Truthout Stories Thu, 02 Jul 2015 05:57:05 -0400 en-gb Why Bree Newsome's Action Was the "Amazing Grace" I Needed

On Friday, June 24, I turned on my television to watch the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people shot dead at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.

President Obama sang "Amazing Grace" at a time when many in the nation are mourning not only for the lost lives of the Emanuel 9, but the loss of black life that is stitched into the fabric of this country.

I have heard "Amazing Grace" many times in my life. Black Americans singing, in moments of deep despair, is too familiar. I did not need to hear those sounds at this moment in our history. I needed something, but that was not it.

I switched to C-SPAN and, instead of seeing the funeral, I saw the news instead and learned that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I felt a surge of joy because I am truly invested in human rights for all in this country.

Yet I wondered if the many who were celebrating the Supreme Court ruling were feeling the death of the Emanuel 9 with the same depth as they felt this victory. As a black American, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a sense of joy. These days, I am afraid to look at my social media feeds because, inevitably, I will see news of another murdered, unarmed, black person. It takes everything I have to not get crushed under the weight of the deep sorrow that many black people and our allies are feeling in this moment.

So I was not sure how to feel, how to be joyful for this forward movement in the country.

Fortunately, social media exploded with another story. On Saturday, June 27, I turned to my social media feeds and there, like a beam of light, was Bree Newsome taking down the Confederate flag from the Capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina.

"We removed the flag today because we can't wait any longer," Newsome said in a statement she sent out by email. A graduate of New York University who has directed films and played in a funk band called Powerhouse, Newsome's action has already garnered more than $115,000 on an Indiegogo campaign.

(Update: Newsome released a detailed and passionate statement about the event on June 29.)

Until Newsome's action, I had been imploding with rage at the fact that South Carolina did not have the decency to take down that flag as the body of Clementa Pinckney—who was a South Carolina state senator as well as a preacher—was brought to the state house. There was a lump in my throat, in my heart. The presence of that flag, with every wave, laid salt in the wound of the tragedy.

But then Bree Newsome allowed me to breathe. The anger and hurt disappeared, for a moment, because she let us know we are still powerful. She showed us that we liberate ourselves through our actions. She reminded us, in the midst of deep sorrow, that we, who want to see a better America, must keep living, fighting, breathing, doing.

Her act spoke to me in a way that the president's singing did not. The singing of "Amazing Grace" felt like a familiar trope in the narrative of black America: We suffer, we sing, we forgive. Newsome's actions were different and more inspired. They addressed white supremacy directly. When many were arguing that the Confederate flag could not be removed because of legal reasons, Newsome removed it. In that act, she reminded us that Americans who want to see change, can write a bolder narrative.

We must maintain a sense of love, joy, hope, and movement as we grieve. But that is hard to do when black America and our allies are suffering through a constant stream of murdered black Americans, together with symbols of our oppression like the Confederate flag.

Newsome demonstrated that it is possible to hold two conflicting emotions in balance. Out of her grief came an action that challenged racism and brought joy to me and to thousands of others. Joy is essential to struggle. Within the joy, planning, strategizing, hand holding, falling in love, and caring for one another, we extend the legacy of the murdered. I do not let them go when I am caught up in a moment of folly. I do not let them go when I am at the botanical gardens, talking with a friend about our suffering. They are walking with me, in my life, with every step. I remind myself of that. I remind myself that I am here to keep their memory alive and to work so that others do not suffer a similar fate. I still feel the ache of their loss, even as I celebrate the victories.

I am trying to balance sorrow and joy. These days, I seem to experience the former more than the latter. I need something to be done about white violence, and I mean something substantial, on the order of the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. The president singing "Amazing Grace" was not that thing.

Bree Newsome reminded me there is a legacy in black America that joins singing and spirituality and action. She reminded me that what I really need to see is the Confederate flag—and everything it represents—taken down.

]]> (Erica Moriarty) Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
You, Too, Can Buy a Congressman!

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke introduced a rider to the House budget bill blocking a rule that would have cost fossil-fuel companies millions - after receiving at least $43,000 from those companies in campaign contributions.Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke introduced a rider to the House budget bill blocking a rule that would have cost fossil-fuel companies millions - after receiving at least $43,000 from those companies in campaign contributions. (Photo: US Congress)Ever wonder what the best investment you can make is?

I'm not in the business of giving financial advice - but I wanted to share with you this secret that every billionaire and large corporation in this country knows.

The best investment you can make isn't gold or some revolutionary technology.

The best investment you can make is to buy a politician!

Investing in a politician can yield more returns than any stock or other commodity ever could.

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

Take the case of what Montana's fossil-fuel companies invested in Representative Ryan Zinke.

If the Obama administration closes a massive tax loophole that allows the companies to rip off the state, Montana's coal companies would be looking at a $19 million hit to their bottom lines.

You see, for years, Montana's coal producers have had to pay royalties to the state of Montana for coal mined on federal land.

But Montana's coal producers found a way get around paying the royalties for coal they took from public lands.

It's been really easy so far.

Take Peabody Energy. All it had to do is create shell subsidiaries to buy Peabody's coal at a lower-than-market rate.

The state would only collect royalties on Peabody selling coal to its own subsidiary basically at cost, so there's no profit and no royalty payments.

Then the subsidiary would simply turn around and sell the coal again to an actual coal user, like China or a power plant, this time at the much higher and very profitable market rate.

A rule proposed by Obama's Department of the Interior would change that so that Peabody and the other coal companies would have to pay their royalties based exclusively on sales made to an independent, third-party buyer. No more tax-free insider trading.

A report last month from Headwaters Economics showed that the proposed rule could make up to $19 million for the state of Montana every year.

But last week, Montana Representative at-large Ryan Zinke introduced a rider to the House budget bill that blocks the Obama administration's new rule on royalties.

Which means Ryan Zinke is churning out big returns for his fossil-fuel company investors.

And what did it cost them, you may ask?

Well, according to, oil, gas and coal companies donated at least $43,000 to Zincke's campaign. That's more than 10 percent of Ryan Zincke's total contributions from Political Action Committees.

And what are the companies getting in return? They're avoiding paying $19 million a year for taking that coal from you and me and the rest of the US, which owns the public lands.

Over the last two years, they've made $38 million on a $43,000 investment.

So Ryan Zincke's investors are seeing a rate of return that's over 86,000 percent.

That's incredible! And it's an investment tip you're only going to learn about here.

Because the big TV networks do the same thing with their lobbyists, so they're not going to talk about it!

So how do you get in on that kind of action?

Well, that's the real problem. Not every politician is so cheap. And most Americans just don't have the disposable income to invest in a politician every two years anyway.

Therefore, most Americans today can't invest in buying politicians the same way as corporations and billionaires.

But we could harness the power of the stock market to fix that.

All we have to do is set up an exchange-traded fund for owning sellout politicians.

That way, the average American can invest in politicians and reap the same benefits as our country's lobbyists.

It makes sense in the context of the Supreme Court's ruling that buying politicians is the same thing as political speech and thus protected by the First Amendment.

We could set up the funds to be based on specific industries - things like fossil fuels, guns, agriculture and medicine - and invest both in those industries and in the politicians who can change laws to make the industries richer.

And when candidates declare that they're running, they would choose which fund they'll be exchanged on.

Instead of campaign contributions, voters would simply go on the market and invest in a particular candidate in a particular fund.

Different offices would be priced differently. Representatives would be penny stocks, and senators would be priced slightly higher. Senior senators would obviously trade for more than junior senators.

And once a piece of legislation starts generating profits for that fund, the profits can be distributed to the investors.

Another option would be take the politicians off the market and let the people invest in legislation directly, but trading would work basically the same way.

The richest Americans would still be able to invest more in the biggest ticket issues in either scenario, but at least normal Americans would also be able to invest and see their fair share of their politician's profits.

So that's one way to make the political market work for every American and not just the billionaires and corporate lobbyists.

But here's a better idea: Let's just take our democracy off the market altogether.

Because our politicians should be representatives, not investments.

Really - it's time to repeal Citizens United and pass a Constitutional amendment saying that corporations aren't people and buying politicians is bribery, not "free speech."

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
In the Warming Arctic Seas

2015.7.1.Arctic.mainThe sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean can - as shown in this photograph - look more like Swiss cheese or a bright coastal wetland. As ice melts, the liquid water collects in depressions on the surface and deepens them, forming melt ponds. These fresh water ponds are separated from the salty sea below and around it, until breaks in the ice merge the two. (Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Flickr )

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - I was standing in the back of the sled when it broke through the ice, plunging into the frigid water of the Hulahula River. Just in time, Robert yanked the machine. The heavy sled, instead of falling on me, gradually moved out of the shallow water. It must have been about 40 degrees below zero. I began to settle into hypothermia. Robert Thompson and his cousin Perry Anashugak quickly set up the tent and lit both burners of the Coleman stove. Inside a sleeping bag, I began to warm up. That day, I escaped death, barely. "The river is supposed to have solid ice on the surface in November, not fragile like this," Robert lamented. That was 2001, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northeast Alaska. 

Five months before the Hulahula River incident, in mid-June, Robert and I were standing on the northern edge of Barter Island. In front of us was Barnard Harbor that extends to a barrier island, which meets the Beaufort Sea. On the south was the coastal plain of the Arctic NWR. A short distance away a mid-sized polar bear was approaching a whale bone left behind from the previous year's hunt by the Iñupiat people of Kaktovik. The sea ice on the harbor was still frozen, but the snow on top was beginning to melt, creating puddles. There was no wind, and the evening sun was casting a warm glow on the white seascape and on the ivory fur of the bear. As the bear walked past one of the puddles, I noticed a perfect reflection and clicked the shutter. In 2001, almost no one, including the biologists, anticipated what was to happen to the bears of the Beaufort Sea.

Dialing the clock back a bit further to April, Robert and I were traveling through the Canning River Valley in the western edge of the Arctic NWR, when we came across a band of 13 muskoxen with a newborn calf, likely a day or two old. The woolly bovines were migrating from the foothills of the Brooks Range Mountains to the coastal plain. Muskoxen, one of the most adapted animals to the extreme cold of the Arctic, give birth on exposed land when the ground is covered with snow and temperatures dip way below freezing. A few hours after the sighting, a strong blizzard started to blow, the temperature around 35 below zero with windchills approaching minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Robert thought it was "unusual" that the band of muskoxen with a newborn calf would migrate like that.


These incidents constitute a starting point, showing how varieties of environmental changes have arrived in a rather short time, since the turn of the 21st century, in a particular place—each representative of the many significant climate change impacts that affect the human communities and the nonhuman biotic life in the entire circumpolar Arctic. When land and sea are going through rapid changes, inhabitants of the area are usually the first to witness it. In 2002, the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, in cooperation with the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution, pointed out that the indigenous peoples "are already witnessing disturbing and severe climatic and ecological changes," even though "the majority of the Earth's citizens have not seen any significant climate changes thus far." Thirteen years later, a majority of the world's people are experiencing significant impacts of climate change. In the Arctic, the changes have only accelerated. 

Iñupiaq conservationist Robert Thompson and his wife Jane live in Kaktovik, a small town of about 300 residents on Barter Island. A decade ago, the conversations I had with residents of Kaktovik and Arctic Village focused on both climate change and oil development. The lakes were drying up, affecting subsistence fishing. The willow plants were getting much larger and bushier affecting migration of caribou. And wildfires were becoming widespread and more destructive. All this came from the Gwich'in people, while the Iñupiat people said the sea ice was retreating rapidly and the permafrost was beginning to thaw.

In early August 2006, at the northwestern edge of Barter Island, a coffin was lying exposed with bones scattered nearby. The permafrost around the coffin had thawed. Robert told me in an email:

The grave we saw on the other side of the island was of a child. Lon Sonsalla, Fenton Rexford, and I went over there when we heard that a brown bear had broken into the coffin and scattered the body. I picked up a foot. It startled me—it was so light, freeze-dried. We put all the parts back in the box, nailed it shut, and reburied the person. There are two other exposed graves with dates of 1932. These had names and dates cut out of sheet lead; snow had eroded the wood to where the lead was in relief. We also found a wooden marker with a non-native name over by Sungiksaluk, perhaps a whaler. There was also a body that came out of the ground to the east. It was reburied in our cemetery.

The Arctic is warming at a rate of at least twice the global average. With this rapid warming, permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, is thawing. When permafrost thaws, the organic matter inside begins to break down and releases carbon dioxide and methane, the latter about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas over a 20-year period. One of the most visible signs of thawing permafrost is "drunken forest"—trees leaning at odd angles as they lose their footing in the unstable soil. In November 2007,  large areas of drunken forest were spreading near Nelemonoye, a Yukaghir community along the upper Kolyma River in the Sakha Republic. Thawing of terrestrial permafrost also has major impact on ecology, hydrology, and human infrastructures, as homes, buildings, roads, and runways can collapse as the ground underneath begins to buckle.

In addition to carbon stored in the organic matter inside permafrost, there is also an enormous amount of methane trapped inside icy crystals known as clathrates. Scientists do not yet know how much clathrate is in the Arctic but think that much of the carbon stored in the Arctic is inside clathrates, which can be found either deep in terrestrial permafrost or beneath Arctic shelves offshore, according to a U.S. National Research Council Report. The release of methane from terrestrial permafrost is a slower process, but from subsea permafrost it can happen steadily, or in sudden, potentially catastrophic, pulses. More than a decade of research by Russian scientists Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov shows that methane is being actively released from subsea permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Based on their field observations, a team of physical and social scientists in Europe have shown that a decade-long 50-gigaton methane pulse from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf could cost the global economy an average of $60 trillion. To put this in perspective, the financial damage from just one extreme storm, Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast of the United States in 2012, was barely $60 billion. So the aggregate impact on property, infrastructure, and food production of a 50-gigaton methane pulse would be equivalent to 1,000 Hurricane Sandys. 

"I was rained on in February," Robert said speaking of an experience he had in winter 2006. "To me, an Iñupiaq, residing on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, to be rained on in February is strange." In the winter of 2005 to 2006, a thousand caribou from the Teshekpuk Lake herd came over to the Arctic NWR, a 240-mile journey. "It rained and then the tundra froze over there, and the animals came over to our area to find food," Robert recalled. "But it also rained on Barter Island, and the tundra froze. I saw some caribou curled up. I thought they were sleeping." 

Robert approached them, thinking "it's strange that they wouldn't be more alert. They weren't because they were dead. The animals could not find food and instead ingested ice and died of hypothermia, a biological study later revealed. Several hundred caribou died on the island that winter. People had to remove the dead animals from the watershed of our freshwater lake so it would not get contaminated."

Deadly Ice on the Tundra

One of the most significant impacts of Arctic warming on tundra animals in recent years has been rain during autumn and winter months, followed by freezing temperatures that create a hard layer of ice on tundra that animals like caribou or reindeer and muskoxen cannot break through to find food. Earlier this year, Kim Holmén, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute told a Guardian reporter that, "Much of Svalbard is covered with ice on land, which is a fatal state for the reindeer," while the fjords around Svalbard remained unfrozen. Holmén further said that they are experiencing "more icing events," and when that happens the reindeer "can't move around, and they can't eat." 

University of Gothenberg Professor Tyrone Martinsson first went to Svalbard in 2001. He circumnavigated Svalbard that summer at 80 degrees North latitude and was surprised to find "no sea ice in the Arctic Ocean around Svalbard." He focused his research on the melting of glaciers in Svalbard. In Sweden, an Arctic country with no coastline along the Arctic Ocean, two prominent areas of climate change research are the rapid melting of glaciers that is redefining the highest peaks of Sweden, as well as climate change impacts on the Saami reindeer herders in northern Sweden.    

The increased precipitation and icing on tundra also contributed to the disappearance of muskoxen from the Arctic NWR coastal plain. The muskoxen, which once had a circumpolar distribution during the Pleistocene era from 11,700 to 2.5 million years ago, were exterminated from the North Slope of Alaska, including the Arctic NWR, after commercial whalers arrived there with guns in the 19th century. In 1969 and 1970, 51 muskoxen from Nunivak Island were reintroduced to Barter Island. The population increased steadily, reaching almost 350 animals in the Refuge by mid-1990. Then it began to decline. They once lived year-round in the coastal plain of the Refuge, and were considered an iconic species of the coastal plain. In recent years, deeper snow and icing made foraging for food difficult, which resulted in starvation and low calf production. The animals would then move to the foothills to find food on windblown ridges. But when muskoxen give birth in April, grizzly bears would wake up from hibernation in the same area. The muskoxen became an easy prey. So adult animals with newborn calfs moved from the foothills to the coastal plain—to avoid their predators. The last official estimate of muskoxen in the Refuge was 29 animals in 2003. It is generally believed that the number is zero today, although some of the animals moved east and west of the Refuge. This could be considered a case of local extermination caused by a warming Arctic. There are other areas in the Arctic, however, where muskoxen are surviving: more than 100,000 animals in the Canadian Arctic and about 10,000 each in Greenland and Russia. Muskoxen and caribou or reindeer are the only Arctic hoofed animals that made it from the Pleistocene era to modern times, but remain vulnerable to Arctic warming today. 

Even though thawing of terrestrial permafrost and icing on tundra are taking place on land affecting humans and nonhuman biotic life, the primary contributor to these changes is to be found in the warming Arctic seas—the rapid retreat of sea ice.

Disappearing Bear and Man

Between 2001 and 2010, the polar bear population in the southern Beaufort Sea region declined by 40 percent. Polar bears critically depend on sea ice for finding food and mates, as well for transport and building offshore dens. But the Arctic sea ice is vanishing at an astonishing rate. Since recording began in 1978, the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been declining steadily. Though it accelerated after the turn of the 21st century, by August 2007, more than a month before the end of the melt season, a new record low for the minimum sea ice extent was reached—1.7 million square miles, followed by lower yet, in 2012, some 1.16 million square miles, which is nearly half of the 1979-2000 average of 2.7 million square miles. The thickness of Arctic sea ice also declined 65 percent between 1975 and 2012. On February 25, 2015, the winter maximum Arctic sea ice extent hit a record low, and it too arrived nearly two weeks before a usual early March date. As the white surface of the ice is replaced by the dark surface of water, more solar radiation gets absorbed rather than reflected back into space, which contributes significantly to Arctic warming, and consequently to further melting of the sea ice, melting of the ice sheets and glaciers, and thawing of permafrost, all of which collectively is having profound impacts on life in the circumpolar north—the area comprising the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

"Waves are bigger, now that the pack ice is so far out," Robert says. Thomas Gordon and his son, Simon, from Kaktovik were washed away by waves while they were onshore camping during a hunting trip about 30 miles west of the town. Robert attributes these two deaths to climate change. Storms are also becoming more violent with rapid Arctic warming. The aggregate impact of a reduced expanse and duration of sea ice, combined with stronger waves, intense storms, thawing of permafrost, and a rise in sea level is rapid coastal erosion. During March and April 2002, Robert and I camped along the Beaufort Sea coast at Brownlow Point on the Canning River delta in the Arctic NWR, 60 miles west of Kaktovik. Of the 29 days we were there, we had only four calm days. The rest of the time, blizzards blew steadily with peak wind speeds of 65 miles an hour and temperatures of 45 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, bringing the windchill down to minus 110 degrees. The spot where we camped has now been washed away by the sea.

"Our family has a native allotment acquired by my wife's mother who was born and grew up in the Brownlow Point area," Robert told me. "A few years ago, we went there to see it. We found that the beach had eroded 400 feet, the houses and buildings that had been there were gone, an old boat built by my wife's grandfather was destroyed by waves. Family members had lived there for 100 years. Now it's gone. On Barter Island, where we now live, we have lost at least 100 feet of land on the ocean side of the island."

Kivalina is an Iñupiat community of about 400 residents, situated 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle along the Chukchi Sea. "We have been noticing climate change for several decades now, and we were adapting to the gradual changes," Colleen Swan, tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kivalina, said in April. Kivalina residents started to notice coastal erosion in the 1950s and voted to relocate the village in 1992. But soon they found "there was no designated government body to assist communities with the process" of relocation, sociologist Christine Shearer writes. Federal funds are available only after a disaster, not while a community like Kivalina is going through what writer Rob Nixon calls, "slow violence." 

In recent years, slow has turned into rapid. "Everything changed in October 2004," Colleen says. After autumn storms in 2004 and 2005 caused serious damage to the village, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) declared Kivalina a disaster area. A sea barrier using sand bags was constructed, which "failed the day before its inauguration," Shearer says. After another storm in 2007, which required evacuation, a barrier was built with rocks the following year. The rock revetment "was the only thing that saved the village during a severe storm in November 2011," Colleen says with a sense of relief. "It was like a tropical cyclone, and those don't happen here."

Relocation remains a necessity. The revetment would last about 10 to 15 years, and it's already into seven years of its useful life. "We have no option but to relocate the village to a safer place," Colleen insisted. Nearly 200 indigenous villages in Alaska are being affected by coastal erosion and flooding, with 31 of these facing imminent threats, and 12 requiring relocation, including Kivalina, according to two U.S. Government Accountability Office reports. In February 2015, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Kivalina. Her agency committed $8 million to assist the community. Yet the money is not for relocation but "climate adaptation planning" and "ocean/coastal management planning." In other words, the funds will go toward more meetings to build awareness. Besides, the $8 million is a small sum compared to estimates of the full cost of Kivalina's relocation—about $100 million. 

Germany's Institute of Coastal Research concludes "there are no comprehensive global assessments of the vulnerability of Arctic communities and infrastructure to accelerated coastal erosion." Still, a decades-long mean rate of coastal retreat is about 3.28-6.56 feet per year but can vary up as much as 32.8 to 98.4 feet per year in some locations, with the highest rates found along the Beaufort Sea coast of Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest territories in Canada, and the East Siberian and Laptev seas in Russia. The 400 feet of erosion over a decade in the Brownlow Point area along the Beaufort Sea coast no longer seems implausible given that the maximum rate could be as high as 98.4 feet per year. Single events, however, may cause much larger erosion than the decade-long mean rates, as in the case of storm-induced erosion in Kivalina. While villages like Kivalina are considering immediate relocation, other communities like Tuktoyaktuk along the Beaufort Sea coast of Arctic Canada are pondering "phased retreat." The coastal areas of the East Siberian and Laptev seas are very sparsely populated, and there is no specific knowledge about how impacted those human populations are by coastal erosion, and what plan, if any, they might have about relocation.    

Coastal erosion has profound impact not only on human communities but also on Arctic ecology. The Arctic river deltas are considered biological hotspots of the Arctic coasts. "They have high biodiversity and are extremely productive in relation to adjacent landscapes," the German Institute reports. These ecologically rich Arctic deltas provide habitats for numerous species of birds and fish, but remain vulnerable to rapid coastal erosion and sea level rise, as well as increasing oil and gas activities.

The impact of Arctic warming isn't confined to the Arctic, however. As the Greenland ice sheets and Arctic glaciers continue to melt rapidly, an enormous amount of fresh water is added to the Arctic seas, which steadily increases global sea levels. During the first decade of the 21st century, the Greenland ice sheets melted six times faster than during the last decade of the 20th century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment report. Both the atmospheric Arctic jet stream and the oceanic Gulf Stream are slowing, due to rapid Arctic warming, with potentially serious consequences. One study published earlier this year links the recent prolonged cold snaps on the East Coast of North America and severe drought in California to the slowing of the jet stream, while another study predicts a larger rise in sea levels due to the slowing Gulf Stream. As various physical components of the Arctic continue to transform—retreating sea ice and thawing permafrost—they create feedback effects, which lead to further warming.

Arctic Looting

Just as the Arctic is going through rapid and devastating changes due largely to the burning of fossil fuels, it would seem illogical, even unconscionable, to industrialize the Arctic Ocean for fossil fuels extraction, as it would contribute to further warming of the Arctic and rest of the Earth. Yet that is precisely what the Arctic nation states are pursuing—largely for economic reasons—ignoring ecological and human rights concerns. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey released the first-ever area-wide assessment of oil and gas resources in the Arctic, identifying 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids—some 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and about 30 percent of undiscovered natural gas. Some 84 percent of it is found offshore—in the warming Arctic seas. Using the USGS and U.S. Department of Energy data, Ernest & Young has calculated that 52 percent of these undiscovered hydrocarbon resources are located in Russia, 20 percent in the United States, 12 percent in Norway, 11 percent in Greenland, and 5 percent in Canada. A majority of the world's natural gas is located in the Russian Arctic, while the U.S. Arctic holds the largest undiscovered oil resources, some 30 billion barrels of oil.

Non-Arctic states like China and India are trying to establish their own stake of Arctic loot as well. In 2013, at the Arctic Council biennial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, six non-Arctic states were added to the Arctic Council as observers: China, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. "All have sought economic opportunities in the region and viewed participation in the Arctic Council as a means of influencing the decisions of its permanent members,"The New York Times noted at the time. The Arctic Council, founded in 1996, is comprised of eight members (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States), and a number of observers.    

Many Arctic nations have a history of offshore exploration going back decades. In the United States, exploration drilling began in the late 1970s and ended in the early 1990s. These efforts largely failed, as exploration did not lead to production except in one instance—a near-shore, anchored-to-the-ground facility, called North Star, run by BP on the Beaufort Sea. In the Canadian Arctic, starting in 1972 through the 1980s, about 90 exploration wells were drilled in the Beaufort Sea, 34 in Nunavut's High Arctic Islands, and three in the Eastern Arctic offshore. Again, exploration did not lead to production, and oil companies gave up the leases in the 1990s. Offshore exploration drilling began in Greenland in the late 1970s. Six wells were drilled, the last in 1990, but again none led to production. Norway began exploring the Barents Sea in 1981, the same year Statoil discovered the huge Snøhvit gas fields, still the only liquid natural gas source north of the Arctic Circle. Over the past three decades Statoil and other companies have drilled more than 80 exploration wells in the Barents Sea. In recent years, the Russian company Gazprom in partnership with Statoil and the French oil giant Total have been evaluating the giant Shtokman gas fields in the Russian Barents Sea. Since 1962, of 61 Arctic fields discovered so far, 43 are in Russia, 11 in Canada, six in Alaska, and one in Norway. The biggest offshore prize is believed to lie in the Russian Arctic—in the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi seas. 

Since the turn of the century, with the rapid retreat of sea ice, Arctic nations are once again pushing to develop Arctic seas for oil and gas, but the results from this second wave so far look more like a bust than a boom. Though Canada made a push to develop the Beaufort Sea from 2005 through 2008, as of 2011 there was no active drilling there according to the National Energy Board of Canada. Last year, Chevron put its plan to drill in the Canadian Beaufort on indefinite hold. Earlier this year, Statoil shelved its 2015 drilling plan in the Barents Sea and handed back the three leases it had purchased in Baffin Bay off the west coast of Greenland, although retaining one lease in the Greenland Sea off the east coast of Greenland. Cairn Energy's exploration drilling in Greenland's Arctic waters did not lead to commercial discoveries. Following the Ukraine crisis and American sanctions on Russia, ExxonMobil was prohibited from working with Rosneft to drill in the Kara Sea in the Russia Arctic this year. The French oil giant Total simply walked away from the American Arctic in 2012, stating that drilling there could lead to a "disaster." 

In some Arctic countries the attitude toward developing their seas for oil and gas is beginning to change, slowly. "In Iceland, the talk about oil and gas drilling was all based on the dream of becoming Norway, of getting out of the economic crisis," says renowned Icelandic novelist Andri Snær Magnason, who has also spent time in Greenland. "When research permits were granted by the left Green Party, almost nobody raised a voice against it. The single parliamentarian who was critical on the issue was bashed in social media for being against 'progress.' But times have been changing. The Social Democrats, industrialists by tradition, decided in their last convention to oppose oil drilling, claiming oil is best left in the ground—a bit late, as research permits have been granted to Icelandic/Chinese companies and little can be done to stop them from harnessing what they find. In Greenland, they have been looking for oil for years, but no research is on the horizon this year. For Greenland and Iceland, the oil dream seems far away, and views have shifted in both countries."

Many oil companies are moving away from expensive Arctic exploration because of the low price of oil coupled with fear of environmental disasters. Only Royal Dutch Shell is determined to develop the Arctic seas of Alaska despite great setbacks following a brief season of exploration drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012, which included grounding of one of its drill rigs and criminal charges and penalties leveled against the company and its subcontractor for violating environmental regulations. 

March 31, 2015 was the deadline for nations to pledge greenhouse gas emission cuts to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in preparation for the UN climate summit in Paris in December. By the deadline, pledges arrived of a 40 percent cut from the European Union, at least 40 percent from Norway, and 50 percent from Switzerland—all cutbacks from 1990-level emissions. On the last day, the United States entered its pledge: 26 to 28 percent by 2025. But that number is based on cuts from the 2005 level, which when translated to the 1990 level that other developed nations are using, would come to about 13.4 to 15.8 percent.

The same day the United States submitted its greenhouse gas cut pledge, however, the Department of Interior published a decision bringing Royal Dutch Shell's plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea of Arctic Alaska during summer 2015 one step closer. But oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean is inconsistent with climate change mitigation efforts. A study published in Nature states unequivocally that "development of [fossil fuel] resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production [like Canadian tar sands] are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade" above the pre-industrial level.

Averting Catastrophe

From 1986 to 2000, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak worked as a community health aide in Nuiqsut, the Iñupiat village closest to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Rosemary recalls that between 1986 and 1997 there was a "600 percent increase in respiratory patients in a village of 400 people." She concluded that this increase could be attributed to the Alpine oilfield that had expanded closer to her village. "The worst nights on call were nights when many natural gas flares occurred," she said. "Those flares release particles that traveled to us. Increased concentrations of particulate matter from flares occur during inversions, a bowl-like trap, with cold air trapped by warm air."

Natural gas flaring also emits significant methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which contributes to further warming. "We are beginning to understand that oil and gas development brings more than just the risk of spills," Rosemary says. "It also contributes to climate change...I will have to change how I teach my children and grandchildren, as less ice means they will need to learn how to harvest food under different conditions than I was taught."

George Säggan Edwardson is proud of being "the first Iñupiaq geologist." George and his wife live in Barrow, the largest Iñupiat settlement on the Arctic Slope of Alaska, with about 4,300 residents. Barrow is situated where the Chukchi and the Beaufort seas meet. Eventually, he recalls, "we brought the Elders together from Unanakleet to Greenland. Their main worry was where our food chain begins, and that had to be protected at all costs. The Elders said, 'Don't go in the ocean.'" The Iñupiat people consider the Arctic Ocean as their garden and depend on it for nutritional, cultural, and spiritual sustenance.

It is well known that the Chukchi Sea where President Obama is poised to send Shell to drill for oil during summer 2015 is one of the richest and most complex marine habitats on Earth—a migration corridor of endangered bowhead whales, feeding ground of Pacific grey whales, nursery for beluga whales, and home for thousands of polar bears, tens of thousands of walruses and seals, and millions of birds, not to mention all the tiny subsea creatures that make up the food web but elude our eyes. From Shell's seismic studies in the Chukchi Sea, Iñupiat cultural observers came back with sightings of massive schools of salmon fingerlings, "eight miles long by four miles wide," George said. "The Chukchi Sea is a nursery for one-third of the world's remaining fish population." 

For many Iñupiat people, Arctic warming and oil and gas drilling in the Arctic seas are inseparable. Robert emailed that, "People must become aware of what is happening to us and to the animals in our area, and do whatever to remedy the situation so our future generations will have a good place to live." The "remedy" that Robert cites requires leaving a significant portion of the fossil fuels resources in the ground. The Arctic Ocean seems to be the most logical place to begin such a process of restraint. But that is not happening. On May 11, the Obama administration conditionally approved Shell's plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea this summer, which angered environmentalists. It is a "victory for the oil-and-gas industry" and will likely "pave the way for additional companies exploring in the region," The Wall Street Journal noted. In other words, the United States, which assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in late April, is currently leading the process of large-scale industrialization of the Arctic Ocean, not "environmental stewardship" that Secretary John Kerry insisted at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iqaluit, Canada. In light of this significant public policy decision, it is not difficult to imagine that the Paris climate summit, which will commence soon after Shell completes the drilling season in the Chukchi Sea, will be more about lofty rhetoric to save faces, not the sincere actions desperately needed to mitigate climate change. 

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
After Marriage Equality and Obamacare, Mixed Results From SCOTUS on Abortion, Pollution, Executions

After historic rulings that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, this week the Supreme Court handed down its final rulings for the current term, dealing with abortion access, air pollution, executions and elections. We examine the decisions and look at pending rulings on affirmative action and union dues with Ian Millhiser, editor of ThinkProgress Justice and author of Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After historic rulings that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, this week the Supreme Court handed down its final rulings for the current term, dealing with abortion access, air pollution, executions and elections. On Monday, the court blocked a lower court decision that threatened to leave Texas with fewer than 10 abortion clinics. It said clinics do not have to follow requirements forcing them to meet the standards of hospital-style surgery centers that were set to take effect today. In another decision, the court blocked the Environmental Protection Agency’s first national standards to cut emissions of mercury and toxic air pollutants from coal-fired power plants.

AMY GOODMAN: This week, the Supreme Court also rejected a challenge to the use of a controversial sedative in executions. Three Oklahoma prisoners had sought a ban on midazolam, which has been tied to several botched or prolonged lethal injections. But a five-to-four majority rejected the prisoners’ claim that the drug violates a ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

For more, we go right to Washington, D.C., to Ian Millhiser, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the editor of ThinkProgress Justice, author of the book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

First of all, Ian, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you, overall, assess the direction of the court, from upholding Obamacare and same-sex marriage to this series of lesser-known decisions that they issued this week, including the issue of lethal injection and the death penalty?

IAN MILLHISER: Right. So, this was a very unusual term. You know, the Roberts court is a very conservative court, and most terms I wind up pretty depressed this time of year, because they’ve just handed down a lot of conservative decisions. The good news is, for the most part, that didn’t happen this term. Obviously, we got the big marriage equality holding. There were also a lot of disasters that did not happen. They could have gutted the Affordable Care Act and sent America’s healthcare markets into turmoil; that didn’t happen. They could have gutted the Fair Housing Act, and that didn’t happen. They could have cast a bunch of state election laws into chaos, and that didn’t happen. Now, most of those were five to four; one was a six-to-three decision. So there were justices who wanted to do some pretty terrible things. But the good news is that there were a lot of crises that were averted this term, and then, of course, we had the marriage equality holding, which is a huge victory.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Ian, in terms of—there are some analyses that have said that the surprising outcome of the decisions in this term are resulting from divisions that have occurred among the conservatives, while the liberal justices have stayed pretty much united. What’s your assessment of that?

IAN MILLHISER: Yeah, no, I’m one of the analysts who has said that. I mean, what’s interesting about this court is that the four liberal justices, even though they’re in the minority, have largely stuck together. The conservatives, you know, there’s real disagreement about how far they want to take their conservatism and of their general approach to the law. You know, Roberts, Chief Justice Roberts, is a Reaganite conservatism. He wants to do a lot of very conservative things on race. He wants to do a lot of very conservative things on campaign finance. But he doesn’t embrace the kind of radicalism that you’ve seen take over the conservative movement in the United States since President Obama got elected. You know, he doesn’t believe that the court should be used to dismantle the whole regulatory and welfare state. You know, Justice Thomas is at the other extreme, where Thomas has said he would go back to the world where child labor laws are struck down. So, what I think a lot of the reason why this case didn’t go as well for conservatives as they had hoped is they really pushed the envelope this year. They acted like they had five Justice Thomases on the court, or maybe five Justice Alitos, who’s also another very conservative justice. And what happened is, Roberts and Kennedy said, "Wait a second. Like, a lot of these things that you’re asking for, that’s a bridge too far."

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, we just interviewed a couple who were plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage case, and they are naming their daughter "Kennedy." Now, but I want to go to the issue of the death penalty, which was so critical this week, the Supreme Court rejecting the challenge to use a controversial sedative in executions. The three Oklahoma prisoners had sought a ban on the sedative, which has been tied to several botched or prolonged lethal injections, the five-to-four majority rejecting the prisoners’ claim the drug violates a ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Last April, Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett died of a massive heart attack when his lethal injection with an untested cocktail of lethal drugs was botched. After struggling violently on the gurney, doctors halted the killing 13 minutes in, when discovering Lockett was still conscious and trying to speak. About 30 minutes later, Lockett died of a heart attack when the drugs spread through his body. This is Ziva Branstetter of Tulsa World, one of the 12 media witnesses, describing what she saw.

ZIVA BRANSTETTER: So what happened is, at 6:23, the execution began. The inmate had no last words. About 10 minutes later, they pronounced him unconscious. There was no reaction for about three minutes. And then, at about—about, you know, I would say three minutes after that, he began a very violent reaction. He began writhing, lifting his shoulders up off the gurney and his head up off the gurney. He was clenching his jaw, exhaling. He was mumbling phrases that none of us could really hear. The only audible word we could hear was him saying "man." And he appeared to be in pain, but we couldn’t understand what he was saying. This lasted for about three minutes. The physician in the execution chamber went over, lifted up the sheet, looked at his right arm. The warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, who was also in the execution chamber, said that they were going to have to temporarily close the blinds. And after that, they never reopened them.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ziva Branstetter of the Tulsa World describing the botched execution of Oklahoma prisoner Clayton Lockett last April. Charles Warner was originally scheduled to die that same night as Lockett, but his execution was postponed until January. Then, when the state carried out his lethal injection, he took 18 minutes to die, twice as long as the average. His final words were, quote, "My body is on fire." Can you talk, Ian Millhiser, about what the court ruled?

IAN MILLHISER: Sure. So, I mean, this case was called Glossip v. Gross, and it’s one of the big disappointments of the term. The court essentially gave superlegal status to the death penalty. You know, the way that the Constitution is supposed to work is that there’s a prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. And so, if the state wants to carry out a punishment—if they want to execute someone, in this case—you look at the method they want to use, determine if it’s cruel or unusual. And if it is, then they can’t do it. And what the court said instead is they said that executing people is of paramount importance. They said that the death penalty was something we’ve said is constitutional, so there must be a way to execute people. And that means that—and there’s various reasons why the state wasn’t able to get other drugs that would have been more reliable. If the only methods that are available to them are drugs that are not reliable and that may lead to the inmate being in excruciating pain, then you know what? That’s what the state gets to use, because, again, the court said that, essentially, executing people is of paramount importance, and in this case it trumps the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ian, I’d like to ask you about some of the surprising decisions, especially when it comes to redistricting and fair housing in the Arizona redistricting case. Could you talk about those, as well?

IAN MILLHISER: Sure. And I mean, these were two—I mean, especially the fair housing case—were two of the more pleasant surprises this term. So, Chief Justice Roberts, one issue where he is extraordinarily conservative is race. You know, he has made it his mission on the court to cut back on civil rights laws. He struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. You know, he’s famous for his naive line that the way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to end discrimination on the basis of race, as if that’s all there is to it.

And there was a case this term that sought to really gut the federal Fair Housing Act that bans race discrimination in housing. The law allows what’s called disparate impact suits, where you can start to prove discrimination if you show that there’s bad outcomes, where a company has a policy that continually leads to people of color getting the shaft. The court—most people thought they were going to get rid of this disparate impact litigation, which would have made it very hard to prove these cases. And Justice Kennedy blinked, so it was a five-to-four decision. The Fair Housing Act still gets to live in the form that it has lived for many years.

In addition to that, as you mentioned, there was this redistricting case, which wasn’t just about redistricting. It was a very broad theory, which, if it had succeeded, could have led to the Supreme Court taking a red pen and randomly crossing out lines in a bunch of states’ election laws. So, that was a five-to-four decision where Justice Kennedy also crossed over to join the liberals. I suspect the reason why he did is because he realized that it would just throw our next election into chaos if states didn’t know what their election law was.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of abortion, Ian Millhiser?

IAN MILLHISER: Sure. So this came up, and I think we shouldn’t overstate what the Supreme Court did here, but it’s good news for the right to choose. So, there is a Texas law that, if it is ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court, is really an existential threat to the right to choose an abortion. This is one of a number of sham health laws where the state enacts a law which, if you look at it just on the surface, it appears to be a health regulation, but really what it is, is it’s an attempt to ban abortion by pretending that you’re regulating health. The Supreme Court, five to four, temporarily allowed that law to go into effect. This probably buys women in Texas who seek an abortion about a year. It’s likely the Supreme Court is going to take this case up and, probably in next June, decide whether or not they’re going to strike down the law. If they uphold the law, then that is terrible news for Roe v. Wade. If they uphold the law, it means that the only limit on states’ ability to restrict abortion will probably be the creativity of lawmakers to find a way to dress a wolf up in sheep’s clothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Union fees?

IAN MILLHISER: And that’s another huge case they’re deciding next term. So, the issue here is that if you are a union, you have to bargain on behalf of everyone in the bargaining unit. So everyone in the shop, regardless of whether they join the union or not, they get the higher wages you bargain for, they get the increased benefits you bargain for. And in many cases, the nonmembers also have to reimburse the union for the cost of their share of the bargaining. So no one gets to be a free rider. No one gets something for nothing. This is a case about whether non-union members in public sector unions can get something for nothing, whether they can get all the benefits, get all the higher wages, and yet not have to pay their share of the bargaining cost. If the Supreme Court says that they don’t have to pay their fair share, which I think is likely, it’s going to be a huge blow for public sector unions, because there’s a lot of workers who are going to say, "Well, why am I going to pay to join the union when I get all the benefits of being a member for nothing?"

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the subtitle of your book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. Why that subtitle, and what’s the broad strokes of your analysis on the court’s historical record?

IAN MILLHISER: Sure. I mean, the court has a dark history. I mean, this is the court that upheld segregation. It’s a court that struck down child labor laws. It’s a court that struck down the minimum wage. It’s a court that said a woman could be sterilized against her will. The modern Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Roberts, gave us Citizens United. They gutted the Voting Rights Act. You know, if you go back a few years, we get Bush v. Gore. So, you know, we had a decent term, but this was a really anomalous term, not just in terms of the Roberts court’s history, but in terms of the Supreme Court’s entire history. You know, for almost all of the Supreme Court’s history, it has been terrible to workers, terrible to women, terrible to racial minorities. And I worry that, you know, depending on what happens in the next few presidential elections, it could go back to the worst form that it was in many years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, affirmative action next term?

IAN MILLHISER: Yeah, and this is a case that they’ve heard now twice. This is a challenge to the University of Texas’s affirmative action program. It came up before the court a few years ago, and the court basically gave the program a stay of execution. They sort of upheld the program. They said that they weren’t going to strike it down yet, but they were going to send it down to the most conservative court of appeals in the country to look at it again. That court of appeals surprised everyone by upholding the program, and now it’s back in front of the Supreme Court. You know, I mean, they surprised us on the fair housing case, so I’m not going to write affirmative action off entirely, but it’s going to be a tough road for affirmative action to survive the second trip to the Supreme Court.

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, author of the book, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Governor Christie makes 14. We’ll talk about the newest entrance into the Republican presidential race. Stay with us.

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Rep. Nydia Velázquez: Freedom for Oscar López Rivera Unites Puerto Ricans Across Political Lines

Thousands of people gathered in New York City last month for a march calling on President Obama to release a longtime Puerto Rican independence activist from prison. Oscar López Rivera was convicted in 1981 on federal charges, including seditious conspiracy - conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was also accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. In 1999, President Bill Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. 2015 marks López's 34th year behind bars. He is scheduled for release in 2027. We discuss López's case with Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, Democrat for New York and the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Congresswoman Velázquez, I’d like to ask you also about another issue that you’ve been involved with, which is the issue of Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican prisoner who’s been in jail now for decades on sedition charges. And you joined thousands of supporters earlier this month for a march calling on President Obama to release Oscar López Rivera from prison. He was convicted in 1981 on federal charges of seditious conspiracy and conspiring to oppose U.S. authority over Puerto Rico by force. He was also accused of being a member of the FALN, the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which claimed responsibility for more than a hundred bombings to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico. In 1999, President Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of the FALN, but López refused to accept the deal because it did not include two fellow activists who have since been released. In a rare video from prison, Oscar López Rivera said the charges against him were strictly political.

OSCAR LÓPEZ RIVERA: I think the fact that I was charged with seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States speaks for itself. But the charge in reference to Puerto Ricans has always been used for political purposes. It goes back to 1936. The first time that a group of Puerto Ricans was put in prison was by using the seditious conspiracy charge. And this is—has always been a strictly political charge used against Puerto Ricans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Oscar López Rivera speaking from prison. Could you talk about the importance of this case, both on the island and Puerto Ricans here in the U.S.?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Well, as you know, because of the unique political situation between Puerto Rico and the United States, the Puerto Rican family is divided in Puerto Rico along party lines regarding, you know, statehood, commonwealth and independence. And so, this is the one issue that has united the Puerto Rican community, both in the island of Puerto Rico and in the mainland. Every political party, every sector, every faction in Puerto Rico has rallied together to ask President Obama to do the right thing, in the name of reconciliation, to pardon and to release Oscar López. And given the difficult situation that Puerto Rico is going through, it will be a great, great action by this president to, once and for all, send the son of Puerto Rico home.

AMY GOODMAN: He could have taken the deal earlier under Clinton and been out, but he stood up for two other prisoners who remained in jail—and they’re out.

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: It shows the humanity of Oscar López. You know, he decided to stay because he wanted for all of them to be released from prison. So, there’s no reason, there’s no valid excuse, to keep this man in jail anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to President Obama about it?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Yes. The three members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent—Luis Gutiérrez from Chicago, myself and Congressman Serrano—during the Christmas ball, or the holiday ball, we approached, the three of us, President Obama. What he said at that point is, "Well, let me deal with the immigration issue," when right before that he had an issued an executive order. So, it is time for the president to act. This is something—you know, this is about justice. This is about humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the last minute we have, your assessment of President Obama on immigration?

REP. NYDIA VELÁZQUEZ: Well, given the fact that we have to get 60 votes in the Senate, he has done everything he can, and we need to, you know, get a compromise and bring the Republicans to the table. It’s an uphill battle. You know, you’re going to have at least five or seven conservative Democrats in the Senate that will not support it, because of their own self-preservation, so we need to get support from the Republicans. And they need to understand that if they don’t address the issue of immigration now, they’re going to be relegated as a minority party in this country. The growing Hispanic population and the growing influence, political influence, of the Hispanic community cannot be denied.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Nydia Velázquez, we thank you so much for being with us, a Democrat from New York, has served in the House of Representatives since 1993, the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to Congress, former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And we will also link to Juan’s column in the Daily News headlined "Puerto Rico—like Greece—will default on its debts, as the U.S. has ignored the island’s financial problems for decades."

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Supreme Court decisions issued this week. Then, Governor Christie of New Jersey enters the presidential race. Stay with us.

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Before the Dawn: A Reflection on "Guantánamo Diary"

Each year, throughout the Muslim world, believers participate in the month-long Ramadan fast. Here in Kabul, where I'm a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers, our household awakens at 2:15 a.m. to prepare a simple meal before the fast begins at about 3:00 a.m. I like the easy companionship we feel, seated on the floor, sharing our food. Friday, the day off, is household clean-up day, and it seemed a bit odd, to be sweeping and washing floors in the pre-dawn hours, but we tended to various tasks and then caught a nap before heading over to meet the early bird students at the Street Kids School, a project my hosts are running for child laborers who otherwise couldn't go to school.

I didn't nap - I was fitful and couldn't, my mind filled with images from a memoir, Guantánamo Diary, which I've been reading since arriving here. Mohamedou Ould Slahi's story of being imprisoned in Guantánamo since 2002 rightly disturbs me. In all his years of captivity, he has never been charged with a crime. He has suffered grotesque torture, humiliation and mistreatment, and yet his memoir includes many humane, tender accounts, including remembrances of past Ramadan fasts spent with his family.

Describing his early time in a Jordanian prison, he writes:

"It was Ramadan, and so we got two meals served, one at sunset and the second before the first light. The cook woke me up and served me my early meal. Suhoor is what we call this meal; it marks the beginning of our fasting, which lasts until sunset. At home, it's more than just a meal. The atmosphere matters. My older sister wakes everybody and we sit together eating and sipping the warm tea and enjoying each other's company."

I've never heard Muslims complain about being hungry and thirsty as they await the fast-breaking meal. Nor have I heard people brag about contributions they've made to alleviate the sufferings of others, although I know Islam urges such sharing during Ramadan and aims to build empathy for those afflicted by ongoing hunger and thirst. Mohamedou relied on empathy to help him through some of his most intense anguish and fear.

"I was thinking about all my innocent brothers who were and still are being rendered to strange places and countries," he writes, describing a rendition trip from Senegal to Mauritania, "and I felt solaced and not alone anymore. I felt the spirits of unjustly mistreated people with me. I had heard so many stories about brothers being passed back and forth like a soccer ball just because they have once been in Afghanistan, or Bosnia, or Chechnya. That's screwed up! Thousands of miles away, I felt the warm breath of these other unjustly treated individuals comforting me."

A judge ordered Mohamedou's immediate release in 2010. But the Obama administration appealed the decision, leaving him in a legal limbo.

Mohamedou Slahi. (Photo: International Committee of the Red Cross)Mohamedou Slahi. (Photo: International Committee of the Red Cross)From 1988 to 1991, Mohamedou had studied electrical engineering in Germany. In early 1991, he spent seven weeks, in Afghanistan, learning how to use mortars and light weapons, training which would allow him to join the U.S.-backed insurgency against the Soviet-backed government in Kabul. He was one of Ronald Reagan's celebrated "freedom fighters." In early 1992, when the communist supported Afghan government was near collapse, he again went to Afghanistan and, for three weeks, fought with insurgents to overtake the city of Gardez. Kabul fell shortly thereafter. Mohamedou soon saw that the Mujahedeen insurgents were fighting amongst themselves over power grabs. He didn't want to be part of this fight and so he went back to Germany, then Canada and, eventually, home to Mauritania, where he was arrested and "rendered" to Jordan for questioning, at last arriving in Afghanistan's Bagram Air Force Base on his way to Guantanamo.

I wonder how he is feeling as he observes Ramadan without his family for the 13th consecutive year. I wish he could know that growing numbers of people in the U.S. believe he should be released and want to help atone for the suffering he has endured. Martha Hennessy, who arrived in Kabul with me, several weeks ago, hurried back to the U.S. to face charges for protesting against U.S. legitimation of torture only to learn that both of the Witness Against Torture campaign cases scheduled for trial that week were dismissed. Perhaps public opinion now requires that the U.S. Department of Justice recognize that activists' right and duty to protest the cruel abuses of U.S. torture policies.

Witness Against Torture rally at White House, Jan. 12, 2014. (Photo by the Witness Against Torture campaign)Witness Against Torture rally at White House, Jan. 12, 2014. (Photo by the Witness Against Torture campaign)I wish Mohamedou could visit Afghanistan again, not as part of a training camp for insurgents, not as a terrified, shackled prisoner, but as a guest of the community here. A former U.S. military person dropped by the Street Kids School on Friday morning. The U.S. Air Force trained her to operate weaponized drones over Afghanistan. Now, she comes to Afghanistan annually to plant trees all over the country. She feels deep remorse for the time in her life when she helped attack Afghans.

I don't believe in training anyone to use weapons, but as I read Mohamedou's words about his brothers who went to foreign countries as fighters, I thought of the Pentagon's recent practice runs, over the New Mexico desert, training people to fire the terrifying Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a bunker buster bomb which is 20 feet long, weighs 15 tons and carries about 5,300 pounds of explosives. People in the U.S. should consider how their horror at the violence of U.S. enemies encourages and exonerates the far more crushing violence of their own government, engaged at this moment in conflicts throughout the developing world and armed with weapons capable of extinguishing all human life within minutes.

On this fast day, I remember that many U.S. people worry, like anyone anywhere, about the hardships a new day may bring, in a dangerous and uncertain time that seems to be dawning on every nation and the species as a whole. In the U.S., we carry the added knowledge that most of the world lives much more poorly - in a material sense, at least - than we do, and that were the sun to truly rise upon the U.S., with familiar words of equality and justice truly realized, we would have to share much of our wealth with a suffering world.

We would learn to "live simply so that others might simply live." We would find deep satisfaction in beholding faces like those of my friends gathered for a friendly morning meal before a day of voluntary fasting. Or, like Mohamedou, find warmth in the imagined breath of others sharing involuntary hardships. "Another world is not only possible," writes author and activist Arundhoti Roy, "she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing." U.S. people must know that life in the daylight might also be the start of an unaccustomed fast.

When will day break? I haven't a clock nearby to tell me when, but I can't go back to sleep. When I see the children adapt so readily to the schooling denied them, when I watch my young friends struggle eagerly to take the small steps allowed them, sowing seeds of mutual understanding or planting trees in Kabul, and when I read such grace and dignity in the words of Mohamedou Ould Slahi after years of torture, I have to believe that a dawn will come. For now, it remains a blessing to work alongside people awake together, even in darkness, working to face burdens with kindness, ready to join with kindred spirits near and far, faces aglow with precious glimmers of a coming day.

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Phil Thompson on the Historical Fight for Civil and Economic Rights

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Phil Thompson discusses the historical opposition to slavery as a labor system, and the Black struggle to advance economic and human rights.

News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Obama's Push for Corporate Rule: A Moment of Opportunity

Only a few months ago, President Barack Obama was at loggerheads with Republican members of Congress intent on destroying his administration. With bewildering speed, Obama has since turned against his own political base to form an alliance on trade issues with those same Republican members of Congress.

Obama's most vigorous opposition now comes from progressives, including most of the senators and representatives of his own party, who only a few months ago were his most loyal political base. The few corporatist Democratic members of Congress who still support Obama face the threat of opposition in the 2016 primaries, as Democratic voters mobilize to defend democracy, workers, and the environment.

The goal of Obama's surprise alliance is to finalize a series of international agreements—the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA)—each of which will strengthen corporate rights at the expense of human rights, democracy, economic justice, peace, and the healing of Living Earth.

Leaked text from the secret negotiations that are crafting these agreements reveals that contrary to the claims of proponents, virtually every provision would weaken democracy and undermine the ability of nations, people, and localities to shape their economic destinies. Americans from across the political spectrum have been stunned by the sudden emergence of this unholy alliance. In historical context, however, it may be less unlikely than it seems.

America's bipartisan corporate political alliance

U.S. corporations have been actively advancing an agenda of corporate rule since at least 1971. That was when Lewis Powell, soon to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, submitted his infamous memo "Attack on the American Free Enterprise System" outlining a grand strategy for a corporate takeover of U.S. politics. The resulting actions rapidly played out as a global corporate colonization of the world's people and resources. I spell out this history in detail in When Corporations Rule the World, released this month (June 2015) in a 20th anniversary edition.

As the corporate agenda unfolded, the Republican Party quite proudly branded itself as the party of big business and, more deceptively, of small government. The Democratic Party became seen as the party of big government, corporate restraint, and social programs for those the corporate state excluded.

But there has long been more cooperation between the two parties in support of big business than either is inclined to acknowledge. Democratic President Carter began the deregulation of the airline industry. Democratic President Clinton rolled back welfare programs, expanded corporate rights with the passage of the WTO and NAFTA agreements, and sponsored the Wall Street deregulation that led to the financial collapse of 2008.

Democratic President Obama carried forward the bank bailouts started by Republican President George W. Bush, shielded senior bank managers from prosecution and prison, and made no effort to restrict the continued growth and consolidation of the biggest Wall Street banks. His campaign for fast-track authority to push through a series of new international corporate rights agreements removes all ambiguity as to where his true loyalties lie.

The public, however, is catching on. Awareness of accelerating consolidation of global corporate rule and its implications for peace, equality, and the environment began to emerge in the mid-1990s about the time When Corporations Rule the World first launched. For many people, that book helped them connect what they were experiencing with what they were beginning to suspect.

The issue a bogus debate obscures

For the past several decades, corporate interests have managed to define the political choice in America as between small government Republicans and big government Democrats. It was a clever misdirection. Because most Americans are properly distrustful of big government, they easily buy into the anti-big government argument. The result is to deflect attention away from the sins of big business—and the implications for government size.

The idea that government is essential to the function of complex societies should be immediately evident to any thinking person. It is similarly clear that letting money-seeking transnational corporations rule as best suits their financial interests has disastrous societal consequences.

Entirely missing from the debate is the extent to which it is the growth of corporate size and influence that creates the need for big government to limit corporate excesses, clean up their messes, subsidize their operations, and field the military and police forces required to protect their global and domestic properties. The subsidies include welfare for underpaid employees, unemployment for those whose jobs they outsource abroad or displace with robots and migrant workers, and medical insurance for those they fail to insure.

Without the burden that monopolistic and predatory corporations place on society, government, particularly national government, could be dramatically downsized and public debt largely eliminated.

An abstract debate over the size of government is a pointless distraction—as those who promote it are likely aware. We should instead ask, "Does our federal government represent the interests of the United States and its people and is its size appropriate to that task?" Tragically, the answer for the United State is no.

Although the American people pay the bills, it is a government of, by, and for the United Corporations of Planet Earth and their needs, not a government designed to meet the needs of our people. We could do nicely with a far smaller federal government, if we limited the size of corporations and structured their ownership to assure that they are accountable to the people of the communities in which they do business.

The essential work of our time

The institutional system of corporate rule is essentially a robotic system programmed to use its economic and political power to extract limitless short-term financial gain by whatever means available. It runs on autopilot beyond human control. And it values life only for its market price. It should be evident to any thinking adult not brain damaged by taking too many economics courses that peace, economic justice, and ecological balance will remain beyond humanity's reach for so long as the rights of people are subordinated to the rights of the corporations that populate this system.

Hope for humanity requires a successful transition to democracy grounded in strong place-based communities and local economies. This transition is not just an ideal. It is essential to human viability.

President Obama and the Republican and Democratic corporatists currently allied with him have positioned themselves on the wrong side of history.

Fortunately, there may be a positive side to their betrayal of the human interest. It reminds us that true transformational leadership depends less on the empty promises of political leaders than on social movements of we the people. The public outrage now focused on their betrayal of democracy and the human interest lays the groundwork for what could be a seismic political realignment.

Possibilities of a transpartisan political awakening

Over the past 20 years, public awareness of the nature and consequences of the expansion of corporate rule has grown significantly. This awareness finds particularly visible expression in the public demand to overturn the Citizens United decision of a corporatist Supreme Court that removes most restraints on corporate funding of elections. And, most recently, we are seeing broad-based and increasingly vocal resistance to the current betrayal of America by Obama's trade agenda.

Progressive voters are outraged by the assault on democracy, workers, the environment, and local communities entailed in the Trans Pacific Partnership. Conservative voters are outraged by the attack on national sovereignty.

The resulting political shock is shining a public spotlight on the extent to which corporate influence has corrupted our national government. It is a short step from here to a recognition that the failures and burdens of our national government are not inherent in government. Rather they are inherent in corporate control of government.

Two highly intelligent, articulate national leaders—Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—are articulating a new message with the potential to redefine the debate and win broad support for steps to end corporate rule. Even voters who may disagree with their politics are drawn to their courage and integrity—qualities otherwise far too rare in American politics.

The moment seems ripe for the foundational political realignment proposed by Ralph Nader in his recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State and outlined in a recent YES! Magazine interview with Ralph Nader and Daniel McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative magazine. Fran Korten, publisher of YES! Magazine (and my wife) suggests we are experiencing a new populist moment.

Call it populism versus corporatism or democracy versus corporate rule. Either way it is a far more meaningful political division than the current division between two big-government political parties debating big versus small while both compete aggressively for corporate money and pursue variations on corporatist agendas.

The distinction between democracy and corporate rule is the issue that underlies most other issues. The task before us is to recognize and act on the potential for a momentous political realignment that can make our government truly "of the people."

Opinion Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Justice Alito Defends Lethal Injection Expert Who Did His Research on

Drug presentation(Image: Drug presentation via Shutterstock)

On Monday, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold Oklahoma’s use of midazolam, a controversial sedative that is used as part of its three-drug lethal injection protocol.

The case, first brought by four condemned Oklahoma inmates, came after several high-profile botched executions in 2014 involving midazolam. The petitioners argued that the use of midazolam presented a “substantial, constitutionally unacceptable risk of pain and suffering.”

As ProPublica has previously detailed, the doctor Oklahoma relied on as its expert witness had never given a patient anesthesia and based much of his research on

That witness, Roswell Lee Evans, ended up being a contentious part of the decision. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito repeatedly defended his testimony. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Evans’ credibility. Here are the best bits.

Alito defended Evans’ use of



However, Sotomayor viewed Evans’ use of the consumer website differently. Not only did the website fail to support the most contentious parts of Evans’ testimony – the information from the website may have even supported the petitioners’ arguments:



Alito: Midazolam is not a pain reliever, but inmates will feel no pain.

Alito supported Evans’ testimony that midazolam would keep inmates unconscious and unable to feel pain during an execution, even though Evans himself testified that the drug was not an analgesic:



However, Sotomayor emphasized that just because a supposed expert makes a claim does not mean that the claim is a fact:



Sotomayor compares lethal injection to being burned at the stake

In one of the more colorful passages of her dissent, Sotomayor compares the new court ruling to a former execution technique that would be considered torture today:



In the closing paragraph of the opinion, Alito directly responds to this medieval allusion, asserting that Sotomayor’s words are but “outlandish rhetoric,” further illustrating the supposed deficiencies of the dissenting argument:



Alito: Death-row inmates should have suggested another way to die.

Alito affirms that one of primary reasons the use of midazolam was upheld was because the inmates challenging the drug did not suggest another execution method in its place:



Sotomayor replied in her dissent, asserting that it is the state’s responsibility to find a method that is not unusual or cruel should they want to execute someone:



Breyer challenges lethal injection in its entirety. Scalia calls that “gobbledy-gook.”

Rather than focusing on the minute legal details of majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in a separate dissent, challenges the legality of the death penalty:



In a sneering rebuke, Justice Antonin Scalia ridicules his fellow justice, calling him out by name over 15 times, and concluding:



News Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
JEB! and more ]]> Art Wed, 01 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400