News http://www.truth-out.org Sun, 04 Dec 2016 11:05:56 -0500 en-gb Top Scientists: Amazon's Tapajós Dam Complex "a Crisis in the Making" http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38614-top-scientists-amazon-s-tapajos-dam-complex-a-crisis-in-the-making http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38614-top-scientists-amazon-s-tapajos-dam-complex-a-crisis-in-the-making

The Tapajós River, Brazil. More than forty dams would turn this free flowing river and its tributaries into a vast industrial waterway threatening the Tapajós Basin’s ecosystems, wildlife, people, and even the regional and global climate. (Photo: International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)The Tapajós River, Brazil. More than 40 dams would turn this free-flowing river and its tributaries into a vast industrial waterway threatening the Tapajós Basin's ecosystems, wildlife, people and even the regional and global climate. (Photo: International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)

Brazil is forging ahead with plans to build a vast hydropower dam complex in the heart of the Amazon that would convert the now remote and wild Tapajós river system into a tamed industrial waterway for the purpose of transporting soybeans -- development that scientists and NGOs say will threaten Amazonian biodiversity, ecosystems, traditional livelihoods, indigenous cultures, and the global climate.

A total of 42 large dams are planned or under construction in the Tapajós Basin, a biologically and culturally rich region, and one of eight areas of Amazonian biological endemism. Fed by tributaries in the states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia and Amazonas, the main stem of the Tapajós flows northeast through Pará state, and drains into the Amazon River at the city of Santarém. The Basin covers 189,962 square miles (492,000 square kilometers) and is more than twice the size of the UK.

Its forests and waterways are home to species such as the jaguar, giant otter, and river dolphin, as well as little-known and range-restricted species found nowhere else in the world. Many plants and animals here remain unknown to science. Traditional river communities and indigenous people rely upon the basin's natural resources for their livelihoods.

A lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) swimming across a river. This is just one of many threatened species in the Tapajós region, a vast area recognized as one the Amazon’s eight areas of biological endemism. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) swimming across a river. This is just one of many threatened species in the Tapajós region, a vast area recognized as one the Amazon's eight areas of biological endemism. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)

Dams are slated for construction on the Tapajós River, as well as on its principal tributaries, the Jamanxim, Juruena and Teles Pires rivers; the 7 major dams prioritized in Brazil's 2013-2022 Ten Year Energy Expansion Plan for the Tapajós River and Teles Pires Basin would together put 1,479.5 square miles (3,831.9 square kilometers) underwater.

Amazon Scientists: "Effects Would Clearly Be Devastating"

The recent suspension of the largest of these, the São Luiz do Tapajós dam, was hailed as a conservation and human rights victory: if it remains unbuilt, then 280 square miles (722 square kilometers) of forest will be spared inundation. There is, however, concern that this dam won't stay dead, with rumblings throughout Brazil's Temer administration that the suspension of São Luiz do Tapajós will be reversed.

But no matter: there will be many severe impacts from the more than 40 other dams, especially when all of them are considered together, warns Philip Fearnside, an expert on Amazonian development and deforestation. Reservoirs flood forests, displace people, emit greenhouse gases (especially in the tropics), and disrupt the flow of water downstream and between river channels and floodplains.

In opening up barge and ship navigation from Mato Grosso state to the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean, the industrial waterway will promote the expansion of the soy industry, driving further major deforestation in the Amazonian interior. Negative interactions between dam construction, industry, and additional infrastructure -- including major new roads and railways -- coupled with human migration into the region, will trigger a cascade of indirect impacts on the forest ecosystem, unless plans are changed drastically to mitigate these impacts.

"The effects would clearly be devastating, both for the ecology and connectivity of the greater Tapajós Basin as well as for its diverse groups of indigenous peoples," William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University, Australia, and a leading authority on tropical rainforest ecology, told Mongabay. "It is not overstating matters to term this a crisis in the making."

A female jaguar (Panthera onca) pauses on a riverbank. Even species that aren’t typically associated with rivers, such as jaguars, make use of riverbanks to hunt for prey. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A female jaguar (Panthera onca) pauses on a riverbank. Even species that aren't typically associated with rivers, such as jaguars, make use of riverbanks to hunt for prey. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)

Stewart Maginnis, global director of IUCN's Nature-based Solutions Group, and former director of its Forest and Climate Change Program, shares this concern: "The impacts on freshwater biodiversity, indigenous people, and the opening up of new areas for agriculture bring the risk of further deforestation and land-use changes in the Amazon Basin."

Despite the immensity of these potential impacts, the public is still mostly unaware of the "complexity and ambitions" of the plans in the Tapajós, says prominent Amazon conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy, director of the Center for Biodiversity and Sustainability at George Mason University, and senior fellow at the UN Foundation.

Plan Benefits Construction Firms, Energy Industry and Agribusiness

One factor driving the so-called "Tapajós Complex" forward is the Brazilian government's appetite for hydroelectric energy production and for funding big infrastructure projects.

Fearnside argues that these national energy needs have not only been "greatly exaggerated," but that they could easily be met by alternative power sources. "The projections [of Brazil's future energy needs] ignore all limits, [and forecast] astronomical electricity use within a few years," statistics that are then used to justify the planned hydroelectric projects, he says.

The building of mega-dams (including the recently completed but controversial Belo Monte Dam) has hugely benefited Brazil's gigantic construction firms, along with the nation's ruling political parties, who in the past have received very generous campaign contributions from contract-winning companies.

Construction is already underway at the São Manoel dam site on the Teles Pires river, with three other dams completed or nearing completion. The Teles Pires is a major tributary of the Tapajós River. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)Construction is already underway at the São Manoel dam site on the Teles Pires river, with three other dams completed or nearing completion. The Teles Pires is a major tributary of the Tapajós River. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)

"The first priority [for Brazil should be] to use less electricity," argues Fearnside, a professor at Brazil's National Institute of Research in the Amazon (INPA). And if the country needs to move beyond energy efficiency to increase production, then "Brazil has enormous potential for wind and solar power."

Another driving force behind the Tapajós Dam Complex is the "tremendous pressure" from the soy industry, which stands to reap major benefits from the cheap improved transportation afforded by the industrial waterway. That is coupled with the importance of soy exports to the Brazilian economy, significance vastly magnified by the current urgency of Brazil's severe economic crisis.

Together, these factors mean that "there is much political willingness to facilitate [Tapajós development] regardless of the consequences" asserts Fearnside. Links between government and agribusiness are stronger than ever, with one of Brazil's largest soy planters, Blairo Maggi, recently appointed as the Minister for Agriculture. "The largest of the Maggi family's 12 properties would be served by the first branch of the planned waterway, the Teles Pires branch," Fearnside notes.

Because hydroelectric projects facilitate lock-building and the flooding of otherwise impassable rapids, the 40+ new dams are inextricably linked with, and vital to, the planned industrial waterway. Laurance and Fearnside see the resulting "all-or-nothing" approach to dam construction as especially dangerous. Without the need for the industrial waterway some hydroelectric dams might not be a priority for the government at all.

In the Name of National Security

A major concern in the Tapajós Basin is that the government will turn a blind eye to potential social and ecological impacts, bulldozing a path forward. In the past, the Brazilian government has repeatedly used national "security suspensions" as a means of overturning environmental licensing restrictions and thwarting social resistance to major infrastructure projects including dams, opting instead for economic growth -- which is deemed a national security imperative.

This legal provision is a holdover from Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Indeed, the "security suspension" provision has already been used to make way for four new dams already under construction on the Teles Pires River, a Tapajós tributary. Though a judge ordered two of those dams stopped, the decision was overruled via a "security suspension."

Soy and forest in the Brazilian Amazon. The soy industry will be one of the main beneficiaries of the Tapajós industrial waterway, which will open up barge and ship navigation between Mato Grosso state, the Amazon River, Atlantic ports, and beyond. Because dams facilitate lock-building, and the flooding of formerly impassable rapids, they and their reservoirs are inextricably linked with the plans for the waterway. Scientists are concerned about the resulting “all or nothing” approach to this rapid infrastructure development. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)Soy and forest in the Brazilian Amazon. The soy industry will be one of the main beneficiaries of the Tapajós industrial waterway, which will open up barge and ship navigation between Mato Grosso state, the Amazon River, Atlantic ports and beyond. Because dams facilitate lock-building, and the flooding of formerly impassable rapids, they and their reservoirs are inextricably linked with the plans for the waterway. Scientists are concerned about the resulting "all or nothing" approach to this rapid infrastructure development. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Meanwhile numerous measures are being moved through the Brazilian Congress that, if passed, could fast track the dams. In addition, the government -- apparently in preparation for Tapajós Complex construction -- has in recent years quietly reduced the size of major federally protected areas along the region's rivers, eliminating protections to floodplains in order to anticipate and prevent any legal conflict with the dams and their reservoirs when the projects were finally initiated.

The fear among NGOs and indigenous groups is that government officials are setting the stage to quickly green light dam construction throughout the Tapajós Basin. "Governmental indifference, bordering on hostility, to the natural systems in the earth's last large tropical forest ecosystem is nothing short of outrageous," says Lawrence Hurd, a professor at Washington and Lee University, USA.

Hydrological Impacts

One of the most immediate and direct effects of any dam is the obstruction of water: downstream flow, seasonal fluctuations, and natural flood pulses are all diminished and controlled by dams and reservoirs -- doubly so in rainforests which can fluctuate between very wet flood seasons, and very dry seasons with low water.

Dams interrupt essential natural connections, blocking the flow of nutrients, sediments, and aquatic life between headwaters and river channels downstream, and across floodplains.

"Hydrological connections sustain the ecological, economic and cultural integrity of the Tapajós River system," Woods Hole Research Center, USA, scientist Marcia Macedo explains. "The Tapajós Hydroelectric Complex would fundamentally change the flow of water" in the basin.

Michael Coe, an earth system scientist also at Woods Hole, sees the "complete re-engineering of the free-flowing river system" as a real cause for concern, because "even very small changes in flow timing and magnitude can cause very large changes in ecosystem processes. In particular, I worry about the health and viability of the riparian zones along these rivers," says Coe.

A nesting beach used by the Giant Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa). The reservoirs created by Tapajós Basin dams will flood hundreds of square miles, and radically alter the flow of water within the river systems. Aquatic and floodplain habitats will be altered and destroyed, including nesting beaches such as this one. (Photo by Camila Ferrara)A nesting beach used by the Giant Amazon River Turtle (Podocnemis expansa). The reservoirs created by Tapajós Basin dams will flood hundreds of square miles, and radically alter the flow of water within the river systems. Aquatic and floodplain habitats will be altered and destroyed, including nesting beaches such as this one. (Photo by Camila Ferrara)

Another impact of blocked flow: the concentration of methylmercury in reservoirs, and downstream from reservoirs -- a partial result of the mercury that is used in gold mining in the Amazon. Once consumed by fish, the toxin bio-accumulates up the food chain; those at the top, such as large predators and people, consume the highest quantities of this toxic metal which poses a serious health risk. Amazon dams have sometimes shown dangerous levels of methylmercury -- a real risk on the Tapajós, which already sees high concentrations of this toxic compound in some parts of the river.

All of these negative hydrological impacts are compounded and magnified when multiple dams are built in series along the same river, or in a river system, which would happen all across the Tapajós Complex.

But despite these clear cumulative impacts being "much larger than the sum of the parts" as Coe puts it, threats are always evaluated by the government on a dam-by-dam basis, and cumulative impacts are not considered.

Many scientists argue that for the Tapajós Complex to be evaluated properly, all the dams must be analyzed together and in advance, in order to gain a clear perspective regarding the cumulative environmental effects of altered flows.

Biodiversity Impacts

The hydrological changes wrought by the construction of the Tapajós dams will have profound effects on the species living within the freshwater ecosystem: connectivity is crucial for healthy and genetically diverse populations.

A rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum) caught in the act. Species such as this will see both their habitat and their fish prey impacted by dam construction. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A rufescent tiger heron (Tigrisoma lineatum) caught in the act. Species such as this will see both their habitat and their fish prey impacted by dam construction. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)"It is easy to predict the overall impact of dams on fish species communities: diversity will decrease both above and below the dams, some species will go extinct locally and, because tropical fish often have limited ranges of occurrence, regionally as well," Hurd, who studies tropical fish diversity, told Mongabay.

Mitigating these impacts is all but impossible, he explains. That's why he sees the development of the Tapajós as a looming "environmental disaster." Dams change water flow, depth, temperature, sedimentation, and oxygen levels, and Amazonian "[f]ish species are exquisitely adapted to these environmental characteristics."

The dams would also act as barriers to movement and migration, making annual spawning runs upstream impossible for many species, says WWF-Brazil's science program coordinator Mariana Napolitano Ferreira. Dam-obstructed migration has already been documented for giant catfish elsewhere in the Amazon basin. Although some efforts to incorporate fish ladders into dams have been made in the past, these have not been successful. And even if fish are able to somehow return upstream to spawn, juvenile fish coming back downstream may find their way past dams impassable.

Changes in fish populations will be felt by their predators, including two species of river dolphin, says researcher Claryana Araújo, of the Federal University of Goiás, Brazil. Freshwater dolphins also risk population fragmentation and isolation by some of the planned dams, she says.

Turtles will lose habitats and nesting beaches to dam reservoirs. "[I]nundating such massive areas of forest will destroy the populations of 11 species of turtles," with 6 facing complete extirpation due to the destruction of their foraging habitat and nesting areas, Richard Vogt, turtle conservationist at INPA, told Mongabay.

Some species, such as the giant Amazon river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) migrate hundreds of kilometers to return to their historic nesting beaches over their 80-100 year lifespans, Vogt explains, so "destroying these sites will affect the integrity of these populations" and "disrupt the ability of these species to find mates."

A pair of capped herons (Pilherodius pileatus). The connectivity of the Amazon’s freshwater habitats is crucial for aquatic species, but is threatened by dam construction which diminishes the flood cycles that naturally inundate the floodplain. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A pair of capped herons (Pilherodius pileatus). The connectivity of the Amazon's freshwater habitats is crucial for aquatic species, but is threatened by dam construction which diminishes the flood cycles that naturally inundate the floodplain. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)With Tapajós Basin reservoirs putting thousands of hectares of forest underwater, hundreds of species living on river islands, along riverbanks, and within the floodplain forest would see their habitat disappear. Numerous protected conservation areas and their forests and wetlands would be affected too.

Threatened species in the region include the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), white-cheeked spider monkey (Ateles marginatus), and oncilla, or little spotted cat (Leopardus tigrinus).

Construction of the Tapajós Complex would also see the "[d]irect loss of habitat for many bird species," Alexander Lees, an ornithologist at Cornell University, USA, told Mongabay. "The region is home to a suite of restricted range bird species, all of which are poorly known and already at risk of global extinction because of forest loss."

Those at greatest risk include the Golden-crowned Manakin (Lepidothrix vilasboasi); the Tapajós Hermit (Phaethornis aethopygus); the Tapajós Scythebill (Campylorhamphus cardosoi), which was only recently described by science; and the Cone-billed Tanager (Conothraupis mesoleuca) "which remains Critically Endangered and very poorly known," Lees says.

Once indirect deforestation is taken into account -- due to the building of dam service roads, electric transmission lines, plus towns to support construction workers -- habitat loss and fragmentation becomes even more serious.

Laurance, who has studied the impacts of road construction on deforestation, sees this indirect impact as an even greater threat to forest cover than the dams themselves. "Such roads frequently open a Pandora's Box of illegal activities, such as forest encroachment, wildfires, poaching, illegal logging, that are highly destructive to forests and wildlife," he states.

Social and Economic Impacts

For the many thousand people belonging to indigenous groups and traditional riverine communities in the Basin, rivers and forests are central to their way of life, and the Tapajós Complex will bring unwelcome change. But even people living in cities are being affected by the vast undertaking. The cities of Santarem and Itaituba have, for example, already been impacted as soy port infrastructure has been put in place, bringing new jobs, but also adding to urban problems such as pollution, crime and overcrowding.

Indigenous Munduruku living on the Teles Pires River taking part in a mapping workshop. Indigenous people and river communities have seen, and will continue to see, territory lost, fisheries disrupted and depleted, and food security diminished, with the construction of the Tapajós Complex dams. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)Indigenous Munduruku living on the Teles Pires River taking part in a mapping workshop. Indigenous people and river communities have seen, and will continue to see, territory lost, fisheries disrupted and depleted, and food security diminished, with the construction of the Tapajós Complex dams. (Photo by International Rivers on Flickr, licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license)

The Chacorão Dam alone, on the Tapajós River, "would flood 11,700 hectares [45 square miles] in the Munduruku Indigenous Land", reveals Fearnside, who recently highlighted a series of actions taken by the government to chip away at legal restrictions on big infrastructure projects, threatening indigenous territories.

In an earlier interview for Mongabay, Brent Millikan, the Amazon Program Director at the NGO International Rivers, said that the socio-environmental conflicts associated with the Tapajós Complex "have been closely associated with chronic violations of human rights and environmental legislation, the undermining of democratic institutions, authoritarianism and, ultimately, rampant corruption."

"A human rights crisis, driven by the flooding of indigenous territories and forced relocation of indigenous villages -- which is illegal under Brazil's constitution -- would be exacerbated by the loss of fisheries, reduced fertility of fertile floodplains, and polluting of clean water sources," says Amazon Watch's Christian Poirier.

The "grim consequences" of hydropower development for fish, turtles and mammals have knock-on effects on the human population, as these species "form the basis of local food security and livelihoods" for resident communities, Poirier notes.

Hurd elaborated further, saying that migratory fish are both "the most important source of protein for regional human populations" and "perhaps the most immediately vulnerable victims of dam construction." These fish also form the basis for regional commercial fisheries in the Tapajós Basin. Their loss would force the Basin's human population to look elsewhere to meet its protein needs.

Camila Jericó-Daminello, a research analyst with the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), studied the possible economic impacts of just one of the dams, the São Luiz do Tapajós project, were it to go ahead. "Considering negative economic impacts on household incomes, water provision, and climate regulation, the environmental costs associated with the project, but not formally accounted for [in official environmental assessments], are at least BRL $1.9 billion (USD $590 million) considering a 30 year timeframe," she observes.

"Despite the scale of these costs, almost no information about the dam had until recently been shared with civil society and local populations," says Jericó-Daminello.

The main stem of the Tapajós River, one of the last great undammed rivers of the Amazon. When combined with the Juruena River, it flows for roughly 1,200 miles through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Scientists continue to discover species that are new to science here. An Environmental Impact Assessment for just one proposed dam uncovered eight new mammal species. (Photo by Zoe Sullivan)The main stem of the Tapajós River, one of the last great undammed rivers of the Amazon. When combined with the Juruena River, it flows for roughly 1,200 miles through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Scientists continue to discover species that are new to science here. An Environmental Impact Assessment for just one proposed dam uncovered eight new mammal species. (Photo by Zoe Sullivan)

Although São Luiz do Tapajós is currently on hold, these financial predictions hint at the astronomical economic costs if the remaining 40+ dams are constructed. The full social and economic price of the Tapajós Complex have yet to be analyzed, and no overall evaluation has ever been put before the people most likely to be impacted.

As Isabel Rosa, a researcher at the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research notes, Brazil has a large indigenous population deeply reliant on the Amazon rainforest: "If the Brazilian legal system is not doing its job in protecting its citizens' interests, who will?"

Climate Impacts

Although dams are traditionally promoted as clean energy sources, there is increasing recognition among scientists and policymakers that hydropower reservoirs (especially in the tropics) are far from green: carbon dioxide and methane -- a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as potent as CO2 -- are both released in significant amounts from organic matter in submerged soils and decaying vegetation.

The Amazon's living forest usually acts as a carbon sink, sequestering CO2 and keeping it out of the atmosphere. "Accelerated forest loss" due to reservoirs and further forest clearance for roads, from illegal logging and other causes, will therefore "have significant impacts in terms of carbon emissions," Rosa notes. Coe adds that "Brazil's contribution to global climate change" would increase as a result.

"The worst-case scenario indicates an indirect effect of infrastructure development [in the Tapajós] of over 200,000 square kilometers [77,220 square miles] of deforestation," reveals climatologist Carlos Nobre, program scientist of Brazil's National Institute for Climate Change, which would be "very serious," with "some level of regional climate change, such as increased temperatures," expected if deforestation on this scale takes place.

A storm over an agricultural landscape in the Braziliam Amazon. The Amazon forest generates more than half of its own rainfall, and deforestation affects the way water is recycled into the atmosphere, with forest clearance leading to more drought. Scientists warn that the local and global climate could be affected by the Tapajós Complex. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)A storm over an agricultural landscape in the Braziliam Amazon. The Amazon forest generates more than half of its own rainfall, and deforestation affects the way water is recycled into the atmosphere, with forest clearance leading to more drought. Scientists warn that the local and global climate could be affected by the Tapajós Complex. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Scientists know that the loss of forest cover changes the way water cycles through an ecosystem, with less water returned to the atmosphere. Because the Amazon generates much of its own rain through this evapotranspiration process, major deforestation can lead to rainfall reductions, and, in the extreme, to severe drought.

These rainfall losses won't only be felt in the Amazon: 'Well over half of the rain that falls over Southern Brazil [beyond the Amazon's boundaries] is originally put into the atmosphere by trees in the Amazon Basin," says Abby Swann, a scientist studying the links between ecosystems and climate at Washington University, USA.

One consequence of this forest clearance/reduced rainfall relationship is significantly lower river levels, which would reduce the generating capacity and economic viability of the hydropower dams that triggered the deforestation in the first place.

The outlook over the longer-term is uncertain, but these climatic impacts could be devastating, not just for Brazil but for our planet.

"I think the Amazon is pretty close, at 20 percent deforestation, to the tipping point of unraveling the hydrological cycle right now," said Amazon researcher Lovejoy. "The historic droughts of 2005 and 2010, and the drought this year, are, I believe, early flickers and warnings."

Lovejoy sees the combined deforestation impacts of the Tapajós Complex as potentially sufficient to "push the system beyond the tipping point," meaning that rainfall levels would decrease to the extent that they could no longer maintain the current Amazon ecosystem. The rainforests would begin to die.

If that happens, another tipping point is of concern to scientists: the time at which the Amazon rainforest as a whole stops sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ceases being a carbon sink, and instead becomes a carbon source, sending the greenhouse gases long held in its trees into the sky.

A night monkey (Aotus sp.). With the coming of dams, indirect deforestation due to additional infrastructure (transmission lines, roads, enlarged settlements, etc.), pose an even greater threat to forest cover than the dams and reservoirs themselves. Amazon dams and the roads they spawn also increase access for illegal loggers. Rainforest wildlife suffer widespread habitat loss and fragmentation as a result. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)A night monkey (Aotus sp.). With the coming of dams, indirect deforestation due to additional infrastructure (transmission lines, roads, enlarged settlements, etc.), pose an even greater threat to forest cover than the dams and reservoirs themselves. Amazon dams and the roads they spawn also increase access for illegal loggers. Rainforest wildlife suffer widespread habitat loss and fragmentation as a result. (Photo by Rhett A. Butler)

Alarmingly, indications of such a shift are already showing up, even without the massive deforestation projected for the Tapajós Basin. Record 21st century droughts have temporarily shut down the Amazon carbon sink -- another example of those SOS "flickers and warnings" coming from the Amazon ecosystem. A permanent shutdown would have huge implications for the global climate, but predicting when this tipping point will be reached is not easy. "[T]here is still a lot of uncertainty in how tropical forests are, and will, respond to climate change," Swann emphasizes.

Nobre's studies indicate that the threshold may lie not close to 20 percent deforestation as Lovejoy suggests, but at 40 percent deforestation. "From that perspective, one should be cautious not to encourage further deforestation because there are other drivers of change [that are] also reasons of concern," he says. For example, warming of 4 degrees Celsius would also trigger serious feedbacks within the forest system, so "unchecked global warming presents a great danger of reaching a tipping point."

The truth is that our science isn't yet robust enough to know precisely where these tipping points are. But scientists like Lovejoy and Nobre warn that our wholesale destruction of Amazon forests is playing with fire. In a recent interview, when asked what he saw as the greatest threat to the Amazon, Lovejoy responded: "The intersection between uncoordinated infrastructure and the hydrological cycle."

Calls for Action

Scientists and NGOs say that Brazilian hydropower development needs to change in two major ways if this "crisis in the making" is to be averted. First, the infrastructure licensing process must be strengthened, not weakened. Second, the cumulative effects of multiple dam development across entire drainage basins must be considered and respected during the planning process.

"The biggest policy priority for freshwater conservation in the Amazon is restructuring the legal process for approval of large hydroelectric projects like the Tapajós Dam Complex," Macedo says.

"Social and environmental externalities need to be included in cost benefit analyses and used during decision making processes," Jericó-Daminello adds. "Indigenous people's rights must also be recognized, including [their] involvement throughout the licensing process and in providing consent (or not!) for projects."

A royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus). Scientists urge Brazil to take an integrated, basin-wide approach to hydropower development in the Amazon, and to pursue alternatives to hydropower for energy production in order to protect the region’s vast web of life. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)A royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus). Scientists urge Brazil to take an integrated, basin-wide approach to hydropower development in the Amazon, and to pursue alternatives to hydropower for energy production in order to protect the region's vast web of life. (Photo © Tom Ambrose)

Fearnside sees a vigorous defense of the existing dam licensing process against the many attacks now underway in Brazil's Congress as an urgent priority. "Despite its many problems, [the licensing system] is essential to keeping consideration of environmental and social impacts in the picture, as shown by the recent archiving of the São Luiz do Tapajós [dam]," he asserts.

Especially alarming to Fearnside and others is that the Congress, partly under the aegis of Agriculture Minister Maggi, has gone so far as to propose a constitutional amendment (PEC 65) that would essentially gut environmental and indigenous protections.

Integrated, basin-wide assessments of dam impacts, and the maintenance of free-flowing rivers within watersheds, are just some of the approaches scientists are urging Brazil to adopt. "It is of fundamental importance that the set of dams now being planned should be assessed as a set," says WWF-Brazil, in a report outlining their conservation vision for the Tapajós basin.

Scientific tools exist to facilitate this approach, which could form "part of a proactive planning process for Brazil's energy infrastructure," says Jericó-Daminello, pointing to CSF's Hydrocalculator Tool, which includes evaluation of the social, economic and climate implications of proposed infrastructure developments -- an analysis that can be performed to include and compare multiple projects. Using this tool during the planning stage "would greatly improve environmental and likely economic impacts."

But ultimately, a shift from hydropower to other sources of energy production is called for, say experts: "Alternatives exist that allow the country to have a diversified energy matrix that is clean and secure and that would be competitive from the economic and environmental standpoint," WWF-Brazil states in their report.

"What is needed is forest restoration not further deforestation," concludes Lovejoy. "I think it is time to rethink the plans for Amazon energy."

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News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
International Implications of Canada's Kinder Morgan Pipeline Approval http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38613-international-implications-of-canada-s-kinder-morgan-pipeline-approval http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38613-international-implications-of-canada-s-kinder-morgan-pipeline-approval

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau's recent decision to approve a major expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline has negative implications that go well beyond the borders of the Great White North.

Canada is currently the largest supplier of oil to the United States. We export more oil to the US than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico combined. We are a secure, stable and reliable trading partner with the US for a product that can make or break their economy.

Right now, Canada has almost zero ability to transport its oil to anywhere other than the United States. There is no big spigot off of our east, west or north coasts that allows for overseas export to other markets, particularly in Asia. 

Approving the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion changes all of that, and for the first time Canada might be capable of shipping significant amounts of oil to markets other than the United States (assuming the project is actually completed -- a big question mark given ongoing First Nations' legal challenges and resistance from British Columbians).

This fact has got to have the attention of the US government. Their stable, reliable and secure oil supply is now, for the first time in history, under threat of going to other markets.

What Is President-elect Donald Trump Thinking About This?

I would bet this announcement is on President-elect Trump's radar. Trump has promised to renegotiate or even terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and Mexico. Trump has also promised to restart the process of building the Keystone XL pipeline that would significantly expand transport capacity for tar sands oil from Canada to the United States and foreign export markets via the Gulf of Mexico. 

While there is no doubt a benefit to Canada diversifying the customer base for its oil products, it may come at the expense of ticking off our biggest customer to the south. In the complicated world of geopolitics and oil, who knows where this could lead.

Trudeau Just Knocked Over the First Domino 

Here is a graph showing the largest proposed oil and gas projects in the world, along with the carbon emissions they will put into our atmosphere:

2016 1204tr 1

According to a report earlier this year by Oil Change International, if these projects are built, we are toast. Burnt toast that is.

It is crucial to the earth's climate that the projects represented in this graph are never built. Canada is in that top five as you can see, and you can also see that some not-too-cooperative countries are also in the top five, including Russia and Iran. 

What kind of message does Trudeau's approval of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project send to these other countries like Russia, Iran and Qatar?

I don't think it is much of a stretch to say that if there was any inkling of hesitation amongst these other countries to not proceed with building their own new pipelines, that has all been thrown out the window with Trudeau's decision. 

In fact, it is most likely that many of the countries in this graph will speed up their timelines, so as to maintain a competitive edge in the oil market over us Canadians. 

Oceans Have No Borders

The Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion will increase oil tanker traffic from around 60 tankers per year to more than 400. So instead of a massive oil tanker coming through Vancouver's waterfront and the Burrard Inlet on average every couple of weeks, we will now see on average one a day.

Experts have always said that when it comes to oil tankers, spills are not a question of if, but when. We have been relatively lucky so far that the only major spill from the existing Trans Mountain pipeline happened on land. And no matter how prepared we could be for a spill in our Inner Harbor here in Vancouver (which history has shown not to be the case), the problem is likely not containable within our own borders.

According to media reports last year, the neighboring Washington State government is “worried about Canada's ability to respond to oil spills.” And they should be considering that the US-Canada ocean border is only a few miles from where all these oil tankers would travel through. The US San Juan islands for instance is a major tourism destination and home to diverse marine life, and is in serious risk from any spill that happens just up the coast.

First Nations communities on both sides of the border are tied together in the Salish Sea, which predates any borders. The Coast Salish nations, along with many other First Nations' communities, are strongly opposed to this pipeline and so we will see mounting opposition and court proceedings, with implications that will likely reach across the Canada-US border. 

Our friends in the US take on a lot of risk from a potential oil spill, but see none of the economic benefits of Canada's expanded oil export capabilities.

All risk and no reward is likely something that is not sitting too well with Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who is a very vocal supporter of action on climate change.

What About the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement, negotiated late last year by 195 countries, commits the vast majority of world leaders to dealing with the issue of climate change by committing to significantly reducing their country's greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades.

At the time, newly-elected Prime Minister Trudeau and his Environment Minister Catherine McKenna were a breath of fresh air at the Pairs climate talks.  As much as we are a small country (by population), Canada is a significant player at these climate negotiations because per-capita we are historically a large emitter of greenhouse gas pollution. We also hold massive amounts of greenhouse gas reserves in our oil sands and other fossil fuel deposits. So to see Trudeau and McKenna step up at the Paris climate talks was a big deal. 

The Paris Agreement is both a functional document and a symbolic one, and in many ways its symbolism is the more powerful of the two.

The Paris Agreement sent a resounding message to the world that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable. It made clear to the global business community that the days of paying lip service to concerns about climate change is no longer acceptable, and markets have reacted. 

Speaking of lip service, did you hear about Prime Minister Trudeau approving a new expansion in oil sands pipelines that will lock in massive new amounts of carbon being pumped into our atmosphere? 

Somehow Trudeau and his government think they can reconcile a commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change with the construction of a new pipeline that will greatly increase emissions of the very thing the agreement is trying to reduce.

On paper Trudeau might be able to make that case, but he is missing the real point of the Paris Agreement and that is the signal it sends out to the world. 

With Trudeau approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, he and his government have just thrown a big bucket of sloppy crude onto that clear and resounding signal the Paris Agreement sent out to the world. 

Between domestic unrest and the international ramifications, this pipeline decision will likely come to define much of Trudeau's time in government, which quite honestly I think is something this Prime Minister really didn't think through that well.

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News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
The Assassination of Fred Hampton: 47 Years Later http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38611-the-assassination-of-fred-hampton-47-years-later http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38611-the-assassination-of-fred-hampton-47-years-later

As we enter a volatile Trump presidency with a Klan sympathizer slated to head the US Justice Department, it is important to look back at how Hoover's FBI worked to "disrupt, misdirect, and otherwise neutralize" Black leaders, organizations and programs, including the Panthers' Free Breakfast for Children.

Photograph of the funeral of Fred Hampton, which was attended by over 5,000 people mourning his killing by members of the Chicago Police Department.Photograph of the funeral of Fred Hampton, which was attended by over 5,000 people mourning his killing by members of the Chicago Police Department. (Photo: Paul Sequeira)On this very day, as the Army Corps of Engineers and police forces from Morton County North Dakota and nine surrounding states gather their collective forces and fearsome weaponry in an effort to evict the proud and peaceful Indigenous Water Protectors from their sacred land at Standing Rock, and thousands of veterans gather to protect them from concussion grenades, water hoses, rubber bullets and God knows what else, it is profoundly appropriate to reflect on the courage and leadership of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and revisit the sordid history of his assassination at the hand of a conspiracy between local law enforcement and the FBI 47 years ago.

On December 4, 1969, 47 years ago today, a select unit of Chicago police officers executed a predawn raid that left Illinois Black Panther Party (BPP) leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead and several other young Panthers wounded. The seven survivors of the raid were arrested on fraudulent attempted murder charges. The officers who committed the execution were specially assigned to Cook County State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan. The claims of a "shootout" that were made by Hanrahan and his men were soon exposed as bald-faced lies: the physical evidence definitively established that the raiders fired nearly 100 shots at the sleeping Panthers, while only one shot could be linked to a Panther weapon.

However, as was painstakingly proved over the next eight years, the false official claim of a violent confrontation was only one layer of a massive conspiracy that was also designed to cover up the central role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its COINTELPRO program in the murderous raid.

The headstone of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Haynesville, Louisiana, has been riddled by a barrage of bullets from unidentified night riders. Flint Taylor -- one of the lawyers for Hampton's family -- recently journeyed to Haynesville to eulogize Fred Hampton’s mother, Iberia, a devoted mother and courageous activist who passed away in October 2016. He discovered this desecration of Hampton's grave at that time. (Credit: Flint Taylor)The headstone of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Haynesville, Louisiana, has been riddled by a barrage of bullets from unidentified night riders. Flint Taylor -- one of the lawyers for Hampton's family -- recently journeyed to Haynesville to eulogize Fred Hampton's mother, Iberia, a devoted mother and courageous activist who passed away in October 2016. He discovered this desecration of Hampton's grave at that time. (Credit: Flint Taylor)

Just after the raid that killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, the Minister of Defense for the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, declared that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were responsible for the raid. However, at that time there was no hard proof. The first documentation that supported Rush's claim came in 1971 when activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and liberated a trove of FBI documents. These documents outlined the FBI's super-secret and highly illegal COINTELPRO program and its focus in the 1960s on the Black liberation movement and its leaders. Using Malcolm X as an example, Hoover directed all of the Bureau's offices to "disrupt, misdirect, and otherwise neutralize" African American organizations and leaders including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Nation of Islam, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown.

In Chicago, a major breakthrough came in 1973 when it was revealed that Chicago BPP Chief of Security William O'Neal was a paid informant for the FBI. Lawyers at the People's Law Office (full disclosure: I was one of those lawyers) had filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families and the raid survivors shortly after the raid, and they subpoenaed the Chicago FBI's files on O'Neal. While the FBI only produced a tiny fraction of the relevant files, an honest Assistant US Attorney produced an FBI memorandum that included a detailed floor plan of the interior of Fred Hampton's apartment that specifically identified the bed on which Hampton slept. The memo, on its face, showed that the floor plan, together with other important information designed to be utilized in a police raid, was based on information communicated by O'Neal to his FBI control agent, and that the agent supplied this information to State's Attorney Hanrahan's office before the raid.

The lawyers then focused on discovering more details about the FBI's involvement in the conspiracy. We sought the Chicago office's COINTELPRO file in order to establish a direct link between the FBI's illegal program and the raid on December 4. At the same time, Idaho Senator Frank Church's Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations (Church Committee), which was created in the wake of the Watergate scandal, was investigating rampant abuses by all US intelligence agencies, including the FBI. In late 1975 a Church Committee attorney informed the People's Law Office lawyers that the Committee had obtained several Chicago documents that definitively established the link. Armed with the content of the still secret documents, the lawyers were able to convince the judge, who had previously refused to compel the FBI to produce the Chicago COINELPRO file, to order the FBI to do so. In the file that was subsequently produced were several documents that revealed the FBI's efforts to foment gang violence against Hampton and the Chicago Panthers, and one dated December 3, 1969, that claimed the impending raid as part of the COINTEPRO program.

In January 1976 the trial of the Fred Hampton civil case began in Federal Court. Two months into what would turn out to be the longest trial in federal court history, O'Neal's FBI control agent inadvertently revealed that the FBI had not produced all of its files on Hampton, O'Neal, the raid survivors and the Chicago BPP. The judge reluctantly ordered that they do so, and the next day a government lawyer wheeled in on shopping carts nearly 200 volumes of FBI files that had been suppressed since they were first requested three years before. The government produced several redacted volumes of these files each day over the next month. The files contained directives to destroy the Panther's Breakfast for Children Program and disrupt the distribution of the BPP newspaper; reports showing that the dynamic and charismatic 21-year-old Fred Hampton was a targeted BPP leader; materials demonstrating that O'Neal was an agent provocateur; and massive wiretap "overhears" (logs that included conversations between BPP members and their attorneys).

Among the government's documentation was O'Neal's control file. In it was yet another smoking gun: memos to and from FBI headquarters and the Chicago office requesting and approving payment of a $300 bonus -- 30 pieces of silver -- to reward O'Neal for his role in the raid. According to the memos, O'Neal's information was of "tremendous value" and, in the words of O'Neal's COINTELRO supervisor, made the raid a "success."

That same month, on April 23, 1976, the Church Committee released its final staff report, which devoted an entire chapter to the "FBI's Covert Action Plan to Destroy the Black Panther Party." The chapter concluded by highlighting the Hampton raid as a COINTELPRO operation and quoting from the recently uncovered "bonus" documents.

The judge, an unabashed supporter of the FBI, exonerated the FBI and its DOJ lawyers of any wrongdoing in suppressing the documents. A year later, he dismissed O'Neal and the other FBI defendants from the case. On April 23, 1979, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark 2-1 decision, overturned the trial judge, finding that the FBI and their government lawyers "obstructed justice" by suppressing documents. The Court of Appeals also concluded that there was "serious evidence" to support the conclusion that the FBI, Hanrahan and his police unit had participated in a "conspiracy designed to subvert and eliminate the Black Panther Party and its members" in planning and executing the raid, thereby suppressing a "vital radical Black political organization." The Court of Appeals further found that the evidence additionally supported the conclusion that these same defendants also participated in a post-raid conspiracy to "cover up evidence" regarding the raid, "to conceal the true character of their pre-raid and raid activities," to "harass the survivors of the raid" and to "frustrate any legal redress the survivors might seek." This decision survived a challenge in the US Supreme Court, and stands to this day as a unique judicial recognition of outrageous federal and local conspiratorial criminality and cover-up.

As we enter the uncharted waters of a volatile Trump presidency, with an unrepentant Ku Klux Klan sympathizer slated to head up the Justice Department, it is important not to relegate the Hampton assassination and COINTELPRO to the annals of history. Particularly in an era of officially sanctioned drone assassinations, government provocateurs running wild, and a presidential election in which the "winner" appears to have benefited from international and FBI COINTELPRO-like actions, while the "loser" used similar tactics against her opponent in the primaries, it is well to remember a quote from a 1964 COINTELPRO directive:

Over the years, our approach to investigative problems in the intelligence field has given rise to a number of new programs, some of which have been most revolutionary, and it can be presumed that with a continued aggressive approach to these programs, new and productive ideas will be forthcoming. These ideas will not be increased in number or improved upon from the standpoint of accomplishments merely through the institution of a program such as COINTELPRO which is given another name and in fact, only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future.

For Black Lives Matter, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, undocumented workers, Muslims, environmental activists, and a multitude of other people and organizations, the future, as contemplated in the 1964 COINTELRO memo and implemented in its most violent and racist form on December 4, 1969, may well be upon us again. The only answer now, as it was then, is to organize, educate and resist. And, as Fred Hampton would say, "All Power to the People."

Note: For more information on the Hampton/Clark case, the history of the Black Panther Party and the FBI's program to destroy it, visit peopleslawoffice.com.

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News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Could Portland Lead the Way for Cities Nationwide to Divest From the Dakota Pipeline and Private Prisons? http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38610-could-portland-lead-the-way-for-cities-nationwide-to-divest-from-the-dakota-pipeline-and-private-prisons http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38610-could-portland-lead-the-way-for-cities-nationwide-to-divest-from-the-dakota-pipeline-and-private-prisons

Protesters with Lifted Voices and The American Indian Center rally in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock outside a CitiBank in Chicago, Illinois, during a national day of action last week. Activists across the country are closing accounts with banks financing the Dakota Access Pipeline and urging state and local governments to do the same.Protesters with Lifted Voices and The American Indian Center rally in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock outside a CitiBank in Chicago, Illinois, during a national day of action last week. Activists across the country are closing accounts with banks financing the Dakota Access Pipeline and urging state and local governments to do the same. (Photo: Kelly Hayes / Lifted Voices)

Cities across the country are cutting ties with Wells Fargo in the wake of a major scandal, but activists say the bank has deeper problems rooted in racism. Meanwhile, Portland could become the first major US city to divest from banks because they finance the Dakota Access pipeline and private prison companies. Will divestment work?

Protesters with Lifted Voices and The American Indian Center rally in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock outside a CitiBank in Chicago, Illinois, during a national day of action last week. Activists across the country are closing accounts with banks financing the Dakota Access Pipeline and urging state and local governments to do the same.Protesters with Lifted Voices and The American Indian Center rally in solidarity with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock outside a CitiBank in Chicago, Illinois, during a national day of action last week. Activists across the country are closing accounts with banks financing the Dakota Access Pipeline and urging state and local governments to do the same. (Photo: Kelly Hayes / Lifted Voices)

Not long after returning home from the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock, Oregon resident Ali Pullen was testifying before the Portland City Council in an effort to dump several large corporations from the city's list of contractors and investment interests.

Pullen, who had traveled to Standing Rock with a delegation of people of color from Portland, specifically testified about Caterpillar, a major construction contractor for Dakota Access, and Wells Fargo, one of 17 banks financing a pipeline that activists are now risking life and limb to stop.

"When investment decisions affect the drinking water of 17 million people, [the pipeline] will not only affect these vulnerable Native tribes, it will impact our local community," Pullen said at the hearing on Thursday.

Divestment is not a new strategy; opponents of mountain top removal mining and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example, have targeted banks and contractors for years. Now the tactic of putting financial pressure on investors and profiteers is finding new life in the movement centered in Standing Rock, especially as activists who can't make it to North Dakota look for ways to support the Water Protectors camped out there.    

Thursday marked a national day of action in solidarity with Standing Rock, and protesters gathered outside the hearing in Portland and in many other cities to protest Wells Fargo, Chase and other banks that are tied to the pipeline. Across the country, people are answering the call to #DefundDAPL by closing their accounts with banks that support the pipeline. Activists in Portland want their city to send a message by doing the same.

Wells Fargo's support for Dakota Access is not the only reason activists like Pullen want Portland to stop doing business with the bank. Wells Fargo is also one of several major banks that lend money to the nation's two largest private prison companies, GEO Group and CoreCivic (the company formally known as Corrections Corporation of America). This financing allows the prison firms to expand and operate as special real estate trusts that enjoy massive tax breaks, according to the watchdog group In the Public Interest.

"By investing in Wells Fargo, along with other banks and Caterpillar, the city is giving its consent for incarceration, and for a corporate oil company to desecrate sacred Native burial grounds and use excessive police brutality on our First Nations People," Pullen said last week.

Private prison firms have become the federal government's go-to for building and operating jails for immigrants facing deportation in recent years, and activists say up to 1,000 people from Portland were incarcerated at an immigration jail run by GEO Group in Washington, where prisoners staged a hunger strike in 2014 to protest poor conditions and other human rights violations.

After Donald Trump won the presidential election on promises to crack down on immigrants, investors in GEO Group and CoreCivic watched their stock values soar. Financers like Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase only stand to benefit if Trump makes good on his threats to expand deportation efforts.

Wells Fargo Divestment Spreads in Wake of Scandal

Portland is not the only place where Wells Fargo is in hot water. The company is facing multiple government probes in the wake of a scandal over 2 million of unauthorized customer accounts created by employees under intense pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals. In September, Wells Fargo agreed to a $185 million in fines in a settlement with regulators.

Labor and racial justice activists who have butted heads with Wells Fargo for years are riding the momentum of public outrage and pushing state and local governments across the country to stop doing business with the bank. They are already winning big victories across the country.

"The false accounts scandal is just the tip of the iceberg," said Saqib Bhatti, director of the Refund America project and its divestment campaign targeting Wells Fargo.

Under pressure from activists and angry customers, the Los Angeles City Council recently passed a resolution that could nix Wells Fargo's chances of extending its contract to provide the city's banking service when it expires next year. Last month, Chicago's City Council agreed to stop doing business with Wells Fargo for a full year, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich barred the bank from doing business with his state for a year.

Even Wells Fargo's hometown of San Francisco is considering cutting ties with the bank.

"This [scandal] is just one thing that happened, and we are using this opportunity to bring attention to all the other issues we've been working on for so many years," Bhatti said.

From private prisons and the Dakota Access pipeline to predatory lending and holding Wall Street accountable for the 2009 financial collapse, Bhatti said activists working on a variety of campaigns have found Wells Fargo to be a common culprit with a common set of victims.

"Racism is part and parcel to what [Wells Fargo] does, and we need to go at that directly," Bhatti said.

In 2012, the Justice Department ordered Wells Fargo to pay $184 million in compensation to Black and Latinos homebuyers who were steered into subprime mortgages or paid higher fees and rates than whites. Bhatti said communities of color have been particularly hurt by the bank's aggressive foreclosure policies, and Spanish-speaking workers felt especially targeted under the brutal sales requirements that lead to the false accounts scandal.

"It's not just that its policies happen to have a disparate impact, [the bank] actually seeks out and targets Black and Brown comminutes for its worst behavior," Bhatti said.

Media representatives for Wells Fargo did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout by the time this article was published, but the bank put out a statement last week saying it respects the differing opinions on the Dakota Access pipeline and hopes "all parties involved will work together to reach a peaceful resolution." The company also said it supports "responsible energy development" such as wind and solar and has invested $52 billion in "environmentally sustainable businesses."

Will Divestment Work?

Back in Portland, Wells Fargo is just one of nine companies on the city's proposed "do-not-buy-list," including Caterpillar, JP Morgan Chase and HSBC. The city has already barred itself from buying bonds with Walmart.

The list names several reasons to divest from each company, but profiteering from private prisons and the Dakota Access pipeline is chief among them. If the Portland Council votes to add Wells Fargo and other banks to the list, it will be the first in the country to divest from financial institutions in part because they support the private prison industry.

For divestment activists in Portland, pulling public resources away from prison profiteers is part of a broader abolitionist campaign, according to Amanda Aguilar Shank, a local organizer with the racial justice group Enlace.

"We're not targeting the private prison industry because private prisons are worse than public prisons, although I expect that to be true," Shank said. "We're targeting private prisons because they have an expansionist goal, and they have been able to achieve that goal [with the help of these banks]."

Shank said that it's "incredibly important" that local officials step up and work with the refugees, immigrants and people of color who could be targeted for hate violence and deportation as the Trump administration prepares to take power. Portland is one of several "sanctuary cities" that offer some protections for undocumented immigrants, and divestment could expand the idea of what it means to provide sanctuary.

"Now is the time that we need to be able to build a larger concept of what it means to be a sanctuary city, and what it means to resist Trump's xenophobic ideology," Shank said.

Portland also offers a model for municipal divestment. In 2013, the Council created a citizen-led committee to draw up a do-not-buy list when it established a policy for socially responsible investing. The committee spent the past year screening companies that might be in violation of the several social concerns, including labor conditions and human rights.

So, will divestment force companies to change their behavior? As Truthout has reported, Indigenous activists in Norway have already convinced the country's largest bank to pull its investments from the Dakota Access pipeline, but only time will tell if banks in the United States will do the same. Losing large clients like major cities certainly puts pressure on banks like Wells Fargo and calls public attention to their wrongdoings, but so far municipal divestment from Wells Fargo has been largely tied to the false accounts scandal.

Portland could set a big precedent when it votes on the do-not-buy list next month, although the councilman who originally introduced the socially responsible investment policy said last week that he did not intend to target banks with "bad customers."

Indeed, critics of divestment point out that banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo are so big that they are involved in everything that is bad, plus a lot of things that are good. They touch every aspect of our lives. However, Bhutti said activists can and should use this to their advantage as they build power through divestment campaigns.

"If the target is big, that means all of us have a fight with the same person, and so we should use our collective leverage with everything we got," Bhutti said.

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News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Law Enforcement's Secret "Super Search Engine" Amasses Trillions of Phone Records for Decades http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38603-law-enforcement-s-secret-super-search-engine-amasses-trillions-of-phone-records-for-decades http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38603-law-enforcement-s-secret-super-search-engine-amasses-trillions-of-phone-records-for-decades

Although the government still hides too much information about a secret telephone records surveillance program known as Hemisphere, we have learned through EFF's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits that police tout the massive database of private calls as "Google on Steroids" [pdf].

Hemisphere, which AT&T operates on behalf of federal, state, and local law enforcement, contains trillions of domestic and international phone call records dating back to 1987. AT&T adds roughly four billion phone records to Hemisphere each day [.pptx], including calls from non-AT&T customers that pass through the company's switches.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other federal, state and local police use Hemisphere to not only track when and who someone is calling, but to perform complicated traffic analysis that can dynamically map people's social networks and physical locations. This even includes knowing when someone changes their phone number.

And federal officials often do it without first getting permission from a judge.

Indeed, Hemisphere was designed to be extremely secret, with police instructed to do everything possible to make sure the program never appeared in the public record. After using Hemisphere to obtain private information about someone, police usually cover up their use of Hemisphere by later obtaining targeted data about suspects from phone providers through traditional subpoenas, a process the police call "parallel construction" and that EFF calls "evidence laundering."

Government Treats Same Information Differently in FOIA Cases

Government secrecy about Hemisphere has extended to refusing to disclose basic records about the program, and EFF has had to sue federal and California law enforcement to win access to this critical information. EFF filed another round of briefing in federal court in November calling on the government to provide records as soon as possible, given that we made our FOIA request almost two years ago. The delayed resolution in federal court has stalled a related lawsuit EFF brought against California law enforcement agencies for access to their records about Hemisphere.

We aren't the only ones suing: the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed similar litigation, which has allowed us to learn even more about Hemisphere, including how the federal government has used inconsistent arguments to avoid public scrutiny of the program.

In EFF's case earlier this month, the government filed a list of Hemisphere records that the government is withholding from both EFF and EPIC. This list shows the government treated the two requesters differently.  Specifically, the chart shows that out of the 161 pages common to both lawsuits, the government claimed more than twice as many legal reasons to withhold the majority of pages from EFF. The government withheld 151 pages from EFF (but not EPIC) on the grounds that disclosure could interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation. And it withheld 107 pages from EFF (but not EPIC) because disclosure would supposedly out confidential informants.

The government has yet to explain why it treated the exact same information so differently in EFF's and EPIC's respective FOIA requests. Absent any explanation, the disparate treatment appears highly arbitrary. Moreover, it highlights the large power imbalance between the government and FOIA requesters seeking records.

Agencies know exactly what the documents contain and are in the best position to use or abuse FOIA's exemptions to withhold them. This asymmetry is often to the government's advantage. The government's inconsistent treatment of EFF's and EPIC's FOIA requests show why FOIA should better limit officials' discretion to treat requesters so differently, and better ensure judicial oversight over the entire FOIA process.

Disclosed Docs Show Police View Hemisphere as a "Super Search Engine"

Before the Hemisphere Program came to light in 2013, when a presentation was inadvertently released to a privacy activist, the public knew nothing about the massive phone records dragnet.

Through the program, AT&T assists federal and local law enforcement -- often by stationing company staff in police "Fusion Centers" -- in accessing and analyzing AT&T's massive database of call detail records (CDRs). This information includes phone numbers dialed and calls received, as well as the time, date, and length of the call, and sometimes location information.  This information isn't limited to AT&T customers either.

From the records that have been disclosed in EFF's lawsuits, we've learned that police view the astonishing size and scope of the database as an asset, referring to it as the "Super Search Engine" and "Google on Steroids." Such descriptions confirm EFF's worst fears that Hemisphere is a mass surveillance program that threatens core civil liberties.

The program poses severe Fourth Amendment concerns because police are obtaining detailed private information from the call records and learning even more about people's social connections and physical movements based on pattern analysis. Federal officials do all of this without a warrant or any judicial oversight.

But beyond the Fourth Amendment problems, Hemisphere also poses acute risks to the First Amendment rights of callers caught in the program's dragnet. Specifically, Hemisphere allows police to see a person's associations, shedding light on their personal connections and political and social networks. It's not hard to see such a tool being trained on activists and others critical of law enforcement, or being used by the government to identify entire organizations. We know that law enforcement officials have subjected Black Lives Matter activists to automated social media monitoring, and subjected attendees at gun shows to surveillance by automated license plate readers. Government officials can easily use Hemisphere in similar ways.

The Hemisphere program could not operate without AT&T's full cooperation. It's time for AT&T to reconsider its responsibility not only to its customers, but to all Americans who pick up the phone.

Any and all original material on the EFF website may be freely distributed at will under the Creative Commons Attribution License, unless otherwise noted. All material that is not original to EFF may require permission from the copyright holder to redistribute. 

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News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
The Conservative Activist Behind Trump's Bogus "Millions of Illegal Voters" Claim http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38601-the-conservative-activist-behind-trump-s-bogus-millions-of-illegal-voters-claim http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38601-the-conservative-activist-behind-trump-s-bogus-millions-of-illegal-voters-claim

The Twitter profile of Gregg Phillips, the conservative activist who appears to be the source for President-elect Donald Trump's claim that millions of people voted illegally in the recent election.The Twitter profile of Gregg Phillips, the conservative activist who appears to be the source for President-elect Donald Trump's claim that millions of people voted illegally in the recent election.Republican President-elect Donald Trump, who's trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton by over 2 million popular votes nationwide, sparked controversy when he took to Twitter to claim that he "won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

Trump's wild claim about a massive illegal voting crisis was immediately debunked by fact-checkers. The Tampa Bay Times' Politifact website rated his statement "Pants on Fire," noting that it "found zero evidence for Trump's charge … and a lot of reasons to conclude that it didn't happen."

Where did the bogus information come from? Politifact traced it back to the Twitter account of one Gregg Phillips:

Tweets by Phillips on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 said that "we have verified more than 3 million votes cast by non-citizens" and that Phillips had "completed analysis of database of 180 million voter registrations. Number of non-citizen votes exceeds 3 million. Consulting legal team."

Phillips refused to discuss his claims in detail with Politifact, saying he's not yet ready to release his supporting information publicly. When asked by the British online newspaper The Independent to discuss his evidence, Phillips refused. "We will release it in open form to the American people," he said. "We won't allow the media to spin this first. Sorry."

So who is Phillips?

resident of Texas with a business degree from the University of Alabama, he's the chairman and CEO of AutoGov, an Austin-based company that makes software to help hospitals, nursing homes and other health care organizations decide whether to admit Medicaid patients. He founded the company in 2004 following an 18-month stint as executive deputy commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees Medicaid and SNAP food benefits. Phillips played a key role in crafting 2003 legislation to privatize parts of the Texas safety net and came under fire for conflicts of interest and cronyism there and in a similar position he held in Mississippi, as the Houston Chronicle reported.

Phillips was involved in mainstream Republican politics back in the 1980s and 1990s, serving as finance director of the Alabama Republican Party in 1989, finance director of Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice's successful 1991 election campaign, and executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party in the mid-1990s, according to his LinkedIn profile. He went on to become the managing director of Winning Our Future, a super PAC founded to support the unsuccessful 2012 presidential run of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

But Phillips told a conservative talk radio show back in 2013 that while he once identified as a "Reagan Republican" he came to feel "less like a Republican and more like a conservative." Since then, much of his political work has focused on drawing attention to alleged voter fraud, even though study after study after study has found it to be exceedingly rare.

Phillips frames the issue of election integrity as a partisan problem. As he told the same radio show, "I'm an aficionado of the way these Democrats commit voter fraud."

Close Ties to True the Vote

Phillips serves on the board of True the Vote, a Texas-based group with roots in the conservative tea party movement. While its stated objective is stopping voter fraud, True the Vote's poll monitoring activities have raised concerns about voter intimidation. The group also promotes voter roll purges and voter ID laws, which disproportionately restrict racial minority groups' access to the ballot.

In 2010, poll watchers with the King Street Patriots -- the Houston-based tea party group that later became True the Vote -- were accused of "hovering over" voters, "getting into election workers' faces" and blocking or disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots during early voting, as TPM Muckraker reported. The incidents happened primarily at polling places in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods.

In 2012, True the Vote's national election coordinator told poll watching recruits in Boca Raton, Florida, that their job was to make voters feel like they're "driving and seeing the police following you."

True the Vote's national election coordinator told poll watching recruits in Florida that their job was to make voters feel like they're "driving and seeing the police following you."

True the Vote is a charitable nonprofit under IRS regulations, which means it's not supposed to engage in partisan political activity. However, as Facing South reported, the group appears to have violated that rule in 2012 by contributing $5,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports GOP legislative candidates.

Also raising questions about True the Vote's charitable status was its involvement in the 2012 "Verify the Recall" effort in Wisconsin, in which the group recruited tea party volunteers nationwide to enter petitions calling for the recall of controversial Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) into an online database and analyzing the signatures for fraud. True the Vote's efforts were fraught with problems, as ProPublica reported:

Using its own methodology, True the Vote concluded that more than 63,000 signatures were ineligible. It also identified 2,590 names that were "potentially false" based on a predetermined list of names the group believed would be used fraudulently on the petition. Organizers declined to share this list with state officials.

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, a non-partisan state regulatory agency consisting of six former state judge appointees, later discounted much of the group's findings and methodology, concluding they were "significantly less accurate, complete, and reliable than the review and analysis completed by the G.A.B." and that they "would not have survived legal challenge."

Phillips joined True the Vote's board in June 2014. Four months later, the group announced it was releasing VoteStand, a free smartphone app that allows voters to report cases election irregularities and fraud to the organization.

Phillips' Twitter profile says he's VoteStand's founder. The app was initially released in 2012 by the Gingrich super PAC.

Justifying More Voter Suppression?

Though Phillips is not talking to the press about his allegations of widespread voting irregularities, True the Vote used the uproar over Trump's tweeting about them to double down on the claims.

This week the group released the following statement:

True the Vote absolutely supports President-elect Trump's recent comment about the impact of illegal voting, as reflected in the national popular vote. We are still collecting data and will be for several months, but our intent is to publish a comprehensive study on the significant impact of illegal voting in all of its many forms and begin a national discussion on how voters, states, and the Trump Administration can best address this growing problem.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 with its ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case out of Alabama, elected state officials nationwide have purged voters from the rolls, cut early voting, shuttered polling places, adopted strict voter ID laws and imposed restrictions on voter registration drives.

Voting rights advocates are worried that claims of voter fraud like those promulgated by Phillips and amplified by Trump signal that the incoming administration will take steps at the federal level to make it more difficult for some groups of people to vote.

Voting rights advocates are worried that claims of voter fraud like those promulgated by Phillips and amplified by Trump signal that the incoming administration will take steps at the federal level to make it more difficult for some groups of people to vote.

Those concerns have been heightened by Trump's pick for attorney general: U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican with a long record of hostility to voting rights. In addition, Trump has pledged to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, which could lead to votes to further dismantle the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont discussed the dangers of the bogus voter fraud claims during an appearance this week on Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show.

"When [Trump] says that, he's really sending a signal to Republicans all over this country, Republican leaders, and what he's saying is we have got to suppress the vote, we have got to make it harder for poor people, people of color, immigrants, elderly people to participate because they may be voting against us," Sanders said. "And that's scary stuff."

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News Sun, 04 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Labor Law Faces Dire New Threats From Supreme Court Under Trump http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38608-labor-law-faces-dire-new-threats-from-supreme-court-under-trump http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38608-labor-law-faces-dire-new-threats-from-supreme-court-under-trump

Workers demonstrate outside of Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July 1, 2016.Workers demonstrate outside of Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July 1, 2016. (Mark Makela / The New York Times)

If Janus v. AFSCME makes it to a Trump Supreme Court, it could pose an existential threat to organized labor and an end to exclusive representation. If this happens, labor's hope for survival will rest in intensive grassroots organizing of the sort that the Culinary Workers Union pursued in right-to-work Las Vegas.

Workers demonstrate outside of Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July 1, 2016.Workers demonstrate outside of Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, July 1, 2016. (Mark Makela / The New York Times)

Amid the fallout of Donald Trump's electoral victory, anti-union groups are scheming about renewed possibilities for a brutal rollback of federal labor law in the coming years.

US organized labor was able to breathe a sigh of relief this past February when Justice Antonin Scalia's death also brought with it the death of the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which would have essentially imposed nationwide "right-to-work" laws across the public sector, overturning longstanding federal law allowing public sector unions to charge fees to nonmembers for their collective bargaining services. Hoping to deal organized labor a thundering financial and existential hit, anti-union activists -- and the conservative, business-funded groups representing them -- are now ready to bring a similar legal challenge to the forefront.

Last week, two Illinois state employees, Mark Janus and Brian Trygg, filed their first brief in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that, like Friedrichs, is challenging the constitutionality of fees paid by nonmembers of public sector unions. The fees -- often described as "fair-share" or "agency" fees -- are used to fund collective bargaining services provided by unions in their negotiations for an entire workforce. The two plaintiffs, represented by lawyers with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW) and the Liberty Justice Center, are asserting that the federally mandated fair-share fee violates "their First Amendment rights by forcing them to subsidize their unions' bargaining-related activities, notwithstanding their deeply [held] opposition to the positions their unions advance in collective bargaining."

NRTW President Mark Mix explained the first amendment reasoning further on the day of the brief filing, saying:

"[The public sector unions] are trying to advocate for certain government actions, and they're trying to convince governments to do certain things with their resources, i.e. taxpayers' resources, and so in that sense, it's political speech. And if it's political speech, it's going to be protected by the First Amendment. And if it's protected by the First Amendment, then a worker can't be compelled to pay anything to have someone, quote/unquote speak on their behalf."

Although, Janus is one of at least two dozen fair-share fee related cases currently pending, all pushed by anti-union forces, such as NRTW, Seattle University School of Law Professor Charlotte Garden told Truthout, "Based on where the Janus case is now, that certainly could be the one that goes up first."

Just a few months ago, union activists believed the seemingly probable victory of Hillary Clinton, and the subsequent ability to tilt the Supreme Court in a progressive direction, would protect organized labor from further Friedrichs-like legal assaults. But now, NRTW believes that Janus could reach the Supreme Court just a few months after President Trump gets his Justice Scalia replacement appointed, a speediness reflective of the fact that NRTW has argued, like past anti-union groups did with Friedrichs, that lower courts do not have the authority to overturn the fair-share fee Supreme Court precedent of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977. Mix described a successful outcome, an overturn of Abood, as "a nationwide right-to-work for all government workers." Law experts who spoke with Truthout agreed that an overturn of Abood would be likely to effectively result in this significant change in labor policy. And if Trump's short list of potential Supreme Court justices is any indication, Garden told Truthout, "It's likely that whoever he ultimately chooses will be at least a very likely vote to overrule Abood and agency fees in the public sector."

While right-to-work is currently the law in 26 states, its expansion into other states like traditionally union-friendly California or New York (which would have been unlikely to adopt such policies on their own) could result in a substantial reduction in national union budgets, causing an almost immediate financial crisis for public sector unions everywhere. Union advocates have termed the consequences of right-to-work a "free-riding" problem because workers who opt out of the union and do not pay fair-share fees still receive the same collectively bargained-for wages and benefits that their dues-paying, union-member coworkers do, without paying for the service the union provides in return. In 2015, public sector union density was 35 percent, or more than five times the density of that in the private sector. A deflated and defunded public sector unionism could mean a dire situation for organized labor as a whole.

On the other hand, as journalist Ari Paul argued last year in Jacobin, examples of successful union strategies under such conditions do exist and should provide lessons for activists dismayed by the threat of nationwide public sector right-to-work.

Paul specifically mentions the Transport Workers Union local in New York, which lost its automatic dues collection for 18 months in 2005 but thereafter saw the birth of a grassroots movement of intense internal organizing led by reform-minded members. He also points to the 90 percent union density figure of the Culinary Workers Union in right-to-work Las Vegas, a reality possible due to similarly strong organizing. Paul concluded that "social movement unionism," where unions act less like passive insurance companies and are instead reimagined as vehicles for change in the day-to-day lives of their members, would be key in combating nationwide right-to-work, saying:

"[The] spread of right-to-work also might impel some unions to get their act together. Unions with a tenuous relationship to their rank-and-file could be forced to establish firmer ties. Less money coming in could prompt unions who devote too much to officials' pay to trim spending at the top. And above all, labor would have to rethink some of its most basic assumptions about the structure of unions and how to relate to members."

Beyond this, however, the success of Janus could have far-reaching implications, beyond expanding right-to-work to government workers nationwide. In February, the NRTW lost a case, D'Agostino v. Baker in the First Circuit, which had challenged the constitutionality of exclusive representation in unionized shops. If the NRTW had won that case, unions would no longer be negotiating for all employees, as federal law currently dictates -- instead, they would negotiate only for their members. This would potentially have led to varying levels of working conditions and benefits in a single place of employment, and further fragmentation of union power in the workplace.

In writing the ruling opinion, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter largely based his decision to strike down D'Agostino on the precedent of Abood. If NRTW gets what it wants with Janus, then it is conceivable that a case like D'Agostino could appear before the Supreme Court thereafter without Abood standing in its way. Shaun Richman of In These Times has argued that the end of exclusive representation could open the door for multiple competing members-only unions within single workplaces, a promising way to shake up labor relations for the good, saying, "Exclusive representation allows employers to only deal with one set of organizing tactics and one set of narrow demands." Essentially, unions would have to prove their mettle with the services they promise and their ability to successfully provide them.

Although a right-to-work victory on Janus, and the later death of exclusive representation requirements in a D'Agostino-like case, might not be fatal, it is undeniable that after such a decision the labor landscape going forward would be unrecognizable. At the same time, as Catherine Fisk, a labor law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told Truthout, unions won't be the only ones affected by the outcome of these potential decisions. The legitimacy of the courts themselves is also at stake.

"In the long term, it hasn't turned out well when federal courts decided that the Constitution renders invalid laws enacted by majorities to protect workers, poor people, old people and disabled people," Fisk said, pointing to the public, executive and congressional backlash to the Supreme Court's rulings that found many of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs unconstitutional.

"I think this strategy of conservative judicial activism presents serious risks for the legitimacy of the Supreme Court," Fisk added. "In the long term, if the court is perceived as a tool of the business elite, it no longer will enjoy the respect that it's had for the last 70 years as being primarily about being protecting the rights of minorities, about preventing discrimination, about protecting the right to political speech, and could be perceived as simply a tool that the elites use to gain a larger share of the wealth produced by the middle class and the working class."

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News Sat, 03 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Dispatch From Little Rock: A Local Win in the Ongoing Fight Against Police Violence http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38595-dispatch-from-little-rock-a-local-win-in-the-ongoing-fight-against-police-violence http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38595-dispatch-from-little-rock-a-local-win-in-the-ongoing-fight-against-police-violence

Little Rock, Arkansas, has finally issued a public apology for the killing of Eugene Ellison -- a 67-year-old Black man shot to death by police who entered his home in 2010. Ellison's family won a monetary settlement, as well as a public bench dedicated to his memory.

Spencer Ellison, whose unarmed father was shot to death by police officers in his own home, addresses attendees at the City of Little Rock's dedication of a public bench in memory of his father on November 4, 2016. Ellison and his brother brought a federal civil rights lawsuit and won the largest monetary settlement ever reached in a Little Rock police case, in addition to an official apology from the city. Spencer Ellison, whose unarmed father was shot to death by police officers in his own home, addresses attendees at the City of Little Rock's dedication of a public bench in memory of his father on November 4, 2016. Ellison and his brother brought a federal civil rights lawsuit and won the largest monetary settlement ever reached in a Little Rock police case, in addition to an official apology from the city. (Photo: Flint Taylor)

It's time to map out strategies to combat Donald Trump's support for police violence. The president-elect has promised to redouble racist stop-and-frisk, to support reactionary police unions, to further militarize police departments, to attack Black Lives Matter activists, to round up undocumented workers and to support the oil and gas companies that are attacking Indigenous Water Protectors on the front lines in Standing Rock. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions -- Trump's pick for attorney general -- will no doubt seek to dismantle the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and make the aggressive investigation of police departments for patterns of racially motivated violence a thing of the past.

Amid all this, much of the battle must be fought locally, in cities and towns across the country. Even as we back those who are on the front lines of acute, present-day struggles, we must also pursue ongoing struggles for reparations in the wake of injustice.

On the eve of the election, in a deeply red state, the city of Little Rock, Arkansas, took a small but significant step in furtherance of this goal by dedicating a memorial bench to a victim of police violence named Eugene Ellison.

Ellison was a 67-year-old African American man who resided in the Big Country Chateau Apartments on the west side of Little Rock. He lived alone and walked with a cane. He had his door open on a cool December evening in 2010, minding his own business, when two white Little Rock police officers working security at Big Country decided to enter his apartment, despite his protests that he did not need help and wanted to be left alone. When he verbally resisted their entry, a scuffle ensued, he was maced, and when he refused to submit, one of the officers fatally shot him from the apartment doorway. The officers claimed that he had raised his cane and started to swing it toward them, but the physical evidence, the paths of the fatal bullets, and another officer on the scene completely discredited that story.

Troy Ellison, son of police shooting victim Eugene Ellison, speaks at the City of Little Rock's dedication of a public bench in memory of his father on November 4, 2016. Troy Ellison, son of police shooting victim Eugene Ellison, speaks at the City of Little Rock's dedication of a public bench in memory of his father on November 4, 2016. (Photo: Flint Taylor

Ellison's son Troy (now a lieutenant in the Little Rock Police Department) and his other son, Spencer (a former Little Rock Police Department detective and now a college professor in Texas) brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officers, the city of Little Rock and Big Country Chateau Apartments. The suit alleged that Ellison's constitutional right to life under the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution had been violated. It also alleged that his death was caused by the practices and customs of the Little Rock Police Department, which included a willful failure to discipline brutal cops, a police code of silence and woefully deficient hiring and training practices. The family's lawyers amassed a wealth of evidence in support of its claims, and in 2014 requested that the Justice Department investigate the Little Rock Police Department for its unconstitutional practices as documented in the evidence uncovered in the suit, a request that the ACLU renewed in 2015. When the federal judge refused to dismiss the case, the city of Little Rock appealed his ruling, but the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Ellison family and the case was returned for trial.

In May of this year, the case was set for trial and the trial team, which was headed up by California attorney Mike Laux, entered into settlement discussions with the city. An attorney named Doris Cheng and I were also on the trial team. Guided by the Chicago reparations for police torture experience, the family and the lawyers sought to combine a monetary settlement with some of the non-monetary elements obtained in Chicago. Only days before the trial was set to begin, a settlement was announced. It was the largest monetary settlement ever reached in a Little Rock police case. It came with an official apology from the City Manager, a memorial bench that would honor Ellison, and a public dedication of the bench.

Alongside the large monetary settlement won by the family of police violence victim Eugene Ellison, the City of Little Rock has dedicated this public bench to Ellison. Alongside the large monetary settlement won by the family of police violence victim Eugene Ellison, the City of Little Rock has dedicated this public bench to Ellison. (Photo: Flint Taylor)

In June, Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore sent the city's written apology to the Ellison family. Citing the often quoted Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes, the City Manager wrote that it was time to "build, to mend, and to heal." Quoting Mark 3:25 in saying that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," Moore continued that "a fragmented Police Department and Little Rock citizenry only serves as a detriment to our shared goal of helping Little Rock grow and prosper." While the letter did not admit that the officers, who, unfortunately are still on the force, acted wrongfully, it did offer an apology:

In order to begin the healing process for the family, the Little Rock Police Department and the City of Little Rock, on behalf of the City, I want to extend a sincere apology for the death of your father. While we have all vigorously debated the events that led to his death, the time for healing has begun.

On November 4, a beautiful sunny morning in Little Rock, a group of about 125 family members, ministers and activists from Little Rock's African American community, the Ellison family lawyers, other supporters and the local media gathered in scenic MacArthur Park in downtown Little Rock to dedicate the memorial bench. Moore gave the opening remarks, followed by an opening prayer by the Rev. Dr. C.E. McAdoo of St. Andrew United Methodist Church. After a musical interlude and an inspirational poem, the Ellison brothers spoke.

Spencer spoke first, saying that it was "with immense honor that I stand before you today to memorialize this bench in dedication to my father," who was "a man of faith, integrity and principle." He described his father as a "proud Navy veteran who served his country during the Vietnam Era" and "treated people the way he wanted to be treated." He was "a great artist who drew and painted, expressing his love of life through his artistic abilities." Saying that his father's tragic death still haunts him, he said he found "some peace in knowing that even though this fight isn't over, change will soon come." In a promise to his father, he said "my father's legacy of living a principled, respectful life lives on in his sons."

The memorial bench that was dedicated to police violence victim Eugene Ellison on November 4, 2016, bears this inscription in his memory. The memorial bench that was dedicated to police violence victim Eugene Ellison on November 4, 2016, bears this inscription in his memory. (Photo: Flint Taylor)

Spencer continued by speaking about how the bench should inspire us all:

I want you to read his passionate inscription on the bench and know that Mr. Eugene Edward Ellison stood for justice.... And while you are sitting on the bench I want you to know that, "Nothing will work, unless you do." I want you to sit on this bench and know that "the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." I want you to sit on this bench and know, "If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything."

Troy Ellison -- who has had to be more circumspect because of his continuing role as a Little Rock police lieutenant -- followed his brother to the podium. He acknowledged his relatives, thanked his brother for spearheading the public campaign for justice, and thanked Moore for the "unique gesture that no other city has dared to duplicate or achieve." Troy then captured the scenic peacefulness of the bench's placement by telling a personal story:

In search of a location for the bench, I stumbled upon a homeless man sitting on the bench previously positioned there. I was in uniform, and the man immediately started looking for his identification and explaining why he could not find it. I told him not to worry about it. When I began to tell him the reason why I was here, he completely ignored me and appeared to start daydreaming. I knew then this was an ideal place for the bench. When sitting here, you can put your mind in a place where no one (not even a policeman) can interrupt your peace.

He then issued a call to action to those in attendance:

This memorial will be remembered as another step toward healing for my family. Together, we can take the first step toward bringing our community together, to work toward bridging the gap of understanding and disconnect between law enforcement and our community. The time for talk must end. Everyone in attendance this morning has taken that first step. By your presence, you have now positioned yourself to being a part of a movement of positivity and not allowing negativity to sustain that imaginary barrier. I define this moment as a movement to recognize our issues and address them with action and not just discussion.

Troy finished with a personal pledge to continue taking part in the movement against police violence, even as he serves as a police lieutenant himself. "This ceremony marks the beginning of my official pledge of dedication to being a part of the movement, not because of, but in spite of," he said. "I have forgiven these officers for their actions and I pray for strength to continue to move forward and commit to answering the call to action."

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News Sat, 03 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
A New Take on Unrigging Our Taxes http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38573-a-new-take-on-unrigging-our-taxes http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38573-a-new-take-on-unrigging-our-taxes

We don't know exactly how much Donald Trump paid in taxes last year. He hasn't released his 2015 federal income tax return yet. He most likely never will.

But let's keep in mind that we don't actually know how much any individual American billionaire paid in taxes last year, with just one exception. Investor Warren Buffett last month released his own basic tax info as a protest of sorts against candidate Trump.

No other billionaires followed Buffett's lead, and, under U.S. law, none of these ultra rich have an obligation to share any personal tax data at all. So we have no clue how much tax avoiding our individual billionaires are doing.

We do, on the other hand, have a sense of just how much our billionaires as a group are shelling out at tax time. Give credit for that to statisticians at the IRS. Over recent years, they've been publishing annual reports on America's 400 highest-income tax returns.

In 2013, the most recent of these reports reveals, our top 400 averaged an amazing $265 million in income -- and paid, on average, just under 23 percent of that in federal income tax.

Some of the top 400 billionaires fared far better than that average. Forty-three of them paid less than 15 percent of their reported incomes in federal tax. On paper, remember, rich couples in 2015 faced a 39.6 percent tax rate on ordinary income over $464,850.

What explains the gap between that 39.6 percent and the much lower actual tax rate on rich people's incomes? In a word, loopholes. The rich play all sorts of games -- some just a little shady, some a lot -- to get their effective tax rate down as low as possible.

If the next President of the United States really wanted to undo this "rigged" tax status quo and narrow the gap between what the law says rich elites should pay in taxes and what they do pay, what steps could that President take?

That next President, suggests a new report out of the UK, could start by assigning America's super rich their own personal tax collectors. That's just what they're doing in Britain right now, in a special tax compliance project that UK tax officials launched in 2009.

Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, the British counterpart to America's IRS, has identified 6,500 UK taxpayers worth over £20 million -- the equivalent of about $25 million in the United States -- and matched each of these "high net worth individuals" with a HMRC "customer relationship manager."

These personal tax collectors operate as half tax cop and half concierge. Wearing the concierge cap, the customer relationship managers try to be helpful as possible to wealthy taxpayers. They'll readily answer, for instance, any question a wealthy taxpayer may have about a legally questionable tax-related move the taxpayer might be thinking of making.

As tax cops, customer relationship managers are constantly looking the shoulder of the individual wealthy taxpayers they're monitoring, watching out for fraud and any attempt to fudge income and tax-due figures.

HMRC has wisely built into this intense monitoring effort a series of safeguards to prevent what good-government analysts in the United States call "regulatory capture," the situations that develop when regulators get too close to the regulated and start ignoring the public interest.

Among these safeguards: HMRC regularly rotates the customer relationship managers assigned to each super wealthy taxpayer. And individual relationship managers don't get to make the final call on whether to pursue tax fraud investigations or not.

What sort of impact is this new British crackdown on wealthy taxpayers having? In 2015, the UK's 6,500 richest taxpayers voluntarily declared tax liabilities of £4.3 billion, about $5.3 billion. The compliance work of the HMRC special tax monitors assigned to the wealthy has already recovered another £416 million from these same super rich.

British tax officials have also identified -- and are going after -- another £1.9 billion that the super rich should have paid in taxes over recent years but haven't.

In other words, the dust could settle with the British super rich paying 35 percent more of their income in taxes than they initially expected to pay.

In the United States, collecting 35 percent more in taxes from the nation's richest would in 2013 have brought in an impressive $8.5 billion in new revenue from just 400 taxpayers.

Only one other nation -- the Netherlands -- now has a system in place that mirrors what British tax officials are doing, and this Dutch effort has only just begun.

America's IRS does, to be sure, have a unit that concentrates on taxpayers of high net worth. But the United States hasn't yet given these high-end taxpayers anything near the level of across-the-board scrutiny that Britain's HMRC has.

Could that situation change? Our top tax officials should take a look at the new report on the UK approach released earlier this month by Britain's National Audit Office. The report offers powerful evidence that placing the tax affairs of all a nation's ultra-rich taxpayers under the microscope can yield significant benefits.

How significant? UK auditors have calculated the British tax authorities gain £29 for every £1 they spend on staffers who do their agency's microscoping.

That sounds like a great deal, for both the national treasury and average taxpayers. Just by coincidence, we do have an expert deal maker about to take up occupancy in the White House. Will he try cutting a tax deal like Britain's? He would if he asked his voters.

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News Sat, 03 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
How Creative Repurposing of Industrial Scrap Is Holding Off a Neighborhood's Gentrification http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38571-how-creative-repurposing-of-industrial-scrap-is-holding-off-a-neighborhood-s-gentrification http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38571-how-creative-repurposing-of-industrial-scrap-is-holding-off-a-neighborhood-s-gentrification

The cavernous Scrap Exchange in Durham, North Carolina, is a maker's dream. Located in an old movie theater, the space is replete with reusable items that would otherwise go into landfills, from arts-and-crafts standbys like buttons, felt, and ribbons, to castoff lumber, wallpaper samples, medical supplies, and old lab equipment. The constant activity there is an inspiring testament to the potential of reuse.

But the Scrap Exchange is on the brink of something much bigger. This summer, the organization closed on a deal to buy 10 acres of a moribund strip mall surrounding the building. Executive director Ann Woodward's ambition is to turn the area into a "reuse arts district," unlike any in the country. It will include a range of creative elements, like a playground made of reused materials, a shipping container mall hosting local entrepreneurs, a recycle-a-bike program, artists' studios, and a performance space. Eventually, Woodward hopes to open a national center for creative reuse that provides research, grants, and advocacy to support other reuse centers around the country.

Most importantly, residents hope the expanded Scrap Exchange will give the community some stability and a measure of local control. That's something badly needed in a neighborhood that's ripe for development within a city currently experiencing intense gentrification.

"People are being priced out of downtown, and out of Durham -- it's just getting to be a luxury item," says Woodward. She likes to say that the Scrap Exchange will "steward" the property for the community. "We're not a developer. We're not going to resell it for a higher price."

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Scrap Exchange's history mirrors Durham's in some ways. First established at a local mall, the organization later spent more than a decade in a former tobacco warehouse, until the roof fell in and the building was condemned. It eventually wound up at its current location: the old cinema in the Shoppes at Lakewood, a once-respectable shopping center two miles from downtown whose storefronts were mostly dark, though the surrounding neighborhoods remained lively and mixed-income.

Along the way, the formerly quirky upstart became a venerable Durham institution -- one that picks up waste from more than 250 industries within 100 miles of the city. Besides selling those materials to the community for rock-bottom prices, the nonprofit uses them in a busy schedule of classes, camps, children's parties, and festival appearances; it has gradually gained a reputation as an inclusive community builder.

Simultaneously, Durham itself has been transformed. For decades, the city's downtown was virtually empty of residents and active businesses. But in the past few years, young professionals seeking walkable neighborhoods have flocked to it. And property values have jumped. According to an analysis by the Washington Post this spring, housing prices in the zip code that includes downtown rose 63 percent between 2004 and 2014.

That old tobacco warehouse with the bad roof? It's set to become 250 luxury apartments, joining a number of other new high-end residential projects rising around town. Affordable housing near downtown is in short supply. Meanwhile, observers believe developers are starting to eye commercial areas just outside of downtown -- areas like the Lakewood shopping center.

"I think all the high-end housing is moving toward this area," says Tara Kenchen, president/CEO of the NC Community Development Initiative. "It's right in the line of gentrification."

So far, housing values and demographics near the Scrap Exchange haven't changed too much; prices in its zip code went up 26 percent between 2004 and 2014, and the area has maintained its majority African-American population at about 53 percent. Still, downtown was transformed within just a few years, and the same could happen in nearby neighborhoods like Lakewood.

In fact, three different developers offered to buy the Lakewood shopping center this summer, when it was on the market for the rock-bottom price of $2.5 million. That's when Woodward and the Scrap Exchange's board jumped to put together a firm business plan and make an offer to buy the northern portion of the mall. The Initiative gave the Scrap Exchange a bridge loan for the full amount, and in August, they signed a deal.

Now that it's theirs, the real challenges begin. The organization plans to rent out the strip mall's storefronts to various nonprofit organizations at reasonable rates; El Centro Hispano, a longtime Durham group serving Latino residents, was the first tenant. And it'll open a thrift store to unload some of the more typical consumer goods the organization collects.

After that, the plans get big and somewhat amorphous: community garden, skate park, architectural salvage and deconstruction, welding shops, beer garden -- at this early date, they're all potential elements. But local investment will inevitably be a key part of the project. The Scrap Exchange currently runs a steering committee that includes nearby residents, business owners, and other community leaders, and Woodward is a member of a neighborhood initiative that has been working for more than a decade in nearby low-income areas. Future plans include job training and hiring people from the neighborhood, reestablishing a now-dormant business consortium, building some affordable housing, and helping preserve the multifamily housing currently near the shopping center.

"We're offering resources that make people's lives better," explained Woodward. "We are not going to be a luxury item. We're here for the people."

On a national scale, what Woodward and her colleagues are planning is unprecedented, says Kelley Carmichael Casey, executive director of SCRAP USA, a national network of creative reuse centers. While cities around the country are home to arts districts, an area that focuses largely on materials reuse in design and function doesn't yet exist. "It's an absolutely innovative and exciting idea that no other reuse organization that I'm aware of has spearheaded nationwide," she said.

But at the local level, many Durham residents simply see the Scrap Exchange's plans as the best deal they could hope for, one that's capable of spurring some growth in the area without radically changing its character or alienating longtime residents.

"The Scrap Exchange, they've been very engaged in Durham since they started," explains Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, who grew up near the Lakewood shopping center and remains engaged in the area through her work with the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership organization, though she moved away a decade ago. "I think the way in which the Scrap Exchange is approaching this by involving the community -- having them have some part of that vision, thinking intentionally about the community as they plan-- it's really a blessing to the community as a whole."

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News Sat, 03 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500