In These Times https://inthesetimes.com/ In These Times features award-winning investigative reporting about corporate malfeasance and government wrongdoing. en-us Tue, 03 Aug 2021 20:17:38 -0500 Tue, 03 Aug 2021 20:17:38 -0500 A Bold Experiment in Working-Class Journalism - Sometimes the most revolutionary thing you can do is listen. https://inthesetimes.com/article/working-people-podcast-media-labor-stories Tue, 03 Aug 2021 16:09:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/working-people-podcast-media-labor-stories This article is reprinted with permission from The Fragments Project.

I have a recurring fantasy that goes something like this:

I am eating breakfast at a diner in my hometown in Macomb County, Michigan, when I am approached by a journalist. This journalist is writing an article about political sentiment in blue collar swing districts, or something nebulous and overdone like that. He asks me for a quote and I respond by delivering an awful, Sorkin-esque monologue about how corporate greed shuttered our factories, how billionaires stole our wages, and how both parties consistently fail to meet the needs of the working class. Then, I tell him to fuck off. Everyone in the diner cheers as he slinks back into his rental car and drives away.

It’s not my proudest admission, but if your community became a national scapegoat every four years, then you would probably have cringeworthy daydreams about telling off reporters, too. For an embarrassingly long time, I based my opinion of Macomb on articles written by self-righteous liberals or faux-populist conservatives, both of whom made assumptions about the area that were objectively false but fit so well into the paradigm of “Middle America” that it would have been too inconvenient (or worse, nuanced) to disclose the truth. It wasn’t until I moved back to my hometown to work as a community organizer that I realized just how many of these accounts were cherrypicked and distorted by people who probably wouldn’t bat an eye if the entire Midwest slid off the face of the earth tomorrow. Pundits don’t care that the diverse, blue collar southern half of Macomb County voted decisively for Biden in 2020, or that the stereotypical Trump voter lives north of M-59, where the median household income is higher (sometimes much higher) than the state average. Those details only complicate the predominant narrative that the working class in the US is overwhelmingly white and conservative — a narrative that is cynically deployed by pundits and politicians in service of stomping out progressive ideas like a lit cigarette. After all, who can refute this random guy we interviewed at a Home Depot who thinks raising the minimum wage is a bad idea? Never mind the fact that he owns a chain of used car dealerships and drives a $45,000 truck — he’s working class because he smokes Newport menthols and wears flannel.

If there is anyone who is angrier about the media’s treatment of the working class than I am, it is probably Maximillian Alvarez, creator and host of the aptly-titled Working People, a podcast “by, for, and about the working class today.” (Disclosure: In These Times has a partnership with this podcast and syndicates its shows.)

I met Max at the University of Michigan when I was an undergrad and he was a PhD student. At the time, I was agitating against the University’s mistreatment of low-income students and my friend suggested we consult with him on strategy. The meeting went like this, more or less:

Us: “We want to yell at the administration.”

Him: “Sounds good, have fun.”

From that short encounter, a friendship was born. Since then, Max has invited me on his podcast three times, and even asked me to write a (tragically paywalled) article for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the myth of meritocracy — a real test of faith considering I was in my early 20s and my political analysis was still very much a work in progress.

All of this is my way of saying that I am grateful to him for believing in me when my only real credential was my anger.

It is Saturday afternoon and Max, who also serves as Editor-in-Chief at the Real News Network, is taking a much-needed break from interviewing hog farmers who are battling CAFOs in rural Wisconsin. Over the next hour, within the glitchy confines of Zoom, the two of us unravel the nuances of working class life and the responsibilities of those who depict it.

“Everyone has a unique story,” Max begins. “Everyone has really interesting life experiences and thoughts to share.”

Working People debuted in 2018 with all of the forceful idealism of a project that fully understood its own significance. The premise was simple: Each episode would focus on a different person, profession, and life story. “Working class” would be loosely defined, challenging listeners to put their prejudices aside and construct their own definition of the term, ideally one that includes themselves. Over time, these humanizing conversations would forge the kind of solidarity necessary for a mass movement.

With all of the show’s righteous ambition, Max admits that the first few episodes were a bit heavy-handed.

“My introductions were like 20 minutes long,” he jokes, “because I was so idealistic and I really wanted to communicate to people: ‘This project is important and I want to tell you why!’”

As the show went on, Max learned to step back and let the stories speak for themselves. Now, three years after its inaugural episode, Working People has evolved into a beautiful examination of humanity and the persistence of dignity in some of the cruelest and most demeaning corners of a late-capitalist world.

“I had to kill myself on overtime to get close to $1300 or $1400 [every two weeks],” recounts Terrill Haigler, a former sanitation worker featured in Season 4, Episode 19. “When I say ‘kill myself,’ I mean an extra 40-45 hours. That’s an extra five hours a day.”

“There’s so much stigma against fast food workers,” says Burgerville employee and union organizer, Drew Edmonds, in Episode 29 of Season 2. “Every time there’s a minimum wage campaign it’s all about ‘well those fast food workers don’t deserve a raise.’”

“The work that we do is inherently isolating,” says Vanessa Bain, a full-time gig worker interviewed in Episode 10 of Season 3. “There is no real centralized workplace, and that’s something that benefits these companies, that we don’t get to talk to each other very often or ever in person.”

At times, the show can feel a lot like listening to a coworker vent, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. When I bussed tables, the only time I felt even remotely human was on my cigarette break, when the cooks and servers would gather near the dumpster behind the restaurant and exchange stories about shitty customers and bad tips. It was the only way to stay sane, entertaining your coworkers with an uproarious retelling of an experience that was, at the time, deeply humiliating and degrading. Similarly, when Max’s guests describe some of the more demoralizing aspects of their jobs, you can sometimes hear the animation in their voices. Though it may seem counterintuitive to anyone who hasn’t worked a service job before, complaining about — and finding humor in — poor working conditions can be the ultimate exercise of agency (next to forming a union, of course) for workers who feel limited in every other facet of their professional lives. In that way, Working People is kind of like the smoky breakroom of the podcasting world.

While the guests alone distinguish Working People from other left-wing podcasts, which typically (and often appropriately) bring in academics, journalists, and professional activists to elaborate on their subject matter, the show’s other discerning feature is its willingness to delve deep into the life stories of its interviewees as a necessary prerequisite to understanding their professions and political views. At its core, Working People is a podcast that cares about workers and values what they have to say. Unfortunately, those qualities make it an anomaly in the contemporary media landscape.

“The capitalist media has a fundamentally impossible job,” Max explains, “which is to convince an entire population that the levels of inequality and injustice that are features of the system we live in are natural and inevitable.”

Impossible as their job may be, that doesn’t stop them from trying. Media depictions of working class people as uneducated, lazy, or even downright cruel, all feed into the narrative that those on the bottommost rung of the economic ladder deserve to be there. Obscured by the illusion of a predetermined social hierarchy, economic inequality can persist without question.

“The media [reduces] the complex lives and humanity of working people,” Max explains, “into these reductive terms that comfort the comfortable and allow people to continue believing that we exist where we are because we want it, or our individual choices have put us there, or we’re too stupid…to want what’s good for us.”

One of my college professors, Dean Hubbs, referred to the media elite as the “narrating class” and the term has always stuck with me. Journalists in the US are, by and large, predominantly white, and most come from economically privileged backgrounds — but in spite of this, we still trust them to tell us who the working class are and what they need. Unsurprisingly, the media often takes advantage of our misplaced faith by framing the needs of the wealthy as good for — even desired by —working people.

Take, for instance, this Politico article from 2019, which speculates about the fate of working class jobs under a single payer health care system.

“If the health care system were actually restructured to eliminate private insurance, the way Medicare for All’s advocates ultimately envision it,” the article reads, “a lot of people with steady, good-paying jobs right now might find themselves out of work.”

Quotes from a steel mill worker’s daughter, paired with striking photos of the Pittsburgh skyline, really hammer home the feeling of blue collar desperation. Against the backdrop of a swing state, the whole thing reeks of the kind of pseudo-folksy grift that allows people like J.D. Vance to dress up a ruling class agenda in coveralls and call it Appalachian wisdom. Questionable intent aside, at least the author bothered to actually interview working class people, unlike a Forbes article from earlier this year, titled ‘Raising The Minimum Wage Hurts The Most Disadvantaged.’ Check out this bullshit:

“To understand why minimum wage hurts the most disadvantaged, you must imagine the person who is having trouble getting hired at a job paying $7 per hour or higher. They may not have had a job ever or have had one only in the past year. Their communication skills may not be adequate or they may not be fluent in the language. They may not have finished basic schooling. They may not have learned to follow instructions, show up on time, or diligently complete tasks they don’t like. It is difficult for the privileged to envision someone without adequate job skills, let alone hire them… Alas, because we can’t imagine working for minimum wage, we think everyone can easily earn more than minimum wage.”

Look at that weaponization of privilege discourse! Bravo, sir!

The media’s ongoing exclusion of working class voices makes articles like the one above seem perfectly reasonable. After all, if you, like the average Forbes reader, have spent a negligible amount of time interacting with working class people beyond those who are being paid to serve you, then how do you even begin to refute these characterizations? While this sort of bad faith punditry, which uses the working class as a Trojan horse for ruling class ideology, is something Max hopes to challenge with Working People, sticking it to the ghouls at the Wall Street Journal is far from the only political function of the show.

When Max first started interviewing workers, he did so with the goal of supporting a strong working class movement that is both rooted in and driven by a sense of shared humanity. I know the podcast-to-revolution pipeline is probably more of an ideal than a reality at this point, but in the death spiral of late capitalism, any medium that humanizes an exploited underclass makes the job of an organizer profoundly easier. Speaking from my own experience, community organizing is all about relationships, and in the absence of free food, the most effective way to convince someone to attend a meeting, sign a petition, vote a certain way, or join a union is to forge a genuine connection with them. As obvious as this may sound, you can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t already see as human, and media depictions of working class people that serve to justify inequality and champion the economic priorities of the elite are supremely dehumanizing. It is hard to empathize with your fellow workers when they are constantly portrayed by an out-of-touch third party source as reactionary, lazy, uneducated, and violent — and without that baseline empathy, there can be no solidarity. By allowing workers to share their stories on their own terms, Working People is actually helping to create the conditions for collective action.

“If we’re going to build the sort of political movement we need to build,” Max says, “then we’re never going to get there until we start to reconnect with one another on that human level.”

Throughout our interview, Max makes it abundantly clear that he does not, under any circumstances, want to speak for the working class. However, with so few working class voices in the media, he is frequently asked to do just that. In the last few minutes of our conversation, Max makes the case that more people need to step up and interview workers — I mean really interview them, not just pull a quote or a soundbite — so that their representation can be as far-reaching and authentic as possible.

“You should feel the absences of all of the people who I couldn’t talk to and you should go fill those absences,” Max implores his listeners.

When working people are not given space to tell their own stories, someone with a larger platform (and more money and power) will always step in to fill their silence. Sometimes that person is a venture capitalist from Ohio who parrots AEI talking points about individual responsibility and moral decay; sometimes it is a political leader who resents the progressive faction of their own party; and sometimes it is a business mogul and TV personality who will say anything to get elected. Too often, the people who claim to speak on behalf of the working class have something to gain from supplanting all of its nuance with a narrative that corroborates their own political views. Though not all of us have the platform to elevate the stories of working people, we do have the ability to listen to workers, to be in relationship with them, and to challenge questionable interpretations of who they are and what they need. For those of us who are on the ground organizing, these undertakings are not optional; in fact, they are essential to building the kind of coalition needed to create a kinder, more just world. If Max’s thesis holds, then the more time we spend listening to people’s stories, the more invested we will become in our shared humanity, which is the cornerstone of any successful working class movement.

“We are going to need to build that solidarity with one another,” Max says, “and the way we do that is by retraining ourselves to see one another as human beings, and as human beings, recognize that this world is unlivable and that we deserve so much better.”

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Lauren Schandevel
Democrats Will Never Stop Triangulating Against Justice - Running against "defund the police" is both cowardly and wrong. Democratic leaders find that irresistible. https://inthesetimes.com/article/democrats-defund-the-police-black-lives-matter Tue, 03 Aug 2021 08:20:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/democrats-defund-the-police-black-lives-matter Let’s start with this: To “defund the police”—which means, more explicitly, “to take some amount of resources we currently give to armed police and reallocate those resources towards social services, drug treatment, or other intelligent programs that target the root problems of crime effectively”—is a good idea. No honest and reasonable person should disagree with the underlying premise of defunding the police, no matter how much they might gripe about the slogan itself. If the Democratic Party thinks that “defund the police” is a bad slogan, they should think of another way to describe these good and reasonable policy ideas.

Instead, they are just going to scream about how much they love cops.

Even as the political center of the Democratic Party has been pulled ever so slowly to the left in recent decades, the Clinton-era thirst for triangulation still burns bright in the souls of the party’s tottering old leaders. Although the main proposition of progressives is that the future can be better than the past, the urge of the Democrats to jump up and prove that they can be just as retrograde as Republicans is proving inescapable. Nothing defines the modern Democratic Party more than its consistent refusal to embrace its own beliefs, due to projected fears over what voters might think. The conventional wisdom of Democrats has long been to only whisper their deepest beliefs about racism, injustice, and the stupidity of much of American culture behind closed doors, while making nice with god and guns in public.

Never mind the fact that “defund the police” is a slogan voiced by activists, not politicians. And never mind the fact that it describes a set of policies that we absolutely should be pursuing. And never mind the fact that 20 million people just got done marching for Black Lives Matter, and that shrinking our bloated and militarized police forces would be one of the most meaningful ways to accomplish the long-term goals of that movement. None of that matters more than the belief held by Jim Clyburn and Nancy Pelosi that that particular slogan led to inconvenient Democratic election losses that must be explained away somehow.

The brilliant campaign strategy now being advanced by Pelosi is to declare that Republicans are the ones who actually voted to defund the police, because they voted against Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, money from which was used in many places to fund police departments. Akela Lacy reports that this message from Democrats is expected to be widespread in the coming midterm elections. One aide told her that when Republicans accused Democrats of wanting to defund police during the last elections “we didn’t have anything to say back. Now, you have something to say back.”

This is such a perfect encapsulation of the moral failure of the Democratic Party that you almost have to admire it. It reflects the same impulse that constantly makes Democratic strategists seek out Tough on Crime Prosecutors or Badass Fighter Pilot Vets to run for office. It is the same impulse that has given us classic Democratic positions of the recent past, like “Actually, we’re against gay marriage,” or “Actually, we do support the war in Iraq,” or “Actually, I do enjoy making my presidential campaign appearance riding in this tank.” It is the pathological fear of being called weak—a fear that, ironically, is a sure sign of weakness. The Democrats are acting like all the shame-faced kids at school who laugh along with the bully because they are scared of the bully turning on them. It never seems to occur to the party’s candidates that what they could “say back” to bad faith accusations about defunding the police is: “Let me tell you how this could be a good thing.”

One year ago, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic congressional leaders were kneeling while wearing kente cloths. Today, they are working to prove that was even more of a sham than we all might have imagined at the time. Police violence, mass incarceration, and the devastating, racist, and destructive War on Crime are all structural problems. Structural problems demand structural solutions. Defunding the police is a structural solution. Claiming to be against the structural problems without being willing to embrace structural solutions means that you want the credit for being on the right side of the issue without having to engage in the fight to make the issue better. That is what the Democrats are doing. Not only are they not defunding the police—they are coopting the Republican position that defunding the police is a bad idea to be ashamed of. They are being as useless as… well, as kneeling wearing kente cloths while bragging about increasing police funding.

Legitimate progressives—those who are willing to advocate for positions because they are just, not because they are politically expedient—have spent many decades gritting their teeth while Democrats wink and assure them that yes, they agree with the goal, but in order to get there we must have a long masquerade of pretending not to agree with the goal, because voters demand that we Be Tough. Invariably, the passage of time proves that the just position was where everyone should have been all along. History is littered with the disgraced corpses of politicians who took positions that they knew were unjust, but that they considered to be politically necessary. That is how all of the evil things happen—with the acquiescence of leaders who consider themselves to be realists.

Instead of not defunding the police, let’s try defunding the police. I bet that it will not provoke more police shootings and 20 million angry people in the streets, like last summer's protests. Maybe it’s more realistic than the Democrats think.

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Hamilton Nolan
Congress and Biden Allowed the Eviction Ban to Expire, So Cori Bush and AOC Are Raising Hell - Members of the Squad are participating in a sit-in outside of the Capitol demanding that the House reconvene in order to restore the moratorium to protect millions of Americans from being evicted. https://inthesetimes.com/article/congress-biden-eviction-moratorium-aoc-cori-bush-housing Mon, 02 Aug 2021 14:46:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/congress-biden-eviction-moratorium-aoc-cori-bush-housing A nationwide eviction moratorium officially expired Saturday after the Biden administration refused to extend it unilaterally and Congress failed to act in time, putting millions of people across the U.S. at risk of losing their homes in the near future as the highly virulent Delta strain tears through the country.

The CDC's temporary eviction ban lapsed as a growing group of lawmakers and activists rallied on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to demand that Democratic leaders immediately reconvene the House and pass an extension. Many lawmakers skipped town Friday after the House adjourned for its seven-week August recess without holding a vote on prolonging the moratorium, which—while flawed—significantly curbed the number eviction filings nationwide.

"We're now in an eviction emergency," said Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who has been camping out at the U.S. Capitol building since Friday to push for immediate action from Congress and the Biden White House. "Eleven million are now at risk of losing their homes at any moment. The House needs to reconvene and put an end to this crisis."

In a letter to President Joe Biden and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Saturday, Bush joined Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and others in calling on the White House to do everything in its power to "prevent the historic and deadly wave of evictions that will occur should the government fail to extend the eviction moratorium."

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must leverage every authority available to extend the eviction moratorium before it is too late," the Democratic lawmakers wrote. "In the meantime, we are continuing to work diligently to push for legislative action and ensure that states and localities in our districts are disbursing the billions in critical emergency rental assistance to renters and property owners that Congress passed most recently as part of the American Rescue Plan."

State and local governments have thus far distributed just $3 billion of the roughly $46 billion that Congress appropriated for the Emergency Rental Assistance initiative, a program designed to help keep at-risk tenants in their homes amid the ongoing public health emergency, which has dramatically worsened the country's preexisting housing crisis. Nationwide, total rent debt is now estimated to be around $20 billion.

Contrary to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) claim Friday that "we only learned about this yesterday," lawmakers had been aware of the looming eviction emergency since at least June 29, when the conservative-dominated Supreme Court signaled that it would likely toss out any attempt to keep the moratorium in place beyond July 31.

When the CDC extended the ban for the fourth time on June 24, the agency said that "this is intended to be the final extension of the moratorium."

In a statement on Thursday—just 72 hours before the moratorium's expiration—White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pointed to the June Supreme Court ruling as the reason the Biden administration would not act on its own to extend the ban. The next day, lawmakers scrambled to build support for legislation that would extend the moratorium, but the effort collapsed amid opposition from centrist Democrats and Republicans.

Late Friday, House Democrats attempted to pass an extension of the moratorium using a procedure known as unanimous consent, but Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) objected, tanking the bill. The House proceeded to adjourn for August recess without a roll-call vote.

Under pressure from progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups, the House Democratic leadership has not yet given any indication that it plans to reconvene the chamber.

"What a devastating failure to act in a moment of crisis," said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. "As the Delta variant surges and our understanding of its dangers grow, the White House punts to Congress in the final 48 hours and the House leaves for summer break."

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, who joined Bush and dozens of activists at the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, said that "it's just simply unacceptable" for members of Congress to go on vacation as the eviction moratorium lapses.

"We cannot be abandoning the up to 11 million Americans that are in need, particularly when emergency rental assistance—the $46 billion that we authorized—has not gotten out.”

Due to loopholes in the CDC's moratorium, landlords continued to file for eviction even with the temporary ban in place. Now that the moratorium has lapsed, experts and housing advocates fear that eviction cases currently in the pipeline will resume imminently, threatening millions with the loss of their homes.

"Tens of thousands [of pending evictions] across the state, easily, are just sitting there in abatement waiting until the CDC order expires," Mark Melton, an attorney with the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, told the Texas Tribune on Friday. "And the second [the moratorium] expires, the landlord or the court will call for another hearing, and they're all going to go through. If there's no CDC declaration, those evictions are just going to go through."

For weeks, activists have been warning that a wave of evictions amid growing coronavirus infections would be catastrophic. A recent study by a UCLA-led team of researchers found that the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths "increased dramatically after states lifted eviction moratoriums" last year. While some states still have eviction bans in place, those too are set to expire in the coming weeks.

According to an analysis by Eviction Lab last month, neighborhoods across the U.S. with the highest eviction filing rates typically have the lowest levels of vaccination against Covid-19.

"The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, and while vaccination access is improving, it's still limited in disadvantaged communities that are at greatest risk for eviction," Eviction Lab researchers wrote. "The CDC eviction moratorium is, for many tenants behind on rent, the last remaining protection from the threat of displacement."

Citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that "renters in Southern states are among the most vulnerable to the ban's expiration."

"Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia tenants are more likely to carry rent debt than the U.S. average," the Journal noted. "Eviction laws and procedures in some Southern states are also among the most landlord-friendly in the country, which means many tenants could be evicted quickly once the ban lifts. In Mississippi, tenants can lose their eviction case in court and be removed from their home on the same day. In Arkansas, landlords can pursue criminal charges for tenants who don't pay rent. And in western Tennessee, where a federal judge ruled that the CDC ban was unconstitutional, tenants are already getting evicted for nonpayment."

This story was first posted at Common Dreams.

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Jake Johnson
Dear Congress: Say No to Water Privatization in the Infrastructure Bill - Water costs have soared in recent years as federal funding for water infrastructure has shrunk. Privatization is the last thing we need. https://inthesetimes.com/article/open-letter-bipartisan-infrastructure-water-privatization Thu, 29 Jul 2021 15:10:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/open-letter-bipartisan-infrastructure-water-privatization Editor’s Note: The following open letter has been signed by 218 organizations. To view a PDF of the letter and a list of the organizations that signed it, click here.

Dear Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader McCarthy, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Sanders, and House Budget Committee Chairman Yarmuth:

We, the undersigned 218 organizations, oppose the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that promotes privatization, and we urge you to reject it and water privatization in all its forms and fight for a bold, uncompromising infrastructure package that provides real federal funding at the level our communities urgently need.

The outline of the latest bipartisan infrastructure framework would promote a slew of privatization activities. The proposed financing sources for new investment include public-private partnerships, private activity bonds and asset recycling.

That provision promotes a Wall Street takeover of essential services like public water. It is dangerous for the public and undermines public access to essential water services.

Water privatization is an incredibly expensive financing option. Privatization through public-private partnerships, private investment schemes or asset recycling is not a source of new funding, but an expensive and high-risk way to finance water projects. The typical water public-private partnership carries a cost of capital that can be five times the cost of the low interest bonds available to municipal water systems.

Water privatization will lead to rate hikes on households already struggling to afford their water bills. Because the private entity recovers its financing costs and profit through user bills, privatizing water and sewer systems lead to considerable rate hikes for households and local businesses. Already, nearly one in three U.S. households struggles to afford their water and sewer bills, and households nationally have accrued billions of dollars of water debt during the pandemic. They cannot afford the price of privatization.

The problem at hand is that local government utilities rely almost exclusively on water bills to cover the cost of infrastructure projects because of the loss of federal support for water infrastructure. Federal funding has fallen by 77% in real terms since its peak in 1977. Local governments cannot continue to raise their water rates to levels that are increasingly unaffordable for households. Our public water utilities have a funding problem, not a financing problem. Privatization would only exacerbate the main problem facing our public water utilities.

Water privatization is not a viable or just solution for rural, small or disadvantaged communities. Private companies focus on profit maximization and avoid areas where per-household costs are high, the customer base has less wealth and bill collection problems can abound. A private company will acquire such a system if the system is contiguous to its existing network and if it can redistribute the costs across its other service areas. Because water rates are regressive, this type of subsidization is inequitable and disproportionately burdens working- and middle class families across communities.

Water privatization can trap communities in expensive deals. Public-private partnerships that involve private financing are usually 30 to 40 years long, and they are extremely difficult to exit early. After taking office, the new municipal services director in Bayonne, N.J., posed as his first question: how do we get out of the city’s water concession contract? He was told the city would have to repay the $150 million concession fee that it no longer has. Since entering into a decades-long concession deal in 2012, Bayonne has experienced rate hikes of 50% despite promises of rate stabilization. According to the Hudson Reporter, a board of education trustee recently told the new city council, “You didn’t sign the contract, and neither did the citizens of Bayonne, but everyone is suffering because of it.” Similarly, Middletown, Penn., was unable to exit its water concession deal, and attempted to stop surcharges in court and lost.

Water privatization is not a solution for our nation’s water needs. Water privatization can increase costs, worsen service quality and allow infrastructure assets to deteriorate. There is ample evidence that maintenance backlogs, wasted water, sewage spills and worse service often follow privatization. In fact, poor performance is the primary reason that local governments reverse the decision to privatize and resume public operation of previously contracted services.

Communities need real federal dollars spent on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. The most comprehensive funding solution on the table is the WATER Act (H.R.1352, S.916). The WATER Act would provide $35 billion a year to fully fund our water infrastructure at the level that is needed according to EPA needs surveys.

We urge you to reject this proposed water privatization scam and fight for a bold package that provides the support our communities need. Do not compromise on water.

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Rural America In These Times
Work Doesn't Have to Destroy Your Soul - How worker cooperatives are creating direct democracy on the job. https://inthesetimes.com/article/worker-cooperatives-labor-pandemic-direct-democracy Thu, 29 Jul 2021 13:30:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/worker-cooperatives-labor-pandemic-direct-democracy From workers dying from lack of adequate safety measures and PPE to states viciously cutting off extended unemployment benefits to force people back to unsafe, poverty-wage work, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it horrifyingly clear just how little value the lives and wellbeing of working people have in an economic system where all that matters is the bottom line. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can organize our economy and our workplaces in a more humane way—and we have proof that it works. In this extended mini-cast, we talk with senior reporter Jaisal Noor about his multi-part investigative documentary series for The Real News Network, which examines how 8 worker co-operatives across 4 states have been able to stay in business during the pandemic while prioritizing worker safety and democratic decision making.

Additional links/info below...

Permanent links below...

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)

  • Jules Taylor, "Working People Theme Song"
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Maximillian Alvarez
Biden Has Abandoned His Covid Worker Safety Pledge - Biden's much-anticipated workplace safety rule excludes most workers—and some in the labor movement are not happy. https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-pandemic-worker-safety-meatpacking-industry-walmart Thu, 29 Jul 2021 12:58:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-pandemic-worker-safety-meatpacking-industry-walmart Until she got her first Pfizer shot on July 16, Cindy Cervantes toiled in the Seaboard Foods pork processing plant in Guymon, Oklahoma for most of the pandemic without a vaccine—working unprotected in an industry devastated by Covid-19 illnesses and deaths.

“In one day, at least 300 people were gone” from the plant, sick from Covid, Cervantes says. Still, “Seaboard wanted a certain number of hogs out. They kept pushing people, the chain was going even faster. People were getting injured, and we were losing even more people.” Six of her coworkers have died from Covid-19, and hundreds have gotten sick, she says.

Ravaged by the pandemic, the roughly 500,000 U.S. workers in meatpacking, meat processing and poultry are not getting much help from the industry or the government. In a sector described as “essential” during the pandemic, at least 50,000 have been infected and more than 250 have died, according to Investigate Midwest, a nonprofit news outlet. Yet amid this grim toll, the North American Meat Institute lobbied successfully to exclude meatpacking and poultry workers from new Covid-19 worker safety rules enacted this June.

Even as vaccine availability in the United States steadily expands, workers still face pandemic peril on the job, from breakthrough cases of Covid-19, as well as low vaccination rates in many areas due to a combination of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and serious access barriers to immigrants who fear deportation. Workers and advocates are sounding the alarm that President Biden has dropped the ball on pandemic-era worker protections, violating one of the first promises of his presidency. This warning has particular salience after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday that some people who are fully vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where there are severe outbreaks, due to the spread of the Delta variant.

On his second day in office, Biden signed an executive order promising to enact new emergency safety rules “if such standards are determined to be necessary” by March 15 to protect millions of “essential” workers like Cervantes. The goal was straightforward: to give workers enforceable protections on the job, such as mandating that companies provide physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE). But the deadline came and went, with no new rule. Then, on June 10, after heavy lobbying by many industry groups—including the American Hospital Association, the National Retail Federation, the North American Meat Institute and the National Grocers Association—Biden issued a narrow rule covering only health care workers.

This is despite the fact that other industries have been devastated by the pandemic. “Almost all my coworkers have gotten it,” Cervantes says of the virus, noting that many of them were out sick for months, and some returned to work with lingering Covid-19 symptoms. Yet, she says, “a lot of workers I work with have not gotten the vaccination” for a host of reasons. Some are “skeptical,” and “think it’s got a chip in it or that it’s not going to work.”

It’s not hard to get a vaccine at the plant, Cervantes says. But in an industry that relies heavily on immigrants, Latinx and often undocumented workers, there are many barriers to vaccination, researchers note. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Large shares of Hispanic adults—particularly those with lower incomes, the uninsured, and those who are potentially undocumented—express concerns that reflect access-related barriers to vaccination.” Oklahoma, home to the Seaboard plant where Cervantes works, is among the nation’s most dangerous Covid-19 states, with just 40% of the population fully vaccinated, and “high transmission rates,” according to the CDC.

In an email response to questions, Seaboard communications director David Eaheart said the company “proactively” notifies workers of any Covid-19 cases in the plant, and has taken numerous precautions based on CDC and state health guidance, including paid leave for infected workers, and plexiglass shields at “select line workstations.”

Eaheart acknowledged that in May 2020, testing at the plant identified 440 employees with “active cases of Covid-19,” the plant’s “highest week of reported active cases. All these employees self-isolated at home and were required to follow CDC guidance before being allowed to return to work.” During that week, he said, “overall production was scaled back in the processing plant and fewer animals were processed and products produced.” More than 1000 workers at the plant have tested positive, and six have died, Eaheart confirmed.

Since March 15, when Biden’s promised Covid-19 workplace safety protections were supposed to take effect, more than 15,000 working-age adults have died from the pandemic in the United States, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). “Every one of those individuals had a family that was also at risk of Covid,” said Jessica E. Martinez, co-executive director of National COSH, in a June 9 press release anticipating Biden’s rule. “Releasing an emergency standard three months late and just for health care workers is too little, too late.”

The original rule drafted by the Department of Labor did cover all workers, as Bloomberg Law first reported—but then the infectious disease standard met the buzz saw of politics and industry pressure, and the White House opted to cover health care workers only.

As the Department of Labor’s draft standard stated, “For the first time in its 50-year history, OSHA faces a new hazard so grave that it has killed more than half a million people in the United States in barely over a year, and sickened millions more. OSHA has determined that employee exposure to this new hazard, SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) presents a grave danger in every shared workplace in the United States.”

Citing rising vaccination rates—60% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, though just 49% of the population overall—Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said the new rules focusing on healthcare workers “provide increased protections for those whose health is at heightened risk from coronavirus.” Neither the White House nor the Department of Labor provided any explanation for why other workers in high-exposure jobs were excluded.

“That’s kind of ridiculous,” says Louisiana Walmart worker Peter Naughton. “They should cover retail workers as well. We come into contact with people who may have the virus without knowing it.”

In Louisiana, where new Covid-19 cases are double the national infection rate and vaccinations lag far behind, Naughton, 45, toils in fear every day at a Walmart in Baton Rouge. He got vaccinated in May, but in his job helping customers navigate self-checkout kiosks, Naughton says, “I come into contact with hundreds, possibly thousands, of people a week.” Naughton, who lives in Baton Rouge with his parents to make ends meet, says that despite the recent uptick in Covid-19 cases, and the spread of the extra-dangerous Delta variant, there are minimal safety precautions, and “Walmart is acting like the pandemic is over.”

While the vaccines vastly reduce risk of death or serious illness, infections and “breakthrough cases” are still infecting vaccinated people. And the CDC’s befuddling guidance making masks voluntary for those who are vaccinated, on the honor system, hasn’t helped. Furthermore, the CDC explains, “no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from Covid-19.”

For Naughton and millions of other “essential workers,” laboring in the pandemic has been a mix of fear, insult and injury. Even when Covid-19 was at its most deadly and virulent, basic safety measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning were “never enforced” at Walmart, says Naughton. “They never gave us any PPE, just glass cleaner, which doesn’t protect us. Customers could come in without masks and nothing would be said to them. I complained about it and the manager said, ‘Don’t worry about it, let the customers do what they want.’”

Several of Naughton’s coworkers got infected and ill from Covid-19, but “management never said a word to any of us,” he says. “Most of them I came into close contact with. That kind of scared me. … We all should have known about it.” Naughton says he filed a complaint in November 2020 requesting OSHA to inspect the Baton Rouge Walmart, but “I never heard back, nothing ever happened.”

To top it off, when Naughton received the vaccine in May, he was hit by a 102.4 degree fever—but he had to work anyway, because Walmart employees can “lose our job” after five absences for any reason. Nobody at Walmart took his temperature or inquired about his health, he says.

Through email, Tyler Thomason, Walmart’s senior manager of global communications, insisted to In These Times, “We encourage our associates to get vaccinated. We offer the vaccine at no cost to associates… We continue to request that associates and customers wear face coverings unless they are vaccinated. Any information on confirmed, positive COVID-19 cases would come from the local health authority.”

Unions Sue to Protect More Workers

Naughton isn’t the only person disappointed by Biden’s exclusion of most workers from this emergency pandemic protection. Unions have pushed for the protection since the pandemic began ravaging the United States in March 2020. First, they encountered staunch resistance from the Trump administration; now, while pledging expansive worker protections, the Biden administration has delayed and diminished them.

On June 10, as the Biden administration announced the narrow new rule leaving out millions of workers, advocates expressed disappointment and frustration.

Biden’s decision to cover only health care workers “represents a broken promise to the millions of American workers in grocery stores and meatpacking plants who have gotten sick and died on the frontlines of this pandemic,” stated United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) International Union International President Marc Perrone the day the new rule was announced.

That day, the AFL-CIO added, “we are deeply concerned that the [standard] will not cover workers in other industries, including those in meatpacking, grocery, transportation and corrections, who have suffered high rates of Covid-19 infections and death. Many of these are low-wage workers of color who have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 exposures and infections.”

On June 24, the AFL-CIO and UFCW filed a petition in federal court demanding that all workers be covered by the emergency standard, which, the petition says, currently “fails to protect employees outside the healthcare industry who face a similar grave danger from occupational exposure to Covid-19.”

Another champion of the emergency standard, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, also expressed frustration when Biden released the narrow new rule, calling the diminished standard “too little, too late for countless workers and families across the country,” including workers throughout the food industry and homeless shelters. Rep. Scott added: “I am disappointed by both the timing and the scope of this workplace safety standard.” The rule, Scott said, “is long past due, and it provides no meaningful protection to many workers who remain at high risk of serious illness from Covid-19.”

Biden’s decision to exclude meatpackers, grocery and farm workers, retail and warehouse laborers and others means especially high risks for workers of color, Rep. Scott noted. “With vaccination rates for Black and Brown people lagging far behind the overall population, the lack of a comprehensive workplace safety standard and the rapid reopening of the economy is a dangerous combination,” he said.

Much of this “essential” workforce of people of color, immigrants and low-income white people, toils in dangerous farm labor and food processing plants where Covid-19 has spread like wildfire while vaccination rates remain low. “Workers in this industry have a very low vaccination rate,” as low as 37% in some states, says Martin Rosas, president of UFCW Local 2 representing meatpacking and food processing workers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. “I don’t know who in their right mind would think we’ve passed over that bridge and think all workers are safe now.” Rosas adds, “The federal government has failed to protect meatpacking workers” by leaving them out of the final emergency standard. “I’m extremely disappointed in the Biden administration.”

Both the Department of Labor and the White House declined multiple interview requests, but a Department of Labor spokesperson emailed a statement insisting that the health-care-workers-only rule “closely follows the CDC’s guidance for health care workers and the science, which tells us that those who come into regular contact with people either suspected of having or being treated for Covid-19, are most at risk.”

The Department of Labor spokesperson stressed that the agency's existing (yet unenforceable) “guidance” and the “general duty clause” protect other workers adequately, particularly in “industries noted for prolonged close-contacts like meat processing, manufacturing, seafood processing, and grocery and high-volume retail.” But in its own draft standard, the Department of Labor stated the opposite: “existing standards, regulations, and the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause are wholly inadequate to address the Covid-19 hazard.” In its original draft, the agency insisted, “a Covid-19 ETS [emergency temporary standard] is necessary to address these inadequacies.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, National COSH’s co-executive director, says President Biden “is responsible” for the 15,000 workers who have died from Covid-19 since Biden’s March 15 deadline to enact the emergency standard. Biden, she notes, “promised to protect workers in his campaign and on his first day in office, but he neglected them. But workers’ safety needs aren’t over, and we’ll be continuing to demand accountability from the administration.”

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Christopher D. Cook
Congress Tried To Force Trump to End the Yemen War. Now They’ll Have To Do the Same With Biden. - Activists say it's not enough to trust Biden's promises to end U.S. support for the war: Congress must compel him. https://inthesetimes.com/article/congress-yemen-war-biden-trump-war-powers-resolution-jayapal Wed, 28 Jul 2021 13:31:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/congress-yemen-war-biden-trump-war-powers-resolution-jayapal “Yemen is in a catastrophic state,” says Kawthar Abdullah, an organizer with the Yemeni Alliance Committee. “I have family there. Every day when I call and talk to them, the reality on the ground is far worse than it is ever portrayed.”

Abdullah, who is based in New York, is part of a network of grassroots organizers across the country calling on Congress to force an end to U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war, using the same War Powers Resolution vetoed by former President Trump in 2019. These organizers are asking lawmakers to go head to head with the Biden administration, which announced in February it was halting U.S. support for “offensive operations” but, nearly six months later, has failed to fully extricate itself from the military intervention.

As ongoing Saudi-led airstrikes collide with a worsening Covid-19 crisis, organizers like Abdullah are rallying in the streets and marching to lawmakers’ offices, demanding they use their power to stop all U.S. participation in the violence, as well as the Saudi-led naval blockade that is choking off fuel supplies, spiking food costs, and contributing to power outages at hospitals. Some activists have even gone on hunger strike to demand material relief from what is widely considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“It's imperative that a War Powers Resolution is introduced and passed under a Biden administration,” says Abdullah. “So many lives are at stake here.”

Organizers are up against an administration that has not been forthcoming about what it’s doing on the ground. The Biden administration’s February announcement was met with much fanfare. But public details on what constituted “offensive operations,” and what exactly an end to the U.S. role would look like, were vague from the outset. The Biden administration has since avoided providing details about what American withdrawal looks like.

There are signs that the United States remains enmeshed in that war. In June, Elias Yousif of the Center for International Policy published a briefing which found that the United States has stopped providing some forms of assistance: mid-air refueling of aircraft, intelligence and surveillance used to identify bomb targets, and arms transfers for fixed-wing aircraft used to carry out bombings. But other forms of assistance continue.

“The U.S. continues to provide maintenance and sustainment assistance to the Royal Saudi Air Forces (RSAF),” notes Yousif, “a function that is essential to keeping Saudi aircraft flying.” Meanwhile, the United States has not put a stop to other arms transfers. “This could include munitions used by attack helicopters, artillery, and armored vehicles,” notes Yousif. The United States is also providing ships and training to the Royal Saudi Naval Forces, which is leading the blockade of Yemen, although the role of the United States in enforcing this blockade is unclear.

On July 16, a coordinated day of action saw protests in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. calling for a new aggressive effort to end the war. Activists hand-delivered letters to members of Congress who are in positions of power, or have historically led on efforts to end the war, among them Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

These activists say that, with Democrats in control of the House, Senate and White House, there is no reason this war should continue a moment longer. “If Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress wanted to end this war, they could do it today,” Paul Shannon, founder of the Raytheon Antiwar Campaign, said in a press statement.

Since Biden made the announcement in February, some members of Congress have spoken out. Later the same month, 41 members of Congress called for transparency on U.S. involvement in the war. In April, 76 members of Congress released a letter calling on the Biden administration to demand an end to the blockade. And in May, 16 members of Congress signed another letter, led by Sen. Warren, calling on the Biden administration to “use all tools to end Saudi Coalition's blockade of Yemen.”

But activists say they don’t want members of Congress to merely ask: They want them to legislate, like they did under President Trump. During Trump’s tenure, members of Congress led multiple efforts to invoke the 1973 War Powers Act—passed in the aftermath of the Vietnam war—to force an end to the U.S. role in the Yemen war. The Act says that Congress can compel a president to withdraw from a conflict if Congress has not formally declared or authorized the war (which the United States did not in Yemen’s case).

"U.S. involvement in this war was illegal when it began under the Obama administration, illegal when it continued through Trump's presidency, and illegal now during Biden's presidency,” Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni-American organizer and a board member of advocacy organization Just Foreign Policy, tells In These Times. Democrats should not rely on “Biden's promises to end this illegal and inhumane war," she argues. (Disclosure: Al-Adeimi is a contributor to In These Times.)

The leaders of the Trump-era War Powers Resolution—Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Ro Khanna—have so far declined to take similar action under Biden. But there are indicators the leadership could come from elsewhere.

On a July 27 call with the anti-war organization CODEPINK, Rep. ​​Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) mentioned a possible threat of a Yemen War Powers Resolution in the context of a previous Congressional Progressive Caucus fight to structure the rules at the beginning of the new Congress. “If the administration were not to do what we think is necessary to stop the blockade in Yemen, as an example, we would then be able to bring up a privileged War Powers Resolution for a vote,” said Jayapal, who is the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). The remarks followed a classified briefing earlier on July 27 attended by several members of the CPC and Sen. Warren. Among them was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who took to Twitter to speak out against the Saudi-led blockade.

Activists, some of whom are watching their family and loved ones back in Yemen suffer under harrowing conditions, want lawmakers to take action soon—and aggressively. This means mustering the political will to confront a Democratic administration. Abdullah argues that the suffering of Yemenis should not only be invoked when it’s politically expedient: “We can't just be tokenized depending on the political weather at the moment.”

Some are eyeing other legislative avenues, including an amendment to the Appropriations Act, introduced by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), that would prohibit U.S. support for the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen, and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, cutting off supplies to the Saudi-led coalition.

Hassan El-Tayyab, lead lobbyist on Middle East policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told In These Times that any measure to curb U.S. involvement in the Yemen War is a step forward. “Congress needs to step in and take legislative action. They have a number of tools they can use to cut off ongoing U.S. complicity, including in a must-pass NDAA, appropriations bill, and even a new War Powers Resolution,” he said. “They should consider all options when trying to end U.S. complicity.”

Numerous activists told In These Times that, of all the tools lawmakers could wield, a War Powers Resolution would be most impactful by far. “The blockade, which seems to be contingent on continued U.S. support, is the biggest driver of the calamity in Yemen—which was the broadest humanitarian crisis prior to Covid, and which has of course been exacerbated by the pandemic,” David Segal, executive director of the online advocacy organization Demand Progress, tells In These Times.

“War Powers Resolutions remain the most potent tool for forcing the administration to address this,” he adds, “because from a procedural vantage the process of securing a vote floor vote is easier than with other vehicles, and WPRs can't be filibustered in the Senate.”

Al-Adeimi agrees. “Measures in the NDAA are not sufficient to protect Yemenis from U.S. attacks. If these measures go through, they will likely only last for one year. It's also arguably unethical to advocate for measures in an inflated war budget that should be drastically cut, not supported. The WPR, on the other hand, can be invoked any time by any member of Congress, brought to debate without delays, and once it's made into federal law, cannot easily be revoked by subsequent executive powers by this administration and beyond. Given Biden's public statements about ending U.S. support for the war, he will also not likely veto it should it pass through Congress."

In the meantime, says Abdullah, “the blockade is affecting every other aspect of life. There is a fuel shortage, no fuel for hospitals, lack of access to water.”

“It is very, very important,” she adds, “for a War Powers Resolution to be introduced and passed under the Biden administration, under a Democratic administration.”

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Sarah Lazare
Grief Belongs in Social Movements. Can We Embrace It? - A Black activist reflects on intergenerational trauma, community, and coming to terms with death in movement building. https://inthesetimes.com/article/freedom-grief-healing-death-liberation-movements Wed, 28 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/freedom-grief-healing-death-liberation-movements The morning my mother died was cold and dark, and the snow fall outside was frenzied and piling high. I’d put my headphones on in the night to block out the loud hiss and moan of my mother’s oxygen machine. I was tired. Less than six months after founding the Youth Media Council, which would later become the organization MediaJustice, doctors told my sister and me that sickle cell anemia, a fatal genetic blood disorder, was finally and actively taking my mother’s life. For three years following the end-stage diagnosis I flew home from Oakland to Brooklyn for one week every month to relieve my sister of caregiving duties.

As I stood above my mother’s deathbed, her body curved like a crescent moon, my hands a sickled semi-circle around her, a feeling of abject failure gurgled in my throat. I couldn’t swallow it. I couldn’t spit it out.

My mom, a single mother and a leader in the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party, had passed to me all of my politics and seeded in me all the things that I am, good and bad. My mother stood for me when no one else did, and she died while I slept. On my watch. That guilt, the incongruence between working daily to heal the world but being unable to save my mother’s life, was powered by the illusion of my control over life and death—an entire worldview centered on my failure.

I had already helped seed a half dozen groups and even more ideas. I was one of the leaders diversifying and forging an emerging media justice sector. I was making the kind of difference I had always wanted to make. I could coordinate campaigns and build communities, I could navigate wins and losses with order, plans, brains. That’s what I thought. I could control this.

Instead of surrendering to grief ’s momentum, I backed away from it with everything I had. I continued to run away for the next five years. I ran into nicotine, into alcohol, into sex. I ran into drama and conflict. But more than anything, more than everything, I ran headfirst into my job. I worked all through the night, at bars and at conferences. Everywhere, all the time.

During those first five years after my mother’s death, I entered what poets and psychologists alike have dubbed the “dark night of the soul,” a stage in personal development when a person undergoes a difficult and significant transition, and the previous frameworks like identity, relationship, career, habit or a belief system that previously gave life meaning no longer do. Author and grief activist Francis Weller suggests that while this dark night can often look like depression, it is actually the deformation of personality that occurs when oppression forces individuals, communities and generations to carry grief as a solitary burden. He says “the psyche knows we are not capable of handling grief in isolation.” Whether the message is coming from the nation-state, your employer, or family and friends, when the message is “Get over it. Get back to work,” people frequently try to numb themselves to cope with the discomfort of loss and the feelings of extreme deprivation and isolation that can follow.

As is the way with major loss, my mother’s death hallowed me, knocked me to my knees and emptied me until there was nothing left but holy ground. It was in that tender and sacred state that I reconnected with Alana Devich, the queer Black femme from my college alma mater who would become my best friend, then my soulmate and then my wife. Alana’s quiet, stubborn quirk was a kind of genius to me. It made her the most insightful and wittiest person I had ever met. Her kindness was threaded through with a streak of melancholy, a freshly tendered gratitude that saw and delighted in everything, even me. Especially me. It may be the reason that when I put my cheek on her cheek and asked her to marry me, she didn’t hesitate. She said yes. Even when I asked her again and again. She said yes and I was ready. I was certain the world had already taken from me all it was going to take. Loss had ravaged me, but it had not won.

The year after our wedding was a blissful one. We traveled. Made plans to move from our junior one-bedroom to a larger place with room for our future. We talked about buying a house. So it was a heartwrenching shock when an oncologist walked into the office where we sat, arms around each other, and diagnosed Alana with an incurable end-stage gastroesophageal cancer that had already invaded her liver, lungs, esophagus, bones. Alana said she wanted to fight, and, oh, we did. As we worked our way through crisis after crisis, through 12 rounds of 56-hour chemotherapy infusions, weekly IV hydration, frequent emergency hospitalizations, surgery and rehab, I continued to work as executive director of Media Justice. Fundraising. Staff meetings. Human relations. Strategic campaigns. It almost broke me. My wife, of whom I will forever be in constant awe, fought an exhaustive two-year battle against a painful, disabling and debilitating cancer. Alana Devich Cyril, a woman who brought me closest to my truest self, also brought me face-to-face with sacred death. She died peacefully at the young age of 42 in my arms, at home.

I’d spent the five years after my mother’s death becoming a driven and overworked executive movement leader. I tried desperately to fill the hollow grief had carved into my life by seeking familial connections with co-workers, bonding over our shared history of trauma and loss. I joined the community that would become the somatic transformation group Generative Somatics and, over a decade, off and on, founder Staci Haines and others taught me practices that ultimately helped me integrate my traumatic loss. In those years, I led my organization to win national campaigns that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. I helped to build a new media justice and digital rights social justice sector. At times, I did so in ways that didn’t center the dignity in myself and others. I learned the hard-won lesson that grief demands its due, and it will take by force what is not freely given.

But this journey through what experts call “complicated grief,” in which the bereaved person experiences debilitating feelings of extreme loss that don’t improve or integrate over time, is what revealed to me this truth: that in order to give my heart to love and my hands to freedom movements, I had to first understand and attend to grief.

***

My mother’s death wasn’t my first major loss, it just had the greatest impact. By the time I was 30, I had an intimate relationship with death and dying. I had grown up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn in the 1980s, when Black bodies were felled like great trees, cut down by bullets, by intimate violence, by accidents and disease. I knew death, but I did not recognize the grief sitting, unmoving, in my skin. I grew heavy with it, angry, defensive.

To be Black, Indigenous or a member of any oppressed class in America is to know traumatic loss. As humans, we are hardwired for the fact that death is a natural part of life. While loss is deeply uncomfortable, we can learn to adapt to the natural phenomenon of loss. But when structural inequalities produce major and secondary losses, leading to widespread collective grief, death is out of balance with life. Individual and collective, repeated and generational, traumatic loss stacked on top of existing natural loss. We must tear down the systems, institutions and narratives that engineer death, fuel it and simultaneously distract us from it. This essential rebalancing act is the charge of 21stcentury social justice movements.

What becomes possible when movements are brought more healthfully to grief, and what can we do to support leaders, organizations and movements to get there?

Cheryl Espinosa-Jones, a grief counselor, author and the host of the Good Grief radio show at VoiceAmerica, offered me four steps for moving through grief, which I interpreted as an offering not only for individual activists and leaders but also for organizations and social movements as a whole.

Step 1: Feel the loss fully. Espinosa-Jones makes it plain: “Grief knows what it’s doing.” Grief is wise and ancient and knows what to do. When we interrupt grief’s processes, or ignore them, it can lead to apathy, addiction and unhealthy forms of anger. What loss hates most is to be ignored.

Yet, for centuries, systems of racial, economic and gender hierarchy have disenfranchised the grief of people of color, women, children, disabled people, queer and trans communities, and the poor. Dominant narratives about grief have turned gaslighting into an art form, convincing us that it is safer to deny grief than to feel it. At every turn, we are persuaded that grief is a wild, unacceptable emotion that must be handled, managed, overwritten and hidden. We are pressured by political and even physical force to prioritize productivity over personal well-being, to seek eternity over embodied presence, even as we live through the most traumatic losses.

For each Black life taken by police or interpersonal violence, how many spouses, siblings, children or parents had sufficient bereavement leave? What would happen if Black diasporic communities were to fully embody the losses of land, culture and freedom emerging from chattel slavery? Would agency or apathy be the result if immigrant communities could steep in the loss of land, language and family? Would Indigenous communities across the globe have more or fewer negative health outcomes if there were space to feel and then transform the grief of genocide? As we seek to breathe a new world into being, being an effective changemaker demands the right and power to feel our losses rather than escape them. We must give our grieving bodies what they need, individually and collectively.

Stop conflating health and productivity. Stop giving positive feedback when staff immediately return to work, appear less emotional or don’t ask for appropriate accommodations following a major loss. The systems of inequality we seek to transform reject what Espinosa-Jones calls “a relational culture.” Meaning: a culture of noticing and acknowledgment. Violently enforced inequality makes truth, reconciliation, reparations and accountability impossible. Becoming aware of grief gives us more choices about how to respond to grief and opens up possibilities to approach grief not only with compassion for self and others, but also with joy. Joy is not the opposite of grief. Grief is the opposite of indifference. Grief is an evolutionary indicator of love—the kind of great love that guides revolutionaries.

Step 2: Seek solace and comfort. As we expand a broad awareness of grief, we learn to approach our own grief and the grief of others without judgment. We practice the art of accompaniment without casting any part of ourselves out. Denying grief denies humanity. Yet, becoming aware of one’s own grief, reaching out for professional or peer support, and owning your grief journey can open your awareness until you see grief you didn’t even realize was there.

When people are facing traumatic grief, professional support is an important intervention. Many hospice programs host free bereavement groups and counseling open to the community regardless of health insurance. But, since grief itself is a natural process, seeking or building peer support is equally valid. In community, we can move together, take action that can help metabolize sorrow and transform grief, releasing impossible goals such as eliminating grief.

During times of massive collective loss, let us rebuke apathy by reimagining social justice organizations and formations as vehicles to metabolize and transform grief into agency. This requires resilient infrastructure and embodied methodology. Resilient infrastructure may include creating special funds and referral lists that support staff healing; offering extended bereavement leave policies; cross-training staff to increase organizational redundancy; and supporting staff boundaries. At the end of the day, the question is whether your leaders and staff have the skills to recognize grief and the resources to respond when it appears.

As societies or social movements, we must develop resilient adaptations that increase the elasticity of our responses to loss. Otherwise, our adaptations can morph into a traumatized response that relies heavily on traumatic bonds and decreases the strategic effectiveness and staying power of social movement organizations and leaders.

Religions prescribe practices to manage grief, and movements need to do so as well. When social movements have neither the infrastructure nor leadership to enable the mass metabolizing of grief, they fracture under the weight of it, just like people do. If we could expand the social infrastructure for grief beyond hospice and faith, consider the kind of democratic social movements our civil society would give birth to.

Step 3: Find inspiration. In the civil rights, Black Power and Third World Liberation movements of the 1960s, organizations and campaigns used song, poetry and other art forms to support the transformation of grief into a wise protagonism and active agency. Art in all its forms allows grief to reveal us, gives sorrow words, deepens our gratitude with grief’s weight and reminds each of us that only those who grieve profoundly can love deeply—and from loving one another, we grow our agape love for the world. That’s why I launched the Pandemic Joy Community, a volunteer weekly online gathering, where I and approximately 40 others meditate, pour libations, sing and testify. It is why my wife would step out into the full moon’s light, or pull tarot cards under the new moon. It is why my mother played Billie Holiday at full volume and read poems to my sister and me on the floor of Liberation Bookstore in Harlem.

Step 4: Take action from this place of grounded grief. In our conversation, Espinosa-Jones reminded me that an individual’s psychology can heal by finding the courses of action that match one’s felt need— but there are no skipped steps. Sitting with discomfort is always first, followed by connection and inspiration—but at the end of the day, we need action to metabolize grief and transform our material and cultural conditions. Metabolized grief can power deep and lasting change infused with profound joy, while unmetabolized grief becomes an almost insurmountable barrier to it.

***

“Interregnum” is the term given to the uncertain period between times of stable government when anything might happen: civil unrest, war between nations, the rise of militias and other warlords, power vacuums, succession wars. When these periods of instability end, the dust settles and the victors restabilize the empire; there is often a new geography, new borders, new lines of delineation. Between the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Italian writer and political theorist Antonio Gramsci was incarcerated in a fascist prison, writing about what he considered to be a new interregnum, a Europe that was tearing itself apart. He wrote of anticipated war between nations, civil unrest and repeated changes in the lines of geographic possession: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Or, in its more common phrasing, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: Now is the time of monsters.”

In the 21st century, our cities smell more and more like fire. As the old world dies and a new one struggles to be born, the morbid symptoms of which Gramsci spoke are showing their monstrous faces and spreading their deliberate pain like a bruise across the skin of the planet. White supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy are ideological and structural systems that both beget and reject grief, fuel destructive violence, and keep communities clinging to the old world, clinging to how things were instead of imagining what it could be, clinging to the ideology of control. Attempting to control life is often an attempt to escape death.

But death belongs; it’s not the burden. Death is a natural part of every life cycle. Our bodies will die. Our organizations will die. Our movements will die. Likewise, the specific conditions that oppress our families and communities will also come to an end. Endings are not to blame. Loss is simply an element of change. Change is the heartbeat of social movement. But, on either side of change is loss. Reimagining the world requires that we release the parts of the system and ways of being that are ready to die, and mourn the destructive losses that we could not control, despite our best efforts.

Something is dying, and we are desperate for something new to be born. We can feel it, quivering with hope at the edge of a century. It is a firecracker dancing across a night sky. A languid score of Black music moving effortlessly in the street. The fires call to us like beacons across state lines, a collective grievance demarcating what was from what will be. Here. Now. Grounded grief is a vaccine against the morbid conditions bred by white supremacy, a patriarchy that has distorted our families and relationships, a concentration of wealth that has disconnected us from nature and directed everything brilliant and beautiful to profit. Only through the compassion and loneliness and love inherent in grief can we forge a world out of the fire that will not replicate ancient hierarchies.

Along my own journey, what surprised me most was the discovery that grief is not an enemy to be avoided. In fact, resisting grief led to my suffering, while becoming intimate with grief led me to the lesson that grief and joy are inextricably linked. Though generations of traumatic loss can become conflated with deformed expectations, standards and culture, grief in all its forms has the potential to bring us closer to the truth of the world, to make us more tender and more filled with delight. It is from this new kind of gratitude, this pandemic joy, that we can rise together in action, in democratic decision-making, in strategic vision. This is one part of liberation.

As we strip away the chains of nation-state to become true patriots to the nation that has not yet been born—the one beyond national borders and prison bars, the one forged in the fire of a deep, abiding love with an economy steeped in dignity and rights—we can come to know a richly resilient grief rather than a desperate, starving one.

When we bring our fights to the watering hole of grief, our political systems, natural environment, economic frameworks, civil society and culture all become living, breathing memorials to what we have lost. What we have lost becomes found, witnessed, honored. In this way, all social justice and human rights work is a collective act of gloried mourning.

To have a movement that breathes, you must build a movement with the capacity to grieve.

Excerpted from Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation by adrienne maree brown (AK Press, 2021).

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Malkia Devich-Cyril
Biden's Climate Pledges Are Incompatible with His Belligerence Toward China - Bipartisan saber rattling and spiraling Pentagon budgets threaten to undermine global climate action just when we need it most. https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-china-belligerence-climate-change-pentagon Tue, 27 Jul 2021 13:06:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-china-belligerence-climate-change-pentagon The Biden administration came into office promising a return to both climate action and diplomacy after years of confrontation and denialism under Trump. But when it comes to China, unfortunately, the administration has endangered both diplomacy and climate action by presiding over a reflexive bipartisan belligerence.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has embraced a new military ramp-up aimed at countering China’s relatively modest military capabilities, backed hawkish legislation designed to hobble China and maintain U.S. global primacy, and wrapped otherwise independently popular domestic policies in the language of zero-sum competition with China.

This confrontational posture doesn’t just raise the risk of conflict — it also threatens to undermine global climate action just when we need it most.

Recently, my organization joined dozens of environmental and other advocacy organizations that sent a letter to President Biden and members of Congress urging an end to this antagonism toward China. Instead, we urge policy makers to prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy and cooperation for the sake of climate action.

The statement argues that the increasingly hostile, anti-China rhetoric and policy proposals from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle “risks undermining much-needed climate cooperation” to address “the existential threat that is the climate crisis.

After Trump’s tumultuous tenure, diplomatic relations have continued to deteriorate under the Biden administration. Predictably, Beijing has responded to Washington’s posturing with economic sanctions and military build-up of its own.

While the administration has signaled that it can shield climate diplomacy from the more confrontational facets of the bilateral relationship, escalating tensions between the two countries suggest otherwise. A visit by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry this April produced a joint pledge by the two governments to reduce emissions, but no concrete steps to work together. “Since then,” the New York Times reports, “cooperation on any issue has been scarce. Instead, there has been an almost daily exchange of recriminations.”

In July, China’s vice foreign minister complained that the United States was “demonizing” China as an “imagined enemy,” blaming Washington’s “whole-of-government and whole-of-society campaign” to “bring China down” for the diplomatic stalemate.

The flagrant anti-China rhetoric coming from Washington also feeds directly into the dangerous trend of growing anti-Asian racism and violence in the United States. And it’s being used to justify throwing more money at the Pentagon.Anti-Asian hate crimes are increasing right alongside the U.S. military budget.

That military spending is itself an enormous contributor to climate change. While the Pentagon’s emissions already exceed those of many industrialized nations, President Biden’s military budget proposal hikes military spending beyond $750 billion a year. And the Senate Armed Services committee recently approved an additional $25 billion beyond that.

Supporters of a more confrontational U.S. China policy often point to China’s human rights record as an argument against engagement. What they don’t explain is how aggression is supposed to help.

It’s true that China’s actions in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and elsewhere have included dire human rights abuses. But military competition and economic confrontation are at best irrelevant and at worst counterproductive to the cause of human rights. U.S. belligerence toward China has only inflamed Chinese domestic nationalism and led the Chinese government to double down on current policies. Military build-ups can lead to U.S. abuses as well—as we’ve seen from Afghanistan to Iraq to Guantanamo Bay prison—which China often uses to justify its own.

In short, diplomacy is our best hope for both climate action and human rights.

Instead of igniting a new Cold War, we need to work together to implement just solutions to the climate crisis. That necessarily begins with the United States doing its fair share, including making urgent emissions reductions at home and scaling up international climate finance for developing countries. Right now, the administration is calling for less funding to the UN’s Green Climate Fund in a year than would go to the Pentagon every day.

We also need to invest in strong international partnerships rooted in cooperation, resource sharing and solidarity. And we need to develop global frameworks for green investments and industrial policy.

While the United States far outpaces China as the biggest carbon polluter in history, today the two countries account for nearly 40 percent of global emissions. Both countries would bring complementary strengths to a global clean energy transition, and there is no solution to the climate crisis that excludes one of us.

For global crises, frameworks of competition only reinforce mutual insecurity. The United States and China each have stated commitments to cooperate with each other and other countries to tackle the climate crisis. Whatever other challenges there are in that relationship, we need to build on that foundation—not demolish it by starting a new Cold War.

This article was produced in partnership with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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Lorah Steichen
Why Cubans Protested on July 11 - Is this the beginning of the end of fear in Cuba? https://inthesetimes.com/article/cuban-revolution-protest-july-united-states Tue, 27 Jul 2021 10:19:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/cuban-revolution-protest-july-united-states The street demonstrations that broke out all over Cuba on July 11 are an unprecedented event in the more than 60 years since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. But why now? This essay explores the historic, economic and political factors that help to clarify the causes of Cuba’s July 11, considers the role of the United States, and briefly reflects on Cuba’s future.

On Sunday, July 11, Cuba erupted in street protests. Unlike the major street protest that took place in 1994 and was limited to the Malecón, the long multi-lane Havana road facing the Gulf of Mexico, the July 11 outbreak of protest was national in scope. There were protests in many towns and cities, including Santiago de Cuba in the east, Trinidad in the center of the island, as well as Havana in the west. The growing access to social media in the island played an important role in the rapid spread of the protests; no wonder the government immediately suspended access to certain social media sites and brought all telephone calls from abroad to a halt.

The street presence and participation of Black women and men was notable everywhere. This should not be surprising since Black Cubans are far less likely to receive hard currency remittances from abroad even though over 50% of the population receive some degree of financial support through that channel. These remittances have become the key to survival in Cuba, particularly in light of the ever-diminishing number of goods available in the peso-denominated subsidized ration book. Cuban Blacks have also been the victims of institutional racism in the growing tourist industry where “front line” visible jobs are mostly reserved for conventionally attractive white and light skinned women and men.

The demonstrators did not endorse or support any political program or ideology, aside from the general demand for political freedom. The official Cuban press claims that the demonstrations were organized from abroad by right-wing Cubans. But none of the demands associated with the Cuban right-wing were echoed by the demonstrators, like the support for Trump often heard in South Florida and among some dissident circles in Cuba. And no one called for “humanitarian intervention” espoused by Plattistas (Platt Amendment, approved by Congress in 1901and abolished in 1934, gave the United States the right to militarily intervene in Cuba), such as biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, himself a victim of government repression for his independent ecological activism. The demonstrators did speak about the scarcity of food, medicine and essential consumer items, repudiated President Díaz-Canel as singao—a phrase that in Cuba translates as “fucked” but means a wicked, evil person, and chanted patria y vida (fatherland and life). “Patria y Vida” is the title of a very popular and highly polished rap song by a group of Cuban Black rappers (available on YouTube.) I have seen and heard the song more than a dozen times to enjoy it as well as to search for its explicit and implied meanings including in its silences and ambiguities.

“Patria y Vida” counterposes itself to the old Cuban government slogan of “Patria o Muerte” (“Fatherland or Death”). While that slogan may have made sense in the 1960s when Cuba was faced with actual invasions, it borders on the obscene when voiced by second generation bureaucrats. It is certainly high time that the regime’s macho cult of violence and death be challenged, and this song does it very well.

But what does it mean to implicitly repudiate the year 1959, the first year of the successful revolution, as the song does? There was no Soviet style system in Cuba at the time and the year 1959 is not equivalent to the Castro brothers. Many people of a wide variety of political beliefs fought and died to bring about the revolution that overthrew the Batista dictatorship. The song does express many important democratic sentiments against the present Cuban dictatorship, but it is unfortunately silent about the desirable alternative, which leaves room for the worst right-wing, pro-Trump elements in South Florida to rally behind it as if it was theirs.

True to form, President Díaz-Canel called on the “revolutionaries” to be ready for combat and go out and reclaim the streets away from the demonstrators. In fact, it was the uniformed police, Seguridad del Estado (the secret police), and Boinas Negras (black berets, the special forces) that responded with tear gas, beatings and hundreds of arrests, including several leftist critics of the government. According to a July 21 Reuters report, the authorities had confirmed that they had started the trials of the demonstrators accused of a variety of charges, but denied it according to another press report on July 25. These are summary trials without the benefit of defense counsel, a format generally used for minor violations in Cuba but which in this case involves the possibility of years in prison for those found guilty.

Most of the demonstrations were angry but usually peaceful and only in a few instances did the demonstrators behave violently, as in the case of some looting and a police car that was overturned. This was in clear contrast with the violence frequently displayed by the forces of order. It is worth noting that in calling his followers to take to the streets to combat the demonstrators, Díaz-Canel invoked the more than 60-year-old notion that “the streets belong to the revolutionaries.” Just as the government has always proclaimed that “the universities belong to the revolutionaries” in order to expel students and professors that don’t toe the government’s line. One example is René Fidel González García, a law professor expelled from the University of Oriente. He is a strong critic of government policies, who, far from giving up on his revolutionary ideals, has reaffirmed them on numerous occasions.

But Why Now?

Cuba is in the middle of the most serious economic crisis since the 1990s, when, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cubans suffered innumerable and lengthy blackouts due to the severe shortage of oil, along with endemic malnutrition with its accompanying health problems.

The present economic crisis is due to the pandemic-related decline of tourism, combined with the government’s long term capital disinvestment and inability to maintain production, even at the lower levels of the last five years. Cuba’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) fell by 11% in 2020 and only rose by 0.5% in 2019, the year before the pandemic broke out. The annual sugar crop that ended this spring did not even reach 1 million tons, which is below the 1.4 million average of recent years and very far below the 8 million tons in 1989. The recent government attempt to unify the various currencies circulating in Cuba—primarily the CUC, a proxy for the dollar, and the peso—has backfired resulting in serious inflation that was predicted among others by the prominent Cuban economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago. While the CUC is indeed disappearing, the Cuban economy has been virtually dollarized with the constant decline of the value of the peso. While the official exchange rate is 24 pesos to the dollar, the prevailing black market rate is 60 pesos to the dollar, and it is going to get worse due to the lack of tourist dollars. This turn to an ever more expensive dollar, may be somewhat restrained in light of the government’s recent shift to the euro as its preferred hard currency.

Worst of all, is the generalized shortage of food, even for those who have divisas, the generic term for hard currencies. The agricultural reforms of the last years aimed at increasing domestic production have not worked because they are inadequate and insufficient, making it impossible for the private farmers and for the usufructuarios (farmers who lease land from the government for 20 year terms renewable for another 20 years) to feed the country. Thus, for example, the government arbitrarily gives bank credits to the farmers for some things but not for others, like for clearing the marabú, an invasive weed that is costly to remove, but an essential task if crops are to grow. Acopio, the state agency in charge of collecting the substantial proportion of the crop that farmers have to sell to the state at prices fixed by the government is notoriously inefficient and wasteful, because the Acopio trucks do not arrive in time to collect their share, or because of the systemic indifference and carelessness that pervade the processes of shipping and storage. This creates huge spoilage and waste that have reduced the quality and quantity of goods available to consumers. It is for reasons such as these that Cuba imports 70% of the food it consumes from various countries including the United States (an exemption to the blockade was carved out in 2001 for the unlimited export of food and medicines to Cuba but with the serious limitation that Cuba has to pay in cash before the goods are shipped to the island.)

The Cuban economist Pedro Monreal has called attention to the overwhelming millions of pesos that the government has dedicated to the construction of tourist hotels (mostly in joint ventures with foreign capital) that even before the pandemic were filled to well below their capacity, while agriculture is starved of government investments. This unilateral choice of priorities by the one-party state is an example of what results from profoundly undemocratic practices. This is not a “flaw” of the Cuban system any more than the relentless pursuit of profit is a “flaw” of American capitalism. Both bureaucracy and the absence of democracy in Cuba and the relentless pursuit of profit in the United States are not defects of but constitutive elements of both systems.

Similarly, oil has become increasingly scarce as Venezuelan oil shipments in exchange for Cuban medical services have declined. There is no doubt that Trump’s strengthening of the criminal blockade, which went beyond merely reversing Obama’s liberalization during his second period in the White House, has also gravely hurt the island, among other reasons because it has made it more difficult for the Cuban government to use banks abroad, whether American or not, to finance its operations. This is because the U.S. government will punish enterprises who do business with Cuba by blocking them from doing business with the United States. Until the events of July 11,the Biden administration had left almost all of Trump’s sanctions untouched. Since then, it has promised to allow for larger remittances and to provide staff for the American consulate in Havana.

While the criminal blockade has been very real and seriously damaging, it has been relatively less important in creating economic havoc than what lies at the very heart of the Cuban economic system: the bureaucratic, inefficient and irrational control and management of the economy by the Cuban government. It is the Cuban government and its “left” allies in the Global North, not the Cuban people, who continue, as they have for decades, to blame only the blockade.

At the same time, the working class in the urban and rural areas have neither economic incentives nor political incentives in the form of democratic control of their workplaces and society to invest themselves in their work, thus reducing the quantity and quality of production.

Health Situation in Cuba

After the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in the early spring of 2020, Cuba did relatively well during the first year of the pandemic in comparison with other countries in the region. But in the last few months the situation in Cuba, for what are still unclear reasons except for the entry of the Delta variant in the island, made a sharp turn for the worse, and in doing so seriously aggravated the economic and political problems of the country. Thus, as Jessica Domínguez Delgado noted in the Cuban blog El Toque (July 13), until April 12, a little more than a year after the beginning of the pandemic, 467 persons had died among the 87,385 cases that had been diagnosticated as having Covid-19. But only three months later, on July 12, the number of the deceased had reached 1,579 with 224, 914 diagnosed cases (2.5 times as many as in the much longer previous period).

The province of Matanzas and its capital city of the same name located 100 kilometers east of Havana became the epicenter of the pandemic’s sudden expansion in Cuba. According to the provincial governor, Matanzas province was 3,000 beds short of the number of patients that needed them. On July 6, a personal friend who lives in the city of Matanzas wrote to me about the dire health situation in the city with a lack of doctors, tests, and oxygen in the midst of collapsing hospitals. My friend wrote that the national government had shown itself incapable of controlling the situation until that very day when it finally formulated a plan of action for the city. The government did finally take a number of measures including sending a substantial number of additional medical personnel, although it is too early to tell at the time of this writing with what results.

Cuban scientists and research institutions deserve a lot of credit for the development of several anti-Covid vaccines. However, the government was responsible for the excessive and unnecessary delay in immunizing people on the island, made worse by its decision to neither procure donations of vaccines from abroad nor join the 190-nation strong COVAX (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) sponsored by several international organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO), an organization with which the Cuban government has good relations. Currently only 16% of the population has been fully vaccinated and 30% has received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The medical crisis in the province and capital city of Matanzas fits into a more general pattern of medical scarcity and abandonment as the Cuban government has accelerated its export of medical personnel abroad to strengthen what has been for some time its number one export. This is why the valuable family doctor program introduced in the 1980s has seriously deteriorated. While the Cuban government uses a sliding scale (including some pro bono work) in what it charges its foreign government clients, Cuban doctors get an average of 10-25% of what the foreign clients pay the Cuban government. Needless to add, Cuban medical personnel cannot organize independent unions to bargain with the government about the terms of their employment. Nevertheless, going abroad is a desired assignment for most Cuban doctors because they earn a significant amount of hard currency and can purchase foreign goods. However, if they fail to return to Cuba after their assignments are over, they are administratively (i.e., not judicially) punished with a forced exile of 8 years duration.

The Political Context

Earlier this year, the leadership old guard, who fought the Batista regime and are in their late eighties and early nineties, retired from their government positions to give way to the new leadership of Miguel Díaz-Canel (born in 1960) as president and Manuel Marrero Cruz (born in 1963) as prime minister. This new leadership is continuing Raúl Castro’s policy of economic and social liberalization without democratization. For example, in 2013 the government liberalized the regulations that controlled the movement of people to make it easier for most Cubans to travel abroad. However, at the same time, the government made it virtually impossible for many dissidents to leave the country, by for example delaying their departure so they could not make it on time to conferences held abroad, and by creating a list of some 200 “regulados” (people subject to regulatory rules) that are not allowed to leave the country at all. It is important to point out that as in the case of other measures adopted by the Cuban government mentioned earlier, these actions continue the policies of Fidel and Raúl Castro, in which political and administrative decisions are made outside of the regime’s own judicial system. The same applies to the hundreds of relatively brief detentions that the government of Raúl Castro carried out every year, especially to try to impede public demonstrations not controlled by the government (a police method that only works for previously planned political protests, unlike the ones that took place on July 11).

The One-Party State

The one-party state continues to function as under Fidel and Raúl Castro’s rule. In reality, however, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC, its Spanish acronym) is not really a party—that would imply the existence of other parties. Neither is the PCC primarily an electoral party although it does firmly control from the top the periodic so-called elections that always result in the unanimous approval of the political course followed by the authorities.

Sometimes people disillusioned with the existing corrupt parties in Latin America and even in the United States itself, react with indifference if not approval to the Cuban one-party state because they perceive elections as reinforcing corrupt systems. Thus such people think that is better to have one honest political party that works than a corrupt multi-party system that doesn’t work. The problem with this type of thinking is that one-party bureaucratic systems do not work well at all, except perhaps to thoroughly repress any opposition. Moreover, corruption sooner or later works its way into the single party system as history has repeatedly shown. In the case of Cuba, Fidel Castro himself warned in a famous speech on November 17, 2005, that the revolution was in greater danger to perish because of endemic corruption than because of the actions of counterrevolutionaries.

The organizational monopoly of the PCC—explicitly sanctioned by the Cuban constitution—affects far more than elections. It extends its power in a highly authoritarian manner to control Cuban society through the so-called mass organizations that function as transmission belts for the decisions taken by the PCC’s Political Bureau. For example, the CTC, the official trade union, is the transmission belt that allows the Cuban state to maintain its monopoly of the organization of Cuban workers. Beyond enforcing the prohibition of strikes, the CTC is not an organization for the defense of working class interests as determined by the workers themselves. Rather, it was established to advance what the ruling PCC leadership determines are the workers’ best interests.

The same control mechanisms apply to other “mass organizations” such as the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and to other institutions such as editorial houses, universities and the rest of the educational system. The mass media (radio, television and newspapers) continue to be under the control of the government, guided in their coverage by the “orientations” of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the PCC. There are however, two important exceptions to the state’s control of media organs: one, is the internal publications of the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the Cuban Catholic hierarchy is extremely cautious, and the circulation of its publications is in any case limited to its parishes and other Catholic institutions. A far more important exception is the Internet, which the government has yet been unable to place under its absolute control and remains as the principal vehicle for critical and dissident voices. It was precisely this less than full control of the Internet that made the nationwide politically explosive outbreaks of July 11 possible.

Where is Cuba Going?

Without the benefit of Fidel Castro’s presence and the degree of legitimacy retained by the historic leadership, Díaz-Canel and the other new government leaders were politically hit hard by the events of July 11, even though they received the shameful support of most of the broad international Left. The fact that people no longer seem to be afraid may be the single largest threat for the government emerging from the events on July 11. In spite of that blow, the new leadership is on course to continue Raúl Castro’s orientation to develop a Cuban version of the Sino-Vietnamese model, which combine a high degree of political authoritarianism with concessions to private and especially foreign capital.

At the same time, the Cuban government leaders will continue to follow inconsistent and even contradictory economic reform policies for fear of losing control to Cuban private capital. The government recently authorized the creation of private PYMES (small and medium private enterprises), but it would not be at all surprising if many of the newly created PYMES end up in the hands of important state functionaries turned private capitalists. There is an important government stratum composed of business managers and technicians with ample experience in such sectors as tourism, particularly in the military. The most important among them is the 61-year-old Gen. Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, a former son-in-law of Raúl Castro, who is the director of GAESA, the huge military business conglomerate, which includes Gaviota, the principal tourist enterprise in the island. It is significant that he recently became a member of the Political Bureau of the PCC.

Perhaps this younger generation of business military and civilian bureaucrats may try to overcome the rentier mentality that 30 years of ample Soviet assistance created among the Cuban leadership as witnessed the failure to modernize and diversify the sugar industry (as Brazil did) during those relatively prosperous years that ended in 1990. To be sure, the U.S. economic blockade contributed to the rentier mentality by encouraging a day-to-day economic survival attitude rather than of increasing the productivity of the Cuban economy to allow for a more prosperous future.

Finally, what about the United States? Biden is unlikely to do much in his first term to change the United States’ imperialist policies towards Cuba that were significantly aggravated by Trump. Whether a possible second Democratic administration in Washington beginning in 2025 will do anything different remains an open question.

There is, however, a paradox underlying the U.S. government’s Cuba policy. While U.S. policy is not at present primarily driven by ruling class interests but, rather, by electoral considerations, particularly in the highly contested state of Florida, it is not for that reason necessarily less harsh or, what is more alarming, less durable. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, probably the most politically active business institution in the United States has advocated the resumption of normal business relations with Cuba for many years. Thomas J. Donohue, its long-time director who retired earlier this year, visited Cuba in numerous occasions and met with government leaders there. Big agribusiness concerns are also interested in doing business with Cuba as are agricultural and other business interests in the South, Southwest and Mountain States represented by both Republican and Democratic politicians. However, it is doubtful that they are inclined to expend a lot of political capital in achieving that goal.

This places a heavy extra burden on the U.S. Left to overcome the deadlock, which clearly favors the indefinite continuation of the blockade, through a new type of campaign that both zeroes in on the grave aggression and injustice committed against the Cuban people without at the same time becoming apologists for the political leadership of the Cuban state.

Be that as it may, people on the Left in the United States have two key tasks. First, they should firmly oppose the criminal economic blockade of Cuba. Second, they should support the democratic rights of the Cuban people rather than an ossified police state, in the same way that they have supported the struggle for human rights, democracy, and radical social and economic change in Colombia and Chile in Latin America as well as Myanmar and Hong Kong in Asia.

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Samuel Farber
We Need a Big National Strike Fund - More successful strikes help the entire labor movement. We should pay for them together. https://inthesetimes.com/article/national-strike-fund-frito-lay-miners-nurses-labor-unions Tue, 27 Jul 2021 09:06:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/national-strike-fund-frito-lay-miners-nurses-labor-unions On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week.

It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike—namely, that low-wage workers can’t afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it’s time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem.

The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole—strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide.

Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.)

The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable. Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement. And, when strikes are very hard, their biggest vulnerability is the simple reality that workers on the picket line are not getting paid—the brutal economic calculus that ultimately defines how long and hard people can fight before they need to settle.

Individual unions do have strike funds, but these are meager—often, union members can expect to get a few hundred bucks from a strike fund in the time they might have gotten a few thousand from work. Strike funds will always pay less than wages. (A little math can help demonstrate why: In Alabama, for example, 1,100 miners have been on strike for four months. If the United Mine Workers paid each of them even a thousand dollars a week, they would have already spent more than $50 million. To guarantee that rate of compensation for every strike would rapidly bankrupt most unions, and would create an incentive for unions to push hard against big strikes by members.) But the strength of the labor movement is about thinking collectively in the largest possible sense. If we want to encourage more big, high profile strikes that can carry on long enough to secure major gains, we have to have a big, national strike fund.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not holding my breath for the creation of a centralized strike fund big enough to cover lost wages for anyone who goes on strike. The entities big enough to make those sorts of payouts are called “businesses.” What we can do is to build one central strike fund for the entire labor movement, that can jump in and boost the strike pay for workers engaged in strikes of major strategic value—and to issue hardship grants to striking workers with specific needs—so that those strikes can carry on long enough to be worthwhile. If the Frito-Lay workers in Kansas had had a little more money to carry them through, perhaps they could have won something better than, basically, the working conditions of a factory worker a century ago.

Every union could kick into a central strike fund that has the authority to bolster the benefits of workers engaged in strikes that have great importance for all of us. This is collective power in action. Once a fund like this is established, it can fundraise, to bring in private donations; it could also seek out government funds, the same way that unions should be doing for their new organizing efforts right now, while they have friends in Washington. (How to create new funding streams for organized labor is an exciting topic for another day.) The point is that a much larger pool of money can be put together collectively by the entire universe of unions and their political allies than can be compiled by any individual union. And that big pool of money can serve as a potent sort of insurance for workers who are considering a tough strike, but unsure of whether they can hold the line long enough.

The labor movement would greatly benefit from a huge increase in big picture thinking. We do not want to just sit back and let things happen to us, and react as best we can. We want to have a plan and then make it a reality. We should not just want to wait for strikes to happen, then maybe throw a few bucks into a GoFundMe and hope for the best. We need to recognize some basic truths: More strikes are good for the growth of the labor movement as a whole. Each strike is a public test of union power. We all have an interest in making high profile strikes successful. And the strategic application of funding to help striking workers succeed benefits all of us by facilitating and encouraging the next strike, and the next organizing campaign, and a brighter future in which unions are strong and ubiquitous once again.

Let’s get to work.

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Hamilton Nolan
Wisconsin’s Incarcerated Fear Summer Heat - Seasonal temperatures exacerbated by climate change and inadequate infrastructure threaten incarcerated people statewide. https://inthesetimes.com/article/wisconsin-prison-summer-heat Tue, 27 Jul 2021 08:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/wisconsin-prison-summer-heat On June 5, the temperature in Eau Claire, Wis., shot up to 97 degrees. Local media reported the first heat wave of the season as breaking record highs, damaging roads, and threatening residents with heat-related illnesses or even death. Less than 35 miles east of Eau Claire, over 1,400 incarcerated people at Stanley Correctional Institution had little respite from the heat. Daren Yaeger, who has been incarcerated at Stanley Correctional Institution for 11 years, describes this summer as the hottest he’s experienced.

“The heat in our cells was as high as 85 to 90 degrees during the day,” says Yaeger. "In the evening, it would be like 70 to 75 degrees in our cells. Our windows here don't open.” According to Yaeger, prison administrators relied on exhaust fans to reduce heat exposure — “which is like doing nothing,” as they recycle the same air, rather than cool it.

Yaeger is among nearly 20,000 people incarcerated in Wisconsin who are increasingly exposed to sweltering temperatures each summer. As climate change drives global warming and inadequate prison infrastructure fails to provide relief, prison abolitionists and even some politicians are emphasizing the need to protect the incarcerated from summer heat.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections manages 37 state prisons, many of which are not outfitted with air conditioning or even windows that can open. Instead, prisons rely on ventilation systems with air-handling units, which circulate air in and out of individual cells. As temperatures rise, the units automatically minimize fresh air intake, theoretically keeping prisons cool by reducing the amount of hot air pulled in from outside.

But in the experience of incarcerated people, the ventilation systems are inadequate. 62-year-old Melvin Kellam, who is also incarcerated at Stanley Correctional Institution, avoids going outside during the summer and tries to stay hydrated. Despite these efforts, Kellam suffered a bout of heat exhaustion last year, which he says the ventilation system did little to prevent.

“When it's hot, the vents will blow out hot air,” explains Kellam. “So when we are miserable from the heat, it is magnified by ten on the misery scale.”

According to John Beard, director of communications for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, special measures to reduce heat exposure are supposed to be enacted once the heat index reaches 90 degrees. At that point, prison administrators are to “remind persons in our care to watch for signs of overheating, suspend strenuous sports/rec activities, encourage intake of more fluids, increase access to ice, and modify rules for some institution jobs,” says Beard. However, incarcerated people report that in such situations, administrators don’t comply with those health guidelines.

“We get ice at dayrooms and meal times, but sometimes it is so hot the ice machine tends to run out or doesn't make it at all,” says 31-year-old Aaron Pavin, who is incarcerated at Columbia Correctional Institution, north of Madison. “One day it died, and the officers refused to go get some from another unit until supervisors were notified due to an inmate having to threaten self-harm.”

“They would rather see us sit on the benches under the hot, humid sun, than stand in the shade,” says 33-year-old Jonathan Ortiz Antonio Rodriguez, incarcerated at Stanley Correctional Institution. “They enjoy treating us like deprived adult children.”

Whether prison administrators’ indifference to heat exposure is deliberate or not, it may constitute a violation of incarcerated peoples’ civil rights. Nicasio Cuevas Quiles, who is 48 years old and incarcerated at Oakhill Correctional Institution, south of Madison, reports suffering from heat-related medical issues during his fourteen years of incarceration and likens the denial of air conditioning to “cruel and unusual punishment,” as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Such a case was made in 2017, when a federal judge ruled that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was in violation of the Eighth Amendment after an incarcerated man died from heat stroke.

As troubling as recent reports of heat exposure may be, incarcerated people and their advocates worry that the worst is yet to come. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, climate change is expected to triple the frequency of extreme heat in the state, from 10 days per year in 2020 to 30 days in 2050. In line with these figures, Yaeger describes the last few summers at Stanley Correctional Institution as being especially hot, which he also attributes to climate change.

“The summer heat has been getting worse over the last three to four years,” he says. “We don't really have a spring anymore. It's like we go from winter right into summer. This last May, we had days where the temperature reached 80 degrees, which is uncommon for the month of May. ... Global warming is a real thing.”

Yaeger’s concerns are echoed by Richard Thomas, an organizer with Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP), a collective which addresses issues at the intersection of incarceration and the environment. Operating in Florida, Alabama, Texas, and California, FTP has a broad perspective on conditions within prisons around the country.

“Unfortunately, complaints about summer heat have definitely been worsening,” he says. “This has in part been because of climate change, but it has also been because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Last summer, and even to a large degree this summer, many prisons have maintained strict lockdown policies as a measure to prevent the spread.”

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has faced its own challenges responding to Covid-19, but even less has been done to address climate change. According to Beard, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has no plan in place to address climate change per se. The administration of Governor Tony Evers, who ran on a platform which included criminal justice reform, instituted a policy last summer stipulating that all new prison construction or major renovations must include air conditioning. But in the meantime, Wisconsin’s incarcerated look for simple relief.

“I am really looking forward to getting transferred out of Stanley because my next prison will have windows that open,” says Yaeger. “So if my cell gets too hot, I will be able to open the window for some fresh air.”

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Arvind Dilawar
The "Landback" Movement Would Return Stolen Land to Indigenous Stewardship - Part of the larger decolonization movement, landback is critical in dismantling white supremacy and mitigating climate disaster. https://inthesetimes.com/article/landback-movement-indigenous-land-decolonization-liberation Tue, 27 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/landback-movement-indigenous-land-decolonization-liberation land • back

noun
1. The ongoing movement to return land to the stewardship of Indigenous peoples.

What is the goal of the landback movement?

Beyond its explicit demand, landback is about transforming settler-colonial relationships to land; restoring the language, culture and sovereignty of tribal communities; and dismantling white supremacy. Landback is part of a larger movement toward decolonization and liberation and has existed in various forms in North America for centuries.

The landback movement has inspired a growing call for the Black Hills in South Dakota to be returned to the Oceti Sakowin (Sioux). The area became a flash point in July 2020, when 20 Indigenous land defenders were arrested while protesting a campaign rally for President Donald Trump at Mount Rushmore. Three months later, NDN Collective, an Indigenous nonprofit, launched a campaign to close Mount Rushmore, an “international symbol of white supremacy,” and to return all public lands in the Black Hills to Indigenous groups.

The campaign is not the first of its kind: In the early 1970s, members of the American Indian Movement occupied Mount Rushmore to demand the return of the Black Hills. The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the U.S. government had illegally seized the land from the Oceti Sakowin, in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and ordered the government to pay restitution. The tribes have refused to accept the money and continue to hold out for the return of the land itself.

What are the next steps?

In The Atlantic’s May cover story, Ojibwe writer David Treuer proposed that a consortium of tribal governments run the United States’ national parks. Landback can also mean advocating for affordable housing for Indigenous people in urban areas, fighting for clean air and water, and defunding the police, border patrol and ICE.

Are there precedents?

Yes! In the Pacific Northwest, a years-long campaign by the Yurok Tribe is seeing progress in the removal of dams along the Klamath River. In California, about 1,200 acres in Big Sur were returned to the Esselen Tribe in 2020.

What about climate justice?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group, has recognized the value of Indigenous knowledge in adapting to climate change. Land defenders emphasize that land stewardship by Indigenous communities would directly challenge fossil fuel capitalism.

This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent coverage related to this Big Idea, see This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, We Don’t Need Celebration. We Need Our Land Back and A New Native-Led Strategy for Fighting Keystone XL.

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In These Times Editors
An Old Idea for a Guaranteed Income Is Back in Style - A new proposal for a negative income tax could eliminate poverty in the United States. https://inthesetimes.com/article/guaranteed-income-negative-tax-basic-economy Mon, 26 Jul 2021 14:15:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/guaranteed-income-negative-tax-basic-economy In these heady days of progressive proposals for massive increases in the federal budget, such as the Democrats’ recently announced $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package, a timely paper has reopened an old debate with a new proposal for a guaranteed national income, in the form of a negative income tax (NIT). The NIT, first proposed in the 1970s, is one type of income guarantee. It provides a cash benefit to individuals—an income floor—that declines as their income from other sources increases. The authors claim that their plan would completely eliminate poverty in the United States, which would be a very big deal.

The United States currently establishes income floors for various groups of people, especially under Social Security, but the biggest gap has always been those of working age said to be able-bodied who for one reason or another are unable to earn much or any income. An important but limited response to this gap is the new expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), which began distributing direct cash payments to parents earlier this month.

The paper was authored by a group of economists and researchers, including Naomi Zewde, Kyle Strickland, Kelly Capotosto, Ari Glogower and Darrick Hamilton of the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy. Hamilton was an adviser to Bernie Sanders during his 2020 campaign and bids fair to remain a leading economic voice on the Left for a long time to come, so this proposal is as much a news event as a policy paper. On a parallel track in Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) has proposed an NIT in her “LIFT+ Act,” which would provide a $3,000-per-adult basic income.

How a negative income tax works

The negative income tax has been called an “upside-down” income tax. Eligible individuals receive a fixed cash benefit that is reduced according to income from other sources, also known as “means-testing.” For instance, if the benefit provided is $10,000 with a “phase-out rate” of 50 percent, and a person’s other income is $12,000, the benefit would be reduced by 50 percent of this other income, or $6,000, leaving a net benefit of $4,000. In this example, any income above $20,000 would “zero out” the benefit.

Like the universal basic income (UBI) idea, an NIT benefits those with the lowest incomes, or no income at all.

Means-testing has provoked criticism on the Left, but it is the only way to keep the cost of a cash benefit manageable enough to fit into the federal budget. The UBI is thought to avoid means-testing, but this is incorrect. Insofar as the UBI is taxable and returned to the government in income taxes, for all practical purposes it too is means-tested.

The NIT proposed in the paper, which we’ll call ‘ZSCGH,’ from an acronym of the authors names, is a logical extension of Biden’s CTC in several respects. One is that it’s ambitious in terms of cost—estimated at $876 billion a year—but not wildly out of sync with the scale of current budget thinking. Like the new CTC, it does not require recipients to be employed. The program would also be tax-based, pitched as a reform of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and administered by the Internal Revenue Service. And finally, it’s targeted and not universal, which is why its cost is plausible.

Problems with UBI

In all these respects, it surmounts the difficulties of popular UBI advocacy, the greatest of which is the unrealistic cost: A UBI that genuinely meets basic needs would be entirely out of bounds of existing or plausible federal budgets.

A UBI provides an unconditional cash grant to everyone. (Exactly who constitutes “everyone” is actually a ticklish issue, but one left for another time.) One UBI proposal for $6,000 a year—well short of “basic” if basic means something a person could live on—is estimated to cost $1.9 trillion annually. (When you hear about budget packages of $4 or $6 trillion, that generally means over a ten-year period. The annual amount would be a tenth of that.) Andrew Yang’s proposal for $12,000 per person would cost $2.8 trillion a year.

Sometimes UBI advocates will defend against sticker shock by cautioning that the bulk of that cost would be reclaimed with higher taxes. The biggest flaw in that argument is political: Imagine Democratic politicians’ reactions to the idea of an annual tax increase of a trillion dollars, per year.

The main economic flaw of this approach is that the so-called “claw-back”—which amounts to a humongous tax increase—contradicts claims that a UBI would have no incentive effects. In other words, a great part of the UBI benefit is reclaimed by the federal government though the individual income tax, and the net taxes (tax increase minus the UBI benefit) of many would rise to finance a UBI. A tax on income is said to discourage work, saving or investment, though such claims are routinely exaggerated by the Right. But the claim that the UBI escapes incentive effects altogether is another myth fostered by its advocates.

Another problem is that the round-trip of that enormous amount of money—from government to person as UBI benefits, back to the government as tax increases—would lose a lot of passengers along the way: Roughly one dollar in six owed in federal taxes is not paid on time, or ever.

A more just safety net

The ZSCGH paper wisely highlights the impact of the NIT in the realm of racial justice. As with other social-democratic proposals, a benefit that reduces class inequality also reduces (but does not eliminate) racial inequality. The authors document the household poverty rate by race as follows: whites, eight percent; Blacks, 18 percent; Latinx, 17 percent. An NIT that eliminates poverty, or that just cuts it in half, benefits larger proportions of Black and Latinx households, simply because their poverty rates are higher to begin with. The paper’s authors also write that their proposal narrows median income gaps by race, since the benefits would extend well above the official poverty line. The reduction in gender inequality, especially for female-headed households, follows for the same reasons.

Eliminating poverty by raising individual incomes with cash benefits is not the limit of progressive objectives. We would not want people to rely on cash to buy health insurance or clean water, for instance. People also need public services and facilities, with social insurance programs alongside a social safety net strengthened by an NIT.

We also want to empower workers to win higher wages from employers. The cushion afforded by a guaranteed income would help workers bargain for better deals, since they become more able to withhold their labor, or to take a spell out of the labor market. But still, you can’t knock cash.

Even with guaranteed public employment (another Darrick Hamilton project), there will always be those unable to work who will need income. An NIT is the right field upon which to fight this battle. The ZSCGH paper and the Tlaib plan provide a running start.

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Max B. Sawicky
We Need Radical Economic Change—Not Biden's Corporate Capitalism - Stimulus packages are not enough. Only practices of deep democracy and shared ownership can end our cycle of economic disaster. https://inthesetimes.com/article/stimulus-packages-biden-capitalism-economics Mon, 26 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/stimulus-packages-biden-capitalism-economics President Joe Biden’s stimulus packages do not fulfill his promise to “build back better.” We must demand more.

All the stimulus packages, from the first (under former President Donald Trump) to the most recent (Biden’s American Rescue Plan), have one thing in common: They attempt to restore the order that created the problem in the first place.

Corporate capitalism’s disregard for the needs of workers, families and communities—along with its contempt for regulatory and ecological boundaries—undergirds our current crises in healthcare, housing, finance and debt. We cannot expect to get out of this mess by injecting public stimulus dollars into the current undemocratic, unregulated and destructive political-economic system. Reopening the system is not reparative; we learned as much in 2008 when banks and corporations got bailouts while low-income and poor people of color got foreclosure, bankruptcy and more debt.

Truly building back better would require building an equitable, socially just, ecologically sustainable and democratic economy that is of, by and for the people.

This big idea isn’t speculative fiction; models of economic democracy and shared ownership have existed in the United States for generations, including practices of deep democracy, worker-owned cooperatives, community investment funds, people’s assemblies, participatory budgeting and solidarity economy institutions.

What would a stimulus package constructed from these building blocks look like?

We could follow an example from North Dakota and create public banks that are funded with taxpayers’ money and serve as public trusts. Economic stimulus and relief funds could be transferred from the U.S. Treasury directly into these public banks, which are able to make loans at lower interest rates (because their goal is not simply to maximize profits), which translates into more money for public projects.

We could also take our cue from Brazil’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) and develop participatory budgeting, a grassroots and democratic process of decision-making to determine how public funds should be used. As a form of direct democracy, participatory budgeting has radical potential for establishing transparent, equitable and community-led spending. Compulsory participatory budgeting with funds from public coffers (e.g., federal stimulus packages), could sensibly bolster and build local physical and social infrastructure, from community block clubs and neighborhood councils to alternatives to policing, holistic community healthcare, youth development programs and resources for seniors. The cultural problem of equating democracy with electoral politics—rather than participatory democracy—would have to be overcome. A good introduction to participatory democracy might be through community-controlled investment funds. Through deliberative processes (such as people’s assemblies), community residents could collectively decide their needs and provide the resources needed to manifest the desired changes.

The burden of corporate capitalism’s successive crises is disproportionately borne by care workers (the majority of whom are women of color), nonunionized service workers, gig workers and informal workers. We should be supporting worker-owned cooperatives, which are democratically owned and controlled by the workers. Typically, they generate living wage jobs and are more sustainable and more embedded in communities.

Rather than perpetuating these cycles of economic disaster, real stimulus and relief—invested in public infrastructure—could create multiplier effects that redound to the public’s good.

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Stacey Sutton
Documentary: Factory Farms Pose an 'Existential Threat' for Rural Wisconsin Communities - Big Agriculture and the factory farming industry are taking over more of the US landscape and farming economy every year. But these rural communities in Wisconsin are fighting back. https://inthesetimes.com/article/documentary-factory-farms-threaten-rural-america Fri, 23 Jul 2021 16:53:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/documentary-factory-farms-threaten-rural-america Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on The Real News Network.

The rural landscape in the US is changing drastically: The days of the independent family farm have given way to industrial agriculture and factory animal farms. In states around the country, from Iowa and Minnesota to North Carolina, the expansion of Big Agriculture and the factory farming industry has dramatically altered local economies and communities, using up communal resources while posing serious threats to public health and the environment. Far from halting this trend, governments at the state and federal level have worked with powerful industry groups for years to incentivize large-scale farming operations and to make it increasingly difficult for local governments to adequately regulate these operations. But resistance from within rural communities, stretching across political lines, is mounting.

At this very moment, farmers, residents, and environmental advocates in three rural counties in Wisconsin—Polk, Burnett, and Crawford—are engaged in a battle to protect their communities against the construction of two proposed concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which would collectively house roughly 34,000 hogs. Residents fear that the millions upon millions of gallons of liquid manure produced by these CAFOs every year, along with their many other impacts, could cause irreversible damage to their land, air, water, property values, and ways of life. As part of a special collaboration with In These Times magazine for “The Wisconsin Idea,” TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez traveled with Cameron Granadino (TRNN) and Hannah Faris (In These Times) to Crawford, Polk, and Burnett counties to speak with residents about their concerns and about their struggles to defend themselves against Big Agriculture and the factory farming industry.

Pre-Production: Maximillian Alvarez, Simon Davis-Cohen, Hannah Faris, Cameron Granadino

Studio: Cameron Granadino, Stephen Frank

Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, Stephen Frank, Kayla Rivara

Editors Note: The Real News (TRNN) is a nonprofit, viewer-supported daily video-news and documentary service. TRNN makes media connecting you to the movements, people, and perspectives that are advancing the cause of a more just, equal, and livable planet.

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Maximillian Alvarez, Cameron Granadino and Hannah Faris
While Meatpacking Companies Reap Big Profits, Cattle Ranchers Struggle - Grocery store beef prices are rising. The rancher’s share is falling. And the companies that dominate the highly-concentrated meatpacking industry are making a killing. https://inthesetimes.com/article/beef-prices-ranchers-meatpacking-companies-industry-consolidation Fri, 23 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/beef-prices-ranchers-meatpacking-companies-industry-consolidation Editor's Note: This story was originally published on The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Shad Sullivan has stopped paying for cable TV, yearly vacations and trips to movie theaters. He's contemplated ending his health insurance, even though he needs it for his chronic bone marrow cancer.

A rancher in Olney, Texas, Sullivan, 47, has cut costs as producers like him have felt squeezed by the beef market. While consumers pay high beef prices at the grocery store, very little has trickled down to ranchers — in fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the gap between the retail price for beef and the price producers receive is the largest it's ever been.

In interviews, eight ranchers in seven states agreed their profits have stagnated or even decreased, while the meatpacking companies — which buy the animals for slaughter, then package the meat to be sold at grocery stores — have benefited.

Iowa rancher Eric Nelson said he's heard people say he's probably experiencing a windfall based on grocery store prices.

“I tell them, ‘No, we’re not getting any of it,’” the 59-year-old said. “We’re getting less and the consumers are having to pay more.”

Most ranchers agreed the culprit is market concentration. Four companies — Brazil-based JBS, Tyson Foods, Cargill and National Beef — slaughtered about 85% of the cattle in the U.S. in 2018, according to the most recent USDA data. Another school of thought placed the blame on limited capacity — not having enough slaughter plants to process all the beef produced.

Either way, since 2017, the price consumers have paid for beef and veal has increased each year. In 2020, the cost increased by about 10% from 2019, the sixth highest year-to-year increase in four decades.

In turn, the companies’ profits have skyrocketed. From 2010 to 2020, both Tyson and JBS saw an increase in revenue from their cattle operations, 34% and 66% respectively, according to the companies’ annual reports.

But, at the same time, the farmers’ cut has decreased. Between 2010 and 2020, the farmers’ share — beef’s value to the rancher divided by its retail value — decreased by about 9%.

JBS, Cargill and National Beef did not reply to a request for comment. A Tyson Foods spokesperson said to contact the North American Meat Institute, the industry’s lobbying arm. The institute declined to comment and pointed to its testimony from a June 23 U.S. Senate hearing.

“The members of the Meat Institute – and their livestock suppliers – benefit from, and depend on, a fair, transparent and competitive market,” the testimony reads.

The situation has drawn the attention of President Biden, Congress and organizations alike.

Biden signed an executive order July 9 to promote competition in the economy, and one section addressed consolidation in agriculture, specifically in the beef market. The order directs the USDA to consider new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act that would make it easier for farmers to win claims.

The same day the executive order was signed, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the USDA would spend half a billion dollars to encourage building more meatpacking plants closer to producers, according to the Associated Press.

Bill Bullard, CEO of the organization R-CALF USA, said he is hopeful the developments will eventually alleviate pressures on farmers and ranchers, but he is doubtful that anything will change dramatically in the next year.

“We’ve been trying to get the administrations to do this for two decades,” he said. “It’s a very positive step, but it’s only one of many steps that need to be taken.”

Sullivan agreed.

“(Issues from concentration) did not come about overnight,” he said, “and they’re not going to be fixed overnight.”

One bill introduced in the U.S. Senate would create a unit within the USDA that would investigate anticompetitive practices, and another one would require at least 50% of a meatpacker’s weekly volume be purchased on the open market. Meatpackers having to negotiate prices each week is expected to increase competitive bidding prices – instead of the commonly used formula contracts, which are sometimes made months in advance to ensure supply to the packer and leave the price unknown to the producer.

“Too many people think food comes from supermarkets,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the bills’ cosponsor. “They don’t realize it comes from farms.”

The situation has also spurred lawsuits. R-CALF USA — which only represents ranchers, unlike the more well-known National Cattlemen’s Beef Association whose membership also includes meatpacking companies — sued the four companies in 2019. The case is ongoing, and the National Farmers Union has joined as a plaintiff. (The NCBA did not respond to a request for comment.)

Without large-scale changes, Bullard said, cattle production is at risk of becoming vertically integrated like the poultry and hog industries, meaning companies control the supply chain.

For instance, while poultry producers are technically independent farmers, meatpacking companies provide the chicks and feed. Everything else, such as maintaining the chicken houses, is the producers’ financial responsibility. The arrangement often leads to financial burden, even bankruptcy, according to previous Investigate Midwest reporting.

(Biden’s executive order includes language about “stopping processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers.”)

Bullard worries what the ramifications of the same arrangement in the cattle industry would mean for ranchers.

“As an organization,” he said, “we are fighting aggressively for congressional and administration and judicial reforms that will block the multinational meatpackers from capturing control of our industry away from independent producers.”

‘A very defeating feeling’

On the ranchers’ side, fewer companies bidding for their beef means a smaller sale. With few choices, ranchers often have to settle with the price they’re offered.

Mackenzie Johnston, 32, a fifth-generation cattle producer near Brewster, Nebraska, said she thinks the industry is spiraling out of control.

“It’s just the mere fact that the little guy can’t make it because of the way the markets are,” she said.

Ranching is a demanding business, she said. It’s a year-long operation of moving pasture, fixing fences and fighting the elements to produce the best product. Ranchers also have to update equipment and, if they don’t grow it themselves, buy feed for cattle.

In the “make-or-break deal” of high input costs and low reward, Johnston has started to rely more on her second income after almost 10 years of dedicated ranching, she said.

“It’s a very defeating feeling,” she said.

Johnston works in the cow-calf production sector, which raises cattle for slaughter. Her counterparts in the cattle feeding sector, which brings the cattle to the proper weight for sale, have also faced tough times.

Lee Reichmuth, 41, feeds a herd of about 2,500 to 3,500 at his feedlot in the small town of Lindsay, Nebraska, and he sells to all four major meatpacking companies. But he isn’t sure how much longer he will be able to stay in the industry.

“I’ve got the lowest inventory I’ve had for years and I don’t know when I will step back into the market,” he said. “We can’t continue to buy cattle and produce food for the consumer and lose money doing it.”

‘The packers have all the leverage’

For some, concentration isn’t the market’s major issue. Instead, capacity limitations and black swan events posed a greater threat to the industry, they said.

Montana rancher John Grande, 58, has struggled with profitability. He said he thought risk would be reduced if there were more plants, even if the major companies owned them.

“The prices we don’t like (are) due to the fact that right now the packers have all the leverage because there’s a limited amount of packing capacity chasing a large amount of cattle,” he said.

James Mitchell, a University of Arkansas assistant professor and livestock economist, said he believes the existing companies are bidding as aggressively as they can.

“Right now it’s really just an issue of leverage where we’ve got a lot of animals,” he said. “We’re hitting the upper threshold of what we can process on a daily basis.”

Capacity limits at meatpacking plants cause low demand for cattle, which results in low sales prices for ranchers, he said. Although the market is seen as concentrated, it “has allowed us to enjoy levels of efficiency that we haven’t seen,” he said.

However, efficiency is not the answer Mike Stranz, the National Farmers Union vice president of advocacy, is looking for. Instead, he’s sought resiliency, he said.

He said the food industry has been endangered by a few black swan events in recent years.

First, in 2019, a fire damaged a Tyson’s plant in Holcomb, Kansas. It forced the four-month shut down of the plant, which slaughtered about 5% of the country’s cattle, according to the USDA.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Plants closed as tens of thousands of workers fell ill and hundreds died. The closures meant packers bought fewer cattle, which likely caused lower bid prices, according to the USDA.

Some ranchers were forced to hold onto their cattle longer than they normally would, putting the cattle at risk of becoming overweight and harder to sell. Prices rose in the grocery store as restaurants closed and people ate at home, driving demand for beef.

“The disruption of meatpacking plants reduced production of meat destined for retail outlets and created a backlog of livestock destined for the closed plants,” according to a USDA report.

The most recent black swan event was the ransomware attack on JBS earlier this year. The attack on the company, which processes nearly one-quarter of U.S. beef, forced plants to shut down for several days, according to Reuters. JBS paid $11 million to reclaim control of its systems.

For ranchers, these events and the market in general have them worried about what the future holds. Sullivan, the Texas rancher, said he’s not sure he wants his children to stay in the industry.

“We have to choose now,” he said. “It’s either us or it’s a whole new system.”

Editor's Note: The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Visit us online at www.investigatemidwest.org

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Mary Hennigan
We Don't Have Time for Climate Symbolism - As we hurtle towards climate chaos, Democratic leaders remain all talk and no action on serious climate policy. https://inthesetimes.com/article/climate-symbolism-biden-fossil-fuels-fracking-democrats Fri, 23 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/climate-symbolism-biden-fossil-fuels-fracking-democrats President Joe Biden, like many Democratic leaders, has shifted his climate change rhetoric to more dramatic tones in recent years. Starting with his decision to reenter the Paris Agreement, glowing headlines have heralded Biden’s climate plans. But when it comes to actually moving the United States off fossil fuels, Biden, like so many, is light on substance.

While the GOP advances outright climate denial, many Democratic officials advance “climate symbolism.” Their rhetoric acknowledges the urgency of climate change—with words like “existential threat,” “emergency,” “crisis”—but their directives call for lofty changes far off into the future, ignoring immediate action that might actually help.

The Paris Agreement, for example, is heavy on climate symbolism, with promises that fall far short of what is required. Biden also pledged to transition to 100% “carbon free” electricity by 2035 but has yet to implement a detailed plan. And when it comes to fossil fuels, Biden has largely rehashed Obama-era policies proven inadequate to reduce atmospheric carbon.

On the campaign trail, Biden was adamant about stopping fracking on public lands. Not only has he failed to fulfill that pledge, his administration is appealing a federal court order that paused fracking in Wayne National Forest. It has also defended a project in Alaska for 100,000 daily barrels of oil for the next 30 years. Biden has not stopped the Line 3 pipeline, and the Dakota Access Pipeline has been given a green light by a federal judge, even as the International Energy Agency says we need to halt development of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Biden’s big-ticket priority, his proposed bipartisan infrastructure package, pales in comparison to the $16 trillion climate plan Bernie Sanders proposed in his campaign last year, which 57 scientists endorsed as necessary to save the planet.

The crux of the problem is Biden’s unwillingness to take on the fossil fuel industry. Instead of a robust plan to end drilling, his administration promotes industry-backed “solutions” like carbon capture. But at power plants, carbon capture has cost billions of dollars without removing a significant amount of emitted carbon. Filtering carbon directly out of the air is even more fanciful. The United States emits around 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. To remove even 1 billion tons through direct air capture would take nearly our entire annual energy output, one study shows.

This industry-friendly approach is mirrored by Biden’s team. Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, touts increased exports of liquified natural gas as a solution, while climate advisor Gina McCarthy (who ran interference for the fracking industry in the Obama administration as head of the Environmental Protection Agency) made it clear that “the administration is not fighting the oil and gas sector,” according to a White House summary of a meeting she held with oil and gas companies in March.

FDR, talking about the utility industry and his efforts to promote public power, famously implored voters to judge him by his enemies. In the case of climate change, Biden’s approach should be judged by the ones he refuses to make.

The same dynamic appears among Democrats at the state level. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called climate change an “existential threat that impacts all Minnesotans,” but has not intervened to stop the Line 3 pipeline, the equivalent of 50 new coal-fired power plants in terms of carbon emissions. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called climate change “one of the most important and critical challenges we face,” while accepting more than $78,000 in campaign contributions from fracking interests and proposing taxes to generate revenue from the extraction of natural gas rather than fully banning the devastating practice. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called climate change a “crisis,” but took $50,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests and dependably promotes drilling.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom tweets dire warnings about the existential threat of climate change as he approves new oil and gas permits. He ran on an anti-fracking platform but later claimed he lacked the authority to ban fracking, asked the Legislature to do it for him, then ignored the introduction of a state bill that would have. After public backlash, Newsom directed a regulatory agency to ban new fracking permits, but this will not take effect until 2024 and might not cover cyclic steam, a particularly intensive extraction method prevalent in California. His much-touted declaration that California must phase out oil production generated national headlines—but the proposal would not be fully implemented until 2045.

Even New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who banned fracking in New York state in 2014, is big on climate symbolism. He declared “we must replace fossil fuel power with clean energy power” in January but has several fossil fuel-expanding infrastructure projects pending.

Yes, acknowledgment is better than outright climate denial. But it will not prevent runaway climate chaos. According to the United Nations, we cannot increase natural gas production without going over the global warming climate cliff of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

There is no time left to spend on symbolic pledges. We need leaders to directly and unapologetically take on the fossil fuel industry and fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Anything less is more hot air.

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Mark Schlosberg
Big Pharma Is Deciding Who Lives and Who Dies in the Global South - The chilling effect of the pharmaceutical industry's veiled threats. https://inthesetimes.com/article/pfizer-pharmaceutical-companies-covid-pandemic-coronavirus-latin-america-trips-waiver-vaccines Thu, 22 Jul 2021 11:56:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/pfizer-pharmaceutical-companies-covid-pandemic-coronavirus-latin-america-trips-waiver-vaccines On April 24, Elizabeth de Carvalhaes, executive president of the Brazilian pharmaceutical company trade group Interfarma, said out loud what the drug industry had up until then avoided uttering in public. In an interview with Folha de São Paulo, the most widely-read newspaper in Brazil, de Carvalhaes declared that if the South American country were to green-light compulsory licensing to expand access to Covid-19 vaccines, pharmaceutical companies might respond by withholding supply of the vaccines. "This is not retaliation,” she proclaimed. “The demand is much bigger than the supply, and they may find it more advantageous from an economic point of view to sell to countries that do not break patents.”

This was not an idle threat. Interfarma represents Pfizer, Gilead, AstraZeneca and other major pharmaceutical companies. The trade group’s spokesperson made the remarks at a time when Brazil was pushed to the point of desperation: The same day the article was published, more than 71,000 new Covid-19 cases were reported in Brazil. The country’s outbreak has been so severe and uncontrolled that it’s spawned the Gamma variant, which has since spread around the world.

Some countries hope to find relief in compulsory licensing, when a government allows the production of a vaccine without the consent of a patent owner, a move floated in Brazil as a way to urgently expand vaccine access while the pandemic rages. (A compulsory licensing bill has passed Brazil’s Senate but has not yet officially been signed into law.)

Interfarma’s implied threat against such a measure underscores a dynamic that public health advocates say is particularly pernicious during a pandemic: Countries that run afoul of drug companies by supporting measures to override patents risk facing the wrath of an industry that has the power to decide whether a huge swath of their population lives or dies.

Domestic efforts to start compulsory licensing aren’t the only way patents are being challenged: Global South countries are also leading an effort at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend key international patent rules to enable the mass production of cheaper, generic vaccines. Public health advocates worry that government officials face a climate of intimidation against challenging patent rules domestically or globally—a position the pharmaceutical industry has made it clear it doesn’t like. While there is no proof of clear and overt threats made by the industry, other than the one said by Interfarma’s leader, advocates note that it’s difficult to know what’s said behind closed doors. And either way, they argue, the threat is implied, in a global environment where countries negotiate directly with powerful pharmaceutical companies for vaccine contracts.

“The company can stop supply, there are no consequences,” said Felipe Carvalho, a campaigner for Médecins Sans Frontières—Brazil, a humanitarian medical organization. “There are many protections for the companies. My thinking is that these are perfect conditions for companies to make threats against governments.”

Peter Maybarduk is the director of Public Citizen​’s access to medicines and knowledge economy group, which speaks out against high pharmaceutical prices. He told In These Times, “Countries exploring compulsory licensing are looking for ways to increase supply to bring as much capacity as they can and as many products as they can to market, most especially during a pandemic. We shouldn’t have monopoly barriers standing in the way of access to vaccines that can end the pandemic for everyone, everywhere.”

Maybarduk worries that implied threats could have an impact, even if pharmaceutical companies have no intention of following through on them. “It’s unfortunately not entirely uncommon for the pharmaceutical industry and more aggressive trade groups to make implied threats,” he said. “It's also unlikely to occur, because the purchase of existing vaccines is not directly related to patent policy. The market is available to the companies either way: Brazil needs vaccines. It’s a scare tactic, and one Brazil should not give much credence to. ”

Brazil’s compulsory licensing bill may very well pass into law. But advocates say any intimidation is bad, even if it’s not ultimately successful. Besides, there are signs it is having an impact when it comes to international patent rules.

Muted support for global patent waiver

At a May 6 hearing at the Senate Commission on Foreign Affairs, Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Alberto França, expressed reluctance to support an effort to suspend patent rules under the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Proposed by South Africa and India in 2020, the measure has the backing of more than 100 countries, but is fiercely opposed by the pharmaceutical industry. França was responding to the Biden administration’s May 5 declaration that it would no longer block this proposal—an unexpected reversal that now leaves Germany as the most powerful obstacle to the measure.

​​”We are still analyzing the North American position. Tomorrow, I already have a videoconference scheduled with Ambassador Katherine Tai,” França told the Senators, referring to the U.S. Trade Representative.

França went on to state that it was unclear whether the new U.S. position would create global consensus, and whether a TRIPS waiver would actually secure more vaccines. "Our impression is that most countries will continue to depend on the cooperation of pharmaceutical companies,” he said. “I think that Brazil cannot stay away from investors and exporters of vaccines, nor affect the negotiation with the one we have here with Astrazeneca and other producers," concluded França.

Brazil’s government has backed down from its hard-line opposition to the TRIPS waiver, recently warming up to negotiations, but it’s still holding back from supporting the proposal. In a June 14 release, Amnesty International said that while the right-wing government of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has espoused “certain willingness to support negotiations at the WTO,” it criticized another government statement on the matter as “ambiguous and imprecise.”

This is in keeping with trends across Latin America, where Covid-19 infection rates are some of the worst in the world. In most of the region, at least some government officials have made statements supporting the temporary suspension of patents for Covid-19 vaccines, although just Bolivia and Venezuela formally sponsored the proposal within the WTO. Colombia and Chile have remained reluctant to support the waiver, and while Mexico gave conflicting signals early on, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for the suspension of patents in a speech in May. Argentina did not sponsor the proposal, but President Alberto Fernández has called for the temporary suspension of key patent rules under TRIPS.

Observers say the response from the region overall has been muted. Carvalho noted that “historically, these countries have been quite active in supporting this kind of collectivization of intellectual property. At the same time, the region is highly affected by the pandemic. The Americas are having a terrible time.” The World Health Organization warned last month that 9 out of the 10 countries recently suffering the highest number of Covid deaths proportionate to their populations are in Latin America and the Caribbean, where vaccination rates, for the most part, are low.

A June 28 article on Deutsche Welle, one of the few English-language articles to give a broad overview of Latin America’s hesitancy to support the TRIPS waiver, identifies concerns about angering pharmaceutical companies as a key reason. “Desperate to speed up vaccinations, governments have been forced to strike bilateral deals with vaccine makers such as Pfizer and J&J,” Ashutosh Pandey writes, citing the observations of public health experts. “They worry that supporting a patent waiver could potentially jeopardize their agreements with pharma companies, which have been zealously defending their patents.”

Patricia Campos, Latin America and Caribbean bureau chief for the AIDS Health Foundation, a global health nonprofit based in Los Angeles, agrees that fear of industry retaliation likely explains some Latin American countries’ reluctance to support the TRIPS waiver. “I think yes, that's a big part,” she told In These Times.

She added that many Latin American countries “have segmented health systems—for example, social security, public security, etc.—that do not have efficient purchasing mechanisms, and most of the drugs they purchase, especially those with high specialty or chronic diseases, are patent drugs, and a lesser proportion are generic. Faced with such a scenario, confronting the pharmaceutical companies would mean running a high risk of going through a shortage of medicines like the one Mexico is currently experiencing.”

“In 2019,” she explained, “López Obrador launched his ‘war against corruption’ against the monopolies of distributors and pharmaceutical companies.” In retaliation, she said, some pharmaceutical companies are refusing to bid to sell key drugs to the country, leading to tragic shortages of potentially life-saving medicines before the Covid pandemic began.

A history of retaliation

This would not be the first time the pharmaceutical industry has retaliated against countries. In 2007, the U.S.-based Abbott Laboratories refused to supply Thailand with a new HIV treatment in response to the country’s decision to override patent rules on three drugs the company produces, including a cheaper, generic version of the HIV treatment Kaletra. Abbott deliberately withheld a new heat-stable version of Kaletra, which is best suited for countries with hot, muggy climates, and the company was explicit about its punitive intent. "This is a consequence, directly, of the Thai government's decision not to support innovation by breaking the patents of numerous medicines," said Dirk van Eeden, director for Abbott's public affairs, according to a 2007 article in Financial Times. (A few weeks later, Abbott reversed its decisions following global outcry.)

But one can look to more recent history to find other forms of industry retaliation. As journalist Lee Fang reported in March, pharmaceutical industry trade groups pressured the Biden administration to impose sanctions on Hungary, Chile and Colombia for their efforts to override patent rules in a bid to improve access to Covid-19 vaccines. This kind of retaliation is not new or unique to the Covid-19 pandemic. Pharmaceutical companies and American lawmakers have threatened India with sanctions for its production of a cheaper version of a cancer drug, and threatened Malaysia with sanctions for its use of a cheaper version of a Hepatitis C drug. Such actions can have a chilling effect. “As a result of these and other instances, countries have, understandably, been reluctant to develop more flexible domestic [compulsory licensing] policies and are certainly out of practice in using them,” writes Rachel Thrasher, research fellow at the Global Development Policy Center.

Pharmaceutical companies and trade groups steer clear of public threats to retaliate for TRIPS waiver support. But industry trade groups are warning that if patent rules are suspended, companies may decide not to pursue research and development for vaccines in the future—a wholly different kind of threat. (In reality, publicly-funded research has been essential to the production of Covid-19 vaccines.) Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies have other avenues for exerting pressure. Madlen Davies, Rosa Furneaux, Jill Langlois and Iván Ruiz reported for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in February that “Pfizer has been accused of ‘bullying’ Latin American governments in Covid vaccine negotiations and has asked some countries to put up sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, as a guarantee against the cost of any future legal cases.”

It’s difficult to know exactly what discussions pharmaceutical companies are having with government officials in private, and contracts are largely shrouded in secrecy, despite the fact that they involve expenditure of public money on vaccines developed with public funding. Critics say that any signs at all of industry threats, or government fears of retaliation, likely indicate a far broader problem.

According to Asia Russell, executive director of Health Gap, a global health advocacy organization, there is a fundamental injustice in giving the private, for-profit pharmaceutical industry power over vaccine production and supply, an asymmetry that’s even more pronounced when companies are negotiating with countries that have little geopolitical power, or are simply desperate. “It’s a cartel that kills people,” said Russell. “We’re not talking about the tobacco industry: This is the pharmaceutical industry.”

Ria Modak contributed research to this article.

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Sarah Lazare and Maurizio Guerrero
Rideshare Drivers in California Strike for the PRO Act - A conversation with Ahmad Ibrahim Moss, a rideshare driver in San Francisco. https://inthesetimes.com/article/rideshare-gig-economy-california-strike-pro-act-uber Thu, 22 Jul 2021 11:38:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/rideshare-gig-economy-california-strike-pro-act-uber On Wednesday, July 21, across California, rideshare drivers with Rideshare Drivers United are going on a one-day strike against the exploitative practices of tech giants Uber and Lyft (which have only gotten worse since the passage of Prop 22 in November), and to demand Congress pass the PRO Act. We talk with Ahmad Ibrahim Moss, a rideshare driver in San Francisco, about how drivers' pay, conditions, and work experience has changed since the passage of Prop 22 (and before), and we talk about the dark truth at the center of the "gig economy."

Additional links/info below...

Permanent links below...

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)

  • Jules Taylor, "Working People Theme Song"
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Maximillian Alvarez
As Devastating Plant Shutdown Looms in West Virginia, National Outrage Is Hard to Find - A union set to be wiped out by layoffs says politicians are missing in action. https://inthesetimes.com/article/west-virginia-united-steelworkers-pharmaceutical-manufacturing-manchin-democrats Thu, 22 Jul 2021 09:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/west-virginia-united-steelworkers-pharmaceutical-manufacturing-manchin-democrats Joe Gouzd is pissed. As the president of United Steelworkers Local 8-957 in Morgantown, West Virginia, he represents more than 800 of the 1,500 workers who are set to lose their jobs on July 31, when the Viatris pharmaceuticals plant in Morgantown shuts down for good. And though he is used to fights, he does not like feeling abandoned.

Ask Gouzd what he is hearing from his representatives in the federal government as the plant shutdown looms, and he’ll tell you, “Not a god damn thing.”

“We’ve heard nothing,” he says. “We’ve heard all kinds of horse shit from A to Z.”

This is a remarkable statement, when you consider that the closure of this one plant embodies an entire galaxy of issues that should make it a prime candidate for political intervention. It represents the often-lamented effect of offshoring: a decades-old factory whose jobs are being unceremoniously shipped overseas by the enormous conglomerate Viatris, which was formed in 2019 as the combination of Mylan and Upjohn and immediately set out to slash costs.

It represents the human and economic toll of America’s industrial decline: Many of the union jobs at the plant pay $80,000 or more, more than twice what any of the workers who are laid off are likely to get if they stay in Morgantown and find a new job. An economic analysis by the Democracy Collaborative finds that the plant’s closure could cost the surrounding county more than 4,600 jobs in total and $400 million in wages in the coming year, in a county where the median income for individuals is less than $25,000 a year.

It represents the loss of America’s pharmaceutical manufacturing capability during a pandemic: Though the coronavirus made many politicians talk about the need for America to strengthen its own supply chain at home to avoid relying on foreign countries for medicines and pharmaceutical supplies, the union’s calls for the Biden administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to take over this plant that makes generic pharmaceuticals seem to have fallen on deaf ears. All indications are that the shutdown that has loomed for seven months will go forward as scheduled next week.

And, on a raw political level, it would seem like the closure of a major factory in West Virginia—a state that has served as a political football for the past five years, and that is now the home to Joe Manchin, the Senate’s single most powerful member—would offer a prime opportunity for the Democratic-controlled federal government to score points in a red state, prove that Democrats can in fact deliver for the workers that Donald Trump paid lip service to, and throw a bone to Manchin all at once.

But none of this has caused any concrete action from the federal government to save the plant. The story of the fate that awaits the hundreds of workers in Morgantown has not become a huge national story. A slow-motion disaster that could be the seed of a great bipartisan effort to save unionized American jobs in West Virginia is instead unfolding just as the company said it would when it announced the closure plans, when most of the country was distracted by the question of whether Donald Trump would actually leave office. Gouzd says that the politicians “are running away from us.” He dismisses West Virginia Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito as an unresponsive “blowup doll.” Joe Manchin, he says, gave the union members “two minutes of his time” several months ago, and has not done anything meaningful on their behalf.

“He asked us if we still make penicillin,” Gouzd says. “We haven’t done that for 20 years.”

In a statement, Joe Manchin said, “For months, I have engaged in conversations with Viatris, Monongalia County, the Morgantown Area Partnership, and local and state leaders to find a solution that protects every single job.” (Since the plant’s 1,500 jobs are set to be eliminated in a week, any conversations he had were apparently fruitless.)

The perceived lack of help is particularly noticeable because Joe Manchin has a very personal connection to this issue: His daughter, Heather Bresch, was the CEO of Mylan, the company that owned the Morgantown plant prior to the rebranding as Viatris. Bresch came under fire in 2016 for her company’s egregious price increases of EpiPens, which prompted a recent $345 million settlement after several class action lawsuits. Bresch herself retired last year after her company’s merger with Upjohn, earning herself close to $20 million during her last year on the job. The 855 unionized Viatris workers in Morgantown who are losing their jobs will receive two weeks of severance pay for every year that they had on the job.

Our Revolution, the progressive political group, has been working for the past six weeks to elevate the profile of the workers in Morgantown, and try to win them anything it can. That work has been led by Mike Oles, an organizer who has worked on a string of similar plant closures across the country, beginning with the Carrier factory in Indiana that became a national political issue in 2016. In that case, there was a cell phone video of the company’s brutal layoff announcement that went viral; now, Oles says, companies often send workers home before making the announcements, and work strategically to bury the news.

“This plant seems more saveable than Carrier was, even,” says Oles. “This idea that we’re sending 1,500 jobs to India to produce lifesaving medicines, in areas where we have concerns about supply chains… We can support a state that’s transitioning from fossil fuels. Why wouldn’t we try to keep pharmaceuticals in the state?”

The West Virginia state legislature passed resolutions calling on state leaders to keep the plant open, but Governor Jim Justice’s efforts to find a savior do not seem to have succeeded. In June, the White House issued a report calling a robust domestic pharmaceutical supply chain “essential for the national security and economic prosperity of the United States,” but that has not prompted any concrete action to keep the Viatris plant open.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Oles says. “These jobs just don’t come back. Communities don’t bounce back from plant closings like this. I’ve seen it in five different states.”

Adding to the grim situation is the fact that not only will the factory be shutting down—the union will as well. United Steelworkers Local 8-957 represents only the Viatris workers. After more than 40 years of existence, Gouzd says, the local will be closing after the plant does.

Viatris said in a statement that the shutdown in Morgantown is a result of the company’s efforts to “optimize its commercial capabilities and enabling functions, and close, downsize or divest manufacturing facilities globally that are deemed to be no longer viable.” They add that the decision “in no way reflects upon the company’s appreciation for the commitment, work ethic and valuable contributions of our employees.”

The feelings of appreciation are not mutual. The mood inside the factory is “toxic," says Gouzd. "The place is caustic. They’re ready to string somebody up by a tree.”

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Hamilton Nolan
Biden's Invisible Border Wall - The Biden administration is expanding surveillance along the Southern border, pushing migrants into harm’s way. https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-border-wall-surveillance-immigration-cbp Thu, 22 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-border-wall-surveillance-immigration-cbp Alone and undocumented, a 24-year-old Mexican man named Joel crossed from Mexico into the dense sand and brush of southern Texas on Oct. 1, 2015, a perilous and exhausting slog. After three days without food, lost and cold, he dialed his sister on a cell phone, saying he had passed a river two hours earlier and then a hunter’s cabin. It was the last time anyone would hear from Joel.

Joel’s sister immediately alerted U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about her brother’s dire state, but the agency refused to launch an emergency search, she says, and her subsequent calls to 911 were redirected back to CBP. To this day, Joel has not been found.

No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid organization, contends that Joel, whose name is a pseudonym, was a victim of a CBP policy known as Prevention Through Deterrence. Adopted in 1994, the policy closed off common points of entry, nominally dissuading migrants from entering the United States but actually just pushing them into remote and often deadly corridors.

Though Biden has pledged a more humane approach to immigration, his administration has kept this brutal “deterrence” policy in place, continuing to construct autonomous surveillance towers along the U.S.- Mexico border. These towers, which stand 33 feet tall and are equipped with night-vision cameras and radar, detect and classify all moving objects. To avoid the towers, migrants often take circuitous (and dangerous) routes.

“[There] is a significant correlation between the location of border surveillance technology, the routes taken by migrants, and the locations of recovered human remains in the southern Arizona desert,” University of Arizona geospatial scientist Samuel Norton Chambers concluded in a January 2019 study. These technologies, Chambers found, create a “funnel effect” that channels border crossers into deadly routes.

While Biden canceled the Trumpian expansion of the border wall, his proposed federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year calls for $291 million in additional funding for Border Patrol (about a 6% increase from fiscal year 2021), in part to expand border surveillance. According to the American Immigration Council, if this proposal is approved, it would be the first time the agency’s budget has exceeded $5 billion, adjusted for inflation.

“Basically, none of the current technologies are being discontinued by the Biden administration—e.g., artificial intelligence, autonomous towers, camera surveillance systems, etc.—and the funding levels look similar if not higher in some areas,” explains Julie Mao, co-founder and deputy director of Just Futures Law, which provides legal support for migrants facing deportation.

Mao believes Congress will approve the request. “I don’t think the numbers will deviate much, and sometimes Congress provides more money than [CBP] requests when it comes to surveillance tech,” she says.

The Biden administration has made no move to cancel a 2014 contract worth up to $239 million (which runs through October) with EFW Inc., a subsidiary of the Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems. (Elbit has also constructed an electronic fence and “smart” towers for Israel’s separation wall in the West Bank and produced an array of weapons used to attack Palestinians in Gaza.)

The administration is similarly honoring an up-to- $250-million agreement with another leading manufacturer of border surveillance towers, Anduril Industries, founded by Palmer Luckey, a billionaire, Trump donor and co-founder of the virtual reality technology company Oculus. That deal extends until 2025. The administration also appears to be honoring a $36.9 million contract with Anduril that expires in 2022.

Surveillance towers like Anduril’s have proliferated along the U.S.-Mexico border at an astonishing rate. Since CBP debuted four of these structures in San Diego County in early 2018, the agency has commissioned 56 more with plans to install another 140 by October 2022.

The Biden administration signaled its intention to renew border surveillance contracts worth several hundred million dollars as early as March, when it updated a draft request to acquire additional “integrated surveillance towers.” The administration’s stated goal is to “detect, track, identify and classify” moving objects—but as with the other towers, their effect will be to push border crossers into isolated areas.

As of September 2019, CBP reports it has recovered the remains of 7,805 people from the Southwest borderlands since the late 1990s, but advocates estimate that Prevention Through Deterrence has killed or disappeared as many as 80,000. Despite the enormous human toll, the Biden administration appears committed to this deterrence strategy, effectively substituting surveillance towers for a physical wall.

The new budget requests and contract renewals also align with the administration’s immigration reform plan, introduced in January, which calls for “smart border controls” that rely on “flexible solutions and technologies that expand the ability to detect illicit activity, evaluate the effectiveness of border security operations, and be easily relocated.” That neatly describes Anduril’s mobile towers, which function in tandem with autonomous drones across the border.

Hoping to “educate” Congress about the need to expand its autonomous surveillance tower program, Anduril spent $260,000 in lobbying during the first quarter of 2021—roughly half of what it spent the entire 2020 fiscal year. Of the 17 lobbyists the company hired, 12 are former government officials, according to OpenSecrets.

This revolving door between the public and private sectors has created what investigative journalist Todd Miller calls a “border-industrial complex” that gives companies like Anduril “tremendous influence” over the government’s short- and long-term strategies. The 13 top Department of Defense contractors working at the border contributed nearly three times as much to the Biden campaign ($5,364,994) as they did to Trump ($1,730,435).

In an open letter published February 25, a coalition of 40 border community, immigrant rights and civil liberties organizations (including Mijente, Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, Rio Grande Valley No Border Wall Coalition, Southern Border Communities Coalition and Just Futures Law, among others) took aim at the Biden administration’s pursuit of a “smart border.”

“This ‘smart border’ surveillance technology is a continuation of the Trump administration’s racist border policies,” the letter reads, “not a break from it.”

Biden’s embrace of border tech mirrors that of Congressional Democrats, but a few progressives appear willing to dissent. In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called for the abolition of the entire Department of Homeland Security, which includes CBP. In a June 2 online forum hosted by Just Futures Law and Mijente, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) voiced concern about border surveillance, even if they haven’t formally condemned the Biden administration’s so-called smart border.

The lives of migrants depend on the sustained resistance against these technologies and against Prevention Through Deterrence. In 2020, the International Organization for Migration registered the deaths of nearly 500 people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. This year’s death toll stands at 133 as of June 28. The real numbers are likely higher, as many deaths go unrecorded.

When migrants are in crisis, “volunteers spend hours and hours calling different numbers and being redirected, often resulting in dead ends,” says Parker Deighan, of the group No More Deaths. “The Biden administration has spoken of increasing the very militarization that leads to these emergencies in the first place.”

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Maurizio Guerrero
Is Gerrymandering Forever? - Gerrymandering guarantees undemocratic elections. Activists in Wisconsin are organizing to win an uphill battle for a fairer process. https://inthesetimes.com/article/gerrymandering-wisconsin-nonpartisan-redistricting-redmap-gop-activists Wed, 21 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/gerrymandering-wisconsin-nonpartisan-redistricting-redmap-gop-activists This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.

High school student Michael Nichols became an activist against gerrymandering as he was wrapping up his senior year in spring 2020.

“All of a sudden in quarantine I got this energy,” the northwest Wisconsin resident says. Nichols believes that gerrymandering—the process of redrawing electoral districts in an intentionally partisan way—is a major roadblock to any meaningful state and federal legislation on climate change, which he considers the most important issue of our time.

States redraw their electoral maps every 10 years (the next time being 2021) based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Congressional districts all represent roughly the same number of people (about 700,000), so population changes demand the districts be reviewed after the new census data comes out. The redistricting process itself is a balancing act of retaining geographic compactness, respecting existing boundaries (such as county lines and school districts), following federal laws (against racial discrimination, for example) and trying to keep communities with shared policy interests grouped together.

The process in Wisconsin leaves the once-a-decade job to state legislators, but Nichols focused in on a bill to amend the state constitution to instead designate a nonpartisan body to draw up electoral maps.

First, Nichols contacted Republican politician David Armstrong, who was campaigning at the time to represent Nichols’ home district in the Wisconsin State Assembly (and started his first term in January). Nichols had a simple question for Armstrong, and asked, using Facebook Messenger: “Are you in favor of the bipartisan bill for nonpartisan redistricting in our state?”

Armstrong promised to get back after he had a chance to read the bill. But a week passed, then another. Several reminders later, Armstrong finally offered a noncommittal reply and asked Nichols what he thought. (Nichols shared screenshots of the conversation with In These Times.)

Nichols explained that gerrymandered districts make it less likely that legislators will work together on urgent issues, such as climate change. Again, Nichols requested Armstrong’s take: “I want to know if you, as my possible representative, would support the bill that would help end gerrymandering.”

Armstrong promised to “look at it” but made clear that nonpartisan redistricting would be a low priority. “I can see you are very liberal in your issues and would more than likely support a liberal candidate,” Armstrong added.

Nichols considers himself an independent voter—someone who goes “back and forth on many issues”—rather than a liberal. Reflecting back on the conversation, Nichols says he was “very shocked” at how Armstrong “labeled me and then kind of pushed me to the side.”

Wisconsin’s nonpartisan redistricting bill failed in April 2020, but has been reintroduced in the current session. In Iowa, nonpartisan legislative staff are primarily responsible for redistricting, consulting the public at statewide hearings and following strict rules that prohibit the use of demographic and voting data. This is a model that many anti-gerrymandering activists favor.

In most states, the state legislature, a partisan body, is tasked with drawing the maps. After Obama’s 2008 election, Republican leadership began to plan an extreme nationwide gerrymandering strategy called “REDMAP,” short for “Redistricting Majority Project,” which launched ahead of the midterm elections in 2010. The goal was to cement GOP power against the tide of demographic and social change that is whittling away its voting bloc.

REDMAP worked exceptionally well for Republicans in Wisconsin, a longtime purple state, by locking in a state-level advantage. Even when Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost his 2018 reelection bid by popular vote, for example, he still carried 63 of the 99 Wisconsin State Assembly districts. Now, activists like Nichols want to undo that power grab and replace it with a fairer districting system—one that reflects the interests of constituents, rather than a particular party.

Back in 2011, most Wisconsinites had no idea their districts were being redrawn this way—because GOP leadership worked in secret, hiring an outside consultant to draw the map in a locked room at a private law firm across from the State Capitol at taxpayers’ expense. Even rank-and-file Republicans were barred from entering the room without signing legal agreements not to discuss the maps, according to court documents. (GOP lawmakers tried to shield the documents from public view, but they were forced out during litigation.)

Email correspondence among Republican legislators also revealed blatantly partisan motivations in drawing the districts. In one email, a state senator listed potential Republican-friendly areas, including what she referred to as “cop wards” in the typically Democratic voting city of Milwaukee. It was like the senator “was at a McDonald’s drive-through, ordering up for voters,” said Vicki Aro-Schackmuth, director of the Waukesha County branch of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, during public testimony in October 2020.

With this kind of gerrymandered map in play, advocates for nonpartisan redistricting say politicians have little incentive to work across party lines, even on popular issues—such as, ironically, nonpartisan redistricting.

In summer 2020, Nichols brought a resolution to the city council of Barron, the municipality closest to his rural home, that called for a nonpartisan redistricting procedure in Wisconsin and a local referendum to put the issue to voters. The resolution passed unanimously.

In the non-binding city referendum that followed in November 2020, 71% of voters said yes to creating “a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional district plans and maps.”

Nichols’ activism for fair maps is part of a grassroots movement, gaining momentum since 2017, of fed-up voters across rural and urban Wisconsin. Too often dismissed by state legislators, these activists are instead spreading their message through resolutions and referendums at the city and county level, with letters to the editor in local newspapers and voter-to-voter education. In May, they rallied at the State Capitol.

Statewide, voters in 32 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have passed referendums (by wide margins) in favor of nonpartisan redistricting, along with 21 municipalities—some as tiny as Manitowish Waters, population 662. Overall, 55 county boards and five municipalities have passed supportive resolutions.

These efforts are legally non-binding, which means the state legislature does not have to listen—unless, as activists hope, judges consider public opinion when the 2021 map (almost inevitably) goes to court in a battle between the GOP-led state legislature and the Democratic governor.

Gerrymandering is not new. The term was coined in 1812 to describe a Massachusetts district so contorted under the administration of Gov. Elbridge Gerry that it looked like a mythological salamander with wings, a “gerry-mander.”

Moon Duchin, a mathematician who leads the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group Lab at Tufts University, calls gerrymandering an “equal opportunity activity.” Maryland, for example, has an “extreme gerrymander” drawn by Democrats, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.

But since the Obama era, gerrymandering and other forms of voter suppression have become a coordinated, nationwide Republican strategy. Funded by major corporate donors (including Walmart and Citigroup) and openly discussed among leadership on the Right, REDMAP started in 2010 as a privately funded Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) project, and to this day its website openly brags about flipping legislative control in 2010 and the “opportunity to create” new Republican congressional districts through redistricting.

Chris Jankowski, a political consultant who ran REDMAP, defended it at the 2019 National Conference of State Legislatures forum by dismissing efforts for nonpartisan redistricting: “The whole fair map concept is tricky. … I don’t see why the government has to create a commission to say, ‘This is what’s fair.’ ”

According to the University of Southern California, the 2018 state legislative elections established “GOP minority rule” in Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—meaning that, despite winning a minority of voters, the GOP still controlled the legislature. Wisconsin, the analysis found, ranks second (to Virginia) for the worst gerrymander in the country. Virginia voters recently approved redistricting reform, however, effectively bumping Wisconsin to the top battleground for reform.

Now, again bolstered by tax-exempt corporate donations, the RSLC is back with a new REDMAP-like project: Right Lines 2020. It positions itself as a defense against “socialism” and “liberal politicians who seek to silence conservative voices through gerrymandering—for the next decade.”

Republican officials are themselves preparing to treat redistricting as “political adult blood sport,” according to audio leaked to Slate from the 2019 annual meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In a closed-door workshop on redistricting, one panelist talked about his success in cornering a Black incumbent Democrat in a mapping “trap” to benefit Republicans. Attendees were advised to toss their notes from the session “if you don’t want it turned over in discovery” in later litigation.

According to anti-gerrymandering activists, the partisan process sours democracy for everyone—by confusing voters, splitting communities, amplifying hyper-partisanship, insulating legislators from voter accountability and stalling problem-solving efforts.

And if voters are the losers, then lobbyists and ideological groups are the winners. Gerrymandering efforts have been connected to the passage of extreme policies that don’t have broad voter support, such as six-week abortion bans, anti-union laws and dismantled employee rights.

Like Jim Crow-era restrictions on voting, gerrymandering often weakens the power of voters of color. In Milwaukee, for example, a map drawn by Republicans created a district that crossed a county line, roping thousands of Black and Latino residents into a district dominated by white suburbanites. This tactic, known as “cracking,” dilutes the potential formation of an oppositional voting bloc. Efforts to “pack” Black voters into a small number of districts in North Carolina were blocked by a 2017 Supreme Court decision, which found North Carolina had racially discriminated against non-white voters in its electoral maps. (In Georgia, an NAACP lawsuit alleging racial gerrymandering was dismissed in 2017 on the grounds that the case proved “discriminatory intent” but failed to prove a “discriminatory effect.”)

Unlike crude voter suppression tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests and physical intimidation, gerrymandering is an increasingly slick and technologically advanced process. As Atlantic senior editor Vann R. Newkirk II put it, today’s political mapmaking “is a multimillion-dollar enterprise, with dozens of high-profile paid consultants, armies of lawyers, terabytes worth of voting data [and] advanced software.”

But voters are catching on.

There was a time when nobody knew what gerrymandering meant,” says Carlene Bechen, organizing director for the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, a grassroots movement to pass nonpartisan redistricting.

Now, a search for “gerrymandering explained” on YouTube brings up dozens of visual explanations using pennies and dimes, blue and red dots, jungle animals, pepperoni pizza and clips from The Simpsons. Bechen’s strategy as an organizer is to engage people in the redistricting process itself. “When you talk to people about the issues they care about, they get that the legislature is out of balance” and unresponsive to voters, she says.

She remembers the pivotal moment she first saw the real-life effects of gerrymandering.

In 2017, Bechen testified at a state-level Joint Committee on Finance budget hearing in Platteville, Wis. It was in a school gym, with committee members sitting “up on a dais at the front.” For 10 hours, the committee heard two-minute testimonies from constituents, overwhelmingly in favor of increasing public education funding.

Public education funding has strong bipartisan support, but the closure of rural schools continues to “decimate rural communities” and the lack of infrastructure continues to hobble urban schools, Bechen says.

At the hearing, it bothered her when committee members got on their phones, as if they weren’t seeing or hearing their constituents. But she says her real anger came when the lawmakers passed a budget that ignored the hearing and allotted “a pittance” to public education.

“That’s the piece that’s more demoralizing and humiliating,” Bechen says. That’s when she realized, “My pleas didn’t matter.” (In the spring, Bechen won office as a write-in candidate for her village board of trustees. She was a “reluctant candidate at best,” she says, but “someone needed to step up to do it. We need people who’ve been paying attention.”)

As of 2020, Wisconsin voters have a new outlet for airing their hopes and frustrations on redistricting: the People’s Maps Commission. The nine-member panel was created by executive order from Gov. Tony Evers (D) to take public input and create new district maps for the Wisconsin legislature to review (though under current Wisconsin law, the legislature is not bound to accept the maps). No one on the panel is an elected official, lobbyist or political party official, and they come from across Wisconsin’s congressional districts.

In the hours of public testimony before the commission in 2020 and earlier this year, one theme emerged: Elected representatives no longer visit, listen to or care about their constituents. Some voters attributed this neglect to the 2010 gerrymander and the dark money that flowed in with it.

“Our voices now go unheard,” an 8th Congressional District resident said. Instead of engaging, her representative sent her a “patronizing form letter.”

Meanwhile, issues “we all agree on” get no action, said Chrysa Ostenso, who runs an optometry clinic in northern Wisconsin. She blames outside money for “why we can’t have Medicaid expansion, which polls high.”

Gerrymandering “explains why the Wisconsin state legislature can get away with doing nothing meaningful about Covid,” a 7th Congressional District resident, Grace Coggio, testified. Her congressman sent out an “insulting survey” at taxpayers’ expense with biased yes/no questions about policing, education and the national debt, just to get “an affirmation of his agenda,” she said.

Brian Ewert, a Marshfield physician who made a failed bid in 2018 to unseat the Republican 7th Congressional District incumbent, lamented that legislators “know they will always be reelected” and their party allegiance takes precedence over voters.

“We have a scorched earth legislature,” Vik Verma, vice chair of the Lincoln County Democrats, testified. He told the commission he moved to Wisconsin from Texas, where gerrymandering “pales in comparison” to Wisconsin—and where he was at least able to have relationships with his Republican representatives.

With a Republican legislature and Democratic governor in power, Wisconsin’s 2021 map is almost certain to end up in court, just as it has every other time in the past 70 years (with the exception of 1971). Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting case—whose lead plaintiff, William Whitford, famously stated, “In a democracy citizens are supposed to choose their legislators. In Wisconsin, legislators have chosen their voters”—ultimately made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it died. A lower court had agreed with the plaintiffs that partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court ruled no harm had actually come of it in this case—Whitford was a Democratic voter in a Democratic district, after all—and punted the issue.

Ultimately, Wisconsin’s new districts remained unchanged. Republicans have retained control, even when losing the statewide aggregate vote, and turned the traditionally purple state red.

Prior to the 2011 redistricting, Wisconsin Democrats could have passed laws to prevent gerrymandering, “but they wanted to rig the maps themselves,” according to Sachin Chheda, director and cofounder of the Fair Elections Project.

Nonpartisan redistricting advocates don’t see gerrymandering as a partisan issue, however.

“Years of frustration of not feeling heard by legislators” is what motivates Patti Herman, a Fair Maps Coalition organizer in Columbia County. She says her representatives “blew it off ” when she brought up fair maps at a listening session.

Her home used to be in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Madison, Wis. It made sense because many Columbia County residents commute the 35 to 45 minutes into the capital. After 2011, Columbia County was switched to the 6th District, lumped in with areas as far north and east as the Lake Michigan port city of Manitowoc, two hours away.

“They’ve rigged the maps across the state,” Herman says. She wants to keep gerrymandering in the public eye so “[legislators] know the people of Wisconsin are watching.”

“You might notice there’s a lot of letters to the editor,” Herman adds. “This is not a one-time concern. This isn’t the flavor of the month.”

Lena Eng, a conservative Christian and longtime Republican in Waukesha County, is the executive director of Voters First Wisconsin. She was inspired to push for nonpartisan redistricting after 2011 to help elect “uniters” to find bipartisan solutions for healthcare, education, foreign debt, immigration and criminal justice reform.

Eng says she respects her Republican representatives, both of whom came into office after the most recent redistricting, but resents being used “as a pawn to turn a blue district red.”

“Politics should be about debating the best ideas, not about demonizing the other side and creating fear,” Eng says. “Fear seems to work, but it’s not what’s healthy for democracy. We’re Americans before we’re Republicans or Democrats.” In her organizing, she says, “It’s been a joy to be able to work alongside the political spectrum.”

Eng also says it’s been a challenge to get fellow conservatives energized about nonpartisan redistricting because the issue “gets downplayed by Republicans.” But she’s heartened by the 2019 Marquette University Law School survey that shows broad overall voter support.

“I think we have to get more people to recognize that the problem is not the other side,” Eng says. “The problem is the system. ... I want to compel my conservative brothers and sisters to do the right thing.”

As the American-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Eng is aware of not looking “like white America,” she says, but now is the time to “show the world that we can be diverse in so many ways and still lead the way in democracy.”

For advocates of nonpartisan redistricting, the 2021 maps are pivotal. An analysis by RepresentUs, a nonpartisan group focused on election reform, found more than half of U.S. states are at risk of “extreme gerrymandering,” while the risk is low in the handful of states where voters have successfully pushed for stronger protections, such as Michigan.

State GOP leaders in Wisconsin argue Republicans simply have a natural geographic advantage because Democrats are more concentrated in cities, but the federal judges who ruled against that logic said it “does not explain adequately the sizeable disparate effect” in elections.

Regardless, many rural residents do not feel spared the effects of gerrymandering.

The Wisconsin Farmers Union, a member-driven advocacy organization founded in 1930, has also taken up the cause. In the climate of “extreme partisanship” created by gerrymandering, Julie Keown-Bomar, executive director, sees issues important to farmers—such as water quality, local control and rural broadband access—get lopsided influence from outside lobbyists. Gerrymandering “just makes it really safe [for legislators],” she says.

Keown-Bomar also pushes back against the notion of the rural-urban political divide. “It’s so simplistic,” she says. “I think the divide is often played out politically out of self-interest. I think we need a much stronger focus on solidarity if we’re going to get anything to happen.”

In October, Keown-Bomar partnered with Angela Lang, a star organizer in Milwaukee and executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, to write an op-ed in support of voter rights.

“Because these politicians know that our government does not serve the vast majority of Wisconsinites, they use hate, division, resentment and anger as a wedge to divide us,” Keown-Bomar and Lang wrote.

“But we aren’t taking the bait. This election season, we’re joining together—Black and white, from the North Side to the Northwoods—to call for a fair election that counts everyone."

Maryum Elnasseh contributed fact checking to this feature.

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Katjusa Cisar
We Are Zoomers and We Want the PRO Act - Gen Z and Millennials are facing a bleak economic future. The answer is to massively expand union membership and democratize workplaces. https://inthesetimes.com/article/zoomers-pro-act-union-labor Tue, 20 Jul 2021 14:15:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/zoomers-pro-act-union-labor Like so many other recent college graduates of Gen Z who are trying to enter the workforce, become financially independent and grow our families, we’re seeing the promised “American dream” drift further and further out of reach.

The economy our generation enters today is defined by rising inequality and stagnant wages. Debilitating student debt and astronomically high costs of living in metropolitan areas have dwindled our chances of achieving the same economic prosperity as previous generations. Our parents worked jobs that didn’t require a college degree and allowed them to purchase homes at a fraction of today’s price. Now that dream feels more like a fantasy for our cohort of younger workers.

Today, Millennials and Gen Z collectively make up 40 percent of the U.S. workforce but own only 5.9 percent of household wealth, while Baby Boomers account for just 25 percent of the workforce but own 53 percent of household net worth. When Baby Boomers were Millennials’ age, they owned more than double the wealth of Millennials today. Our generations won’t have the same stability as our parents and grandparents unless systematic changes are made to reinvigorate a key tool in the workplace that helped generations before us enjoy more economic security: labor unions.

Congress is currently devising a solution that makes it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain through unions. In March, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a bill that would allow gig workers to unionize, legalize solidarity strikes and ban various union-busting tactics that keep workers underpaid and overworked. By expanding access to unionization, the PRO Act strengthens avenues for workers to improve their wages and working conditions. It’s a necessary long-term policy for Millennials and Gen Z to remedy endemic economic inequalities.

Union membership used to be far more common in America, with unions helping workers bargain for fair wages and expansive benefits. But, as union membership declined from 27 percent in 1979 to 10.3 percent in 2019, income inequality soared with the top one percent increasing their income by 160 percent during this period, compared to just a 26 percent increase for the bottom 90 percent. While the average CEO salary has grown by 940 percent since 1978, worker pay has only increased 12 percent over the past 40 years. Our Boomer parents and grandparents aged into the workforce when unions had high levels of membership, giving them power to hold employers accountable for living wages, safer conditions and robust benefits.

Today, meanwhile, Millennial and Zoomer integration into the workforce is characterized by low union membership and stagnant wages, making it significantly harder to afford an education, buy a home and start a family. Even as Millennials and Zoomers become America’s most educated generations, research shows that real wages for high school graduates are 5.5 percent lower than in 2000 and the wages of young college graduates are 2.5 percent lower. These trends raise the stakes of younger workers in the fight to pass the PRO Act.

The PRO Act would help offset weak labor laws that have historically stifled labor organizing. A full 48 percent of non-union workers say they would join a union, but less than 11 percent of workers are unionized because many employers utilize aggressive tactics to squash any organizing efforts. Employers can legally bar union organizers from talking to workers in the workplace and during union elections, nearly 90 percent of employers require workers to attend captive audience meetings where they deliver anti-union messages. The PRO Act would prohibit such tactics, making it far easier for workers to organize.

But what difference would unions make? Examples of organized labor’s successes are all around us. Striking teachers’ unions in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise in 2018, and teachers in Los Angeles won a 6 percent raise in 2019. During the pandemic, when large corporate grocers reaped record profits while refusing to pay their workers hazard pay, UFCW locals led the fight across California to pass $5 hazard pay mandates for essential workers in cities like South San Francisco.

Now is the time for Millennials and Zoomers to demand that the Senate follow the lead of the House and pass the PRO Act. Make calls, send emails, and organize your community. No senator from either party can claim to care about young people or working Americans if they don’t support this bill. A version of the PRO Act is reportedly included in the $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package that Democrats plan to pass through budget reconciliation, meaning it could be closer than ever to becoming law. We can help make that a reality.

The fight to pass the PRO Act is not just about democratizing the workplace, it’s our best shot at building a fair economy and reviving the American dream—for our generation and all those who follow.

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James Coleman and Nick Gonzalez
Social Work Students Decry SSA’s New Name After Crown Family Donation - When the military-industrial complex meets social work. https://inthesetimes.com/article/uchicago-military-industrial-complex Tue, 20 Jul 2021 12:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/uchicago-military-industrial-complex At her remote field placement in late January, master’s student Sara Bovat receives a surprising message: The School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago is changing its name to the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, in recognition of a $75 million donation from James and Paula Crown. When she finds out James Crown is director of the board for General Dynamics Corp., the third-largest defense contractor in the United States, her surprise turns to outrage.

“To think that our social work school would be named after a family that profits off of the military-industrial complex just felt very hypocritical,” Bovat says.

The Crown family’s wealth has been closely tied to General Dynamics for more than 60 years. By 1986, James Crown’s father, Lester, had acquired a 23% stake in the company that was worth more than $700 million. James Crown now receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual compensation through stocks and options, along with an annual retainer for board service.

More than a dozen social work students (including Bovat) published an op-ed in the student-run Chicago Maroon, denouncing the “startling hypocrisy” of the name change. They argued that the Crown family’s “efforts to promote continuous, violent, global conflict” and its “investments in mass weaponry and war run counter to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) values of social justice, dignity, and worth of the person.”

General Dynamics has received billions of dollars in U.S. military contracts for its weapons. In December 2019, the corporation received $22.2 billion—the largest sum ever awarded by the Navy—in a multi-year deal for nuclear-powered submarines.

In early 2019, In These Times reported that General Dynamics bombs killed 97 civilians, including 25 children, in Yemen. General Dynamics received hundreds of millions of dollars in Saudi weapons deals, and its stock price rose from $135 to $169 per share between the start of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015 and May 2019.

In April 2018, the USS John Warner, co-built by a General Dynamics subsidiary, became the first of the new Virginia-class nuclear submarines to engage in combat, firing six Tomahawk missiles in Syria. Although the Pentagon denied any knowledge of civilian casualties, Syrian state television claimed three civilians were injured in the strike.

Master’s student Alexandrea Wilson, who wanted to become a social worker to push back against capitalism, was disillusioned when she heard about the name change.

“If you have money in the system of capitalism, you can do whatever you want,” Wilson says. “For the Crown family to be able to donate such a large amount and have their name put on a school of social work as well known as SSA really says a lot about this system.”

Since February, Wilson says, organizers have met multiple times with school administrators. Demands include reverting SSA’s name, transparency around the conditions attached to the donation, the creation of a student-run oversight board for continuous “input on the allocation of funds,” more scholarship funding and a tuition freeze for current students.

SSA students are not the only ones to raise concerns about the Crown family. In June, artist Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, who has an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, withdrew from activities at the museum, citing museum board member Paula Crown’s ties to General Dynamics.

“It does not feel right to participate in programming for families sponsored by an arms manufacturer profiting from the death of [Palestinian] children,” Hill writes. The F-16 fighter jets Israel uses to bombard Gaza were originally developed by General Dynamics.

On May 24, students launched a letter-writing campaign asking the University of Chicago’s dean to condemn violence against Palestinians. Some SSA students also condemned the University of Chicago’s refusal to divest its endowment from corporations that sell weapons to the Israeli military.

In a statement to In These Times, University of Chicago spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan noted “the Crown family has given generously over several generations to the University, and we are deeply grateful for their support.” McSwiggan also indicated that the Crown gift would increase student financial aid and support faculty research and hiring.

General Dynamics and the Crown family did not respond to comment requests.

As a precedent for challenging philanthropic power, the SSA activists point to Tufts University, which removed the Sackler name from its buildings because of the family’s role in the U.S. opioid crisis. “We propose that this shift is possible at the University of Chicago,” SSA students write in the op-ed, “and it can start with us.”

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Maryum Elnasseh
How Rich Countries Can End Vaccine Apartheid - Unlike world leaders, activists saw the moral crisis coming since the start of the pandemic and quickly came up with a number of actionable plans to create equitable access to life-saving vaccines. https://inthesetimes.com/article/vaccine-apartheid-covax-biden-merkel-rich-countries Mon, 19 Jul 2021 10:30:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/vaccine-apartheid-covax-biden-merkel-rich-countries “The world is in vaccine apartheid,” declared World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in May, highlighting the moral crisis that many activists predicted early on. Relying on vaccine stockpiles in the millions, high-income nations in North America and Europe have been racing since December to vaccinate their populations against Covid-19, including people at a lower risk of death or hospitalization. Meanwhile, ever-more-transmissible variants of the coronavirus have continued to claim countless lives in low-income countries where, in many cases, even frontline workers have yet to receive a single dose.

In contrast to world leaders, who seem to be more willing to issue press releases about their commitment to end the pandemic worldwide than take any meaningful action, activists have come up with a range of policy proposals to get us out of vaccine apartheid as quickly as possible. Since the start of the pandemic, global justice activists have been working around the clock to stop the harms of medical patents while also developing proactive plans to help the world manufacture enough Covid-19 vaccines. Since Ghebreyesus’ May warning, however, little has changed on the global stage in terms of vaccine distribution, even as it becomes increasingly clear with the proliferation of new variants that, as activists say, this pandemic will not end anywhere until it ends everywhere.

Rather than make the bold moves activists have called for, U.S. President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and their G7 peers consistently point towards their largely inadequate contributions to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, or COVAX, as evidence they are addressing the global divide. Funded partially by the Gates Foundation, COVAX is a vaccine-sharing initiative set up to ensure immunizations worldwide, but it has consistently fallen short of its targets, and has so far delivered just over 120 million doses of the roughly 16 billion needed to vaccinate the globe.

Perhaps the most surprising development in recent months has centered on activists’ call for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend key patent rules for Covid-19 vaccines under its Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. After months of sustained grassroots pressure, President Biden shocked pharmaceutical companies in early May by backing the TRIPS waiver, a step that could allow manufacturers around the world to begin to develop cheaper, generic versions of the billions of vaccines urgently needed. And yet there has been little meaningful movement on this front, and the WTO announced in May it was aiming to finalize the TRIPS waiver in early December, even as thousands continue to die daily, an outcome that is largely preventable.

Activists say the proposed patent waiver, which was immediately opposed by Western pharmaceutical companies, is an important step because it would remove an obstacle to vaccine access. “If you think of vaccine-making as a race, a patent waiver is permission to enter the race,” said Achal Prabhala, coordinator of AccessIBSA, a project that campaigns for access to medicines and vaccines in India, Brazil and South Africa. “The reason that it's important to have a WTO process rather than rely on companies to relinquish their intellectual property is that sometimes the companies don't actually own their intellectual property. In most cases, every single vaccine that comes to market has been kind of cobbled together through patents from a range of different places that can be licensed, and then can be sublicensed. Some of those patents will be owned by the company that makes the vaccine, but definitely not all.”

“There are typically anywhere between 100 to 200 patents covering each of these vaccines,” the activist explains. “A blanket waiver of the kind that we're asking for really just removes all those legal obstacles,” he says, and prevents vaccine manufacturers worldwide from having to negotiate with various companies.”

Prabhala, who has been advocating for a people’s vaccine and a patent waiver since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, says the TRIPS waiver will ensure that vaccine manufacturers do not face lawsuits for using patented vaccine recipes or related technology.

But ideally, activists say, an international response would go beyond merely removing an obstacle to vaccine access, and proactively help the world attain the vaccine in quantities large enough to stem the crisis. For example, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been urging wealthy countries that have vaccinated 20% of their populations to donate the rest of their stockpiles to COVAX. This, the humanitarian medical organization argues, is the fastest way to get as many shots in arms worldwide immediately, especially given that the world’s wealthiest countries have bought enough vaccines to immunize their own populations several times over.

“We're now seeing rich countries hoarding the vaccines,” Lara Dovifat, campaign manager for MSF’s Access Campaign, told In These Times. “Rich countries are also making it difficult for poor countries to access medical tools—not only vaccines, but also potential treatments. One percent of people in developing countries have actually received one dose of 3.54 billion doses distributed worldwide. We have seen rich countries referring to their great commitments to COVAX, but [clearly] the delivery schedule is not really moving forward.”

“COVAX was probably always going to be inadequate, which is not the same as saying it's not important,” says Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines campaign. “COVAX needs our support, and countries should meet the WHO Director General's full funding request and get vaccines to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. It's also the case that COVAX on its own can't really retrofit manufacturing on the scale that's needed.”

Dovifat also echoes a recent statement from the WHO condemning Pfizer and Moderna for pushing wealthy countries to consider vaccine boosters for their populations in the coming months as the majority of the world remains unvaccinated. Rather than give a third shot to people who have already built up significant immunity, WHO officials and activists like Dovifat and Maybarduk argue these 800 million shots should be going to other countries through COVAX or other supply routes.

Dose-sharing, while the most immediate approach, is not the only thing activists at MSF and elsewhere are advocating for. As Prabhala, who calls COVAX a “ridiculous system that was designed to fail," wrote in a recent piece for the Atlantic, “Relying solely on philanthropy or existing manufacturers has not produced enough vaccine doses—and is unlikely to do so in the future.” Western governments could help countries source the raw materials needed for developing Covid-19 vaccines to avoid a global bidding war over the necessary ingredients. And rather than use supply shortages as an excuse for delays, Prabhala adds, rich countries could also assist in the search for “second sources”—ingredients that can be used as replacements for materials that may be harder to acquire.

Another step is ensuring companies such as Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson share not just their vaccine recipes but also their technology with manufacturers. As Prabhala and economist Joseph Stiglitz described in a Project Syndicate piece last year, the WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISR) already provides a successful model for the kind of knowledge-sharing and international scientific cooperation needed to address pandemics. Western governments also already have a lot more power to facilitate this process than they let on, Prabhala says.

“The U.S. owns Moderna’s mRNA technology and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to a large extent, having funded almost their entire cost of research and development,” says Prabhala, “Therefore, [the government] can force them to share their technology.”

The U.S., British and German governments all poured large amounts of public money into developing the four vaccines that are currently commonly used. Most notably, as Prabhala indicates, the U.S. federal government has spent $6 billion dollars on the vaccine developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Cambridge biotech company Moderna, prompting some to call it the people’s vaccine. Activists argue that this funding should in theory provide Western governments with leverage to compel the pharmaceutical companies involved to, at the very least, license their vaccines to more manufacturers. But leaders have allowed companies to retain full control over the government-funded vaccines.

By contrast, says Prabhala, some vaccine projects, such as those in Russia, Mexico, and Cuba, have been “completely willing to share technology and licensing of their vaccines.” Each vaccine comes with its own unique set of conditions, processes and ingredients, making some vaccines, like the Sinovac-CoronaVac vaccine developed in China, harder to manufacture than others. It turns out, however, that among the least difficult to make are the mRNA vaccines developed by NIH-Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech scientists. Based on this, the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen created a detailed plan in May for the United States to lead the way in producing enough Covid-19 vaccines to immunize the world’s entire population in one year.

“Leaders, including President Biden, can retrofit existing vaccine manufacturing facilities and other existing manufacturing facilities to produce safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines within six months all over the world,” says Maybarduk.

By following Public Citizen’s proposal, developed by chemical engineer Dr. Zoltán Kis and law and policy researcher Zain Rizvi, Maybarduk says a global network of manufacturers could “start churning out billions more doses, such that a year from now we'd have 8 billion doses of safe and effective mRNA vaccines that could make up the global shortfall and save a million lives and trillions of dollars.” According to Maybarduk, Public Citizen estimates that the cost of producing each Covid-19 vaccine could be as low as $30 per dose.

The Biden administration, Maybarduk told In These Times, could use existing legal frameworks, including the Defense Production Act, to require Moderna and Pfizer to share their taxpayer-funded technology and knowledge as the same time the U.S. government itself worked to “build the manufacturing capacity, coordinate the supply lines, and train the staff technical assistance” globally. The plan would ultimately create a network of regional vaccine production hubs that could later be used for any number of future disease outbreaks. The activist points out that an iteration of this idea is already taking shape in South Africa as the African continent suffers a deadly third wave.

“The South Africa mRNA hub that was announced by the World Health Organization is a more medium-term version [of the plan Public Citizen put forward],” says Maybarduk. “It is critically important for changing pandemic preparedness for the future and creating a greater degree of vaccine sufficiency for Africa. But it's possible to do that on urgent footing to make a difference in this pandemic that requires much more political leadership that we've yet to see.”

As many activists have highlighted, there is plenty Western governments and companies can do to end vaccine apartheid. However, there is a role for everyday people to play as well. For one thing, deputy director of Justice Is Global, Ben Levenson, told In These Times that people in the United States and all over the world can join activists in direct actions and other forms of protest centered on ending the pandemic worldwide. Justice Is Global, a project run by the People’s Action coalition, is one of several grassroots movements working to raise awareness about vaccine apartheid, as well as increase pressure on leaders to improve access to Covid-19 vaccines. According to Levenson, the Biden administration’s shift on the TRIPS waiver is a great example of the power activism has to affect real change.

“We did change the U.S. government's position on the TRIPS waiver, which breaks the veneer of this being too big, too inaccessible,” says the activist.

It’s not just the U.S. government that activists have set their sights on, either. Ahead of Merkel’s meeting with Biden last Thursday, MSF called for the U.S. leader to pressure his German counterpart to support the TRIPS waiver, while Justice Is Global held protests outside both the German embassy and the Pfizer headquarters in New York.

“With enough people power and with the right plans that are serious and grounded in human needs and sound public health solutions,” says Levenson, “we can actually change the way that the whole [global public health] structure operates.”

Ria Modak contributed research to this article, and Antonia von Litschgi transcribed interviews.

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Natasha Hakimi Zapata
In Wisconsin, an Overzealous Hunt Decimated the Local Wolf Population - A new report shows legal and illegal killings wiped out as much as a third of the state’s gray wolf population in 2021. https://inthesetimes.com/article/in-wisconsin-an-overzealous-hunt-decimated-the-local-wolf-population Fri, 16 Jul 2021 08:30:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/in-wisconsin-an-overzealous-hunt-decimated-the-local-wolf-population This article was published in collaboration with UpNorthNews and In These Times' The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.

Wolf biologists and tribal nations voiced their objections going into Wisconsin’s court-ordered gray wolf hunt last February, and they were even more dismayed with how the hunt was planned and executed—early reports showed hunters killed almost double the allotted number of wolves.

But that startling figure only represents officially documented kills. Now that researchers have had time to assess the full extent of the hunt’s damage, they’ve found the outcome was far worse than initially reported: According to a report published by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, legal and illegal killings wiped out as much as a third of the state’s gray wolf population.

After the Trump administration announced on Oct. 29, 2020 that it would remove gray wolves from the endangered species list, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) started planning a wolf hunt for fall 2021. But on Feb. 11, in response to a lawsuit from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and a Kansas hunting organization, Jefferson County Judge Bennett Brantmeier ordered the DNR to organize a hunt by the end of the month.

The hunt began less than two weeks later, on Feb. 22, and the DNR shut it down in just 39 hours given the high initial kill totals. Hunters had 24 hours after closing to finish reporting their kills, and when the final numbers came in, the death toll stood at 216 wolves, almost double the DNR’s quota of 119.

There could have been even more wolf deaths; Wisconsin’s tribal nations declined to exercise their right to kill 81 wolves in their territories.

This month, the team of wolf researchers, headed by Adrian Treves with the Carnivore Coexistence Lab at UW-Madison, published a report that estimated that the wolf population had decreased by 27%-33% from an estimated population of 1,034 in April 2020 —leaving an estimated population range of 695-751 wolves as of April 15, 2021.

Treves estimates an additional 98 to 105 wolves have been killed since their delisting was announced, but he cautioned the number of unreported killings “could be much higher.”

“We only made bulletproof assumptions ... that were more cautious, based on peer reviewed science,” Treves said in an interview.

He continued, “What it means is that our estimates of the population are, really, plausible maximum population status. It could be quite lower.”

Francisco Santiago-Ávila, a co-author on the study, said the additional killed wolves were likely the victims of illegal poaching, based on other research co-authored by Treves that found deslisting or downgrading wolves from their protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) leads to an increase in poaching.

“When you're reducing protections for wolves in any way, be it through downgrading or delisting from the ESA ... you're sending a signal to would-be poachers on the landscape that either there are too many wolves on the landscape or that they are not valued as much anymore,” Santiago-Ávila said. “That essentially may incentivize the culling and concealing of wolves that are never reported.”

Santiago-Ávila said other potential reasons for losing track of the wolves—such as tracking collar malfunctions or migration—do not adequately explain the high number of wolves that go missing when their ESA status changes.

“The policy itself wouldn't affect those two mechanisms,” Santiago-Ávila said. “The policy affects human behavior.”

Even before the report was published, Peter David, a biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC)—which regulates hunting, fishing, and gathering on tribal lands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota—said he had already suspected the hunt was going to have an outsized impact on the wolf population.

According to David, the quota set by the DNR was higher than what scientific models recommended for the DNR to reach its stated goal of having no impact on the wolf population. The timing of the wolf hunt was particularly problematic: February is the point when the wolf population is the lowest and the beginning of the wolf breeding season; hunts are typically held in late fall or early winter.

“[The February hunt] is really unlike any other wolf harvest anywhere, that it was completely concentrated within that window,” David said. “All the factors make me think that the impact of this harvest was very substantial.”

Holding the hunt during the breeding season affects wolves’ ability to breed and return the population to pre-hunt levels. Charlie Rasmussen, also with GLIFWC, said GLIFWC biologists who examined some of the donated carcasses from the hunt found that one was an impregnated female with nine developing wolf fetuses.

“It was a difficult examination for GLIFWC biologists to do,” Rasmussen said.

Treves’ study recommended against holding a wolf hunt this November, which David and Rasmussen said is also the opinion of GLIFWC and the tribes they represent. There is precedent for this kind of policy shift: DNR announced this month that it will cancel the sharp-tailed grouse hunt for the third year in a row to protect that population. If this fall’s wolf hunt is cancelled, Treves’ study estimated it would take the wolf population one to two years to rebound to it’s April 2020 level.

More broadly, all of the researchers interviewed for this story agreed that there is no need to manage the wolf population at all.

“It's important to recognize that wolves are very good at regulating their own numbers,” David said. “Because of their territorial behavior and other aspects, their numbers never get very high. And if you look at neighboring Minnesota or the upper peninsula of Michigan, both of those wolf populations have essentially plateaued without any hunting to drive their numbers down.”

Pro-hunt advocates argue the hunt is a way to mitigate the risk of wolves preying on livestock, other wild game, such as deer, or their risk to humans and pets. David said those arguments don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

While livestock predation is a legitimate concern, David said, a wolf hunt is not an effective way to address the issue. Instead, he said it’s more effective to continue using the system in which farmers contact federal officials who investigate the attacks and can take a number of steps to address the situation, such as killing or relocating the wolf.

“That kind of a response is very timely and it's very targeted to the location and to the wolves that might be involved,” David said.

By contrast, David pointed out that nine of the ten of the wolves killed during the last hunt were more than eight miles from any confirmed sites where wolves had killed livestock.

“There's very little reason to think that any appreciable number of those wolves were actually involved in depredations,” David said.

As for the arguments about human safety, David pointed out that it's incredibly rare for a wolf to attack a human, and in those cases, addressing that individual wolf is more effective than a statewide hunt.

In response to hunters’ concerns about wolves killing deer, Treves argued that there are benefits to wolves preying on deer. For example, one study found that counties with wolves have lower rates of vehicles colliding with deer on the road.

Furthermore, Treves said, “In a state with over a million deer that are acknowledged to do hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to crops and ornamentals and vehicles, we actually need more apex predators in this state to control the overwhelming deer population that's acknowledged by scientists and public officials to be causing us a lot of problems.”

David also pointed to evidence that wolves help control the spread of chronic wasting disease, which is a substantial threat to the deer population and people or predators who consume infected deer. Overall, the researchers said, scientific studies have found that the benefits of having a healthy wolf population outweigh the small risks.

David doubts that ecological concerns are the true motivation for pro-hunt advocates, especially given the evidence that wolves benefit the natural environment. Instead, he believes the pro-hunt movement is motivated by novelty and revenge.

“It's a novelty hunting experience, and it's an opportunity to harvest something that people haven't harvested before,” David said. “And for some people it's truly a vengeance hunt ... on occasion, [people] will lose dogs to wolves, when they're training their dogs especially, and wolves have pups that they will defend. And this was a chance for, I think, the community to get revenge on the wolf population.”

Meanwhile, David argued, the cultural significance of the wolf to the Ojibwe “doesn’t get taken very seriously.” The tribes have told the DNR they do not support holding a wolf hunt this fall.

David and other biologists are the first to admit there’s a lot that researchers still don’t know about wolves and their ecological role. But David thinks that, given what humans do know, the DNR should seriously consider leaving wolf management to Mother Nature.

“I think oftentimes we are a bit arrogant and at what we think we understand,” David said. “Wolves are a natural part of this landscape for an incredibly long time, and ecologically, it's reasonable to think that they have a valuable role here. And in all likelihood, we have barely scratched the understanding of that, so we need to be a little bit humble and give nature the benefit of the doubt.”

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Christina Lieffring and Jonathon Sadowski
"How Many More Have to Die?" Protesters March Against Vaccine Apartheid - Campaigners are targeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel—and the pharmaceutical companies she is protecting. https://inthesetimes.com/article/vaccine-apartheid-pfizer-merkel-protests-new-york Thu, 15 Jul 2021 18:07:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/vaccine-apartheid-pfizer-merkel-protests-new-york On Wednesday, activists took to the streets to call on the United States and Germany to suspend patent rules for the Covid-19 vaccine, in order to expand global access to vaccines. A day ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House, more than 100 protesters marched from the United Nations’ Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza and passed the German Consulate before making their way to the headquarters of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in Midtown Manhattan.

They had a clear message for the rich and powerful: Public health, and not pharmaceutical industry greed, should shape the global response to the pandemic.

The protest was led by People’s Action, a national grassroots coalition, and cosponsored by a number of advocacy groups including Health Gap, the Center for Popular Democracy, Metro NY Health Care for All, and Religions for Peace. Protesters traveled to New York City from New Jersey, Wisconsin, Maryland, Alabama, Washington, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. to make their voices heard.

As rich nations race to vaccinate their populations, a severe lack of access to vaccines for poor countries has led to the mutation of Covid-19 into the increasingly dominant Delta variant. While 80% of the world’s vaccine supply has gone to upper income countries, only 1% of people in low-income countries have received their first vaccine shots.

“I’m from Pakistan. My aunt died from Covid-19,” says Manzoor Cheema, a grassroots organizer with Muslims for Social Justice in North Carolina, who traveled to New York for the protest. “People are dying and these people are talking about profit—that’s criminal. They have blood on their hands.”

Activists say the international disparity in vaccines stems from an unjust global system in which pharmaceutical industry profits are protected at all costs. In December 2020, India and South Africa called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suspend patent rules for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments under the body’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Advocates of the proposal argue that these patent rules have obstructed the mass production of cheaper, generic versions of vaccines by prioritizing the protection of the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies.

The WTO can suspend patent restrictions on the vaccine by reaching a consensus with member nations, but Germany has stood firm in its opposition to the waiver. Germany has argued that the suspension of the patent would hinder future innovation and that the lack of availability to the vaccine in poor countries is a matter of production capacity, not patents.

But activists do not buy these arguments. “[Pharmeceutical companies] want to protect their monopoly because it’s a cash cow,” says Reginald Thomas Brown an organizer with VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that works with people affected by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration and homelessness. “This vaccine is possible because of federal funds, taxpayer funds."

Brown, who has been HIV positive since 1986, knows first-hand how important access to generic medications is: He says one of the HIV medications he takes costs over far more in the United States than in India, thanks to India’s generic drugs industry. Brown was among the first people in the United States to receive the Covid-19 vaccine in September 2020 as part of a 26-month study. “I put my life on the line in order to get this vaccine available. Now I'm putting my life on the line to get the vaccine available to people who cannot get it,” Brown says.

In attendance were a number of healthcare professionals, including Dr. Lipi Roy, the medical director of Covid-19 isolation sites for Housing Works in New York City. “Right now only 10% of the globe is vaccinated,” says Dr. Roy. “We will never get through this pandemic until we make sure that the Covid-19 vaccines are available to every person on the planet.”

Chants of “pharma, pharma, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side” and “no more pharma greed, global vaccines is what we need” rang out as protesters marched to the German consulate.

The New York protest is one of several across the country timed to coordinate with Chancellor Merkel’s visit. In May, the Biden-Harris administration reversed its position and came out in support of a vaccine waiver after intense pressure from Democratic lawmakers and over 100 countries.

“This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures,” U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement in May. “The Administration believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending the pandemic, support the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

Organizers hope that President Biden will pressure Merkel to reverse course and allow the WTO to move forward with the vaccine waiver.

But protesters didn’t just target world leaders: They also turned their focus to pharmaceutical companies that are making huge profits from global intellectual property rules they played a role in shaping. Chants of “how many more have to die before you break the patents?” could be heard as protesters found themselves at their final destination—Pfizer headquarters.

The crowd quieted and a healthcare professional took the mic. “As a physician, I am going to be risking arrest shortly. I do that in the spirit of ‘do not harm.’”

With that, over a dozen people formed a line in front of Pfizer’s headquarters to block the entrance of what appeared to be an empty building. After several moments and a small change of plans, dozens of protesters moved into the streets to block traffic in a move they felt would be more disruptive. (Protesters held the street for an hour before being moved by police, and no arrests were ultimately made.)

“I wasn't here to witness the walking dead,” said Brown, referring to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept the nation in the 1980s, as he sat defiantly in the middle of 42nd street. “But I'm picking up from where they left off.”

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Indigo Olivier
The For the People Act Isn’t Dead - Don’t believe the pundits—there’s a growing grassroots movement to save American democracy and pass sweeping voting rights reform. https://inthesetimes.com/article/for-the-people-act-democracy-manchin-biden-filibuster-voting-rights Thu, 15 Jul 2021 12:59:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/for-the-people-act-democracy-manchin-biden-filibuster-voting-rights The pundits are saying that the For the People Act (FTPA)—the Democrats’ historic voting rights and anti-corruption bill—is dead. It’s not, but perhaps it’s easier to craft a narrative around the futility of legislative efforts than to fairly chronicle a necessary but uphill battle.

On the morning of June 22, ahead of the Senate vote to move to debate on the FTPA, for example, Politico Playbook explained that the bill was “set to die” and would be killed “once and for all” after the Republicans filibustered it, which they ultimately did after 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats backed the motion to proceed on the bill. Moreover, according to Politico, the FTPA has “always been a messaging bill—a check-the-box move allowing party leaders to tell the left they tried.” Why was this pro-democracy legislation derided as a “messaging bill” and now unable to be resurrected? It was never explained.

Pundits have long peddled this form of defeatism around the legislation. The Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus declared the bill was dead in early June and that Sen. Joe Manchin signed its “writ of execution” (within weeks of the proclamation, Manchin actually voted to proceed to debate on the FTPA). The New York Times’ Nate Cohn, likewise, has for months criticized the bill, calling it, among other things, “destined to fail,” and claiming it does not represent “even [a] serious effort” to get legislation passed. And ahead of President Biden’s July 13 Philadelphia speech on voting rights, MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan said that the FTPA “died in the Senate last month because of the filibuster,” leading White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki to shoot back, “I’m not going to accept that it died. We’re still fighting for it.”

Rarely do these pundits provide evidence for their claims, mainly relying on personal interpretations about events and discussions to which they likely aren’t privy. (So too do they conveniently ignore the repeated statements from Democratic leadership that the bill remains alive.) Worse yet, these ostensible experts who pontificate about political pragmatism and what is “realistic” are ignoring—or worse, erasing—the grassroots activism taking place across the country to get this bill passed. The reality is that momentum is growing and pressure is mounting to make the FTPA the law of the land. And activists are not deterred by Washington “wisdom” or the limits of the filibuster.

The FTPA is the most critical fair elections and anti-corruption bill in generations. It would, among other things, curb voter suppression, make voting easier and more accessible, outlaw partisan gerrymandering of congressional elections, and reduce the influence of big money in politics while empowering small donors. It is not hyperbole to claim that this bill would bring us closer than we’ve ever been to a government of, by, and for the people. For this reason, grassroots activists are refusing to give up.

The Declaration for American Democracy (DFAD), for example, is a coalition of over 200 member organizations, including the Common Cause, RepresentUs, Indivisible and the NAACP. The coalition is working to realize the promise of democracy by passing the FTPA, restoring the Voting Rights Act, and fighting for D.C. statehood. DFAD teamed up with Indivisible to launch a national mobilization campaign called “Deadline for Democracy” to prompt local organizing, increase public awareness and ignite urgency around the passage of the FTPA. These groups recognize that if we want to prevent voter suppression and gerrymandering in the 2022 midterm elections, we cannot afford to procrastinate on FTPA’s passage. The campaign has held hundreds of events across the country.

Channeling the powerful legacy of the civil rights movement that won the original Voting Rights Act, Black Voters Matter has travelled from Mississippi to Washington D.C. on “freedom rides” to engage Black voters about issues disproportionately impacting their communities. The group’s goals include building Black voting power and advocating for passage of the FTPA. In an effort to mobilize young voters and voters of color around the FTPA, Fair Fight Action launched “Hot Call Summer,” a campaign directing daily phone calls to senators from every state to increase constituent pressure. Similarly, other organizations like Common Cause, RepresentUs and End Citizens United have been hosting phone banks with constituents calling legislators in favor of the FTPA.

The fight to pass the FTPA is also a fight to end or change the filibuster. Without filibuster reform, the bill cannot pass. After all, no Republicans will agree to even the most modest of improvements to our system of voting. As a result, democracy activists are concurrently targeting the filibuster. The DFAD coalition, along with other grassroots groups, recently organized a rally at the capitol in Washington D.C. to demand that their senators take action on reforming or eliminating the filibuster. Many of these same groups are also part of the Fix Our Senate coalition, composed of organizations focused on issues ranging from labor rights to environmental justice. This week, the coalition is working to pressure President Biden to take a stand against the filibuster.

Getting all 50 senators who caucus with the Democrats to agree on bold reform while also ditching the filibuster is a moonshot. But activists recognize the stakes and are willing to put their bodies on the line for democracy. Driven by the belief that poor and low-wealth people must be active participants in our political process, in late June the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a “Moral March on Manchin and McConnell'' to “stand against voter suppression, the filibuster, and political retrogression.” In Washington D.C., the co-chair of the campaign, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, was arrested along with 20 other demonstrators, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, for obstructing traffic to fight for the FTPA. The Poor People’s Campaign is now engaging in “A Season of Nonviolent Moral Direct Action to Save Our Democracy” that will last until August 8th. Other voting rights activists are following suit. In Arizona, for example, ten activists were arrested outside of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office last month for protesting her reluctance to reform the filibuster.

There are countless other examples of citizen pressure to pass the FTPA, ranging from digital campaigns involving celebrities, to virtual town halls involving both politicians and grassroots leaders, to on-the-ground canvasses. What they all share in common is the belief that this fight will be decided by the people, not Washington insiders.

Pundits have a tendency to underestimate movements for democracy reform. Few predicted that a small group of dedicated Floridians could successfully run a ballot initiative in 2018 to overturn a Jim Crow constitutional provision indefinitely banning anyone convicted of a felony from voting. But they did. Nor did conventional wisdom say that ranked choice voting advocates could win on the ballot in Maine not once, but twice. As writer David Daley explains in Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy, this country has actually seen a slew of recent improbable victories for voting rights and democracy.

The mobilization around the FTPA is already generating success. Despite previously announcing his opposition to the bill, following grassroots pressure, Sen. Joe Manchin voted to move to debate on the FTPA. And the fact that House and Senate Democrats have prioritized the legislation in the first place is a product of years of activism around addressing our democracy crisis.

This is not enough, of course. Sen. Manchin still must be pressured to support the FTPA in full, and the filibuster requires reform. Moreover, anti-democratic forces like Mitch McConnell-aligned One Nation are spending millions of dollars on misinformation campaigns, and the Republican Party is hell bent on killing this bill at any cost.

Yet, despite the roadblocks and smear campaigns, the bill remains incredibly popular, which should embolden those who care about preserving our democracy. In one of the first national polls since the GOP filibustered the FTPA, Data for Progress and Equal Citizens found that 62 percent of likely voters say that they support the bill, including 85 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Independents. This popularity is consistent with other polling, suggesting that the onslaught of GOP attacks against the bill have not undermined overall public appetite for a more accessible and expansive democracy.

While much more work remains to be done, including by President Biden himself, the White House is not ready to accept that the FTPA is dead. There’s no reason for anyone else to accept that, either.

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Mahnoor Imran and Adam Eichen
Striking Frito Lay Workers Say They Deserve More Than Crumbs - Worker Cheri Renfro speaks out from Topeka, Kansas, where Frito Lay workers have been on strike since July 5. https://inthesetimes.com/article/frito-lay-workers-strike-disprespect-long-hours-topeka-kansas Thu, 15 Jul 2021 11:24:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/frito-lay-workers-strike-disprespect-long-hours-topeka-kansas Hundreds of workers at the Frito Lay manufacturing and distribution plant in Topeka, Kansas, have been on strike since July 5. Workers at Frito Lay have endured years of disrespect and many at the plant have seen their wages stagnate and fall behind other employers in the area. On top of that, workers have been caught in a horrible cycle that was greatly exacerbated by COVID 19: While more people were staying home during the pandemic and eating a lot more chips, the incredibly high turnover at Frito-Lay has meant that folks who have stayed on have been forced to work longer hours, with some pulling 12-hour shifts seven days a week for weeks on end. In this urgent episode, we talk with Cheri Renfro, who has worked at the Frito-Lay plant in Topeka for 9 years and is currently on strike.

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Maximillian Alvarez
The Future of the Movement for Black Lives - Urban rebellions blossomed into mass mobilization upon George Floyd's death. Now what? https://inthesetimes.com/article/organizing-movements-mobilizing-rebellion-resist Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/organizing-movements-mobilizing-rebellion-resist The movement moment we now find ourselves in, full of urban rebellions blossoming into thousands of actions (including blocking traffic, canvassing communities and protesting the police), has been building for years in response to the intensifying campaign to criminalize low-income Black communities. Social movements develop over long periods as material conditions change; the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement can be traced to Black participation in WWII.

Arguably, this movement moment began in earnest on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla., with the killing of Trayvon Martin. The Black community erupted in protest to pressure government officials—the same ones criminalizing us—to use their power to help us. The murder of George Floyd in 2020 marked another turning point, as the community in Minneapolis rose up—spontaneously—with raw outrage and grit in an urban rebellion that shook the city and the world.

As unplanned expressions of outrage, however, urban rebellions burn hot and short. The spontaneity and raw emotion draw attention, but the lack of political direction, coordination and organization produces unpredictable results.

Mass mobilizations represent the evolution of outrage into opposition—against specific policies, laws or practices. In Minneapolis, the outrage against George Floyd’s murder that first found expression in urban rebellion was then articulated as opposition to clearly defined injustices: police brutality and terrorism, the criminalization of Black communities, the school-to-prison pipeline, the use of traffic violations as government revenue centers, the unwillingness of district attorneys to prosecute cops who harm Black people, the militarization of the police, and so on.

Countless local communities have followed the same path from urban rebellion to mass mobilization, with pro- tests spreading in response to brutal police actions, like the shooting of Jacob Blake (who is now paralyzed) and the killings of Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo and so many others. These protests, which continue to grow as of this writing, have been creative, poignant and powerful.

Everyday people have put their bodies (and freedom) on the line to bring attention to the terror leveled against Black communities. Many are engaging in protest for the first time in their lives. Others are renewing their involvement, initially sparked by Ferguson (or Occupy, or other movements), or continuing a long commitment to fighting against systems of injustice and for the liberation of all African people. Whatever the case, these protesters—particularly the substantial number of Black youth, women, and queer, trans and intersex folx that rose to leadership—are displaying resolve, consistency and dedication in expanding protests against police terror.

But history does not judge a movement by the sheer number of its protests, the wittiness of its slogans or the creativity of its actions. Instead, social movements are judged by their analysis of the underlying power dynamics and social issues, the demands they pursue to rectify those issues and the extent to which they achieve their demands. In this respect—and in spite of the bright spots—the movement as a whole has fallen woefully short of abolishing the prison industrial complex.

In its first evolution, the movement transitioned from raw outrage (i.e., urban rebellion) to defined opposition (i.e., mass mobilization). Now it is time for a second evolution. To oppose a policy or practice (police violence), protesters must pressure those in power to change their behavior—therefore, we mobilize. But to build a sustainable movement capable of shifting power to the Black community, we must take power ourselves— therefore, we must organize.

Organizing entails solid analysis—of the economic and social power dynamics and fundamental root issues in play (and a set of demands to address them), and of the common objectives and principles that unite the movement (and strategies and tactics to achieve them). It also requires a vision of the world that is possible. To build a new future with power centered in the hands of Black communities, the movement en masse must quickly evolve from defining what we are fighting against (police terrorism, funding police departments, etc.) to envisioning and articulating what we are fighting for.

A failure to properly organize dooms us to lose this historic opportunity and condemns the victims of police terror to endure more abuse. Our ability to organize is what will allow us to understand that the indictments of cops (like George Floyd’s murderer) are concessions of the state, not victories, and given only because of our ability to threaten capital en masse.

The establishment we are fighting against is organized— and actively fighting for the hearts and minds of our people. Put another way, we are against a well-developed empire.

Truly challenging that empire requires mass organization.

As Frantz Fanon famously wrote in his foundational work, The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” Our mission is to shift power to the powerless Black people, and to organize a mass movement to wield that power.


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M Adams
Voter Suppression Is White Supremacy. It Must Be Stopped. - In recent years, down-ballot wins across the country have legalized marijuana, overturned Jim Crow-era election law, and hiked minimum wages. The GOP’s campaign to suppress the Black vote threatens wins like these. https://inthesetimes.com/article/voter-suppression-white-supremacy-elections-black-lives-matter Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/voter-suppression-white-supremacy-elections-black-lives-matter The defeat of Donald Trump followed a summer of uprisings. As his administration emboldened white nationalists and the police brutalization of Black people, our communities organized— mobilizing millions of Black voters for historic turnout.

The issues that really impact Black voters are not often at the top of the ticket. They are at the bottom of the ballot, closest to the grass roots. Even in states like Missouri, controlled by a GOP trifecta—where President Joe Biden lost by 15.4 points— ballot initiatives allow voters to advance progressive policies that will shift material conditions in our communities.

Despite NPR and the New York Times dismissing down-ballot results as disappointing, in 2020, Missouri voters passed a Medicaid expansion measure to increase access to healthcare in one of the most restrictive states in the country. And St. Louis elected Rep. Cori Bush to the House—where she immediately joined the “Squad”— displacing a moderate 20-year incumbent Democrat out of touch with his home district.

A prior major win, the passage of Proposition B in 2018, is annually raising the minimum wage toward $12 by 2023.

These down-ballot wins are the fruits of organizing, and they are not confined to Missouri. In 2020, Florida became the first state to approve a $15 minimum wage via ballot initiative, bypassing the GOP-led state legislature. Like Missouri, Oklahoma passed Medicaid expansion—with a margin of just over 6,000 votes. In California, Proposition 17 restored the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people on parole. In Mississippi, ballot measures passed to legalize medical marijuana and overturn Jim Crow-era election laws.

Inspired by the surprise victories in Mississippi, a coalition led by the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign is pursuing a felon reenfranchisement ballot initiative after lobbying for a legislative fix for a decade. Political engagement in 2020 brought new support for felon reenfranchisement, says Rukia Lumumba, executive director of the Jackson, Miss.-based People’s Advocacy Institute, a coalition partner. “A majority of folks out encouraging others to vote were still unable to vote themselves,” says Lumumba.

Other affiliates of the Movement for Black Lives are also pursuing people-powered ballot initiatives. In Minneapolis, the Black Visions Collective is working toward a ballot proposal to replace “unjust, racist and ineffective policing in Minneapolis with a comprehensive public health approach to safety,” says Miski Noor, Black Visions co-founder.

Even when ballot initiatives pass, the fight may not be over. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that the state will not implement Medicaid expansion; GOP legislators refused to budget funds. And though Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment against gerrymandering in 2018, a misleadingly worded 2020 ballot measure essentially reversed the win.

In Mississippi, the state Supreme Court struck down the medical marijuana ballot initiative results because, per the state constitution, measures require signatures from five congressional districts—but the state has only had four since 2002. “Nothing really catches us by surprise anymore,” says Danyelle Holmes of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign. “We’re prepared for curveballs any day.”

The future of citizen-led ballot initiatives in Mississippi now depends on legislative action. The coalition led by the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign is prepared to move swiftly, readying ballot language and a signature-gathering campaign to put felon reenfranchisement on the 2022 ballot. Reenfranchisement could have ripple effects for electoral politics in Mississippi, where approximately 235,150 people, 11% of the state’s voting-age population, can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Among Black Mississippians, the rate is 16%.

Increased Black and brown voting access and turnout disrupts the Right’s agenda to protect the interests of white supremacy—and has been met with rage. The January 6 insurrection on the Capitol, for instance, was a retaliatory display of white nationalism by homegrown terrorists.

Republican lawmakers launched an aggressive campaign after the 2020 election to restrict voting rights in hopes of preventing Black voters from continuing to fuel Democratic wins. As of March, at least 361 bills that obstruct voting have been introduced in 47 states. In Georgia, Republicans passed a sweeping voter suppression law now facing multiple lawsuits. In Texas, the GOP is working to reduce the number of polling places in heavily Black and Democratic areas. Similar laws are being fast-tracked to go into effect as early as November in key battleground states.

Disenfranchisement has long been used to fuel inequality and preserve power for the white and wealthy. The solution remains the same: we must organize to achieve electoral justice.

That fight is about leveraging every tool at our disposal to move us closer to a functioning democracy. In September 2020, the Working Families Party (WFP) and the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project launched a new initiative, The Frontline, to do just that. In addition to down-ballot organizing, the Movement for Black Lives is demanding Congress protect Black voters with the immediate passage of HR1, the For the People Act, which would reduce the harm of state-level voter suppression bills and restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

As Maurice Mitchell, WFP national director, explains: “Electoral power alone will not get us free. Protests alone are insufficient. We need to vote. We need to protest. We need to organize. We need to study. We need to strike. And then we need to protest again."

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Kayla Reed
Letter From the Year 2071 - A vision of where the Black freedom movement could take us. https://inthesetimes.com/article/letter-from-ancestors-revolutionary-future Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/letter-from-ancestors-revolutionary-future James Baldwin once urged activists and revolutionaries to demand the impossible. We must not only demand the impossible—we must fight to make it real.

The following letter is written as if from the future, addressed to ourselves—the ancestors we will one day become. It is grounded in the goals of Black liberation, which we view as a quest for human liberation, and it dares to imagine a world beyond racial monopoly capitalism, heteropatriarchy, war and colonialism.

This letter is not intended as a manifesto or a pie in the sky, but as a small glimpse of impossible possibility.

Dear Ancestors,
We write to you from the east coast of Turtle Island. The landscape and built environment look different now. You would not even recognize it. There are accessibility paths and green areas everywhere. The earth can breathe and everyone can move freely, no matter how they move.
We want you to know first and foremost that you are with us every day. Your presence permeates the new history books we have written, but more importantly, we pay tribute to you in the ways in which we are repairing and acting as stewards of the land, the rivers, the birds and the wildlife. Your beauty flows through the clean skies and waterways— luxuries you were denied in your time. We have many holidays and celebrations where we remember and honor you. August 10 is Pueblo Revolt Day. December 13 is Ella Baker Day. (Just two examples.)
After discussion, debate, reflection and compromise, we have begun to develop new systems and ways of being together that reflect our shared goals and values.
The challenge we tackled, which so many of our ancestors fought for, is education. For our new society, education goes beyond the “schoolhouse” and the "campus.” And there are no barriers that exclude anyone from learning. Teaching and learning go on everywhere, with billboards, songs and television commercials that teach, rather than sell. And rather than excluding anyone from education, or labeling some of our precious children “smart” and others “not smart,” we recognize all are geniuses. It is the job of learning coaches and co-learners to help them find that genius—and to apply it to the needs of the community and society.
And guess what? We no longer work 10 or 12 hours a day. So many of you worked day and night just to survive. We know about struggles like the “Fight for 15” and the fight for the eight-hour day. But now we work less and live more. The technology that was previously deployed in service of profit, creating obscene amounts of individual wealth, now saves us time that we invest in ourselves and one another and the planet.
Plumbers are dancers. Transport workers are poets. Doctors are potters.
We have also begun to rethink work in other ways. Arduous but necessary work is made more enjoyable with extra time off, community appreciation and the knowledge that the burden is shared.
Today, we celebrate love in all of its forms and expressions. Our queer and trans family have taught us to let go of rigid gender roles, narrow-minded and patriarchal notions of family, and beauty and pleasure. We are happier as a people. And freedom is not simply freedom to do as we please, but freedom to serve, help, contribute, build and dance together.
With all that we have improved, we don’t want to give the false impression that we live in some kind of la-la land. There are still struggles to be waged. Human beings still hurt each other and succumb to their less beautiful selves.
But we don’t have wannabe tough guys running around in uniforms waving guns and shooting people. As sites of conflict resolution, we have built freedom squares in every city and town. When problems do arise, we go to the freedom squares; people can be safe there. They can get comfort and support. Trouble-busting teams are ready to strategize to de-escalate or resolve a grievance. Decisions are collectively made—but according to a set of principles, values and priorities we have all set together.
And we have settled on the notion that freedom is not primarily individual freedom. Sometimes we have to sacrifice some of our wants as individuals so that others can have what they need. This was a big hurdle, but we argued, debated, sang, shouted, meditated and negotiated our way to consensus.
We hope this short letter, filled with love and an ever-expanding set of dreams, gives you, our beloved ancestors, a glimpse into the future we are creating—in your honor, on ground you plotted and plowed. We hope you can visualize this future, in its fabulousness and its flaws.
Know that it is not perfect. It is not a utopia. Revolutions are not events, but processes.
We are honored to have come this far, through hard struggle and determined dreaming, and we know we have much farther to go, each generation doing its part. For now, and for the fifty years to follow, you will be with us.
To build a new future is as much about memory as imagination. Day by day, we are making the impossible possible. Then daring to dream even bigger.
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Barbara Ransby
What Radical Black Women Can Teach Us All About Movement-Building - Three historians lift up Black women journalists, organizers and activists who were critical to Black freedom movements but often erased from history. https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-women-radical-history-legacy Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-women-radical-history-legacy The Movement for Black Lives is noteworthy for a leadership that is overwhelmingly women (both cis and trans). Although not always recognized, Black women’s organizing, insights and analysis have long been an engine of Black freedom movements. That is no accident: As the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminist socialists, write in their groundbreaking 1977 statement, “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.” They saw the particular task of Black feminists as “the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.”

In These Times and the Movement for Black Lives guest editors asked distinguished historians of the Black experience to lift up the Black women in movements that presaged the Movement for Black Lives. In this roundtable, professors Premilla Nadasen, Keisha N. Blain and Robyn C. Spencer offer snapshots of chapters of Black struggle that provide inspiration and grounding for the work of the 21st century Black freedom movement.

Nadasen reminds us that there was intersectional Black feminist practice before it had a label. Poor Black women in the welfare rights movement were justice crusaders who, in their campaigns, speeches and demands, reflected an understanding of the confluence of different systems of oppression. Blain recovers a powerful lost chapter in the history of Black radicalism in Detroit by retelling the story of internationalist and anti-racist organizer Pearl Sherrod. Spencer, herself an outspoken proponent of Black and Palestinian solidarity, adds the story of Black Panther Connie Matthews, another lesser-known exemplar of Black internationalism in the 1970s.

This recuperative process of remembering Black women in the Black freedom struggle is more than celebratory. It is a reminder that the real, hard work of movement-building and freedom-making is not going to be done by celebrities, or even politicians—but by ordinary people with deep passions, strong commitments and clear visions.

—Barbara Ransby

In what ways have Black women historically pioneered a radical, transformative politics?

PREMILLA NADASEN: Poor Black women have waged a generations-long, often overlooked struggle for economic autonomy against a patriarchal, racist capitalist system stacked against them. The welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s is an underrecognized example of the deep contestation of this system through a radical Black feminist vision.

Established during the Great Depression, the welfare system catered to “worthy” white widows with provisions aimed at denying assistance to “undeserving” Black mothers, forcing them to remain in the labor force rather than be full-time caregivers for their own children. The legislation excluded the farm and domestic sectors that were dependent on Black women’s underpaid labor. In a 1939 report, a welfare field supervisor in the South wrote that welfare officials see no “reason why the employable Negro mother should not continue her usually sketchy seasonal labor or indefinite domestic service rather than receive a public assistance grant.”

Even as civil rights activists worked to dismantle discriminatory welfare provisions in the 1960s—enabling more Black women to gain access to benefits—new regulations required that recipients take paid employment outside the home.


African American and other poor women of color contested this injustice in the 1960s and 1970s. Following in the radical tradition of Sojourner Truth, they asserted their womanhood and claimed the same treatment afforded white women. The changes they demanded spanned from improved welfare benefits and participation in decision-making to access to abortion and the end of coerced sterilization.

The most far-reaching demand of the welfare rights movement was for a guaranteed annual income that would bring all poor people—regardless of race, gender, family status, legal status, employment status—up to a minimum standard of living well above the poverty line. Welfare rights activists sought to dismantle the economic status quo predicated on Black women’s low-wage work, which maintained joblessness and a reserve army of labor for capital. Instead, they envisioned substantive access to freedom, autonomy and self-determination for poor Black mothers.

ROBYN C. SPENCER: Black women acted as leaders and the organizing backbone of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Like the welfare rights movement—itself a form of Black liberation—their political work reflected an ethos of radical care that included mutual support around bodily autonomy and childcare, as well as a commitment to eradicating poverty and racism. Other focal points were concern for male draftees and political critiques of U.S. empire and state violence.

The Black Panthers, the most well-known of the 1960s Black Power organizations, elevated the profiles of many Black men fighting the white supremacist system, but quietly relied on Black women’s organizing work. From food distribution to health clinics around the country, Black women played an instrumental role in supporting the Panthers’ community programs to fill desperate needs and gain support for their political vision. Black women were concerned with political theory around Black liberation while being attendant to immediate human needs. I am reminded of Kayla Reed’s Viewpoint about the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) supporting candidates and policies that meet immediate “material conditions.”

The arrest of Black men in the Party opened up space for women in leadership, such as Kathleen Cleaver, who joined the Oakland Panthers in 1967 when their ranks had been depleted locally by a wave of arrests. As communications secretary, Cleaver orchestrated the Free Huey movement that turned the arrest of Panther cofounder Huey Newton into a cause célèbre. Behind the images of Panther women rallying for Newton was the work that Cleaver and other Black women did to mobilize and educate the masses about what Newton and the Panthers stood for.

While Panther women (and allied men) held the organization accountable to its stated commitment to internal transformation and egalitarian gender roles, they also faced persistent sexism from many of their fellow Black Power organizers. The unique perspective Black women brought to Black liberation, along with the frustration at their treatment within the movement, would grow in the 1970s into new forms of Black feminist organizing and thought—such as the Combahee River Collective statement. It acknowledges that their “experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.”

Despite Black women’s immense contributions, even today—a time of unprecedented awareness of the Panthers—their work within the organization remains hidden by a focus on male leaders’ advocacy of self-defense above and beyond any other legacy.

I see parallels in the Black Lives Matter movement— although, in this case, visibility of women is not hidden behind prominent male leaders. Rather, the work of the Black women who launched the initial call and the large number organizing at the grassroots—often to defend the lives of Black men, as with the Panther women—is hidden in plain sight, eclipsed by political abstractions.

KEISHA N. BLAIN: There is also a legacy of radical Black women organizers who bridged Black radicalism and feminism decades before the Black Panthers, the Combahee River Collective or the M4BL. As a scholar of 20th century U.S. history, my research has focused on bringing these women to light, whose impact on domestic and international politics has been largely ignored.

Pearl Sherrod is one example. She was a working-class Black woman in 1930s Detroit, a journalist-activist in the tradition of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Sherrod went from a local newspaper to an international platform in her fight against the continued “barbequing and torturing of our race in the South.”

Sherrod used the Detroit’s Tribune Independent to denounce white supremacy and demand its eradication, bringing light to Black Americans’ struggles with economic distress and racist violence during the Great Depression. Like the Panther women who followed her, Sherrod took risks in standing up to defend Black men’s lives. In 1934, Sherrod openly criticized the U.S. criminal justice system, pointing to the mistreatment of the Scottsboro Boys—nine Black teenagers who were falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women in Scottsboro, Ala.

Sherrod also called for Afro-Asian solidarity, highlighting their shared suffering at the hands of white supremacy. White hostility to and violence toward Asian immigrants (known as the “yellow peril”) surged during the Depression. In 1937, Sherrod took her message to the conference of the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association (PPWA). Held in Vancouver, Canada, the conference brought together 125 mostly white and Asian women representatives from eight countries: Australia, Canada, China, Hawai’i, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines and the United States. Sherrod was not invited—no Black women were, nor had ever attended—but she showed up anyhow with newspaper clippings to call the attention of “you international women” to the prevalence of lynching in the U.S. South. “To the Black man, justice is only a word in name but not in reality,” Sherrod declared.

Sherrod’s move to an international stage is really interesting. Can you expand on Black internationalism?

BLAIN: Black internationalism emerged in response to slavery, colonialism and white imperialism. It describes the visions of freedom and freedom movements among people of African descent worldwide and captures their efforts to forge transnational collaborations and solidarities with other people of color.

Sherrod viewed alliances with Asian activists as vital to the global project to achieve rights and freedom for people of African descent everywhere. In 1934, Sherrod married Satokata Takahashi, a Japanese immigrant, and took over his leadership of The Development of Our Own (TDOO), a Detroit-based Afro-Asian solidarity movement, upon his deportation to Japan later that year.

The first African American to ever speak at a PPWA conference, Sherrod proclaimed: “There can never be peace on the Pacific or Atlantic until justice is given to all mankind.”

In this early expression of Black internationalism, Sherrod recognized that domestic conditions—such as economic hardship and the attacks against various racial groups—provided grounds for connecting subjugated people worldwide. They were part of the same antiracist and anticolonial struggle.

SPENCER: Indeed, after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Black Lives Matter protests erupted not only across the United States but in over 60 countries. This expression of global solidarity builds on the grid wired by activists like Sherrod—or Connie Matthews, the Black Panther Party international coordinator from 1968–1971.

Matthews spoke at rallies against the U.S. war in Vietnam and, like Sherrod, emphasized connections between the oppression in Asia and African decolonization as part of the same global struggle. She skillfully mobilized a far-flung network of international alliances to provide support for incarcerated Panthers at the height of COINTELPRO.

Matthews is another example of the way Black women’s work has shifted abstract concepts like solidarity into actionable political work. She organized people willing to act, making links with leftist organizations and giving interviews with the European press to share the Panther vision. By mid-1969, her activities had laid crucial groundwork for the creation of solidarity committees in Germany, France, Holland, Norway and Sweden to support Panther political prisoners. Her legacy can be felt in groups like the Organization for Black Struggle, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Black for Palestine.

In 2015, the Dream Defenders, an organization founded in Florida after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, brought representatives from Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and the Black Youth Project 100 to see conditions on the ground in Palestine first hand. Each successive wave of struggle builds on these prior connections. In the wake of the bombings in Gaza in May, the M4BL and other BLM groups swiftly denounced the attacks and ongoing settler-colonialism in the West Bank.

That initial 2015 trip was explicitly inspired by the internationalism of the Black liberation movement. As Ahmad Abuznaid, who at the time served as legal and policy director for the Dream Defenders, explained: “In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between the African American leadership of the movement in the U.S. and those on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished and fortified.”

What other lessons can the M4BL take from these historical movements?

SPENCER: Despite all the institutions the Black Panther movement built and the change it envisioned and achieved, it was riven by ideological disagreements and power struggles that the government exploited to attack the movement. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program stoked divisions through misinformation, surveillance, raids, arrests, infiltration, harassment and violence (including its role in the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton). The return of co-founder Huey Newton in 1970 after two years in prison exacerbated longstanding tensions around money, the role of local leadership and ideological differences about self-defense. Disagreement over whether to adopt violent tactics in response to government repression precipitated a schism between Newton and fellow Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. Many chapters left, were expelled or dissolved, and new groups were created that centered armed struggle, like the Black Liberation Army and the Revolutionary People’s Communications Network.

Under Trump, the Movement for Black Lives saw for itself how a hostile government can brand racial justice organizers as threats (and turn the apparatus of the state against them), or how tensions can erupt over questions of the acceptability of property damage and self-defense. Managing internal conflict and dissent with integrity—in the face of a hypercritical media and right-wing institutions eager to spotlight so-called cracks in the facade—remains a challenge.

Organizations today exist in a time of surveillance infrastructure, militarized policing and a different landscape of political repression—and must protect against this reality. But they also have a direct line to the public, through social media, to challenge misinformation.

Black Lives Matter has adopted group-centered leadership in the tradition of Ella Baker, calling itself “leader-full.” In contrast to the hierarchical Panther leadership structure dominated by cis men, the community of BLM’s many leaders is filled with women and trans, non-binary and intersex folks. Even within this success, it has to balance its critique of charismatic leadership against strict organizational hierarchy, while also dealing with power dynamics that control resources. The recent eruption over money in the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation echoes issues that plagued the Panthers, highlighting fissures that might imperil momentum.

Looking back, the ability to weather political storms and commit to the longue durée might be the most important lesson. Black liberation does not hinge on individuals, dramatic moments or turning points. The ability to pivot and adapt, transcend human failings and work through internal dissent—because of love of the people and commitment to the goals—is one of the key lessons of the past.

NADASEN: The welfare rights movement’s wide-ranging demands were designed to revalue and reinvest in Black families and communities. Activists sought to shift state resources to childcare, employment, healthcare and education to bolster community well-being. As welfare programs have become increasingly punitive over the past three decades, redirection from the carceral state to communal care is more important than ever.

The M4BL “invest” demands to defund police and reinvest in community services follow this legacy.

Although welfare rights activists were not explicitly anti-capitalist—they might be viewed as accommodationist in demanding access to state benefits, rather than opposing the state itself—their insistence on having the option to care for their families struck a blow to a racialized-gendered economic system that is reliant on their low-wage labor. The movement offers lessons about leveraging the state to remake the programs that control and surveille—like those used against the Panthers—into ones that reinvest to give people autonomy and sustain their communities. In this regard, they sought to make all Black lives matter.

The welfare rights movement models a radical Black feminist politics that brought together poor women of all racial backgrounds around economic justice and autonomy. Working side by side, they recognized how racism was deployed to demonize and divide poor women—making their class analysis explicit.

“[The National Welfare Rights Organization] is not a black organization, not a white organization,” argued Johnnie Tillmon, welfare recipient and organization chair, in a 1971 interview. “We can’t afford racial separateness. I’m told by the poor white girls on welfare how they feel when they’re hungry, and I feel the same way when I’m hungry.”

BLAIN: Like Tillmon with the NWRO, Sherrod and the PPWA provided an opportunity for Black, Asian and white women to work in shared struggle. Sherrod’s bold stance—showing up uninvited and speaking at the PPWA conference—opened up a crucial space for women of African descent to engage in political dialogue with the mostly white and Asian membership. Sherrod built a political alliance and gained a broader platform to denounce global white supremacy.

If Sherrod’s experiences offer one lesson, it is that continued transnational efforts to frame anti-Black racism as an international human rights issue will help ensure the movement’s vitality and sustainability.

Nearly 80 years after that PPWA conference, on July 12, 2016, Nigerian American activist Opal Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, delivered a powerful speech before the United Nations General Assembly on the heels of the police killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. An invited speaker, Tometi echoed Sherrod in emphasizing three challenges to the advancement of human rights for all: global capitalism, white supremacy and the suppression of democracy.

To quote Tometi, all three grow from the “root causes of inequality,” shaped by a history of “colonialism, indigenous genocide and the enslavement of people of African descent.” That Tometi’s message so closely resembles the words of another Black woman activist, from 1937, underscores the persistence of the structural problems we face and the tenacity of Black women in rooting them out and fighting for transformation.

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Keisha N. Blain, Premilla Nadasen and Robyn C. Spencer
No, Minneapolis Did Not Defund the Police. But We’re Not Done Trying. - We understand that abolition is the long game. We’re in it for as long as it takes. https://inthesetimes.com/article/minneapolis-defund-police-black-visions-george-floyd Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/minneapolis-defund-police-black-visions-george-floyd May 25, 2020 is a day we will never forget. It was sunny and our “pandemic pod” of organizers (we share a home in Minneapolis) were planning a socially distanced cookout. Kandace sent her partner out for supplies, deciding at the last minute to go to the grocery for fresh ingredients—instead of Cup Foods, two blocks away.

At 7:34 p.m. at Cup, a 46-year-old security guard who had lost his job during the pandemic showed up for a pack of cigarettes. Within hours, Kandace would receive a flood of texts: Police had killed an unarmed Black man (we didn’t yet know his name) in front of Cup. Not a day goes by that Kandace doesn’t wonder whether things would have gone differently if her partner had run that errand to Cup.

Miski had already gone to bed with a bad migraine, and stayed home sick the next morning. They reached for their phone around noon to find dozens of texts, calls and voice memos from comrades across the country, the familiar outpouring of love and concern every time police kill an unarmed Black person. By then, we knew his name: George Floyd.

When these moments of crisis first hit, everyone asks you what you need, and you don’t know the answer. You are just coming to grips with the change happening around you. But the call to become a shaper of this change is strong and vital.

Organizing can never take credit for the energy and will of the community. What it can do is provide a container to understand the moment and build toward collective solutions to address our individual pain.

We got together with other organizers at Black Visions Collective, a power- and base-building organization we co-founded, and allies at Reclaim the Block, another grassroots justice group in Minneapolis. Within 26 hours, we released a petition that demanded the defunding of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).

One month of organizing, agitating and uprisings later, the movement in defense of Black lives achieved one of its first abolitionist wins: The Minneapolis City Council unanimously supported an amendment to disband the MPD. The Minneapolis City Council is not particularly radical or visionary. It was only after weeks of intense, Black-led, multi-racial organizing that the council was forced to act.

That summer, we saw our righteous outrage at the death of George Floyd ignite a powerful movement that continues to create impact across the globe. With organizers in other cities, we’ve built a Black-led, multi-racial coalition that recognizes how white supremacy harms all of us, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color, but also our Latinx, Asian and white allies.

As many as 26 million people flooded the streets in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder: Black people organizing our communities in the millions to vote out white supremacy from the White House; Black women leading the way in Georgia to flip the Senate’s balance of power.

But this May 25, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, was a painful reminder of the collective trauma the people in Minneapolis and across the country experienced last summer, and too many summers before. We still have not received healing in the form of transformative justice.

Here in Minneapolis, a commission of unelected bureaucrats blocked the council’s recommendation to defund the police. Today, the MPD continues to function using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, while our calls for investment in true public safety have failed to be adopted.

We demand more. Our communities deserve more.

We demand transformation.

We’ve spent this past year getting familiar with the legal roadblocks thrown up by bureaucrats afraid of change, and devising methods to thwart them. We know what we’re doing in Minneapolis matters to other defund and abolition efforts, from New York to London to Los Angeles, and we are committed to the continued organizing it will take to make real our vision.

THE ROAD TO DEFUND

The transformative demand to “defund the police” moved abolition to the center of conversations and imaginations across the country and the world in 2020, but its roots run deeper. We would not have been ready this past summer had we not been organizing and educating ourselves for years prior, following the brilliance of Ancestors and mentors and the teachings of our own experiences to shape our approach to dismantling systems of oppression.

For us, the journey of political education that led to the demand to defund the police began in 2014, after police in Ferguson, Mo., killed Michael Brown. Fifteen months later, the Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark.

After the death of Jamar Clark, who was shot by the MPD 61 seconds after they approached him, we were part of the response that established a No Cop Zone and the subsequent 18-day occupation of the 4th precinct police station.

In getting involved with this current iteration of the Black Freedom Struggle, Miski felt they had found the civil rights movement of our time. And like civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s, we were shot at by white supremacists, who injured five people (while police looked the other way). At this early stage, our demands were not yet abolitionist. Rather than transform the existing system, we still sought to use its structures, calling for federal and state authorities to release the tape of Clark’s killing, for a special prosecutor and not a grand jury to select the charges, and for the Department of Justice to investigate.

After the occupation, we began to connect across the Movement for Black Lives and other national movement formations, like Momentum and BOLD, that nurtured and developed our analysis as Black liberation and movement organizers. We have had the opportunity to train with some of the most brilliant and thoughtful Black organizers and leaders—Denise Perry, Adaku Utah, adrienne maree brown—and read the work of people and groups like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Andrea Ritchie, Mariame Kaba, Rachel Herzing, Critical Resistance and Project NIA.

As we learned about abolition through a Black, queer and transfeminist lens built on our own identities, we grew in our transformative vision of true abolition. This is about recognizing that policing is a virulent force that must be addressed head on—and about so much more: healing justice, transformative justice and transformation toward a better world.

In December 2017, holding this vision to push transformative change in Minneapolis, we co-founded the Black Visions with Oluchi Omeoga, Sophia Benrud, Hani Ali, Yolanda Hare, Ar’Tesha Saballos and Abijah Archer. We aimed to center our work in healing and transformative justice principles, intentionally developing the organization’s “core DNA” to ensure sustainability and develop Minnesota’s emerging Black leadership. We called for redirecting funding from police to community-led initiatives, such as support for houseless people, queer and transgender youth, and mental health services.

With our allies at Reclaim the Block, our organizing successfully pushed the Minneapolis mayor and city council in 2018 to move $1.1 million away from the police department to programs including a new Office of Violence Prevention that would provide community safety programs without police.

What we did not expect was for the mayor to join with the police the following year to stoke fears about a surge in crime, which was used to justify an $8.3 million increase in the police budget in early 2020.

We learned from that pushback. When George Floyd was murdered, our prior organizing helped us move swiftly to make it clear to city government that we would not settle for less than transformative change.

We immediately released our defund petition and used an inside-outside approach to pressure city council. Every night, our policy team was on the phone with council members, pushing to defund. Every day, our organizing team was on a call with about 70 Black organizers to coordinate how to support protests with supplies, donations, trainings, medics and art.

As the uprising in the street continued, we pushed the city council from every side, sending them research, mobilizing their constituents to contact them, and, on May 29, giving them a 24-hour deadline to sign our petition to defund. When they all failed to do so, we organized an action to leave art in memory of George Floyd in each of their yards. Members of Black Visions created mock tombstones with pictures of George Floyd, flowers and the message: Defund. Four council members pledged after that.

On June 6, we led a protest march to the house of Mayor Jacob Frey, a timid, play-it-safe politician. Kandace held a microphone to his face and asked a yes-or-no question: Would he commit to defunding the police? When he answered, “I do not support the full abolition of the police,” the crowd booed him down.

Video of the confrontation went viral, and the rest of the council soon pledged to defund. On June 26, the Minneapolis City Council announced that all 12 of its members had voted to disband the police department.

But the devil remained in the details. The next step was to get the defund amendment on the ballot in fall 2020, so the people of Minneapolis could decide. An unelected body of Minneapolis bureaucrats and their pro-police allies stopped our efforts. The 15-member Charter Commission, appointed by the county’s chief judge, rejected the proposal. While proposals they reject can be put directly on the ballot by the city council or a citizen’s initiative, the commission delayed its decision until it was too late for the proposal to go on the 2020 ballot.

As the people of Minneapolis and greater Minnesota call for justice, healing and care, our city and state officials respond by spending millions of dollars on more police, as if they’re preparing for war with the community—when the community is in the streets demanding justice for our people.

Police pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and fired rubber bullets at protesters rising up for 20-year-old Daunte Wright, killed by Minnesota police after a traffic stop April 11—even though MPD use of rubber bullets during summer 2020 blinded and caused brain damage in people. (The MPD currently faces lawsuits for use of excessive force against protesters and journalists in the summer 2020 uprising.) In just the first three months of 2021, the MPD self-reported use of force against 257 people, averaging 2.8 people per day. The actual numbers are likely far higher. Additional police training, the favored fix of some bureaucrats, will not fix white supremacist violence and racism. (Ironically, the current administration is planning a Department of Justice probe into Minneapolis, years after we came to know with certainty that such bureaucratic measures will not create the change we need.)

After the Charter Commission roadblocked the 2020 ballot measure to defund MPD, Black Visions and our allies formed the Yes 4 Minneapolis Coalition to renew our fight to bring this issue to voters this November. On April 30, we delivered to the city clerk 25,530 signatures on a people’s petition to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety.

Unlike the city council proposal, the Charter Commission cannot refuse to put this measure on the ballot—now that it is city clerk-certified for clearing the necessary 11,906 signatures. Having learned from the past, we are prepared for the City Council and mayor’s office to throw up other obstacles, such as utilizing their power to word the ballot measure to suit their agenda and, if the initiative passes, to write ordinances to interpret the law. We will be ready.


WHAT WILL REPLACE THE MPD?

This petition is the first step in letting the people of our city decide what safety looks like for our communities.

As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” In designing a plan for a new Department of Public Safety, we’ve been freedom-dreaming with community partners here in Minneapolis and around the country about what Black liberation will look like practically, in our daily lives.

We have spent the past year working in the community and with the families of George Floyd, Daunte Wright and others killed by police to expand mental health crisis assistance, to generate resources for healers, elders, clergy and community leaders to support restorative neighborhood-based practices, and to respond to the needs of our neighbors and loved ones.

We are inspired by all the historic and incredible ways the community has already shown up for one another. George Floyd Square organizers held down a police-free zone for more than a year, where people came together for joy and healing while providing community-led security and demanding justice and accountability from policymakers and institutions.

Part of our work has involved something we never would have expected: redistributing money. Before May 25, we were a tiny organization with Black, queer and trans leadership, just beginning to talk about decision-making processes and membership growth. After May 25, as donations came in, our budget doubled very quickly, and doubled again, and again. In total, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block received $30 million after our call to defund the MPD.

Together with Reclaim the Block, we established an Emergency Fund, which distributed $767,000 in immediate aid to meet the needs of the community reeling from George Floyd’s murder and the pandemic, such as rent, healthcare costs and school supplies. The two organizations then joined with Nexus Community Partners to establish the Transformative Black-led Movement Fund to further redistribute donations. Another $1.1 million went to community members, and we awarded $6 million in grants to more than a hundred Twin Cities-based organizations, collectives, artists and healers led by Black, Indigenous and people of color. All of them are innovating alternatives to policing and real solutions for safety—from race-based therapy, art therapy and yoga to providing affordable healthy food to transforming models for schools. All commit to not using any of the money to collaborate with the police.

Now we are thinking about how to seed abolition work for the long term. Every year, just in Minnesota, far more than $30 million is needed for all our movements. We need philanthropy to step up, and we need a transformation of public investment in the people, not the police.

Not all of the solutions are clear right now; we are learning and innovating as we go. We recognize that the people most harmed by current unjust systems devise the most effective solutions. So we’re also beginning a People’s Movement Assembly process in Minneapolis to define safety together as a community.

Our assemblies are inspired by participatory self-governance practices in the U.S. South, in Kurdistan and by the Zapatistas. We’ve benefited from panels and trainings with Rukia Lumumba, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, who helps organize the Jackson People’s Assembly in Jackson, Miss.; Erica Perry, an organizer of the Black Nashville Assembly; and Mercedes Fulbright, organizing director with the Texas Working Families Party, who organized People’s Assemblies in Dallas this past year.

Over the course of the summer, we’ll move from small to larger assemblies, in concentric circles of alignment building. The idea, as Project South’s People’s Movement Assembly Organizing Handbook puts it, is to avoid having “a single leader, organization or predetermined goal” and instead place trust and leadership in the hands of the people who convene to make decisions together.

We are in this work because our lives depend on it. We’re building a world in which ALL Black lives matter, with a focus on the most marginalized people in our communities: people who are queer, trans, Indigenous, disabled, immigrant and poor. Until we are able to live without fear, we’ll keep pushing our bold vision.

Ultimately, our work is about building and centering Black power and leadership to move us toward Black liberation. We’ve each been organizers for years, and we know it’s the day-to-day work that determines whether we succeed—the work that happens after the cameras have left, the fundraising dries up and the attention fades.

We invite communities across Minnesota and the nation to join us and get activated in our shared struggle for Black liberation, dignity and equity for all.

We understand that abolition is the long game. We’re in it for as long as it takes.

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Kandace Montgomery and Miski Noor
The Utopic, Love-Centered, “Liberation Oasis” on Chicago’s South Side - Damon Williams, a co-founder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, talks radical space-building. https://inthesetimes.com/article/interview-damon-williams_breathing-room-art-revolution Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/interview-damon-williams_breathing-room-art-revolution Damon Williams is a lot of things—a hip-hop artist/performer/podcast host/interviewer/organizer—but the term that lets him “remove all the slashes,” he says, is “movement builder.” He is also the co-founder and co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, a Chicago-based abolitionist group of artists and activists originally created to support the 2014 Black Lives Matter uprising in Ferguson, Mo., whose work has grown into what is now known as the Breathing Room. The Breathing Room reminds me of the community centers I went to growing up, but it’s more than that. Damon describes it as “liberated space” that is not “under the market” or “commercial”—something “public, but not government-controlled or state-run.” There are events, there’s art happening, it’s covered in murals, there’s a community garden being built. The people there, some of whom also live upstairs, offer their time without pay or receive small stipends.

The first Breathing Room sat in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood—a Black community with a long history of disinvestment and housing predation—near the site of the 2016 Freedom Square occupation. (#LetUsBreathe launched the 41-day occupation against the adjacent Homan Square, a Chicago Police Department “black site” infamous for torture.) Freedom Square looked like chaos but was beautifully orchestrated, with kids running around asking for rides to the pool, volunteers and drop-offs from around the city, a library and a Free Store, where clothing and donations are “sold” free of charge.

I really got to know Damon as an organizer with the launch of the Black Abolitionist Network’s Defund CPD campaign in summer 2020. We were part of the training team that, during the July Fourth weekend, hosted mass resistance trainings across the city of Chicago. The last site for in-person trainings was an empty lot across the street from the Breathing Room’s current site in Back of the Yards, a South Side neighborhood.

What struck me about Damon was how he prepared and talked about movement and liberation work in a way that really connected with the folks who showed up. During our huddles before training sessions, his ability to ground us in the importance of what we were doing and offering to our community was a gift. His style of training and facilitating is in tune—actively listening and lovingly pushing folks to be principled in something he calls a love politic.

I spoke with Damon for In These Times about art, love and movement-building.

When you described yourself as a “movement builder” I was like, “I want to talk to him. I want to hear more about that.” Let’s start with how the Breathing Room came to be.

DW: In those first two years after Ferguson, the movement was hyper-rapid response, hyper-oppositional, hyper-performative in a lot of ways. Protests and meetings were pretty much the only way we were gathering.

In internal criticism, it came up that some meetings resembled corporate or academic spaces, which are not accessible for folks who were systematically excluded or marginalized in such spaces. And protest is not physically accessible for everybody and not politically accessible to everybody, depending on relationships to the police and to the state. Turning it up on the cops is not a thing that everybody feels comfortable doing.

We wanted to make movement space more accessible. We knew we needed a physical space—a space for organizations to meet or to perform or to craft. That was one of the first things that came up in our visioning sessions here in Chicago and back with the folks in Ferguson when we did outreach.

Some partners who had supported our trips down to Ferguson had a lease in an old grungy warehouse in North Lawndale that was being refurbished as an artists’ loft. They were white people, so being aware of their position and where we were at, they asked whether we wanted to do something with it. On MLK Day 2016, we did the first Breathing Room event, a six-hour event where you could get free healing modalities—guided meditation or Reiki or massage—and a free meal. There were also workshops on things going on in the city, like the grass gap [the racial disparity in Chicago police enforcement of marijuana laws].

That was also the formal launch of our Free Store, the forefront of our mutual aid approach.

We were able to use that space to do events monthly, like an open mic. You could come up to do your rappity raps or sing your songs, but we weaved in there a featured person that would do a five-minute teach-in or report back from an action or some other political education, or featured performers and presenters.

Our original vision was—we want somebody to just be walking down the street and see something is happening and join. So as it got warmer, we started doing our Free Store on the sidewalk and inviting folks in from the community. But the man that owned not only that building but the whole block told the leaseholders of our space, “I put bars on this building to keep these people out and you’re letting them in.” It was systemic racism, land ownership, slumlording at the highest level.

At that time Su Casa, a Catholic Worker space here on the South Side, had a vacant building with a lot of damage that was building up utility costs. They put a call out to organizations to steward the space. We thought, “What if this monthly event, which is this imagined utopia, is a 24/7 existence?”

So in summer 2016, we were supposed to be rehabbing this building, and then the Freedom Square action emerged as a live-in occupation. Living the experience of 24/7 open-air organizing, youth engagement, dealing with houselessness and folks in need of shelter and health needs and addiction services and building out a library and food all of the time—all of that practice—informed how we then came into the Breathing Room.

And you were also cohosting a weekly podcast during this time! I love listening to AirGo and your down-to-Earth, warming conversations with organizers and artists. You featured Angela Davis earlier this year in your—wow—270th episode since 2015.

DW: Having Angela Davis on was very much a capstone moment. She embodies so much of what the show intended to be. Angela Davis, Fred Hampton and Huey [Newton] were probably the three people, as I’m coming out of school, that embodied what I aspired toward.

There’s so much content of hers out there, but on the flip side, when you look at all of the clips of Fred Hampton, it amounts to less than an hour total. That felt like a real historical tragedy. So when I saw this intersection between this youth arts renaissance in Chicago from like 2013 to 2016/2017 and an emergent Black liberation movement, I wanted to capture the movement we were building in real time, understanding it is going to have historical significance.

And that’s the intention behind AirGo. Whether it’s Page May or Charlene Carruthers or Jamila Woods, there is going to be at least an hour of them naming their perspective, their story and their contribution, to create this living archive.

I’m so grateful for that, for this gift for our movement spaces and for the future. That’s something that I remember you talking about when we started working more closely together—about how our movement spaces are always already intergenerational. Let’s segue back to the Breathing Room, though, and this form of independent, truly community-embedded institution-building. What are some of the Breathing Room’s big success stories?

DW: Man, it’s hard because it always feels so heavy to talk about. Some of the successes have been really difficult to get to.

We had to figure out how to use the space as a resource for people in need while accounting for the capacity of the space and of the organization. We’re not really a resource organization; we don’t have staff in any type of way. It’s very much this crowdsource, grassroots, DIY, “we’re just the people that show up and get transformed and keep showing up” type of approach.

We were doing these art classes, and many folks who participated were living in a shelter down the street that closed very abruptly, very violently, during the holiday season in 2019. And we ended up making space at Breathing Room for several of the families and one of our teaching artists.

We had to figure out how to support someone who is navigating case management services and institutions, which aren’t very accessible for the people that need them, and then we also had to build an abolitionist political education program around this housing crisis and home as a concept.

Some of that was hard, and some of that was not what we had committed to do. So we were navigating our own relationships and boundaries, the reality of limited space, while meeting folks at a point of having experienced trauma and of going through continued trauma.

I often felt like we were failing. But also it was really beautiful: The folks living there were investing in and being part of the programming, or stewarding the space, or managing the Free Store, or supporting our Everybody Eats program.

Our tenets are “heal, organize, create,” in that order. We created space for folks to be able to heal and then helped place them in their own homes.

The reason why I said it’s difficult is because there’s a very liberal, nonprofity feeling in claiming that as a success story, but that has been the most substantial work. And it was a thing we did not expect to do. But we were trying to be the radical community we say our society needs.

That vision also really shaped our actions in 2020. One of the things we were saying coming off the experience of Ferguson is: how do we create space to prepare, propel or respond to Chicago rising up, because we know these conditions exist here too. When 2020 happened, we were in the midst of planning a follow-up to Freedom Square called Free Town. We wanted to build community through mutually centered, open-air, creative organizing. The pandemic stopped that. But much of what ended up happening organically throughout the city around defunding the police and mutual aid networks was right in that vision of what we were trying to plan, and Breathing Room was able to hold a lot of that. Hold trainings, hold the debriefs, hold resources, hold art builds.

The terms we threw around were “movement-building headquarters” or “liberation oasis.” Even within our limitations, we could meet some of that need and serve a purpose for the movement, and so that feels like another of the greatest successes.

What you just said reminds me of a beautiful thing theorist and writer Fred Moten said in an interview recently. His aunt was always on the verge of being evicted from whatever house she was in. But she was also always “giving away the space”; folks could always come through.

Another quote that comes to mind as I’m hearing you talk is that Toni Cade Bambara quote about making revolution “irresistible.” What do you think of that idea?

DW: That quote has definitely taken on a life of its own in the last few years and almost sometimes too much; people who want to talk about revolution, they just want to be irresistible. I’m joking, but I think the thing that has embodied that quote most, in our experience, is a “love politic” directly connected with this very holistic honesty.

What we saw at Freedom Square is that when people see there is color, see an attempt at creation (even if it’s not professional or beautiful), and see vulnerable people—or people without material access—having their needs met, something within us says, “I know that’s my human responsibility and my society doesn’t give me many opportunities to do this.” People love to see babies being loved on, people love to see somebody telling the truth, people love to see somebody showing up and being consistent. That is what is irresistible.

Our Free Store has carts that we designed with colorful love or political affirmations. Before our Covid shutdowns, people named those as something they show up for. A lot of elders say [it makes them] remember spaces that existed. When people see a stewarded space that has this love-centered radicality, they really want to be part of that.

That’s really beautiful. I really appreciate the emphasis on showing up and consistency. At Liberation Library, we also emphasize that for our volunteers, especially when considering any work related to our young readers inside.

I also want to get your reaction to this quote, by the famous radical activist and artist Paul Robeson: “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice.”

DW: Yeah. Oh man, I always am making choices that are accountable to this tradition. As a creator, as a performer and as a person that shows up in politicized and political spaces, you have to always be asking: is there any way this is benefiting me in a way that is continuing the oppression of the most vulnerable, less privileged, marginalized people? Whether that’s who you take money from, where you perform, how you teach.

And that’s a really hard choice, particularly while trying to survive or understand capitalism or create home or create family yourself.

Boom. Wow. You are so wise. I wish we could talk like this more.

DW: That’s been one of the joys of this year: we didn’t really know each other before Defund CPD popped off, and now we do. So I’ve been grateful as well.

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Bettina Johnson
Cultural Organizing Gives Us a Roadmap to Liberation - Co-directors of SpiritHouse, a Black women-led tribe in Durham, discuss the "life-saving" rituals and practices of freedom that ground their work towards liberation. https://inthesetimes.com/article/spirithouse-cultural-organizing-black-lives-matter-activism-liberation Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/spirithouse-cultural-organizing-black-lives-matter-activism-liberation It’s a woman on stage portraying the trauma of going through labor while shackled, the baby stolen away moments after birth, leaving the audience shocked that this practice still exists.

It looks like singing movement songs in city hall chambers during a budget hearing to stop the approval of blighting Black and Brown neighborhoods.

It’s the synchronized slide to the left of hundreds of smiling Black folk on a hot August night as they reclaim a gentrified city street with the electric slide and radical Black joy.

These are a few of the myriad “cultural organizing” practices that manifest through SpiritHouse, a Black women-led, cultural organizing tribe based in Durham, N.C. We say “tribe” because our embodied and liberatory practices preserve customs and rituals necessary to sustain our everyday lives. For the past 22 years, we have been working toward the liberation of Black and oppressed people through cultural organizing.

It is a style of organizing that requires nothing of its practitioners other than to come as fully and authentically as they are. It asks that we set the table with the food our grandmothers made every Sunday, that we sing the songs of welcome we learned from elders, that we honor those who readied the ground before us.

It is a process that demands our organizing strategies not only act in alignment with our political theories of system change, but with our personal cultural selves, in the tradition of Audre Lorde.

Living at the intersection of art, culture and activism, cultural organizing shifts the frame on how we engage in social justice movements. In our opinion, as the directors of SpiritHouse, cultural organizing is gaining in popularity and achieving wins because it is people-centered. It is a lens that values the people and the community as they are, that works alongside them to integrate and leverage their knowledge of themselves into sustainable organizing strategies.

Our own praxis—and what roots our cultural work—is our “CPR methodology”: culture, practice and ritual. These three letters, most often associated with the life-saving technique of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, have come to express that the survival of our community is dependent on identifying, remixing, remastering and finding new ways to do what we have always done to practice the freedom that lives in our DNA. We believe our version of CPR is life-saving, too. Using the tools and technologies of our community, cultural organizing looks like taking city council members through the same exercise we use with high school students to help them viscerally understand the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline. It tastes like cornbread and barbecue at the family cookout while learning about the history of redlining in the South. It is leading Black people countrywide in a daily practice of poetry writing to honor incarcerated and enslaved Black freedom fighters during the Black August month of resistance, and sending those poems to loved ones surviving incarceration.

Cultural organizing has been key to Black organizing since long before SpiritHouse’s founding. It was cultural organizing that mapped routes to freedom in quilts and negro spirituals. We see it in the Black Panthers serving breakfast and pride to children heading off to school, and in Nina Simone singing “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” with children on Sesame Street. If not for the efforts of Black Southern women, who put their communities on their backs—such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark and Pauli Murray—we wouldn’t be here. We are unapologetically Black with hoodies and graphic tees to match.

Cultural organizing is more than an aesthetic to put on or take off. It requires you to know who came before you and how you’re connected in a patchwork quilt of movement families. Cultural organizing entails understanding how people gather in times of joy and sorrow, how we mourn our loved ones, how we carry on legacies.

In CPR, culture provides the road maps of our shared liberation. It’s the utilization of ancestral technologies passed on despite distance and time. It’s how we communicate what lives deep in our bones. The universal head nod, the intricate patterns we cornrow, the baby hairs that are laid with care. It’s the way our hips sway and our feet stomp in time to ancient rhythms and cadences hidden in trap songs.

Practice: As SpiritHouse tribe member Sista Docta Alexis Pauline Gumbs tells us in her book M Archive: After the End of the World, “freedom is not a secret. it’s a practice. it’s contagious. the would-be infiltrators could not get the songs out of their skin. they could not resellout the places where they had internalized freedom.” We practice to embody the values of freedom, accountability and equity. We practice these things now in our families and communities, trusting ourselves to speak our truths and our dreams. We demand these practices be used to create new institutions and systems that honor our lives by ensuring that no one is discarded or left behind.

Ritual lives in the work of the people, powerful and sacred. It requires a deep love and respect for what our ancestors and forebears have done to survive and thrive. For decades we have chanted, told stories and written songs about this. From the moment our ancestors were forced into the bellies of slave ships, our cultures and rituals have been stripped and stolen from us. We became multilingual, learning to code-switch from almost our first breath, choosing carefully which masks to wear and when. We are taught by the people who nurtured us that safety in Blackness is not guaranteed.

This crucial Black technology is a testament to our survival and genius. But it also speaks to the hate-filled conditioning our people have been forced to eat, digest and pass down. It shows up when we are shamed for the way we speak, for eating fried chicken in public, for living out loud in a place where the written word is more highly regarded than learning through songs, folklore and our oral traditions. It shows up in our conditioning that selfcare is a luxury for the privileged.

Cultural organizing involves the work of carefully removing these digested lies from our own bodies. “SpiritHouse has helped me to know that ‘the work’ is not separate from the forever work of loving and nurturing Black possibility by being myself in community,” Gumbs says. “And love doesn’t react. Love transforms.”

Liberation begins with us. It must settle and live in our bodies, homes and communities. It requires no degrees or certifications, just an unwavering trust in the people.

We’ll leave you with a piece of wisdom passed down from our movement elder and ancestor Nayo Barbara Malcolm Watkins: “You already know all you need to know. It’s in your bones.”

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Mya Hunter and “Mama Nia” Wilson
Introducing the Movement for Black Lives Issue Takeover - Lessons on building collective power. https://inthesetimes.com/article/movement-for-black-lives-organizing-blm-anniversary Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/movement-for-black-lives-organizing-blm-anniversary If we begin with the “just future” we conjure up in our imagination and work our way backward, perhaps we can fight harder, think more clearly, strategize with more savvy and move with greater determination.

That is what Barbara Ransby’s visionary letter from the future invites us to do. When care not competition rules the day, when gardens outnumber guns, when every child receives the love and protection they deserve, we will indeed be able to finally breathe freely.

That time and place is our North Star.

In the almost seven years since the police killing of young Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the start of an unrelenting protest to get justice for his death, the Movement for Black Lives has been working with humility and determination to map our way to that North Star. We have stumbled, taken some unexpected detours and experienced moments of enormous grief and frustration, but when we look up and look forward, inhaling the strength and wisdom of our ancestors, we have been able to reroute, regroup and get back on the freedom path.

We offer this issue of In These Times, “taken over” by the Movement for Black Lives, with hope that it will help light that path.

May 25 marked the anniversary of the gruesome murder of our brother George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. The world joined us in outrage as tens of millions took to the streets.

But mobilizations and rebellions alone will simply not get us free, as M Adams’ article, “Beyond Mass Mobilization,” and Miski Noor and Kandace Montgomery’s essay, “One Year Later,” remind us. Miski and Kandace map the myriad ways that even a powerful and sustained mass protest, such as the one unleashed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, can be undermined and sabotaged. M’s essay emphasizes that truly challenging a well-developed empire “requires a mass organization,” which also requires strategically informed, everyday resistance-building.

The civil rights elder Bob Moses, reflecting the wisdom of his youth, once remarked eloquently on the importance of everyday organizing and how often it is minimized. To paraphrase: Sometimes we see the whitecaps of the waves without appreciating the powerful force that is the ocean. When the cameras turned away in 2020, the constellation of Black-led organizations in the Movement for Black Lives continued their everyday organizing—forging relationships, incubating resistance strategies and campaigns, developing leadership pipelines, seeding radical critiques and amplifying demands for a better life and a more just society.

We know that part of the struggle is to win hearts and minds. We have to create spaces for people in our communities to build, learn, celebrate and see themselves in one another. The Breathing Room in Chicago is one such space. SpiritHouse is another. There are many others helping to build a vision of that new world, one where our folks are thriving, our North Star.

We also need policy interventions that loosen the grip of the state over our lives, heighten the contradictions of racial capitalism and create a container for us to practice governance. The Movement for Black Lives has drafted a large and far-reaching federal bill, the BREATHE Act, to weaken harmful institutions while making resources available for jobs, health, housing and schools. The For the People Act, another Movement for Black Lives-backed bill, would stop the GOP efforts against voting rights. Meanwhile, organizations such as Dream Defenders in Florida are actively working to expose and oppose repressive bills (popping up in dozens of states) that criminalize protest.

With insight, inspiration, courage and battle scars, we pivot toward power. Not ego-driven individual power, but the collective power actively being undermined.

This issue opens and closes with the temporal arc of our struggle, from our history to our future. Historians Robyn Spencer, Premilla Nadasen and Keisha Blain ground us in important chapters from the Black freedom movement. Barbara leaves us with radical imagery of where we might be, should be—could be—if we fight to win.

So drink in this issue, sit with the wisdom, dream with the authors. But then, beloveds, go organize.

The North Star is attainable when we rise together.

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Barbara Ransby, Chinyere Tutashinda, Karissa Lewis, M Adams and Shanelle Matthews
The Meeting in 1998 That Kept Black Radicalism Alive - Two decades ago, the Black Radical Congress convened to reclaim revolution and denounce reformism. https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-radical-congress-freedom-race-manifesto Thu, 15 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-radical-congress-freedom-race-manifesto The Movement for Black Lives draws from a long heritage of Black radicalism. In July 1998, In These Times senior editor Salim Muwakkil wrote about a group of progressive Black activists, artists and intellectuals who formed the Black Radical Congress in Chicago—a group that included Barbara Ransby, Manning Marable, Abdul Alkalimat, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Leith Mullings. At a time when Black radicalism was sputtering, the group’s manifesto, “A Black Freedom Agenda for the Twenty-First Century,” included reparations, community investment and environmental health—demands echoed today by the Movement for Black Lives.

In 1998, Salim Muwakkil wrote:

A year ago, a group of progressive black academics, activists and artists met in Chicago to address the growing insignificance of the black left in the current political climate. They decided that the time is ripe for a revival of the black radical tradition. …
The group (full disclosure: I was one of the organizers) decided to convene a conference to assemble the varied segments of the black left and craft an organized response to the rightward drift of U.S. politics. “We saw the deepening crisis of the African-American community and the government’s continuing indifference, and we knew that demanded some kind of radical response,” says [Abdul] Alkalimat. Two months later, the group met in Washington, D.C., and scheduled a conference from June 19 to 21 in Chicago. They called it the Black Radical Congress.
At the time, many participants had doubts about the name; rather than attracting interest, they worried, the “radical” label would scare people away. Black Americans have seldom been attracted to radical or revolutionary strategies. Historically, major African-American organizations have promoted tactics that are best termed reformist. …
“The realization of genuine democracy in the United States requires radical solutions,” begins the group’s manifesto, titled “A Black Freedom Agenda for the Twenty-First Century.” Radicalism, the document continues, “means to get at the root of real problems, seeking effective solutions. What we want is an end to the exploitation of capitalism, white racism and every manifestation of human oppression, a revolutionary transformation of the state and society, and the realization of humanistic values.”
The Black Freedom Agenda includes many typically social-democratic demands—for example: “We want a social policy agenda which invests in human beings. … We want justice in the legal systems. … We want a clean and healthy environment for our people.” But two planks in the document are startling departures. One—“We want civil rights, affirmative action and compensation for centuries of institutional racism”—supports a reparations demand, long an item on the black nationalist agenda. The other is an item demanding an “end to homophobia and discrimination against lesbians and gay men,” an explicit elaboration of the left’s liberation agenda. …
The black left has always had a problem with its program because revolution is a hard calling. The nationalists, on the other hand, have succeeded because their programs are generally more mainstream. There is little popular opposition to programs designed to strengthen nuclear families and enhance mom-and-pop capitalism. …
For much of the past decade, the path out of this morass has been guided by those urging a back-to-the-future return to separate-but-equal, patriarchal family arrangements and moral salvation. The Black Radical Congress is an opportunity to chart a more engaging and empowering course toward a truly emancipatory politics.

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In These Times Editors
Deeply Rooted - https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-lives-matter-issue-takeover-deeply-rooted Thu, 15 Jul 2021 05:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-lives-matter-issue-takeover-deeply-rooted “Deeply Rooted,” by artist Naimah Thomas, captures the breadth, diversity and energy of today’s Black Lives Matter activists as they tear down structures of oppression and build up a new world. The art also pays homage to the ancestors whose words and ideas animate the movement. Feel free to tear it out and hang it on a wall, on the street or anywhere the message is needed.

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Naimah Thomas
How the Potency of Social Wages Can Beat Back Neoliberalism - At the core of President Biden’s American Families Plan is an understanding that workers are paid too little in market wages and that government has a responsibility to change that. https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-infrastructure-reconciliation-child-tax-credit-bernie-sanders-aoc Wed, 14 Jul 2021 14:34:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/biden-infrastructure-reconciliation-child-tax-credit-bernie-sanders-aoc If President Biden’s American Families Plan becomes law as he proposed it, my grand-niece Harri will finally have a “modest yet adequate” standard of living based on a new commitment from the federal government to provide social wages.

Harri is a 30-year-old single mother of two, one 3-year-old and one in school. As an assistant manager at Walmart, she makes about $47,000 a year, but about $8,000 of that goes for day care for her preschooler. She recently started getting $550 a month in a Child Tax Credit (CTC), but that’s just a temporary boost for the next year that was part of the Democrats’ March stimulus package. If the Families Plan—part of what Biden describes as "human infrastructure"—becomes law, she’ll get that CTC money for another five years and her preschooler will get free pre-K public education, freeing Harri from paying for day care.

Add it all up, and Harri’s income will be topped up by $6,600 and she’ll be saving $8,000 a year on day-care costs. She’ll go from having $47,000 a year in reported income to having $53,600, but with the absence of day-care costs, her real spending income will be enhanced by $14,600, a 37% increase. Where she lives, in central Pennsylvania, the Economic Policy Institute figures that with no child care costs, she would need about $49,000 to have a modest yet adequate standard of living. Harri will have a little more than that. Bringing in $53,600 will not provide her with a life of luxury, but the magnitude of that change should be transformative for Harri and her children. Harri will get more than parents with fewer kids or fewer pre-schoolers, but she’ll get less than parents with more kids or more than one preschooler.

The point is that the combination of the CTC and public pre-K (plus an additional program where parents of one- and two-year-olds will pay no more than 7% of their income for day care) will make a dramatic difference in most parents’ and children’s lives. It is often said that the CTC by itself will cut child poverty in half. But the whole combination will do much more than that for many more families, including those who are not poor but struggle to get by.

Beyond its variety of impacts on different American families, Biden’s Families Plan is a breakthrough commitment to the concept of social wages, a concept that has even wider application. Along with other Biden initiatives, there appears to be a firm Democratic recognition that most workers are paid too little in market wages to get by and that the government has a responsibility to change that.

Social wages are different from the commonly (and loosely) used phrase “social safety net.” Safety-net programs, like unemployment compensation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are for people who have fallen on hard times for one reason or another. Like a net, they keep people from falling farther by providing temporary income until they can get back on their feet.

Social wages, on the other hand, are more permanent, less means-tested, and available for much larger groups of people. They either subsidize essential workers by increasing their pay or reduce costs of common goods and services. Among Biden’s various plans, for example, are wage subsidies for home care and day care workers who now average $23,000 and $22,000 a year respectively. Obamacare subsidies and the Earned Income Tax Credit do this for a broader group of low-wage workers. Many cities with strong labor movements, like New York, have long had reduced transit fares and rent control to keep costs affordable for low- and moderate-wage workers, though better-paid workers benefit as well. In the postwar years, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union established cooperative housing and even a non-profit bank to reduce their members’ and other workers’ cost of living.

Increased income or reduced costs increase human freedom by providing a higher standard of living that gives people the chance to choose how to spend money, not just struggle to pay the bills. Harri should have nearly $4,000 in discretionary income if the Families Plan becomes law, something she has never had before. Disposable income is your income after taxes, and almost everybody has some. Discretionary income is the income you have left after all your ordinary expenses are met, the money you can actually choose how to spend. It’s anything over that modest yet adequate amount that the Economic Policy Institute has estimated for your family in the place you live.

Biden’s Families plan will affect my niece’s family and its prospects much more than it will for many other families. A family with one school-age child, for example, will get only $250 a month with the CTC and no savings for child care. Or, a single mother with two children, like Harri, will get the same amount in CTC and in child-care savings, but because she earns only $20,000, she’ll end up with a mere $26,600 and free day care—no longer in official poverty but still a long way from a modest but adequate income.

But the concept of social wages is just as important as the specific result of any particular program. It means that the federal government accepts its responsibility to make sure that “nobody who works full time should live in poverty.” It also represents the transfer of money from our super-wealthy to workers who make less than a modest but adequate living. Biden proposes to pay for his plans with increased taxes on corporations and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year—though it would be even fairer if the Walton family had to pay Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax on their $247 billion in wealth since Harri and her co-workers helped produce some of that.

I’m as surprised as anyone at how sweepingly progressive Biden’s initiatives are, but none of them came full-blown from the head of Biden. They are all programs that have been developed and advocated for by progressive activists and academics in opposition to a seemingly impregnable public commitment to neoliberalism—all that movement and electoral politics of the past several decades, all those Fight for $15 actions and the doors Berniecrats knocked on.

As an academic, I am especially inspired by the intellectual work that contributed to this process. Efforts to establish “modest but adequate” levels of family income, for example, had begun in the postwar period by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—at a time when unions represented one of every three workers and that Henry Wallace aspirationally dubbed “the century of the common man.” That statistical series was ended in the early years of the Reagan administration, signifying that the federal government no longer gave a shit about what was adequate for common people. A decade or so later, a more sophisticated effort to establish adequate income levels was undertaken first by Wider Opportunities for Women and then by the Economic Policy Institute. The Reagan administration didn’t want us to be able to measure how inadequate most family incomes would become. But now we know, and we have one of our political parties at least rhetorically aspiring to adequacy.

The fate of Harri and her kids and millions like them will be determined in the next few weeks as the Democrats cajole, negotiate with, and debate each other about what will be in the final budget reconciliation bill. Let’s hope they do enough to decisively turn the page on four decades of neoliberal indifference to the people who do essential work we all depend upon.

This story was first posted at Working-Class Perspectives.

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Jack Metzgar
Andrew Cuomo Is Just Another Boss For John Samuelsen to Fight - The Transport Workers Union president discusses turning against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wrestling the gig economy and why he hates the Twittersphere. https://inthesetimes.com/article/andrew-cuomo-john-samuelsen-twu-union-labor-gig-workers-new-york Wed, 14 Jul 2021 13:36:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/andrew-cuomo-john-samuelsen-twu-union-labor-gig-workers-new-york John Samuelsen, the pugnacious and outspoken president of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), made waves this month by announcing that his union will no longer support New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. TWU, which has had a rocky relationship with the powerful Democratic governor, is the first major New York union to withdraw its support, perhaps signaling the start of fatal cracks in Cuomo’s base.

Samuelsen, whose union represents public transit, railway, and airline workers nationwide, also played an instrumental role in killing the controversial New York gig worker bill earlier this year, after he withdrew his support. In These Times spoke to him about politics, the gig economy and the future of the labor movement.

Your union backed Cuomo in the 2018 election. What led to you withdrawing your support?

John Samuelsen: We were at odds with the governor from the time that he came in until midway through 2014. And we settled a contract that was outstanding, that broke the established economic pattern... that contract was settled with the assistance of the governor. And that began a period of support for the governor.

We’re not in the business of supporting people that don’t support us. I’ve not had a conversation with the governor since before November 2019. This may appear as if it’s happening overnight, but it’s not. There’s been a steady decline in the relationship [after disputes with governor-appointed MTA board members, and with Cuomo over MTA leadership plans]. When you have to fight with people who call themselves your friends, when you have to get into knock down, drag 'em out brawls in order to accomplish reasonable outcomes, this is a relationship that’s not worth having. I’ve been in that mode for a year and a half… his failure to support, and his desire to undermine, have been the driving factor for me saying I’m not supporting this guy.

Did his sexual harassment issues and ethical issues play any role, or is this strictly about his treatment of transit workers?

Samuelsen: It isn’t lost on me that he’s under investigation on multiple fronts, and that even some of his appointees on the MTA board are involved in unethical behavior. But I still maintain the position that he deserves due process, at least at a minimum of waiting to see what the independent investigation, which was taken up under the supervision of the attorney general—I’m sure that report is gonna substantiate elements of the accusations that were made against him. But until that report is out, that’s not entering into our equation. Our equation is that he is anti-MTA worker.

Do you think that if that independent investigation report goes against Cuomo to some substantial degree, that other major labor unions will withdraw their support for him as well?

Samuelsen: I think the answer to that is yes. If he is found to have been engaged in violative workplace conduct, either illegality or some other violative practice, then I think it’s logical to conclude that he will lose support.

The bill to give certain collective bargaining rights to gig workers that was proposed in the New York legislature failed earlier this year, after criticism from labor groups that it was too restrictive to offer real worker power. Have you been involved in any discussions about a new gig worker bill?

Samuelsen: I’ve been involved in dozens of discussions with food delivery workers. In fact I had a meeting today in Downtown Brooklyn with food delivery workers from Queens. My talk today with workers was that we’re trying to link together big groups of food delivery workers, big groups that are organizing amongst themselves. The next step for me is to ascertain whether there truly is worker support for such a bill. And the early answer to that is: Yes, there is definitely worker support, rideshare worker and food delivery worker support, for a bill that would allow them to organize into trade unions under state law. I think that’ll happen.

What would have to be in a bill like that, that was not in the earlier version of that bill, in order for you to support it?

Samuelsen: The preemption language in the bill (was) far too restrictive—in other words, the state preemption against municipalities creating local laws that would affect the industry. Also, everything that’s sought by the Deliveristas right now at the New York City Council, whether it be access to bathrooms or other considerations. What I would like to see, and what I think the workers would like to see, is that that all be included in the New York State bill, rather than fighting out city by city issues like bathroom access and things like that.

Also, the extremely restrictive language, which unfortunately there’s Democratic Party freakin' precedent on, which I just find to be very, very onerous, is this “labor peace” element of the law. Which would prohibit collective action by the workforce over way too long a period.

Where do you fall on the broader debate within labor over how to approach the gig economy? Some people say we need to hold the line on employment classification, to ensure “gig workers” are classified as actual employees. Others say that battle is already lost, so organized labor should just get whatever it can to make gig workers’ conditions better.

Samuelsen: I’m right in the middle of the two things you just said. First of all, the most important thing here is that the workers themselves should make these determinations. Not the Twittersphere, the purist intellectuals that believe their position is supreme. Meanwhile I [wouldn’t] be surprised if 90 percent of them never did a real day’s work in their life. They’re just full of intellectual hot air. It’s really easy for somebody making 100 grand a year to tell a food delivery worker in Queens or Brooklyn that they can’t take steps that will dramatically improve their family’s economic security. It’s simple for somebody on Twitter to tell a food delivery worker, “No, you hold the line, you adhere to my purity in terms of political philosophy.” It makes no sense. These are decisions that have to be made by workers.

So the ultimate answer to your question is that if food delivery workers and rideshare workers want to engage in interim steps while we pursue employment reclassification, then my opinion is that we should, while simultaneously recognizing that they’re misclassified. That’s a pragmatic approach. If the PRO Act passed today, these workers wouldn’t be negotiating a contract for probably half a decade or more... it seems grossly unfair to me for either union bureaucrats, or the Twittersphere, which is worse, to tell these workers what’s good for them.

Unions today are more popular than they’ve been in decades. Do you have any grand thoughts for reversing the decline in union density that’s been going on for more than 50 years?

Samuelsen: It’s turn around-able. The TWU is growing and organizing, even through Covid-19 we’ve organized units and settled first contracts. Look, I have pretty simple thought on this: If workers organize into trade unions, and they lock arms and fight bosses and win battles, more and more workers will come. If unions continue on as bureaucratic entities, and they don’t take the fight to the boss and win contract improvements and economic improvements, then it disincentivizes workers when it comes to joining the union. When unions publicly fight, and get public victories, it’s the reverse: it’s a tremendous incentive.

We’re growing because we fight. We have more workers joining TWU right now than we have organizers that can handle them. Covid-19 has amplified the importance of the trade union movement. In the transport sector, unorganized workers were treated like absolute shite compared to their unionized brethren, regardless of the city. I think it’s been an eye-opening experience to workers not only in my industry, but across the board, of the power of locking arms.

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Hamilton Nolan
We Have a Jobs Crisis and an Environmental Crisis. The Answer to Both Is a Civilian Climate Corps. - From Bernie Sanders and AOC to the Sunrise Movement, progressives are working to establish an updated version of a New Deal program to meet the challenges of economic and climate upheaval. Its time has come. https://inthesetimes.com/article/civilian-climate-corps-green-new-deal-infrastructure-biden-bernie-sanders-aoc-sunrise-movement Tue, 13 Jul 2021 15:05:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/civilian-climate-corps-green-new-deal-infrastructure-biden-bernie-sanders-aoc-sunrise-movement The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal embraced by President Joe Biden appears to be a dud. Instead of taxing the rich to modernize America’s roads, water systems and other infrastructure, it promotes various forms of privatization. A summary released in late June about how new construction will be financed includes so-called “public-private partnerships,” which are essentially high-interest loans to state and local governments that deliver massive returns for Wall Street banks, private equity investors and multinational financial firms. Also listed is a fringe policy idea called “asset recycling,” which would incentivize states and cities to outright sell off public assets. Back in 2009, Chicago leased out its parking meters to investors as far away as Abu Dhabi for at least $1 billion under value, which has forced residents to pick up the tab ever since. Asset recycling is that type of scheme on steroids.

If Biden is committed to tackling both climate change and inequality—which he says he is—then encouraging privatization is counterproductive. Privatizing infrastructure makes adapting to a warming climate harder—because it gives decision making power to corporations and investors. It raises fees and rates for residents—because those corporations and investors need to make a profit. And it creates a race to the bottom on worker wages—because contracted out workers are less likely to be members of a union.

But all is not lost. Biden has a chance to deliver for working people and a healthy climate if he listens to progressives when it comes to a promising proposal that could potentially create millions of good-paying, green public jobs: The Civilian Climate Corps (CCC).

The CCC would be a government jobs program that puts people to work directly combatting the climate crisis. First envisioned by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the program would aim to “conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”

Its impact could be considerable, especially if the final product echoes a proposal released in April by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Their proposed CCC would create 1.5 million jobs that would pay at least $15 per hour, provide full healthcare coverage, and offer support beyond the workplace, like housing and educational grants.

The good news is that, even though Biden’s bipartisan deal doesn’t include money for the CCC, the president actually already established the program in a January executive order, and his original American Jobs Plan called for $10 billion in funding for it. The bad news is that the proposed funding was only a fraction of what’s needed. Biden’s proposal would only create up to 20,000 jobs a year—nowhere near the overall need.

That’s why progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ocasio-Cortez, alongside groups like Sunrise and the National Wildlife Federation, are pushing for a much bigger and broader infrastructure investment than the bipartisan deal, to include substantial funding for the CCC.

One avenue will be to pressure Biden to keep his word when it comes to public jobs. In late June, the president signed an executive order directing the the federal government to encourage diversity and inclusion among its workforce. If a CCC becomes a reality, it must avoid the mistakes made by its predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established in 1933.

The first corps accomplished plenty. Over nine years, it employed some 3 million young men to fight forest fires, build more than 100,000 miles of roads and trails, construct 318,000 dams, connect telephone lines across mountain passes, plant 3 billion trees, and much more. But it suffered the same affliction as many New Deal-era programs by mostly shutting out Black Americans.

While the bill authorizing the program stipulated that “no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed,” Black workers were separated into different camps and often given more difficult, less prestigious work. They also experienced resistance when climbing the ranks within the Civilian Conservation Corps’ administrative hierarchy. Women weren’t allowed to join at all, instead offered opportunities with Eleanor Roosevelt’s “She-She-She” camps, which were widely scorned and only benefited some 8,500 people.

That’s why a new CCC must aim to target communities most harmed by the intersecting Covid-19, climate and unemployment crises. As In These Times’ editors wrote back in April, “The new Civilian Climate Corps must center Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous communities, which have been disproportionately affected by environmental injustice (and Covid-19).”

Public employment has long offered stable jobs to people of color, particularly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black Americans gained 28 percent of new federal government jobs in the 1960s, while only making up 10 percent of the U.S. population. By the 1980s and 1990s, Black public employees were twice as likely as their private sector counterparts to receive promotions into white collar managerial positions and technical jobs. For both men and women, the median wage earned by Black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.

For now, with the Senate still debating the paltry bipartisan infrastructure deal, it appears that funding for the CCC will have to find its way into a future budget reconciliation package, which wouldn’t require Republican votes to pass. “I want to enlist a new generation of climate conservation and resilience workers like FDR did with the American work plan for preserving our landscape with the Civilian Conservation Corps,” Biden said in a July 7 speech in Illinois. He made clear that the CCC, as well as other policies like two free years of community college, aren’t going to be in the bipartisan deal. “In Washington, they call it a reconciliation bill,” he said of the plan for enacting other major parts of his agenda.

Sanders is currently crafting language for such a bill, and plans to include increased funding for the CCC (reportedly $50 billion on top of Biden’s original proposal). Making such an investment a reality will likely require climate organizers and advocates to keep the pressure on lawmakers in Washington so they don’t renege on their promises on the environment.

People need jobs. We need to modernize our infrastructure to combat climate change. The federal government is the only institution with enough coordination and resources to kill those two birds with one stone. A well-funded CCC is the clear path forward.

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Jeremy Mohler
The Unopen Range: How Fences Hurt Wild Animals - In the Western United States alone, 620,000 miles of fence carve up the land. These barriers threaten the migrations of pronghorn, mule deer and other species. https://inthesetimes.com/article/fences-migration-wildlife-sustainability-west Tue, 13 Jul 2021 10:40:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/fences-migration-wildlife-sustainability-west Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by The Revelator, an initiative of the Center for Biological Diversity.

With the arrival of spring each year, pronghorn that winter in the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming begin a journey of more than 100 miles to their summer habitat near Grand Teton National Park.

It’s one of the longest migrations of large mammals remaining in North America. But their trek — and a similar one made by mule deer — is made more difficult by human developments along the way, particularly fences.

“The total length of fencing around the world may now exceed that of roads by an order of magnitude, and continues to grow due to a global trend towards land partition and privatization,” wrote researchers of a new UC Berkeley-led study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Wyoming is no exception. There the researchers found nearly 3,800 miles of fences in their study area alone — nearly twice the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their research tracked GPS-collared pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) during two years of their migrations to better understand how fences affect the animals’ movements and which kinds of fences may be most difficult.

Fences aren’t always bad for wildlife — some can keep animals off roads, for instance — but they can also pose threats.

For animals like pronghorn and mule deer, fences can halt or change migration routes. Animals that attempt to go over or under also risk becoming entangled and perishing. Juveniles are particularly at risk. A 2005 Utah State University study of ungulate migration across Colorado and Utah found the youngsters died in fences eight times more often than adults. Many others died of starvation or predation when they weren’t able to cross fences and were separated from their mothers.

Most of the fences the animals encounter run along the edges of livestock pastures, private property lines or roads, and are composed of four or five strands of barbed wire. Some have woven wire at the bottom, the most common type of fence for corralling sheep but also the most lethal to wildlife.

“A better understanding of wildlife responses to fencing is … critical to conservation,” the researchers of the UC Berkeley study wrote.

But here’s what we do know: The study found that both pronghorn and mule deer “were extensively affected by fences."

Each year an average mule deer encountered fences 119 times and pronghorn 248 times. In about 40 percent of those encounters, the fence changed the animal’s behavior. And that behavior, they found, was more complex than simply crossing or not crossing the fence.

Often the animals “bounced,” or rapidly moved away from the fence when they couldn’t quickly cross. “Such avoidance of fences can drive animals away from high‐quality resources and reduce habitat use effectiveness,” they wrote.

Other times the animals paced back and forth along the fence line, a behavior that could strain energy resources. And occasionally they became trapped in areas with a high concentration of fences, like livestock pastures.

This can create other problems.

“Constraining animal movements for prolonged periods within limited areas may trigger human-wildlife conflicts,” the researchers found. Pronghorn, for example, have been seen in new developments in Colorado Springs, where they’ve been hit by cars and shown up at the airport.

Mule deer and pronghorn also behave differently when encountering fences. Mule deer are more likely to jump a fence, and pronghorn to crawl under.

“The reluctance to jump means that pronghorn movements can be completely blocked by woven-wire sheep or barbed‐wire fences with low bottom wires — the two most common types of fences across their home range in North America,” the researchers found.

Considering that the American West may have upwards of 620,000 miles of roadside and pasture fences, “fence modifications for conservation might be more urgent than currently recognized,” they wrote.

Efforts are underway to encourage or require more “wildlife-friendly” fences that “are very visible and allow wild animals to easily jump over or slip under the wires or rails,” according to recommendations from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency.

Further guidance from Sustainable Development Code, an organization that works on sustainability issues with local governments, recommends using smooth, instead of barbed wires; limiting the height of fences 42 inches; allowing 16 inches of clearance at the bottom; and including wide spacing between wires.

“There are other forms of wildlife-friendly fencing, including ‘lay-down’ or temporary fences that permit wildlife crossing during critical migratory seasons,” the group reports.

Making fence lines more visible is also helpful to other animals, including birds. Low-flying birds, like grouse, also die in fences across the West’s rangelands.

That’s why wildlife managers are beginning to push for removing or modifying fences, but the effort can be costly. To address this concern, the researchers developed a software package, available to wildlife managers and other researchers, that highlights fences posing the biggest threats to animal movement. They hope it will help make the best use of limited conservation funds and help protect critical migration pathways.

“We demonstrate that when summed and mapped, these behaviors can aid in identifying problematic fence segments,” they wrote. And that could help save a lot of pronghorn, mule deer and other animals.

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Tara Lohan
Landlords Are Going to Take Away All Your Wage Gains - This is what happens when you treat housing as just another market. https://inthesetimes.com/article/landlords-housing-stimulus-rent-economy-capitalism Tue, 13 Jul 2021 09:30:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/landlords-housing-stimulus-rent-economy-capitalism Economic crises can happen fast. So can the printing of government stimulus checks to counteract those crises. But building large quantities of housing—to say nothing of affordable housing—is a slow process, beset on all sides by angry neighbors, predatory developers and a general lack of political will. And so Americans emerging from a devastating pandemic find ourselves facing a wry, ironic sort of recovery.

The good news is that wages are going up. The bad news is, you’ll have to give them all back to your landlord.

Trillions of dollars have been pumped into the economy to save us from disaster. That was the correct and, indeed, only move in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. But the boom that stimulus is fueling is being hobbled by the same mistakes that our society made for years before the pandemic.

Yes, employment demand is hot, and wages are rising, both good signs for workers. But we have also seen the prices of financial assets skyrocket after cratering briefly last year, making the rich staggeringly richer and fueling a rise in real estate costs that accrue to homeowners at the expense of everyone else. The one-third of Americans who are renters now face sharply rising rent prices across the country. Those who dreamed of becoming homeowners will now struggle just to make their rent payments, falling further and further behind as the price of real estate rises.

Landlords large and small are in a dream situation. The combination of rising wages and housing shortages means they can simply adjust rents upwards forever until they have effectively redirected every last bit of outstanding economic growth into their own pockets. Though mega-billionaires and soulless global corporations have (rightfully) replaced them as the primary moneyed villains of a democratic society, landlords are now poised to make a strong comeback as class war enemies in the public mind.

How exciting! The arcana of high finance and tax evasion can make people’s eyes glaze, but everyone can get behind some good old landlord-denigration. While many landlords certainly deserve every bit of acrimony they get—it is, after all, a field in which the will to throw an elderly person on a fixed income out onto the street gives you an advantage—it must be noted that they are merely the human face of a deep structural failure. America does not have enough housing. It is often difficult for people to believe that something as simple as supply and demand could lie at the heart of all this, but it is clearly true, and we have known it for many years. This is both a national and a local problem. In a major city like New York, for example, it would take hundreds of thousands of new housing units to make “affordable housing” a concept with any prospect of becoming a reality.

This is not a simple issue. (If you want to be humbled, start reading deeply about the financial, political, environmental, regulatory and material goods it would take to actually create hundreds of thousands of new housing units in a single city.) Even if you can overcome the enormous logistical and economic hurdles, you run up against the collective political power of homeowners, who have a common interest in keeping real estate prices high and compose the single most powerful group in municipal politics. “Let’s make housing cheaper” is a vital public policy goal for humanitarian reasons, but selling it to the members of the neighborhood homeowners association is not an easy task. Landlords are just one more segment of the “Fuck you, I got mine” market looking to jealously guard their investments. In housing, as in most things, the people with the most need have the least money and therefore the least political influence.

At the risk of oversimplifying this conundrum, however, I think that we can make at least one accurate, underlying diagnosis of America’s affordable housing crisis: It stems from our determination to treat housing as just another business, rather than as a human need. (See also: healthcare.) Subjecting basic human needs to the raw predations of American capitalism will result in people being left behind, suffering, and dying, because doing so enhances the maximization of profit. That’s how capitalism works! If we don’t want millions of Americans to be crammed into crappy apartments they can’t afford to get out of, and hundreds of thousands more to be utterly homeless with no financial path to secure housing, then we shouldn’t have treated housing as a market in which it benefits the owners to keep supply limited. That’s dumb! And yet, we do it that way.

By all means, if you desire, leave a bag of flaming poop at your landlord’s front door when they hit you with an egregious rent hike. You could even throw some eggs at the houses of the wealthy homeowners who oppose a new apartment building because it would affect the “character” of the neighborhood, while you’re at it. But recognize that all of these people are simply following the path that American capitalism has prescribed for them: To get ahead in life by bleeding other people dry.

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Hamilton Nolan
Striking Alabama Miners Are Done Playing Nice - Hundreds of UMWA miners remain on the picket line at the Warrior Met Coal mine. https://inthesetimes.com/article/united-mine-workers-strike-umwa-miners-union-picket-line-labor Fri, 09 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/united-mine-workers-strike-umwa-miners-union-picket-line-labor BROOKWOOD, ALA.—“You ain’t working tonight!”

That was one of the picket line chants heard June 15 as several hundred members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their allies attempted to block strikebreakers from entering the Warrior Met Coal mine.

With tank tops that read “scab bullies,” supporters stood shoulder to shoulder with the miners while police pleaded for protesters to move their trucks. No one would claim the vehicles.

“Who is in charge?” one of the officers asked.

“Everyone,” answered Haeden Wright, president of a local UMWA women’s auxiliary unit, a close-knit group of union members’ wives and supporters. “We are the UMWA.”

Police eventually towed the vehicles, but the standoff would last for hours. One miner offered a simple explanation: “This playing nice shit ain’t cutting it.”

The picket line had grown contentious before. In May, about two months after the strike began, Tuscaloosa police arrested 11 leaders of the UMWA and the Alabama AFL-CIO for blocking one of the mine’s 12 entrances. They all spent the night in jail and, according to the union, were given a warning: If they’re arrested again, they will be held until trial.

Along with threats from police, striking miners have faced other attacks—including three separate vehicular assaults in June, in which drivers plowed into UMWA picketers.

“Warrior Met personnel, either management or nonunion workers, have repeatedly struck our members, who were engaging in legal picket line activities, with their vehicles,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a June 7 statement. “We have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line.”

The work stoppage, which follows the months-long campaign to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in nearby Bessemer, is one of the country’s most significant mining strikes in decades. On April 1, upward of 1,100 workers walked off the job as their contract with Warrior Met expired. The union reached a tentative agreement with management a week later, but rank-and-file members rejected it, claiming it failed to address demands for better hours and wages. The miners remained on strike.

When the UMWA signed its most recent contract in 2016, it agreed to significant concessions to save the jobs of workers laid off by the mine’s previous owners, Jim Walter Resources, with the understanding that new management would eventually reward workers for their sacrifice. Those concessions included an average wage cut of $6 (from $28 to $22), mandatory seven-day workweeks, loss of overtime pay and, perhaps most crucially, an end to full healthcare coverage.

“Our members are the reason Warrior Met even exists today,” Roberts said in a March 31 statement. “They made the sacrifices to bring this company out of the bankruptcy.”

While cheaper and greener alternatives threaten the coal industry, companies like Warrior Met, whose coal is used in the production of steel, enjoy a measure of security. Warrior Met reported a net loss of $21.4 million in the first quarter of 2021, but CEO Walter J. Scheller, III says the company is “strongly capitalized and well-positioned to restart our growth trajectory” after the pandemic and is negotiating in good faith.

Meanwhile, strikers are struggling. The UMWA has provided members with weekly payments of $350, but that’s a fraction of their lost salaries. Roberts estimates the strike costs the union more than $1 million per week. To supplement these payments, the UMWA created a strike fund that has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from other unions and groups directly to the miners. (Full disclosure: the North Alabama Area Labor Council, of which the author is secretary-treasurer, has contributed to the fund.)

The women’s auxiliary pantry has collected tens of thousands of dollars more. Local markets have also allowed the unit to purchase bulk groceries at wholesale for miners and their families.

“Miners have always been their brother’s keeper,” says Braxton Wright, a long-time UMWA member and Haeden’s husband. “They’ve always stuck together as a group, even outside of work.”

Haeden sees the strike as part of a bigger struggle. “We know about Blair Mountain, we know about Mother Jones, we know Harlan, and we know what it takes to move a company,” she says. “That’s hard for people to understand if they have never been a part of [this].”

Fourteen miners clad in camo-print UMWA T-shirts took the fight to Wall Street on June 22 to protest three hedge funds with substantial stakes in Warrior Met—BlackRock Fund Advisors, State Street Global Advisors and Renaissance Technologies—that the union blames for stalled talks. Among others, labor leader Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, marched alongside them.

Their battle cry remained the same: “No contract, no coal!”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, was present at the June 22 march. Appelbaum did not attend the march.

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Jacob Morrison
No Justice, No Italian Beef: Workers at Portillo’s Food Chain Walk Out on Strike - A group of non-unionized workers at the Chicago-based chain staged a week-long walk out, part of a growing wave of strikes in the area. https://inthesetimes.com/article/portillos-chicago-strike-labor Thu, 08 Jul 2021 15:18:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/portillos-chicago-strike-labor Alleging unfairly low pay and employer mistreatment, a group of non-unionized workers at Portillo’s—a popular Chicago-based restaurant chain serving hot dogs, Italian beef and Polish sausages—staged a seven-day strike last week.

“All we want is to be treated decently, to be treated fairly, to be paid fairly,” said striking worker Armando Huerta.

The strikers—all Latino—work at Portillo’s Food Service in suburban Addison, where the food served at the company’s nearly 50 Chicago area restaurants is prepared. They say that management has failed to replace their coworkers who left during the pandemic, instead expecting them to perform more labor while offering only a $0.35-per-hour raise.

“I was working before four days a week, and now I’m working six days a week,” explained Paty Córdova, another striker. “The company refuses to give us overtime. We are tired of the injustice of having us work double.”

Out of 25 employees at the Addison facility, 17 participated in the work stoppage, which lasted from June 28 to July 5. Most say they have been with Portillo’s for over a decade. According to Córdova, they have been trying to address workplace issues with management for the past four years.

“Thanks to the company for the good years, but enough is enough,” Huerta said last Friday at a rally outside Portillo’s flagship restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

The strike was organized by the workers themselves with support from Arise Chicago, a 30-year-old worker center founded by diverse faith leaders. The employees, who don’t have a union, first reached out to Arise Chicago last November. They soon formed a workplace committee to collectively bring their concerns to management.

“We have tried to engage in talks with management at several levels—corporate, the plant manager, human resources—and none of them have responded to us,” Córdova said. “So we created this committee, this group, and we go by the motto: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’”

On June 28, the committee attempted to deliver a set of demands around safe working conditions and higher wages to the company. Managers refused to meet with them and allegedly said, “if you don’t like it, go home.” The workers responded by hitting the picket lines.

“The Portillo’s leadership team is committed to hearing from each of our team members individually and will continue to do so,” the company said in a statement.

But Córdova said that this approach isn’t good enough: “They keep insisting on meeting with them one-on-one, individually, but we are not going to allow that because we don’t want to be intimidated at those individual meetings.”

Portillo’s management described the strikers as “a small group…[that] does not speak for our team members,” but was clearly shaken by the work stoppage. The company had to bring in temp workers to ensure food production continued, and allegedly resorted to intimidation by sending letters to some strikers threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. Arise Chicago says the latter is an Unfair Labor Practice and has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company eventually agreed not to discipline any of the strikers, and they returned to work together on the morning of July 6. Concerned that management might attempt to lock them out, the workers were accompanied back into the Addison facility by faith leaders from Arise Chicago.

“I have mixed emotions because we know the struggle isn’t over yet,” striker Jesus Victoria told In These Times. “But walking in after our strike, I felt capable and courageous demanding what is just.” Victoria and the other strikers report that they did not face any immediate discipline after going back to work, but they noted that the company held one-on-one meetings with each of them.

The non-unionized Portillo’s workers got the attention of Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, who tweeted about the strike last week, saying: “Workers are the Labor Movement, the power and purpose. They don’t have time for leadership to catch up. They are showing us the way. We have to run hard to help them form their unions that will mean lasting change and sustainable rights.”

Meanwhile, at least two other groups of Chicago-area workers were also on strike over the Fourth of July weekend.

At Dill Pickle Food Co-op—a member-owned grocery store in the Logan Square neighborhood—workers unionized with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) staged a two-day strike on Friday and Saturday.

The IWW says Dill Pickle management has been violating the collective bargaining agreement that’s been in place since last November, and is refusing to settle over allegations of unfair discipline, retaliation and unilateral of implementation of new policies brought to the NLRB.

I’Talia McCarthy, the co-op’s general manager, called the union’s allegations “unfounded” and said that eight cases with the NLRB have been closed “with no enforcement action or adjudication.”

“Their distrust, and the repeated suggestion that the Co-op is violating its contract with the union, is not only a misrepresentation—it is damaging sales,” McCarthy said. “At this time, the Co-op could really use support, not suspicion.”

But according to the IWW, the labor board “found merit” in the workers’ complaints.

“Dill Pickle Worker’s Union is on strike to save the co-op,” the union said on Saturday. “They demand that management settle rather than fight the National Labor Relations Board and bankrupt the store in the process.”

At the same time, 2,500 Cook County workers with SEIU Local 73 kept up their indefinite strike that began on June 25. The strikers include frontline employees who continued coming into work throughout the pandemic, including technicians, medical assistants, custodians, clerks and others at the county’s hospitals, health clinics, offices, courthouses and jail.

The striking Local 73 members—primarily Black women—are some of the county’s lowest paid workers. Now on day 14 of their strike—and nearly nine months into contract negotiations—they say Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s bargaining team is pressuring them to accept minuscule raises while simultaneously increasing their health insurance costs by 70 to 80 percent.

The county workers have received widespread support from the local labor movement, community organizations, faith leaders, and socialist and progressive elected officials—and have received hundreds of individual donations to their strike solidarity fund.

On July 7, a group of Local 73 workers held a sit-in outside Preckwinkle’s office after neither she nor her staff accepted a letter from allies in the faith community.

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cook County nurses with the National Nurses Organizing Committee also held a one-day walkout over staffing shortages on June 24. Afterward, they won a new contract that includes a commitment from management to hire 300 new registered nurses over the next 18 months, along with 12 to 31 percent pay raises.

For their part, the Portillo’s workers who were on the picket lines for a week plan to continue organizing now that they’ve returned to work.

“We are in this fight together and we will be fighting until the end,” Córdova said.

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Jeff Schuhrke
The Uniquely Dangerous Work of Massage Therapy During a Pandemic - A massage therapist speaks out about the gross and unfair treatment she was forced to endure. https://inthesetimes.com/article/massage-therapy-dangerous-work-pandemic-caregiver Thu, 08 Jul 2021 10:59:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/massage-therapy-dangerous-work-pandemic-caregiver In this episode, we sit down with Kate from New Jersey. At the moment, Kate is working primarily as a caretaker for her parents, and we talk a bit about that work and what it means to care for our elders. Up until the pandemic, though, Kate was a massage therapist who loved her job. We discuss how Kate got into working as a massage therapist, all that the job entails, and we talk about the gross and unfair treatment Kate and her coworkers had to deal with when their employer wanted to push folks back to work before they felt safe doing so.

Additional links/info below...

Permanent links below...

Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org)

  • Jules Taylor, "Working People Theme Song"
  • Ketsa, "Alive"
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Maximillian Alvarez
A Wisconsin Hog Farm Would Produce 9.4 Million Gallons of Manure a Year. Nearby Residents Live in Fear. - Crawford County is up against Roth Feeder Pig II, which would be the largest hog CAFO in the state and could permanently pollute local aquifers. https://inthesetimes.com/article/fight-against-cafos-to-protect-wisconsin-environment Thu, 08 Jul 2021 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/fight-against-cafos-to-protect-wisconsin-environment CRAWFORD COUNTY, WIS.—When a neighbor tells Carl Schlecht and Kat Tigerman about an industrial hog farm planning construction on the narrow ridge above their home, they think it’s a joke. The retired couple lives along the Kickapoo River in the heart of southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, one of the most rugged and ecologically sensitive regions in the state, and a massive industrial polluter moving in was too much to believe.

Now, Schlecht says, “It feels like an existential threat.”

For the past two and a half years, hundreds of residents, farmers and environmental advocates in rural Crawford County have fought to stop or regulate the proposed farm, Roth Feeder Pig II. It would house more than 8,000 hogs, doubling the size of its sister operation to become the largest concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) for hogs in Wisconsin, and generate 9.4 million gallons of manure annually to be spread on nearby fields.

The Crawford Stewardship Project (CSP), a collective of environmental scientists and advocates, warns the waste would endanger local waters. According to the CSP, the region’s sloping topography and fractured bedrock, along with an inadequate spreading area exacerbated by increasing rainfall, makes the area highly susceptible to water contamination.

“Our aquifers in the Driftless Area—once they’re polluted, they’re polluted forever,” says Kelvin Rodolfo, CSP volunteer and science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago.

When the CAFO was proposed, the CSP rallied neighbors and took their concerns to the township and county boards. In December 2019, the county enacted a one-year moratorium on CAFO construction and tasked a special committee with researching potential impacts. The resulting 222-page report found that CAFO manure runoff could render groundwater undrinkable.

The study points to Kewaunee County in northeast Wisconsin, a geologically similar region saturated with dairy CAFOs. There, 30% of private wells are unsafe to drink from because of high levels of nitrate and bacteria, such as E. coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). CSP, which runs a water monitoring program in Crawford, reports having already found MRSA in streams at Roth Feeder Pig I.

Air pollution is another concern. In North Carolina, a state dominated by industrial hog farming, the National Academy of Sciences found air emissions from swine CAFOs are linked to roughly 89 premature deaths annually in Duplin County. Overall, the report found farm pollution causes more than 17,000 U.S. deaths per year, outnumbering deaths from coal plants.

The Crawford County report also notes stench, infrastructure damage, zoonotic disease and plummeting property values as potential impacts. “[CAFOs are] deadly, pretty much all around, ” says Janet Widder, a farmer serving on the report committee.

Wisconsin state law, like its 2004 livestock facility-siting law, has paved the way for easy CAFO expansion, and some Crawford County residents fear the new CAFO is inevitable. “There are people who right now are trying to sell their house and [move] out,” says Forest Jahnke, CSP program coordinator.

According to attorney Adam Voskuil at Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law center, “[The siting law] removed a significant amount of local control.” Instead, there is a “one-size fits all” standard for CAFOs, and local governments are limited in enforcing anything stricter.

Per the law center, the siting law “has been used by the livestock industry to accelerate the growth of factory farming.”

Howard Roth, would-be owner of the proposed CAFO and a fifth-generation hog farmer in Crawford County, served as president of the Wisconsin Pork Producers Association, which has lobbied for deregulation, including the siting law. When reached for comment, Roth claimed he has taken the required precautions to prevent soil pollution and is not worried about air and water pollution. When asked about CSP finding antibiotic-resistant bacteria in his groundwater, Roth claimed his farm is not the source—because “only 1%” of his animals receive antibiotics.

Despite ongoing opposition, Crawford County’s one-year CAFO moratorium expired in December 2020. The county— among the poorest in the state— argued it couldn’t afford the research required by the siting law to try to prove the farm would pose health risks. Furthermore, the county fears Roth would litigate any potential regulation, another financial burden.

Just months prior in Polk County, Wis., industry groups sent a threatening letter to the county board hours before a vote on a CAFO moratorium extension there. The letter alleged an extension would violate the siting law, for which board members could face felony charges. While the Midwest Environmental Advocates has since argued that wouldn’t be the case, the board ended the moratorium.

The letter had a chilling effect on the Crawford County board, too, which tabled regulation discussions and suspended public comment. Now, community hope rests on intervention from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Throughout June, hundreds asked the DNR to issue an environmental impact statement, which could allow the agency to impose stricter regulations on the farm (such as requiring the installation of groundwater monitoring wells, making it possible to hold the farm liable for pollution).

Since 2014, Tyler Dix, permit coordinator at the DNR, only recalls two of Wisconsin’s 318 CAFOs having an environmental impact statement. Neither moved forward with construction.

Regardless of the outcome, some residents say, the fight is not over.

“When I’m not crying about it, it’s just staggering to me that this is what we have to fight,” Kat Tigerman says. “We’re not giving up the fight. Because we can’t.”

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Hannah Faris
U.S. Media Outlets Are Still Banging the Drums for the Afghanistan War - Major press outlets are trying to goad Biden into staying in Afghanistan. https://inthesetimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-withdrawal-bagram-air-base-biden-media Wed, 07 Jul 2021 11:30:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-withdrawal-bagram-air-base-biden-media There are plenty of reasons to criticize the foreign policy of President Biden: his failure to fully end U.S. participation in the Yemen war more than five months after he pledged to; his staffing out of his foreign policy to a shadowy consultant firm called WestExec whose clients include military contractors and powerful corporations; his support for Israel’s brutal bombardment of Gaza.

But when it comes to U.S. press outlets, they’re more likely to critique Biden when he steps away from militarism. This reality was on full display following the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Bagram Air Base, which began in late June as part of the Biden administration’s broader exit from Afghanistan (which, it is important to note, does not constitute a full withdrawal and is likely to result in the farming out of the war to the CIA).

A wave of media coverage followed Biden’s evasive outburst at a July 2 press conference. He was responding to questions from reporters implying that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was irresponsible or harmful to Afghans, including one reporter who asked whether the U.S. exit would touch off a civil war. "I want to talk about happy things, man,” the president said, cutting off the journalist. The president continued, “I’m not gonna answer any more questions on Afghanistan... it’s Fourth of July [weekend].”

While the president’s remarks are certainly eyebrow-raising, given his responsibility for waging and shaping that war over the past two decades, they do not constitute a meaningful departure from Biden’s numerous other incidents of lashing out. Except in this case he was chafing at journalists’ questions that came from a seemingly pro-war perspective. And it did not take long for media segments criticizing the president’s remarks to start rolling in.

CNN’s The Lead ran a segment on July 2 titled, “President Biden grew visibly frustrated after reporters asked him about the Afghanistan withdrawal” that used the press conference as one hook for a broader story about the U.S. exit. In the segment, correspondent Kaitlan Collins painted a grim picture of what a U.S. departure would mean. “Although the official drawdown from Afghanistan isn’t over yet, the departure from Bagram air base sends a strong signal that U.S. operations are...This sprawling compound was often visited by U.S. leaders and became the center of military power in Afghanistan after being the first to house U.S. forces following the 2001 invasion. The U.S. is handing the air base over to the Afghan government amid new concerns about what they’re leaving behind.”

Nowhere does the segment mention that Bagram Air Base was once the site of grisly U.S. torture, where prisoners were held in dismal conditions, deprived of sleep, subjected to sexual degradation and humiliation, and suspended from ceilings—all while being held in legal limbo without charge, much like those detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay.

But beyond that omission, the segment fails to wrestle with a single tough question about the war itself, which is an undeniable failure even according to the military’s own stated logic, and has brought 20 years of occupation, death and displacement to the Afghan people. According to a September 2020 report from Brown University’s Costs of War Project, 5.3 million people in Afghanistan have been displaced (either internally or externally) by the U.S. war since it began in 2001. Where are the probing questions about whether the war ever should have been waged in the first place, or whether some of those people would still be in their homes if the United States hadn’t invaded? Instead, Collins postured as if she was being oppositional to power, when she was in fact siding with the Pentagon—the easiest thing on Earth for a journalist to do. (Jake Tapper, host of The Lead, knows this better than anyone. The war in Afghanistan has been a major boon to his career, the subject of his book about an “untold story of American valor” that will soon be turned into a Hollywood movie.)

NBC Nightly News, hosted by Lester Holt, struck a similar tone in its July 2 broadcast, with correspondent Richard Engel saying that Biden “did not want to draw attention” to Afghanistan when pressed about the “impact of the withdrawal.” Engel continued, “but not talking about it won’t stop this. As U.S. troops leave, some Afghan security groups are collapsing...Most Afghans do not want the Taliban to return.”

Despite Engel’s claim, there’s no evidence after nearly 20 years of war that U.S. presence erodes the Taliban’s power. In fact, all evidence suggests the opposite: Since 2001 the Taliban has significantly expanded its foothold in the country (yet the role of the U.S. occupation in strengthening the Taliban has been scrubbed from much media coverage). While polling is notoriously difficult in conditions of war, a survey from the Institute of War and Peace Studies from January 2020 found 80% of Afghans surveyed believe that peace can only be obtained through a political solution, not a military one. (The poll received funding from the European Union and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.)

The survey also found that 46% of Afghan respondents wanted U.S. and NATO militaries out of the country after a peace deal, compared to 33% who wanted them to stay. While such a definitive peace deal never came, this survey data does not show that the Afghan people want U.S. troops to remain in their country indefinitely. Yet, the framing from NBC Nightly News gives the impression that Afghan public opinion is in favor of an indefinite American presence.

These aren’t the only examples of major media outlets criticizing Biden over the withdrawal. “This July Fourth, America will leave Afghanistan independence in its death throes,” reads a July 1 piece by USA Today’s editorial board. Other outlets recirculated 2001 talking points from Laura Bush by declaring that the U.S. withdrawal will harm women and girls. “We don’t have to wonder what will happen to Afghan women when the U.S. leaves,” reads an opinion headline in the Dallas Morning News. Yet the same pundits who supposedly care so deeply about the wellbeing of people in Afghanistan have been remarkably silent about the at least 47,245 civilians who have been killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the war, a rate that has been disturbingly high for years. And they’ve had little to say about the fact that only 1.2% of people in Afghanistan have been vaccinated against Covid-19, portending a much broader humanitarian crisis to come.

Since it began, the war in Afghanistan has been met with protests around the world, and those protesters have had to contend with a bipartisan pro-war U.S. consensus—both in Washington, and in the press. The system functions by ensuring that anyone who steps out of line—even slightly, and even 20 years too late—is disciplined. This was apparent as early as September 30, 2001, when the New York Times ran the headline, “A NATION CHALLENGED: Protesters in Washington Urge Peace With Terrorists.” And it persists to the present—even amid signs the war is deeply unpopular among the U.S. public.

There are manifold other ways that U.S. media outlets could frame American withdrawal. They could examine the rampant corruption and war crimes of the U.S.-backed Afghan military, air the voices of people who want the United States to leave, or ask hard questions about what a complete American exit—and U.S. reparations to the Afghan people—could look like. But after two decades of occupation, bombings, home raids and drone strikes, we’re still a long way from a free press that asks difficult questions when it comes to war and militarism. Instead, it’s relying on rote, self-serving cliches about a supposed humanitarian mission that simply never existed.

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Sarah Lazare