Truthout Stories Fri, 06 Mar 2015 11:04:05 -0500 en-gb Refinery Strike Is Not Just About Safety - It's About Pollution

Striking workers on the picket line outside of the Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana. Citing unfair labor practices, the United Steelworkers called strikes at 15 refineries across the country over the past month as contract negotiations with the industry stalled. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)Striking workers on the picket line outside of the Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana. Citing unfair labor practices, the United Steelworkers called strikes at 15 refineries across the country over the past month as contract negotiations with the industry stalled. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

The ongoing refinery strike is not just about making refineries safer for workers. It's also about preventing accidents that spew pollution on neighboring communities on a regular basis.

Striking workers on the picket line outside of the Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana. Citing unfair labor practices, the United Steelworkers called strikes at 15 refineries across the country over the past month as contract negotiations with the industry stalled. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)Striking workers on the picket line outside of the Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana. Citing unfair labor practices, the United Steelworkers called strikes at 15 refineries across the country over the past month as contract negotiations with the industry stalled. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

Norco, Louisiana, is a town of about 3,500 built around an oil refinery of the same name. A quiet neighborhood complete with a public park and a playground for children is tucked beside the western end of the massive petrochemical facility. Just beyond the trees on the fence line, plumes of steam gush into the air, and the flickering flame of a gas flare seems to lick the sky from the top of a towering stack.

A few blocks up the street, the striking refinery workers mingle in the United Steelworkers (USW) hall between shifts on the picket lines. Citing unfair labor practices leading to serious health and safety concerns, the union has held a nationwide work stoppage since contract negotiations with the industry, lead by Shell Oil, broke down in late January.

The workers at Norco, a joint venture of Shell and Saudi Aramco, and another nearby refinery joined the strike two weeks ago as negotiations continued to stall, and now USW workers are striking at 15 facilities in seven states. Like the other refineries, the Norco plant is currently running on nonunion labor.

USW and Shell met on Wednesday and agreed to come back to the bargaining table next week. It's the longest refinery strike the United States has seen in 30 years, and even as Shell and other employers continue to train workers to replace the strikers, the USW says its rank and file is determined to see it through.

Thousands of Accidents

"Our focus is on health and safety; it's not wages at all," said USW spokeswoman Lynne Hancock.

The USW, which is bargaining on behalf of 30,000 workers at 65 refineries and hundreds of petrochemical facilities, blames working conditions and employment policies at refineries for the industry's alarming safety record.

Thousands of accidents are reported at refineries across the country every year, but typically only make headlines when workers die or when plumes of pollution spew across neighboring communities. Such disasters have been occurring on a yearly basis.

The union wants to put an end to unsafe staffing levels, long shifts that lead to fatigue, and the industry's habit of replacing union workers with inexperienced contractors, among other goals. When the industry balked at initial proposals, the USW accused employers of being more interested in profits than safety.

"We shouldn't be expected to work long hours for weeks on end without a break," the union's leadership wrote in a recent letter to its members. "We shouldn't be expected to work in places where, on average, we have a fire every week of the year."

Workers are not the only ones in danger. Accidents at refineries often involve the release of toxic pollution into communities like Norco, where the refinery averages 29 accidents per year and has released nearly 3 million pounds of pollution since 2005, according to the Louisiana Refinery Accident Database.

That point was punctuated on February 18, when an explosion at an Exxon Mobile refinery rocked Torrance, California, and sent clouds of irritating ash, filled with fiberglass and glass wool, into nearby residential neighborhoods. Four workers were injured, and the USW pointed to the incident as proof that safety concerns must be addressed.

The explosion wasn't the first this year. In January, a fire and blast at Husky Energy's crude oil refinery in Lima, Ohio, caused extensive damage and was heard across the city. Luckily, no injuries were reported.

The USW says that, every year for the past five years, five workers have died in incidents at US refineries, and nearby communities have been exposed to smoke and toxic chemicals. Using data from the Energy Department, the union estimates that an average of 43 fires at refineries are reported by the industry itself every year, along with thousands of other reported accidents.

"While employers have reaped billions of dollars in profits over the past several years, they have done little to improve conditions for workers and surrounding communities," said USW President Leo W. Gerard, in a statement after the explosion in Torrance.

"It's Smoky and It's Hard to Breathe"

Monkey bars at a children's playground next to the refinery in Norco, Louisiana. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)Monkey bars at a children's playground next to the refinery in Norco, Louisiana. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

People living near refineries are also worried.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental watchdog group, operates the I-Witness Pollution database, which combines official accident reports from industrial facilities and pollution reports, called or texted in by everyday residents. On the I-Witness online map, the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and the southern suburbs of New Orleans, which is home to Norco and a dozen other refineries and chemical plants, shows clusters of reports that appear on a daily basis.

Here are a couple of I-Witness reports filed from Norco on March 3:

"In Norco near 120 Apple St. at 5:53 p.m. on March 3. I smell something burning - it's smoky and it's hard to breathe in. Wind is blowing from the river towards my location. Not a pleasant smell."

"I live at 241 Clayton St. [in Norco] and I believe it was Sunday of the strike - the flare was really high, it was bright orange . . . I was just concerned, you know. Basically, you can hear the flare, how high it was going up. The whole area lit up so you didn't need a streetlight. Basically, there was a lot of smoke that look[ed] like it was sulfur, but it wasn't a foggy night. Thank you."

Some of the I-Witness reports can be verified by checking the database of accidents self-reported by the industry to state regulators or the federal government's National Response Center (NRC).

An I-Witness report from January 8, for example, states that a large flare from the Norco plant was visible from an office building in New Orleans, about 30 miles away. At the same time, the Norco plant reported that a "processing unit experienced an upset due to cold weather" causing a flare and the release of ethylene, a pollutant that causes eye and skin irritation and has been linked to cancer.

The Norco refinery has reported eight other accidents so far this year, according to a Truthout review of NRC data.

Southern Louisiana provides a grim snapshot of how the refining business impacts local communities. Louisiana refineries reported 331 accidents to state officials in 2013 alone, an average of over six per week, according to the Bucket Brigade. These accidents released 2 million pounds and 62,000 gallons of pollution during the same year.

Residents are rarely notified about accidents, and because the industry self-reports accidents to the government, the Bucket Brigade assumes that the pollution totals are probably underestimated.

Activists often knock on doors to get a better idea of how refinery pollution impacts the public.

In the first week of February, residents of Marrero, a city downriver from Norco and home to a recycled oil refinery owned by Vertex Refining, made 17 reports of air pollution through I-Witness, including eight reports of health effects. One resident said air pollution triggered an asthma attack and kept them from leaving their house. The Bucket Brigade's Emergency Response Team interviewed 44 Marrero residents and found that all but one had recently smelled an odor, and nearly half reported health effects such as headaches and respiratory problems.

"One lady explained to me her fear and nervousness that she would get from smelling the gaseous odors, especially since she had children and had an elderly woman staying next to her," wrote Bucket Brigade member Naja Battles after conducting the survey. "Another woman I spoke with had just got back from the hospital because she was concerned about how the pollutants were affecting her. She was beginning to feel a shortness of breath and strongly believed it was because of Vertex."

Environmentalists Back USW Strikers

The Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana averages 29 accidents per year. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)The Shell refinery in Norco, Louisiana averages 29 accidents per year. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

Environmentalists blame working conditions and lack of government oversight for these accidents, not the union workers, and green groups recently joined striking USW workers on the picket line to show their support.

"Shell is being shortsighted in its zeal to eke out maximum quarterly and annual profits at the expense of worker salaries and benefits," said Anne Rolfes, the Bucket Brigades' founding director, when environmentalists joined striking workers in Norco last week. "The result is more accidents, more dangerous accidents and a risk to the workers and the people who live nearby."

As the industry's lead negotiator, Shell contends that the sticking point in the contract negotiations is not safety, fatigue, health care or even wages.

"The central issue is the USW's demand that Shell replace routine maintenance contractors with USW-represented employees," Shell said in a statement last week.

Shell wants to retain "hiring flexibility" and its ability to hire nonunion contractors to keep facilities running "safely, efficiently and reliably."

The USW, however, wants the chance to represent outside contractors and argues that dangerous accidents occur when refineries put profits and output before safety, and overwork the regular workforce while bringing in inadequately trained contractors to the fill the gaps. Talks are expected to resume on Monday in Houston.

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 10:55:50 -0500
North Carolina Factory Farms Contaminating Local Waterways

The battle in eastern North Carolina persists as health and environmental groups continue to pressure the state, the second leading pork producing state behind Iowa, to more strictly regulate large pig farms. (Photo via Shutterstock)The battle in eastern North Carolina persists as health and environmental groups continue to pressure the state, the second leading pork producing state behind Iowa, to more strictly regulate large pig farms. (Image: Factory Farm via Shutterstock)

Few people know the pig business like North Carolina's Don Webb.

Webb raised pigs in Wilson County, North Carolina, until, in the late 70s, residents told him the smell near his farms was unbearable. He tried some solutions. They didn't work.

"I was riding down the road and got to thinking of my own mother and father and what would I do if one of these was their homes [near the pig farms]," Webb said in his heavy Southern drawl. "So I got out of the business."

Webb, 74, soon went from pig farmer to vocal critic. Over the past few decades he's frequently done battle with the large pig farms in North Carolina over their waste management. He once took former state Sen. Wendell Murphy, owner of Murphy Farms and notorious for pushing industry-friendly laws, for a ride in his pickup truck to show him his farm's impacts.

He brought the senator to a home where a woman lived with her husband, stricken with tuberculosis. Their home was a trailer. The couch had springs sticking out, Webb recalled.

The stench was noxious.

"She told Murphy 'if you could please do anything to help us, I can't put my clothes out sometimes and my grandchildren won't visit me,'" Webb said.

Other neighbors Murphy visited had similar pleas.

Things haven't changed much since that tour two decades ago. The battle in eastern North Carolina persists as health and environmental groups continue to pressure the state, the second leading pork producing state behind Iowa, to more strictly regulate large pig farms.

Meanwhile evidence continues to mount of the industry's impact in the region: A study published in January concluded that streams near large industrial farms in eastern North Carolina are full of pig poop bacteria.

For those battling the state for more stringent regulations, it's another knock against an industry that heavily impacts their lives.

"People just can't ignore this," said Naeema Muhammad, a co-director and community organizer at the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. "The air stinks, the water is contaminated and property values are depleted."

State Permitting Questioned

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources treats large swine farms – operations with thousands of pigs and up – as "non-discharge facilities," exempt from state rules on having to monitor the waste they dump in rivers and streams. The case for that exemption is dubious, suggested Steve Wing, a professor and researcher at the University of North Carolina who co-authored the January study, published in "Science of the Total Environment."

"You have evidence of pig-specific bacteria in surface waters, next to industrial swine operations," he said.

For about a year, from 2010 to 2011, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina tested water both upstream and downstream from fields in eastern North Carolina where pig poop from large factory farms is applied.

The farms generate so much waste that it would be too expensive to transport via pipeline or a truck, Wing said. So manure is dispersed via big pumps and sprayers that act like "a lawn sprinkler," Wing said, and spread the slurry across fields.

The sprayers shower hundreds of gallons per minute (household lawn sprinklers average about two or three gallons per minute).

The highest concentrations were found "immediately downstream" of swine feedlot spray fields and in the spring and summer seasons, the authors wrote.

Of 187 samples, 40 percent exceeded state and federal water guidelines for fecal coliforms, harmful bacteria from animal feces.

In addition, 23 percent and 61 percent of the samples exceeded the water quality standards for E. coli and Enterococcus respectively, two other feces-derived bacteria that can hurt people when ingested.

Sampling took place in Duplin County, a place with more pigs than people: 2 million vs. 60,000. Wing and colleagues tested water from Goshen Swamp, a tributary of the Northeast Cape Fear River.

Big "Cesspools"

But a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the study "seems to be inconclusive."

"The information presented provides an indication of overall water quality in these [waters]; however, it is not an indication of a discharge of waste," Drew Elliot, communications director for the department, wrote in an email after sharing the study with state water quality experts.

The department questioned whether the researchers analyses met the state's water analysis requirements and pointed out that sources of such fecal pollution could include "any warm blooded animals and failing septic or sewage collection systems."

But Wing said they tested for and found markers of bacteria that only come from pigs. (Editors note: Changed 2/21/15 from earlier version that said a majority of the bacteria was from pigs).

A spokesperson for Smithfield Foods agreed with the state's critique. Smithfield's subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC, is the world's largest producer of pigs and headquartered in North Carolina.

"The information presented in this study does not accurately reflect waste management practices at Murphy-Brown, and unfairly vilifies North Carolina's agricultural community," Kathleen Kirkham, director of corporate communications, wrote in an email.

The study is not able to "legitimately differentiate the type of feces in the river between swine, goose, deer or human that will also be there from the natural environment surrounding waterways," she added.

Wing said the latter is a recurring industry argument and that the bacteria markers they used to pin the pollution on pigs were quite conclusive.

The National Pork Producers Council did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article. A spokesman for the North Carolina Farm Bureau said the organization doesn't "typically provide comment on academic studies."

Wing's study suggests that the methods for getting rid of animal waste from huge farms are not working.

"The farms hold the waste in lagoons, as the industry euphemistically calls them, which are big cesspools," said JoAnne Burkholder, a professor and aquatic ecologist at North Carolina State University. The waste can run off from such areas and get into waterways.

The large farms are located in rural areas where many people use private wells. But due largely to a lack of funding, studies on groundwater effects of human health are rare, Burkholder said.

Poor, Minorities Most Impacted

North Carolina environmental and health groups are fed up -- not just about the farms' impact, but who is most impacted.

"It seems that the industry goes into an area that they think is perfect for their needs: lots of land, and people without a voice and not many of them," Burkholder said.

But Kirkham, Smithfield's spokeswoman, said people from Smithfield are members of the community too.

"We live here, work here, and raise our families here. We have a vested interest in the health and well-being of these communities," she wrote.

She said the company averages about two or three notices per year from neighbors concerned about the operation.

Duplin County, where Wing's study took place, is 26 percent black and 21 percent Hispanic, according to the US Census. Duplin's median income is 25 percent lower than the rest of the state, and 26 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.

Earthjustice - along with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help and Waterkeeper Alliance - filed a civil rights complaint with the EPA against the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which states in part, "lax regulation of hog waste disposal discriminates against communities of color in eastern North Carolina."

The complaint is a response to the state's renewal of a general permit for large pig farms to continue operating and storing waste as they have been for years.

"We've been asking the state and our representatives for years to do something different about how this industry operates in the state of North Carolina," Muhammad said. "It was an insult to the community and to the people of the state of North Carolina to renew those permits."

The complaint was filed in September. Earthjustice is still waiting to hear back from the EPA.

"They've been dragging their feet," said Jocelyn D'Ambrosio, senior associate attorney with Earthjustice.

Forced "Bondage of Feces"

Webb still makes his home in Wilson County, North Carolina. He works with a group called the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry to find solutions to the pig farm waste.

He's animated when he talks about pig farming. But he strikes a somber tone when he recalls the people impacted.

"The woman taking care of her husband with tuberculosis? She died. Her husband died. They were forced to live years in the bondage of feces and flies," Webb said.

"So a rich man can have hogs."

News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 10:35:56 -0500
We Must Create a Nation Where People Can Age With Dignity and Fair-Wage Support

As the average age of the US population continues to rise, the nation will need to improve and transform what is currently an inadequately developed and funded system of care. In The Age of Dignity, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, provides a blueprint for building a culture that supports and values the care of our elders. The following is the introductory excerpt to The Age of Dignity.

As the average age of the US population continues to rise, the nation will need to improve and transform what is currently an inadequately developed and funded system of care. In The Age of Dignity, Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, provides a blueprint for building a culture that supports and values the care of our elders. Order the book from Truthout now by clicking here!

The following is the introductory excerpt to The Age of Dignity by Ai-jen Poo:

(Image: The New Press)(Image: The New Press)My father's father, Liang Shao Pu, lived to the age of ninety three. A lifelong student and then teacher of tai chi and a diehard Wheel of Fortune fan, he had a slow, deep throated laugh that never failed to infect my sister and me, sending us into spasms of giggles. After moving from Taiwan to the United States to be close to his children and grandchildren, my grandfather often picked us up from school, the silhouette of his baseball cap visible from down the block. He was never late.

My grandfather quietly sustained the heartbreaks of my parents' divorce, the passing of most of his friends, and then the loss of his wife of more than forty years. After my grandmother's stroke, she could no longer care for herself. With tremendous courage and love, for years he cooked every meal, talked to her, and kept her comfortable until the end. One of my greatest regrets in life is that we did not provide him with the same comfort and care in the final moments of his life.

After repeated strokes, my grandfather's condition had deteriorated to the point that my dad no longer felt capable of providing the support he needed to stay at home and could not find appropriate home care support, so my grandfather was placed in a nursing home, against his wishes. I visited my grandfather there before he passed away.

My grandfather's bed was along a wall in a large, dark room with six other people, half of whom were completely silent, while the other half expressed their misery in loud, painful cries. The room lights were kept off, while a sickly fluorescent light in the hallway flickered. The place smelled like mold and death. It was my heart wrenching introduction to dehumanizing institutional care. When I arrived at his bedside, my grandfather was distressed. He believed the nursing home staff was trying to poison him. He had not slept or eaten for some time. He was frightened and in pain. He was a shadow of the person I knew growing up. I was furious and devastated.

After three months, he passed away in that facility. I almost feel as though he died the moment he arrived there; his dignity was stripped away upon entry. My father, my sister, and I will always regret that my grandfather's final hours and ultimately his death were so lacking in comfort and beauty. He meant so much to us. I so wish we had been able to keep him at home.

I'm far from alone in my aversion to nursing homes. Nearly 90 percent of Americans feel institutions are not the appropriate place for elders to spend their final moments, months, or years. The great majority of us want to live and age at home. The question is how, exactly, we can manage that.

America is about to experience an "elder boom," a direct result of the baby boom of 1946 to 1964. We have more senior citizens in America today than we've had at any time in our history. Every eight seconds an American turns sixty five; that's more than ten thousand people per day, almost 4 million per year. A century ago, just about  percent of the population was sixty five or older. Today more than 13 percent of Americans are over sixty five, and by 2030, the number will be 20 percent. The 5 million Americans older than eighty five, our country's fastest growing demographic, will number 11.5 million by 2035. Because of advances in health care and technology, people are living longer than ever, often into their nineties or breaking one hundred.

Let's remember: people getting older is not a crisis; it's a blessing. We 're living longer; the question is how we should live. As a country, we have to figure out how to embrace this demographic shift with grace. Just as the baby boom brought with it incredible power and opportunity,so does the coming elder boom.

One thing we know is that the longer people live, the more likely they are to need assistance. Seventy percent of people aged sixty five or older need some form of support. By 2050, the total number of individuals needing long term care and personal assistance is projected to grow from 12 million to 27 million. It is often assumed that women will absorb these tasks, as they have for much of our country's history, but that is not going to happen in twenty first century America. Most households today are dual income, which means there is no one at home full time; at the same time, more and more American households have both children and aging parents who need support and care every day. The need for professional caregivers is skyrocketing.

Aging at home necessitates home care workers. Yet the 3 million people currently in the home care workforce cannot meet even the current need, let alone the demand for care that will accompany the elder boom. We will need at least 1.8 mil lion additional home care workers in the next decade. As a result, caregiving, specifically home care, is the fastest growing of all occupations in the nation. By 2018, demand for home care workers will increase by more than 90 percent. Many of the existing eldercare workers are low income African American and immigrant women who are faced with innumerable challenges, among them low wages, long hours, and inadequate training. Of the one quarter of today's home care workers who were born outside the United States, about half are undocumented, which means that fear of deportation puts these workers under further stress. These conditions have led to high turnover in the industry, which hurts everyone: elders, their families, and the workers themselves.

Many of these issues also have profound implications for people of all ages with disabilities. With the birth of the disability rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, independent living replaced institutionalization as the clear preference of people with disabilities. Alongside assistive technologies, it is home care workers, predominantly known in the community of people with disabilities as "personal attendants," who enable many people with disabilities to manage their personal care, maintain a home, have a job, go to school, and participate in other aspects of independent living. According to the U.S. Census, in 2000, an estimated 13 million Americans with disabilities were living independently in their communities. The concerns and stories of people with disabilities are and should be the subject of many books, and while these topics are deeply connected, this book's focus is the aging of America—the challenge and opportunity of this demographic moment.

Many Americans currently struggle to afford the care they need. On average, a home health aide hired through an agency costs approximately $21 per hour, the cost of an assisted living facility averages $3,300 per month, and a semiprivate room in a nursing home costs $6,200 per month. Yet the average Social Security check amounts to just $1,230 per month, and Medicare provides little if any support for home based care. How can elders or people with disabilities remain at home and live independently without sufficient support or funding? Our country has not adequately accounted for the caregiving we need. Yet home care is the future.

By 2010, we at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization I helped found in 2007 to support the nearly invisible workforce employed inside homes across America, began hearing more and more workers asking for training in eldercare. Although these workers had been hired as nannies and house keepers, they were now being called upon to provide home care for their employers' aging parents, too.

In response, in 2011, together with our sister organization Jobs with Justice, we launched Caring Across Generations, an initiative that addresses two of the major social issues of our time: widespread unemployment and the coming need for care for the nation's expanding aging population. At the same time that millions of people in the United States are struggling to survive longterm unemployment, there are far too few workers who are positioned and prepared to provide care for the growing number of elders and people with disabilities. The demographic shift creates a moment when we can set in place a system to affirm the dignity of people at every stage of life and in every walk of life and create millions of good jobs in the process.

Caring Across Generations, led jointly by twenty organizations representing caregivers, care consumers, and their families, is a national movement to embrace our changing demographics, particularly the aging of America, and an opportunity to strengthen our intergenerational and caregiving relationships. We're calling for an innovative approach to care, rooted in our homes and communities, that brings us all together and offers support to everyone involved.

As for Me

People always ask how I arrived at the work I do with domestic workers. When they do, I immediately think of my mom. While she was not a domestic worker, I can't conjure a single image of my mother resting during my whole childhood. She learned English, she worked and went to school, and she was the only one in her class at medical school with two children. I can remember her dropping me off at day care, picking me up, making dinner, cleaning the house, ironing clothes. But I can't remember her ever relaxing. I don't think she saw that as an option. It was assumed that even though she had a PhD in chemistry as well as an MD, and went on to become an oncologist at two of the top cancer centers in the nation, she would still be primarily responsible for feeding, clothing, and getting me and my sister to day care and school. Even today, at the age of sixty four, perhaps out of habit, she doesn't stop. She is always up the earliest, and while she goes to bed earlier these days, for the entire day she is going, going, going.

All footnotes to this excerpt can be found in the full book, The Age of Dignity.
Copyright (2015) by Ai-jen Poo. This excerpt originally appeared in the The Age of Dignity: Preparing for an Elder Boom in a Changing America, published by The New Press. Reprinted with permission.

Progressive Picks Fri, 06 Mar 2015 10:16:42 -0500
Leonard Nimoy ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Fri, 06 Mar 2015 09:28:12 -0500 Economic Update: Economic Decline and Growing Resistance

This episode provides updates on taxis vs. Uber vs. driver co-ops, an apology on Detroit, International Womens Day and cutting workers' compensation. We also respond to questions on the economics of debts, past and present. Finally, we give an in-depth critical analysis of issues including resisting economic decline and extremes of economic inequality.

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News Fri, 06 Mar 2015 10:44:35 -0500
Our Planet's Lungs Are Dying

31 July, 2011- Satellite photo of the Amazon Rainforest. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)31 July, 2011- Satellite photo of the Amazon Rainforest. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Trees are like our planet's lungs.

Every second of every day, they're absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, and converting it into energy.

In fact, according to a study by researchers at NASA, each year, tropical rainforests absorb a staggering 1.4 billion metric tons of CO2 from Earth's atmosphere.

Through the process of photosynthesis, they're "inhaling" that CO2, and keeping it from further damaging our planet and speeding up the process of climate change.

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

Photosynthesis is a process used by trees and other plants to convert sunlight into chemical energy that can be used later as fuel. During photosynthesis, plants absorb CO2, which is combined with water - H2O - to produce a mixture of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen called "carbohydrates" - everything from roots to stems to leaves and fruits.

And by absorbing and binding the carbon in carbon dioxide that way, our planet's tropical rainforests are an invaluable line of defense in the fight against global warming and climate change.

But unfortunately, new studies are showing that that defense is weakening.

Our planet's lungs are dying.

For the first time in history, scientists have been able to determine the rate at which trees in the Amazon rainforest can absorb carbon during periods of drought.

Scientists have known for a while that a drought can impact an individual tree's ability to "inhale" carbon, but now, we know just how big that impact is.

Researchers looked at the growth and photosynthesis rates of trees in 13 different Amazon rainforest locations throughout Brazil, Peru and Bolivia.

Some of those locations were affected by a severe drought in 2010 and some weren't.

The researchers found that trees in areas that were affected by the 2010 drought had much lower photosynthesis rates than trees in areas that were not. And, they were also in poorer overall health than their drought-free companions.

Speaking about this groundbreaking study, Christopher Doughty, one of the researchers, said that, "Tropical rainforests have been popularly thought of as the 'lungs' of the planet. Here, we show for the first time that during severe drought, the rate at which they 'inhale' carbon through photosynthesis can decrease."

Doughty went on to say that, "This decreased uptake of carbon does not decrease growth rates but does mean an increase in tree deaths. As trees die and decompose, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase, potentially speeding up climate change during tropical droughts."

And thanks in large part to those droughts, our tropical rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate, again reducing their ability to absorb CO2 and slow down climate change and global warming.

In a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers point out that during the 1990s and 2000s, the loss of tropical rainforests globally increased by a whopping 62 percent.

There are a lot of factors behind the loss of our rainforests, from drought to deforestation and urbanization - the common denominator is that all are caused or made worse by human activity.

Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the net tropical rainforest loss rate was 6.5 million hectares per year.

To put that in perspective, that's the equivalent of clearing out a piece of land the size of West Virginia EVERY YEAR.

That's a lot of trees and a lot of carbon-absorbing power being wiped out each year.

Tropical rainforests, and really all forests, play a huge role in the fight against climate change and global warming.

But, as more and more tropical rainforests are wiped out, from natural causes like drought or manmade causes like deforestation, we're losing a key ally in the climate change fight.

When it comes to the fight against global warming and climate change, we're in the fight of our lives, and we need all the help that we can get.

We need to start protecting our planet's forests, so that they can in turn protect us.

Save the rainforest, save the planet.

Opinion Thu, 05 Mar 2015 15:20:36 -0500
Loving America, Flaws and All

Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum last year. (Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001, at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum last year. (Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Jamelle Bouie wrote a very good article for Slate responding to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's recent attack on President Obama's patriotism, making the point that Mr. Obama, while clearly patriotic, does talk about America a bit differently than his predecessors.

But I'm not sure that Mr. Bouie has the whole story. In his article, he attributes Mr. Obama's relatively chastened version of American exceptionalism to his personal identity - that as a black American he is more in touch with the areas of ambivalence in our history.

That may well be true. But there are many Americans who love their country in pretty much the way the president does - seeing it as special, often an enormous force for good in the world, but also fallible, and with some stains on its record. I'm one of them. So you don't have to be black to see things that way.

What's more, there have always been American patriots who were able to acknowledge flaws in the country that they loved. For example, there's the guy who described one of our foreign wars as "the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

That was Ulysses S. Grant - the Civil War general and American president who longtime readers know is one of my heroes - writing about the Mexican-American War.

But now we (finally) have a president who is willing to say such things while in the White House. Why?

Maybe it's history: The Greatest Generation is fading away, and the most recent war in our memories is Iraq - a war waged on false pretenses, whose enduring images are not of brave men storming Omaha Beach, but of prisoners being tortured in Abu Ghraib. My sense is that Iraq has left a lasting shadow on our self-image; many people now realize that we, too, can do evil.

Maybe it's just that we are becoming, despite everything, a more sophisticated country, a place where many people understand that you can be a patriot without always shouting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" — maybe even a country where people are starting to realize that the shouters are often less patriotic than the people they're trying to shout down.

All of this doesn't change the fact that we really are an exceptional country - a country that has played a special role in the world, that despite its flaws has always stood for some of humanity's highest ideals. We are not, in other words, just about tribalism - which is what makes all the shouting about American exceptionalism so ironic, because it is, in fact, an attempt to tribalize our self-image.

Opinion Thu, 05 Mar 2015 14:40:22 -0500
Millions Could Lose Obamacare Coverage as Supreme Court Weighs Dubious Koch-Backed Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments in a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." The Competitive Enterprise Institute, backed by the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, sued the government over an aspect of the law dealing with tax subsidies. The legal question before the court focuses on a four-word phrase in the Affordable Care Act, which says subsidies are available to those buying insurance on exchanges "established by the state." Plaintiffs claim the wording does not include some 7.5 million people in 34 states who get their insurance through federal exchanges, after their states declined to run exchanges of their own. If the government loses the case, millions of people would lose the subsidies needed to help pay for private health insurance. Justices appeared sharply divide during Wednesday’s arguments, and a decision is expected by late June. We are joined by Ian Millhiser, who attended Wednesday’s court hearing. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, editor of ThinkProgress Justice, and author of the forthcoming book, "Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted."


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments Wednesday in another challenge to the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." If the government loses the case, known as King v. Burwell, millions of people would lose tax subsidies needed to help pay for private health insurance. The challenge was brought by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is backed by the Koch brothers. Inside the courtroom, justices appeared sharply divided. The White House warned of catastrophic damage if the court rules against the subsidies.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ian Millhiser. He’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the editor of ThinkProgress Justice. Millhiser is the author of the forthcoming book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. He attended Wednesday’s Supreme Court oral arguments in King v. Burwell.

Well, describe the scene inside the Supreme Court, Ian. But also, if you could explain just what this case is all about?

IAN MILLHISER: Sure thing. So this is really a case about whether or not the justices are capable of reading more than six words. The plaintiffs in this case hone in on these six words in the law—"an exchange established by the state"—and they claim that those words appear in a place which makes it the case that if you’re in one of the 36 states that has a federally run exchange, instead of one of the ones that is a state-run health exchange under the law, you do not get these tax credits. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of tax credits that help people pay for the law—or, that help people pay for insurance.

The problem with their theory is that the law is a lot more than six words long. The word "exchange" is defined in the law, and it’s defined in a way that deems state exchanges and federal exchanges to be the exact same thing. There are various provisions of the law that become absurd if you accept the plaintiffs’ reading of what those words mean. And then there’s this problem that if in fact the plaintiffs are right—and this came up a lot at oral argument—it could set off what’s called a death spiral, where it creates a shock to the insurance market that could potentially collapse those markets in many states, leaving people in the individual insurance markets unable to buy insurance at any price.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ian, could you actually explain how that would happen? What would the impact be of a decision against, in this case, on insurance companies and premiums?

IAN MILLHISER: Sure thing. So, these tax credits cover, you know, depending on what state you’re in, an average of two—and average of 60 to 80 percent of the average person’s premium. So, if this case goes south, you’ll see premiums go up 200, 300, 400, 500, even 600 percent in many states. Once that happens, healthy people start dropping out of the health insurance market, because their premiums have gone up so much, they can no longer afford their care. Well, when healthy people drop out of the market, the insurance companies no longer have enough revenue to cover the costs of their sick customers. So they have to jack up premiums even more. And when they jack up premiums, more people drop out, which causes premiums to go up more, which causes more people to drop out. That’s the death spiral that could potentially collapse the market.

And what was interesting yesterday is Justice Kennedy—there’s a doctrine which says that states cannot be subjected to unconstitutional coercion. They can’t be forced to do something under penalty of a terrible consequence. And Kennedy seemed to think that if the plaintiffs are right about how this law was written, forcing states to choose between setting up their own exchange or dealing with this death spiral is unconstitutional. And for that reason, I think that he is more likely than not going to vote with the government and say, "No, we’re not going to accept the plaintiffs’ reading, because that’s just—it’s too unconstitutional. It would coerce the states, and that’s not acceptable."

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s not as if they’re going back hundreds of years to try to figure out the history of how this law was passed, you know, to determine what is meant by the term "established by the state." People debated this. They wrote about it. What about that legal history, the intent of those who wrote the law?

IAN MILLHISER: Right, there’s no question here what this law is supposed to mean. And you don’t even have to look at—you know, there is a brief that was filed by many members of Congress saying, "No, that’s not what we meant." The plaintiffs, in their brief, called out former Senator Ben Nelson and claimed that Nelson wanted it to be this way. And Nelson wrote a letter saying, "No, that is not how I wanted it." So there’s no question, this is not how the law was intended to work.

But again, you don’t need to look at, you know, these intentions. You don’t need to look what these members of Congress are saying. All you have to do is read the law. The word "exchange," again, is defined in the law to say that any exchange, whether it’s run by the state or whether it’s run by the federal government, shall be deemed to be an exchange that is established by a state. And that’s really all you need to know. The word "exchange" is defined in the law. The law clearly says that state and federal exchanges are the exact same thing. And if these justices follow the law and they aren’t consumed by partisan politics, this should be an easy case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to the group behind the King v. Burwell case, the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The group’s website says this case, quote, "challenges an IRS regulation imposed under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, that allows subsidies on both state and federally-established health exchanges. The IRS regulation violates the plain language of the law enacted by Congress, which gave states the choice to either set up such exchanges themselves or stay out of the program." So could you explain what is the Competitive Enterprise Institute and what is their interest in this case?

IAN MILLHISER: Well, their interest is they don’t like Obamacare. You know, their interest is that they are opposed to this policy, and they want to use the Supreme Court as their agent in order to enact—in order to get rid of this policy they don’t like. Look, I mean, there’s a lot of right-wing groups in Washington, D.C. CEI, in a town riddled with conservative organizations, is a particularly virulent group. Their former board chair recently wrote a blog post where he compared the Affordable Care Act to the Holocaust. You know, think about that for a second. He compared giving health insurance to millions of people, so that they can live, to the Holocaust. So you’re dealing with some folks here who don’t really have the same perspective that many people have, and they’re hoping that there are five justices that are essentially willing to be their agents to enact an agenda that they couldn’t get through Congress and, you know, to engage in a very political, very partisan attack on President Obama’s chief accomplishment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up, Ian, The New York Times headline today, "At Least One Justice is in Play as Court Hears Health Case," they’re talking about Anthony Kennedy.


AMY GOODMAN: Where this goes from here?

IAN MILLHISER: So I think it is more likely than not that the justices will reject this challenge. Kennedy, again, seemed to feel that if the plaintiffs are right, that would be unconstitutional, and so he said the court should avoid a construction of the law that is unconstitutional. Roberts, Chief Justice Roberts, was dead silent, but Roberts upheld the law three years ago, and this legal challenge is so weak. You know, Roberts is very conservative, but he’s also very smart. I think the most likely outcome is a six-to-three decision, with Roberts and Kennedy joining the court’s four liberals in order to uphold the subsidies. But it is still up in the air. We won’t know until the decision comes down. And, you know, obviously, it would be very, very frightening. We’re talking about an estimated almost 10,000 people will die every year if this case goes against the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Ian Millhiser, we want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, editor of ThinkProgress Justice. His forthcoming book will be called Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to London to talk about the man who came to be known as Jihadi John. Stay with us.

News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 12:06:10 -0500
Michelle Alexander: Ferguson Shows Why Criminal Justice System of "Racial Control" Should Be Undone

The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that the police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Despite comprising about 66 percent of the local population, African Americans accounted for 93 percent of arrests, 88 percent of incidents where force was used, 90 percent of citations and 85 percent of traffic stops. The Justice Department, which launched its report after the police killing of Michael Brown, also uncovered at least three municipal Ferguson emails containing racist language or images. "The report does not give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up," says Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. "There is a system of racial and social control in communities of color across America. … What we see now is that we do have the power to make things change. The question is are we going to transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building?”


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The U.S. Justice Department has concluded that police and city courts in Ferguson, Missouri, routinely engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against African Americans. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered the report—that’s being issued today—after the police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown last August. Brown’s death sparked months of protests in Ferguson and around the country. In a separate report, the Justice Department is expected to clear the police officer, Darren Wilson, of civil rights violations in the shooting of Brown.

The Justice Department study of Ferguson’s records from 2012 to 2014 found African Americans made up 93 percent of arrests in Ferguson while accounting for only 67 percent of the population. In addition, the report found in 88 percent of the cases in which Ferguson police used force, it was against African Americans, and all 14 cases of police dog bites involved blacks.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigators also found that African Americans constituted 96 percent of people arrested in traffic stops solely for an outstanding warrant, 95 percent of jaywalking charges, 94 percent of failure-to-comply charges, 92 percent of all disturbing-the-peace charges. With traffic stops, African-American motorists are twice as likely to be searched when pulled over, even though searches of white drivers are more likely to turn up drugs or other contraband.

The Justice Department report uncovered at least three municipal Ferguson emails containing racist language or images. One email sent by a Ferguson police or municipal court official joked in 2008 Barack Obama would not remain as president for long because, quote, "what black man holds a steady job for four years." Another email suggested more abortions by African-American women would lower crime. It read, quote, "An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, 'Crimestoppers.'?" A third email uncovered in the Ferguson probe included a cartoon depicting African Americans as monkeys. It has not been revealed yet who wrote those emails.

The Justice Department report has renewed calls for police accountability from activists and those close to Michael Brown’s family. This is St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French, followed by Brown family attorney Anthony Gray.

ANTONIO FRENCH: To me, that demands a certain level of accountability, and I think the chief out there has to resign. It’s the only way that this community can move forward.

ANTHONY GRAY: No shock here at all, no surprise, as we have to take now what is publicly known to be a situation, come up with solutions, then execute whatever those solutions are, go back and measure the results, and then see if we made some progress from there.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She’s a law professor at Ohio State University. Her New York Times op-ed in November was titled "Telling My Son About Ferguson."

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: I’m happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. I know you’re giving two major addresses here in New York, at Union Theological Seminary tonight and then Friday night at Columbia University. But let’s start with that op-ed. What did you tell your son about Ferguson?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, it’s difficult, you know, as a mother to have to tell your son, my 10-year-old son, that I knew that the officer who shot Michael Brown wouldn’t be charged. And I knew it before the grand jury came back. I knew it before the Justice Department announced that it wouldn’t be filing charges. I knew it because police officers are almost never charged for killing unarmed black men. And that’s the way it is in this country. And it was incredibly difficult to tell him that. And I found, as I began to talk to him about the realities of race and justice in America, that I was tempted to lie. I was tempted to say, "No, really, nothing like that could ever happen to you, son." And yet, unfortunately, today, in this current era, you know, a time of so-called colorblindness, the age of Obama, parents have to have conversations with their children that are eerily reminiscent of the kinds of conversations parents had to have with their kids decades ago. And so, it’s my hope—really, my prayer—that the uprising we saw in Ferguson is the beginning of a new, bold, radical, courageous movement for justice that will ensure that parents in the future don’t have to tell their children that in the eyes of their law they don’t matter.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you talk about parents having to have these conversations with their children, notably, here in New York City, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, discussed that very issue in the midst of the Ferguson protests about having to have a conversation with his biracial son about watching out for interactions with police, and he took enormous heat and enormous attacks by the local police union over even daring to talk about that. I’m wondering your reaction when you heard about that.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, telling the truth isn’t popular today. That’s the reality. And I think, though, what we’ve seen, you know, in recent months is the necessity of telling the truth. You know, I look at what’s gone down in the last few months, and it seems clear to me that, first and foremost, change comes when people stand up, speak unpopular truths and are willing to take real risks in the name of justice. There is no way that the Justice Department would have investigated what was going on in Ferguson, you know, if the young people there hadn’t stood up and taken to the streets.

And what the Justice Department report demonstrates is that we’re not crazy. You know, the young people in Ferguson, the old people in Ferguson, who said, "We feel like we’re living in occupied territory," were telling the truth. You know, we have some sense now, based on this report, of why Michael Brown might have been so frustrated and so angry when he was being harassed by the police for jaywalking. You get some sense of what’s really going on in these communities. And so, you know, we’re not crazy. There is a system of racial and social control in communities of color across America.

And if we don’t stand up, speak unpopular truths, take to the streets and organize, things aren’t going to change. But, you know, what we see now is that we do have the power to make things change. And the question is: Are we going to transition from protest politics to long-term, strategic movement building?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you mentioned jaywalking. I mean, I was struck in this report by the figures that 94 percent of all the people arrested for jaywalking, you’d think the most inconsequential of misdemeanors or violations, were African-American. And as if the—clearly, African Americans don’t jaywalk at a greater percentage than white Americans. It’s just astonishing that even in jaywalking you’d see this enormous disparity.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely, but you see that disparity right here in New York City, as well. You know, I think it’s so important that we don’t think of this as a problem in Ferguson that is somehow unique to that community. You know, thanks to "broken windows" policing here in New York City, you have statistics that rival the ones that we see in Ferguson. You know, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a report showing that here in New York City more than 80 percent of those who are issued summons for things like jaywalking, you know, are people of color. And the revenue streams that fund the criminal courts in New York City, just like those in Ferguson, come from poor people paying tickets for minor offenses that are being enforced against them but aren’t being enforced in other parts of town.

AMY GOODMAN: And we see that it’s lethal. I mean, the jaywalking, which is so minor—what exactly was Michael Brown stopped for by Darren Wilson?


AMY GOODMAN: Because he was walking in the middle of the road. And being there—I mean, this was not a very trafficked road; it was a back road to the main roads. And the fact that these two young men were simply walking on the street. Now, how is it—you’re an attorney, you clerked for Justice Blackmun—how is it that Darren Wilson didn’t get charged with violating civil rights, let alone indicted, but now the Ferguson police, the courts are found to be systematically discriminating against, and those figures are being cited, like stopping an African American for jaywalking?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, well, I mean, I think what we have here is a unwillingness, an unwillingness to hold individual officers accountable for the unjustified lethal force that is being used against, you know, African-American men and others. I mean, we’ve seen, you know, what’s happened with Latinos in other parts of the country. This isn’t just limited to black men. And we see also this kind of force has been used against women, black women. But, you know, I think what we see here is an unwilling to hold individual officers accountable even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the system as a whole is discriminatory.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this report give you any hope, as you talk to your son now? I mean, no, Darren Wilson was not indicted. No, he wasn’t found guilty of violating the civil rights of Michael Brown. But now this report is coming out today that says the Ferguson police and the city courts do violate the rights of African Americans.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: No, the report doesn’t give me hope. What gives me hope is that people across America are finally waking up. That’s what gives me hope. A single report, even a single indictment, isn’t going to make a difference unless people become organized and commit themselves to the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors. And I see that beginning, and that’s what gives me hope.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet these kinds of shootings continue. We had the—in Pasco, Washington, Antonio Zambrano-Montes shot by the police this past Sunday.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Los Angeles, a homeless man in Los Angeles shot—again, caught on video once again—by police. So, we have these continuing incidents occurring.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: And they will continue. They absolutely will continue, until we move beyond the sporadic protests that occur to serious movement building. And I think that’s the challenge. And I think it’s also important that we not get too easily satisfied with minor reforms or when, you know, the Justice Department says, "Well, here’s a report," or, "We’re going to file one suit." No, the kind of change that needs to happen in our police departments and our criminal justice system as a whole is of such a scale that it is not going to happen merely by, you know, the good intentions—

AMY GOODMAN: With a consent decree?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: With—right, with a single consent decree or good intentions of some legislators tinkering around the edges. We need transformational change of our criminal justice system, not just, you know, a handful of consent decrees or policy reforms.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re going to talk about what that transformational change would look like. We’re talking to Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, author of the best-selling book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She’s a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. Stay with us.

News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 12:03:09 -0500
Michelle Alexander: Roots of Today's Mass Incarceration Crisis Date to Slavery, Jim Crow

As the Justice Department sheds new light on the racist criminal justice system in Ferguson, legal scholar Michelle Alexander looks at the historical roots of what she describes as "the new Jim Crow." From mass incarceration to police killings to the drug war, Alexander explores how the crisis is a nationwide issue facing communities of color. "Today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped, yet again, in a criminal justice system which are treating them like commodities, like people who are easily disposable," Alexander says. "We are not on the right path. … It’s not about making minor reforms and plodding along in the same direction. No, its about mustering the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all."


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

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Michelle Alexander. Her book is called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It actually came out a few years ago, but it has taken this country by storm. San Francisco Chronicle called it "the bible of a social movement"; Cornel West, "an instant classic." Even Forbes magazine called it "devastating." And The New York Review of Books said, "Alexander deserves to be compared to Du Bois in her ability to distill and lay out as mighty human drama a complex argument and history." This is a transformative book. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, part of the Justice Department’s investigation in Ferguson focused on traffic stops and found African Americans, who account for about two-thirds of the city’s population, made up 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which police used force. African-American drivers were twice as likely as whites to be searched, but were less likely to be found with drugs or guns than whites. And in all 14 incidents in which a police dog bit the suspect and the person’s race is known, the person bitten was African-American. The findings reinforce details of a class-action lawsuit filed by Ferguson residents, who accuse local officials of creating a "modern debtors’ prison scheme" that targets African Americans with arrest and fines, and then locks them up when they can’t pay. Here on Democracy Now!, we spoke with Herbert Nelson Jr., a plaintiff in the lawsuit, who has been arrested multiple times. He was asked how his experience made him feel about the police.

HERBERT NELSON JR.: That’s a good question, because the last time I was arrested, the officer said I shouldn’t be afraid of officers. But that same officer, he actually—he was like, "Yes!" He was so excited to arrest me. And that alone made me afraid, because a lot of my friends and family won’t even come to see me because I live in Jennings. They’re scared to come into the county of North St. Louis, North County St. Louis, because of the police and how quick they are to arrest you over a minor, minor, minor traffic ticket.

AARON MATÉ: Herbert, when we were there, there was some hope among some residents that we spoke to that things might get better in the aftermath of these protests, of this organizing in Ferguson and the surrounding areas. Has anything improved in the six months since Michael Brown was killed?

HERBERT NELSON JR.: Far as the policing, no, it hasn’t. It hasn’t. And I wouldn’t honestly say it improved. No, actually, it began—it got worse, because it seems like the crime has went up, and the police are really—the jails are just running in an out, like they’re way more packed than they were before Mike Brown was shot. The jails are way more packed. So it hasn’t improved at all.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Herbert Nelson Jr., who is a plaintiff in this lawsuit, who’s been arrested multiple times. He was sitting next to his sister, Allison. One of her arrests—it’s their mother who comes constantly to the jail to give money. One of her arrests was being in the car with a suspended license. The problem was she was in her backyard in a parked car just sitting inside. And for that, she was taken away. So, Michelle Alexander, broaden this story, from arrests to what they’re calling "modern-day debtors’ prisons."

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes, you know, I think this is part of the story that many people are unaware of, the ways in which poor people, particularly poor folks of color, are targeted by our criminal justice system, arrested for extremely minor offenses, the very sorts of crimes that occur with equal frequency in middle-class communities or on college campuses but go largely ignored—targeted, arrested or cited, and then saddled with fines and fees that are nearly impossible for them to pay back. Then warrants are issued for their arrest, for failure to appear in court or to pay back their fees or fines in a timely manner, leading them into a system from which they have little hope of ever truly escaping.

And, you know, we can look back in history and see this is not the first time we’ve done something like this. Slavery by Another Name is an important book that I think all Americans should read, about how, following the end of slavery, a new system of racial and social control was born, known as "convict leasing." You know, after the end of slavery, African-American men were arrested in mass, and they were arrested for extremely minor crimes like loitering, standing around, vagrancy or the equivalent of jaywalking—arrested and then sent to prison and then leased to plantations. And the idea was they were supposed to earn their freedom, but they could never pay back the plantation owners or the corporations the costs of their clothing and shelter, and so they were effectively re-enslaved, you know, sometimes for the rest of their lives. And today we see millions of poor people and folks of color who are trapped yet again in a criminal justice system, you know, which are treating them like commodities and like people who are easily disposable.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of this not only for those who, let’s say, are jailed and then lose their voting rights for a period of time, but even for those who are arrested and then this stays on their record, and then the issue of being able to get a job with your arrest record, available to employers now with databases being able to locate any kind of information—the impact of this on the ability of African Americans and other people of color to be able to have some kind of social mobility and move forward?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s absolutely right. You know, I hear people often say, "Oh, come on, it’s just a misdemeanor. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s not like they have a felony." Well, today, a misdemeanor can show up on your record, through a few keystrokes on the computer by an employer, and it can be the reason that you’re denied an opportunity to work. It can also be the reason you’re denied access to housing. Public housing officials are free to discriminate against you on the basis of criminal records, including arrest records. And so, you know, what you find is that even for these extremely minor offenses, people find themselves trapped in a permanent second-class status and struggling to survive. So I think it’s critically important that we not dismiss these kinds of charges that are being brought against folks as being minor and shrug them off. No, they can actually alter the course of one’s life.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle, I was wondering if you can read the first paragraph of your book. This is a stunning story that goes back to slavery that I think is so important, that leads us right into this weekend, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, people marching 50 years ago for voting rights, but where we are today, 50 years later.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: "Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

AMY GOODMAN: So, where are we today, 50 years after Selma, not to mention how many years after slavery?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I think it’s common today for people to say, particularly on Martin Luther King Day, you know, that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. And, you know, I think the events of recent months, as well as the astonishing rates of incarceration and the existence of this permanent second-class status that entraps millions, shows us that, no, we’re not on the right path. It’s not a matter of having a long, long way to go. We’ve taken a U-turn and are off course entirely. You know, that’s why I say over and over again it’s not about, you know, making minor reforms and plodding along in the same direction. No, it’s about mustering in the courage to have a major reassessment of where we are as America, reckon with our racial history as well as our present, and build a broad-based movement rooted in the awareness of the dignity and humanity of us all, no matter who we are, where we came from or what we may have done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, we have a Supreme Court that only recently eviscerated the Voting Rights Act in a decision. I’m wondering your reaction when you heard that decision.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think it’s a reflection of where we are at this particular moment. You know, I believe the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as a very large swath of the American population, really wants to imagine that race and racial inequality is something we don’t have to think about anymore, don’t have to worry about anymore. Colorblindness in the United States today means being blind to racial inequality, does not mean being blind to race itself. And that’s the moment we’re in. And the question is: How do we respond? And so, I am thrilled by the protests that we’ve seen, the creative, courageous, nonviolent protests, but now the question is: How do we transition from protest politics to long-term movement building?

AMY GOODMAN: You know, just recently John Legend and rapper Common won the Oscar for best original song for "Glory," which was featured in the movie Selma. Legend paid tribute to protesters from the civil rights era to today.

JOHN LEGEND: Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now.


JOHN LEGEND: We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on. God bless you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Legend standing next to Common. They both won the Oscar for best song in Selma. Of course, Selma, though it was nominated for best film, it didn’t win. And Ava DuVernay, who was hailed as the director of this film, a young African-American woman, was not nominated for best director. Neither was David Oyelowo for best actor. In fact, there were no black actors or directors who were nominated this year, leading to that hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. But after John Legend spoke, many commentators said he was actually citing your work, Michelle Alexander. If you can talk about the significance of this? I mean, tens of millions of people saw this. Of course, culture is so important in getting out information.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yeah, I was just so proud of John Legend for using his moment on that stage to speak to the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States and to raise awareness of the toll that it has taken on the African-American community. And I am hopeful that more celebrities and people who have a big microphone will follow his lead and begin speaking up and speaking out, because, you know, we are not going to be able to engage in this movement building if we remain asleep and in denial about its existence, because, you know, unlike the old Jim Crow, there are no signs alerting us to the existence of this new caste system. And if you’re not directly impacted, if you yourself have not been branded a felon or are cycling in and out of prison or forced to check the box on employment applications, if this doesn’t actually affect you directly, you can go your whole life and have no idea what is really going on. And so, if we are going to build this movement, we’re going to have to pull back the curtain, speak courageous truths, like John Legend did, and help to inspire a much broader awakening, so that the work of real movement building can get underway.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another tragic shooting and the aftermath of that shooting, the Tamir Rice shooting, the 12-year-old boy who was shot by police, holding a toy gun. And the mayor of Cleveland recently apologized because the attorneys for the city of Cleveland argued in a legal brief that Tamir was responsible for his own death.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And just wondering again about the way that the legal system convolutes its own reasoning just to be able to come up with justifications for what happens.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I thought, you know, what transpired there, where, in papers filed in court, they blame that boy for the fact that the police showed up and killed him within two seconds of their arrival, and said it was his fault, that somehow he had brought this police response upon him, in so many ways, that is an illustration of the larger system of mass incarceration, where those who are targeted and who find themselves behind bars are blamed, and said, "Well, it’s your fault. You brought all of this on yourself." And, in fact, you know, over the last few decades, I think many in the African-American community have been seduced by the argument that, well, this is all our fault. Somehow we’ve brought mass incarceration upon ourselves. If only we would pull up our pants or stay in school or not experiment with drugs, if only somehow we could be perfect and never make a mistake, that none of this would be happening. But, of course, you know, young white kids who make mistakes, commit misdemeanors and jaywalking and smoke weed, they are able to go off to college if they’re middle-class. But if you’re poor or you live in the hood, the kinds of mistakes that people of all colors and classes make actually cost them their lives. And yet, then we turn around and blame them and say, "This is all your fault."

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: John Legend and Common singing "Glory," the Oscar-winning song from the film Selma. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re with Michelle Alexander, professor of law at Ohio State University in Columbus. She’s a civil rights advocate. She’s author of the best-selling book, [The New] Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle, talk about your own transformation. And then let’s talk about what you feel needs to change mass incarceration in this country. But what happened to you?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Oh, yes, what happened to me? You know, when I began working as a civil rights lawyer and advocate, I understood, I got, that our criminal justice system was biased in many ways, and I assumed that it was biased just like every institution in our society is infected, to some degree or another, with conscious or unconscious bias and stereotyping. And so I thought, well, it’s my job just to join with other advocates and lawyers to root out racial bias whenever, wherever it might rear its ugly head in the criminal justice system. And it really wasn’t, you know, until after years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison, you know, "re-enter," only to have one closed door in their face after another, that I had a series of experiences that really began my own awakening. And I came to see that our criminal justice system isn’t just another institution in our society infected with racial bias, but, you know, really a different beast entirely.

And, you know, at that time, there were activists who were saying that. You know, at the beginning of the book, I talk about how I saw posted on a telephone pole a sign that said, "the drug war is the new Jim Crow," and I just dismissed that as nonsense. You know, yeah, our system is biased, but you can’t compare it to Jim Crow or slavery. You know, that’s absurd. But I had a number of experiences that began to open my eyes. And one of them included a young man who came to me with a story of being framed by the police and drugs being planted on him, and I didn’t believe him. And it was only after I came to see that he was telling the truth about vast corruption that was happening in the Oakland Police Department, and that my own biases and stereotypes and my own class privilege had prevented me from hearing him, acknowledging the truth and seeing the reality of what was hidden in plain sight. And that’s really what began my journey of doing an enormous amount of research and trying to listen much more carefully to the stories of those cycling in and out of prison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re going through, here in New York City right now, this startling number of cases that are now being reviewed, and especially in Brooklyn, that were at the height of the crack epidemic, and scores of people who were sentenced to prison with false testimony, with police coercion witnesses, and now, one after another, people are being released after spending years in prison because it was all false testimony that was put together by police officers against African Americans and Latinos. It’s become a huge scandal. But it’s precisely that the people could not believe that the system was this corrupt—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that it was doing this on a massive scale.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s exactly right. No, who do we believe? Who do we listen to? Who do we hear from? Who do we believe? You know, and over the last few decades, we’ve heard from the police, we’ve heard from politicians, we’ve heard from prosecutors. But very rarely do we hear the stories, you know, in the media, of the people who have been targeted and demonized. And even when we do, how often do we disbelieve them and think, "Oh, it must be exaggeration. It must be over the top"? But what we’ve seen with the Justice Department report, what we see with the overwhelming evidence that I tried to put in my book, is that we need to pay a lot more attention to the stories and the lived experiences of people who have been trapped in the system of mass incarceration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about another aspect of mass incarceration that has obviously been mushrooming in recent years. About 50 percent of all federal prosecutions these days are actually immigration-related prosecutions.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’re having the growth of these private prisons and the mass incarceration of immigrants. Congress, just in attempting to fund Homeland Security, is insisting that everybody who comes in from Central America be jailed while—if they’re caught coming across the border. This whole issue of this expansion of mass incarceration to the immigrant and largely Latino population in the country?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: That’s exactly right. You know, what we see is that this system of mass incarceration, in order to continue to grow, is adapting and is looking for new populations to bring under its control. And particularly the profit motive in the private prison industry is helping to drive much of that impulse. And so, when we talk about ending mass incarceration, we must, in the same breath, talk about ending mass deportation and the criminalization of immigrant communities in the United States today. You know, we see that the same racially divisive politics that gave rise to the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement, those same racially divisive politics are now taking aim at immigrant communities and helping to ensure the continued expansion of the prison-industrial complex, you know, by including immigrants under its control.

AMY GOODMAN: Your book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, came out under President Obama. What is your assessment? Has President Obama, being the first African-American president, made any difference? Has it made things better? When it comes to the whole issue of mass incarceration, have things gotten worse?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: It’s better and worse. It’s better and worse, you know. I mean, there are—I think having an African-American president has been a beautiful, wonderful thing in many ways. I know that I’m grateful that my children know a world where a black man can be president of the United States. It makes a difference to them to know that that’s possible, that such a thing is possible. But I think there’s also been real difficulties as a result of his presidency. One of them is the reluctance, I think, among African Americans to be as courageous in their criticism and their critique of the drug war and mass incarceration and, you know, many of the policies that we see continuing under the Obama administration than they might otherwise be.

You know, the reality is that the rhetoric has changed in the Obama administration, but when you take a look at the policies, they’ve been much, much slower to change. So, you know, under the Obama administration, we’ve heard consecutive drugs czars say that we should no longer be at war with our own people, you know, saying we don’t like the language of the drug war. But then when you look at the drug war budget, basically the same ratio of dollars is invested in enforcement, as opposed to treatment and prevention, as under the Bush administrations and earlier administrations. And so, you know, I think that it’s very tempting to imagine that more progress has been achieved when there is an African American in the White House and a black attorney general saying all the right things, but I think we have to not be so easily seduced by the imagery and insist upon the kind of large-scale policy reform and structural reform and in end to the actual war on drugs, not the language.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in February, FBI Director James Comey called for police nationwide to confront what he said is unconscious racial bias in the wake of a spate of killings of unarmed African Americans. In the speech, Comey said the nation’s endemic racism must be addressed.

JAMES COMEY: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. … Police officers on patrol in our nation’s cities often work in environments where a hugely disproportionate percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. Something happens to people of goodwill working in that environment. After years of police work, officers often can’t help but be influenced by the cynicism they feel. A mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible, and maybe even rational by some lights. … We need to come to grips with the fact that this behavior complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was FBI Director James Comey talking about unconscious bias, not institutionalized use of racial discrimination. But I’m wondering your reaction to his pretty unusual comments for an FBI director.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, you know, I have to applaud him for acknowledging that, you know, there is both conscious and unconscious bias that pervades law enforcement today. You know, he tends to attribute it to police officers being in constant contact with black and brown criminals, and that that jades them. I think that that—you know, that that tells only a very small part of the larger story. The reality is we have been at war with certain communities. Our elected officials declared wars on crime and wars on drugs, which really were not wars on either of those things, but were wars on communities defined by race and class. And that war mentality has infected law enforcement in ways that, you know, seem nearly irreparable. And so, I think it’s important for us to recognize that these biases and stereotypes that exist within law enforcement isn’t simply a product of having to deal with a lot of bad guys on the streets, but it’s the product of a war mentality that has been adopted and institutionalized throughout law enforcement agencies in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: What needs to happen? You talk about a movement that has to happen. But also, as you’ve looked particularly at mass incarceration, what has to change?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think a number of things have to change. You know, there’s a whole laundry list of reforms that need to be adopted. But I think we really need to come from the perspective not how do we tinker with this thing or tweak it, but what would a truly just system look like? Would we criminalize the simple possession of drugs for personal use? Would we do that? Or would we treat drug use and drug addiction as a public health problem rather than a crime? Would we follow the lead of a country like Portugal, which has decriminalized all drugs across the board and stopped caging people who may be in the need of help, and investing in drug treatment and education and support for the communities from which they come? So, we need to end the war on drugs and the war mentality that we have, which means ending zero-tolerance policies. It means transforming our criminal justice system from one that is purely punitive to one that is based on principles of restorative and transformative justice, you know, systems that take seriously the interests of the victim, the offender and the community as a whole. We need to abolish all of the laws that authorize legal discrimination against people who have criminal records, legal discrimination that denies them basic human rights—to work, to shelter, to education, to food. You know, we have to decriminalize—


MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Yes—immigration. We have to grant the right to vote not just to people upon release from prison. You know, so I have trouble with the framing of this as being a movement to end disenfranchisement laws, and say we should be allowing people in prison to vote, like many other Western democracies do. There are often voting drives within prisons in other Western democracies. And here in the United States, we deny people the right to vote not only when they’re in prison, but often when they’re out, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. So, there is so much work to be done in transitioning from a war mentality to a mentality where we extend care, compassion and concern to poor people and people of color, and not respond with a purely punitive impulse.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michelle Alexander, we thank you so much for being with us. The conversation continues. Her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She is a law professor at Ohio State University in Columbus. She’ll be speaking tonight at Union Theological Seminary, the Judith Moyers lecture, and on Friday night at the Columbia University conference, "Beyond the Bars: Transforming (In)Justice."

News Thu, 05 Mar 2015 11:57:55 -0500