In These Times https://inthesetimes.com/ In These Times features award-winning investigative reporting about corporate malfeasance and government wrongdoing. en-us Fri, 14 Aug 2020 19:57:58 -0500 Fri, 14 Aug 2020 19:57:58 -0500 Agricultural Workers Lose Millions of Dollars Each Year to Employer Wage Theft - It’s against U.S. labor laws, but that hasn’t stopped employers from withholding more than $65 million in worker wages over the last two decades. https://inthesetimes.com/article/agriculture-farm-workers-million-dollar-wage-theft Fri, 14 Aug 2020 18:15:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/agriculture-farm-workers-million-dollar-wage-theft Tens of thousands of agricultural workers have been denied wages by their employers — a violation of labor laws — over the past two decades, according to Department of Labor data. The data shows that the employers didn’t pay a total of $65 million in wages to their 150,000 employees between 2001 and 2019.

Back wages increased from $4.2 million to $6 million in 2019 than in 2018, a 44 percent increase, according to the data.

Agriculture is one of fifteen industries the DOL considers "low wage, high violation industries.”

Many in agriculture are white, but, in general, Hispanics and immigrants of color work tougher agricultural jobs, such as harvesting fields and slaughtering animals. About 27% of the industry is Hispanic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employers who willfully or repeatedly violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, which covers denying back wages, can be fined up to $1,000 for each violation.

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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Pramod Acharya
The Pandemic Is Exposing the Rotten Core of Our Industrial Food System - While industrial farms have been thrown into chaos, local agriculture has proved to be a more resilient model. https://inthesetimes.com/article/local-agriculture-covid-pandemic-industrial-food-system Fri, 14 Aug 2020 08:10:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/local-agriculture-covid-pandemic-industrial-food-system The yellow-brown compost has been heaped into hills taller than the nearby bulldozers. The piles don’t look like pigs, but that’s what they are. Pigs and woodchips.

It’s mid-May and thousands of hogs have been killed and tossed in a woodchipper on this farm field in Nobles County, Minnesota. They represent but a fraction of the number of animals that have met such an end here in the third-highest hog-producing state in the country. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture said on May 6 that at least 10,000 hogs were being slaughtered and discarded every day, but no one knows the real number. The state set up the Nobles County compost site, but it’s not required to track all the killings due to a technicality, says Michael Crusan, communications director for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. “There isn’t an animal disease issue,” he explains. “It’s just a depopulation due to market conditions.”

“Market conditions” does not mean everyone has enough to eat. In Minnesota and across the country, surging need has overwhelmed food banks. Some supermarkets limit meat purchases to prevent shelves from becoming bare. In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, one letter writer pleads for hunters to be allowed to butcher the wasted hogs, to save at least some of the meat from the woodchipper.

“Market conditions,” in this case, means meat processing plants, including the JBS pork plant in nearby Worthington, have shut down because of Covid-19 outbreaks among workers. The Worthington plant alone, which previously processed 20,000 hogs a day, has been tied to more than 700 Covid-19 cases.

The assembly line of industrial food, however, extends far beyond the processing plants. The closures have left many industrial pig farmers, who raise and ship out hogs on a regimented schedule, with nowhere to send their market-ready animals. With the next batch of hogs ready to fill the cages behind them and no other way to get the meat to hungry people, the farmers have little choice but to grind the animals into compost.

According to John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri, this failure is not a fluke of the pandemic but a weakness fundamental to the industrial food system. By extending the factory’s fixation on economic efficiency to the farm, industrialism has cut flexibility and diversity out of agriculture. Ikerd says a factory can’t slaughter 20,000 hogs a day, every day, without an inflexible schedule of when hogs are bred, born, fattened and shipped. Just as it’s more efficient to have workers each make a single repetitive cut on an assembly line than it is to have each butcher a whole hog, it’s more efficient to have a farmer raise thousands of hogs in a concentrated animal feeding operation (known as a CAFO) or only grow acres of corn than it is to raise a variety of livestock, chickens and vegetables. Despite some obvious problems, the industrial food system is a marvel of efficiency—until something goes wrong.

Ikerd puts it this way: “We’ve got a more operationally efficient system, but it’s a very fragile system.” Covid-19, he says, is one of many different scenarios that could bring it all crashing down.

Across the country we’ve seen chickens killed en masse, milk dumped, fields of vegetables plowed under. At the same time, we’ve seen the empty shelves, the cars lining up outside food banks.

As the pandemic has shaken the rickety scaffolding of industrial agriculture, it has woken many of us to the fragility of this system—and our dependence on it.

This spring, garden shops across the country sold out of seeds and seedlings. Local farmers and small-scale meat processors saw a surge of interest as people sought alternatives to industrial food. Farms that practice community-supported agriculture (CSA)—a model in which people buy “shares” of a farmer’s harvest at the beginning of a growing season and later receive weekly fresh food boxes—sold out and filled their waiting lists.

The surging interest in local food may not make up all the losses small farms are suffering, but it has been a lifeline for many. And it just might help the country make a long-term shift toward a more sustainable, more resilient and more just food system.

Shared Risk, Shared Reward

In mid-March, about a month before pork plant closures left industrial hog farmers stranded, Minnesota closed public schools—a crucial market for Open Hands Farm in Northfield, Minnesota. Instead of hogs, though, Ben Doherty and Erin Johnson were left holding more than 9,000 pounds of carrots.

Doherty and Johnson grow vegetables for local markets on their small organic farm. Carrot sales to schools account for a large share of their business, so they had to improvise. They explained their predicament on Facebook and offered 25-pound bags of carrots, direct to customers, at wholesale prices. They sold out within a day.

As the weather warmed, it remained unclear when schools would re-open, but Doherty and Johnson had to make decisions about planting. They pushed ahead with their usual crops, planning to find alternative markets if needed. To hedge their bets, they also increased their CSA offerings from 180 shares to 220.

Carrie Sedlak, executive director of the FairShare CSA Coalition based in Madison, Wis., says this “nimbleness” makes local agriculture more resilient than industrial food systems. As Covid-19 lockdowns hit, many of the coalition’s 44 member farms (scattered across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa) lost school and restaurant markets and had to lean more heavily on the CSA side of their operations.

The CSA model feels uniquely sturdy in the time of Covid-19. CSAs help small farmers, who operate on thin margins, adapt to shifting markets by putting money in their pockets upfront, when they need it most. The farmers distribute food straight to local people, who can pick up a CSA share outdoors with minimal contact. Most importantly, the model doesn’t paper over the financial risks of farming—it acknowledges them and asks the community to share the burden. If something goes wrong, CSA customers might receive different or fewer items than expected, but their boxes wouldn’t be empty, unlike store shelves during the pandemic.

In exchange for shouldering some of the risk, the participant enjoys a rare kind of food security. “You know the farmer and you know this person grows food locally,” Sedlak says. “It feels more secure than relying on this big, nebulous system.”

For these reasons, Sedlak thinks, CSAs have seen a surge in interest. This spring, all but the biggest farms in the coalition sold out of shares.

Crisis And Opportunity

When Virginia instituted its stay-at-home order in late March, it closed not only universities, schools and restaurants but also farmers markets, another pillar of local food systems.

“Those closures instilled a lot of panic on farms,” says Kristen Suokko, executive director of Local Food Hub in Charlottesville.

In addition to hardship, Ikerd thinks the food disruptions are creating opportunities for systemic change.

Since the pandemic hit, online grocery sales in the United States have soared. Amazon, Walmart and Target have racked up the vast majority of customers in the past year, but when it comes to selling food online, Ikerd says local producers enjoy significant advantages over food corporations. For example, local farmers can supply fresh food to local customers more efficiently than state or regional operations because they don’t have to spend nearly as much money on transportation, packaging and marketing. (In the current industrial food system, 85 cents of every dollar spent on food goes to marketing while only 15 cents goes to the farmer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) If local farmers could tap the burgeoning online market rather than battling for room in the mainstream distribution and retail systems, Ikerd says, then local producers and their customers could “totally bypass the industrial food system.”

That’s just what some local food groups have begun to do, out of necessity as much as out of a long-term vision.

Within days of Virginia’s stay-at-home order, Local Food Hub launched drive-thru markets to comply with Covid-19 regulations. Customers could order food online from a variety of local farms and pick it up twice a week.

“Demand was incredible in those first two months,” Suokko says. “Some farmers have said it was the lifeline that kept them going.”

In Wyoming, Slow Food of the Tetons found similar success when it moved its usual year-round farmers market online. Slow Food’s executive director, Scott Steen, says the market, based in Jackson Hole, offers food from 28 farms and saw as many as 200 orders in a good week.

“The online market has sold way more food than we would’ve sold at a winter farmers market,” Steen adds—and it’s served as an essential alternative for local farmers who lost buyers during the pandemic.

Self-organizing To Feed Each Other

Not every neighborhood, however, has a farmers market—or even a grocery store. Tens of millions of Americans live in food deserts, which are primarily in poor neighborhoods, rural areas and communities of color.

Shania Morris sees this lack of access to food as a kind of violence. Morris is an organizer with Soil Generation, a Black- and brown-led coalition of growers in Philadelphia that fights for food justice and food sovereignty.

“Black people are not only dying at the hands of police,” Morris says. “They are dying because of lack of access to healthy food and healthcare, and because they’re being overworked.

“Our supermarkets and our jobs systems don’t meet the needs of everyone,” Morris says. “In this community, we’re finding ways to do that outside of capitalism.” The group works to shape urban agricultural policy, increase access to land and help neighborhoods build gardens on what land they do have—work that’s become more urgent as people have lost income.

Enlylh King, a Soil Generation coordinator, lives communally and grows food for herself, her friends and her neighborhood. King thinks the pandemic has made people more interested in independence from oppressive systems, including the industrial food chain.

“We don’t want to get to the point where we’re so dependent on this thing that’s so far outside of ourselves that we can’t even take care of ourselves,” King says.

Morris says growing food as a means of building sovereignty is nothing new to Black communities. In 1920, almost a million farms in the United States were Black-owned—14% of all farms. But as systemic racism dispossessed Black communities, that number plunged. As of 2017, only 35,470 farms in the United States were Black-operated—1.7% of all farms.

“We’ve always been needed, we’ve always been here,” Morris says of Black growers. “Now, this moment has shown the truth of what we’ve been saying for a very long time.”

In Minneapolis, the Indigenous-led nonprofit Dream of Wild Health, which runs a 10-acre farm north of the city, partnered with other groups to deliver meals to the Twin Cities Native community during this time of crisis.

Neely Snyder, Dream of Wild Health executive director, says nonperishable food offered by many pantries—while meeting some immediate needs—is “not the healthiest stuff.” She thinks that makes her group’s mission to deliver fresh, healthy, minimally processed foods even more essential.

Every year, the farm distributes more than seven tons of vegetables and fruits by way of youth programs, farmers markets, partnerships with Indigenous chefs and its CSA-style Indigenous Food Share. This spring, as people lost jobs and access to food, Dream of Wild Health planted earlier than usual in anticipation of increased need, says farm manager Jessika Greendeer. Normally, parts of the farm lie fallow, Greendeer says, but this year they planted every available inch with summer squash, cucumbers, corn, tomatoes, winter squash and beans.

Dream of Wild Health makes its food available at less than the “normal farmers market price,” Snyder says. Other local-food nonprofits offer similar programs to make local food more accessible. The FairShare CSA coalition, for example, will pay for half a CSA share for low-income people. Slow Food of the Tetons distributes a localized version of food stamps, and unlike the federal SNAP program, it’s available to undocumented people.

Suokko says this approach has limits. “We’ve been hugely effective at making local food available through philanthropy,” she says. “We’ve not been successful at making it so, if you’re a low-income person, you can go to a local store and buy a local tomato.”

“The Transition Is Already Well Underway”

For local food systems to overgrow the fringes and reclaim a central role in how we eat, we need more farms growing diverse crops and raising animals to feed people who live in their area. And the food needs to be accessible and affordable.

Unfortunately, Sedlak says, “Capitalism tends toward consolidation, not diversification.”

Capitalism is aided by federal farm policy, which funnels assistance and subsidies almost exclusively to big, mono-crop commodity farms. Diversified farms that produce vegetables and fruits, known to the Department of Agriculture as “specialty crops,” do not qualify for federal subsidies or crop insurance.

“The very fact that fruits and vegetables are labeled ‘specialty crops’ in USDA parlance tells you everything,” Suokko says. Only 2% of U.S. farmland grows fruits and vegetables while almost 60% grows commodities like soybeans and corn. Some of those sprawling fields will eventually have to be restored and diversified, unless we want to plow what little is left of the American grasslands. (Which isn’t much: In Illinois, for example, only 2,500 acres of prairie remain, of an original 22 million.)

North of Minneapolis, Dream of Wild Health is scaling up. Before the state’s lockdown order took effect, the group purchased an additional 20-acre farm. Greendeer and her team are busy restoring the land, which has been in mono-crop corn rotations the past two seasons. She hopes it will be ready for planting in 2021.

According to Ikerd, the federal farm support system should stop subsidizing the industrial food system and instead support small, diversified farms, along with those conventional farmers who are able to transition. “If,” he says, “they still remember how to manage a farm rather than a biological factory.” We are also, Ikerd says, going to have to “grow a lot of new farmers” and give them access to land.

According to Sedlak, the main barriers that keep people from farming are a lack of access to affordable land and a lack of capital to start. Not all farmers have access to grants and donations, which is how Dream of Wild Health, for example, funded its expansion. The need is particularly great in Black communities, Indigenous communities and others that have been systematically deprived of access to land and sovereignty over their food.

We have become so dependent on the industrial food system that it’s difficult to imagine a world without it, but Ikerd takes a more optimistic view. “The transition to the new local, sustainable food systems is already well underway,” he says. “We just need government policies and public institutions to support it.”

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Joseph Bullington
The Return of the Construction Industry Has Brought a Surge of Immigrant Worker Deaths - The rush to keep building through the pandemic has compounded the risks for construction workers. https://inthesetimes.com/article/construction-industry-immigrant-worker-deaths-fatalities Thu, 13 Aug 2020 16:38:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/construction-industry-immigrant-worker-deaths-fatalities The recovery of the construction industry in the United States after the lockdowns imposed by the pandemic has been remarkable. Activity in the industry, based on data on workers’ hours, returned since May to pre-lockdown levels in 34 states, and construction spending for the first six months of 2020 was 5% higher than the same period last year.

Yet the rush to keep on building despite the pandemic has compounded the risks for construction workers, who account for one in five workplace deaths in the United States. The dangers are even higher for non-unionized day laborers, the vast majority of whom are immigrants from Latin America.

“Sadly, employers see us as disposable objects,” says Guadalupe Jiménez, a 48-year-old construction worker who emigrated from Mexico to New York City four years ago. Jiménez thinks that real estate developers are now in a hurry.

“They want to get the job done soon and they don't care if you have protective equipment,” she says. “What they want is production, production.”

Construction was allowed to resume in New York City on June 8. Within six weeks, two day laborers were killed (Mario Salas and Wilson Patricio López Flores, both from Latin America) in separate incidents, and three were injured.

“There are people from South America who come here after pawning their house deeds,” says Eduardo Redwood, a 60-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who arrived in the United States two decades ago. “But instead of coming here to work to make a living, they come here to die.”

Construction workers' deaths have spiked across the United States. In 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available, 1,008 workers were killed nationwide—the highest figure since at least 2008—compared to 971 in 2017. The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit that issues what advocates consider a reliable and consolidated annual tally of deaths in the construction industry, reported that 22 construction workers died in the city in 2018, an increase of 10% compared to 2017.

NYCOSH also reported that 86% of workers who died on private worksites in 2017 were non-union. If history is any guide, many of those workers were presumably undocumented immigrants.

New York state senator Jessica Ramos says that the vast majority of deaths at construction sites in the state are of undocumented immigrants. Many of those deaths are not consolidated in a single state registry.

Salas, a 59-year-old Mexican immigrant, died in Manhattan on July 16. He was killed by a suspended platform in a building being worked on by Edras Group, a company with 43 citations for safety code violations in the previous 10 years. His death could go unaccounted by the New York City Department of Buildings. The agency mandates only that employers report only workplace fatalities involving violations of the city's construction code on building sites. Deaths that do not involve city code violations are reported instead to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

In 2018, employers reported only one of the deaths in construction sites in New York City to the Department of Buildings. Ramos says that will probably be Salas’ case. “Statistically, it's as if he had never existed.”

Real estate developers and contractors—the middlemen that directly hire day laborers—have resisted efforts to count worker‘s fatalities accurately. “It has been one of the ways in which undocumented workers' deaths have been kept clandestine,” Ramos says.

NYCOSH registered 58 fatalities in New York state in 2018, down from 69 in 2017.

Still, the real death toll number is likely higher due to county by county variables, according to Ramos, who sponsored a bill approved in July by the state legislature to establish a reliable count of construction workers’ fatalities in the state.

According to the bill summary, only 30 of the cases from 2017 tallied in the NYCOSH report were investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Efforts to improve accountability have been resisted by developers and contractors, says Nadia Marin-Molina, co-executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a grassroots group founded in 2001.

Even though New York City mandated since 2019 that every construction worker receives a 30-hour training from OSHA, companies avoid providing it. Life-saving training for day laborers falls to nonprofits, Marin-Molina says.

The situation is “very similar in different parts of the country,” Marin-Molina says. “In terms of dangers to the workers, it is very similar.”

A life worth $10,000

Immigrants suffer recurrent wage theft and are regularly forced to work without training or basic protective equipment such as harnesses and gloves, says Redwood, speaking at a vigil being held for Mario Salas in Manhattan.

If they complain, he says, the foremen fire them on the spot. “They kick out workers as if they were dogs,” says Redwood.

If Edras Group is found criminally responsible for Salas’ death, it will pay a fine to the state not exceeding $10,000—a construction workers' worth.

Previous cases suggest that would be a large amount. According to New York state senator James Sanders, of the more than 400,000 workers' deaths registered nationwide by OSHA since 1970, fewer than 80 have been prosecuted, and only about a dozen have led to convictions. That is roughly one conviction for every 33,000 fatalities, with a $1,000 penalty on average.

A bill sponsored by Sanders, named after Carlos Moncayo, an immigrant killed in Manhattan in 2015, proposes fines of up to $50,000 for felonies in construction sites. Versions of "Carlos' Law" have languished in the Senate ever since.

Senator Ramos suggests the bill has not been approved because of the corrupt relationship between state officials and real estate companies, which for a long time have been “making political contributions and buying many of our colleagues in government.”

Other bills with tangible benefits for construction laborers have also been blocked. The SWEAT bill (short for Securing Wages Earned Against Theft) passed the state legislature in 2019. It would allow workers to freeze their employer’s assets if they are cheated out of their pay. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed it in January.

What makes construction laborers' situation worse is that “the real estate industry is such a center of wealth in New York,” Marin-Molina says.

Three days after Salas' vigil, journalist David Sirota revealed that 43 of New York’s 118 billionaire families had donated money to Cuomo’s campaigns and the state Democratic party committee. Those donors included at least two real estate moguls (Alexander Rovt and Stephen Ross), according to New York records.

Inés Arévalo, a 42-year-old electrician who emigrated from Ecuador four years ago, has witnessed first-hand the dismal job conditions for workers erecting the luxury condominiums in Manhattan.

“I've seen colleagues [have] accidents [because they're] not using protective equipment,” Arévalo says. “If they complain or denounce we know that they would fire them or simply tell them: 'you are not from here, you have no rights.'”

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Maurizio Guerrero
U.S. Sanctions Are Strangling a Lebanon in Crisis - As Lebanon faces multiple, overlapping catastrophes, U.S. policies are making them worse. https://inthesetimes.com/article/lebanon-beirut-crisis-explosion-sanctions-foreign-debt-imf-trump-maximum-pressure Thu, 13 Aug 2020 12:28:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/lebanon-beirut-crisis-explosion-sanctions-foreign-debt-imf-trump-maximum-pressure The Lebanese economy crashed into the equivalent of a brick wall sometime in the last few months of 2019. The Lebanese pound (or lira), which was pegged to the dollar and appeared to be stable for well over two decades, started to decline at a rate that threatened the complete collapse of the economy. In the meantime, the Trump administration had been busy building a “Great Wall” of sanctions around Lebanon, even as the country as a whole was drowning in a mountain of debt.

The first to be impacted was the powerful financial sector—the crown jewel of the Lebanese economy—which effectively shut down, fearing a run on the banks by panicked depositors seeking to withdraw their life savings, a large bulk of which was in U.S. dollars. Thousands of businesses closed down, laying off hundreds of thousands of workers. Shortages of essential items like fuel and wheat led to long lines at bakeries and gas stations, as the majority of households (around 60%, by some estimates) fell below the poverty line.

The dysfunctional and crisis-ridden Lebanese state was completely incapable of coping with the crisis. By that time, Lebanon was deeply indebted to international lenders and local banks to the tune of $80-plus billion (one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world), most of which was supposedly spent on reconstruction after a 15-year civil war that completely devastated the country’s infrastructure and economy. In fact, much of that money was either outright stolen by politicians or terribly mismanaged.

Lebanon’s electrical power sector is perhaps the most obvious example of the level of corruption and negligence that marked the post-war reconstruction period. A full 30 years after the civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon still suffers from daily blackouts of up to 16 hours in most areas. Even with this extreme rationing of electricity, it still costs the government nearly $2 billion every year to cover a shortfall in the power bill.

The most immediate causes of the current crisis began to appear around 2016, when perennial head of the Lebanese central bank, Riad Salameh, a powerful figure backed by Washington, began what he called “financial engineering” measures to increase the central bank’s hard currency reserves. Since his appointment in 1993, after having worked for Merrill Lynch, Salameh’s prime directive has been to maintain the lira peg to the dollar at all costs.

But by the late 2010s, Lebanon was already a country of runaway consumption, importing roughly $20 billion and exporting approximately $3 billion. To cover such a huge trade deficit and pay off the ballooning foreign debt, while also maintaining a stable lira, Salameh offered high interest rates to attract billions of dollars to Lebanon’s banks.

Already, Lebanon enjoyed several significant streams of hard currency that helped Salameh in his herculean task. The largest of these was remittances from Lebanese working abroad, mainly in the Gulf and West Africa, who sent home around $8 billion annually (not counting what is estimated to be an equivalent amount that came into the country by other means). Billions more came from exports, tourism, international aid and loans, and Arab—particularly Syrian—capital deposited in Lebanese banks.

In 2016, due to a variety of reasons, the flow of hard currency started to dry up at a frightening pace, prompting the central bank’s “financial engineering” measures. This only had the effect of kicking the problem down the road in the hope that the coming years will bring about some sort of reprieve. Instead, the country’s economy continued to deteriorate, and pressure on the lira intensified, until the inevitable reckoning arrived in the final months of 2019.

U.S. pressure, in the form of a wide array of sanctions and increased scrutiny of Lebanon’s financial system, was one decisive factor that made many Lebanese abroad—and any foreign investor, for that matter—think twice about sending money home or depositing it in Lebanese banks. Washington claimed that the Lebanese resistance party Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, both under U.S. sanctions, were using Lebanese banks to launder money or funnel dollars from abroad to fund their activities.

Given that Lebanon’s financial system is heavily dollarized (75% of bank deposits are in U.S. dollars), Washington’s influence over the sector is near total. In just one example, two well-established financial institutions sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department—the Lebanese Canadian Bank (accused of laundering drug money for Hezbollah in 2011) and Jammal Trust Bank (alleged to have facilitated the financing of Hezbollah in 2019)—were liquidated without hesitation by the central bank, and without the slightest protest from Lebanese officials.

Sanctions against Hezbollah and Syria have been around in one form or another for decades, but the Trump administration has taken them to new heights. Since launching its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran in 2018, the administration has unleashed a relentless barrage of wide-ranging and crippling sanctions against Tehran’s allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran and Syria, with their relatively closed and largely state-run economies, are better able to cope with sanctions than a laissez-faire country like Lebanon that is integrally tied to Western capital.

When Salameh’s sacred peg finally fell and the lira began its descent, popular protests against corruption and mismanagement broke out across the country on October 17 of last year. Washington and its local allies could smell blood in the water, and immediately set about to direct people’s anger against Hezbollah by portraying the group as being responsible for the dismal state of the economy.

Alongside this strategy, the Trump administration sought to tighten the economic noose further by making negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the only option for the government to receive any kind of relief, on the condition of course that “reforms” must first be implemented. No one questions the need for deep and structural change in the Lebanese economy, but the IMF’s usual fare of austerity and privatization has often resulted in countries falling deeper into a cycle of debt and dependency, while increasing the risk of further social discontent.

Ironically, it took the “nuclear” explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4 to open up some cracks in the siege that Washington has been busy weaving over the last few years. The blast exploded over 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s busy port for several years, killing and injuring thousands and laying waste to several nearby neighborhoods. The sanctions regime was already beginning to bite, not in bringing Hezbollah or the Syrian regime to their knees, nor in inciting revolts against them, but in driving ordinary Lebanese to economic destitution.

U.S. economic sanctions, no matter how “smart” Washington claims them to be, have rarely—if ever—brought down the targeted regime or group. In most recent cases, they have had the opposite effect of strengthening the hand of the state by impoverishing the population and making it more dependent on government support and assistance.

One only has to look at the 13-year international economic blockade against Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. All studies of its impact on the Iraqi population show a deterioration in just about every quality-of-life indicator, including increasing rates of malnutrition. In the end, it took a costly and devastating U.S. military invasion and occupation of Iraq to finally topple Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. stands at a crossroads on how it wants to deal with Lebanon. The coming days will reveal how far Washington wants to take the confrontation with Hezbollah, and at what cost to the rest of Lebanese society. To date, the sanctions have done little to weaken the Lebanese resistance—politically as well as militarily. The question is, especially after the near-apocalyptic scene around Beirut’s port: Can the rest of the country withstand America’s siege?

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Bilal El-Amine
Now Comes the Difficult Work of Pushing the Biden-Harris Ticket Left - If Biden's VP pick Kamala Harris is a “weather vane,” then it’s up to progressives to change the weather. https://inthesetimes.com/article/joe-biden-kamala-harris-vice-president-trump-2020 Wed, 12 Aug 2020 17:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/joe-biden-kamala-harris-vice-president-trump-2020 Now that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has officially announced former presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, the only surprising thing about the pick is that his team waited so long to announce it. After all, Harris has long been considered a front-runner for the position, but the Biden campaign nonetheless stalled, dragging the vetting process out for months while lending openings for Biden allies to snipe at VP hopefuls in the press. Targets included Harris herself, whom former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Ct.) tried to tar as too ambitious—a tone-deaf jab that teed up sharp rebukes on social media.

In retrospect, the reason for the delay was likely an abundance of caution, which makes perfect sense in the context of Biden’s longtime pitch: he’s the “safe” candidate, a plain-but-pleasant reset button we can push to dump Trump. Unfortunately, Biden’s political vision doesn’t offer much in the way of upending the conditions that made Trumpism possible. But his point that getting rid of Trump is of utmost importance is correct. As of today, that argument appears to be persuasive enough, with Biden trouncing Trump in most polls despite a lack of traditional campaigning. (Making sure the election is held in a safe and fair manner is another story altogether.)

Harris has now been anointed as the safest option to help carry that strategy forward—a woman who’s already recognizable at the national level and who has served in office for long enough that claims of “inexperience” don’t distract from the steady, undistinguished campaign that Biden is trying to run. Harris’ status as the first-ever Black woman—born of Jamaican and Indian heritage—on a major party ticket is also likely an asset in appealing to the young Democratic voters among whom Biden was largely unpopular during the primary.

For progressives and those on the Democratic Party’s so-called “left wing,” Biden’s candidacy has been a tough pill to swallow. After all, with an ongoing nationwide uprising against structural racism amidst a crushing pandemic and economic collapse, what circumstances could better illustrate the need for the type of confrontational, systemic change proposed by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Yet now, with unemployment spiking, and millions taking to the streets to assert that Black Lives Matter and demanding officials defund the police, we’re in the unenviable position of being forced to acknowledge that voting for Biden—the author of the gruesome 1994 crime bill—and Harris—a former tough-on-crime prosecutor—is undeniably better than the alternative.

If there’s a silver lining to this pick, it’s that other frontrunners for the VP nomination, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice, are, on paper, all more conservative than Harris. Moreover, there’s some evidence that Harris is something of a political weather vane: if she rose to national prominence as a moderate prosecutor, she’s moved markedly to the left since 2016, and has developed one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate. For example, in the current 116th Congress, she’s voted with Sanders 92% of the time—and even signed onto his Medicare for All bill, before introducing her own more watered-down version during the primary campaign.

More recently, she’s joined democratic socialist Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in calling for monthly direct cash assistance of $2,000 during the pandemic, and introduced a sweeping housing bill calling for a year-long eviction freeze. Her leftward shift has even been acknowledged by Lara Bazelon—the San Francisco law professor who authored a New York Times story that was arguably the most influential case against Harris’ prosecutorial record. As Bazelon described Harris’ evolution in an NPR interview, “Her record has been consistent, and it's been good. And my hope is that she's going to continue in that vein, first of all, because it's the right thing to do but then, second of all, pragmatically, because that's where the country is moving.”

The groups RootsAction and Progressive Democrats of America were slightly more blunt in their assessment of Harris’ selection: “While her penchant for taking positions broadly palatable to the corporate donor class raises concerns about her dedication to progressive principles, her habit of aligning her stance with the prevailing political winds gives us some hope.”

Ultimately, while defeating Trump remains a priority, it’s up to those of us on the left to generate the winds we want to prevail by building power outside of presidential politics. Taking to the streets for racial justice, strengthening the labor movement, demanding universal healthcare, establishing tenants’ unions, electing more candidates up and down the ballot who are committed to taking on corporate power to benefit the working class—this is how we can reorient politicians’ incentives and priorities. The weather vanes will follow.

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.

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Natalie Shure
The Largest Private-Sector Strike of the Year Is Headed for Union Victory - After nearly seven weeks on the picket line, Machinists union members will soon vote on a contract that includes everything they’re fighting for. https://inthesetimes.com/article/bath-iron-works-strike-maine-union-contract-agreement Wed, 12 Aug 2020 15:12:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/bath-iron-works-strike-maine-union-contract-agreement BATH, MAINE—It’s no coincidence that the first strike in 20 years at Bath Iron Works (BIW) began months into the Covid-19 pandemic. While Maine has one of the lowest Covid transmission rates in the country, the spread of the deadly virus helped spark the strike that has largely shut down the shipyard at BIW—one of Maine’s largest employers.

In June, when around 4,300 Machinists Local S6 union members at BIW voted overwhelmingly to strike, many had already soured on management over its handling of the pandemic.

The walkout—which represents the largest private-sector strike of the year—has lasted for nearly seven weeks. But late last week, both sides saw a breakthrough as a tentative agreement was reached that appears to hand the union a victory on its demands.

BIW, a General Dynamics subsidiary that builds battleships for the U.S. Navy, never shut down the production facility because it was deemed an “essential business” by the U.S. government. After a BIW worker tested positive for the virus in late March, the company encouraged employees not to report to work. Many did stay home for weeks—but they had to use paid vacation or sick time, or work unpaid. Union leaders called for a shutdown with pay while also pushing state lawmakers to pressure the Navy to allow the shipyard to close.

“They said we’re essential workers because we build battleships, but how essential are you if you get sick? It’s scary for a lot of people,” said John Louis Cabral III, a shipyard worker and Local S6 member.

Cabral, 34, couldn’t afford to stay home long: He was hired last year and had little accrued paid time off. With three kids to support and no access to pandemic-related unemployment benefits since he wasn’t furloughed, he went back to the yard.

With employee attendance way below normal for weeks, BIW fell further behind on production of Navy guided-missile destroyers. As part of negotiations with Local S6 for a new three-year contract, the company proposed changes allowing it to hire nonunion subcontractors more quickly. That and other proposed changes to seniority and work rules in the company’s “last, best, and final offer” on June 13 did not go over well with Local S6.

“It’s a power struggle in the yard right now, and that’s facts,” said Cabral, who helps manage inventory at the shipyard.

On June 22, 87% of Local S6 members voted in favor of striking, even though they’d lose company-paid health insurance during a pandemic. Federal mediators were brought in to restart negotiations in July, around the same time BIW laid off members of another union local and brought in subcontractors from out of state to avoid falling further behind on production.

“We’re all standing as one because we don’t want subcontracting in here,” Chad Bamford, a 25-year-old crane rigger who’s worked at BIW since 2017, said on the picket line Friday. “They’re trying to subcontract out our work. We don’t want outsiders. Give us more overtime. We build the best ships in the world.”

The company has said it never wanted to permanently outsource work away from the union through subcontractors. “We seek only efficient access to all available resources to improve our ability to deliver to the US Navy on time," BIW President Dirk Lesko wrote
in June. The shipyard was six months behind schedule at the start of the strike.

Both Bamford and Cabral blame production delays on both the pandemic and mismanagement. A BIW spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Union victory in hand?

After weeks of meetings that yielded little, union and BIW negotiators broke through to an agreement Friday, and it looks like the union got everything it wanted.

In a tentative agreement announced Saturday, Local S6 leaders trumpeted the retention of status quo contract language on subcontractors and seniority and work rules. The agreement also retains 3% annual raises for workers. A “temporary catchup phase” will allow expanded subcontracting through the end of this year, and a joint union-company committee will begin meeting weekly to ensure schedule gains.

The deal, unanimously approved by the union negotiating committee, "preserves our subcontracting process, protects seniority provisions and calls for a collaborative effort to get back on schedule,” Local S6 leader Jay Wadleigh told the Associated Press Saturday. The agreement also includes healthcare benefit gains.

“We are pleased to have reached agreement with our union partners and look forward to getting back to the job of building ships for the U.S. Navy,” Phebe Novakovic, chairman and CEO of General Dynamics, said in a statement the same day.

Local S6 members will vote to ratify the proposed contract online and via phone later this month. If it’s approved—which both Cabral and Bamford believe is likely—the lack of concessions will stand in contrast to the last contract. Back in 2015, workers narrowly voted to give up scheduled raises in favor of one-time bonuses to protect jobs and help BIW win a new U.S. Coast Guard contract (though the company ended up losing that contract to a competitor).

General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the country, made $3.5 billion in profits last year. In 2018, tax cuts backed by the Trump administration helped cut the Fortune 500 company’s effective tax rate almost in half, according to Labor Notes. That same year, the Maine legislature handed BIW a $45 million tax break.

Bamford said he knows some people don’t agree with unions—but the strike has only deepened his pride in Local S6 and what it can achieve. The tentative agreement, he said, sounds like a “big win.”

“Until you’ve been a part of a union and you have 4,300 people standing with you as one for one cause, it’s a feeling you can’t describe,” Bamford said. “It makes you proud to be with it.”

Cabral agrees: “Solidarity is awesome. The strike has built camaraderie.”

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Jeremy Gantz
The Green New Deal Just Won a Major Union Endorsement. What's Stopping the AFL-CIO? - Union support for the Green New Deal is growing. It's time for America's largest labor federation to get on board. https://inthesetimes.com/article/green-new-deal-aft-afl-cio-climate-labor-unions-workers Wed, 12 Aug 2020 12:14:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/green-new-deal-aft-afl-cio-climate-labor-unions-workers The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers' standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you're working in a sector that's collapsing is you figure, what's the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that's not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.”

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

Because of our current political climate—a pandemic that has already killed over 160,000 people in the United States, millions out of work, and a president and Senate that seem to despise working people —unions may be less willing to lead in the fight against climate change. After all, the climate crisis may feel less urgent than the unemployment crisis, or even contract negotiations over wages and benefits. But for the faculty, teachers and paraprofessionals who make up the AFT, leading in the fight against climate change is paramount. And to get the rest of the labor movement on board, Nelson has some advice: “If you believe in something, you gotta be willing to fight for it.”

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Mindy Isser
Mijente Stayed Out of the 2016 Election. Here’s Why It’s Going All In This Time. - Hispanic voters will comprise 13% of the electorate this year—the largest nonwhite demographic group of eligible voters. Mijente’s “Fuera Trump” campaign aims to mobilize them for the November election. https://inthesetimes.com/article/mijente-stayed-out-of-the-2016-election-in-2020-its-organizing-like-never Mon, 10 Aug 2020 07:15:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/mijente-stayed-out-of-the-2016-election-in-2020-its-organizing-like-never The 2020 presidential election is not turning out how progressives imagined now that their favorite candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.), have left the race. Left with former Vice President Joe Biden as the de-facto Democratic nominee, progressive organizations like Mijente, a national grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing, are pivoting their strategy for November’s general election.

Mijente is an organization that gives young Latinx and Chicanx people the opportunity to develop organizing skills, increase their political awareness and build relationships with others who are invested in justice that is pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, pro-worker, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-migrant. Mijente decided not to endorse Biden, but it’s not staying on the sidelines—there’s too much at stake. Though the organization endorsed Sanders in February, its members resolved to put their weight behind whichever candidate went up against Trump in November. For them, getting voters to the polls in November isn’t about putting Biden into office; it’s about getting Trump out. That’s the basis for Mijente’s “Fuera Trump” campaign.

The idea behind a negative campaign strategy like Fuera Trump is to get voters to vote against something or someone, rather than for it. Leading up to the 2016 general election, this strategy worked for Republicans: 53% of Trump voters cast their ballots for him as a way to demonstrate opposition to Hillary Clinton. Negative campaigning was less effective in mobilizing Democrats, however, given that only 46% of Clinton’s voters were cast as an anti-Trump statement. By comparison, in 2008 a majority of both Democratic and Republican candidates were positively motivated to turn out for their candidate.

The decision to enter the 2020 election with an electorally-focused negative campaign strategy is new for Mijente, which, since its founding in 2015, has focused on mobilizing around issues rather than candidates. The organization’s issue-based work includes, for instance, protesting the Department of Homeland Security’s cooperation with local and state police and demanding an end to the criminalization of migration, an end to private detention centers and abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement; its protests and public advocacy have helped demonstrate to lawmakers that xenophobic policies will not easily glide by without a fight from Mijente’s members. Its movement work involves the difficult business of building a diffuse apparatus on the ground that’s strong enough to force officials to hear and heed political demands.

Grassroots organizing and electoral organizing diverge in a number of ways, says Mayra Lopez, a Chicago-based Mijente member, organizer and political strategist. Grassroots work is about mobilizing people by building relationships around shared values, for starters. “Community organizing is centered around leadership development and the issue,” Lopez says. “We’re not there to elect somebody just because we want to play politics. There always has to be a larger agenda: Electing this person is part of a bigger plan as to how we’re gonna achieve our goal.”

Mijente’s larger goal is to realize policies like the Green New Deal, universal healthcare and ending family separation and other means of terrorizing immigrants. However, while Mijente has traditionally prioritized issue-based grassroots organizing, it now recognizes how deep a threat the Trump presidency poses—and the electoral organizing needed to oppose that threat. Mijente political director Tania Unzueta realized when Trump was elected in 2016 that the organization had “missed an opportunity” to fight against him and what his candidacy represented. The Trump presidency has made people of color, Latinx people and immigrants more vulnerable than ever before.

Mijente had decided to stay out of the 2016 presidential race for two reasons: the organization’s assessment that then-candidate Trump was not a credible threat, and that Hillary Clinton was not interested in their vision of justice because her platform promised a continuation of Obama-era anti-immigrant policies. After eight years of a Democratic administration that deported more people than any previous administration and expanded the use of detention centers, it didn’t seem to Mijente like things could get any worse with either Clinton or Trump in office.

But of course, things did get worse. “[We] misassessed the threat of Trump becoming president,” says Unzueta. In 2020, “We can’t make that same mistake,” she says. That means getting voters to turn out for Biden, by underscoring the harms of a continued Trump presidency. Even as Mijente is mobilizing members to vote as a way to create change, Mijente’s electoral strategy is still informed by its movement organizing background. Candidates aren’t heroes; they’re targets for organizers to push on their larger agenda. And voting isn’t just about showing up on November 3, but about taking action every day after—Mijente is working the long game. “We know that working within the institutions that oppress us is not going to save us,” Unzueta says. “We also know that ignoring these systems isn’t going to save us.”

Though Fuera Trump won’t break down American governing systems, Mijente is hoping the November election could usher in a candidate who has demonstrated his willingness to listen and move left on the issues at the top of Mijente’s priority list. In other words, Unzueta says, Fuera Trump is about pushing for change “within the state, outside the state and without the state.”

Though a presidential electoral strategy is new for Mijente, the organization has successfully used its issue-based organizing to mobilize voters against a county-level candidate in the past. In 2016, Mijente launched and won their first effort to boot someone out of office: Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a racist Republican who directed his department to racially profile and unconstitutionally detain Latinx people. Arpaio outspent his Democratic opponent by over $11 million and hadn’t lost a race in 24 years, but Mijente’s coalition-building and grassroots effort to engage voters by door-knocking and protesting in front of the sheriff’s office worked. The 2016 effort dubbed “Bazta Arpaio” succeeded even as Mijente was “fighting Republicans in a red state,” Unzueta says. Building a campaign strategy around demonstrating the harm of an elected official worked four years ago, and it could work in November.

In order to replicate its 2016 successes, Mijente will need to use similar organizing skills to rally its base. “It’s about math,” Lopez says. Luckily for them, the math is on their side. Hispanic voters will comprise 13% of the electorate this year—the single largest nonwhite demographic group of eligible voters, according to Pew Research.

This year, Mijente is organizing and registering Latinx and Chicanx voters in states where the Democratic Establishment previously hasn’t done much outreach, such as Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Mijente has seen firsthand the power of such grassroots organizing: In 2018, Mijente turned out young voters for Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, claiming to increase the Latinx vote by 300% more than the previous gubernatorial race. Unzueta says that Latinx voters in the state hadn’t previously been reached out to by the Democratic Party, and credits Mijente with the turnout, revealing what they have always known: that the Latinx and Chicanx vote matters.

A vote against Trump is not just a demonstration of values, but a protective measure for Mijente members who can’t vote. Voting is not a tool that’s available to every organizer or activist, including Lopez herself. Lopez is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipient. Her immigration status means she’s not able to cast a ballot in November, and yet, her safety is dependent on getting Trump out of office.

While Mijente believes that voting often fails to create the major systemic change people need and instead results in incremental changes, the Trump administration has proved to be a big enough obstacle to issue-based organizing that voting against him (by casting a ballot for Biden) shifts power away from explicitly white supremacist leaders and to a legislator Mijente believes can be persuaded to enact policy changes aligned with their long-term issue-based organizing.

“While I don’t think [Biden] has earned my support, I think we need to get Trump out,” Lopez says. “At this moment we need to be present. Sitting on the sidelines means that we’re letting this happen.”

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Ray Levy-Uyeda
Animals and Plants Are Relocating Because of Climate Change. Should They Be Considered Invasive? - https://inthesetimes.com/article/climate-change-native-invasive-neonative-species-migration-conservation Sat, 08 Aug 2020 14:20:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/climate-change-native-invasive-neonative-species-migration-conservation Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Ensia and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Caribbean corals sprout off Texas. Pacific salmon tour the Canadian Arctic. Peruvian lowland birds nest at higher elevations.

In the past 100 years, the planet has warmed in the range of 10 times faster than it did on average over the past 5,000. In response, thousands of species are traveling poleward, climbing to higher elevations, and diving deeper into the seas, seeking their preferred environmental conditions. This great migration is challenging traditional ideas about native species, the role of conservation biology and what kind of environment is desirable for the future.

In a 2017 review for Science, University of Tasmania marine ecology professor Gretta Pecl and colleagues wrote, “[C]limate change is impelling a universal redistribution of life on Earth. For marine, freshwater, and terrestrial species alike, the first response to changing climate is often a shift in location.” In fact, Pecl says, data suggest that at least 25% and perhaps as much as 85% of Earth’s estimated 8.7 million species are already shifting ranges in response to climate change.

But when they arrive, will they be welcome? Traditional definitions classify species according to place. “Native” species arrived without human help and usually before widespread human colonization, so are likely to have natural predators and are unlikely to go rogue. Non-natives are newcomers and suspect. Though 90% cause no lasting damage, 10% become invasive — meaning that they harm the environment, the economy or human health. Last year a multinational report flagged invasive species as a key driver of Earth’s biodiversity crisis.

How we define species is critical, because these definitions influence perceptions, policy and management. The U.S. National Invasive Species Council (NISC) defines a biological invasion as “the process by which non-native species breach biogeographical barriers and extend their range” and states that “preventing the introduction of potentially harmful organisms is … the first line of defense.” But some say excluding newcomers is myopic.

“If you were trying to maintain the status quo, so every time a new species comes in, you chuck it out,” says Camille Parmesan, director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, you could gradually “lose so many that that ecosystem will lose its coherence.” If climate change is driving native species extinct, she says, “you need to allow new ones coming in to take over those same functions.”

As University of Florida conservation ecologist Brett Scheffers and Pecl warned in a 2019 paper in Nature Climate Change, “past management of redistributed species … has yielded mixed actions and results.” They concluded that “we cannot leave the fate of biodiversity critical to human survival to be randomly persecuted, protected or ignored.”

Existing Tools

One approach to managing these climate-driven habitat shifts, suggested by University of California, Irvine marine ecologist Piper Wallingford and colleagues in a recent issue of Nature Climate Change, is for scientists to adapt existing tools like the Environmental Impact Classification of Alien Taxa (EICAT) to assess potential risks associated with moving species. Because range-shifting species pose impacts to communities similar to those of species introduced by humans, the authors argue, new management strategies are unnecessary, and each new arrival can be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Karen Lips, a professor of biology at University of Maryland who was not associated with the study, echoes the idea that each case is so varied and nuanced that trying to fit climate shifting species into a single category with broad management goals may be impractical. “Things may be fine today, but add a new mosquito vector or add a new tick or a new disease, and all of a sudden things spiral out of control,” she says. “The nuance means that the answer to any particular problem might be pretty different.”

Laura Meyerson, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island says scientists should use existing tools to identify and address invasive species to deal with climate-shifting species. “I would like to operate under the precautionary principle and then reevaluate as things shift. You’re sort of shifting one piece in this machinery; as you insert a new species into a system, everything is going to respond,” she says. “Will some of the species that are expanding their ranges because of climate change become problematic? Perhaps they might.”

The reality is that some climate-shifting species may be harmful to some conservation or economic goals while being helpful to others. While sport fisherman are excited about red snapper moving down the East Coast of Australia, for example, if they eat juvenile lobsters in Tasmania they could harm this environmentally and economically important crustacean. “At the end of the day … you’re going to have to look at whether that range expansion has some sort of impact and presumably be more concerned about the negative impacts,” says NISC executive director Stas Burgiel. “Many of the [risk assessment] tools we have are set up to look at negative impact.” As a result, positive effects may be deemphasized or overlooked. “So that notion of cost versus benefit … I don’t think it has played out in this particular context.”

Location, Location, Location

In a companion paper to Wallingford’s, University of Connecticut ecology and evolutionary biology associate professor Mark Urban stressed key differences between invasive species, which are both non-native and harmful, and what he calls “climate tracking species.” Whereas invasive species originate from places very unlike the communities they overtake, he says, climate tracking species expand from largely similar environments, seeking to follow preferred conditions as these environments move. For example, an American pika may relocate to a higher mountain elevation, or a marbled salamander might expand its New England range northward to seek cooler temperatures, but these new locations are not drastically different than the places they had called home before.

Climate tracking species may move faster than their competitors at first, Urban says, but competing species will likely catch up. “Applying perspectives from invasion biology to climate-tracking species … arbitrarily chooses local winners over colonizing losers,” he writes.

Urban stresses that if people prevent range shifts, some climate-tracking species may have nowhere to go. He suggests that humans should even facilitate movement as the planet warms. “The goal in this crazy warming world is to keep everything alive. But it may not be in the same place,” Urban says.

Parmesan echoes Urban, emphasizing it’s the distance that makes the difference. “[Invasives] come from a different continent or a different ocean. You’re having these enormous trans-global movements and that’s what ends up causing the species that’s exotic to be invasive,” she says. “Things moving around with climate change is a few hundred miles. Invasive species are moving a few thousand miles.”

In 2019 University of Vienna conservation biology associate professor Franz Essl published a similar argument for species classification beyond the native/non-native dichotomy. Essl uses “neonatives” to refer to species that have expanded outside their native areas and established populations because of climate change but not direct human agency. He argues that these species should be considered as native in their new range.

They Never Come Alone

Meyerson calls for caution. “I don’t think we should be introducing species” into ecosystems, she says. “I mean, they never come alone. They bring all their friends, their microflora, and maybe parasites and things clinging to their roots or their leaves. … It’s like bringing some mattress off the street into your house.”

Burgiel warns that labeling can have unintended consequences. We in the invasive species field … focus on non-native species that cause harm,” he says. “Some people think that anything that’s not native is invasive, which isn’t necessarily the case.” Because resources are limited and land management and conservation are publicly funded, Burgiel says, it is critical that the public understands how the decisions are being made.

Piero Genovesi, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Invasive Species Specialist Group, sees the debate about classification — and therefore about management — as a potential distraction from more pressing conservation issues.

“The real bulk of conservation is that we want to focus on the narrow proportion of alien species that are really harmful,” he says. In Hawaii “we don’t discuss species that are there [but aren’t] causing any problem because we don’t even have the energy for dealing with them all. And I can tell you, no one wants to remove [non-native] cypresses from Tuscany. So, I think that some of the discussions are probably not so real in the work that we do in conservation.”

Indigenous frameworks offer another way to look at species searching for a new home in the face of climate change. According to a study published in Sustainability Science in 2018 by Dartmouth Native American studies and environmental studies associate professor Nicholas Reo, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and Dartmouth anthropology associate professor Laura Ogden, some Anishnaabe people view plants as persons and the arrival of new plants as a natural form of migration, which is not inherently good or bad. They may seek to discover the purpose of new species, at times with animals as their teachers. In their paper Reo and Ogden quote Anishnaabe tribal chairman Aaron Payment as saying, “We are an extension of our natural environment; we’re not separate from it.”

The Need for Collaboration

The successful conservation of Earth’s species in a way that keeps biodiversity functional and healthy will likely depend on collaboration. Without global agreements, one can envision scenarios in which countries try to impede high-value species from moving beyond their borders, or newly arriving species are quickly overharvested.

In Nature Climate Change, Sheffers and Pecl call for a Climate Change Redistribution Treaty that would recognize species redistribution beyond political boundaries and establish governance to deal with it. Treaties already in place, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates trade in wild plants and animals; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; and the Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora, can help guide these new agreements.

“We are living through the greatest redistribution of life on Earth for … potentially hundreds of thousands of years, so we definitely need to think about how we want to manage that,” Pecl says.

At the heart of these questions are values. Genovesi agrees that conservationists need a vision for the future. “What we do is more to be reactive [to known threats]. … It’s so simple to say that destroying the Amazon is probably not a good idea that you don’t need to think of a step ahead of that.” But, he adds, “I don’t think we have a real answer in terms of okay, this is a threshold of species, or this is the temporal line where we should aim to.” Defining a vision for what success would look like, Genovesi says, “is a question that hasn’t been addressed enough by science and by decision makers.”

At the heart of these questions are values. “All of these perceptions around what’s good and what’s bad, all [are based on] some kind of value system,” Pecl says. “As a whole society, we haven’t talked about what we value and who gets to say what’s of value and what isn’t.”

This is especially important when it comes to marginalized voices, and Pecl says she is concerned because she doesn’t “think we have enough consideration or representation of Indigenous worldviews.” Reo and colleagues wrote in American Indian Quarterly in 2017 that climate change literature and media coverage tend to portray native people as vulnerable and without agency. Yet, says Pecl, “The regions of the world where [biodiversity and ecosystems] are either not declining or are declining at a much slower rate are Indigenous controlled” — suggesting that Indigenous people have potentially managed species more effectively in the past, and may be able to manage changing species distributions in a way that could be informative to others working on these issues.

Meanwhile, researchers such as Lips see species classification as native or other as stemming from a perspective that there is a better environmental time and place to return to. “There is no pristine, there’s no way to go back,” says Lips. “The entire world is always very dynamic and changing. And I think it’s a better idea to consider just simply what is it that we do want, and let’s work on that.”

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Jenny Morber
I Shouldn’t Have to Be a “Strong Black Woman” for My Life to Matter - Support Black women when we are loud or quiet, when we are brave or scared, when we are fed-up or meek. https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-women-racial-justice-uprisings-police-tropes-say-her-name Fri, 07 Aug 2020 11:28:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/black-women-racial-justice-uprisings-police-tropes-say-her-name In May 2020, a young Black woman kneels in front of riot police with nothing but a face mask. In August 2016, Ieshia Evans calmly approaches riot-armed police and is promptly taken into custody. Over 50 years ago, Gloria Richardson pushes a rifle away from her in apparent exasperation and outrage.

This type of photo—where the Black woman is unabashed and unafraid in her protest—emerges often. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police that sparked world-wide, almost daily protests for weeks was no exception. During these protests, I have seen these images circulating without any meaningful discussion of what they represent. These photos remind the public that Black women have always been on the front lines of anti-racism movements.

As a Black woman, these photos terrify me. They are powerful representations of our strength and tenacity, yet they contribute to the burden Black women carry everyday.

We rarely see convictions or indictments for Black men dying at the hands of police, but we do see massive movements dedicated to them. The Civil Rights Movement grew in response to, among other things, the death of Emmett Till in 1955. Black Lives Matter gained national attention in response to protests over Michael Brown’s death in 2014. The massive protests this year were sparked by George Floyd’s death.

Black women have been integral to these protests and to the Black Lives Matter movement in general, just as during the Civil Rights Movement.

People are right to protest the racist murder of any Black person. But, as noted in “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” the deaths of Black women are not getting similar attention, and “our silence around the killing of Black women and girls sends the message that their deaths are acceptable and do not merit repercussions.”

It is an ugly truth to say that this has burdened us. The movement, while glowing and active at the moment, has become complacent when it comes to Black women. Photos like these allow people to see us as the unshakeable face of the movement, which only plays into the oft-criticized trope of the Strong Black Woman, where Black women are portrayed as upfront, always in control, and never vulnerable.

The Strong Black Woman is more than just a media trope, though. It is a pervasive myth that will continuously harm Black women as long as the movement and society at large demands Black women’s attention and energy without giving anything back.

On the podcast “15 Minutes on the Couch, Ayanna Abrams, a licensed clinical psychologist, puts its origins at slavery and the different roles Black women played in their own families and the families they were owned by.

“They had to play this role in which they were always doing, always caring, always serving, always taking care of other,” she says. “That transitions through generations, through decades, quite literally through centuries. And now we are up against this myth and this trope that has taught us that we are on the bottom of the list… or that we’re not even actually on the list.”

These photos reinforce this harmful myth because they create the expectation that I, as a Black woman, put my body on the frontline. They reinforce the expectation that I must always be brave in the face of racism or violence.

I resist this idea because I am a Black woman who is afraid. I am a Black woman who cries over the pain our people have been subjected to, who becomes locked up with anxiety at the thought of an encounter with the police. On top of this, I often fear no one is fighting for me, but instead expecting me to fight for myself and everyone else.

I resist this idea because, despite these photos, we know of so many Black women who encounter the police and do not survive.

#SayHerName is a hashtag dedicated to Black cis- and trans- woman victims of police brutality. It grew out of the need to shed light on the fact that Black women are dying by police hands too, and that we are rarely getting justice or even media attention.

The need for this hashtag is exemplified by the death of Sandra Bland, who I think about daily. Bland likely knew she was about to have an uncomfortable—potentially dangerous—encounter, as it recently came to light that she filmed it on her phone. Then she got out of the car and reminded the officer that he was overreacting by actively threatening her.

“Yeah, let’s take this to court,” Bland said. She acted brave in the face of racism and violence, the way Black women are expected to.

Bland was dead 72 hours later. Suicide, the authorities said, and the grand jury deliberated for over eight hours before returning no indictments for her death and handing legitimacy to the iffy (at best) story where she hung herself with a trash bag.

Outcry over Bland’s death resulted in the “Sandra Bland Act” being passed in Texas in 2017. But Rep. Garnet Coleman, who wrote it in partnership, acknowledged that during negotiations it was stripped of important reform tenets focused on regulating the interactions of Texas police with the public, and it became “a mostly mental health bill.”

It was heartwarming to see many people remember her on the most recent anniversary of her death, and many did call for justice on that day. The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) that started #SayHerName in partnership with Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) mentions her in, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women” under “Driving While Black.”

And there were protests in her name in the immediate aftermath of her death. Certainly, Bland lives on in our protests for justice for murdered Black women such as Breonna Taylor or Natasha McKenna. While we are demanding that Taylor’s murderers be arrested, charged and tried, calls to reopen Bland’s investigation are met with attitudes like that captured in the New York Times headline, “The Death of Sandra Bland: Is There Anything Left to Investigate?”

For the Times, David Montgomery writes, “Both her mental health background and the physical evidence in the autopsy report pointed to suicide,” despite the continuous demands from her family to reopen the case and the compelling argument that, as Matt Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone, “Suicide or not, police are responsible for Sandra Bland’s death.”

To some, the circumstances around Bland’s death might make it harder to fight for her. While Breonna Taylor was rudely awakened and almost immediately shot, the fact that Bland was not kowtowing to Encinia’s demands was painted, for his defense, as reason enough to treat her the way he did.

“My safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” Encinia said. His perjury indictment was thrown out in exchange for a promise to never work in law enforcement again, which I find blasphemous.

The whole investigation was a sham, and demanded far more outrage. If a yard sign or street mural is performative, trials that bring no justice, and laws such as “Breonna’s Law” and the “Sandra Bland Act” that do not address the systemic oppression which has resulted in such rampant police brutality, are as well. This is what “Defund The Police,” the call to dismantle police forces and redistribute resources to community health, is all about.

There’s more we can do, though.

The movement can only move forward. We can still honor Bland—and all Black women killed or terrorized by police—by supporting Black women when we are loud or quiet, when we are brave or scared, when we are fed-up or meek.

Because right now, there is nowhere for us to be vulnerable, and no one protecting us. Black women are quite literally on the frontlines of this fight and the least the rest of the movement can do is let us cry and yell and curse.

Abrams is also the founder of Not So Strong, a space made for Black women to express emotion and be vulnerable with each other. It is an example of how we can be active in creating space for Black women, but there is more we can do alongside this.

White people can choose to be active in the fight against racism and center the voices of Black women in their protests, and Black men can start listening to us and working on cultural issues with us.

At the very least, stop taking these pictures and plastering them over the internet. We do not need anymore of the sort, but we do need healing spaces for Black women. If we can hold vigils and protests, we can dedicate space to the voice and the pain of Black women. Not just people of color or Black people, but Black women.

Let us speak. Let us rage. Let us sigh. Let us be vulnerable in any way we see fit in the moment, and fight for us regardless.

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Ramenda Cyrus
Want Progressive U.S. Politics? Continue to Reform the Democratic Party Rules - There would be far more elected officials like Jamaal Bowman and AOC, if New York complied with the new Party reforms. https://inthesetimes.com/article/democratic-national-convention-rules-committee-reforms-democratic-party Fri, 07 Aug 2020 09:04:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/democratic-national-convention-rules-committee-reforms-democratic-party On July 30, the Democratic National Convention’s Rules Committee voted unanimously to keep in place the small-d democratic reforms that grew out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Those changes in the rules govern this year’s convention, and now, as a result of the unanimous vote, they will govern the 2024 convention as well, once officially adopted by the full convention on August 17.

Those vital reforms were based on the work of the Unity Reform Commission, of which I was vice-chair, representing the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

I was also one of the sponsors on the Rules Committee of the proposal to continue the reforms through 2024, and yet, in late July, I feared it was a lost cause. But Sen. Sanders focused his own and his team’s efforts on passing the proposal, and 39 state party chairs endorsed it. Joe Biden’s campaign responded well to those efforts and what became the “Unity Resolution” was ultimately adopted by the Rules Committee 173-0.

This is significant because if the proposal had not been adopted, it would have been up to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to decide whether or not to adopt these rules in 2024. Since members of the DNC are superdelegates, this would have required them to again strip themselves of the right to impact the Democratic Party nomination for president in four years. In 2016, most of those superdelegates were lined up for Hillary Clinton long before the Iowa caucus, leading many to believe Sanders’ campaign was hopeless.

The reforms, however, go far beyond superdelegates. Most caucus states switched over to holding primaries, which drastically increased voter participation in Washington, Minnesota, Colorado and other states. The remaining caucus states were required to adopt a method for voters to participate if they were working, physically challenged or otherwise could not caucus.

Most importantly, these rules require that unaffiliated voters can join the Democratic Party and vote on the same day as a primary. In New York alone, there are 3 million unaffiliated voters, many of them young people, who could be critical to changing the outcome not only for the party’s nomination for president, but also in the numerous “one party districts” in the House of Representatives and state legislature where winning the party nomination virtually ensures election.

One party districts are almost certain to elect Democrats given the district’s party registration and voting history, so the primary is the election that counts. Corporate and other big money interests all focus on the Democratic candidates in these races, which often results in very moderate Democrats getting nominated. This year, New York moved the cut off date to join the party from six months to two months before the primary, which, while not in compliance with the reform rules from 2016 mandating same day party registration, is still a step forward.

Imagine a campaign like the recent U.S. House primary election in New York’s 16th District between Jamaal Bowman and incumbent Eliot Engel. With same day party registration, thousands of new Democrats could have helped elect Bowman, the progressive challenger. He won anyway, but there would be far more Bowmans and AOCs if New York complied with party rules. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other closed primary states have similar barriers and multiple one party districts. Changing to same day registration could also help progressives get elected in those states.

Other important reforms considered at the Rules Committee this year had mixed outcomes. Primarily these were charter amendments, and faced a higher bar since they are permanent provisions. All were issues sponsored by Sanders delegates and viewed by the Biden campaign as items that could be deferred. (Eighty percent of the committee members were Biden appointees.) These issues included mandating primaries instead of caucuses and keeping corporate lobbyists out of the DNC. While they did not succeed, reformers will continue to pursue such issues at the DNC and in state parties.

In the United States, unlike any other democracy, we define our politics by our candidates. Even on the Left, we talk about movement building and organizing yet often are addicted to candidates and ignore the rules—especially when it comes to the rules inside the Democratic Party. Some on the Left have argued for building a new party without ever figuring out what the rules are in the Democratic Party that stand as the real barriers to change.

The unanimous vote should be a wake-up call about what’s possible in terms of building and changing the Democratic Party. The 39 state party chairs that supported the reform proposal recognize that democracy and change inside the party is just as important as democracy outside the party. Democrats can’t claim to be the voting rights party, and then restrict voting in primaries. State Party chairs Ken Martin (Minn.), Jane Kleeb (Neb.), Tina Podlodowski (Wash.) and Trav Robertson (S.C.) led the effort to mobilize state chairs to support the rules resolution that we ultimately passed. They are committed to party building at every level.

Party building starts with measuring party registration in every county and setting goals. It means measuring turnout and volunteers. It means opening up party elections at the precinct, county and state levels. It means organizing around issues, and using the primary process to elect candidates who are accountable on those issues to the party organization, whether at the local, state or national level.

The Democratic Party has operated as a top-down system for decades, but slowly there is a growing recognition that the national party is mostly the sum total of the 57 parties (including states, Washington, D.C., territories, Puerto Rico and Democrats abroad)—and that those parties must be member based.

Until 2017, it was rare to have microphones on the floor at DNC meetings, let alone discussion and roll call votes on motions. After the officer elections in 2017, that changed, and the internal functions of the DNC are increasingly democratic, in part because of the the Unity Reform Proposals. DNC Chair Tom Perez has encouraged participation even when it is contentious, such as last year’s discussion on holding presidential debates focused on topics like climate, rather than the general debate format that prevailed.

Focusing on “the rules not just the rulers” is also critical when it comes to Senate governance and the Democratic caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Republican caucus worked around the “cloture” rule that requires the support of 60 senators to end debate on a piece of legislation on the Senate floor.

McConnell eliminated this cloture vote on Supreme Court nominations because a cloture vote would have blocked Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh from confirmation. Similarly, McConnell passed his 2017 tax giveaways to corporate America with a simple majority. He also used a parliamentary motion to cut the floor time for judicial confirmation from 30 hours to two, and over 200 federal judges have been confirmed in President Trump’s first 3 years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions will be spent on contested Senate races this year. Yet at this moment, at least 10 Democratic members of the Senate have not committed that they are willing to vote to get rid of the filibuster if they are the majority in 2021. Here again, it is rules inside the Democratic Party, not those imposed from outside, that hobble our democracy.

Our addiction to candidates means that we raise huge contributions and devote hours and hours of volunteer time to win a Senate Democratic majority. But because we tend to ignore the rules, very little time has been spent discussing how the Senate should govern with a Democratic majority. For example, senators like Joe Manchin (W.V.), Angus King (Maine), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) have all indicated they would not move any legislation forward unless it had 60 votes, which in effect gives Republican senators the right to veto Democratic legislative initiatives. Imagine, a Democratic majority in the Senate next year that is unable to act because the Democrats are unwilling to wield their majority power the way that McConnell did repeatedly.

The hurdles facing us are not only Democratic Party rulemaking and Senate procedures. From the current electoral college system to the arcane U.S. voter registration process, the limits in all but five states on vote by mail, and, most importantly, no limits on campaign spending—the United States stands as the most constrained democracy in the world. This is true even without dealing with fundamental rules like the make up of the Senate itself, the role of the federal judiciary in reviewing legislative changes, or the ability of the president to commit the nation to endless wars.

But we can start with the rules that Democrats control. As we saw in the Rules Committee, we can organize and make a difference. We can demand that the rules on unaffiliated voters joining the party are enforced in New York and other states. We can put limits on corporate and other big money influence in the party structure. We can better focus on one-party districts, realizing that many of the rules are designed to protect incumbents who benefit greatly from corporate contributions. We can demand that Senate Democrats govern and not hide behind the filibuster. We can build state parties from the bottom up, controlled by county organizations that are truly precinct-based, with fair internal elections. We can organize for progressive state party platforms like those adopted in many states that support issues like Medicare for All and then build the progressive caucus in that state to hold candidates accountable on our issues.

What we can’t do is wait for the next Bernie Sanders and expect them to do it for us. We can’t ignore the rules and how we change them, and then say the party sucks and look for another new one to solve the problem. Running independent and third party candidates is fine where it works, but it doesn’t work in most places.

Our Revolution (where I chair the board) and other organizations are mobilizing not only on issues and for candidates, but around party building and rules reforms within the party. Voting for Democrats cannot be like rooting for a sports team and wearing their colors. We need to stay focused on issues, not just candidates. But just as importantly, we must focus on the rules that regulate, and often control, the outcome.

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Larry Cohen
Biden Promises a Return to the Obama Era. That’s Bad News for Palestinians. - A campaign built on nostalgia is no comfort for those who are not at all nostalgic for the Obama administration. https://inthesetimes.com/article/something-like-biden-promises-a-return-to-the-obama-era-thats-bad-news-for Thu, 06 Aug 2020 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/something-like-biden-promises-a-return-to-the-obama-era-thats-bad-news-for Joe Biden is running a campaign of restoration. The presumptive Democratic nominee never tires of saying he wants to “restore the soul of the nation,” or of invoking his time as vice-president under Barack Obama.

It’s comforting rhetoric for many Democrats, a way to dream about returning to a time before Donald Trump.

But for Palestinians and their allies, Biden’s plan to return America to the Obama era is a frightening prospect. With few questions asked, the Obama administration armed Israel and blocked efforts to hold Israel accountable in international forums. A Biden presidency promises to follow the same path on Palestine—and Palestinians will pay the price.

Amid his nostalgic campaign, Biden has managed to promise some change: He’s pledged to invest nearly $2 trillion to combat climate change, backed some criminal justice reforms and says he wants the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour.

But on U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine, Biden has given no indication he would change a thing from his previous time in the executive branch.

Biden wants to reverse some of the Trump administration’s attacks on Palestinians by restoring humanitarian aid and security assistance to Palestinians.

He would also stick to the long-standing Washington consensus on Israel: back negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to reach a two-state solution and rhetorically oppose Israeli settlement activity, but never sanction Israel for its theft of Palestinian land.

“Biden will continue to let Israel do what it wants and at the same time sugar-coat it—he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney and Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. “Under the guise of a peace process, he’ll blame the Palestinians while horrors are being committed by Israel.”

The Biden campaign’s throwback plan on Israel is most evident in how it approaches the over $3 billion in military aid the United States sends to Israel every year.

Throughout the 2020 campaign season, progressives have called on candidates to endorse conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel. Such a policy would bar Israel from using U.S. military funding to carry out demolitions of Palestinian homes and arrests of Palestinian children. Biden, however, called the idea of conditioning aid “bizarre.”

Instead, Biden has pledged to uphold the Obama administration’s commitment to giving Israel $38 billion in military aid over the next decade with no strings attached. The U.S. weapons Israel buys with that money go towards bombing Gaza, the coastal enclave under a devastating Israeli blockade, and maintaining Israel’s violent military rule over millions of Palestinians. During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, U.S.-made Hellfire missiles, artillery shells and Mark 84 bombs killed scores of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

The Biden campaign has also pledged to block UN efforts to hold Israel accountable. This campaign plank, too, is nothing new: In 2009, the Obama administration stopped efforts to refer the findings of the UN Goldstone Report, which found Israel committed war crimes in its 2009 war in Gaza, to the International Criminal Court. In 2011, Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the UN—and today a leading contender to be Biden’s vice-president—vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.

But it’s not just Biden’s policy pledges that promise more of the same destructive policies on Israel. It’s also his advisers.

His chief foreign policy adviser is Tony Blinken, Biden’s former National Security Adviser and a former Deputy Secretary of State. Blinken was part of the State Department team that helped negotiate the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding that committed the United States to sending billions in military aid to Israel. The Biden campaign has dispatched Blinken as an emissary to explain Biden’s Israel positions. In a July call with Arab-American activists, Blinken said Biden “opposes any effort to delegitimize or unfairly single out Israel, whether it's at the United Nations or through the BDS movement.” During a May call with Democratic Majority for Israel, an AIPAC-linked lobby group committed to stopping progressives from changing Democratic Party policy on Israel, Blinken said Biden would never condition U.S. military aid to Israel.

It’s not only Blinken who has Palestinian rights activists dissapointed. Two Obama administration figures, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, played key roles in drafting the DNC platform language on Israel. The result was ugly: The platform did not mention the words “Israeli occupation” and endorsed the Obama administration’s military aid agreement with Israel. The DNC also rejected amendments to the platform language that called on the United States to condition aid to Israel so that US money doesn’t subsidize Israeli human rights abuses.

But while the Biden campaign isn’t giving Palestinian rights activists a reason to cheer, their outlook isn’t all grim. If Biden wins the White House, he will be confronting a slowly-growing progressive bloc of lawmakers who do want to condition U.S. military aid to Israel.

“That is where the hope is, if we continue to elect progressives into offices that are going to help change the debate,” said Arraf, the Palestinian-American human rights lawyer.

In June, as fears grew about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to formally annex West Bank settlements to Israel, 13 lawmakers, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), signed a letter pledging to withhold some US military aid if Israel carries out annexation. It also warned that annexation would lead to Israel becoming an “apartheid state,” unusually strong language from Democratic members of Congress.

The letter was a sign of how emboldened progressives are becoming on Israel. If there’s one thing that’s clear about a Biden White House, it’s that he will do his best not to follow these progressives’ lead. But a clash over U.S. funding of Israeli human rights abuses may come anyway. The Biden White House will have to contend with a Democratic Party that doesn’t take its cues from Obama-aligned Democrats. Progressives will be looking to see if Biden can be forced to change.

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Alex Kane
Report: More Environmentalists Were Murdered Last Year Than Ever Before - https://inthesetimes.com/article/environmentalists-indigenous-land-defenders-murdered-deforestation-climate Wed, 05 Aug 2020 16:36:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/environmentalists-indigenous-land-defenders-murdered-deforestation-climate Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Mongabay and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

2019 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists, according to a new report by the advocacy watchdog Global Witness. In total, the group says that at least 212 people were killed across the world in retaliation for their defense of land and the environment, with those representing Indigenous communities bearing a disproportionate brunt of the violence.

Many of the killings were linked to battles over control of forests that are critical to the global fight against climate change, said Chris Madden, a senior campaigner at Global Witness.

“Looking at the cases that we’re seeing and the issues these people are working against, they’re often the very same causes of climate breakdown,” he said in an interview. “So that’s why we’re saying they’re at the front line of the climate crisis.”

Topping the list of the deadliest countries for environmental defenders in 2019 were Colombia and the Philippines, with 64 and 43 killings respectively. In Colombia, the figure was more than double the number who were murdered in 2018. Overall, the most dangerous region for defenders was Latin America, which saw two-thirds of the global death toll, with the Amazon alone accounting for 33 deaths.

Despite only making up 5% of the world’s population, activists representing Indigenous communities, who are often on the front lines of conflict over forests and land, comprised 40% of those killed.

In Colombia, the 2016 peace agreement signed between the government and the leftist guerrilla group FARC is causing a scramble for control over lucrative resources left behind in the group’s wake.

As FARC insurgents demobilize under the terms of the agreement, paramilitary and other criminal groups are rushing in to fill the void, with Indigenous communities suffering as a result of the power struggle. Those communities accounted for half of the documented killings in the country despite representing less than 5% of Colombia’s population.

In late May, Mongabay published video of paramilitaries firing assault rifles into an Indigenous Emberá town and forcing members of the community to flee by canoe.

When environmental defenders are killed in Colombia, the courts rarely deliver justice. According to Global Witness, nearly nine in 10 murders of human rights activists in the country do not lead to a conviction.

Elsewhere, the deaths of activists have been linked to intimidation and violence carried out on behalf of repressive governments. Killings in Honduras jumped from four in 2018 to 14 in 2019, giving it the highest per capita rate of any country analyzed by Global Witness. In the Philippines, 2019’s toll brings the total since Rodrigo Duterte took office in mid-2016 to 119 — almost double the figure for the comparable period before his election.

A number of killings in the Philippines have come directly at the hands of government forces or groups loyal to it, including that of a leader of the Manobo Indigenous group, who reportedly died during an aerial bombardment by the Filipino military last year. The Manobo have long been engaged in a campaign to prevent encroachment into the Pantaron mountain range by loggers and mining companies.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines later posted a photograph of his body online, saying he was killed during a clash with local communist militants. According to Global Witness, this follows a pattern of activists and environmental defenders being “red-tagged,” or accused of holding communist sympathies and providing support for rebel groups.

“In the Philippines, state forces are implicated in quite a number of cases,” Madden said.

Overall, data shared with Mongabay by Global Witness show that the majority of killings globally are carried out by unknown assailants, accounting for 65 of the deaths. Forty were traced to hit men, 22 to paramilitary forces, and 17 to armed forces or police. Others were connected to landowners, criminal gangs, and private security guards.

In recent years, agribusiness has been linked to a rising number of retaliatory murders of land rights activists. In 2019, 34 such killings were recorded, an increase of more than 60% from the previous year. As global consumption rises, Madden says that violent conflict over land that can be used to produce palm oil, soy, cattle, and other commodities is likely to spike as well.

“At the global level, with increased consumption, we are seeing that these industries do have to keep expanding into ever more remote or different areas,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing at the Amazon at the moment with agribusiness and logging ramping up again, and it’s playing out in various places across the world.”

Illegal sand and gold mining in Indonesia. The mining sector is a major source of violence against environmental defenders. (Image by Rhett A. Butler)

Madden adds that as troubling as the numbers are, they are also likely to be significantly underestimated. The methodology Global Witness uses to verify killings of environmental and land defenders is strict, drawing on media reports as well as those from the group’s local partners. In some parts of Africa, for example, retaliation against local and Indigenous activists can be hard to track.

Tabitha Netuwa of DefendDefenders, a Uganda-based human rights organization that provides support to activists in East Africa, agrees that the true figure is almost certainly higher.

“It is an underestimate – the shrinking civic space for [human rights defenders] to operate is making reporting about human rights violations a challenge. In addition, many of these violations happen in areas far removed from the capitals where accessibility is a challenge and many [human rights defenders] working in those remote areas face reprisals for speaking out,” she told Mongabay in an email.

Four activists from sub-Saharan Africa were represented in the total, with one each from Kenya and Ghana along with two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including Joël Imbangola Lunea, who was allegedly murdered by a security guard working for the Canadian palm oil company Feronia Inc.

According to Madden, while some governments, corporations and financial institutions have taken steps to protect local activists, more needs to be done.

“I think that governments in particular in the E.U., U.S., and global north have a particular role to play in strengthening requirements around what companies need to do in these situations,” he said. “So making sure they have to do full due diligence of the human rights impacts throughout their whole supply chain.”

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Ashoka Mukpo
Robert Reich: How Mitch McConnell’s Republicans Are Destroying America - While a lethal pandemic and economic crisis wreak havoc on working families, McConnell and the GOP are dead set on protecting business interests and enriching the wealthy. https://inthesetimes.com/article/robert-reich-mitch-mcconnell-republicans-covid-19-pandemic Wed, 05 Aug 2020 15:06:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/robert-reich-mitch-mcconnell-republicans-covid-19-pandemic Senate Republicans’ shameful priorities are on full display as the nation continues to grapple with an unprecedented health and economic crisis.

Mitch McConnell and the GOP refuse to take up the HEROES Act, passed by the House in early May to help Americans survive the pandemic and fortify the upcoming election.

Senate Republicans don’t want to extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, even though unemployment has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression.

Even before the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of Americans lived paycheck to paycheck. Now many are desperate, as revealed by lengthening food lines and growing delinquencies in rent payments.

McConnell’s response? He urges lawmakers to be “cautious” about helping struggling Americans, warning that “the amount of debt that we’re adding up is a matter of genuine concern.”

McConnell seems to forget the $1.9 trillion tax cut he engineered in December 2017 for big corporations and the super-rich, which blew up the deficit.

That’s just the beginning of the GOP’s handouts for corporations and the wealthy. As soon as the pandemic hit, McConnell and Senate Republicans were quick to give mega-corporations a $500 billion blank check, while only sending Americans a paltry one-time $1,200 check.

The GOP seems to believe that the rich will work harder if they receive more money while people of modest means work harder if they receive less. In reality, the rich contribute more to Republican campaigns when they get bailed out.

That’s precisely why the GOP put into the last Covid relief bill a $170 billion windfall to Jared Kushner and other real estate moguls, who line the GOP’s campaign coffers. Another $454 billion of the package went to backing up a Federal Reserve program that benefits big business by buying up their debt.

And although the bill was also intended to help small businesses, lobbyists connected to Trump – including current donors and fundraisers for his reelection – helped their clients rake in over $10 billion of the aid, while an estimated 90 percent of small businesses owned by people of color and women got nothing.

The GOP’s shameful priorities have left countless small businesses with no choice but to close. They’ve also left 22 million Americans unemployed, and 28 million at risk of being evicted by September.

For the bulk of this crisis, McConnell called the Senate back into session only to confirm more of Trump’s extremist judges and advance a $740 billion defense spending bill.

Throughout it all, McConnell has insisted his priority is to shield businesses from Covid-related lawsuits by customers and employees who have contracted the virus.

The inept and overwhelmingly corrupt reign of Trump, McConnell, and Senate Republicans will come to an end next January if enough Americans vote this coming November.

But will enough people vote during a pandemic? The HEROES Act provides $3.6 billion for states to expand mail-in and early voting, but McConnell and his GOP lackeys aren’t interested. They’re well aware that more voters increase the likelihood Republicans will be booted out.

Time and again, they’ve shown that they only care about their wealthy donors and corporate backers. If they had an ounce of concern for the nation, their priority would be to shield Americans from the ravages of Covid and American democracy from the ravages of Trump. But we know where their priorities lie.

This post first appeared on robertreich.org

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Robert Reich
The Democratic Platform Fight Shows It’s Still Obama’s Party - Bernie Sanders supporters have pushed for progressive priorities in the platform, but the Barack Obama wing of the Democratic establishment is still in the driver’s seat. https://inthesetimes.com/article/obama-biden-democratic-national-convention-platform-bernie-sanders Tue, 04 Aug 2020 14:25:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/obama-biden-democratic-national-convention-platform-bernie-sanders Few processes are given more importance, yet are as arcane and opaque, as the writing of the Democratic Party platform. Ostensibly the policy agenda of the next Democratic president (and the party as a whole), the platform is the result of hours of intense debate and negotiation between sometimes contentious factions of competing political interests. It is also, more often than not, written by the winners.

This year, those winners aren’t only former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment—but the Obama wing of that establishment.

President Barack Obama installed his labor secretary, Tom Perez, as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair in February 2017. A close look at Perez’s nominees to the 2020 platform committees suggests the party will adhere to Obama’s incrementalist vision of politics, one that stands in stark contrast to the bold push for change advocated by runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his supporters.

Now, with the Sanders-Biden unity task forces having wrapped up and issued their recommendations, what happens from here is in their hands. One Wall Street advisory firm is already declaring a victory for corporate America, calling the 110-page document “a very successful effort by Biden and his team to control the narrative and policy direction, while making just enough concessions to the progressive wing to avoid an open rift in the party.”

Yet it’s no guarantee even these half-measures will make it into the platform. That will depend on the men and women chosen by Perez to shape the final document.

Who's at the head

Many loyal democratic voters may be pleased that Obama’s vision will shape the platform. He is, after all, the party’s most beloved political figure.

But Obama’s actual policy agenda was often at odds with the stated values and priorities of his own supporters. Obama championed the corporate-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, and sources involved in the drafting process say it was his direct appeal to Sanders that helped ensure the absence of an anti-TPP plank—which Sanders agreed to for the sake of party unity.

As president, Obama expanded President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” pushed for an “all of the above” energy policy that did little to prevent climate change, deported record numbers of people, and spent years trying to cut Medicare and Social Security, an ambition that Sanders himself was instrumental in thwarting. Moreover, according to longtime Democratic Party insider and Obama transition official Reed Hundt, it was Obama and his team’s aversion to robust government action in the early days of the 2008 recession—for fear of being labeled “socialist” by the GOP—that ultimately weakened the U.S. economic recovery and helped elect President Donald Trump.

“The former president, going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the left side of the ideological spectrum,” the Washington Post’s David Swerdlick wrote of Obama in 2019. “To the dismay of many on the Left, and to the continuing disbelief of many on the Right, Obama never dramatically departed from the approach of presidents who came before him.”

Per DNC rules, Tom Perez, as party chair, has the fortune to appoint the co-chairs of the Rules, Credentials and Platform committees. Perez’s selections for the two co-chairs of the Platform Committee don’t show signs of receptivity to Sanders’ agenda. Both are fellow former Obama officials. The one likely to wield the most power is Denis McDonough, Obama’s final chief of staff.

Having cut his teeth as a foreign policy adviser for former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle—now a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies and other corporate interests—McDonough sits safely in the narrow band of liberal orthodoxy in Washington, particularly on matters of national security. As Daschle’s aide, McDonough took the lead in drafting the war authorization Bush used to invade Iraq. He is a Russia hawk and believes law enforcement should be able to access a person’s encrypted messages, but had backed Obama’s 2008 campaign-era call to defy Washington’s warmongers and speak with U.S. adversaries like Iran and Cuba.

Perhaps most important is McDonough’s close relationship with Obama. The former president has described McDonough, who helped set up his Senate office upon his arrival in Washington and served as his top foreign policy adviser during his 2008 campaign, as “one of my closest friends.”

“Denis has played a key role in every major national security decision of my presidency,” Obama said in 2013. Other officials have described McDonough as something akin to an extension of the former president. He is “the keeper of the president’s flame,” according to Cheryl Mills, a staffer for President Bill Clinton. Obama trusted McDonough “more than anyone else in the White House,” according to Clinton ally and Obama transition head John Podesta, in 2013.

In August 2019, McDonough defended Obama against criticism from several Democratic candidates on his healthcare and immigration record, arguing that “attacking former President Obama’s record … doesn’t make any sense, politically or substantively.” Perez and McDonough are unlikely to get much pushback from the other Platform Committee co-chair, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of legendary activist César Chávez. Chávez Rodríguez served as Obama’s deputy director of public engagement, which in practice meant being dispatched to speak with disillusioned Latino and immigrant rights activists during the 2012 election (and beyond), defending Obama’s woeful record on immigration.

“My grandfather helped me to understand that change isn’t immediate,” Chávez Rodríguez said in 2014, defending Obama’s glacial progress on immigration and refusal to take executive action on the matter. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It does take a lot of time and sacrifice. It takes consistent, sustained organizing and pressure.”

Chávez Rodríguez is also a former state director and senior adviser for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). She is now working for the Biden campaign.

In many ways, the appointment of McDonough and Chávez Rodríguez caps off a multi-year effort by Obama to limit Sanders’ influence over the party and ensure Obama’s direction for the party prevails. As one official told Harper’s editor Andrew Cockburn, Obama recruited Perez in 2017 to run for DNC chair to “stop the Sanders wing of the party from taking over.” Perez ran against then-Rep. Keith Ellison (now Minnesota attorney general), a Sanders ally who had received overwhelming party support, including from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other congressional Democratic leaders. Obama personally worked the phones to turn votes away from Ellison and toward Perez.

Ahead of the 2020 primaries, Obama privately threatened to step in and speak out if Sanders appeared poised to run away with the nomination. He also made several well-publicized—if obliquely critical—comments about Sanders’ candidacy and political vision; one even became a debate question suggesting Sanders should step aside because he was old and male. Obama helped convince Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., to suspend his presidential campaign before Super Tuesday to consolidate the centrist vote against Sanders. Obama also reportedly pressured Sanders to suspend his campaign.

For a fuller picture of what Obama’s Democratic Party looks like, look beyond the chairs and at the four vice chairs and 25 voting members of the Platform Committee that Perez named January 25.

Thirteen are former Obama administration and campaign officials. Another, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, was singled out by Obama during his final interview in office as the future of the party. Twelve more are Clinton allies (including four that overlap the Obama crowd). Many have expressed open hostility to Sanders. Some are connected to or have received political funding from interests expressly opposed to Sanders’ agenda. Many have business and political fundraising interests that run counter to the Vermont Senator’s anti-corporate vision. Seven work or have worked for the corporate sector, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina executive Danielle Gray and ecommerce executive Meghan Stabler.

The Pregame

In the United States, party platforms are non-binding and have, at times, even been ignored by the candidates themselves, leading many to wonder how much they really matter. And yet, as some have pointed out, platform changes often prefigure important ideological shifts within a party. One study found that, from 1980 to 2004, lawmakers voted in line with their respective platforms on average 82% of the time.

Intense battles over platform language in past decades suggest that, while the Democratic Party establishment may view its platform as symbolic (and convenient to ignore), the platform is far from insignificant—particularly given how it serves as a test of the nominee’s power within their party. Biden, for example, is currently resisting the demands of the party’s progressive and activist base, championed by Sanders.

Healthcare is one point of contention. Biden is steadfastly opposed to Medicare for All, a flagship Sanders policy that has soared in national popularity as millions lose their jobs and insurance during the pandemic.

Another is climate change. Biden put forward a $1.7 trillion climate plan during the primary (to Sanders’ $16.3 trillion plan) and has haltingly moved closer to the platforms of green groups like the Sunrise Movement but remains resistant to key elements, including a ban on fracking and a reinstatement of the oil export ban, rescinded by Obama in 2015 after spending 40 years on the books.

The actual writing of the party platform is a multistage process that continues through the party convention. In 2016, according to those involved, much of the platform had been written well before the Drafting Subcommittee met to vote on the details in June in St. Louis. Even as the drafters held hearings around the country in advance of the two-day debate, staffers for the DNC were already writing the platform’s first draft.

“We were the Drafting [Sub]committee, but the draft got done by staff people who put together the rock, which we tried to chip away at,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and one of the members of the 2016 Drafting Subcommittee (and a contributor to In These Times in the 1980s). Zogby’s involvement with the DNC goes back decades; he has been involved in platform fights since 1988.

In 2016, Drafting Subcommittee members like Zogby were picked as part of an agreement between the DNC and Sanders. The DNC selected four of the subcommittee members, Hillary Clinton six and Sanders five, all names he had personally chosen. The names were then approved by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The only Sanders selection who was vetoed was RoseAnn DeMoro, then-executive director of National Nurses United, a union that fervently backed Sanders. DeMoro had a history of needling Clinton but, officially, was rejected on the grounds that labor was already represented on the Platform Committee.

At the same time as the very public wrangling over the platform in St. Louis, those involved say, a number of changes to the draft were hammered out in backroom negotiations between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. The two sides met and drew up a list of overlapping campaign promises, such as a plan to import prescription drugs from Canada (which made it into the platform).

Other changes got their hearing at the next stage, at the full Platform Committee’s July preconvention meeting in Orlando. The 187 voting members were divided up in proportion to the number of delegates each campaign won in the primary. Here, the Sanders wing succeeded in inserting planks calling to legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage to $15, break up the big banks and expand Social Security. After the (sometimes raucous) debate in Orlando, the platform’s final stop was the convention itself—the last chance for any platform changes.

But the essence of the final platform was created outside this formal process, by the DNC staffers who wrote the first draft and through those private talks between Sanders and Clinton officials.

“The [first] draft … is ultimately the document you work from,” Zogby says. “Once the draft is there, it’s very difficult to make changes to that draft.”

The 2020 process will follow a similar, equally convoluted path. The unity task forces, created by the two candidates in the wake of Sanders’ campaign suspension, were just one stop in this route, meant to influence the eventual platform while doubling as an attempt to push Biden in a more progressive direction.

This approach has another upshot: preventing a rancorous battle over policy planks at the party convention.

“[Battling] could be embarrassing and they want to avoid that, so they put together these committees outside of the process to try and agree on a program, and they’ll all go in there and both sides will vote for it,” says George Albro, cofounder and downstate co-chair of the Sanders aligned New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN). “I think Bernie really wants to foster unity because, ironically, he’s more interested in defeating Trump than the establishment is.”

This push for unity wouldn’t be out of character for Sanders. According to In These Times’ sources, after anti-TPP planks brought by Sanders allies in 2016 were defeated at both St. Louis and Orlando, Sanders had enough delegates to force a vote on the issue in a much more public way at the party convention in Philadelphia. What stopped him was a phone call from Obama, who didn’t want a contentious floor fight at the event.

The Unity Menu

It remains to be seen whether Sanders’ 2020 campaign for party unity, even more intense than in 2016, will win him more favorable treatment from the Democratic establishment. The Unity Task Forces he set up with Biden may have allowed him to set the stage, but even there, Sanders appointees were outnumbered on each task force, three to five.

Even the most promising fell short of expectations. The climate change task force, co-chaired by Green New Deal proponent Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), included Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. Yet ultimately, it left out a fracking ban and made no mention of the Green New Deal.

The economy task force was compelling, too, co-chaired by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union. It included Stephanie Kelton, an adviser on Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns and an expert on modern monetary theory, which rejects the current economic orthodoxy that discourages deficit spending. It recommended that Biden explore setting up government savings accounts for children, for instance, but stopped short of a federal jobs guarantee, a sticking point for the Biden team. The recommendations instead call for “jobs programs like those effectively used during the New Deal.”

Tellingly, foreign policy was entirely left out of the purview of the task forces.

With the task forces having made their recommendations, the Drafting Subcommittee is now tasked with hammering out a draft platform. This time around, Sanders did not officially get any nominations to the 15-person committee.

The lineup, announced by Perez in late June, pulled from Obama loyalists. Four held posts in Obama’s administration, three worked on his campaigns, one served as an elector for his 2008 run and two received his coveted endorsement after he left office. Three are Sanders allies—Heather Gautney, former Our Revolution executive director; Josh Orton, former Sanders Senate senior adviser; and Analilia Mejia, political director for the 2020 Sanders campaign. Orton and Mejia also worked for the 2008 Obama campaign.

Obama’s centrist, business-friendly politics are well-represented, too. Four of the members have corporate backgrounds, including Tom Vilsack, who passed through the revolving door from the Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and Tony Allen, a former Biden speechwriter and former executive at Delaware credit card company MBNA, a top Biden funder that pushed his disastrous bankruptcy bill in 2005.

Perhaps the most important selection is the committee chair. Perez chose Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Though she has won progressive plaudits for undertaking bail reform and improving government transparency, the business-backed Bottoms has also been criticized for harsh treatment of homeless people in Atlanta and for not doing enough to stop gentrification. Married to a Home Depot executive, Bottoms also has a penchant for public-private partnerships. She has been one of Biden’s most loyal backers, endorsing him in 2019 a day after he took fire over his anti-busing past.

“The chair has tremendous power,” says Jay Bellanca, upstate co-chair of NYPAN, who has been on the front lines of efforts to reform the party since 2016. “It determines who can recognize, bring things forward.”

While Sanders allies view 2016 Drafting Subcommittee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) as a fair adjudicator, the person who sits in the position can make a crucial difference—for better or worse. In 1988, Chair James Blanchard, governor of Michigan, was crucial to inserting a provision about respecting the territorial sovereignty of Lebanon, Zogby recalls.

“He said, ‘I’m from Michigan, don’t screw with this. Give me this language on Lebanon,’ ” Zogby says. “And we got it put in.”

Last Call

The platform's next gauntlet is the full Platform Committee Meeting. In addition to the 25 members selected by Perez, 162 delegates will be added, apportioned by the number of delegates each candidate receives in the primary contest. Whatever they agree on must then be ratified at the Democratic National Convention itself.

In 2016, Sanders’ allies were pleasantly surprised by their impact on the platform that came out of the committee, including the $15 minimum wage provision. All were products of an intense, sometimes testy process.

Hanging over this year’s negotiations, however, was the question of whether Sanders would have enough delegates to be apportioned the 46 members of the platform committee that are needed to have leverage. It’s likely that even if all of Sanders Platform Committee members agree, they won’t reach the threshold of 46 members needed to bring a minority report to a vote on the convention floor, a potentially embarrassing challenge that could force compromise from the majority in advance, in order to head it off. In 2016, Sanders cleared that threshold easily, giving teeth to his delegates’ demands in committee (and avoiding a fight at the convention).

Assuming Sanders is just short of the 46, his team would need support from Biden platform committee members to reach the threshold number. Had Sanders actively stayed in the post Wisconsin primaries, even while supporting Biden, there would have been enough Sanders delegates elected to reach 46 platform committee members required for minority resolutions.

Because Sanders failed to do so, his movement will have little sway on the 2020 convention committees this year.

Sanders—focused on beating Trump (and no doubt stung by years of spurious accusations that he and his supporters cost Clinton the 2016 election)—seems committed to avoiding not just the rancor of the previous election, but the all-out chaos of the infamous 1972 Democratic Party convention. A much more conciliatory approach seems likely, working closely with Biden and attempting to nip any hint of party disunity in the bud.

Rather than lean on the threat of a contentious floor fight, then, Sanders vested his hopes in the Unity Task Forces. With the release of the draft platform in late July, this approach seems to have yielded dividends, with a number of their final recommendations making it into the finished product. The draft platform incorporates recommendations including expanding Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing loss, ending private prisons, and drastically moving up Biden’s climate targets.

Yet even here, the wins are muted. Much of the recommended language that found its way into the platform was already part of Biden’s platform, including his plans for undoing Trump’s immigration policies, letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, allowing the federal government to pay the cost of continuing lapsed health insurance under COBRA, and ending cash bail and mandatory minimums. While the draft now more directly states the party “support[s] ending the use of private prisons,” Biden had already pledged to make eliminating private prisons a requirement of his federal grant program for crime prevention. Same with the pledge to lower Medicare’s requirement age to 60.

In other areas, the Sanders camp appears to have been completely rolled. The task forces’ less ambitious recommendation to decriminalize marijuana went into the platform, and a plank to legalize it was defeated 105-60. Every one of the planks put forward by Palestinian-American delegates, including one merely calling for supporting an Israel that isn’t an exclusively Jewish state, was left out with most of them not even considered—though the final draft did include language defending the right of Americans to boycott Israel, a significant inclusion. Meanwhile, the already whittled-down language on New Deal-style jobs programs was entirely left out.

But the most glaring, if unsurprising, absence surrounded Sanders’ flagship Medicare for All policy, which receives a scant single mention in the draft platform, with no endorsement. Party delegates also voted down planks to insert such an endorsement into the draft, as well as those calling for expanding Medicare to children and lowering the program’s eligibility age to 55. The platform’s next stop is the August party convention, where hundreds of Sanders delegates are defying the Vermont senator’s push for party unity, and have signed a pledge to vote against the platform if it continues to leave out Medicare for All, a tactic that will likely fail to change the party’s mind—but will make inconvenient headlines for Democrats.

Should Biden ascend to the presidency, the next step for progressives will be ensuring he follows through on the platform’s many promises. This won’t just involve overcoming the predictable Republican obstruction, but putting enough pressure on Biden himself to outweigh the corporate and right-wing influence that have historically cowed him into submission. Ultimately, Obama only moved left on issues like immigration, marriage equality and the Keystone XL pipeline because of years of activist pressure. Conciliation and unity may be the order of the day, but there’s only so far they will go toward achieving progressive priorities.

Janea Wilson, Indigo Oliver and Camille Williams contributed fact-checking.

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Branko Marcetic
The Future of Homeless Organizing Lives on the Prettiest Street in Philadelphia - https://inthesetimes.com/article/homelessness-organizing-philadelphia-encampment-lakay-nou-community-housing Tue, 04 Aug 2020 14:23:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/homelessness-organizing-philadelphia-encampment-lakay-nou-community-housing In the beginning, they called it “Camp Maroon,” harking back to remote communities built by formerly enslaved people who ran away from their captors. Then it was called James Talib-Dean Camp, named after one of its organizers who passed away in June. Then it was called Lakay Nou, meaning “our home” in Haitian Creole. To many in Philadelphia, it’s simply known as the encampment on 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stretching a full block down the handsome, leafy avenue leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. You could also call it an inspiration.

Lakay Nou began June 10 with just five tents. In days, it became 50, then 100. After two weeks, there were well over 100 tents, hosting what organizers say is more than 200 residents. There are now handwashing stations, fed by a skinny blue hose plugged into a nearby water fountain and strung overhead through trees. There are showers. There is a medical tent. There is free Covid-19 testing every Monday. There is a kitchen. There is a charging station, accompanied by the constant hum of several generators. There is an ad hoc security force, made up of residents. There are free supplies for bedding and cleaning and personal hygiene and personal protective equipment. There is a donation tent, a garden and—on the fence of an adjacent baseball field—a big white canvas hung as a screen for regular movie nights. Where there was once just empty grass, there is now something approaching community.

Beyond the immediate impact of this enormous encampment—the shelter and safety and resources that it provides to vulnerable people at a vulnerable time—one of its most notable qualities is that it was conjured up completely outside of what critics call the “nonprofit industrial complex,” a system held in contempt by the camp’s organizers.

“You’ve got people saying they’ve been ‘working in homelessness’ for 20 years,” Alex Stewart says derisively. He is sitting on a long bench one hot day in June, in the midst of the camp he helped create. “That only benefits them. Because homelessness is a problem that shouldn’t exist for 20 years.”

Stewart, one of the lead organizers, is a founder of the group Workers Revolutionary Collective. (James Talib-Dean Campbell, who died after the camp was built, was another.) Stewart has worked for nonprofits himself, but grew disgusted by what he saw as their self-serving nature, as employees took home healthy salaries while the people they were supposedly helping remained in crisis. The encampment is a manifestation of the “just do it” approach to organizing: See a problem, do something, cut out the middlemen.

Still, the encampment did not spring up from nothing. Its success is a product of months of work on the underlying issues by many of the people who put it together. “We’ve all been doing this work separately,” says Sterling Johnson, a Philadelphia activist who helped organize the camp. “We really have values in line with each other. The people’s economy, being anti-racist, wanting to center the people who have been through some things. Everybody in these groups have been through some trauma.”

The majority of the residents and the organizers of the camp are Black people, acting with a sense of strategic desperation during a time of crisis. Earlier this year, Stewart and others began offering meals to homeless people in the city several times a week, just to build relationships. The same group of activists helped homeless people quietly move into vacant, city-owned houses. (Stewart says they have housed 50 people this year, and that he has scouted 500 vacant homes.) That work gave them both the credibility and the contacts to pull off the audacious encampment that has now risen along the city’s most prominent thoroughfare.

Organizers stress that camp residents are leading its development, many of whom are sympathetic with the Black Lives Matter movement (Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

All of the organizers stress that the residents are the ones who came up with the idea of the camp—and are leading it. Volunteers help run the medical tent, and donations pour in from the community at large, but there is no outside institution supporting the encampment. “The homeless are organizers,” says Tara Taylor, an organizer and resident of the camp. “They know their communities. It’s their word of mouth and their community connections that allowed the camp to grow.”

And grow it has. Everyone I spoke with at the camp says they heard about it within its first few days, by word of mouth. George, a 47-year-old man who had been staying in a tent on Parkway for two weeks, says life on the streets of Philadelphia got noticeably harder because of the coronavirus: Stores and other businesses shut down, downtown emptied out and the center of the city was left with homeless residents and little else.

“You don’t have that many opportunities,” George says. “Every place is locked down. You don’t have much to work with. Plus, you’re more susceptible to catching [Covid-19] than anybody.” He says the encampment is preferable to life before, but when asked whether he would be satisfied to be left alone there, he scoffs, “Hell, no! I don’t want to stay out in a tent.”

Although he receives a monthly disability check, he says he has been told the wait for public housing is seven years long.

Permanent housing is what the people want. Permanent housing is what they need. And permanent housing is at the heart of the demands posted at the camp. They ask for a community land trust of vacant properties for conversion to low-income housing; a moratorium on the sale of city-owned properties to private developers, until everyone in the city is housed; an end to the city’s sweeps (or “resolutions”) of homeless people and encampments; more tiny houses, paid for with public funds; and for the Parkway encampment to be allowed to remain as an autonomous zone, without intrusion from police.

Though the city of Philadelphia has not shut down the camp (as of the end of July), it is clear that may soon change, demands notwithstanding. Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the city, said July 7, “We have been negotiating with the leaders of the camp for the past several weeks to try to arrive at a cooperative resolution in which the camp disbands voluntarily by mid-July and everyone there has a plan.” He added, “We have also let the leaders of the camp know that it cannot go on indefinitely. We are prepared to impose a timeline this week if needed. We are prepared to offer the services that people need and want and to use this situation as a starting point for reforms that will take longer to achieve.” In fact, organizers rallied supporters and publicity to resist a rumored July 17 move by the city to clear them out. The day came and went, and the camp remained.

Still, the residents of the Parkway encampment are in a tenuous position, considering the fact that one of the camp’s defining characteristics from the beginning has been its self-reliance—premised on its rejection of both assistance and meddling from the city or from established nonprofits. Alex Stewart says, for the first two days, the camp allowed outreach workers to come in. “The only thing they offered people was granola bars and water,” he says. “We have plenty of that. They couldn’t offer shelter.”

Tara Taylor echoes that sentiment. “It’s not because we don’t want the services,” she says. “It’s because the services being offered aren’t sufficient, they aren’t rendered in a way that’s humane, and folks don’t want to be gaslighted that this is supposed to help them, when it’s not.”

The right to exist without harassment from police and the right to permanent housing are among the demands of camp residents. (Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

To be fair, the scale of homelessness in major U.S. cities exceeds the ability of most city governments to do much about it without significant federal help. It is a problem that affects not just those already living on the streets, but a much larger group of low-income workers who have seen the affordability of cities decline drastically over the past two decades and who now find themselves perpetually just one unlucky month away from losing their housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 29 affordable housing units for every 100 very low-income households in the Philadelphia area, and three-quarters of very low-income households are classified as “severely” cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than half their income on housing. Until affordable housing construction measures units in the tens of thousands, the city will continue to play host to a large pool of residents who know they could realistically wind up homeless with few options for rescue.

America is in the midst of a pandemic and a global economic catastrophe. Millions have become unemployed through no fault of their own. The emergency eviction moratoriums that were put in place after the coronavirus struck are already expiring, and the emergency federal unemployment payments that have kept countless people afloat expired in late July, with Congress still debating their renewal. We are at the precipice of a nationwide eviction crisis with no real plan. The concrete achievement in Philadelphia—the creation and maintenance of a camp with tangible resources for hundreds of a city’s most vulnerable and needy people—is not a full remedy for homelessness, but it is an example of what a handful of dedicated, radical people can do in the midst of what feels like allencompassing decay of our social safety net. As much as we are living through chaos, we are also living in a time of opportunity for activists everywhere.

Adam Gottlieb, an activist and an organizer around homelessness in Chicago, says the pandemic has made the day-to-day work of homeless outreach much more difficult. “It’s really hard to practice any form of public health safety protocols under these conditions,” he says. “ ‘Shelter in place,’ by definition, requires shelter. It’s a non-starter for people living on the streets.”

Still, he agrees the ongoing crises have made conditions “much more favorable” to radical social justice organizing of all stripes. The Black Lives Matter uprisings have inspired many activists to be bold. Gottlieb sees the Philadelphia encampment’s militant commitment to self-sufficiency and its prickliness about outside control as a reaction against universal problems with how ostensibly helpful institutions often treat the homeless.

“They end up relating to people as powerless victims who can’t do anything for themselves,” he says. “It becomes a destructive spiral.”

The activists in Philadelphia say they are determined to avoid that trap. But the city’s patience with their experiment is running short. For now, the community survives. And the people in it, who are not usually given control of their own lives, have at least one more day at Lakay Nou.

During the sunny midday hours in June, a tall, skinny young man named Don sits down on a bench on the side of Parkway, a block away from the encampment, where he has been staying. He says he is looking for God, but all the churches are closed. He wears a disposable paper mask over another cloth mask. He sits out here as time passes slowly.

“Imagine you’re a fish,” he says, “and coronavirus is the bowl. And God puts you in the bowl. Now, how are you gonna feel? Trapped.”

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Hamilton Nolan
An Injury to Portland Is an Injury to All - https://inthesetimes.com/article/federal-agents-dhs-portland-oregon-black-lives-matter-labor-unions-afscme Tue, 04 Aug 2020 09:58:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/federal-agents-dhs-portland-oregon-black-lives-matter-labor-unions-afscme Timing is everything. “FEDS GO HOME,” read the more polite graffiti scrawled on Portland’s walls. “FEDS GO HOME,” read the signs waved by protesters. “FED’S GO HOME,” read the grammatically revolutionary t-shirt I bought on a downtown street corner. Last Thursday—the day I arrived in Portland—the federal agents did, in fact, go home (or at least withdrew from downtown and ended their occupation of the federal courthouse, which had been the primary target of protests). Thus I was able to entirely miss the dramatic nightly assaults of unidentified troops in fatigues clearing city blocks with guns drawn. But without the flamboyant violence and billowing tear gas, it became easier to see that what is happening in Portland was never really about the feds at all.

The Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse may be a normal-looking building during normal times, but now it has the appearance of a looming tower of doom—an enormous, white, sealed-off, impenetrable Death Star, appropriate for center stage in any film about fascism’s rise. After many weeks of nightly protests in the park across the street, the government had installed outward-facing floodlights on the facade, forcing you to shield your eyes to look at it, adding to its hostile vibe. It is no longer a functional building so much as it is a sword wielded by the Trump administration as it desperately tries to assert its own strength. What the feds failed to reckon with was the fact that the people of Portland had much bigger plans than just playing a bit part in the president’s global search for any distractions from his own inadequacies.

The city of Portland is 77% white and less than 6% Black. Its affinity for the Black Lives Matter movement is heartening, because it represents a conscious act of solidarity that has produced almost 70 straight days of protests, and has seen thousands of Portlanders endure bouts of violent oppression in order to make their point. At the same time, like many mostly white and upscale cities, there is an element of absurdity in the overlapping parts of our current cultural moment. Every beer garden and juice bar sports “BLACK LIVES MATTER” banners, while people sleep on the sidewalk outside; the Louis Vuitton store has boarded up its windows in fear of riots, and then painted a “Power to the People” mural over the boards; a local souvenir shop has posted a sign alerting refugees that “We Stand With You. You Are Safe Here,” as if Oskar Schindler had suddenly started a new life selling “Keep Portland Weird!” t-shirts. It can all be a bit much. But the effort is not something to be mocked. It is, rather, a sign of just how deep the roots of this movement are reaching into the American psyche.

Portland is not immune from our nation’s acute crises. Homeless people are everywhere. Tents and sleeping bags line the city’s sidewalks from Nob Hill to the banks of the Willamette River. It is a shocking humanitarian disaster, familiar to anyone who has recently walked the streets of San Francisco or New Orleans or Philadelphia, and becoming inured to it is dangerous to the soul. The pandemic, which has shuttered most stores and left urban cores empty of businesspeople, shoppers, and tourists, leaves the homeless as the last permanent residents of entire business districts. The unemployment crisis and its subsequent evictions will leave more people homeless. The budget cuts hitting the city and state governments that provide housing and services will leave more people homeless. And the human tendency to pull inwards and shut our doors in times of fear will cut off help and leave more people homeless as well. The streets of Portland today are a preview of what is coming everywhere, unless something changes radically.

The pandemic, the unemployment, the years of poverty and broken government and police violence, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor—these are the things that set off the protests everywhere. The addition of the armed federal stormtroopers into this mix was just the secret ingredient that propelled Portland to a sort of pinnacle of political chaos. By the time I arrived, so much tear gas had soaked into the dirt and trees and sidewalks of Lownsdale Square, the park across the courthouse, that just standing in it made me start to cough, even though there was no tear gas fired that night. The protest veterans who had been out for weeks on end already seemed unaffected, like people who grow up in a mill town and stop noticing the stink. The violence was all fresh enough that most people came prepared: hard hats or bike helmets, along with respirator masks and goggles, and a grab bag of body armor and homemade shields. The atmosphere was tense, like a crowd that had just poured out of a concert venue where there were a bunch of fights. Nobody quite believed that the feds weren’t about to come rushing back at any moment. One young woman held a sign that best captured the moment: “Pulling out won’t stop people from coming.”

The entire courthouse had been fenced off in Riot Chic style, with high metal grates sandwiched between two heavy concrete barriers. Because of this draconian defensive maneuver, all of the graffiti that had been scrawled on the courthouse was still there, perfectly preserved, while the city of Portland cleaned the graffiti off other city buildings each day. This was a fair demonstration of the wisdom that the federal government has displayed in the city. The idea that all of this rigmarole needed to happen to “protect federal property” is absurd. You could lob a dozen hand grenades at the imposing cement face of the courthouse and not come close to knocking it down. No amount of fireworks, hurled water bottles, and spraypaint could do any real damage. Everything that the aggressive federal agents did to the people of Portland is a case study in how overreaction can backfire.

The state police who took over for the federal agents last Thursday have pursued the radical new tactic of staying inside the building all night, rather than attacking the crowd and firing tear gas. Since the police have decided not to attack anyone, there have not been any clashes. Incredible how that works. It is rare to even spot an officer at the courthouse anymore after dark, once the hundreds of people gather out front and begin the speeches and chants each night. Occasionally a single officer will venture out on a ledge many stories high to peek down at the crowd, and whenever that happens he is immediately painted with red and green laser pointers, until he resembles a tacky Christmas decoration.

Of all of the overt demonstrations of fascist tendencies that this White House has made, the federal agents’ heavy-handed presence in Portland was the longest-lasting. Resisting it openly therefore took on an added importance for any institution claiming to offer a path to a progressive future. For organized labor, participation in the Portland protests has been a member-driven affair. At 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, hundreds of people gathered at the Salmon Street Springs in the waterfront park downtown to prepare to march over to the courthouse three blocks away. Amid the veterans in U.S. Army t-shirts ready to form the “Wall of Vets” and the mothers in yellow t-shirts ready to form the “Wall of Moms” stood a knot of union members huddled around a young man in a blue hardhat holding a handwritten “Union Members Here!” sign. This was the second of three weekly “Solidarity Wall” marches, an effort to put union members on the front lines of the protests. The event was organized not by a union or by the Central Labor Council, but by a regular AFSCME member who was extremely earnest about not wanting to appear in any story, lest she be seen as distracting from the BLM cause. About 50 union members turned out: many in green AFSCME shirts, but also teachers from the Oregon Education Association, members of the local Amalgamated Transit Union carrying a banner, and others from the Ironworkers, the Carpenters, the Teamsters, SEIU, UFCW, OPEIU, grad students and more.

In a move that longtime union members will recognize, our march got going late because we first had to have a lengthy discussion of rules and procedures. (One of the rules was “Don’t talk to media unless you are BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color],” which was unfortunate for me given the predominance of white people in the group.) But the event was just a staging ground for the future. The organizer spoke of long-term organizing within Portland’s unions to make racial justice a priority, and to end their affiliations with police. The motivation, the organizer said, was “just to make sure we’re on the right side of history.” The fact that the entire union presence at the protest was organized by members rather than by union leaders spoke to the urgency of that need.

Our group finally marched to the courthouse, and stood up against the barriers, and followed in the chants being led by the Black protest leaders up front. The whole thing embodied, in a sweet way, a certain quality that strong unions should offer to a broader social justice movement: the willingness to support without seizing control, to show up and offer solidarity without making demands. That is what the labor movement should provide as a matter of course. We still have a long way to go.

What’s happened in Portland in the past month is a preview of… something. Either a peek over the edge of our downward descent into dystopia, or a rallying point where the people of a city held the line and started beating back a cheap dictator’s crude stabs at control. I don’t know which yet. Last weekend, the protesters projected “FED GOONS OUT OF PDX” on the side of the federal courthouse, and their wish has (provisionally) come true. But the fed goons weren’t ever the real substance of the problem. It’s all the other stuff that’s still there. At one point, a speaker with a bullhorn, dripping with sweat in the August heat, exhorted the crowd, which had already shown up for weeks and weeks, before and after the cameras and the soldier and the tear gas, and still came out to scream at the blank, faceless symbol of the police state’s power.

“They ask how long the protest is gonna last,” he hollered. “The protest is gonna last—forever!”

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Hamilton Nolan
Why the South Needs Pro-Worker Media - A conversation with David Story and Jacob Morrison, the hosts of The Valley Labor Report, a new radio show out of Huntsville, Alabama. https://inthesetimes.com/article/why-the-south-needs-pro-worker-media Mon, 03 Aug 2020 13:36:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/why-the-south-needs-pro-worker-media Working People chats with David Story and Jacob Morrison, the hosts of The Valley Labor Report, a new radio show out of Huntsville, Alabama, about the importance of making pro-worker media in the South.

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Maximillian Alvarez
The Search for a Covid Vaccine Is Not an Arms Race - Treating vaccine research like a national security secret endangers us all. https://inthesetimes.com/article/covid-vaccine-arms-race-national-security-world-health-organization-trump Mon, 03 Aug 2020 12:15:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/covid-vaccine-arms-race-national-security-world-health-organization-trump In U.S. political discourse, the search for a Covid-19 vaccine is largely framed as an arms race, in which the aim of the United States is to beat out other countries in procuring a vaccine, which will presumably go first to its own people. This vaccine nationalism, as global infections surge past 18 million and deaths near 700,000, is playing out along well-worn geopolitical fault-lines: Russia, China and even Iran are trying to steal our vaccine research, U.S. intelligence agencies claim, their warnings dutifully circulated in major media outlets. Yet, the fact that U.S. companies and the government are being proprietary over research information and vaccine access is never questioned. In popular discourse, it’s unconscionable to try to obtain research information, but not to hoard it.

Major U.S. media publications have cast the quest for a vaccine as a zero-sum global competition, at times using the language of overt war. A July 7 article in Reuters is headlined, “'At war time speed', China leads COVID-19 vaccine race.” It states, “Many other countries, including the United States, are coordinating closely with the private sector to try to win the vaccine development race.” A July 16 article in Forbes warns, “As Coronavirus Vaccines Move Into The Testing Phase, China Begins At The Top.” This spin dates back to the earliest period of the crisis. On March 19, the New York Times ran a piece titled, “Search for Coronavirus Vaccine Becomes a Global Competition.” Its opening line declared, “A global arms race for a coronavirus vaccine is underway.” On May 4, Business Insider put competition in starkly nationalist terms. “U.S. national security officials and global health experts are increasingly concerned China will develop a coronavirus vaccine first,” its headline read.

Of course, there are other possible ways U.S. media outlets could be depicting the search for a vaccine. As Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a left-leaning think tank, tells In These Times, “We have this common problem. Why on Earth wouldn’t we be working together to find solutions as quickly as possible? Somehow that got lost. We're making it proprietary rather than saying, ‘Here’s the knowledge.’”

But the framing goes beyond mere competition: We’ve seen widespread media coverage that stokes fear about geopolitical foes “stealing” vaccine research from the United States. This is best captured in a spate of articles published in mid-July breathlessly warning, as the New York Times put it, “Russia Is Trying to Steal Virus Vaccine Data, Western Nations Say.” The Times story was sourced by “American intelligence officials,” including the National Security Agency, which claimed Russian hackers were trying to steal vaccine information from U.S. universities and companies. “There was likely little immediate damage to global public health, cybersecurity experts said,” the Times article concedes, but this did not stop the story from dominating the headlines. Never questioned, of course, was why the United States and other western nations would be proprietary over high-stakes, potentially life-saving information. The news cycle, Nathan Robinson wrote for Current Affairs, is “one of the most egregious examples I have ever seen of nationalistic bias leading to moral imbecility.”

Russia is not the only country targeted by this kind of coverage. On May 10, the New York Times ran a story that was also sourced to the U.S. government. It states, “The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are preparing to issue a warning that China’s most skilled hackers and spies are working to steal American research in the crash effort to develop vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. The efforts are part of a surge in cybertheft and attacks by nations seeking advantage in the pandemic.” The piece warned, “Iran and other nations are also looking to steal data and exploit the pandemic with attacks on infrastructure, officials say.” That followed a May 8 article by Reuters warning, “Iran-linked hackers recently targeted coronavirus drugmaker Gilead.” At no point does the article provide any evidence that this alleged theft poses a threat to public health or the search for a vaccine.

According to Tobita Chow, the director of “Justice is Global” (and board member of In These Times), the message this sends is that, rather than a reorientation towards global cooperation and information sharing, we need an escalated law enforcement crackdown on anyone trying to steal vaccine information. “This is further inflaming nationalist politics and contributing to the increase of all of this infrastructure and intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement agencies devoted to protecting intellectual property rights, which should not exist,” says Chow, adding: “From the perspective of actually helping people, we want every researcher on the planet capable of contributing to this effort doing so and for them to work with and collaborate with each other as freely as possible.”

Ramping up punitive response

This media spin has been mirrored in political discourse, perhaps most belligerently by President Trump, who has sought to blame China for the Covid-19 outbreak, as he oversees a profound domestic crisis that has left the U.S. economy in free fall and led to U.S. infection rates surging out of control. In early July, Trump formally notified Congress and the UN of the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization, after his April decision to halt funding to the WHO, which he accused of aiding China in covering up its role in spreading the virus.

Alongside this global isolation, we are seeing an escalation in efforts to aggressively punish countries allegedly trying to “steal” U.S. vaccine information. On May 21, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to “Protect Covid-19 Vaccine Research from Communist China” which, in their words, “requires a thorough national security evaluation and clearance by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation of all Chinese student visa holders taking part in activities related to COVID-19 vaccine research.” This bill, if passed, would put Chinese visa holders in the crosshairs of vaccine nationalism, part of a trend of racist scapegoating that attempts to blame Chinese people for the alleged wrongdoing of the Chinese government. The bill’s proponents have used over-the-top rhetoric to vilify China. “The same Chinese Communist Party that covered up the coronavirus outbreak also routinely engages in state sponsored theft of intellectual property,” Cruz said in a press statement. Similar sentiments have been expressed by nearly all of the Senate Republicans cosponsoring the bill, which has yet to face a vote.

Meanwhile, intelligence agencies are making a public show of their efforts to crack down on alleged Chinese intellectual property theft. As recently as July 21, the Department of Justice announced it had indicted two people with ties to China who had allegedly tried to obtain information about Covid-19 vaccine research as part of a broader hacking effort. An FBI press release breathlessly declared, “China is determined to use every means at its disposal—including the theft of intellectual property from U.S. companies, labs, and universities—to degrade the United States’ economic, technological, and military advantages.” That spin was also reflected in widespread media coverage, sourced by the FBI, with headlines like, “Chinese Hackers Charged in Decade-Long Crime and Spying Spree.”

Interviewed by the New York Times, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) declared, “We need a comprehensive strategy to deter the serial theft of strategic U.S. secrets.” Van Hollen, along with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), introduced a bill on June 11 to, in their words, “require sanctions on individuals and firms found to engage in, benefit from, or enable the significant and serial theft of U.S. intellectual property.” A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.

Chow notes that fear-mongering over intellectual property theft by China is escalating during the pandemic, but predates the Trump administration. “This has led to something that concerns me a lot, which is the development of this huge wing of the FBI, a whole economic espionage program, assuming everyone from China is a potential spy. That started under the Obama administration and has ramped up tremendously. Vaccine nationalism has contributed more to the growth of that program.”

This ethos is also reflected in efforts to devote even more funding to the crackdown. As expanded unemployment insurance dries up amid a ballooning crisis of poverty and evictions, Senate Republicans proposed in their July 27 Covid-19 relief package that $53 million go to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to protect against “increased attacks targeting Federal networks for agencies involved in coronavirus vaccine development.”

Hoarding a potential vaccine

Yet punishment is not the only mechanism by which vaccine nationalism is being enforced. The United States is also bowing out of global cooperation and trying to buy up vaccine reserves for itself, at the expense of poorer countries.

Baker of CEPR told In These Times that any vaccine search that is proprietary “almost certainly has to be slowing down research. If there are successes, you’d like to know as quickly as possible, as well as failures, so that others don’t waste time on that. If it’s proprietary, it’s up to companies whether they want to share information. There is no obligation to share.”

Ana Santos Rutschman, Assistant Professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, tells In These Times she is most concerned about how the lack of global cooperation will affect the distribution of a potential vaccine once it’s developed. According to the Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker created by FasterCures of the Milken Institute, a there are 199 vaccines in development and 20 are in clinical testing. China alone already has multiple vaccines in human trials. “Once you develop two to three candidates and decide who will get them first, that's when nationalism will occur,” she says. “It's going to affect the way we distribute the vaccine.”

The United States and other wealthy countries are maneuvering quickly to buy up potential vaccines. As part of the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” which is supposed to deliver Americans 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 2021, the U.S. government has signed billions of dollars worth of deals with numerous companies seeking to create a vaccine. Similarly, governments across Europe are making heavy investments, and the United States and European countries are preemptively ordering hundreds of millions of potentially successful vaccine doses.

In this climate, there is concern that access will be shaped by a country’s ability to purchase, putting people in poorer nations at an extreme disadvantage. “It’s almost like children fighting over food at home and the oldest child who is the strongest taking all the food and saying, ‘Listen, I will keep all this food for myself and I don’t care if my brothers and sisters have eaten or not,’” Chikwe Ihekweazu, chief executive officer at Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control told Politico.

There is reason for concern. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, wealthy countries advance-ordered nearly the entire global supply of vaccines, buying “virtually all the vaccine companies could manufacture,” according to a research paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The WHO entered into negotiations with manufacturers and appealed for donations, but this “still left the developing world with limited supplies compared to developed countries,” the paper notes.

The fact that the United States is recusing itself from pretty much all global cooperation does not bode well for equitable distribution of a potential vaccine. As of July 15, more than 150 countries had either joined, or expressed interest in joining, the Covid-19 vaccines global access (COVAX) facility, organized by the World Health Organization, Gavi (funded by the Gates Foundation, the U.S. government and other nations) and other international organizations. In the words of Science Magazine, COVAX Facility “seeks to entice rich countries to sign on by reducing their own risk that they’re betting on the wrong vaccine candidates.” The effort is a public-private partnership, and, according to Rutschman, is an “imperfect mechanism.” She explains, “I would be very happy if we could have a COVAX structure that's more equitable and fair towards countries that can't pay as much.” Yet, she underscores, it is “better than nothing,” because at least it is an “internationalized approach.”

Yet, so far, the United States has declined to join this COVAX Facility effort. And in May, when the European Union called for an international meeting to discuss the equitable distribution of a potential vaccine, the United States declined to attend the meeting, as did Russia, India, Brazil and Argentina. In addition, the United States—alongside India and Russia—declined to join the the “Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator,” which was “launched by the World Health Organization to promote collaboration among countries in the development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments,” as Rutschman explained.

According to Baker, this isolationist, “America first” approach is a risky gamble—for the United States, as well as the rest of the world. After all, this failure to cooperate puts the United States at a disadvantage if the first successful vaccine is not under its control. “The implication,” he says, “is that we are going to have people in the United States die if it isn’t a U.S. vaccine. And the other way around, we are prepared to let people around the world die because it is a U.S. vaccine.”

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Sarah Lazare
Workers Blow the Whistle on Mass Death - Private equity firms have imposed austerity measures on the hospitals they acquire. In a pandemic, that’s meant countless preventable deaths. https://inthesetimes.com/article/workers-blow-whistle-mass-death-private-equity-hospitals Mon, 03 Aug 2020 07:00:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/workers-blow-whistle-mass-death-private-equity-hospitals As the coronavirus continues to batter the U.S., the horror stories still sound the same: basic medical supplies nowhere to be found, new patients keep showing up gasping for air, nurses with impossible workloads and back-to-back-to-back shifts, hospital staff with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) getting sick.

It might even sound like no one with any power in American healthcare has learned much since March, but that’s not true, according to Saum Sutaria, chief operating officer of Tenet Healthcare, a massive, for-profit hospital chain. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount,” Sutaria boasted to Wall Street analysts during a conference call in mid-June. The McKinsey alum and featured Aspen Ideas Festival speaker was talking about how to limit Covid-19 “costs on a unit basis of managing.”

Of course, hospitals can lower their costs in a lot of ways that make patient care worse. Tenet, for example, furloughed an astonishing 10% of its staff in March and April. It also stopped contributing to 401(k) retirement accounts, rationed PPE (and threatened to fire employees who brought their own), and slashed hours for its nurses. Some nurses were sent home mid-shift, leaving others to watch sections as big as 20 patients. At a Tenet hospital in Massachusetts, nurses filed more than 50 reports over two weeks in April, documenting specific instances of how the downsizing jeopardized patients. One declared she had “[never] been more ashamed to work” somewhere.

Tenet’s pandemic management style has been especially harrowing at Detroit Medical Center (DMC), Detroit’s major hospital group (with 2,000 beds) and the city’s biggest employer. Nearly 3,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Wayne County, where Detroit is. Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by four former DMC nurses claims that, at one point, DMC was so short-staffed that a staggering number of the deceased were in rigor mortis before anyone noticed they weren’t breathing. The staffers allege hospital administrators actively increased the death toll by instructing nurses not to revive patients suspected of having Covid-19.

As bodies piled up, DMC ran out of space for body bags, then ran out of body bags. When a group of overnight nurses showed up early for their shift to plead with their bosses for reinforcements—either from outside the hospital or among the 1,500 staffers the system had laid off over the past few years—Tenet officials instead sent them home. The day staff, then, worked a 25-hour shift.

The lawsuit also claims the emergency room’s lack of PPE led to numerous unnecessary deaths, as nurses and others became infected after sharing hospital gowns and masks.

This radical austerity is not completely new at DMC, though the pandemic showcases its pitfalls. In 2011, DMC was purchased by Vanguard Health Systems, which was itself controlled by The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. The deal was hyped with so much promise for the hospital that Mike Duggan, the former DMC chief executive who helped broker the deal, used the story to get himself elected mayor. Of course, like many private equity deals, the goal was never the long-term health of the company (or the patients) but to make money (fast) by cutting costs, extracting cash and flipping it to another buyer.

Taking over a giant company generally requires a giant pile of cash. Private equity firms are often able to finance those takeovers by using the very companies they’re buying as collateral for the loans to buy them—loans the newly purchased companies are on the hook to pay back. Rubbing salt in the wound, private equity firms often use some of that new cash to pay themselves a dividend, even when the company they bought isn’t making money.

So it went with Blackstone, Vanguard Health and DMC. Blackstone took on $1 billion in debt financing to acquire Vanguard Health in 2004, then took on $225 million in 2010 to acquire DMC as part of Vanguard Health, then took on another $750 million dollars a year later to finance (among other things) another dividend, then took on another $350 million in March 2012.

By 2013, the hospital chain was spending about $200 million a year on its loan payments. Meanwhile, Vanguard Health’s profits for the previous five years combined totaled just over $80 million. That’s when Tenet Healthcare stepped in, paying $1.8 billion to buy DMC in 2013, including $2.5 billion in high-interest debt.

By 2014, Tenet’s interest payments had ballooned to $754 million a year—88% of its cash flow. DMC then slashed spending, axing its highly regarded pediatric allergy and asthma care program and downsizing its residency program in 2019. It also cut a quarter of its sterile technician staffers between 2006 and 2016, to the point that DMC surgeons complained of blood and tissue left inside supposedly clean surgical instruments. Some surgical procedures were actually halted partway through for lack of clean instruments; the cardiologists who exposed the scandal were then barred from leadership roles and had their email credentials revoked. Meanwhile, DMC slashed its budget for administering care to poor, uninsured patients from $22.9 million in 2013 to $470,000 in 2016.

Corner-cutting in the U.S. healthcare system has affected even relatively upper-class institutions. A doctor with the largest private equity-backed dermatology chain, for example, told Bloomberg earlier this year that he started keeping toilet paper in his car (even before the pandemic) because “waiting for corporate approvals” left his office without essentials too many times. A doctor in middle-class Oxford, Miss., was fired after she started a Facebook fundraiser to buy masks for nurses because the private equity-owned staffing firm did not provide them. An emergency room doctor with Blackstone’s TeamHealth was fired after writing a Facebook post wondering why the Indian reservation hospital (where he volunteered) had a better equipped Covid-19 triage system than his hospital in the wealthier city of Bellingham, Wash., (at the time, a Covid-19 hotspot), where staffers were prohibited from purchasing anything without approval from a hard-to-reach corporate “expert doc.”

Meanwhile, poor people are increasingly likely to find themselves abandoned altogether, as doctors and nurses in Philadelphia and Chicago learned after Tenet sold off area safety net hospitals in 2017 and 2019 to a shadowy Southern California-based group of small-time investors (the hospitals were shut down under mysterious financial circumstances). Tenet is also planning to sell its Memphis hospitals to a chain notorious for suing destitute patients over medical debt. Leonard Green & Partners, the same Los Angeles-based private equity firm that sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of the now bankrupt retailer J. Crew, shut down a safety net hospital system in San Antonio and sold its buildings to a hotel developer, extracting $658 million for itself in dividends and fees.

But as Tenet’s Saum Sutaria explained on his conference call, the pandemic is an exciting time to profit off the poor. Across the country, Tenet and other hospital chains have created a process called “cohorting,” setting up DIY Covid-19 wards in rec centers, basements, old hospice facilities and similar spaces. In concert with the billions of dollars Tenet received from CARES Act bailouts (not just the forgivable loans), this makeshift pandemic care has cleared hospital space for lucrative elective surgeries to continue, right on alongside the pandemic bloodbath.

The harrowing conditions inside one such makeshift Covid-19 unit—adjacent a relatively empty hospital in Edinburg, Texas, operated by the for-profit group Doctors Hospital at Renaissance—is the subject of a stomach-churning viral Twitter thread featuring claims of patients covered with ants, stories of dirty equipment and absentee doctors, and unnecessary deaths caused by a preposterous network of low-capacity oxygen tanks. The related Twitter stories were collected by a Florida nurse to whom a roughly half-dozen shell-shocked travel nurses turned—after their staffing agency threatened them with “demobilization” should they speak out. Observers quickly characterized the setup as a genocide. For Tenet and an executive team long beset by poor earnings numbers and ever rising litigation costs, however, this “innovation” in patient “consolidation” is a point of pride.

“We have simply learned how to care for these patients in a more consolidated manner,” Sutaria boasted.

The heady mix of CARES Act cash, austerity measures and public acceptance of mass death has enabled the pandemic to breathe temporary new life into the financial prospects of the so-called healthcare industry—ironic, given at least one company’s prohibition on reviving Covid-19 patients.

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Moe Tkacik
How the Foster Care System Punishes the Poor - https://inthesetimes.com/article/foster-care-punish-poor-child-welfare-prison Fri, 31 Jul 2020 07:30:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/foster-care-punish-poor-child-welfare-prison As vital calls to defund the police rise, some have been suggesting these funds be redirected to Health & Human Services departments. These departments, as scholar-activist Dorothy Roberts notes, tend to house child “welfare” and foster care, which provide punishment rather than care for many families, particularly Black and Brown families. As we call for defunding punitive police systems, it’s especially important to recognize the child “welfare” system for what it is: surveillance, policing and punishment. The following excerpt first appeared in Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

Mariame Kaba aptly terms foster care the “child kidnapping system”—a set of practices that break apart families and punish marginalized people, much like the prison system itself. That’s a term that rings true in the case of Angela Willard, a Pennsylvania mother of seven. Willard is white, but she lives below the poverty line and has a serious medical condition, two strikes that have been used against her when she has sought help. In 2012, Willard married a man who was on the sex offender registry. Willard signed a “spousal agreement” vowing never to leave her children unsupervised with her husband. But despite her precautions, the calls to the Department of Human Services (DHS, Pennsylvania’s child protective services agency) began. The calls were from neighbors who’d seen her husband’s name and address on the sex offender registry and wanted him out of the community. Sometimes someone would call simply because they were upset with Willard’s family for another reason. Disputes between neighbors became an opportunity for vindictive attempts to get Willard’s children taken away from her. DHS visited Willard’s house seven times over the next four years in response to these calls; it ruled every complaint “unfounded.”

However, these visits meant that DHS caseworkers were familiar with Willard’s home when they arrived for a different reason in April 2016. This time, they were responding to a call regarding Willard herself.

Willard’s husband had turned abusive the previous year, beating her regularly and eventually pushing her thirteen-year-old son when he tried to intervene. So Willard called Women Against Abuse, a large Philadelphia nonprofit that provides services to domestic violence survivors.

The counselors at Women Against Abuse told Willard they could temporarily arrange for shelter for her and two of her four younger children. (By then, her three oldest children were adults and living elsewhere.) Willard had no one else to care for her other two children, so she decided to stay put with all of her children and plan an escape on her own. Eleven days later, DHS was at her door, threatening to take her children.

This is because Women Against Abuse is a mandated reporter, meaning that employees are required to notify DHS if they suspect a child is in an abusive situation. When Willard didn’t leave her husband, the agency informed DHS about her disclosure of domestic violence. The agency that was supposed to help Willard instead surveilled her because it was mandated to do so. Now DHS had arrived to take away her children.

Child protective service agencies and the foster care system exert social control over hundreds of thousands of families across the United States, and these numbers are growing. A 2018 report by the Department of Health and Human Services found a 10 percent rise in children in foster care nationwide—from 397,600 in 2012 to 437,500 in 2016. Meanwhile, the complete termination of parental rights has also risen precipitously, increasing by about 60 percent from 2010 to 2016. This dramatic rise in both foster care and parental rights termination targets low-income parents of color, particularly Black and Native parents. Advocates have dubbed this phenomenon “the new Jane Crow” given that the criminalization of parenting falls largely upon mothers of color, particularly low-income Black mothers.

Contrary to popular opinion, most of the time, when children are removed from the home, it’s not because of abuse; the allegation is usually neglect. Neglect is an allegation that encompasses a range of problems—in addition to leaving a child alone for periods of time, it can refer to homelessness or substandard housing, a lack of weather-appropriate or clean clothing, and chronic latenesses or absences from school. Many of these problems stem from poverty and lack of adequate access to housing, food, and other resources rather than parental malice or indifference.

The swelling of the foster care system is another case in which reforms are driving the expansion of surveillance and punishment. The net is widening—and more and more families are getting caught in it—in part because of a supposedly more compassionate approach to child welfare. Roberts, who has studied the issue for nearly twenty years, has noted this change in child welfare approaches. Children may come across the authorities’ radar for a host of reasons, such as a neighbor calling the police to report the scent of marijuana in the hallway, school officials calling child protective services after noticing a student’s continual absence, or a bystander calling in to report a child seemingly left alone in a playground. Not all complaints warrant removing a child from their family, but in response to increased scrutiny over their actions, child welfare officials are increasingly dividing children into “low-risk” and “high-risk” groups. “Low-risk” youth are not considered to be in immediate danger and are generally not removed from the home right away. Instead, their families are given requirements to fulfill and their actions are supervised by child services. In practice, this means that many “low-risk” families who previously would never have fallen under state surveillance are now swept into the net. Then, if the social workers surveilling their homes discover any infraction, their children are more likely to be placed in foster care.

Although the words “foster” and “care” convey supportiveness and nurturing, in practice the system often doesn’t fit these descriptors. Foster care shatters the lives of both adults and children: as reported by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a coalition of child welfare professionals working to reform the child welfare system, people who have been in foster care have significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than war veterans, and on average, even children who have been abused or neglected have fared better when they’ve remained in their homes than when they’ve been placed in foster care. Meanwhile, parents are often left defenseless in the face of a system that penalizes them and their children for forces beyond their control, such as poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence.

This brings us back to Angela Willard, who called a social service agency for help—and ended up with DHS at her door. DHS insisted that Willard’s children be removed from the home. Wanting to ensure their safety, Willard agreed to have the caseworkers take her four children to the home of her twenty-five-year-old daughter, who was living in another county. But the next day, caseworkers called Willard and told her she wouldn’t get her children back until she “got safe.” However, she says, “They didn’t tell me where to get safe at. I had no place to go.”

She waited a couple of days to make a move. One night, while her husband was sleeping, Willard grabbed some money, a backpack, and her children’s computer and left the house, not knowing where she was headed.

For a while, the answer was nowhere. Willard became homeless, and has been ever since. She also became severely ill: born with hyper-tropic cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition, Willard had health issues that were exacerbated by her devastating circumstances. Not long after leaving home, she had a heart attack and stroke and was admitted to the hospital. To add insult to injury, DHS added her health to its list of reasons Willard was unfit to care for her children.

Willard’s poverty proved to be another strike against her. When her children were taken away, she was waiting to be approved for social security payments based on her disability. As she attempted to get her children back from DHS custody, she was told that her lack of income was an additional reason she was considered unfit. For her, the unfairness of the system was palpable: although those who care for others’ children in foster care and kinship care are given state money to do so, no one ever offered her financial support to care for her own children. In other words, child welfare officials were paying her daughter to care for Willard’s four children while keeping them separated from Willard for being poor.

Willard tried hard to take DHS’s mandate to “get safe” to heart. However, all forms of help came with mandates, surveillance, and control. Mirroring police tactics, DHS caseworkers tracked Willard’s every parenting move and punished her for her poverty, poor health, and status as an abuse survivor. Rather than helping her find housing when she was sleeping on a bus, DHS gave her a long list of demands to meet in order to get her children back.

Desperate for reunification, Willard followed the agency’s instructions to a T. She took a slew of required classes that filled her days. Even after a heart attack and a stroke, she never missed a class, committed to doing whatever it took to get her children back.

Willard was too ill to hold a job, which, she says, gave her one advantage: were she working, she never would be able to meet all of DHS’s mandates. Eventually she began to receive disability checks due to her heart condition, giving her money to live on. But this reality doesn’t bode well for most mothers and caregivers, who must work in order to survive and have any hope of reuniting with their kids.

Among the classes that DHS mandates to regain custody are domestic violence workshops, parenting classes, and anger management courses. Child protective services’ parenting classes, as well as the other classes mandated on the path to reunification, tend to follow an assumption that people have lost their children because of individual failings, not because of poverty, racism, and victimization.

Willard put in the work and checked all the boxes to “learn” how to be a good parent—but without help securing basic needs like housing, she still didn’t meet DHS’s definition of “fit.”

Willard now lives at a city homeless shelter. Despite her efforts, she still doesn’t have custody of her children; instead, she is allowed only two hours a week of supervised visits. A judge has told her that even though she’s met the requirements for reunification in terms of classes, visits and other steps, she must also pass a parent capacity test. Willard is worried about the test. She’s had serious problems with her eyesight since her stroke, and the test’s written portion consists of 564 questions on a computer screen. She asked DHS whether accommodations could be made for her vision issues—like arranging for someone to read the questions to her. The answer was no. The parent capacity test determines whether Willard will get her children back, but no one will help her see the computer.

“The system is so messed up,” she says. “They set you up to fail.”

Copyright © 2020 by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. This excerpt originally appeared in Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law
The Former Deadspin People Explain How to Launch a Worker-Owned Media Co-op That Might Succeed - https://inthesetimes.com/article/deadspin-worker-owned-media-co-op-defector Thu, 30 Jul 2020 11:39:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/deadspin-worker-owned-media-co-op-defector For the past five years, the media industry has been on a unionizing spree. This wave of worker empowerment—combined with the industry’s regular waves of layoffs, folding publications, and management shenanigans—have led many people to pine for the next evolution: Worker-owned media co-ops. Easier said than done. But now, the former writers of Deadspin have announced the launch of Defector Media, which will be an honest-to-goodness media co-op owned by the writers and editors themselves. It comes on the heels of a recent flowering of smaller writer-owned newsletters and sites like Discourse Blog, launched by former staffers of Splinter (where I used to work). Has the revolution in media arrived at last?

Deadspin had millions of loyal readers. Its employees got a ton of press when they resigned en masse last year after company executives (disclosure: the same company where I used to work) tried to limit their editorial freedom. That makes Defector the most high-profile media co-op project yet. It racked up more than 10,000 subscribers on the first day it was announced, an indication that this model may be financially viable after all.

Three Defector writers—Diana Moskovitz, Giri Nathan, and Samer Kalaf—spoke via email about the realities of building a worker co-op in an unstable and always uncertain industry.

Hamilton Nolan: How did you land on this super-equal, shared ownership structure? Did you explore other options, or go straight to this?

Giri Nathan: We had conversations with various investors, each of whom had their own preferred structure for our business. It will not shock you to learn that they had conventional business structures in mind. But at some point, the group began thinking about things very differently: What if we ignored all their preferences and actually started to envision what this business would look like, in a vacuum, if we built it in line with our values? If we needed to compromise down the road, that'd be fine—but we might as well start out with this idealized form and then chisel away at that as needed. This was a liberating thought experiment. We talked as a group and quickly realized we were looking for a flat structure with plenty of checks on power, which may well have been inspired by, uh, previous workplace experiences. A smaller subgroup then distilled that abstract conversation into something closer to a concrete business structure (with the help of a friend of the site, who is an organizational genius). Then we took that document to a lawyer, who made it into something even more concrete (the damn law).

Nolan: How will decision-making work? Do you all vote on stuff, or are certain people empowered to make the big decisions?

Diana Moskovitz: On a day-to-day basis, decision making will work like a typical publication. Editor in chief Tom Ley will run editorial and oversee what we're writing and editing. Vice president of revenue and operations Jasper Wang will run our business side. But, from the get go, we knew there were certain key decisions that we wanted to have a broader oversight over. There also were certain decisions that we knew we wanted the entire staff to have authority over. A lot of this was powered by this being a worker-owned company. If we all own it, then we all need to have some say in what's going on. So building in those levers of power was very important to us.

The first layer will be the management board, which includes the EIC, the VP of revenue and operations, and one editor and one staff writer from editorial. These are the people who will have ultimate oversight of the company. But certain decisions by the board, like sales of assets, taking on significant debt, or shutting down the company, will require a supermajority of the staff to be ratified. The entire staff also has the ability to terminate executives, including the EIC, if a supermajority votes for it.

Nolan: You were all part of a union at Deadspin, and our industry as a whole has become pretty widely unionized over the last five years. I've always thought of co-ops as the next evolution after a unionized workplace—moving from having a seat at the table to owning the table. Did being in a union help prepare you for this? And do you think other writers could pick up this model realistically, even if they don't have as much of a built-in fan base as Deadspin had?

Samer Kalaf: At the start, when we were figuring out our values and then prioritizing what was essential versus what we'd like to have, our experiences in a union definitely came into play. We considered what protections we had in that structure, and what protections we could have in a worker-owned model. Removing the possibility of an oppositional force eliminates some problems, but it also means there's a lot more accountability for each of us. We will own the table, which is exciting and empowering, and now it's on us to maintain it and spray some Pledge on it from time to time.

As for whether other writers should try out this model: I think it's doable, but a plan really helps the odds. (I say this with the caveat that Defector's existence has been public for a day now, and we can't exactly put up the “mission accomplished” banner yet.) The benefit we had is that there were 19 of us to think carefully about what Defector should look like and be. Not everyone who tries this out will start with a staff that large or pursue it under the same circumstances, but there are plenty of media workers out there with fanbases who would follow them to an independent model. I think audiences are increasingly amenable to direct subscriptions, and in a lot of cases it strengthens their loyalty to what they're listening to or reading. There's also more enthusiasm in that model: It feels good to support independent media, and it feels good to know that people believe in what you're doing.

Moskovitz: I think being in a union absolutely prepared us for this, or at least me. Before Deadspin, I'd only worked in non-union shops. In those cases, when management did something wildly antithetical to the newsroom's values, the culture often was “suck it up or else you'll get fired.” Being in a union didn't solve every problem, but it gave workers a mechanism to weigh in and exert influence in certain situations. It took “what if we owned the place” from the offhand comment you'd say at an after-work hangout, only as a joke, to something we actively thought about because part of being in the union was thinking about the company and what we, as a unit, thought about it and felt we could change about it.

Other writers can pick up this model, but at the same time be flexible to realize that the model won't be exactly the same for everyone. Under corporate ownership, a lot of newsrooms lost some of their connections to their communities, which couldn't help but hurt the journalism. I think for journalism to survive and grow, those relationships have to be rebuilt and trust has to be re-established. There's a lot in the Defector model that we did intentionally because we know who our readers are, what they love about us, and what they expect from us. The same exact structure might not work for another writer or small publication but the idea—how can we get and incorporate direct support from our readers—is one I'm hopeful for in the future.

Nolan: When Deadspin blew up it was owned by a private equity firm, which is about as far away from a worker co-op model as you can get. Did that experience at Deadspin teach you anything about what it actually takes for good journalism to exist and be supported?

Nathan: Good journalism requires an environment where journalists can thrive. Thriving is, roughly, being left to our own devices. We don't need much. (I can do fine with almonds, tea, and health insurance.) But if the people owning your journalism outlet are trying to wring as much money out of the asset as possible, absent any regard for the actual people staffing it, or for the quality of the actual product, it will not be an environment where journalists can thrive. That kind of ownership might degrade the reader experience with sleazy low-grade ads until the journalism is unreadable. That kind of ownership might come in with little to no understanding of the outlet it purchased, install puppets who similarly misunderstand it, and then effortfully resist the outlet's most characteristic and appealing features. That ownership might ignore the ways in which the interests of writers and ownership are aligned—everyone wants the writing to reach as many eyeballs as possible—and start making massive compromises on quality and integrity in the name of Making Money. That ownership might even make it clear, through its puppets, that any current staffers are seen as at best incidental (if not outright detrimental) to their long-term goals of Making Money.

These hypothetical distractions would make it hard to focus on doing good work. It would be hard to sit down at a keyboard if you felt your job wouldn't exist in a month, or your colleague might be canned at a whim, or your reader couldn't make it through an 800-word piece without crashing their browser. But a healthy environment for journalism is one where the interests of ownership are perfectly aligned with the interests of journalists … by virtue of being the same set of people. All of us want Defector to exist in x years, and we want it to grow in a sustainable way, because we'll be the ones who benefit from its sustained existence. Plenty of ownership is totally indifferent to whether the outlet exists in x years.

Nolan:People today are sick of living with uncertainty. Please make one prediction that you guarantee will come true in 2020 if people subscribe to Defector.com.

Kalaf: A lot of sites position themselves as an “escape” from the rest of the internet, but I think framing your little establishment like that can sometimes leave so much on the table. I want to give subscribers of Defector compelling and/or funny writing that they wouldn't find anywhere else, but I also want to make our site the place they visit first when something happens and they're looking to make sense of it. For the past few months I've been watching the various labor disputes in [sports] leagues because of the pandemic, the corporate laundering of movements like Black Lives Matter, and the fundamental venality in college sports. There have been some eloquent stories and takes on these topics, but many times I've felt like if I had a place with the people I used to work with, we could cover this stuff in a really effective way that would appeal to a lot of readers. I also vow to write at least one blog.

Nathan: One frustrating thing about not having an outlet of our own during the pandemic is that we were made for this exact, anomalous moment. We were always writing about the broader cultural and political context of sports, and did not need The Big Game to appear on TV every night to do so. There was so much rich material that other outlets wouldn’t or couldn’t touch. So one thing I will predict: Defector will have good, subscription-worthy blogs even if sports are cancelled all over again.

Moskovitz: I can guarantee that we will do our best to bring readers great work that they couldn't get anywhere else. And I will write at least one story that will make you sad.

Defector’s website launches in September. Just don’t ask them to rank pies.

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Hamilton Nolan
Chicago Is Spending $1.6 Billion on 13,000 Police. Is It Worth It? - With shootings and murders on the rise and President Trump sending federal agents to the city, community organizers and criminologists point to a police hiring spree from just four years ago to show that more cops on Chicago’s streets aren’t the answer. https://inthesetimes.com/article/chicago-police-lightfoot-homicides-safety-reform Thu, 30 Jul 2020 09:49:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/chicago-police-lightfoot-homicides-safety-reform Asiaha Butler walked into the Ellis Park fieldhouse on Chicago’s South Side for a community meeting on the Saturday before the Fourth of July. She was hoping to hear something different from local officials about their plans for improving public safety.

Earlier that afternoon, 1-year-old Sincere Gaston died after being shot in the chest as he sat in the backseat of his mom’s red sedan on their way home from a laundromat in the city’s Englewood neighborhood, also on the South Side. So far in 2020, 43 people have been murdered in the Englewood and West Englewood communities, a higher homicide count than in the entire city of Oakland, California.

“Every murder, every shooting hurts,” Butler said. “There’s no getting used to this.”

As head of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, Butler, 44, was invited to the fieldhouse by city officials to figure out, alongside prominent local clergy and other community leaders, how to stem the carnage they all feared for the upcoming holiday weekend.

Butler attended a similar meeting in 2016, the city’s worst year for gun violence in nearly two decades. It didn’t take long for Butler to realize that this year’s meeting started to sound like a rerun.

“I’m looking around this room and these are the same leaders as last time, talking about the same ideas, and the city proposing the exact same strategy: More police on the street,” she said. “And guess what? Fourth of July was just as deadly.”

With more than 400 murders so far this year, Chicago is on track to surpass its 2016 homicide rate.

At the time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded by hiring over 1,000 new cops over two years. The estimated cost in salaries, benefits and supervision for the new hires was more than $130 million in the first year, or well over $1 billion in their first decade on the force. Emanuel’s administration defended the costly hiring spree by citing an alleged “top to bottom” analysis of the police department showing that the city needed hundreds of new cops.

But four years later, attorneys for the city say that staffing analysis is nowhere to be found.

Today, Chicago has more sworn officers per capita than New York, Los Angeles and Houston. Salaries and overtime pay for those officers take up almost all of the $1.65 billion earmarked for the police department in the city’s 2020 operating budget, the largest police budget on record.

“We hired all these new cops and for what? It feels like we’re back to square one,” Butler said.

In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office said Chicago is committed to addressing the root causes of gun violence beyond policing. The mayor’s office touted the Invest South/West initiative, which aims to bring $750 million to ten distressed neighborhoods over the next three years. Lightfoot’s office also highlighted the city’s “record-high investments in street outreach and trauma-informed victims services.”

But as the city faces an expected $700 million budget shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic, criminologists say more police officers doesn’t necessarily mean less crime. And a growing cadre of activists and community organizers are urging Mayor Lightfoot to divest from the Chicago Police Department so that the city can afford to try something new.

‘Good and reasonable search’

When Emanuel took the podium at Malcolm X College on Sept. 22, 2016, Chicago had already surpassed 500 murders for the year and was averaging 12 shootings a day—levels of gun violence the city hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s.

With news cameras rolling, Emanuel outlined his plan to stop the bloodshed: The city would expand its mentorship programs, continue to fund summer youth jobs, and hire an extra 516 officers, 92 field-training officers, 200 detectives, 112 sergeants, and 50 lieutenants in two years.

“As big a problem as gun violence is for Chicago, it is not beyond our ability to solve. Ending this string of tragedies is our top priority as a city,” Emanuel said at Malcolm X. “We are infusing our police department with the manpower, technology and training to meet this challenge head-on.”

The new hires would reverse the shrinking of the department that had taken place during Emanuel’s first term in office, when, in the face of a $500 million budget deficit, he allowed the number of sworn officers to dip below 12,000 for the first time since the mid-1980s.

But as the number of cops fell, so did crime: Between 2011 and 2015, the number of index crimes—which include murder, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, and motor vehicle theft—dropped by 30%, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of CPD data reported to the FBI. (This analysis excludes rapes and sexual offenses.)

When asked by the Chicago Sun-Times why the city needed so many new cops, then-Supt. Eddie Johnson said Emanuel based his decision on a staffing analysis of the police department.

“We did an overall analysis of the department … and this is what I think we need to make Chicago safer,” Johnson told the newspaper a day before Emanuel’s speech at Malcolm X.

The police department has yet to release a copy of the staffing analysis.

“They’ve so far refused to hand over or simply can’t find any analysis they did to support that hiring,” said Tracy Siska, director of the Chicago Justice Project, a watchdog group that sued the department for not complying with a Freedom of Information Act request for the analysis.

Court records show the city first said the staffing analysis was part of a more extensive report on the police department conducted by an outside law firm. The city argued that the report—and everything in it—should be off-limits to the public because of attorney-client privilege.

But last December, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Caroline Moreland reviewed that report and didn’t find the missing staffing analysis, court records show.

Earlier this month, after conducting a “good faith and reasonable search,” the city said in court that it couldn’t find the staffing analysis within the police department’s files.

“The police department has a burden and an obligation to produce these records and it hasn’t,” said attorney Merrick Wayne of Loevy and Loevy, who represents the Chicago Justice Project.

A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department said the department determines its staffing levels based on “operational needs as well as keeping up with attrition levels.” But without being privy to the reasoning behind the department’s decision-making, Chicago could be spending a lot more on policing than it needs to, Siska said.

“Staffing decisions around policing are incredibly expensive, and need to be done based on science, not politics,” he said. “Just imagine what can be done on the South and West sides with $1 billion invested over 10 years.”

The Chicago Police Department is currently conducting a new staffing analysis as part of the consent decree it entered into with the Illinois Attorney General’s office last year. According to a June report from Margarey Hickey, the court-appointed independent monitor, the department has hired the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the Civic Consulting Alliance and other experts to perform the analysis. The report does not indicate when the analysis will be completed.

‘Deep interventions’

This year’s murder spike has some officials again calling for a greater police presence in Chicago.

Earlier this month, Superintendent David Brown nearly doubled the Summer Patrol Unit, which oversees so-called crime “hotspots” across the city, to more than 200 officers and deployed the department’s Community Safety Team, made up of about 300 officers, to areas of the South and West sides that have seen an uptick in crime. Brown also created an entirely new unit of 250 officers called the Critical Incident Response Team to act as, in his words, a “roving strike force” when needed.

City Council member Chris Taliaferro, a former cop and chair of the council’s public safety committee, wants the department to resurrect “Operation Impact Zone,” a controversial program disbanded in 2016 that placed foot patrols of young officers in high-crime areas.

Meanwhile, John Catanzara, Jr., president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s rank-and-file police union, went so far as to request that President Donald Trump send federal law enforcement to rein in “the chaos currently affecting our city.”

Trump eventually did send hundreds of FBI, DEA and ATF agents to Chicago in late July—reportedly with Lightfoot’s blessing. “What we will receive is resources that are going to plug into the existing federal agencies that we work with on a regular basis to help manage and suppress violent crime in our city,” the mayor told reporters last week.

But activists calling on Lightfoot to defund the police say more cops on the street isn’t an answer to gun violence. They point to a recent mass shooting in Auburn Gresham, where 15 people were shot outside a funeral home—even though there were two police squad cars and a full tactical team guarding the funeral.

“That the police were present near the funeral breaks some of the myths people have of what policing is, what it does, and what it can do. It’s evidence that more police are not going to prevent these shootings,” said Damon Williams, 27, co-founder of the activist group #LetUsBreathe Collective, and an Auburn Gresham native.

Instead of more police funding, Williams argues solving Chicago’s gun violence crisis will take years of investments in social services like job training and mental health counseling.

“When I hear of someone shooting up a funeral, I think of PTSD, depression, loss of jobs,” he said. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”

Butler likes to refer to these kinds of investments as “deep interventions”: Long-term commitments to struggling neighborhoods beyond punishment and incarceration.

In Englewood—after decades of the city tearing down thousands of homes, schools, and department stores without putting anything in their place—that means literally building parts of the neighborhood from the ground up, she said.

“We need to help homeowners secure their homes, initiatives to get people working on restoring and filling abandoned buildings. We need to build new housing,” she said.

Funding for those ideas should come out of the police department’s coffers, according to Louisa Manske, policy director at the Workers Center for Racial Justice in Bronzeville and lead author of a proposal calling for Chicago to cut its police budget by $900 million within three years.

The cuts would bring the city’s per capita spending on policing, currently at more than $600 per resident, “just under the current average spent among the nation’s top ten most populous cities,” according to the proposal.

The city could reinvest most of that money—$700 million—into housing, public health and family and support services under the proposal. The rest would establish a “Community Safety Unit” focused on emergencies that don’t require police and take up the bulk of 911 calls like mental health crises, traffic incidents and filing crime incident reports.

“Three years might seem drastic,” Manske said, “but the city is in a state of emergency.”

A more gradual approach to defunding the police could be to replace sworn officers who spend most of their day at a desk with non-deputized civilians.

“It’s a lot cheaper to hire and train civilians to do those jobs,” said Wesley Skogan, a Northwestern University criminologist and an expert on the Chicago Police Department.

The city could also stop hiring new police officers as older ones retire. “Within 10 years, you’d cut the department in half,” Skogan said. “You can use that pot of money to jumpstart other programs that take responsibilities away from the police every year.”

John Hagedorn, a University of Illinois at Chicago criminologist and an expert on gang violence, said the city needs new, innovative solutions to address gun violence away from policing.

“The standard answer is that when you have a rise in crime, you should hire more cops, but the idea that more cops will mean fewer crimes is an old way of thinking,” he said.

“There’s no data that supports that.”

An either/or proposition?

Unlike mayors in cities like Minneapolis, Seattle and Los Angeles, Lightfoot isn’t interested in defunding the police, deriding the movement as simply “a nice hashtag.”

One of Lightfoot’s main arguments against the movement is that reducing the police department’s size would worsen job prospects for Blacks and Latinx people.

“When you’re talking about defunding the police, you’re talking about…eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle-class incomes for Black and Brown folks. Nobody talks about that in the discussion to defund the police,” Lightfoot told The New York Times in June.

Lightfoot also argues Chicago can keep the police budget intact while also upping the funding for social services. “The investments that we are committed to making in violence reduction, in mental health, in affordable housing and workforce development; we need to make those investments, period, and we’ve committed to that,” Lightfoot told reporters in June.

“For me, it’s not an either/or proposition.”

But Manske said Chicago could hire Black and Latinx residents to fill the jobs created by shifting responsibilities away from police. “It’s an indictment on this city that one of the few options to achieve middle-class status is for Black and Latinx people to join the police. That should be an incentive for us to invest in other areas, not a reason to keep doing what we’re doing,” she said.

Activists say Lightfoot’s attempt to keep funding the police department at its current levels while raising money for more social programs is a non-starter.

“We don’t want [Lightfoot] to do both, because the police take up so much of our city’s budget and also perpetrate violence in our communities,” said Destiny Harris, a 19-year-old organizer with activist groups #NoCopAcademy and Dissenters, who grew up in the West Side neighborhood of Austin.

“If we keep pouring money into the police instead of things that address the root causes of violence,” she said, “we’re going to keep getting the same results.”

This story was produced in partnership with Injustice Watch.

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Carlos Ballesteros
Rural Black Lives Matter - After Travon Brown found a cross burning in his yard, he organized a Black Lives Matter march in the rural town of Marion, Va., where hundreds of angry counter-protestors were ready and waiting. https://inthesetimes.com/article/rural-black-lives-matter-protests-virginia Thu, 30 Jul 2020 07:21:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/rural-black-lives-matter-protests-virginia MARION, Va.—“I'm going to tell y’all right now, these people want any reason they can find to shoot you in the head,” Arron Rashad said, referring to a crowd of counterprotesters.

Rashad was speaking to about 200 demonstrators in support of Black lives and the LGBTQ community in the small Appalachian town of Marion on July 3.

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement surged after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in late May, reaching places like Marion, a town of fewer than 6,000 in southwestern Virginia’s Great Valley. Marion’s residents are 88% white and 9.6% Black, according to Census data. The surrounding Smyth County is only 2.5% Black.

It may not be too surprising, then, that the marchers Rashad was addressing found themselves confronted by about 200 counterprotesters, half a dozen on motorcycles.

Some of the counterprotesters, wearing Confederate iconography, yelled at black-clad members of the New Panther Initiative as they stood at the front of the crowd and raised their fists in defiance. The burgeoning local civil rights group had organized the march.

Not long after, the march paused in a Walmart parking lot for participants to rehydrate and regroup. Rashad, a member of the New Panther Initiative, warned marchers not to wander off or engage with the counterprotesters.

His warning was not hyperbole. After a march three weeks earlier, a cross was burned outside the Marion home of 17-year-old organizer Travon Brown, a founding member of the New Panther Initiative.

The New Panthers launched out of Johnson City, Tennessee, an hour’s drive south of Marion, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The group sponsored a series of Black Lives Matter marches in mountainous eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia, as well as fund drives for low-income families and educational forums on such topics as white privilege and the history of the Black Panther Party (with which the New Panthers are not affiliated). This level of activism is relatively unprecedented for the region, underscoring the momentum of the current movement.

Brown organized the first march in Marion in mid-June. Rumors spread that participants were out to riot and tear down a Confederate statue in front of the Smyth County Courthouse. Brown says that was never his intention.

Counterprotesters showed up for the mid-June march, too, but it ended peacefully. That night, police were called to Brown’s house as a wooden cross was burning in a barrel, a throwback to intimidation tactics made infamous by the Ku Klux Klan. A 40-year-old white man was arrested and faces charges related to the cross-burning.

“When someone burnt that cross in my yard, that motivated me to go harder,” Brown says. “That motivated me to go stronger for my people of color, for African Americans.”

Brown struggles, however, with the emotional effect of being targeted by a cross-burning.

“I’m not able to go to sleep some nights,” Brown says. “I stay up until 4 or 5 [in the morning] because I'm worried about what might happen to my mom because I'm out here marching, to my sister.”

The cross-burning drew national attention. The reaction, along with the promise of Travon Brown's attendance, brought an extra intensity to the rally July 3. When counterprotesters caught wind of the impending New Panther protest, they planned a separate rally at the courthouse. Local police enlisted officers from additional sheriff’s departments and law enforcement agencies for a “hundreds-strong” presence, installing nearly 1,000 feet of barricades.

By early afternoon, the counterprotesters had gathered downtown with prominent displays of thin blue line flags, Confederate flags and traditional American flags. Many carried guns, including several militiamen. Few wore masks, which were prominent among the New Panther group.

“I am here so this town does not get ripped apart,” said Smyth County resident Courtney Pierce. “We are not a racist town and this was not a problem until this kid decided to bring it to Marion.”

For 40 minutes, marchers led by the New Panthers faced down counterprotesters across a gulf, counterprotesters waving their flags, revving their motorcycles and shouting, “Go home!” Jonathan Jackson, a white Marion resident in the march, shouted back, “I am home!”

After a few tense moments of chants and name-calling, the New Panthers encouraged anyone with children to leave out of safety concerns. Then, it all ended. No arrests. No property damage.

Numerous counterprotesters referred to Travon Brown as a “troublemaker,” but what Brown was doing looks a lot like what the late civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble.”

The New Panthers wasted no time pushing forward. The following week, the group organized a march in Rogersville, Tennessee. The only arrests made were counterprotesters, including several affiliated with white supremacist groups.

The march went “great,” Brown says, and adds the next step for the New Panther Initiative has to be a “call to action,” looking to the future. “That grandma, that grandpa isn't always going to be here—it's time for us to step up in their position and start leading this country.”

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Mason Adams
If “Cancel Culture” Is About Getting Fired, Let’s Cancel At-Will Employment - https://inthesetimes.com/article/cancel-culture-just-cause-union-labor-employment Wed, 29 Jul 2020 16:01:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/cancel-culture-just-cause-union-labor-employment You know what should be canceled? The legal right of most bosses to fire you for a “good cause, bad cause, or no cause.”

That status quo is so widely accepted that some progressives don’t think twice about appealing to the authoritarian power of bosses in the pursuit of social justice: Many high profile social media campaigns have been employed to get people who are caught on video committing racist acts in their everyday lives fired from their jobs. But the desire to hold racists and sexists accountable—or the related struggles against sexism, homophobia and fascism—need not be in conflict with the principles of workplace rights.

So-called “cancel culture” is not well-defined, but its critics frequently use the moniker to refer to an activist program of making individuals who harm their neighbors or coworkers with acts of racism, sexism (and worse) accountable through exposure and de-platforming—including attempts to get them fired. Liberal critics have been more likely to raise free speech concerns than any about workers’ rights, while leftists are likelier to argue that free speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of speech.

Depending on what websites you read, “cancel culture” could be portrayed as the biggest threat to society outside of a pandemic with no end in sight, a cratering economy with tens of millions of people out of work and facing eviction, and unidentified men wearing camouflage and carrying machine guns removing protestors from the streets of Portland. The terms of the debate are so problematic that Trump used the occasion of his July 4 speech to complain of leftists that, “one of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’—driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.” Then, because the concept of irony has apparently died of complications from Covid-19, he continued, “This is the very definition of totalitarianism.”

Three years ago, we published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining how U.S. workers lack a basic right to their jobs that many workers in other countries enjoy as a legal standard. As a solution, we proposed a just cause “right to your job” law as a badly needed labor law reform. Since then, we’ve been encouraged to see the issue turn up on many progressives’ agenda.

In the debate between a right to your job and the need to de-platform bigots, some have raised concerns that without the boss’s right to fire an employee for any reason, racists and sexists would get more of a free pass at work. But this argument misses what “just cause” means. It doesn’t mean that employees cannot be fired, it means they can’t be fired for a reason that’s not related to work. Racism, sexism, harassment and other forms of conduct in and out of the workplace that make other employees feel unsafe and violate policies around respect and equity are grounds for discipline and termination—but are also subject to due process. When you look at how “just cause” plays out in areas where it exists—in the public sector, under many union contracts, or in other countries—it’s clear that racists, sexists and harassers are, in fact, disciplined.

Beyond the pale and unacceptable

American workers stand apart from those in other countries, as they’re governed by a body of judge-made law called the “at-will” employment doctrine. The doctrine is built around a sort of false mutuality, where the employee has the “liberty” to quit her job for any reason, and the employer has the right to fire her for any reason. The alternative, commonly negotiated in union contracts, is “just cause”: the principle that an employee can be fired only for a legitimate, serious, work-performance reason. In a union contract—where “just cause” is commonly found—it is usually combined with a progressive discipline system and a grievance procedure to challenge write-ups, suspensions and terminations that a worker feels was unfair.

Progressive discipline typically starts with verbal warning of an infraction or unsatisfactory performance. If, after that warning, a boss thinks that the situation has not improved, it may be followed up with a formal warning in writing, then a suspension without pay and, finally, termination. The progressive steps of discipline reflect an increasing seriousness of infraction, or inability to improve following warnings and remedial supports. Lower levels of discipline might be accompanied by new training or counseling to help the employee improve. But—and this is a key point—while some matters might go through the entire progression of discipline, other more serious infractions might go straight to a higher level of discipline.

A vocal or demonstrative racist creates a hostile work environment for her coworkers, and can be punished—or even fired—under a system of just cause and due process. Let’s look at a few real-world scenarios. Casually browsing through arbitrators' decisions in New York, we found the case of a professionally-classified employee at a social service agency serving developmentally disabled children and families, who made racist remarks about a supervisor to a fellow worker that other co-workers overheard. Horrified, the co-workers who were subject to an unwelcome racist rant reported it to management, complaining that they were not comfortable working with such an unabashedly racist co-worker. The racist employee was fired. She brought the case to arbitration, arguing that she was not given progressive discipline and was fired without just cause.

The case went all the way up to arbitration and a neutral third-party upheld the termination. The damning judgment: “Under these circumstances, I find that the Employer acted reasonably and had just cause to terminate Grievant's employment. In maintaining a respectful, productive and safe working environment for a diverse workforce as well as a proper atmosphere for the Employer's clientele, the use of certain negative language is beyond the pale and is unacceptable, making progressive discipline unwarranted.”

Amy Cooper, the entitled white lady who called the cops on “an African-American” birder in the Ramble of New York’s Central Park is a slightly more complicated case. Cooper was caught on video reacting in a reflexively racist way to a Black man who just wanted to protect some birds from getting gored by an off-leash dog, threatening to unleash some unpredictable police response upon him. She was quickly doxxed, and angry internet hordes demanded she be fired from the investment firm that she worked for. The firm, Franklin Templeton didn’t hesitate to fire her to protect its own reputation. But even Amy Cooper deserved due process.

The targeted campaign against the investment firm arguably made Cooper’s behavior in Central Park a work-related cause of damage to her employer’s business. More relevant is how uncomfortable her presence in Zoom meetings and on email CC lines would be for her co-workers in the immediate aftermath of her scandalous behavior. It would not be unreasonable for an employer to move directly to a suspension under those circumstances. It could be a suspension without pay while she cooled her heels and consulted with anyone willing to represent her in an appeal. If the employer decided that her time away from regular duties should be spent in implicit bias training or anger management counseling, then the suspension could continue some form of compensation.

If the goal of “cancel culture” is to “make racists afraid again” by making their despicable behavior carry real-world consequences, then Cooper very nearly losing her job would likely have been as effective as her actually losing her job. And under a just cause standard, she probably wouldn’t have been immediately fired for this one terrible offense.

Let’s look at one more example. In a widely-discussed piece for New York Magazine critiquing “cancel culture,” Jonathan Chait complained about the firing of a political data analyst named David Shor. In Chait’s telling, Shor tweeted a link to a paper by Princeton Professor Omar Wasow, which showed that non-violent protests increased the vote for Democrats, whereas protests viewed as violent increased the vote for Republicans. What followed was a Twitter debate between Shor and several others concerning the propriety of Shor posting the paper, wherein Shor was accused of racism and his employer was tagged. A few days later, Shor was fired from his job.

Chait uses the Shor episode, along with several others, to point to a “left-wing illiberalism” that seeks to silence people with opposing viewpoints. However, in Chait’s examples and his discussion of the problems, he almost wholly lets the employer off the hook. He engages in no discussion of at-will employment or how Shor’s employer should not have been permitted to fire him for a “superficially innocuous” tweet, but instead blames “leftists” and “the far left” for causing Shor to lose his job. Nowhere does Chait even mention that it was not the Twitter users who fired Shor, but his boss.

The problem for Chait was a “cancel culture” that included everyone except the powerful arbiter of speech who actually canceled his employment—his boss.

The cause must be just

In her 2017 book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It), University of Michigan professor Elizabeth Anderson argues that we think too narrowly about the power and ubiquity of “governments.” We almost exclusively focus on the power of the politicians we elect while ignoring the far more coercive power of our bosses. All workplaces have a system of government. In the United States, a unionized workplace is like a constitutional monarchy. We have some rights and can petition the King. A non-union workplace is a dictatorship. Left-wing activists need to think twice before appealing to the authoritarian power of a boss. Even if the cause of anti-racism is just, the boss’s arbitrary authority to punish his employees for what they do in their private time is a massive restriction of our civil rights.

Corporations are only temporarily embarrassed when right-wing employees spark a controversy. But corporations actually dislike left-wing ideas and are usually all-too-happy to find an excuse to quash them, leaving progressive activists far more vulnerable to campaigns of harassment targeted against their livelihoods. This can be seen in academia, where there has been a multi-year effort to police the speech of academics—on anything from the 1619 Project to the BDS movement—that’s viewed as too far left. Critics have tried to force risk-averse university administrators into firing such professors for tweets that get caught in the right-wing media echo chamber.

All workers deserve just cause protections, and we need to fight for this right as a matter of principle and self-defense. This can be done without endorsing an alliance with the boss that enshrines a broad unchecked power to fire at-will employees.

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Moshe Z. Marvit and Shaun Richman
“The Goal Is to Abolish the Police”: A Conversation with Assata’s Daughters - Young organizers on 'planting the seeds' of a better world. https://inthesetimes.com/article/abolish-police-black-lives-matter-uprisings-assatas-daughters-chicago Wed, 29 Jul 2020 15:39:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/abolish-police-black-lives-matter-uprisings-assatas-daughters-chicago Nationwide uprisings against anti-Black racism and policing have forced the concept of abolition into the mainstream. This ideal is rooted in the principle that prisons and policing are punitive systems that dole out harm and worsen social injustices. We need to dismantle these systems and replace them with social goods like healthcare, education and after-school programs that can address the root causes of social problems.

While public awareness of abolition may be new, abolitionist organizing is not. Assata's Daughters, which describes itself as a “Black woman-led, young person-directed organization rooted in the Black Radical Tradition,” has long been doing abolitionist organizing in Chicago, and its young leaders have something to teach people across the country who are grappling with the concept.

The following is a conversation between the Assata's Daughters Revolutionary Support team: youth leader Selah Amoaku, a 19-year-old community organizer of five years and a resident of South Shore; youth leader Destiny Bell, a 17-year-old 2020 Chicago Public Schools graduate and resident of South Chicago; and adult ally Theo Cunningham, a 26-year-old licensed professional counselor and resident of Washington Park.They discuss their hopes for abolitionist movements in 2020 and beyond, their analyses of the complex dynamics of the uprisings, and their own respect and appreciation for each other. The following interview has been lightly edited for length.

Theo: We are here this evening discussing abolition as a concept, abolition in our work, and particularly abolition in where we see the movement going as we keep pushing forward into the future. First and foremost, how would you describe abolition in your own words?

Selah: The removal of something, basically.

Theo: That’s real, because oftentimes I’ll ask people when I’m doing education on the topic, “What is your initial association with the topic and that term?” And so often people talk about the abolition of slavery, right? And a lot of the time I like to say, “Spoiler alert. It’s not that different.”

How does abolition show up in our work or your work with Assata’s Daughters and the mutual aid team Revolutionary Support?

Destiny: The ultimate goal is to abolish the police. It hasn’t been working out for the past 100-and-something years. It's time for y’all to kick rocks.

Selah: I think in our programs, I would say we practice abolition by not using the systems that are used in society. Like, we don’t just kick people out. If there’s a problem, there’s a conversation, there’s a circle, there’s healing that has to be done. We don’t just kick people out, and I think that’s one way we use it in Assata’s Daughters’ program.

Destiny: And then calling the police—we don’t do that. We try to deal with problems as much as we can ourselves.

Theo: Obviously, overall, Assata’s Daughters is an abolitionist organization, and a lot of what we do is supporting campaigns to tear this shit down. But the question so often to that is then, “Okay, well if we don’t have police anymore, what do we do when x, y, z happens?” Because oftentimes the thing is like, “Oh, you think it’s a utopia. We get rid of police and everybody’s just going to be chill, right?” Obviously we’re human beings and it doesn't work that way. Harm happens. As we are tearing down, what are we growing? And that’s where mutual aid, revolutionary support and transformative justice are just as much a part of the project, and it’s been been really, really fun and really special to me to be able to grow that with y’all. The stuff in the streets doesn’t quite work unless we’re building what we actually want to see with each other.

Selah: I agree. I feel like abolition won’t work if the people don’t have what they need to practice — things like transformative justice or have circles. I think also what Assata’s does is try to help people have what they need so they can fight for freedom.

Theo: I think it’s fair to say 2020 has been a time, particularly of the past month, since the uprisings that have come, since George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and far too many others. There’s something of a moment that we’re in right now. Because y’all have been really active in doing a lot of work, what are you seeing that gives you hope?

Destiny: What really got me was seeing how many states partook in the protests. There’s some hope there. We got damn-near the whole United States out here rioting and protesting.

Selah: Also seeing how it’s all over the world, like not even just in the continent. Like everywhere. Everywhere. It just feels good to have my anger shared, for people to be understanding what’s going on. And I know sometimes it’s difficult to have new organizers doing things, because they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes, but it’s made me very happy to see people want to organize and that they want to help. Also, the school board votes, that made me happy. It’s been a dream to have cops out of schools.

Theo: Can you give a little background as to what you’re talking about?

Destiny: Basically, there was a school board meeting happening while we were outside the house of the President of the Chicago Board of Education. We were just out there like yelling in the cop’s face. I was yelling shit, and I loved it because we were so close. I think we were one person away.

Selah: Also, just watching the school board meeting and hearing Chicago Board of Education member Elizabeth Todd-Breland say everything that we’ve been saying but in a position of power just made me happy. It made me hopeful. Just everybody coming together, and people who don’t usually organize organizing. People getting mad. People seeing how their neighborhoods are acting. Also, a lot of people are giving a lot of information just because of the internet. Sharing information, sharing what’s happening, and that’s very nice to see people, even if they can’t come out, helping out.

And a lot of people donating money at this time, a lot of people giving money to help. That’s capitalism, but right now people need money to live, and it just makes me so happy that a lot of people are getting the money they need, because people are donating, crowdfunding, providing mutual aid. I think people are starting to care about each other.

Theo: You just said something right there: People are starting to care about each other. That’s deep, dude.

Destiny: Yes, you went there Selah. Period!

Theo: Because when you think about oppressive systems in general, they really, really thrive and depend on us not giving a shit about each other. They do well when we don’t stop and check in with each other’s humanity. In so many ways, prisons, policing and the way it manifests in schools and social services and all these things—it just keeps us separated from each other.

And I think, answering the question for myself, as well, I find hope in a lot of the conversations I’ve had with people in my life that, honestly, I never in my life thought that I would have. My mom is from Greece originally and so her brother lives in Greece, and he called me today and is talking about how his version of heaven has no police and no military. And I was like, “What is happening right now? Uncle George, come through!” And through that I was able to have a little bit of a conversation with him that never in my life did I ever think I would be able to do. And that’s just a little bit of a seed, but we’ll see.

Destiny: Plant that seed, Theo. Plant that motherfucking seed.

Theo: On the flip side of things, there are so many things that give us hope, but also, for y’all being folks that have been in this work for a minute, I think it’s really valuable to ask you too, particularly as young, Black organizers, what you wish the movement would do a little bit differently.

Selah: I wish there was more communication. I know it’s hard because of Covid, and there’s a pandemic, and we are supposed to be quarantining and the internet is so unsafe to be on. Because the feds are watching. The police. Everybody’s watching, and they want to take down people who are leading. And it makes it harder to plan things, and so a lot of people are doing a lot of different things, which is good, but we should still talk about it. We should all be connected.

And also, I don’t know if I have to say this, but white people need to stop taking up so much space. They come to Black Lives Matter protests, but then they’re not acting like Black lives matter. They’re not treating the people at the protests with the same respect that they’re shouting for. They’re not. And that really just bugs me. I wish that was better. I wish white people understood what to do and I didn’t have to tell them at protests. I wish they would listen when I do tell them.

And the picture taking—people mainly coming to protests for photo shoots, and then not really doing anything. Also, people coming to a protest to lead when they didn’t organize the protest, especially cis men. People who are just loud or maybe have a megaphone just take over protests a lot. When they didn’t know the plan, they’re really often separating people, which deviates from the route, and they are talking to the cops. But they weren’t assigned that. So I feel like everybody needs to find their own role. Everybody doesn’t have to be a leader.

Destiny: I was gonna say that. Like the presence of white people. I remember when we were at the protest, and this white lady gonna ask us why we’re not at the front line. Why weren’t you at the front line, sweetheart? You and your boyfriend are standing out here chanting, “Black lives matter! No justice, no peace!”—but you wanna ask us why we’re not at the front line?

Theo: I think that’s kind of along the lines of what I was thinking. Just in general, if this is new to you—welcome. You are so welcome, and we are so excited to have you here. The first thing, the second thing, the third thing probably that you can do is read. [laughs] You know, not necessarily just reading, right? But learn. Watch the videos, engage the people. There are lists everywhere on the internet at this point. But like, the first thing that you can do is really to learn up on what we’re talking about because there have been folks out here talking about this for a very long time.

And also that gives us the opportunity, right? Because there is a lot of urgency in this moment— the pressure of, “Everything has to happen in the next 36 hours or we won’t get free.” [laughs] And that’s simply not how this works. This has been a long, long fight, and we’re in a particular moment of that fight, but for the folks who are just coming in, just go ahead and go over there and get to the books. [laughs] It gives us time to really build the campaigns we want to build without feeling like if we don’t engage you right now, you’re gonna go away. Cuz there’s a little bit of fear that if we don’t have something in the street every day, white people are going to forget.

Selah: I’m also upset about how many people just take pictures of people without asking. And that really puts people in danger of being killed, of being arrested, of getting hate. It’s very dangerous to take pictures without permission. And everybody’s doing it, and everybody’s putting everything on the internet where everybody can see. And I just think if you’re going to take pictures, blur the faces, or don’t show their faces. If you care about Black lives, really care about them after the protests. It just makes me upset.

And also, how we’re not really talking about disabled Black people or differently abled Black people in the movement? It’s always like, “Stand up, do this,” but some people can’t, you know? Like, you have to talk about the Black folks who are getting killed who are differently abled.

And also, why are white people telling us to get in the front? That happened at a protest I went to. It was just Black people in the front, and we literally had to yell “white people to the front.” Cuz if y’all care about Black lives, why are y’all trying to get us—you wanna see us get beat up by police in person? Like, it doesn’t make any sense.

Theo: None of us are free until all of us are free, right? Sliding right along, who do we want to be involved in abolition?

Destiny: I definitely wanna see more people, not old people, but like older people. Because I do see young people, but we need to try to change some of these old people’s minds because they are still stuck in their ways. And my grandmothers, they’re in their ways for sure. Like, they call police for everything. Any little situation, they’ll call the police. And then every time I try to talk to them, they’re like, “It’s been like this forever, we’ve done this forever.” So if we need to host some type of teach-in and invite people older, I feel like we could do that.

Selah: I would like to see older people because, yes, I agree, they feel like they’re stuck in their ways and that’s okay. But it’s also okay to change, and I want them to realize that. And it’s okay to learn from people younger than you. We are smart too. I want them to realize that. And I want them to join us, because y’all in danger too. They wanna kill all Black people.

Theo: I feel like a really integral part of Assata’s is that we don’t mess with adultism at all. We don’t do that. And that’s exactly what y’all are describing: of not being able to learn from young people, assuming that young people know less or can’t be authorities on a topic. And we don’t do that at all because that’s not the truth.

Selah: Also, young people, because during this time I’ve been having a problem of, like, my little brother, who just sees the looting as “they’re animals,” and he just thinks no police is crazy. I feel like the internet is very harmful to younger people, especially because when I was young, my mind was so moldable. I’d believe anything, and I would agree with anything I saw first. And I feel like a lot of people are saying. if you care about stuff, you’re lame and you’re sensitive. But that’s not true.

And I want to be able to teach and bring them in too, because it’s their future we’re providing for. They don’t have to protest, but I want y’all to know what’s going on, you know? I want everyone to be able to gain knowledge so that we can come into this movement together and we can teach each other whatever we know. Some people know things others don’t, and I think we should share all the knowledge and bring every generation into fighting for freedom until we’re free. That’s all.

Theo: Mic drop right there, that’s it. There’s a level of intergenerational-ness that has to come of this, right? And I think kind of what we were talking about a little bit ago: This moment is providing the opportunity to have conversations that you couldn’t even dream of, and so there’s hopefully a lot of potential there to build and to grow.

We’re coming up on the end of our time, but the last question that we got here: Why do we do what we do? What do we do it for?

Selah: I do it for my people. I do it because nobody should be discriminated against because of the color of their skin. That’s just fucked up. And the fact that we’re dying out here—I got radicalized when Mike Brown died. That’s when I was on Twitter and I was seeing the real news. Because when Trayvon Martin died, I wasn’t really on social media, and I just saw the news, like what they gave to us. So I was angry, but I wasn’t as angry. I didn’t see the picture of his body laying in the ground, like I saw Mike Brown’s.

I was just like, dang, my people die for doing nothing, for being who they are. And there’s no reason why they should die. Even if you did steal something, even if you did write a bogus check, that’s not a reason for you to die. And the fact that the police are the judge, jury and executioner, also, that makes me very angry. I have so much anger against the system that puts us down.

And I do this because we deserve better, and I do this because my ancestors have been fighting for so long. It can’t keep going on. I can’t have my nieces and nephews and little kids I don’t know living like this. It doesn’t matter if I know you or not. If you’re Black, you don’t deserve this. Nobody deserves to be treated like this.

Destiny: I’ve always been just fascinated with the movement. I guess it’s just because I was raised by my grandmother, and she was from the South, and her mother was up here too, and she kinda raised me and she was from the South too. So I was hearing their stories and what they went through and what happened when they were out here. And then I was just always fascinated with how a person gave their life, organized a whole movement for rights. Like, the Black Panthers. I love the Black Panthers. I love everything about what they do. They did shit for their community, and I always wanted to do that, give back to my community in some type of way, shape or form.

When I found out about Assata’s, I just got really happy. I love doing this. Even if I wasn’t gonna get paid for hours, I’ll still do the shit. That’s how much I love it. So that’s why I do this. I do this for my people. I do this for my ancestors. I do this for the future. I do this for everybody that is Black and of color.

Theo: Yeah, I do this for each and every one of y’all. I do it for Takiya. I do it for Mike. I do it for MerrMacc. All of those are folks in our community that we’ve lost—I do it for them. I do it because I close my eyes, and I can really see it. At the end of this, we win. I close my eyes, and I feel it in my gut. And it’s that feeling every day that has me get up and get back on the computer and back to another spreadsheet. I think as we all figure out what our deep calling is and connect to that and play that part, we win.

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Selah Amoaku, Destiny Bell and Theo Cunningham
From Tractors to Phones, Companies Don’t Want You to Repair Stuff. Appalachians Are Fighting Back - https://inthesetimes.com/article/right-to-repair-movement-appalachian-john-deere-nikon-disposable-culture Wed, 29 Jul 2020 11:04:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/right-to-repair-movement-appalachian-john-deere-nikon-disposable-culture Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the Appalachian Voice and is republished here with permission.

Replacing your phone screen, turning the rotors on your car and fixing the shutter on your camera – for many people, it is hard to imagine that you could not be allowed to fix the things you own. But this is exactly what a lot of companies want: to prevent public access to the information and parts to make repairs.

Making it harder to fix items influences consumers to throw away everything from smartphones and televisions to dishwashers and tractors. But there is a nationwide mobilization to disrupt this linear, disposable system. In addition to promoting legislation that allows consumers the ability to repair their own devices, the right-to-repair movement is focused on defending the things we own against obsolescence. These efforts include several community groups focused on helping people repair their items as well as transform their relationship with their belongings into one that does not end with the landfill.

Repair Communities

One of these groups is the Repair Hub in Boone, N.C. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Repair Hub community hosted events each month where members of the public could bring items to volunteers who helped repair them for an optional donation. Andy Groothuis, who founded the Repair Hub in 2019, says the repair process involves aspects of reducing and reusing which, he says, “are two sides [of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ waste hierarchy] that are usually, I find, overlooked.”

Groothuis states that when people have broken items, they either dump them in a drawer with the intention of fixing it “one day,” or, more often than not, he says, “they are going to throw them out, and that item probably could have been used.”

Similarly, the Cville TimeBank Repair Café in Charlottesville, Va., which started in 2015, hosts public events twice a year where participants can bring up to three items to be repaired for free. The president of the Repair Cafe, Kathy Kildea, says Repair Café is a community tool that gives people access to skills such as electrical work and sewing that they may not have the resources to access on their own.

Kildea says the project is about “utilizing those skills you have at your doorstep.”

One of the focuses of the Cville TimeBank Repair Cafe is education. People bringing in items are encouraged to sit with the “fixers” and watch repairs as they take place. There is also a “kids’ take-apart table,” where kids get to explore the inner-workings of items. These interactions foster curiosity and enable people to fix future goods that may break.

“If you think any repair is beyond your means or beyond your ability, you’re kind of sunk,” Kildea says. “But if you come at it from the point of, ‘Well, there’s just a piece in here that’s not functioning properly, I just need to figure out which one it is.’ Fostering that sense of curiosity is important not just for the kid, but for any customer that comes in with something they want to get fixed.”

Kildea discusses how customers often lament that when an item they bought inevitably breaks, they feel like their only options are to throw it away and buy a new one. Kildea says that most people are not happy about these options, but are not aware of any alternative.

“I think [Repair Café] reinforces that you may not know how to fix it, but there are people in the community that probably could. It’s a matter of getting them in the same place to work on those fixes,” she says.

Many of the items these two communities see tend to hold sentimental value — especially jewelry.

A Repair Hub volunteer in the jewelry department, Kim Miller, has been repairing and making jewelry for 15 years. She says that it is satisfying to see these cherished items repaired so they are able to “get passed along again.”

Miller also spoke of the volunteers’ efforts to keep the operation going.

“That’s pretty neat, too, to see people that interested and more than willing to offer their time to help keep things out of the dump,” she says.

For many people in Appalachia, repairing is second nature. Whether it is out of necessity or enjoyment of things like mechanical work and quilting, self-sufficiency has been a longtime practice. Ben Hollman is one of these fixers. A native of Todd, N.C., and a retired mechanic with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Hollman raises cattle, harvests hay, plows gardens, and works on farm equipment.

Hollman speaks of his various projects, saying “I just like doing that kind of stuff, and we’ve always kept cows. We had to get people to do our hay for us years ago, then I started getting my own equipment and started doing it myself.”

He grew up with a lot of knowledge of how things are done around the farm and his father taught him how to do mechanical work. Hollman mostly repairs his own equipment, but neighbors know to call him if they need help with their gear.

“If I can and I’ve got the time, when something breaks I usually try to give [my neighbors] a helping hand,” Hollman says. “And I do go to their houses and change oil in their tractors for them to keep them going.”

With equipment becoming more computerized, Hollman says repairs have become more difficult to perform.

“That’s the reason I keep older model tractors,” he says. “I can work on them.”

Fair Repair Bills

Legislation known as “fair repair bills” aims to protect consumer rights by requiring manufacturers to provide customers and independent repair businesses with access to service information and affordable parts. At the federal level, this type of legislation only currently exists for cars, which is why you have the choice between taking your car to the dealership, your local mechanic or fixing it yourself when something goes wrong.

But the repair movement is bringing repair-focused legislation to the state level. In 2019, this type of legislation was introduced in 20 states. In West Virginia, an automotive repair bill was introduced in 2019 but did not move out of committee. Virginia legislators introduced a bill in 2020 dealing with the repair of digital devices that also failed to progress past committee.

These types of legislative proposals aim to release consumers from the corporate grip and provide affordable options to enable people to repair their goods. When companies intentionally design products with a limited expected lifespan and neglect to provide consumers the resources to repair their goods, a practice called “planned obsolescence,” consumers are forced to buy new items when the product fails.

Companies like John Deere and Nikon have taken measures to make it more difficult for people to repair their products. In 2012, Nikon decided to stop selling genuine parts to third-party repair shops. In March 2020, Nikon discontinued supplying parts to the few remaining authorized repair shops, restricting customers to sending their broken equipment to one of Nikon’s two repair facilities.

“The repair industry is facing unique challenges,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of online repair forum iFixit, states on the group’s website. “Integrated electronics are making it harder to fix things. And manufacturers keep restricting access to service documentation, parts, and software — which forces consumers into more expensive ‘manufacturer-authorized’ repairs and drives small repair shops out of business.”

In 2016, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries adopted a “Right to Reuse” position in support of recyclers’ ability to reuse products. The position stated, “Reuse provides an excellent environmental and economic benefit. Despite these benefits, product manufacturers limit the ability of recyclers to legitimately reuse products; for example, by limiting parts and parts information, manuals and utilizing digital locks that impede a product’s reuse.”

When something is tossed instead of repaired, it ends up in the landfill earlier than it might have otherwise. The United Nations estimates that 50 million tons of electronic waste are generated each year. This issue is amplified as many electronics have gotten more computerized, making it increasingly difficult for consumers to maintain products rather than buy new.

Repair communities are providing education and repair assistance for consumers who may not see options beyond disposal. Community provides a sense of empowerment that pushes consumers to reject planned obsolescence and move towards sustainability, affordability and self-sufficiency.

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Carolina Norman
OSHA Is Failing Essential Workers. Why Not Let Them Sue Their Bosses? - https://inthesetimes.com/article/osha-essential-workers-covid-19-liability-immunity-trump Wed, 29 Jul 2020 09:56:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/osha-essential-workers-covid-19-liability-immunity-trump Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States early this year, frontline workers in sectors deemed “essential” have staged hundreds of strikes, sickouts and other job actions to protest unsafe working conditions.

At hospitals, warehouses, meat processing plants, fast-food restaurants, transport and delivery services, and retail and grocery stores, workers have demanded their employers do more to prevent the spread of the virus—including keeping worksites clean and providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). They have been aided in many cases by unions and new initiatives like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee—a joint project of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the Democratic Socialists of America.

Meanwhile, the government agency tasked with ensuring on-the-job safety—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—has received over 26,000 Covid-related complaints at the federal and state level, but to date has issued citations against only four employers, all of them nursing homes.

While the AFL-CIO has called on OSHA to adopt an emergency temporary standard on infectious diseases as an immediate, enforceable mechanism to keep workplaces safe during the pandemic, the agency has refused, saying there’s a lack of “compelling evidence” that diseases like Covid-19 pose a “grave threat” to workers. Instead, OSHA has put forward non-binding guidelines around coronavirus.

Critics like Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health say OSHA is “missing in action” and that the agency’s lackluster pandemic response is “a national disgrace.”

In a new report released today, the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR)—a network of over 60 scholars advocating public protections around health, safety and the environment—is calling on Congress to significantly strengthen the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the legislation that first created OSHA nearly 50 years ago.

Katie Tracy, senior policy analyst at CPR and a coauthor of the report, says OSHA’s poor response to the pandemic “is emblematic of several decades of choices by our national and state leaders that prioritize short-term profits ahead of people.”

“Since 1970, Congress and the White House have hollowed out [OSHA], denying it resources and trimming its authority, leaving it in a weak state,” adds CPR member scholar Rena Steinzor, another report coauthor.

As a result of this hollowing out, the agency now has only one inspector for every 79,262 workers. The report explains that with so few resources, OSHA has the capability to perform only one inspection per worksite every 134 years.

CPR member and report coauthor Michael C. Duff points out that “Black, Latinx and other people of color are disproportionately represented” in some of the most high-risk and low-paid jobs deemed essential during the pandemic. “Our governing institutions have done little to safeguard these workers from the health hazards or economic challenges exacerbated by Covid-19,” he says.

The CPR report specifically recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Act be amended to allow workers to enforce the law themselves by filing lawsuits under a private right of action. Such “citizen suits” are already a feature of many other federal regulations, including the Fair Labor Standards Act and Clean Air Act, the report notes.

“Empowering workers with a private right of action is critical to ensuring safer and healthier workplaces because, even with a robust regulatory system, there will always be limits on what OSHA has the resources and political will to do,” the report says. “When the prospect of a private lawsuit is put on the table, the agency may be more motivated, even compelled, to pursue the serious allegations raised by employees.”

The report spells out how a private right of action would work, including provisions for notice of intent to sue, waiting periods, standing, statutes of limitation, discovery, robust remedies, and more. Importantly, it calls for beefed up whistleblower protections to prevent retaliation against employees who speak up, as well as an end to arbitration agreements that require workers to forfeit the right to sue their employers.

Further, the report urges lawmakers to expand the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include public sector workers, farmworkers and gig workers misclassified as independent contractors—all of whom were excluded in the original 1970 legislation.

“Fixing the current system requires an updated and vastly improved labor law that empowers workers to speak up about health and safety hazards, rather than risk their lives out of fear of losing employment and pay,” says CPR board member and report coauthor Thomas McGarity.

Tracy tells In These Times that as a nonprofit, CPR doesn’t do political lobbying, but still hopes that “some of our allies off and on the Hill will find this concept worthy of taking up because it would be such an improvement over the status quo.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are fighting to include employer liability protections in any new Covid relief package, warning there will be “a second epidemic…of frivolous coronavirus lawsuits.”

“Rather than fight for business liability immunity,” Tracy says, “we need to be empowering workers to enforce the law when OSHA won’t.”

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Jeff Schuhrke
Child Care Workers Are Now a Mighty Force With a Huge New Union. It Only Took 17 Years. - https://inthesetimes.com/article/child-care-workers-union-california-seiu-afscme Tue, 28 Jul 2020 12:05:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/child-care-workers-union-california-seiu-afscme A 17-year organizing campaign in California culminated this week in the successful unionization of 45,000 child care providers—the largest single union election America has seen in years. The campaign is a tangible achievement that brings together union power, political might, and social justice battles for racial and gender equality. Now, the hard part begins.

Child Care Providers United (CCPU), the umbrella group now representing workers across the state, is a joint project of several powerful SEIU and AFSCME locals in California. Those unions divided up the state by counties, and workers will be members of either SEIU or AFSCME depending on where they live, as well as being members of CCPU.

The stage for this week’s vote was set last fall, when California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation that granted bargaining rights to child care providers, who had previously been legally ineligible for unionization. Getting the law changed took 16 years, during which time it made it to the governor’s desk twice, but was vetoed—once by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and again by Jerry Brown. In the months since Newsom signed the bill, the unions used the networks they had already created over the past two decades to administer the election. The vote, announced yesterday, was 97% in favor of the new union.

The road to winning the union was so long that it has seen multiple generations participate. Miren Algorri, a child care provider in San Diego, first became involved because her mother, who was in the same line of work, was active in the campaign from the very beginning. “She would go to meetings, and I would stay behind and take care of the children,” Algorri said. When her mother retired, she carried on—and lasted long enough to see her years of work pay off.

“It’s taken so long because the work that we do has always been minimized and infantilized,” Algorri said. “It’s because of the way society has seen child care from the very beginning of this country. The foundation was women of color caring for children. Doing work that, according to society, doesn’t require any skills.” The industry’s workforce in California is mostly women and about three-fourths people of color, according to the union.

Though the bulk of the 17-year campaign was focused on the primary goal of winning the legal right to collective bargaining, it also allowed a disparate statewide workforce to organize and fight for their own issues along the way. (The group had a large pool of dues-paying members even before the law was changed last year.) Although CCPU is brand new as a formal union, it already boasts thousands of members who are seasoned in labor organizing and political lobbying. That will likely come in handy as the group moves into its next phase: negotiating a contract with the state of California.

Providers who care for low-income children receive a set reimbursement rate from the state, and raising that figure is one of the top priorities in bargaining. Algorri said that in San Diego, she is paid $234 a week to care for an infant for up to 60 hours, and she is obligated to pay her assistants at least the local minimum wage of $13 per hour. That means she can often end up making less than minimum wage herself. She also wants a good healthcare plan, which almost all child care providers lack, as well as some way to save for retirement. “I have been working for 23 years. I have not earned one day of sick leave, and pretty much I don’t have a retirement plan,” she said. “We don’t want a red carpet. Just a decent living.”

Max Arias, the executive director of SEIU 99, one of the unions behind CCPU, said that the coronavirus pandemic, which struck while the union election was still underway, offered a chance for child care workers to organize to fend off any budget cuts, and to fight to get proper personal protective equipment (PPE). The pandemic has also highlighted the fact that these child care workers are absolutely vital to not only reopening schools, but keeping the entire economy running. Providers have continued to work throughout the pandemic in large part to provide care to the children of other essential workers, so that they can work as well. If child care work becomes economically untenable, the entire system could grind to a halt.

“Providers will play an outsize role [in school reopening]. A lot of parents are going to need support,” said Arias, whose union already represents thousands of school employees. He ticked off the immediate needs: funding for livable wages and healthcare for child care providers, and for adequate PPE to keep them safe and operational. “If we’re going to reopen the economy, the status quo funding that exists is not enough,” he said, adding that California needs a tax on billionaires, something that he believes the public would support at this moment. Until then, the child care providers will fight for themselves. They are already building a bargaining team, and Arias said that he hopes to have a contract in place within a year, given the urgency of the situation.

The sheer number of CCPU members, and their established connections with the highest level of state officials and national unions, means that they will be a force in California politics for years to come. They also represent one of the most meaningful instances of material progress in labor power for low-wage workers of color in years.

For the moment, they have earned the right to simply savor their victory. Miren Algorri brings up a taco shop in her area that has a sign reading, “Patience is the essence of good Mexican cuisine.”

“It’s the same with us,” she said. “We’ve cultivated that quality over the years.”

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Hamilton Nolan
Why Shipbuilders in Coastal Maine are (Still) On Strike - A conversation with Jami Bellefleur, a Maine shipbuilder. https://inthesetimes.com/article/why-shipbuilders-in-coastal-maine-are-still-on-strike Tue, 28 Jul 2020 11:35:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/why-shipbuilders-in-coastal-maine-are-still-on-strike Maximillian Alvarez California Hospital Workers Strike, Fracturing Pandemic’s Uneasy Labor Peace - https://inthesetimes.com/article/santa-rosa-memorial-hospital-strike-union-nuhw-coronavirus Mon, 27 Jul 2020 10:11:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/santa-rosa-memorial-hospital-strike-union-nuhw-coronavirus Despite nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and working conditions that have often been life-threatening, there have not been major strikes of hospital workers in America since the coronavirus pandemic struck. Until now.

More than 700 employees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, a regional trauma center in California’s Sonoma County, held a five-day strike that concluded on Friday. Foremost among the motivating issues were cuts in health care and paid sick leave that the hospital, owned by Providence St. Joseph Health, was pushing on employees during a contentious contract bargaining campaign. The employees are members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

“The biggest reason is because we’ve been out of contract for over a year, and the hospital is trying to force us into a pretty bad contract,” said Steven Batson, an anesthesia tech and 10-year veteran of the hospital, speaking from the picket line last week, where he was joined by hundreds of his coworkers. The company wants to significantly increase health care premiums, Batson said, and to take paid time off away from senior workers and shift it to newer workers as a recruitment tool. Batson, a shop steward, said the contentious bargaining over this contract is “absolutely” the worst he has experienced in his ten years.

Chuck Desepte, an X-ray technician who has been at Santa Rosa for 13 years, agreed. “It’s the takeaways that I’m not accepting,” he said. “They can afford this. We don’t want to go backwards. We’ve been here for this community over and over again.”

In May, the New York Times reported that Providence Health, which received a bailout of more than $500 million from the federal government in the CARES Act, has a $12 billion cash pile and sizable investments in hedge funds and venture capital. “Last year, Providence’s portfolio of investments generated about $1.3 billion in profits, far exceeding the profits from its hospital operations,” the Times wrote.

Though the strike was not directly caused by the fallout of the coronavirus, the pandemic is playing an unavoidable role. Batson said that although the union held a strike authorization vote in February that passed overwhelmingly, it held off on taking action once the pandemic hit. He said that the hospital was slow to require universal masking, and that to this day, housekeeping staff and outpatient lab technicians who do coronavirus testing are not given adequate PPE, like N95 masks. “The hospital has definitely used this pandemic as a weapon against us,” he said, including by trying to portray the workers as irresponsible for going on strike.

In a statement on the first day of the strike, the hospital wrote that “we are deeply disappointed that NUHW has decided to hold a five-day strike given that the number of COVID-19 cases is on the rise in Sonoma County and the potential for a significant increase in hospitalizations remains.” The company also hastened to paint employees as selfishly exploiting current events. “The union has made clear in communications to our caregivers that this is not a strike about personal protective equipment (PPE) or workplace safety. Instead, this is an ordinary dispute over the terms of our labor contract,” the hospital wrote. “It is unfortunate and unfounded that the union is using COVID-19 as a platform for its negotiating tactics. We never deny a caregiver PPE.”

The company itself is playing hardball. It tried to dissuade the strike with preemptive economic threats, posting ominous fliers warning that, “If NUHW submits a strike notice, our current wage offer of an annual 3% increase will be lowered to 2%, to account for the significant expense of a disruptive strike, and the current offer will be pulled off the table.” (Time will tell whether that threat stands as negotiations continue.) As soon as the strike was called, the company stopped deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks, a move that serves to annoy and hassle the union, making it much more time-intensive to collect dues. Contracted replacement workers from an outside agency were brought in for the five-day duration of the strike.

Though every labor action is unique, the fact that NUHW was willing to go through with the strike in the face of the inevitable attacks about responsibility during the pandemic could signal that the fragile labor peace that has mostly reigned in the healthcare sector—an industry afflicted with more than its share of dissatisfied and endangered union workers—may be buckling. Unions that have been cautious about going on strike over contract issues during this crisis will sooner or later be forced to decide whether they will allow employers (who may have multi-billion-dollar investment portfolios) to make them swallow concessions they would not have otherwise accepted. The employees at Santa Rosa, who worked through major wildfires in their area in 2017 and 2019 before facing the Covid outbreak this year, will soon find out if their bold action pays off.

It was not an easy decision. “We’re health care workers,” said Desepte. “We want to take care of people.”

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Hamilton Nolan
“We Are On the Cusp of Something Great”: A Black Liberation Organizer on Next Steps for the Movement - An interview with Nikita Mitchell https://inthesetimes.com/article/nikita-mitchell-interview-black-liberation-george-floyd-protests-next-steps Mon, 27 Jul 2020 07:22:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/nikita-mitchell-interview-black-liberation-george-floyd-protests-next-steps Since the nation erupted after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, Black organizers and community members have been working around the clock to channel mass protests into tangible victories. Nikita Mitchell, 26, is national coordinator of The Rising Majority, formed in 2017 by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition that includes Black Lives Matter. Rising Majority is led by Black people and people of color, and brings social movements together in an anti-racist, anti-capitalist Left for radical democracy. Nikita talked with In These Times in late June from Oakland, Calif., after another of many all-nighters. She shared what this moment feels like after years of organizing, The Rising Majority’s plan for a “hot summer,” how to sustain pressure for radical change and where Biden and Trump fit in.

A lot of organizers are telling me they are exhausted trying to keep up—the movement, the pandemic. How do you keep going?

NM: As someone who has been in movement communities for a long time, it’s deeply inspiring to me to see this level of analysis, dreaming, imagination. We are seeing an acceleration of public consciousness not just in defense of Black lives—I think a lot of that foundation happened in 2013, 2014, 2015—but the need to transform systems at the root. For me, that’s energizing. So is the level of mobilization—across the country, globally, out of Oakland. We are on the cusp of something great, something historic. It keeps me going when I’m tired.

How long have you been organizing?

NM: I can’t talk about the movement without talking about my grandmother, Dolores Bosley. She is from Bastrop, Louisiana. She grew up in a home for folks who worked in a cotton mill and for sharecroppers. She wanted me to understand two things. One, the legacy of Black people. Two, that I am inherently valuable as a person. I attribute the seeds of my consciousness to my grandmother.

My way into movements was through educational justice work in high school, at 14, through a group called Youth Together. Ever since my family migrated to Oakland, Castlemont High School was the high school we all went to, in a historically Black, Latino and Polynesian community of deep poverty.

One day, they suspended 80 students for a cell phone policy—for cell phones dropping out of pockets, for walking with a phone. That made folks really angry. In addition, outside cops were brought in to deal with violence, with racial tensions, when we knew the solution was not policing. So we landed on the model of restorative justice. That campaign resulted in a citywide resolution to have restorative justice as the main model of harm reduction in schools.

I kept organizing in college. Union organizing with UNITE HERE solidified my commitment to long-term organizing. The thing that got me back into anti-police brutality work was the start of Black Lives Matter. I got a request, like a secret meeting, “Black people come to this location.” I knew Alicia Garza and a few other movement founders, and I showed up. That was the beginning of the BLM Bay Area chapter.

After years of organizing for Black lives, are you surprised by the new mass protests?

NM: A movement never dies. There are cycles: Moments where it’s really intense, moments of movement-building. So I’m not surprised. Consider the time and conditions: the convergence of Covid with the continued illegitimacy of our government. Trump and our government did not protect folks during Covid, but instead protected corporate interests. You also have police murdering Black folks. That felt like the snapping of a straw.

But I am excited by the level of mobilization. Dallas has been out for two weeks straight, Minneapolis for a month. I think about Black organizing projects in Oakland. They’ve been working on getting police out of schools for a long time, and they are on the precipice of winning.

Let’s talk about winning. What is winnable now?

NM: The demand to defund the police and fund the people has real traction. It’s not a new demand, but it has become a unified rallying cry. What it means is literally pulling all the funds from policing and moving that to programs that actually ensure community health.

For The Rising Majority, our platform is radical democracy—so it’s not enough to just move money from police to programs for the people. Community control is a key part of sustaining that shift. As the movement gets organized, community control and participatory budgeting become additional demands.

What kind of programs need investment?

NM: That’s a hard question—it requires the people. This is part of why participatory budgets are such a cool thing.

Personally, when I think about community safety and wellness, I think about quality jobs that don’t support capitalist interests—green jobs, collectives. A reimagining of what our economic system could look like. Counselors in schools. Making sure every young person has food. What if food and housing insecurity were not something which, every day, you have to wake up and navigate? Healthcare—Democrats talk about universal healthcare, but Covid-19 illuminated the real failures of our system.

Alternatives to policing—what excites you there?

NM: I now believe in transformative justice. Restorative justice is an important framework with useful tools, but it aims to get back to “normal.” For Black people, poor folks, queer folks, trans and nonbinary people, normal is still a site of violence.

Transformative justice asks: What actually needs to shift, so violence and harm for a particular person or community doesn’t remain possible in the same way?

A good friend of mine trained me on restorative justice growing up. His sister was murdered in the height of him talking about restorative justice. It would have been really easy for him to resort to violence, including the violence of locking the guy up. What he decided to do was create a restorative justice process.

This person’s mother came to meet with my friend’s mother. They had conversations about not just the crime, not just the violence, but how their children got to the place they’re in. They talked about family and stories and poverty, and housing insecurity, and how all of those things led up to the murder. My friend’s mother then went to meet the guy who murdered her daughter. After some time, they had a real conversation about the harm that was caused. Justice can’t happen outside the people directly affected.

None of that takes away the fact that her daughter was murdered, the sadness, the rage. What it did do was create an opening for justice in a way the current system would never allow.

What happened on the criminal justice side?

NM: You don’t really have a choice about the criminal justice system, unfortunately. He ended up going to prison, which—according to my friend—felt empty after the process they went through. My friend’s mother and this person had a relationship—a tenuous one, for sure, but a relationship—and so punishment felt empty and not about justice, for anyone. The system is still a site of terror and control. We need to reimagine how we deal with harm and say unapologetically that prisons are not the way to do that.

And that’s hard to hold, you know, for people talking about defunding the police—that, in a situation with no police and no prisons, justice will be more intimate. That feels difficult for me, as a survivor of sexual violence, to be like: How do I have a conversation about justice that looks someone directly in the eye? I go back to this all the time. What does it look like to take away these systems that aren’t set up for justice for anyone, and have a real community process?

A lot of these solutions are local, where much of the police budget is controlled. What do you see on a broader, national level?

NM: One key opportunity is the stimulus packages. In the middle of a pandemic where 125,000 folks have died and 33 million people lost jobs, the stimulus package earmarked $850 million to “public safety.” We know, for white supremacists and capitalists, that “public safety” means police budgets and ICE detention centers, when folks need Covid testing, rent cancellations and freezes, employment support. So a federal target for us is the stimulus packages coming up, as a place we can actually redirect funds to the people.

The second thing we’ve been talking is divestment from white supremacy, racial capitalism and anti-Blackness. Some of the analysis we’re working toward is how statesanctioned violence and terror are protected and enabled by the federal government. So let’s talk about defunding militarized forces domestically and abroad—because the function of those systems is ultimately to protect capital and white supremacy. And we understand Trump as a figurehead of this in this moment. For example, when Trump threatened to call in the military on protesters to defend property. As if that Target building is more important than a living, breathing soul.

Trump is not the first, but he is dangerous. So we’re also thinking about how to call out the illegitimacy of government in this moment. When we ask, “What does it mean to fund the people?” You understand that concept; I understand that concept; Trump will never understand. His vested interests put him against the people.

So are we talking about campaigning against Trump here?

NM: That’s a direct question! (laughs) The Rising Majority and the Movement for Black Lives are talking about mobilization that calls out Trump as the figurehead. We are unapologetic that he and his folks down the ballot need to go. And we’re clear we need to do that work within our ecosystem. What’s required to get Trump out is sustained mobilization, but sustained mobilization should not be just about getting him out. It’s clear we need a nationwide campaign to defund the police and to fund the people.

And then there’s Biden. (laughs) Oh, Biden. It’s not like Biden is that much better. Biden has similar interests to Trump, right? But he has a different game plan for which way to enact violence on our people. He’s a neoliberal candidate, and we have experienced the impact of neoliberalism.

What do you say to Biden’s police reform proposals: chokeholds, racial bias training, community policing?

NM: They are a disrespect to the people who lost people to police brutality. A disrespect to the people being brutally, brutally repressed by police. It’s a disrespect to say to people making a clear demand to defund, “We’re going to give you a reform!” If that is not neoliberalism… (laughs)

Biden’s going to try to give concessions to the people— some of which may seem like harm reduction because “now you won’t get choked out”—but a concession that does not actually transform the systems that enable violence is a concession our movement should question.

It’s a challenge. We’ve been sold a dream that the Civil Rights Act was a pinnacle; it’s not. How do we invest in a long-term, proactive struggle? Come Trump or Biden, that’s the work of movement.

How are movements engaging and educating all these new protesters?

NM: When the mobilizations really began heating up, The Rising Majority did a political education program. We had a virtual session with Angela Davis, Jamila Woods, N’Tanya Lee from LeftRoots, Kayla Reed from Action St. Louis, Karissa Lewis from Movement for Black Lives, Timmy Rose from Dissenters and Greisa Martínez Rosas from United We Dream. That teach-in had about 360,000 views, so I think folks are hungry to be out on the streets, to make meaning in this moment. Education is some of what this movement will be up to in the next few weeks.

How do we sustain pressure for change? Can street protests persist?

NM: We need a combination of tactics. We at The Rising Majority are calling for a “hot summer” of intense organizing. We also know folks will get tired: We need organizations to hold sustained energy for a long-term, proactive struggle.

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Nikita Mitchell
Between Dwindling Revenue and Rising Virus Cases, Rural Hospitals Face a Reckoning - https://inthesetimes.com/article/rural-hospitals-dwindling-revenue-rising-cases-covid-19-coronavirus Fri, 24 Jul 2020 20:15:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/rural-hospitals-dwindling-revenue-rising-cases-covid-19-coronavirus Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

As the Covid-19 pandemic battered large, metropolitan areas this spring, rural hospitals prepared to be next on the frontlines.

But in order to ready their facilities for a potential surge in patients, those small hospitals had to forgo many of their most profitable operations. Months later, a few rural hospitals are fighting outbreaks. But others have empty beds, further threatening their viability in an era of shrinking health care options for people living in rural communities.

“If you were already in a very thin margin, and you lose a lot of your operating revenue because you’re making space and personnel available — and then you’re not using them — it’s pretty powerful logic that you're in big trouble,” said Keith Mueller, director of the RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis at University of Iowa.

Pandemic-related federal money has helped struggling rural hospitals stay afloat. But as Congress considers additional aid this month, advocates and policymakers would like to move beyond stopgap measures to change the hospitals’ long-term trajectory.

“We’re due for reckoning in our rural hospital policy,” said Ge Bai, associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

As the pandemic persists, it’s unclear how long struggling rural hospitals can hang on.

Rural hospitals have long been fighting for their survival. Since 2010, 128 rural hospitals have closed, including a record 18 hospitals last year. Even more rural hospitals were on track to shut down this year until Congress in March approved $100 billion to health care providers in the CARES Act. The support included $10 billion in targeted funding that was allocated based on operating expenses before Covid-19.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced another $1 billion targeted to certain hospitals that serve rural populations.

The CARES Act support was intended to make hospitals whole because of lost revenue. It was not meant to bolster rural hospitals who already were in terrible shape, according to experts. Yet “as healthy patients delay care and cancel elective services, rural hospitals are struggling to keep their doors open,” the Health Department said in distributing the funding.

Additional federal help came in $75 billion from the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans used for payroll costs, $150 million in Small Rural Hospital Improvement grants to support Covid-19 activities and increased Medicare payments for treating Covid-19 patients.

At Bibb Medical Center in Centreville, Alabama, stations with personal protective equipment, known collectively as PPE, are set up outside isolation rooms, including a nine-bed Covid-19 unit. The center is functioning as a step-down facility for Covid-19 and other patients who aren't well enough to return home but don't need the level of care provided by a tertiary hospital. It's fairly quiet given limits on visitation, said CEO Joseph Marchant.

“The continued challenge for the rural facilities is just understanding while there's been some funding provided early on, we really feel like these challenges are going to go on for quite a while,” Marchant said. “We hope this support continues to help some of these facilities that are operating.”

A Slow Recovery

Hospital losses may far outweigh federal relief. The American Hospital Association estimates hospitals and health systems lost $202.6 billion between March and June and are projected to lose an additional $120.5 billion through the end of 2020. The slow recovery of inpatient and outpatient volumes adds to the strain.

The association’s findings are based on an electronic survey representing 1,360 member hospitals across 48 states and Washington, D.C. Rural hospitals and health care systems represented about one-third of respondents.

“When you add Covid, there’s no question that the targeted rural funding with the other CARES Act funding has helped, but we’ve not covered at this point the cost of lost revenue, nor the expenses associated with Covid,” said Dr. Donald Williamson, president and CEO of the Alabama Hospital Association.

Rural hospitals are buying N95 masks, gowns and other PPE that are being used with all patients regardless of Covid-19 status. The additional costs cut further into their already thin margins. Before the pandemic, 47% of rural providers operated in the red.

So far this year, 12 rural hospitals have closed across the country, including four in April before they could benefit from federal support.

Texas leads the country in rural hospital closures. Roughly half of the state’s rural hospitals are considered vulnerable, according to the Chartis Group, a healthcare analytics firm. Prior to the federal relief, John Henderson, president and CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals (TORCH), worried that the pandemic would force anywhere from six to 12 rural Texas hospitals to shutter this year.

“No doubt when this thing’s over, if we don't reimagine the way we take care of people and the way we fund services, rural hospitals will still have challenges,” Henderson said.

Trying Times

To prepare for a surge in Covid-19 patients, many states required that hospitals suspend or reduce elective surgeries, such as profitable knee or hip replacements, or postpone or divert patients to a different clinical environment.

“All hospitals suffered when they responded immediately to the request to try to flatten the curve of the pandemic by essentially shutting down every way you make money,” said Peggy Wheeler, vice president of rural health and governance at the California Hospital Association.

Outpatient care accounts for 50-70% of rural hospitals’ income, said Maggie Elehwany, government affairs and policy vice president at the National Rural Health Association. Some hospitals in rural and smaller metropolitan areas have furloughed employees to maintain financial stability.

Williamson in Alabama is bracing for the possibility hospitals will once again reduce elective procedures as new cases rise.

Over the past month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has reversed course. After allowing procedures to return in the spring, he again suspended them in most of the state with the exception of procedures deemed pressing and “medically necessary.”

“The trying times will be the next few weeks to get through the surge,” said Kelly Cheek, president of the Texas Rural Health Association board of directors.

Most rural hospitals say they are in good shape with regard to PPE, said Henderson with TORCH.

“There's significant bed capacity in rural Texas,” Henderson said, “but there aren't nurses and there aren't ventilators.”

Staffing is another challenge. Shortages prompted Medical Center Health System, a 403-bed facility with multiple clinics throughout Odessa and serving 17 West Texas counties, to decline transfer patients earlier this month from regional hospitals outside of Ector County. Between 40 and 50 staff are currently out because they're quarantining at home with the virus or have a family member who's positive. The hospital announced last week that one of its employees died after contracting the virus.

The center has weekly calls with its rural partner hospitals to share information and resources. While the hospitals would typically send their sickest patients to the transfer facility, Medical Center Health System is counseling some of the smaller hospitals to retain patients instead, said CEO Russell Tippin.

“We're just trying to keep our beds open for the sickest of the sick,” Tippin said. “When those small hospitals have sick people — and no doubt they’re sick — I think our job as the regional transfer facility is to work with them and help them gain skills and confidence.”

For smaller hospitals, treating Covid-19 is forcing doctors into new, often difficult situations, Tippin added. “For all my friends in the rural areas, I know they're scared,” he said. “They’re having to get out of their comfort zones, but they are providing the same care we are providing.”

In Texas' Covid-19 hotspots, such as Hidalgo County on the Mexico border closer to the Gulf Coast, hospitals have struggled to find beds for new patients.

Earlier this week, Mississippi's state health director warned that hospitalizations are on the verge of pushing the system over capacity. On Monday, there were nine hospitals with zero intensive care unit beds statewide, said Dr. Thomas Dobbs, and one bed available among the four largest medical centers in the Jackson-metropolitan area.

Preparing for a rush of Covid-19 patients has been costly to rural Pennsylvania hospitals that invested in PPE and cut back on outpatient services and elective surgeries.

They’re not seeing large numbers of Covid-19-positive or potentially positive patients, said Lisa Davis, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health. Many patients who test positive are being sent home to recover. Meanwhile, most inpatient stays come in as a result of an emergency department visit, and fewer people are being treated. As a result, hospitals are “a little bit empty,” Davis said.

“To stay alive, they need patients in the beds,” said Gerard Anderson, professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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April Simpson
Single Mothers and Their Children Are Taking Over Abandoned Public Buildings - https://inthesetimes.com/article/single-mothers-children-philadelphia-housing-authority-occupy-houseless Fri, 24 Jul 2020 11:05:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/single-mothers-children-philadelphia-housing-authority-occupy-houseless In Philadelphia, single mothers and their children have moved into abandoned, publicly owned buildings, in the most significant housing take over in the country—at a time when millions have lost their jobs and the country is on the brink of another housing crisis. Jennifer Bennetch has helped place unhoused people into vacant homes owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), as the founder of Occupy PHA and a member of the Philadelphia Housing Action coalition. She's doing what she says is “the government’s job to make sure people who need it have housing.” So far, Bennetch and other organizers have housed over 40 people by occupying 11 homes, all owned by the authority whose responsibility it is to match people with public housing. Bennetch says that the families have no intention of leaving, and organizers are currently negotiating with the city to come to a resolution. Elsewhere in the city, unhoused people have escalated their demands for the right to housing by creating two protest encampments, one in front of PHA headquarters and the other in the middle of Center City.

Eeg Stremist, a mother of eight, was born and raised in North Philadelphia, where she’s now living in a previously-vacant home owned by PHA. A friend told her that she could get her into public housing, but Stremist thought she meant that she would be expedited off the waiting list. When she realized that her friend actually meant she could help her move into an empty home, Stremist hesitated, but decided to move forward. After all, a house would mean that she could finally live with all of her children, some of whom she had been separated from during the last three years. The house was dirty and dusty—Stremist and her kids spent the first day cleaning one room, where they all slept. The next day, they tackled another, and then another. Although Stremist isn’t paying rent, she’s purchased paint, tiles and cleaning supplies to fix up the house, and spent hours making it feel like a home. “The house I’m in was marked as unviable,” Stremist said, “but it doesn’t look like it to me.”

Stremist had spent the last three years moving from shelter to shelter. Even when she had enough money to rent a place, she was consistently rejected, either because her credit was bad, or because she was told she had too many kids. Now, as the Covid pandemic and its consequences—unemployment, loss of health insurance, potential eviction—have continued to wreak havoc on working people, especially those who were already struggling to stay afloat before the virus stunted the economy, people with insecure housing are not willing to wait around. Unhoused people—who may live in shelters or on the street, or bounce from couch to couch—are some of the most vulnerable to Covid. After all, you can’t quarantine without a home. As the weather gets hotter and workers’ unemployment checks run out, more and more people will be at risk of eviction or foreclosure once states’ and cities’ moratoriums end. And without enough public housing to act as a safety net for those who need it, more and more people will either join encampments or find their own housing by squatting in empty buildings.

Although it’s PHA’s sole job to provide housing for those who need it, the authority has been under fire by activists in recent years for being ineffective. While it is the biggest landlord in the state (and has 80,000 tenants in the city), there are still more than 40,000 people on the housing waitlist, according to Bennetch, and it has been closed to new applicants since 2013. Many of those on the waiting list have to wait up to 13 years to get housing.

In recent years, the housing authority’s projects have included more market-rate housing, which is unaffordable for those eligible for public housing, and potentially takes housing from those who really need it. And while thousands of Philadelphians languish for years on the waitlist, PHA sells lots and structures to private developers who build market-rate housing, and let other houses sit empty and decay. Stremist doesn’t know why there are so many vacant houses, and told In These Times that “it’s a bureaucracy thing, or else I can’t explain it.” Activists have been organizing to change PHA, citing its role in gentrification, as well as its use of eminent domain and aggressive private police. The housing authority has denounced the squatters, and called their occupation a “health and safety risk.” But so is living in a shelter or on the streets during a pandemic. The authority built a new $45 million headquarters last year, and Kelvin Jeremiah, the CEO, made nearly $300,000 in 2018.

Philadelphia's homeownership rate is 53%, which is higher than similarly sized cities across the country. The city is often lauded for its affordable rent—compared to cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston—but one in 14 renters still has eviction notices filed against them. Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country, with a poverty rate of 25% and a deep poverty rate of 14%, and it’s impossible to stretch a dollar you don’t have. The Covid pandemic has pushed those already teetering on the edge of stability into total disarray, and houseless people have had no respite from it. But according to Sterling Johnson, an organizer with The Black and Brown Workers Cooperative and Philadelphia Housing Action, houselessness “was a public health issue before Covid.”

As single moms and their kids fix up their new houses, others have camped out in front of PHA headquarters and a boulevard that runs through Center City. Johnson said that both encampments were created after long-standing encampments elsewhere in the city were evicted. (CDC guidelines suggest that encampments should not be evicted during the pandemic, but on March 23 the city evicted an encampment outside the convention center.) Those evictions, coupled with the urgency of the pandemic and lack of movement from the city, forced unhoused people to take matters into their own hands by creating the encampments and squatting in abandoned buildings. The new encampments are not just housing, but purposeful protests against the way unhoused and housing-insecure people are treated in Philadelphia. The organizers’ demands include an emergency transfer of all city-owned, vacant properties into a community land trust, legal recognition of the encampments, and an end to both homeless sweeps and the sale of publicly-owned properties to private developers. They also echo the call heard at many protests around George Floyd’s murder to disband the Philadelphia police department.

According to Sterling, unhoused people go through many of the same dehumanizing experiences as Black people across the country: surveillance, harassment, and being “stopped and frisked” and questioned just for their very existence. The purpose of the encampments is to house people, but to also create a space where “they are treated with dignity, like they have the right to exist,” says Sterling. And because 75% of unhoused people in Philadelphia are Black, the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and the right to housing are inextricably linked.

Organizers met with Mayor Jim Kenney and PHA CEO Kelvin Jeremiah on July 20. According to Bennetch, the meeting went better than expected, and “the Mayor seems open to moving forward with some of our ideas to deal with the housing crisis.” But she said that Jeremiah, on the other hand, is not: Bennetch says that, during the meeting, Jeremiah sent PHA police to intimidate those using PHA houses. (The houses that were raided were from a separate occupation.)

Although Bennetch got a “cease and desist” letter and was threatened to be charged with felony criminal trespassing for assisting with the occupation, she believes that, ultimately, the families will be able to stay in the homes. A lawyer has stepped up and offered to represent the families, which have also been supported by housing and homeless activists across the city. Bennetch says that “PHA is in the spotlight right now and they know better than dragging women and their children out of their homes.” Stremist, on the other hand, isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to stay in her new home, and hasn’t allowed herself to get too comfortable: “My life isn’t stable yet, because the house isn’t mine.”

Mayor Kenney told the Philadelphia Inquirer that organizers’ “motives are sincere—they want to see people housed.” After a disastrous few months for the city—including the tear-gassing of peaceful protests—organizers won’t accept platitudes. And the Mayor is right: They want to see people housed. As of 2010, there were over 40,000 vacant lots in the city, 3,000 of which include buildings—plenty of room to start housing the nearly 6,000 unhoused people (including 1,000 who are unsheltered), according to organizers. The city says that roughly 25% of these vacant lots are publicly owned, meaning that there are around 10,000 lots that could be used for public housing as soon as possible. Bennetch believes that the vacant properties attract crime and contribute to blighted neighborhoods, and says that “there’s no reason that taxpayer-funded housing that is supposed to be public housing just sits empty when so many people need homes.” Dickerson, who has been on PHA’s public housing waiting list for five years now, agrees: “If you make 700 bucks a month, there’s nowhere you can live in Philadelphia” without help from the city or the state.

While there’s been some temporary municipal and state-wide relief for renters, there’s been no legislation that actually forgives rent or mortgage payments during the pandemic. Bennetch believes that “the city knows that when courts open back up, there’s going to be a way bigger problem than what we have now. People’s landlords are already trying to evict them illegally now.” With the pandemic and its economic reverberations ongoing, mass evictions and foreclosures are likely, meaning more people could join encampments like these. As Dickerson put it, “If I could afford my own place, I couldn’t afford to eat.”

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Mindy Isser
Police Budgets Are Ballooning as Social Programs Crumble - Cities across the country have defied demands from protesters to defund police despite facing huge budget deficits from Covid-19. https://inthesetimes.com/article/police-budgets-social-programs-education-racial-justice-protests Wed, 22 Jul 2020 16:27:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/police-budgets-social-programs-education-racial-justice-protests Faced with mass teacher layoffs, deep cuts to education and social services, and a looming eviction crisis, police budgets across the nation remain absurdly high and have been largely insulated from Covid-induced belt-tightening. Worse yet, a number cities have opted to increase police budgets, claiming the funds are needed to pay for reforms. This is despite the fact that racial justice protesters across the country are clearly calling for the defunding of police—a demand that stems from abolitionist principles. Budget cuts are seen as part of a process of dismantling prisons and policing while investing in community alternatives and social goods, in order to reimagine public safety.

In Phoenix where activists demanded a 25% cut in the police budget, the city voted on a $24 million increase to the department for the upcoming fiscal year, even as the city anticipates a $26 million budget deficit over the same period. The Phoenix Police Department’s $592 million annual budget will account for over 40% of the city’s discretionary funds, with $3 million going to a new police oversight agency. Rejecting residents’ calls to cut police spending, San Diego increased its annual police budget by $27 million to $566 million. The department will account for about a third of the city’s general fund and will create a new Office of Race and Equity. In Louisville, Ky., where Breonna Taylor was shot by police in her bed after officers enforced a no-knock warrant, the city has decided to increase the annual police budget by three-quarters of a million dollars, while claiming to funnel resources into reforms like a civilian review board. The decision followed demands to cut $100 million from law enforcement and reinvest in social services. Meanwhile, the Louisville City School District has approved $1.35 million in cuts to education and has already laid off 32 employees. Similarly, Atlanta increased its police budget by $14 million as Georgia cut over $1 billion in education and 4% of the state’s healthcare budget. Houston, Kansas City, Nashville and Tulsa have also increased funding to police in the upcoming year’s city budgets.

Tracey Corder, the campaign coordinator on policing work at the Action Center on Race and the Economy, is not pleased with this trend. “We know that budgets are moral documents. They reflect priorities,” says Corder. “I think it is not only backwards, but it’s also a little cowardly, if we’re being honest, to take this moment and decide that we are going to invest in more policing and not in the real things that communities are calling for that we know actually make people safe.”

On average, roughly a third of city and town general funds, which are discretionary and largely made up of property taxes, are devoted to police departments, which often account for the largest budget item, according to an analysis by Sludge. In cities like Oakland, Calif. and Milwaukee, Wis., police budgets are closer to 45%. Globally, the United States spends $115 billion on police annually, a number that is greater than Saudi Arabia’s entire annual defense budget.

Education budgets have not fared as well. Since the start of the pandemic, “education jobs have accounted for nearly two-thirds of the decline in state and local government employment,” according to an analysis by Pew Research Center. The National Education Association warns that without additional federal funding, “the country is projected to lose 1.9 million education jobs—approximately one-fifth of the workforce that powers public schools and public colleges and universities.” Higher education, which is dependent on tuition for funding, still has not recovered from the Great Recession, and now faces lost revenue from both fewer enrollments and less public funding. We face the prospect of hundreds of colleges and universities closing permanently.

These cuts extend beyond education. Public services—from healthcare to social security to affordable housing—are bearing the brunt of austerity measures while over 20 million renters are at risk of eviction by the end of September, with millions more newly unemployed and without insurance. With a federal government relinquishing its responsibilities to ensure basic state functions like public health, education or fair elections, many have asked whether the United States has turned into a failed state.

The product of long-standing policy

The expansion of the security state, as the welfare state shrivels, is the product of decades of policy. Over the last 50 years, with the war on crime and the rise of law-and-order policies, police budgets have risen considerably even as cities grew safer, with experts saying they found no correlation between police spending and crime rates. High police budgets correspond with cities that are highly segregated and have large Black populations; poorer cities tend to dedicate a higher share of their budgets on police independent of crime rates, according to a Sludge analysis.

One thing we can take away from the 2008 recession is that budget cuts and layoffs will disproportionately affect public education. In the decade that followed the Great Recession, median per capita spending on police dropped and then rose even as median per capita spending on housing and community development, public welfare and education fell in the 150 largest U.S. cities. Social services still have not recovered to their pre-recession levels.

Police budget cuts have mainly been the result of sustained and overwhelming grassroots pressure to defund police and invest in communities. However, even in a number of cities that have announced cuts to police departments, budgets will remain the same or even increase. News outlets recently claimed Washington, D.C. “cut,” “defunded,” “stripped,” “slashed” the police budget by $15 million—but it’s still an additional $3 million in funding from the year before, an amount that slightly exceeds inflation. In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, defunding the police meant cancelling proposed increases, essentially keeping the budget untouched.

Even “cuts” do not defund the police

Even where activists have managed to win concessions on budgetary cuts, there is still a long road ahead to realizing large-scale divestment from policing. The $1 billion cut New York City recently approved to its nearly $6 billion police budget, upon further inspection, was deemed to be the result of what Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called “funny math” and the New York Times referred to as a “budgetary sleight of hand.” Over $300 million worth of “cuts” were accounted for by moving school safety officers from the NYPD budget to the New York City Department of Education despite demands from students and organizers to remove cops from schools entirely. The school safety program will remain part of the NYPD until next year and receive a 2% increase in funding. In addition, $134 million in fringe benefits associated with school safety officers is being counted towards the $1 billion figure, so it’s closer to $866 million.

New York City’s other budget cuts include $65 million from a program that subsidizes public transit to low-income New Yorkers, a 40% reduction in funding for affordable housing, a nearly 70% cut in arts education, $182 million from the Department of Education, and $20 million from the City University of New York, where 2,800 adjunct professors and part-time staff members have already been laid off. Hiring freezes have been imposed on teachers and a number of agencies across the city, excluding police. At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo cut $1.1 billion—the exact amount received from the CARES Act—to K-12 education.

Though the NYPD represents less than 6% of the city’s budget, the department is notorious for its racism and brutality through programs like “stop and frisk,” as well as the targeting and surveillance of Muslim New Yorkers. Additionally, Rikers Island has become synonymous with the worst excesses of the carceral state. Despite this reality, the city spends an average of $337,524 per incarcerated person at Rikers annually while spending around $30,000 per student. As one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the problem here is not funding, but priorities.

That elected officials have to be fought tooth and nail to fund social goods while police departments remain largely shielded from the financial crises that are tearing apart our social safety net is a testament to a state that has chosen warfare over welfare.

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Indigo Olivier
Philly D.A. Larry Krasner Says He’s Ready to Charge Invading Federal Agents with Crimes - He sees a way out of our "drunken stumble" into fascism. https://inthesetimes.com/article/philadelphia-district-attorney-larry-krasner-federal-agents-trump-police Wed, 22 Jul 2020 10:40:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/philadelphia-district-attorney-larry-krasner-federal-agents-trump-police When unidentifiable federal agents began snatching protesters off the streets in Portland, people got nervous. When Donald Trump said earlier this week that he wanted to roll out the same strategy to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and other cities, we got more nervous still. The elected officials in most of those cities urged the feds to stay away—and Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner took the extra step of issuing a statement threatening to prosecute them, saying, “Anyone, including federal law enforcement, who unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people will face criminal charges from my office.”

Such brash obstinacy was very much in character for Krasner, who spent his career as a left-wing defense lawyer before getting elected D.A. in 2017 as a progressive reformer on a platform of ending mass incarceration. (He sued the Philadelphia police department at least 75 times before being elected D.A.) Today, Krasner is one of the most outspoken of the crop of progressive district attorneys elected in major cities across the country in the past few years.

We spoke to him about what he might do about rogue federal agents descending on his city, and about our “drunken stumble” into fascism.

Hamilton Nolan: Have you heard anything officially about federal troops coming to Philly, other than Trump’s comments?

Larry Krasner: No.

Nolan: Do you think it’s going to happen?

Krasner: As they say, sometimes there is no there there. Is something gonna happen? Probably. But what does that mean? He’s saber rattling about, he’s gonna send 150 federal law enforcement officers to Chicago. The police department in Chicago is 12,000 people. So let us understand what we’re talking about: He’s gonna take over a city with one percent of their everyday police population? So, what I do know is he will say absolutely anything, and he has absolutely no interest in accomplishing anything useful.

Nolan: But of course, there’s still the issue of what the federal agents might do if they get there. For those of us who aren’t lawyers, what’s your understanding of the legality of federal troops coming into cities and taking people off the streets, like they’ve done in Portland?

Krasner: It appears to me—and I don’t have all the facts—but it appears to me there was illegal conduct in Portland. There was certainly extremely troubling conduct. If you jump out of an unmarked van, and you’ve blacked out the plates, and you grab a civilian on the street, you better have probable cause. It’s not at all apparent they did, although obviously I don’t know every single thing that they knew at the time. So that looked illegal. When you fire a deadly, life-threating, “non-lethal” round into a protester and fracture his skull, that would appear to be illegal. So, if you come to town, police or not, and you start kidnapping and assaulting people and causing serious bodily injury, without legal justification, you get arrested and you get charged. And I will charge people, whether they’re police or not, who engage in what is effectively kidnapping and brutal assault.

Nolan: This is still theoretical in Philly, but not in Portland, and perhaps not in Chicago soon. In that scenario, when you think about charging a federal agent, what would happen, realistically? Would you expect to be immediately overruled somehow?

Krasner: The way it works is, the law does in fact apply to federal employees including the president of the United States. I know he likes to pretend it doesn’t, but it does. So they actually have to come to town and obey the law. If they do not obey the law then they can be arrested, and they can be charged locally. Under [certain] circumstances, after they are charged, down the road they can try to have the case heard in federal court. But it does not apply all the time, it only applies some of the time.

Nolan: The mayor put out a statement that was more or less in line with yours. But where does the Philadelphia police department stand on this?

Krasner: It’s important to understand that in Philly, the bargaining unit of the Fraternal Order of Police is a bunch of Trump-loving right-wing Republicans who are controlled by its retired membership. They recently threw a party for Mike Pence that was attended by the Proud Boys. Okay? That’s where they are. On the other hand, the police [department itself] is run by Danielle Outlaw, who is our recently appointed African-American police commissioner, who has made it pretty clear she is interested in reform, and that she is not gonna go in the same direction. We should differentiate between the voice of the past—the FOP does not control the behavior of the Philadelphia police department.

Nolan: Would you have any concerns about what police officers on the street would do in a scenario where city cops are being asked to enforce the law against federal agents? Or who they would listen to?

Krasner: Yes and no. No because, if we have the evidence, we don’t need the assistance or participation of an individual officer, and no because I believe the commissioner wants to evenhandedly enforce the law. Yes, to the extent that the culture still reflected within the rank and file to some extent is a very ant-Black Lives Matter, anti-protest, anti-free speech, pro-Trump culture. Yes, to the extent that there are some people in that large organization who aren’t necessarily going to want to enforce the law. Candidly, it’s an issue that we’ve already faced [in various incidents since the Black Lives Matter protests began]. But the bottom line is, I’m certainly hopeful that the police officers understand chain of command and know what their duty is and will protect civilians even against crimes committed by federal law enforcement.

Nolan: Have you had any conversations with your counterparts in other cities about how to approach this, since it sounds like multiple cities could be facing this issue soon?

Krasner: Actually a couple of my progressive D.A. buddies have texted today. Marilyn Mosby [of Baltimore] and Eric Gonzalez [of Brooklyn]. We’re all chatting.

Nolan: You touched on fascism in your statement on this issue—where do you think we are as a country in terms of the tiptoeing towards fascism?

Krasner: I’d call it more of a drunken stumble, actually. We’re dealing with this person who is just so out of control. He’s just so deranged. If it wasn’t so comical, I’d be more frightened. What do we say to this, other than come on, December 31?

Nolan: Is there anything reassuring that you can say to protesters and other people who are nervous about the way this whole thing is progressing?

Krasner: I can say December 31 is coming. Don’t forget to vote. I can say that I actually believe that everyone’s greatest concern is not that Trump’s gonna win the election, because he won’t. They’re all concerned that he will try not to leave. I do not believe that the United States military has a scrap of regard for this man. I think we’re gonna be okay.

This interview was lightly edited for length.

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Hamilton Nolan
Beware the Anti-Defamation League’s Efforts to Partner with Progressive Orgs - The Anti-Defamation League has a long history of smearing Black activists, working with police, and evoking “hate speech” to demonize the peaceful BDS movement. https://inthesetimes.com/article/anti-defamation-league-civil-rights-facebook-hate-speech-palestine-bds Tue, 21 Jul 2020 12:55:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/anti-defamation-league-civil-rights-facebook-hate-speech-palestine-bds Most everyone can agree that Facebook and other social media giants should work to delist and deplatform hate speech, but the essential question as to what constitutes “hate” receives surprisingly little scrutiny—and even less clarity. A new campaign called #StopHateForProfit was recently launched by a coalition of progressive groups to pressure large corporations to boycott Facebook until the company takes concrete steps to combat hate speech. #StopHateForProfit’s seemingly sizable P.R. roll out has, in recent weeks, seen major corporations from Coca-Cola to Pfizer to Verizon co-sign demands for Facebook to stop “promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.”

Aside from providing some of the most odious corporations on earth with a low-effort reputation-laundering P.R. win in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the campaign itself certainly has its heart in the right place. Progressive organizations like Color of Change, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Free Press, Sleeping Giants and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have co-sponsored the effort and are using their social media to solicit other corporations to join the effort. They are understandably eager for something to be done. From anti-Black racism, anti-Semitic bile involving George Soros taking over the world, and anti-immigrant hate, to President Trump’s overt use of white nationalist propaganda on social media, anyone who’s spent time on Facebook can tell you it’s a cesspool of disgusting, racist paranoia.

Which is what makes the inclusion of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the coalition so troubling.

Despite its public portrayal of itself, the ADL isn’t a civil rights group in any meaningful sense, but rather, a veiled pro-Israel lobbying organization that uses superficial language of inclusiveness and anti-racism to defend Israel from criticism from the left. The ADL already assists large social media platforms in determining what is and isn’t hate speech, and by teaming up with the #StopHateForProfit effort, the group will likely have even more say in determining what content is worthy of publication. The problem is that the ADL has made it clear on a number of occasions that it considers the entire basis of the peaceful Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement—embraced by virtually all of Palestinian civil society—to be hate speech, specifically any claim that denies Israel’s “existence as a Jewish state” (e.g. its claim to ethnonational supremacy over non-Jews living in Palestine). The ADL’s website clearly states, “Anti-Israel activity crosses the line to anti-Semitism” with any statement that “Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state,” and that “the founding goals of the BDS movement and many of the strategies used by BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic.”

Put another way, if Palestinians don’t co-sign their own ethnic cleansing by agreeing with the radical premise that the land of their birth, or where their families are from, is axiomatically meant for Jews, they are, according to the ADL, engaging in racist speech. So too will non-Palestinian allies of Palestine be painted as racists: Recently, the ADL’s deputy national director took to the New York Times to accuse Peter Beinart, who was once among the most prominent liberal Zionist writers in the United States, of anti-Semitism for announcing that he now supports one state based on equal rights.

The use of anti-hate-speech laws and regulations to snuff out calls for equal rights in Palestine is not theoretical—it’s common practice already in France, which has used such laws to effectively make the BDS movement illegal. While these are laws, not social media rules of conduct, the principle is the same: Any speech that calls into question Israel’s right to exist as a ethno-supremacist state is de facto anti-Semitic.

In 2017, the ADL accused the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a grassroots Black Lives Matter organization founded in 2014, of anti-Semitism, a form of hate speech, because M4BL’s platform read, in part, “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” It follows that if the M4BL were to post this statement on social media, it's likely the ADL would view it as hate speech and demand Facebook take it down. If the ADL views the foundational documents of the M4BL as including hate speech, how can the ADL possibly assert itself as a moral authority in this moment? Has the ADL’s position changed since 2017, or does the ADL still to this day consider the M4BL’s platform anti-Semitic?

The ADL smearing Black activists who oppose Israel isn’t new. In the 1960s, the ADL harshly criticized the Black-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers for their criticisms of Israel, equating these “negro extremists” with the KKK and American Nazi Party. The ADL also worked with the Israeli government in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s to spy on Arab groups, as well as leftwing anti-South African apartheid activists. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Glenn Frankel noted in Foreign Policy magazine in 2010, “The Anti-Defamation League participated in a blatant propaganda campaign against Nelson Mandela and the ANC in the mid 1980s and employed an alleged ‘fact-finder’ named Roy Bullock to spy on the anti-apartheid campaign in the United States—a service he was simultaneously performing for the South African government. The ADL defended the white regime’s purported constitutional reforms while denouncing the ANC as ‘totalitarian anti-humane, anti-democratic, anti-Israel, and anti-American.’”

The ADL’s past tactics and current actions compel clarification: Do progressive organizations in the #StopHateForProfit coalition agree with the ADL’s definition of “hate speech” that includes BDS advocacy? Does the coalition have an agreed upon definition of what constitutes hate speech? These questions are not academic—they could (and likely already do) determine whether or not Palestinians and their allies who call for boycotts on Israel will be driven off social media platforms for “hate speech.” Is the ADL’s definition of “hate speech” that includes “delegitimizing” Israel something groups like Free Press want to endorse?

In These Times reached out to all the groups in the coalition, asking if they agree with the ADL’s definition of hate speech, but none returned our inquiry except for the Mozilla Foundation, which directed us to their public statement which reads, “We’re proud to join #StopHateForProfit.” The ADL also did not respond when asked for clarification on their working definition of hate speech with regard to the BDS movement.

Social justice organizers concerned about the ADL’s track record were, however, willing to go on the record. “The ADL’s agenda is to delegitimize Palestine solidarity,” Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, tells In These Times. “Anything they're doing, one should see from that lens.”

Sijal Nasralla, campaign director for MPower Change, a Muslim-led racial justice organization, agrees. “The ADL is not an ally, and the ADL is not what it seems,” says Nasralla. “They're not a progressive leader in the movement we're building, especially in this current moment around an international rejection of police violence and militarization, which extends to the U.S. and other countries in the world, including Palestine.”

Aaron Jamal, who asked that only his first and middle name be used, identifies as a Black organizer and revolutionary, is part of the M4BL, and participated in the “World Without Walls” delegation to Palestine last November. He told In These Times, “What the Movement for Black Lives wants is a complete transformation of society, [this] is in direct opposition to pseudo civil rights orgs like the ADL that claim to be for progressive movement but actually act in the opposite way.”

Compounding these issues is the awkward fact that, in a movement defined by opposition to the police state, the ADL has a long track record of working with police departments, ICE and other law enforcement organizations, helping arrange and fund missions to Israel for these entities to learn about “counter-terror” tactics from the Israel Defense Forces and other Israeli police and military forces. These international exchanges are so harmful that the progressive Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, has an entire campaign dedicated to stopping them, aptly titled, “Deadly Exchange.” Included within this campaign is an effort to pressure the ADL to stop hosting “National Counter Terrorism Seminars” and “Advanced Training Schools.” Jewish Voice for Peace writes in a sign-on letter to the ADL, made public well before the advent of the #StopHateForProfit coalition, “Dispatching U.S. law enforcement to trade tactics with Israeli police and military agents defends and deepens Israel's systems of military occupation, and exacerbates the existing crisis of police violence in the U.S.”

To be clear, political coalitions are about temporary alliances, not ideological purity. But the ADL’s decades-long embrace of American police departments and anti-immigrant federal agencies is firmly at odds with the current moment, and with the statements of groups like Free Press that condemn police crackdowns and criticize news stories that “repeat police talking points with no critical analysis.” Do the progressive groups in the #StopHateForProfit coalition think the ADL, which promotes “counter-terror” training seminars with militaries that have a history of racist violence, should help arbitrate what is and isn’t hate speech?

In 2018, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt accompanied President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, his son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, and hate preachers John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, as part of a large delegation of Americans supporting Trump’s moving of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Greenblatt took selfies in front of the embassy seal and praised the move by Trump, one opposed by the vast majority of countries on earth. In ADL’s defense, it did vaguely condemn the presence of Jeffries (though it was mum on Hagee, a Christian Zionist with a history of racism and anti-Semitism), but it’s not at all clear what supporting Trump’s embassy move has to do with “combating hate.” Nor is it clear what ADL’s qualified defense of the far-right Israeli government’s annexation of large parts of the West Bank has to do with “combating hate,” or what the ADL lobbying to oppose Obama’s Iran Deal, or support Trump’s maximum-pressure sanctions on Iran, has to do with “civil rights.”

The answer, of course, is that the ADL is not an anti-hate speech organization or a civil rights organization. It is, rather, a pro-Israel lobbying group specifically tasked with protecting Israel from leftwing criticism by co-opting the language of anti-racism to smear critics of Israel as bigots.

Obviously, there will never be a perfect definition of “hate speech,” and the absence of one does not mean we should do nothing. But the issue here isn’t a lack of perfection—it’s that the ADL’s current, well-documented definition is designed to smear Palestinians attempting to push for equal rights as no different from 4chan Nazis. This is a toxic alliance, and one all of those fighting for equal rights should reject. There are plenty of progressive, Jewish-led organizations—IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace—that don’t work to deplatform peaceful boycotts of Israel, to say nothing of the dozens of Palestinian and Black-led organizations working to build bridges between those subjected to racism in Israel and in the United States. Liberal activists can and should partner with these groups to pressure Facebook, not lend progressive credibility to a pro-apartheid front group trying to co-opting civil rights discourse to further silence Palestinian voices.

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Sarah Lazare and Adam Johnson
Defund the Police? Why Not? - We should not confuse public safety with investments in systems of punishment. https://inthesetimes.com/article/defund-police-george-floyd-chicago-justice Tue, 21 Jul 2020 07:06:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/defund-police-george-floyd-chicago-justice “Defund the police.” The demand has gained life in wake of the death of George Floyd, who was murdered on Memorial Day by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis cop with a record of 18 citizen complaints. As protesters flooded city streets to demand justice for Floyd, they added the names of victims of their own local police departments: Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado, Andres Guardado in Gardena, California.

According to recent polling, 55% of Democrats now support defunding the police. After years of police reforms and bias-training and body cameras—which always seem to be turned off at the key moment—activists’ calls for radical change are gaining support.

The reaction from some, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has been to caution that defunding the police is a step too far. And according to polls, 64% of all Americans agree with them. Matthew Yglesias, a founder of Vox, writes that cutting police budgets makes no sense as evidence indicates that more police on patrol means fewer violent crimes. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also opposes defunding the police: “What I’ve heard from the people in neighborhoods is that they want more police protection, not less.”

Take Chicago. During the largely peaceful protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, there was opportunistic looting. Along with the big box stores, Black-owned businesses in the largely Black South and West Sides of Chicago were hit hard. Simultaneously, Chicago experienced a spike in homicides. Over this past Father’s Day weekend 104 Chicagoans, mostly in Black or Latino neighborhoods, were shot, 15 of them (including five children) fatally. Against that backdrop, it’s understandable that people in afflicted communities say they want more police on the beat, though they may not like them.

According to a May 2019 poll by Gallup and the Center for Advancing Opportunity, 68% of residents in Chicago’s low-income communities wanted the police to spend more time in their neighborhood. At the same time, 59% say they know “some” or “a lot” of people treated unfairly by police, and 60% said that most people in their neighborhood had a negative view of police. But maybe the interest in more police reflects a desire for any type of city investment and attention after decades of neglect. As Chicago has shuttered schools, closed mental health clinics and cut public transportation in poor neighborhoods, the police budget has only grown, surviving as the last vestige of a well-funded government.

This year Chicago has budgeted $1.8 billion (about 40% of the city’s total operations budget) for its 13,000-member police force, the second largest in the nation. That works out to about $5 million per day. What do the police in Chicago accomplish with $5 million a day? They don’t help convict many people of murder, especially if the victim is Black. According to WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, police solved 47% of the cases if the victim in white and 22% if Black. Police rarely interrupt and prevent crimes, and less than 25% of reported crimes result in an arrest. The Washington Post reports that, over the past 60 years, there is no correlation nationally between police department spending and crime rates.

Chicago’s finest, however, do a fine job of arresting the mentally ill. In 2019, an estimated one-third of the 6,000 people imprisoned in Cook County Jail had a diagnosed mental illness. This year Chicago has budgeted $10.5 million for community mental health services—about what the city spends in two days on its police. Imagine a city where the response to mental health crises is treatment, rather than incarceration.

Defunding the police is about reallocating resources from punitive and carceral methods and toward the publicly funded social supports and services that guarantee the well-being of all residents. It’s about undoing the neoliberal policies that have imposed austerity upon public goods and services, while leaving police departments fat and militarized.

In a Chicago Sun-Times op-ed, Chicago’s six democratic socialist city council members wrote:

We can’t keep giving 40% of [city resources] to a system of punishment that does nothing to address root problems. … Substance-abuse treatment, mental healthcare and after-school programs all have a clear and sustainable impact on reducing crime. We need to fully fund public programs that are proven to reduce inequality and improve public safety in ways that policing fundamentally does not.

An absolutist demand to “abolish the police” may seem cockamamie. It did to me for the longest time. But when that radical idea aligns with a historic moment and is cleverly rebranded as “defund the police,” it challenges us to confront the choices we make as a society about what we’re supporting.

The function of the state is not to misappropriate resources and thereby entrench historic disparities and violations of human dignity. It is to ensure the health and well-being of its citizens.

We should not confuse public safety with investment in police and penal systems, two institutions that conflate the ruling class’s self-interested preservation of power with the notion of justice.

We should likewise acknowledge that defunding the police, is not the complete solution to our deeply entrenched problems. Justice for the ravages of racial and economic inequality demand not only holding those in power to account, but that we also create a structure for economic redress.

The beauty of the protests is that they challenge the core values of the status quo. “Defund the police” demands that we choose between a society that invests in the “root causes” and one that mobilizes paramilitary and surveillance forces.

It is not a new idea. Prison abolitionists and criminal justice reform activists like Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba have long envisioned and advocated for a world without police, basing their arguments in moral and practical reasoning. Their research, writing and arguments are now a gift and a guide to the millions of Americans who like me are catching on, and up, to them.

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Joel Bleifuss
Protesting Native Deaths by Police - Amid protests against police violence nationwide, a march was held in remembrance of a Native man who died in police custody while suffering a mental health crisis. https://inthesetimes.com/article/native-police-deaths-protests-omaha-nebraska-black-lives-matter Mon, 20 Jul 2020 07:28:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/native-police-deaths-protests-omaha-nebraska-black-lives-matter OMAHA, NEB.—Kateri Hinman Petto’s feet began to bleed during the 4-mile walk from the downtown Greyhound bus station to Bucky’s Convenience Store. But stopping wasn’t an option. Nearly 200 people were behind her and, besides, she thought, this was nothing compared to what Zachary Bear Heels had gone through. Bear Heels, a 29-yearold Rosebud Lakota man, died in police custody outside Bucky’s on June 5, 2017. He was dehydrated, confused and in a mental health crisis.

At the march, Petto raised her megaphone and said his name. The crowd, gathered to retrace Bear Heels’ final steps on the third anniversary of his death, called back “Zachary Bear Heels” and chanted “Native Lives Matter.”

Bear Heels had been traveling to Oklahoma City by bus when he was kicked off for “erratic behavior” at the Omaha station, according to Indianz.com. Relatives say Bear Heels, who struggled with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had not been taking his prescribed medication. He wandered Omaha for two days. Authorities found him dancing in front of Bucky’s.

Bear Heels, who was not under arrest or being detained, refused to get into a police cruiser. A struggle ensued. Police then shocked Bear Heels a dozen times with a taser (including three times after he stopped resisting) and repeatedly punched him in the head, ultimately smothering him on the pavement, handcuffed, under the weight of several officers, one of whom weighed 275 pounds.

“I think about him every day,” says Les Chalepah, Bear Heels’ cousin, who grew up with Bear Heels in Oklahoma. He was the type of person who could find humor in situations that would make other people cry, Chalepah says. “A lot of things that would make someone cry, like falling off a bike and getting scraped up—he would laugh. He was just a happy person.”

The June 5 demonstration was the second memorial walk held in honor of Bear Heels. He was one of 33 Native Americans to be killed by police in 2017, according to the website Fatal Encounters.

Native deaths by police rarely make national headlines, but Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other racial or ethnic group (and 3.1 times more likely to be killed by police than whites), according to a 2016 investigation by In These Times, “The Police Killings No One Is Talking About.” People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police than others.

“In today’s society, we’re invisible,” Petto says. “People don’t realize that we’re contemporary people.”

Marisa Miakonda Cummings, a member of the Omaha tribe and a mother whose children are Native and African American, emphasized the need to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. “We know as Indigenous people that 99% of us were killed off,” she said at the memorial walk. “We need allies.”

Others at the walk held signs bearing the name James Scurlock, a 22-year-old African American man killed by a white bar owner May 30 during a George Floyd protest in Omaha.

The county coroner determined Bear Heels died a “sudden death associated with excited delirium.” Excited delirium syndrome is a controversial label that has not been recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association, but is not uncommonly cited as a cause of death for victims in police custody. The syndrome is supposedly characterized by agitation, delirium, high body temperature, unexpected strength and sudden death. Most fatalities attributed to excited delirium occur after a person has been asphyxiated while restrained.

The coroner’s report helped officer Scotty Payne, charged with felony assault, achieve a verdict of not guilty, though he was fired. (The other three officers involved were initially fired but were reinstated in April.) Some legal experts think the officers charged in George Floyd’s death may try to incorporate the syndrome in their defense.

Native journalist and activist Kevin Abourezk has covered the Bear Heels case extensively for Indianz.com. He suspects the officers involved were immediately concerned with building an excited delirium defense, suggested by the fact that they got in the ambulance with Bear Heels’ body.

A wrongful death suit filed against the city by Bear Heels’ mother is ongoing.

Kimara Snipe, a member of the Omaha Public Schools Board, spoke about the need for diversity and training and to change policies around police restraint and deadly force. Terrell McKinney, running for state legislature, reminded the crowd the Omaha police contract is up for renegotiation.

“I’m 100% for a more diverse police force,” Petto says, “but we need to address the systemic racism that exists within our police force and … [gets excused] in our judicial system. Our rally was a good opportunity for the Native community and the Black community to come together.”

Marchers closed the day with a prayer song and a moment of silence.

“We need to keep demanding justice,” Chalepah says. “They need to understand how we feel, how Zach’s death weighs heavy on our hearts.”

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Elena Carter
Bayer Engineered a New Corn Seed That’s Resistant to Five Herbicides. But How Long Will It Work? - https://inthesetimes.com/article/bayer-engineered-five-herbicide-resistant-corn-pesticide-treadmill Sat, 18 Jul 2020 15:17:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/bayer-engineered-five-herbicide-resistant-corn-pesticide-treadmill Editor's Note: This story was originally published by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

A new genetically engineered corn seed designed by Bayer to be sprayed by up to five herbicides could represent the future of farming, providing growers with more pesticides to combat the problem of weed resistance.

But for how long? That’s the question raised by weed scientists, who say farmers need to start switching to non-chemical options to keep weeds under control.

Over the past 50 years, weed resistance has become a significant problem for agriculture in the U.S., with more than 165 unique species of weeds becoming resistant to chemicals. The problem has increased significantly since the introduction of genetically modified crops and use of accompanying herbicides in the 1990s.

The new seed, which Bayer has petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval, could be sprayed by glyphosate, glufosinate, dicamba, 2,4-D and quizalofop, giving farmers multiple options for weed control.

Bayer spokeswoman Susan Luke said in an email that, pending regulatory approvals, the company plans a full commercial launch of the seed later this decade.

“We expect HT4 to be widely used – and growers continue to ask for additional crop protection tools to help manage tough-to-control weeds. This product will offer growers more options to manage broadleaf weeds in corn and will provide growers increased flexibility and another tool in the crop protection toolbox,” Luke said.

Corn is the most bountiful crop grown in the United States, making up about 92 million acres of farmland, an area about the size of Minnesota or Michigan; about a third of the crop is used for animal feed, about a third is used for ethanol and the rest is split between human food, beverages, industrial uses and exports. About 90 percent of corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, according to the USDA.

The product comes at a time when Bayer, which acquired agribusiness giant Monsanto in 2018, and its pesticides are under scrutiny.

In June, Bayer announced a $10 billion settlement of claims that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer. The company also announced a $400 million settlement of claims that dicamba, a herbicide sold by Bayer and German agribusiness company BASF, has drifted and harmed thousands of other farmers.

By purchasing Monsanto, Bayer acquired some of the most popular cropping systems in the U.S.

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup, quickly became ubiquitous after being introduced in the 1990s. Glyphosate, the active ingredient, is the most commonly used herbicide in the U.S., but as the amount sprayed in crops increased 40-fold between 1992 and 2016, the number of weeds resistant to glyphosate grew. Over the past 25 years, the number of weeds resistant to glyphosate has increased from zero to more than 45, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.

In response, agribusiness companies have released crops engineered to be resistant to other herbicides: Monsanto launched its Roundup Ready II crops, engineered to be resistant to glyphosate and dicamba; BASF launched its Liberty crops, designed to be resistant to glyphosate and glufosinate; Corteva Agriscience, formerly DowDupont, released Enlist crops, designed to be resistant to glyphosate, 2,4-D and quizalofop.

The new Bayer technology combines all of these technologies into one. The new product is not designed to be sprayed by all five weed killers at once, but instead to help streamline the current agricultural system, allowing seed dealers to carry one seed that gives farmers a choice on which combination of weed killers they want to spray.

“It’s not a big revolution. It’s the way things are moving,” said Robert Hartlzer, a weed science professor at Iowa State University.

This phenomenon is often called “the pesticide treadmill” — as more weeds develop resistance to more herbicides, new and better herbicides are needed.

The acceleration seems to be getting faster and faster, said Kristin Schafer, executive director of the Pesticide Action Network. PAN is organizing citizens to submit comments against the new Bayer technology, saying the cropping system would be more benefited by switching to crop rotations, more biodiversity on the farm and increased soil health.

“This five-trait corn is absolutely the opposite direction of the way we need to be going,” Schafer said.

Some weeds are already starting to show signs of resistance to dicamba, which has increased significantly in use since Monsanto introduced new cotton and soybean seeds resistant to the herbicide beginning in 2015. Dicamba has also caused widespread damage to the environment because it is harder to control.

Hartzler warned that weeds are quickly outpacing technological developments. Weeds have already developed resistance to each of the herbicides included in the technology, though they are still very effective across the United States.

“It’s really going to be a short-term fix, but at this point in time, it’s what fits the current production system best,” Hartlzer said.

Aaron Hager, a weed science professor at the University of Illinois, found in a 2015 study that using multiple herbicides to kill weeds is better at delaying resistance than switching from one herbicide one year to a different the next. Bayer pointed the Midwest Center to that study and said the new seed will help delay resistance.

But Hager said the way that weeds are resistant to herbicides is changing.

Herbicides work by targeting a specific mechanism in a plant and disrupting that mechanism. For the past 30 years, weeds have largely started to develop resistance at the target site, shifting the way they grow and no longer allowing herbicides to bind to the plant.

But increasingly, plants have started to develop metabolic resistance, which is when the plant’s internal mechanisms are able to metabolize herbicides into non-toxic products, making them ineffective. The mechanism is similar to crops that are able to sustain being sprayed by herbicides.

“We’re in another era now,” Hager said. “We’re trying to understand what has changed and allows them to function more like the crop.”

With metabolic resistance, weeds can develop resistance to herbicides that they haven’t been exposed to before, Hartzler said.

Bayer said that these chemicals are needed. Even with best practices, corn can see a 52 percent yield loss without a herbicide being sprayed, according to a study by the Weed Science Society of America. Hager said that farmers won’t stop using chemicals, but they can use them along with other options.

Both Hager and Hartzler said they are recommending farmers increasingly use non-chemical options. Hartzler said places like Australia are starting to use combines that can help destroy weed seeds, so they don’t continue to grow.

“I know that it’s going to change in the relatively near future simply because even the addition of these new herbicide traits is not going to solve the resistance problem,” Hartzler said.

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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Johnathan Hettinger
The Post Office Belongs to the Public. Let’s not Give it to Wall Street. - https://inthesetimes.com/article/us-post-office-louis-dejoy-trump-covid-19-privatization Fri, 17 Jul 2020 13:56:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/us-post-office-louis-dejoy-trump-covid-19-privatization On June 15, Louis DeJoy of Greensboro, N.C., began his new job as Postmaster General of the United States.

We are postal worker union activists who also hail from Greensboro (and are now American Postal Workers Union president and solidarity representative, respectively). For decades we have defended the interests of the public Postal Service and postal workers, and we bring a much different perspective than that of multi-millionaire businessman DeJoy. We are concerned that DeJoy, a mega-donor to Republican Party causes and to President Trump, has been tapped to carry out the administration’s agenda.

Trump has shown implacable hostility to the public Post Office. He has called it “a joke” and railed against its low package prices. In late March, Trump and his Treasury Secretary (Steven Mnuchin of Goldman Sachs) blocked the bipartisan Congressional effort to provide funds to the Post Office in the initial 2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief legislative package, despite the Postal Service being so impacted by the COVID economic crisis that it could run out of money either later this year or early next year.

Trump’s nefarious plans for the public Postal Service are reflected in a June 2018 White House Office of Management and Budget recommendation to “restructure the United States Postal System to return it to a sustainable business model or prepare it for future conversion from a Government agency into a privately held corporation.” While the proposal gives lip service to the first option, all the initiatives are concentrated on the privatization path. Indeed, the OMB never mentions anything positive about the current, public U.S. Post Office.

Using the OMB recommendations as a guideline, in December 2018 the President’s Task Force on the United States Postal System called for piecemeal privatization, drastically increasing prices, closing retail outlets, curtailing service and doing away with the collective bargaining rights of the 570,000 unionized postal workers.

Much of mainstream media presents Trump’s hostility to the Postal Service as a feud with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post. This is misleading. The Trump administration has a clear agenda—a dagger aimed at the heart of the USPS. The USPS is the largest and most efficient postal service in the world. It is the low-cost anchor of a massive $1.6 trillion mailing and package industry, relied upon by small businesses everywhere, and is critical to ecommerce. It also holds a special place in rural communities and is cherished by the U.S. people who are its owners. With 91% favorability ratings among Republicans and Democrats (Pew Research), why would a President who wants to get re-elected so clearly oppose the needs and desires of the voters? What drives his agenda?

The answer lies in capitalist power—the marriage between politics and economics—as an op-ed in the May 5 Wall Street Journal, “Phase Out, Don’t Bail Out, the Post Office,” makes brazenly clear. Gary MacDougal, investor, entrepreneur and corporate executive, writes he is afraid that, in an upcoming COVID-19 relief package, Congress might “bail out” the Post Office along the lines promoted by the current USPS Board of Governors. As he feared, the House of Representatives passed $25 billion in COVID-related relief for the Postal Service as part of the “HEROES Act.” The Senate is now taking up the issue of new stimulus legislation, including the question of whether it will include postal relief.

MacDougal served for 34 years on the board of United Parcel Service of America (UPS), a company with over $75 billion in sales and more than 495,000 employees. He has served as chair of the Finance Committee and chair of the Nominating and Governance Committee. UPS is a main competitor of the public Postal Service. Indeed, the Postal Service’s public mission, and uniform, reasonable rates, is a major hindrance to UPS’s corporate profit maximization.

No wonder MacDougal lies in his op-ed, feigning concern about saving taxpayer dollars. The fact is, that since the early 1970’s, the public Post Office has not run on tax dollars. It has operated as a self-sufficient entity that is financed by the purchase of postage stamps and other postal services provided at uniform prices across the United States.

In his op-ed, MacDougal pushes for the complete liquidation of the public Postal Service. He writes, “The bottom line: 13 straight years of losses, almost $9 billion in fiscal 2019.” But those years of losses have all come since 2006, when Congress passed a law that required the USPS to fund future retiree health benefits an incredible 75 years into the future, an onerous financial burden not imposed on any other government agency or private corporation.

Mr. United Parcel Service eventually lets the cat out of the bag: “The combination of UPS, FedEx, DHL, Amazon and countless local delivery companies would pick up the slack left by the wind-down of the post office. Smaller delivery companies may…handle last-mile delivery in remote areas. If that isn’t enough, Amazon and others could charge more for deliveries to extremely remote locations.” (Our emphasis.)

This was not MacDougal’s and the Wall Street Journal’s first effort to impose their privatization stamp on the public Postal Service. In an October 2011 op-ed “Junking the Junk Mail Office,” MacDougal had already exposed his true motivation, “Entrepreneurs will see the demise of the USPS as an opportunity, and new companies will emerge. Indeed, this transition can be one of the badly needed bright spots in a troubled American economy.” (Our emphasis.) It is no surprise that his current editorial appears in the midst of an even deeper economic crisis than in 2011.Taking seriously his executive loyalty to United Parcel Service, in his recent 2020 Op-Ed MacDougal concludes: “The responsible course is to set the Postal Service on a careful path to liquidation.”

The Way Forward

The COVID Pandemic has created a fork in the road for the future of the public Post Office: Either the people will defend and strengthen their public Postal Service, or Trump and finance capital will use the crisis to cause its demise.

Like MacDougal, the autocratic Trump regime is all about “following the money.” In 2019, the public Postal Service generated over $70 billion of revenue used to serve the people on a break-even basis. Postal privatization, better termed “profitization,” will turn over this vast treasure to Wall Street investors and a few private corporations. In turn, companies could raise prices, eliminate a democratic right of the people to universal postal services no matter who we are or where we live, and destroy living-wage union jobs in the midst of the COVID-induced economic crisis.

The same pandemic that is revealing Trump’s shameless effort to divide and conquer the people, is underscoring once again the “essential” public good carried out by the women and men of the public Post Office in binding our people together, in uniting us, especially in these most difficult times. It is noteworthy that, along with the previously cited 91% favorability rating, a recent YouGov poll conducted on behalf of the American Postal Workers Union, indicated that over two-thirds of the population favor Congressionally appropriated postal relief to restore lost COVID related revenue.

The Postal Service is owned by all the people of the United States, not capitalist entrepreneurs. The collective “we” rely on the Postal Service for vital supplies, medicines, ecommerce packages, pension checks, financial transactions, voter information, ballots and a vast exchange of personal correspondence as well as the sharing of ideas and information. Privatization of public postal services would end the democratic right of the people to these universal services, no matter who we are or where we live, at uniform and reasonable rates.

Hence, our starting point is to rally the people to defend what belongs to them. This is already taking on a variety of forms. Petitions to save the public postal service have garnered two million signatures. Tens of thousands of emails, letters and calls have gone to Congressional representatives advocating postal financial relief in the next stimulus package. In times of social distancing, car caravans in various locales have sent the same message. Both the American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers have produced positive social media and TV ads. And actor-activist Danny Glover, the public face of “A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service,” has produced a public service radio announcement now airing.

Crises, even tragic ones, bring opportunity. We have the opportunity to not only defend but strengthen the public Postal Service and the common good. We have the opportunity to ensure that people have access to the ballot box through vote-by-mail and a vibrant Postal Service. We have the opportunity to expand the financial services offered at the Post Office and counter the predatory pay-day lending and cash checking industry that preys on the working poor.

Moreover, the public Post Office has historically been connected to decent union jobs for Black Americans and other communities of color as well as military veterans. We have the opportunity at a time of massive unemployment to defend over half a million postal union jobs that build rather than tear down working class communities This is an important front in the fight for the practical realization that Black Lives will matter in the United States today and tomorrow.

Even if the new Postmaster General were to become a people’s champion of the Postal Service (and DeJoy’s initial steps have been to undermine the postal service) the trajectory of U.S. monopoly capitalism makes it necessary for the postal union movement, the general labor movement and social justice movements together to take to their phones and to the streets as the Movement for Black Lives is now doing. Progressive and necessary change is only won with the power of the people.

Finally, in the course of mobilizing the successful defense of the public Postal Service, we advance the opportunity to win health care for all as a human right, and other fundamental social benefits that will move us in the direction of a society where we are truly our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

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Mark Dimondstein and Richard Koritz
11 Statistics That Show Racism Is Entrenched in Our Healthcare System - Covid-19 is disproportionately harming Black Americans. This is not an exception, but the rule. https://inthesetimes.com/article/healthcare-bias-racism-discrimination-black-health-disparity Fri, 17 Jul 2020 07:05:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/healthcare-bias-racism-discrimination-black-health-disparity It has been widely reported by now that Covid-19 has raged through communities of color with particular violence. Nearly one in four Covid-related deaths have been Black Americans, more than twice the rate of white Covid-19 deaths; 31% of Black Americans know someone who has died, compared to 9% of whites.

This stark divide is nothing new. At every level, this country has long failed the health of its most vulnerable residents. Black Americans face worse air pollution and greater food insecurity, are less likely to be insured, and in many cases are less likely to be prescribed or referred to necessary treatment. The constant stresses of racism increases allostatic load, a measure of wear and tear on the body that increases likelihood of high blood pressure, diabetes-related deaths and other health issues. And given the history of abuse by doctors and researchers, there is a justified lack of trust in the medical establishment.

All of this means that Black Americans face disproportionate harm from nearly every major medical issue—the coronavirus’s impact is not an exception, but the rule. The following numbers offer a snapshot of these harms and their causes, evidence that radical transformations in the healthcare system are needed to truly make Black lives matter.

  • 14% of second-year med students (wrongly) believe Black people have less sensitive nerve endings than white people
  • 47% of the time, U.S. physicians underestimate the pain levels of Black patients, compared to 33.5% for white patients
  • 13% of U.S. residents are Black
  • 5% of U.S. physicians are Black
  • 19% reduction in the Black-white disparity in men’s cardiovascular mortality could be achieved if more doctors were Black
  • 25% of Black Americans live in an area with a shortage of primary care physicians
  • 243% more often than white women, Black women die from pregnancy or childbirth
  • 16 more minutes, on average, are spent in the ER waiting room by a Black person, compared with a white person
  • 200,000,000 patients have been screened by medical centers using commercial algorithms to predict the need for follow-up care
  • 18% of those automatically referred for extra care by one such algorithm were Black
  • 47% of the patients who should have been flagged for extra care were Black, which the algorithm missed due to racial bias
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Dayton Martindale
OSHA Complaints Show the Morbid Dangers Healthcare Workers Face During Covid - https://inthesetimes.com/article/osha-healthcare-covid-19-pandemic-nurses-danger Thu, 16 Jul 2020 15:50:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/osha-healthcare-covid-19-pandemic-nurses-danger During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands dying every day, America relied on a select few essential workers to keep society running, like postal workers, grocery workers and meat packers—all industries that have seen, together, hundreds of Covid-related deaths among workers. Chief among them are nurses, on the front lines of the pandemic, who have put their lives on the line to intubate disease victims and provide lifesaving medical care. Since the pandemic began, over 500 healthcare workers in the United States have died from the virus.

But these workers who we rely on so deeply—dubbed “warriors” by President Donald Trump and “heroes” by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—continue to work under hostile management and in dangerous workplaces that make the disease even more contagious and deadly.

That’s according to a dataset and interactive map recently released by Strikewave, a newsletter of original reporting and analysis for the U.S. labor movement. The data show at least 21,510 Covid-related Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints since the start of the pandemic. It’s unknown exactly how many more complaints than usual have been filed, as OSHA complaints are relatively confidential. But it’s clear that they are surging.

Common in the complaints are allegations of managerial neglect, carelessness and abuse.

And while we may like to think that bad management is the exclusive territory of greedy corporations, the complaints show how healthcare workers, some of them working for nominally non-profit hospitals, have been failed by their employers even as they perform dangerous and essential work.

At Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, several OSHA complaints filed at the end of March alleged widespread shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and threats from management.

Carolyn Clemons, a registered nurse working in Genesys Hospital’s Covid-19 intensive care unit and member of Teamsters Local 332, said that in late March, when cases were skyrocketing, nurses who wore masks outside of patient rooms were threatened with disciplinary actions and firings. In hallways and offices, where nurses worked closely together, managers enforced a no-mask policy into April, according to Clemons. Ironically, some of the managers who threatened mask-wearing employees were the same who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“There was not good communication,” Clemons said. “We felt a lack of respect for what we do.”

At the height of the pandemic, management kept stockpiles of PPE under lock and key in their offices while telling nurses to wear garbage bags instead, according to Kimberly Cox, a registered nurse and the Chief Steward of Teamsters 332. Even now, she says, much of that equipment remains unused.

Nurses at the hospital have tested positive. According to Cox, however, Genesys has so far refused to either provide on-site tests for nurses or inform employees of the number of positive or assumed cases among staff, despite repeated union requests. Nurses, some of them exhausted by persistent coughs and high fevers, were told to drive to the next hospital over.

There are complaints from hospitals across the Ascension health system.

One, filed on April 28 at Ascension St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, claimed management failed to implement social distancing practices “properly or effectively” and that workers were not informed when they were exposed to patients and coworkers with confirmed cases of Covid-19. At that point there were almost 3,000 Covid-19 cases in Milwaukee and more than 150 deaths.

There have been more than 15 such complaints against the health system, including the ones against Genesys and St. Francis, and there are likely more (detailed information about OSHA complaints is only available for “closed” cases, suggesting there could be several ongoing but confidential complaints). Additionally, Teamsters Local 332 has filed more than 100 grievances with the hospital.

Ascension, which operates as a non-profit out of St. Louis, Missouri, cut its CEO a $13.6 million paycheck in 2017, the last year on record. It also operates a venture capital fund, Ascension Ventures, which manages more than $800 million, and an investment advisory fund, Ascension Investment Management, which is responsible for $38.7 billion in corporate money.

The health system, which has been fined nearly $70 million for various regulatory violations over the past decade, received more than $400 million in federal funding in May. Genesys itself received more than $20 million. The funding, like all federal stimulus so far, comes with no stipulations regarding employee treatment.

Ascension Health did not respond to a request for comment.

These kinds of complaints can be seen across the industry. At publicly-traded HCA Healthcare, one of the wealthiest hospital chains in the country, complaints are, in some cases, nearly identical to those lodged against Ascension: N95 masks locked away by management, a total lack of protective equipment for housekeepers and food service workers, and prohibitions on mask-wearing. One complaint even alleged that nurses were directed to clean their masks with household cleaning wipes, return them to a bag, and then reuse those masks. In total, workers in the HCA network lodged at least 35 complaints, almost twice as many as Ascension received.

HCA paid its CEO more than $26 million in 2019 and has made more than $7 billion over the past two years. The chain received $1 billion in federal pandemic aid, also without stipulation. Weeks later, nurses at HCA claimed the company threatened them with mass firings unless they agreed to wage freezes.

These OSHA complaints are just a few of the thousands filed, all of which show how so-called essential workers have been treated as disposable. There are more than 3 million Covid-19 cases in the United States, but many essential workers are already losing meager hazard pay raises. As of April, at least 135,000 health care practitioners who work in hospitals had lost their jobs, including many nurses.

It’s a racial justice issue as well. In New York City, 75% percent of frontline workers are people of color. And Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist studying Black healthcare workers, found that those workers are more likely to work at hospitals in the same impoverished Black communities that have been devastated by the coronavirus.

Both the pandemic and the protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd carry the same lesson: our brutal status quo has long been untenable for many Americans, particularly the poor and non-white.

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Nick Vachon
Teachers Unions Look Like the Last Line of Defense in Trump’s “Reckless” School Reopening Crusade - https://inthesetimes.com/article/teachers-unions-trump-reckless-school-reopening Thu, 16 Jul 2020 12:32:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/teachers-unions-trump-reckless-school-reopening As American families fret over a patchwork set of standards for reopening schools that vary widely by city and state, teachers unions across the country are denouncing the Trump administration’s approach to the issue as ill-advised, life-threatening and unjust. And they’re vowing to do something about it.

President Trump has demanded that schools reopen in the fall, and his education secretary, Betsy Devos, has adopted his position. But there has been little effort by the federal government to provide any of the gargantuan resources that would be necessary to reopen schools in accordance with public health guidelines.

In April, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) issued a lengthy plan for safe school reopening, with standards based on measurable declines in the prevalence of Covid-19; testing, tracing, PPE, and procedures for physical distancing in schools; and community investments to enable schools to work in concert with public health measures.

Three months later, the country is experiencing booming infection rates and meeting none of the union’s suggested standards, but the administration seems determined to reopen schools regardless. “If Donald Trump and Betsy Devos actually listened to what we were saying—we were trying to reopen schools so we could meet the needs of kids,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Instead, they decide to be all reckless.”

Now, local and regional teachers unions are engaged in fevered negotiations with school districts over reopening plans. Results, predictably, vary depending on the locality. In Los Angeles, the school district announced that it will begin the year with virtual instruction only—a decision made in consultation with the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) union, which famously went on strike in 2019 not just for better pay, but also for smaller class sizes and nurses in schools. In a poll released last week, 84% of UTLA members said they did not think schools should reopen for physical classes next month, considering the ongoing coronavirus surge in California.

It is clear that the L.A. school district respects the teachers union’s power. Cecily Myart-Cruz, the president of UTLA, notes that the union called for a protective shutdown of schools on March 12, and the school district announced a shutdown the next day. Now, the union is calling for a broad set of social justice issues—structural racism in healthcare, mental healthcare, defunding the police, and paid sick leave policies, among other things—to be addressed in concert with the basic safety issues of reopening schools. It is a “bargaining for the common good” approach for the coronavirus crisis era.

“Can we do more? Can we ask for more? Can we demand more?” asked Myart-Cruz. “With Covid laying bare every single inequality in the book around BIPOC folks, if we solely wanted to work on education issues, how would we ever bring the community to the table.”

Instead, she said, now is a time for teachers unions to leverage their position as representatives of vital workers to demand that the government tackle the bigger, underlying issues that manifest themselves in schools. “We have to stop being scared. We have to stop being nice,” she said. “There has to be a more militant stance, especially when it’s on behalf of our members. I can sleep at night knowing that we called for the health and safety” of students, teachers and community members.

In Chicago, where intense negotiations over reopening plans are still ongoing, the Chicago Teachers Union (which, like UTLA, went on strike last year to fight for a social justice agenda far broader than just wages and working conditions) is taking the same stance, and making the same set of demands as their counterparts in Los Angeles. The union is asking for school to start in the fall with virtual classes only, as a safety issue. But members are also pursuing the same agenda of community investment that has been driving them for years.

Stacy Davis Gates, the CTU’s vice president, emphasized that the burdens of unemployment, evictions and sickness fall disproportionately on the same communities that Chicago’s public schools overwhelmingly serve. “In Chicago, the vast majority of students are Black and Latinx. There is no way we can levy an argument about our classrooms and not also levy an argument about our community,” she said. “Many of our parents are front line workers. Many of our students are front line workers. The concept that this is just a teachers' fight is a misnomer. This fight is collective.”

In Chicago, as in L.A., elected officials know that there is a credible threat of labor action if they push the teachers unions too far. (“CTU has a reputation for a reason,” Gates said wryly.) That is less true in states that are more hostile to unions, where Republicans and Trump allies are in control. The poster child for that situation right now is Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he expects schools to reopen for in-person attendance five days a week, even as the state sets new coronavirus infection records. Figuring out how to deal with this damn-the-torpedoes approach to safety is the job of Fedrick Ingram, head of the 150,000-member Florida Education Association (FEA).

“It’s an insult to educators to give us a slogan without giving us a strategic plan behind that,” Ingram said. “You can’t be reckless with public schools. These are children we’re talking about. And for teachers, their lives are in the balance.”

Ingram said that the FEA reached out to the governor’s office earlier this summer to discuss developing a safe reopening plan, but did not get a response. Instead, DeSantis made his unilateral pronouncement, soon after Trump himself made it clear he wanted schools open. Now, Ingram said, some longtime teachers are retiring, and others are “literally going to lawyers creating wills because they need to work.”

The words “reckless” and “irresponsible” echoed through every teachers union leader’s description of the government’s reopening plans. All criticized the fact that there is no rational, science-based national standard. The safety of teachers and students from a deadly pandemic is being determined largely by the quality of local political leadership, which varies widely.

Likewise, the response of teachers unions is, to a large degree, local. While Weingarten says that “nothing is off the table” in terms of a response from the AFT—and the union has commissioned a long legal memo, published by Payday Report, advising on how members concerned about their safety at work can use the law to protect themselves—she also is not throwing the full support of the national union behind the calls of her more radical locals to tie social justice issues directly to school reopening decisions.

“I don’t think parents would forgive us if we ended up saying it’s not just safety we’re focused on,” Weingarten said. “I don’t think anyone should use safety as a bargaining chip.”

One thing that everyone seems to agree on is the incompetence and flagrant disregard for safety of the current administration. “Would [Betsy Devos] send her kids to that public school? That’s the question I want to ask,” said UTLA’s Myart-Cruz. “It makes me pissed!”

Davis Gates was even more blunt. “If Donald Trump is telling people to go back to school, that should mean everyone with a brain knows not to go back to school,” she said. “That’s a no-brainer.”

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Hamilton Nolan
They Are Burying Us Alive in Prison - When Covid-19 broke out in Stateville Correctional Center, we were left to die. https://inthesetimes.com/article/stateville-prison-coronavirus-pandemic-parole-illinois-life-sentence Thu, 16 Jul 2020 10:55:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/stateville-prison-coronavirus-pandemic-parole-illinois-life-sentence There are many ways to come to prison. You could have been raised in a segregated high-rise ghetto, removed from mainstream society and cut off from participation in the legal economy. Or you could just have been born black. If you inhabit a black body, you're nearly six times more likely than whites to be imprisoned, and if you reside in a brown body, you’re three times more likely to be imprisoned. Covid-19 came to Stateville, undetected, in the bodies of the prison guards who have direct custody of us.

Prisons are long-term care facilities, but without the actual care. Just over four decades ago, Illinois fell in line behind a national trend to abandon the goal of rehabilitation in favor of punitive sentencing practices. These practices lay the foundation of today’s overcrowded prisons that have not spared the elderly prisoner population bearing the brunt of Covid-19.

When parole was abolished in 1978, any incentive for good behavior and self-rehabilitation was also eliminated. The message was clear: Despite your best efforts, you cannot earn early release. This message was reinforced with harsh sentencing laws designed to lock us in: Life without parole (LWOP), three strikes law, mandatory minimums, various sentence enhancements, and a Truth-In-Sentencing (TIS) law that by itself doubled the amount of time that people had to serve in prison.

There was no public outcry over TIS. Instead, the federal government induced the states to enact TIS legislation with the promise of jobs and funds to build new prisons. The federal government promised to fund the warehousing of human beings who everyone knew would most certainly be people of color.

Hawkish politicians leveraged this as an opportunity. Even as crime rates were decreasing, they fanned the flames of fear and sold the public on TIS while simultaneously catapulting themselves into office with tough-on-crime propaganda. Of course, the federal government lied and defaulted on their promise to pay for it all. Illinois taxpayers were stuck with the bill and people of color were crammed into cells.

When Covid-19 broke out in Stateville Correctional Center, where I am incarcerated, prison administrators and medical staff failed to adequately respond and 20 of our friends and neighbors lost their life. Prison administrators underestimated the danger, failed to create space to isolate individuals, failed to acquire and provide personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, and failed to provide us with basic hygiene and sanitation products. When our friends fell unresponsive, we had to yell at the top of our lungs for help. Our neighbors were carried out on stretchers and just a few hours later were returned back to their cells barely able to walk under their own power. Our friends were like fish out of water gasping for air and some died the very next day. It took someone dying for the Medical Examiner to finally start sending people out to the emergency room.

By now, everyone has heard the statistics recited about the racial disparities of who we incarcerate, but everyone is less acquainted with the people actually serving extreme sentences and with the individuals who died in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections due to Covid-19 and its accomplice: indifference. That's how dehumanization works: Denying us the full portion of our humanity allows those in power to anesthetize themselves from the fact that a real person just died. They can bulldoze a mound of dirt over us and bury us alive in these massive tombs. But we know that allowing someone to die is subject to the same moral appraisal as killing someone. Indifference shares a bed with intent, and they both soil the linens just the same.

To some degree we are all broken like the glass on storefront windows and the best years of our lives have been looted. Those who continuously dehumanize us could only identify the sharp edges of our brokenness.

Most lawmakers responsible for plundering the supply of black and brown youth from our communities are no longer in office. And while many of our current legislators are willing to acknowledge the harms of mass incarceration, most are unwilling to expend the political capital to return us to our communities and reunite us with our loved ones. Not only do they fear being smeared as soft-on-crime, but they also fear political reprisals from the prison guards' union that profits from our imprisonment.

Pinned under the knee of this injustice, we feel the weight of indifference bearing down on us. We collectively suffer the trauma of asphyxiation and we can't breathe! There is no safety from moral appraisal on the sidelines: You either help or you let us die!

I am co-founder of Parole Illinois, an inside-outside prison project addressing the effects of long-term incarceration. Our group is supporting a bill in the Illinois legislature, SB3233: Earned Discretionary Release, which would address the needs of every category of incarcerated people. Any EDR legislation must be retroactive to include the people who for decades have shouldered the burden of mass incarceration. I would like to give credit where credit is due and praise Governor J.B. Pritzker for courageously using his power of Executive Clemency to grant sentence commutations. There is still urgency to passing legislation that gives a second chance to others in our overcrowded prison system. Legislators can act now to save lives.

A version of the above statement was delivered by Raúl Dorado at “A People’s Tribunal: COVID-19 and the Crisis of Death by Incarceration,” a Zoom webinar that took place June 4, 2020. The event was organized by a coalition of groups led by Parole Illinois.

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Raul Dorado
All Undocumented Immigrants Deserve Citizenship—Not Just “Essential Workers” - The pandemic has made clear that we need to provide citizenship for all immigrants, and safe working conditions for all workers. https://inthesetimes.com/article/undocumented-immigrants-citizenship-essential-workers-covid-19 Thu, 16 Jul 2020 10:20:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/undocumented-immigrants-citizenship-essential-workers-covid-19 The Covid-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to the large number of undocumented immigrants who work in “essential jobs,” ranging from agriculture to hospital workers. Many of them labor in workplaces like meatpacking where the virus is notoriously rampant, and few to no protections exist. Close to 11 million immigrants currently live in the United States without legal status. About eight million of these affected undocumented individuals (and at least hundreds of thousands more with DACA, TPS, or low-wage guestworker visas) are in the U.S. labor force.

As scholars of immigration and labor, we have examined the poverty wages and dangerous working conditions faced by immigrant workers even before the threat of Covid-19. Many of these workers are now held up as essential heroes who are feeding and caring for America. Meanwhile, they face a ramped up system of detention, deportation and surveillance under the Trump administration.

Many (well-meaning) observers at outlets such as the New York Times and The New Republic have called on the federal government to finally reward the essential work of undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. It became a compelling rally cry at the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, when hospitals were overwhelmed, getting food became a herculean task and families became hyper aware of the exhausting nature of domestic labor. Today, as states across the country reopen stores, restaurants and hair salons, all while facing a surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths, even more undocumented workers are being exposed to the risk of infection.

Undocumented workers laboring in essential industries should absolutely be provided a pathway to citizenship, which would undoubtedly bring them much needed relief. But we believe all undocumented people, regardless of where they work—or whether they work at all—should be eligible for the same path to citizenship. This call has been long debated, but it is the only way forward to a more equitable immigration policy.

The typical argument for citizenship is based on the utility of immigrants to Americans. If you are forced to expose your body to dangerous chemicals and brutal working conditions—and now Covid-19—to harvest food to feed Americans, the argument goes, you are an essential worker and should be spared deportation, and perhaps even get citizenship. But what if you are laboring at home to care for family members? What if you are disabled and unable to find work that pays? What if you are building a more just America by helping organize the Black Lives Matter uprisings? What if you are elderly? A child?

Valuing immigrants for their utility to businesses and consumers has always been a mistake, and remains so during the pandemic. Linking citizenship to a narrow definition of productivity—wage work in exploited but essential jobs—expects one group of people to earn the right to exist by serving another. Tying political inclusion to labor production for some groups is uncomfortably close to the shameful American history of African American slavery (and the valuation of black bodies for their labor) and the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands (because of their ostensible lack of productivity). We should learn from the Black Lives Matter protests that people’s worth should not be based on their economic utility, or how they live their lives.

The Covid-19 crisis is a good time to put an end to these deeply unjust patterns—not replicate them.

Basing citizenship on essential (or any) work status values some people over others. It also solidifies the notion that the government’s ability to deport you, rip you from your family and community, and make you wait in abusive and dangerous detention centers without due process is based on your utility to the rest of us, and not your right to a dignified life.

A pathway to citizenship within a deeply unequal and exploitative system leaves the system itself intact. All workers should enjoy a dignified and safe workplace, and a living wage, regardless of immigration status. They should also have access to a robust healthcare system and quality childcare and education for their children. Yet, these are fundamental rights that both immigrant and non-immigrant workers lack in America today. We call for citizenship for all immigrants and safe working conditions for all workers.

We must stop thinking about citizenship for immigrants in terms of who deserves it. Individuals should be granted citizenship simply because they are human and they are here. But perhaps more importantly, they are here because we were there. We must be honest about the American legacy of military invasions, economic exploitation, and political interference in other countries that has pushed people to migrate to the United States.

We owe immigrants not only because their backbreaking labor subsidizes our cheap food and undergirds our economy, but because often the reason why they have to leave their homes can be traced to the United States—its corporations, its government, its military and its enormous footprint in the climate crisis.

So, here’s another way to think about a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants: a small and long overdue first step towards justice.

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Shannon Gleeson and Sofya Aptekar
Nationalize the Pharmaceutical Industry Now - The status quo will kill us. https://inthesetimes.com/article/big-pharma-pharmaceutical-industry-vaccine-coronavirus-gilead Wed, 15 Jul 2020 15:49:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/big-pharma-pharmaceutical-industry-vaccine-coronavirus-gilead As the coronavirus pandemic ripped through the globe earlier this year, it seemed for a moment that the scale of the calamity and the depth of desperation for a cure might force governments and industry to prioritize our health above profiteering.

Whatever nationalist bluster and threats came out of Washington or Beijing, scientific collaboration across borders moved forward with great speed and scale. The New York Times reported in April, “Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.” The positive results of this ramped up research are beginning to trickle in.

Even the notoriously corrupt pharmaceutical industry had to pause for a breath. In March, Gilead Sciences had obtained the Food and Drug Administration’s “orphan” status classification for remdesivir, a drug which has the potential to treat Covid-19. Orphan status is usually reserved for medicines intended for rare diseases, and comes with great financial windfalls for pharmaceutical companies. But public pressure soon forced Gilead to relinquish its right to the special status.

Fast forward a few months, and very little pretense of fairness remains. Despite benefiting from tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer-supported research, and despite an estimated cost of less than $10 to produce, Gilead Sciences has priced remdesivir treatment at over $3,000 per person. Regardless of the “orphan” status classification, run-of-the-mill patent laws will be effective enough in preventing the adequate distribution of cheaper, generic versions of the drug.

Gilead has already signed confidential licensing deals with pharmaceutical manufacturers in Egypt, India and Pakistan, which will limit the countries in which generic versions can be distributed, and likely the quantity and timeline in which they will be produced. Companies will set their own prices, but royalties to Gilead will be added once another Covid-19 treatment or vaccine is approved, or the World Health Organization declares an end to the public health emergency.

To make matters many orders of magnitude worse, the Trump administration is answering the shameful record of death rates in the United States with America-First rhetoric, and has bought up almost the entirety of treatment courses that Gilead will produce for the next three months. Vital treatment is not only a means of corporate profiteering for the pharmaceutical companies, but also a tool for global domination.

Especially in a pandemic, the logic of market-driven health care leads to price gouging and bidding wars, rather than global cooperation and guaranteed medicine. Though cross-border scientific collaboration is thankfully still ongoing, Big Pharma is primed to make a killing at home and abroad, in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

Gilead’s price gouging track record is well-known. Gilead priced Sovaldi, which can cure Hepatitis C, at $84,000 for a 12-week treatment. “The drug,” explained Terry Allen, “was nearly market-ready in November 2011 when Gilead paid $11 billion cash to acquire Pharmassett, which had forecast a $36,000 price tag for the 12-week course. In December 2013, Sovaldi hit the market at well over twice that price.” Meanwhile Gilead’s other main cash cow is HIV medications. Truvada, which helps prevent transmission, costs nearly $2,000 a month despite a $6 cost of production.

What on earth could justify these gaps?

When the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) released its analyses of pricing for remdesivir, it distinguished between “cost recovery” (under $10 per treatment) and “cost-effectiveness,” which weighs the cost of a drug against the costs saved to the health care system, “willingness” (read: ability) of consumers to pay, and a quantified value placed on our lives. In this case, ICER determined the “cost-effective” price or remdesivir could be as high as $4500.

In essence, “cost-effective” pricing is meant to reward companies relative to the costs society would bear if we didn’t have the benefit of the drugs. What would be the cost of several more days on a hospital ventilator, or X number of years lost in a life? Just as patent laws ostensibly encourage innovation (but in fact achieve the opposite), cost-effective pricing, too, is meant to incentivize the development of pharmaceuticals.

“Cost-effective” pricing is generally assumed to be a fairer alternative to the otherwise Wild West approach in which drug makers set pricetags without any framework apart from charging the highest amount they can get away with. But, in fact, even ICER’s watchdog status in the industry has quietly shifted to what pharma companies consider the “least bad option” for cost debates.

Remdesivir, like many drugs, was the result of a public-private collaboration, which took place over the course of many years among governmental organizations and employees, universities, and scientists across the world. Over $70 million of taxpayer funding contributed to its development. The unspoken but understood agreement within the pharmaceutical industry is publicly funded innovation, private ownership of the product.

The unfortunate reality is that there is nothing extraordinary about Gilead’s greed. While Big Pharma uses monopoly positions to profit off of skyrocketing drug costs, “Small Pharma,” including many companies charged with producing cheaper generic drugs, has also created monopoly conditions through acquisitions and patent manipulations. Companies find a drug for which there is little market competition, buy out the firm that produces it, and immediately raise the prices. In this way, smaller companies can mimic monopolistic strategies by cornering markets for particular drugs.

Martin Shkreli’s Turing Pharmaceuticals made those strategies infamous a few years ago when it acquired and then jacked up by 5,000% the price of Daraprim. As Business Insider pointed out, “For drugs like Daraprim, for which only about 8,000 prescriptions are filled a year, it simply isn’t worth it for other companies to try to come up with generic alternatives. This allows for a price monopoly in which the drug manufacturer can set virtually any price it wants.”

These moves have been defended on the basis that super-profits are necessary to fund further research and development. But pharmaceutical companies typically spend, at most, 15% to 20% of their revenues on research and development. And those companies that have most aggressively pursued the acquisition and price-hike model tend to spend much less.

Many other countries have practices in place that help to keep prices of medicines down. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service, for instance, negotiates nationwide drug prices. By negotiating on behalf of the entire country, it exerts “bulk buying power.” American insurance plans and hospitals are obliged to pay whatever prices are set in an unregulated market. Even Medicare is legislatively barred from negotiating drug prices. Instead, we pay whatever the drug companies ask for, and pray that the “invisible hand” of the market leads to more competitive prices.

But competition leads to its opposite in the form of monopolies. Corporations gain in size, or corner a market, precisely so that they don’t have to compete to make the best or most affordable product. Patent laws further entrench monopoly conditions, and hold us hostage to the unlikely good will of Gilead and other companies.

In the context of monopoly positions, the “free market” does not produce price competitions in which multiple firms vying for consumers lower their prices. Instead pharmaceutical companies set whatever price tag they think they can get away with, and justify it as fair under the cover of convoluted economic metrics and “cost-effectiveness.”

Imagine if we applied this framework to the Fire Department. Instead of providing a free, public good to save lives, local fire departments would calculate “cost-effective” prices for their services based on the average amount of value stored in houses, the belongings, and the price of the lives that would be saved in each house. Such a framework would seem barbaric and absurd. But the lifesaving stakes of drug development and distribution are just as critical.

To effectively battle Covid-19 we’ll need international collaboration on research, education and funding, and to widely and freely distribute treatments and vaccines. The virus knows no borders, and neither can its cure. Now that vaccine trials are beginning to go live—and showing some promising signs—we need to prepare for pricing driven by shareholders, competition among companies, and governments stockpiling inventory.

There should be a simple solution to the disaster unfolding. Public funding should translate into public use. Asking “what’s the incentive?” for pharmaceuticals to do the research is the wrong question. Profit as a motive creates obvious conflicts of interest. Instead, we should nationalize the industry and release scientific knowledge to the public domain. Our lives are literally on the line.

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Hadas Thier
Foreign Farm Workers Already Face Abusive Conditions. Now Trump Wants to Cut Their Wages. - https://inthesetimes.com/article/trump-farm-worker-labor-h-2a-visa-wages-abusive-conditions Wed, 15 Jul 2020 10:25:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/trump-farm-worker-labor-h-2a-visa-wages-abusive-conditions Pedro, a laborer from Chiapas, Mexico, worked 13 hours a day picking blueberries on a farm in Clinton, North Carolina. He had no time off, except when it rained.

“We had no Sundays,” Pedro (a pseudonym to protect his identity after he breached his visa agreement) says in Spanish. Working from May to June under the H-2A visa program for guest farmworkers, he saved only $1,500.

According to Pedro, his work conditions and payment violated the contract he signed when he was recruited by a middleman in Mexico. Still, he could not quit his job. The H-2A program requires guest farmworkers to work only for the employer or association that hires them.

Pedro was entitled to a $12.67 per hour wage with no overtime, according to the H-2A provisions for North Carolina. However, Pedro says he never received more than $425 a week, or about $4.60 per hour.

“They took away our passport as soon as we arrived,” Pedro explains. His employer tried to dissuade Pedro and his workmates from quitting the job. Still, he ran away, leaving his passport behind.

“Never in my life [have I] worked this hard, not in Mexico City or back in the fields in Chiapas,” Pedro says. Undocumented and with no official identification, Pedro now works at a construction site in Georgia. “All the other guys stayed in the farm,” he says. “They are afraid of being deported. They don't want to get in trouble.”

Pedro's story is all too common. The wage provisions in the H-2A program are “routinely” violated, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Farmworker Justice, and, as a recent Center for American Progress report put it, the lack of labor protections for foreign farmworkers like Pedro are already “particularly dangerous.” The H-2A program has led to so much abuse of workers that many liken it to modern-day slavery.

Now, things could get even grimmer, as the Trump administration is proposing to reduce the statutory pay rate for H-2A workers, just months ahead of the presidential elections.

Workers' wages are already “extremely low by any measure, even when compared with similarly situated nonfarm workers and workers with the lowest levels of education,” an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report found in April.

Wage cuts

North Carolina is among the top recruiters of H-2A guest workers in the United States. The state, like the rest of the country, has grown increasingly dependent on this labor force. Nationwide, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of H-2A visas approved since 2005, climbing to 258,000 in 2019. Most of these workers are Mexicans or Mexican-Americans.

The growing reliance on H-2A visa farmworkers is often linked to a shortage of local labor, even among the undocumented population that comprises at least half of the U.S. agricultural workforce. The reality could be more problematic.

H-2A visa holders “are seen by employers as very productive. Employers often say they are better workers than the locals, but it has nothing to do with their performance,” according to Bruce Goldstein, president of the farmworkers' rights group Farmworker Justice. “It has to do with the fact that the H-2A visa workers are not free.”

Even undocumented workers, who are not necessarily tied contractually to their employers in the same way as H-2A workers, have more legal recourses to obtain compensation if they claim workplace abuse, according to Goldstein. H-2A workers are excluded from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA), the main labor law that protects farmworkers. That's why, he says, H-2A guest workers are “very desirable by employers.”

To satisfy the agriculture industry's desire for guest workers, the Trump administration, contradicting its anti-immigration stance, relaxed the rules around H-2A hiring and exempted farmworkers from a broad ban on foreign labor during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the U.S. Department of Labor is considering publishing changes that would recalculate guest workers' wages. According to Goldstein and to publicly posted information, the changes could come as early as August.

Instead of using a labor market survey, the proposal would allow farms to hire workers at an “arbitrarily lower wage rate,” according to Farmworker Justice. In Florida, for example, the $11.71 per hour wage would be cut by $3.15.

Though Congress could stop these changes, the Republican-led Senate makes this a remote possibility. Another option is taking the administration to court, although the outcome would be far from certain, Goldstein explains.

“The only rational explanation for lowering the wages of H-2A farmworkers right now is corporate greed and unquestioning subservience to agribusiness on the part of the Trump administration,” according to the EPI report.

If implemented, the wage cut would come even as farm owners received as much as $23.5 billion in federal aid due to the pandemic.

The new guidelines would mean that workers deemed “essential” and expected to keep working amid the pandemic, would risk their lives for even less money and no mandate for employers to provide them with Covid-19 protections.

Unfree labor

Violations of the H-2A visa holders' rights are “rampant and systemic,” according to a 2015 Farmworker Justice report. The Department of Labor “frequently approves illegal job terms in the H-2A workers' contracts,” its findings show.

Five years after the report, the guest workers' conditions remain unchanged, according to Goldstein. They are similar to the ones under the Bracero Program—through which millions of Mexican farmworkers labored in the US from 1942 to 1964—which was ultimately terminated because of its notorious abuses, including wage theft, according to the report.

Even when employers comply with the contract obligations, H-2A farm laborers are among the nation's lowest-paid workers. The Covid-19 pandemic has made their jobs even more dangerous.

Farm owners are not mandated by the federal government to provide protective equipment or enforce social distancing in often overcrowded and unsanitary housing facilities, despite the risks to foreign workers' health, according to Anna Jensen, executive director of the nonprofit North Carolina Farmworkers Project. (State guidelines vary across the country.)

It's not unusual that laborers are only given one option to buy food, regularly overpriced, or that workers cannot receive visitors, says Jensen. It’s also common that the employers do not reimburse H-2A workers for traveling to the U.S., she adds, a practice that is very often illegal.

The violations often start in the hiring process. Two of the former deputy directors of the North Carolina Growers Association, the largest recruiter of H-2A farmworkers in the state, pleaded guilty in 2015 of fraud related to the program. Another infamous North Carolinian farmworker recruiter, Craig Stanford Eury Jr., also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

Many H-2A workers, who aspire to return to the U.S. farms in the following seasons, do not mention their mistreatment for fear of being blacklisted by employers. But even if they wanted to, filing complaints “is really difficult,” Jensen says.

The North Carolina Department of Labor operates a complaint hotline, open only from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, making it “not very accessible” for many migrant workers, according to Jensen. Twelve to 14-hour workdays, six or seven days a week, make filing a claim virtually impossible for guest farmworkers.

“The H-2A is an inherently abusive program,” Goldstein says. It practically assures employers that even workers who do not stand the poor treatment will not complain, even when their passports are taken away, which could be considered an act of slavery or peonage, according to Goldstein.

If the Trump administration follows through with its plans, workers like Pedro could be forced to labor under these conditions while taking home even less money than they already make.

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Maurizio Guerrero
There Is No Plan (For You) - Unemployment, evictions, business failure, a pandemic and health crises are all here at once. The federal government doesn't care. https://inthesetimes.com/article/covid-19-coronavirus-unemployment-eviction-healthcare-united-states Tue, 14 Jul 2020 12:42:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/covid-19-coronavirus-unemployment-eviction-healthcare-united-states Consider the astounding confluence of social and economic crises that are all barreling towards the American people at this moment.

In the midst of an enormous, unavoidable increase in national unemployment, the $600 per week unemployment benefit increase that has sustained millions is set to run out at the end of this month, and is unlikely to be renewed at its current level, if at all. Eviction moratoriums are expiring, and more than 20 million Americans could be in danger of eviction in the next four months. Many small businesses, their resources exhausted, are closing for good, and bankruptcies of large businesses are accelerating. Millions have already lost their employer-based health insurance, and millions more will. At the same time that schools will be unable to reopen safely, a huge portion of private child care facilities are going out of business. And city and state governments will face plummeting tax revenue at the same time as they face a need for increased crisis spending, leaving the future of mass transit and other public services in doubt.

Millions of people, through no fault of their own, are now facing long-term unemployment. They will, through no fault of their own, lose their health insurance during a public health emergency. Unable to pay rent, through no fault of their own, they will be evicted and put out on the streets. The businesses that employed them, which also provided the jobs to which they hoped to return, will, through no fault of their own, be forced to close permanently. They will be unable to find child care, through no fault of their own, and that will prevent them from seeking out new income. The cities where they live will, through no fault of their own, be forced to slash the services that could have helped them during their time of need. They will be lost.

This is the nightmarish future that we are all walking towards. And it is, I’m afraid to say, coming very soon.

This was a choice. None of this had to happen. There is one, and only one, entity that has the capability of preventing this horrific chain reaction of social collapse: the federal government. With the stroke of a pen, the federal government can appropriate money to everyone to tide them through their unemployment. It can stop evictions everywhere. It can expand health insurance, stop businesses from going bankrupt, bail out city and state governments so they are not forced to cut services, and take the public health steps necessary to push infection rates low enough to make it possible to reopen schools, and free parents to work for a living.

All of these things are possible for the federal government. They have chosen not to do any of them. (Democrats passed the HEROES Act through the House in May which would provide some meaningful relief, but Senate Republicans have refused to take it up.) Therefore, millions of people are about to experience the falling dominoes of economic disaster that will engulf their lives, destroy their wealth, and leave them with nothing. It is impossible to avoid that outcome now. The only question is how bad it will get. And it is important to understand that this outcome has been chosen for us by the people who are running the country.

Hope is an important emotion, and one that’s necessary to carry us through hard times. But it can stand in the way of our ability to analyze situations truthfully.

Let’s be honest about our prospects right now. Does anyone really believe that restaurants, bars, sports, all forms of live entertainment, many retail establishments, airlines, hotels, travel, tourism, or commercial real estate—to name a few—are going to resume their baseline level of business operations at any time in the next 6-12 months? They will not. The states that tried that a month ago are now facing the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the entire world. A portion of the jobs in these industries, and in the associated industries that depend on them, are going to evaporate. Fifty million unemployment claims have been filed. Forty percent of people earning less than $40,000 lost their jobs in March. Some millions of people are, as we speak, seeing their jobs disappear for good.

Despite the fact that this was entirely predictable months ago, there has not been any serious attempt to prevent it from happening. (A serious attempt, as many intelligent people pointed out in March, would mean the federal government giving citizens enough money not to work and businesses enough money not to go bankrupt for the amount of time that it took to take the public health steps necessary to resume a careful version of normal life. Many other developed countries did this, but we did not.)

Not only have we failed to prevent this first-order economic crisis, but we are also failing to even enable the existence of a social safety net to catch the people who are going to fall into the pit of economic despair. Our leaders just do not care. They know that people have lost jobs, and will not be able to find new ones, and will not be able to pay their rent. But the people occupying positions of power in the federal government do not care enough to take the steps to save those citizens from the abyss. These facts do not move them.

Nobody can be blamed for the existence of a pandemic. The federal government can very much be blamed for what it has done in response to the pandemic. And blame it we must. We must blame, specifically, the Republican Party, which controls the White House and the Senate. If you are not in the class of citizens wealthy enough to be Republican donors, you have seen a response to this natural disaster that has been geared entirely towards the interests of people who are not you. The handful of good and useful measures that were put in place at the beginning of the outbreak are now running out, and they will be replaced, if at all, with lesser and worse measures, even as the scale of our calamity grows. The stock market, however, has now recovered almost all of its losses.

The plan has always been to save capital and let the people die. Everything is going according to plan.

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Hamilton Nolan
In 1971, Nixon Passed a Rule to Doom the Post Office. Now, It’s Finally Happening. - The Post Office used to be federally funded. Then, Republicans passed legislation requiring it to "pay for itself." https://inthesetimes.com/article/us-postal-service-lawrence-swaim-covid-19-donald-trump-postal-clerks-union Tue, 14 Jul 2020 06:50:00 -0500 https://inthesetimes.com/article/us-postal-service-lawrence-swaim-covid-19-donald-trump-postal-clerks-union The United States Postal Service (USPS) was in trouble before the Covid-19 outbreak, but now it’s fighting for its life—officials predict a $13 billion revenue loss amid declining mail volume this year alone and warn the agency will run out of cash by September unless Congress steps in.

President Donald Trump has called the USPS a “joke” and refused additional funding unless the price to send packages increases by “four or five times.” Republicans now see an opportunity to deal a death blow to a public service they have tried to bleed dry for decades.

Previously a federally funded cabinet-level department, President Richard Nixon overhauled the Post Office in 1971, which created what we know today as the USPS. The move followed a wave of militancy by more than 200,000 clerks and carriers in 30 major cities who walked off the job for higher pay and collective bargaining rights. While postal unions did win better pay and bargaining rights, the reorganization was a double-edged sword. The 1971 federal legislation established the USPS as a new independent agency and required it to “pay for itself”—meaning the agency would receive no tax dollars and instead fund itself directly through the sale of its postage, products and services. As explained by Lawrence Swaim, former leader in the Postal Clerks Union, in a four-part series for In These Times in 1977:

The effort to make the post office run like “a regular business” had advantages for conservative interests as well. They could announce to the world that they would create a postal system in which revenues could match expenditures—in which the Post Office could “pay for itself,” and if this turned out to be impossible or necessitated unreasonable rate increases they could blame it on labor costs, focusing public resentment on the unions.

Ever since, conservatives have pushed the idea that the USPS is just a mismanaged business—and because of that, should be fully privatized. Importantly, Swaim warns that, in its current form:

The USPS is, in many ways, an entirely new phenomenon in this country, one for which we really have no name. Neither completely in the private nor the public sector, it tends to combine the most repressive and least democratic features of both. Its major tendency is to insulate from unions and particularly the paying public all control of its operations. Perhaps in more ways than we wish to admit, it is the American institution of the future.

Then, in 2006, a Republican-controlled Congress passed a law requiring the USPS to fund its future health benefits for retirees at an annual rate of at least $5.5 billion. By the end of 2019, the USPS carried $160.9 billion in debt—with nearly $120 billion of it from that requirement. So now, on paper, the USPS appears to be broke.

Still, the USPS remains one of the country’s most popular federal agencies and will have an especially crucial role in an election season likely to depend on mail-in ballots. It also provides more than 600,000 stable, good-paying jobs (21% of which are taken by African American workers). Congress must hold the line to protect the USPS.

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Rebecca Burns