidates could do on their own in the states," said Dick Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor who turned the association into a powerhouse in the mid-1980s. "Obviously, it's grown beyond that."

Its competitor, the Democratic Governors Association, gave $32 million and ranked second among the sugar daddies of 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity's analysis. The group only picked up one new governor's mansion, with Pennsylvania's Tom Wolf defeating incumbent Republican Tom Corbett. (Alaska's Republican incumbent was beaten by an independent, Bill Walker.)

Together, the two governors' groups and other national political organizations gave significantly more than political parties, unions, multimillionaires or corporations that also contributed heavily to influence state-level campaigns. The donations went beyond races for governor. The funds made their way into lower-ballot contests such as attorney general, state supreme court justice and state legislator.

The national groups also cropped up on the lists of the biggest donors in most states, outgiving homegrown political players in a sign that all politics may now be national.

In all, the top 50 political givers spread more than $440 million to the people and groups pushing candidates for state office, the Center for Public Integrity found. The list is thick with billionaires such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and corporations such as telecom titan AT&T Inc.

They also were more successful in backing winners than most donors, becoming the de facto kingmakers of state politics.

"It's an amazing amount of power concentrated in a handful of organizations," said Ed Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics that collected some of the data used for the analysis. "If people want to understand why government is dysfunctional, you don't have to look much farther than this list."

The Citizens United effect

To identify the kingmakers, the Center for Public Integrity looked at donations given to 2014 state candidates and political parties during 2013 and 2014, as tracked by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Reporters also collected state and federal contribution records for 140 independent organizations that aired political TV ads during 2014 state elections.

The analysis does not include funders of groups that don't disclose their donors to any state or federal agencies — so-called "dark money" groups. And it does not total overall contributions, because some donors received money from other donors on the list. [More details on the methodology.]

The findings paint a picture of independent groups playing a bigger role in financing state-level elections than even political parties or the candidates' campaigns, one effect of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The 2010 ruling allowed many groups to accept and spend unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and wealthy patrons to influence elections as long as they did not coordinate with the candidates. Thus, they could bypass limits on giving to a candidate or political party and leapfrog ahead.

The top 50 donors identified by the Center for Public Integrity gave more than 40 percent of their contributions to independent political groups, surpassing what they gave to either candidates or political parties.

The strategy allows donors to multiply their influence, said Larry Noble, former general counsel of the FEC who now works as an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center.

"You give the maximum to the candidates, but then you want to give more," he said. "You give to the party committee that's also going to support the candidate. You give to outside groups that are also going to support the candidate."

The mega-donors thus control more of the political messages that determine which issues are central to the campaign — roles previously played by candidates and political parties. And in exchange, they may expect the newly elected officials to dance with the ones that brought them.

Behind the curtain

National political groups have their own heavy-hitting donors. But because the groups function as the middlemen of political giving, voters often don't know the original source of the cash behind a politician's election.

The Republican Governors Association, for one, served as a conduit for billionaires and corporations looking to influence governors' races.

The five largest contributors behind the group's gargantuan giving power all appear separately on the Center for Public Integrity's top 50 donor list: Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson; billionaire David Koch, who runs the Kansas-based Koch Industries with his brother; electricity giant Duke Energy; investment firm ETC Capital, whose founder, Manoj Bhargava, also founded the company behind the 5-Hour Energy drink; and billionaire hedge-fund manager Paul Singer, according to IRS records from 2013 and 2014.

Meanwhile, four of the five largest contributors to the counterpart Democratic Governors Association were also familiar names from the top 50 list: Michael Bloomberg and branches of three labor unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

The Republican and Democratic governors' associations employ another common strategy that both amplifies and obfuscates their giving: contributing to "an outside group with a good-sounding name" to make support of a candidate look more diverse and to help attract different constituencies, Noble said.

For example, state records collected by the Center for Public Integrity show that the Democratic Governors Association gave more than $6 million to a group called Making Colorado Great, while the Republican Governors Association gave nearly $5.5 million to Grow Connecticut. The Colorado and Connecticut organizations then spent millions airing TV ads in their states' respective gubernatorial contests.

"It's name branding," Noble said. "If you were a teacher and you see an ad from a teachers union, you're going to give it a lot more credibility than an ad from the DGA."

Diverse giving becomes trendy

All but a handful of the top 50 mega-donors used more than one avenue to spread their gifts. And most gave money to influence races in more than one state.

Billionaire hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin, for example, gave more than $4.6 million before the election to the campaign committee of Rauner, the Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Worth about $5.5 billion, according to Forbes, Griffin and his soon-to-be ex-wife Anne also gave at least $2.2 million to independent political groups that backed state candidates, such as the Republican Governors Association, and more than $500,000 to state GOP parties in Illinois and Florida.

A representative for Griffin declined to comment.

Some of the top donors also gave widely. Sixteen of the top 50 contributors gave to 50 or more state-level candidates running in 2014.

Getting what they paid for

Nearly 85 percent of the candidates backed directly by the top 50 donors won their elections in 2014, a far better success rate than the typical political contributor, who backed winners only 52 percent of the time.

Duke Energy, for example, had a 94 percent success rate after supporting 381 different candidates.

For corporations, in particular, political giving is a way to ensure a seat at the table once a lawmaker is elected, said Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt. Giving across the aisle improves their odds of having an ally in office come January.

"They'll give to the incumbent and also the challenger just in case the challenger wins," Levitt said. "They'll give more to leadership positions because leadership positions are gateways to access for committees, for legislation, for broader regulation."

Mass media giant Comcast picked winners in 93 percent of the more than 1,000 candidates it backed. It gave nearly $1.7 million directly to candidates, spreading it widely in 36 states.

"The contributions that the company makes are because we operate in a highly regulated industry," said Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice, adding that most candidates backed are incumbents. "The decisions that are made by legislatures control our business."

In addition to its national giving, the Philadelphia-based Comcast gave heavily in its home state. Top recipients were Gov. Tom Corbett and running mate Jim Cawley, both Republicans, who together raked in $107,000 from the state's top broadband provider but lost re-election. Hedging its bet, Comcast also gave $1,000 to Wolf, who won the governorship from Corbett.

Duke Energy, another company regulated by states, divvied up more than $500,000 among the hundreds of candidates it backed, many of whom ran for office in North Carolina, where the company is headquartered.

Additionally, the electric utility donated more than $210,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Duke Energy may have been trying to boost its support in the Sunshine State, where it has faced massive criticism for charging customer fees for nuclear plants that do not — and may never — provide power. Florida's governor and legislature are responsible for naming the members of the commission that regulates the utility and allows such fees.

"We do not make contribution decisions on single issues," Duke Energy spokesman Chad Eaton said. "Our employee-led PAC considers an array of issues before any decisions are made."

In general, he said, Duke Energy donates to candidates who demonstrate "support for public policy issues that are important to our business, customers and communities" in the six states where it provides electricity.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, meanwhile, gave nearly $2.7 million to 568 candidates in 34 states and had a 64 percent win rate. It contributed more than half million dollars to Democrat Pat Quinn's failed bid to retain the Illinois governorship, but saw more success with the $410,000 it gave to Wolf's successful run for governor in Pennsylvania. In both states, the Republican opposition had supported scaling back public pensions or preventing unions from deducting union dues directly from members' paychecks.

Money does not always guarantee a win, of course, and a lack of funds doesn't necessarily foretell a loss.

In Maryland's governor's race, former Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat, outraised Republican Larry Hogan several times over yet lost in one of the biggest upsets of election night. Brown was hurt by low popularity ratings that no giant war chest could fix, according to Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. And because Hogan accepted public funds for his campaign, he was limited on how much money he could spend yet also freed up to spend time on the campaign trail, not the fundraising one.

And some of the top benefactors saw little return on their campaign investments.

Billionaire physicist Charles Munger Jr., son of the Berkshire Hathaway executive of the same name, gave nearly $300,000 to 45 Republican candidates in 2014. Only 13 won for a 29 percent success rate.

The nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, also fared poorly when backing candidates directly — only three of their 13 candidates won.

Allies in office

Most of the more than 6,300 state officials elected in November began work this month, shaping and creating policy across the country in 50 governors' mansions and 99 legislative chambers — 11 of which flipped from Democratic to Republican control in the 2014 election.

For some big donors, that means the candidates they backed can now fight for their causes in state office. Or they might just be more willing to take a phone call from a benefactor who has a legislative wish list.

Noble said candidates typically know which donors they have to thank for their success — even when patrons filter their donations through independent groups.

And now, for some top givers, the real campaigning is about to begin.

Rauner, the newly sworn-in Republican governor, for one, is already gearing up for battles with the veto-proof Democratic-controlled legislature in Illinois as he pushes his stated goals of plugging the state's budget deficit and strengthening ethics laws. He isn't just counting on good will or smooth talking to win over potentially reluctant legislators. He's counting on cold, hard cash to help make the case.

Rauner and two top donors, Griffin and shipping supply magnate Richard Uihlein, poured $20 million into the governor's campaign committee in the final two days of 2014, which Rauner reportedly plans to use to back other candidates who support his policies.

Rauner's new war chest will enable the new governor to be in a state of "perpetual campaign" — to air commercials aimed at persuading state legislators or to donate to other lawmakers' re-election campaigns in exchange for support of Rauner's agenda, said Christopher Mooney, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

In the past, a governor might have promised state legislators financial backing for development projects in their districts or helped them acquire contracts or new jobs.

"Instead of building somebody a playground in the school, he'll be able to donate money to their campaign," Mooney said.

And if they don't do want he wants? "He'll be able to fund an opponent," he said.

News Fri, 30 Jan 2015 11:00:55 -0500
Trouble Already Brewing for Saudi Arabia's New King

The death of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz last Friday marked a passing of the torch in Saudi Arabia's kingdom. His replacement – and brother – Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud has come at a tenuous time, with people now questioning his involvement in terrorist organizations and the country's shaky human rights record.

Salman, who is 79 years old, has held notable positions throughout his life, including serving as the governor of Riyadh and acting as the nation's defense minister since 2011. He's won numerous awards for his social work and endeavors, headed a multitude of cultural institutions and has been a part of development projects on the Arabian Peninsula and around the Muslim world.

But who is Salman underneath the pomp and circumstance and what does his new position mean for the country?

Although some have viewed Salman as an excellent mediator, his first week in office has been marred by the public beheading of four citizens. One of the men who was executed, Mousa bin Saeed Ali al-Zahrani, had been accused of luring young girls to his home, plying them with alcohol and raping them. However, after the validity of his trial was questioned and appeals from his family were made, the former king Abdullah promised to re-investigate his case. When Abdullah died that hope also died, along with al-Zahrani.

Public beheadings are common in Saudi Arabia, with more than 80 performed in 2014, and 16 already performed in 2015. In 2014, one of these events was caught on film and posted on social media sites. This led many to wonder why the United States rarely spoke about the massive human rights abuses that regularly take place in the kingdom.

One outlet, the Middle East Eye, took it upon themselves to compare the laws and punnishments in Saudi Arabia with the brutality the west decries in ISIS:

Even further, an article in Foreign Policy suggests that Salman's past relationships with dubious characters and fund \raising events is highly problematic:

"Salman has an ongoing track record of patronizing hateful extremists that is now getting downplayed for political convenience. As former CIA official Bruce Riedel astutely pointed out, Salman was the regime's lead fundraiser for mujahideen, or Islamic holy warriors, in Afghanistan in the 1980s."

Although it should be noted that support for the mujahideen during the war with the Soviets in Afghanistan was supported not just by Saudi Arabia, but by the USA (who saw it as a proxy war against communism), his ties to Saudi charities in Bosnia raise a few more eyebrows.

"Reprising this role in Bosnia, Salman was appointed by his full brother and close political ally King Fahd to direct the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SHC)...By 2001, the organization had collected around $600 million — nominally for relief and religious purposes... In 2001, NATO forces raided the SHC's Sarajevo offices, discovering a treasure trove of terrorist materials: before-and-after photographs of al Qaeda attacks, instructions on how to fake U.S. State Department badges, and maps marked to highlight government buildings across Washington.

The government of Saudi Arabia denied all knowledge of the terrorism-related activities that charities they've worked with or funded were involved in.

However, Salman, above all, has been referred to as a pragmatic leader, who is adept at balancing the competing needs of Saudi society. Many experts contend that life on the peninsula will likely continue on a similar path, as him and his brother often followed the same school of thought. Yet for human rights activists, women, and those who suffer under some of the nation's incredible abuses, more of the same is hardly welcome news.

News Fri, 30 Jan 2015 10:40:41 -0500
Community-Owned Energy: How Nebraska Became the Only State to Bring Everyone Power From a Public Grid

In the United States, there is one state, and only one state, where every single resident and business receives electricity from a community-owned institution rather than a for-profit corporation. It is not a famously liberal state like Vermont or Massachusetts. Rather, it is conservative Nebraska, with its two Republican Senators and two (out of three) Republican members of Congress, that has embraced the complete socialization of energy distribution.

In Nebraska, 121 publicly owned utilities, ten cooperatives, and 30 public power districts provide electricity to a population of around 1.8 million people. Public and cooperative ownership keeps costs low for the state's consumers. Nebraskans pay one of the lowest rates for electricity in the nation and revenues are reinvested in infrastructure to ensure reliable and cheap service for years to come.

"There are no stockholders, and thus no profit motive," the Nebraska Power Association proudly proclaims. "Our electric prices do not include a profit. That means Nebraska's utilities can focus exclusively on keeping electric rates low and customer service high. Our customers, not big investors in New York and Chicago, own Nebraska's utilities."

Payments (in lieu of taxes) from the state's publicly owned utilities exceed $30 million a year and support a variety of social services throughout the state—including the public education system.

How the state went public

Nebraska has a long history of publicly owned power systems dating back to the beginnings of electrification in the late 1800s. Initially, these co-existed with small private utilities. However, in the post-World War I era, large corporate electric holding companies backed by Wall Street banks entered the market and began taking over smaller private and municipal systems.

Using their financial and political power, these corporations dramatically consolidated the power industry in Nebraska and attempted to stop new cooperatives and publicly owned utilities from forming. During this time more than one-third of the state's municipal utilities were sold to private corporations.

Tired of abusive corporate practices, in 1930 residents and advocates of publicly owned utilities took a revenue bond financing proposal straight to the voters, bypassing the corporate-influenced legislature which had previously failed to pass similar legislation. It was approved overwhelmingly—signaling both popular support for publicly owned utilities in the state and also the beginnings of their resurgence.

Led by powerful Nebraska Senator George W. Norris—the driving force behind the publicly owned Tennessee Valley Authority—a series of state and federal laws were passed including: the state's Enabling Act (1933), which allowed 15 percent of eligible voters in an area to petition for a decision on a publicly owned utility; the Public Utility Holding Company Act (1935), which forced the breakup and restructuring of corporate electricity monopolies; and the Rural Electrification Act (1936), which provided financing for rural electricity projects. By 1949, Nebraska had solidified its status as the first and only all-public power state.

Every Nebraskan can help make decisions

Local control and the possibility for democratic participation are defining features of Nebraska's publicly owned electricity system. At the ground level, public utilities and cooperatives are run by publicly elected power district boards, cooperative boards, or elected city councils (often through appointed boards). These bodies establish budgets, establish service standards and policies, and set prices.

Regularly scheduled meetings of power boards and councils are open to public involvement and comment. Should they so wish, every Nebraskan has the opportunity to become involved in the decisionmaking of their local electricity provider.

One such example relates to the increasing use and proliferation of renewable energy facilities. While the state remains heavily reliant on coal and nuclear sources to provide low-cost energy to consumers, interest in renewable energy—primarily wind—has taken off in recent years. In 2003, electricity consumers, many of whom drove more than 100 miles for the event, participated in an eight-hour deliberative polling survey for the Nebraska Public Power District (NPDD)—a public corporation owned by the state of Nebraska that supplies energy to 600,000 people via local, publicly owned utilities and cooperatives.

The topic at hand was the potential addition of more than 200 MW of wind energy by 2010. Ninety-six percent of the participants supported the wind project, with 50 percent agreeing it was the right size and 36 percent wanting it expanded (compared to just 3 percent who wanted it reduced).

In addition to its other wind power facilities, in 2005 NPDD began operating the Ainsworth Wind Energy Facility, the nation's 2nd-largest publicly owned wind farm consisting of 36 turbines generating up to 59.5 MW of energy. In 2011, the state's energy plan acknowledged both that power generation from wind had doubled every two years since 2006 and that developing just 1 percent of the potential energy from wind in Nebraska would satisfy the state's entire peak demand.

Moreover, public ownership of electricity generation and distribution in Nebraska is complemented by another seemingly socialist idea—planning.

The Nebraska Power Review Board is a state agency that oversees the publicly owned electricity system. In addition to its regulatory functions—such as monitoring rate increases and arbitrating conflicts—the five person Review Board (appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature with party, occupational, and term limit restrictions) "oversees the preparation and filing of a coordinated long-range power supply plan," as well as the location and construction of new electricity generation facilities.

Toward a century of local control

A common concern with public ownership of larger scale systems is that it can lead to inefficiency, unaccountability, and bureaucracy. But Nebraska's nearly 100-year-old experience with a completely public and community-owned electricity system demonstrates that this does not necessarily have to be the case.

The principles of subsidiarity and local control can, in fact, be preserved through a networked mix of publicly owned institutions at various scales without sacrificing efficiency or service quality.

Of course, public ownership alone is not a fix-all solution. It does, however, provide an opportunity for a community, a city, or even a whole state to become actively involved in economic decisionmaking on important matters affecting their lives, their environment, and their future.

]]> (Bethania Palma) News Fri, 30 Jan 2015 10:08:59 -0500