Latest News

The Financial “CHOICE” Act is a “Cruel Choice” for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau & Consumers, Including Students

Commondreams - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 10:29
US PIRG

This week, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling (TX) will hold a Wednesday hearing on his so-called Financial Choice Act 2.0.  The bill leaves consumers and our economy even more vulnerable to Wall Street's recklessness than before the '08 crisis by taking aim at all of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act’s protections caused by unfair bank practices abetted by regulatory failures.

Categories: Latest News

Senate Judiciary Committee must carefully assess Delrahim in light of potential agribusiness mergers

Commondreams - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 10:28
Friends of the Earth

Tomorrow the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Makan Delrahim, Trump’s nominee for Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. The DOJ’s Antitrust Division reviews and makes decisions on corporate mergers, and as an Assistant Attorney General Delrahim will be the ultimate decider on the proposed merger of giant agrichemical companies Monsanto Company and Bayer AG.

Categories: Latest News

Puerto Rico Religious Leaders Call for Bankruptcy Ahead of "Vulture Fund" Deadline

Commondreams - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 07:26
Jubilee USA Network

Before May, protections expire that shelter Puerto Rico from debt lawsuits and predatory financial groups popularly known as "vulture" funds. The Catholic Archbishop of San Juan and Puerto Rico's Bible Society head are calling on the island's governor and oversight board to immediately activate a bankruptcy process designed by Congress.

Categories: Latest News

New Report Reveals Trump Is Not Punishing Corporations that Offshore American Jobs, but Awarding Them New Government Contracts

Commondreams - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 07:25
Public Citizen

Despite President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to punish firms that offshore American jobs, the flow of federal contract awards to major offshorers has continued unabated since Trump’s inauguration, according to a new report released today by Good Jobs Nation and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. The report, titled “Trump’s First 100 Days: Federal Contracting with Corporate Offshorers Continues,” reveals that a majority of the largest U.S. government contractors ship jobs overseas.

Categories: Latest News

Cornel West and Former Sanders Staffer on Movement to Draft Bernie for a New "People's Party"

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

As Donald Trump approaches his 100th day as president on Saturday, his approval ratings are the lowest any president has had at this stage in generations. A recent poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found just 40 percent of Americans approve of his job performance so far. Trump took to Twitter to call the poll "totally wrong." This comes as former presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as one the country's most popular politicians. The Hill reports a Harvard-Harris poll shows 57 percent of registered voters view him favorably. Meanwhile, some former Sanders supporters have launched a movement to "Draft Bernie for a People's Party," urging him to start a new progressive party and run for president again in 2020. We speak with Nick Brana, the former outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign, and Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University. His new piece in The Guardian is headlined "The Democrats delivered one thing in the past 100 days: disappointment."

Please check back later for full transcript.

Categories: Latest News

Witnesses to Double Execution in Arkansas Say Prisoners May Have Suffered Botched, Painful Death

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

We speak with The Guardian's chief reporter Ed Pilkington about the shocking double execution Arkansas carried out Monday night, marking the first time in nearly 17 years that any state has killed two people on the same day. At 7:20 p.m. local time, 52-year-old Jack Harold Jones was pronounced dead in the death chamber at the Cummins Unit state prison. Infirmary workers had spent more than 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to put a central line into his neck. According to a court filing, during Jones's execution, he was "moving his lips and gulping for air," which suggests he continued to be conscious during the lethal injection. Lawyers for the second man, Marcel Williams, filed a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution following Jones's killing, arguing Williams could also experience a botched, painful death. A district court judge initially granted a temporary stay of Williams's execution but then allowed the execution to go forward. Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. The executions came after legal challenges reached the US Supreme Court, which rejected a stay for Williams. The only justice to dissent in this ruling was Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The last double execution carried out in the United States was in 2000 in Texas.

TRANSCRIPT

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Arkansas carried out a double execution Monday night, marking the first time in nearly 17 years that any state has killed two people on the same day. At 7:20 p.m. local time, 52-year-old Jack Harold Jones was pronounced dead in the death chamber at the Cummings Unit state prison. Infirmary workers had spent more than 45 minutes unsuccessfully trying to put a central line into his neck. According to a court filing, during Jones's execution, he was, quote, "was moving his lips and gulping for air," unquote, which suggests he continued to be conscious during the lethal injection. The controversial sedative midazolam is administered as part of a cocktail of execution drugs to make prisoners unconscious, but it's repeatedly failed to do so during other executions, leading to painful deaths. Ahead of Monday night, Jones's lawyers had argued his medical condition was likely to reduce the sedative's effectiveness, leading to an unconstitutionally painful death, but this argument was rejected by a court. Before being killed, Jones gave a long final statement in which he apologized to the daughter of Mary Phillips. Jones has admitted to raping and killing Mary Phillips in 1995. His final words were "I'm sorry."

Lawyers for the second man, Marcel Williams, filed a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution following Jones's killing, arguing Williams could also experience a botched, painful death. A district court judge initially granted a temporary stay of Williams's execution but then allowed the execution to go forward. Williams was pronounced dead at 10:33 p.m. He had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1994 kidnap, rape and murder of Stacy Errickson.

AMY GOODMAN: Monday night's executions came after legal challenges reached the US Supreme Court, which rejected a stay for Williams. The only justice to dissent in this ruling was Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The last double execution carried out in the US was in 2000 in Texas. Arkansas carried out its first execution in 16 years Thursday, killing Ledell Lee, and plans to execute a fourth man, Kenneth Williams, this coming Thursday. The state had initially planned execute eight people within 11 days this month -- an unprecedented rate of executions in modern US history. They wanted to perform these executions before the end of the month, when midazolam would expire.

For more, we're joined via Democracy Now! video stream by The Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington, who has been following the executions closely with local reporters on the ground.

Ed, welcome back to Democracy Now! You have a witness statement on the execution. Can you explain -- there were two -- what the witness saw?

ED PILKINGTON: Yeah. We worked with Jacob Rosenberg, who is a reporter for Arkansas Times. He was in the death chamber for the second execution last night, of Marcel Williams. And a very interesting account, I think, really important part of it -- there are two things, really. One, because of the court's stay that happened for Marcel Williams, while the judge considered what had happened to the first prisoner to die, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams was kept strapped to the gurney the entire time. Now, we don't quite know when that began. It's probably around something like 8:00 p.m. last night. And he was pronounced dead at 10:33. So, for maybe longer than two-and-a-half hours, this 400-pound prisoner was kept strapped to a gurney, which I think is fairly disturbing in itself.

The other thing that came out of our eyewitness report is that there's a sort of missing half an hour. Now, the media -- the three media witnesses were kept held in a van while this -- the delay was happening because of the court proceedings. They had a little window at the back of the van that they could look out the back of. They saw Marcel Williams being taken out to the bathroom and then brought back. He was brought back at about 9:29. The execution began at 10:16. We don't know anything about what happened in that period. And I think that's important and will continue to be important, and it's because of the secrecy that the death penalty states have imposed on the entire process of execution. The media witnesses were only allowed to see when the curtain was opened and the execution began. They were not allowed to see the crucial period in which IV lines were tried to be found. And that was a problem that we had in the Jack Jones execution earlier in the evening. The state, by its own admission in court filings, admitted that they tried to find an IV line in the prisoner's neck and failed.

And this is precisely the kind of problems that have come up time and time again, with Clayton Lockett, the gruesome execution in Oklahoma where he writhed for 43 minutes on the gurney -- that was down to an IV line that couldn't be found -- and in Arizona, the Wood execution, where they tried -- they stuck him 15 times and injected him 15 different times, because they found it so difficult to find a vein. So, I think we're starting to see the same old problem emerge yet again: secrecy, the fact that the public cannot see what's being done in its name when prisoners are being killed, leading to problems in the process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Pilkington, what are the requirements in terms of the public's ability to view this, or the witnesses, at least, who are there, who are permitted to see the execution, being able to witness the entire process?

ED PILKINGTON: Well, that's the problem. Like so much to do with the death penalty, it's down to each individual state. But there is something in common here. And that is, all the death penalty states, all sort of nine or so of them that are still being -- actively trying to pursue the death penalty, have taken the same line, which is, we should let the public know as little as possible. So they don't let us know the members of the execution team. Now, maybe that's understandable, because, you know, the executioners could face harassment. But they won't let us know who manufactures the drugs they use or where they got them from. And that's problematic because we don't know, you know, were these drugs sort of knocked up in a corner shop. They have tried that in the past. And now they're fighting over how much the public can see in the process.

And in Arkansas, they went to extraordinary lengths to make our job difficult as reporters -- and I'm one of them. To start with, they wouldn't even allow us laptops into the media room, where we were watching if we weren't in the death chamber. Now, this is just a visiting room. We're not anywhere near the death chamber. We're not a security issue. We weren't allowed laptops, to start with. They consented on that in the end, but we weren't allowed telephones in the room. And in the end, they only allowed reporters to take in notepads and pencils supplied to them by the prison service, as though there was something like a reporter would carry in their own notebook that would do something subservient or something. And the whole process has like been a battle between the media, which is the eyes and ears of the public, and the prison service, that, after all, is doing the most serious thing that any state can do, and that is to kill one of its own citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Ed Pilkington, about the deputy solicitor general, named Nicholas Bronni, who admitted in a court filing the execution team had tried to place a central line in Jones' neck, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Talk about the significance of this and what happened next, and that leading to the lawyers for the next man, Marcel Williams, trying to get a stay on his execution, so he would not be tortured as he was killed.

ED PILKINGTON: Right. And, I mean, when I saw that in the court filing coming from the state itself, I was astonished. They were trying to rebut the case made by the lawyers for the second prisoner to be executed, Marcel Williams, that the first execution had been botched. That's what essentially was going on. And in order to rebut that argument, the state said, "No, everything was fine. Look, we tried to find an IV line in Jack Jones', the first prisoner's, neck, and we failed. And then we went on. We actually decided not to use a third IV line. We would just use two." Now, they made that argument as though that showed that the whole process had been a success, which I found rather astonishing when I read it in the court filing.

Then we went on to the Marcel Williams execution, the second one. We don't know, as I say, what happened in half an hour when they were trying to find an IV line. We know nothing about that at all. What we do know, from The Guardian's work with the Arkansas Times and the reporter who was in the room for us, Jacob Rosenberg, that Marcel Williams was seen to do -- once he was sedated with midazolam -- which, you have to remember, is a sedative, it's not an anesthetic, which is -- it is not used in operations to put people under before surgery. It is just used to relax them. So it's an entirely inappropriate medicine for use in surgeries, and you might, therefore, say inappropriate for use in executions. They gave him the midazolam. He relaxed. He started to breathe very heavily. Now, our reporter from the Arkansas Times saw him rise up and down. His back arched countless times. He actually lost count of the number of times his back arched. This lasted over just a relatively short period of time, for about five, six minutes, compared with some of the really botched executions we've seen, say, of Clayton Lockett, which was 43 minutes. But nevertheless, it suggests that maybe the prisoner was experiencing difficulty. And again, will we ever find out anything more about that? There is no indication that Arkansas carried out an official inquiry into what happened. Often it takes months, if at all, to see the internal results of their own inquiries. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy, and it makes it very, very difficult for the media and for the public to assess exactly what happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ed Pilkington, you're the chief reporter for The Guardian US. Briefly, in the few moments we have left, could you tell us what's the response in Britain and in Europe, in general, to this continuing obsession in the United States with executions?

ED PILKINGTON: Well, it's been very widespread coverage and quite a lot of anger and dismay. I mean, it comes at a time when the world had been thinking that the death penalty was receding, was on the wane in the US Last year, there were only 20 executions. And it has been going steadily down. Then, suddenly, a Republican governor in Arkansas decides that he needs, for his own reasons, all to do with the supplies of medicines, nothing else -- for his own reasons, he needs to execute eight prisoners in 11 days. And, bam, the whole thing is back. And Europe and Britain are incensed again. And here we are, talking about it all over again.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ed Pilkington, what happens next? I mean, for people to understand, who are watching this around the globe, the reason there are what they call these doubleheader executions now in Arkansas, to -- they attempted to kill -- some were stopped in the killing -- eight men in 11 days, was to hit that deadline by the end of the month, when the -- one of the execution drugs, midazolam, expires by the end of the month. So, who's on -- who is on the list next to be killed?

ED PILKINGTON: Well, we've got one more execution coming up this Thursday in Arkansas. And then, sort of the battle continues. You have to say that the death penalty states are waging a losing battle here, because the drug companies are now absolutely in unison. They do not want their drugs, which are designed and manufactured to save lives -- they do not want those drugs used to kill people. They're all saying it. More than 30 of the major manufacturers are now saying that. Distribution companies are also saying that. They do not want this to happen, and they are making it incredibly difficult for prison services to find the drugs. And as a result, the prison services are doing more and more extreme things, with more and more botched executions. And, you know, it feels to me like the whole thing is falling apart.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ed Pilkington, we want to thank you for being with us, chief reporter for The Guardian US, after what they call a doubleheader, a double execution, in Arkansas last night. It hasn't happened in this country since 2000.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Donald Trump is approaching his hundredth day as president, but there are a group of people who are calling for a third party and pushing Bernie Sanders to run. Stay with us.

Categories: Latest News

Deficit Memories

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

How Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Laid the Groundwork for Trump's Immigration Policies

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Protesters rally during the May Day March to Stop Deportations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 1, 2014. (Photo: Joe Brusky / Flickr)

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Ever since he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race in June 2015 and swore to build his "great wall" and stop Mexican "rapists" from entering the country, undocumented immigrants have been the focus of Donald Trump's ire. Now that he's in the Oval Office, the news has been grim. A drumbeat of frightening headlines and panicked social media posts have highlighted his incendiary language, his plans and executive orders when it comes to immigrants, and the early acts of the Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents when it comes to round-ups and deportations. The temperature has soared on the deportation debate, so if you think we're in a completely unprecedented moment when it comes to immigration and immigrants, you're in good company.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are flooding the United States, causing crime waves, and depleting social service budgets. Never mind that the number of such immigrants has been in steady decline since 2008, that immigrant crime rates are lower than citizen crime rates, that the undocumented have no access to most social welfare programs, and that crime figures, too, have generally been on the decline in recent years.

The media has played its own role in fanning the flames. Since Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, news reports have proliferated about rising raids, arrests, detentions, and deportations. These suggest that something new, terrifying, and distinctly Trumpian -- something we've simply never seen before -- is underway, including mass sweeps to deport individuals who would have been protected under the previous administration.

The numbers tell a different story. A Washington Post scare headline typically read: "ICE Immigration Arrests of Noncriminals Double Under Trump." While accurate, it was nonetheless misleading. Non-criminal immigration arrests did indeed jump from 2,500 in the first three months of 2016 to 5,500 during the same period in 2017, while criminal arrests also rose, bringing the total to 21,000. Only 16,000 were arrested during the same months in 2016. The article, however, ignores the fact that 2016 was the all-time low year for arrests under President Obama. In the first three months of 2014, for example, 29,000 were arrested, far more than Trump's three-month "record." 

And even though arrests went up during Trump's first three months in office, deportations actually went down, mostly due to the fact that the number of immigrants crossing the border declined.

To those who have been following deportation politics in this country, Trump's policies, as they are now unfolding, have an eerie resonance. They seem to be growing directly out of policies first instituted in the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. True, President Obama liked to talk about "our tradition of welcoming immigrants," while our new president has tossed such liberal humanitarian rhetoric in the garbage can, instead playing up a harsh nativism. Still, the fact is that two Democratic presidents laid the groundwork for Trump's developing policies.

It was, after all, President Clinton who oversaw the draconian "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act" of 1996. It drastically increased all levels of immigration "enforcement," expanding the Border Patrol, criminalizing numerous types of low-level immigration violations, and facilitating and expanding deportation procedures. (A similar emphasis on casting blame on individuals for structural and systemic problems was also at the heart of Clinton's welfare reform of that same year.)

In many ways, Donald Trump is only reiterating, with more bombast, ideas and policies pioneered under Clinton, that then became a basic part of Barack Obama's approach to immigration. Those policies drew directly on racist tough-on-crime and anti-terrorism police tactics that also helped foment white racial fears.

Anecdotally speaking, there have already been numerous cases of detention and deportation that appear to go far beyond what was occurring in the Obama years. But a closer look at those cases and at the numbers suggests surprisingly more continuity than change. Both the mainstream media and social media have highlighted what appear to be extreme cases of the arrest of DACA ("deferred action for childhood arrivals") youth, also known as "Dreamers," as well as of individuals appearing for routine check-ins with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, or other arbitrary detentions and deportations. Most of these cases, however, have been far more in line with Obama-era policies than readers of such news might imagine. Then, too, "low-priority immigrants" were swept up surprisingly often in what The New York Times in 2014 called "the net of deportation."

Obama's Legacy: A Three-Part System

At first glance, President Obama's legacy on immigration enforcement appears contradictory indeed. He claimed to be a humanitarian who sought to deport only "felons, not families," while granting relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. At the same time, he was dubbed the "deporter-in-chief" for a reason. He oversaw historic rises in deportation rates.

To grasp the contradictory nature of his policies, it's necessary to explore three geographically different policy realms when it comes to the undocumented: interior enforcement, border enforcement, and the Mexican Southern Border Program. In the area of interior enforcement, Obama created several protection and priority programs for undocumented immigrants already in the country that did indeed shield whole groups of people from deportation. Immigrant rights supporters who emphasize the humanitarian nature of what Obama did focus on such protections, while downplaying the two border prongs of his policies. Yet, though not much attended to, even the humanitarian programs incorporated a darker side, criminalizing and targeting those not eligible for them. 

When it came to interior enforcement, President Obama called on ICE to exercise "prosecutorial discretion." Immigrants who were parents, students, hard-working, had close family and community ties, or served in the military, he suggested, should be granted relief from deportation. 

In the process, however, he offered a language of innocence versus criminality and the illusion that, when it came to immigrants, the notion of criminality was self-evident and universally agreed upon. By dividing them into felons versus families, he actually contributed to the criminalization of large groups of immigrants and so fed directly into Trump's future rhetoric. He also drew on Bill Clinton's "tough on crime" policies in ways that linked the criminalization of people of color with the deportation of "criminal" immigrants (also overwhelmingly people of color).

As immigration scholars Alan Aja and Alejandra Marchevsky explain:

"The criminalization of immigrants in part resulted from more aggressive policing of communities of color. In the 1980s and '90s, law enforcement agencies across the nation implemented broken windows and stop-and-frisk strategies, claiming that mass arrests for low-level offenses would prevent more serious crime. As the immigrants who lived in these communities fell victim to racialized policing and mass incarceration, the federal government's rosters of the criminal immigrant exploded."

Once criminalized, they then fell into a separate-and-unequal immigration enforcement system in which due process was eliminated and deportation, the ultimate draconian penalty, could be implemented regardless of the seriousness of the "crime." Worse yet, the ever harsher over-policing of communities of color and the expansion of mass incarceration produced, Aja and Marchevsky point out, "a reservoir of immigrants with criminal records, creating an endless chain of detentions and deportations."

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has made strikingly clear, all of this -- the redefinition of minor crimes as felonies, the increasing pressure on those charged to plea bargain, and measures that then excluded felons from public housing, employment, welfare rolls, voting booths, and other aspects of society -- relegated a significant number of black men to a permanent underclass. Undocumented immigrants were also caught in this web, with some special twists.

In the wake of Clinton's 1996 immigration law, for instance, convictions of just about any sort, including the most minor crimes, became grounds for deportation -- even retroactively. So a long-ago violation that resulted in probation and community service, or a small fine, now became evidence of an immigrant's "criminal" status from which deportation naturally followed.

And there was another new catch-22 category as well: so-called immigration crimes. Those with a record of illegal reentry and those who engaged in what was termed "immigration fraud" were automatically re-categorized as "criminals" under President Obama's priority enforcement policy. "Illegal reentry" is, in fact, the most curious of crimes, since it distinguishes between those who succeed in entering the country without inspection on their first try and those who are caught and only succeed on a subsequent try. "Immigration fraud," a broad category, includes common practices like using a false social security number in order to work.

Obama's interior deportation scheme relied heavily on this expansive notion of the criminality of the undocumented, who might otherwise have qualified as people trying to get by as best they could. Now, President Trump is extending that criminalization further by ruling that anybody convicted of, charged with, or even suspected of a crime constitutes a priority for deportation. In the process, he's expanded the concept of the "criminal" even as he's built directly on the Clinton-Obama legacy.

At the Border and Beyond

What earned President Obama the moniker of "deporter-in-chief," however, was his policy towards border enforcement, since it was there that the number of deportees rose most sharply. This was in part because he prioritized "recent border crossers" for deportation; everyone, that is, who had crossed without authorization, which essentially meant everyone apprehended in the border region, was now criminalized. Under previous administrations, most of those caught there had been granted what was called "voluntary departure." In other words, they were returned to the Mexican side of the border without legal sanction. During the Clinton and Bush administrations, more than a million people a year were returned to Mexico in this manner without being transformed into criminals and so were not included in the usual deportation figures.

In the Obama years, those apprehended at the border began to be formally charged and fingerprinted before being issued a deportation order. In this way, they were redefined as "criminals," and if they were caught attempting a second border crossing, as criminal "repeat immigration offenders." It also meant that formal deportations began to skyrocket, although the numbers crossing the border, those apprehended at the border, and those sent back to Mexico were all beginning to fall.

Soon enough, immigration crimes came to rival drug crimes in the federal court system. Obama became the deporter-in-chief not because he deported more people than previous administrations, but because he criminalized more of those he deported. This, then, was how he managed to protect many from deportation, while also racking up deportation statistics far beyond those of his predecessors. In fact, the situations of many of those caught at the border proved remarkably similar to those being granted prosecutorial discretion in the interior. They had family, including children, in the United States, or jobs and strong community ties, or had lived in the country for years. Because they had left and tried to return, however, they were redefined as criminals. 

Finally, one aspect of immigration enforcement under the Obama administration generally goes unmentioned: the president's role in pressuring Mexico into collaborating by arresting and deporting Central Americans heading north (including families and unaccompanied children) before they reached the border with the United States. In 2014, under growing pressure from Washington, the Mexican government implemented the Southern Border Program. While US law was being repeatedly updated to provide humanitarian treatment to families and children apprehended at the border, when the Mexicans got to them first, they simply deported them.

In 2014, only 3% of the minors apprehended in the US were deported; in Mexico, the figure was 77%, or 18,269. As one report summed up the situation: "The United States is outsourcing its border enforcement to Mexico." As in the United States, so Mexico's increasing militarization and repression on its southern border did not actually slow the flow of migrants. It merely made the voyage far more dangerous, while giving ever more power to smugglers and gangs that now prey upon Central American migrants desperately trying to evade Mexican border controls.

Immigrants, Criminalization and the Labor Market

Long before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, this "tough on crime" approach to immigration fit into a broader pattern of the criminalization of people of color that fed the prison-industrial complex, made the US the globe's leading incarcerator, and encouraged the proliferation of private prisons. It helped justify the increasing militarization of the police in those years and the over-policing of communities of color. It also fed a national sense of insecurity that contributed to political passivity, disempowerment, and the kind of nativism that Trump has thrived on.

Criminalization plays a role as well in the country's growing economic inequality. It justifies both high rates of unemployment and low wages among people of color, while warehousing those whose labor has become superfluous. And it plays a particular role when it comes to immigrants and the labor market.

Immigrants actually experience significantly higher labor force participation and lower unemployment rates than the native-born, making them an exception among people of color. However, they earn less ($681 week) than do native-born workers ($837 a week), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2015. For employers in recent years, the criminalization of the already unstable status of immigrants (and their inability generally to access social services), makes them a uniquely exploitable and so desirable work force. They tend to be hired to do jobs so dismal, arduous, or dangerous that they fail to attract native-born workers. Anthropologist Nicholas de Genova has suggested that the very "deportability" of undocumented immigrants makes them desirable to such employers.

Meanwhile, the criminalization of people of color and of immigrants in particular lent a distinct helping hand to Donald Trump in his campaign for president, even as it helped the prison-industrial complex and the police justify ever-increasing budgets and employment.

The Trump administration's multipronged approach to immigration relies on and promotes the criminalization of immigrants. Whether halting the entry of refugees or persons with visas from particular countries, hiring thousands of new ICE and Border Patrol agents, promising to build a "great, great wall," denying federal money to sanctuary cities, or publishing lists of crimes committed by immigrants, Trump's immigration policies follow in the footsteps but also intensify those of his predecessors and continue to create fear, justify exploitation, and rationalize authoritarianism.

Categories: Latest News

International Monsanto Tribunal Calls for Human Rights Over Corporate Rights

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

On Tuesday, April 18, representatives of the Organic Consumers Association and our Regeneration International project gathered in The Hague, Netherlands, along with members of other civil society groups, scientists and journalists.

We assembled to hear the opinions of the five judges who presided over the International Monsanto Tribunal. After taking six months to review the testimony of 28 witnesses who testified during the two-day citizens' tribunal held in The Hague last October, the judges were ready to report on their 53-page Advisory Opinion.

The upshot of the judges' opinion? Monsanto has engaged in practices that have violated the basic human right to a healthy environment, the right to food, the right to health, and the right of scientists to freely conduct indispensable research.

The judges also called on international lawmakers to hold corporations like Monsanto accountable, to place human rights above the rights of corporations, and to "clearly assert the protection of the environment and establish the crime of ecocide."

The completion of the Tribunal judges' work coincides with heightened scrutiny of Monsanto, during a period when the company seeks to complete a merger with Germany-based Bayer. In addition to our organization's recently filed lawsuit against Monsanto, the St. Louis-based chemical maker is facing more than 800 lawsuits by people who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being exposed to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. As a result of recently-made-public court documents related to those lawsuits, pressure is mounting for Congress to investigate alleged collusion between former EPA officials and Monsanto to bury the truth about the health risks of Roundup.

The timing couldn't have been better for the Monsanto Tribunal to announce its opinions. But is time running out for us to hold Monsanto accountable -- and replace its failed, degenerative model with a food and farming system that regenerates soil, health and local economies?

Citizens' Tribunals Historically Contribute to Developing International Law

The Monsanto Tribunal judges had barely finished delivering their opinions before Monsanto spit out the usual pablum, claiming to be committed to finding "real solutions" to the challenges of hunger, food security and the role of farmers to "nourish our growing world sustainably."

In a statement issued by the biotech giant's Global Human Rights Steering Committee (who knew?), Monsanto claimed the Tribunal was "staged by a select group of anti-agriculture technology and anti-Monsanto critics who played organizers, judge and jury."

In fact, organizers of the Tribunal had no say in the judges' final opinion. And the judges themselves are all independent, highly qualified lawyers and legal experts, recognized by the international legal community for their accomplishments and credentials.

In their Advisory Opinion, the judges didn't directly address criticism of the Monsanto Tribunal specifically, nor did they address attempts to delegitimize citizens' tribunals (which the judges referred to as "Opinion Tribunals") in general. But the judges did outline what an Opinion Tribunal is -- and is not -- and why they are important:

Their objective is twofold: alerting public opinion, stakeholders and policy-makers to acts considered as unacceptable and unjustifiable under legal standards; contributing to the advancement of national and international law.

The work and conclusions of opinion tribunals are shared with all relevant actors and widely disseminated in the national and international community. Most opinion tribunals have had a considerable impact, and it is now accepted that they contribute to the progressive development of international law.

Judges: Monsanto Violated Basic Human Rights

As we wrote last year, the Monsanto Tribunal judges were asked to consider six questions, referred to as the "Terms of Reference." During two days of testimony, the judges heard from 28 witnesses (representing about 15 countries) on matters relating to the six questions.

On four of those questions -- whether or not Monsanto violated the right to a healthy environment, right to food, right to health, and right to freedom of expression and academic research -- the judges concluded in all cases that yes, Monsanto's activities have violated all of those rights. (Detailed answers to all questions are included in the Advisory Opinion).

On the question of war crimes, related to Monsanto supplying Agent Orange to the US military during the Vietnam War, the judges concluded:

Because of the current state of international law and the absence of specific evidence, the Tribunal cannot give any definitive answer to the question it was asked. Nevertheless, it seems that Monsanto knew how its products would be used and had information on the consequences for human health and the environment. The Tribunal is of the view that, would the crime of Ecocide be added in International law, the reported facts could fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

And that brings us to question six: Could the activities of Monsanto constitute a crime of ecocide, understood as causing serious damage or destroying the environment, so as to significantly and durably alter the global commons or ecosystem services upon which certain human groups rely?

Possibly -- if ecocide were recognized as an international crime, under the Rome Statute. Because it isn't, at least not yet, the judges could only add to existing calls for the International Law Commission to amend the Rome Statute to include ecocide on its list of international crimes.

On complicity in war crimes, the Tribunal judges wrote:

The Tribunal assesses that international law should now precisely and clearly assert the protection of the environment and the crime of ecocide. The Tribunal concludes that if such a crime of ecocide were recognized in international criminal law, the activities of Monsanto could possibly constitute a crime of ecocide. Several of the company's activities may fall within this infraction, such as the manufacture and supply of glyphosate-based herbicides to Colombia in the context of its plan for aerial application on coca crops, which negatively impacted the environment and the health of local populations; the large-scale use of dangerous agrochemicals in industrial agriculture; and the engineering, production, introduction and release of genetically engineered crops. Severe contamination of plant diversity, soils and waters would also fall within the qualification of ecocide. Finally, the introduction of persistent organic pollutants such as PCB into the environment causing widespread, long-lasting and severe environmental harm and affecting the right of the future generations could fall within the qualification of ecocide as well.

International Law Has "Failed Woefully," but We Have to Hope

We can't do justice here to the Tribunal judges' 53-page Advisory Opinion. The Opinion, which include 120 citations, paints a detailed picture of how Monsanto violates human rights and ravages the environment, on a global scale. In their published Opinion, the judges call for changes in international law in order to give priority to human rights, over the rights of corporations, and to hold corporations accountable for violating human and environmental rights.

While according companies like Monsanto unprecedented rights and entitlements, international law has failed woefully to impose any corresponding obligation to protect human rights and the environment. However, it is beyond the scope of this advisory opinion to consider the breadth of reforms required to re-align the respective priorities of commercial and public interests that must be brought about under international law. Therefore, the Tribunal strongly encourages authoritative bodies to address the legal and practical limitations that currently confine the scope, content and ultimately the effectiveness of international human rights law.

As she wrapped up the April 18 press conference in The Hague, Tribunal Judge Françoise Tulkens said that while the judges' work was done, the work of civil society has just begun.

"Now this Advisory Opinion is in your hands, it's for you to use it. You, as in civil servants, as in lawyers and judges, if it's possible . . .  maybe this Opinion will serve in the development of international law, and of course international law does develop under the impetus of civil society, so for that maybe we have to wait one year, two years, decades, maybe centuries, I don't know, but we still have to hope that it's possible."

As we hope for international law to start holding corporations like Monsanto (or Bayer or Dow or Syngenta) accountable for the devastating consequences of their poisonous chemicals, we must also look for hopeful solutions for feeding the world's growing population. Monsanto will have you believe that its failed GMO monoculture model provides those solutions -- but increasingly, the world is wising up to that lie.

In "3 Big Myths about Modern Agriculture," David R. Montgomery, professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, says that conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity's ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Montgomery writes:

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we've oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture.

Do we have decades or centuries, as Tulkens suggests, for international law to crack down on Monsanto? Probably not, if climate scientists' predictions are correct. But as humans with rights, and consumers with responsibility for our purchasing decisions, we can help fuel a Regeneration Revolution that can both cool the planet and feed the world -- without poison.

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Pentagon Ties Russia to Taliban Attack, Accuses Moscow of Arming Afghan Militants

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

The aftermath of a bombing attack at the Kandahar governor's guesthouse, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 22, 2017. The attack almost devastated the entire leadership of the only province in the south of Afghanistan that is putting up some resistance to a Taliban surge. (Photo: Mujib Mashal / The New York Times)

The US military has increased its confidence in reports accusing Russia of arming the Taliban.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, spoke about the claims on Monday, at a press conference in Kabul.

When asked directly by a reporter about alleged Russian weapon shipments to the Taliban, Gen. Nicholson said: "Oh no, I'm not refuting that."

"The level of granularity and the level of success they're achieving, I think the jury is still out on that," Mattis noted. He said that arm shipments from Russia to the Taliban "would have to be dealt with as a violation of international law."

Late last month, other top ranking US military officials spoke to the allegations, but discussed them with greater uncertainty.

"I think it is fair to assume they may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there," said Gen. Joseph Votel, the leader of US Central Command.

NATO commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said that Russia had increased "association [with] and perhaps even supply to the Taliban."

In February, Gen. Nicholson also discussed Russian interactions with the Taliban, but he did not openly accuse Moscow of offering material assistance to the group.

"There is some classified reporting that I'd request to share with you in another venue," Nicholson told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "But we are concerned about, in general, support, and I'll just leave it at that."

In late January, the Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, said that Moscow had started conducting outreach to the Taliban, but claimed it was "just political" support designed to counter the Islamic State presence in Nangahar Province. He told The Wall Street Journal that Russia was not offering "money or materiel" to the Taliban.

The US military reacted to this "just political" support from Moscow by decrying it as unacceptable.

"This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State, and the Afghan government is not fighting the Islamic State," Nicholson said in February. "This is a false narrative. The Afghan government along with US counterterrorism forces are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan."

Nicholson had also said that Russian officials "have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban."

On Monday, the general described Russian support as having a far more tangible negative impact, linking Moscow to a recent deadly attack.

"Arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetrate attacks like we saw two days ago in Mazar-i-Shariff is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation," Nicholson said. The attack, on an Afghan military base, reportedly killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers.

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Private Prison and Border Security Contractors Lobby Congress Over Trump's Border Wall

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Congress is facing the prospect of a government shutdown over Trump's demand for funding to start construction of a wall on the southern border. Lobbyists for private prison and border security companies have swarmed Capitol Hill as Trump initiated an immigration crackdown and called for billions more in enforcement spending.

The border fence between USA and Mexico, seen from the Mexican side, where Mexico, New Mexico and Texas meet. (Photo: dawn paley / Flickr)

Lobbyists for federal contractors that provide border security and run private prisons have been busy since Trump initiated a brutal immigration crackdown and demanded that Congress provide funding for his wall on the southern border, a proposal that is currently threatening to send the government off a fiscal cliff.

Consider GEO Group, a private prison company that runs jails for immigrants facing deportation. The company spent $350,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of 2017, more than it has ever spent over the same time frame, according to a Truthout review of lobbying records provided by the research organization MapLight. Federal filings show that a subsidiary of GEO Group also donated $250,000 to President Trump's inaugural festivities and another $225,000 to a super PAC that supported his election.

Ethics watchdog groups have complained that the super PAC donation violates a federal law preventing government contractors from making political donations, but it may have paid off for GEO Group, which won a $110 million contract to build a 1,000-bed immigration jail in Texas earlier this month. The contract was awarded despite an ongoing class action lawsuit filed in 2014 alleging that immigrants were forced to work in slave-labor conditions at a GEO Group facility in Colorado.

In federal filings, GEO Group named "homeland security" and "immigration" among the main issues its lobbyists discussed with lawmakers. The increase in lobbying comes as Trump pushes Congress to allocate $1.4 billion for the initial construction of the border wall and add $4.5 billion to the already-massive budget for immigration enforcement, including $1.5 billion to expand the nation's vast network of immigration jails.

In a series of public appearances and tweets from the president over the weekend, White House officials doubled down on their demands that Congress tack on funding for the border wall to a spending bill that must be passed by the end of the week to avoid a government shutdown.

Like private prison companies, federal contractors involved in border security are also spending big. Raytheon, a major military contractor that has reportedly shown interest in building Trump's border wall, spent nearly $1.5 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2017, more than it spent in any quarter last year.

Science Applications International Corporation, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) contractor, has spent $380,000 on lobbying this year, listing "cybersecurity and the SW border wall" as a key issue in its lobbying files. Even the US Chamber of Commerce, a sprawling lobbying group that represents all types of industries in Congress, named "border security," hiring more immigration officers and other immigration issues in its most recent lobbying records.

The cost of the border wall alone is expected to reach as high as $21.6 billion, according to an internal DHS report obtained by Reuters, although Trump's estimates are lower. In a tweet on Saturday, Trump repeated statements that Mexico would "eventually" pay for his border wall, even though the country's leaders have denied this claim several times.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have said that they want to avoid a government shutdown and pass a "clean" budget bill without special funding for the border wall. Even conservative lawmakers from southwestern states are opposed to building the wall.

Still, the White House has not backed down, and the marked increase in lobbying by powerful federal contractors shows that Trump is not the only one that lawmakers are hearing from on the issue. These lobbyists are weighing in at this high-pressure time because they know from experience that you have to spend money to make money on Capitol Hill. From 2011 to 2015, the top five DHS contractors spent $107.6 million on lobbying and received a combined $9 billion in federal contracts, according to MapLight.

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Fighting Kentucky's Policy of Lifetime Disenfranchisement

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Mantell Stevens is an activist, organizer, speaker, and lobbyist with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots social justice organization working on a number of issues, including ending Kentucky's policy of lifetime disenfranchisement. 

Kentucky is one of only three states that continue to impose lifetime disenfranchisement, permanently barring citizens from the ballot box as a consequence for any felony conviction.

We spoke with Stevens about his work, his life, and how they have come to influence each other. Our conversation appears below, edited to account for space constraints.

Erin Kelley: Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you became involved with efforts to restore voting rights?

Mantell Stevens: I'm 38 and I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. Around the time that I was between 18 and 20 years old, I got involved with selling drugs and got my first felony. I didn't really know the consequences at the time. Yes, I was an adult, and I knew right from wrong. But as far as long-term consequences, I wasn't aware -- and my public defender didn't advise me of all of my options -- so I pleaded to the felony charge. And, in a lot of ways, I was blindsided by that felony.

In the last couple of years, it's been a struggle looking for employment, going to school, and getting grants and scholarships to go to school. Life is hard for convicted felons. I can name ten people off the top of my head who are in the same situation. We have past felony convictions that are so old -- these convictions happened when we were kids. Basically, my current situation is living in poverty because I don't have same the resources available to me as people who haven't been convicted of a felony.

About twenty years after I was out of the system, I decided to participate in a reentry program because I needed to find a job. It was frustrating to have to go through that process, because I had all of the skills and knowledge that I needed to get a job -- I just needed that resource to help me actually find one. Through that program, I met Tayna Fogle, who had a program with the prospect for a really good job, in exchange for people attending a county council meeting about a resolution for the restoration of rights. And basically, once I went to that meeting and they passed the resolution, that's when the lightbulb went off. It just hit me that I needed to be somehow involved in this process, because there were a lot of people at that meeting who were standing up and fighting for my right to vote. And immediately I just kind of felt obligated to get involved. That's how I linked up with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Now, even though life is a little hectic, I take every opportunity I can to share my story and bring awareness about the importance of the restoration of voting rights. It's something I'm really passionate about doing, because it's so important.

Why is the right to vote important to you?

Right now, Kentucky's process for voting rights restoration requires a lengthy application. As I said, life for a convicted felon can be hectic, and the current process is very discouraging. On top of trying to make a decent living, and basically just survive -- people have to navigate this process that's not clear. It's a deterrent. There's no centralized repository for information about the application process -- there's no number that you can call to get all of the information that you need.

Now, everybody has problems -- convicted felon or not -- but it's just so much harder for a convicted felon because you're already at a disadvantage. And it can be almost a feeling of hopelessness, and through that it takes a certain type of person to be able to say 'no matter what I'm going through in life right now -- I need to participate in our democracy.'

But participating in democracy is so important, because outside of the national election and the presidency, we're talking about things that happen in your neighborhood, things that you need to be a part of, things that you need to have a say about.

In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order restoring voting rights to Kentuckians who had fully completed sentences for past criminal convictions. What was your reaction when you heard that news?

First and foremost, that was awesome that he did that. It just re-energized me and demonstrated that people really do care about voting rights restoration. And it wasn't just about having the right to vote, but also the empowerment that came along with that. It's really hard to describe the feeling -- but it was almost like acceptance. People always say, 'you do the crime; you do the time; you pay your dues to society.' But that has never been true, in my experience. But at least in that moment, it was a feeling of acceptance -- it was society saying 'you made a mistake, you paid for it -- and now you can be just like everybody else: you can participate.'

But less than a month later, in December 2015, Gov. Matt Bevin took office and rescinded Beshear's rights restoration executive order. What is your take on that?

Why would somebody not want to make the voting rights restoration process easier? It infuriated me. It's basically saying there's a whole class of people who we want to prevent from participating. We need to progress, we need to move on -- everybody needs the right to vote and to be able to participate in our elections.

How do you see the issue of rights restoration fitting in with our society's treatment of people with past convictions, generally?

The resistance to restoring voting rights lets me know that we're a threat. There have been recent reforms in Kentucky, including Bevin's 'ban the box' order and the Senate's criminal justice reform legislation, but the voting rights issue is stagnant. It lets me know that some people are in fear of the power that we could have once we have the right to vote.

While other aspects of criminal justice reform are taking a step in the right direction, Bevin has moved backwards on voting rights. I don't understand it. It's as if people who have past convictions -- we're finally being accepted, except for the main and most fundamental part of being a citizen -- which is the right to vote.

What strategies are most useful in advocacy efforts around voting rights restoration?

The most useful strategy is definitely getting eligible people registered and to the polls, as well as motivating and pushing former felons to at least get started in the current rights restoration application process.

For me, after filing paperwork for restoration under Beshear's rules, I still haven't applied again under Bevin's application. To be honest, I got discouraged. Life started happening, and I have to take time out to actually do that application. And when you do take the time out to do that -- and you try to get the information you need, you get into a loop. One person won't know what they're talking about -- and so they direct you to another department, and on and on. There needs to be a push to get people educated about this process and to motivate them to go ahead and apply. Because the first thing that the Governor does when rights restoration is brought up is claim that nobody is applying, so nobody wants to vote. And I think that's an argument used by the majority of people who are opposed to the restoration of voting rights -- they claim that there's a current process, but nobody's moving forward on it, so they must not want to vote that badly. But that is not the truth.

What do you see as the most challenging aspect of the advocacy efforts to change Kentucky's disenfranchisement policy?

The most challenging aspect is actually convincing current legislators. At least from my experience, when I go and talk to them personally, they already have a preset notion. Basically, there's that little story that 'you knew what you were doing when you did the crime, so you got what you deserved.' That's what I hear from a lot of people who oppose voting rights restoration. So the work is to change that attitude, and convince them that people change -- and people change for the better.

To do that, I make it rhetorical and shoot it back at them. Everyone has screwed up in life -- everyone has done something they're not supposed to do. That doesn't make you a bad person. And so my attempt is to make people look in the mirror and realize that we're all people and everybody makes mistakes. We have to move on, we have to progress. We're just asking for the right to vote. How can that be dangerous? It's the right to vote and it's the right thing to do. That's what our country is built on. I don't understand why anybody would say, 'you can be a citizen and you can pay taxes, but you can't participate in democracy.'

How do you keep yourself engaged, despite setbacks?

It's hard -- I mean, oh my God, it's just so hard. Sometimes I think, 'wow, do I really have time to dedicate today?' And I remember that, yes, I do -- because it's important. And I think about the younger generation. We have to get the ball rolling, because even if reform is not going to happen anytime soon, it needs to happen at some point. Nothing will get accomplished if I idly sit by, and don't do anything to be a part of the push to make this change. I don't have any kids, but I have nieces and nephews -- and I want them to live in a world where they have the freedom to choose their school officials, their city council members, their police commissioners -- the people who have the power to change things in their community. If there's stuff going on in your community, in your neighborhood, that you don't like, then you need to be able to choose the people that have the power to change that -- to vote for those people and put them in office.

In what ways can people both in and out of the state support your work?

Definitely -- for the people that live in Kentucky, exercise their right to vote. And my responsibility is to educate people on the importance of state and local elections. There needs to be more education, because when I connect the dots for somebody as far as local and state government, they realize they really do care about this stuff -- they say 'my kid goes to school, so yeah, I do need to be voting for this person.' And that's what I see happening a lot -- that's when a lot of people's lightbulb goes off -- is when they find that connection and they see that voting is important because it affects what's around them.

For people who don't live in Kentucky, their role is putting pressure on legislators -- to take a stand that this is the right thing to do. On a federal level, we should be saying 'once you have done your time, you need to be redeemed.' That's what I would like to see on a national level -- more awareness. Why anybody would want to suppress somebody's right to vote, maybe it's not meant for me to understand -- but people just need to do the right thing.

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Clean Water Is a Basic Human Right, and We Can and Should Make It Affordable to Everyone

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

Ask someone in Flint, Michigan, or São Paolo, Brazil -- the list of cities rocked by water disasters seems to grow each day -- how much safe clean water is worth. Worried about contamination and drought, it might be a pretty penny. But the ability of people to actually pay for the full cost of water -- from protecting it at its source to getting it to flow from the tap -- depends, as it does with anything for sale, on income. And yet water isn't simply a commodity; it's necessary for life, so the ethics and practicalities of how society pays for clean water quickly become tricky. The truth is that our growing income inequality means growing thirst and disease.

Treating and delivering water and sanitizing effluent is not cheap, and the cost of providing safe drinking water continues to climb, fueled dramatically by crumbling infrastructure, unpredictable weather and the need to reach deeper into watersheds for safe water. Daily management and regulatory failures are also to blame. In Flint, a change of water sources caused lead to leach into drinking water. In Atlanta, where services had been privatized, quality spiraled downward, leading eventually to the city's decision to re-municipalize water services.

Meanwhile, in the US -- and all over the world -- public money for water services has been drying up. Policy-makers and water utility managers are increasingly reaching into constituents' and customers' wallets to cover increasing costs. While such a "full-cost recovery" philosophy seems to make sense in theory based on simple arithmetic -- a utility should recover all costs associated with operations -- and would seem to ensure fiscal discipline as it encourages conservation (i.e., when customers pay real water costs, they use less), the practice doesn't take into account the fact that the UN General Assembly has said affordable water is a human right. Countries such as Ecuador and South Africa have even enshrined the right in their constitutions -- although implementation has been spotty.

In the US, the reality is a long way from such humanitarian declarations. PBS reports that between 2010 and 2015, water bills rose by 41 percent in 30 US cities, and in 2014, water was too expensive for almost 12 percent of American households -- about 14 million. In Detroit, some families fear child protective agencies may remove kids from homes where shut-offs have occurred.

With water costs rising, inequality threatens water access for everyone. Current trends are leaving the poor to drift. What follows are some potential solutions to keeping water affordable and available to everyone.

Metering Education?

When thinking about water affordability, we could consider how we pay for public education.

The US seems to recognize the value for the common good of educating each of its citizens. We don't expect each public school to recover all costs per student from each family. Costs are generally spread across a town, state and national tax base in at least a somewhat progressive fashion; even people without children pay into the system.

Likewise, it should be well understood that accessible, clean water is a public good that translates into public health and reduced health care costs for all. Of course, unlike education, water consumption can be measured with a meter. But just because water use can be measured doesn't mean that each household should have to pay its water tab alone. We could follow the example of education and guarantee adequate water no matter the families' circumstance.

We have tools at our disposal to ease the financial burden. We can, for example, use cross-subsidies so rates of wealthier users can guarantee access for poorer consumers, issue municipal water stamps (akin to food stamps), put water pollution fines into an affordability fund, and pay for water source protection through the US Department of Agriculture budget. Cost-sharing possibilities -- some elaborated below -- are nearly endless. All could chip away at what low-income families would have to pay out of pocket. 

The Carrot and the Stick

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reports that globally 69 percent of water is used for agriculture, 19 percent for industry, and 12 percent for households and businesses. In the US, energy producers use just shy of 50 percent of our nation's water, followed by irrigators. Households use about 1 percent.

Watershed degradation hits all users hard, but it's water utilities that experience a disproportionate increase in treatment costs. It is they who put conservation programs in place and scramble to shore up an increasingly erratic water supply. While it's good news that water utilities are paying more attention to protecting source water and watersheds -- they're the ones ultimately in the hot seat for ensuring safe water -- it can't be their job alone, and it's unfair to their customers to carry all associated costs.

In one instance, seeking a solution to rising treatment costs, the Des Moines, Iowa, water utility unsuccessfully sued upstream farming counties for overloading streams with nitrates from fertilizers. While lawsuits constitute one approach, there are other ways forward that don't involve the courts. Perhaps the best known case of transforming conflict into cooperation -- and a pioneering example of payment for environmental services -- is New York City's win-win agreement with upstream farmers. In that case, to avoid building a US$6 billion treatment plant, the New York City water utility has invested in source water protection measures more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, such as on-farm improvements that divert cow manure from drinking water sources. A mix of carrots and sticks can stop pollution and finance watershed protection, and such measures can shave a portion off household water bills while conserving water. 

Federal Help? Maybe, but Try Cities and States

Since 1977, federal spending for water infrastructure has shrunk 82 percent per capita. Federal grants have diminished and largely been replaced by loans. State and local governments are hard-pressed to come up with funds to keep water systems in good repair. Loan interest adds to consumers' water bills.

It seems unlikely that President Trump will approve public dollars for public water utilities within his infrastructure plan, even though simple zero-interest loans for pipes and sewage plants could mean significant cost savings for utilities and their customers. Nevertheless, there is movement in Congress. A new water bill was recently introduced -- The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act -- to make US$35 billion a year available for improved drinking water and sanitation.

States and cities may very well go broke making up for the hoped-for federal support, and yet, acutely aware of the consequences for their constituents if they don't act swiftly, many have shored up deficient water systems, issuing almost US$38 billion in municipal bonds for infrastructure projects related to water and sanitation in 2016. In 2014, California voters approved a US$7.5 billion water infrastructure bond. Paying back these bonds will certainly burden taxpayers, but depending on how bond repayments are structured, the costs can be spread broadly through state and municipal taxes and fees.

Vigorously Mix Water and Politics

Keeping water in the public eye is essential to solve our water issues. Standing Rock -- where protestors gained international attention for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe arguing an oil pipeline would jeopardize its drinking water -- is perhaps the best known recent case, but there are local efforts underway across the US to make sure that water quality isn't compromised by things such as pipelines and fracking. In cities across the country, citizens call for the need to keep water services public and affordable. When the League of Women Voters in Twin Peaks, California, holds a public forum on Nestlé's water extraction, public pressure in one place can inform strategies in another. Increasingly, water has become a topic that candidates running for office must address. 

Water War Truce

The much predicted water wars are no longer on some far-off horizon; they stare us square in the eye, raising questions about our moral fiber and the quality of our democracy. To whom will our diminishing supply of clean water flow? As we invest in our public water systems -- and we must -- let's remember to distribute costs equitably and not let rising water rates further exacerbate inequality. Resolving the water crisis on the backs of the poor is no solution at all. The hopeful progress being made in some states to raise the minimum wage will become diluted if income gains flow out in the next water bill. Sharing source water protection costs; capitalizing municipal, state and federal water infrastructure funds; and keeping water public and in the public eye are just a few of the many steps we can take to keep water affordable and inequality in check.

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"We Are Going to Shut It Down on May 1": Caravan Against Fear Mobilizes the Masses

Truthout - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 21:00

It is incredibly important for all of the labor movement to be involved in this fight because the issues of racial justice, immigration and environmental justice are at the forefront of workers' lives every single day, says Alejandra Valles, secretary treasurer for SEIU United Services Workers West, which has organized the ongoing multistate Caravan Against Fear.

Hundreds gathered to protest LA County Sheriff McDonnell's opposition to California sanctuary bill SB54 and his collaboration with ICE. Eight members of the Caravan Against Fear were arrested by LAPD. (Photo: Caravan Against Fear)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 32nd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Alejandra Valles, the secretary treasurer for SEIU United Services Workers West. The union represents janitors, security officers and airport workers across California.

Sarah Jaffe: You are one of the organizers of the Caravan Against Fear that is going on right now.

Alejandra Valles: The Caravan Against Fear was organized by SEIU USWW. Also, Global Exchange [and] Rompevieto TV in Mexico City. But then, also, over 230 organizations, binational organizations, that have come on board. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network is also one of the main organizers. We really decided we needed to figure out how to mobilize the masses and how to break through this paralysis of fear that the Trump administration has been strategically trying to implement across the country and the world.

Tell us about it. How has it been going so far? Where are you currently?

We are in Tucson, Arizona. Now I am sitting here at a refugee-owned Ethiopian restaurant, a small mom-and-pop [establishment] that had heard about the caravan and reached out and wanted to host a lunch for us. It is beautiful to get a warm meal on the road since we have been eating fast food and junk food. Believe it.

We stopped here and had some authentic Ethiopian food. The restaurant is refugee-owned, so that means so much to us that folks are learning about the caravan's mission and want to help in whatever way they can.... We are on the twelfth day, I believe. We have gone through all of California from Sacramento to Bakersfield, Modesto, Presto, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and then we came to Arizona. We went to Phoenix and were received there. We also went to the Tohono O'odham Reservation at a mission that they have there to talk about their opposition to the wall in their sacred land. We are in Tucson, Arizona, protesting against Martha McSally who is the congresswoman who has been very anti-immigrant in her stance in congress.

How many more days do you have?

We are going all the way until May 1. We still have a little over a week and a half, almost two to go. We have been sleeping in churches. We have been sleeping on the floors. Anywhere that will open up their offices to us or their pews. We are on our way to Nogales where we will be greeting and meeting with a bunch of community folks there who will tell us about what it is like in Nogales for migrant workers and for the work that they are doing on immigration justice. Then, after that, we are going to go to Las Cruces tomorrow where we will be speaking on behalf of a sanctuary ordinance that the City of Las Cruces is thinking of trying to pass. The caravan really is lifting up resistance efforts across the country. How can we demand more from our local communities, our city councils, to stand up and to fight back against the Trump administration rhetoric of anti-immigrant polices and fear tactics?

I want to talk about May Day, but first I want to talk a little bit about your union and why it is important for your union to be involved in this fight.

I think it is incredibly important for all of the labor movement to be involved in this fight. We have seen a fight around issues of class and wages and benefits for workers, but the issues of racial justice of Black Lives Matter or immigration justice or environmental justice are really at the forefront of our members' lives every single day. Before they are a worker, they are an immigrant. Before they are a worker, they are a Black human being. Before they are a worker, they are a mom and dad and friend and a sister and a daughter. We just decided that we needed to take this on. The caravan itself is incredibly diverse. It is built of people, of African Americans who have been criminalized for decades and know what it is like to be discriminated against and killed and disproportionately impacted because of the color of their skin, but it is also built of a lot of immigrant women who also know what it is like to be marginalized and to be discriminated against and exploited because of their immigration status and because they don't speak English in this country.

We really felt strongly that we need to resist at every level. Our employers need to resist when ICE comes knocking at their doors. Our community needs to resist and rise up the way we have in other moments, like 2006. Our congressmen and assemblywomen and men have to resist, as well. We said, "We have to break through this paralysis of fear that Trump is using to try to keep us from doing anything and to try to keep us scared of our own shadows and living in this underground economy." But, at the same time, we have also seen him targeting people of color, starting to publish lists, and really criminalizing us in a lot of different ways.... We are telling all the community, we are telling young kids, "There is nothing wrong with us. We are hardworking people. We help make this economy work and we are going to stand up for our rights." And [we're] hoping that the rest of the country and the world will follow.

Your particular union has a history of being involved in immigrant workers rights and the 2006 Day Without An Immigrant. Right?

Our union has led the fight on Justice for Janitors back in the '80s and '90s when immigrants were beaten by the LAPD in Century City and also went out on a massive strike of almost 88,500 workers that shut down the City of Los Angeles. Our union has been fighting for immigration justice for decades, to bring workers out of the shadows and into unions themselves and the labor movement, embrace them and organize them and lift the standards for all workers.

At the same time, we have also been incredibly involved in looking at what is happening to Black workers, Black workers who at one point made up and had a large population in the City of Los Angeles and across California and also make up a large portion of a lot of the industry. We have seen a displacement of Black workers in our country and in California, specifically. We have been very involved in organizing Black security officers. Many of them who wear a uniform but live in poverty. We are fighting for Black worker justice and highlighting why it is that Black workers are disproportionately impacted and discriminated against at work, but then also in their own communities.

This caravan is really bringing our community together. It is travelling from California all the way to the southern border. We are going to drive all the way south to LA and we are going to participate in a national general strike as workers, as rank-and-file members who are saying, "We have everything to lose in this moment. Our economic and our human worth needs to be respected."

We need to stand up and make sure the whole world and that Donald Trump and his administration understand that we help make this economy work. We pick the fruits and vegetables that end up at our tables. We wash and clean the toilets of the richest buildings, many that Donald Trump himself owns. We guard and we protect our communities. We put on our uniforms as security officers to make sure some of his buildings and other buildings across the country are protected and also where we are first responders any time a natural disaster or emergencies happen. We contribute to this economy every single day. Donald Trump needs to respect our human worth. This administration needs to also respect our economic worth, as well. That is why we are going to shut it down on May 1.

Since the election of Donald Trump, the strike has really kicked up another notch in the public consciousness. There was a lot of debate around the Women's Strike about whether it was privileged to take a day off from work. I would love to hear you talk about why it is important for the least privileged workers in our economy to actually use the strike as a weapon.

The Women's March was an incredible inspiration. It was the largest mobilization that we have had in the history of our country. I think that is the way we make change in this country, in this world. It's when people who are not necessarily impacted the same way as marginalized communities, when those people are standing up, they are taking risks, and they are helping to lead that charge. Martin Luther King said that loud and clear -- when you have white allies, you have interfaith allies that join the front lines -- that is when you [start] to really make a difference. I think that all the groups that are trying to do their best to resist in this moment are putting their little grain in the sand and inspiring us.

But, I also do believe that amongst us, even myself, I am a US citizen. My parents were undocumented. But, all of us need to take a look at our own privilege and figure out how we, as human beings, help lift up somebody who is not as privileged, who is marginalized and who is more vulnerable and disproportionately impacted either by their status or because they are women of color or people of color. I believe that this is the moment. I am hopeful and inspired by what I have seen so far. I really do believe that all of what we have been doing is preparing us for May 1. I think a lot of those efforts have been building toward this major escalation and then, it doesn't end on May 1. We are going to have to continue. I feel very hopeful about it and I think that anything any of us can do, [we should] but always constantly reminding ourselves that we do have that responsibility to carry others on our shoulders and create real spaces for them to lead and to come around their struggles and build solidarity; that's the way that we will defeat the racism and the hate of the Donald Trump administration.

Tell us what May Day is going to look like in Los Angeles.

May Day is going to be incredible in Los Angeles. We are expecting thousands of people. There are estimates right now that there is going to be probably more than there were at the Women's March. It is on a Monday, so we have been talking to businesses. You can see our posters up all over the Fashion District, all over Highland Park, that say "Somos El Pueblo. Shut It Down May 1st" "Somos El Pueblo. Huelga May 1." They are beautiful posters that Ernesto Yerena, who trained with Shepard Fairey, who also did "We the Resilient" for the Women's March, has really added that element of art and culture to this movement.

I really do believe that it is going to be lively. I think it is going to be full of arts and culture and this amazing heartbeat of sacrifice, of people of color, of white allies, of women: A Day Without An Immigrant. We are also working with some musicians who want to come and to perform. But, we are literally calling for [everyone] to shut down your business, to walk out of school, to come out with your family members to march with us. There is going to be a local march, lots of them. It's not just Los Angeles -- it's San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego, Santa Ana, Orange County.

We really do believe that this is going to send a strong message to the administration, but also to the country that we are in a moment of crisis. What we are seeing right now is a lot of our rights being violated ... May 1 and the caravan, all of it is preventative. It is to get to the point where we don't have a catastrophe where we open up a Pandora's Box of constitutional rights that are being violated left and right. But that is, unfortunately, what we are seeing with this Donald Trump administration. Everything from the ban and the raids and the deportations of people, the persecution by law enforcement of our immigrant communities when they pull them over and pressure them and use those pressure tactics to get them to sign away their temporary protected status or the only status that they have, and they immediately give up their right to due process. The assaults that we are seeing on women at detention centers and the losses of that -- we are experiencing a humanitarian crisis right now and it is Pandora's Box if we let this happen because it means that all of our constitutional rights are at stake.

Anything else people should know about Caravan or May Day or the work that you are doing?

Just that we really urge people to get involved, to get more information at CaravanAgainstFear.org. You can follow the caravan [on Facebook and Twitter and see] everything we are doing: saying "no" to the persecution of immigrants, saying "no" to deportations and the separation of families, saying "no" to the [wall], saying "yes" to resistance efforts, and shutting it down and going out on May 1. You can find all of that on CaravanAgainstFear.org. We will take it to the streets in the same way that we did in 2006. Si se puede.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.  

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