News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 15:51:02 -0400 en-gb Economic Update: Market Chaos Hits Us All

This episode provides updates on Banksy's Dismaland theme park, Amazon undercutting pensions and recent market chaos. We also give an in-depth analysis on oil market collapse and address rich universities' abuse of tax exemptions.

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News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
As Journalists Are Jailed for Three Years in Egypt, Will US Stop "Cozying Up" to Regime?

In Egypt, Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were sentenced over the weekend to three years in jail for "spreading false news" that purportedly harmed Egypt following the 2013 military coup. Fahmy and Mohamed were taken into custody on Saturday. Greste remains free in Australia. The three had already spent more than a year in prison before being released on bail earlier this year. We speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo and with Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The US should stop cozying up to General - now President - Sisi," Roth says. "He is presiding over the worst crackdown in modern Egypt history."


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

AMY GOODMAN: We head to Cairo, Egypt, where Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste were sentenced over the weekend to three years in jail for, quote, "spreading false news" that harmed Egypt following the 2013 military coup. That's what they were convicted of. Fahmy's wife, Marwa Omara, broke down in tears as the sentence was announced on Saturday.

MARWA OMARA: It was extremely unjust and was extremely unfair. And what happened with Mohamed shows how much this case is political. And it's so unfair what's happening to him. ... We got married, and I didn't even enjoy our marriage with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were taken back into custody. The third journalist, Peter Greste, spoke out against the ruling from Australia, where he was deported to.

PETER GRESTE: The fact is that we did nothing wrong, that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, that these guys are innocent men, and innocent men are in prison. That's what this is about. Never mind the sentences. One day in prison would be unjust.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who represents Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, has called on President el-Sisi to pardon the men. The three were initially arrested as part of a crackdown on Al Jazeera following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, sentenced last June to between seven and 10 years in prison, a ruling condemned around the world. Peter Greste was released in February, deported home to Australia. Shortly afterwards, following more than 400 days behind bars, Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were also freed on bail. The case has been widely condemned. Fahmy and Mohamed were led away to begin their sentences after Saturday's verdict. Greste was tried in absentia.

To find out more, we go to Egypt, to Cairo, by Democracy Now! video stream to be joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

Sharif, can you talk about the response right now in Egypt and the significance of these sentences?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, it's a really stunning verdict. Many people were expecting that the journalists would be - receive some kind of sentence that would be time served or a suspended sentence, especially given that Egyptian officials had repeatedly signaled that they viewed the trial as a nuisance, that it brought unwanted scrutiny of the Egyptian government. Sisi himself has said several times in the past that he would have deported the journalists rather than try them, and he wished the case had never - the prosecution had never been brought.

And nevertheless, in a really heartbreaking and shocking scene, we saw the three journalists yesterday sentenced to three years in prison. They were hauled away to jail. The judge said in his verdict that they were not journalists because they lacked the necessary credentials. He said they were using unlicensed equipment and broadcasting false news that harmed Egypt's national security. This last accusation is especially shocking, given that during the trial the judge appointed a technical committee to look at the footage, and the head of that committee testified that none of the video evidence, the footage, had been fabricated. And nevertheless the judge included that in his ruling.

So, you know, this is the latest twist in this long ordeal that had began in December 2013 for these journalists, and we'll have to wait and see what will happen next. As you mentioned, Canada has put an official request for deportation for Mohamed Fahmy. They've also called for a presidential pardon from Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The president can - President Sisi can pardon them at any point. He does not have to wait until the end of the judicial proceedings. He's pardoned people in the past. And that's what - that would be the best-case scenario in this respect. Another one would be the deportation of Mohamed Fahmy, but that would leave Baher Mohamed behind bars. Baher Mohamed got an extra six months in prison and a 5,000-pound fine for possessing a single spent bullet casing.

And so, this was just the latest verdict in, you know, part of a broader crackdown that we've seen in Egypt against the press. The Committee to Protect Journalists recently did a survey, found that 18 or now over 20 journalists are behind bars. That's the highest number since the CPJ has been keeping records in 1990 for Egypt.



AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I wanted to play the comment of Amal Clooney, Mohamed Fahmy's attorney, denouncing the verdict.

AMAL CLOONEY: I think today sends a very dangerous message in Egypt. It sends the message that journalists can be locked up for simply doing their job, for telling the truth and reporting the news. And it sends a dangerous message that there are judges in Egypt who will allow their courts to become instruments of political repression and propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Amal Clooney, Mohamed Fahmy's lawyer. We're also joined by Ken Roth. Is there anything the United States can do, considering how many billions of dollars it gives to Egypt?

KENNETH ROTH: Yes, the US should stop cozying up to General - now President - Sisi. He is presiding over the worst crackdown in modern Egypt history, much worse than anything that happened under Mubarak. As your colleague noted, there are 22 journalists in prison right now. There are 40,000 political prisoners. The US, nonetheless, is just opening the spigots for military aid. It's selling equipment. It's sending the message that we'll live with this dictator because he's pro-American, pro-Western. That is a disastrous message for the Egyptian people.

AMY GOODMAN: Should the US cut off aid?

KENNETH ROTH: Absolutely. It should never have resumed the aid. It resumed the aid because, ostensibly, Egypt is on a transition to democracy. But I think John Kerry is the only person in the world who sees that transition.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Roth, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Human Rights Watch. And, Sharif, thanks for joining us from Cairo, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent in Egypt.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
As Obama Visits Arctic, Alaskans Urge Him to Reverse Shell Oil Deal

Weeks after approving Shell's plans to drill in Alaska, President Obama is heading to the state to warn about the dangers of climate change. "Alaska's glaciers are melting faster, too, threatening tourism and adding to rising seas," Obama said in his weekly address. A protest is scheduled today in Anchorage to urge Obama to reverse his decision on Shell and stop all exploratory drilling in the Arctic. We speak to Richard Steiner, an Alaskan marine conservation biologist, who is speaking at the "Our Climate, Our Future" rally.


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

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama arrives in Alaska today, where he's becoming the first sitting US president to visit Arctic Alaska. He talked about his trip during his weekly address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'll have several opportunities to meet with everyday Alaskans about what's going on in their lives. I'll travel throughout the state, meet with Alaskans who live above the Arctic Circle, with Alaska Natives and with folks who earn their livelihoods through fishing and tourism. And I expect to learn a lot.

One thing I've learned so far is that a lot of these conversations begin with climate change. And that's because Alaskans are already living with its effects - more frequent and extensive wildfires; bigger storm surges as sea ice melts faster; some of the swiftest shoreline erosion in the world, in some places more than three feet a year. Alaska's glaciers are melting faster, too, threatening tourism and adding to rising seas. And if we do nothing, Alaskan temperatures are projected to rise between six and 12 degrees by the end of the century, changing all sorts of industries forever.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, President Obama will deliver a speech at the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, or GLACIER, to address the crucial climate challenges in the Arctic. Obama's visit to the Arctic comes on the heels of his administration's decision to approve Shell's plans to begin oil extraction off the Alaskan coast this summer, despite protest from environmental groups.

Also, ahead of the trip, President Obama announced the name of North America's tallest mountain peak will be changed from Mount McKinley back to Denali, its traditional Alaska Native name. Ohio's congressional delegation had fought to defend the name McKinley, which honors former President William McKinley, who was from Ohio. But Alaska Natives have long viewed the name as imperialist.

Well, for more, we go to Anchorage, where we're joined by Rick Steiner via Democracy Now! video stream, a marine conservation biologist, former professor at the University of Alaska. Today, Dr. Steiner will speak at the "Our Climate, Our Future" rally convened by a coalition of Alaskan grassroots groups ahead of President Obama's speech. He's involved in the emergency response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and proposed the court settlement and major thrust of the restoration program for habitat protection. He has now started a petition called "Tell President Obama to designate Marine National Monuments in Alaska," which just surpassed 100,000 signers.

Rick Steiner, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what you'll be saying in your speech today and why you're protesting President Obama, who's the first sitting president to come to the Alaskan Arctic to address the issue of climate change.

RICK STEINER: Well, thanks, Amy. It's good to be back. And yeah, I think President Obama has been good on climate. He's probably been the best president in the history of the nation on climate change. But the problem is, he hasn't been good enough. The commitments that he has made are not enough to turn the tide on climate change. We're on a sinking boat, and it's like we're taking on two gallons of water - excuse me - every minute, and we're bailing one gallon. So, it's a recognition that they've made that there's a serious problem here, but it's not enough to fix the problem. This is an enormous threat in Alaska. We're living it daily. We're in crisis. And we need to have a response that's commensurate with the crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what Alaskan - what drilling off the Alaskan coast will mean - all of the environmentalists, the "kayaktivists," the people who hung from the bridges to try to prevent Shell from moving its rigs to Alaska to drill, to the Arctic.

RICK STEINER: Well, in a real sense, we think it's somewhat - it seems somewhat hypocritical to, on the one hand, say we're concerned about climate change, and the scientific community is very clear that we need to be leaving maybe two-thirds of the hydrocarbon reserves, the oil and gas and coal around the world, right where it is right now, in the ground and in the seabed, in order to be able to stabilize global climate in the future. The best place to start doing that, in our view, is this new frontier of the Arctic, in which there's something like 100 billion tons of carbon. Now, to the climate, it probably doesn't matter if the ton of carbon comes from the Middle East or the Gulf of Mexico or Africa or the Arctic, but the optics of this are very worrying. It shows us that if we're going to go ahead and drill for oil offshore in the Arctic Ocean, impose this industrialization and disturbance and this huge spill risk to this extraordinary ecosystem - it shows us that we may not be really serious enough, with enough resolve, to actually want to leave carbon in the ground and in the seabed, which is what we know we need to do. So it's worrisome to many people who are concerned about climate.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Steiner, you ultimately resigned from the University of Alaska around your views and scholarship on environmental protection. Can you talk about what happened, and talk more broadly about the power of the oil industry?

RICK STEINER: Well, the oil industry is God in Alaska. That's the way it's viewed by many politicians. It's responsible - oil revenues run the state of Alaska budget. It constitutes something like 80 or 90 percent of Alaska's state revenues. It's a big deal in Alaska. And it has this political momentum around it. So all the institutions - the university is extraordinarily pro-oil, and so are the state agencies and even the federal agencies here. And I've seen that all over the world, where a large oil industry develops - in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia - and has this peculiar political momentum.

In Alaska, the university did not want me seeking and teaching my truth publicly, that there were concerns and risks about offshore drilling in Alaska. And they didn't want me saying that. I argued that I had the - not just the right, but the responsibility, to seek and teach that truth. That was part of my - the work I was doing on behalf of the university. I complained about the risks of one particular offshore drilling project in Bristol Bay, and the university terminated my federal funding because of that. I argued with them, and then I ultimately said the heck with it, and I resigned on principle, that I was not going to pretend to work for an institution that pretended to honor academic freedom and, in the end, actually didn't. So I resigned. The problem is, is the university still - I mean, everybody else has this very clear message right now that thou shalt not criticize oil in Alaska, or else your position is at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: In the last minute we have together, we are leading up to the UN climate summit in Paris.


AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to happen?

RICK STEINER: Well, certainly, the US needs to double down on the commitments that President Obama has made so far. The US declared commitment is something like 28 to 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. That's good, but about half of what we need at Paris. The big deal, as well, is, the US agreement with China last year allows China to continue increasing their carbon emissions until 2030 - for the next 15 years. And conceivably, China could then double their carbon emissions by the time that this agreement requires them to cap their emissions and begin reducing it. When President Obama meets with President Xi Jinping next month in Washington, they should revisit that deal and get China to commit to earlier and more substantial greenhouse gas reductions. And that - you know, Paris is the make-or-break game. Either we get this strong, urgent, legally binding deal in Paris, or I think we're kind of sunk. So, Paris is a make-or-break deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Steiner, I want to thank you for being with us, marine conservation biologist, former professor at University of Alaska. Today he will be speaking at the "Our Climate, Our Future" rally ahead of President Obama's speech. He's started a petition that has now more than 100,000 signatures, "Tell President Obama to designate Marine National Monuments in Alaska." This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Will Grassroots Movements Change the Political Discourse in Iowa?

Presidential elections are an opportunity for grassroots movements to punch above their weight - especially in states like Iowa. Social movements there and around the United States are pushing candidates to state their positions on policies that will promote racial, social and economic justice.

Minnesota-based immigrant rights group Asamblea de Derechos Civiles disrupts a soapbox speech by GOP presidential candidate and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal on August 22 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Photo: Iowa Starting Line)Minnesota-based immigrant rights group Asamblea de Derechos Civiles disrupts a soapbox speech by GOP presidential candidate and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal on August 22 at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. (Photo: Iowa Starting Line)

The Iowa State Fair used to be campaign gold for presidential candidates, an event National Public Radio's "On Point" host Tom Ashbrook has called a "campaign launching pad," a picture perfect opportunity to meet thousands of likely caucus-goers, eat fried pork chops on a stick and bask in the glow of a national media spotlight brighter than buttered sweet corn shining in the summer sun.

But ever since 2011, when Mitt Romney was heckled by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement activists and made his "corporations are people, my friend" gaffe, a campaign appearance at the Iowa State Fair has brought as much risk as reward.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton understands this. She attended the Iowa State Fair on August 15 this year for photo ops and staged appearances but skipped the Des Moines Register's Soapbox stage altogether, likely fearing an unscripted moment that could knock her campaign off message.

"It's time for those running for office to answer the critical questions of our community."

Two days later, on August 17, Wisconsin governor and GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker found out the hard way the power that citizen activists have to turn campaign launch pads into bottle rocket duds. More than 50 home health-care workers were bused in from Madison and Milwaukee by SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and disrupted an Iowa State Fair speech Walker gave in front of hundreds of everyday Iowans.

The unionized "Fight for $15" workers followed Walker around the fairgrounds for hours and photobombed his stops with dozens of bright yellow-and-black signs that read, "Warning: Don't let Scott Walker do to America what he did to Wisconsin." Walker's supporters fought back, but the ensuing spectacle only helped to generate even more media headlines.

Other activists also took advantage of the Iowa State Fair this year to draw attention to their issues. A faith-based immigrant rights group from Minnesota, Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, organized an Iowa Pilgrimage Ride from August 19 to 23 and marched, rallied and held vigils in major cities across Iowa. The group arrived in Des Moines on August 21 to protest outside a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, as well as at a "Rally for Religious Liberty" held by GOP candidate and Texas senator Ted Cruz.

The Minnesota immigrants also bird-dogged GOP candidates Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey governor Chris Christie at the Iowa State Fair on August 22, the same day animal rights activists also confronted Christie. An "#AllowDebates" group with ties to some of Hillary Clinton's primary opponents publicly challenged the Democratic National Committee chair about the Democrats short public debate calendar on the second to last day of the fair as well.

"It's time for those running for office to answer the critical questions of our community," Pablo Tapia, an Asamblea de Derechos Civiles leader, told Truthout. "Every day we hear the stories of families torn apart, and the women and children who languish in prison while corporations profit off of our oppression. Now we are organized and there is no stopping us."

The Movement for Black Lives Pushes the US to the Left

Heckling politicians is as American as apple pie, and mic check-style tactics are nothing new to social movement organizing. Young immigrants with DREAM Iowa have been bird-dogging presidential candidates on the stump all summer, and Quakers with the American Friends Service Committee in both Iowa and New Hampshire have spent the last several months training everyday citizens to take effective action on the issues they care about.

"The people in power don't really want to concede to the radicals, but they end up being forced to concede some of the more moderate demands."

But bold actions attempting to claim and hold space, and actually shut down campaign events entirely, seem to be gaining widespread traction this year after leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement disrupted speaking engagements of the self-styled democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in Phoenix and Seattle. The progressive favorite was quickly forced to add racial justice to his platform and talk more openly about race on the stump. Similar actions soon followed targeting Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

"African Americans have a strong history of spearheading resistance movements in this country," said Jessica Welburn, a Black Twitter activist and African American studies professor at the University of Iowa.

"Mass movements make people feel like they can do something as individuals to make a difference. The conversation in this country has definitely moved forward as more and more people see civil unrest on the news and read about people protesting, and interrupting political candidates."

Pam Oliver, a sociologist studying social movements at the University of Wisconsin, described the influence that Black Lives Matter is having on the national debate as an example of what some social scientists call "the radical flank effect." According to this theory, mass radical organizing normalizes confrontational, disruptive direct actions as both legitimate and effective, and provokes a political crisis powerful enough to force institutional systems to begin negotiating with moderate movement factions.

"It's a little more complicated when partisan politics get involved, but as a pattern to think about, radicals put pressure on the system and help moderates win," Oliver said. "The people in power don't really want to concede to the radicals, but they end up being forced to concede some of the more moderate demands to try and get a handle on things and cool things down."

The dynamic Oliver describes is undoubtedly happening nationwide in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama has proposed a limited demilitarization plan for urban police forces and recently became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, where he called for some measured alternatives to mass incarceration policies. Presidential candidates besides Bernie Sanders have begun to spell out racial justice platforms of their own, and "Black millennial" factions like Campaign Zero have released their own political demands.

Local Resistance to Racism in Iowa

Iowa is first in the nation in the disproportionate incarceration of Black people. Iowa is 88 percent white, 6 percent Latino and 3 percent Black, but 26 percent of prisoners in the Midwest farm state are Black. Black Iowans are eight times more likely to be arrested for petty marijuana offenses than white Iowans.

Police violence against Black Iowans is also well documented. In 2008, Des Moines police officers beat a Black man 14 times with batons as he lay on the ground. Waterloo, one of Iowa's most diverse and racially segregated cities, is currently the subject of five separate federal lawsuits for excessive force by police.

Iowa City, nicknamed the "People's Republic" because of the community's progressive values, has nevertheless struggled for years to deal fairly with an influx of Black migrants from Chicago who have largely been segregated on the city's southeast side. A recent study of mainstream media coverage of Iowa City's demographic shift found that "virtually every news item about the southeast conforms to stereotypes depicting African-Americans as lazy, uneducated, dependent on government handouts, and prone to criminal or immoral behavior."

Welburn, the Twitter activist and sociologist, says her personal experience as a Black person from Iowa tracks with the academic research.

"There's always been tension in Iowa between African Americans and the predominantly white community," Welburn said. "A lot of stereotyping and profiling, as long as I can remember. But there are people of color in Iowa, and there are long-standing black organizations like the University of Iowa Black Student Union whose members were behind many of the recent protests here. People are developing strategies to become more vocal to combat racism in the community."

"Any presidential candidate who wants the support of Iowans needs to take on working people's issues."

In December 2014, Black graduate students at the University of Iowa mobilized hundreds of people to attend protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and the widespread outrage against the racist police killings of Black people. Just a few weeks ago, over a hundred people protested outside of Iowa City Hall after a Black 15-year-old was beaten by local police.

"I'm a mom, so if I see Black kids getting mistreated, I'm going to be like, 'hold on, because you are not going to do that to my kids,'" said LaTasha DeLoach, one of the Iowa City "Black Kids Play Too" demonstrators.

DeLoach grew up poor in Iowa City and is now a social worker running for political office as a candidate for the local school board. She calls the disproportionality of discipline against Black schoolchildren in Iowa City "pervasive and alarming."

"Some people may not like Black Lives Matter's tactics, but if anything they make you pay attention," DeLoach said. "They make you start asking questions. And the Occupy Wall Street folks did some of the same stuff."

"Now Black women in my generation are ready to stand up and speak out. We've been quiet all this time, while all of these things have happened to us, and I think it's important that now we have a seat at the table."

Black women in Iowa's capital city of Des Moines have also mobilized hundreds to Black Lives Matter protests over the last year. Demonstrations quickly broke out after a Black trans woman was discriminated against and arrested at a Des Moines metro-area hotel in July.

Pressure From Immigrant Workers

Low-wage immigrant and refugee workers have also been organizing in Iowa with the newly formed Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa. The faith and labor-backed group uses community meetings, direct action street protests and targeted negotiations with decision-makers to win on issues like wage theft, stopping deportations, community ID and raisingtheminimumwage.

"Any presidential candidate who wants the support of Iowans needs to take on working people's issues, like addressing wage theft and low wages," said Mazahir Salih, a low-wage worker and board member of the local worker justice center.

"We want the next president to ramp up enforcement of labor laws, raise the wage and strengthen workers' rights to organize. We must also re-haul our immigration laws, provide a progressive path to citizenship for every undocumented person and immediately stop deportations."

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is another people's action group with a long history of organizing family farmers, immigrants and Black people to fight for economic, environmental and racial justice. The group is planning a 40th anniversary convention for October 2 and 3 in Des Moines that will include keynote speeches by Moral Mondays founder Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza.

Shaping the Narrative of the Election Season

A year of urban riots followed by recent disruptions of presidential campaign events has succeeded in forcing the mainstream media and political system to consider the demands of racial justice activists.

"There is all kinds of information that shows white people are paying far more attention to Black issues after the surge of Black Lives Matter protests than they were before," Oliver said. "Significant strikes and riots will probably always produce headlines, but as elections heat up, party politics tend to crowd out all the other news in the paper. If you want to get your message out, showing up at an election event increases your chances of being heard because that's where all the reporters are."

To be successful, social movement organizers will have to navigate the open political space as an independent source of power, contending not only with super PACs, which are increasingly taking on campaign organizing and event planning in addition to attack ads and household mailers, but also with national advocacy and interest groups posing as grassroots activists, as well.

After Labor Day, Iowa and other early voting states will be flooded with campaign ads, field organizers and political operatives of all stripes and allegiances in an attempt by special interest groups to influence the primary races, jockey for internal control of the political parties and vie for public attention. Many of these outfits will attempt to orchestrate events to appear to be organic and homegrown, even if the plans, the staff and the money come from national advocacy groups and foundations based in Washington, DC.
Right-wing activists are also organizing and using the presidential election season to push their agenda forward. Nearly 200 pro-Confederate flag rallies have been held across the country this summer. Anti-choice protests in Iowa targeting Planned Parenthood and women's reproductive freedom mobilized 250 people on August 22 and more than 1,000 on August 15. Sen. Ted Cruz's rally for religious liberty turned out thousands of people. A popular conservative Iowa talk radio host recently called for enslaving immigrants who refuse to self-deport.

"The grassroots right has a lot of different elements," Oliver said. "There are the racist, nativist elements, who have clearly been exploding with activity recently. You've got the Tea Party and these right-wing populists where government somehow becomes the enemy instead of corporations. There's also a version of right-wing populism associated with Christian conservatism."

Building Radical Momentum in the Midwest

Taking on the combined forces of big money corporate spending, the grassroots right and liberal AstroTurf organizations is a daunting task for social movements to tackle and overcome. But grassroots organizing in Iowa, the Midwest and across the United States is having a real impact.

To sustain and build the momentum, movement leaders will have to mobilize more and broader layers of everyday people into durable, long-haul organizations, capable of scaling up and taking on larger, more sustained and more disruptive direct actions. Rank-and-file militants should learn to accept the inevitable bargaining between decision-makers and moderate movement factions, and keep fighting for more with their eyes on the only true prize: growing a real base of people power in workplaces, neighborhoods and communities across the country, which is truly independent of establishment interest groups, foundations, politicians and political parties.

"Candidates on both the left and the right are attempting to strike a populist image on a wide range of issues affecting working-class people," said Adam Mason, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement leader originally from rural Storm Lake. "Our members and many other everyday Iowans can see through the populist rhetoric on both sides, and we will be pressuring all candidates to back a specific set of 'People and Planet First' policies," added Mason, who currently serves as the organization's statewide policy organizing director.

"We'll also build and mobilize a base of social justice fighters that will hold the eventual nominees from both parties accountable to the people."

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Deliberate Targeting of Water Sources Worsens Misery for Millions of Syrians

A Syrian man and his wife carry bottles of water walk through a sandstorm in the Zaatari refugee camp north of Amman in Jordan, Aug. 31, 2012. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)A Syrian man and his wife carry bottles of water as they walk through a sandstorm in the Zaatari refugee camp north of Amman in Jordan, August 31, 2012. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)

United Nations - Imagine having to venture out into a conflict zone in search of water because rebel groups and government forces have targeted the pipelines. Imagine walking miles in the blazing summer heat, then waiting hours at a public tap to fill up your containers. Now imagine realizing the jugs are too heavy to carry back home.

This scene, witnessed by an engineer with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), is becoming all too common in embattled Syria. In this case, the child sent to fetch water was a little girl who simply sat down and cried when it became clear she wouldn't be able to get the precious resource back to her family.

Compounded by a blistering heat wave, with temperatures touching a searing 40 degrees Celsius in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's water shortage is reaching critical levels, the United Nations said Wednesday.

In an Aug. 26 press relief, UNICEF blasted parties to the conflict for deliberately targeting the water supply, adding that it has recorded 18 intentional water cuts in Aleppo in 2015 alone.

Such a move - banned under international law - is worsening the misery of millions of war-weary civilians, with an estimated five million people enduring the impacts of long interruptions to their water supply in the past few months.

"Clean water is both a basic need and a fundamental right, in Syria as it is anywhere else," Peter Salama, UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement today. "Denying civilians access to water is a flagrant violation of the laws of war and must end."

In some communities taps have remained dry for up to 17 consecutive days; in others, the dry spell has lasted over a month.

Often times the task of fetching water from collection points or public taps falls to children. It is not only exhausting work, but exceedingly dangerous in the conflict-ridden country. UNICEF says that three children have died in Aleppo in recent weeks while they were out in search of water.

In cities like Aleppo and Damascus, as well as the southwestern city of Dera'a, families are forced to consume water from unprotected and unregulated groundwater sources. Most likely contaminated, these sources put children at risk of water-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea.

With supply running so low and demand for water increasing by the day, water prices have shot up - by 3,000 percent in places like Aleppo - making it even harder for families to secure this life-sustaining resource.

Ground fighting and air raids have laid waste much of the country's water infrastructure, destroying pumping stations and severing pipelines at a time when municipal workers cannot get in to make necessary repairs.

To top it off, the all-too-frequent power cuts prevent technicians and engineers from pumping water into civilian areas.

UNICEF has trucked in water for over half-a-million people, 400,000 of them in Aleppo. The agency has also rehabilitated 94 wells serving 470,000 people and distributed 300,000 litres of fuel to beef up public water distribution systems in Aleppo and Damascus, where the shortage has impacted 2.3 million and 2.5 million people respectively. In Dera'a, a quarter of a million people are also enduring the cuts.

A 40-billion-dollar funding gap is preventing UNICEF from revving up its water, hygiene and sanitation operations around Syria. To tackle the crisis in Aleppo and Damascus alone the relief agency says it urgently needs 20 million dollars - a request that is unlikely to be met given the funding shortfall gripping humanitarian operations across the UN system.

Overall, water availability in Syria is about half what it was before 2011, when a massive protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad quickly turned into a violent insurrection that now involves over four separate armed groups including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Well into its fifth year, the war shows no sign of abating.

As the UN marks World Water Week (Aug. 23-28) its eyes are on the warring parties in Syria who must be held accountable for using water to achieve their military and political goals.

Edited by Kitty Stapp.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Justice for Samuel Harrell: Prosecute the "Beat Up Squad" at the Fishkill Prison

Black Lives Matter activists in the Hudson Valley are increasing pressure on DA William Grady to prosecute the officers accused of murdering Samuel Harrell, a Black prisoner diagnosed with bipolar disorder who was beaten to death at the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York.

Samuel Harrell (Photo: courtesy of the Harrell Family)Samuel Harrell (Photo: courtesy of the Harrell Family)A horrifying murder was committed four months ago and despite the killers being known, not a single thing has happened to them. The murder victim was Samuel Harrell, a Black prisoner living with bipolar disorder who was serving time in the Fishkill Correctional Facility in New York. After a mental health episode, in which he announced he was going home despite still having years to serve, officers wrestled him to the floor and handcuffed him. Edwin Pearson, one of at least 19 prisoners who witnessed the incident, has testified that a gang of 20 officers known as the "Beat Up Squad" then arrived and proceeded to punch, kick and jump on Harrell "like he was a trampoline" while yelling racial epithets. The gang then threw Harrell down a flight of stairs, concluding the fatal beating.

One prisoner wrote that Harrell lay at the bottom of the stairs "bent in an impossible position," adding, "His eyes were open, but they weren't looking at anything." Harrell died as a result of this brutal attack, according to Orange County medical examiner's autopsy report

Harrell's family continues to suffer with the loss, especially knowing the horrific abuse that caused his death. Diane Harrell, Samuel's wife, told Truthout: "I cannot bear the thought of my husband's last few minutes of life. I cannot help but visualize his beaten body. I know he suffered. I know he felt excruciating pain. I cannot help but wonder what his final thoughts were. I imagine he thought about us, his family."

Diane Harrell. (Photo: Ignacio Acevedo)Diane Harrell. (Photo: Ignacio Acevedo)Cerissa Harrell, Samuel's sister, certainly continues to mourn. She stated: "It has been four months and six days since I lost a brother and a friend. There aren't any words to express the intense feeling of loss I go through every day and every night. I miss him so much … He wasn't just an inmate. He was a brother, son, grandson, uncle, nephew, cousin and friend to so many people … Ask everyone who knew him: Sam was a gentle soul." Cerissa added, "Sam's life was stolen from him. He was only 30 years old. He had so much more life to live."

Cerissa Harrell. (Photo: Walter Hergt)Cerissa Harrell. (Photo: Walter Hergt)After robbing Harrell of his life, the Beat Up Squad told medics that Samuel died of an overdose. However, this proved to be untrue when the Orange County medical examiner found that there were no illegal drugs in his system, conclusively ruling his death a homicide. Despite this autopsy report and 19 affidavits and letters from prisoners who witnessed the deadly beating, District Attorney William Grady - who is responsible for prosecuting this murder - has let four months go by without pressing homicide charges. Meanwhile, The Beat Up Squad is reportedly still on duty, attacking inmates, throwing them in solitary and threatening prisoners to "forget what you saw here if you ever want to make it home."

Justice for Samuel Harrell

As a result of this extrajudicial killing going unpunished, Harrell's family and friends, including Diane and Cerissa, joined the Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter Coalition - made up of individuals from the organizations Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, Community Voices Heard and Citizen Action - to demand justice last week. On Thursday August 27, members of the coalition and family descended on Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady's office demanding that Grady immediately file homicide charges on the corrections officers who murdered Samuel Harrell.

The group blockaded the District Attorney's door, expecting the five individuals carrying out acts of civil disobedience to be arrested.

Blockading the DA. (Photo: Rez Ones)Blockading the DA. (Photo: Rez Ones)

However, despite blocking the entrance to the building, a four-way intersection, and finally a three-lane highway for a total of two hours, no arrests were made. It was later confirmed by the group's police liaison, Blair Goodman, that Grady explicitly instructed officers not to detain anyone. Perhaps arresting them, while letting the Beat Up Squad continue business as usual, was too great of an irony to bear.

Shutting Down an Intersection. (Photo: Rez Ones)Shutting Down an Intersection. (Photo: Rez Ones)

Shutting Down the Highway. (Photo: Rez Ones)Shutting Down the Highway. (Photo: Rez Ones)

The Larger Problem

The Beat Up Squad is not the only gang of abusive corrections officers: Violence by officers in prison is systemic. When incarcerated, one's chances of committing suicide, being sexually assaulted and being physically assaulted grow significantly. For example, in June, at Clinton, a correctional facility in upstate New York, corrections officers beat prisoners, choked them with plastic bags and threatened to waterboard them. According to an anonymous interview with a prisoner by the Correctional Association of New York, the only private organization in New York with unrestricted access to prisons, at Attica, another New York prison, if a prisoner looks at the corrections officers wrong, "they will beat you" and if you make allegations of sexual assault they will be also beat you. "They do it in the hallways and they stick together," the inmate said.

Much of this violence disproportionally affects Black prisoners - like Samuel Harrell - who make up 18 percent of the total population, 50 percent of those in prisons and 60 percent of those put in solitary confinement, according to the Correctional Association of New York. According to an anonymous prisoner interviewed by the Correctional Association, "90 percent of the abuse has race at the heart of it; they don't like Black people plain and simple; most of the guys who are beat up are Black." In addition to systemic racism, there have been explicitly racist acts carried out by corrections officers in New York State. Specifically, at Attica, corrections officers wore white sheets on their heads pretending they were a part of the Ku Klux Klan during a Christmas celebration, and, "As a part of the act, they have a statute of a Black baby with a noose around its neck hanging on the Christmas tree."

The violence faced by prisoners is only exacerbated for those with mental illness. According, Black people are also disproportionately placed in solitary confinement, which is considered torture, especially for those with mental illness. At Rikers Island 16-year-old Kalief Browder spent approximately two years in solitary confinement, during which he attempted suicide multiple times. He was also starved and beaten by officers over the three years he was kept at Rikers without trial. Kalief never recovered from the physical and mental violence he faced in prison, and he eventually killed himself.

Despite the violence experienced by inmates and documented above, until March 2015 criminal charges had never been broughtagainst correctional officers for a non-sexual assault on a prisoner anywhere in New York. Incarceration is part of the attack on Black life, and in particular on Black people like Samuel Harrell who have mental illnesses. People with a mental illness make up over half the prison population. This statistic is even higher for women who are incarcerated.

Abuse in prisons by corrections officers cannot go unchecked. The issue is systemic and must be addressed as such. By standing up for Samuel Harrell last Thursday, the fight to change this system was carried forward by his family. As Cerissa promised Samuel, "We will not stop fighting until we get you the justice you deserve." She continued, "WeasktheDistrictAttorney tobringchargesagainstthemenwhomurderedmy brother.Ipray forthosewho, likemeandmy family,have losta lovedoneatthe handsof theauthorities.Nooneshouldhavetoenduresuchpain. Wewillkeepfightinguntil noone else will."

Cerissa Harrell and Diane Harrel. (Photo: Rez Ones)Cerissa Harrell and Diane Harrel. (Photo: Rez Ones)

Because Black Lives Matter and because Black Prisoners Matter, the Hudson Valley Black Lives Matter Coalition will continue to fight in solidarity with Cerissa and Diane Harrell until #justiceforsamuelharrell is won. Just hours after the action last Thursday, the US attorney for the Southern District, Preet Bharara, announced that his office will join the investigation into Harrell's death. Hopefully this means Harrell's case will be taken seriously, bringing the larger issue of prisons as violent institutions into the spotlight.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
New Study Highlights Toxic Chemicals Traveling Through Breastmilk

Many new mothers worry about what they consume while they're breastfeeding. Obvious risks such as passing along medications or alcohol are well known to impact the development and health of their child. But a new study from Harvard shows that a certain chemical composition, all around us, could be impacting newborns more than we ever realized.

The study looked at a group of chemicals known as perfluorinated alkylate substances, also referred to as PFASs.

PFASs are found in products that are designed to repel water and oil such as food packaging, clothing, cosmetics, paints and stain-proof fabrics. These chemicals often make their way into the water supply and that's how they wind up in our bodies. These are present in most mammals all over the world and are known to have impacts on the reproductive system, immune function and certain types of cancers.

The transfer of PSAFs in breast milk has been studied before, but most of those studies looked at the quantity of PSAFs in the milk itself, which is usually fairly low. This study, however, looked at the build up in the blood of infants over time. What they found is that these chemicals tend to increase by 20-30 percent in the blood stream every month the child is breastfed. As breastfeeding stops, the amount decreases. Those who were partially breastfed also tended to have lower levels of PFASs in their system.

Phillipe Grandjean, the adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard Chan School says that, "There is no reason to discourage breastfeeding, but we are concerned that these pollutants are transferred to the next generation at a very vulnerable age." He also notes that currently there is no legislation in the US that requires testing of PFASs and their ability to move through mediums such as breast milk.

It seems like just another worry to add onto a pile of endless worries when a new baby arrives. But women can help keep PSAFs at bay by avoiding tap water while breastfeeding - which is the primary way that humans ingest these chemicals. In addition, women who are worried about continuous build up can supplement with formula during their breastfeeding period.

Yet the public must demand more studies on how certain products and chemicals can transfer to infants via breast milk. Many scientists lament the lack of funding and published, peer reviewed data on the subject. Judith S. Schreiber, a PhD who works for the Environmental Protection Bureau in New York State, writes that at the moment we mostly test for chemical toxicity in full grown adult men, and often at high doses. "Maternal, chemical, and physiologic factors influence the degree to which environmental chemicals are present in breast milk and are important determinants of the magnitude of the potential exposure of the infant," she writes. So why aren't there more tests out there to help determine the effect such chemicals can have on infants?

Organizations to combat this dearth of information, such as Make Our Milk Safe (MOMS), have sprung up, advocating for more studies and legislation on hazardous chemicals and how they are ingested and transferred.

MOMS spells out their mandate: "We believe that corporations have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the products they sell. We believe that government has a responsibility to ensure that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and their children are adequately protected by environmental health regulations."

However, despite such grassroots efforts, it will take a coming together of the scientific community, activists and environmental protection officers to really impact the level of PFASs that are currently finding their way into our water system.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Residents of Southside Syracuse Fight to Stop Construction of a Sewage Plant

Aggie Lane made her neighborhood's pitch on July 11, 2005. Flanked by supporters, she pressed the case for civil-rights claims targeting a county government bent on putting a sewage plant in her largely Black community.

	  Longtime Southside Syracuse resident Lula Donald. Southside is the site of an EPA Office of Civil Rights case over a sewage plant locals say would not have been built in a white neighborhood.  (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity) Longtime Southside Syracuse resident Lula Donald. Southside is the site of an EPA Office of Civil Rights case over a sewage plant locals say would not have been built in a white neighborhood. (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity)

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, DC.

Also see: Environmental Racism Persists, and the EPA Is One Reason Why

Also see: Thirty Miles From Selma, a Different Kind of Civil Rights Struggle

Syracuse, New York - Aggie Lane made her neighborhood's pitch on July 11, 2005. Flanked by eight colleagues from the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, a citizens' voice for the south side of Syracuse, New York, as well as a half-dozen supporters, Lane pressed the case for civil-rights claims targeting a county government bent on putting a sewage plant in her largely African-American community.

At the US Environmental Protection Agency's regional office in New York City Lane presented to a table full of civil-rights investigators and lawyers a PowerPoint detailing the Southside community's struggles: the state highway dissecting the historically black neighborhood; the industrial plants dumping on residents; and now the sewage treatment facility threatening to add to the burden.

"We all know that a white, middle-class community would not put up with a sewer facility in a residential area," Lane, herself a white, middle-class transplant to Southside Syracuse, said to the regulators.

One year earlier, Lane and fellow members of the Partnership had filed a complaint alleging that the Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility - planned by Onondaga County, with state approval - would discriminate against the Southside's black residents "both because of the siting and the [facility's] impacts." Filed under federal civil-rights law, the complaint claimed the plant would harm the "health and overall quality of life of the surrounding community," as well as adjacent Onondaga Creek.

Partnership members believed the complaint epitomized the fight for environmental justice. To bolster their argument, they noted the county's proposal for a similar plant on the north side of Syracuse, then predominantly white. That facility used alternative technology much like the Partnership had been advocating to no avail, according to the complaint, making it smaller and less obtrusive than what Southside residents were facing.

"We felt the county was putting something in here because it's a black area, and the EPA would see right through it," recalled Joanne Stevens, a lifelong resident of the Southside who became a Partnership member.

The EPA's Office of Civil Rights disagreed, dismissing the Partnership's complaint in March 2005 after conducting a six-month investigation without interviewing residents or visiting the Southside area.

Now, at this meeting four months later, EPA investigators said little about the decision. They listened as residents challenged the civil-rights office's finding that the Midland plant did "not have a significant adverse impact" - questioning its rationale for making such a determination and criticizing an inquiry that relied on county records. EPA officials offered a small concession that would give residents hope for their cause:

"If we receive new significant information," one investigator told the group, according to Partnership meeting minutes, "we may investigate."

"They thought that would be the end of it, but they didn't know us," Lane said, alluding to the 650-page addendum the Partnership filed a year later to supplement its case. She remembers mailing it, certified, and following up with a phone call - never to hear from the EPA again.

The brush-off was not unusual. As an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity has shown, the EPA's civil-rights office - assigned to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and assess environmental-discrimination claims filed by communities of color - almost always closes cases without action. Among the minority of Title VI complaints sparking investigation - 64 such cases over 17 years, including Southside Syracuse - records suggest the office has failed to fulfill its mission of rooting out discriminatory acts at agencies receiving EPA financial assistance.

Regulators have rarely closed an investigation with official action on behalf of minority communities. By the time the Partnership meeting occurred - 12 years after the EPA accepted its first civil-rights claim, in 1993 - the agency had resolved five cases, all without findings of Title VI violations, and through a mediation process not involving the complainants. In the decade since, the agency has settled an additional seven.

Alma Lowry, an environmental lawyer and former director of Syracuse University's public-interest law firm, which represented Southside residents, said EPA's civil-rights record has sent a clear message to citizens: "There's no gavel behind [Title VI]." She once worked at the Detroit law firm that has logged some of the earliest Title VI complaints with the agency; one complaint, filed on behalf of a Flint, Michigan, neighborhood, has remained open, pending investigation, for 16 years. Last month, the Flint community joined four others in a lawsuit challenging the EPA for what it called a "pattern and practice of unreasonable delay ..." in investigating their civil-rights claims. "The agency hasn't been able to take off its environmental hat and put on its civil-rights hat," Lowry said, explaining why she believes the EPA has never once found a formal Title VI violation in 22 years.

EPA officials declined to discuss details of specific cases, including Syracuse. The director of the agency's civil-rights office, Velveta Golightly-Howell, has promised to make a "full-blown effort" to improve the handling of Title VI complaints. "Our goal is really to provide relief for the complainants who have brought their issues and concerns to [the office]," she said.

The quest for justice in Southside Syracuse, however, tells a larger story of how people in some of the most disadvantaged communities can put forward a strong civil-rights case - replete with letter-writing campaigns, extensive research and what residents considered "smoking gun" documentation suggesting environmental racism - yet see little meaningful response from those enforcing the very law meant to protect them.

To this day, Lowry ranks Southside as "one of the most organized, effective and politically aggressive communities I've ever worked with." Yet it lost its battle against the Midland Avenue sewage plant, a source of bitterness for residents still. Those who fought the hardest cannot help but pin blame on the EPA.    

"If that kind of community can't make Title VI work for them," Lowry said, "I don't know who could."

A Forgotten Neighborhood

The Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility in Syracuse, New York. (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity)The Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility in Syracuse, New York. (Photo: Kristen Lombardi / Center for Public Integrity)Southside Syracuse, in Onondaga County, is like many other inner-city neighborhoods across the United States: pockmarked by crime and poverty. Bars and liquor stores dominate street corners, where drug deals can burst into the open. Residents hear gunfire while lying in bed at night. New and refurbished houses stand like beacons on city blocks. Most houses are in varying states of disrepair - dilapidated, boarded-up or abandoned. In some pockets, foundations and empty lots are all that remain.

Residents remember the Southside in better days, with its luscious street trees and regal Gothic buildings. For the longest time, those who live here - 84 percent of whom are African- American, and earning an average per capita income of $8,516 - have viewed the neighborhood as the "ghetto," forgotten by white, wealthy Syracuse.

"Officials never invested money into this slum," explained Elmore Davis, who, in 1998, moved to the Southside with her two daughters, lured by the promise of a house for $500 down.

Against this backdrop of decay, the county's sewage plant does not seem terribly threatening. Situated on a bank of Onondaga Creek, near a dairy, a laundry, a canning factory and a bus terminal, the Midland Avenue Regional Treatment Facility looks like any other industrial building. At 24,000 square feet, the aboveground structure rivals the public-housing apartments dotting the area's residential streets. It sits 250 feet away from the closest home, surrounded by open space where the county has planted trees and shrubs, a testament to the community's activism.

Inside the facility, two "vortex swirl concentrators" act like giant toilets and flush sewer water down a pipe to a municipal treatment facility approximately five miles away. Underground, a 2.5-million-gallon tank stores storm water. As wastewater builds up, the "swirlers" disinfect the flow with chlorine and dump it into the creek. There are no stacks or vats spewing chemicals into the air. Many newer residents have no idea the plant was built to clean up a creek once so full of raw sewage that the stench wafted across intersections and seeped into homes.

For much of the last century, Syracuse's civic leaders have used the creek as a sewage channel. In the early 1900s, they designed a sewer system collecting sewage and storm water, and featuring up to 90 overflow points where waste could discharge into waterways during rain events. One such waterway is Onondaga Creek, which feeds a lake sharing its name. By the 1980s, untreated sewage had dirtied the creek, drying on its banks before funneling into Onondaga Lake, then among the nation's most polluted.

Targeting lake polluters, a local environmental group sued Onondaga County in 1988 under clean-water laws, alleging its "combined sewage overflows" violated safety standards. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation joined the lawsuit, aiming to force a clean-up of Onondaga Creek.

As far back as 1979, county officials had drafted such a plan. The compliance program relied on swirlers to catch solid waste and chlorinate wastewater. It hinged on sewage plant "storage units," designed to treat flow on rain-drenched days. Officials proposed constructing four of these units, each above ground, and processing millions of gallons of wastewater a year. Even then, the county's plan included the Midland plant.

It took another two decades and a federal-court order before Onondaga County would implement its plan. In 1998, the clean-water litigation yielded a settlement requiring county officials to eliminate creek pollution. The county was to capture 85 percent of the average annual precipitation gushing into the combined sewers to reduce overflows. The settlement also dictated specific projects to be undertaken throughout Syracuse, including the Midland plant.

The judgment identified that plant as the first to be built - and the biggest. It would consume an entire city block and rival the size of a football field. A mile-long, 12-foot-diameter storage pipe would feed the plant.

Within months, the county's proposal was circulating among Southside residents who, by then, harbored a deep sense of mistrust. Over the years, government officials had built multiple urban-renewal projects in the neighborhood, evicting residents and razing homes. Industry crept further into the area, too; today, seven minor industrial facilities operate within four blocks, all formerly residential.

That county officials would site yet another project - and especially a sewage plant, which, in the words of Southside resident Lionel Logan, "was a negative connotation" - in the same community sent a clear message to residents.

"They figured our neighborhood is black, so they'll do it," said Louise Poindexter, who has lived on the Southside for 20 years. She and other residents voiced their objections to the Midland plant at a series of public hearings in 1999. They criticized the proposal for displacing citizens and permitting the release of chlorine into the creek. By 2000, residents had formed the Partnership for Onondaga Creek and were organizing neighbors and lobbying politicians.

They demanded alternative locations for the plant but, as the Partnership's Stevens put it, "That seemed like trying to stop a freight train." They next pressed for technologies they believed would reduce the facility's presence in their neighborhood. For them, the most appealing was underground storage, which holds sewage overflow in tanks during storms. It did not require chlorine or an aboveground facility. The county could build a park or a playground on top of the tanks, they argued.

City politicians soon took notice. "I thought, 'Of course, there are other alternatives,'" recalled Joanne Mahoney, the Onondaga County executive, who then served on the Syracuse city council. She remembers meeting with county officials to discuss the options espoused by the Partnership, to no avail.

"If it wasn't about cost," Mahoney said, summing up the county position at the time, "it was along the lines of 'It'll improve the neighborhood if we put a plant there.'"

County administrators often presented the Midland plant as a kind of fait accompli: The plant, they noted at hearings and in documents, solved a serious environmental problem contributing to neighborhood nuisances. They reminded critics about the court order, and insisted the Midland location made the most technical sense. Officials acknowledged that the plant had negatives but minimized them. Some said that landscaping the grounds was sufficient recompense. "I thought it was kind of patronizing," said Mahoney, of the county's responses. She, along with the rest of her city-council colleagues, voted not to sell the county the land it needed for the Midland plant.

Seeing her vote as one cast for environmental justice, she explained: "If combined sewage overflows were ... running through one of the affluent, white [areas], we wouldn't say, 'What's the cheapest thing to do?' And we'd never suggest that just putting up a park would make the neighborhood whole again."

By 2001, Onondaga County had sued the city of Syracuse to acquire that land, prompting a legal mediation between the two administrations and designated "stakeholders," brokered by the state. Partnership members lobbied state regulators for a seat at the negotiating table as well; when ignored, they showed up at the weekly sessions anyway. Over nine months, they met with government engineers and administrators and kept up their campaign for other options. In the summer of 2002, county officials seemed ready to relent. Regulators even drafted a proposed agreement declaring that "the best solution ... incorporates the use of underground storage" - until the county balked.

"The county said, 'We're going to court,'" said Joe Heath, general counsel for the six-tribe Onondaga Nation, which opposed the Midland plant and participated in the mediation, referring to a 2003 ruling seizing city land for the facility.

Onondaga County did make some concessions - subtracting one of three swirlers, for instance, and adding the underground tank. Administrators also agreed to buy an extra acre of land to construct only one building. The changes reduced the facility's footprint by 7,000 square feet, and shifted it away from homes by 160 feet. In documents, county officials presented such plant compromises as "considerabl[e]," and "an effort to accommodate [community] concerns." For residents, though, the scaled-down version was not enough.

"We said, 'Put in underground storage,' but the county couldn't do that, okay?" said Logan, who, like many Partnership members, left the negotiations feeling dissatisfied.

"My neighborhood still has the sewage plant," he added. "Sure, it's smaller ... but it still exists."

"Total Disregard"

The Partnership shifted its focus to the EPA's civil-rights office in 2004, when the group filed its Title VI complaint. While targeting Onondaga County, the complaint also named the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, which, under the 1998 judgment, had to approve the county's compliance program. It alleged that the county had violated civil-rights law in 2003 when issuing its final plan for the Midland plant - failing to allow for "adequate, meaningful public participation"; and adopting a design and location with "adverse impacts on a predominantly minority community."

It was not the first time the civil-rights office had heard about the Midland plant. In 2000, the facility was cited as evidence of an alleged pattern of racial discrimination in a wide-ranging Title VI complaint targeting county and city administrations. Unlike Onondaga County, the city of Syracuse opposed the plant. Yet it "failed to mount an aggressive defense of its Protected Population neighborhood," the complaint argued, as required by Title VI.

"The Midland plant was a clear example of the total disregard for people who live in those [Southside] neighborhoods," said Mike Kisselstein, who, as manager of a local bank, penned the earlier complaint. "Technically, it's discrimination."

Rather than examine Kisselstein's claim, the EPA denied it on procedural grounds because, the 2001 rejection letter stated, "it was not filed within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act."

Four years later, Southside residents were not about to let the EPA dismiss their case so easily. The Partnership offered a show of political support for its complaint, amassing a folder full of letters from federal legislators, university trustees, tribal members, local politicians, environmental advocates - "anybody who we thought had any clout," Lane said. Within five months, the EPA accepted the complaint for investigation - in part. Investigators tossed out the first allegation as "untimely," but not the second.

"The main gist of it, the [civil-rights office] was going to investigate," said Lane, who, given the previous rejection, considered the partial acceptance a victory. Generally, the EPA can mediate some resolution of a Title VI complaint with the target of the allegations. The Partnership wanted nothing less. In the ensuing months Lowry, the group's lawyer, wrote multiple letters to federal, state and county officials suggesting as much.

"We wanted EPA to say, 'Yes, there's environmental injustice here," explained Lane, the complaint's main contact, "and the way you can fix it is to go back to the negotiation table."

Onondaga County disputed the allegation, calling the complaint "jurisdictionally and procedurally defective," and arguing the plant would have little, if any, adverse impact. Responding to the citizens' complaint, county attorneys contended that the EPA had already addressed the core issues. They pointed to an environmental assessment of the Midland plant conducted by the agency's regional office, in New York City, which funded the $125 million project.

As required by law, EPA regional officials five years earlier had reviewed the Midland plant for potential environmental impacts. In the 1999 assessment, the agency ceded that the facility could cause what it termed "high adverse impact," albeit "temporary and/or ... offset by the county's measures to mitigate." It agreed with the county that the plant tackled a larger environmental problem, and that the plant location - home to several sewer overflows and trunk lines - meets "requirements for engineering feasibility and cost-effectiveness." And while the assessment included an environmental-justice analysis, examining a few nearby alternative sites, the agency said any facility would affect a similar population.

Ultimately, the EPA approved the Midland plant, issuing a "finding of no significant impact." The agency affirmed this conclusion in 2004, stating that "no significant adverse environmental impacts will result from the construction and operation of this project." That EPA finding, the county asserted in the civil-rights case, "precludes a finding of a Title VI violation."

For Southside residents, the irony seemed rich. Soon after the EPA released its environmental assessment, the county built 1,000 feet of a plant pipeline, ripping up properties, and disrupting people's lives. Now as the agency launched its civil-rights investigation, the county kicked off plant construction, seizing 45 townhouses, and evicting residents like Vernell Bentley, who lived in a public-housing unit across the street.

"They told me I had to go but I said, 'I'm not going,'" recalled Bentley, one of the few to hold out for replacement housing. She remembers when trucks pulled into her dead-end street, leveling picnic tables and a basketball court. "They were boarding up my windows," she said, "and putting up fences around my home."

Once a close-knit community, the Southside has not necessarily recovered. After the evictions, Bentley and former neighbors scattered across the city. Many have disappeared since. "It just messed up the neighborhood," said Bentley, who likens her experience to that of black citizens pushed out by urban-renewal projects in the 1960s and '70s.

"'We don't care about these Negroes, just put it here,'" she added.

By March 2005, the EPA's civil-rights office had dismissed the Partnership's complaint. Relying on the regional office's 1999 environmental assessment, as well as the county's paper trail for developing its sewer compliance plan, investigators determined that the Midland plant would not have a "significant adverse impact." "Therefore," the 2005 dismissal letter stated, "[the office] does not find a prima facie case of discriminatory effect."

Some saw a larger pattern in the EPA's dismissal. For years, its civil-rights office has interpreted compliance with environmental laws as evidence that a target's actions or decisions would not harm a minority community. Experts note that, unlike Title VI, environmental laws are not designed to protect historically vulnerable populations; on the contrary, they are written for everybody. These laws also examine individual impacts - on the air, or in the water - rather than the cumulative effect, as required by Title VI.

"Compliance with environmental laws was conflated with compliance with Title VI," said Lowry, who, like many, has viewed such an interpretation as a misreading of civil-rights law. In the Syracuse case, investigators did not evaluate what she described as legitimate resident claims about the county's final plan - its disruption to the community, for instance, and its dislocation of residents - because of their reliance on an environmental review not intended to account for such consequences in the same way as Title VI.

"With Title VI and the EPA," she added, "there is something of a disconnect."

Stunned by what they considered an unfair investigation, the Partnership pushed for a meeting with EPA officials in the summer of 2005, during which they challenged the agency's dismissal. When they heard the EPA's concession, members set out to find what they considered "new and significant information." Over nine months, they filed records requests and combed through documents detailing Onondaga County's sewer compliance plan. By 2006, they had produced a 150-page addendum, backed by 500 pages of government records, outlining how plan architects had repeatedly made decisions that would burden the Southside over other neighborhoods.

They believed they had uncovered "the smoking gun" in a three-page document written by consulting engineers for county administrators. The 1998 document revealed that Onondaga County had planned to build a "swirl concentrator" just like the Midland plant on the Northside before evaluating alternatives that, the engineering report stated, "will reduce costs and disruption of the site."

The county could capture the Northside's sewer overflows by building an "oversize pipeline in both Midland and [nearby downtown]," according to the report, thus sparing the former "disruption." The county later scratched this area's sewage plant for a smaller, less intrusive "floatable control facility."

"It was like, 'Okay, that's discrimination,'" said Lane, noting the Northside facility sat near luxury condominiums in a predominantly white area. A retired engineer, she saw the document as an expose of the ways the county was, in her words, "shifting the burden from the Northside, sparing them and placing it onto the Southside, where you can get away with it."

Given all this work - and all this new information - Partnership members never expected that the EPA would fail to acknowledge their addendum, they say. Now, 10 years after their case's dismissal, they have learned all about the agency's lackluster record of adjudicating civil-rights claims. Still, their case has seemed as good as any could get. To them, the agency's silence has left one lasting impression of its enforcement of civil-rights law:

"We do all the digging. We send them stuff. They don't talk to us anymore," said Lane, summing up the community's Title VI experience. "It makes you cynical after a while. ... You think, 'What does any of this really mean?'"

Asked about Syracuse, Golightly-Howell, the EPA's civil-rights chief, declined to speak about cases that have not "happened on my watch," beginning in February 2014. In general, she pointed out, "the agency bears the burden of investigating and determining whether a prima facie case [of discrimination] has been established."

Under her leadership, Golightly-Howell said, the civil-rights office has worked to implement a strategic plan for improving how investigators handle Title VI complaints. As part of this effort, it issued a position paper in May explaining the role of complainants during case investigations.

"We've made forward movement in the direction of increasing confidence," she said.

After the EPA's dismissal, Southside residents kept up their fight, protesting at every phase the Midland plant's construction. They eventually benefitted from a shift in Onondaga County's political landscape in late 2007, when executive Mahoney won her first election. Almost as soon as she had assumed office, Mahoney set out to revise the county's sewer compliance plan. By then, the Midland plant had already been built, but not its feeder line. She cancelled that pipeline, as well as another proposed sewage plant.  

"It was clearly the right thing to do," said Mahoney, who has since implemented a plan largely relying on alternative technologies espoused by the Partnership, such as underground storage.

Today, the Midland plant is the rare sewage plant storage unit to actually be built in Syracuse. Mahoney's sewer compliance plan has enabled her administration to reduce the footprint of every single proposed swirler facility except Midland. Some of those facilities became underground storage tanks, and are now nestled beneath parking lots. Others were never built.

That none of the city's other neighborhoods have had to endure what they have endured remains a bitter pill to swallow for many on the Southside. "We got the plant," the Partnership's Poindexter said. "Nobody else did."  As residents see it, Southside may be in better shape today than it would be if it no one had spoken up years ago - their sewage plant is smaller, their creek cleaner. But none of these gains came about because the EPA's civil-rights office did right by the community.

"What did the agency do for us? They didn't do shit for us," Poindexter said, echoing the sentiment among many neighbors. "They gave us hope when they knew there was none. That's how I feel about the whole thing."

This story is part of Environmental Justice, Denied. A look at the environmental problems that disproportionately affect communities of color. Click here to read more stories in this investigation.

Copyright 2015 The Center for Public Integrity.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Still Waiting for Help: Lessons of Hurricane Katrina on Poverty

New Orleans residents who waited out Hurricane Katrina at home took stock on the morning of August 29 2005, and they appeared to be safe; they had weathered the worst of the storm. In the hours to follow, however, a breach in the levees allowed water to continue to rise until whole neighborhoods were flooded.

More than one million residents of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities were forced from their homes. Many left with almost nothing.

By September 4, more than 250,000 hurricane survivors had evacuated to Texas, and more followed. In subsequent months, many survivors relocated again; some returned to New Orleans, but, according to accounts in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, many stayed in Texas.

Their experiences have much to teach us about the ways in which disaster relief programs interact with poverty and social welfare programs.

The Experience of Katrina Evacuees

Trained as an anthropologist, but with a social worker's perspective, I have spent most of my career studying the lived experiences of United States families in poverty, and the ways in which poverty and other social welfare programs affect their lives.

As 10,000 Katrina evacuees came into Austin, I joined a team of researchers who worked to understand the experiences of evacuees, and how they experienced the help offered them both as evacuees and as impoverished residents of a new city in a new state. We participated in interviews with evacuees whom we met as they first sought public assistance, and we also drew information from our work with city data collected by city of Austin service providers. (Some of our research appears in the book, Community Lost: The State, Civil Society, and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina and in this article.)

The experiences of Katrina evacuees illuminate the strengths and weaknesses in our disaster and poverty policies, particularly as they affect the poorest among us.

While Gulf Coast residents from all walks of life came to Austin in the aftermath of the storm, those who occupied the poorest, and most heavily African-American, wards in New Orleans arrived with the fewest resources. Evacuees from these areas, which suffered the worst flooding and storm damage, often arrived with very little. Many lacked basic identification, a change of clothing, or necessary prescription drugs. They were often separated from family members.

One mother, brought to the New Orleans airport for evacuation along with her extended family, told us how she was separated just before boarding from her brother, her adult daughter and her aunt. It took her weeks to discover where family members had landed.

Relief Efforts Unprepared for Long-Term Assistance

Evacuees were received with a large but hastily constructed and temporary disaster help program, and nearly 5,000 people stayed in the emergency shelters opened by the city. There they received medical care, food, shelter, clean clothing and advice about their next steps. However, this system was not designed or financed to care for people more than four or five weeks.

In most disasters requiring evacuation, evacuees can head back home in a matter of days or weeks. Katrina, however, displaced many on the Gulf Coast for months, years, and, for some, the rest of their lives.

Both our research team and the city of Austin tracked the experiences of evacuees as disaster services were reduced and finally closed. Within one month, the emergency shelters were closing, as social workers raced to find even temporary housing, sometimes in isolated neighborhoods outside the city. Within the next couple of months, emergency food services closed; within five or six months (depending on the case) FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) benefits were depleted.

As disaster services declined, household members were expected to find jobs, and to receive any needed assistance from regular poverty and human welfare programs. However, those evacuees who had arrived destitute were still, on average, experiencing extreme poverty.

The poorest evacuees, who had only temporary housing support, lacked personal identification and transportation, and experienced ongoing health and mental health issues, continued to have difficulty finding and holding jobs in Austin. Generally, adult disaster victims, months after the evacuation, were in the following circumstances:

  • They were earning an average income of US $629/month, with a majority of the respondents - 56% - falling between 0% and 50% of the national poverty line.

  • Sixty percent were unemployed and looking for work, often unsuccessfully.

  • Many households had received Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance, but the amounts were under $5,000 per household, and were quickly spent on rent, food and utilities as households were rapidly moved out of temporary shelters.

  • In spite of their extreme poverty, fewer than half of the evacuees had received food stamps; an even smaller proportion were receiving them at the time we interviewed them.

  • Evacuees experienced more limited health care coverage than before their evacuation.

  • More than half of the evacuees reported problems with ongoing physical health conditions; more than 40% continued to experience mental health problems.

Problems of Permanent Displacement

Meanwhile, in Austin, disaster services were declining just as evacuees were beginning to realize they might be permanently displaced. One individual, for instance, returned early to New Orleans but left because, while her house was still standing, nothing else in the neighborhood remained.

Regular poverty programs - such as welfare, food stamps, or Medicaid/Medicare - are increasingly oriented to those who possess basic identification documents, at least part-time employment, and a fixed address. Katrina evacuees who lacked identification documents struggled to find jobs, or to sustain stable housing.

Furthermore, poverty programs do not provide for all basic material needs. Most families in poverty and crisis receive the benefits of these programs, but depend on extended families, churches and local communities for supplementary assistance. Katrina evacuees, often forcibly separated from family members at the time of their evacuation, displaced from their churches and home communities, had few of these social resources.

Like others who experience extreme poverty, some evacuees needed longer-term, comprehensive assistance and support. Both our disaster and our poverty programs must reorient services to recognize and respond to those experiencing longer-term illness, trauma, isolation and lack of personal resources.

More nearly universal services in health care, including mental health services; childcare; and substantive job training can address barriers faced by families in poverty. This needs to be accompanied by housing support that provides stability and proximity to employers. Currently, means-tested programs in each of these areas require considerable documentation to participate and have substantial waiting lists.

Without such measures, we will continue to leave behind both the victims of major disasters and the poorest and most isolated of those in poverty.

The Conversation

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Death Toll Rises as Refugees Head to Europe Seeking Safety

The European Union has called for emergency talks to address the rapidly growing number of people fleeing to Europe to escape violence and unrest in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately 2,500 people are believed to have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe so far this year. On Sunday, 37 people died when a boat capsized off the Libyan coast. This came just days after another boat capsized off the Libyan coast killing more than 200 people. Meanwhile, investigators in Hungary and Austrian authorities are continuing to probe the deaths of 71 people who were found abandoned last week inside a truck on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna. We speak to Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration in Geneva; Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; and Dr. Chiara Montaldo of Doctors Without Borders in the Sicilian town of Pozzallo in Italy. She has been providing medical and psychological care to people rescued from boats in the Mediterranean.


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

AMY GOODMAN: The European Union has called for emergency talks to address the rapidly growing number of people fleeing to Europe to escape violence and unrest in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, approximately 2,500 people are believed to have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe so far this year. On Sunday, 37 people died when a boat capsized off the Libyan coast. This came just days after another boat capsized off the Libyan coast killing more than 200 people. Meanwhile, investigators in Hungary and Austrian authorities are continuing to probe the deaths of 71 people who were found abandoned last week inside a truck on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna. On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on governments to take action on the migrant crisis in Europe.

SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I am horrified and heartbroken as refugees and migrants are losing their lives in the Mediterranean, Europe and beyond. We have seen countless tragedies, most recently the grim discovery of more than 70 people who suffocated inside a truck in Austria. So many people have also drowned in the Mediterranean and also the Andaman Seas. We must understand why people are risking their lives: They are fleeing war, political instability and insecurity to seek a better future.

AMY GOODMAN: Hungary has responded to the situation by building a 109-mile-long razor-wire fence on its southern border. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports scenes of blatant racial profiling at Budapest's main train station. Authorities allowed white and lighter-skinned people to pass through, but stopped and demanded papers from virtually all darker-skinned people. On Saturday alone, Hungary detained 3,000 people. Over the weekend, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused Hungary of adopting a, quote, "scandalous" policy toward refugees. He made the remarks during an interview.

FOREIGN MINISTER LAURENT FABIUS: [translated] With regard to all those people who are politically chased out of their country and who are in war-torn countries, we have to be able to welcome them. It's called the plea for asylum, and every country has to respond to that - France, Germany, others. But when I see certain European countries that do not accept these groups, I find that scandalous.

REPORTER: [translated] Which countries are you speaking about?

FOREIGN MINISTER LAURENT FABIUS: [translated] Particularly countries that are situated in Eastern Europe.

REPORTER: [translated] Hungary, for example, what do you think of what's going on there?

FOREIGN MINISTER LAURENT FABIUS: [translated] They are extremely harsh. Hungary is part of Europe, which has values. We do not respect those values by putting up fences.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis, we're joined by Joel Millman in Geneva, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration there. And here in New York, Ken Roth is with us, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We also hope to go to the coast of Sicily, where migrants are pouring in to the coastal towns. But we're going to start right now in Geneva. Joel Millman, talk about the extent of the crisis. I think it's one that people in the United States are not very well aware of.

JOEL MILLMAN: Well, we're up 322,000 seaborne crossings into Europe, principally from Turkey into Greece and from Libya into Italy. This is, with four months to go in this year, 2015, we're already ahead of where we were last year at the end of August - I'm sorry, where we were for the whole, at 219,000. So we're 100,000 above that and with another third of the year to go.

These are people that are fleeing principally a handful of countries. Syria is number one, Eritrea, Somalia; now Afghanistan has become very prominent, as well - all people that generally, from those places, would merit consideration for asylum and resettlement. So, the tragedy is that people that would be treated as refugees by Europe under almost any circumstance are risking their lives for the opportunity to petition for something that most countries in the world think they already deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the - what is fueling this mass migration, from Africa, from the Middle East, from around all of the surrounding countries around Europe.

JOEL MILLMAN: Well, we can't be naïve. I mean, what's fueling it is the conflict and the stress that's happening in a few societies. However, it's the lawlessness of places like Syria and Libya right now that deny Europe and the rest of the world any kind of government partner that they can access to try to control or manage this migration flow. We understand that there are demographic imperatives involved, that Europe has a falling birth rate. There's a huge demand for cheap labor, skilled and unskilled, and there's a huge dearth of jobs in the countries where these individuals are coming from. But the fact is, this is not a new condition. This has gone on for decades and had been managed. They've been managed with governments that aren't altogether savory to us, like Gaddafi's government in Libya. However, in the absence of real authority, criminal gangs have stepped up and opportunistically decided to start trafficking in migrants. Quite a number of these cases are people that may not have intended to go to Europe at all in the first place and have been kidnapped and coerced and stuffed onto boats. So we've seen that to a great degree, particularly in Tripoli and the western part of Libya. But, obviously, it's the inability of any government to control this effectively that's created the opportunity for lots of criminal gangs. And they're moving - while the profits are high, they're moving as many people as they can.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the Schengen Agreement is?

JOEL MILLMAN: Well, it's an agreement that is among European countries, not solely those of the European Union, to be able to transit freely throughout the continent. It's to facilitate tourism and trade, and it's worked quite well for many decades, principally because, you know, Europeans are very affluent, and they follow rules very well, and, until recently, there wasn't quite a lot of people coming sort of irregularly - is the term we like to use - from outside Europe. Unfortunately, this is not a system built to make for orderly - you know, orderly transit through Europe when people that aren't there with documents or aren't there with valid visas start coming in these numbers. And the numbers are huge, as we discussed.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of migrants have sought shelter in a makeshift shantytown in the coastal town of Calais. This is an Afghan refugee named Wahib describing his experience there on the eve of a visit from European officials and French ministers.

WAHIB: Nobody is, like, treating us like as a human being here, you know? Everybody and police are - if you go, like, to city, some police see us, "Hey," go, "jungle, jungle." Like, we are human beings, so - they call us "jungle." You can see that, you know? So, it's like very embarrassing for me recently. I cannot say about other people, but for me it's like very embarrassing. It's just because that our country is not, like, good. It's - we cannot stay there. There's a war.

AMY GOODMAN: Joel Millman, if you could respond to what this migrant is saying? Joel Millman, speaking to us by video stream from Geneva, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration.

JOEL MILLMAN: Well, it's tragic, obviously. The individual that was just interviewed, I mean, he's an English speaker. It's not perfect English, but obviously he's educated. Obviously, he's made it all the way from Afghanistan to Calais. These are people that show tremendous resolve. Sometimes they have resources, and often they have great education. They're able - they would be able to thrive, integrate well in any society, particularly in Europe or North America. And yet, you know, regulations and rules against transit are keeping them in countries where their lives are often at risk. And we don't - we are no longer seeing these people as members of our society and welcome; we're seeing them as threats, especially if they come from Muslim countries. And it's true. I mean, they're reduced to living in squalor, which we think is beneath the dignity of any human being, much less a migrant.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling on the European Union to do right now, Joel Millman?

JOEL MILLMAN: Well, mostly to be flexible. I mean, we don't lobby particularly; we're not an advocacy group. And we don't think it's proper to single Europe out, as many have, as not doing its share. I mean, Europe has taken on a tremendous burden and have done so even though it's a system that's shared by 28 countries in the EU, and then, of course, all the other countries not in the EU. They're trying to find a way to turn what had been a uniform policy into something more flexible, and I think they've made pretty good strides. I mean, Germany last week talked about shelving the Dublin rule, which insists that an asylum seeker only accept asylum from the first country he arrives in, which clearly isn't working. I mean, hundreds of thousands have crossed into Italy in the last two years, and very few of them stay there. They all want to go to northern Europe or Germany or UK So, this is the kind of flexibility that we'd like to see more of.

Obviously, we want more resettlement, more resettlement quotas. We want people in Europe to understand that it's not a zero-sum game between letting them drown, on one hand, or giving them asylum and access to every benefit in the society, on the other. There are many, many solutions in between. I mean, there's temporary protected status. There's humanitarian resettlement. There's all kinds of things that governments have done for decades that only require a little bit of clear thinking and a political will. You know, here at IOM, we often reflect that it was four years ago this summer that the world was faced with the so-called boat people crisis in Southeast Asia. And the speed and the diligence with which countries as far afield as Canada and the US, France, Australia, Thailand and others all pitched in and found solutions for millions of people over a very short period of time and resettled them so successfully is something to be inspired by. And, you know, you often feel like, "What's happened with the world? They used to have solutions for these kind of crises, and now they seem to only have excuses for why they can't act." We know we can do better. We know that we will, with time.

AMY GOODMAN: Joel Millman, I want to thank you for being with us, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, speaking to us by video stream from Geneva, Switzerland. When we come back, we're going to go to the front line to a coastal town in Sicily, where migrants are pouring in, overwhelming the communities, communities without solutions. We'll also be joined by the head of Human Rights Watch here in New York, Kenneth Roth. This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You've been listening to the Migrant Choir. This is a collaborative public choral piece that was staged at the Venice Biennale in mid-August this year as part of the Creative Time Summit. Migrants gathered from around the world. They came to Venice, and they sang in front of three countries that have turned immigrants away, in front of Italy, in front of the British Pavilion, as well as in front of the French Pavilion. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at this massive global crisis.

The Mediterranean Sea has become one of the world's deadliest borders, as more than 340,000 people displaced by war and violence have attempted to reach Europe this year. We go now to the coast of Sicily to Dr. Chiara Montaldo, a coordinator with Doctors Without Borders in Pozzallo, Sicily, Italy, providing medical and psychological care to migrants and refugees rescued from boats in the Mediterranean. She recently wrote a piece for The Guardian called "We see more and more unaccompanied children on migrant boats."

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Montaldo. Describe what is happening in just your town alone, in Pozzallo, where you're working.

DR. CHIARA MONTALDO: Yes, good afternoon. What is happening here, we are receiving migrants since almost two years now. And honestly, the condition of the people we receive are worse and worse, not so much for the traveling in the sea, but really for the condition in Libya, in all the migration way before to come here. And the main point where they are now victim of violence is for sure Libya, where all the people that we talk with, they really tell us that now is really the hell. This is the word that they often use to describe Libya, is the "hell." There is no security. Many people have been really tortured or have been beaten. They come with the wounds and burns. Many women, but also many men, are raped. So, now what we see, unfortunately, are the consequences of the worsening of the situation in Libya. This is clear.

AMY GOODMAN: You retweeted someone writing, "We are alive only because we are not dead."


AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Montaldo, explain.

DR. CHIARA MONTALDO: Yeah, most of the people that we are receiving now are really escaping from death. So, why they risk their life in the sea? They know very well now that the sea is like Russian roulette. So, they can die, they know, because now there are more and more shipwreck and tragedies in the sea. But still they keep coming. Why? Because their condition in their own countries are worsening. First of all, Syria, of course, but not only Syria - Eritrea, Somalia, Nigeria. So, all these people are really escaping from a situation where the risk of life is really high, higher than the trip in the sea. So that's why they keep coming. Not only this, because actually we receive people from many different nationalities, but many of them, they were already living in Libya. And now, as I told you, the situation is always worse and worse, so all these people, really, most of them, they come because they don't have choice, and especially because they don't have other alternatives to this trip in the sea. So, unfortunately, some of them, they could afford to buy a ticket, if they could, but there is no possibility, because there are no legal way in this moment allowing them to reach safely Europe or any way a safe place.

AMY GOODMAN: The piece, Dr. Montaldo, that you wrote in The Guardian, you write of the chemical burns on the people, especially who were in the hold of the boats. And you write about how the lighter-skinned immigrants will be above, and the darker-skinned immigrants, for example, from Africa, are below, where they're more likely to get burned, because the immigrants fear that if darker-skinned people are seen, they're more likely to be turned away.

DR. CHIARA MONTALDO: Yeah, yeah, the chemical burn are symptoms that we see quite often, in some type of landing. It means whenever the boat has some problem of fuel leaking. So sometimes the fuel come out, and because they are sit all in the boat, especially in the lower part of the body, the legs, they have these really burn, like a fire burn, but they are caused by the fuel. And sometimes they are really severe. Sometimes we need to admit them. Sometimes we can treat them at the first reception center.

And it is true that, unfortunately, even in the boat, there is a kind of hierarchy. All of them, unfortunately, are desperate, but there is a kind of a different kind of despair, because, unfortunately, even in the boat, there is a first and second class, if we can say like that. And so, the last of the chain, often they have the worst places, the places more dangerous. And we see more and more people who died because they are in the - they stay in the lower part of the boat, which is normally the more - the most dangerous, because they cannot breathe sometimes. The fuel is there, and the gas of the boat - they are there. So, for example, two days ago, one of our team received people survived from this tragedy. Fifty people died because they were in the lower part of the boat. And they were probably without oxygen, and they died. Unfortunately, in these kind of tragedies, the people in the boat, maybe like yesterday, 400 people in the boat, they fight for life. This is normal. This situation put them in a situation where even in between them sometimes there are tension, and everybody try to save their own life.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your message for Europeans who say, "We have too many problems of our own. We have to send these people back," Dr. Montaldo?

DR. CHIARA MONTALDO: Honestly, I think that in front of what we are facing now - people dying, people without alternative - I think that this discussion to send them back, to block our borders are really - for me, they are - we should not discuss about this. We should discuss how to help people who is trying now to save their life. How can we still be here asking ourself should we block them or should not? How can we still be here to think how to protect ourself? I think that all our discussion are to protect ourself. But for me and for my organization, the priority is not protect ourself, is not protect our borders, but to help people who are dying. And they will continue to die if we don't do anything. And our fences, our barriers and our border are the cause of many of these deaths.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of what people should be called, aside, of course, from simply "human beings" and "people" - "migrants," "refugees" - what do they prefer? And do you think they should be granted political asylum?

DR. CHIARA MONTALDO: So, what I think and what we think is that we prefer to call always the people "people," "human being," because for us what is important is to provide the care of the people in need, whoever they are, if they are refugees, if they are - whoever they are. So, we always prefer to call people "people," "human beings." Then, of course, there are differences, because some of them, they escape from the war; some of them, they escape from extreme poverty; some of them, they are victim of trafficking. So, there are many, many different people and many different reason for which people are escaping now. But, for us, this doesn't matter. These, for us, are human beings in need, in extreme need, human beings escaping from death, very often, or, anyway, from very dangerous situation. So, yes, we always prefer to call them "human being."

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Kenneth Roth here in New York, executive director of Human Rights Watch. You have put out numerous reports on the situation of people who are migrating as a result of conflict, persecution, hunger, all the different reasons they do. What do you think has to happen now, Ken?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Amy, let me first put this in perspective, because, you know, we're talking about a crisis. And yes, 310,000, 320,000 people are a lot of people. But Europe's population as a whole is about 500 million. So what we're talking about, the number of people who have come this year is less than 0.1 percent of Europe's population. Now, compare that to the United States, where undocumented people in this country are about 11 million. That's about 3.5 percent of the US population. So, in other words, the US population has completely integrated massive more people, a much larger percentage than Europe is facing. Indeed, the US has built an economy around these people, so that it would be difficult to send them back. We're having a debate now about a path to citizenship, but realistically, these people are here to stay, and the US has just incorporated them.

So, this is not really a crisis. I mean, Europe is perfectly able to manage integrating 0.1 percent of its population. The problem is, it doesn't want to - at least some people don't want to. We've seen real leadership. You saw the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, saying - very powerfully speaking for the need to welcome these people. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has also been very outspoken in this regard. So, we are seeing some leadership in Europe, but the right wing, in particular, is demagoguing this issue and is creating real problems, which are not real problems, they're political problems.

AMY GOODMAN: So what exactly should the European Union do right now?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, it's important to recognize that a very substantial percentage of these people are refugees. That is to say, they're fleeing conflict and persecution. Yes, there are some economic migrants among them, but most at least have a right not to be sent back to persecution. And once they land on European soil, they actually have a right to have their asylum claim adjudicated, and if indeed they are found to be refugees, as most of them will be, they're entitled to stay.

So what Europe needs to do is to stop treating the Mediterranean or the often-dangerous land crossing, stop treating sort of drowning and death, as a way of preserving its borders. It needs to find safe and legal routes for these people who really do need to flee, a way for them to get to Europe without risking their lives. And, you know, we've seen modest steps in that direction. If you look at sort of the way Europe has responded to the Mediterranean Sea crossing, when the Italians were in charge, they had something called Mare Nostrum, which very much focused on protecting people. The European Union then took over about a year ago with Operation Triton and put a priority on preserving Europe's borders over protecting people - until this last spring, when a thousand people died in the course of one week, and then it changed. But I'm not sure if it's changed enough, because even just this weekend we've seen a number of drownings off the Libyan coast. Europe should be patrolling much more aggressively near the Mediterranean coast to try to rescue people as quickly as possible, so they're not continuing to use drowning as a way of preserving Europe's borders.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does the United States have to do with it? I mean, you have these massive conflicts that have roiled the globe. Do we have a responsibility here?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, yes. If you look at why people are fleeing - let's take the Syrians, who are the largest percentage. In an ordinary war, you can get some degree of protection by moving away from the front lines. But in Syria, Assad is dropping barrel bombs in the middle of civilian neighborhoods that happen to be controlled by the opposition. There is no safe place to move in Syria if you're in opposition-held territory, which is why we have 4 million refugees from Syria today. So one very important thing to do is to go to the root causes of this, to try to put real pressure on Assad to stop barrel-bombing civilians, and to take comparable steps in the other major refugee-producing countries, like Somalia, Eritrea and Afghanistan. You know, let's not forget why we have this crisis. It's not that everybody woke up this morning and thought it would be nice to move to Europe. These people are being forced out because of severe conflict and persecution.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see connections between what we're seeing in the United States - I mean, you have the Republican rhetoric; you have Donald Trump saying build a wall, Mexicans are rapists, all 11 million undocumented people should be deported; you have Chris Christie saying they should be treated like FedEx packages and tracked. What are the connections you see between what's happening in the United States and what's happening in Europe?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, there are commonalities between the right wing in both Europe and the United States. And what this is really about is some sense that the migrants are somehow destroying American culture or European culture, that these societies cannot incorporate the changes that would result from welcoming in, you know, hundreds of thousands or, in some cases in the US, millions of people. Now, the United States, in fact, is just fine. In fact, it's been greatly enriched by the immigration. And it's not as if American culture is radically different today from what it was, you know, two or three decades ago. It's not as if American democracy is in jeopardy. But this is nonetheless an argument that the right wing likes to put forward, that the American way of life is in jeopardy. And you see very similar arguments in Europe, aggravated by the fact that so many of these asylum seekers and migrants are Muslims. And there's this terrifying fear in Europe that, you know, largely Christian Europe is somehow going to changed for the worse because a handful of Muslims are going to come in. And so there is this unfortunate right-wing, racist commonality.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Ken Roth, for being with us. I hope you'll stay, because we're going to be talking about Egypt soon with Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo, the three Al Jazeera reporters that were just sentenced to three years in prison. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights [Watch] here in New York. And thanks so much to Dr. Chiara Montaldo, who is coordinator with Doctors Without Borders, speaking to us from Pozzallo in Sicily, Italy. Of course, we'll continue to follow this issue.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, though, we're going north to Alaska. President Obama is there. He's renaming the tallest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley - he's renaming it Denali. And we will talk about climate change in Alaska, before we go to Cairo. Stay with us.

News Mon, 31 Aug 2015 00:00:00 -0400