News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 15:20:09 -0400 en-gb Where Local Governments Are Paying the Bills With Police Fines

The dependence of thousands of American cities and town on judicial fines and forfeiture to fund public services is unhealthy for democracy. Public awareness of the depth of the problem has been growing since the Department of Justice's 2014 investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police, following the shooting of Michael Brown.

According to a Sunlight examination of 2013 Census data, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois and Mississippi topped the list of states where city governments relied heavily on fines and forfeits for funding. We concluded this by examining the ratio of local fines and forfeits to local tax in order to see where local governments rely particularly heavily on fines and forfeits to pay for basic services. Using this metric, the government of Henderson, Louisiana relied most on  these types of fines and forfeits. Henderson collected $3.73 in fines and forfeits for every $1 it collected in taxes. Out of the five municipal governments which reported collecting more money from fines than from taxes in 2013, three (Henderson, Pollack, and Olla) were from Louisiana. All five were towns with populations under 1,500. This suggests that most of those fines were probably paid by people who did not live in those towns, but who nonetheless had to drive through them.

The Louisiana towns were unusual relative to the rest of the local governments sampled by the Census. The median ratio of fines and forfeit revenue to tax revenue for city and county governments was 0.02 -- that is, the median city or county collected two cents in fines and forfeits for every dollar it collected in taxes. Averaging local governments by state revealed that high relative collection of fines and forfeits is more common in some states than others. The following table displays the ten states with local governments demonstrating the highest fines-to-tax ratio.  

Average Fines/Index

Table describing the average of fines divided by total tax for 10 states where this ratio is the highest. (Table credit: Sunlight Foundation)


How to Use Tax and Census Data to Reveal the Story

How did we figure this out? Knowing how much a given city depends on criminal and civil fines is difficult because it's hard to get detailed information. In our collaboration with MuckRock last November, we received no information from our public records requests for detailed data on the kind and amount of fines levied by a sample of cities. Frankly, it's challenging to even get aggregate information on fines issued by local law enforcement and local courts.

Meanwhile, even when individual departments do provide information, it can be hard to know whether it represents high, low, or average collection of fines and forfeits. There are so many local governments, and so few places where their data is aggregated, that it's hard to find a significant collection of useful data in order to make comparative observations about any one place.

Nonetheless, local government data is aggregated under certain programs. In recent posts, we examined the local government data that has been aggregated through the Uniform Criminal Reporting (UCR) program. To learn more about local fines, though, we need different data sources.

While far from complete, there are a couple of meaningful, publicly-accessible collection points for local government finance data. We can begin by looking at two major sources of financial data for local governments: the annual US Census survey of state and local government finance and the Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) database of the Municipal Securities Rule Board (MSRB).

The most recent US Census data on local government finance is for 2013. The survey collects information on "revenue, expenditure, debt, and assets (cash and security holdings)" for all states and a representative sample of local governments. To see information at the level of individual local governments, you must download, unzip and format the public-use individual unit file. Each line of data contains an ID number for each place, a code for each category of revenue and expenditure, and an amount of money collected or expended.

Code U30 identifies the total amount of "revenue from penalties imposed for violations of law; civil penalties (e.g., for violating court orders); court fees if levied upon conviction of a crime or violation; court-ordered restitutions to crime victims where government actually collects the monies; and forfeits of deposits held for performance guarantees or against loss or damage (such as forfeited bail and collateral)." The category does not include penalties for late tax payment, library fines, or sale of confiscated property.

Since individual lines may be inaccurate, it is best to use the database for looking at trends and averages.

First, we can use information about local population together with the fines and forfeits total in order to see where fines and forfeits are likely to play a particularly significant financial role. We can note, for example, that there is significant state-level variation in the average amount of fines and forfeits that local governments collect, per capita. The states where local governments assess, on average, the most fines and forfeits per capita do so at a rate that's four times higher than the states doing it the least. Cities typically collect more fines and forfeits per capita than counties do -- although the opposite is true in a handful of states, most notably Kansas and Nevada.

2016.10.1.Shaw.Chart(Graphic credit: Sunlight Foundation)

It would be useful to be able to be able to compare local governments on the proportion of their total revenue that comes from fines and forfeits, but the Census data was insufficiently exhaustive to provide this measure consistently. Instead, we can look at how a local government's collection of fines and forfeits compares to its collection of taxes. The Census provides data on all of the varieties of tax that local governments collect, from the very common property and sales tax to more obscure ones, like taxes on airports. Our extract of Census data containing the 2013 information on tax and fine revenue from all sampled city or county governments that reported revenue from both taxes and fines is available for download here.

With the substantial amount of information it collects together, the U.S. Census provides an unparalleled data source for understanding the broader picture for local government finances. To get into the specifics of any one location, however, we need primary sources. Happily, the "fines and forfeits" category is not just a Census category. It is also a common category for local government budgets, typically available on all local government websites.

Disclosure of revenue collection through fines and forfeits can also be found in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFR) that local governments provide as an aspect of their financial disclosures for the issuance of municipal bonds, which means that this information can also be found on the MSRB's EMMA database. Find individual local governments by choosing a state, then a bond-issuing local government, and then select "Financial Disclosures" to find that government's CAFR history. While we can only look at CAFRs individually, the EMMA repository is a useful tool for supporting comparisons of governments regionally, or over time.

Neither the Census nor the MSRB offers an unproblematic answer to the question of where to get information about these issues. The survey of state and local finances is sometimes inaccurate, a possibility the Census acknowledges in a disclaimer.

For example, the 2013 US Census survey shows Boulder, Colo., reporting zero revenue from fines and forfeits, when the city's budget documentation shows otherwise. The MSRB provides PDFs of individual government budget documents, but no machine readable data. Nonetheless, both data sources provide critical and comparable information about governmental dependence on fines and forfeits.

Cash Cow Police Departments Are Abnormal

What existing data tells us is that it is not normal for governments to raise significant revenue through their policing activities. Across Florida, for example, fines and forfeitures represented an average of 1% of cities' revenue between 1995 and 2009. In economically healthy cities, although the absolute dollar total of city-issued fines and forfeitures can be large, it still represents a small proportion of city revenue. Washington, D.C. currently raises about 1.7% of its total revenue through fines and forfeitures (and it appears that over 70% of the fines and forfeitures total comes from speed cameras, which produced $85 million in city revenue during FY 2015.)  San Francisco and New York City both raise about 1.1% of their total revenues through fines and forfeitures.

There is also evidence, however, that this changes when cities come under financial pressure, and that local governments collect more fines when other forms of city revenue decline. One study, examining North Carolina's response to the early-2000s recession, showed that increased ticketing by local police made up 38% of the annual decline in city revenue.

This was a more frequent situation for local governments after the 2007 recession produced a serious decline in municipal property tax revenue. Cities have expanded their use of some kinds of revenue-generating law enforcement practices, like red-light cameras and speed cameras [cite].

Individual cases show how economic pressure leads to an interest in finding ways that police can generate additional municipal revenue. Between 2007 and 2013, failing local revenue forced the police department of West Covina, Calif., to cut 37% of its staff. The city's 2014 budget noted that as a result, "understaffing is both a public safety and customer service issue, as residents have to wait longer for responses to non-emergency calls, and supervisory span of control has been reduced."  The California-based Drug Policy Alliance studied revenues for West Covina, among other California towns, and found a strong relationship between local budget pressure and increased police collection of civil forfeiture money:

In West Covina forfeiture income surged in the wake of budget cuts to the police department. After growing for several consecutive years, general fund appropriations for West Covina's police budget were cut by over $1 million in FY 2011. The following year, the department's forfeiture take more than quadrupled. In fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013, the police budget was cut a combined $1,677,134. In that same period, the department received $5,529,409 from DOJ equitable sharing, more than making up for the budget cuts. The amount of DOJ forfeiture revenue police collected in those 3 years as budget appropriations were shrinking was more than 7 times greater than what the department collected from forfeitures in the 8 preceding years, a time when police budgets were growing.

In 2010, a commander in the West Covina police department wrote in Police Chief magazine about ideas from "a group of experts" for new ways to generate revenue, including through increasing all fines by 50 percent. He described two new "ordinances and programs" the department had implemented to generate new revenue: a new fine for party noise running up to $500 and a $1,000 fine on parents for juvenile graffiti.

Ferguson's reliance on fines for revenue, during a period of regional financial stress, resulted in the city collecting 80% more fines between 2011 and 2013, by which point it was raising 20% of its budget through fines and forfeitures. Before the killing of Michael Brown, they anticipated that they would collect an extra million dollars in 2014 through police activity, raising a total of 25% of the city budget through fines.

Cities and their police departments may see increasing their dependence fines as a viable strategy for funding the government. However, the cost of running a revenue generation scheme through the criminal justice system is that things can very quickly get bad for the people who are required to pay for it. Municipalities can compound the financial hazard for the people who are fined by contracting with private probation collectors, who are allowed to add additional, legally-enforceable fees and interest to the amount that the court originally required.

To get details about how revenue-raising policing is working specifically, we need reporters to continue to dig into details and governments to respond to public records requests. Transparency and accountability must go together. In the meantime, the rest of us do have some public data sources which we can use to begin to answer the question.

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
A Subzero Winter Is Coming to Standing Rock -- Here's Their Plan

On a Saturday in mid-September, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard ambles through the Sacred Stone Camp, which she founded on her family's land this spring to stop the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The camp started small, but as media attention -- and support -- grew over the summer, it swelled by the end of August beyond its physical capacity into overflow camps. The population of the largest one, Oceti Sakowin, now numbers in the thousands.

Allard, who is the Standing Rock Sioux's director of Tribal Tourism, a position that covers historic and cultural preservation, is both inspired and overwhelmed by this outpouring, but she's careful not to let it distract her. Cold weather is rapidly approaching, and if the water protectors, as they call themselves, are going to make it through winter on the northern Plains, they need to prepare.

She sits behind her black SUV, enjoying a moment of tranquility away from people who might want her opinion on the dozens of tasks that need to be completed. She has tasks of her own to do, and on this afternoon she prepares corn by removing the kernels from the cob so that they can dry and be rehydrated months later. "I don't know why," she says, "but dehydrated corn is so much sweeter."

Every year she prepares for the five-month winter as the Lakota have done for thousands of years, but this year is different. She is surrounded by a mountain of bottled water, food, toilet paper, blankets, and other winter clothing. Many people have come and gone as work and other obligations have allowed, but every day Allard is confronted with the overwhelming logistics of building a community from scratch. A recent cold snap only heightened the sense of urgency, and with a recent court decision temporarily halting construction within 20 miles of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, the enthusiasm is palpable, while much attention has turned to preparing for North Dakota's legendary winter.


Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804–1805 along the Missouri River with the Mandan, a few dozen miles upstream from Sacred Stone. On Jan. 10, 1805, Capt. William Clark noted the temperature in his journal to be 40 degrees below zero -- 72 degrees below the freezing point. In the past 200 years, though, few people have experienced winter as the Mandan did, and even with the mounting effects of climate change, North Dakota's winters remain fodder for tall tales.

Without trees to slow the wind, unbreakable gusts sweep across the prairie for six months out of the year, easily exposing the weak spot of any winter outfit. Once snow falls, the wind blows a thin white veil across the road, obscuring visibility and leaving the double yellow line as the road's only discernible marker. Temperatures still dip south of minus 40 Fahrenheit, and entire weeks pass with daily highs stuck below zero. Patches of ice coat the narrow two-lane road connecting Standing Rock to North Dakota's capital city, Bismarck, and without the occasional opportunity to thaw, they expand as the winter slogs on.

Five years ago, the coming of winter, along with increasing pressure from law enforcement, led to the collapse of another massive protest in another part of the country: the Occupy Wall Street movement. But because the Sacred Stone Camp sits on private land, North Dakota's numbing temperatures loom as the most daunting obstacle.

In the past weeks, trucks arriving daily have dropped off an assortment of donated goods faster than the camp expected, and the pile has grown uncontrollably. Large blue tarps haphazardly cover many of these supplies, and Allard is eager to find a more permanent place that will better shield them from the elements. As the donation pile continued to mount, she had a small plot of land flattened to make room for as many as a half-dozen 10-by-40 tents, which will house the kitchen, pantry, and commissary. Meanwhile, with some of the monetary donations that have steadily accumulated, she dispatches volunteers to Bismarck to buy necessary goods, especially tents to house the overflowing donated goods.

When the camp started to grow, water quickly became one of the most urgent needs. But to Allard's dismay, bottled water was the contribution of choice, rather than 5-gallon jugs that would produce less plastic waste. Now, she's working to acquire a large-scale filtration system as well as an auger that can break through ice to collect water during winter. Other protectors have started to use the discarded bottles to make "eco-bricks," bottles filled with plastic trash, for use in tent walls as insulation.

Pickup trucks, overflowing with wood, regularly arrive at camp, and within a matter of minutes, protectors pile the logs on the overflowing mound that feeds the campfire. The bark and sawdust are spread atop a muddy spot in the road created by recent rains. In Oceti Sakowin, 18-wheelers carrying massive logs more than 10 feet long and 2 feet in diameter arrive late in the evening. Illuminated by truck headlights, a small backhoe begins unloading the logs. Within minutes, the buzz of chainsaws drowns out the sounds of chanting and beating drums as the protectors waste no time turning the logs into much-needed firewood.

Much of this wood may eventually make its way to the Sacred Stone camp. Because Oceti Sakowin is set in the large, open floodplain of the Cannonball River, it will provide little shelter from winter winds. Many protectors may eventually return to Sacred Stone, sheltered by cottonwood trees, as visiting tribes and supporters return home.

Kandi Mossett is a lead organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Originally from New Town, North Dakota, and a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, she and her colleagues have been organizing activists at Standing Rock since April. As long as there are enough people at camp to stop additional construction of the pipeline, she believes the movement will be able to survive the winter. In addition to bringing in a cellphone booster to allow protectors and journalists to communicate with the outside world, Mossett has helped the camp replace its gas generators with solar panels. Preparing for winter, she is helping to build traditional earth lodges, erecting canvas tents, and bringing in mobile indoor shower stations because once winter sets in, no one will want to take a shower outside.

She's nervous that some people who haven't experienced a North Dakota winter don't fully understand what's in store. But, she adds, "If people are going to be hardcore and want to stay, I'm really happy about that and excited because we haven't ever had resistance like this in North Dakota."

Keenan Gonzalez is one of those hardcore people. "I feel like I'm at home," says Gonzales, who is from the Mississippi band of Ojibwa, a Minnesota group that was disbanded in the 1940s. He arrived at camp at the beginning of September and has been posted at the Frontline camp, which is positioned across the road from where a pipeline construction crew bulldozed an ancient burial site. He says he is committed to the long haul and likens the experience to the old days, when tribes would call on their allies to support them. His hope is that this will set a precedent for future battles in Indian Country.

Robert Anquoe, a member of the Kiowa Tribe and the vice chair of the Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission, agrees. "We've haven't seen this in many years -- this type of solidarity and commitment to ensuring the Standing Rock has some support," he notes, standing beneath the row of tribal nation flags that line the main entrance to Oceti Sakowin. "This gathering is like no other."


Even two years before founding Sacred Stone and launching this historic resistance, Allard was prepared. "An old Lakota prophecy warns of a large black snake that could end the world," she whispered then. "For a long time, we thought that meant roads, but now we believe it to be the Keystone XL pipeline."

Indeed, those details have changed, but the prophecy and their stakes have not, which is why so many of the protectors at Standing Rock are ready to brave the cold months ahead.

Buoyed by a recent court decision halting a portion of construction, a recommendation by the Obama Administration to overhaul the federal government's relationship with tribes, and increasing media coverage, leaders addressing the camps frequently invoke the idea that something historical and unprecedented is taking place. The power of people can accomplish anything seems to be the mantra, and the pace of work reflects this zeal.

Allard is grateful for the support Sacred Stone has received, but she knows this is just the beginning. Although she's well aware what winter in North Dakota entails, for many of the protectors, this will be their first. Many have confidence that their strong sense of purpose and the knowledge that they are on the right side of history will help them persevere through the cold months ahead. But despite every preparation being made, they will be tested: Winter is coming.

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
We Are Not Alone: Listening to the 8.7 Million Other Animals Who Live on Earth

 2016.10.1.Sottile.main(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted: orangeacid, Reto Stöckli / NASA )

Only when we stop denying the personhood of animals (anthropodenialism) and the complexity of their intelligence and emotions, will we finally recognize this important point -- animals and the ecosystems that they depend upon are not merely a natural resource for human beings to exploit.

 2016.10.1.Sottile.main(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout; Adapted: orangeacid, Reto Stöckli / NASA )

Space. They say it's the final frontier.

And they've probably been saying it for a long, long time. According to a recent study, active human exploration of space dates back at least 6,000 years. That's when our star-struck ancestors constructed the first known "telescope" to assist them in their eager search of the observable universe.

We've certainly come -- and gone -- a long way since those early attempts to understand the night sky. We've been to the moon and landed on a surprisingly water-worn Mars. We've literally traveled time through the awe-inspiring "Deep Field" images collected by the Hubble telescope. And now the Kepler space observatory is bringing us tantalizingly closer to answering one of our oldest and most profound questions: Are we alone in the universe?"

So far, the orbiting telescope has found hundreds of potentially life-giving exoplanets peppered around the galaxy. It also found a surprising data anomaly that made big news as the beguilingly named "Alien Megastructure" star. The oddity of its intermittent, possibly structured dips in brightness sparked a truly earth-shattering hypothesis: What if an advanced civilization built a "megastructure" around the distant sun in a bid to harvest its energy? Or, even better, what if they placed a Jupiter-sized thingamajig in front of the star to signal their presence to other beings who, like them, longingly scan the universe in search of companionship?

Imagine how instantly gratified we'd be to find out we weren't the only intelligent beings probing the deep, dark vacuum of space! It would be the ultimate validation. But this faint new hope of finding new kinship on a new planet is based on a fundamental fallacy. The fallacy is the notion that we are alone in the first place.

The real news is that we're up to our necks in a "deep field" of 8.7 million sentient life forms right here on planet Earth. And we don't need an orbiting telescope to see:

There are even sharks who worry, goats who pleadingly stare at people and snakes who, of course, deceptively act like "snakes in the grass."

That's right, folks. While the Search For Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) spent the last three decades fruitlessly scanning the heavens in search of alien signals ... we've actually been surrounded by a miraculous variety of intelligence on the only planet we know for a fact sustains life.

It's not that space exploration isn't a good thing. Or that searching isn't fundamental to being human. It might even be fundamental to being a primate. No, the problem is that we've been living in self-imposed exile on a world made artificially barren by science's three-centuries-long ban against anthropomorphism. Ironically, this ban has helped validate the anthropocentric idea that humans are so unique that we are, in effect, an alien intelligence stranded here on Earth.

Anthropocentrically Speaking

Merriam-Webster defines anthropomorphism as "an interpretation of what is not human or personal in terms of human or personal characteristics." For scientists, it's long been a "four-letter word," meaning bad science based on a faulty application of human paradigms onto non-human subjects of research.

There are real scientific reasons to avoid unfounded inferences and personal biases stemming from an uncritical anthropomorphism. And making humans the measure of all things rarely, if ever, produces good results -- particularly for nonhumans. But this methodological aversion to anthropomorphism meant science not only rejected the implication that animals think, feel and suffer "like humans," but it also cut off inquiry into whether or not animals think, feel and suffer at all.

The issue seems bigger than just the supposed scientific impossibility of measuring the "inner life" of animals. Instead, it may be that acknowledging the existence of complex animal intelligence undermines our unique place atop the natural order. A more "critical anthropomorphism" that modulates human inference with testable data is producing strong arguments for knowing animal consciousness, understanding their emotional lives and for accepting the reality of animal suffering.

As comparative psychologist Jennifer Vonk told Discover magazine, "People want to be special" and each time "a researcher finds that tool use or theory of mind or language-like communication is not unique to humans, somebody comes up with new categories that raise the bar."

It's a phenomenon leading primatologist Frans de Waal calls "anthropodenial." It's the reflexive "rejection of humanlike traits in animals and of animal-like traits in humans" and it still persists despite mounting evidence to the contrary. De Waal collected much of that evidence himself during years studying primates like bonobos. They are 98 percent genetically similar to humans, they exhibit many of the hallmarks of humanness and they are famous for the ribald complexity of their culture.

And yes, it is a culture.

But many of de Waal's colleagues simply won't go there. Instead, they claim de Waal erroneously anthropomorphizes our cousins. And they explain away a chimpanzee's laughter as nothing more than "vocalized panting." Years of firsthand experience tickling apes has convinced de Waal otherwise.

Frankly, for anyone who's seen the viral video of an orangutan laughing at a "missing ball" magic trick, this stubbornness in the face of an observable truth is perplexing. It's particularly odd given orangutans' amazing range of skills, including an ability to make sounds that seem strikingly similar to those we make ourselves.

Yet, some remain unconvinced by Koko the gorilla's proficiency with sign language and her unbridled love of kittens. Many initially criticized Jane Goodall for imputing "individuality and emotion to nonhuman animals," in spite of the fact that chimps share an amazing genetic similarity and a warlike disposition with humans. Even Charles Darwin was ridiculed for claiming the lowly earthworm showed intelligence. Darwin pointed out that humans are animals over a century ago, but today he'd still face the same anthropodenialism.

This outdated notion is based on a fundamental fallacy that assumes our unique form of intelligence makes us this planet's only true beings. It's right there in the name we've given ourselves and ourselves alone -- human beings.

Being Versus Doing

So, why don't we say "dolphin beings" or "raven beings" and "octopus beings"? Perhaps because "being" implies consciousness. If animals are not conscious "beings," then they are merely "doing" by mechanical instinct. But if animals are beings, that creates other complications: As beings, they might have an existential right to "to be" beyond their usefulness to us as a natural resource, a source of amusement or a subject of dissection.

We've conveniently squared that circle by believing only humans can truly make conscious decisions. That's thanks in no small part to a 17th century philosopher named Rene Descartes. He's often credited with building the foundation of the modern scientific method. Even if you don't think you know Descartes ... you do. He famously said "I think, therefore I am." He also claimed that animals don't think and therefore they really aren't. How did he know it for certain? Because animals cannot talk, you silly goose.

In fact, Descartes refused to believe that even the smartest Myna bird could ever exhibit anything close to the "real" intelligence of a human being. Sure, a Myna bird may be able to make word-like sounds. But unlike even the "dumbest" human being, the brightest Myna bird has no real grasp of the eternal concept that informs the word. Instead, the Myna bird is just a soulless, instinct-driven automaton merely "parroting" something uttered by a human. It's just a conditioned response to stimuli.

But imagine Descartes' surprise if he could've met Alex the Parrot, an amazing African Grey who didn't seem to be parroting at all. Alex could add Arabic numerals, identify shapes and colors and say "I love you" with the kind of heart-warming sincerity we all crave. And, in an epic moment of self-consciousness, Alex even looked in the mirror and asked, "What color am I?"

Science Is Anthropomorphing

Alex was obviously thinking. And he talked about what was on his mind. Therefore he was, right? Not if you're an anachronistic anthropodenialist. Then you'd believe Alex was just giving a conditioned response and that Dr. Irene Pepperberg made the cardinal error of foolishly anthropomorphizing Alex's bird-brained behaviors.

But you'd also be increasingly behind the curve, because there is a new wave of scientists at the leading edge of a polyphonic revolution that's finally listening to the life all around us. So far, they've found:

  • Sperm whales who talk in regional dialects with distinct cultures and use specialized sounds to delineate their own clans ... much like a human surname.
  • Black Sea bottlenose dolphins engaged in a "human-like conversation" recorded on a specially calibrated microphone that captured their back and forth click-laden chit-chat.
  • Gorillas who "hum and sing" and Macaques who are learning to communicate with computer touch screens.
  • Zebra finches who sing instructions to their young before they hatch like a nesting hipster couple playing Bach to their gestating baby through a "babybump" sound system.
  • Highly social meerkats who recognize each other as individuals by their distinctive calls that basically function like names.
  • Dogs that know when you really mean "That's a good boy!" versus when you're just peddling the kind of half-hearted praise that comes after a hurried late night trip around the block at the end of a long, long day.

At long last, science is finally proving something millions of humans who live with "pets" have known for years -- that animals are "people," too.

A recent Fortune Magazine survey found that 76 percent of Americans viewed their dogs, cats, parakeets, hamsters and other pets as "beloved members of the family." Just 19 percent of respondents said their pets were "well cared for, but still considered animals" and less than 5 percent said "pets are work animals that have a specific job to do."

And a Gallup poll conducted in 2015 found that 32 percent of Americans "believe animals should be given the same rights as people." That's up from 25 percent in 2008. Still, a robust 62 percent say animals "deserve some protection but can still be used for the benefit of humans." But only 3 percent believe they deserve no legal rights at all. The legal revolution is moving slowly, but it is moving.

Four decades after Christopher Stone wrote his groundbreaking legal argument "Should Trees Have Standing?" the push to expand rights has secured human protections for orangutans in Argentina, classified dolphins as non-human persons in India, acknowledged dogs and cats as non-human neighbors in a small Spanish town, won personhood to an entire river in New Zealand and, most notably, the Nonhuman Rights Project went into a New York courtroom and almost secured two chimpanzees the same personhood rights enjoyed by corporations.

Yes, this is progress. Yes, the scale of nonhuman animal suffering (at the hands of humans) is still beyond comprehension. Yes, people still buy and discard pets like so much patio furniture while so many millions languish and die in pet shelters. And yes, the progress feels too slow or, even worse, too late. But consider the fact that we are overturning centuries of anthropodenialism.

This is a revolution in how we see animals.

More importantly, this is a much-needed evolution of the human condition. And it's not just being driven by progressive scientists. It's also being driven by clickbait. Every day, amazing animals fill our feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. And it's far more than the millions of cat videos that may be the only thing actually holding the interwebs together.

People eagerly share videos of humans and cows snuggling, crows seeking emergency first aid and whales thanking humans for freeing them from callously abandoned fishing nets. We've obsessively watched and re-watched that compelling conversation between two chatty cats over 61 million times. And the laughing orangutan that anthropodenialists would prefer to dismiss as "vocalized panting?" It was a big hit on dozens of mainstream news sites and, as of today, it's heading toward 19 million views in just under a year. And therein lies the rub.

The more we actively observe altruism and justice and pain and love and fear and play and politics and romance and commitment all around us, the harder it is to maintain a destructive distinction between us and them. And the more we click, the more clearly we see the fundamental problems of the Anthropocene Era and its rising seas, poisoned waters and mounting extinction.

The Other Final Frontier

Our growing recognition of the "inner life" of animals is a direct challenge to the idea that they -- and the ecosystems they depend upon -- are merely a natural resource quite literally at the disposal of human beings. Of course, if Descartes was right, then the troubling aspects of suffering, habitat destruction and human-caused extinction are completely absolved. It also means the problem of squandering or exhausting so-called "resources" is solely a problem of human injustice to other humans.

But the animal-related cavalcade of consciousness we see every day -- like the viral video of incredibly cute sea turtle babies scurrying to the sea -- forces us to consider the possibility that sea turtles are not simply "resources" to be preserved so our grandkids can have a sea turtle "experience" on some Costa Rican beach 20 years from now. Instead we might accept that sea turtles shouldn't go extinct because sea turtles have an inherent right to exist apart from whether or not future generations of human beings will be able to "enjoy" the existence of sea turtles.

And if we finally start to listen to the other "twitter feed" here on Earth, we might actually learn something about cohabitation from the amazing interspecies conversations happening around us. Scientists are finding that various species learn to heed the calls, track the cries and listen to the songs of the other species who share their habitat. They actually learn from each other because they listen. They are not alone.

This is the final frontier we should all be exploring with ever greater urgency.

We'd better start soon because the messages filling our collective inbox tell us loudly and clearly that we're all heading for a mass catastrophe. And migrating animals are telling us with increasingly apparent non-verbal communication that we're warming the planet faster than they can adapt to it and faster than our collective home can reasonably absorb.

And like the Zebra finches singing preparatory lessons about climate change to their still incubating chicks, our cohabitants are telling us loudly and clearly that we're imperiling the only truly habitable planet the universe has yet to offer to us. So, while SETI falsely excites us with our own messages reverberating off our own satellites, we should be paying ever closer attention to the good news that we are not alone after all ... at least, not yet.

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
How the Left Can Circumvent the Rise of the Alt-Right

Trump has presented the alt-right's upper-middle-class leadership with an opportunity to make racial nationalism and "human inequality" part of the mainstream discourse. The left can reclaim the analysis with a multiracial movement that openly confronts and destroys the racist fuel that feeds the fascist movement.

The left can reclaim the political discourse with a multiracial movement that calls out the alt-right's fascism.The left can reclaim the political discourse with a multiracial movement that calls out the alt-right's fascism. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

As Richard Spencer put the final touches on his press announcement, the bottom fell out with a biting swiftness. Spencer, the brains behind the National Policy Institute and the Radix Journal, had booked out the National Press Club (NPC) for the afternoon of September 9. Since Hillary Clinton's recent speech, the "alt-right" has become a buzzword that journalists are struggling to define. As one of the central figures of this dissident right-wing movement, Spencer has used this wave of interest to try and create a bridge to the mainstream for ideas that are usually relegated to private conferences in secret buildings.

Spencer had booked the historic National Press Club to do a press conference specifically for the amorphous alt-right movement, sharing the stage with Jared Taylor, a white nationalist who argues that there are racial differences in IQ, and Peter Brimelow, an anti-immigrant writer who argues for a complete moratorium on immigration. Just days before the event was set to begin, Spencer got a call from the NPC canceling the conference, citing security concerns that the facility just couldn't meet.

This led Spencer into a mix of prurient anger and desperate scrambling as he issued a statement condemning the NPC as "anti-free speech" and shifting the event to the Willard Hotel. He then sent the invite to the event to press from around the country, letting them know that the actual location would only be made public a couple of hours before.

Even with these barriers, the hall was next to full, though it appeared that more than half the crowd was young alt-righters themselves ready to ask fawning questions of their movement's celebrities.

Enter White Nationalism

The alt-right press conference was intended to demonstrate that the alt-right is now a legitimate part of the political conversation.

Almost jokingly, Spencer told Buzzfeed reporter Rosie Gray, "We've taken over the right," a phrase that plays on the idea that his corner of conservatism is actually a "true right."

The conservative movement started in the 1950s by William Buckley and backed by Beltway appeals to Midwest values and Chicago School free markets, is something the alt-right rejects entirely. The alt-right is a dissident far-right ideology that has become a force of iconoclastic politics -- one that seeks to topple not only the left, but also the conventional right as well.

While the Donald Trump campaign understandably draws much rage from the left, the alt-right is largely still viewed by much of the left as an oddity or a sort of parody of a fascist movement. The liberal left of the Democratic Party, and its hangers-on, have doubled down on Clinton's opposition to Trump, and her attempt to "name names" in the alt-right  gives her the appearance of an anti-racist edge. Her plan is simple: Expose the alt-right for what it is, link it to Trump, use it to destroy Trump and capture the election. However, it is important to also recognize the threat posed by the alt-right on its own terms, apart from its connections with Trump.

The current alt-right represents the largest influx of fascist politics in the US in decades, an attempt to reclaim white identity and traditional hierarchies that have haunted the US consciousness since the earliest days of chattel slavery. It is hard to gauge numbers exactly since conventional racialist organizations, while growing, are not the best metric for this new tech-savvy nationalism. Anonymous blogs and podcasts, reactionary Twitter accounts, and private meetings are defining this new fascist culture, but its effects can be measured in how influential it has been in mainstreaming its more radical opinions and dominating segments of political discourse. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) has often presented the most crystallized effort to do so, starting with attempts at revolution in the Reconstruction Era South and then hitting a zenith in the 1920s. By the time the third wave of the KKK emerged to combat the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it had already lost much of its cultural cache and was identified as an American fascist movement.

Since then, the move towards "suit-and-tie" fascism has been almost universal on the far right. David Duke, a neo-Nazi and former KKK leader, moderated his position and slid on the paleoconservative wave into the Louisiana State Legislature in 1991, something he is attempting to do in his current run for a Louisiana Senate seat. Pat Buchanan mainstreamed these ideas even further for a 1992 presidential bid, and various Libertarian and evangelical leaders have used this rhetoric to make inroads into the US heartland. Few of these have maintained a "self-conscious" fascist politic, one that acknowledges just how radical its ideas really are. Instead, fascist politics often slide under the rhetoric of "American populism," and attempt to couch their appeals for inequality and nationalism in clichéd Americana. The alt-right is different, in that it takes notes from European nationalism and openly advocates for abhorrent policies, instead of trying to moderate their rhetoric.

Against Democracy and Equality

The alt-right  itself was first synthesized by Richard Spencer and Paul Gottfried, a paleoconservative academic who was expelled from the conservative movement in the 1980s for his overtly racist politics. Spencer is a former assistant editor at the American Conservative who moved towards racial politics after joining Taki's Magazine, where he met more right-wing "dissidents" in constellation around the magazine and in his growing social sphere.

It was out of this constellation that he created Alternative Right, a publication that would be explicit about its racialism and focus on ideological strains that the conventional right wouldn't touch. It would publish pieces on race and crime, "innate differences" between racial groups, the traditional roles of men and women, and other explicitly racist and sexist ideas that were less and less acceptable in the Beltway.

A Racial Caste System

First and foremost, the alt-right believes that "race is real." It argues that race is a defining factor in each particular region's civilization, and that the development of each society is the result of the genetic qualities of those who built it. This notion comes from "race-realism," often called "human biological diversity" today, which says that race is a real biological dividing line and that different races have different innate personalities, levels of intelligence and degrees of sexual restraint.

The primary focus of this argument was, and has always been, to argue that Black and Latino people are less intelligent than whites. The vast majority of alt-right publications have focused on promoting these falsehoods, which tie in with others, such as the argument that Black people are more prone to crime and more inclined to sexual assault, and do not have the innate ability to "maintain civilization."

This fictional "race-realism" informs their primary political idea: white nationalism. Spencer, Taylor and almost all others on the alt-right agree on the idea that they need a white "ethnostate." This would be an exclusively white nation, with other races placed in separatist enclaves of their own. This white nationalism has been the ideological kernel that has carried through Aryan activists and skinheads for almost a century, and while the alt-right uses semi-academic rhetoric to support its arguments, the ideological thought process is much the same.

Along with this traditional white nationalist talk comes anti-Semitism, a core component of the alt-right's Internet culture. Drawing on anti-Semitic caricatures and theories of people like Kevin MacDonald, alt-righters believe that there is a question of "Jewish power" in society, in which Jews "wield disproportionate influence" in politics, finance and the media. MacDonald, a former psychology professor at the University of California at Long Beach, has published several books outlining Judaism as a "group evolutionary strategy" that Jews use to outcompete non-Jews for resources.

Generally, the alt-right wants to "return" to a form of "traditionalism," a mythic past where society was "pure" before the influences of "modernity." This has deep roots in fascist philosophy, especially perennialist thinkers like Julius Evola. In most of his work, Evola outlines a spiritual "tradition" that, he argues, emanates from all world religions. He argues that this "tradition" is manifested in internal hierarchies, and structures of initiation can supposedly be seen in religions in all cultures, though over time, modernity robs them of their stratified and prescriptive nature. He asserts that a strict hierarchy needs to be established and that today, we are in the Kali Yuga, or "dark age," where those hierarchies have been abolished and where "lesser races" now rule over those peoples who should have authority in society.

This idea of the importance of hierarchy is key, because the battle against "equality" is what unites the alt-right in spirit. The belief that no two people, and no two races, are equal is what drove Spencer from the beginning. The alt-right argues that society needs to be stratified, with a ruling elite that is bred to rule those on the bottom. Races, genders and ability levels are viewed vertically, and the alt-right wants to establish a strict authority to maintain this stratification.

A Left Opposition

Given that the alt-right's fascist politics are articulated with such ontological simplicity, the lack of major opposition from the left is striking. Instead, many on the left have operated by ignoring the alt-right's importance, believing that to look the other way will inspire the alt-right to simply shrink without recognition.

The alt-right, as any fascist movement, comes as an attempt to make sense of international capitalism and social contentions, where many whites intend to defend their own privilege over social progress. In this way it is insurrectionary and not made up distinctly of class interests; it requires its own internal logic that is meant to excise violence and impose radically hierarchical social norms on a society that already attempts to whitewash its own inequality. This makes fascist violence distinct, in certain ways, from the underlying systemic racism baked into capitalism. The alt-right is explicit about its bigotry; it publicly argues in favor of it. While racism is systemic and persistent in the dominant US culture, rarely is it as openly acknowledged and encouraged as it is with the alt-right.

The uniqueness of the alt-right lies in its attempt to mainstream explicitly racist politics. If the alt-right can participate in defining the US left-right dialectic, then it can make racial nationalism and "human inequality" a part of "reasonable" discourse, denying the genocidal frenzy of white supremacy and clawing against the achievements of generations of social movements.

The left must continue to have a strong anti-fascist politic that is dedicated to undermining both systemic racism and challenging fascist insurrectionary movements as they evolve, and today the alt-right  is the most contemporary stage in a neo-fascist project that has continued to appear since the Second World War. Anti-fascist movements of the past have been defined by the organizations that they are in opposition to but the alt-right presents a unique challenge because of its tempered language, D.C. conference rooms, and anonymous Twitter infantry. That challenge needs to be met by a left mass movement that can confront their growth openly, calling it what it is, and treating it with the same ire as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the white nationalist militia movement. This is not meant to replace the long-term struggle to undo systemic racism, but to also prioritize counter-organizing against the shocking rise of fascist politics that is attempting to make critical blows against social progress and can lead to acts of white supremacist violence.

Reclaim the White Working Class

The alt-right's leadership is primarily made up of upper-middle-class professionals, steeped in internet jargon and obscure fascist authors. Its foot soldiers, however, are pulled from the disaffected edges of the white working class. The continued assault on working-class institutions through the decimation of organized labor, the undoing of the New Deal social programs and the offshoring of jobs have created a working class, including many white working-class people, living in increased uncertainty. If the left is to have any teeth, both in opposing the reactionary right or any movement of economic progress, they need to bring anti-racist politics back into working class white communities and appeal to the need for solidarity between workers. The Movement for Black Lives has outlined a vision that includes this strong relationship between class and racism, which can inform future strategies for building those connections.

Answer Their Lies

What the alt-right has built its rhetoric around is the ability to argue points for which the average person does not have an answer. When they throw out race and IQ positions, they attempt to support them with obscure studies. Their arguments have been known to be false for decades, but few people have ready answers to the citation of particular erroneous studies. Just as we fought Holocaust Denial in the early 1990s, we need to create an infrastructure of education so that facts around these issues can be easily accessible. This undermines the alt-right's ability to manipulate the truth to push their agenda.

The truth is that race is a social reality, not a biological one of any importance, and we need to reestablish those factual foundations in the public consciousness.

Fortify Anti-Racist Mass Movements

The most effective tool to confront creeping fascism is a strong, broad anti-racism. The alt-right has been fueled by a latent racism that has gone undercover, as it has become less socially acceptable to use racial slurs in public. This racism has become systemic and is under the surface inside classrooms and boardrooms and police stations from coast to coast.

In 2014, several shots fired at Michael Brown ignited the next stage of the ongoing struggle against racism in the US, one that gives the left the tools to continue confronting the underlying issues of racial inequality. With a multiracial struggle against systemic and interpersonal racism, movements like Black Lives Matter have the tactical set to continue to destroy the racist fuel that the alt-right needs to recruit and grow. The Black Lives Matter movement should receive broad support. It is also necessary to continue to support organizations that have been confronting white supremacist movements for decades, such as the Anti-Racist Action or, more recently, the One People's Project.

Articulate a Vision

What fascist movements have always fed on is crisis, and the implicit need for a radical right-wing change. The alt-right itself has created an entire rhetorical gallery based around the idea that it is the only revolutionary option to counter the current "system of globalism." This comes, in part, from many left institutions failing to truly challenge systems of power and from the inability to articulate a clear strategic vision. This requires the left to reclaim an analysis of how to challenge contemporary institutions of power, and to support, in increasing numbers, a radical vision of racial justice for the future.

A Post-Trump United States

Donald Trump has presented an incredible opportunity to the alt-right by providing exposure to crossover politics, like Islamophobia and immigration restriction, while giving them access to a white working class who would not normally be attracted to their DC racialist conferences. If Clinton is able to take the election, they will take a serious hit, as the GOP and conservative institutions will purge any remnant of their meme-nationalism. If Trump is able to pull off a surprise victory, then the Republican Party is likely to embed much of the alt-right's message into its political program.

In either case, the alt-right has grown considerably, which means that the previous marginal threat of fascist organizations has increased significantly. The left needs to further develop strategies for how to approach a fascist movement, both in the populist messages of the Trump campaign and in the explicit racial nationalism of neo-Nazis and the alt-right. This requires naming its component parts, seeing it within the historical role of dissident fascist movements.

While Richard Spencer was able to attract people to his press conference, the fact that the NPC event was shut down was not surprising. In 2014, Spencer attempted to hold a "Pan-European" conference in Budapest, Hungary. After the socialist party put on pressure, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself declared Spencer an "enemy of the state" and had him deported and his conference canceled. Back at Spencer's home in Whitefish, Montana, the local group Love Lives Here challenged him at the city level. He most recently has been banned from entering Britain.

American Renaissance, the race-realist conference and website run by Jared Taylor, has also been challenged by activists. In both 2010 and 2011, the conferences were canceled when anti-racist organizations like the One People's Project put pressure on the venue, and Taylor regularly has speaking events canceled when organizers let outlets know his background.

American Renaissance and the National Policy Institute represent some of the largest institutions that prop up the alt-right as an ideological current, and are vulnerable to challenge even while they are prepared for growth.

As Spencer and company wrapped up the alt-right press conference, they urged journalists to ask questions, to stay tied into the growing number of blogs that donned the alt-right label, and to broadcast their message for them. They are hoping to allow this burst of attention to be the opportunity they need to reach out and create a movement with edge. Fortunately, it is a movement that the left can circumvent before it ever begins.

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Beyond Opportunity: The Future of Americans With Disabilities

2016.9.28.Sered.mainHillary Clinton just offered the most comprehensive pitch ever to the one-quarter of the American electorate with disabilities. It's only a start. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Hillary Clinton was right to remind Americans, during a recent speech, that the true test of a society is "how we treat our fellow human beings, especially the most vulnerable among us." She then proceeded to lay out a plan to systematically help those with disabilities acquire education and find jobs. But a careful study of Americans with disabilities makes clear one fundamental danger: If we make access to economic opportunity and labor market participation the primary goal of government policy for people with disabilities, we are going to exclude millions of Americans. Ultimately, all nations, no matter how robust their social markets, also need strong safety nets if they are to fulfill the principle Clinton described.

Consider Jane, a research subject whose name I have changed. In 2003, when I first met her, Jane lived in a small town in northern Idaho. An energetic, gregarious widow in her late forties, she supported herself by working at a local café. Over the next several years, as local businesses fell beneath the charge of national chain restaurants, the café's business declined and Jane's hours were cut. She picked up additional part-time jobs cleaning houses and doing laundry in a nursing home. None of her employers offered health insurance, yet she earned too much to be eligible for Medicaid in Idaho.

By the time she was in her mid-fifties, her health had deteriorated: She suffered a few bouts of pneumonia and experienced poor circulation in her legs. She still loved working, especially at the café ("It was my social life," she told me). "But finally I couldn't do it anymore … I had to stop because of my legs -- you see my feet and ankles hurt and then turned black." She was eventually diagnosed with diabetes by a doctor at a weekly volunteer clinic. The doctor told her that she had likely already been suffering from diabetes for a decade.

Jane applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). At age 57, after several years of denied applications, she was officially deemed "disabled." She then had to wait another two years to become eligible for Medicare. (There is a 25-month waiting period for Medicare entitlement, despite health problems that leave people unable to work.) During this time, she made do with whatever occasional free samples of medication the volunteer clinic had on hand.

When I visited Jane in 2015, she was no longer able to afford her apartment and had moved into a one room shack on the outskirts of town. Though she had worked all of her life, her SSDI allowance, based on past earned income, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI is designed to bring the monthly checks of low earners up to a minimal threshold) only paid her a total of $800 a month. This was not enough for her to make use of the car that sat -- out of gas and in need of repair -- in front of her house.

This formerly energetic woman was now housebound. She told me how much she missed going out to work at the café, but, she explained, "maybe that's for the best." She'd lost her teeth and couldn't afford dentures, which are not covered by Medicaid in Idaho or by Medicare at all, and was embarrassed by the idea that her former coworkers and café patrons might see her. Equally devastating, without teeth, she can't chew the healthy vegetables and whole grains that her doctor tells her are necessary for keeping her diabetes from further damaging her body.

Unfortunately, Jane's situation is all-too-typical. In 2016, 14 million Americans under the age of 65 are officially deemed disabled by the Social Security Administration.

In Jane's case, work (albeit cobbled together part-time jobs) was available, but lack of access to medical care thrust her into Disability. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has brought millions of Americans into health-care coverage, but the legislation has had little impact on people like Jane who live in states that turned down federal funds for Medicaid expansion under the ACA. In non-expansion states, people who may well be capable of working continue to have to choose between a job and the access to health care that comes from Disability status. While a variety of factors likely come into play, it is telling that, for the most part, states that chose not to expand Medicaid eligibility have higher rates of individuals receiving Disability payments.

For Jane, SSDI is a lifesaver, but one that has come at high personal cost, imposing a stigmatizing label -- "disabled" -- that American culture and policies treat with a great deal of ambivalence. We Americans admire people who "overcome" their disabilities and show their "strong spirit" in contexts such as the Paralympics, yet disabled Americans are likely to remain poor throughout their lives. And, like Jane, applicants for SSDI routinely need to hire lawyers -- who then keep a substantial part of retroactive payments -- to "prove" that they are really disabled.

While the Disability system does provide a crucial safety net for millions of Americans like Jane, it is structured to reinforce existing inequalities. People who earned higher wages before they became disabled receive larger payments than low-wage workers, and the minimum payments are not sufficient for disabled people like Jane to live in dignity.

Jane is one of the 35.4 million Americans with disabilities eligible to vote in the November 2016 election. According to numbers computed by Rutgers professors Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, the number of eligible voters with disabilities has increased 10.8 percent since 2008 and there will be 62.7 million eligible voters who either have a disability or live with a household member who has one, more than one-fourth of the total electorate.

People with disabilities have received some attention from both campaigns. Trump's public mocking of a disabled reporter remains a popular trope on the campaign trail. And Clinton, as mentioned, gave a speech this week outlining her commitment to bolster job opportunities and eliminate the "subminimum wage" paid to some people with disabilities. Yet specific policy proposals for those who cannot work remain few and far between.

With this in mind, what could have -- or still could -- make a difference for the better in Jane's life (and in the lives of those who, like Jane, live with a disability)? Some specific proposals include:

  • Expand Medicaid in all states so that working people do not need to go onto Disability to access health care.
  • Get lawyers out of the application system for Disability. This should not be an adversarial process and no one should be taking a bite of the government benefits aimed at disabled Americans.
  • Eliminate the waiting period for Medicare eligibility for people accepted onto Disability. It makes no sense to delay the health care that they, by definition, need.
  • Include oral health care in coverage programs, including Medicare.
  • Raise minimum Disability payments to reasonable levels.
  • Encourage and expand meaningful work opportunities for people on Disability, as well as for people living with disabilities who neither need nor qualify for Social Security Disability status or are waiting to be accepted onto Social Security Disability.

As in all matters of principle, the devil is in the details. These policy proposals should be possible and straightforward to adopt. But most of all, they would spare Americans like Jane from a lifetime wasted in hopeless frustration, as they mourn the loss of jobs, of friends, of their health, and of their dignity.

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Chicago Renters Back "ROOTS" as Solution to Affordable Housing

2016.9.28.Riley.1Roxanne Smith is seen in September in her Chicago home, which was saved from foreclosure by a resident-led affordable housing program called ROOTS. (Photo: Chloe Riley for Equal Voice News)

Also see: Renters Unite to Demand Affordable Housing

In Roxanne Smith's Chicago kitchen, a framed excerpt from Barack Obama's 2008 Grant Park presidential victory speech hangs for all to see. "America, we have come so far," it reads. "But there is so much more to do."

Smith, 60, has come a long way herself in recent years. In 2013, she faced potential homelessness after the Northwest Side apartment where she lives with her 35-year-old son was foreclosed upon.

At the time, the downstairs neighbors in her two-flat apartment complex had accepted a payout and left the building. But Smith, whose son Roget lives with a developmental disability, couldn't afford to leave.

Sitting in the dining room of her two-bedroom apartment, Smith holds tight to a green plastic bag, which was left on her door over a year and a half ago. It contained information about housing and rights for renters. "It was on my doorknob, and I said, 'This is amazing.' I've come too far to just let them take me out of here. Not without a fight."

The green bag is the outreach tool of Renters Organizing Ourselves to Stay (ROOTS), an affordable housing program designed so working families and long-time residents can stay in Chicago as the city of 2.7 million people faces gentrification and displacement.

Resident-led Communities United, a Chicago grassroots organization, started the effort in 2014 after about 20 members met in an apartment to find more solutions to the city's housing crisis.

ROOTS, which has gained attention in Illinois, could attracted more exposure this week, as working families and housing advocates held events on Sept. 22 to mark a National Renters' Day of Action in more than 45 cities. Their concerns: Soaring rent, keeping their families safe and finding answers to affordable housing.

In Chicago, ROOTS seeks to keep rent affordable for residents by bringing financers, development organizations and partners together to work toward acquiring foreclosed properties, which will be kept for long-term housing.

The Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. actually purchases the foreclosed properties at discounts up to 30 percent, according to ROOTS. A state of Illinois program also contributes some money to keep the housing affordable.

In 2015, the program secured its first cluster of affordable housing. In late July, ROOTS acquired nine more flats. In total, as of September, ROOTS has saved 18 properties and 41 units for affordable housing, all on the city's Northwest Side. Supporters hope those 41 units can house about 200 people, though about 30 people to date have been able to stay in their homes with affordable rents.

The program is distinct because it focuses on two- and four-flats in gentrifying neighborhoods, said Diane Limas, board president of Communities United. Rather than honing in on vacant foreclosed properties, ROOTS aims to secure foreclosed buildings with tenants in them, though some structures the program has saved were empty.

The program has won political support from national leaders, including U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk. "Communities United led a unique and collaborative effort to save … affordable housing," Schakowsky said in a statement. "I hope that this model can be used across Chicago and beyond."

While about $7 million has been invested in the program so far, direct financial assistance from the city -- something supporters view as crucial -- has not yet materialized. While the Chicago Department of Planning and Development has said it supports Communities United's housing goals, a city spokesman said discussions over lending money for the project are continuing.

Building "ROOTS"

The impetus for the program goes back a year and half ago, when Communities United was working toward amending the city's affordable housing ordinance. Those efforts ultimately resulted in new rules, which aimed to make 10 to 20 percent of the units in market-rate developments more affordable. Additionally, they increased penalty fees for developers who opt out of adding affordable housing components.

Just one month later, Chicago's City Council made amendments to a separate ordinance, requiring banks that acquire foreclosures to register with the city, send notices to tenants and give those renters a choice: Either a one-year lease extension with no more than a 2 percent rent increase or a one-time relocation fee of $10,600.

According to the city, those updates should ultimately generate an estimated 1,200 units, including 600 affordable units within or near market-rate developments and more than $90 million in penalty fees by 2020. The $90 million refers to when developers opt out of adding affordable housing components.

"It was the most significant renters' rights law passed in over a decade," Limas said, referring to the city housing ordinance approved in 2013. "It really did address renters living in these foreclosed buildings."

But, even after those updates, Limas said her organization was still seeing one issue, in particular, replay itself within the city's housing scene. Cash investors would drop into up-an-coming areas, buy two- and four-flat foreclosures and raise rents or convert them into condominiums, leaving tenants in the lurch.

At one point in the city's history, two-flats -- which Limas calls the "guts" of the neighborhood -- were a popular way for buyers to get an introduction to Chicago real estate. Then, in the late 1990s, the market shifted, with speculative buyers swooping in to turn both short- and long-term profits on those properties.

But when the housing bubble burst, two-flats were some of the first buildings people were willing to walk away from, ultimately leaving behind a mass of foreclosures.

Rather than aim to purchase vacant buildings -- as is more typical in affordable housing efforts -- program supporters purposely chose to grab up buildings which still had tenants in them. Community organizers obtained a list of foreclosed properties in Chicago and then would go knock on doors to talk with tenants who were home.

The green bags the organizers left on people's doors contained information about renters' rights and workshops on what to do while living in a foreclosed building – a grassroots strategy that Communities United views as an empowerment tool.

"It's the first of its kind I've seen where it's very focused on two factors -- one is the gentrifying community, the second is the assets that they're trying to acquire are occupied," said Andrew Geer, the Chicago area vice president of Enterprise Community Partners, an affordable housing financier which has backed ROOTS.

"So it's preserving the housing but, more importantly, keeping the families in those communities," he said.

To date, Chicago Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. has received a $5 million line of credit from Enterprise to purchase buildings. In this case, the developer bought the buildings from Fannie Mae, which owned many of the foreclosed structures in the target areas where Communities United works.

One of the goals of Chicago's 2014 five-year housing plan was to encourage financial institutions to expand neighborhood lending specifically for affordable housing projects. But private financial assistance, Geer said, can only take programs like ROOTS so far. At this stage, receiving money from the city of Chicago is crucial to helping ROOTS expand its ability to save additional foreclosed properties.

Residents and community advocates say the need to expand the program exists, especially as gentrification, displacement and soaring housing costs continue.

Rising Property Taxes, Ripple Effect

In the Chicago metropolitan area in 2014, about 27 percent of renters spent more than half their income on rent, according to census data from that year. Nationwide, those numbers put Chicago on the higher end of that rent spectrum, just behind Miami and New York City. Many advocates and analysts say that only 30 percent of a person's income should go to housing.

Especially in Chicago's gentrifying areas, higher rents correlate directly to tax increases. Over the past year, Chicago's City Council approved a whopping $838 million in additional property taxes -- a nearly 70 percent increase intended to cover school construction and previously unpaid police and firefighter pensions.

Trendy areas were hit especially hard, with the pension tax increases doubling down on costs associated with home growth values in those areas.

Those increases don't affect all property owners equally. Property tax appeals are available to owners of small and large rental properties. But potential legal fees associated with such appeals may deter owners of smaller apartment buildings, those with six units or less.

"So the truth is, the smaller the building you're in, the more likely you're going to be hit with the tax increase," said Molly Phelan, a Chicago lawyer who specializes in real estate taxation. "These smaller investors don't get the same type of treatment as the larger investors, and therefore it's harder for them to operate their apartment buildings."

Over the next three years, Chicago's property taxes will go up by another $475 million. The Chicagoland Apartment Association projects the city's property tax hike could mean rent increases by as much as $32 more per month. That is a 60 percent increase from the figure the city of Chicago cites.

As of September, the city has only pushed legislation to boost the existing homeowner's exemption, a move which, if passed, would give select homeowners a break while shifting the tax burden to renters. Affordable housing advocates are monitoring this issue.

Looking Ahead

Communities United estimates the city saves some $140,000 per unit each time it invests in rehabbing old properties versus building new ones. The city's Department of Planning and Development couldn't confirm that number, saying costs can vary.

Affordable housing advocates will continue to push for financial support of ROOTS from the city. ROOTS members are negotiating over more affordable housing units in seven buildings.

As for Roxanne Smith, she is pleased that she and her son are safe. The previous building owner tried to get her to leave the apartment but declined to pay the full $10,600 in relocation assistance that a city ordinance requires. So, she spoke up for her rights under Chicago housing law.

Inside her home, it's only a few steps from the dining room to living room, but there is another photo of Barack Obama. This time, he is sitting for a portrait with Michelle, his wife. The photo hangs on a vintage white brick mantel among many more of Smith's family members.

"I contributed to them and I said, 'You gotta send me some pictures!'" Smith said, smiling at the photo.

Her light brown hair moves in the air, as she talks about what being able to stay in the apartment has meant for her and her son.

"If I can be one of the first examples of letting people know they have rights, then so be it, that's what I'm gonna do," she said. "You gotta stand for something honey, and I do believe I'm standing for my family."

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
River Fight Boosts a Tribe's Long-Threatened Culture

Aquila Resources, Inc. awaits permitting for a proposed 83-acre mine site along the Michigan-Wisconsin border. The Menominee tribe fears the mine waste and potential for acid mine drainage, both of which could pollute the river and the groundwater that feeds it.

The mouth of the Menominee River. (Photo: Brian Bienkowski)The mouth of the Menominee River. (Photo: Brian Bienkowski)

Editor's Note: This story is part of "Sacred Water," EHN's ongoing investigation into Native American struggles -- and successes -- to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1: Mining Leaves a Wisconsin Tribe's Hallowed Sites at Risk

Menominee Reservation, Wisconsin -- Probe the right forest, gorge, river or lake in the Northern Midwest and you find a well-kept secret: Concealed beauty.

This is "Small Sky" country -- the antithesis of the West's "Big Sky" moniker -- where you're hemmed in by century-old stands of pine, oaks, aspens and maples, dappling brooks, cascading falls. These dense thickets offer constant reminder of the freshwater abundance throughout the Great Lakes states.

The Menominee Reservation is one of these secrets.

"I just went out to Oregon, hiked a lot, and it was beautiful," says Menominee member Guy Reiter trekking around the reservation in early summer. "But I did think about these forests."

Reiter walks on a rocky trail near the reservation's Wolf River Dells, where the river gushes through narrow rock walls. The trail opens up to a lake, and peering over the edge brings back memories for Reiter. "I used to jump off this," he says looking down the 30 feet to the water. "I'd never do that now. I have kids, man."

2016.9.28.Bienkowski.2(Photo: Brian Bienkowski)This healthy northern ecosystem is no accident. It's the result of pioneering forestry practices by the tribe and a reverence for the rivers and lakes crisscrossing the reservation. The reverence doesn't stop at the reservation boundary: The falls at Wolf River Dells flow to other, off-reservation waters, which meander and connect with one another -- directly or via Lake Michigan -- and ultimately tell the story of the Menominee.

This story begins at the mouth of the Menominee River, which forms the Michigan-Wisconsin border. The Menominee's creation story starts where the Menominee River empties into Lake Michigan, but the mouth's health disappeared long ago, sullied as industry -- a foundry, an herbicide manufacturer, gas plant, chemical companies -- set up factories and plants to process the region's wealth of resources.

Today about the first 3.5 miles -- from the mouth upstream -- of the Menominee River is a Superfund cleanup area. But follow the river inland and signs still exist of the Menominee people, who would travel throughout the area, hunting, gathering, fishing and farming.

About 25 miles upstream, Menominee ancestors lay buried next to what could soon become a giant open-pit mine. Canada-based Aquila Resources Inc. awaits permitting for a proposed 83-acre mine site -- dubbed the Back Forty Project -- that would pull gold, zinc, copper and silver out of the ground along the Michigan-Wisconsin border.

In addition to protecting Menominee burial grounds near the mine, the tribe fears the mine waste and potential for acid mine drainage, both of which could pollute the river and the groundwater that feeds it.

The reservation is an hour's drive from the river mouth and even farther from the proposed mine site. A series of treaties signed between 1817 and 1856 squeezed the Menominee onto 354 square miles in central Wisconsin, roughly a third the size of Yosemite National Park. "The river is farther from us now, but we still view it as shared," says Doug Cox, the environmental program coordinator for the tribe.

As with many tribes, Menominee history is rife with injustice -- including land grabs, a termination attempt and contamination at the center of their creation story site. The mine represents the latest obstacle for the tribe trying to maintain a connection to the water that sustained them physically, socially and spiritually.

"I have to go to these meetings and try to explain what the river means to me," Reiter says. "The river is me."

Interrupting "Cultural Reproduction" 

The potential mine adds insult to a tribe already afflicted with a disproportionate amount of physical, social and economic woes. Less than half of the tribe's 8,550 members live on the reservation, which makes up 99 percent of Menominee County, the least healthy county in the state, according to University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute data. Smoking, obesity and inactivity plague the county.

2016.9.28.Bienkowski.3Guy Reiter. (Photo: Brian Bienkowski)In addition, about 30 percent of people in Menominee County live in poverty -- more than double the state's rate. Almost 44 percent of the county's children live in poverty, compared to just 18 percent statewide. And more than half of the reservation's children -- 62 percent -- live in single parent households. Unemployment hovers at 13 percent.

Reasons for such social ills abound. But researchers have increasingly tied the erosion of Native American cultural and environmental resources to declines in tribal health.

In one example, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in upstate New York for years lost healthy food habits because fish are full of contaminants. More than healthy omega-3s are at risk: culture suffered. Fishing is a teaching tool, with children learning knots and how to tie net. And these activities bring elders and children together, buoying traditional language use and cross-generation connections. 

Similarly the Anishinaabe from Canada's Aamjiwnaang reservation in southwest Ontario forego traditional medicine gathering because the plants are contaminated with metals such as cadmium. They've also reduced fishing because fish are polluted with PCBs. In the region, on the shores of the Saint Claire River across from Port Huron, Michigan, and dubbed "Chemical Valley," women and children in the tribe have elevated levels of both cadmium and PCB chemicals. Both are linked to reproductive problems, including a tendency to have more girls than boys. The tribe, while trying to field community baseball teams two decades ago, fielded three girls' teams to one boys'.

A heath study in 2005 confirmed fears that pollutants might be interfering with sex ratios. "The Aamjiwnaang community has had multiple chemical exposures over the years that may be contributing to the overall picture of a reduced sex ratio," the authors wrote.

The Crow Nation in southern Montana has had to forego using water from Chief Plenty Coups spring or risk illness. The spring's water, found to be contaminated with feces, is collected and used at sun dances for prayer and to drink after days of dancing and fasting. Elsewhere on the reservation, metals such as uranium and manganese taint private drinking wells and coincide with elevated diabetes rates.

Across the country, Native foods, water, medicines, language, ceremonies, farming techniques, hunting and fishing have been jeopardized by contaminants and development, highlighting what Elizabeth Hoover, a Brown University assistant professor, calls the interruption of "cultural reproduction."

Hoover, who researches environmental health and justice in Native communities, has studied the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, which includes the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation in New York and their Canadian counterparts. Initial fish advisories may have kept people from eating too much chemical-laden fish, but such attempts didn't address the true costs: Family relations were built around the culture of fishing, such as interactions with grandfather, tying nets, learning the ways of the water, and the language -- a rich Native tongue full of specific colors and textures.


In this case, measures taken to protect community health -- fish advisories aimed at preventing harmful exposure -- inadvertently eroded the "language, culture, and social connections attached to fishing," Hoover wrote in a 2013 study.

But the tribe has tried to turn the tide. Over the past decade, the Mohawk tribe encouraged its members to get science degrees. It bolstered its Environment Division, expanding it from one employee to a 27-person department. That investment paid off: Tribal experts helped rewrite the fish guidelines, which now offer nuanced advice that accounts for traditions.

In Washington State, Coast Salish tribes have developed a sophisticated agency -- the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission -- along with individual tribal environmental departments. That expertise has given them an equal partnership with the state in management decisions about salmon and other fisheries in the Puget Sound and the many bays and rivers in the region.

"Federal and state agencies and fisheries departments that controlled these resources very intentionally in the past limited Native access and involvement," says Julia Cantzler, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.

"Part of the process of achieving real environmental justice is to dismantle all of those regimes that marginalized tribes for so long."

Lingering Effects of a Termination Attempt 

The Menominee's fight is not a uniquely tribal injustice: Mining is seldom without controversy. We all, as a modern society, need these metals -- for our cell phones, tablets, TVs, cars, within our walls and in our medical equipment, to enable many modern conveniences.

Too often, though, Native Americans pay the cost. Aquila can't be blamed for this, Reiter says. "They think they're doing a good thing, providing resources for our consumer-driven culture."

But modern living shouldn't come at the cost of honoring the deceased, he says.

David Grignon, director of the Menominee's Historic Preservation Department, says tribal members still visit the burial mounds near the proposed mine to make sure they're being preserved and protected. There are three confirmed sites -- the White Rapids Mound group, Backlund Mound Group, and an unnamed group at the southern end of the Back Forty project site.

Grignon says they've had several meetings with Aquila but there's a clear impasse. "There's no mitigation plan, " he says. "They say they'll protect them, but there's no way."

The burial sites won't be removed but will have a quarter-mile-wide pit next to them. Interspersed in the area along with the burial mounds are former Menominee raised garden beds -- considered a true farming feat by those who study them.

"The largest, maybe only, remaining portion of raised agricultural fields in the state of Michigan are in the proposed footprint of the Back Forty," says David Overstreet, a consulting archaeologist at the College of Menominee Nation. The fields date back more than 1,000 years.

"We don't know how it was these folks utilized typically poor agricultural soils to modify them and ultimately being able to practice maize agriculture at its northern limits," Overstreet says. "There are lessons to be learned for all of us."

The farming wasn't the Menominee's only feat -- their reservation's forests have long been a model of sustainable forestry. Miles of rural dairy pastures surrounding the tribe stop abruptly at their reservation, where there's a wall of trees -- towering white pines, hemlocks, oaks, sugar maples, aspens. The dense forest is so out of place in this region that NASA astronauts report seeing it from space.

2016.9.28.Bienkowski.5Doug Cox. (Photo: Brian Bienkowski)"All of our neighbors cut everything down," Cox says. "We wanted this place and landscape to be like other places we occupied, even while everyone was slashing out timber on all sides of us."

This impressive environmental management led to one of the ugliest blemishes on the U.S. government's tribal record. In the late 1940s an idea, led by Republican Sen. Arthur Watkins from Utah, gripped Congress to "free" tribes from federal supervision. Land held in federal trust for tribes would be transferred to Indian corporations, federal services like health care and education would end, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be dismantled. Tribes would be terminated.

The Menominee were identified as one of two tribes in the nation to test this hypothesis. Government officials saw the tribe's abundance of timber and thought forestry could sustain them economically. The tribe at the time had just won a lawsuit for about $8.5 million from the BIA for the mismanagement of some of their forests.

"To get that money, Watkins told them they had to agree to termination," says Nick Peroff, a professor of public administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who wrote a book on the termination attempt of the Menominee.

The result was disaster.

The termination, official in 1961, ended federal support, as well as tribal hunting and fishing rights, self-governance and rights to land.

The Menominee reservation became Menominee County, which instantly became the poorest county in Wisconsin (and still is). There was a low population, no tax base, and basic services -- such as schools, utilities and the reservation hospital, which had relied on federal funds -- closed. Lumber was simply not enough.

The toll to the tribe's functioning, culture and finances was considerable. The only other tribal termination test case, Oregon's Klamath, suffered a dip into poverty and social disorder, too.

"It was just a really bad idea," Peroff says. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that the tribe could retain hunting and fishing rights. The Menominee regained full federal recognition as a tribe in 1973 under President Richard Nixon's Menominee Restoration Act. But the tribe, in many ways, is still dealing with the aftershocks.

"There's always kind of been an assumption they'd [tribes] assimilate or disappear," Peroff says. "Very frankly, in some cases that's still primarily the assumption about Indians."

Pollution Potential Piles on Cultural Concerns 

Rather than disappearing, the Menominee are standing up and getting louder. The river is inseparable from their voice, which is amplifying after many years of being beaten down.

On Sept. 2, Michigan officials announced their intent to approve the mine. The Menominee doubled down on their opposition.

We're "sickened" and "will continue to fight to protect any land within our ancestral territory that contains the remains of our ancestors and our cultural resources," tribal chairwoman Joan Delabreau said in a statement.

2016.9.28.Bienkowski.6(Photo: Brian Bienkowski)Extracting metals from sulfide ores can make a mess. When the sulfide ores are crushed, the sulfides are exposed to air and water, which catalyzes a chemical reaction that produces highly toxic sulfuric acid. The acid can then release harmful metals and drain into nearby rivers, lakes and ground water sources -- called acid mine drainage.

"It's an open pit metallic sulfide mine. A vast majority of the rock will end up as acidic waste," says Al Gedicks, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, whose focus is on mining and Native American communities.

Waste will leach into streams and ground water, he says, adding, "that's what sulfide waste materials do."

Denny Caneff, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, also worries about the "easy runoff distance" between ore processing and river. "Any mistake -- or even a heavy rain storm -- puts silt and contaminated waste, metals, sulfides into the Menominee River."

Cliff Nelson, vice president of U.S. operations at Aquila, says the tailings and waste rock would be held in geomembrane-lined pits. A 1,300-foot cement-clay wall between the waste and the river would keep polluted waste and water on the mining site. The liners -- a commonly used barrier in agriculture, landfills and manufacturing to prevent fluids from migrating elsewhere -- have been used in mining since the 1970s. It's not clear what their failure rates are in such uses, but a study reported they are vulnerable to damage when in mining uses because of the large, angular ore and rocks. 

Aquila estimates the Back Forty will generate 53 million tons of waste rock and 11 million tons of tailing waste over the mine's eight-year life.

Water, prior to treatment, would be held in lined pits as well. There are no private drinking wells in the mine's footprint; the region is on municipal water drawn from Green Bay in Lake Michigan. But the river flows out to the lake.

Locals worry, too: the river is one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the Midwest, Caneff says, and is the spawning ground for roughly half of Lake Michigan's sturgeon. And angling is a big part of both economy and lifestyle in Northern Michigan and Wisconsin.

Lake sturgeon are a rarity these days in the Great Lakes. The long-living prehistoric looking fish had their populations plummet a century ago due to overfishing, dams and pollution. In recent years there's been a large push -- and millions of dollars spent -- to protect and bolster the threatened sturgeon population in Lake Michigan.

"If there was a catastrophe at that mine, it would wipe out a multi-million dollar sturgeon rehab effort in a night," Caneff says.

Joe Maki, head of the mining division of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, says that there aren't any mine examples he could use to inspire confidence. "Since the mid-90's there haven't been a lot of new mines opening in this region," he says.

Both Maki and Aquila cite the now shuttered Flambeau Mine in Wisconsin as a model of successful reclamation. The 32-acre open-pit mine in Rusk County, Wisconsin, started operating in 1991. Reclamation began in 1997 and was done two years later, with the site backfilled and replanted with various cover crops, grasses, wildflowers and trees.

Since Flambeau closed a little less than 20 years ago, state officials have reported elevated levels of copper and zinc in nearby waters, which can harm fish. In 2012, a trial court ruled Flambeau violated the Clean Water Act by discharging too much pollution into the Flambeau River and tributaries. An appeals court overturned the ruling, excusing the company because the Wisconsin DNR had failed to place pollution limits for the stream.

Aside from Flambeau's pollution history, there are other important differences from Aquila's proposal, Gedicks says. Flambeau processed its ore offsite, not near the river. Back Forty is also roughly 10 times as large as Flambeau.

"Flambeau," Gedicks adds, "should not inspire any confidence for the Back Forty reclamation. To suggest the Flambeau Mine is a successful reference point is not only misleading but an outright falsification of record."

2016.9.28.Bienkowski.7(Photo: Brian Bienkowski)Maki admits that he'll "never be the one to say industrial facilities won't have any environmental problem."

"It's going to happen, that's the nature of industry," he says.

The mine is not yet a done deal: Aquila still needs the Michigan DEQ to sign off on its wetland permit and the state will accept public comments on the mine decision, as well as the individual air and surface water permits, for the next two months. The department is required to make a final decision by Dec. 1. There's also a 2011 ordinance in the township, Lake Township, Michigan, where the mine is located that raises red flags, namely multiple zoning permits that Aquila has not yet attained.

"We're attempting to work with Lake Township to resolve their issues," Nelson says. "Certain people just don't want the mine."

"I Just Love My Culture" 

Lawrence Roberts, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior, calls the EPA's renewed focus on working with tribes to address environmental injustice a big step forward. In 2014 the EPA laid out a set of guidelines to address these inequities. 

But there's still a long way to go. Emma Norman, chair of the Science Department and Native Environmental Science Program at Northwest Indian College in Washington state, says tribes that merge science and tradition and unify with other tribes around shared resources are showing the power of the Native voice.

And she says Native American youth will play a big role in resource protection. "This is the first generation, kids turning into teenagers that are a bit removed from some of the historical trauma," she says. "They're being educated within not only their culture but mainstream education, which is a tool."

The tribe, and others in opposition, will walk in a peaceful protest along the river to the mine site this week. The walk will start at the river's polluted mouth in Marinette, Wisconsin.

With the water walk, the Menominee hope to tap that cross-generational power. Reiter says he has no problem with Maki and the Aquila folks. "They're not bad people. I just love my culture."

News Sat, 01 Oct 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Medea Benjamin: If Americans Can Sue Saudis Over 9/11, Drone Victims Should Be Able to Sue the US

"Finally, we have an example of the US Congress putting US citizens above the relationship with the Saudi government," says CODEPINK's Medea Benjamin in response to the vote by Congress to allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks, overriding President Obama's veto of the bill. The legislation would allow courts to waive claim of foreign sovereign immunity after an act of terrorism occurs within US borders. "If innocent families [of drone attacks] were able to take the US to court instead of seeing joining ISIS or al-Qaeda as their only resort, that would be a very positive thing." Benjamin is author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.


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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Wednesday's decisive vote by Congress to allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 attacks, overriding President Obama's veto of the bill. It's the first time during Obama's presidency that his veto has been overridden by Congress. The Senate rejected the veto 97 to 1, while the House rejected it 348 to 77. This means the, quote, Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act now becomes law. This legislation would allow courts to waive claim of foreign sovereignty immunity after an act of terrorism occurs within US borders. The bill had passed both the House and the Senate earlier this year, but President Obama had vetoed it earlier this month. This is the president speaking to CNN on Wednesday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What this legislation did was it said if a private citizen believes that, having been victimized by terrorism, that another country didn't do enough to stop one of its citizens, for example, in engaging in terrorism, then they can file a personal lawsuit, a private lawsuit in court. And the problem with that is that if we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal laws. And the concern that I've had has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia per se or my sympathy for 9/11 families; it has to do with me not wanting a situation in which we're suddenly exposed to liabilities for all the work that we're doing all around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: In July, the Obama administration declassified 28 pages from the September 11 report detailing possible ties between the Saudi government and the 9/11 attacks. The declassified documents raise new questions about the role of a Saudi consular official based in the Los Angeles area. He personally helped two of the hijackers after they arrived in Los Angeles in early 2000. Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government financed an extensive lobbying campaign against the legislation but stopped short of threatening any retaliation if the law was passed. There was no official reaction from Saudi Arabia after the votes.

The override of President Obama's veto comes as the Senate last week rejected a proposal to block the US from supplying the kingdom with more than a billion dollars' worth of tanks and other military hardware. Critics of the weapons deal say it could drag the US into the Saudi-led war in Yemen and contribute to the humanitarian crisis there.

For more, we're joined by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK. Her most recent book, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

Medea, if you can talk about the significance of this first-ever override of an Obama veto and what this means for Saudi Arabia?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think the significance is that, finally, we have an example of the US Congress putting the US citizens above the relationship with the Saudi government. And this is significant because, year after year after year, Congress has done nothing to stop arming to the teeth the Saudi government -- $115 billion worth of weapon sales under Obama alone -- a government that treats its own citizens with tremendous repression, beheads peaceful dissidents, treats women as minors their entire lives, has millions of foreign workers who are treated like indentured servants, and spreads this intolerant, distorted version of Wahhabism around the world. And the US is not only arming the Saudi government, but is directly involved with the Saudis in the devastating war that's going on in Yemen. So this sort of opens this issue up to much larger questions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Medea, but what about the president's argument on this issue of the impact in a broader sense to the United States, and also the talk now in the House and the Senate about revisiting this legislation with some carve-outs or some changes to it later?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, actually, this legislation is quite narrowly written, and people don't think that it will allow the payment of compensation, and the executive branch could stop the courts at any point. So, I think this question, though, about whether it would open up US officials overseas to lawsuits, I actually think that could be a positive thing. For example, if the families of victims of drone attacks, innocent families, were able to take the US to court instead of seeing joining ISIS or al-Qaeda as their only resort, that would be a very positive thing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Medea, do you see any prospects of the Senate and the House revisiting this legislation?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: They certainly might revisit the legislation. They might make it even more narrow. But I think we should just look at the larger picture of what has happened since the Iran nuclear deal, since the reasoning, questioning of the Saudi weapons deals. And I think that we should start looking at all the areas that the Saudis have been using to buy consent in the US, giving large donations to Ivy League colleges, to think tanks, to the Clinton Foundation, to the John McCain foundation, paying eight different groups in Washington, DC, as lobbyists -- for example, Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, who runs the -- Clinton's presidential campaign, receiving $140,000 a month from the Saudis. All of these things should come out now as we question the US relationship with the Saudi government.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you most want to find out, information coming out in lawsuits of the 9/11 families, about Saudia Arabia's role, Medea?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, there are, supposedly, 80,000 pages of documentation about relationships between the hijackers that we know nothing about, particularly those that live in Florida, in New Jersey, in Virginia. This has all been hidden from the public. And through the courts is the only way to get some of this information out. So I think it's like ripping the band-aid off. Let's see what's underneath that. And then this really allows us to start the much broader issue of questioning.

And the fact that you just had on Bill McKibben talking about the devastating impact of the fossil fuel industry, let's also connect that to Saudi Arabia, where the basis of our relationship has been, for decades, around oil, and now includes the Saudis propping up the military-industrial complex, being the, by far, largest purchasers of US weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, we want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of CODEPINK, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection.

News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
Economic Update: Economics and Red States

This episode of Professor Wolff's radio show discusses Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the UK, Uber drivers unionizing, state retirement systems being sued for threatening pensions and hard facts about US medical insurance. The show also includes an interview with Arlie Hochschild on her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and why she believes "bridges" between progressives and Tea Party folks are very possible.

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News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400
The Empire Files: How Palestine Became Colonized

"What we saw was one of the biggest human rights disasters on the planet. A brutal and growing military occupation that thrives off US sponsorship, soon to be strengthened even more by another US$38 billion in tax dollars -- the largest military aid deal in history."

This is the state of Israel today, and these are the opening words of Abby Martin's latest episode in the series, "The Empire Files," who, along with her team, traveled to the region to witness firsthand the ruthless occupation of Palestine.

In the video highlighting essential historical context to Martin's upcoming on-the-ground reports, the trajectory of Palestine's colonization is presented.

"Before Palestine had borders it was a recognized nation, its cultural identity distinct, with deep roots in the land," says Martin.

With the only perception many have of the region disseminated through biased, mainstream media and promotional Birthright videos, many perceive it as a refuge for Jews who are constantly "living under threat of genocide from Muslims."

But as Martin recounts, the history of Palestine's shrinking borders occurred through relentless violence, repression and forced expulsion, enacted intentionally upon and disparagingly at the region's native Arab population.

Tracing the history of Zionism from its outset as a small, fringe ideology to a "fervent political movement," Martin tells of how early Zionists promised to make Palestine a "vanguard against barbarism."

From the divvying up of the region by colonial powers in the aftermath of World War I, to the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, the short video explains the malevolent history through which Palestinians lost control of their land.

It recounts the horrors of the 1948 war, which led to the creation of hundreds and thousands of Palestinian refugees that to this day have not been granted the right of return, as well as the horrors of the Six Day War in 1967 that saw almost 40,000 Palestinians killed.

The historical explainer concludes by citing the US empire's role in financing the military of the repressive settler colonial state, the justification for its suppressive rule constantly touted as "security from terrorism."

News Fri, 30 Sep 2016 00:00:00 -0400