Truthout Stories Thu, 02 Oct 2014 12:53:07 -0400 en-gb Acute Economic Inequality Underlies "Occupy Central" Protests in Hong Kong


SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

AP reported that riot police in Hong Kong arrested scores of demonstrators protesting the National People's Congress ruling that there would be no civic nomination for chief executive elections in 2017. Rather, all candidates must first be approved by a nomination committee that is mostly selected by Beijing.

For the last month, there has been ongoing protest in Hong Kong under the banner Occupy Central. Let's have a look.


BENNY TAI, COFOUNDER, OCCUPY CENTRAL HK: Disproportionate force is used to—the violence used to—as against our own people, who are just demonstrating in wanting democratic rights for themselves.

The second demand is that the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress should withdraw the decision on the electoral reform, which has blocked the road to genuine universal suffrage.

I am very proud of Hong Kong people that have that strong determination in wanting democracy, even to that extent that they do not fear tear gas and still able to adhere to the nonviolent principle.


PERIES: Now joining us from Providence, Rhode Island, to discuss the developments in Hong Kong is Eli Friedman. Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University.

Thank you for joining us, Eli.

Eli, what's the character of Occupy Central, particularly the class nature of the protesters?

ELI FRIEDMAN, ASST. PROF. INTERNATIONAL AND COMPARATIVE LABOR, CORNELL UNIV.: At this point it's very diverse. I think it tends to be associated with more middle-class people, with students. And this has certainly been an important section of the protesters. But what we've seen over the past couple of days is that there's been a diversity of occupations that have emerged around the city. So Occupy Central was originally named because they were going to occupy the Central Business District. But in fact there's occupations which have taken place both, in Central, in Causeway Bay, which is a major shopping area, but also in the more working-class area called Mong Kok, which is in Kowloon, across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. And that particular occupation, of course, is drawing people from around the neighborhood. So in addition to the students, which have received a lot of coverage in the media, there are more working-class people joining. And there's also been some involvement of unions, which I think is a very interesting development.

PERIES: And what kind of numbers are showing up to these protests?

FRIEDMAN: You know, it's very difficult to say, because you see widely varying estimates. On July 1, which has been a day, a typical day of protest in Hong Kong for many years (July 1 marks the day that Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule), there were many tens of thousands [incompr.] probably more than 100,000 protesters. In subsequent occupations it's varied a lot, but certainly many tens of thousands are protesting at any given time around the city.

PERIES: And so, Eli, Beijing must have known about the potential for this kind of reaction by way of protest of their decision. How are they reacting now?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. In fact, Occupy Central has been making this threat for a long time now that if Beijing's ruling on the elections did not meet their standards for what they deem to be real elections, that they were going to engage in mass civil disobedience in the central business district. So this is not at all a surprise to Beijing.

They're putting Beijing in a very difficult spot. If they crack down too hard, then this is likely to engender, I think, more sympathy from the general public, and certainly more sympathy overseas. And so they don't want that to happen. On the other hand, if they don't control the protests, then Hong Kong will continue to be sort of ungovernable. And so this is obviously a major problem for Beijing.

The central government has indicated that they're not going to back down, that they're not going to change the decision on the elections in Hong Kong. So it's unclear what going to happen at this point. But in the meantime, things are certainly deadlocked.

PERIES: So I have seen several reports in AP and in Wall Street Journal interviewing some of the Occupy Central organizers. And they're certainly making a demand that Beijing reverse their decision. Do you think that's unlikely?

FRIEDMAN: I mean, they've been pretty explicit in Beijing that they're not going to change their minds. But it's impossible to tell. I think as these protests persist, as they begin to exact real economic damages in the city, and as they clearly are already having major political consequences for the city, that they may change. And there's a precedent for this. In 2003, Beijing tried to push through an anti-subversion law in Hong Kong. Once again on July 1 there was massive protest. Hundreds of thousands of people came out. And because of this public mobilization, Beijing actually backed down and they shelved this anti-subversion law. So a lot of people, I think, are pessimistic, and they say well, the Chinese Communist Party doesn't back down. Well, in fact, if you look at the historical precedent, they have. And so nobody knows how these protests are going to turn out, but it's certainly a possibility.

PERIES: What's the nature of the comparison, let's say, between the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Central? What are some of the economic issues that they're organizing around?

FRIEDMAN: Well, the obvious similarity, of course, is the tactic, which is occupying public space. I think, in terms of the tactical differences, one thing that's interesting is Occupy Central—or at this point I think it should be called Occupy Hong Kong, 'cause there's occupations in so many parts of the city—they're actually occupying major thoroughfares; they're causing much more disruption to the functioning of this city than Occupy Wall Street or any of the other Occupy [snip] in the U.S. ever managed. So that's an important difference.

Another difference, I think, is their attitude towards electoral democracy. And what we saw in Occupy Wall Street is cynicism about the system of electoral democracy here in the U.S., this belief that both political parties are controlled by corporate interests, that most people don't have any meaningful voice politics, and therefore the system of elections is not really going to be able to resolve that. In Hong Kong it's actually quite different because they are using a sort of similar tactic, but what they're trying to do is to win the right to have the kinds of elections that people in Occupy Wall Street are already—don't really believe in anymore. So that is a major difference.

But a similarity underlying both of these is that, I think, both in the United States and in Hong Kong, and in many other countries around the world, most notably in mainland China, there's this development where it seems like only very wealthy people can have a voice in politics. And so I think that as inequality has grown more stark in Hong Kong, people feel that more and more acutely. And given that they have economic pressures and they can't address those because the political system is so tightly controlled by economic elites, I think that's leading to a real sense of frustration.

PERIES: Right. Let's get specific here in terms of the economic inequalities. We're talking about a large number of young people that are unemployed. What are some of the other issues?

FRIEDMAN: Well, first, just in terms of wealth inequality, Hong Kong is perhaps the most unequal developed economy anywhere in the world, and certainly it's even more unequal than is the case in the United States. So this is a major problem. And, yeah, for young people, they face many problems that people in the West are familiar with, which is a bleak job market. Unemployment is not as severe as it is in some places, say, in Southern Europe, but it is a concern. Even if you are lucky enough to get a job, people in Hong Kong work insane hours, some of the longest hours anywhere in the world. And the cost of living is astronomical. Hong Kong has some of the most expensive real estate, in terms of cost per square foot, anywhere in the world. I saw a recent report which said the only place that was more expensive is Monaco. So Hong Kong is significantly more expensive. Real estate is significantly more expensive there than it would be in, say, New York. So the idea of being able to buy a house, or even to pay rent on decent accommodations, is increasingly difficult. Costs for education and all these things have really gone up quite a lot. And part of the reason that the government hasn't been able to do anything to address this is that some of the wealthiest and therefore most politically connected people in the city are real estate developers. And, of course, the situation is working out just fine for them, but it's not for most people.

PERIES: And I understand that some of the business community is also participating in organizing and supporting the demonstrators.

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. You know, it's been an interesting dynamic. Initially, before things got really dramatic over the past few days, you had a number of business organizations, including the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, come out in opposition to it, very explicitly in opposition to Occupy Central. Some other major accounting firms and banks were sort of threatening and saying, you know, this is going to hurt Hong Kong's economy and cause disorder, and basically people should just deal with less democracy.

But that's at the organizational level. And I think if you go out and you sort of look at who's in the crowd, in addition to students and workers there are a lot of people from sectors that you might not suspect, including from the financial sector. And I recently saw a group that was just started of people who work in finance, who are in support of greater democracy for Hong Kong. So, again, thinking about this comparison to Occupy Wall Street, one of the things that they've been able to do in Hong Kong really effectively is to build a broader sort of cross-class alliance to push for expanded democracy.

PERIES: Eli, thanks so much for joining us today.

FRIEDMAN: Thanks very much for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:34:33 -0400
On National Day of Maize in Mexico, Protecting the Sacred Plant

2014 1002 tello stAdelita San Vicente Tello speaking at local celebration of Mexico's first National Holiday of Native and Creole Seeds. (Photo: Adelita San Vicente Tello)Here we have an opportunity, which is that most corn is still produced by campesinos/as [small farmers]. They still use native seeds, and they use rainwater for sowing – even though they do it in soil that is very degraded and thus produces little. We consider this small-holder production to be an opportunity, because genetic reserves are stored in the native seeds. Traditional knowledge lies within them. This is really where the alternative lies for the food production model, especially when faced with the problem of climate change.

I work with an organization called Seeds of Life, which has an office in Mexico City but works throughout the country in Veracruz, Puebla, Jalisco, and Morelos. One thing we do is support the farmers in preserving their seeds by creating corn reserves. We call them reserves so as not to call them “banks”, the capitalist term. As the campesinos/as say, the best way to preserve seeds is to plant them in the earth. We also share information on the risks of the dominant food system, specifically GMOs, in order to elevate health and ecological awareness among consumers.

Seed exchanges are done at the regional level. Sometimes there is money exchanged in transactions between campesinos/as, but usually it’s a free exchange of native seeds. They always have a blessing of the seeds, a ritual combining traditions from the Christian religion and the indigenous religion, the latter of which is based on agricultural cycles.

The greed of transnational GMO and biofuel corporations has led to a dispute over corn. They want to rob all our global communities of this sacred grain.

Since the 1990s, the Mexican government has been waging an agrocide, trying to kill the countryside and its campesinos/as. Mexico has suffered grave consequences from the import model. In the 20 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA, signed between Mexico, Canada, and the US in 1994] was passed, 20% of the population has become hungry, 70% has become underweight, and more than 6 million citizens have emigrated. We import 42% of the food we eat.

Then, on January 1, 2008, matters got worse when the government completely opened up trade relations with the US and Canada, dropping remaining tariffs on basic foodstuffs of corn, beans, milk, and sugar.

For these reasons, in 2007 we decided to create a campaign in Mexico calledWithout Corn, There Is No Country. We’ve tried to weave together many different efforts into this network. We did this to draw the attention of the Mexican government to our food crisis, and to get them to understand the political importance of food. What we want is for the Mexican government to protect our native seeds, to give financial support to help their preservation, and to have the international institutions recognize this resource. Our motto is “Put Mexico in your Mouth.” We say: “Save the farms in order to save Mexico.”

We did so many things in this effort throughout 2007: we planted corn all over the city and sent out a call to others to sow corn seeds. We held a huge open-air market with farmers’ produce at the Zocalo, the central plaza in Mexico City. We held a large concert with young people, and organized a fast for food independence on the anniversaries of the beginning of independence and the revolution.

On midnight of January 1, 2008, farmers from Chihuahua symbolically closed down part of the border and we held a huge demonstration in Mexico City. We handed in almost 500,000 signatures to Congress demanding the right to food sovereignty. We presented forums and workshops, which gave us a national platform for very clear demands. Our central one was “Campesino/na foods for Mexico.”

What has been the government’s response? They continue to support Monsanto, Cargill, and other large transnational corporations. With the support of the government, Cargill built ethanol-producing plants in Mexico. So now Mexico imports corn, and uses its own corn and land to produce biofuels.

In 2009, the government gave the first permissions to experimentally plant GMO corn. In 2011, they gave out permissions to grow in a so-called pilot phase.

Even though the government hasn’t listened to us, we continued in our campaign. Since 2009 we’ve taken justice into our own hands. We carried out legal actions and large direct actions in defense of corn. We invited the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food to come visit. We delivered a letter to Obama on his visit to Mexico asking for a renegotiation of the Agricultural chapter of NAFTA. We began celebrating National Day of Corn. We got the right to food enshrined in the constitution in 2011.

We – including campesino/as organizations – kept bringing legal complaints against the government all the way to 2013, including a constitutional controversy with Municipality of Tepoztlan. But they always ruled against us in the courts.  

Finally, we filed a class action lawsuit against GMO corn on July 5, 2013. The group of plaintiffs included 53 people, among them experts in the field, prominent personalities, and celebrities; 20 organizations of producers, indigenous peoples, beekeepers, environmentalists, and consumers; and one human rights group.

The lawsuit asked the court to declare the limits and restrictions established in the Biosecurity of Genetically Modified Organisms Law [LBOGM by its Spanish acronym] insufficient because there is scientific evidence of transgenic contamination of native corn in the states of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Veracruz, and Guanajuato. The inadequacy of the legal restrictions established in the LBOGM has infringed on many human rights, including the rights to a healthy environment; to preservation of biodiversity; to fair participation by the population; to a sustainable use of the biological diversity of native corn that will guarantee its access to future generations; to adequate, nutritious, and sufficient food; to cultural rights; and to health.

Along with the lawsuit, the petitioners requested a precautionary measure, requesting that GMO corn not be allowed within the country’s borders until the class action lawsuit has been definitively settled. [A judge’s ruling banning GMO corn came last October.] There have been more than 70 legal challenges from the companies and the government.

The Without Corn, There Is No Country campaign has gotten stronger. More organizations are joining together to struggle against mass dispossession of lands, dispossession caused by the government prioritizing land use for extraction of petroleum and shale gas over food production.

The defense of corn is not just to preserve our sacred plant. It is also fundamental to sustaining Mexico as a living genetic reserve of important varieties of fruits and vegetables that feed humanity. This great agro-biodiversity would never exist without the campesinos/as who, over centuries, have fed and nurtured a proud culture which is an example for many countries.  

When all is said and done, we are children of corn. It’s our life, and we need to protect it.

Opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:30:32 -0400
Accused of Stealing a Backpack, High School Student Jailed for Nearly Three Years Without Trial

We look at the incredible story of how a 16-year-old high school sophomore from the Bronx ended up spending nearly three years locked up at the Rikers jail in New York City after he says he was falsely accused of stealing a backpack. Kalief Browder never pleaded guilty and was never convicted. Browder maintained his innocence and requested a trial, but was only offered plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and warned him he could face 15 years in prison if he was convicted. But Browder still refused to accept the deal, and was only released when the case was dismissed. During this time, Browder spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement, a juvenile imprisonment practice that the New York Department of Corrections has now banned. We are joined by reporter and author Jennifer Gonnerman, who recounts Browder’s story in the current issue of The New Yorker. We also speak with Browder’s current attorney, Paul Prestia, who has filed a lawsuit against the City of New York, the New York City Police Department, the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Corrections, on Browder’s behalf.


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Last week, the New York City Department of Corrections announced it will stop using solitary confinement to punish adolescents held in its troubled Rikers Island jail complex, the second-largest jail system in the country. But a federal prosecutor said the city’s reforms were moving too slowly to address a, quote, "culture of violence," and warned he may file a civil lawsuit over conditions for teenagers held in Rikers. New York is one of only two states nationwide that automatically charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we look at the incredible story of a 16-year-old high school sophomore who was jailed at Rikers Island for nearly three years after he refused to plead guilty to a crime he said he did not commit. It was May 15, 2010, when Kalief Browder was walking home from a party with his friends in the Bronx and was stopped by police based on a tip that he had robbed someone weeks earlier. He told HuffPost Live what happened next.

KALIEF BROWDER: They had searched me, and the guy actually said—at first he said I robbed him. I didn’t have anything on me. And that’s when—

MARC LAMONT HILL: When you say "nothing," you mean no weapon and none of his property.

KALIEF BROWDER: No weapon, no money, anything he said that I allegedly robbed him for. So the guy actually changed up his story and said that I actually tried to rob him. But then another police officer came, and they said that I robbed him two weeks prior. And then they said, "We’re going to take you to the precinct, and most likely we’re going to let you go home." But then, I never went home.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kalief Browder did not go home for 33 months, even though he was never convicted. For nearly 800 days of that time, he was held in solitary confinement. He maintained his innocence and requested a trial, but was only offered plea deals while the trial was repeatedly delayed. Near the end of his time in jail, the judge offered to sentence him to time served if he entered a guilty plea, and told him he could face 15 years in prison if he was convicted. He refused to accept the deal and was only released when the case was dismissed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Jennifer Gonnerman, reporter, author, contributing editor at New York magazine, and contributing writer to The New Yorker magazine. She recounts Kalief Browder’s story in the current issue of The New Yorker in a piece headlined, "Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life." Jennifer Gonnerman has long chronicled problems with the criminal justice system. Her book, Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett, tells the story of a woman who spent 16 years in prison for a first-time offense under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws.

And we’re joined by Kalief Browder’s current attorney, Paul Prestia, who has filed a lawsuit against the city, the NYPD—the New York Police Department—Bronx district attorney and the Department of Corrections on Browder’s behalf. Prestia is also a former assistant prosecutor in Brooklyn.

Jennifer Gonnerman, Paul Prestia, welcome to Democracy Now! Jennifer, tell us Kalief’s story.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Well, you did a pretty good job of setting it up, and it was terrific that we got to hear Kalief’s voice describing what happened. But just to recap a bit, May 2010, he’s coming home from a party late one night in the Bronx, walking with his friend down the street, and a police car pulls up. There’s somebody in the back seat who points him out, saying, you know—accusing him of a robbery that had happened one or two weeks earlier. He says, "I didn’t do it." They take—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, first, he actually says, "I didn’t steal anything tonight. Look at my pockets."


AMY GOODMAN: And they went back and checked with the guy, and they said, "Oh, oh, this happened a couple weeks ago."

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, so there was, from the beginning, it sounded like, at least the way Kalief tells it, some confusion about the dates, which is significant. And he goes into the precinct thinking, "I’m just"—and he’s in the holding cell, thinking, "I’m just going to be here for a couple hours. We’ll clear up this misunderstanding." And, as you said, he ended up doing almost three years on Rikers Island, for many reasons, but the system sort of completely failed him in every possible way. There was no speedy trial. And during that time, he was locked up in the adolescent jail on Rikers Island.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Rikers.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Sure, sure. You know, when we talk about Rikers Island, it’s a jail complex. There’s 10 different jails there. And I think a lot of people get confused between prison and jail. A prison is where you go after you’ve been convicted and sentenced. A jail is where you go while you’re waiting for your case to go through the court. On Rikers Island, 85 percent of the people locked up there are legally innocent. They have not been convicted of a crime yet, and they may never be convicted of a crime. They’re there waiting to find out whether they’re guilty or innocent and what their fate is going to be. And so, Kalief was one of those people. So, despite the fact that he was not convicted of a crime, he endured the punishment anyway.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But he ended up basically in Rikers because he couldn’t make bail, right? Because it was a relatively minor charge, the judge ended up giving him bail time but releasing his co-defendant, as well. Could you explain why that happened?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yeah, sure. So, from the beginning of the case, there were two co-defendants. And Kalief’s co-defendant, the other friend, was released from day one, and so he got to wait at home while the case went through the system. And Kalief’s bail was set at $3,000 because he was already on probation in a prior case. So, he had a mark against him, and that mark sort of chased him for the next three years. Ultimately, they filed a violation of probation against him, which meant that he was remanded. So even though the bail was $3,000, it was out of the reach of his family. Even if they had spent time fundraising from everybody they knew, ultimately it didn’t matter because he was remanded. There was no bail set for three years. So he was held without bail while this case sort of crawled through the court system.

PAUL PRESTIA: Well, and just to clarify—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Paul Prestia, yes?

PAUL PRESTIA: Just to clarify on that prior conviction, that was a youthful offender adjudication, so that, theoretically, was sealed from his record. So, while he was convicted, he was 16 at the time, and that conviction was sealed from his record—not something that should have been used against him, but perhaps an anomaly because he was on probation at the same time.

In any event, as Jen pointed out—I would have titled her piece—and it was an excellent piece, obviously—I spoke with her in depth while she was writing the article. I would have titled it "The Criminal Justice System Deconstructed." And I can go through all of those aspects with you, but I know that—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you particularly about this whole issue of people being held in jail, in essence, to pressure them to plead out, because we often see the criminal justice system on television as these trials, these dramatic trials, but I’ve always felt that the essence of the criminal justice system in America, 95 percent of the cases, are the plea bargains.

PAUL PRESTIA: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: People being pressured not to go to trial, but to plead guilty. And if you could talk about how that’s used time and—over and over again to get defendants to plead out?

PAUL PRESTIA: Well, I don’t know if it’s a tactic per se. I don’t know if it’s something intentional per se, that the District Attorney’s Office—a technique that the District Attorney’s Office uses to—

AMY GOODMAN: And you were a prosecutor—


AMY GOODMAN: —so you probably did it all the time.

PAUL PRESTIA: I’m familiar with all of these things, Amy. I know how it goes, for sure. But I think it’s understood that if someone’s—it’s just common sense. If someone’s in jail and they’re desperate to get out, they’re more inclined to take a plea. It’s just human nature to do anything, to find any way to get out of that jail, especially if you’ve spent some time in solitary.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s what is so amazing about Kalief, when the Bronx judge is replaced by a Brooklyn judge, and she begins to see what he’s been through and says, "You will be out today. After two-and-a-half years, just plea. You face 15 years in jail if you go to trial," and he said, "No." I mean, all the other prisoners said, "Are you crazy?" to him. This is a kid. He said, "I’m innocent. I’m not going to say I was guilty."

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I mean, it’s incredible. Obviously, the longer you’re incarcerated in jail, the greater the pressure to plead, right? And for somebody like Kalief, who was in one of the worst jails—he was in the adolescent jail in Rikers Island, which the U.S. Attorney’s Office recently put out a blistering report about the horrific conditions there. On top of that, he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. So it just ratchets up the pressure more and more and more. You know, he could not have been under greater pressure to plead. And yet, despite all that, he just said, that day, to the judge—the judge, you know, made that offer, and he said, "I’m all right. I didn’t do it. I’m all right." And the judge says, "You’re all right?" I mean, clearly, he was not all right. But he said, "I’m all right," like, "I got this. I could do it." And she said, "You’re all right?" And he said, "I want to go to trial," the same thing he had been saying for three years. But trials rarely happen in the Bronx. And that’s sort of one of the sort of dirty secrets of the whole system.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To me, one of the most stunning parts of your article is when you list from the court files all of the continuances that occurred in this trial, while he’s waiting, demanding to go to trial. You have from the court file: "June 23, 2011: People not ready, request 1 week." But that one week turns into—looks like three months: "August 24, 2011: People not ready, request 1 day." Then, "November 4, 2011: People not ready, prosecutor on trial, request 2 weeks." Then, "December 2, 2011: Prosecutor on trial, request January 3rd." So each time it was the prosecutors who were delaying the start of a trial.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: That’s true. And then it would—once they asked for a week or two weeks, it would turn into a matter of scheduling. Everybody looks at their calendars, and maybe the prosecutor can’t do it, or maybe the judge can’t do it, or maybe the defense attorney can’t. And it became a sort of logistics game at every court date. But, you know, one or two weeks turning into six weeks, you know, for somebody like Kalief, that’s six more weeks that he’s got to wait.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the role of the prior attorney? Because you weren’t there from the beginning, Paul Prestia.

PAUL PRESTIA: No, I wasn’t. I’ll make that clear.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: His initial—right, right, his initial attorney. And you also tried to find out what that initial attorney, who was appointed by the court, did or did not do.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, right, right. He was a court-appointed lawyer—it’s called 18-B lawyer in New York City, but a court-appointed lawyer, paid $75 an hour to represent Kalief. And, you know, it’s a system that has been criticized over the years, because in order to make a living, you’ve got to have a lot of cases. And you’re sort of—those lawyers are sort of running around the city all the time. And, you know, so he never visited his client on Rikers Island, which is—

AMY GOODMAN: Never visited his—that means he never visited his client, because he was on Rikers Island the whole time.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: That’s correct. And, you know, as sad as it is, it’s not that uncommon for 18-B lawyers never to make the trip to Rikers Island, because it’s like a half a day, you know, nightmare. You know, they have video conferences in the Bronx, where you can talk to your client face to face. And, you know, I asked him had he ever done that; he said, "I’m pretty sure I did." And then I asked Kalief, did he remember having a videoconference with his lawyer, and he said, "No." So, you know, I don’t know. Paul could probably speak better to this, but—

AMY GOODMAN: What about a speedy trial? I mean, there might be a lot of people watching this around the country and around the world now saying, "Wasn’t a law broken here, that this kid, from when he was 16 years old, was in prison, two of those years in solitary?"

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: I know. You can’t even wrap your brain around it, it’s so crazy, the whole story. So, in New York, you know—so, the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial. And in New York, we have something called the "ready rule." So, when these prosecutors, as Juan was reading off the list, say, you know, "We’re not ready, but we can be ready in a week"—so that’s one week charged against them. Yet the court—the next court date is set one month, two months, three months away. So that only counts as one week against the six-month deadline that we have in New York. So, even though he was held for three years, it’s not like there’s three—the three years count against him. It’s every week or two weeks or one day that the prosecutors ask for. So time is moving in two separate ways. There’s sort of the world of the courthouse, where time is moving at a glacial pace, and then there’s Kalief’s life, where every day feels like 10 because he’s trapped in a box in Rikers Island solitary.

PAUL PRESTIA: It’s a figurative clock that stops and starts throughout the case. But, agreed, with Jennifer’s legal analysis, the adjournments were appalling and should have been challenged at some point, in my opinion, by the attorney—

AMY GOODMAN: For a speedy trial.

PAUL PRESTIA: —and should not have been allowed to persist by the judges who oversaw the case.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Kalief’s voice back into this conversation. Kalief Browder told HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill that while he was in solitary confinement at Rikers, the guards often refused to give him his meals.

KALIEF BROWDER: If you say anything that could tick them off any type of way, some of them, whic is a lot of them, what they do is they starve you. They won’t feed you. And it’s already hard in there, because if you get the three trays that you get every day, you’re still hungry, because I guess that’s part of the punishment. So, if they starve you one tray, that could really make an impact on you. And—

MARC LAMONT HILL: How much were you starved?

KALIEF BROWDER: I was starved a lot. I can’t even—I can’t even count.

AMY GOODMAN: Kalief Browder went on to say he was once starved four times in a row—no breakfast, lunch, dinner or breakfast again. Talk about the conditions of solitary confinement and how a kid, a teenager, would end up in solitary confinement for two years.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Sure. I mean, Kalief’s talking about being hungry in jail. And even though he’s talking about one instance, in fact, it was a much sort of broader problem. So, when you’re in solitary confinement, you get three meals a day coming through a slot in the door, because you’re not leaving your cell. And for teenagers locked in solitary—and this is not just Kalief, this is other teenagers have talked about this—there’s not enough food. And once you’re in solitary—you know, when you’re in general population, the regular jail, if you’re not getting enough food, you can maybe get some money in your commissary account and get some snacks and fill up your stomach.

AMY GOODMAN: And his mom did put money in commissary.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Yeah, his mother did look out for him and visited him every week. But here he is, stuck in solitary. He can’t supplement his meal. He’s reduced to begging officers through the cell door: "Can I get an extra piece of bread?" Sometimes they give it, sometimes they laugh at him. And, you know, basically, there’s a 12-hour stretch from dinner to breakfast where all these teenagers are drinking water out of the sink to fill their stomachs. And, you know, when he told me this, at first I thought, well, maybe it’s just him, or maybe it’s a one-off thing. You know, he was talking about meals being skipped. But I’m saying it’s a broader sort of problem. But there was a recent report that came out from Bronx Defenders organization, where they talked about many of their clients with similar complaints. And, you know, for a moment, I thought, "Did we just pick up this kid off the street in the Bronx and drop him in Guantánamo?" I mean, this is the kind of thing that, you know, that you guys cover all the time. It just—it seemed, frankly, almost unbelievable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about the whole issue of his education? I mean, here was a 16-year-old sophomore.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What kind of educational support does Rikers give to 16- and 17-year-olds that it jails?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, the adolescents in the regular jail were supposed to be taken every day to class, to a school that they have there. And they’re taught by Department of Education—you know, it’s a Department of Education-run school. But once a kid was put into solitary, they weren’t being taken out for school anymore. And what they would do is slip a worksheet under the door in the morning, an officer would, or a few, and, "Finish this by Wednesday. Finish this by Thursday." So, Kalief’s sitting there. He’s got nothing to do. He thinks, "Well, I might as well do something. I might as well try to do this." You know, so he’s kind of trying to teach himself how to be a better writer, math, etc. And then Thursday comes—you know, time moving at this incredibly slow pace—and nobody comes to pick up the work. I mean, that didn’t always happen, but it happened often enough. And, I mean, it’s just—you know, it’s a small detail, but it just shows the utter apathy, you know, and lack of concern for everybody in there. So he’s banging on the door. "Where is the correction officer to pick up the work?" You know, he’s trying to improve himself in this absolutely nightmare of a place.

PAUL PRESTIA: I don’t even think "apathy" is the word. It’s just a reckless disregard for any of those kids who sat in solitary. It’s sad, really.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Paul Prestia, the reaction of the prosecutors in the case, and especially when you got involved? What was—didn’t anybody say, "Hey, this is a kid who’s been in jail for close to three years and still has not been brought to trial"?

PAUL PRESTIA: I’m sorry about—I missed your question. What was—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The reaction of the prosecutors that you were dealing with?

PAUL PRESTIA: Well, I didn’t actually deal with the prosecutors, because I took over the case after it got just missed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, after it got dismissed.

PAUL PRESTIA: So, after it got dismissed, Kalief came to see me, and he retained me to represent him in the civil case against the state of New York—against the City of New York, I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: In August, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York issued a report that sharply criticized Rikers jail officials for routinely using extreme violence against adolescent prisoners, often in areas without video surveillance cameras. It also condemned the excessive use of solitary confinement for teenagers held there. This is the U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara.

PREET BHARARA: Rikers Island is a broken institution for adolescents. And a broken institution will produce broken people, especially when they are young and fragile with mental illness, as so many of them are. The adolescents in Rikers are walled off from the public. But they are not walled off from the Constitution. Indeed, most of these young men are pretrial detainees, presumed innocent until proven guilty. But whether they are pretrial or convicted, they are entitled to be detained safely and in accordance with their constitutional rights, not consigned to a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.

AMY GOODMAN: U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, speaking in August. Last week, he said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had failed to move quickly on reforms called for in the report, and warned his office was ready to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city to force changes. Preet Bharara could conceivably be a possibility for attorney general. Jen Gonnerman?

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: You know, this report came out in the course of me reporting this story. It came out in August. And back in April, when I was first interviewing Kalief—I think maybe the very first time I met him—he told me this incredible story that had happened early in his time at Rikers, a few days in, of, late at night, there had been some sort of fight in the dorm. The officers weren’t sure who—

AMY GOODMAN: There were 50 kids in the dorm.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right, 50 kids in the dorm.

AMY GOODMAN: In one room.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Officers weren’t sure who was responsible, so they grabbed whoever they could find, threw them in the hall and, you know, their faces to the wall, and just started kind of trying to figure out who did it and yelling at them and smacking them in the face each time, and really beating some of the kids up. And so, Kalief tells me this incredible story of, you know, leaky noses and sort of swollen eyes. And at the end, the officers say, "OK, you know, we can either take you to the clinic, which means—and if you tell the folks who work at the clinic, the civilian medical staff, what happened, you’re going to end up in solitary. Or you can just go back to bed and pretend nothing happened." So, Kalief and the other guys say, "OK, we’ll go back to bed."

He tells me this incredible story in April. I think, that is—I didn’t doubt him, but I just thought, "Is that like a one-time thing? What is going on on Rikers Island?" I mean, I knew the conditions were very bad in the adolescent jail, but that was a level of brutality that was pretty, you know, hard to wrap your mind around. Then, come August, this report comes out, and I would encourage anybody who’s interested to read this report, because even though government reports are sometimes a little dry, this one is incredible in the level of graphic detail and the way it’s written. It just—

PAUL PRESTIA: And it’s specific to the years 2011 and 2013—


PAUL PRESTIA: —coincidentally, when Kalief was incarcerated and was in solitary confinement.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: And this story I just described, you know, is told again and again in this report. It certainly wasn’t a one-time occurrence.

PAUL PRESTIA: And it’s clear that—listen, I know that the corrections officers, their jobs can be difficult. That goes without saying. But to create your own code of justice, which is what happens in these jails, and to just mete out punishments to these kids, these young men, who are—as Jennifer pointed out, they’re innocent. They’re awaiting a trial. They’re waiting for their case to be heard. But yet, in those jails—and, I would argue, in my opinion, in those prosecutors’ minds—presumed guilty, a lot of the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Kalief attempted suicide.

JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that happened several times in Rikers Island. And, you know, it’s totally understandable, considering the conditions. You know, Rikers had—this is hopefully going to change, but there was a lot of teenagers put into solitary. It’s sort of the ultimate management tool, the way they were dealing with unruly population. There was like almost an addiction to solitary confinement. And once in solitary, you know, as study after study shows sort of the incredible impact on one’s mental health, so you can have inmates going in, who didn’t have any mental health problems, coming out a broken person—you know, the paranoia, the lack of trust, the sort of being overwhelmed by stimulation. I mean, Kalief, since he’s been out, you can still see the impact of solitary, even though he’s been home for 16 months. I mean, he, at times—you know, like his brother was telling me, "You know, I’ll invite Kalief to the movies. 'Do you want to go out, do something fun?' And Kalief says, 'Ah, no, I don't want to do that,’" and he’d rather sort of retreat and be in his room at home, door closed, almost recreating the conditions of solitary, and feels more comfortable like that sometimes than out in the world.

PAUL PRESTIA: I’ve spent a lot of time with Kalief. And quite honestly, I don’t see how he could ever be the same after that experience. And the—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What are you hoping, with the lawsuit, to be able to accomplish in terms of the responsibility for what happened?

PAUL PRESTIA: Well, obviously, you know, we’re asking the—we need the city to be accountable, to take accountability, to admit that what happened here was unjust, it was unlawful, it was unconstitutional, and it was wrong. And it was. Nothing they can say can justify Kalief Browder’s ordeal. The police can’t justify it. Corrections can’t justify it. The District Attorney’s Office can’t justify it—in my opinion. There is no way. I’ve gone through everything, everything in this case, from the arrest, where you have a victim whose credibility is highly at issue—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he had gone back to Mexico, you learned, at the very end.


JENNIFER GONNERMAN: Right. Ultimately, that’s why they agreed—

PAUL PRESTIA: No, no, no. It wasn’t at the very end. I don’t believe it was at the very end.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe he disappeared at the beginning?

PAUL PRESTIA: I suspect it was long before the date of the dismissal. And for—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s why they kept asking for delays.

PAUL PRESTIA: Right, of course, of course. Because if he was available, Amy, he could have been brought in—well, let’s see, the case was first on for trial, in a trial posture, in December of 2010. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, he could have been brought in much—you know, sometime in 2011, at the very least. All they had to do in this trial was bring this victim in and testify as to what happened. And the problem here is, Kalief was innocent. He was always innocent. And they arrested him based on this—a victim, whose credibility was clearly at issue, without any other evidence to go forward on this case, a case that should have never been prosecuted. And then, to add insult to injury, he has to spend those three years in Rikers. And the ironic thing, Amy—and I know you have to continue—is that they accused him of stealing a backpack, right? As you said in your opening. Yet, at the end of the day, they stole Kalief Browder’s innocence.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there, and I thank you so much for being with us, Paul Prestia, attorney for Kalief Browder; Jennifer Gonnerman, reporter, author. Her latest story is in The New Yorker. You’ve got to read it. It’s headlined "Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life." We’ll link to it at We’ll be back in a minute.

News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:28:28 -0400
After Censorship of History Course, Colorado Students and Teachers Give a Lesson in Civil Disobedience

After a county school board in Colorado proposed to rewrite the district’s high school U.S. history curriculum to stop teaching about civil disobedience, students and teachers have responded with acts of civil disobedience of their own. Classes have been canceled twice in Jefferson County as teachers stage mass sick-outs and students walk out of classes. At a protest last week, hundreds of Denver-area high school students held cardboard signs with slogans including, "Don’t make history a mystery" and "Keep your politics out of my education." The protests began after the school board announced it was considering reviewing the curriculum of Advanced Placement history courses and adding more material to "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights." The proposed changes also call for the removal of classroom materials that "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law." In addition, teachers are protesting a pay-grade system that ties their salaries to performance reviews. We are joined by two guests: John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association and a social studies teacher at Moore Middle School, and Ashlyn Maher, a Chatfield High School senior and one of the students protesting the proposed curriculum changes.


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Monday, two high schools outside of Denver, Colorado, canceled classes after dozens of teachers called in sick in protest of the county school board’s proposal to revamp the district’s history curriculum. This is the second time in two weeks that teachers have staged what they’re calling a "sick-out," with 72 of 102 teachers at Golden and Jefferson high schools reporting absent on Monday. Teachers are also protesting a pay-grade system that ties their salaries to performance reviews. Last week, hundreds of Denver-area high school students staged a walkout to voice their concerns over the proposed changes to the history curriculum. They held cardboard signs with slogans like "Don’t make history a mystery" and "Keep your politics out of my education."

AMY GOODMAN: The protests began after the Jefferson County School Board announced it was considering reviewing the curriculum of Advanced Placement history courses and adding more material to, quote, "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights," unquote. The proposed changes also call for the removal of course materials that, quote, "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law," unquote. Newly elected school board member Julie Williams recently criticized how history is currently taught, saying, quote, "It has an emphasis on race, gender, class, ethnicity, grievance and American-bashing while simultaneously omitting the most basic structural and philosophical elements considered essential to the understanding of American History for generations," she said.

Well, for more, we go to Denver, Colorado, where we’re joined by two guests. John Ford is with us, president of the Jefferson County Education Association. He’s a social studies teacher at Moore Middle School. And Ashlyn Maher is with us, Chatfield High School senior, one of the students protesting the proposed curriculum changes.

We also invited Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams to join us on our program but did not receive a response.

John Ford and Ashlyn Maher, welcome to Democracy Now! Ashlyn, when did you get a sense that things were changing?

ASHLYN MAHER: Well, I’ve been paying attention to the school board for the past year, and I have been increasingly more concerned about what’s been going on. And when I heard about the first teacher sick-outs, I realized that more students were interested in being involved in standing up for their education, so I took the incentive and just started educating people. I wanted to let them know what was going on, so I started presenting unbiased information, posting on Facebook and talking to people in the hallways. And before we knew it, we had a huge following.

AMY GOODMAN: John Ford, explain exactly what is going on.

JOHN FORD: Well, over the last 10 months, we had a school board majority that was elected into office—they were a conservative group—that started to push a conservative agenda. And last week, two weeks ago, when this proposal came out to create a community—a committee to censor certain parts of our curriculum, I think that’s what hit the nerve. And it not only hit a nerve with the educators in Jefferson County, but it really hit a nerve with our students, our parents and community folks as a whole.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this Julie Williams, who’s leading the charge on this issue in the school board, to your knowledge, what are her credentials for being able to analyze and dissect the problems of the American history AP curriculum?

JOHN FORD: Well, as far as I know, none.

ASHLYN MAHER: Yeah, she released a statement saying that she does not have the authority herself and the background in history to make those judgments, which is why she was creating the committee. But she also never released any statements that the people on the committee would have those qualifications.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking on MSNBC, Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams defended her proposed changes to the curriculum.

JULIE WILLIAMS: I’m not saying let’s not teach history accurately; what I’m saying is let’s not encourage our children to disobey the law.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to that, Ashlyn Maher?

ASHLYN MAHER: I am not aware that I broke any laws. I think that I was standing up for what I believe in, and that is what, you know, people in America have done for centuries. It’s the foundation of our country. I took AP U.S. history myself, and all I was presented with were the facts. And then I made the opinions based on those facts. I was never told what to think. And these protests are entirely student-led, and it’s what people think is right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Ford, while the students are involved in their protest, the teachers also have particular grievances in terms of policies of the school board. Could you talk about the concerns that led to the sick-outs of the teachers?

JOHN FORD: Well, once again, I think it’s a culmination of things. We have a board majority that consistently over the last 10 months have—they’ve been secretive, wasteful with taxpayer money and disrespectful to our community. So, we put all of those things together, and then you put in this new committee to sanitize or purify curriculum, I think that’s where the nerve was hit again. And we’re concerned about—the AP, or the College Board, is a nationally recognized institution that goes throughout all the United States and several different countries. And this one hurts kids. So, you know, the teacher walkouts and the student protests and the parent concerns are all stemming from multiple issues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what are specifically the teacher concerns that are being expressed in those sick-outs?

JOHN FORD: Well, first, we’ll go back to the AP and the censoring thing. But over the last 10 months, you know, our teachers’ association has been engaged in negotiations with their contract. And the contract itself is something that’s been a 45-year tradition in our school district, and we’ve had a long history of collaboration with the school board and the superintendent. And that’s all coming to an end. At the end of last year in May, we went into negotiations, they stalled out, and we went to an independent fact finder. And the fact finder, his recommendations, we went into whatever he determined that the teachers’ association would agree with, and we hoped that the school district would, too. But at the end of the day, the fact finder found in favor of the teachers, and the school board rejected those recommendations and moved on with their own agenda and unilaterally instituted a salary scheme that’s based on merit pay, that’s very, very confusing, and to this day I still don’t think they know what’s going on.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after the College Board issued its new guidance for its Advanced Placement U.S. history course, the Republican National Committee condemned the new standards as "radically reinventionist" and anti-American. The College Board has said it stands behind the Jefferson County student protesters. It’s also warned that course can no longer officially bear the AP designation if a school or district censors essential concepts from an AP course. Also speaking on MSNBC last week, the president of the Jefferson County PTA, Michele Patterson, voiced her concerns about academic censorship.

MICHELE PATTERSON: This is not just about AP history. This committee would have the ability to look at all curriculum at any grade level and present it to the board—present to the board anything that they find objectionable. And then the board would have the chance to look at their objections and take potential action. So it really opens the door wide to censorship.

AMY GOODMAN: That was PTA President Michele Patterson on MSNBC. Last week on Fox News, host Gretchen Carlson criticized students and teachers in Colorado protesting proposed changes to their history curriculum.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: And what does it say about our young people in this country and the teachers joining the protests that promoting patriotism is now a negative? Ironically, the new curriculum being proposed is all about promoting individual rights, like protesting. The new curriculum would also teach a free-market system, like the one we already have. It would also encourage that there be no disregard for the law. Isn’t that why we have laws on the books?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Fox News host Gretchen Carlson. Ashlyn Maher, you’re a high school senior. Can you respond?

ASHLYN MAHER: Well, I saw this interview, and further in the interview she calls all of us little punks. And personally, I do not agree with what she is saying. I am saying that we are standing up for our individual rights, and we want to make sure that we learn the facts, patriotic or not. Everyone has made mistakes, and we learn history and we learn those mistakes as to not make them again in the future. You know, those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. So that is what we are saying.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, John Ford, your reaction, as a longtime teacher, to the continuing efforts of some forces in this country to sort of try to determine what you, as a teacher, and what educators can teach their students?

JOHN FORD: Yeah, I think the frustrating part of this is, we have professionals in classrooms who dedicate their entire lives to teaching kids, and those professionals know better. And I want to make this point, because I had a conversation with a math teacher a couple of months ago. And she was distraught, and I asked her, you know, "What’s going on?" And she said, "Well, this board majority is using my passion against me." And I wake up every day with that ringing in my ears.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times writes, "The board ... has drawn praise from Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, a conservative group affiliated with the Koch family foundations. In April, Dustin Zvonek, the group’s director, wrote in an op-ed that the board’s election was an 'exciting and hopeful moment for the county and the school district.'" Are the Koch brothers involved with this school board?

JOHN FORD: I don’t know. But what I do know is, Jefferson County has a long tradition of being a collaborative education institution for the entire community. And one thing that I’d like to point out, I was born and raised there, and my kids go to these schools. And Jefferson County is a community. And that community really means something. And I’m sure, if you talk to these students, that’s why they’re reacting the way they are. If there’s outside forces trying to push an agenda in our school district, that would be really concerning. And you know what? We’ll find out.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But if there was this extreme group that got control of the school board, that obviously means that there was not a high level of participation in the school board elections. Could you talk about that and the dangers when communities do not get involved in their school board elections?

JOHN FORD: Yeah, about 33 percent of the total population that could vote voted. Elections matter, and especially school board elections. Lots of times we put focus on the national-level and maybe our state-level elections, but our school board elections are going to be unbelievably critical in the next couple of election cycles.

AMY GOODMAN: Ashlyn, you’re a high school senior. Will you be voting in the next elections?

ASHLYN MAHER: I sure hope so, because this issue does not stop affecting me when I graduate. I have a little brother and a little sister that will grow up in the Jeffco community, and I want them to have the best education possible. And I really want them to be presented with the facts, just like I was. I really don’t think that they should be taught somebody else’s opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ashlyn Maher, I want to thank you for being with us. Ashlyn Maher, Chatfield High School senior, one of the students who is leading the protests over the proposed curriculum changes. And John Ford, president of the Jefferson County Education Association and social studies teacher at Moore Middle School.

When we come back from break, an astonishing story about a 16-year-old high school sophomore who was accused of stealing a backpack. He wound up on Rikers Island, in jail for close to three years, two of those years in solitary confinement. You’ll find out his story. Stay with us.

News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:24:32 -0400
Silicon Valley Is Great if You're a Dude, Not so Much if You're a Woman

Silicon Valley. How many times have we heard of its wondrous innovation and the glories of its bold venture capitalism that joins brilliant entrepreneurs with eager financial backing?

Except there’s just one thing: it only works for dudes. Women have a slightly different experience.

According to a new study from Babson College, less than 3 percent of the 6,793 companies that received venture capital from 2011-2013 were headed by a woman.

Let’s think about that for a moment. In the tsunami of money that washed over Silicon Valley during those years — a whopping $51 billion — only a measley trickle of $1.5 billion ended up with women starting businesses.

As for that talk about “leaning in” and how women should project confidence and wear red suits and stand in “power poses” if they want to succeed, blah blah blah, researchers aren’t buying it. As the Babson College study co-author Patricia Greene put it, "The findings of this study demonstrate it is not the women who need fixing; the model for venture capital that has been in place since the 1980s simply does not work for women entrepreneurs.”

When women can’t get access to venture capital, they don’t make it in Silicon Valley. Period. The stakes could not be higher.

In a recent account published anonymously in Forbes because the author, the female head of a tech startup, feared retribution, we get a harrowing picture of what it’s like to be a woman trying to raise money in the Valley. The photo accompanying the piece speaks volumes: it is a man’s hand placed oh-so-nonchalantly over a woman’s bare knee.

In what she described as the “wild west of fundraising,” the author attempted to navigate the “alpha male-dominated VC community" as a businesswoman. She leaned in as hard as she could, setting up meetings, following up with emails, scheduling calls. One potential investor insisted on meeting at his home, citing evening childcare responsibilities. But it wasn’t childcare, or business, for that matter, that was on his mind as he made unwanted sexual advances on the sofa. In trying to figure out how to deal with the situation, she struggled through this sad-but-familiar train of thought:

“If I chose to complain—or make a scene and wake up his children who slept nearby—it would be another case of he said/she said, like the countless harassment cases that have made headlines in the tech community but have not done much to change status quo. Given his standing in the community and his personal wealth, who would believe my claims as anything more than those of a spurned little girl upset that a VC had chosen not to invest in her company?”

Women are forced to perform these mental gymnastics every day while trying to deal with the sexist atmosphere of Silicon Valley, and woe be to them if they do not perform them flawlessly. Their reputations, livelihoods, dreams, and talents can all get derailed in a minute.  In this case, the woman decided to wear a gold band on her finger when meeting with male venture capitalists in the future, a dishonest maneuver but one she hoped would protect her from future harassment. That became part of the business plan.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, land of opportunity.

News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 11:02:38 -0400
We Can't Go On Eating Like This

Once the human race stopped throwing spears and gathering berries, our bodies suffered. Planting seeds and harvesting produce made leisure possible, but it also meant we grew shorter, fatter, sicker, and considerably more overworked.

An alien visiting from another planet during that critical transition period to a more settled existence might have thought that we were being domesticated by our livestock and not the other way around.

Sure, hunting and gathering was hard, what with hunger and saber-toothed tigers breathing down our necks. And agriculture allowed for the development of everything we associate with modernity: politics, economics, MTV.

But now that there are more than 7 billion of us on this planet, going up to nearly 10 billion by the middle of this century, we can’t resume a truly Paleo lifestyle. There’s not much big game around anymore, after all. We’re stuck with farming.

And agriculture is helping to push up global temperatures. Up to one-third of all the carbon emissions responsible for climate change come from farming, thanks to everything from fertilizer production to flying raspberries halfway around the world.

Throw in livestock, and things look even worse: a whopping 18 percent of greenhouse gasses, according to one Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, come from the mass production of cows, pigs, and chickens (and World Watch argues that the FAO undercounted by a factor of three).

Modern agriculture: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Would a “lentil dictatorship” work? By forcing people to shift to a mostly legume diet, we would reduce the enormous drain of resources caused by eating meat — up to 16 pounds of grain goes into one pound of steak — and naturally replenish the soil by planting these nitrogen-fixing plants.

Given the difficulties that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg faced when he tried to wean people off sodas larger than 16 ounces, I think this would be a recipe for failure.

The United Nations has come up with a good idea. Its Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture uses the latest technology to maximize yields and minimize the impact on the land.

For instance, farmers can use lasers to create level fields to reduce water use and consult precise weather forecasts to know when to sow and irrigate. This technology has already improved farming in the richer countries.

These are useful techniques. Yet they mostly help farmers adjust to rising temperatures and dwindling water resources rather than reverse the negative feedback loop pushing up the thermometer.

Organic farming advocates argue that a shift way from energy-intensive industrial agriculture will do the trick. But this transformation may not suffice. It’s not clear that purely organic farming could produce enough to feed the planet without cultivating what little land remains in the wild.

And where organic farmers have been able to scale up, they have begun to resemble the very industrial producers they aimed to replace.

Another way to go is low-tech. Instead of plowing up the land in order to plant the next crop, many farmers don’t overturn the soil of the entire field. They simply dig narrow trenches. This “no-till” agriculture produces comparable yields without the considerable erosion caused by conventional farming. Yet no-till agriculture can use more herbicides to get rid of all the weeds that aren’t plowed under.

Every technique poses risks. The danger of industrial farming is precisely its reliance on monocultures: field after field of a single variety of grain that runs the risk of being wiped out by a new kind of blight.

The solution? Diversity. “No single crop or approach to farming can possibly feed the world,” writes Michael Specter in The New Yorker. “To prevent billions of people from living in hunger, we will need to use every one of them.”

Opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 10:49:33 -0400
US Nuclear Policy: Taking the Wrong Road

On September 21, 2014, the International Day of Peace, The New York Times published an article by William Broad and David Sanger, “US Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms.”  The authors reported that a recent federal study put the price tag for modernizing the US nuclear arsenal at “up to a trillion dollars” over the next three decades.  It appears that Washington’s military and nuclear hawks have beaten down a president who, early in his first term of office, announced with conviction, “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Many US military leaders, rather than analyzing and questioning the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence to provide security, are acting as cheerleaders for it.  Rear Admiral Joe Tofalo, director of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division, recently pontificated, “For the foreseeable future, certainly for our and our children’s and our grandchildren’s lifetimes, the United States will require a safe, secure and effective strategic nuclear deterrent.  The ballistic nuclear submarine forces are and will continue to be a critical part of that deterrent….”  He went on to argue that all legs of the nuclear triad – bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles – would be needed to “provide a strong deterrent against different classes of adversary threat.”

Admiral Tofalo was backed up by Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, who argued, “In a world where our traditional adversaries are modernizing, emerging adversaries are maturing and non-state actors remain elusive and dangerous, we must get 21st century deterrence right…the reality is that an effective modernized nuclear deterrent force is needed now more than ever.”

All this emphasis on modernizing the nuclear deterrent force may be good for business, but ignores two important facts.  First, nuclear deterrence is only a hypothesis about human behavior that has not been and cannot be proven to work.  Second, it ignores the obligations of the US and other nuclear-armed states to pursue negotiations in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.

The US and other nuclear-armed countries are gambling that nuclear deterrence will be foolproof rather than a game of chance, like nuclear roulette.  Rather than providing security for the American people, nuclear deterrence is a calculated risk, similar to loading a large metaphorical six-chamber gun with a nuclear bullet and pointing the gun at humanity’s head.

The only foolproof way to assure that nuclear weapons won’t be used, by accident or design, is to abolish them.  This is what the generals and admirals should be pressing to achieve.  Negotiations in good faith for abolishing nuclear weapons are required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and by customary international law.  Since these obligations have not been fulfilled in 44 years, one courageous country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has brought lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries, seeking the International Court of Justice to order their compliance.  They have also brought a lawsuit specifically against the US in US Federal Court.

Rather than showing leadership by fulfilling its obligations for ending the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament, the US conducted a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test on September 23, just days after the International Day of Peace and days before the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26.  Such displays of arrogance, together with US plans to spend some $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next three decades, suggest that if the people don’t demand it, we may have nuclear weapons forever, with tragic consequences.

You can find out more about the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits and support the Marshall Islands at

News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 10:34:04 -0400
Energy Efficient Buildings - Beware Possible Health Risks

The primary goal of home energy efficiency initiatives might be to reduce total energy consumption, but these projects could have a negative impact on public health if we do not take care.

Global climate change has been called the biggest global public health threat of the 21st century – and energy efficiency is a key tool in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels.

Efficiency projects allow us to more effectively manage growing energy consumption without sacrificing services that we value. In the cost-optimised 2°C scenario set out by the International Energy Agency (the temperature rise that we have to stick within if we’re to mitigate climate change), end-use efficiency improvements will be responsible for 38% of the global emissions reductions between now and 2050.

Without these emissions decreases, the World Health Organisation expects 250,000 additional deaths to occur each year, caused by climate-related malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress around the globe.

Given these numbers, it seems logical to push forward with blanketing energy efficiency investments. However, there is evidence to show that we must take care in how we implement projects.

In a 2014 article published in the British Medical Journal, James Milner and his co-authors outlined how some home energy efficiency improvements could cost lives by increasing indoor radon exposure and the risk of developing lung cancer.

According to the authors, energy efficiency projects could lead to an estimated 56.6% increase in average indoor radon concentrations. They calculate that the corresponding increase in radon exposure could lead to 278 premature deaths (the equivalent of 4,700 life years lost) each year in the UK.

After smoking, radon exposure is the most important risk factor in developing lung cancer. This colourless gas, which occurs naturally from the indirect decay product of uranium or thorium, can be found in indoor air. It produces a radioactive dust that is trapped in our airways. This radiation then causes lung damage and increases the chance that we will develop lung cancer. Each year, an estimated 1,400 cases of lung cancer in the UK are primarily due to radon exposure, and about 21,000 in the US.

The increased radon concentrations in the Milner study stem from the fact that many energy efficiency improvements alter the way that buildings exchange indoor and outdoor air. These alterations are often aimed at reducing energy losses due to leaky windows or drafts around unsealed doors. In turn, these buildings can be more effectively heated and cooled, leading to observable public health improvements and decreases in total energy use.

However, they can increase some health risks. According to Milner and co-authors, while an individual project can be “good for energy efficiency, indoor temperatures in winter and protection against outdoor pollutants, it has the potential to increase concentrations of pollutants arising from sources inside or underneath the home.”

A 2013 study suggested similar risks in retrofitted buildings from mould growth and “sick building syndrome”, where occupants appear to experience health issues from occupancy in a building. By trapping humidity inside the building, energy efficiency retrofits could unintentionally lead to dangerous mould growth. In turn, people in these buildings would be more prone to chronic fatigue, irritated lungs, and watery eyes.

Using fans and other equipment to carefully control the indoor air quality could reduce or eliminate the negative co-impacts documented in these studies. Of course, the use of these technologies would offset some of the energy savings. But, they could also prevent an array of illnesses, which could stymie future energy efficiency proposals.

Energy efficiency projects can help to reduce total energy consumption. They are a key part of mitigating the impacts of global climate change. But we must be aware of any potential negative co-impacts on human health and take care to reduce their effect.

News Thu, 02 Oct 2014 10:12:25 -0400
Seeds of Greed

You get to reap what Wall Street sows.

Art Thu, 02 Oct 2014 09:04:56 -0400
A "Little Jewish Radical" Responds to Pat Robertson: Religious Freedom and Feigned Valor in the Military

Pat Robertson doesn’t seem to like me very much. Normally, none of us with more brains than a toothbrush should give a damn as to why that’s the case, but times are hardly normal these days. Therefore it does matter, so please let me fill you in. First, a little backstory here:

One would think that as Americans, most of us can agree on certain core foundational values that have made our nation great; freedom of speech and the freedom to worship (or not) as we see fit stand out as two shining examples. However, the enjoyment of these freedoms means that we must also witness the heinous words and deeds of those who don Ku Klux Klan hoods, wear swastika armbands, and call for modern-day inquisitions against perceived “enemies of the faith.” Indeed, some have amassed fortunes and built veritable “evil empires” by peddling twisted, violent ideologies like fundamentalist Christianity, to cite one example. Foremost among these evil opportunists and parasitic jackasses is the Reverend Pat Robertson.

Robertson recently flew off the handle when the US Air Force (USAF) was forced to make the Constitutionally correct decision to end the mandatory requirement that USAF airmen recite “So Help Me God” in their official reenlistment and commissioning oaths. This blatantly unconstitutional religious test came to the world’s attention after an airman at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada learned that unless he performed the sectarian oath, his days as an airman would be through. Shamefully reprehensible, isn’t it?

Eventually, the Air Force and the Pentagon “saw the light” of Constitutional fidelity, with no small amount of pressure from organizations like the Military Religious Freedom Foundation(MRFF, the organization I head), the American Humanist Association, and other valiant allies. It was, after all, a no-brainer from a legal perspective. As I said in my last Op-Ed, “The case law is so universally settled in this precise area that even actors who play lawyers on TV or in the movies could win this one in court. 

Well, no sooner was the law upheld before the bitter juice from sour grapes began flowing in rivers from the pulpits of arch-hypocrites like Robertson and his wretched ilk, who condemned the decision as “crazy.” Continuing, Robertson took specific aim at yours truly, stating:

“There’s a left-wing radical named Mikey Weinstein, who has got a group about people against religion or whatever he calls it, and he has just terrorized the armed forces… You think you’re supposed to be tough, you’re supposed to defend us, and you got one little Jewish radical who is scaring the pants off of you… You want these guys flying the airplanes to defend us when you got one little guy terrorizing them? ... That’s what it amounts to. … How can [USAF] fly the bombers to defend us if they cave to one little guy?”

“Little Jewish radical,” eh? Got anti-Semitism, Pat? Perhaps Robertson forgets that he apparently claims to worship another "little Jewish radical” who is said to have “terrorized” the authorities of his day? Anyway, his asinine anti-Semitic comments aside – the man has on numerous occasions voiced openly racist, bigoted sentiments – the record clearly shows that Robertson has no right to speak of toughness in the armed forces.

Indeed, voluminous allegations corroborate a scenario showing that Robertson deserves an honorary medal for being a Class A Coward of the highest rank. This vile specimen is to human dignity and sanity and integrity and character what dog shit is on the menu of a fine French restaurant.

Let me explain. In his 1972 autobiography, Shout it From the Housetops, Robertson boasted about his outstanding service as a “Marine combat officer in Korea.” The only problem with the claim is that many of his former comrades allege that never once did he ever see battle. Robertson filed a libel suit against McCloskey, only to be unceremoniously dropped later on. Contradicting Robertson’s claims, war hero and former seven-term Congressman Paul “Pete” McCloskey alleged that the “Marine combat officer” may have used his privileged family ties as the son of a Virginia Senator to pull the strings and skirt his combat duties. Apparently, the order from General Lemuel Shepherd was to "Take good care of him; his Daddy is Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Appropriations Committee." 

Therefore, the future televangelist (and saber-rattling warmonger) was reassigned from combat duty to the far less heroic undertaking of keeping the barracks watering hole stocked with liquor. As numerous fellow marines claimed, throughout the Korean War the “Marine combat officer” was known as the Masan Liquor Officer. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a ‘liquor officer.’ However, speaking as a former Air Force officer and Air Force Academy honor graduate, whose two sons, daughter-in-law, and son-in-law are all, likewise, Air Force Academy graduates as well as either current or former proud members of the US Air Force, I am positively pissed that such a putrid example of cowardly cretinism in the ignoble person of Pat Robertson would have the gall to question the bravery of our USAF airmen. Every American, every service member, should know well to ignore the attention-hungry ravings of this false prophet and posturing poseur of the first order.

But don’t take it from me; take it from the late Corporal USM.C. Leo T. Cronin, who participated in the first-wave amphibious assault by Marines who fought tooth and nail in the Battle of Inchon, Korea. Commenting in a Letter to the Editor penned amidst Robertson’s failed Presidential run in 1988, Cronin didn’t mince any words:

There is a person who calls himself a combat Marine. He is not. His name is Pat Robertson. I saw him often in the division headquarters where he was clean-shaven and clothed and showered. He was in charge of making sure that the officers' booze ration was handed out and re-supplied. He was a lieutenant. He was in my battalion. The line company marines I saw smelled badly, looked poorly. For months at a time they were cold, eating C-rations. Trying to stay warm and dry was a constant battle. These line-company men were the combat Marines of the First Marine Division. Neither Pat Robertson nor I could carry their gear. He is trying to get elected by standing on those frozen bodies I saw, by putting himself in the company of those seven Marines who repulsed the enemy. Imagine a person who aspires to be President being so loose with the truth, so lacking in grace and so dishonorable. He says God talks to him. I'd like to hear what God says to him about this.

Opinion Thu, 02 Oct 2014 09:01:40 -0400