Truthout Stories Wed, 02 Sep 2015 04:40:25 -0400 en-gb Thomas Edison Was Right About Solar Power

Solar powerIt's time to tap the earth's inexhaustible sources of energy in the nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles away that we call our sun. (Image: Solar power via Shutterstock)

Famed inventor Thomas Edison brought us electric lights, phonographs, movies and even the first research and development laboratory.

But in 1931, he also was one of the first promoters of renewable energy - especially solar.

That year, he described our approach to energy to two industry magnates of the day: Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.

He told them, "We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using nature's inexhaustible sources of energy - sun, wind and tide."

That was more than 80 years ago and we're still living the same way.

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

In 2014, just over 13 percent of US electricity production came from renewables in some form or another.

That's not terrible, but it means that we're still getting nearly 90 percent of our electricity production from "chopping down the fence around our house for fuel."

And if the fossil fuel companies, lobbyists and the 21st-century fossil fuel tycoons (like the Kochs, who inherited their oil company from daddy) have their way, that's not going to change anytime soon.

They're still fighting for ways to bring Alberta's tar sands to the US to be processed and burned - and they're still chomping at the bit to drill in the Arctic's deep seas.

They're even using our precious fresh water reserves to shatter Earth's shale just to get to the natural gas - making Earth unstable and much of our water poisoned in the process.

Even as we run out of fenceposts to burn, the fossil fuel barons still point to more of our farm's property to chop down and burn.

Edison even gave Ford and Firestone a little bit of investment advice to go with his criticism: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that."

Unfortunately, the fossil fuel companies don't have any interest in folding up operations and letting our 19th-century energy regime join the likes of whale-oil lamps as a historical curiosity.

But according to a new report from Citibank, large-scale investments in renewables are still a smart investment move for both the planet and the global economy.

The report is called "Energy Darwinism," and it looks at the predicted cost of energy over the next several decades - compared to the costs of developing and implementing low carbon energy sources.

And then the researchers looked at the implications of global energy choices in terms of expected climate impacts.

The bottom line?

If we invest in low-carbon energy sources now - like solar, wind, tidal and geothermal - the global economy would save $1.8 trillion through 2040.

And the cost of inaction? The cost of carrying on business as usual? The cost of trying to adapt to the negative effects of climate change instead of reducing the risks by transforming our energy system?

Well - that could cost as little as $20 trillion - or as much as $72 trillion.

And that's a decrease in global GDP of between 0.7 percent and 2.5 percent.

In other words, we can expect a global economic contraction if we continue to rip our carbon reserves out of the earth and burn them into the atmosphere.

Or, through investing in a mix of renewables while reforming our energy system, we can avoid many of those costs and grow the global economy by $1.8 trillion.

The thing is, this isn't really new information. This is basically just a reiteration of the 700-page Stern Review, which pointed out back in 2006 that strong early action on climate change will save money for the global economy in the long run.

It's been nearly a decade since Sir Nicholas Stern concluded that taking bold action sooner rather than later will save money and ultimately grow the global economy.

And in the meantime, the status quo fossil fuel interests have funneled money into researchers willing to lie for a paycheck, while they've fought responsible reporting on climate change in the corporate media, and they've bought our politicians.

All to make sure that people think that climate change isn't real, and that people think that fossil fuels are more affordable than renewables.

But that's not what the bankers, the economists or the scientists say.

Just back in June, a team of researchers from Stanford and UC Berkeley published research showing how every state can go 100 percent renewable by 2050.

And they showed that the states would save money and create jobs by doing it.

We've ignored Edison's words to Ford and Firestone for far too long.

It's time to stop burning our fence posts for fuel. It's time to tap the earth's inexhaustible sources of energy in the nuclear fusion reactor 93 million miles away that we call our sun.

Opinion Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Rep. Mike Quigley: Iran Deal Is the Best Possible Option

Rep. Mike Quigley speaking at an event in 2014.Rep. Mike Quigley speaking at an event in 2014. (Image: Argonne National Laboratory)

On Monday, August 31, I went to the City Club of Chicago to see a speech by Democrat Mike Quigley, who represents Illinois' Fifth Congressional District in Congress. I went for three reasons: to support a vigil outside the talk by supporters of the Iran deal, urging Quigley to back it; to deliver petitions to Quigley signed by more than 2,000 of Quigley's IL-5 constituents urging him to support the deal; and to hear what Quigley would say about how he planned to vote on the deal.

Quigley did not address the issue during his prepared remarks. But the first question after the talk was: "What is your position on the deal?" A moderator later said something like: there were 34 questions, and 30 of them were on the Iran deal. (This was like the National Press Club where you have to write your question on a card beforehand.) The fact that so many questions were on the Iran deal certainly reflects engagement and interest from the City Club of Chicago audience; it may also reflect the fact that people who came to the event were greeted by people with "No War With Iran" and "Defend Diplomacy" signs.

Quigley said the following. This is verbatim, I recorded it on my phone. Interested reporters can contact me for the video.

"I believe - and I believe our intelligence community, and internationally, overall, the intelligence community believes, that we will know more about what's happening in Iran if we do the deal than if we don't."

Quigley is on the House Intelligence Committee, so presumably he is in at least as good a position as any other member of Congress, if not better, to judge what the intelligence community believes.

"Also, I will say this, and I know that this upsets people because they disagree, but I don't believe a better deal could have been negotiated. Which is not to say that there is not something we would have preferred, right? Total elimination of any nuclear material in Iran. But given our dance partners - and I'm not just talking about the Iranians - I think that Secretary Kerry probably did the best job anyone could. And with all due respect, if we go back to the table, I don't think they all come back to the table."

I will leave it to The Hill to judge whether they should change their assessment of Quigley from "Unclear/Undecided" to "Leaning Yes" based on these remarks. To me, the logic is clear and strong: if you support diplomacy, and if you think this is the best deal possible, what else is there to say about whether you are likely to vote yes or no? We're not voting on whether to fall in love with the deal and live happily ever after. We're voting on whether this is the best possible course of action among the realistic alternatives.

Regardless of that, I think the following is beyond reasonable dispute: Quigley, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, just exploded two key claims of Republican opponents of the deal: the claim that Obama and Kerry could have gotten a better deal, and the related claim that if Congress were to blow up this deal, we could go back to the table and negotiate a different one. No, Quigley said. Kerry got the best deal possible, and if Congress were to blow up this deal, some of our "dance partners" - countries without whose participation international sanctions cannot meaningfully hurt the Iranian government - are not coming back to the table.

With Senator Casey and Senator Coons coming out for the deal, The Washington Post is all but calling game over on Republican efforts to block the deal in Congress. But that still leaves the question of how individual Democrats who have not declared yet will vote. If we want to turn a corner in US foreign policy, if we want to show the world and show ourselves that we think we learned something important from the Iraq fiasco, it would be a very good thing if we can tell the story that when the chips were down, Democrats in Congress overwhelmingly supported diplomacy and that Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez were marginalized.

So it still makes a difference what Mike Quigley does. So far, not one Illinois Democrat in Congress has come out against the deal. Perhaps this shouldn't surprise us much: from the point of view of many Illinois Democrats, who are overwhelmingly Chicago-area Democrats, Obama is our guy, our gift to the world. And Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, organizing Senate Democrats in support of the deal? That's our other guy. And Jan Schakowsky, organizing House Democrats in support of the deal? Also one of ours. Saying the Iran deal is no good is saying that Obama is no good. Saying that Obama is no good is saying that Chicago is no good.

And when some people say that Chicago is no good - well, Chicago Democrats don't like that.

Opinion Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Despite Global Ban, Saudi-Led Forces Kill Dozens in Yemen Using US-Made Cluster Bombs

Also see: US-Made Cluster Munitions Causing Civilian Deaths in Yemen

Human Rights Watch has accused Saudi Arabia of using U.S.-made cluster munition rockets in at least seven attacks in the Yemeni city of Hajjah between late April and mid-July. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, both during the attacks and later, when they picked up unexploded submunitions that detonated. Neither the United States, Saudi Arabia or Yemen have joined the global convention banning the use of cluster munitions. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch criticized the U.S. stance on cluster munitions. "The U.S. thinks that cluster munitions are legitimate weapons," Roth said. "The U.S. still hasn't signed onto the landmines treaty. So, the U.S. is very much behind the rest of the world."


AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to Yemen. We turn to Yemen because, well, a Saudi-led airstrike killed 36 civilians working at a bottling plant in the northern province of Hajjah on Sunday. Another attack on the Yemeni capital Sana'a hit a house and killed four civilians. The news comes amidst new evidence the Saudi-led forces have used cluster munitions in Yemen. Human Rights Watch said it found U.S.-made cluster munition rockets likely used in at least seven attacks in Hajjah between late April and mid-July. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, both during the attacks and later, when they picked up unexploded submunitions that denotated. Neither the United States, Saudi Arabia or Yemen have joined the global convention banning the use of cluster munitions.

Yesterday I spoke to Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth and started by asking him what Human Rights Watch found in Yemen.

KENNETH ROTH: As you note, the fact that the relevant countries have not ratified the cluster munitions treaty, while it would be helpful to do so, it's not decisive, because all of them have ratified the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit indiscriminate warfare. And cluster munitions are, by definition, indiscriminate. They scatter over wide areas, so they should never be used in civilian-populated areas to begin with. Plus they leave a residue. Not every munition explodes on contact with the ground, and they become antipersonnel land mines for people to just stumble upon and die. So the U.S. should be using pressure on the Saudis not to be using these weapons at all, but certainly not to be using them in populated areas where, as we're seeing, Yemenis are being killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what these weapons are and what they do.

KENNETH ROTH: They're essentially area-denial weapons. There is a canister with, you know, upwards of 200 submunitions, little bombs, inside. The canister opens in the sky and spreads these submunitions over a wide area. Each one of those is lethal, so you don't want to be in that area as these things rain down on you. You also don't want to walk through that area afterwards, but it becomes effectively a land mine field, because these cluster munitions are unreliable and a significant number don't initially explode. They only explode later, when somebody touches them or stands on them.

AMY GOODMAN: How do they affect the human body?

KENNETH ROTH: They're devastating. They're like standing on a land mine. They, at minimum, will rip off your limbs, and they very frequently are completely lethal.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a video released by Human Rights Watch featuring interviews with victims of cluster munitions in Yemen.

AZIZ HADI MATIR HAYASH: [translated] We were together, and a rocket hit us. It exploded in the air, and cluster bombs, submunitions, fell out of it. Before we left the house with the sheep, two submunitions fell down while others spread all over the village. One exploded, and the other still remains. My cousins and I were wounded.

FATIMA IBRAHIM AL-MARZUQI: [translated] Three brothers were killed—two children and one adult. It hit us while we were sleeping, and we were all wounded, including my brothers. I can't walk. My mother carries me. She gets me out, washes me, as well as my brother. My whole body is wounded. My dress was burned that night. My hands were burned, and my bones were broken.

AMY GOODMAN: Those were victims of cluster munitions in Yemen. Ken Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch, which put out this video. So, talk about what Saudi Arabia is doing right now in Yemen.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition which is fighting the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, and it's repeatedly using indiscriminate forms of warfare. A big part of the problem has been these cluster munitions, but we've seen time and time again that even more targeted weapons are being targeted in the wrong place. These are sophisticated weapons; the Saudis should be able to target them only at military targets. But we're finding often that they're not. And that's why we're seeing such a significant civilian toll.

AMY GOODMAN: So they're being used to terrorize.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, they're being used at least without much care as to who is hit. There is a sense that, particularly in the northern areas, which are predominantly Houthi, that there's not so much concern about civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the U.S. just sealed a deal with Saudi Arabia for military weapons and jets that's the largest deal in the world.

KENNETH ROTH: The U.S. obviously views Saudi Arabia as a major supporter of the U.S. military complex, you know. And airplane producers and the like need these contracts—think they need these contracts, in order to continue to be profitable. That shouldn't be happening at the expense of civilians on the ground. The U.S. should be willing to live by the principles that it is theoretically signed up for in the Geneva Conventions and ensure that anybody it sells arms to is not using those arms to indiscriminately kill civilians, as the Saudis have been doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch is calling for a U.N. inquiry into violations on all sides in Yemen?

KENNETH ROTH: Absolutely. In fact, there is a conference coming up reviewing compliance with the new cluster munitions treaty. And one of the problems is that the U.K., Canada and Australia, all of which had joined the cluster munitions treaty, are pushing to water down this inquiry. They're trying to put "allegedly" in front of the evidence we have that Saudi clusters have killed civilians in Yemen.


KENNETH ROTH: They're doing the U.S. bidding.

AMY GOODMAN: Why does the U.S. want to water this down?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I mean, the U.S. thinks that cluster munitions are legitimate weapons. The U.S. still hasn't signed onto the land mines treaty. So, the U.S. is very much behind the rest of the world. As most nations of the world want to ban these inherently indiscriminate weapons, the U.S. has a huge arsenal of them, it doesn't want that arsenal limited, and it hates the idea of treaties that are restraining the Pentagon on humanitarian grounds. It lives with the Geneva Conventions because it understands that those help to fight a better war. But the add-ons that Human Rights Watch and others have pressed—the land mines treaty, the cluster munitions treaty and the like—the Pentagon hates and has prevented Obama from signing onto them, and is trying to undermine enforcement, using U.S. allies around the world to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: How much difference does mass protest make around something like this?

KENNETH ROTH: I think it makes all the difference in the world. In other words, Obama doesn't want to be seen as underwriting indiscriminate warfare, even if it is on the other side of the world. If it happens under the radar screen, if the Pentagon is able to push this quietly, there's no big political cost to Obama. But I think rabble-rousing and publicity helps make Obama responsible, and he's going to have a hard time standing up and saying, "I don't really care about indiscriminate warfare."

AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, the land mine treaty that the U.S. also has not signed onto, that's the one that Princess Di was pushing so many years ago, right, among many other people?

KENNETH ROTH: Precisely. And, in fact, the U.S. government is—has limited the use of land mines. And even though it hasn't joined onto the treaty, it recognizes that these are weapons that are extremely difficult to use because of public relations problems. And so, there has been a real shift at the Pentagon. We haven't seen that shift yet, in any significant way, with cluster munitions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have this situation where people are being struck, civilians are being struck, by cluster munitions by the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen, yet Saudi Arabia continues to lead a blockade against people leaving. Can you explain what's happening there?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, there's an enormous humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It is already a country that is very dependent on international assistance for basic things like water and the like. And because the Saudis have been blockading the country, trying to prevent fuel and other things from getting into Yemen as part of its effort to fight the Houthi rebels, the Yemeni people are suffering. And we're seeing enormous numbers of people who are facing malnutrition and even starvation because of the deprivation caused by this blockade.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the figures are amazing. According to the U.N., 21 million Yemenis, a staggering 80 percent of the population, need assistance. And half the population is facing hunger, famine. More than 15.2 million people lack access to basic healthcare, and over 20 million lack access to safe water.

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah, I mean, it's absolutely horrendous, and it really underscores the importance of making clear that if you're going to go to war, yes, you shoot at the other side's combatants, but you can't use means that cause the entire civilian population to suffer. And that's what the Saudi-led coalition is doing in Yemen today.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth speaking here in New York. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison. Stay with us.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Next Not-So-Cold War: As Climate Change Heats Arctic, Nations Scramble for Control and Resources

President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska on Monday for a three-day tour during which he will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaska Arctic. On Monday, Obama highlighted the dangers posed by climate change in the region. "Arctic temperatures are rising about twice as fast as the global average," Obama said. "Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the United States." As the Arctic region warms, the geopolitical significance of the region is growing as new areas become reachable, spurring maritime traffic and oil drilling. Resources below the Arctic ice cap are worth over $17 trillion, the rough equivalent of the entire U.S. economy. According to investigative journalist James Bamford, the region has become the "crossroads of technical espionage" as the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark battle for control of those resources. Bamford joins us to talk about his recent piece, "Frozen Assets: The Newest Front in Global Espionage is One of the Least Habitable Locales on Earth - the Arctic."


AMY GOODMAN: President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska Monday for a three-day tour during which he'll become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Alaska Arctic. In a speech at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, Obama highlighted the dangers posed by climate change.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our understanding of climate change advances each day. Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought. The science is stark, it is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present. In fact, the Arctic is the leading edge of climate change, our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces. Arctic temperatures are rising about twice as fast as the global average. Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed about twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Last year was Alaska's warmest year on record, just as it was for the rest of the world. And the impacts here are very real.

AMY GOODMAN: As the Arctic region warms, the geopolitical significance of the region is growing as new areas become reachable, spurring maritime traffic and oil drilling. During his trip to Alaska, Obama is expected to propose the U.S. Coast Guard acquire and build new icebreaking ships that can operate in the Arctic in efforts to keep pace with Russia and China's fleets. On Monday, Alaska Governor Bill Walker, who traveled with Obama to Anchorage, called Russia's moves in the Arctic, quote, "the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War."

To talk more about the Arctic, we're joined by investigative journalist James Bamford, who has covered the National Security Agency and U.S. intelligence community for the last, well, more than 30 years. He recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy headlined "Frozen Assets: The Newest Front in Global Espionage is One of the Least Habitable Locales on Earth - the Arctic." Bamford points out the resources below the Arctic ice cap are worth over $17 trillion, the rough equivalent of the entire U.S. economy. Bamford says the region has become the, quote, "crossroads of technical espionage," as the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark battle for control of those resources. James Bamford joins us once again from Washington, D.C.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jim. Can you start off by, well, beginning where you began your piece, in August 2014, with two Norwegian scientists, where they headed?

JAMES BAMFORD: Yeah, thanks, Amy. Yeah, it was really fascinating doing this article because I knew nothing, almost nothing, about the Arctic before, and doing all the research, it was fascinating. And I thought one of the most fascinating little incidents was two Norwegian scientists who were placed on a little ice island for a year to sort of drift in areas where even icebreakers couldn't go, not far from the North Pole. And they were out there in the total darkness, all by themselves in an area that's hardly ever been explored. And one night, they're looking out, and they see some lights in the distance. So they go out, and they walk from their little camp area to these lights. And as they're getting closer - again, this is total darkness out there because it's the Arctic night - they see the lights, and then they start making out a shape. And it's the shape of a huge submarine that has just surfaced. And as they were getting closer, close enough for the people on the submarine to see them, the submarine then suddenly went back under the ocean - or, under the Arctic Sea.

And what they - they actually took some pictures of the sub, and what they later determined was that it was a Russian spy sub. And it had a mini sub on, attached to the bottom of it, to explore this huge ridge that goes under the Arctic, because the Russians are trying, as well as almost all the other countries abutting the Arctic, are trying to show that their continental shelf touches that ridge. And if you can show that, then you can get much more of the Arctic to your own use.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, "the Arctic has become the crossroads of technical espionage today." Explain.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the Arctic is a place where you don't put many human spies, but it's a great place for technical spies, for spy planes, satellites, drones, everything else. So, because of all the military buildup - the Russians are building up enormously up there, they've just built one of the largest listening posts in the world, 3,000-man, 3,000-person facility - and because of all the energy underneath that people are trying to get, there's been an enormous increase in the number of spy planes, satellites and other kinds of technical intelligence, submarines and so forth. Just in the last year, the number of U.S. surveillance flights over the Russian parts of the Arctic have gone from 22 to 140. And the Russians are doing the same thing. The Russians are flying surveillance planes very close to the U.S., and the U.S. is flying surveillance planes very close to Russia. Plus there's a cat-and-mouse game under the North Pole, under the Arctic, between the U.S. and Russian submarines. We have satellites flying overhead every day. The Canadians are building drones. The Russians just built a new drone base about 400 miles from the U.S. in the Arctic. So, there's this enormous buildup, not only of the military, but what I was focusing on was also on the intelligence capabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that the United States is sending satellites over this icy region every 30 minutes, "averaging more than 17,000 passes every year, and [is] developing a new generation of unmanned intelligence sensors to monitor everything above, on, and below the ice and water."

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, the satellites that pass over the Arctic are the polar satellites, and they're the ones that take pictures of most of the Earth. I mean, they focus on all parts of the Earth because it's in a polar orbit. So the facility that controls most of those satellites and sends up instructions and takes down data from the satellites is located in Thule, Greenland, which is way above the Arctic Circle. So, U.S. has enormous intelligence assets up there to control these satellites that are vital to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I'd like to ask you about Russia's position on the Arctic. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's military to increase its presence in the Arctic after Canada signaled its intention to claim the North Pole and surrounding waters. Putin talked about Russia, quote, "reclaiming the region." Let's go to a clip.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] I would like you to devote special attention to deploying infrastructure and military units in the Arctic. Russia is ever-more actively reclaiming this promising region, returning to it. It must possess all the levers necessary for protecting its security and national interests.

AMY GOODMAN: So, James Bamford, can you talk about everything from Russia's interest to Denmark's to Norway's to Canada's to the United States'?

JAMES BAMFORD: Sure. These are the countries that border the actual Arctic, five countries: the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway. And ironically, you have three countries that are now claiming the North Pole as theirs: Canada, Russia and Denmark - Denmark because of Greenland, which is a possession of Denmark, and it's way up above the Arctic Circle. So, you have these countries that have vested interests in the Arctic, and they're all exhibiting as much effort as possible to show that they deserve more of the Arctic than anybody else. And you can make claims to the United Nations by saying that your continental shelf is attached to this ridge. It's the Lomonosov Ridge. It's a long ridge. It's about a thousand miles. It's 12,000 - 12,000 feet high. It's an enormous mountain ridge. And if you can show that your continental shelf is connected to that, your landmass, in essence, is connected to that, then you could get much more of the Arctic. So there's this competition among these countries to show that they deserve more of the Arctic. The Russians are trying to claim half the Arctic is theirs. So, it's an enormous battle up there, a political battle as well as a military and an intelligence frontier.

So, that's where we are right now. And as the Arctic disappears, pretty soon there's going to be a total ice-free summer up there in the next few years. And that means that there's going to be a lot more activity in terms of commercial activities, ships sailing back and forth, tourist ships. There will be a lot of activity. And the problem is, the United States hasn't kept up. We have two broken-down icebreakers that are due to pretty much be out of service in five years, and we haven't been paying attention to the Arctic, so we have nothing to take their place.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the Law of the Sea agreement is and how it relates to the Arctic?

JAMES BAMFORD: Sure. The Law of the Sea agreement was created by the United Nations and agreed to by most countries in the world. I think 170 countries in the world have signed and ratified the Law of the Sea agreement. What that is, is an agreement that - it's sort of the law of the Arctic at this point, because the Law of the Sea agreement sets out what countries can do what, and what activities can take place in the Arctic.

The irony here is that of the five countries that actually border the Arctic, and out of 170 countries in the world, the United States is the only country not to have ratified the agreement. And it's largely because of a small group of right-wing Republicans who are afraid of the black helicopters from the United Nations. They're afraid that by signing this Law of the Sea agreement, we're going to subject our country to the jurisdiction of the United Nations. So they've pretty much stood in the way of signing that. And that means that we're not going to be in any position to claim any parts of the Arctic, because in order to do that, you actually have to have signed the Law of the Sea agreement, as Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark and 170 other countries have done.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what would it take to - for the U.S. to sign on to this treaty?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, all it would take would be for the Senate to basically ratify it. And it can't do that as long as there is a small percentage that are standing in the way. I think you need - it's either a third or three-quarters of the Senate to approve the treaty. And you can't get that - you can't get there with the number of right-wing senators standing in the way. And they've been doing that for years. President Bush, for example, when he was in office, just like President Clinton and President Obama, have all been in favor of signing the agreement, but it's these sort of hardcore right-wing senators who have stood in the way for decades. And that's why we're one of the very, very few countries in the world that have never signed it, and therefore we really are out of touch when it comes to the Arctic.

AMY GOODMAN: James Bamford, can you talk about the ways different countries are trying to claim the North Pole, everything from Canada saying Santa Claus is a Canadian citizen to Russia planting the flag? The then-deputy speaker of the Duma, explain who he was and what he did.

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, he was on a very small Russian submergable, that very small Russian submarine, that went to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean right under the North Pole, 14,000 feet down, and he planted a titanium Russian flag down there. I mean, it had no real meaning, just symbolic, but that's a metaphor of what's taking place. The Russians were reclaiming the North Pole. The Canadians are claiming the North Pole. After the Russians did it, they claimed the North Pole, and they said, "Santa Claus is a Canadian citizen," sort of mocking the Russians in a way. But it's very serious. And also, the - Denmark is claiming it also via Greenland.

So, it's very serious, and most of the effort is focusing on undersea, under the Arctic Ocean, where countries are trying to take little pieces of this ridge and analyze it and show that it's actually part of their continental shelf. It's a very scientific effort, more so than - well, it's political on one side, and then it's scientific on the other, and they're trying to put the two together. And if you can show that your continental shelf is connected to the ridge, then you're able to extend your continental shelf and your ability to capture parts of the Arctic well beyond your borders. And that's why this enormous effort's going on, that really few people have ever paid any attention to.

AMY GOODMAN: What would a Cold War - pardon the pun - in the Arctic look like?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, it would be certainly dominated by the Russians, since they own the vast portion of the coastline on the Arctic, and they've got the vast majority of hardware. The Russians, just last March, they had an exercise up there with almost 40,000 troops. And then the Norwegians sent up 5,000 troops on an exercise. So, you'd have submarines trailing each other and, you know, potentially getting in conflict with each other, since the U.S. and the Russians are both below the Arctic Ocean and following each other constantly. There would be the danger of aircraft incidents, just like we had in China where the Chinese shot down an American spy plane, or, actually, collided with an American spy plane, and the spy plane had to land on Chinese territory. So, you've got all these areas of potential conflict. Accidents may happen, and weapons may be fired.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on President Obama being the first sitting U.S. president to go to the Alaskan Arctic, this coming right after he allows Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic? As they talk about sending more icebreaking ships up there, the U.S. government, are they also doing that on behalf of the oil companies?

JAMES BAMFORD: Well, we don't have really hardly any icebreaking ships. We just have two, and they're almost on their last voyages or so. They've only got a few more years left. So, no, in answer to your question, the problem is, what was he doing for the previous seven years or so, previous six years? This problem has been there for a long time. The Russians have been building up along the Arctic coast for years, if not decades, and the U.S. has been paying absolutely no attention to it until just now.

So, the problem is, you've got a really hazardous situation up there, where you've authorized offshore oil drilling, such as Shell, for example - and they're just the first - but you have no infrastructure up there to protect the Arctic or the shoreline in case you have an oil spill like we had down in the Gulf of Mexico. The Russians have 41 icebreakers. I think it's at least seven of those are nuclear power. We have no nuclear-powered icebreakers, and we only have two broken-down icebreakers. So we're way out of touch when it comes to taking care of the Arctic in case there is a major oil spill or a ship disaster up there, or a search and rescue. We have very little, if any, search-and-rescue capability. We have no deepwater ports on the Arctic. So, we're way out of touch. We're years behind. And, you know, finally, in his twilight years, Obama has decided that we should start paying attention up there. It's sort of amazing to me he hasn't, or nobody in his administration has brought this to his attention before now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Jim Bamford, for being with us, columnist for Foreign Policy magazine. We'll link to your piece, "Frozen Assets: The Newest Front in Global Espionage is One of the Least Habitable Locales on Earth - the Arctic." He has covered the National Security Agency and intelligence communities for years. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
"Mr. Smith Goes to Prison": After a Year in Jail, Former State Senator Condemns Mass Incarceration

The first time Jeff Smith appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, which chronicled his 2004 campaign for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt. Smith narrowly lost the race to Russ Carnahan, but his surprising performance in a crowded field of 10 made him a rising star in Missouri Democratic politics. Smith was elected state senator in 2006 and served until 2009, when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy for an election law violation tied to the 2004 campaign. Smith was sentenced to one year and a day in a Kentucky federal prison. He chronicles his experience in his new book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis, which he calls "a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens." We speak with Smith, now an assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, about what he learned in prison and his thoughts about criminal justice reform.


AMY GOODMAN: The first time our next guest, Jeff Smith, appeared on the national radar, he was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? The year chronicled in the film was 2004. Jeff Smith was a 29-year-old unknown college professor vying for the congressional seat of the retiring Dick Gephardt.

JEFF SMITH: So, this woman who was a friend of my grandma's, she got the first solicitation letter we sent during the campaign, and she calls my grandma says, "Ida, this is wonderful. Your grandson is running for Congress." And my grandma, who's 96, said, "No, I don't think he's running for Congress. He's running for the state Legislature." And the woman said, "Ida, I'm looking at the letter right here. He's running for U.S. Congress." And my grandma said, "Well, if he's really running for U.S. Congress, you ought to save your money."

JEFF SMITH'S GRANDMOTHER: I don't think the things that a person with the mind that he has should waste it on politics.

JEFF SMITH: You know, my dad just pretty much laughed in my face.

JEFF SMITH'S FATHER: He said, "I'm going to run for Dick Gephardt's spot in the U.S. House of Representatives." And I said, "What? Are you nuts?"

JEFF SMITH: The system is fundamentally flawed. It is broken.

UNIDENTIFIED: Normally a pollster will fudge a little and say, "Well, Jeff, you got five," or, "You're at three." And, I mean, this pollster said, "You're not even on here."

JEFF SMITH: My name is Jeff Smith. I'm running for the congressional seat that Dick Gephardt is leaving.

JO MANNIES: I was surprised to even know who Jeff Smith was. So you begin to kind of wonder, "Well, maybe there's something out there."

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Smith narrowly lost the race to Russ Carnahan, the scion of a Missouri political dynasty. His father, Mel, was governor, running for Senate when he died in a plane crash. His mother, Jean Carnahan, became the senator.

But Smith's surprising performance in a crowded field of 10 made him a rising star in Missouri Democratic politics. Jeff Smith was elected state senator in 2006 and served until 2009. That's when he pled guilty to conspiracy for lying to federal investigators about his involvement in creating a flier critical of Carnahan in the 2004 congressional campaign. Jeff Smith was sentenced to a year and a day in a Kentucky federal prison. He chronicles his experience in his new book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis. Smith writes, quote, that the book "is a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens."

Well, for more, we're joined by Jeff Smith. Now he's an assistant professor of urban policy at The New School here in New York, yes, former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, on the board of the nonprofit, Prison Entrepreneurship Program, or PEP. He's also author of the e-book, Ferguson in Black and White.

Jeff Smith, welcome back to Democracy Now!

JEFF SMITH: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It's great to have you with us. Well, let's start out with how you ended up in jail. How did you end up in prison?

JEFF SMITH: OK. So, it was my 2004 congressional campaign, and it was about a month out from Election Day. We had about 700 volunteers. We were moving in the polls. We could feel it. But I didn't think we had enough to get over the top. At that point, two of my aides were approached by a third party, who said that he wanted to put out a postcard highlighting my opponent Russ Carnahan's dismal attendance record in the state House. My aides came to me, and instead of telling them, "I don't think we're supposed to deal with a third party," I said, "Look, I don't want to know any details. Just don't tell me what you do." And they didn't.

The postcard came out a few weeks later just before Election Day, and Mr. Carnahan filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against me alleging coordination. I responded by signing an affidavit denying any knowledge of the postcard, even though I knew my aides met with the third party. Five years later, when I was in the state Senate, my best friend wore a wire for two months and got me to admit that I knew about a meeting between my aides and the guy who did the postcard. And the prosecutor basically gave me a choice: I could either cooperate and help them get other people or go to prison. And I want to prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Why wouldn't you cooperate?

JEFF SMITH: The people that they were interested in were not bad people, I didn't think, and I didn't want to help them in that way.

AMY GOODMAN: So you went to prison, what, 500 miles away from where you lived. Where was the prison?

JEFF SMITH: The prison was in what The New York Times has called the most miserable county in the country, Clay County, Kentucky, one of the poorest places, one of the most drug-addicted counties in the country, former coal-mining area, but the coal mines are all gone now, and they've had a lot of deep problems with unemployment and drug use.

AMY GOODMAN: Why were you sent there? Are there no other prisons closer to where you lived?

JEFF SMITH: No, there were several prisons closer to where I lived, but I wasn't exactly on good terms with the prosecutor when I didn't cooperate. So I think that might have had something to do with it, but I don't know for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: There was a 500-mile rule.


AMY GOODMAN: You had to be within 500 miles of home, and so you were on the 500-mile mark.


AMY GOODMAN: So talk about prison. What did you find there? What surprised you most?

JEFF SMITH: What surprised me most was the incredible untapped human potential in prison that we're wasting. I saw guys whose business instincts were as sharp as those of the CEOs who had wined and dined me the year before, when I was a state senator, guys that were selling something that was illegal in a past life, but understood the same concepts that you'd learn at Harvard Business School—risk management, territorial expansion, new product launch, quality control. They intuitively grasped all these concepts from running successful drug businesses, and, if nurtured properly, as a couple different nonprofits are working to do now, could be very successful business people on the outside when they finish.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the stories, of Catfish, of BJ, some of your fellow prisoners.

JEFF SMITH: OK. Well, you mentioned BJ, and he was a—he was an interesting one. He had been a successful drug dealer in Detroit for about 15 years and then got caught up. He had two passions. He was passionate about luxury sports cars and about women. And from the inside, his 19-year-old son—he had directed his 19-year-old son to start a company that would—a website that was pornographic and featured women having sex on top of luxury sports cars. He had bought the domain name. He had appointed his 19-year-old son vice president for talent development, and they were auditioning people. And he was running all of this from the prison. This was just—

AMY GOODMAN: Did he have big car sponsors?

JEFF SMITH: You know, I'm not exactly sure, but he had a business plan that he had written. He asked me to look through it. It was very impressive. And this was not unusual. I highlight that story because of the humor in it, but there were many men who had already written out business plans for personal fitness businesses, where they would train people; for restaurants; for landscaping businesses—all sorts of things. There was just a tremendous amount of both entrepreneurial potential and passion and desire to get back in the world and fly straight.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, I want to ask you about how you feel prisons encourage prisoners to be prisoners for the rest of their lives or commit crimes rather than to be rehabilitated. We're talking to Jeff Smith. He is author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis. Back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: That's Damian Marley, here on Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We are talking to Jeff Smith. He's author of Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My [Year] Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis. He writes that the book is "a scathing indictment of a system that teaches prisoners to be better criminals instead of better citizens." Explain, Jeff.

JEFF SMITH: Well, first of all, prison is an incredibly dehumanizing experience, and it doesn't have to be that way. There's other countries, particularly in Europe, in Scandinavia, where prison is treated like a break from society, where you can acquire a skill, and then you can come back out into the world and be successful. That's not how we do things in most of this country. There was almost no rehabilitative component or educational possibilities where I went to prison. In one year, there was a GED course taught once and then a hydroponics course for two weeks. That's how to grow tomatoes in water. Right? So not a lot of real practical training to be able to come back and successfully re-enter society.

Another way that prison, I would say, is criminogenic is that one thinks—

AMY GOODMAN: Criminogenic?

JEFF SMITH: Encourages more crime—is that when—when we want to reduce recidivism, we know one very simple way to do it is to keep people in close contact with their loved ones and community support. And yet everything about prison makes that difficult. You know how expensive it is to make phone calls home in prison? These phone companies—I know you guys have done some stuff on these private phone companies that are gouging prisoners. Sometimes it could cost $3 or $4 a minute to talk to a loved one. You don't have any money in prison. Most guys in there still owe court costs, you know, from before they came in. And people are just hustling to try to get by. If—

AMY GOODMAN: How much did you make? What did you do in prison?

JEFF SMITH: I worked in the food warehouse. I unloaded trucks, about 35,000 or 40,000 pounds of food every day, with six other men at the prison. And I made $5.25—not an hour, but per month of full-time work. So, when you make $5 a month—and it's a big misconception about prison: They don't give you things. You have to buy your own soap, your own toothpaste, just things for even basic hygiene. And that means that inmates are forced to hustle, you know, find ways to try to survive, whether it's cooking or cutting other guys' hair. There's all types of prison businesses going on and a thriving underground economy.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, when—you served a year and a day. But talk about what happens to people when they get out of prison. You talk about prisons being criminogenic. How it—outside life, because of the restrictions on people who have been in prison, it forces them right back in.

JEFF SMITH: That's exactly right. When you're in prison, you're probably not getting any job training. You don't even—you come out of prison in the year 2015, you don't even know how to point and click or use the Internet. And then you come out, and there's all types of background checks for employment. About 90 percent of employers use background checks, and the majority say that they would never hire an ex-offender. Landlords, about four out of five landlords in this country use background checks and won't rent to ex-offenders. And then you can't even get public assistance in most states in this country, you know, if you were convicted of a drug crime. So, there's all—

AMY GOODMAN: Food stamps?

JEFF SMITH: Food stamps, that's right. So there's all—

AMY GOODMAN: You cannot ever, for the rest of your life?

JEFF SMITH: For the rest of your life. Now, that was part of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Some states have waived that ban. Texas, actually, just today, has decided to waive that ban, wisely. But most states still have some version of that ban on the books.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, if you wanted to vote out the legislators who have passed these very restrictive rules, in a lot of states you can't, because you can never vote again.

JEFF SMITH: That's exactly right. That's exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: Though it varies across states. In some places, I believe, like Vermont, you can vote from prison.

JEFF SMITH: That's exactly right, but a huge variance. And, Amy, you make such a great point. We ask people when they re-enter society, "We want you to fly straight and become good citizens again." And yet the most fundamental tenet of citizenship—being able to vote—we deny in many states. And that makes no sense.

So, there's a lot of respects in which prison actually causes more crime, and a key one is that when people come out, and they're already in debt, they probably don't have any community or family support, they don't have a place to live, and then we're making it even harder for them to get jobs—unless they're states or municipalities that do Ban the Box legislation.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Ban the Box.

JEFF SMITH: Ban the Box bans the right of employers to discriminate against people who have criminal records.

AMY GOODMAN: To force a person to check a box that said whether or not you served time in jail.

JEFF SMITH: Correct.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you make your way from—well, you were a politician, you go to jail for a year and a day, to becoming a professor here in New York at this illustrious university, The New School?

JEFF SMITH: Well, first of all, I'm very lucky. Second of all—well, again, I am blessed with a great education. I have a doctorate from—in political science from Washington University in St. Louis, and so I had some academic background beforehand. But look, when I came out of prison, I was a white guy who had 300 people who wrote letters on my behalf to the judge, including Missouri's attorney general, lieutenant governor, House speaker and Senate majority leader. I had savings. I had family support. I had a—you know, and a great degree. Most people come out of prison with none of those things. Even I had a tough time getting a job, you know, when I was applying for academic positions and other jobs. I was struggling. Imagine how hard it is for people who have none of the advantages or privileges that I had.

AMY GOODMAN: So you're a professor of urban policy now at The New School. What do you think would be the proper urban policy to avoid the mass incarceration crisis that we see in this country today?

JEFF SMITH: Well, the first thing we have to do is get rid of mandatory minimum sentences. Right? We're tying the hands of judges around the country who don't want to put people away for 15 years. You know, if you're caught with drugs, with enough crack cocaine, which along with heroin is a plague in many of our cities, including St. Louis, my hometown, if you have a certain amount, then the judge has to give you 10 years in federal court. If there's any—if there's a gun in your house or your car, they'll add on another five. That 15 years. You'll probably do 13 of that if you're in the federal system. And for a 19-year-old kid, you know, caught with drugs one time, to be away for 13 years, it doesn't make any sense.

So the first thing we should do is get rid of federal mandatory minimums. And the second thing is get rid of these three strikes laws. So, first we have to look at the front end: sentencing reform. Then we have to look at what happens in prison, and give more opportunities for vocational and educational programs inside of prison. And then, third, we have to look at re-entry and ease the process of successfully re-entering by making sure that employers cannot discriminate against people with criminal backgrounds.

AMY GOODMAN: In this last minute we have with you, I last had you on after Ferguson, and you had a lot to say about what was going on in Ferguson, being from St. Louis. Last week, a judge in Ferguson withdrew as many as 10,000 arrest warrants as part of a series of changes in the court system. Explain the significance of this, but also just overall where we are today in Ferguson.

JEFF SMITH: So the significance of this is that in Ferguson, and in many of the towns—because I want to stress that Ferguson was the town that got the most attention, but there's a lot of even worse violators than Ferguson in North St. Louis County in terms of the targeting of young black males and a very harsh municipal court system—in Ferguson, this is significant because Ferguson had one of the highest percentages of anywhere in the country of the number of people living in the town having arrest warrants on them. And once people get locked up, often, even if they're only locked up for a week, they'll lose a job.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

JEFF SMITH: And this is very significant because it will give tons of young people an opportunity to make their way in the world without a criminal background.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Jeff, for joining us. The book is fascinating. It's called Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America's Prison Crisis. Jeff Smith is a former Missouri state senator, now professor at New School here in New York.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Beyond Rentboy: Will the LGBT Movement Really Fight for Sex Worker Rights?

Jeffrey Hurant, chief executive of, an online male-escort service, speaks to reporters following his arraignment in federal court in New York, Aug. 25, 2015. Hurant and six other current or former employees appeared in court on Tuesday afternoon on charges of promoting prostitution. (Photo: Kevin Hagen / The New York Times)Jeffrey Hurant, chief executive of, an online male-escort service, speaks to reporters following his arraignment in federal court in New York, August 25, 2015. Hurant and six other current or former employees appeared in court on charges of promoting prostitution. (Photo: Kevin Hagen / The New York Times)

Powerful LGBT groups are coming out in support of decriminalizing sex work, but are they really ready to stick up for marginalized people after years of focusing on same-sex marriage? Truthout examines how big LGBT groups can use their resources to help the sex worker movement.

Jeffrey Hurant, chief executive of, an online male-escort service, speaks to reporters following his arraignment in federal court in New York, Aug. 25, 2015. Hurant and six other current or former employees appeared in court on Tuesday afternoon on charges of promoting prostitution. (Photo: Kevin Hagen / The New York Times)Jeffrey Hurant, chief executive of, an online male-escort service, speaks to reporters following his arraignment in federal court in New York, August 25, 2015. Hurant and six other current or former employees appeared in court on charges of promoting prostitution. (Photo: Kevin Hagen / The New York Times)

The raid that shut down the gay escort site last week was widely condemned by LGBT groups, but is the mainstream gay movement prepared to pick up the torch on a cause it has largely ignored for years in favor of more politically comfortable issues like marriage?

On August 25, federal agents raided Rentboy's office in New York City and arrested its chief executive and several employees for promoting prostitution across state lines. The raid has received a lot of media attention, but it wasn't the only target of an anti-prostitution sting over the past week.

In cities across the country, police lured suspects with online ads and raided massage parlors and neighborhood motels, arresting dozens of people, the vast majority of them immigrants, queer and gender-nonconforming people, poor people and people of color. The week before saw a similar spate of arrests, and next week will bring more of the same.

The Rentboy raid was a harsh reminder that even male privilege does not always protect you from the vice squad.

Meanwhile, a growing list of major international health and human rights organizations are calling on governments to decriminalize sex work. Earlier in August, Amnesty International adopted a policy calling on governments to decriminalize the selling and buying of sex services among consenting adults, reigniting fierce debate within feminist circles that pitted sex workers and their allies against advocates who want to bring women out of the sex trade, even if that means working with police.

Male sex workers in the United States were mostly absent from the Amnesty debate, largely because they have much more privilege and agency than women who turn to sex work. (Several male sex workers who Truthout spoke with agreed.)

The Rentboy raid, however, was a harsh reminder that even male privilege does not always protect you from the vice squad, let alone the US Department of Homeland Security. Rentboy's brazen operators are learning that lesson the hard way, and their legal troubles are a wakeup call for gay and queer men in New York City and everywhere else.

From Marriage to Sex Work?

Just a week before federal agents shut down Rentboy, five US-based LGBT groups - including Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) - issued a joint statement in support of the Amnesty resolution.

The five groups that are calling for decriminalization said they were looking forward to working with sex workers and sex worker advocates on the issue, but some activists remain skeptical that mainstream groups like GLAD and Lambda Legal are really committed to standing with sex workers.

"It's not in their DNA to actually take up a cause like this," said Yasmin Nair, a writer and activist with Against Equality, an editorial collective that is critical of the mainstream LGBT movement.

Radical queer thinkers have long criticized big LGBT groups for focusing so much of their time and financial resources on legalizing same-sex marriage and advocating access to the military. Marriage equality attracted millions in fundraising dollars and built political clout in Washington but tends to impact middle- and upper-class people who wish to pool their resources, not LGBTQ people who may be more immediately impacted by employment discrimination or police profiling. Plus, both marriage and the military are traditionally straight institutions that some queer people see as inherently capitalist and oppressive in the first place.

How can the LGBT movement help decriminalize sex work? Sticking up for websites like Rentboy is a good start.

Longstanding issues that impact more marginalized people in LGBT and queer communities, such as sex work, youth homelessness and the epidemic of violence against transgender woman, are only now becoming priorities. These issues have little to do with values like monogamy and national pride, which made marriage equality and military visibility attractive to the cultural mainstream, and Nair suspects the LGBT groups may only be paying them lip service.

"In the wake of the gay marriage issue, in the wake of it technically being over, I think LGBT groups are looking for ways to justify their existence," Nair said. "Which means they are trying to fund themselves."
Nair said the joint statement in support of decriminalization is encouraging, but she questioned whether mainstream gay groups would go beyond "statement-making" and really examine the complex issues wrapped up in sex work, such as race and poverty.

Truthout reached out to Lambda Legal, GLAD and the NCLR and asked if they are working any legal cases or projects involving sex workers, but they did not respond or issue a statement identifying a project by the time this article was published. (A spokesman for the NCLR said that staffers who usually interview with the press were either busy or on vacation.) 

The Human Rights Campaign, a powerful LGBT group that was at the forefront of the effort to legalize same-sex marriage, has not released any statements on the Amnesty policy or the Rentboy raid on its website. The group did not respond to an email from Truthout.

A spokesperson for the Transgender Law Center, which signed the joint statement on decriminalization along with the National Center for Transgender Equality, said the center does not have any current projects that focus on sex work specifically, but the group is working on two issues that can impact sex workers - incarceration and structural inequalities that drive high HIV rates and poor health outcomes in the transgender community.

Flor Bermudez, the director of the Transgender Law Center's Detention Project, helped organize the joint statement in support of decriminalization. Bermudez said that mainstream groups are now focusing on issues that impact poor people and people of color that were "ancillary" during the marriage campaign. However, she said, there also needs to be a strategic shift: Legal advocates need to change their definition of "winning," moving away from simply winning blockbuster court cases.

"Winning could mean engaging in advocacy to support a movement or a particular thing that is happening at the moment without necessary having a large, class-action lawsuit or having a big impact litigation case," Bermudez said. "If we shift the framework for what legal advocacy and winning means, we will be able to support movements like the sex worker rights movement."

Sex work is an important issue for transgender groups. Transgender people are 10 times more likely to participate in sex work than cisgender women, and 13 percent of trans people who experience family rejection have done sex work, according to the joint statement. Police often profile trans and gender-nonconforming people as sex workers, and transgender people - especially women - face extremely high rates of harassment and sexual abuse in prisons, jails and immigrant detention centers.

Katherine Koster, communications director for the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP-USA), was also optimistic about mainstream LGBT groups' increased attention to sex work. She told Truthout that she is "really hopeful" that recent events will give the LGBT movement some momentum.

"Perhaps the Rentboy raid and Amnesty International's position on sex work might be a turning point at which point larger GLBT organizations will start investing money and resources into the sex worker rights movement in the United States," Koster said.

How to Decriminalize Sex Work

So, how can the LGBT movement help decriminalize sex work? Koster agreed that sticking up for websites like Rentboy is a good start. Rentboy is only the latest casualty of a law enforcement strategy focused on dismantling online web forums used by sex workers. In July, law enforcement successfully pressured major credit card companies to remove their services from, a website frequently used by sex workers, and last year federal authorities raided and shut down a similar site called

Sex worker advocates say such websites are important safety tools. Rentboy users, for example, can discuss their HIV status and negotiate condom use in cyberspace instead of in a hurried conversation on the street corner or in the back of a club. Users also have time to screen clients and can find them without the help of middlemen.

"The Rentboy office raid greatly affects my ability to work safely and further enforces the stigma that already surrounds sex work in this country," said Israel, a male sex worker in Seattle, in a statement through SWOP-USA.

In the United States, certain forms of sex work are criminalized by a patchwork of laws. The seven Rentboy defendants, for example, are charged with violating federal law by promoting unlawful activity across state lines - the activity being prostitution, which is illegal in New York and most other states.

Many cities also have vague local ordinances against "loitering" with or "manifesting" the "intent" to sell sex, and police routinely use these laws to profile transgender women and LGBTQ youth as sex workers, especially when they are also people of color.

In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which regularly takes up LGBT rights issues, filed a constitutional challenge to such an ordinance in Phoenix, Arizona, on behalf of Monica Jones, a Black transgender woman and activist. Jones was convicted of prostitution after being picked up by an undercover police officer while walking to meet friends at a neighborhood bar. Jones appealed, arguing she was unfairly profiled as a sex worker. An appeals court overturned the conviction earlier this year but did not rule on the ACLU challenge.

Legal experts say local laws against displaying so-called "intent" to commit prostitution give police the power to violate constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association and due process, but the sex worker rights movement does not have resources to challenge all the laws and defend the countless number of people arrested under them. LGBT groups supporting decriminalization could take note and pitch in.

As Truthout has reported, there is already a challenge to California's state law prohibiting prostitution that could set a precedent across several western states if it wins appeals. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project, a grassroots group out of San Francisco that has taken on a huge fight with a shoestring budget.

Rentboy has given the mainstream LGBT movement the opportunity to come out about its relationship with sex workers.

Koster said that LGBT groups could also put pressure on law enforcement to simply stop enforcing anti-prostitution laws, just as laws criminalizing adultery in many states are no longer enforced. Koster also suggested that LGBT groups with power in Washington could work with anti-human trafficking groups to reform laws that tackle sex trafficking on paper while arming law enforcement with resources that are largely used for the same stings and raids that put consenting adults in jail but fail to address structural issues behind trafficking.

Laws criminalizing sex work could be removed with ballot initiatives, but the social stigma presents a challenge at the voting booth, even though sex between consenting adults does not become inherently more harmful or dangerous simply because money is changing hands.

The LGBT movement, however, knows a thing or two about combating stigma. Activists have been encouraging people to "come out" for years, and LGBT visibility has turned the tide against institutional homophobia in the United States. Those who supported basic marriage equality were in the minority only a decade ago, while they now occupy a significant majority.

"Coming out" is not always advantageous for all marginalized people and can sometimes pose a significant threat to their safety and survival. Some sex workers, especially those with legal jobs like working in the porn industry, can afford to be out and visible. For others, visibility brings the threat of violence, stigma and arrest, posing serious challenges to organizing and fighting for basic rights. Many sex worker advocates are also workers themselves and activists in their spare time. The sex worker movement has made tremendous progress in recent years but is still facing an uphill battle, and it can use all the support - and funding - that it can get.

Rentboy has given the mainstream LGBT movement the opportunity to come out about its relationship with sex workers, who have been an integral part of LGBT culture for as long as it has existed. Queer youth escaping troubled homes have long turned to sex work for a viable source of income, and many queers use sex work to make a significant amount of money quickly so they can have more time for activism and living a fulfilling life beyond the expectations of heteronormativity and capitalism.

After all, it was Black transgender women, drag queens and sex workers who sparked the Stonewall riots that gave birth to the modern gay rights movement. It's time the mainstream gay rights movement started giving back.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Back to ALEC, Back to (Private) School

On the heels of a newly passed state budget that again leaves our K-12 public schools behind without ample and consistent funding, I recently headed back to where the school privatization push all began - the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

ALEC and its members, including the American Federation for Children (AFC), have become more powerful than our citizens' voices at the State Capitol. Despite massive public urging from Wisconsin school superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and students for consistent and adequate K-12 public education funding, Republicans legislators chose to dump more money into an unaccountable private voucher school system.

Since Republicans took over our state Capitol in 2011, they have cut $1.2 billion from public K-12 education. Under this latest budget, 55 percent of school districts will get less general student aid than they did last budget cycle and Wisconsin is spending $1,014 less per public school student than it did in 2008.

Yet for the private school special interests, this budget was like Christmas morning, with presents that blew the student enrollment caps off the statewide private school voucher program, diverted an additional $600-800 million from public schools over the next decade and increased per-pupil spending in the statewide private voucher system more than what even Governor Walker had proposed. The cherry on top was the last minute, late night passage of the special needs voucher program, which funds private schools for special needs students without requiring specialized instruction, teacher training or current legal protections.

At ALEC's recent conference, I saw firsthand how these successes have emboldened them. State legislators were urged to push further for universal vouchers with no income or eligibility limits and for funding parity for unaccountable, independent charter schools.

The most far-reaching model bill the ALEC Education Taskforce adopted, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), was pushed by AFC, and recently adopted in Nevada. Public monies are deposited into individual student accounts that parents may spend on any educational system. According to Nevada lead sponsor state senator Scott Hammond, this bill impacts 94 percent of public school students and will open up the floodgates to private schools in Nevada, sending "shockwaves" throughout the country.

Though school privatization model policies originating from ALEC have traditionally contained income eligibility limits, their new suite of model bills expanding independent charter school funding and private school vouchers reduce state oversight and accountability measures, contain no income cap and provide the same level of state and local funding per pupil that public schools receive.

To make their case, ALEC is now targeting suburban, middle-income families with a new argument that public education is failing not just low-income students, but middle-income students. ALEC's new goal is to enlist middle-income parents to make a case for public school privatization.

And state legislators are being called upon as the foot soldiers to carry out ALEC's orders. As Arizona Senator Debbie Lesko rallied when concluding her remarks in support of Educational Savings Accounts - "We're here to save our country. That's what ALEC helps us do."

Or, more accurately, destroy the foundation of our democracy - quality public education. ALEC and many Republican legislators in Wisconsin have no vision for public education because they do not want it to exist. But there is a way to stop ALEC's destructive policies. With 78 percent of Wisconsinites opposed to public education cuts, it starts with you.

There was one piece of advice from Senator Lesko's ALEC speech that we should listen to - "Elections matter."

Opinion Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Bosom Baddies ]]> Art Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400 US-Made Cluster Munitions Causing Civilian Deaths in Yemen

Also see: Despite Global Ban, Saudi-Led Forces Kill Dozens in Yemen Using US-Made Cluster Bombs

New research released on August 27 by a leading human rights watchdog has found evidence of seven attacks involving cluster munitions in Yemen's northwestern Hajja governorate.

Carried out between late April and mid-July 2015, the attacks are believed to have killed at least 13 people, including three children, and wounded 22 others, according to an August 26 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The rights group believes the rockets were launched from Saudi Arabia, which has been leading a coalition of nine Arab countries in a military offensive against armed Houthi rebels from northern Yemen who ousted President Abu Mansur Hadi earlier this year.

Banned by a 2008 international convention, cluster munitions are bombs or rockets that explode in the air before dispersing many smaller explosives, or 'bomblets', over a wide area.

"Weapons used in these particular attacks were U.S.-made M26 rockets, each of which contain 644 sub-munitions and that means that any civilian in the impact area is likely to be killed or injured," Ole Solvang, a senior researcher at HRW, said in a video statement released August 27.

According to HRW, a volley of six rockets can release over 3,800 submunitions over an area with a one-kilometer radius. M26 rockets use M77 submunitions, which have a 23-percent 'failure rate' as per U.S. military trials – this means unexploded bombs remain spread over wide areas, endangering civilians, and especially children.

Local villages told HRW researchers that at least three people were killed when they attempted to handle unexploded submunitions.

The attack sites lie within the Haradh and Hayran districts of the Hajja governorate, currently under control of Houthi rebels, and include the villages of Al Qufl, Malus, Al Faqq and Haradh town – all located between four and 19 km from the Saudi-Yemeni border.

Given the attacks' proximity to the border, and the fact that Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – all members of the Arab Coalition – possess M26 rockets and their launchers, HRW believes the cluster munitions were "most likely" launched from Saudi Arabia.

One of the victims was 18-year-old Khaled Matir Hadi Hayash, who suffered a fatal injury to his neck on the morning of July 14 while his family were taking their livestock out to graze in a field just four miles from the Saudi border.

Hayash's brother and three cousins also suffered injuries, and the family lost 30 sheep and all their cows in the attack.

In the village of Malus, residents provided HRW with the names of at least seven locals, including three children, who were killed in a June 7 attack.

A 30-year-old shopkeeper in Malus described the cluster bombing as follows:

"I saw a bomb exploding in the air and pouring out many smaller bombs. Then an explosion threw me on the floor. I lost consciousness and somebody transferred me to the hospital with burns and wounds on the heels of the feet and fragmentation wounds on the left side of my body."

A thirteen-year-old caught in the same attack succumbed to his injuries in a local hospital. The boy is now buried in the neighbouring Hayran District.

"I didn't even take [his body] back home," the father of the deceased teenager told HRW. "Residents of the village all fled. You can't find anyone there now."

These seven attacks are not the first time that banned weapons have made in appearance in the embattled nation of 26 million people.

"Human Rights Watch has previously identified three other types of cluster munitions used in attacks apparently by coalition forces in Yemen in 2015: US-made CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons, rockets or projectiles containing "ZP-39" DPICM submunitions, and CBU-87 cluster bombs containing BLU-97 submunitions," the report stated.

Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United States all remain non-signatories to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which currently counts 94 states among its parties.

A further 23 countries have signed but not ratified the treaty.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400
More Than 270 Refugees Dead in One Day; Why Is the US Doing Nothing?

It has been an especially grim time for refugees fleeing unrest and terror in the Middle East and Africa, and seeking to enter Europe.

On Thursday August 27, Austrian police examined a large van that had been left in a motorway pull-out about 15 miles from Vienna, and close to the border with Hungary. They were alerted by a police motorway patrol officer, who had seen fluids leaking out the back door. When they opened it up, they found the decomposing bodies of what they estimated to be between 20 and 50 people.

The next day, it was revealed that there were in fact a horrific 71 bodies: 59 men, eight women and four children were crammed into a small space. It's believed they had been dead for nearly two days.

Police have said the bodies appeared to be those of Syrian migrants after they found a Syrian travel document. These Syrians must have been facing truly horrific situations to allow themselves to be packed into this small space and driven away, in total darkness. Four people have been arrested in the case: three Bulgarians and one Afghan.

At the same time, more than 2000 miles away, refugees were being pulled out of the sea off the coast of Libya, after a boat sank, likely killing around 200 people. The boat was probably carrying around 400 people, but about half of them were unable to escape because they were locked in the ship's hold when it capsized.

300,000 Refugees So Far in 2015

By the end of July this year, almost 300,000 refugees had fled their homelands, mostly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and African countries, in the hope of escaping violence and making a new life in Europe. This compares to a total of 217,000 for the entire year of 2014, according to the Washington Post. Another 2,373 or more refugees have died in their bid to reach Europe. 

I use the term "refugee" deliberately. As David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, explained on the PBS NewsHour

"A refugee, defined by the international conventions established after the Second World War, is someone who is fleeing a persecution. They have a - quote, unquote - "well-founded" fear of persecution.

A migrant is someone who is seeking a better life basically for economic reasons. And I think it's very important to continue to uphold the distinction between the two. The asylum-seeker that you refer to is really a refugee who is applying for asylum in a country in which they land."

According to US News, "The U.N. refugee agency says it boils down to whether the person is being pushed or pulled: A migrant is someone who seeks better living conditions in another country; a refugee is someone who flees persecution, conflict or war."

A Global Crisis

There are many heartwarming stories of individual citizens in Europe, especially Greeks and Germans, working hard to find ways to help these refugees.

But it's clear that more action needs to be taken at a national and international level. Ironically, as the tragedies of August 27 were being uncovered, a summit focusing on the how to deal with the refugee crisis was being held in the Austrian capital, Vienna.

At that meeting, Austria's Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz expressed his belief that the external borders of the European Union (EU) must be strengthened, while the countries of Serbia and Macedonia, which are not members of the EU, demanded that the EU must come up with a clear action plan.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed: "They're facing huge challenges and as they are future members of the European Union it is our duty to help them with these challenges."

Hopefully, something positive will come out of these meetings, but what about the UK and the US?

Why Are the UK and the US Refusing to Help?

As The Guardian reports, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, seemed especially callous as he spoke of the refugees:

"attempts to enter his country had increased because 'you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it's got a growing economy, it's an incredible place to live'."

Let's remember that there are around 3000 asylum seekers waiting in Calais, hoping to make it to England, as compared to the 300,000 that have entered Europe so far this year.

As for the US, many of the refugees are escaping from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries in whose wars the US has been deeply involved. Yet there has been no recognition of this fact, no acknowledgment that this is a global crisis, one in which the US should play its part.

It is horrific that people are suffocating and drowning in their quest to reach safety. The UK and the US need to step up.

News Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 -0400