Truthout Stories Sun, 28 Dec 2014 20:48:06 -0500 en-gb "Selma" Portrays the True Martin Luther King Jr: A Radical Despised by the Political Establishment

2014.12.28.Selma.MainA scene from Selma. (Screen grab via MOVIECLIPS Trailers / YouTube)

As Selma opens in a number of cities this week and expands to nationwide release in a couple of weeks, the country is given a chance to assess the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Doing so is particularly relevant right now, in light of boisterous protests against police brutality that have been going on since the summer.

Selma has won nearly unanimous praise from film critics – it is currently perched at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with dozens of reviews in – partly for its unflinching look at King as a true radical who upset not just a fringe of racists in the South, but the entire political establishment. Writing in Time Magazine, nonprofit leader Salamishah Tillet praises the film for reclaiming “Hollywood's sanitized versions” of Dr. King as simply part of a “simple story of American racial progress.”

In the conventional wisdom, King was a beloved figure who worked with national politicians to defeat a fringe group of Southern racists; Selma upends this narrative by showing King facing off not only with Alabama governor George Wallace but also the Democratic president Lyndon Baines Johnson and his FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. King, and all those who stood alongside him in the demonstrations in the South, are shown not as conciliators looking to simply make racial harmony through dialogue, but as both agitators and lawbreakers – in the most righteous ways.

Selma's portrayal has irked some, like Marke Updegrove, the director of the LBJ presidential library. He writes that the film engages in a “mischaracterization” of the King-LBJ relationship, and that “LBJ and MLK were close partners in reform.”

The truth is that MLK's movement created even greater hostility among the political class than the film portrays.

MLK vs. the FBI

One of the film's themes is the conflicts between organized law enforcement and King. In the trailer, King jokes while sitting in jail, “This cell is probably bugged.”

The FBI aggressively monitored King and other civil rights leaders, fearing their radicalism. “We loved the FBI,” joked Andrew Young at an event at the University of Georgia I once attended. “Because we never kept notes and they recorded everything.” Between the years 1963 and 1965, the FBI bugged at least 14 hotel rooms King stayed in, looking for “information concerning King's personal activities” in an attempt to “discredit him.”

Hoover called King the “most notorious liar in the country”; simultaneously, the FBI sent the civil rights leader a letter threatening to expose extramarital affairs – the letter closed with the words, “King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is...You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” This has widely been interpreted as an FBI attempt to inculcate suicidal tendencies in King.

Why did the FBI wage such a campaign against King? Because the political leaders it worked for viewed him as politically polarizing at best and dangerous to the political order at worst.

JFK Worried King Was His “Marx”

John and Robert Kennedy are today viewed as standard bearers of Democrat liberalism, but in King's day their support for civil rights was mixed at best. They belonged to a Democratic Party that valued its Southern power structure, a source of solid votes and organizers. In May 1963 JFK held a meeting on the civil rights movement, and he aired his complaints about King openly, worrying that he looked like a Marxist radical:

I think we ought to have some of these other meetings before we have it in the King group;  otherwise, the meetings will look like they got me to do it. ... The trouble with King is, everybody thinks he’s our boy anyway. So everything he does, everybody says we stuck him in there. So we ought to have him well surrounded. ... I think we ought to have a good many others. King is so hot these days that it looks like Marx coming to the White House, I should have—I’d like to have at least some Southern governors or mayors or  businessmen in first. And my program should have gone up to the Hill first.

Robert Kennedy was Attorney General, and on JFK's orders in 1963 he authorized wiretaps of King's personal residence. The Kennedys and JFK wanted King to sever ties with Stanley Levison, a Jewish attorney who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycotts. To the FBI, Levison was simply a Communist sympathizer, and by extension, King was engaging in borderline-seditious activities by enlisting his help. King's refusal to throw Levison was key to White House's authorization of the wiretaps, part of a larger campaign against leftists that took place in the backdrop of the Cold War.

The cascade of propaganda from the FBI certainly won over JFK's wife, Jackie. In a series of oral interviews recently released, she is recorded as saying, “I just can't see a picture of Martin Luther King without thinking, you know, that man's terrible.”

King Loses Johnson and Entire Political Establishment By Standing For Peace

For years, King cultivated a close relationship with LBJ, knowing he was essential to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. Indeed, the two spent many hours meeting not only in person but frequently talked on the phone. In a phone call shortly after LBJ took power following JFK's assassination, the president assured King of his support for his civil rights causes.

Yet even though LBJ pledged his support for the overall goal, the two often clashed over how quickly change could come about. For example, King wanted the 1964 Democratic convention to recognize only the integrated Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party; Johnson feared doing so would lose Southern votes and opposed the move. Also at the convention, one of those Mississippi activists, Fannie Lou Hamer, spoke passionately about her own mistreatment and the murders of civil rights workers. Johnson didn't want her message to make headlines about the Democratic Party, so he called a press conference to try to divert news attention away from her. Like JFK, LBJ desperately wanted to avoid alienating racist whites whose votes the Democratic Party sought.

If King's anti-racist campaigns in the South did much to alienate the FBI and JFK, it was his eventual turn against the Vietnam War that finally lost him the rest of the political establishment, including not only LBJ but also many within the civil rights movement itself.

In early phone calls with LBJ, King would raise the issue of Vietnam, only to be rebuffed in his warnings about the war. Eventually, MLK grew so impatient with Johnson that he gave a marquee speech at Riverside Church in New York City blasting the war (ironically Levison, whose radicalism brought about King's FBI suspicion, told him not to give the address).

In the speech, King called the U.S. Government the “greatest purveyor of violence on earth,” and quoted a U.S. official who said America was on the “wrong side of a world revolution.” He called for comprehensive peace talks aimed at removing American forces from Vietnam and ending the bombing campaigns. The real target of progressive campaigners, he declared, needed to be three evils: racism, materialism, and militarism.

The response to King from the political class was apoplectic. The New York Times editorial board, run by liberal northerners allied to the Democrats, blasted King for linking the war in Vietnam to the struggle for civil rights and poverty alleviation at home, saying it was “too facile a connection” and that the comparison was doing a “disservice” to both causes; it also accused him of “slander”  for accusing the United States's use of chemical weapons in Vietnam and comparing them to the “new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe.” It concluded, “There are no simple or easy answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country.”

Many of King's fellow civil rights leaders refused to join his anti-war stance. This stance also put MLK on the opposite side of America's labor unions, to whom the war meant good wages and job security. But it was the civil rights movement that provided the most internal fury over King's antiwar turn. In 1965, the head of the NAACP  Roy Wilkins refused to allow a resolution on the Vietnam War to be voted on during the organization's national convention; Whitney Young of the National Urban League told King that “Johnson needs a consensus...if we are not with him on Vietnam, then he is not going to be with us on civil rights.” When the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the youth arm of the civil rights movement, compared the death of a civil rights activist in 1966 to the U.S. violations of international law during the Vietnam War, Wilkins moved to dissociate the NAACP with SNCC – an attempt to win the Johnson administration after it reacted with fury to SNCC endorsing draft resistance.

By the summer of 1967, a third of the staff of King's Southern Christian Leadership Council “had to be laid off because of a lack of funds.” 168 major newspapers denounced King's stance, and Johnson disinvited him from the White House permanently.

This total alienation from the political class did not stop King. He spent the last years of his life devoted to a cause few associate him with: labor activism.

The Poor People's Campaign

In November 1967, King devised what he called the “Poor People's Campaign,” designed to be “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”

It was this campaign that brought him to Tennessee where he was tragically assassinated while campaigning for striking sanitation workers. But his radicalism lived on in the protests of the new SCLC president Ralph David Abernathy and his wife Coretta Scott King. The two set up what they called “Resurrection City,” a series of tents and shacks on the Mall in Washington, D.C. To make the reality of poverty real to the politicians there. It lasted a month before the Department of the Interior forced it to close.

A Renewed Telling Of The King Story?  

While Selma focuses on King's campaign in Alabama and does not tell the tales of resisting the Vietnam War or the Poor People's Campaign, it is an important departure from the traditional narrative about King: that he was an eloquent activist who brought people together in order to overcome an extreme fringe of racists. The movie is honest in its portrayal of King as a radical and his movement as people who very much wanted to upset the status quo and risk alienating the political establishment to force progress. Perhaps the film will renew discussion and debate about the necessary place of radicalism in our politics, radicalism that was so nobly represented by MLK.

Opinion Sun, 28 Dec 2014 11:59:59 -0500
"Employee Engagement" Is No Substitute for a Union at Volkswagen

What should we make of the latest twist at the Chattanooga, Tennessee, Volkswagen plant?

Management announced in November that it will recognize employee organizations with as low as 15 percent membership. Some activists, including in the pages of Labor Notes, have long called for bargaining rights for non-majority, members-only unions.

But hold your applause: there’s no bargaining in VW’s new policy. On closer inspection, it looks more like something anti-union forces have been angling to try for years. And in fact, it’s suspiciously similar to what the state’s Republican-dominated legislature in 2011 imposed on Tennessee teachers.

"Engagement Only"

VW’s new “engagement policy” sets up a process for unions to demonstrate 15, 30, or 45 percent membership in the plant. Once they do, they can hold member meetings on-premises and meet regularly with management.

The perks vary by level: with 15 percent your group can meet with Human Resources once a month. With 30 percent you can meet with a plant executive quarterly, bring outside representatives to monthly in-plant meetings, and have your own bulletin board.

With 45 percent you can meet biweekly with HR and monthly with the plant’s executive committee, and hold meetings on-site as often as you reasonably need to.

It’s not clear how these conversations with management will work, or what topics they’ll cover. But one point on which the policy is firm: this won’t be collective bargaining.

“They never give you a percent where you can actually be sole bargainer. It’s not laid out,” said Colby Curry, who works in assembly, on the door line. “Monthly meetings, that’s a step in the right direction—don’t get me wrong.

“But I’m a union supporter, so I’m looking to be sole bargainer… You can’t actually bargain on behalf of workers with 45 percent.”

An independent auditor has confirmed United Auto Workers Local 42 meets the 45 percent threshold. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Gary Casteel says the union is still seeking bargaining rights.

After falling short in a February election, in July the UAW formed Local 42 and started signing up members anyway. Now it says it has a majority. If the company doesn’t recognize the union on that basis, presumably it could pursue another election.

Before the election, the plan UAW was pursuing—with VW’s tacit support—was first to unionize, then to bargain a contract to include a works council, the German system of labor-management cooperation already used in every other big VW plant around the globe.

Under U.S. labor law, the boss can’t just establish a works council. It has to be bargained with a union—otherwise you risk an employer-dominated system where workers can’t actually speak their minds, for fear of retaliation.

It’s not clear whether VW is hoping this quasi-recognition of a union will be enough to allow it to set up the works council.

Pro-employer lobbyists and right-wing politicians have long flirted with legalizing versions of “employee involvement” programs for non-union workplaces. In 1995 they got Congress to pass the TEAM Act, which would have legalized such committees, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, an outspoken Republican opponent of the union drive, said in July he was considering legislation to try again to legalize works councils without unions.

Employers do get away with non-union committees that steer clear of wages and benefits, focusing on softer issues like “quality” and how to speed up production. In fact, that’s one of the hallmarks of the “lean production” approach that Volkswagen is now touting, as it nears its goal of becoming the world’s biggest automaker.

Teacher Policy Similar

When Tennessee Republicans won a super-majority in the state legislature in 2011, they lost no time targeting teachers—the biggest union in the state, and the only public employees who had collective bargaining rights.

As in other states, legislators took those rights away. But in Tennessee they did something unusual. “They didn’t just outlaw collective bargaining, they replaced it with something new,” said Chris Brooks, an organizer for the Tennessee Education Association.

Instead of negotiations, teachers would now participate in something called “collaborative conferencing.” The subjects were limited to certain narrow topics—salary and working conditions, but not seniority, evaluations, or merit pay—and the results would be memorandums of understanding, not enforceable agreements.

The most unusual part: Instead of one union exclusively representing teachers, the workers’ side of the table can be a panel of seven people, perhaps representing different organizations. Workers vote among the organizations every three years. For every 15 percent of votes a group gets, it sends one person to conferencing.

Who else might workers vote for, besides TEA? “Another organization had been created, working hand-in-glove with [groups like the National Right to Work Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council] and the Republican caucus,” Brooks says: “the Professional Educators of Tennessee.”

PET presents itself as a provider of services, without the messy politics people might associate with unions. “They drag it down into a culture war,” Brooks said. “It devolves the conversation to partisan electoral politics, the choice for a Democrat or a Republican union.”

PET doesn’t actually provide a good service, of course. Brooks says the group has little staff presence in the schools. “They’re basically lobbyists who go fight for vouchers, then hide it from their base.” Nonetheless, he said, it has hurt TEA.

So the similar 15 percent thresholds in the VW policy caught his eye. He worries anti-union crusaders in other states and nationally will follow a similar approach:

“The next step after Right to Work? I think this is it. Getting culture warriors in the workplace to give money to organizations that will actually undermine their economic interests on the job.”

Anti-Union Union

In the VW plant, a rival anti-union “union” called the American Council of Employees—a rebranded version of the group that campaigned for a “no” vote on the union—says it’s gathering signatures to seek recognition.

During the union election campaign, the vote-no group raised $100,000 from business and anti-union forces, its lawyer told Reuters. The same lawyer now speaks for ACE.

“There’s no proof of where their current funding is coming from, per se,” said Byron Spencer, another pro-union worker on the door line at the VW plant. “But they’ve rented a really nice piece of real estate near the plant, an old mansion that’s now being used as commercial office space. It’s been on the market for like $1 million.”

Meanwhile, Local 42 has elected a plant president, is holding meetings, and is hashing out the composition of its temporary bargaining committee—assuming it will get there eventually. Curry and Spencer say the pro-union majority is holding steady.

Plenty to Bargain

There are plenty of issues for a union to address in the plant. One widespread complaint, Curry said, is shifts that rotate, so you’re working days one week, nights the next. It’s hard to get enough sleep.

“Running like that for long, it wears you down throughout the week,” he said. “Luckily I’m young, I can deal with it, but that’s one of my main concerns. I don’t care if I’m working first shift or third shift as long as it’s consistent.”

Another hot topic, Spencer says: “The scuttlebutt around the plant is that they’re going to contract out the logistics jobs.” He estimates there are 300-400 of these jobs, delivering parts to the line. The ones already contracted out pay only about $11 an hour—compared to $15-20 for directly-employed workers. Contracting out the rest would be “a horrific thing,” he said.

But Spencer says the union’s focus for now is on “getting recognized and dealing with issues through collective bargaining. There are no real plans for any direct action.”


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News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 11:48:24 -0500
Feds Bar Companies' Long-Distance Lawsuits Against Soldiers

USA Discounters at Security Square Mall, July 2012. The company has since changed its name to USA Living.USA Discounters at Security Square Mall, July 2012. The company has since changed its name to USA Living. (Photo: Mike Kalasnik)

In the latest move against companies targeting military customers, federal regulators prohibit two Virginia-based lenders from suing out-of-state debtors in Virginia courts.

Federal regulators reached a settlement last week with the owners of two high-priced lenders over what they alleged were illegal debt collection practices against service members. The Virginia-based companies were featured in a ProPublica story last summer.

The action by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which enforces federal consumer laws, is the latest move by regulators and the Department of Defense to curb predatory practices by companies that target members of the armed forces around the country.

In July, ProPublica published an investigation of USA Discounters, a retailer with stores outside each of the country’s 11 largest military bases. The story, which was also published in the Washington Post, detailed how the company courted service members by guaranteeing them credit on marked-up appliances and electronics. If they fell behind on their payments, USA Discounters often sued them, by the thousands, in Virginia, regardless of where they had made their purchases. After winning judgments, the company then frequently seized funds from debtors’ pay or bank accounts.

The story identified two other companies, Freedom Furniture and Electronics and Military Credit Services, which employed similar tactics. These companies, owned by a pair of brothers, settled with regulators last week. As part of the agreement, they are barred from using Virginia courts to sue out-of-state customers. The companies also agreed to credit or repay customers $2.5 million and pay a penalty of $100,000.

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman emphasized that the settlement did not include an admission that the companies had violated the law. The statement said the firms “intend to continue to set the standard for excellence in all we do.  We are honored to meet the needs of those who serve.”

ProPublica’s article focused on USA Discounters, which has seized the pay of more active-duty military than any company in the country by a wide margin, according to Defense Department payroll data. But the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has not brought similar charges against USA Discounters (though it did reach a settlement earlier this year over an unrelated practice). A CFPB spokesman declined to discuss whether such charges are pending or its investigative strategies.

But the agency is under pressure to act. After the story ran, a group of U.S. senators sent letters to federal regulators urging them to crack down and forbid the practices.

And this fall USA Discounters announced it had changed its name to USA Living and modified its collection tactics. It still plans to file lawsuits in Virginia against out-of-state borrowers, but now will notify them that they can elect to be sued closer to home if they default on their payments.

USA Living has also paid a Washington lobbying firm at least $100,000 to lobby Congress over “issues regarding CFPB enforcement,” according to disclosures.

A USA Living spokeswoman, in an emailed statement, said the CFPB’s settlement with Freedom and Military Credit Services had “absolutely nothing to do” with USA Living. The company did not respond to questions about whether it had had discussions with the CFPB about a possible settlement, nor did it respond to a question about the activities of its lobbyists.

A separate action by the Defense Department announced last month will likely have a major effect on military-focused retailers like Freedom, USA Living, and others. As ProPublica reported, service members taking out a loan from USA Discounters almost always voluntarily set up payments through the military’s allotment system. Part of the service member’s paycheck automatically went to the company every month.

The allotment system has long been abused, consumer advocates say, and often provided lenders an easy way to trap service members in unaffordable loans. In one letter to the Defense Department after ProPublica’s story, a group of senators urged the Department to accelerate an already ongoing review of the system.

Last month, the Department announced that, starting Jan. 1, 2015, service members could no longer use allotments to purchase personal property. The change “will eliminate that aspect of the allotment system most prone to abuse by unscrupulous lenders that prey on our service members,” said the Defense Department in a press release. Now, military customers will repay loans just like any other customer would.

USA Living’s spokeswoman argued the change will not have a major impact on the company because it never required the use of allotments. In an email, the spokeswoman for Freedom and Military Credit said allotments were “just one option” for payment, although CFPB noted many of its customers paid via allotment.

The USA Discounters story was part of ProPublica’s broader investigation this year on the use of wage and bank garnishments — by debt collectors, creditors, even hospitals — to collect debts.

News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 10:55:35 -0500
Top 10 Progressive Policies We'd Love to See Enacted in 2015 (but Probably Won't Be)

Fingers crossed(Image: Fingers crossed via Shutterstock)Single payer healthcare? The end of the Hyde Amendment? With a nation still struggling to regain its footing after a long recession, and a new generation saddled with debt and lacking job opportunities, 2015 would be an amazing time to pass some real legislation that could decrease the gap between the rich and poor and the have and have-nots. Sadly, with a new, even more conservative Congress to be sworn in this January, the odds of that happening are pretty slim. Still, if we had a wish list to consider, these are the top 10 progressive policies we’d love to see happen in 2015 (although they probably don’t have a shot).

10) Campaign reform. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your vote count as much as big business and other special interest groups? Thanks to Citizens United, that is never going to happen. SuperPacs can flood the airwaves just before Election Day, and major donors can bundle huge fortunes into shadow campaigns to attack candidates. What could make this better? A limit on outside funds, a ban on “issue” based c4 spending and even a rule on how much money each campaign can spend per election cycle, rather than rules on how much a person can donate to a candidate like we currently have.

9) Expanded early childhood eduction. Can we please, please invest in early childhood education? Allowing parents to send children to all day programs frees them up to return to work, greatly reduces monthly expenses, and puts early childhood educators to work with new jobs. If we can’t actually have free all day preschool, at the very least it would help everyone to bring back state and federal subsidies for daycare for low-income families. Sadly, even that is probably too much to hope for from a GOP-dominated Congress.

8) Extended unemployment insurance. Sure, the jobless rate is far lower than it has been in the last decade, but that doesn’t actually mean a good job market. The good jobs — those that pay a decent wage and have benefits — are still few and far between. But unemployment payments aren’t recognizing that fact and end far earlier than they did during the recession itself, forcing workers to scramble for any job they can get, or being unable to support their families. Bringing back extended unemployment payments could make the difference for those who are trying to get a real job, not just a job.

7) Ending Hyde. Birth control is more accessible than ever if you have insurance, but too many women don’t, and can’t afford it. If you can’t afford birth control, affording a child is impossible, too, but so is obtaining an abortion. The Hyde amendment, which forbids Medicaid from paying for abortions in the majority of states in the country, makes poor women decide between paying the rent for a month and ending a pregnancy. Removing the amendment from the yearly appropriations bill is a measure of fairness and equality for women regardless of their economic status. Too bad it will never happen in this Congress.

6) Student loan reform. Student loan payments are crippling a new generation of workers, who are coming out of college with over $20,000 a piece in debt. Unlike any other type of debt, however, it can’t be removed in bankruptcy. At the very least, student loans should be discharged just like any other debt when a person declares bankruptcy. A more ambitious Congress could set a period in which a person has to pay and then the debt is gone, such as the plans to only force people to pay for 10 years and then forgive the remainder of the debt. None of this will happen in a Congress that is solidly in the pocket of big banks, though.

5) Housing reform. Speaking of paying debt over and over again, banks continue to cash in on those homeowners who are upside down on their homes. The housing market may have recovered, but many who bought their first homes at the top of the market are either still upside down or have no equity nearly a decade later, making it impossible for them to ever move. Homeowners who kept up with their payments while the banks got a big bail out should receive a payback of their own, such as a check for a portion of the difference between what their homes are worth now and what they bought them for, to reward them for following through on their commitments to their loans. After all, they were far more responsible than the banks were.

4) Living wages. Seeing the increases in minimum wage rates in states across the country is heartening, but a federal living wage increase would spurn everyone to finally make that move. Being paid fairly, and getting an hourly wage that a person can live on, shouldn’t be dependent on which state that person resides in. Throwing in five days of paid leave would be fantastic, too, but we aren’t holding our breath on either policy passing.

3) Single-payer medical insurance. Let’s be frank, the Affordable Care Act isn’t working as well as it should. Too many states refused Medicaid expansion in the hopes that they could make the policy fail. Out of pocket expenses are still high. Deductibles are still crippling for lower income earners, large families and anyone without a lot of extra cash on hand. Can we finally talk rationally about single payer healthcare? No, probably not in this Congress. Even worse, expanding Medicaid in the hold out states is probably not happening next cycle.

2) Increased inheritance tax. Are the above policy reforms expensive? Probably, although many would spur greater economic growth which would pay back in the end. There is one very simple way to pay for them all, though, and that would be by increasing the estate tax, which is currently set at a maximum of 40 percent for any estate worth more than $5 million. As families continue to create a legacy of massive wealth that they pass from generation to generation, money is literally being hoarded by the richest of families who actively do little to earn it. Create a new, top level on the estate tax that says any estate over $50 million is subject to a 75 percent tax, and we would have literal billions to invest in programs that benefit all Americans, not just the wealthiest.

1) Reformed voting rules. So why is voting at number 1? Because all of these progressive policies would be possible if we weren’t gerrymandering districts and creating more hurdles at the polls to ensure that less people — especially those who tend to vote for progressive politicians — are able to cast a vote. Voting rights are the most important right of Americans, since without them, they cannot have a voice in their own government. Yet since 2010, conservative lawmakers have made a concerted effort to ensure less, not more, people get to participate in that democratic right. Get back everyone’s voting rights, and everything else on the list will soon follow.

Opinion Sun, 28 Dec 2014 10:48:36 -0500
Despite Enduring a Lifetime of Violence, Kelly Savage Emerges as an In-Prison Activist

Kelly Savage. Kelly Savage. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Nineteen years ago, in 1995, Kelly Savage was arrested and jailed after her abusive husband killed her 3-year-old son. Three years later, she was convicted of torture and first-degree murder, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole and sent to Valley State Prison for Women, then one of California’s three women’s prisons.

I wrote about Kelly’s case and the efforts to free her for Truthout. After enduring a lifetime of violence and abuse and then facing the rest of her life behind prison walls, it would be easy for a person to become bitter, disillusioned and self-destructive. But instead, as I spoke with Kelly, outside advocates and the attorneys helping her file her writ of habeas corpus, I found that, rather than sinking into despair, Kelly has instead become an in-prison activist.

Colby Lenz is a volunteer organizer with the advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners, or CCWP, which visits people in the state’s women’s prisons. Shortly after joining the coalition in 2003, Lenz was connected with Kelly, who had requested a legal visit. “Usually, people request a visit,” Lenz explained. But if the coalition does not have enough outside volunteers to pair up with people inside prison, the requester is placed on a waiting list. “When people get paroled or new legal assistants join CCWP’s visiting team, we then pull them out,” said Lenz.

Lenz remembers that, being new to prison visiting, she found some of the discussion confusing. “People were talking 602 this, 602 that, and I was like, ‘What?'” Seeing her new visitor’s confusion, Kelly took her aside to explain that a 602 is an official complaint that a person files within the prison. “She was very diligent and patient about teaching me,” Lenz recalled.

Over the years, Kelly has alerted Lenz and other coalition members about pressing needs. In 2011 and early 2012, shortly before Valley State Prison was converted to a men’s prison, Kelly and many others were transferred to the Central California Women’s Facility across the street. During a subsequent visit, Kelly gave coalition members a list of people who had been taken off their medications after being transferred. Coalition members called the prison on behalf of these specific people and, in some instances, were able to have their medications reinstated.

“Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t make a difference,” Lenz said. “But since so few women have people calling in on their behalf, if the prison has a sense that somebody [outside] is watching, they’re more likely to put them back on their meds.”

At other times, Kelly has worked to build community and reach out to people who might be even more isolated within the prison. She volunteers at the prison’s Comfort Care program, visiting and assisting people who are incapacitated and thus restricted to the prison’s Skilled Nursing Facility, which medical experts have found to have both insufficient beds and an insufficient number of medical staff to provide regular coverage. This past year, she also worked to ensure that no one felt abandoned or isolated on Mother’s Day, making and distributing Mother’s Day cards to every incarcerated person, regardless of whether they were mothers. She made approximately 4,500 cards.

These efforts may not be seen as activism by people on the outside looking for instances of prison resistance and organizing, but it’s important to note that they break through the isolation that prisons impose upon people locked inside. As Lenz pointed out, not many women have people on the outside calling in and advocating on their behalf. People in women’s prisons are less likely to receive sustained support from family members and friends than people in men’s prisons. While these actions may not challenge the overall prison system, or even certain aspects of them, they also serve to remind the people locked inside that they are not forgotten.

Kelly has also become an activist around domestic violence, often using her own horrific experiences to help others who have been in similar situations understand and heal from their histories of domestic violence and abuse. After being transferred to Central California Women’s Facility, Kelly began training to become a peer educator around abuse and domestic violence. The course, Beyond Violence, required her to undergo nearly 400 hours of workshops and classes. Now, Kelly is training others to become peer educators. And that education is very necessary, especially in a women’s prison.

A study of one California women’s prison found that 93 percent of women incarcerated for killing their partners had been abused by them. Two-thirds of those women reported that, at the time, they were protecting themselves or their children. However, no one knows just how many abuse survivors are in prison, whether or not they acted in self-defense. But informal studies indicate that the number is fairly high. Kelly recalled being in a class with 49 women. In that class, 45 had experienced childhood abuse. Of the remaining four, only one said that she had never experienced abuse as an adult.

Kelly’s efforts — and the Beyond Violence course — are not the first efforts to address domestic violence inside California’s prisons. In 1989, 26-year-old Brenda Clubine, incarcerated at the California Institution for Women (another of the state’s women’s prisons) formed Convicted Women Against Abuse. Originally formed as a support group for abuse survivors incarcerated for defending themselves, they attempted to advocate for clemency in the early 1990s. More than 30 women, many of whom had been tried and sentenced before Battered Women’s Syndrome became an available defense, sent letters to then-Gov. Pete Wilson asking him to consider commuting their sentences. Wilson ultimately granted clemency to three, denied it to seven and made no decision on the other 24 letters.

While the lack of response was a disappointment, the women continued to support each other and advocate to change the way abuse survivors were treated by the legal system. In 2002, their efforts ensued in a Senate hearing that was held inside the prison itself. Eight incarcerated survivors testified, resulting in the passing of section 1473.5 of California’s penal code, which allows abuse survivors to file for a writ of habeas corpus challenging their conviction if they were sentenced before 1992 (when Battered Women’s Syndrome became legally admissible). In 2008, Brenda Clubine became the 20th abuse survivor released under section 1473.5. She continues to advocate on behalf of her sisters inside, holding trainings for attorneys to help incarcerated survivors file these writs.

Section 1473.5 has been amended and expanded several times since its passage and is now not limited to those convicted prior to 1992. In 2005, Kelly began the process of filing her own writ of habeas corpus and was connected with Christina Harper and George Cumming with the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who helped her write and file the writ. However, California Attorney General Kamala Harris has filed opposition to Kelly’s efforts to secure a new trial, one which would include expert testimony on abuse and its effects. In response, advocates have launched a petition, which has garnered nearly 8,500 signatures, asking Harris to drop her opposition.

I spoke with Kelly several times, each call lasting 15 minutes and punctuated by a robot reminding us that Kelly was calling from a prison. She started our last conversation by reminding me that she is not the only abuse survivor in prison. “The biggest thing is the number of people here who could be affected by it [1473.5],” she said. But the number of attorneys is dwarfed by the number of survivors who need help filing writs. “It’s difficult to see and know that I’m so blessed. My lawyers have been trying everything possible, but the other ladies have no one,” she noted. “Going through this process has given me an education and helped me know that people care and that people want to help.”

News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 10:42:42 -0500
Truthout Interviews Joe Macaré on Keeping the Independence in Independent Journalism and Truthout

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Truthout(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)Ted Asregadoo speaks to Truthout publisher Joe Macaré about how Truthout is able to maintain its journalistic independence.

Truthout is an independent nonprofit news and opinion site that maintains its independence through readers' donations; donors who give what they can because they believe in Truthout's mission and trust the news and opinion pieces that are published on the site. As the publisher of Truthout, Joe Macaré works every day to keep the organization running so the kind content that Truthout is known for can continue. But what does it take to make sure that Truthout remains independent from corporate sponsorship and advertisements? In this Truthout Interviews, viewers get a peek behind the scenes to understand not only the kind of stellar reporting Truthout staff and contributing writers author for the site, but also how Truthout readers are integral to its success and growth through donations and sharing Truthout content with their social networks. 

News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 09:52:25 -0500
In Black Lives Matter Protest, Corporate Rights Trump Free Speech

Black Lives Matter Protest at the Mall of America, December 20. Black Lives Matter Protest at the Mall of America, December 20. (Photo: Nicholas Upton)

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Minnesotans protesting police violence and institutional racism could face "staggering" fees and criminal charges for a protest at Mall of America, with the City of Bloomington announcing plans to force organizers to pay for the mall's lost revenue during the exercise of their free speech rights, highlighting important questions about free speech in an era of privatized public spaces.

"Youth leaders of color [are] under attack," Black Lives Matter-Minnesota said in a statement. "It’s clear that the Bloomington City government, at the behest of one of the largest centers of commerce in the country, hopes to set a precedent that will stifle dissent and instill fear into young people of color and allies who refuse to watch their brothers and sisters get gunned down in the streets with no consequences."

Around 3,000 people flooded the mall on Saturday, December 20, to sing carols and chants following police killings of unarmed African-American men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Dontre Hamilton. The protests were peaceful, and some mall workers stepped outside of their businesses and raised their hands in support. Police closed around 80 stores during the two-and-a-half hour protests, and locked down several mall entrances. 

Days after the action, Bloomington City Attorney Sandra Johnson announced that she will not only seek criminal trespass and unlawful assembly charges against the protesters, but will also seek to have them pay for the mall's lost revenue and overtime for police officers--a cost that she says will be "staggering."

Can the Mall of America prohibit the exercise of free speech and assembly on its premises? And can it pick-and-choose who it allows to assemble? Last year, for example, the Mall allowed around 7,000 people to gather in the same rotunda to honor a young white man who died of cancer.

The First Amendment protects against government suppression of speech, but not private responses to the exercise of free speech and expression. And the Mall of America is considered private property, despite receiving hundreds of millions in public subsidies since it was built, including an additional $250 million approved last year. 

For decades, courts have struggled with how to protect free speech in public forums that have grown increasingly privatized. 

Mall "Born of a Union with Government," but Not a Public Space 

In many communities, town squares and downtown business districts have largely been replaced by privately-owned shopping malls, particularly in suburban areas. In Bloomington, Minnesota, for example, there is no public space that offers the same level of visibility as a protest at the Mall of America--which is why protesters chose the location on December 20.  

Even traditional public spaces like parks are increasingly owned by private entities, most famously in New York's Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street was born, and where Occupiers faced eviction after the park's owners changed the rules

Mall of America's status as a public space under the Minnesota state constitution was challenged in the 1990s by anti-fur activists who wanted to protest outside Macy's. A Minnesota trial court initially found that, thanks to the Mall's substantial public subsidies, the Mall of America was "born of a union with government" and could only impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on protest.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, though, reversed the lower court in 1998 and declared that the state constitution's protection of free speech "does not apply to a privately owned shopping center such as the Mall of America, although developed in part with public financing."

Suburban Malls as Public Spaces? 

Initially, however, the U.S. Supreme Court viewed privately-owned suburban shopping malls through the same lens as the public town squares they were replacing. 

In 1968, in an opinion authored by Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Court held that suburban shopping malls were serving the same public function as a town square, and therefore should be subject to similar constitutional constraints.

"The shopping center premises are open to the public to the same extent that as the commercial center of a normal town," Marshall wrote in the case, which involved the Logan Valley Mall in Pennsylvania. "So far as can be determined, the main distinction in practice between use by the public of the Logan Valley Mall and of any other business district ... would be that those members of the general public who sought to use the mall premises in a manner contrary to the wishes of the [owners] could be prevented from so doing."

Subsequent decisions, however, chipped away at that "public function" doctrine, most notably in a 1972 decision authored by Justice Louis Powell.

Powell, a former corporate lawyer who had authored the Powell Memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce the previous year, declared in the Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner decision that a mall does not "lose its private character merely because the public is generally invited to use it for designated purposes." 

A new opening for states to protect free speech in shopping malls emerged in the 1980 Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robbins decision. In that case, the Court opened the door to states finding that their own constitutions protect free speech in shopping malls or other privately-owned public spaces. The California constitution's broader free speech protections, for example, allow for protests and leafletting in that state's malls. 

Minnesota's Supreme Court, though, came to a different outcome in that 1998 case involving the fur protesters. The state constitution, the justices declared, does not bar Mall of America's owners from limiting the exercise of free speech on mall property, or choosing to allow some forms of speech but not others.

"The Poorly Financed Causes of Little People" Yield to Corporate Rights

In recent years, the First Amendment has undergone a revolution in the U.S. Supreme Court--in cases like Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, and McCutcheon--but largely in favor of expanding the "free speech rights" of corporations and the wealthy few, rather than protecting what Justice Hugo Black described in 1945 as "the poorly financed causes of little people." When average Americans raise their voices in protest, they can still be muffled by corporate interests.

News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 09:36:44 -0500
Tiny House Living: How Two Families Made It Work

A lot of us are enchanted with the idea of tiny homes, but it's still hard to view downsizing as a viable option. Moving into a tiny house probably isn't too outrageous for most single twenty-somethings. But is it possible to move into a tiny house as a family?

The Kasls, of Minnesota, simplified family life by going tiny. (Photo: Nichole Freiberger)The Kasls, of Minnesota, simplified family life by going tiny. (Photo: Nichole Freiberger)

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How do you fit a full-sized family into a tiny house? The Morrisons and Kasls found that the benefits of life in 200 square feet outweigh the difficulties.

Andrew and Gabriella Morrison live in Oregon and have two teenage kids, 18-year-old Paiute and 14-year-old Terra. They made the decision to downsize their home four years ago. They now live in a 207-square-foot house with an additional 110 square feet of sleeping lofts. Although their son, Paiute, no longer lives at home, Terra lives in the tiny house full time with her parents. The Morrisons both work in straw bale construction, and run the website

Across the country, in snowy Minnesota, Kim and Ryan Kasl have two young children, 6-year-old Sully and 4-year-old Story. The family of four is in the process of transitioning from their 1,900-square-foot home into a 207-square-foot tiny house. Ryan is embarking on a career in education administration, and Kim home-schools both their children. She also blogs about her family’s tiny house experiences.

Both the Morrisons and the Kasls can bear witness to the challenges of fitting a full-sized family into a tiny house. But, at the same time, they have found their own ways to make tiny living fit for them. Like a growing number of people across the country, they’ve found that the benefits of downsizing far outweigh the difficulties.

Going tiny

You’ve probably heard about tiny houses before. Maybe you’ve streamed the popular documentary Tiny on Netflix, or read one of the bazillions of tiny house articles published at YES! (like this one, this one, or maybe this one, published earlier today). All the media coverage has made simplified living a mainstream fantasy.

A lot of us are enchanted with the idea of tiny homes, but it's still hard to view downsizing as a viable option: You’ve got too much stuff you wouldn’t want to part with; or you think you couldn’t fit kids in quarters less than 1,000 square feet. Moving into a tiny house probably isn’t too outrageous for most single twenty-somethings (in fact, it's sort of a cooler, more equipped version of our recent dorm rooms). But is it possible to move into a tiny house as a family?

More and more families are doing just that—simplifying their lives by significantly cutting their square footage. The question is: why?

The Morrisons, of Oregon, moved into a 317-square-foot space with their teenage daughter. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)The Morrisons, of Oregon, moved into a 317-square-foot space with their teenage daughter. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)

1. You save some cash.

“In the wake of the United States’ housing crisis and the overall global recession, the single-family home—once the celebratory site of domestic accomplishment—has become not a symbol of pride and freedom, but a prison of economic uncertainty,” wrote Mimi Zeiger in her book Micro Green: Tiny Houses in Nature.

The median home value within the US has gone up almost four times since the first housing census back in 1940, after adjustment for inflation.

“We used to live in what we thought was the perfect house. Then one day we started questioning what this ‘perfect’ house was costing us,” said Andrew Morrison. “We quickly saw that we were spending way too much money, and more importantly, too much time paying for a house that we didn't need.”

Moving into a tiny house can help families avoid taking out a mortgage. And building a tiny home is significantly less expensive than building a conventional house today. Going tiny also means that bills for water, sewage, garbage, and electricity drop significantly. And, of course, you can’t fit much stuff into a tiny home. Less stuff to buy means more money in your pocket.

2. You save the planet!

“Beyond the cost, we saw that the environmental impacts of our house were bigger than what we wanted to live with,” said Morrison. Having worked in environmentally conscious “green” house construction for 20 years, Morrison set out to significantly decrease his own family’s impact on the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that between 2000 and 2050 global energy use will go up 300 percent. This drastic increase in energy and material consumption would put a huge strain on the environment.

“Houses that are smaller all-around require less material input as well as fewer equipment and labor hours to construct,” reads a study released by the EPA on the impact of single-family houses. “In addition, homeowners capitalize on using less energy to operate these smaller homes.”

3. And you just might save your sanity.

Living in a tiny house means having less stuff, fewer bills, and not as many living expenses, which means less time necessary to spend at work.

“I love that as Ryan climbs the ladder in his career we are not upgrading our home, cars, and ultimately, our debt,” explained Kim Kasl. “Instead we’re simplifying our lifestyle while upgrading our experiences and adventures. I want the weight of excess responsibilities and bills to be gone so we can be free to do awesome things together as a family.”

Your time becomes opened up for activities that make you happy, regardless of whether they make you money. And beyond giving you more time to spend with friends and family, tiny living often forces you to spend more time outdoors, which is proven to ease symptoms of depression and anxiety.

4. But does it really work?

That all sounds good. But then again, what if you live where it’s difficult to find an appropriate place to build your tiny house? Or someplace—like Minnesota, where the Kasls live—where the wind chill dips well below zero in the winter?

As cool as they can look in pictures like this:

The Morrisons' tiny house in an Oregon winter. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)The Morrisons' tiny house in an Oregon winter. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)

And this:

Not your average suburban home. The Kasls' downsized house in suburban Minnesota. (Photo: Kim Kasl)Not your average suburban home. The Kasls' downsized house in suburban Minnesota. (Photo: Kim Kasl)

We still wonder: Can you actually raise kids in a 200-square-foot house? How do you cultivate personal space? Or have friends over? And as kids grow up, have sleepovers, hit puberty (and occasionally really want their own bedroom doors to slam in your face), is tiny house living even possible?

Here’s what we learned from the Morrisons and the Kasls.

How do you make the transition—especially with a bunch of people's stuff?

According to Kasl, the secret to a successful transition for her family was taking baby steps. “When we knew for sure that we were going to build a tiny house, everything started gradually,” she explained. “We ‘moved’ downstairs first and brought everything we needed with us. That left the rest to be easily sifted through, boxed up, and shipped out.”

After moving downstairs, Kasl’s family moved back upstairs and went through the process again. After a couple of moves within their home, they were able to differentiate between items they actually needed and ones they could do without.

When considering whether we could try tiny living or not, many of us have questions about our stuff. What are you supposed to do with all your furniture, clothes, kids’ toys, and books? What if your hallway closet alone would pack a tiny house to the gills?

“The key to designing my happy home … lay not so much in deciding what I needed as in recognizing all the things I can do without,” wrote Jay Shafer in The Small House Book. Shafer owns Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which has been designing tiny houses since 2002. “What was left over read like a list I might make before packing my bags for a long trip.”

And don’t feel bad if there are a few things you can’t part with. The idea behind simple living isn’t to cast off all of your material possessions; it’s to simplify your possessions down to stuff that really matters. If you’ve got something that won’t fit in your tiny house but you don’t want to part with, get creative. Ask friends and family if you can store something at their place. Or consider renting a small storage unit.

“The one thing we refused to get rid of was our collection of books,” said Kasl. “We just keep a bookshelf at our grandparents’ homes and swap books out for fresh ones when we visit.”

The kids' corner. They keep a backup library at Grandma's. (Photo: Kim Kasl)The kids' corner. They keep a backup library at Grandma's. (Photo: Kim Kasl)

With a smaller living space, the Morrisons are mindful of what they keep in their house. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)With a smaller living space, the Morrisons are mindful of what they keep in their house. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)

What about having company over?

Hosting a full-sized party in a tiny house is, obviously, impossible. However, that doesn’t mean you have to give up entertaining altogether.

“Having large indoor parties is not really an option,” explained Morrison. “We’ve adjusted for that. We built outdoor gathering spaces: a fire pit, an outdoor dining area, a wood-fired hot tub, and guest cabins.”

That’s right: guest cabins. Extra tiny houses!

Put some thought into what types of gatherings you and your family enjoy hosting. Do you like having friends and family spend the night? Have fun throwing large dinner parties? Create social spaces outside of your home that make sense for your family.

“We’ve made it work by designing and building a space that fits our needs,” Morrison said. “We built this tiny house specifically for our family, and because of that every need we have is met.”

An added bonus: If you hate hosting parties at your place, you’re officially off the hook.

The Morrisons cultivated plenty of outdoor space for social gatherings around their house. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)The Morrisons cultivated plenty of outdoor space for social gatherings around their house. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)

Do little kids like it?

“Everyone wants to know if they should really do it,” Kasl told me. “They want to build a tiny house but they hesitate because of the kids. Most people expect that kids will have a hard time transitioning into a tiny house.” Kasl often surprises people by explaining how much her kids enjoy living in their tiny house.

“They love everything that has to do with our new lifestyle. Seriously. No exaggeration at all,” said Kasl. Since her family is still in the process of moving out of their old home, she and her kids often stop by to finish up the cleaning and prepare it for sale. She says her kids don’t even want to go back into their old house. “They want to get back home to the tiny house as quick as they can.”

There’s been no mention of the toys that were lost in the tiny transition or the bedrooms that no longer exist. And, perhaps because of the adventurous nature of their new home, her kids are more eager than ever to help with chores like cleaning, cooking, and gathering firewood.

The Kasl kids rearranged their room to make space for a party with their neighbors. (Photo: Kim Kasl)The Kasl kids rearranged their room to make space for a party with their neighbors. (Photo: Kim Kasl)

OK. But what about teenagers?

Tiny living with young kids is one thing. They’re small, they are easily distracted, and they usually don’t care too much about personal space. But what happens when your kids turn into teenagers?

Morrison and his wife live with their teenage daughter, Terra. One of the main motivations behind the couple’s decision to go tiny was their desire to grow closer as a family. And, since switching to tiny living four years ago, Morrison said his family has indeed grown much closer.

“Living tiny requires people in the home to communicate and not run away from difficulties,” explained Morrison. “That’s not to say we don’t still have family clashes from time to time. It just means that when that happens we have a framework to move through it.”

The cabins that Morrison built for overnight company double as a teenage escape. “They are great private spaces for the kids if they want to get away,” said Morrison. “They can use them to have some time to themselves, do school work, or have friends spend the night.”

And although Kasl’s children are still young, she already has a plan for when teenage angst could start creeping into their home. “We are looking forward to a big high school project of helping each of the kids build their own tiny houses,” explained Kasl. “Building their own houses will give them an opportunity to gain construction skills, learn how to be self-sufficient, and give them the option of starting a life with mortgage freedom.”

What teenagers wouldn’t love having their own personal tiny houses?

The Morrisons designed nooks for alone time, for them and their teenage daughter. Here, they lounge in their own private spaces. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)The Morrisons designed nooks for alone time, for them and their teenage daughter. Here, they lounge in their own private spaces. (Photo: Andrew Morrison)

What if you're home-schooling in your house?

The Morrisons and the Kasls have home-schooled their kids while living in their tiny homes. At 14, Morrison’s daughter is rather self-sufficient when it comes to her education. She loves learning and is motivated to get up and do her schoolwork.

Kasl, on the other hand, has two small children. She says her home schooling technique revolves around one thing: getting out as much as possible. “Reading, playing outside, and taking advantage of new experiences is the basis of the kids’ education,” explained Kasl.

“We learn in our tiny house but also on nature walks, on field trips with our church’s home school co-op, at the children’s theater and the science museum, in Papa’s garage building birdhouses, in Nana’s sewing room making mittens, and at their uncle’s farm meeting baby animals and riding horses.”

Kasl credits her tiny house for helping to improve her kids’ education. With fewer household responsibilities, she has more time to devote to teaching. And having less space has encouraged her to be more creative with daily activities.

“Of all the reasons we chose to live in a tiny house, home schooling is definitely one of them,” said Kasl. “People think it poses such a challenge, but the tiny house is actually an enabler.”

The Kasl kids say they love learning at home. (Photo: Kim Kasl)The Kasl kids say they love learning at home. (Photo: Kim Kasl)

How do you keep warm?

Not every tiny house can be parked on a beautiful, sunny beach. So, how can you cope with snow and below freezing temperatures?

Kasl admits that preparing for a long Minnesota winter has been a challenge. “We didn’t really anticipate all of the winter preparations that have to be made in a tiny house,” she said.

And preparations go far beyond finding and storing firewood for their wood-burning stove.

“There’s electric heat tape on the plumbing under the trailer so our water doesn’t freeze,” explained Kasl. “And, to keep the heat from escaping, Ryan and my dad skirted the trailer with some sheets of insulation.” The sheets of insulation double as a storage area for Kasl and her family, where they can keep bikes, summer toys, and tools.

What about being cooped up in 200 square feet all winter long?

“I think anyone who stays inside all winter might go a little crazy, no matter the size of their house. We plan on getting out,” said Kasl. And, when at home, her family has embraced the new list of chores and responsibilities that winter has brought. “It feels like a vacation: peaceful, simple, exciting,” she said. “We love it completely.”

No one's supposed to stay inside their house all the time anyway. To stay sane, the Kasls bundle up and get out as much as they can in the winter... (Photo: Nichole Freiberger)No one's supposed to stay inside their house all the time anyway. To stay sane, the Kasls bundle up and get out as much as they can in the winter... (Photo: Nichole Freiberger)

...and snuggle up for long winter nights. (Photo: Kim Kasl)...and snuggle up for long winter nights. (Photo: Kim Kasl)

Interested in learning more about downsizing your home? Check out these online tiny house classes designed to teach families how to make the transition for themselves.

News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 09:19:11 -0500
Green Neocolonialism, Afro-Brazilian Rebellion in Brazil

Eucalyptus plantations belonging to the compnay Fibria Celulose. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)Eucalyptus plantations belonging to the compnay Fibria Celulose. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

The Afro-Brazilian Quilombola people were forced from their land in Brazil in order to make way for eucalyptus plantations, which produce toilet paper destined for Western markets. But they are resisting by replanting native trees and food crops, and working for a post-eucalyptus reality.

Eucalyptus plantations belonging to the compnay Fibria Celulose. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)Eucalyptus plantations belonging to the compnay Fibria Celulose. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

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The Afro-Brazilian Quilombola people were forced from their land in Brazil in order to make way for eucalyptus plantations, which produce toilet paper destined for Western markets. But they are resisting by replanting native trees and food crops, and working for a post-eucalyptus reality.

The principal use for the cellulose found in eucalyptus plants in Brazil is disposable paper products, such as toilet paper and paper towels - products most in demand in first-world markets. Yet these types of paper products generate social and environmental impacts in places in Brazil where many communities have never even had access to them.

The region known as Sape do Norte, which includes the cities of Sao Mateus and Conceicao da Barra, in the state of Espirito Santo, in Brazil, has been heavily affected by eucalyptus plantations. In Sao Mateus, for example, the plantations occupy 70 percent of the territory. From Vitoria, the capital of Espirito Santo, to Sao Mateus, a stretch of close to 300 kilometers in length is covered by eucalyptus trees. In some places, small remnants of the native forest and its biodiversity can be seen, but only for a few hectares, quickly passed by in a car.

"There were monoculture plantations in unlikely places, near springs and in zones where aquifers are replenished. The forests along the riverbank were cut down; the path of the water was cut off; lakes were filled in with dirt - and the biodiversity of the Atlantic forests was decimated with insecticides and herbicides."

This area is also a symbol of Afro-Brazilian resistance; it is the land of the Quilombolas. The name Quilombola comes from the Kimbundu language, one of the Bantu languages widely spoken in Angola. Places where rebel or fugitive slaves lived were called quilombo - in hidden corners of the city or out in the countryside. From there the word Quilombola is derived, used in Brazil to describe a rebellious person of African descent.

"Quilombola is a specific type of person of African descent. They were brought from Africa during colonial times like the others, but they refused to submit to slavery and represented Black resistance. They built communities, called quilombos, fleeing from slavery in Brazil, living in isolated communities made up of 20 or 30 families, where they lived autonomously. Their descendants stayed in those in these places," Marcelo Calazans told Truthout. He works with the Federation of Organizations for Social and Educational Assistance (FASE), an organization that has worked for 30 years on issues related to the impacts of eucalyptus cultivation in the state of Espirito Santo.

In Sao Mateus, there was a port where people recently brought from Africa were bought and sold. Many of them fled the ships before they reached the docks. They escaped and sought refuge in the forests.

Slaves were emancipated in 1888, but emancipation was not accompanied by measures that would have permitted Afro-Brazilian communities to continue living in rural zones. A century later, these communities were legally recognized in the 1988 constitution, although it did not guarantee the preservation of the quilombo territories. With or without official recognition, a large number of these communities survived in rural areas, as evidenced by the communities of Sape do Norte.

The machine that cuts down the eucalyptus trees. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)The machine that cuts down the eucalyptus trees. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

It is a forest without flowers, without smells, without animals; not a single bird flies through this place.

In the 1960s, with the arrival of the eucalyptus cellulose extraction industry, the Quilombolas suffered a new blow and families were forced to abandon their land, some moving to the big cities in search of survival, where they ended up in the huge favelas, or slums. It is estimated that before the arrival of eucalyptus, there were around 15,000 Quilombola families. Today that number has dropped to 1,200 families who reorganized themselves into 32 communities in Sape do Norte. These Quilombola descendants are dispersed in communities isolated from one another by eucalyptus plantations, living under the pressure of the cellulose industry and its effects.

"There were monoculture plantations in unlikely places, near springs and in zones where aquifers are replenished. The forests along the riverbank were cut down; the path of the water was cut off; lakes were filled in with dirt - and the biodiversity of the Atlantic forests was decimated with insecticides and herbicides. This in turn made agricultural cultivation impossible, unless pesticides were used," according to Simone Batista Ferreira, a researcher with the geography department of the Federal University of Espirito Santo.

A Global Leader in Cellulose Extraction

The company Aracruz Celulose arrived in Espirito Santo in the 1960s. It was initially made up of shareholders such as Souza Cruz (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco), the Lorentzen family Group - which is connected to Norwegian royalty - and the Safra Group, with each having 28 percent ownership. The Brazilian state was a partner through its purchase of stock through the National Economic Development Bank (BNDE) - now referred to as the BNDES - for a share later reduced to 12 percent. In 2009, Aracruz Celulose changed its name and Fibria Celulose was born, the result of the merger of Aracruz Celulose and Votorantim Celulose and Paper (VCP). Today, Fibria is considered a global leader in the production of eucalyptus cellulose. It is the only company in the global forestry industry that is listed on the Dow Jones index and traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

A quilombola girl in a reclaimed area where there were eucalytpus plantations for over 40 years. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)A quilombola girl in a reclaimed area where there were eucalytpus plantations for over 40 years. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

Lifeless Forests

It is a forest without flowers, without smells, without animals; not a single bird flies through this place - a dubious forest, of a uniform green color, full of emaciated trees with thin, tall trunks that look like shaky pillars. In Ecuador, eucalyptus plantations are known as silent forests because there are no birds. In Chile, they are called military forests because, aside from their green characteristic military-uniform hue, the trees are planted in rigid lines. In Brazil, they are called "green deserts" because they contain no life.

Brazil is the fourth largest producer of cellulose worldwide, after Canada, the United States and China. According to the 2014 report on the Brazilian Tree and Forest Industry (IBA), with statistics from 2013, the area where forests were cultivated in Brazil reached 7.6 million hectares in 2013. Eucalyptus represents 72 percent of the total, with a total area of just under 5.5 million hectares. In 2013, 15.1 million tons of cellulose and 10.4 million tons of paper were produced. The industry's objective is to reach production levels of 22 million tons of cellulose in Brazil by the year 2020.

Paper factory in the city of Aracruz. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)Paper factory in the city of Aracruz. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

International Demand

According to economist Helder Gomes, a member of the Alert Against the Green Desert Network, in the 1960s, international markets were under pressure due to increased demand for pulp and paper and the difficulty of widening production in countries where eucalyptus had traditionally been produced. "In the 1960s, studies done by the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] indicated the difficulty of expanding production in producing countries, due to the availability of land in central countries, the long period of maturation and the pressure from social movements against the rise in contaminating emissions and against the expansion of monocultures," Gomes told Truthout.

This forced international bodies, such as the FAO itself, Gomes said, to begin subsidizing the expansion of forestry programs in countries like Brazil, where there were favorable ecological conditions for the rapid growth of forests, available land, an abundance of cheap labor, and government policies that would benefit and support the industry.

A quilombola house in a reclaimed area. There were eucalpytus plantations here for over 49 years. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F) A quilombola house in a reclaimed area. There were eucalpytus plantations here for over 49 years. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)


Aracruz Celulose is directly responsible for the destruction of at least 43,000 hectares of tropical rainforest in the municipality of Aracruz. It is a municipality that, in addition to the plantations, is home to three of the primary factories that process tree cellulose.

"Of the 40 indigenous communities that existed during the first years of this industry, only six remained."

This destruction was documented in an environmental impact evaluation report completed by the Technological Institute of the Espirito Santo State University in 1988, which was required in order for the company to obtain the permits for its first production expansion. According to the report, "through aerial photograph analysis obtained at the start of the 1970s, it was found that 30 percent of the surface of Aracruz was covered by native forests, which were then substituted for homogeneous eucalyptus trees."

Aracruz did not only destroy the forest, but also forced the communities that lived there to leave. "Of the 40 indigenous communities that existed during the first years of this industry, only six remained," said Sebastiao Ribeiro Filho, a lawyer and member of the Alert Against the Green Desert Network.

A quilombola house in a reclaimed area. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)A quilombola house in a reclaimed area. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

Toxic Bleach

The chain of production of cellulose, beyond creating homogeneous landscapes, also produces noxious smells. While walking through the city of Aracruz, the air is suddenly filled with an acidic stench. "It's bleach!" said FASE's Calazans, who tells us why it smells like it does. "In order to bleach the paper, millions of liters of chemicals are required, among them hydrogen peroxide and bleach, which are prohibited in many countries. There is no strict regulation of their use. Afterward, the waste goes directly to the sea."

"The World Trade Organization, the World Bank and governments that promote this system, which only a few multinational corporations benefit from, are causing an economic genocide and destroying traditional agriculture, and this means the destruction of entire towns and communities."

According to Luiz Alberto Loureiro, a former employee of Aracruz Celulose, the plantations are constantly attacked by pests and other plant species that have to be combated using chemicals such as Glifosato or Mirex. The insecticide is prohibited in all its formulations and uses because it is harmful to human health and to the environment. "The workers die of poisoning and from accidents, and they don't talk about this," Loureiro said. "Employees don't receive training regarding [the risk of] poisoning and many times they bring their work clothes home and wash them with their children's clothes."

A quilombola woman grinds coffee. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)A quilombola woman grinds coffee. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)Daniela Meirelles, a member of FASE, who has given workshops to women's groups made up of women who work for cellulose companies, adds that the company promotes gender equality by giving employment opportunities to women, but at a cost. "Fibria, with the intention of integrating women into production, promotes a gender policy in order to contract Quilombola women. The thing is that the work consists of fumigating the trees, without the protection and information needed about the chemicals being used," Meirelles told Truthout.

Employment Promises

According to Sebastiao Pinheiro, agronomist and professor at the Rio Grande do Sul University, eucalyptus plantations do not generate employment; they actually destroy the source of employment for thousands of families. "The green deserts do not create jobs. Four hundred hectares of eucalyptus would be required to create one job. In family or small-scale agriculture, 10 people are required for one hectare. The World Trade Organization, the World Bank and governments that promote this system, which only a few multinational corporations benefit from, are causing an economic genocide and destroying traditional agriculture, and this means the destruction of entire towns and communities," Pinheiro told Truthout.

Fibria Celulose company. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)Fibria Celulose company. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

Memory of Destruction

"I remember the Atlantic forests. We lived off of agriculture in the countryside, and from hunting. I also remember when the company arrived. The devastation was not tree by tree; it was done using giant chains 100 meters long pulled by tractors, destroying everything in its path. Each link in the chain must have weighed 100 kilograms. There were trees with huge diameters that couldn't withstand the chains," John Ramos de Souza said. He is Quilombola and from the Angelim 1 community. "I saw many monstrous things done by the company. I saw without understanding, without knowing what the consequences would be, and now we are paying the price."

The National Public Ministry, in November 2014, suspended one of the credit lines of Fibria as a cautionary measure. It was the one from the federal government's National Economic and Social Development Bank that went to the Quilombola zone in northern Espirito Santo.

Fibria is being accused of fraud for the way it obtained land for its plantations. According to the lawsuit, at the beginning of 1970, former employees of the company claimed to be small-scale farmers before the state government in Espirito Santo, with the goal of obtaining titles for the "unused" land. Afterward, the employees transferred these property titles for land located between Conceicao da Barra and Sao Mateus, to Fibria. In the majority of cases, the period in which the areas remained legal property of the employees didn't last even a week before they were transferred.

Eucalyptus trees harvested in one day. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)Eucalyptus trees harvested in one day. (Photo: Santiago Navarro F)

Quilombolas Resist Eucalyptus

ARUE Ticumbi. ARUE Ticumbi.
What did the people do wrong?
What did the people do that was so wrong?

These questions are part of a song that was sung by African descendants during the time of slavery and that the Quilombolas of Barra da Conceicao maintain as a tradition in a ritual called Ticumbi. In the song, they ask Saint Benito the causes of all the loss they have suffered: the loss of their land, the forests and the water resources.

Today, the song seems to gain another dimension in Ticumbi master Souza's voice: one of resistance. The culture of his ancestors serves as a point of strength in order to resist new forms of slavery, this time due to the neocolonialism of eucalyptus. "We are communities cut off by eucalyptus and we are here resisting," Souza said.

He tells the story of his father, who, in the 1960s and '70s was forced off his land twice, which is where he obtained subsistence for his family. "The people who claimed to be the owners of the land showed up and pressured us to leave. At that time we were afraid and we left. It was more difficult to confront. And that was how the land was transferred to the company [Aracruz]," he said.

"We have no time to lose. Our path against eucalyptus means returning to the land that belonged to our ancestors and continuing to grow food."

Resistance is no longer sufficient, according to Vando Falcao Souza, John Ramos da Souza's son. Advancing is crucial. "We have no time to lose. Our path against eucalyptus means returning to the land that belonged to our ancestors and continuing to grow food," he tells Truthout.

Angelim 1 is a place of land recovery for the Quilombola families. After the clear-cutting of trees by the company, families returned to the area and began a process of soil regeneration. "After 40 years of planting eucalyptus in the same place, a transition process is necessary. The soil is very dry; it rains and the water disappears. Many said that we wouldn't be able to plant anything, but we are seeing that with patience and a lot of work it is possible. In five years I think we will be able to make it so that the soil is how it was before the eucalyptus were planted," said Falcao.

New plants have already started to flower, and they call them the transition to a post-eucalyptus time. Generally, the transition is started with plants such as watermelon, yucca, pumpkin and beans. "Corn and coffee still won't grow. We are already growing various species of beans and we are starting to sell them in small markets in the community. The goal is to form a sort of cooperative here," he said.

Leaving the Senzalas

A few kilometers from Angelim 1, land recuperation is also taking place in Linharinho. There, the transition effort is to plant according to an agroecological model in order to recuperate the soil, which means planting food crops along with native forest species. "After clearing the land of eucalyptus, the technique is to plant trees from a native forest that are brought from other places, and around these trees, other crops such beans and pumpkins are planted. This is how we are going to rebuild the forest and the harvest at the same time. The process is slow, it will require even six or seven years for the wild animals to return again and for the water resources to recover," Antonio Rodrigues de Oliveira, who is Quilombola, told Truthout.

"What we are doing here is what our ancestors did. They fled from conditions of slavery and created conditions for life in isolated places. They opened clearings and produced from the earth."

Rodrigues says that he arrived in this place with few resources, with only his head held high, his hands, and the necessary courage. "We can't expect anything from the government, or from the corporations, or from anyone. We have to take up the hoe, go into the land, build a hut, dig a well . . . carry water, even push with a donkey if necessary. Never again will we die of hunger . . . no, no, we will not die. We will go slowly because we don't have infrastructure, but we will do it," he said.

He also says that the situation is difficult and he remembers that the company arrived to plant eucalyptus even in the cemetery where his grandparents were buried. "They left us with almost nothing, just some adapted rodents, wild pigs and armadillos living as we lived, migrating and searching for what was necessary to survive." He believes, however, that there is no time to complain; it is time to work hard and rebuild what has been destroyed.

He doesn't hesitate to compare the situation in his community to that of his ancestors. "What we are doing here is what our ancestors did. They fled from conditions of slavery, known as Senzala [the place where slaves were held as prisoners on huge plantations] and created conditions for life in isolated places. They opened clearings and produced from the earth. Here is a Quilombo, the place of liberation," said Rodrigues, who has worked on various plantations and at one point migrated to the city.

Culture of Transition

Within the cellulose industry complex, the number of eucalyptus trees that are harvested every day establishes the rhythm and velocity of production. In order to operate at maximum production levels, a culture of homogenization must prevail. Flat land, long trees that are thin and without branches, and soil free of impediments are key. Here, diversity is an obstacle.

"Perhaps in 100 years, a Quilombola individual will look at the eucalyptus plantation and say that it is a forest, because he won't have the reference of what a native forest is. The cellulose company knows that if this memory is broken, there will be no more problems with resistance."

Joao Guimaraes, also from Angelim 1, tells Truthout that it is necessary to build the knowledge that will allow a cultural shift in the transition to a post-eucalyptus reality. "We can no longer live lamenting the disappearance of the river and the fresh water spring that dried up and the trees that disappeared, the birds that have left. The Atlantic Forest is gone now, and we have to regenerate it. These 40 years of eucalyptus plantations will not be forgotten overnight, which is why we have to work hard, experimenting with how it is that we are going to go about this recovery, with trial and error, in order to build transitional knowledge," Guimaraes said.

The land that has been retaken is part of this process. "These areas are serving so that we can create this understanding of the transition. We live with certain amounts of tension due to the fact that this land is being disputed and they could force us to leave at whatever time the company requests it. But we have no other option. As they advance with their modern machines, our form of insurgence is to plant food with our hoes. It's slow, but we are recuperating the land and our independence," he said.

This is the first generation that is retaking land primarily for the production of food. "It is the memory of the oldest ones that is strengthening our struggle," Guimaraes told Truthout.

The Struggle for Memory

One of the controversies at play is the memory of what the Atlantic Forest used to be and the passing on of this memory to the younger generations. "Perhaps in 100 years, a Quilombola individual will look at the eucalyptus plantation and say that it is a forest, because he won't have the reference of what a native forest is," Calazans said. "The cellulose company knows that if this memory is broken, there will be no more problems with resistance."

The generation of people in the state of Espirito Santo that remember the Atlantic Forest will be gone within the next 30 years. "These people have seen and lived in the forest. If they die and we still have not transitioned beyond eucalyptus back to native forests and traditional agriculture," said Calazans, "it will never happen."

"Memory assures the dream of these territories. The day that memory dies completely, we will no longer be able to think in a post-eucalyptus time," he added. "We have to invest in building understanding of this transition. These next three decades are strategically important in this fight."

News Sun, 28 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500
Unearthing the Truth: Mexican State Violence Beyond Ayotzinapa

"I feel desperate looking for my daughter because I don't have any proof, I have questions about everything that they've done but they never looked for me; they never handed over evidence," Mirna del Carmen Solórzano told Mexican news outlet Sin Embargo on March 20, 2014. Similar sentiments have been expressed by family members of the 43 Ayotzinapa rural teachers college students who were disappeared on September 26 at the hands of local and federal police reportedly working in coordination with the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos. But in this case, Mirna's daughter was found dead over four years prior, in a massacre of Central American migrants that foreshadowed what became deafeningly clear in September: that the Mexican state is frequently complicit in the country's greatest human rights atrocities.

In what is now called the San Fernando Massacre, Mirna's daughter and 71 other migrants—many en route from Central America to the United States—were captured and murdered in late August 2010. All public accounts indicate they died at the hands of the criminal organization Los Zetas. While the August 2010 San Fernando Massacre was the most well-reported case of migrant abuse in Mexico at the time, known for its scale and level of atrocity, it was only part of a larger pattern of violence targeting migrants, mostly from Central America, traveling north towards the U.S.-Mexico border. While this case may be seemingly unrelated to the abduction of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, developments in accessing information on the former may have implications on efforts to uncover truth and push for accountability for the later.

Slowly, information on the San Fernando massacre and related violence against migrants is surfacing from behind closed government doors. The dramatic increase in U.S. security assistance programs in Mexico—ushered in through the Mérida Initiative inaugurated in 2008—paralleled a surge in internal government reporting produced by U.S. officials. Open-government proponents have used the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to gain access to these internal files, which illuminate the links between U.S.-funded counter-drug initiatives and human rights abuses. This article cites a collection of formerly secret declassified files, many of which have been published by the U.S.-National Security Archive (NSA), disseminated by investigative journalists from news outlets such as Proceso and Aristegui Noticias in Mexico, cited as evidence in ongoing legal cases, and used for clarification purposes by a network of activists working to defend migrant rights and increase transparency and accountability for migrant abuses. The slow trickle of such files from the U.S. state archives entails essential clues to understanding the migrant massacres, and is informing the civil society response to the Ayotzinapa disappearances today.


U.S. and Mexican documents from 2011 provide details of the role of government officials in violations targeting migrants in Tamaulipas, where the San Fernando Massacre occured, and other regions of Mexico. In January 2011, U.S. Embassy officials reported internally on receiving "anecdotal evidence" that migrant authorities and local police were turning a blind eye or colluding in routine forms of extortion, kidnapping, and trafficking of migrants, emphasizing the role of the state in the violence.

In April and June of 2011, hundreds of more bodies were discovered in mass graves in the same region. During that time, the Mexican government took action to downplay the severity of the violence, particularly leading up to Easter Week (also known as Semana Santa, or Holy Week), so as to not deter tourism in the area. Mexican officials told U.S. Consulate officers in secret that "the bodies are being split up to make the total number less obvious and thus less alarming." Consulate officers are documented as having acknowledged that "Tamaulipas officials appear to be trying to downplay both the San Fernando discoveries and the state's responsibility" for the massacres in the region. Such candid observations were shared internally between U.S. officials, but shielded from public scrutiny just as the United States was ratcheting up Mérida Initiative security assistance to Mexico and the region.

In April, U.S. consulate officials also noted that 17 San Fernando municipal police officers were arrested in connection with the aforementioned April 2011 discovery of 196 bodies in the mass graves, and seven officers were arrested in Reynosa connected to a separate kidnapping of 171 migrants. The following month, the U.S. Embassy reported on the firing of seven top officials from the National Migration Institute (INM) amid allegations of involvement in the kidnapping of migrants. INM released its own records on this case in response to information requests and a resolution issued by Mexico's Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI), but kept secret the names of the officials implicated in the kidnappings. In November 2011, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (the Pentagon's intelligence wing) reported on information it received of police officer involvement with drug trafficking and undocumented migrant smuggling organizations.

Similar to the case of Ayotzinapa, where federal authorities have stated that the Mayor of Iguala and his wife had been operating in collusion with corrupt police and local drug gangs, officials in Tamaulipas have been linked to organized criminal networks. In a cable from February 2012, the U.S. Embassy sent information back to Washington on investigations underway of three successive governors of Tamaulipas for suspected links to organized crime. In 2014, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) identified the governor at the time of the 2010 massacre, Eugenio Hernández Flores, as having received bribes from the Zetas so the cartel could operate freely in Tamaulipas. The governor proceeding Hernández, Tomás Yarrington, is now wanted for extradition to the United States on charges of money laundering and taking bribes from the Gulf and Zetas cartels. Internal investigative files released by Mexico's own federal prosecutors have revealed that local police were allegedly paid by the Zetas to act as vigilantes (labores de halcones), intercept people, turn them over to the cartel, and provide cover for their members. As today's Proceso investigation reveals, a newly disclosed document released to the National Security Archive's Migration Declassified project lays bare the depths of these connections between the police and Zetas at the time of the San Fernando massacres.


Family members of victims of the San Fernando massacres and other migrant abuses in Mexico continue to seek answers from state authorities. Organizations working in defense of migrant rights, such as Article 19 and the Foundation for Justice, are taking legal action to force Mexico's government agencies to disclose official records with classified information on the cases. In April 2014, a lower court judge found that case files on the San Fernando massacres and other abuses against migrants should be disclosed, after determining the existence of, prima facie, grave human rights violations. Following this decision, Mexico's Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI) agreed with the assertion of the lower-court, and in August ordered the Office of the Public Prosecutor (PGR) to release its files relating to the arrest of the San Fernando municipal police officials in connection with the discovery of mass graves in April 2011. The PGR complied with the order in December, making the first official disclosure of any part of its investigative files concerning state complicity in the San Fernando massacres.

The court ruling and the decision of the Federal Institute for Access to Information point specifically to a special clause in Mexico's transparency law, passed in 2002, which mandates disclosure of otherwise protected documents when they relate to grave violations of fundamental rights and crimes against humanity. The provision was included as a safeguard against the entrenched secrecy surrounding human rights abuses that reigned under the first seven decades of the notoriously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—the party of the incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto.

This type of human rights override clause is meant to protect against State secrecy on human rights atrocities and has been modeled in legislation in other Latin American countries with histories of government repression. It is based on the notion that some gross violations are so egregious, they impact not only victims, but society has a whole, and should thus be exposed to the general public. Information advocates in Mexico have cited the clause to gain access to files on historical cases of state-sponsored abuse, including records on the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and on enforced disappearance carried out in the state of Guerrero in the 1970s. But the recent 2014 IFAI resolution is the first instance the special human rights override has been invoked to compel the disclosure of information related to current abuses. Now, human rights activists are calling for IFAI to declare the Iguala disappearances a human rights violation, and compel the disclosure of related information.

Despite the information commission's ruling ordering federal prosecutors to disclose the information on police connection to the earlier migrant massacres, the PGR is challenging the lower court ruling, and the First Chamber of the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. The lawyers are preparing their arguments, and organizations representing the family members of the San Fernando victims have started a public campaign calling for access to the full truth behind the massacres.

While the result of the PGR's challenge to the lower court's ruling remains inconclusive, the ruling and the IFAI resolution have important implications on the government and civil society responses to the Ayotzinapa disappearances. Though it could take time for the human rights override clause to be invoked in the Ayotzinapa case (the decision of Mexico's information commission to order the release of investigative files relating to the San Fernando massacres was made four years after the first bodies were discovered in the region), decisions on the San Fernando massacre have now provided important legal foundation to argue for access to information on the Ayotzinapa disappearances. The San Fernando developments have established that investigative files, even if they are ongoing, cannot be kept secret if they relate to gross human rights violations.

In the meantime, however, the efforts to identify remains and obtain information on the disappearances have taken on a sense of urgency, and included direct actions such as the creation of local action brigades, the seeking of precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the denouncement of continued impunity and lack of information around ongoing human rights violations at the Commission level.


The official determination that abuses against migrants by Mexican officials constitute grave violations of human rights has implications not only for the Mexican government's response to the massacre, but also for the U.S. policy response—particularly with regards to U.S. assistance and training for Mexican security forces. The Leahy Amendment, introduced in Congress in 1997 as part of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, and made permanent in the Foreign Assistance Act in 2008, strictly prohibits U.S. funding for foreign security units that violate human rights with impunity. Fifteen percent of the Mérida Initiative funding (roughly $2.4 billion to date) is subject to withholding based on human rights conditions.

While the Leahy Amendment has provided the channel for withholding further funding of the Mérida Initiative, these efforts are continually defeated. The State Department elected to hold back $26 million in September 2010 for Mexico until progress was made in the areas of transparency and combating impunity. This was reportedly the first time that the State Department's periodic progress report on the Mérida Initiative—required by Congress to secure the 15% of funds tied to human rights stipulations—cited human rights concerns with the intention of impacting any portion of Mérida funding. The funding was nonetheless approved the following year. The same occurred with the State Department progress report delivered in August 2012, initially electing to hold back 2012 funding. This funding was also approved, despite the fact that the State Department's own annual human rights reports for that year cited credible reports of police involvement in extrajudicial killings, kidnappings for ransom, and torture. In each occasion, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the State Department has consistently reported to Congress that human rights conditions under the agreement are being met, citing vague and incomplete progress toward Mexico's meeting of the requirements.

Senator Patrick Leahy himself has been a vocal proponent of withholding Mérida funding in light of increasing exposure of Mexican state complicity in human rights abuses. He has challenged the State Department reporting, claiming publicly that there has not been sufficient evidence that Mexico is effectively addressing abuses by security forces. Leahy originally blocked $229 million in State Department funding for the Mérida Initiative in the fall of 2012, but $134 million of this was released in April 2013 after the Senate Appropriations Committee received an explanation from the State Department. In August 2013, Leahy and others in Congress took actions to block the release of the remaining $95 million in Mérida funding over human rights concerns, and it was still on hold as of April 2014. Even with the hold, training and equipment continues to pour in, as the governments agreed in March 2014 of this year to over $300 million in new aid.

These many exposures of major human rights concerns have yet to deter U.S. assistance; even in the wake of the groundbreaking case of the San Fernando massacre, support for Mexico's migration authorities actually increased. This included equipment and training that incorporates biometric technology for migration authorities to track all persons entering and exiting Mexico, via air, land, and sea, as well as INM checkpoints. The State Department also awarded millions to U.S. contractors, such as the company Sarakkhi Associates, for Mexico's national command intelligence center (The Bunker). And joint intelligence fusions centers, requested under the Calderón administration, were created to enhance intelligence sharing in 2010 in regions near the U.S.-Mexico border, and spread throughout the country in the following years, reaching as far as Mexico's southern border.

The enforced disappearances in Iguala have heightened calls to cut off U.S. funding to Mexico, where it has become evident that federal authorities had knowledge that the mayor and his entire police force was connected to organized crime, and failed to respond to the situation. But when questioned about Ayotzinapa, the official U.S. response has been to condemn the disappearance of the 43 students while praising the Mexican government's response to calls to investigate and bring those responsible to justice. When pressured about the most recent human rights review and submission of its 15% progress report on the Mérida Initiative, followed by the determination to approve continued funding in September shortly before the disappearances, a State Department spokesperson said the Department would not revisit the issue until sometime next year.

With growing concerns over the Mexican state's connection to organized crime and human rights violations, it is no wonder Mexican and U.S. officials have been reluctant to release internal files with information on the San Fernando massacres and other atrocities. Maintaining secrecy is key to the continuation of the counter-drug initiatives that fuel migration, while at the same time lead to rampant abuses against migrants in Mexico's territory—and have led to a frightening increase in the number of enforced disappearances. Uncovering the truth behind the San Fernando cases not only has the potential to challenge uninterrupted U.S. assistance for abusive security forces, but may also begin to lift the veil of secrecy behind the human rights atrocities in Mexico that are only increasing by the day.

News Sat, 27 Dec 2014 13:37:00 -0500