News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 19:36:57 -0500 en-gb Unless Faced With Popular Opposition, Syriza Will Turn Into an Empty Promise

The Syriza government has not shown publicly that it views exiting the Euro as a real option, leaving it at a dead end, captive to the whims of Germany. (Photo via Shutterstock.)The Syriza government has not shown publicly that it views exiting the Euro as a real option, leaving it at a dead end, captive to the whims of Germany. (Photo: Christos Siarris /

In the latest agreement with the Eurogroup, in which the Greek government had won four months of respite, Syriza had also managed to backtrack on its election promises and agree to the imperatives laid out by Eurogroup chief, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. It has been untruthful, yet it will inevitably run into problems along the road.

Earlier, it could have been suggested that Syriza has a Plan B in mind. One could have interpreted the meeting held between Tsipras and the Russian ambassador to Greece immediately following his appointment as prime minister as a sign indicating that Greece has additional cards on the table. Furthermore, it could be argued that the Greek government intends to pursue a process of radicalizing the public, which is in favor of remaining in the Euro, by making it go through the process of negotiations, rejection and humiliation. Faced with the suffocating demands of the Troika, now renamed Institutions, the public would realize that it cannot free itself from austerity as long as it remains part of the Euro. However, the Syriza government has not shown publicly that it views exiting the Euro as a real option, leaving it at a dead end, captive to the whims of Germany.

Following the Eurogroup agreement, Prime Minister Tsipras said that "we succeeded at the end of our main purpose," while clarifying that Greece "won the battle but not the war." Tsipras said that "yesterday we canceled their plans," referring to the attempt to cut Greece off of funds on February 28. In his view, the agreement contained "mutually viable compromises" rather than "subordination." He said, "Yesterday we made a decisive step, leaving behind us the austerity, the memorandums and the troika. Our common struggle continues."

Tsipras presented the agreement as a victory in a battle, as an end to austerity. Was his statement truthful, and what does the new Eurogroup agreement entail?

In the area of taxation and cracking down on oligarchs, Greece has an easy meeting point with the Eurogroup. The agreement calls for expanding a crackdown on tax evasion, and creating a "new culture of tax compliance." Indeed, Syriza made pledges to crack down on oligarchs in the past. However, it is likely that oligarchs will engage in lengthy legal battles or move their finances overseas to avoid taxes, and a sufficient collection of taxes remains improbable.

In the area of public spending, the government vowed to "review and control" spending in all areas and improve the efficiency of governmental agencies. It stated it would control health-care spending while providing for universal healthcare. This renders the government's earlier pledges to provide free electricity and repay the debts of citizens who cannot afford to repay as nearly impossible to implement - while providing universal health care and controlling health spending are contradictory goals.

Pensions are to be consolidated and incentives for early retirement cut down. This may satisfy the demands of the Eurogroup, but in a country where pensions have already been cut down by 50 percent, people will suffer more.

On privatizations, the government pledged not to go back on already-agreed-upon privatizations, while reviewing existing privatizations with the goal of both ensuring the state's revenues and increasing competition. These are again contradictory goals, and it is likely that the government will be pressured to continue with privatizations. However, government ministers already voiced their opposition to the ongoing privatization of Piraeus Port and to privatizing state companies of gas and electricity. While Varoufakis is keen on pleasing the Eurogroup, opposition at home will expand.

The agreement also conditioned the raise of minimum wages on the basis that it would not harm hiring. Decisions on hiring wages will be done in collaboration with the Institutions. The government already raised the minimum wage by 10 percent, but it may not come into effect.

On a section dedicated to the humanitarian crisis, the government agreed to provide food stamps for the needy and extend the Minimum Guaranteed Income plan. However, the agreement states that government will "ensure that its fight against the humanitarian crisis has no negative fiscal effect." Social policies cannot exceed the mandated 3 percent government surplus.

The nearly schizophrenic agreement makes clear that Institutions will supervise spending, and that austerity will continue placing in serious doubt Tsipras' comments on leaving austerity behind. It is therefore unclear that Greece has "a Government that will always tell the truth," as he claimed.

The response of Dijsselbloem to the agreement was far more straightforward than Tsipras' attempts to circle the square. Dijsselbloem said that a Greek exit is not on the table and that "there is strong support under the Greek population to stay within the Eurozone." Indeed, the majority of Greeks supports remaining in the eurozone. Dijsselbloem also said, "If the new government didn't want to continue the current program, that would have been possible" - thereby rightly putting the responsibility for the program on the Greek government rather than the Eurogroup.

Dijsselbloem made it clear that "the simple fact that the new government has got financing needs cannot reverse the order in which things must be done." This means that the government must first conform to the demands of the Institutions - i.e. austerity - before it can receive additional funding. Addressing perhaps the argument laid out against him by journalist Paul Mason, Disselbloem said, "We are dealing with 19 electorates. You may not find that democratic. It would be a very strange interpretation of democracy to think one single election could change the course of everything."

While Greeks have come to realize that their electing an anti-austerity government is meaningless, as the Troika has the final say, democracy in the Eurogroup means that the 18 members can decide how to treat the demands of a single member. That the Eurogroup opposed granting Greece what it wished for, for fear of creating a precedent and in order not to encourage additional anti-austerity parties in Europe, is irrelevant. Hence, Disselbloem's "National politicians should assume responsibility."

Disselbloem has been truthful on the agreement, unlike Tsipras. Even his statement that Greece has been growing economically - which is true in strictly mathematical terms only but inaccurate on the ground - is true, according to neoliberal economics. Furthermore, Disselbloem even gave Greece a backhanded compliment by saying the document arrived "just in time" although it arrived on Tuesday rather than Monday night.

The backlash at home is already noticeable, with many Syriza MPs and energy minister Lafazanis opposing the deal. Tsipras is attempting to garner their vote in parliament, yet will run into growing opposition in the future. The first opposition emerged from iconic MEP Manolis Glezos, a Communist partisan who removed the Nazi flag from the Acropolis and who declared that he will wage a war against the Eurogroup plan. Glezos said , "I ask the Greek people to forgive me for contributing to this illusion," possibly referring to Syriza. Glezos said that renaming the Troika the Institutions is "baptizing meat into fish."

Syriza MP Costas Lapavitsas, a potential finance minister, raised five burning questions to the Syriza government. Stathis Kouvelakis explained that "to present a defeat as a success is perhaps worse than the defeat itself . . . because it dissolves the criteria by which success can be distinguished from retreat." In France, anti-austerity Right leader Marine Le Pen, said that Greece capitulated and that this proves that the Euro is incompatible with democracy.

One can rightly ask whether the criticism of Syriza has been overblown. After all, it has been only one month since it assumed power, and it faced the prospects of being cut off from funds and further economic collapse. Greece had little choice but to accept the Eurogroup conditions, if only to gain time.

This argument, however, fails to take into account two significant points.

First, two weeks of hard negotiations made it clear that it is impossible to reform the EU from within as it currently stands. As long as Greece remains in the Euro, it is subject to the neoliberal dictates of the Eurogroup, dominated by Germany.

A more viable option - although a risky one - would be for Greece to default on its loans, adopt the drachma and receive massive investment from the BRICS while trading its agricultural products with Russia and increasing tourism from China.

If Greece has serious intentions of redeeming itself, it must pursue other options, or at the very least, suggest a "Grexit" as a realistic possibility to increase its leverage. However, Tsipras and Varoufakis made no public statements which would indicate that this is a possibility they will consider.

While it could be too early to make such statements, it is equally clear that negotiations in the immediate future with Germany will not change much. Therefore, Greece's leaders appear to be stuck in a pro-Euro paradigm, that prevents the possibility of genuinely leaving austerity behind, and have made no effort to publicly inform the public of the dangers of remaining in the Euro.

Secondly, even if it is too early to hint at a Plan B, Syriza should have been honest with the public as it claims to be and admitted that this agreement was far from ideal, but was a necessary evil. It has not done so. Instead, it has chosen to mislead its people by claiming that it was a "victory" and a compromise that benefited both sides. This untruthful depiction sets a dangerous precedent.

If the government continues to practice neoliberal austerity after the current agreement expires, it will effectively turn itself into a replica of PASOK, which also began with great social promises but ended up practicing neoliberal policies. The BBC rightly argued that "Syriza dumps Marx for Blair," referencing British Labour, which turned from being a socialist party into one pushing for a neoliberal agenda.

For Syriza to remain true to its original agenda, the public must mobilize against continued austerity, and opposition in parliament must expand. As things stand, the agreement cannot be implemented, and its internal contradictions will become clear.

Massive protests scheduled for Thursday and Friday, February 26 and 27, are being organized by the Communist KKE and ANTARSYA and the Communist tendency in Syriza expressed its disapproval of the government. The degree to which these will be publicly attended will indicate where things are heading, although a more crucial period will be in the summer if the current program is extended.

"This Syriza government is the same as all earlier governments. It is lying to the people," said Stavros - who asked that his first name only be used out of fear of retaliation from Golden Dawn supporters. "The government does not explain the situation clearly to the people." He was referring to the fact that the government has not been truthful in presenting the agreement for what it is. Kouroudis added, however, that in light of the frustration felt by the public due to the economic conditions, "more and more of my friends like Chrysi Avgi (Nazi Golden Dawn)." Kouroudis opposes Golden Dawn entirely, saying that "It will bring us back 1,000 years," but he explained that due to people's ignorance and anger, the third largest party in parliament is becoming increasingly popular.

Should Syriza continue to practice austerity and mislead the public, it is increasingly likely that it will be voted out sooner or later, and the public frustration will result in a turn to the right with a coalition forming between a right New Democracy and Golden Dawn. In that scenario, Syriza harked not only a new dawn, only a Golden one. "Syriza [in its actions] is feeding Golden Dawn," he said. The key question remains whether the public will allow Syriza to market neoliberalism as "austerity with a human face," leading to massive disappointment.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 13:40:58 -0500
Exporting Torture: Former Chicago Police Detective Tied to Brutality at Guantanamo

A former Guantánamo Bay interrogator involved in torture was also a longtime Chicago police officer known for abusing people of color. According to The Guardian, Richard Zuley spent three decades as a notoriously brutal detective on the Chicago police force. From 1977 to 2007, Zuley used tactics including torture, threats and abuse to elicit confessions from suspects, the majority of whom were not white. One of those confessions was later ruled to be false, and the sentence was vacated. Zuley's methods included shackling suspects to walls through eyebolts for several hours, allegedly planting evidence, and issuing threats of harm to family members and sentences of the death penalty unless a suspect confessed. Zuley was also accused of brutal methods at Guantánamo Bay, where he was a reserve officer in charge of interrogating a prisoner who said he made a false confession due to torture. The Guardian report comes just after the notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge was released from a halfway house after he served four-and-a-half years for lying under oath about torturing prisoners in Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s. We speak to Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian.


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We're speaking to Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian. Last week, he published a story headlined "Bad Lieutenant: American Police Brutality, Exported from Chicago to Guantánamo." The article looked at Richard Zuley, who used torture to extract confessions from minorities for years in Chicago and then went on to work at Guantánamo. This is a clip of Lathierial Boyd, one of the innocent men Zuley interrogated in Chicago.

LATHIERIAL BOYD: I was mounted to the wall and floor. I remained in that room through two lineups. And I remember I asked—after that second lineup, I asked Zuley if anybody had picked me out of the lineup, and he said no. And I said, "See, I told you. You got the wrong guy. I haven't done anything." He smiled at me and said, "We're charging you anyway."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lathierial Boyd served 23 years in prison before he was found to be wrongfully convicted. So, Spencer, can you talk more about Richard Zuley and how you came across his police record?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Sure. The Guardian excerpted the Guantánamo Bay manuscript of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, whose interrogation at Guantánamo Bay is just one of the most brutal that we've ever known about thus far. And my editor asked me if I would go through the manuscript ahead of the excerpt and just see if there were any news stories we might want to do out of it. And one of the footnotes mentioned that in government reports and other sources, including a really fantastic piece of reporting by Jess Bravin of The Wall Street Journal, his 2013 book, The Terror Courts, the lead interrogator during the most intense torturous period of Slahi's interrogation was a Chicago police officer named Richard Zuley.

And I thought, "Well, I had never heard about a U.S. police officer being in any U.S. military or intelligence interrogation facility. What must his record in Chicago have been like?" and, from there, found some court cases, including Lathierial Boyd's federal civil rights case against Zuley, got in contact with his lawyer, found out about some more cases and started pulling records to find out what this guy's record in Chicago was. And we found some really ominous parallels between how he policed Chicago streets and what he did in Guantánamo Bay torture centers.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened with Lathierial ultimately?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Lathierial Boyd, after 23 years of being put in prison on a murder that there was never any physical evidence that he committed, was found in 2013 by an investigation from the Cook County state's attorney to have his conviction voided, as it was completely baseless, and they found there was no evidence that could justify keeping him in prison, even though he had served 23 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And the suit?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: And now, after he got out, they file—Lathierial Boyd and his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, filed a civil rights suit to try and get some kind of justice for Lathierial and, as well, try and create both more disclosure around the way Chicago police practices have operated, including Richard Zuley.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let's go back to one of Zuley's victims—this one, though, not in Chicago, in Guantánamo—Mohamedou Ould Slahi. During interrogations at Guantánamo, you report—approved then by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—Slahi detailed the treatment in his memoir, which was just published. In this clip from The Guardian's video report about his case, we hear his lawyer Nancy Hollander and actor Dominic West reading from his diary.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Mohamedou was subjected to a whole list of torture techniques that had been approved by the secretary of defense.

YAHID OULD SLAHI: [translated] They told him they had taken my mother from Mauritania and put her in a single cell in Guantánamo. And if he didn't give officials the information they expected, she would be severely tortured.

NANCY HOLLANDER: Significantly, they included what in Guantánamo was known as the "frequent flyer program." And they called it that because they wouldn't let people sleep. And they proceeded to torture him.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: [read by Dominic West] "Blindfold the [expletive] if he tries to look." One of them hit me hard across the face, and quickly put the goggles on my eyes, ear muffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterwards, I started to bleed. I thought they were going to execute me.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamedou Ould Slahi remains at Guantánamo to this day and is yet to be charged with a crime. Spencer Ackerman, if you can talk about this and then also talk about whether the Chicago media is following up on these explosive reports where you're making these connections?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Yeah, so, it wasn't just that the military couldn't charge—or anyone couldn't charge—Slahi with anything. Military investigators for the prosecution found that the reason why they couldn't charge him with anything is what Richard Zuley did to Mohamedou Slahi, that the torture that Slahi was subjected to by the United States of America so tainted all of the evidence in this case that it became fundamentally unchargeable. In 2010, by the way, a federal judge ruled in Slahi's habeas case that he had to be let go. Barack Obama's Justice Department has appealed that decision, and that's why Slahi is still in Guantánamo Bay today.

Now, as we were reporting this, we found that there were these connections between the way Zuley tortured Slahi and his police work as a Chicago detective. Slahi was short-shackled for extended periods of time. We found that happened to Lathierial Boyd. We found that happened to Benita Johnson. We found that happened to Andre Griggs. Johnson and Griggs, for instance, were shackled for between, they say, 24 and 30 hours in their cases. Andre Griggs was suffering through heroin withdrawal during that time, and he wasn't given medication for that.

This was done as a method to try and get Griggs and Johnson to confess to crimes that they say they never committed. Those confessions formed the vast majority of the evidence against them. And this was something that we saw, as well, Zuley doing at Guantánamo. He told Slahi, "You can either be a witness, or you can be a defendant." All he had to do was confess. Slahi's torture, much like with Griggs and with Johnson, was so bad that eventually he just said, "I'll sign whatever you put in front of me." As he put it in his book, "If you want to buy, I am selling."

Before that happened, as just one of the methods that Zuley employed, Zuley threatened to have his mother taken to Guantánamo Bay in what he described as its all-male environment. I don't think it's particularly hard to understand that to be a rape threat.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, before we go, Chicago has a long history of this issue of police torture. This month, the notorious Chicago police commander, Jon Burge, was released from a halfway house after he served four-and-a-half years for lying under oath. But what he's accused of was leading a torture ring that interrogated more than a hundred African-American men in Chicago in the 1970s and '80s. They routinely used electric shock, suffocation with plastic bags, typewriter covers, among other methods, to extract confessions from men who were later shown to be innocent. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project documented some of the men's stories. This is Shadeed Mu'min.

SHADEED MU'MIN: He handcuffed me real tight, know what I'm saying? He cut my circulation off. He went out of the room and stayed, I guess, for about an hour, and then came back and tried to talk to me. What could I tell him, you know, about the robbery? I told him, "I couldn't tell you anything about no robbery. I know nothing about what you're talking about." And he said then that, "Oh, you're going to play tough." Said, "You will tell us, before you leave here, what we want to know." Said, "I've been known to get out of peoples what I want." He got real upset and said, "You will talk, you black mother [bleep]." He said, "I'll make you talk, or kill you as I want." So, I still don't understand. So he—in anger, he rushed to the typewriter and grabbed the plastic cover off there and just crammed it down over my head. And it's like he was a madman. And several officers were helping him. But I was trying to get my arms out from behind the chair, but I couldn't do anything. And I passed out. And like I say, he gave me a breath of air. And I came to, conscious. And he—"You ready to talk?" And I said, "I don't have anything to tell you still." So he do it again. The third time, out of the third time, that's when I told him, I said, "I'll tell you whatever you want to know, man. Just don't do this no more."

AMY GOODMAN: That's Shadeed Mu'min speaking about his interrogation by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge. Statistics compiled by the People's Law Office show Chicago has paid at least $64 million in settlements and judgments in civil rights cases related to Burge's police abuses alone. The Chicago Reader reported some of the Burge techniques may have been learned when he was in Vietnam, where he served as a military policeman. Spencer, we're going to end on Jon Burge. Any connection to Richard Zuley?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: So, not directly. Even though they served in Chicago around the same time, supposedly, from everyone I've talked to, including Flint Taylor, who's Burge's probably chief legal investigator, doesn't seem like they actually worked together. Nevertheless, there is a context for this in Chicago. There's a long-standing tradition of police abuses, primarily against African-American residents of Chicago. It sits now, with what we're reporting, at this uncomfortable intersection between both that long and nefarious history of abuse against African Americans, primarily, in Chicago and this post-9/11 era in which secret detentions, longtime interrogations without charge, and so forth, seem to be now increasingly influencing domestic police work.

AMY GOODMAN: And is the Chicago media picking it up, especially in this time of a mayoral re-election race?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: They seem to be running reports based primarily on the Chicago police denial given to us. We'll see if that changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian, where he's published a two-part series on police abuse in Chicago, "The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site'" and "Bad Lieutenant: American Police Brutality, Exported from Chicago to Guantánamo." We'll link to them at our website, as well as your interview, as well, with Victoria Suter.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to northern Iraq, to Erbil, to speak with journalist Patrick Cockburn. Stay with us.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 11:49:12 -0500
A Black Site in Chicago? Police Accused of Running Secret Compound for Detentions and Interrogations

An explosive new report in The Guardian claims the Chicago police are operating a secret compound for detentions and interrogations, often with abusive methods. According to The Guardian, detainees as young as 15 years old have been taken to a nondescript warehouse known as Homan Square. Some are calling it the domestic equivalent of a CIA "black site" overseas. Prisoners were denied access to their attorneys, beaten and held for up to 24 hours without any official record of their detention. Two former senior officials in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice are calling on their colleagues to launch a probe into allegations of excessive use of force, denial of right to counsel and coercive interrogations. We speak to Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian. We are also joined by Victoria Suter, who was held at Homan Square after being arrested at the NATO protests in Chicago in 2012.


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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today with an explosive new report that Chicago police continue to operate a secret compound for detentions and interrogations, often with abusive methods. According to The Guardian, detainees as young as 15 years old have been taken to a nondescript warehouse known as Homan Square. Some are calling it the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site overseas. Prisoners were denied access to their attorneys, beaten, and held for up to 24 hours without any official record of their detention. Brian Jacob Church, who was arrested during Chicago’s 2012 anti-NATO protests, said he was shackled to a bench for 17 hours without being read his Miranda rights.

BRIAN JACOB CHURCH: When they first arrested us, they took us to this building. We were never booked. We were never processed. I was in Homan Square for about 17 hours, handcuffed to a bench, before I was actually finally allowed to see an attorney. So, essentially, the bench was about this wide, and at the back it had a bar that came across like this. They wouldn’t unhandcuff to sleep, so when I slept, I slept with like my hand cuffed to the bar, and I kind of slept like this. All of our ankles were handcuffed together, as well. I asked them to make a phone call. I asked, you know, to talk to my lawyers. And again, they pointed at the phone number and was like, "Oh, you’re not getting any phone calls from here." And they were like, "Just tell us what we want to know, and you can go home."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: At least one victim was found unresponsive in an interrogation room and later pronounced dead. The Guardian says the detainees brought to the Homan site, quote, "are most often poor, black and brown."

AMY GOODMAN: Now, two former senior officials in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are calling on their colleagues to launch a probe into allegations of excessive use of force, denial of right to counsel, and coercive interrogations.

For more, we’re joined right now by Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian, where he’s published a two-part series on police abuse in Chicago. This latest story is headlined "The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site.'" In his first installment last week, Spencer Ackerman reported on a Guantánamo Bay interrogator involved in torture who was also a longtime Chicago police officer known for abusing people of color. We’re going to go through all of this.

Spencer, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about this, about Homan.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Homan Square is a place where a number of undercover Chicago police task forces operate—the anti-gang force, the anti-drug task force—and it operates out of a warehouse on Chicago’s West Side that just sort of fades into the background view of the neighborhood. If you look out on the façade, as we’ve done, it doesn’t appear to have any normal police insignia signifying that it’s a precinct, like you would at your local police precinct. If you look a little closer, the signs are there. There’s a checkpoint out front with a yellow barrier to block traffic. There are both marked and unmarked cars in the yard. There’s an evidence locker in Homan Square that the cops have been saying makes the whole place public, and allows people to go look for that.

But as we started investigating, we had heard reports from lawyers and from police reform activists, criminologists, that what happens in Homan Square, beyond the sort of above and visible practices, involve things that you would only really hear about at CIA black sites overseas—extended detentions in which people are shackled and don’t have records made of where they are. That might seem, on the face of it, mundane, until you think: Relatives and lawyers have no way, when someone’s taken there, to figure out where these people are, which, as we had heard again from the attorneys who had dealt with police there, was a really disturbing thing. Finally, they had told us that when they went, as attorneys, to try and seek out their clients at Homan Square, on the few times that they were able to find out that someone was there, police would either turn them away or, when they tried to ascertain whereabout information over the phone, they would get the runaround and people maybe not telling them that they were sure that their clients had been there, or asking them, "How do we know that you’re actually a lawyer?" We subsequently found out that, you know, kind of sotto voce, in 2011, ’12, local activists and lawyers had brought this up with the Chicago police and had gotten the police to change some of their procedures, to make it clear that attorneys were allowed to visit. But we had found cases even after that where attorneys had said that they had been waiting outside Homan Square for the better part of an hour and gotten turned away.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to get your response to the Chicago Police Department’s statement to your reports in The Guardian about Homan Square. They wrote, quote, "CPD abides by all laws, rules and guidelines pertaining to any interviews of suspects or witnesses, at Homan Square or any other CPD facility. If lawyers have a client detained at Homan Square, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them. It also houses CPD’s Evidence Recovered Property Section, where the public is able to claim inventoried property." So could you respond to what the Chicago Police Department’s response was to the report, and also elaborate who exactly first likened this facility to a CIA black site? One of the people whom you interviewed for the piece?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s correct. To go first to the Chicago police’s response to our story—and I appreciate you allowing me the time to talk about it—notice all the things they don’t say. They don’t say when attorneys have the right to talk to their clients there. They don’t say when attorneys get to access their clients at Homan Square. They don’t say what those booking—what those records are. They don’t say—that would document someone’s appearance at Homan Square. They don’t say when those records have to be made. They don’t say in what method those are supposed to be public. They never address at all the central question of someone being booked at Homan Square, of records being made available to the public, available to their lawyers and available to their families there. We asked the police those questions when they issued us and other news organizations those statements, and we’ve still yet to hear anything. For that matter, before we published the story, days before we published the story, we sent an extensive list of questions to the police. We got nothing. I went to Homan Square on Friday and was promptly turned away. There are lots of questions here that the police really do have to answer that are outstanding.

AMY GOODMAN: The mayor was running for—was running again for his office. Did you go to Mayor Emanuel himself or to his office to ask some questions?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: I didn’t go to Mayor Emanuel’s office. One of my colleagues at The Guardian has put questions to Rahm Emanuel, and we’ll see if we get any answers from that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to bring into the conversation Victoria Suter, who traveled to Chicago on May 12, 2012, to attend the NATO protest. Four days later, she and 11 others were taken to Homan Square in Chicago after police raided the apartment where they were staying. Suter spent 18 hours in solitary confinement before being allowed to speak to a lawyer. She joins us now from Charlotte. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Victoria.

VICTORIA SUTER: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you got in touch with us after we reported on the piece yesterday, and said, "Wait a second, I am one of those people who was held at Homan Square." Talk about your experience.

VICTORIA SUTER: In Homan Square itself, from the raid in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, I was put in an unmarked vehicle. It was the standard undercover cop car, you know, a silver Crown Vic. And not being from Chicago, I tried to keep track of what turns they were making where, at first, but after a certain point I couldn’t keep up with it. I was already asking to see a lawyer. And I kept asking, "Where are you taking me? Where are you taking me?" And the only response that I got was: "We’re going to give you a tour of hell on Homan." And—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. What did they say?

VICTORIA SUTER: I had no idea what that meant. And—

AMY GOODMAN: "We’re going to give you"—what did they say? "We’re going to give you a tour"—

VICTORIA SUTER: They said, "of hell on Homan." And when we arrived there, it was dark. I couldn’t see the outside of the building. But we went in through a garage. There were really large, like military vehicles. They were black, just absolutely massive. There was—one of the other people arrested in that raid with me, they took him in first and left me outside with another officer, and then they took me inside. I was taken to a room, not particularly big, no windows. They put ankle shackles on me at that point and cuffed my right arm to a bar that ran behind the bench, where I stayed for 18 hours prior to being able to see an attorney. There was only one small window and a door that had—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ask to speak to an attorney before that 18-hour period?

VICTORIA SUTER: Yes, I had been asking since the time of my arrest and the entire transport between Bridgeport and Homan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And did you ever come to learn, Victoria, why the police had raided the apartment you were staying in and why you were detained for as long as you were and under the conditions you were?

VICTORIA SUTER: At that point in time, I had no idea what was going on. I was laying down to go to sleep when the raid occurred. And so, you know, you’re going down to—laying down to go to sleep, and then, all of a sudden, the doors are kicked in, and there’s guns on you, and you’re being taken away in handcuffs in an unmarked car to this place that you have no idea where you are. No one’s telling you anything. No one’s telling you what charges are possibly being filed against you. And it was all very chaotic and disorienting. And then, as we continued asking, while in Homan, "What are the charges? What are the charges? Where are we? Why are we here?" we got absolutely no answers the entire time I was there.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, ultimately, after 18 hours, what were you charged with?

VICTORIA SUTER: I was not charged with anything. After 18 hours, I was transferred into the Cook County Jail at 26th and California on the West Side, and I was released several hours after my transfer in with no charges. I was told—they knew that I was there to protest NATO. And upon my release, I was told, you know, "If we see you out there this weekend, we’re going to pull you back in and charge you with these guys." But we still had no idea what those charges were at that point in time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian’s investigation found that Homan Square has been in operation since the 1990s, is that correct?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: They took over the facility itself in the late ’90s.


SPENCER ACKERMAN: The Chicago police, started operating out of that facility around, I want to say, like 1997 or so. They started—they moved more and more operations in there. The period where it looks like, according to our sources, that they’ve started operating these sorts of interrogations and detentions without booking and without legal access seems to have really picked up around 2005, although we’re not totally sure when in fact it—when in fact it starts.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what drew your attention to this facility?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Thank you so much for asking. I was investigating a story that Amy mentioned about a connection between a Chicago detective who became a Guantánamo Bay torturer, tortured a man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who’s still at Guantánamo today. And as I was discussing this with a Chicago police reform activist, in the course of that conversation, that guy, Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project, mentioned to me that institutional problems with Chicago policing ran so deep that Chicago even operates its own form of a black site. And I was just like, "What? That can’t be right. That doesn’t happen in the United States. That’s nuts."

And I started looking at it further and talking to more and more attorneys about this, particularly people who do front-line visits to police facilities, and they said, "No, there’s this place called Homan Square. We try to get access to it, and routinely we don’t." One attorney told me that it’s even become, amongst people in this legal community, almost like an open secret, where if you hear from someone that their relative has been picked up by police, but there’s no record of them in central booking, they just start figuring, "Well, they must be at Homan. We’ll call and try and find out if we can get access to them." And most often they don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we just showed two white prisoners at Homan—Brian Jacob Church, we showed a clip of, who you interviewed, and then, as well, Victoria Suter. But you say mainly what we’re talking about here, people taken to this site and, as you call it, disappeared—many don’t know where they are—are black and brown people in Chicago.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s right. The attorneys who do these front-line police visits told me that typically these are people of color who are most often impacted, including people who, when we tried to speak with them through their attorneys, declined, out of fear that there would be retaliation by the Chicago police.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we want to come back and talk about this police detective, Richard Zuley, who went from Chicago to Guantánamo, and what happened there. We’re also going to ask you about Jon Burge, known for torturing people in police stations in Chicago, and what has happened to him. Spencer Ackerman is national security editor at The Guardian, where he’s published a two-part series on police abuse in Chicago, "The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site'" and "Bad Lieutenant: American Police Brutality, Exported from Chicago to Guantánamo." That’s what we’re talking about next. Stay with us.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 11:38:53 -0500
Criminalizing 10 Year Olds Is No Way to Run a Justice System

At age ten, children in England, Northern Ireland and Wales can be found guilty of a criminal offence. They can face trial and be placed in detention.

We don't allow children of ten to hold a driver's licence or get married or travel on a plane unaccompanied – we don't even allow them to be left at home alone. Yet we treat them as responsible enough for their own actions – and indeed as significantly au fait with the law – to face court if they commit a crime.

Children of this age cannot consent to sex – for this you have to be 16. Yet our criminal laws mean that children from age ten upwards can be charged with a sexual offence. There is something very contradictory here.

The age of criminal responsibility in England, Northern Ireland and Wales is well below the average of other countries in the European Union – which is 14. In the Netherlands children cannot be charged with an offence below the age of 12. In France it is 13, in Sweden it is 15. In Belgium the age of criminal responsibility is 18.

Rare cases shouldn't set the age

While the youth justice system operates separately from the adult criminal justice system, its processes largely mirror it. The consequences for a young person when they enter the criminal justice system mirror those of adults too.

In countries with a higher age of criminal responsibility, young people whose behaviour is causing concern are dealt with in the child protection and welfare system. This approach reflects wider social and cultural attitudes towards children and young people. The same goes for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Those who resist calls to raise the age invariably point towards the case of James Bulger, the toddler murdered by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. The crime provoked a strong public reaction and the boys eventually became the youngest convicted murders in modern English history. But the UK government was challenged in the European Court of Human Rights over the way it treated these young defendants.

While evoking understandable concern, incidents as serious as the Bulger murder are extremely rare. And where they do occur they are invariably symptomatic of deeper problems and need. They should not form the basis for setting the age of criminal responsibility.

Out and staying out

International evidence shows that offending by young people is best addressed by keeping them out of the criminal justice system. Once inside it, there are all kinds of negative consequences – not least being labelled a "young offender".

What's more, the range of circumstances under which a criminal record can be disclosed is widening and it is possible for criminal records acquired as a juvenile to follow a person for the rest of their life.

This has profound implications for a young person's educational opportunities and employment prospects. We know that many of the young people that are processed through the youth justice system already suffer the consequences of this.

Groups are emerging to call for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised and I would argue that 16 is more in line with other responsibilities.

Suggesting that the age of criminal responsibility should be raised does not mean ignoring behaviours of concern. It means precisely the opposite. Rather than labelling and punishing children and young people, support should be provided to help them and their families.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 11:08:30 -0500
Interview With Adam Keller: Israeli Journalist, Dissident and Refusenik

Adam Keller is best known as spokesperson of Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc, a grassroots movement which has from its start opposed the occupation in all its manifestations - advocating the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as capital of two states. In this interview, he explains the history of his activism, and how peace is truly possible.

23 APRIL, 2009: Graffiti on the partition between Palestine and Israel. (Photo: Wall in Palestine)23 APRIL, 2009: Graffiti on the partition between Palestine and Israel. (Photo: Wall in Palestine)

Adam Keller is best known as spokesperson of Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc, a grassroots movement which has from its start opposed the occupation in all its manifestations - advocating the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as capital of two states and the Green Line as border of peace - enabling the strengthening of economic, social and cultural exchange.

He is also editor of The Other Israel ("newsletter of the peace movement") since its founding in 1983. He contributes regularly to New Politics (New York) and in 1987 collected his observations and analysis in the book Terrible Days - social divisions and political paradoxes in Israel (Cypris: Amstelveen).

Born in Tel-Aviv (1955), Keller started out at a very young age to cover, overnight, almost the whole of Tel-Aviv with peace graffiti. While studying history at Tel-Aviv University, he got deeply involved in the politics of the student movements. From 1980-1983, Keller acted as spokesperson of the Shelly Peace Party and later of the Jewish-Arab Progressive List for Peace (1984-1988). Following the enactment, in October 1986, of a law forbidding Israelis from meeting with PLO representatives, Keller participated in the Israeli-Palestinian Romania Meeting, held in defiance of that law. 

In 1984, Keller was jailed for refusing to do military reserve service in Lebanon; in 1988 for writing slogans on 117 army tanks, calling upon soldiers to refuse service in the Occupied Territories; and in 1990, for altogether refusing further military service in protest against the shameless violation of Palestinian human rights. During the second Intifada, he also learned what civilian prisons are like, being arrested on different occasions for participating in acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. More recently, he became involved in the Refusnik Parents Forum - being the father of Uri Yacobi, who refused to serve in the army altogether, and was declared "unfit for military service" after seven months in prison.

Keller is interviewed by Paul Buhle, a historian long interested in Jewish history and culture, coeditor with Harvey Pekar of the comic art volume Yiddishkeit, editor of the three-volume Jews and American Popular Culture, and founder of the Oral History of the American Left (NYU) with many interviews of the senior generation of the Jewish-American Left. He was among the founding members of New Jewish Agenda, a 1980s movement arising in response to the Israeli assault upon Lebanon.

Paul Buhle for Truthout: Your father was a Hebrew novelist? You were a young socialist of some Israeli variety? 

Adam Keller: My parents met each other when they were both combat soldiers in 1948 and immediately afterwards have been founders of a Kibbutz in the early 1950s, and at the time believed very much in the vision of Socialist Zionism, but they became disillusioned before I was born and left the Kibbutz - mainly because the Kibbutz, founded by a group of young idealists, developed a power structure at record speed and the two of them were on the receiving end.

The Kibbutz fishing boat where my father worked, and liked the work, was scuttled by decision of the Kibbutz general assembly without the fishers themselves having a voice in the decision; kibbutz women [were] pushed to traditional women's roles - my mother herself having to wash by hand piles of soiled diapers, day after day after day (it was a young kibbutz; there were many babies, no disposable diapers and no washing machine - and though men and women were officially equal, no male Kibbutznik was ever asked to wash diapers). So I was born in Tel Aviv to parents of generally Socialist Zionist background, but very disillusioned and in a rebellious mood - this cost my father a job as a technician in the Israeli Electricity Company because he detested the Ben Gurion Labor Party bureaucracy and rather quixotically tried an all-out confrontation with the company bosses AND the Union ... So, you could say I was the child of rebellious and disillusioned Socialist Zionists who still cherished some shards of the original dream.

The settlers would rather destroy their own homes with their own hands rather than give Palestinians the vote.

It is not correct to say that my father was a Hebrew novelist - he was a kind of jack of all trades, fisherman, technician (sometimes doing engineer's work for the salary of an unskilled worker), inventor of labor-saving machines (which employers did not want because there was a lot of Palestinian cheap labor), teacher at vocational schools, sometimes working for a boss and mostly having stormy relations - sometimes with his own struggling workshop. In between, he was writing a bit of poetry and short stories and constructing kinetic statues (which he called "my crazy machines"). Hardly any of it was published, but of course, he shared it with the family.

Only now in retirement, he wrote the novel he dreamed of, "Towers to Nowhere," taking place in Russia of the early 1900s. It is a bit realistic and a bit grotesque and a bit surrealistic and a bit of science fiction thrown in - with the general message that Zionism oppressed not only the Palestinians, but also the East European Jews, destroying their Yiddish culture. It will never become a bestseller (which it deserves), but I am trying to get the book a bit more attention than it got until now, and I hope my father would still see that (my parents are now both 85, neither in the best of health but both still muddling on). 

How did your disillusionment with the Exodus/Uris version of reality develop?

It was a gradual process in the three years between 1967 and 1970. In June 1967, I was an 11-year old kid full of nationalist euphoria at the great victory which followed very deep apprehensions. Just before the war started, I was walking with my parents on the Tel Aviv shore and my mother kept looking at the city: she later told me she had been saying goodbye to Tel Aviv because she was sure it was going to be destroyed - and then just less than a week later, an overwhelming victory and conquest of "new territories."

Two months later, my father rented a car and we - my parents, me and my kid sister - went to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron and Jericho and Nablus, feeling like the new owners come to inspect our new property. If somebody would have told me then I was going to devote forty years of my life to trying to get Israel OUT of these territories, I would have thought he was crazy - I felt it was ALL OURS FOREVER. But it gradually changed: in 1969, I joined the youth movement of the Haolam Hazeh political party headed by Uri Avnery, who was then a young, fiercely taboo-breaking Member of the Knesset. I was originally attracted mainly by his call to separate religion and state, [to] have in Israel civil marriage and public transportation on the Sabbath (we still don't have either!) and in general his being an opponent of the rotten old establishment parties.

I joined the party's youth section, not because of its advocating peace with the Palestinians, but despite it. While being already in the party, I gradually came to accept its positions about the Palestinians, too: that took about two years. The final push was in 1971 when I together with some 20 other youngsters, heard the testimony of a soldier who came back from Gaza about the horrible things the army was doing there. First, we could not believe it, we started crying out, "This can't be true, our army does not do such things!" and the soldier answered "Yes, the army is doing these things. I did it myself, and now I can't sleep at night because I remember what I did."

You share blog space with Uri Avnery, who seems to me the Voice of Ancient Wisdom. When did YOU begin working with him or reading him, and how is it that you are sort of a generational successor, now in YOUR middle age.

At first, it was a very unequal relationship, between a brilliant parliamentarian and public speaker at the peak of his public career (though at the time he hoped to get much higher) and a rather star-struck teenager who joined the youth group affiliated to this parliamentarian's political party. Later on, it became more of an equal partnership, going on and off in the changing political landscape. After the end of the 1970s, Uri realized that he could not get re-elected again, because there were many competitors who tried to emulate him and use his "formula" while offering a watered-down version of what he said and did - and sadly, they proved more successful in the ballots.

There were years when he was out of active politics and was moving to the position of an "Elder Statesman" who is very respected, invited from time to time to write an op-ed piece or speak in a TV talk show, but no longer to build up an active political following. In these years, I was more distant from him and was involved with other groupings and other "VIPs" such as Matti Peled, the former general tuned radical dove. But Uri disliked being put on the shelf and being shut out of direct involvement, and in the 1990s - when he was already 70+ years old - he effectively reinvented himself as a radical extra-parliamentary activist leading protests on the streets of Tel Aviv and at West Bank villages - always leading from the front when there was a confrontation with army or police, batons, tear gas etc.

That was when he and me started working very closely together in Gush Shalom. Uri really thrived on the activist life; he went on with it until past his 85th birthday, and it was with reluctance that he accepted the firm advice of his doctors and his personal and political friends to slow down and preserve his strength. Nowadays he is not very much on the streets, but very, very active still on his computer keyboard, as you can see. 

Pinpoint this problem: Peace Now (and its US arm, APN), as I read their blogs, ultimately seek a Two State Solution, but nevertheless, supported the bombing of Gaza and, in some of the online commentaries, even congratulated Bibi on his explanation of it. This seems illogical to me. I think of them, perhaps unfairly, as "happy to be unhappy," another way of saying "Beat and Cry." That is, and if I am not vulgarizing: Nothing will likely change except when it gets worse, but Israel's right to act as it wants, irrespective of world opinion or the fate of Palestinians, will be defended, war after war. If I am not mistaken, or misjudge from the views of APN, the Settlement Blocs are considered as permanent, with "land swaps" as a magic formula that will allow the retention of the Settlement Blocs - clearly an unworkable non-solution.

Well, there is a current in what passes for the Israeli Left which makes a distinction between the Good Palestinians (i.e. Abu Mazen) and the Bad Palestinians (i.e. Hamas), and thinks we have to make peace with the Good Palestinians and fight and destroy the Bad Palestinians. People like that seem never to realize that such an Israeli policy is the best way to discredit the Good Palestinians and make them seen to be collaborators while the Bad Palestinians become heroes in the eyes of their own people.

Something like that is very much the outspoken position of Tzipi Livny, former Foreign Minister and Justice Minister who is now the Labor Party's partner in the ongoing elections campaign, and who - if we are (relatively) lucky - would succeed in getting rid of Netanyhau once and for all. For Livni, using the Israeli military might to crush Hamas does not contradict the Two State Solution - on the contrary, crushing Hamas is the precondition for achieving the Two State Solution. This idea might create big troubles if and when she becomes PM - on the other hand, she has a long record of changing her political and ideological positions very radically; I hope she will change this one too. 

The above does not refer to Peace Now; I think they do realize that a peace agreement with the Palestinians must include Hamas, otherwise, it would be too shaky. Israel had a chance in [the] 1990s to make a deal with Arafat, who had massive support among Palestinians; Arafat would then have become President of Palestine and Hamas would have been an internal Palestinian issue, not directly the concern of Israel.

But Israel blew that opportunity; now Hamas must be "inside the tent" or there will be no tent. As I said, the Peace Now people definitely realize this. I don't think Peace Now has ever EAGERLY supported the bombing of Gaza (of their US supporters I can't say). In times of bombings of Gaza (2009, 2012, 2014), Peace Now has wavered between opposing the bombings and RELUTANTLY supporting them ("We don't like this, but what can Israel do when they are shooting missiles at us?"/ "There is no choice but to bomb, but please make an extreme effort not to hurt civilians" / "There is no choice but to bomb, but there should be absolutely no ground invasion" / "A week ago there was no choice but to bomb, but enough is enough, now is the time for a cease fire!").

The last - calling for an immediate ceasefire - is when we find a common ground with Peace Now and hold an anti-war demo jointly, it usually comes about after three or four weeks. So, can we find the way to work with them as needed? Sure we can. A very simple way - if we can agree, we demonstrate together with them (that is about 80%-90% of the time). If we can't agree, we demonstrate without them (10%-20% of the time, usually in times of crisis when nationalist passions run high, wars in Gaza in particular).

I have to note - when there is a war in Gaza and you speak out against the war, you must answer two essential questions: 1) "Why are they doing it? Why are they shooting these missiles at us?" and 2) "So what do you expect Israel to do? Just be hit by missiles and not shoot back?" There are, of course, answers which you can make; you can talk of the siege of Gaza and the general misery of the Palestinians and so on and so on - but whatever you say, you are INEVITABLY going to sound like an apologist for Hamas.

Only very radical Israelis are ready to do that. So when such a situation develops, we find ourselves in a splendid isolation - but we know (at least those of us who have been through it ten times before) that Peace Now and other "fair-weather doves" will come around in month or two, so there is no point in feeling any great rancor about it. It is all part of the game. 

By the way, you should make a very clear distinction between bombing Gaza and settlement expansion. Peace Now and other doves might waver on bombing Gaza - they will NEVER support settlement expansion. Never. Settlement expansion is the one thing which is sure to get Peace Now militantly opposing, come hell or high water. In everything to do with settlements, we can rely on them to the hilt.

In a second round, you added a question about the "settlement blocks" and "territorial swaps." Well, first off, no one can point out exactly where the "settlement blocks" are. The US asked Israel several times to point them out, and Israel always refused. The reason: if the government points out that the settlement blocks are here, here and here, that is tantamount to announcing that everything which is outside these blocks is going to be evacuated.

Therefore, any attempt to define where the "settlement blocks" are would immediately start a very wild free-for-all among the settlers, each one demanding that the specific place where he or she lives be included in a "block," and if the government tries to draw a line on the map and say, "The block ends here," then the settlers who live five kilometers further out will cry bloody murder and use every bit of influence to let the block be extended to include them - and if they succeed, the settlers who live five kilometers further east will do the same. So, "settlement blocks" can be interpreted as "Just annex everything or nearly everything." 

On the other hand, there is the minimalist approach, which says that "settlement blocks" are just a few big settlements with tens of thousands of inhabitants each. The assumption is that these people are concentrated on very small pieces of land, so if you annex them, you take up only a small part of the West Bank, but you very greatly reduce the number of settlers you need to remove.

That is presumably what George W. Bush had in mind when he gave Sharon the famous letter which stated that Israel could keep "major population centers" on the West Bank. Bush never used the term "settlement blocks," but whenever that letter is quoted in Hebrew, the term "major population centers" is translated to Hebrew as "settlement blocks" (far from a precise translation). 

The way out of this quagmire is to define exactly what you mean by "territorial swaps." The Palestinian leadership's position - with which we in Gush Shalom agree, as do Peace Now and other peace groups - is to insist on having the 1967 borders as the baseline and that for every square inch Israel annexes east of this line, it must give the Palestinians a square inch of comparable quality west of that line. If you insist that "territorial swaps" are carried out in this way, on a 1:1 ratio, you will find that the Israeli appetite for biting off parts of the West Bank has substantially diminished.

The Palestinian leadership is ready in principle for "territorial swaps" on this basis, and they assume that about 2% of the West Bank will be affected - or perhaps 3%. On the other hand, if you don't insist on the 1:1 ratio, then "territorial swaps" could be a slippery slope leading to very substantial Israeli annexations in return for very marginal compensation to the Palestinians.

For example, in the Camp David fiasco of 2000, PM Barak offered the Palestinians "territorial swaps" on a 1:9 ratio - i.e., for every nine square kilometers which he proposed to annex on the West Bank, he was willing to give the Palestinians one (1) square kilometer in the Negev; plus, he wanted to annex the most fertile parts of the West Bank, with the best water sources - while the very meager land he proposed to give in return was desert land with not a single drop of water - completely worthless land, where no Israeli had ever to come to live in all the years that Israel existed.

Of course, Arafat rejected out of hand this kind of "territorial swap" - he would have been mad to accept. This was one of the main reasons for the failure of Camp David (though it proved impossible to convince the mainstream of the Israeli public of that. We tried very hard, but most Israelis believe that Camp David failed due to Palestinian intransigence and rejection of "generous offers" - only our hard core of supporters were willing to listen to something else).

So anyway, the Devil is in the details. The meaning of "settlement blocks" and "territorial swaps" could vary very much - some meanings are completely unacceptable, others can be lived with. The Palestinian leadership is officially willing to have "territorial swaps" at the rate of 1:1 and affecting some 2% of the West Bank; they might accept in negotiations 3% or 4% provided that the rate of 1:1 is kept. Netanyahu, of course, would not hear of anything of the kind - one of the many reasons why his negotiations with the Palestinians were foredoomed. As to the new government we might have after March 17 - wait and see. 

The dilemmas of peaceniks hoping for change after the next election are already obvious. But could Obama (or the US), by refusing to veto a UN resolution sometime, change the equation? Would Israelis abandon the West Bank under any circumstances?

Well, Obama did veto the Palestinian appeal to the UN in December. Now there is a further escalation in Obama's relations with Netanyahu, over Netanyahu inviting himself to address Congress in March and trying to wreck the administration's efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution with Iran. Netanyahu is getting himself completely mired in internal US politics and openly siding with the Republicans. He forced the Democrats on Capitol Hill to choose between him and Obama, and the Democrats chose for Obama.

The same for many of the American Jewish community - even such a stalwart of the American Jewish establishment as Abe Foxman felt obliged to call upon Netanyahu to cancel that speech. In short, Netanyhau is systematically undoing AIPAC's decades-long efforts to build a bi-partisan support and make sure that - whoever sits in the White House or has the majority - support for Israeli policies will remain solid. I think the AIPAC leaders must be gnashing their teeth, like a veteran lawyer whose client is ruining the defense case. Where will this go? Only time can tell. 

But - would Israelis abandon the West Bank under any circumstances? Yes, absolutely. What circumstances? That, of course, is a big question. If a new, more or less enough peace-oriented government emerges from the Israeli general elections due on March 17, would that government be willing and able to abandon the West Bank? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Hopefully, we will succeed in getting rid of Bibi and have Herzog and Livni instead - but it would [be] no surprise if we are greatly disappointed in them. A great deal would depend on whether there would be significant international pressure on the new government to do more than talk nicely. And in the worse-case that Netanyahu manages to hold on after March, we can certainly expect increasing international pressure - but will it be enough? 

One circumstance could be certain to make Israelis abandon the West Bank - if they are told that, otherwise, they must give Palestinians the vote in Israeli elections. Giving Palestinians the vote would mean the end of the Jewish Majority. From the Zionist point of view, giving up the West Bank is like losing an arm or leg. Giving up the Jewish Majority is being decapitated. Given this choice, there can be no doubt what Israelis would choose. 

Assume a UN Security Council resolution giving Israel, say, three years to do one of two things: either evacuate all its soldiers and settlers out of the West Bank - or keep the settlers in place, but give all who live in the West Bank Israeli citizenship and the vote in Israeli elections. And with the clear proviso that the UN tells Israel that if three years elapse without either of the two being implemented, Israel would face severe sanctions, which would ruin its economy. In that case, there could be no doubt of the outcome - after three years, Israel would be out of the West Bank. The settlers would rather destroy their own homes with their own hands rather than give Palestinians the vote.  

A few years ago, a Jewish magazine carried a story, an interview with a liberal, peace-minded housewife in the north, in a village that now has no Palestinians. She insisted that she held no prejudices, but looked forward to the day when the last physical vestiges of their (former) local presence would be eradicated. It was not part of the history that made her feel comfortable. Around the same time, my friends at JEWISH CURRENTS ran another story about an elderly lady returning to her grandparents' village in the Ukraine. The synagogue was gone and she asked a friendly local about it, a woman who shrugged and said, "It's not part of our history."

There is no valid comparison between the fate of European Jews and today's Palestinians, but the willed un-memory seems to be held in common. I suppose I am asking this question as an historian: how can memory work differently and create a badly needed sense of common history, ordinary daily history as well as conflicts? How can it help to resolve the need to move Israelis back across to the legal side of the 1967 border and Palestinians to accept the return of any significant numbers as something that will not happen.

Well, I think that in such cases – i.e., that you live in a place where somebody else lived in the past who had been driven out or murdered - the decisive consideration is whether there is any realistic possibility of the former owners coming back and reclaiming their homes and lands. For example, I think an American considering the fact that a certain Native American tribe once lived where his town is now located, might feel guilty, but does not feel threatened. Even if some members of that tribe live on a reservation somewhere, it is not likely that they would ever be in a position to reclaim their old lands.

So, I think an American can well preserve whatever archaeological remains can be found of the former inhabitants, or even call the local football club by that old tribe's name. Israelis, on the other hand, are well aware that among the Palestinians the assertion of the Right of Return is very much alive as political aim (for many Palestinians, a military aim as well). And I think that also for Ukrainian villages, the possibility that Jews might one day come back to their village and reclaim Jewish properties (which might be very considerable) is far from out of the question. So, I think that when something in the past is liable to threaten your future, you might wish to wipe this section out of the past.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 10:56:37 -0500
The Supreme Court and the Freedom to Gerrymander

So far this decade, the Supreme Court has not really weighed in on redistricting. But two cases this term are set to change that — and could result in a renewed freedom for politicians to manipulate maps for partisan or self-serving purposes.

The first case, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama — which the Court heard in November — challenges the maps that Alabama Republicans drew after taking control of the legislature in 2010. Although Republican legislative leaders say they simply redrew districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act, African-American legislators say the goal was far more nefarious. By using the Voting Rights Act as an excuse, they say Alabama Republicans packed African-American voters into a reduced number of "minority" districts. The effect was to dilute African-American influence in the legislature and, worse, African-American leaders argue, to require that those districts be maintained permanently even as population shifts make it harder to draw compact districts in the future.

The Court could decide the case in a number of ways, including punting it back to the district court for more specific fact finding — a route suggested by lawyers for the Justice Department. The Court also could invalidate the maps by building on its racial gerrymandering line of cases. But at oral arguments, at least some of the justices seemed sympathetic to Alabama's argument that it did what it did out of an abundance of caution in order to ensure that its maps were approved by Justice Department officials as then required under the Voting Rights Act.

As Loyola law Professor Justin Levitt has pointed out, similar arguments have been made by Republican legislators elsewhere in the South to defend maps opposed, in some cases vigorously, by minority communities. In North Carolina, for example, lawmakers radically redrew maps to create new majority-minority districts to replace districts where African Americans, although not a majority of the voting age population, had shown a consistent ability to elect their community's preferred candidates. As in Alabama, mapdrawers in North Carolina cited concerns about avoiding liability under the Voting Rights Act as a justification for their actions.

If the Supreme Court rules for Alabama, and holds that the state was entitled to act prophylactically in drawing districts with larger than needed minority populations — even when opposed by minority groups and, moreover, even if its interpretation of the VRA was wrong — it would open the door to wide use of the Voting Rights Act as a pretext to disadvantage minority voters. This would be a dangerous abandonment of traditional judicial oversight of the redistricting process. Indeed, in the South, where racially polarized voting is increasingly the norm, it would give political majorities free rein not only to disadvantage minorities but also to engage in backdoor partisan gerrymandering.

The second case before the Court this term could tie the hands not of courts, but of citizens, to police the redistricting process and enact other election reforms. In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission — which the Court will take up in March — the Court will decide whether the independent redistricting commission created by Arizona voters in 2000 violates the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it was created by ballot initiative. The Arizona Legislature argues that voters acted outside their authority when they took power to draw maps away from legislators because the Elections Clause requires that the laws governing federal elections be set only by state legislatures or by Congress.

The Court surprised most observers last fall when it agreed to hear the case. Since the early 20th century, voters have used initiative power to enact a host of election laws, including Oregon's all mail ballot election system, Florida's constitutional amendment strengthening redistricting standards, and (ironically) the law requiring that Arizonians prove their citizenship before they can be registered as voters. The accepted consensus was that legislative power could be exercised by the people as well as by legislatures, and, not surprisingly, ballot initiatives have proven to be one of the most effective vehicles that ordinary citizens have had for overcoming resistance to change from vested political interests.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the Arizona Legislature and undercuts the power of voters to reform the broken political process, then an important check on redistricting abuses will have been lost. If, in the Alabama case, the Court also allows the Voting Rights Act to be used as a pretext for disadvantaging minority voters, the freedom to gerrymander will be even more unfettered.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 10:44:16 -0500
Prison Reform, Proposition 47 and the California Shell Game

The Golden Gulag(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Attempts at reforming the monstrous machine that is the prison industrial complex are futile. For more than 20 years, the state of California has deflected, co-opted or subverted any legislative, voter-driven or judicial mandates for "prison reform."

The Golden Gulag(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

In the deep fog of the yard at Central California Facility for Women (CCFW), the bright shiny headlines declaring California Proposition 47 (which reclassifies certain property and drug felonies as minor, non-prison time offenses) the beginning of the end of mass incarceration seem so very far away. As women go throughout their daily grind of toxic drudgery at pennies per hour - cooking acrylic over outdated Bunsen Burners in unventilated rooms to make dentures for other state prisoners and MediCal patients, sewing jail jumpsuits and flags for the state of California in 10-hour stints - reform seems impossible.

To see more stories like this, visit "Smoke and Mirrors: Inside the New 'Bipartisan Prison Reform' Agenda."

The lieutenant who guides our university class visit seems to sense this, too. Despite his preliminary promises to us of remaining "politically correct," his contempt for these women is soon revealed - in stories of the closing of "unused" family visiting rooms to make way for a drug-sniffing dog kennel, in his celebration of an American sniper who surveyed all from a gun turret over-looking the solitary unit, in the unchecked assumption that every cry for assistance was thin cover for a scam. A loud speaker alert of an "unresponsive inmate down on the yard" was shrugged off with, "Well, somebody must not want to report to work today."

Contempt for these women is soon revealed - in stories of the closing of "unused" family visiting rooms to make way for a drug-sniffing dog kennel, in his celebration of an American Sniper who surveyed all from a gun turret over-looking the solitary unit, in the unchecked assumption that every cry for assistance was thin cover for a scam.

As we passed, groups of women shouted out their grievances to us, especially noting lack of adequate medical care. "Don't bother," The lieutenant sneered, and then alluded, in shorthand, to authorities from the capital who occasionally come to check prison compliance with any number of court-ordered reforms: "They aren't Sacramento."

But what would it matter if we were?

The Golden Gulag: Excessive, Unconstitutional and Entrenched

It is California - the Golden Gulag - that brings us the expansion of the modern prison industrial complex. California engineered a prison-building and filling project that is the "biggest in the history of the world." California's prison population is among the largest in the nation, with an annual budget of more than $12.5 billion. This transformation took less than 30 years.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California offers the most comprehensive analysis of the rise of the PIC in California. Eschewing the usual simplistic explanations, Gilmore links the expansion to a complex interaction with a host of other developments: changes in the labor market; expectations of how state apparatuses will interact with the poor and those deemed "surplus labor"; what industries and economic growth systems government is prepared to subsidize; shifts in tax structures; and relationships between different races and classes over the decades.

Beginning in the 1980s, public policy shifts, dictated by both economic factors and political mood, resulted in expansion of criminal law - 1,200 new criminal justice-related laws in the decades during the penal expansion - the first and most restrictive three strikes law, the proliferation of gang legislation. These were accompanied by a state-sponsored boom in prison building and new jobs in depressed agricultural regions, correctional spending that far outstripped educational investments, the growing influence of private correctional profit interests, and the escalating political power of the state's prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), which plays a significant role in advocating pro-incarceration policies in California.

An average of one inmate per week was dying as a result of malpractice or neglect.

The result was a heavily crowded and racialized correctional population. In California, blacks are incarcerated at a rate 6.5 times greater than whites and Latino/as at nearly two times the rate of whites, rates higher than national patterns of racial disparity. Collectively, people of color comprise more than two-thirds of the state's outsized prison population. At the peak of overcrowding, the system was at 200 percent of capacity. Prisoners were triple bunked in gyms, hallways, any extra nook or cranny. This overcrowding was/still is especially excessive at Central California Women's Facility (CCWF), the world's largest prison for women.

Nearly four years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the California system was so overcrowded that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The case, Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor of California, et al., Appellants v. Marciano Plata et al., centered on shortage of health care and de facto denial of mental and physical treatment. An average of one inmate per week was dying as a result of malpractice or neglect. The Supreme Court affirmed a federal decree requiring state officials to reduce the prison population (then 168,000) by 30,000, which is 137.5 percent of the system's capacity. California has until July 2016 to reduce population by another 10,000 prisoners.

The tendency, however, has been continued incarceration rather than release.

Despite the legal mandate to reduce overcrowding, California, under the leadership of Governor Brown, has stonewalled every step of the way. Prisoner reduction has primarily resulted, not from actual release, but from a massive prisoner-shifting shell game.

One of the solutions, Assembly Bill 109, referred to as "prison realignment," primarily moves state prisoners into county jails. The overcrowding, then, is largely being shifted from the state to county level. Counties, already strained under a population of 80,000-plus, have a variety of options for dealing with these additional prisoners, including referrals to the new privatized profit-driven community correctional complex. The tendency, however, has been continued incarceration rather than release. Seventeen counties are already under separate court-orders to reduce populations, and the recent pressures have led many counties to build larger jails. Since jails are meant for short-term detention, their amenities, as it were, are even fewer than those offered in prison. So, statewide problems are simply exacerbated at the county level.

A second shell game used to reduce state prison numbers - on paper - is the increased use of out-of-state private prisons.

A second shell game used to reduce state prison numbers - on paper - is the increased use of out-of-state private prisons. Brown recently signed two separate deals with private prison providers CCA and GEO Group to house additional prisoners, making California one of the nation's leaders in its reliance on private prisons. In addition to the nearly 8,000 prisoners housed in out-of-state private facilities, new privatized prisons in California would accommodate another 4,000 prisoners, including 260 women at a new GEO prison in Bakersfield.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this new privatization scheme is the collusion with old opponents. Previously, in California and elsewhere, private prison expansion has been stymied by correctional officers' unions that resisted because of CCA and GEO's reliance on nonunion labor. But not anymore, since California's deal with the CCA and GEO Group requires the use of unionized California Correctional Peace Officers Association guards. Opponents of mass incarceration fear this partnership is a harbinger of additional expansion of the prison industrial complex.

It is within this context of resistance to decarceration and increasing entrenchment of private profit interests that we must evaluate the most recent efforts at "reform."

Propositions 36 and 47: The Promise and the Reality of Reform

California voters - for reasons both sociopolitical and fiscal – began to tire of endless incarceration before elected officials did and so sought change via ballot measures. While both Proposition 36 and 47 are widely touted as actually or potentially making a significant dent in California's prison population, at closer look, the impact may be other than hoped.

The Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (Proposition 36) rewrote the harsh 1994 law that mandated life imprisonment for a third felony conviction, even if the third strike was a nonviolent crime. Strongly supported by Democrats and liberal nonprofits, and opposed by the GOP and law enforcement/corrections lobbies, Prop 36 passed by a wide margin. Under the revisions, a life sentence for the third strike is available only if the crime is "serious or violent." Approximately 4,000 nonviolent third-strike lifers (out of nearly 9,000 sentenced under 1994 provisions) became eligible for resentencing. This is not automatic, but requires a legal process that grants release to eligible prisoners only after they are deemed no risk to "public safety."

It is within this context of resistance to decarceration and increasing entrenchment of private profit interests that we must evaluate the most recent efforts at "reform."

Since passage, slightly over 1,000 prisoners have been released after legal review. This is certainly progress - and of immeasurable value to those released - but it has hardly produced a dent in California's bloated prison system. Beyond the first tier of cases, difficulties in obtaining further releases are related to scrutiny of prisoner's disciplinary records, prosecutorial resistance, and associated gaps between counties in considering release.

Most recently, California Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, was passed by voters with a degree of "bipartisan" support. Referred to by supporters as the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, the bill reduced several theft and forgery crimes and possession of small amounts of most illegal drugs from felonies to misdemeanors. Prop 47 also allows for the retroactive resentencing of possibly 10,000 prisoners (including some Three-Strikers) serving time for offenses now reclassified as misdemeanors. One of the major selling points of the bill (and one of its potential perils) involves the establishment of a fund to allocate saved monies to reduce truancy, support trauma centers and provide mental health and substance abuse treatment.

There is no indication that police or prosecutors, who have long relied on these laws as plea-bargaining and punishment tools, will not imagine new ways to overcharge defendants to achieve their desired result.

Prop 47 was supported by the ACLU, NAACP, most labor unions, many prominent Democrats, and a host of Right on Crime associates. (This should raise eyebrows, since Right on Crime represents a distillation of right-wing thinking about reform: removing corporations from criminal scrutiny, promoting states' rights, and pushing an aggressive agenda of corrections privatization.) It was opposed by the California GOP, a few law and order Democrats, and the usual associations of sheriffs, police, prosecutors and crime victims - with the exception of the powerful California Corrections and Peace Officers Association, which along with Governor Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris, remained silent (This should raise more eyebrows still). The prominent progressive coalition Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) remained neutral as well, out of respect for the complexities of the question and the varying positions of coalition members. Several grassroots prison abolitionist groups, such as Justice Now and Critical Resistance, opposed the proposition, citing many of the reasons detailed below.

"Justice reinvestment" here, as elsewhere, will not mean reinvestment in community, but instead, continued investment in law enforcement and corrections.

Despite the claim of reduced incarceration, several concerns have been raised regarding the ultimate impact of Prop 47 on California's carceral landscape. The promised savings of $150-250 million are just that - promised but not guaranteed. Prop 47 was partly intended to reign in prosecutorial discretion by reclassifying many crimes known as "wobblers" (i.e. offenses that could be prosecuted as either felonies or misdemeanors). There is no indication that police or prosecutors, who have long relied on these laws as plea-bargaining and punishment tools, will not imagine new ways to overcharge defendants to achieve their desired result. Such approaches are already being considered. There are preliminary signs, too, that, in yet another shell game, costs saved in felony prosecutions at the county level will be shifted down to the cities, which now face an additional influx of misdemeanor cases.

There are legitimate concerns that it could easily mean more police/Security Resource Officers (SROs) patrolling the hallways, more surveillance, more funneling of at-risk students into the school to prison pipeline.

Even if there are savings, "justice reinvestment" here, as elsewhere, will not mean reinvestment in community, but instead, continued investment in law enforcement and corrections. Most of the purported savings will be funneled directly back into corrections, through a fund managed by the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), known for expanded prison and jail construction under realignment. Given the current push toward privatization, it is easy to imagine new opportunities for profiteering under Prop 47, via contracts to provide mental health and mandatory substance use treatment and for case management of misdemeanants, now under community supervision.

It is important to note, as just one example, that Sentinel Offender Services, infamous for their (mis)handling of private probation in Georgia, is based in California. Sentinel is already under contract with several large California counties to provide GPS tracking and monitoring services for so-called community-based corrections. They have provided private probation services to Los Angeles County for more than 20 years. Prop 47 creates the possibility for still more clients.

For more than 20 years, the State of California has deflected, coopted or subverted any legislative, voter-driven or judicial mandates for "prison reform."

One of the more troubling aspects of Prop 47 funding involves the 25 percent of "saved" monies that are earmarked for use by the Department of Education. While the pro-Prop 47 rhetoric suggested that educational benefits were central to the measure, the actual text specifies funding for grant programs that address "K-12 truancy, students at high-risk of dropping out, or school victims of crime." How does that translate? There is no guarantee that this might mean more social workers, teachers or restorative/transformative justice programing, and there are legitimate concerns that it could easily mean more police/Security Resource Officers (SROs) patrolling the hallways, more surveillance, more funneling of at-risk students into the school-to-prison pipeline. Eric A. Stanley, coeditor of Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, suggests that if the funding choices favor police in the hallways "as a response to the infamous overcrowding of California's prisons, this is something we know would re-imprison 10,000 people, even if 10,000 people are released."

The prison industrial complex is a profit-driven morass that swallows any efforts at reform and spits them back in expansion.

Finally, all efforts at reform, including Proposition 36 and 47 reify the law and order frame; they require our continued acceptance of and reliance on state violence. These reforms insist that we center "public safety" and fear of victimization by a dangerous, irredeemable class of law-breakers/prisoners. Proponents of both ballot measures promoted passage, as Cookie Concepcion, Justice Now board member and prisoner at Central California Women's Facility, points out in "The High Cost of Prop 47," by arguing to "stop the warehousing of petty, nonviolent criminals in prisons, while boasting to keep violent criminals locked up." Such rhetoric and resultant "reforms" insist that we distinguish between those who can be salvaged and those who we choose to consign to a perpetual cage.


In the fog of the yard at CCWF, one thing is crystal clear. Attempts at reforming the monstrous machine that is the PIC are futile. For more than 20 years, the state of California has deflected, coopted or subverted any legislative, voter-driven or judicial mandates for "prison reform."

A few examples: California passed SB 1399, legally allowing for compassionate release and medical parole, but five years later, continues to ignore the requisite paperwork as prisoners die behind bars. The state responded to a court case brought by prisoners over unhealthy food by routinely serving everyone a cold lunch of peanut butter and jelly on moldy bread, sour sunflower seeds and an old apple. The California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDRC), in an attempt to quell a statewide prisoner hunger strike, claimed it would review demands regarding gang validation protocols and conditions of solidarity confinement; the result, a "reform" of procedures that actually expands the definitions of gang affiliation and increases use of solitary.

In response to a lawsuit requiring prison compliance with The Americans with Disability Act guidelines, various prisons across the state moved prisoners in need of said accommodations into isolation cells. In 2010, California created an Alternative Custody Program that allows nonviolent prisoners to complete sentences in community settings. In addition to sparking a new set of Federal court challenges for discriminating against men, the state has released women to these venues at a mere snail's pace. Instead, efforts are made to persuade eligible prisoners, like many at CCWF, to transfer to the new private prison because there are, in the words of The Lieutenant, "microwaves with toasters."

The prison industrial complex, in California and everywhere, is a profit-driven morass that swallows any efforts at reform and spits them back in expansion. There is no indication (and much to the contrary) that Propositions 36, 47, and the next or the one after that will fare much better than previous efforts. There is no escaping the classist and racist roots of this machinery, and every indication that "reforms" will, not only expand options for state control and private profit, but also simultaneously harden egregious race/class gaps. This cannot be "fixed"; it is feature not a bug. As Angela Davis rightly notes - in the book that poses the question, we must now grapple with, Are Prisons Obsolete? - "Our most difficult and urgent challenge to date is that of creatively exploring new terrains of justice where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor." ​

To paraphrase Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in that moment he finally saw the futility of death penalty reform, let us no longer tinker with this machinery of death. Let us seek another path.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 10:32:20 -0500
Economic Update: It's the System of Capitalism

This episode provides updates on German anti-capitalism, student debt default, credit card economics and unregulated chemicals. We also respond to questions on pension scandals and Harvard economic research.

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News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 10:02:40 -0500
Buffalo's Bomb Trains

They span over a mile long containing up to 140 tank cars and as much as 4.5 million gallons of some of the nastiest forms of crude oil on earth, pumped from "extreme" extraction operations in North America's new oil boomtowns. They cross rivers and transverse open plains, wilderness forest and some of the most densely populated urban areas in the country. Occasionally, with alarmingly increasing frequency, they careen off into rivers, catch fire and explode, or both. When spilled in water, their heavy oil exterminates river ecosystems. When they blow up, they release the fires of hell, with one oil train accident in 2013 wiping out most of the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and gutting its downtown. That's when folks started referring to these explosive steel snakes as "Bomb Trains."

This is one of the dark sides of North America's fossil energy boom—the backstory on cheap fuel. The uptick in oil production comes from using extreme means to recklessly drill oil, using carbon-intensive methods like fracking to extract environmentally dangerous low grade oils such as Bakken crude from Montana and North Dakota. This oil, pumped from the dolomite layer of the Bakken geological formation, which also underlies portions of the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is more volatile than conventional oils, with a lower flashpoint for explosion. When rail cars started to blow in Lac-Mégantic, The National Post reported a blast radius of over one half mile.

The United States National Transportation Safety Board estimates that about 400,000 barrels a day of this oil make the trip to Atlantic Coast refineries, with 20 to 25 percent moving through the port of Albany. Much of this Albany-bound oil moves across New York utilizing rail lines passing though the hearts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica. Oil from Canada crosses the Niagara river, entering the US both in Niagara Falls, and via Buffalo's 142 year old International Railroad Bridge, as well as taking a northern route, dropping down from Quebec on tracks passing through the Adirondack Park, including about 100 miles of Lake Champlain watershed shoreline. Non Albany-bound oil, such as some shipments from Buford, North Dakota to Houston, Texas, also take an unlikely route through Buffalo.

Though much of this oil winds up moving through New York State, federal law limits the state's authority to regulate it. While crude oil can be stabilized to make it less volatile in transit, whether or not it receives such treatment is up to the discretion of regulators in the state that produces it—not necessarily the states through whose cities it will roll. Most of the explosive Bakken crude coming our way originates in North Dakota, where the energy industry all but owns the legislature, fertilizing the state's anti-regulatory zeitgeist with a healthy dose of cash. The end result is, whatever passes for a state government in North Dakota fails to meet even Texas's modest safety standards for anti-explosive fuel stabilization.

The Association of American Railroads reports that, thanks to the Bakken and Tar Sands oil booms, the amount of oil moving across the country by train has increased 45 fold (4,500 percent) from 2008 through 2013, with the volume continuing to increase through 2014 and 2015. As a result, more oil spilled from oil trains in the U.S. in 2013 than in the preceding 37 years. The number of accidents increased in 2014, and seems to be steadily increasing this year, with oil trains derailing and blowing up last week in West Virginia and northern Ontario. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Department of Transportation now predicts an average of ten derailment accidents a year involving crude oil or ethanol tank cars over the next twenty years, "causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S." It's no longer a matter of "if" there will a catastrophic oil train derailment.

Both the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the United States Department of Transportation recommend evacuating a one half mile perimeter around accidents involving railroad tanker cars carrying flammable liquids. Karen Edelstein, a researcher and the New York Program Director for the FracTracker Alliance, mapped oil train routes across the state, adding overlays for this evacuation zone, and for schools and hospitals. Her data shows that statewide, there are 502 public schools situated within potential evacuation zones. In Buffalo, about one third of the population live within one half mile of these bomb train routes, and 27 public schools and eight private schools lie within potential evacuation perimeters as well. This includes PS 42, which serves students with disabilities, and is located adjacent to the track. Sister's Hospital and the Buffalo Zoo are well within this perimeter, which skirts the Buffalo State and Erie County Medical Center campuses. If we freak out when it snows, how well are we going to handle what appear to be atomic fireballs, should one of these trains blow up?

While the profits from this oil boom have been privatized, much of the cost associated with reckless extraction have been externalized, meaning dumped on the public. Aside from the obvious environmental costs that we and future generation will have to bear, are the less visible emergency preparation costs that every school, hospital and municipality within a half mile of bomb train routes must now cover. In Buffalo, this means 35 schools need to work with local emergency services providers to develop plans to quickly evacuate students not just from buildings, but from neighborhoods, all with a possible backdrop of explosions, sirens and billowing smoke.

While it's not statistically likely that a train will explode in Buffalo or any other specific place, it is a certainty that trains will keep exploding with increasing frequency across the U.S. and Canada. This means that cash strapped municipalities across the continent will have to develop plans to address a catastrophe we know for certain will befall some of our communities.

Addressing this risk involves not just planning to respond to it, and maintaining an emergency response network capable of responding, but also working to prevent such a catastrophe. A report from the Cornell University Community and Regional Development Institute points out that this involves a multitude of responsibilities, such as monitoring surface rail crossings to prevent vehicle train collisions that can lead to a derailment. Such responsibility, the report notes, usually falls to local police forces that often lack the personnel to do this. Likewise, federal regulators lack the personnel to inspect the nation's rail infrastructure, and state Departments of Transportation lack the resources to adequately inspect bridges crossing railroad tracks. All of these costs fall not on the oil or railroad industries, but on government agencies, with much of this work not being done due to budget constraints.

What little planning there is to deal with an oil train explosion is alarming to read. A three car fire requires, according to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control , 80,000 gallons of water for laying down a fire retardant foam blanket and cooling adjacent rail cars. Hence, the state recommends, if there is "NO life hazard and more than 3 tank cars are involved in fire OFPC recommends LETTING THE FIRE BURN unless the foam and water supply required to control is available" [sic.]. The wording here is ominous, with the availability of the required foam and water not being the default expectation, but instead, simply a possibility. This language is there for a reason, however. The Auburn Citizen, in central New York, quotes Cayuga County Emergency Management Office Director Brian Dahl, who, in response to a question about his county's ability to respond to an oil train fire, unequivocally states, "The amount of foam and water you would need, there's just not enough in central New York."

While oddly inferring that maybe you should put the fire out if you have adequate foam and water, even if there is no "life hazard," the state's instructions don't mention what to do if there is a life hazard, but no foam or water. Also troubling is their inference that if more than three cars are on fire you should just give up. Last week's fires in Ontario and West Virginia saw seven and fourteen cars ablaze respectively, with each fire burning for over 24 hours. In all caps, the state's instructions warn responders,

"All resources must be available prior to beginning suppression."

It doesn't give any suggestions as to what to do if you can't move the water to the fire, or have the foam necessary to smother a dragon. None of the suggested responses are tolerable should an oil train explode in an urban environment.

News Fri, 27 Feb 2015 10:01:11 -0500
Net Neutrality Is Back! But the Fight Isn't Over Yet

Depending on whom you talk to, today's vote is either a victory for consumers, civil rights activists and a ragtag coalition of grassroots advocates that formed an alliance with Silicon Valley to take on the behemoth telecoms, or a government power grab that will turn the internet into a lumbering public utility and squash technological innovation and investment. (Photo via Shutterstock)Depending on whom you talk to, today's vote is either a victory for consumers, civil rights activists and a ragtag coalition of grassroots advocates that formed an alliance with Silicon Valley to take on the behemoth telecoms, or a government power grab that will turn the internet into a lumbering public utility and squash technological innovation and investment. (Photo: Mark Van Scyoc /

Federal regulators approved tough net neutrality rules today. Still, the fight for internet freedom continues, and advocates say public participation will be as important as ever.

Depending on whom you talk to, today's vote is either a victory for consumers, civil rights activists and a ragtag coalition of grassroots advocates that formed an alliance with Silicon Valley to take on the behemoth telecoms, or a government power grab that will turn the internet into a lumbering public utility and squash technological innovation and investment. (Photo via Shutterstock)Depending on whom you talk to, today's vote is either a victory for consumers, civil rights activists and a ragtag coalition of grassroots advocates that formed an alliance with Silicon Valley to take on the behemoth telecoms, or a government power grab that will turn the internet into a lumbering public utility and squash technological innovation and investment. (Photo: Mark Van Scyoc /

Federal regulators approved tough net neutrality rules today. Still, the fight for internet freedom continues, and advocates say public participation will be as important as ever.

It's official: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted today to reclassify the internet as a "common carrier" service under Title II of the Communications Act to enforce strong net neutrality rules. The vote marks a victory for internet freedom activists and a historic national shift toward treating quality internet access more like an essential public good.

Still, the battle over the future of the internet is far from over.

The FCC approved the rules in a 3-2 vote along party lines, with Democrats in the majority. The rules prevent internet providers like AT&T and Verizon from blocking legal content; degrading or slowing down their competitors' traffic; and favoring traffic in exchange for special fees.

"The internet has redefined commerce, and as the outpouring from 4 million Americans has demonstrated, the internet is the ultimate vehicle for free expression," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, referring to the 4 million people who commented on the agency's net neutrality proposals over the past year. "The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules."

The open internet debate has taken some twists and turns since last January, when a federal appeals court threw out the FCC's last batch of net neutrality rules and sent regulators back to the drawing board. As public comments piled up and activists rallied across the country, Wheeler eventually shed the skin of a former industry insider and scrapped a milquetoast proposal in favor of a plan rooted in Title II, which advocates say gives the FCC the legal authority it needs to defend the rules against inevitable court challenges from the industry.

The Title II decision could also have a deep impact on the effort to hold broadband companies accountable to the needs of the public and close the "digital divide" that has left low-income and rural consumers, as well as people of color, with few options to stay connected.

"We are moving as a country to saying that this service is an essential service like [landline] telephone was, and so everybody should have the opportunity to get it. That’s what Title II does," said Harold Feld, vice president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, in a recent interview with Truthout. "By making, as a society, the decision that broadband is an essential communications service, we are embracing our digital future."

Depending on whom you talk to, today's vote is either a victory for consumers, civil rights activists and a ragtag coalition of grassroots advocates that formed an alliance with Silicon Valley to take on the behemoth telecoms, or a government power grab that will turn the internet into a lumbering public utility and squash technological innovation and investment.

The truth is a bit more complicated, and it remains unclear if and how the FCC will use the new rules to hold incumbent telecoms like AT&T and Verizon accountable to the public. Here's the good news: Like the debate that brought us to today's historic ruling, the public can have a say in how this implementation plays out. In fact, advocates say public participation is crucial.

"[Today] we celebrate. Friday we get back to work," said Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, one the groups that has spent years campaigning for tough net neutrality rules.

Aaron said the most immediate threats to net neutrality would come from Congress, where Republicans could introduce legislation that would defund the FCC, overturn the new rules or undermine the agency's enforcement authority. Such legislation would face Obama's veto pen, however, and industry-backed compromise legislation that would establish net neutrality rules but undermine the FCC's enforcement authority has already failed to find bipartisan support.

"Congress is going to have to decide, and the Republican leadership in Congress is going to have to decide, if this is the thing they want to go to war on," Aaron said.

Republicans are currently furious over the Title II reclassification, which they have billed as a government takeover of the internet that President Obama bullied the FCC into orchestrating.

The saber rattling was already underway on Wednesday at a heated committee hearing in the House that served as a perfect example of how net neutrality, an issue wrapped in industry lingo and fine print, is subject to such heavy spin that opponents and proponents don't even seem to be talking about the same thing.

"The closer we get to the FCC rubber-stamping President Obama's internet grab, the more disturbing it becomes," said committee Chair Rep. Greg Walden, in a statement. "Consumers, innovators and job creators all stand to lose from this misguided approach."

Walden is a Republican from Oregon who has received hefty donations from the telecom industry and cosponsored the GOP's alternative net neutrality legislation in the House.

"What’s more, this plan sends the wrong signal around the globe that freedom and openness on the internet are best determined by governments - a far cry from decades of bipartisan commitment to light-touch regulation," Walden continued.  

Don't worry. Obama will not be billing you for broadband anytime soon, and the new rules exempt broadband providers from certain utility-style regulations, like rate regulations, at least up front. By reclassifying the internet under Title II, however, the FCC has expanded its powers to intervene if it finds that internet service providers charge unreasonable rates or engage in unjust practices that fail to serve the public.

Larry Downes, an author and industry analyst who opposes Title II reclassification, claimed in his testimony before the committee that virtually every aspect of the internet's infrastructure could soon be under government oversight.

"As Chairman Wheeler noted in his recent 'fact sheet,' the rulemaking will now, 'for the first time,' grant the FCC oversight of potentially every link in the connections between networks that make up the internet’s unique, engineering-driven architecture," Downes said in his written testimony.

In fact, Wheeler's fact sheet, released earlier this month to outline the proposed net neutrality rules, says that, "For the first time the Commission would have authority to hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action if necessary" if it finds that interconnection deals between internet service providers and content providers fail to meet Title II's "just and reasonable" standard.

"Disappointed parties will no doubt choose to invoke the agency’s new self-granted authority rather than continuing to rely on market negotiations," Downes warned.

This is exactly why advocates like Aaron say Title II is so important. Internet providers have an advantage in "market negotiations" because they enjoy monopolies and duopolies in communities across the country, leaving consumers and content providers with few choices.

Under the FCC's recently updated standards of what defines high-speed broadband, 82 percent of consumers in the United States have one or fewer options when it comes to high speed internet providers. This makes it tough to vote with your dollar and leave a company that is charging unreasonable rates, providing shoddy service or striking "fast lane" deals that make some parts of the internet more accessible than others.

"That's why Title II is so important, it actually allows [the FCC] to respond to things that are going wrong in the marketplace," Aaron said. "All the major providers have indicated that they want to discriminate . . . so we need some kind of recourse."

The new rules also protect free speech online and ensure that everyone's voice can be heard regardless of their economic status. For this reason, people of color and civil rights activists have rallied around the issue, because their movements rely on a free and open internet to organize, express dissent and address issues ignored by the corporate media.

"With the internet, net neutrality creates an opportunity for somebody other than the most powerful corporations to control the internet," said civil rights activist Malkia Cyril in a recent interview with Truthout. "It creates some room for an everyday person like myself. I can't own a TV station, but I can own a website."

The FCC's rules are not designed to change the internet as it stands, but to protect it from the future whims of profit-hungry broadband barons. Aaron said the "bright line" rules unveiled today would be shaped through a series of complaints and rulemakings. Depending on the scope, these will be subject to public comment, allowing consumers and tech companies to weigh in on issues like data caps and zero-rating as they arise.

"The FCC . . . is going have their radar up as well," Aaron said. "The most powerful thing about rules like this is the threat to use them."

The FCC also took a step toward promoting broader broadband competition by voting to intervene and challenge state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that have prevented highly successful municipal broadband networks from expanding into neighboring communities.

None of this seemed likely a year ago when Wheeler, a fresh nominee of the Obama administration, began diving into the contentious issues facing the FCC. The chairman did something that advocates weren't exactly expecting, however. When the people spoke up - and thanks to online activism, millions of them did - Wheeler listened.

"The internet has changed the rules for what is and what isn’t possible in Washington, DC, and politics in general," said Evan Greer, an organizer with Fight for the Future, a grassroots group that galvanized public support for net neutrality with online campaigns. "It's changed the rules for democracy."

News Thu, 26 Feb 2015 14:10:48 -0500