The US carceral system is not winding itself down as a humanitarian response to the racialized and economic brutalities of mass incarceration. Rather, it's reinventing itself under the bipartisan mask of reform.
A guard tower at Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad, California, January 20, 2017. (Photo: Jim Wilson / The New York Times)
October 2016 marked the release of Ava DuVernay's documentary, 13th: the most prominent film to date to tackle the history of mass incarceration in the US. DuVernay tells her story through the lens of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime whereof the part shall have been duly convicted."
Tracing the criminalization of Black people as a class to this loophole, 13th movingly grieves lives lost to "law and order" politics  in recent years and invites us to join the movement to dismantle mass incarceration. The case for change is made by an unusual array of commentators, who span the political spectrum. Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist appear on equal footing with such scholar-activists as Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, and Khalil Muhammad, whose work profoundly helps to shape our understanding of racialized law enforcement, police and prison violence, mass incarceration, and the growth of the public-private prison industrial complex.
Many activists are surprised to see the first two names joined with the latter. With decades of staunch right-wing activism, Gingrich, most recently an ardent supporter of racial profiling to counter "terrorism,"  and Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform and dreams of shredding the social safety net,  have been made over as conservative poster children for criminal justice reform. They're only two among scores of hardline Republicans and right-wing or libertarian think tanks and advocacy organizations promoting bipartisan collaboration.
What should one make of this? Is this the softening of the Right? Are Davis and Gingrich really in sync? Of course not. Davis is a scholar and prison abolitionist whose life's work reflects an unequivocal, untiring commitment to expansive notions of liberation, freedom, and justice. By contrast, the Right's -- and Gingrich's -- embrace of "bipartisan reform" builds on a long history of support for structural White supremacy and a larger neoliberal austerity framework that promotes an ever-expanding emphasis on security.
Those differences matter -- profoundly, and sometimes in unexpected ways. How and why that came to be amounts to a cautionary tale for progressive movements about the "bipartisan reform consensus." Recognizing its assumptions, limitations, and contradictions also helps identify opportunities to advance an unapologetically progressive, anti-neoliberal agenda in the era of Trump.
More than an actual means of improving policy, "bipartisan criminal justice reform" has become a mantra signifying hope: that people of good will can come together across ideological divides and partisan gridlock to end our country's overreliance on expensive and unjust systems of incarceration….
KEY REFORM ELEMENTS: CAUTIONARY NOTES
A quick look at a few key elements of the ["criminal justice reform"] agenda suggest a more complicated story than that contained in campaign talking points. Beyond specific agenda issues and proposals are questions of how they are framed, how they will be implemented, and possible gains or losses.
Reduced sentences for some categories of low-level, nonviolent offenses, particularly for drug-related and minor property offenses, are a reform centerpiece. In various states, thousands of people have been released from jails and prisons; many thousands more have had their conviction records changed; still others will benefit from shorter sentences. This is a remarkable and necessary "decarceration" accomplishment that must be amplified. Thousands of others, pre-trial or pre-charge, are diverted to some form of community corrections and supervision, mandatory treatment for substance abuse, or "alternatives to incarceration."
Some reform initiatives also increase certain sentences. Mississippi's reforms did both. So did the federal Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, which failed to pass that year and did not gain sufficient traction in Congress the following year. Should the liberal-Left sector accept some sentencing increases, however grudgingly, on the basis of pragmatism?
Expanding Community Corrections and Supervision
Bernadette Rabuy and Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Institute emphasize that justice reform "should aim to reduce the number of people under correctional control rather than simply transfer people to other pieces of the correctional pie." But over the past decade, there has been a quiet but steady expansion in the often onerous requirements and conditions placed on people under some form of correctional control, including community corrections or alternatives to imprisonment.
This system includes parole and probation supervision, treatment/rehab programs, electronic monitoring, contractual truancy monitoring, re-entry programs, and specialized drug, veteran, mental health, and other "problem-solving" courts. Framed as humane alternatives that make it possible to divert people from prisons, too often they come with profound costs to the individuals remanded to them and the communities already reeling from the impacts of mass incarceration. While reform often produces some degree of decarceration, it does not, by itself, dismantle mass incarceration. Nor does it permanently reduce the scope of law enforcement surveillance and supervision. To the contrary, pre-charge and pre-trial diversion into some form of community corrections ends up also sweeping in people who have not been convicted of crimes, and in some cases, have not yet been arrested, but who must comply with state-imposed conditions for set periods of time before their records are cleared. This means that they bear the consequences of punishment, although they have not been found guilty of any offense. The alternative is to be formally charged, with even worse consequences accompanying possible conviction. Violation of these conditions, including failing to pay associated fees, is met with "swift and certain" responses, including incarceration.
Much of the funding for this expansion comes through "justice reinvestment" or offloading costs onto individuals who are increasingly required to pay some or all of the costs of community corrections. People who can least afford it may have to pay for drug tests and shoulder the cost of other treatment, supervision fees, and startup and ongoing (daily or monthly) fees for electronic monitoring. But many of these people shouldn't be in the system at all.
A mix of public-private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, ranging from municipal drug courts to privately-run probation systems to corporate corrections behemoths like The Geo Group to local prisoner aid organizations, community corrections, as a category, provides uneven quality of services and technologies. Every possible arena becomes a potential corrections and surveillance site. In practice, this matrix is often plagued with profiteering, scandal, and corruption. What strategies can effectively challenge this in the short term and transform it in the long run?
Money Bail Reform
A bail bond is the amount of money a defendant is required to pay as a guarantee they will show up in court. A person who is unable to pay may be -- and often is -- incarcerated from the time of arrest until the case is resolved.
Urgently needed, money bail reform is moving forward in a growing number of municipalities and states, but it can be a double-edged sword. In 2016, New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment permitting judges to deny bail to certain defendants considered "exceptionally dangerous" and also grant pretrial release without bail to those who are not considered dangerous. The ACLU and some other initial advocates withdrew support because the final wording contained changes demanded by the politically influential for-profit bail bond industry. These changes required poor people to provide evidence of poverty and added ambiguous wording that potentially could be misused against particular communities, including immigrants.
In 2017, the Movement for Black Lives (MLB), in collaboration with other partners, released Transformative Bail Reform, a popular education curriculum, an invaluable and unique resource for grassroots organizers and social justice to help them understand the issues in a larger historical, social, and economic context." There must be a concerted effort to help get this information in the hands of local social justice organizers to inform their work.
"Reinvestment" Sleight of Hand
According to a 2016 Urban Institute report on Justice Reinvestment Initiative programs in many states, more than $1 billion has been saved (or calculated as averted costs) over time by reducing the number of people incarcerated in participating states. Yet JRI savings are not reallocated to improve the health and well-being of communities most impacted by race-based policing and mass incarceration, except indirectly, through recycling into some form of prison-based or community corrections work.
Prop 47's initial "community investment" savings -- about $68 million once substantive governmental disputes over the correct amount were settled -- were to be distributed by three different bodies through competitive grants for drug treatment, mental health services, and supportive housing for people in the criminal justice system (65 percent); programs for at-risk students (dropout and truancy) in K-12 schools (25 percent); and victim services (10 percent). Yet as of December 2016, almost two years after the passage of Prop 47, none of the "savings" had been spent for these designated purposes. (The money should be reallocated in Spring 2017.)
The Movement for Black Lives and others in progressive justice movements promote far more liberatory "invest/divest/reinvest" frameworks for organizing. But in many jurisdictions, progressives will have to organize to overcome or transform the closed, restrictive processes that are already institutionalized.
Rhetoric of Danger
When we fail to challenge and transform the terms of engagement, reform agendas relying on representations of danger and violent criminals always win out over social, economic, and environmental justice. In the US, anyone labeled violent, dangerous, or criminal is considered disposable. Bipartisan reform campaigns center the themes of danger and public safety, and the framing implies that "public safety" is primarily a function of policing, surveillance, and control, with the prison always in the background as the essential repository for "danger" and the disposable people who are marked as its embodiment.
That doesn't ever bode well for justice movements but particularly now when they must contend with a new and unstable president who rose to power on a wave of right-wing populism, stoking a toxic mix of White nationalism and racialized resentment and rage. Particularly concerning is the appointment of Jeff Sessions, who has a long, racist "law and order" history, as attorney general. As a champion of voter suppression, draconian anti-immigrant policies, harsh sentencing policies, expanded incarceration, racial profiling, and unbridled police power to quell imagined or actual dissent, he is obsessed with doing battle against racialized, violent notions of criminals. At the same time, justice movements know Sessions isn't the only problem. Today's growing torrent of state and local efforts to harshly criminalize dissent comes in the wake of anti-state violence uprisings and the Standing Rock water protectors' assertion of Indigenous sovereignty as much as 2017 protests surrounding Trump's inauguration. The challenges we face are the result of decades of right-wing activism, not simply the ascendance of Jeff Sessions.
The Right utilizes every possible issue to advance an ideological agenda and endgame. The Left, by contrast, has no similar endgame in mind.
In 1883, the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass spoke about the power of racial criminalization, noting "the general disposition in this country to impute crime to color." He was describing a massive system of racialized social control that includes prisons. In this light, consider again the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. Ultimately calamitous (and still racially biased) policies came into being in part because "criminal justice" was narrowly framed as a standalone issue whose problems could be corrected by tinkering with the mechanics of sentencing.
It's happening again. The US carceral system is not winding itself down as a humanitarian response to the racialized and economic brutalities of mass incarceration. Rather, it's reinventing and renewing itself under the bipartisan mask of reform. And today, as in 1984, conservative-Right reformers are better organized to win on contested terrain.
The Right utilizes every possible issue -- criminal justice reform, health care, school privatization, environmental protection, industry regulation, religious liberty -- to advance an ideological agenda and coherent, holistic endgame. The progressive-Left sector, by contrast, has no similar endgame in mind.
This is an excerpt of a longer article, Endgame: How "Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform" Institutionalizes a Right-Wing, Neoliberal Agenda, which originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Public Eye Magazine published by Political Research Associates.
This week's episode discusses the Oklahoma cutting funds for public schools, why Americans don't take the paid vacations owed to them and how fossil fuel companies fight green power companies to buy politicians that decide what energy system we must live with. Also included is an interview with Lisa E. Davis, author of Undercover Girl, about undoing the New Deal, paid FBI informaints and the destruction of the Communist Party USA.
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Medical professionals are often the first to deal with the health harms caused by air pollution, heat waves, drought, famine and war brought on by climate change. The newly formed Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health representing 11 major medical specialty organizations in the US is working to build awareness among the public and lawmakers about the looming public health crisis precipitated by climate change.
(Photo: Global Landscapes Forum; Edited: LW / TO)
President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement has been condemned throughout the world for a long list of reasons. It's a manifestation of complete detachment from the reality of climate science. The US economy will crawl into hibernation in a cramped den of dirty energy while the rest of the world eagerly exploits the enormous economic opportunities of clean energy. And it has quickly and decisively knocked the US off the leadership podium on the most important issue in the history of mankind. The White House, cheered on by Republican congressional leaders, is in defiance of the overwhelming majority of scientists, politicians and business leaders throughout the world, including many that run fossil fuel corporations.At its core, the climate crisis is a public health crisis.
But at its core, the climate crisis is a public health crisis. Although physicians have been somewhat late to the game, they are now getting on board in a big way. Let's take a cue from those relentless, repetitive TV drug ads: "Ask your doctor if the Paris Climate Agreement is right for you." Here's what your doctor says.
In 2009, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment conducted a public seminar at the University of Utah Medical School on how damage to the climate threatens public health. The same year, 29 distinguished medical experts wrote in one of the world's most distinguished medical journals that global warming was, "the biggest global health threat of the 21st century, and will put the lives and well being of billions of people at increased risk."
The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently stated the climate crisis will have "massively disruptive consequences to societies and ecosystems, including widespread famines, lethal heat waves, more frequent and destructive natural disasters, and social unrest."
In April 2016 the historically conservative American Medical Association filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in support of the Clean Power Plan. In March of this year, 11 of the major medical specialty organizations in the US formed The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The new organization represents more than 400,000 physicians -- about half of all the health care professionals in the country. Announcing this unprecedented move, physician leaders said, "Climate change [already] threatens the health of every American." And here's why.
To begin with, hotter temperatures themselves aggravate heart disease, increase pregnancy complications and will increase the number of heat strokes. But that's just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.
Air pollution is intimately related to climate disruption. The chemical reaction that forms atmospheric ozone is catalyzed by heat, and ozone levels are increasing worldwide. A much prolonged, if not year-round forest fire season, and more intense mega-fires send smoke circling the entire globe, increasing everyone's exposure to smoke pollution. The area in the Western US scorched by wildfires has doubled in the last 30 years. More global warming will increase forest fire decimation exponentially.
Hotter temperatures and more drought, like what the American West is experiencing, is increasing dust storms. A single gram of dust can harbor as many as 1 billion microorganisms. Diseases like SARS, valley fever, influenza and meningitis can be spread by dust. In the Great Basin of the American West, that dust also contains heavy metals like mercury, and radioactive metals like uranium, strontium, cesium and plutonium.
Vector-borne diseases, spread by mosquitoes and other insects, are rapidly increasing their geographic range and season of distribution. Mosquito populations are very temperature sensitive, increasing tenfold with every 0.1-degree C increase in temperature. We can expect -- and in many cases, are already seeing -- increases in West Nile virus, dengue fever, coccidioidomycosis, Zika, Chagas, Lyme disease, yellow fever, chikungunya, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, leishmaniasis, hantavirus and malaria.
Malnutrition and mass starvation are perhaps the greatest reason to fear global warming. The global food supply will be reduced by increased temperatures and the attendant increased water requirements of plants. Every day above 30 degrees C causes a drop in staple crop yields like corn, wheat and soybeans of about 5 percent. By 2100, projected temperature increases worldwide are expected to decrease corn yields 50 percent, soybeans 40 percent and wheat 20 percent. More droughts and floods will further decrease crop production. Weeds and insects thrive under warmer temperatures. Rising levels of CO2 reduce the concentrations of protein and essential minerals in most plant species, including wheat, soybeans and rice, according to the EPA. Increased heat threatens livestock. Milk production from dairy cows drops with increased temperatures. Ozone is a powerful oxidizing agent acting on, among other things, human lungs and plants. The US Department of Agriculture says, "Ozone causes more damage to plants than all other pollutants combined," and it increases water stress, especially for wheat and soybeans.
Coral reefs throughout the world, like the iconic Great Barrier Reef, are dying. As ocean water becomes hotter and more acidic, entire marine ecosystems are disrupted. Coral reefs are the breeding grounds for about one-fourth of the world's fish, which provide billions of people with their primary source of protein.
Military experts are warning that climate disruption, already precipitating refugee crises and regional conflicts, will reach an "unimaginable scale," adding another layer of global health risk, including igniting security threats from more terrorism. People whose lives have been reduced to desperation from climate-related disasters will become more susceptible to terrorist recruiters, especially if the target is the United States, which has just brazenly told the world it couldn't care less about the climate. If Trump's top priority is to protect the US from terrorism, pulling out of the climate agreement will likely increase that risk far more than any travel bans or wall building could decrease it.
Finally, the climate crisis is a global psychological and emotional stressor. Extreme heat alone is associated with increased incidence of aggressive behavior, violence and suicide, and increases in hospital and emergency room admissions for those with mental health or psychiatric conditions. People traumatized economically and/or psychologically by extreme weather events are subsequently plagued by depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and suicide. Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist said, "Expectation of climate-change disasters is causing pre-traumatic stress disorder … the anger, the panic, the obsessive, intrusive thoughts."
Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria psychology professor, said, "I see parallels to the fears we went through in the 1950s about the world ending because of atomic war. There was this general dread among people, and this fear of annihilation." I remember as a child, drills in school to duck under my desk in case of nuclear war (as if that would have helped). Daily dread of the "mushroom cloud" hardly made life in the 1950s a carefree experience for children -- or for anyone else.
Every excuse the Trump administration gave for pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, before and after, was deceptive and dishonest. For example, EPA head Scott Pruitt just stated that coal industry jobs have increased by 50,000 since Trump took office. However, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are only 51,000 total jobs in the coal mining industry. Now add to that studies finding that pollution from coal power plants kills 52,000 people a year in the US.
Even taking Pruitt's word for it, for every new job in the coal industry, someone else's life will be sacrificed.
Go ahead, ask your doctor if the Paris climate agreement is right for you. You know what the answer is.
Although alleged Kremlin connections may ultimately sink Trump's Presidency, Rev. William Barber, II, contends that homegrown voter suppression poses a greater threat to US democracy than Russian election tampering.
"Voter suppression hacked our democracy long before any Russian agents meddled in America's elections," said Barber, who has gained national interest through his vocal opposition to restrictive voting laws.
The Right's Redistricting Strategy: Popular Vote Doesn't Matter
Pointing out that Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by almost 3 million votes, some Democrats salve their wounds from the 2016 election loss by repeating the mantra, "She won the popular vote!" Meanwhile, Donald Trump obsesses about that vote tally so much he refuses to drop the dubious claim that millions of illegal ballots cost him that popular vote victory.
Both views are irrelevant to the right wing kingmakers who have funded voter suppression and redistricting efforts for decades.
That's because they long ago adopted a key insight about US elections: the popular vote doesn't matter.
As far back as 1980, the late conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a group of religious-right ministers, "I don't want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
Notably, in addition to helping found the conservative Heritage Foundation, Weyrich also cofounded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which has enjoyed Koch-brothers funding to craft and promote the passage of voter suppression laws in numerous state legislatures.
Tea Party's Multi-Millionaire
In his book, The Third Reconstruction, Rev. William Barber, II, explains how ALEC's playbook was adapted to reshape North Carolina's elections when stringent voter suppression laws were enacted by Republicans who rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010.
Multi-millionaire Art Pope and his allies funded efforts to gerrymander voting districts to favor his ultraconservative agenda by "stacking and packing" black voters into as few districts as possible.
As Barber wrote, "Henceforth and forevermore, they thought, the popular vote wouldn't matter. A majority of North Carolinians could vote against them, but they would still maintain power by winning a majority of the districts."
As a result, North Carolina's congressional delegation shifted from having seven Democrats and six Republicans to its current makeup of 10 Republicans and three Democrats.
That redistricting strategy, however, is beginning to unravel in North Carolina where the Supreme Court has now ruled against racially gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts three times already this year. It remains to be seen whether the strategy will continue working in other states.
-- Mary Claire Blakeman
In fact, Barber recently announced that he will step down as president of the North Carolina NAACP this month to assume a new role as president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and will co-lead the Poor People's Campaign. That campaign -- to reignite the one begun by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., almost 50 years ago -- seeks to reorder national priorities to address systemic poverty, racism and the war economy.
Bolstering the effort are recent US Supreme Court decisions that rejected Republican redistricting plans aimed at illegal racial gerrymandering.
States With Highest Poverty
"We're looking at Putin's strongman tactics and not at our own race-based voter suppression tactics," Barber said. "But we have to demand attention. What the states with the highest voter suppression have in common is that they also have the highest rates of poverty."
Barber developed his critique after spending years building a broad-based social justice coalition and leading the Moral Mondays movement that coalesced in 2013 to combat escalating voter suppression tactics in North Carolina.
In that state, Republican legislators passed restrictions so blatantly designed to keep black voters away from the polls, the courts eventually charged that they targeted African Americans with "almost surgical precision."
For instance, legislators reduced early-voting opportunities after analyzing data showing poor and minority citizens were significantly more likely to cast their ballots prior to election day. They often did so to avoid missing work or as part of Sunday "Souls to the Polls" drives at black churches.
In Greensboro, N.C. -- where student sit-ins to integrate the Woolworth's lunch counter helped catalyze the civil rights movement in the 1960s – authorities cut early-voting sites from 16 to only one. That pattern was repeated around the state where a total of 158 similar sites were eliminated.
In the name of preventing so-called voter fraud, legislators created photo ID restrictions that disproportionately affected minorities and young people, such as those without driver's licenses.
Also affected were elders born in rural areas where birth certificates were not issued or were lost. They included many African Americans born in segregated hospitals. Meanwhile, no such ID requirements were applied to absentee ballots -- a voting method used more often by white voters, and one more susceptible to fraud.
Voter Suppression on Steroids
Although North Carolina's voter ID laws have been labeled the worst in the nation, dozens of other states have passed similar legislation -- particularly after the US Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law required federal "preclearance" review before certain states could change their voting laws.
As Ari Berman, author of Give Us The Ballot reported in the Nation magazine, by the time of the 2016 presidential election, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voter discrimination, such as Arizona and Texas.
Already this year, legislators in 31 states have introduced close to 100 bills to limit access to registration and voting, according to the Voting Laws Roundup 2017 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's School of Law.
"After Shelby they went on steroids in terms of voter suppression legislation," Barber said. "That's the real hacking of our system."
While Barber and members of the Moral Mondays movement participated in civil disobedience to protest voter suppression in North Carolina, he also led the state's NAACP to fight it in the courts. In one of those cases -- North Carolina v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP -- the civil rights organization chalked up a victory. On May 15, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) let stand a lower court ruling against the restrictive voting measures.
"This victory is powerful because it proves they cannot hide under the guise of photo ID," Barber said. "They tried to say it was a voter ID bill, but it was really a monster voter-suppression bill and this case makes that very, very clear."
He added, "One thing we learned is that when you fight in the courts and in the streets, you win."
Supreme Court Rulings
Voting-rights advocates also cheered a May 22 SCOTUS decision that rejected North Carolina's 2011 redistricting plan because legislators used race as the basis for drawing boundaries in two congressional districts. That had the effect of diluting African American voting strength in the state. Then on June 5, the court found that 28 state legislative districts were also illegal racial gerrymanders.
Despite this good news, Barber noted that those elected through the racially biased plan remain in power. The new SCOTUS decision also did not rule in favor of special elections this year to correct the gerrymandering, he said.
"This ruling means we have an unconstitutionally constituted legislature that has been passing unconstitutional laws," he said. "This legislature is not legitimate because they cheated and would not be in office. We would not have this extremist super majority in the state legislature. We also have people in Congress, who would not be there if we did not have this race-based redistricting plan. Yet they're there."
The Brennan Center for Justice supports Barber's view about the impact of gerrymandering on the makeup of Congress. After analyzing data for the 2016 election, as well as the 2014 and 2012 cycles, the center released its Extreme Maps report, report, which found that "extreme partisan bias in congressional maps account for at least 16-17 Republican seats in the current Congress -- a significant portion of the 24 seats Democrats would need to gain control of the House in 2020."
In light of this report and other studies on voter suppression, Barber argues that far more public attention needs to be focused on this issue. "It should be troubling to all Americans when extremists deliberately suppress the vote and redistrict in ways that the people elected do not represent the true diversity of the population," he said. "It's undemocratic, it's unconstitutional, and it brings up all kinds of questions regarding the integrity of our elections."
Voter Fraud "Infinitesimally Small"
Some of those questions about election integrity are being argued in the courts -- such as the legal fights over redistricting in Texas and the decision by the Supreme Court to hear a case this fall that will determine if the state of Ohio wrongfully removed thousands of voters from its rolls prior to the 2016 election.
Other arguments are roiling in coffee shops and the Twitterverse as President Donald J. Trump uses his unfounded claims about "the millions of people who voted illegally" to justify creation of a Presidential Commission on Election Integrity to investigate alleged voter fraud.
That task may prove difficult because even Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the new commission's vice chair, has found that this type of fraud is infinitesimally small.
As US News and World Report noted in an article published this past January, "When … Kris Kobach, a longtime proponent of voter suppression efforts, reviewed 84 million votes cast in 22 states in a search for double voting, only 14 instances of fraud were referred for prosecution, which amounts to a 0.00000017 percent fraud rate."
"This commission is a distraction," Barber said. "It's a disgrace that in a democracy where it's been proven time and time again that voter fraud is non-existent that we would allow our tax dollars to be used to chase a ghost."
Whether efforts to suppress votes come from executive actions at the White House or legislation in state houses, Barber counsels voting-rights advocates to continue pressing to counteract them. "The strategy remains the same," he said.
He continued, "You expose what they're doing through direct action, make sure the public is aware of them -- and make sure these laws are examined under the microscope of the constitution."
"Much of this sinister work done in these state houses is not talked about," Barber added. "That is why I say it is more dangerous than Russian hacking. Going forward they have to know that for anything they pass, we will take them to court. They will not be able to hide in the shadows."
On the fringes of promises to end all "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies" lies the perpetual discussion of what the concept of fossil fuel subsidies does -- or doesn't -- actually include. This is an in-depth look at the ways fossil fuel subsidies are measured -- and why semantic arguments over definitions may be missing the point.
Just over a year ago, the G7 group of nations pledged to end all "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies" by 2025.
Meanwhile, on the fringes of such promises lies the perpetual discussion of what the concept of fossil fuel subsidies does -- or doesn't -- actually include.
Attempts to add up the annual global total range from a few hundred billion through to the massive $5.3tn estimate published by the International Monetary Fund in 2015.
Carbon Brief takes an in-depth look at the ways fossil fuel subsidies are measured -- and why semantic arguments over definitions may be missing the point.
The Definition Issue
There is no universally agreed definition of what constitutes a fossil fuel subsidy. Multiple organisations make assessments each using their own, unique approach. The huge range of estimates for the value of fossil fuel subsidies is driven by both the methods they use to calculate them and the countries covered.
From government spending on infrastructure, such as oil pipelines, to price controls on domestic energy, these organisations often count fossil fuel subsidies or support in very different ways. The table below breaks down how four major bodies make their calculations. These are examined in further detail below (as are producer, consumer and "post-tax" subsidies).
The subsidies in most analysis can be broken down into two types of subsidies: those given to producers and those to consumers.
Consumption (or consumer) subsidies are those which reduce the price of energy to consumers, for example, through government controls on the cost of petrol or power. These have often been put in place to lower transport bills or help poor families access electricity.
Calculations of consumer subsidies effectively measure the difference in the domestic price of the fuel compared to the global market price. William Blyth, an expert in energy security and climate change policy and author of a 2013 report on fossil fuel subsidies for the UK's Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), tells Carbon Brief:
"It's very easy to tell in a particular country if a price of petrol is lower than the going rate, then that's a clear measure of the [consumer] subsidy. […] It's how subsidies are often done particularly in developing countries where governments want to make energy products cheaper for consumers, because it's a popular policy decision, and that can affect, for example, petrol and diesel prices, LPG [liquid petroleum gas] for cooking, and so on."
The trouble with this, says Blyth, is that consumer subsidies are, in fact, often applied to products, such as petrol, which only the relatively rich can afford. "That subsidy is coming from the general tax base.`So, in fact, what you see is that that subsidy is actually creating a transfer of wealth from poorer to richer people," he explains.
Much of the global attention on subsidy reform has been looking at overturning consumer subsidies. However, as they are largely absent in richer nations, this narrows the focus of subsidy reform to developing countries. "That picture of the world tended to say energy subsidies is a developing country issue and it's not really an issue for developed countries," says Blyth.
The IEA: A Consumer Subsidy Approach
In its calculations of fossil fuel subsidies across 40 developing world countries, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) uses the "price-gap" approach, a method which compares domestic energy prices to the international market price and, therefore, largely incorporates only consumer subsidies.
This approach means the IEA does not try to explain how or if producers are compensated by government for selling their products at a lower price. Instead it simply calculates the price difference and labels this a subsidy. This could have been provided via a direct budgetary transfer -- which is usually considered a subsidy -- or through a tax concession -- which some don't consider as a subsidy. Either way the IEA doesn't report this.
While most broadly accept that what the IEA calculates can indeed be called a "subsidy", there are some areas of discord. For instance, Assia Elgouacem, a consultant at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), tells Carbon Brief:
"One point of contention that emerges from the IEA price-gap approach is that a number of hydrocarbon-producing countries are of the opinion that the reference price should be based on the cost of production rather than on import- or export-parity pricing."
The IEA's most recent report put global fossil-fuel subsidies at $325bn in 2015 -- just 6% of the IMF's total estimate for subsidies for 2015, which included producer subsidies and externalities (see below).
Consumer Subsidy Reform
The IEA's 2015 estimate was also down 35% from almost $500bn in 2014, a drop which the IEA said reflected lower fossil-fuel prices and a subsidy reform process that has gathered momentum in several countries, from Mexico to Egypt.
These concerted efforts in many developing countries to remove consumer fossil fuel subsidies are especially significant since government expenditure on such subsidies can exceed public spending on education or health in some countries.
In Indonesia, for example, spending on fossil fuel subsidies in 2016 is thought to have come to less than 1% of GDP, compared to over 3% in 2014, when President Joko Widodo implemented a series of reforms after taking office three years ago.
Meanwhile, in India, alongside other reforms, a campaign launched by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in 2015 encouraged rich Indians to voluntarily give up their Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) subsidy in order to "make a personal contribution towards nation-building" and help poor people to move away from burning firewood. Over 10 million people have already signed up to relinquish their subsidy.
A recent report from the Nordic Council of Ministers found that countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Morocco and Zambia, who are already undergoing energy reforms, would particularly benefit from transferring funds that normally go on fossil fuel subsidies towards sustainable energy investment, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Unlike consumer subsidies, production subsidies are those which make it less costly for producers to develop resources in the first place. They can include things such as tax breaks for capital investment, requiring a lower share of profits to be given as tax from developing a resource, public finance specifically given to fossil fuel production, and, in some analysis, investment by state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Blyth tells Carbon Brief: "It's basically giving more of the wealth which is generated from exploiting these fossil fuel resources to the producers, at the expense of the national government, which is the party to that kind of agreement."
However, as Blyth explains, these type of subsidies can be hard to define. And as it is difficult to measure the effect of a particular production subsidy on the global price, they tend not to show up in the price-gap methodology used by groups such as the IEA.
With such a large array of ways of providing production subsidies, it can also be difficult -- and contentious -- to label what actually is a production subsidy and what isn't.
Does the UK Have Fossil Fuel Subsidies?
The UK defines fossil fuel subsidies as government action that "lowers the pretax price to consumers to below international market levels".
Since a reduction in the usual rate of tax paid in a certain sector (such as North Sea oil and gas) doesn't fit into this definition, the government says this isn't subsidy.
Therefore, despite multiple reports highlighting how the UK gives frequent financial support to prop up its oil and gas industries, the government argues it is simply lowering the sector's already higher-than-usual rate of tax and has no fossil fuel subsidies.
For instance, chancellor Philip Hammond recently announced new help for the North Sea oil and gas industry, also highlighting the "unprecedented support already provided to the oil and gas sector through £2.3bn packages in the last three years".
A recent Carbon Brief analysis found the UK's North Sea oil and gas sector actually became a net drain on public finances in 2016, with the sector receiving an overall £396m in 2016, even when tax payments were taken into account. Another investigation released by Greenpeace and Private Eye in April found the UK had pledged £4.8bn in financial support to fossil fuel firms since 2010 through UK Export Finance, the government agency that supports risky export deals to boost international trade by providing guarantees, insurance and reinsurance against loss.
As Blyth explains, the reason the labelling of production subsidies such as those in the UK is so contentious is because they are in essence the result of a negotiation on how resources that are generated from exploiting oil and gas reserves are split between the private company and the country.
He tells Carbon Brief: "That becomes a very individual sort of negotiation in most cases, and there isn't really an international global standard against which to measure what's normal…The way producer subsidies are defined is a deviation from the normal tax regime of the country. But the normal tax regime for the UK is different from the tax regime of Norway and the Netherlands and wherever else, so it's not really possible to define what [deviation from normal] means globally."
It's worth noting that in the same FOI document quoted above, the government said it had given over £4bn in direct subsidies to renewables in 2014 to 2015.
In some ways, this goes to the heart of the debate over fossil fuel and renewables subsidies in developed countries, which often amounts to the issue of comparing often direct payments given to renewables to the tax breaks, reduced-rate VAT, investment support or even unpaid externalities which are used to support fossil fuel production.
The OECD: An Inventory Approach to Production Subsidies
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) -- a collective of 34 democracies with market economies which aims to stimulate economic progress and world trade -- reports on fossil fuel "support mechanisms". Its estimates broadly cover producer support to fossil fuels in the 34 OECD countries and a handful of large partner economies, such as Russia, India and China.
The OECD uses the term "support", which it says is deliberately broader than some conceptions of "subsidy", in a bid to get away from debates over what is and isn't included.
Unlike the IEA, the OECD uses an "inventory" approach to provide a bottom-up breakdown of the policies and instruments governments are using to support or provide preference for fossil fuels in some way over alternatives. This could include, for example, the use of budget support to provide tax breaks or consumption subsidies for diesel. "For that you have to go into the detail of national tax regimes for the oil and gas sector etc, and it's quite a detailed study," says Blyth. It's worth noting that the OECD does not try to strictly quantify the total amount spent on fossil fuel support using an exhaustive analysis.
According to Ronald Steenblik, a trade policy analyst at the OECD, totalling up the IEA and OECD estimates is a reasonable way to approximate the spend on worldwide support to fossil fuels. He tells Carbon Brief: "A golden rule for inter-governmental organisations is 'thou shalt not duplicate work that other organisations do'. So the OECD's estimates complement the information provided by the IEA…There is a bit of overlap between [the two] estimates -- mainly regarding Mexico and India (we are working with the IEA to eliminate those) -- but, otherwise, adding the two sets of estimates together yields a rough approximation of most of the world's support to fossil fuels."
Shelagh Whitley, head of the climate and energy programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK-based thinktank which publishes regular reports on fossil fuel subsidies, says the OECD's approach is actually the most practical instruction manual for those seeking reform.
This is because it gives specific policy-by-policy information on what can be changed; whether that be a certain type of support in a particular state or region, through to an oil field or mine. "The other institutions are looking more at data that can shape government policy or can shape international policy," she says.
The OECD's most recent inventory in 2015 catalogued almost 800 individual measures in the 41 mainly developed countries it covers. These had an overall value of $160bn-$200bn per year between 2010 and 2014. The OECD noted such support "seems to follow a downward trend" -- again both because of low oil prices and policy signals from governments.
The Closest Thing to a Definition
The OECD bases its inventory on the World Trade Organisation (WTO)'s 1994 definition of fossil fuel subsidies -- the only internationally agreed definition of the term.
It labels subsidies as a "financial contribution by a government" which "confers a benefit" on its recipient. It specifically includes grants, loan guarantees, tax breaks and the provision of goods or services by the government in its definition. As noted above, some governments such as the UK sideline this definition, by arguing their tax breaks are not subsidies.
Like the OECD, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) (see above) uses the WTO definition in its reports on fossil fuel subsidies. However, it goes over and above the types of producer subsidies included in the OECD inventory to include public finance (such as loans given by majority state-owned banks) and investment by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in fossil fuels.
In its 2015 report on G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, the ODI -- in collaboration with Oil Change International (OCI) -- found these amounted to $452bn a year, over twice the amount in the OECD's inventory. (The report also singled out the UK for substantially increasing support for fossil fuels production in recent years to prop up its increasingly uneconomic domestic industry.)
Blyth argues much of the reason behind this higher value comes down to what is defined as "normal" and, therefore, what deviations from the normal are.
For instance, he says, the OECD tends to say things such as tax breaks on capital investment for decommissioning of old oil rigs are managing the end of life rather than production subsidies. The ODI/OCI study, on the other hand, says any sort of tax break -- even for decommissioning old oil rigs -- would still count as a subsidy, since this lowers the overall cost to the industry.
(It's worth noting here that the OECD is currently in the process of updating its inventory, with the new version set to be released this autumn. According to the OECD, this will include a method for measuring the "subsidy-equivalent" of concessional loans and loan guarantees along with some examples.)
The ODI analyses often concentrate mainly on economies with producer rather than consumer subsidies, with its reports looking at blocs such as the G20 and the EU. In its most recent report, released last month, it found 10 EU member states had given an average of €6.3bn per year in subsidies to coal over the past decade. Six of these had even introduced new subsidies -- worth a collective €875m per year -- to support the coal sector since 2015, the year the Paris Agreement was made.
The list of organisations calculating subsidies in one way or another goes on, with calculations by a raft of others including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, alongside many non-profit or research bodies, such as the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Bankwatch and Influence Map.
But there is one organisation which a few years ago took a more radical (and fiercely debated) approach to calculating fossil fuel subsidies: the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The IMF Stirs It Up
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), conceived at a UN conference in 1944, is a Washington DC-based body of 189 nations which works to promote international economic cooperation and standardise exchange rates. Its mandate was updated in 2012 to include all macroeconomic and financial sector issues that bear on global stability.
Back in the lead up to the UN Paris climate conference in 2015, the IMF released a major report which reignited the discussion over the worldwide cost of fossil fuel subsidies.
The report estimated that the world would be spending a colossal $5.3tn on energy subsidies in 2015, with most of this supporting fossil fuels. Equal to $10m a minute, this is an amount greater than the total annual healthcare spend by all the world's governments. It is also around ten times the IEA and OECD values combined.
If all these subsidies were eliminated, the IMF said worldwide government revenue could be raised by $2.9tn, around 4% of the global economy in 2015. Meanwhile, global CO2 emissions would be cut by over 20% and air pollution deaths more than halved, the IMF said.
These are huge numbers. However, as several commentators noted, the IMF's report looked at something rather different than most of the other attempts to add up subsidies to the energy sector. This is because it was one of first estimates of energy subsidies which incorporated "externalities" (or, as it called them, "post-tax subsidies") into its calculations.
The IMF effectively said that any failure to factor in the full costs of using fossil fuels should be counted as a subsidy. This included any financial burden which fell on society due to the effects of air pollution or climate change caused by using fossil fuels. Removing these subsidies would, in practice, mean increasing the price of energy to cover the full health and environmental costs of using fossil fuels.
The IMF concluded all this made its calculation an "extremely robust" estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels -- and how much they were being propped up by governments.
According to Blyth, the IMF report was important as it brought together the subsidy debate and carbon pricing debate, which had previously taken place in parallel. He says: "Basically, what they're saying is that the new normal should be to include, for example, carbon prices and carbon taxes into the price of the fuel, so that you're paying for the external environmental damages and so on within the price of that fuel. And if that's not priced in then that's counted as a subsidy. That's really changing the game in terms of subsidy definition."
The grid below gives a basic breakdown of the types of subsidy (or otherwise) covered by the four main organisations covered in this piece.
Can Externalities Be Subsidies?
The IMF report prompted much debate on whether externalities can really be labelled as subsidies. "[T]here is something rather Orwellian about describing a failure to tax something as a subsidy," wrote Sam Bowman in the Daily Telegraph. "Rebranding externalities as subsidies might make for good headlines in the left-wing press, but it also makes for stifled debate and woolly thinking."
Brad Plumer in Vox, meanwhile, pointed out that even if you accept the premise of allowing externalities to be subsidies, the IMF included some that are pretty tenuous to say are caused by fossil fuel use, such as traffic fatalities and congestion. Still, it's worth pointing out that the lion's share of the cost of externalities in the IMF report were from global warming and air pollution.
Others rejected the IMF's inclusion of consumption subsidies, such as lower-than-typical VAT rates (as occurs in the UK, where the VAT rate on gas and electricity is just 5% compared to the standard 20%). "They've simply assumed that everything consumed in the economy should be paying much the same tax rate in order to raise revenue to pay for government," wrote Tim Worstall in Forbes. "This just isn't what we would normally describe as a subsidy although we can, if we want to, stretch the meaning to include it. However, do note that this means that renewables are gaining very much the same subsidies."
(It's worth noting that some experts, including Blyth, do consider reduced VAT rates a consumer subsidy. "The UK is almost unique in the OECD countries in having such a low VAT rate," he tells Carbon Brief. "Normal economic theory would say that you should as far as possible keep the same VAT rates across all products. So that means, in my view, that it is subsidies.")
But many also rallied to praise the inclusiveness of the IMF report, which some viewed as illuminating the unfair wider financial support with which fossil fuels are often privileged. Nicholas Stern, climate economist at the London School of Economics and author of the influential 2006 Stern review, said the report "shatter[ed] the myth that fossil fuels are cheap" by showing "just how huge their real costs are".
According to Blyth, one of the most interesting things about the IMF calculation was to see how much the scale of the externalities -- whether or not they are acknowledged as subsidies -- tended to dominate that of subsidies under their normal definition.
For instance, the figures for air pollution and global warming externalities alone added up to over $4tn, compared to just $333bn for the more conventional forms subsidies ("pre-tax subsidies"). Blyth says:
"I think it puts it into a wider context: ultimately, the community of analysts and so on who are trying to push against subsidies are, ultimately, doing it for environmental reasons, so I think it puts the whole thing on a common sort of footing."
What's in a Pledge?
Fossil fuel subsidies have featured on and off in G7 statements since 2009 (at the time G8, before Russia's ejection), but 2016 was the first time the group had set a concrete deadline for phase out.
But while campaigners cautiously welcomed this 2025 pledge, many urged the G7 to go further by agreeing on a comprehensive phase out of fossil fuel subsidies by 2020. Now, with this pledge dropped from the latest communique last month, it remains unclear whether or not erasing fossil fuel subsidies will remain a priority for the G7. (The 2025 pledge was included, though, in the communique issued today by the G7 environment ministers meeting in Bologna.)
In March, though, G20 countries affirmed their commitment to phasing out "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption" (essentially a nod to consumption subsidies). Their communique also included for the first time a call for all G20 countries to undergo a peer review of such subsidies. (It's worth noting that the UK has declined to take part in this, arguing it does not need to since under its own definition of fossil fuel subsidies it doesn't have any).
However, the G20 pledge continues to address only a "medium term" phase out despite calls from climate vulnerable nations to set a deadline for this, preferably of 2020.
This table sets out the statements on fossil fuel subsidies given by both the G20 and the G7 each year since 2007.
For instance, a detailed study released this year by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) looking at the impacts of US government subsidies on oil production and CO2 emissions found that, even at today's low oil prices, almost half of the new oil fields in the US depend on them in order to go ahead. The report estimated these subsidies could shift about 20bn barrels' worth of still-undeveloped oil reserves from unprofitable to profitable. Once burned, this oil would emit around 8 billion tonnes (Gt) of CO2 -- about 1% of the world's remaining carbon budget under the Paris Agreement's 2C target, the SEI said.
It's worth noting that the US has already undergone its fossil fuel subsidy peer review under the G20 -- as has China -- and has itself identified 16 subsidies it gives to fossil fuel producers. However, Peter Erickson, a co-author of the SEI report, tells Carbon Brief he would be "surprised" if the new administration under Donald Trump continues to look as closely at these subsidies as past administrations have.January 11, 2017
The ODI also looks into the climate impacts of fossil fuel subsidies. Another of its reports, released in February in collaboration with the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI), estimated that a complete removal of subsidies to fossil fuel production globally would reduce the world's emissions by 37GtCO2 between 2017 and 2050. At an average of 1.1GtCO2 per year, this is the equivalent of eliminating all emissions from the aviation sector, the report said.
But even in the case of agreement to phase out such fossil fuel subsidies, there is a need for agreement as to what counts within this -- and what doesn't. The G20 and G7 have no concrete definition of what should be included, leaving the door open to arguments -- see the UK -- that certain types of support for fossil fuels simply don't count.
The multitude of different organisations looking at subsidies using different approaches, arguably, doesn't help this debate. As Whitley argues, the issue is not necessarily that organisations disagree on the "definition" of a subsidy -- it is simply that they are looking at different types of support, often in different countries. Ultimately, she tells Carbon Brief, the definition argument is beside the point:
"The issue is not whether or not [countries] by definition have subsidies. The issue is whether they are providing support to fossil fuels when they have pledged to end the use of fossil fuels under the Paris Agreement."
The point, she says, is that governments are using a range of tools to provide support for those developing fossil fuels. And these tools are important to identify, not just to see a shift away from this support, but also to allow those same tools to be used to support other things, such as green energy. She says:
"We're often told by governments we don't have resources, we don't have the funds to support green energy, we don't have the money to give to climate finance. But actually if you look at the tools that are used for our current energy system a lot of that is to support fossil fuels and those tools are there."
The question then becomes not whether this or that tax break counts as a "subsidy", but whether governments are gearing their full support towards decarbonising their countries' energy systems in order to avoid dangerous temperature rises, as they have promised to do in the Paris Agreement.
Greenpeace Launches Summer of Resistance to Dial Up Peaceful Direct Action against the Trump Administration and the Right’s Attacks on Justice and the Environment
Today, Greenpeace USA launched a summer-long initiative to educate thousands of people across the country in the basics of non-violent direct action. The “Summer of Resistance” tour will visit more than a dozen sites across the country, with a focus on “distributed organizing” meant to inspire 100 peaceful creative actions across the country.
Watch the launch video here:
In response to today’s testimony from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt about the proposed budget for the agency in 2018, American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. issued the following statement:
Advocates including the ACLU are applauding Gov. John Bel Edwards for acting swiftly and decisively to fulfill a core campaign promise to reform the state’s criminal justice system. Today, Gov. Edwards signed into law a series of measures that will result in an estimated 10 percent reduction in the state’s prison population over the next ten years. These reforms are being called a major step forward in a state that currently incarcerates more people per capita than any other in the United States and the world.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Ohio, and the employment law firm Outten & Golden LLP today filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a J.P. Morgan Chase employee who claims the company discriminated against him and other fathers by denying fathers paid parental leave on the same terms as mothers.
In Victory for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Court Finds That Approval of Dakota Access Pipeline Violated the Law
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe won a significant victory today in its fight to protect the Tribe’s drinking water and ancestral lands from the Dakota Access pipeline.
I spoke with Ingrid Latorre soon after she was granted a temporary stay of deportation after being taken in Sanctuary by the Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver. Jenn Piper, AFSC's Interfaith Immigrant Organizer joined us to translate and added her perspective as well. -- Lucy Duncan
Lucy Duncan: Ingrid, thank you very much, it's wonderful to meet you. It's been very inspiring to watch your journey and your courage in the face of your struggles and in the last few weeks.
I know that you have told this story a number of times, but just for the purpose of this interview and considering the situation now, Ingrid, could you please tell the story briefly of what led you to enter Sanctuary at Mountain View Friends Meeting?
Ingrid Latorre: Really I took Sanctuary because all of the other options were being denied to me by Immigration. I took Sanctuary in order to continue fighting for justice in my case. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had what they call a voluntary departure, and then I asked for a stay in order to try and reopen my criminal case where I had received poor legal advice, and immigration denied that stay, twice, and the Quakers had been accompanying me during the two times they denied my stay and they offered me Sanctuary and that was a chance to keep fighting my legal case and to try and get justice. It was also the only way to keep my family together, to keep my two boys and my partner and I together in the United States while I fight my case.
And what was the impact on you and your family, of being in sanctuary? And how did the community care for you?
Ingrid: It was an experience that was both beautiful and sad. It was sad because my partner and my oldest son stayed in our family home and myself and my youngest son came to live in Sanctuary and so we were somewhat separated by the experience. But it was also beautiful because I felt very protected and safe in Sanctuary. Every day, people came to visit us, and play with my younger son and talk with me, and stay the night in case immigration should come to the church. I felt very supported by the community.
Ingrid, you received a temporary stay of removal until August. I know Arturo was picked up, but then received a stay, and also Jeanette has received a stay. It seems as though ... and why do you think that ICE is willing to grant that for each of you? What do you think were the circumstances that made it possible for that to happen?
Ingrid: So the three cases are very different and very distinct. In my case, I'm really pursuing a legal strategy that would allow me to reopen my original case and change the plea, which would then allow me to reopen my immigration case. In the case of Jeanette and Arturo, because Arturo doesn't have any convictions, and Jeanette's are misdemeanors, Senator Bennett introduced a private bill for each of them, they were part of the last group of people who can access a stay through a private bill. I was hoping to be included and to have a private bill as well in my case, but that didn't happen, and I can't be upset or jealous about that. I feel very grateful to have the two months that I do have, to be able to attend my court on July 7th, and I hope that I'll win my case that day. If I win my case that day, if I'm able to reopen my criminal case, then I can continue with more time here to reopen my immigration case. But each case is very distinct and I don't know if every person who enters sanctuary will end up with a stay of deportation or not.
Are there elements of the way that's it's very public that are supportive, do you think the media prominence has an influence on what happens?
Ingrid: It can go either way, the press attention in your case, it can help you or hurt you. And each case is very different. In the case of Jeanette, she's a long -- term activist who's very comfortable with the media and being very assertive in her case. In my case, both because of who I am, my own personality, and the sensitivity of my case, with me having to go to court, and my lack of experience before Sanctuary with the media, it was kind of a quieter approach. We did some media work, but it was much more sporadic and had a softer tone to it. The press is helpful with organizing the immigrant and the faith communities, they become engaged because of what they see on the news or they become more involved in supporting our cases and supporting changes.
So last week, Haris was deported. I know a little about the story, and the arrest and detention of undocumented people has risen 38% since Trump became President. What do you think is needed to interrupt these deportations? Piper was talking earlier about the regression from all of the policy wins in the Obama administration. What do you think it's going to take to shift things now?
Ingrid: What we really need is the Congress people and the Senators to do their job and do the hard work of figuring out an amnesty and immigration reform program that would allow all people who are undocumented in the United States, all 11 million, to get on a path to citizenship, but for that to happen, we really need better unity and more people within the country pushing for that, and being united between all the immigrant communities and all the communities that were born here in the U.S. to work together and to push for that, because otherwise it's not happening. It's not looking very hopeful at this moment with the Congress that we have and the amount of pressure that we have from communities is not enough yet to get there.
Jennifer Piper: I think it's also going to require the immigrant community to get organized at the neighborhood level in defense communities and be super ready to push hard and to interrupt what's happening in their neighborhoods, supported by really strong groups of allies who are ready to do that work and to call for reform for all 11 million and not be dividing and labeling the immigrant community into deserving and undeserving, but to really push for a more just system. And I think the other thing is going to require support for general labor strikes by immigrants and their allies, to cause the sort of moral and economic crisis that's needed for change, if we're going to get there in the short term and not in another 20 years, it's going to require resistance across all facets of our society.
Thank you, that's very powerful. It's interesting, because it seems like we're at a very precarious moment with the shifts in the administration and the massive criminalization of immigrants. It's also reminiscent of the other times in history, like when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, there was a sense that free Blacks at the time felt a little bit more safe and a little bit more protected, but when the Fugitive Slave Act happened, there was mass criminalization and they weren't safe anywhere, and so it radicalized the movement, it radicalized the white progressive supporters, and they stopped thinking of gradual change and they started fighting for immediate emancipation and the abolition of slavery. I wonder about Trump, there's this other piece where he's vastly exposing the system, which some people didn't even notice, or ignored under Obama, even though he was deporting so many people. So the question is, what are your thoughts about the possibilities for deeper change? What you're talking about in terms of much more massive resistance is one of them, but what is your sense of the possibilities for deeper change in the migrant rights movement at this time?
Ingrid: I think it's time for us to act, and to live without fear. We need to be really be in the streets doing strikes, hunger strikes and labor strikes and lifting up our voices. I don't think that hiding will save us. We have to speak out and we have to get a change, not only in these policies, but also in this administration. We have to see this President go, he's someone who's just not ethical.
What are your hopes? I hear about expanding the kinds of activism that is happening with economic strikes and hunger strikes and massive resistance, but if there's more a vision for an expanded Sanctuary movement, what would it look like? And not only for the migrant community, but beyond that, and what might it accomplish for us all?
Ingrid: My hope would be that the movement would expand beyond Denver and beyond the places where it is already to as many places as possible. And not just to have allied churches, but to have many more immigrants involved in leading the movement. And sometimes that's a difficult thing, but I've been trying to say to people that it's never too late to get involved, to come to a meeting, to get involved with Not One More or another organization and make your voice heard and be a part of changing things. And I try to really refer people to the meetings I know are going on and to invite people to get involved.
Jenn Piper: I think we're at a juncture where we have to decide what it is we're going to do. A lot of that depends on what the immigrant community is going to ask from us, and I think they're still figuring that out to a large degree, but are we going to invest the time and the energy into creating more networks and more support earlier on, in sort of this rapid response to immigration enforcement and really exposing what that looks like in our communities and our schools, or are we going to expand the church Sanctuary movement with the idea of really overwhelming the system and making it impossible for people to get away from the consequences, both economic and human, of the system that we have. I think that we have to make a choice and we need to be strategic about it.
If all 400 congregations who have signed up to say that they would definitely do Sanctuary did it, that would have an enormous impact, to have 400 immigrants around the country in resistance, and have their voices amplified by the congregations they're working with, would be pretty inescapable for the larger populace, and I think people would have to start making a choice about where they stand. I think if we're not going to do that, then what are we doing to support the other forms of resistance that Ingrid was just talking about?
What would you ask of allies in the fight for migrant justice? And not just to do, but how to be? I think it's important that people hear this again and again, what's the best role to play for an ally?
Ingrid: That people get involved and work harder next to us, so we don't feel so isolated, so alone.
Piper: What I would ask from allies is to be really conscious of the privilege of time. There are communities that are ideologically diverse and actually do need time to make a decision together and to hear one another, and then there are communities that aren't, that are all on the same page, that are uncomfortable with acting without knowing everything or are uncomfortable acting in an area that is new to them, or to us. What I would ask of allies is to get used to, and to search out being uncomfortable every day. Where we're really learning and transforming ourselves and our communities is in that place of uncomfortablility. We need to live into a place where we don't know the answers, walking alongside people who are in a system where there are no answers. And I think in terms of transformed policies, like what Ingrid said, in terms of being able to honor, i think that citizenship is tricky, because it's been denied to Native people and all kinds of people over the course of our history, but it's one of the ways we confer human rights on people in the US, is by affording them citizenship and through that, access to human rights and dignity. I think that that's one piece of it. I think there's a much bigger piece that's looking at how do we disarm capitalism? If we're not going to do that, how we ensure that people have the same rights as goods and as money to cross borders and to move freely about the world, if we're going to have this very competitive, Darwinian competition of the fittest, in the capitalist vision, then we should also allow the people who are involved the same amount of freedom to move and to compete and to follow the resources. So I think at a much larger systemic level, we have to look at: what is the economy we've created, and how do we enforce second class citizenship around the globe by denying some people the right to move and to follow the resources that sustain them or keep them relatively safe, or provide them opportunity.
What would the community where migrant justice was a lived reality look like? What would that vision include? Obviously not being threatened by ICE and by deportation, but what else might it include for a community that's really based on justice for migrants and for everyone?
Ingrid: It's almost hard to imagine, that it seems so far away, that vision, but I think that a lot of it would be just feeling free to walk about and to move about wherever you are without always looking over your shoulder to see if there's a police officer or immigration officer coming to your house or pulling you over in your car or when you're walking down the street. To have that freedom, to go to the store and to the park and not be afraid.
Thank you. The last question that I have is, what gives you courage? What gives you hope?
Ingrid: What gives me hope is my family. They're really what inspires me to struggle and to fight, to stay together.
Piper: What gives me hope is seeing people willing to have hard conversations. And people both from the ally and immigrant communities' willingness to speak out and to be vulnerable and to push.
Nearly 200 Democratic congressmembers are suing President Trump, accusing him of violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting millions of dollars in payments from foreign governments to his companies while serving as U.S. president. The attorneys general of Maryland and D.C. have filed a similar lawsuit against the president. For more, we speak with the longest-serving member of Congress, Democrat John Conyers of Michigan. He has served in Congress since 1965.
Please check back later for full transcript.
The race for the 6th District in Georgia is the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. On Tuesday, voters will head to the polls to fill the seat left vacant after Tom Price resigned to become secretary of health and human services. Polls show Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a virtual tie. But civil rights leaders fear that racist voter suppression tactics could cost Ossoff the election. For more, we speak with investigative reporter Greg Palast and air a report he produced in Georgia.
Please check back later for full transcript.
"The Jungle," a vast encampment of some 8,000 or so migrants hoping to reach England in Calais, France, September 11, 2016. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
"This is a war against normal life." So said CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward, describing the situation at this moment in Syria, as well as in other parts of the Middle East. It was one of those remarks that should wake you up to the fact that the regions the United States has, since September 2001, played such a role in destabilizing are indeed in crisis, and that this process isn't just taking place at the level of failing states and bombed-out cities, but in the most personal way imaginable. It's devastating for countless individuals -- mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers -- and above all for children.
Ward's words caught a reality that grows harsher by the week, and not just in Syria, but in parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, among other places in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Death and destruction stalk whole populations in Syria and other crumbling countries and failed or failing states across the region. In one of those statistics that should stagger the imagination, devastated Syria alone accounts for more than five million of the estimated 21 million refugees worldwide. And sadly, these numbers do not reflect an even harsher reality: you only become a "refugee" by crossing a border. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in 2015 there were another 44 million people uprooted from their homes who were, in essence, exiles in their own lands. Add those numbers together and you have one out of every 113 people on the planet -- and those figures, the worst since World War II, may only be growing.
Rawya Rageh, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, added troubling details to Ward's storyline, among them that deteriorating conditions in war-torn Syria have made it nearly "impossible to find bread, baby formula, or diapers... leaving survivors at a loss for words" (and just about everything else). Meanwhile, across a vast region, families who survive as families continue to face the daily threat of death, hunger, and loss. They often are forced to live in makeshift refugee camps in what amounts to a perpetual state of grief and fear, while the threat of rape, death by drone or suicide bomber, or by other forms of warfare and terror is for many just a normal part of existence, and parental despair is the definition of everyday life.
When normal life disintegrates in this way, the most devastating impact falls on the children. The death toll among children in Syria alone reached at least 700 in 2016. For those who survive there and elsewhere, the prospect of homelessness and statelessness looms large. Approximately half of the refugee population consists of young people under the age of 18. For them and for the internally displaced, food is often scarce, especially in a country like Yemen, in the midst of a Saudi-led, American-backed war in which civilians are commonly the targets of airstrikes, cholera is spreading, and a widespread famine is reportedly imminent. In a Yemeni scenario in which 17 million people now are facing "severe food insecurity," nearly two million children are already acutely malnourished. That number, like so many others emerging from the disaster that is the twenty-first-century Middle East, is overwhelming, but we shouldn't let it numb us to the simple fact that each and every one of those two million young people is a child like any other child, except that he or she is being deprived of the chance to grow up undamaged.
And for those who do escape, who actually make it to safer countries beyond the immediate war zone, life still remains fragile at best with little expectation of a sustainable future. More than half of the six million school-age children who are refugees, reports the UNHCR, have no schools to attend. Primary schools are scarce for them and only 1% of refugee youth attend college (compared to a global average of 34%). Startling numbers of such refugees are engaged in child labor under terrible working conditions. Worse yet, a significant number of child refugees are traveling alone. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), "at least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in some 80 countries in 2015-2016... easy prey for traffickers and others who abuse and exploit them."
Such children, mired in poverty and dislocation, are aptly described as growing up in a culture of deprivation and grief. At least since the creation of UNICEF in 1946, an agency initially focused on the needs of the young in the devastated areas of post-World War II Europe, children at risk have posed a challenge to the world. In recent years, however, the traumas experienced by such young people have been rising to levels not seen since that long-gone era.
A heartbreaking story by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker catches the extremity of both the plight faced by child refugees and possible reactions to it. She reports on a group of them in Sweden, largely from "former Soviet and Yugoslav states," whose families had been denied asylum and were facing deportation. A number of them suffered from a modern version of a syndrome once known as "voodoo death," in which a child falls into a coma-like trance of severe apathy. Doctors have termed this state "resignation syndrome, an illness that is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugees." Fearing ouster and threatened with being deprived of the ties they had already formed in that country, they simply turned off, physically as well as emotionally.
While this is certainly not the first time grief has engulfed parts of the world, children have felt the brunt of its woes. By its nature, warfare breeds destruction, dislocation, and grief. But America's never-ending war on terror, its "longest war," has contributed to the instances of trauma suffered globally among children and continues to undermine their chances for recovery.
As psychologists and psychiatrists who specialize in grief have found, it takes time as well as help to absorb and deal with such trauma and the grief for lives lost and worlds destroyed that follows in its wake. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who famously identified the five steps involved in reacting to grief, has underscored the time it takes to recover from such traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, for refugee children and those uprooted in their own lands, there is usually no time for such a recovery, no safe space in which to experience those five steps. Instead, year after year, the trauma, like the wars, simply persists and intensifies.
One thing seems guaranteed: children who suffer long-term trauma are likely to develop physiological and psychological symptoms that persist into adulthood, rendering it hard for them to parent in a healthy and supportive way. And in this fashion, the wounds of the wars of the present will be handed on to the future. In the technical language of the experts, "Adverse childhood experiences increase the chance of social risk factors, mental health issues, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and adult adoption of risky adult behaviors. All of these can affect parenting in a negative way," and so perpetuate a cycle of dysfunction and trouble.
The Living Casualties of This New Age
There are many ways to think about this twinning of trauma and childhood, which is becoming such a signal part of our age. After the era of the concentration camps in Nazi Europe, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, who had himself spent almost a year in one, studied the effects of trauma on those who survived exposure to extreme deprivation and the constant threat of death. Adults, he concluded, face the possibility of schizophrenia and the destruction of their personality structures, but children, he wrote, faced worse: the destruction of the self before the ego even came into being. Having been exposed to "extreme situations," they ended up feeling overwhelmed, powerless, and "deprived of hope." Many of them had also been forced to grow up without parents who might have helped them through the trauma. Worse yet, some of those he studied had actually seen their parents -- or siblings -- killed.
What he learned remains, unfortunately, applicable to children in our moment. Isn't it time to begin paying more attention to the cost of losing so many children to the forces of deprivation, soul-crushing devastation, and the culture of death at both a global and the most personal of levels? Isn't it time for the rest of us to begin to imagine just what millions of damaged children will mean both for our world and for the world they will inherit as adults? Some of them, of course, will rise above the damage done to them in their youth, but many will not and so will lead lives of loneliness, confusion, and pain, and will potentially pose a danger both to themselves and to others.
As Bettelheim's work, which almost anticipated Sweden's "resignation syndrome," suggests, the early years of the twenty-first century are hardly the first age of grief, nor will they likely be the last. They are, however, ours to deal with and their ravages are already evident not just in the Middle East, but in the rest of the world, too. In Europe and the United States, terrorist attacks tied ideologically to the war on (and of) terror and targeted against civilians, continue to undermine the sense of security to which the citizens of such countries were until recently accustomed. Children are not only part of this cycle of death and destruction, but in a recent instance -- the suicide bombing in Manchester, England -- were its target, as they also have been elsewhere, as in the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, in 2014. Meanwhile, teenage boys are being targeted as recruits for ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Strikingly, the United States has shown remarkably little concern for the children of the war-torn and violence-ridden areas of the Greater Middle East. Those young people could be thought of as the worst of the collateral damage from the years of invasions, occupations, raids, bombing runs, and drone strikes, including the children or youthful relatives of targeted, designated American enemies like Anwar al-Awlaki.
This lack of concern is strikingly reflected in the anti-refugee policies of the Trump era. Refugee children refused admission to the U.S. and other advanced countries and, forced to live in a state of limbo, are being harmed. Such policies and "bans" are exactly the opposite of what's needed to heal the world and move forward. Recently, as if to make just that point, an old photograph of a child has been appearing on Twitter over the caption "Denied refuge and murdered in Auschwitz: the human cost of refugee bans." As a signal of what to expect from the U.S. in the age of Trump, consider his administration's proposed budget, which calls for a cut of more than $130 million in funding for UNICEF, the signature agency providing relief and services to children in need globally.
The U.S. and its allies may one day defeat ISIS and other terror groups, but if what's left in their wake is only bombed-out, unreconstructed landscapes and millions of uprooted children, what kind of victory will that be? What kind of future will that ensure?
There will be no "winning," not truly, if the crisis of grief, the crisis of the children who are the living casualties of this new age, is not addressed sooner rather than later. For every dollar that goes toward a weapon or the immediate struggle against terror outfits, shouldn't another go to the support of those children, to the struggle to stabilize their lives, to provide them with homes, education, and care of the sort that they so desperately need? For every short-term prediction about the possible harm refugees could bring to a country, shouldn't there be some consideration of what the children who are taken care of will want to give their new homelands in return? Shouldn't some thought be given to the world that the rejected or deported young, if left in distress, will someday create?
In Sweden, where the problems of traumatized refugee children have now been studied for more than a decade, the recommendation of psychiatrists and other experts to that country's policymakers was simple enough: "A permanent residency permit is considered by far the most effective 'treatment.'"
The loss of childhood, the effects of trauma, the narrative of grief, and the cruel removal of any sense of hope or of a secure future have been seeping into global discourse about children for many years now. Isn't it time to begin to see their global crisis for what it is: one of the major threats to a stable future for the planet?
Few Americans probably know that their tax dollars paid to kill 76,859 coyotes in 2016. The responsible agency was Wildlife Services (WS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its mission is to "resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist." This broad mandate includes everything from reducing bird strikes at airports to curbing the spread of rabies.
Controlling predators that attack livestock is one of the agency's more controversial tasks. WS uses nonlethal techniques, such as livestock guard dogs and fladry -- hanging strips of cloth from fences, where they flutter and deter predators. But every year it also kills tens of thousands of predators, including bears, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, cougars and wolves.
However, there is no clear evidence that lethal control works to reduce human-predator conflict. In fact, it can even make the problem worse. At the same time, research shows that predators play key roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems. As a conservation biologist specializing in human-wildlife conflicts, I see growing evidence that it is time to reconsider lethal control.
Warfare on the Range
Coyotes have been a target ever since European explorers first arrived in their territory centuries ago. Nonetheless, their range has expanded from the western plains across most of the continent.
The most common reason for killing coyotes is to reduce predation of livestock, such as sheep and calves. In a 2015 USDA report on sheep losses, ranchers reported how many of their animals died in 2014 and how they died. Twenty-eight percent of adult sheep losses and 36 percent of lamb losses were attributed to predators. Of those animals, ranchers stated that 33,510 adult sheep (more than half of total predation losses) and 84,519 lambs (nearly two-thirds of all predation losses) were killed by coyotes.
According to the American Sheep Industry Association, about UD$20.5 million of ranchers' losses in 2014 (roughly one-fifth of their total losses) were attributed to coyotes. Importantly, however, these numbers were based on self-reported data and were not verified by wildlife professionals. External review would be useful because even experienced ranchers may have trouble determining in some cases whether a sheep was killed by a coyote or a dog (dogs are second only to coyotes in reported predation on livestock), or died from other causes and later was scavenged by coyotes.
To keep coyotes in check, WS employees set neck snares and other traps, shoot coyotes on the ground and from planes and helicopters, arm sheep with collars containing liquid poison and distribute M-44 "bombs" that inject sodium cyanide into the mouths of animals that chew on them.
As in warfare, there is collateral damage. M-44s killed more than 1,100 domestic dogs between 2000 and 2012. Scientists have also criticized WS for unintentionally killing numerous animals and birds, including federally protected golden and bald eagles, while failing to do any studies of how its actions affected nontarget species. Early this year the American Society of Mammalogists called for more scientific scrutiny of the policy of killing large predators.
How Effective Is Lethal Control?
It is understandable for struggling ranchers to blame coyotes for economic losses, since kills leave tangible signs and killing predators seems like a logical solution. However, a widely cited 2006 study called coyotes scapegoats for factors that were more directly related to the decline of sheep ranching in the United States.
The author, Dr. Kim Murray Berger, who was then a research biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, built and tested a series of statistical models to explain the declining number of sheep being bred in the United States. She found that variables including the price of hay, wage rates and the price of lamb explained most of the decline, and that the amount of money spent on predator control had little effect.
Other research indicates that even if predation is one factor in ranchers' economic losses, lethal control is not the best way to reduce it.
One 2016 analysis reviewed studies that compared lethal and nonlethal strategies for controlling livestock predation. Lethal methods ranged from civilian hunts to government culls. Nonlethal methods included fladry, guard animals, chemical repellents and livestock protection collars. The review found that nonlethal methods generally reduced livestock predation more effectively, and that predation actually temporarily increased after use of some lethal methods.
Why would predation increase after predators are killed? When pack animals such as coyotes, dingoes and wolves are killed, the social structure of their packs breaks down. Female coyotes become more likely to breed and their pups are more likely to survive, so their numbers may actually increase. Packs generally protect territories, so breaking up a pack allows new animals to come in, raising the population. In addition, some new arrivals may opportunistically prey on livestock, which can increase predation rates.
These findings extend beyond the United States. A three-year study in South Africa found that using nonlethal methods to protect livestock from jackals, caracals and leopards cost ranchers less than lethal methods, both because less predation occurred and because the nonlethal methods cost less.
In Australia dingoes occupy a similar ecological niche to coyotes and are similarly targeted. In a recent case study at a cattle station, researchers found that ceasing all lethal and nonlethal predator control reduced predation of cattle by dingoes as the social structure of the resident dingoes stabilized.
Even research by USDA supports this pattern. In a recent study, researchers from several universities, USDA's National Wildlife Research Center and the nonprofit advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife analyzed wolf predation rates for sheep producers on public grazing lands in Idaho. Predation was 3.5 times higher in zones where lethal control was used than in adjacent areas where nonlethal methods were used.
A High-Stakes Placebo
Overuse of subsidized predator control is comparable to primary care doctors overprescribing antibiotics to human patients. Patients often demand antibiotics for common colds, although doctors understand that these infections are caused mainly by viruses, so antibiotics will be ineffective. But receiving a prescription makes patients feel that their concerns are being addressed. Lethal control is a high-stakes placebo for the problems that ail ranchers, and misusing it can increase problems for ranchers and the ecosystems around them.
Human-wildlife conflict is a complex issue. Often, as some colleagues and I showed in our recent book, "Human-Wildlife Conflict," the real problem is confrontations between humans about how to deal with wildlife.
This means that we need to choose prevention and mitigation methods carefully. If cultural values and prevailing community attitudes are not taken into account, attempts to change ranching practices could increase hostility toward predators and make it harder for conservation groups to work with ranchers.
Federal employees at Wildlife Services are under tremendous pressure from the agricultural industry. And farmers and ranchers often act based on deeply rooted traditions and cultural attitudes. It rests with wildlife professionals to use current and well-grounded science to address human concerns without harming the environment.
An activist holds a sign at a protest outside of the US Department of Justice in Washington, DC, March 2, 2017. (Photo: Mike Maguire)
For decades, the Department of Justice has used court-enforced agreements to protect civil rights, successfully desegregating school systems, reforming police departments, ensuring access for the disabled and defending the religious.
Now, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ appears to be turning away from this storied tool, called consent decrees. Top officials in the DOJ civil rights division have issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees -- which would result in no continuing court oversight.
The move is just one part of a move by the Trump administration to limit federal civil rights enforcement. Other departments have scaled back the power of their internal divisions that monitor such abuses. In a previously unreported development, the Education Department last week reversed an Obama-era reform that broadened the agency's approach to protecting rights of students. The Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have also announced sweeping cuts to their enforcement.
"At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut. At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights," said Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ's civil rights division under President Barack Obama.
Consent decrees have not been abandoned entirely by the DOJ, a person with knowledge of the instructions said. Instead, there is a presumption against their use -- attorneys should default to using settlements without court oversight unless there is an unavoidable reason for a consent decree. The instructions came from the civil rights division's office of acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore. There is no written policy guidance.
Devin O'Malley, a spokesperson for the DOJ, declined to comment for this story.
Consent decrees can be a powerful tool, and spell out specific steps that must be taken to remedy the harm. These are agreed to by both parties and signed off on by a judge, whom the parties can appear before again if the terms are not being met. Though critics say the DOJ sometimes does not enforce consent decrees well enough, they are more powerful than settlements that aren't overseen by a judge and have no built-in enforcement mechanism.
Such settlements have "far fewer teeth to ensure adequate enforcement," Gupta said.
Consent decrees often require agencies or municipalities to take expensive steps toward reform. Local leaders and agency heads then can point to the binding court authority when requesting budget increases to ensure reforms. Without consent decrees, many localities or government departments would simply never make such comprehensive changes, said William Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the DOJ, mostly in the civil rights division.
"They are key to civil rights enforcement," he said. "That's why Sessions and his ilk don't like them."
Some, however, believe the Obama administration relied on consent decrees too often and sometimes took advantage of vulnerable cities unable to effectively defend themselves against a well-resourced DOJ.
"I think a recalibration would be welcome," said Richard Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, adding that consent decrees should be used in cases where clear, systemic issues of discrimination exist.
Though it's too early to see how widespread the effect of the changes will be, the Justice Department appears to be adhering to the directive already.
On May 30, the DOJ announced Bernards Township in New Jersey had agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle an accusation it denied zoning approval for a local Islamic group to build a mosque. Staff attorneys at the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey initially sought to resolve the case with a consent decree, according to a spokesperson for Bernards Township. But because of the DOJ's new stance, the terms were changed after the township protested, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the New Jersey U.S. attorney's office declined comment.
Sessions has long been a public critic of consent decrees. As a senator, he wrote they "constitute an end run around the democratic process." He lambasted local agencies that seek them out as a way to inflate their budgets, a "particularly offensive" use of consent decrees that took decision-making power from legislatures.
On March 31, Sessions ordered a sweeping review of all consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide to ensure they were in line with the Trump administration's law-and-order goals. Days before, the DOJ had asked a judge to postpone a hearing on a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department that had been arranged during the last days of the Obama administration. The judge denied that request, and the consent decree has moved forward.
The DOJ has already come under fire from critics for altering its approach to voting rights cases. After nearly six years of litigation over Texas' voter ID law -- which Obama DOJ attorneys said was written to intentionally discriminate against minority voters and had such a discriminatory effect -- the Trump DOJ abruptly withdrew its intent claims in late February.
Attorneys who worked on the case for years were barely consulted about the change -- many weren't consulted at all, according to two former DOJ officials with knowledge of the matter. Gore wrote the filing changing the DOJ's position largely by himself and asked the attorneys who'd been involved in the case for years to sign it to show continuity. Not all of the attorneys fell in line. Avner Shapiro -- who has been a prosecutor in the civil rights division for more than 20 years -- left his name off the filings written by Gore. Shapiro was particularly involved in developing the DOJ's argument that Texas had intentionally discriminated against minorities in crafting its voter ID legislation.
"That's the ultimate act of rebellion," Yeomans, the former civil rights division prosecutor, said. A rare act, removing one's name from a legal filing is one of the few ways career attorneys can express public disagreement with an administration.
Gore has no history of bringing civil rights cases. A former partner at the law firm Jones Day, he has instead defended states against claims of racial gerrymandering and represented North Carolina when the state was sued over its controversial "bathroom bill," which requires transgender people to use the facility that matched their birth gender.
All of the internal changes at the DOJ have left attorneys and staff with "a great deal of fear and uncertainty," said Yeomans. While he says the lawyers there would like to stay at the department, they fear Sessions' priorities will have devastating impact on their work.
The DOJ's civil rights office is not alone in fearing rollbacks in enforcement. Across federal departments, the Trump administration has made moves to diminish the power of civil rights divisions.
The Department of Education has laid out plans to loosen requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints, according to an internal memo sent to staff on June 8 and obtained by ProPublica.
Under the Obama administration, the department's office for civil rights applied an expansive approach to investigations. Individual complaints related to complex issues such as school discipline, sexual violence and harassment, equal access to educational resources, or racism at a single school might have prompted broader probes to determine whether the allegations were part of a pattern of discrimination or harassment.
The new memo, sent by Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, to regional directors at the department's civil rights office, trims this approach. Jackson was appointed deputy assistant secretary for the office in April and will remain as the acting head of the office until the Senate confirms a full-time assistant secretary. Trump has not publicly nominated anyone for the role yet.
The office will apply the broader approach "only" if the original allegations raise systemic concerns or the investigative team argues for it, Jackson wrote in the memo.
As part of the new approach, the Education Department will no longer require civil rights investigators to obtain three years of complaint data from a specific school or district to assess compliance with civil rights law.
Critics contend the Obama administration's probes were onerous. The office "did such a thorough review of everything that the investigations were demanding and very expensive" for schools, said Boston College American politics professor R. Shep Melnick, adding that the new approach could take some regulatory pressure off schools and districts.
But some civil rights leaders believe the change could undermine the office's mission. This narrowing of the department's investigations "is stunning to me and dangerous," said Catherine Lhamon, who led the Education Department's civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights. "It's important to take an expansive view of the potential for harm because if you look only at the most recent year, you won't necessarily see the pattern," said Lhamon.
The department's new directive also gives more autonomy to regional offices, no longer requiring oversight or review of some cases by department headquarters, according to the memo.
The Education Department did not respond to ProPublica's request for comment.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also proposed cutting over 40 positions from the civil rights office. With reduced staff, the office will have to "make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations," according to the department's proposed budget.
Elsewhere, Trump administration appointees have launched similar initiatives. In its 2018 fiscal plan, the Labor Department has proposed dissolving the office that handles discrimination complaints. Similarly, new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed entirely eliminating the environmental justice program, which addresses concerns that almost exclusively impact minority communities. The Washington Post reports the plan transfers all environmental justice work to the Office of Policy, which provides policy and regulatory guidance across the agency.
Mustafa Ali, a former EPA senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice who served more than 20 years, quit the agency in protest days before the plan was announced. In his resignation letter, widely circulated in the media, Ali suggested the new leadership was abandoning "those who need our help most."
Ryan Gabrielson contributed to this report.
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The head of Michigan's health department and four others have been charged with involuntary manslaughter for their role in the years-long Flint water crisis. The announcement of comes a day after activists delivered over 1,000 water bottles to the governor, each filled with a letter from a Flint resident saying what he or she feels is owed as a result of the water crisis.
Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, testifies about Flint's tainted water crisis before a House committee in Washington, DC, April 13, 2016. In a legal filing that his cited negligence in failing to alert the public and suppression of the release of information, Lyon was charged with misconduct and involuntary manslaughter on June 13, 2017. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)
Michigan's attorney general announced Wednesday that the head of the state's health department and four others have been charged with involuntary manslaughter for their role in the years-long Flint water crisis.
Nick Lyon, director of Michigan Health and Human Services, "failed in his responsibilities to protect the health and safety of the citizens of Flint," state AG Bill Schuette said at a press conference Wednesday.
A press statement from Schuette's office alleges that Lyon waited a year before alerting the public about the outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease as a result of the crisis, an act that led to the death of 85-year-old Robert Skidmore. He also thwarted an independent researcher from investigating the cause of the outbreak, the statement says.
Lyon was also charged with misconduct in office.
The others now slapped with involuntary manslaughter charges are former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley; former City of Flint Water Department Manager Howard Croft; Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith; and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch.
Those four, the Detroit News reports, "had been charged with less-serious crimes during the past year."
NPR writes: "More than a dozen former state and city officials have been criminally charged in connection with the Flint water crisis," and thus far, "Lyon and Wells are the highest-ranking state officials to be charged."
According to Lonnie Scott, executive director of advocacy group Progress Michigan, the new charges stemming from Schuette's investigation "show that the failure in Flint lies squarely at the feet of Governor Rick Snyder."
"Now that these charges have been levied against a top cabinet official, we renew our call for Governor Rick Snyder to immediately resign," Scott added
Yet Snyder, who on Wednesday offered a statement in support of Lyon and Wells, continues to evade accountability.
The Washington Post reports:
Schuette on Wednesday addressed the pressure he has gotten to charge Snyder, who has heard repeated calls to resign for his appointment of emergency mangers in Flint and the state's delayed and inadequate response there.
"We only file criminal charges when evidence of probable cause to commit a crime has been established," Schuette said. He later revealed that investigators have been unable to speak with Snyder about his role in the catastrophe. "We attempted to interview the governor. We were not successful," he said.
The announcement of the new charges comes a day after Flint activists delivered over 1,000 water bottles to the office of Snyder, each filled with a letter from a Flint resident saying what he or she feels is owed by the governor as a result of the water crisis. One message read: "you owe me clean water and money if not, you schould [sic] go to jail"
The Trump administration's policies on medical marijuana are still taking shape, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that the Justice Department is more interested in making arrests than acknowledging science.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions addresses a gathering of law enforcement officials in Richmond, Virginia, March 15, 2017. (Phoyto: Chet Strange / The New York Times)
The Trump administration's policy toward legal marijuana began to emerge from the fog this week, and it appears that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his underlings remain more interested in orchestrating law enforcement crackdowns than in the current scientific understanding of cannabis.
Sessions wants greater freedom to prosecute medical marijuana businesses in states where the drug is a legal medicine. Federal authorities allege that "dangerous drug traffickers" and international "criminal organizations" cultivate marijuana under state medical marijuana laws and sell it in states where the drug is still illegal, according to a May 1 letter from Sessions to members of Congress obtained this week by the Massroots.com and The Washington Post.
Sessions' assistant attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, told members of Congress on Tuesday that the Department of Justice would continue a policy on state-legal marijuana adopted in 2013 by the Obama administration, at least for the near future. That policy, as laid out in 2013 by the famous Cole memo, has allowed recreational and medical marijuana businesses to operate in states where legalization has taken hold, despite ongoing federal prohibition.
However, the Cole memo does not carry the force of law and could be revoked at any time, leaving state-legal marijuana on uncertain ground at the federal level. Rosenstein also said marijuana remains illegal under federal law, so it's the Justice Department's job to enforce prohibition. He added that marijuana is a "very complicated issue" for the Justice Department, and "scientists have found that there's no accepted medical use" for cannabis.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican whose home state of Alaska has legalized marijuana for medical and recreational use, had one word for the testimony: "confusing." (Congress could clarify the matter by passing a law ending federal marijuana prohibition.)
Rosenstein may have also raised some eyebrows at the National Academy of Sciences, which recently reviewed nearly 100 studies and found "substantial evidence" that marijuana is effective at controlling pain and muscle spasms, and "conclusive evidence" that cannabis products can prevent nausea. Marijuana has been used as a remedy for nausea and vomiting in medical settings for decades, if not centuries.
"Last time I checked, neither Rosenstein, Sessions, nor President Trump are doctors and their zeal to threaten those who are sick is disturbing," said Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in a statement.
Meanwhile, we learned that Sessions recently asked members of Congress to ditch a budget bill amendment that has kept the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana businesses in the 29 states where the drug is available by prescription. He argued that Congress should not tie his department's hands "in the midst of a historic drug epidemic," a reference to the nation's ongoing epidemic of overdose deaths associated with opioid use.
An opioid overdose can be deadly, but a marijuana overdose, while very unpleasant, is not life-threatening by itself. So, it appears that Sessions is clinging to the myth that marijuana is a "gateway" to harder drugs like opioids. Along with alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is often one of the first drugs that people try, but scientists have long dismissed the idea that marijuana's effects cause people to use harder drugs like opioids.
In fact, recent research shows that medical cannabis can be used for opiate replacement therapy and as a safer substitute for prescription painkillers, resulting in dramatic drops in dependency, overdose deaths and hospitalizations. Opioid painkillers are a main driver of the overdose epidemic, and last year researchers found that the number of prescriptions for painkillers filled by Medicare dropped significantly in states with medical marijuana programs.
Sessions and Rosenstein get their "science" from the Drug Enforcement Agency rather than the National Academy of Sciences and independent sources. The agency routinely denies that marijuana and other drugs researched as medicine, such as MDMA and psychedelic mushrooms, have any medical benefit, which justifies their placement at the top of the government's list of substances prohibited under federal law.
As Truthout has reported, the Drug Enforcement Agency and its partner in the White House, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, are at the center of the government's failed "war on drugs" and may be more interested in maintaining drug prohibition in the name of self-preservation than science.
So, what do Sessions and Rosenstein want to do with their antiquated perceptions of marijuana science? Sessions' letter asks members of Congress to drop a budget amendment first passed in 2014 that bars the Justice Department from using federal funds to prosecute medical marijuana businesses and users, unless a court rules that they are not in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.
The budget amendment was first introduced in 2014 and was approved again this year, extending the federal protection until September. Polls show that voters overwhelmingly oppose a federal crackdown on state-legal marijuana, and 93 percent support legal access to medical marijuana. Many members of Congress come from states with legal medical regimes, so it's unlikely that they will interrupt their budget negotiations in the fall to honor Sessions' request.
The budget amendment only protects people who provide and use medical marijuana, not marijuana growers and dispensaries that sell recreational weed in states where it's legal. Under the Cole memo, the Justice Department leaves law enforcement duties around marijuana to local authorities unless they fit into a list of federal priorities, which includes preventing "criminal enterprises" and "gangs" from profiting from marijuana grown in legal states.
It appears that Sessions is looking to bust those who grow marijuana under the protection of state laws and sell it under the table, or in states where the drug is illegal. In his letter to Congress, Sessions suggested a link between medical marijuana and violent crime -- another federal enforcement priority listed in the Cole memo -- even though research shows that violent crime rates tend to drop significantly when states legalize marijuana.
"For the moment the Cole memo remains our policy," Rosenstein said. "There may be an opportunity to review it in the future, but at the moment I'm not aware of any proposal to change it. But I think we're all going to have to deal with it in the future."
That future may come sooner than later. Earlier this year, Sessions ordered a task force created by President Trump to review several Justice Department policies, including the Cole Memo. The task force's deadline for submitting its initial findings is July 27.
Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, June 8, 2017. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)
Trump's firing of James Comey was an attack on the principled notion of holding power accountable and yet another symptom of the Trump administration's practice of governing through lies. While all governments lie, under Trump, lying has become an industry and a tool of authoritarian power used routinely for ideological, political and commercial reasons.
Former FBI Director James Comey is sworn in during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, June 8, 2017. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times)
Donald Trump's firing of James Comey as the director of the FBI has caused a firestorm around the country but for the wrong reasons. Rather than framing Trump's actions as another example of the unravelling of a lawless and crooked government, the mainstream press has largely focused on the question of whether Trump or Comey is lying. Even worse, the debate in some quarters has degenerated into the personal question of whose "side" one is on regarding the testimony.
Testifying before a Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey claimed that in meetings with the president, Trump had not only asked him if he wanted to keep his job but had also demanded what amounted to a loyalty pledge from him. Comey saw these interventions as an attempt by Trump to develop a patronage relationship with him and viewed them as part of a larger attempt to derail an FBI investigation into National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's links to Russia. What Comey implied but did not state directly is that Trump wanted to turn the FBI into the loyal arm and accomplished agent of corrupt political power. In other words, without making a direct allegation, Comey laid out a case for charging Trump with the crime of obstruction of justice. That case is further bolstered by the revelation that Trump is now reportedly considering whether to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who was appointed to investigate whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russian officials. Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, have publicly stated that this is a bad idea. What many people miss is that rumors of Trump's possible firing of Mueller are nothing more than part of a politics of diversion -- one which constantly shifts the terms of the debate about Trump's trampling on the rights of the American people and his willingness to divert serious questions about his acts of collusion and obstruction of justice.
Expressing a blatant contempt for the truth, Trump tweeted that Comey's testimony had vindicated him and that Comey was a liar and a leaker. Of course, Trump made no mention of the fact that Comey leaked non-classified information because he did not trust anyone at the Department of Justice, especially since it was led by Trump's crony, Jeff Sessions. Since Trump is a serial liar, there is a certain irony in Trump accusing Comey of lying. As Mehdi Hasan, appearing on Democracy Now!, observes:
From a political point of view, we know that one of the biggest flaws in Donald Trump's presidency, his candidacy, his ability to be president, is that he's a serial fabricator. Now you have the former top law enforcement officer of this country going in front of the Senate, under oath, saying he -- that, you know, "Those are lies, plain and simple," he said, referring to Trump's description of his firing. He said, "I was worried he would lie." He says, "I was worried about the nature of the man." … And there was a quite funny tweet that went viral last night, which said, you know, "Trump is saying he's a liar. Comey is saying Trump's a liar. Well, who do you believe? Do you believe an FBI director who served under two -- who served under three presidents from two parties? Or do you believe the guy who said Obama was born in Kenya?" And, you know, that's what faces us today.
Needless to say, given the FBI's history, Comey being a highly respected director of the FBI -- let alone a Republican -- does not support the fact that Comey is less likely to lie. But one cannot miss the irony in Trump's attempt to smear Comey as cowardly by accusing him of lying, given the fact that Trump is a serial liar who has unapologetically declared war not just on the truth but also on critical thought itself. Trump cannot be trusted because he not only infects political discourse with a language of hate, bigotry and lies, but also because he has allowed an ideology built on the use of disinformation to take over the White House. Under the Trump administration, the truth is distorted for ideological, political and commercial reasons. Lying has become an industry and tool of power. All administrations and governments lie, but under Trump lying has become normalized. It is a calling card for corruption and lawlessness, one that provides the foundation for authoritarianism.
Trump is a salesman and a bully. He constantly assumes the macho swagger of a used car salesman from a TV commercial while at the same time, as Rebecca Solnit observes, he bullies facts and truths as well as friends and acquaintances. He is obsessed with power and prides himself on the language of command, loyalty and humiliation. He appears fixated on the fear that the United States could still act on the memory, if not the ghosts, of a real democracy.
Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent writing in the Washington Post, argues that one of the most revelatory moments in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing took place when Comey revealed that in nine conversations with Trump either directly or by phone, Trump focused exclusively on whether the investigation into the Russian matter was affecting him personally. She writes:
As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, what I saw as the most explosive aspect of the testimony didn't involve any legal violation of the U.S. code or questions about whether Comey had broken established Department of Justice protocols. Instead, it was the prima facie evidence that Comey presented that Trump appears unwilling to uphold his oath "to preserve, protect, and defend" the country -- which puts the security of our nation and its democracy at stake. In the nine times Trump met with or called Comey, it was always to discuss how the investigation into Russia's election interference was affecting him personally, rather than the security of the country. He apparently cared little about understanding either the magnitude of the Russian intelligence threat, or how the FBI might be able to prevent another attack in future elections…. This … underscores Trump's disregard for his fundamental duty, which is to ensure the security of the nation, its government and its citizens from foreign enemies.
A democracy cannot exist without informed citizens and public spheres and educational apparatuses that uphold standards of truth, honesty, evidence, facts and justice. Under Trump, disinformation masquerading as news -- often via his Twitter account -- has become a weapon for legitimating ignorance and civic illiteracy. Not only has Trump lied repeatedly, he has also attacked the critical media, claimed journalists are enemies of the American people and argued that the media is the opposition party. There is more at stake here than the threat of censorship or the normalization of lying; there is also an attack on long-valued sources of information and the public spheres that produce them. Trump's government has become a powerful disimagination machine in which the distinction between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy are erased.
Trump has democratized the flow of disinformation, and in doing so, has aligned himself with a culture of immediacy, sensationalism and theater where thoughtful reading, informed judgments and a respect for the facts disappear. He propagates fiction disguised as "news" as a way to discredit facts, if not thinking itself. This practice operates in the service of violence because it infantilizes and depoliticizes the wider public creating what Viktor Frankl has called in a different context, "the mask of nihilism." Trump capitalizes on a digital culture of immediacy and short attention spans in which complexity collapses in a barrage of tweets and the need for a narrative that offers a sense of consistency and a respite from fear.
Trump's attack on Comey goes beyond a personal insult and act of egregious lying, as well as, in all likelihood, an obstruction of justice. It is also a register of his attempt to discredit criticism and the shared public reality among institutions that is central to a democracy. The dissolution of public goods and the public sphere has been underway since the late 1970s, and Trump capitalizes on that in an attempt to both depoliticize and bind the American people through a kind of dystopian legitimacy in which words no longer matter and anything can be said. He works to undermine the capacity for truth telling and political speech itself. Under the Trump regime, consistent narratives rooted in forms of civic illiteracy and a deep distrust of the truth and the ethical imagination have become the glue of authoritarian power. All of this is reinforced by a disdain for measured arguments, an embrace of the spectacle and an alignment with a banal theater of celebrity culture. In this context, rumors are more important than truth telling. Indeed, in this theater of the absurd, society loses its safeguards against lies, corruption and authoritarianism. In a culture of short attention spans, Trump provides a tsunami of misrepresentations and values in which thinking is done by others, power is exercised by a ruling elite, and people are urged to cease narrating their own experiences and give up their ability to govern rather than be governed. Trump offers his followers a world in which nothing is connected, destabilized perceptions reinforce a politics that turns lethal and community becomes dystopian -- unconnected to any viable democratic reality.
Roger Berkowitz, in a brilliant analysis of Trump and his followers that draws upon the work of Hannah Arendt, argues in the LA Review of Books that Trump's supporters don't care about his lies or his disdain for facts. They rely on him for a consistent narrative of a reality in which they are a part. Berkowitz's piece is worth citing at length. He writes:
The reason fact-checking is ineffective today -- at least in convincing those who are members of movements -- is that the mobilized members of a movement are confounded by a world resistant to their wishes and prefer the promise of a consistent alternate world to reality. When Donald Trump says he's going to build a wall to protect our borders, he is not making a factual statement that an actual wall will actually protect our borders; he is signaling a politically incorrect willingness to put America first. When he says that there was massive voter fraud or boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd, he is not speaking about actual facts, but is insisting that his election was legitimate. 'What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.' Leaders of these mass totalitarian movements do not need to believe in the truth of their lies and ideological clichés. The point of their fabrications is not to establish facts, but to create a coherent fictional reality. What a movement demands of its leaders is the articulation of a consistent narrative combined with the ability to abolish the capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction.
As important as the Trump-Comey affair is, it runs the risk of both exacerbating the transformation of politics into theater and reinforcing what Todd Gitlin refers to as Trump's support for an "apocalyptic nationalism, the point of which is to belong, not to believe. You belong by affirming. To win, you don't need reasons anymore, only power." Trump values loyalty over integrity. He lies, in part, to test the loyalty of those who both follow him and align themselves with his power. The Trump-Comey affair must be understood within a broader attack on the fundamentals of education, critical modes of agency and democracy itself. This is especially important at a time when the United States is no longer a functioning democracy and is in the presence of what Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis refer to in their book Liquid Evil as "the emergence of modern barbarity." Trump's discourse of lies, misrepresentations and fakery makes it all the more urgent for us to acknowledge that education is at the center of politics because it is crucial in the struggle over consciousness, values, identity and agency. Ignorance in the service of education targets the darkness and reinforces and thrives on civic illiteracy. Trump's disinformation machine is about more than lying. It is about using all of the tools and resources for education to create a dystopia in which authoritarianism exercises the raw power of ignorance and control.
Artists, educators, young people, journalists and others need to make the virtue of truth-telling visible again. We need to connect democracy with a notion of truth-telling and consciousness that is on the side of economic and political justice, and democracy itself. If we are all going to fight for and with the most marginalized people, there must be a broader understanding of their needs. We need to create narratives and platforms in which those who have been deemed disposable can identify themselves and the conditions through which power and oppression bear down on their lives.
This is not an easy task, but nothing less than justice, democracy and the planet itself are at risk.
Note: This is an expanded version of a piece that originally appeared on Ragazine.