Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about immigration, in Washington, DC, March 27, 2017. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)
Motivated by his own deep-seated biases and those of President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pursuing a draconian agenda on voting rights, immigration, crime, policing, the drug war, federal sentencing and the privatization of prisons.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about immigration, in Washington, DC, March 27, 2017. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)
Motivated by his deep-seated biases and those of President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is pursuing a draconian agenda on voting rights, immigration, crime, policing, the drug war, federal sentencing and the privatization of prisons.
Sessions, now head of the Department of Justice, which is charged with enforcing the Voting Rights Act, once called the act "intrusive." In 2013, after the Supreme Court issued a decision in Shelby County v. Holder that struck down the section of the act that established a formula for preclearance of jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, Sessions called it "a good day for the South."
Sessions and Trump tout the existence of what the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School calls a "phantom crime wave." While this administration scaremongers about high crime rates, in reality, national crime and murder rates are at a near-historic low: 50 percent less than they were at their peak in 1991.
Trump's campaign mantra was "law and order," a euphemism for tolerating excessive force by police officers, often against people of color. Trump speaks of "American carnage" in the cities and a "war" on the police. His bogus rhetoric is aimed at Black Lives Matter, which arose in response to increasing numbers of police shootings, particularly of nonwhites.
The president depicts police reform measures as "anti-law enforcement" and Sessions is fully on board with this framing. In 2015, when he was a senator, Sessions said that police reform movements endanger public safety and hinder police work.
Sessions opposes consent decrees, which are court-enforced agreements aimed at eliminating racial profiling and excessive force by police in agencies that demonstrate "a pattern or practice" of violating civil rights. Sessions says the federal government should not be "dictating to local police how to do their jobs" (except when it comes to immigration enforcement, that is).
Amnesty International warns that Trump and Sessions' "law and order" rhetoric could lead to higher levels of mass incarceration, long sentences and prolonged solitary confinement.
Voting Rights in Peril
Sessions has reversed the Obama Justice Department's practice of challenging voter identification laws, which erect obstacles to minority voters. Sessions directed his Justice Department to intervene in favor of states that enact measures to discriminatorily restrict ballot access.
In February, Sessions' Justice Department asked a federal district court to dismiss the Obama Justice Department's claim that the 2011 Texas voter ID law was passed with an intent to discriminate against minorities. But in April, Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos concluded that intentional discrimination against minority voters constituted "at least one of the substantial or motivating factors behind passage" of Texas' voter ID law.
Sessions' racist agenda is already animating his attack on the most basic guarantee in a democracy -- the right to vote.
Racist Immigration Policies
Trump and Sessions are not disappointing the white nationalists who favor using immigration policy as a wedge to further their "alt-right" program.
Kevin de León, President pro Tempore of the California State Senate, noted, "It has become abundantly clear" that Sessions and Trump "are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy -- not American values."
From January to mid-March of this year, immigration arrests have increased by 33 percent. Since Trump's inauguration, the number of arrests of immigrants with no criminal records has doubled. Roughly half of the 675 arrested in early February raids had either driving convictions or no criminal record at all, according to data obtained by The Washington Post.
Sessions drastically increased penalties for illegal reentry into the United States and ordered immigration officials to charge undocumented immigrants with higher-penalty crimes.
Although Sessions' heavy-handed actions are based on Trump's spurious claim that immigrants disproportionately murder and rape US citizens, studies have shown that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than citizens.
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are arresting immigrants who come to the courthouse. This egregious practice motivated California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to complain in a letter to the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security that ICE agents "appear to be stalking undocumented immigrants in our courthouses to make arrests."
Terrorizing immigrants with frightful measures discourages immigrant witnesses from reporting crimes, and discourages victims from seeking legal measures and services that are meant to protect their own safety and well-being.
By March, the Los Angeles Police Department had seen a 25 percent drop in the number of Latinos reporting sexual assault and a 10 percent decrease in Latinos' reports of domestic violence. By early April, there was a 42.8 percent drop in the number of Latinos who reported rapes to the Houston Police Department. And a health care center in Los Angeles reported a 20 percent decrease in food stamp enrollments and a 54 percent drop in enrollments for Medicaid.
The Trump administration has been arresting -- even deporting -- "Dreamers" who relied on Barack Obama's assurances they would be protected if they came out of the shadows and provided their personal information to ICE. Dreamer Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez is a registrant in Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and was the first DACA recipient to be deported. Bojorquez, who is now in Mexico, is suing the US federal government.
On January 25, 2017, Trump signed an executive order to halt federal funding to municipal governments that don't facilitate federal immigration enforcement. Trump's order is aimed at "sanctuary cities" that protect immigrants from deportation.
In March, Sessions threatened officials in nine jurisdictions with losing their 2016 grants if they failed to certify by June 30 that they were in compliance with a law that forbids local authorities from forcing officials to withhold information about immigration status from federal authorities.
But the majority of sanctuary policies do not cover information sharing. Most address how to handle "detainers," where federal immigration officials request that state or local authorities continue to detain people who are eligible for release. Courts have said jurisdictions cannot be forced to honor those detainers.
Trump's January 25 order is blocked, for now. US District Judge William H. Orrick III issued a nationwide preliminary injunction that forbids the federal government from withholding funds from municipal governments that don't fully cooperate with immigration agents.
Orrick also ruled the federal government can't legally force counties to hold undocumented people beyond their release dates. The judge concluded Trump's order likely violates due process, the separation of powers doctrine, and the 10th Amendment, which prevents federal interference with state and local self-government. Only Congress can limit spending, Orrick wrote.
This is Trump's third executive order halted by federal courts. His first and second Muslim bans are now pending in the 9th and 4th Circuit Courts of Appeals.
Giving Police Free Reign
Sessions walks in lockstep with Trump on his "law-and-order" agenda. In an op-ed published in USA Today on April 17, Sessions decried a "plague of violence," claiming, "Violent crime is surging in American cities." In fact, crime is at or near an all-time low in many parts of the United States.
The implicit message in Sessions' op-ed was that people of color, particularly African Americans, are a threat to white America. Indeed Trump's election largely reflected a backlash against having a Black man in the "White" House.
"Images of feral, criminal black people carry great weight in the political imaginations of white voters, especially those who supported Donald Trump," Chauncey de Vega wrote in Salon. "As such the truth is sacrificed for the twin purposes of political expediency and serving America's longtime obsession with 'black crime'."
In his op-ed, Sessions suggested, "To combat this wave of violence and protect our communities, we need proactive policing." Moreover, he claimed in an interview on the conservative Howie Carr radio show that consent decrees "push back against [officers] being on the street in a proactive way" because they "reduce morale." He wrote in his op-ed that consent decrees may amount to "harmful federal intrusion" and said cities under consent decrees have "seen too often big crime increases."
Sessions has rolled back Obama-era oversight of local police and authorized a review of 14 active consent decrees between city police departments and the federal government.
In fact, many police departments welcome consent decrees. Seattle saw a 60 percent reduction in the use of moderate to severe police force, according to Merrick J. Bobb, who monitored Seattle's 2011 consent decree. Bobb wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Expanded community confidence appears to be inspiring more cooperation with the police in solving crime and addressing neighborhood problems." Under Seattle's consent decree, Bobb noted, "police are not being placed at any higher risk nor are they less able or willing to use force to defend themselves than in the past."
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu told HuffPost his city is not "less safe because of consent decrees."
The crime rate in Newark, New Jersey, is the lowest in 50 years. Peter Harvey, who monitored Newark's consent decree, said, "In virtually every city that has had a consent decree, shootings have gone down, killings have gone down, judgments against the city have been reduced, and morale in the police department has been raised and morale in the community has been raised."
Why aren't consent decrees meeting with intensive pushback from city officials? "Because you're not inviting the police not to patrol," Harvey said in an interview with HuffPost, "you're not inviting the police not to enforce the law, you're inviting the police to follow constitutional mandates."
We can also expect to see increased militarization of the police under the Trump administration, with more surplus military equipment provided to local law enforcement. That includes drones, body armor, assault vehicles and high-powered weapons. Turning cities into war zones will only exacerbate tensions.
Regressive Drug Policy
The Obama administration directed federal prosecutors to make violent and serious crime a top priority and avoid charging harsh "mandatory minimum" penalties in certain low-level drug cases. Mandatory minimum sentences remove discretion from judges to tailor sentences to the individual and fuel mass incarceration that disproportionately targets people of color.
Eric Holder, Obama's attorney general, gave states, many of which have legalized marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes, some leeway to set marijuana policy. He also directed federal prosecutors to reduce charges in low-level nonviolent drug cases. As a result, the federal rate of imprisonment has fallen by 9.5 percent since 2007, according to the Brennan Center.
In 2016, Sessions declared, "good people don't smoke marijuana," warning of a "very real danger" posed by the drug. It's "not the kind of thing that ought to be legalized." We may see Sessions prioritize enforcement of federal marijuana laws, to the chagrin of millions of people across the country who voted for legalization in their states.
More Repressive Federal Sentencing
Last year, leading Republicans, including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) spearheaded a bipartisan attempt to pass a bill that would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent and drug offenses. Then-Senator Sessions, who led opposition to the bill, called it a "criminal leniency bill." Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented the bill from coming to a vote in order to avoid a split in the party.
Increasing Privatized Prisons
Obama and Holder were winding down the use of private prisons. The Brennan Center reports that private penitentiaries have a number of problems, including: "higher rates of assault against other inmates and staff; inmates inappropriately housed in solitary confinement units due to overcrowding when those units should have been used for disciplinary or administrative reasons; many more contraband issues; and almost ten times more security lockdowns."
Nevertheless, candidate Trump, who called our prison system "a disaster," said, "I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons." Sessions has reversed the Obama-era policy of phasing out the use of private prisons.
An Ill-Equipped Attorney General
After Trump nominated Sessions for attorney general, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois) stated, "No senator has fought harder against the hopes and aspirations of Latinos, immigrants and people of color than Sen. Sessions."
Indeed, no one is worse equipped to lead the Department of Justice. Sessions' racism is prominently on display in every action he has taken during his short tenure in Trump's cabinet.
It is critical that "we the people" continue to resist, in every way we can, the Trump-Sessions pattern and practice of injustice.
Last Saturday night, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards was killed when Balch Springs Police Department officer Roy Oliver fired his rifle at a moving vehicle in which Edwards was a passenger. Police reports initially stated that the vehicle in question was reversing “in an aggressive manner,” but Balch Springs Police Department chief Jonathan Haber has since confirmed that it was in fact moving away from Oliver when it was fired upon.
In response to the delivery of nearly half a million petition signatures to Congress in support of the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act, S. 200 introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and H.R. 669 introduced by Rep.
On Monday, the Independent Petroleum Association of America issued a new report arguing that fossil fuel divestment is costly for students, pensioners, and stakeholders.
Today, HRC responded to a new media report about a rumored #LicenseToDiscriminate order that puts millions of LGBTQ Americans and women at risk of discrimination.
Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued the following statement in response to reports that President Trump will sign an executive order later this week that creates religious exemptions that open the door to discrimination:
The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit today to force the Environmental Protection Agency to turn over the emails and schedule of the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt.
Today, Friends of the Earth and its allies are announcing a major advancement in their fight to protect essential pollinator populations. Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and True Value have decided to eliminate neonicotinoid pesticides, a leading driver of global bee declines, from company garden retail supply chains. This follows an ongoing campaign by Friends of the Earth and allies urging garden retailers, including True Value and Walmart, to stop selling plants treated with neonicotinoids and remove products containing them from store shelves.
North Carolina Lawmakers Side With Factory Farms as Communities of Color Suffer From the Spraying of Hog Manure
In eastern North Carolina, residents are battling with one of the state's largest industries: hog farms. Last week, North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 467, which limits the damages that residents could collect against hog farms. The billion-dollar industry is primarily clustered in the eastern part of the state, where hog farms collect billions of gallons of untreated pig feces and urine in what are essentially cesspools, then dispose of the waste by spraying it into the air. Residents living in the area of the spray complain of adverse health effects and odor so bad that it limits their ability to be outdoors. For more, we speak with Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization's North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.TRANSCRIPT
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We're broadcasting today from Tampa, Florida, from Tampa PBS, WEDU. I'm Amy Goodman.
We close today's show with a look at the battle between residents of eastern North Carolina and one of the state's largest industries: hog farms. Last week, the North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 467, which limits the damages that residents can collect against hog farms. The billion-dollar industry is primarily clustered in the eastern part of North Carolina, where hog farms collect billions of gallons of untreated pig feces and urine in what are essentially cesspools, then dispose of the waste by spraying it into the air.
In an investigation into the industry, filmmaker Mark Devries used drones to capture aerial footage of several massive facilities that supply pigs for Smithfield Foods. He spoke with Steve Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Public Health, who described what happens in the facilities.
STEVE WING: The waste falls through the floors. It's flushed out into an open pit, like a cesspool. It's easy for a big hog operation to have as much waste as a medium-sized city. Of course, the pit will fill up, so it has to be emptied. And they're emptied by spraying the liquid waste.
MARK DEVRIES: Yes, you heard that right.
STEVE WING: If you're familiar with a garden sprayer, they're gigantic versions of that. So they're making droplets and fine mists out of this liquid waste. And that can drift downwind into the neighboring communities.
AMY GOODMAN: Residents living in the area of the spray complain of odor so bad it limits their ability to be outdoors, and adverse health effects. House Bill 467, or the Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies bill, was introduced by Republican State Representative Jimmy Dixon, a longtime farmer, who has received campaign contributions from the hog industry. Speaking at a hearing about the legislation, Dixon said, quote, "These claims are at best enormous exaggerations and at worst outright lies. Is there some odor? Yes. But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell," he said. The legislation comes as a class action suit brought by nearly 500 primarily African-American residents of eastern North Carolina seek financial compensation from Murphy-Brown, the state's largest hog producer. The lawsuits have now moved to federal court.
Well, for more, we're joined by Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. And we're joined by Will Hendrick, staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization's North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let's begin with Naeema. Can you tell us where you live and what you're dealing with today?
NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: Yes, OK. I live in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, which is in the eastern part of the state. But I am in the northeastern part of the state. I live away from where these animals are, but I work with communities that's living with these animals, and I've been working with these communities since 1999. And so I'm constantly going into the communities where these animals are, and -- you know, and I smell what the people living there are smelling. I see the spraying going on. I see the hog houses and the open-air lagoons that's just sitting out there. As you travel through those communities, you can't help but see these houses that the animals are kept in, as well as the lagoon and the spray fields.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to turn to another clip from Mark Devries' video. Here he speaks with Elsie Herring, a resident of Wallace, North Carolina. She's part of the complaint filed with the EPA seeking more protections for neighbors of hog farm operations.
ELSIE HERRING: This is where they spray animal waste on us. This is about eight feet from my mother's house.
MARK DEVRIES: What is it like when the mist is spraying?
ELSIE HERRING: It's like you think it's raining.
MARK DEVRIES: Really?
ELSIE HERRING: You think it's raining. We don't open the doors up or the windows, but the odor still comes in. It takes your breath away. Then you start gagging. You get headaches.
AMY GOODMAN: And I want to turn to former pig factory farm owner Don Webb.
DON WEBB: I shut my hog operation down, and I got out of it. And I couldn't -- I just couldn't do another person that way, to make them smell that. It is a cesspool that you put feces and urine in, a hole in the ground that you dump toxic waste in. And I've seen dead hogs in them and stuff like that. I've seen it. I've talked to the people. I've seen the little children that say, "Mom and daddy, why do we got to smell this stuff?" You get stories like "I can't hang my clothes out. Feces and urine odor comes by and attaches itself to your clothes." And then people will say, "We're scared to invite neighbors."
AMY GOODMAN: So, that's former pig factory farmer Don Webb, who closed his farm. Naeema, explain exactly what is in the spray that people are inhaling and getting on their clothes, the residents in east North Carolina?
NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: OK, so the spray is the animal waste that comes out of the -- the hogs are kept in tin metal housing. And they have slats in the floor where whatever -- whenever they go to the bathroom or abort baby piglets or whatever happens with them, it falls through the slats in the floor, and it's piped out. There are pipes running underneath the ground. And the waste is piped out into the open-air lagoon. And there are all kinds of chemicals. And this urine and fecal matter produces methane, ammonia gases, and so you can smell it. And what people say, it smells like rotten eggs, sometimes rotten collard greens or -- it's just a terrible smell. And they have been forced off of their wells, because they were seeing remnants of the waste in their well waters by the coloring and the odors coming out of their well water.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Will Hendrick, you're an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance. Can you describe how extensive this is, how many people are affected, and what the state Carolina Legislature House Bill 467 is all about?
WILL HENDRICK: Certainly. This bill is an attempt to protect polluters over people, to deny rights to the victims of nuisance caused by agricultural operations and to, indeed, deny equal rights to those who are disproportionately affected by those nuisance conditions. The question of the scope of agricultural operations is an important one, because the state of North Carolina, unfortunately, does not know the location -- its own environmental agency does not know the location of many of the poultry operations that are in the state. Often, they are collocated with the hog operations we've been discussing.
As you alluded to, the hog operations are predominantly concentrated in low-income and minority communities, predominantly in southeastern North Carolina. And the residents near these facilities experience significant impacts to their quality of life, many of which Naeema discussed. But it is important to note that this bill would reduce remedies, would reduce property rights for nuisance victims across the state, because it applies to any nuisance caused by any agricultural or forestry operation, which do span from the mountains to the coast.
AMY GOODMAN: Why isn't this act illegal?
WILL HENDRICK: Well, there are certainly concerns regarding its legality. And ultimately, that may be tested in the courts. What we have heard from bill proponents is that they believe this law is necessary to protect small farmers from frivolous lawsuits filed by out-of-state interests seeking to bleed the industry dry. And none of those four features is accurate. First, none of the pending lawsuits are against small farmers.
NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: That's right.
WILL HENDRICK: They're instead against the large billion-dollar corporation that is producing this meat. Secondly, there are existing statutory protections against malicious or frivolous lawsuits filed in nuisance against agricultural operations. Third, the lawsuits are being brought by North Carolina lawyers based in Salisbury, North Carolina. And fourth and most importantly, the attempt here is not to drive this industry out of North Carolina. Agriculture has been and will continue to be an important part of our economy. However, no industry is worth the impacts on public health and the environment that we have seen in this industry. And so, the attempt here is not to bleed that industry dry, but instead to make sure that that industry is conducted, that these operations are managing waste, in a way that doesn't harm their neighbors.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip from Mark Devries's investigation into Smithfield Foods factory farms. This is Steve Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Public Health.
STEVE WING: It can, I think, very correctly be called environmental racism or environmental injustice that people of color, low-income people bear the brunt of these practices.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Will Hendrick, this bill, HB 467, was passed by both houses of the North Carolina Legislature. It now goes to be signed by the new Democratic governor, Cooper. What is your understanding of what he will do?
WILL HENDRICK: Well, we are urging him to veto this legislation. Of course, that decision is his, and he has to act by this Sunday. We're hoping that he'll step in and be the champion of the people that he campaigned to be. We saw in the McCrory administration concerns about willingness to protect corporate interests over the people of North Carolina. And the coal ash saga was an important part of the electoral season, in the campaign dialogue. Similarly, we saw concern by North Carolina voters in response to attempts to decrease the civil rights of many North Carolinians in the HB 2 fiasco. Governor Cooper rose to power, was put into office by North Carolinians believing that he would be a champion for the little guy, that he would not kowtow to these large corporations, that he would not solely be the governor for the well-heeled, but be the governor for all Tar Heels in the Tar Heel State.
AMY GOODMAN: Republican North Carolina state Representative Jimmy Dixon is a primary sponsor of HB 467, or the Agriculture and Forestry Nuisance Remedies bill, again, which would limit damages people could collect against hog farms. Dixon is a longtime farmer, who received more than $100,000 in contributions from the pork industry over the last five years, including contributions from Bill Prestage, who served on the board of Smithfield; Wendell Murphy Jr. of Murphy Family Ventures, one of the county's largest pork producers; and the North Carolina Pork Council. Can you talk about the significance of this and just exactly who makes up the pig manure lobby?
WILL HENDRICK: Certainly. There are an army of individuals that make up that lobby, and listing all of their names would be impossible on this segment. Suffice it to say that there are various interests working to protect the hog industry, the poultry industry, agribusiness in this state. North Carolina is the second leading producer of pork in this country, behind only Iowa. And so there is significant interest by the industry in ensuring that they can operate with minimized exposure to liability. And indeed they've externalized the costs of waste management. And they're attempting here to reduce the rights of people who are going to court saying that they are harmed by the way in which waste is managed at these operations and that they have property rights recognized, gosh, since 1611, back in old England, and that they -- that those rights deserve protection and that there should be remedies in courts in North Carolina when those rights are violated.
AMY GOODMAN: Naeema Muhammad, I wanted to ask you if you can talk more about the class action suit against Smithfield by those affected by the farms, and your organization also filing a Title VI complaint with the EPA. Explain what that means.
NAEEMA MUHAMMAD: OK. So, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Waterkeeper Alliance and REACH, which is Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, we joined together and filed a Title VI complaint, which is an act under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And under the Title VI, it states that governmental agencies cannot do business in a way that intentionally or unintentionally have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities. And so, in March of 2013, DEQ, which is Department of Environmental Quality -- at that time, it was called the Department of Environment and Natural Resources -- renewed all of those contract rules, permits, without putting any protective measures in place for communities living with these animals, even though they had been well informed of the health impacts, the environmental impacts, by the research that was done by Dr. Steve Wing, and also citizens going up, you know, talking with them. They attended the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. We have an annual summit every year, the third weekend in October. And DENR always had a representative sitting on our government listening panel. So they were in the room --
AMY GOODMAN: Naeema, we're going to have to leave it there, as the show wraps up, but we are going to continue to follow this issue. Naeema Muhammad, organizing co-director for the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Will Hendrick, attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance and manager of the organization's North Carolina Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaign.
That does it for the show. I'll be speaking tonight in Tampa, 7:30, at the Seminal Heights United Methodist Church; Thursday in Atlanta, 7:00 p.m., at the First Iconium Baptist Church; Friday at 2:00 at Carleton College in Minnesota, 6:30 at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. On Saturday, we're in Madison, at night, we're in Chicago. On Sunday, we're in three cities in Michigan.
Despite Democratic rhetoric, the budget deal does include additional funding for border walls. The bill funds construction of "pedestrian barriers" (like the one above in Friendship Park in San Diego), which are intended to keep migrants from crossing the border. (Photo: Kathryn Johnson / AFSC)
Congress has reached an agreement to fund the federal government through the end of this fiscal year, avoiding a government shutdown. The proposal is clearly a compromise between the Trump administration, various factions of Congressional Republicans, and Congressional Democrats.
On issues related to immigration, there's both good news and bad news.
The good news: The final appropriations bill includes less funding for border enforcement and militarization than was requested by the Trump administration. This is thanks to intense public pressure on both Democrats and Republicans. The administration had asked for $3 billion in additional funding for the Department of Homeland Security, and Congress approved only $1.5 billion. The bulk of the difference is at the border.
The bad news: Despite Democratic rhetoric, this bill does include additional funding for border walls. They're conveniently called "pedestrian barriers," but pedestrian barriers are physical barriers intended to keep migrants from crossing the border. The expansion of these barriers will cause even more migrant deaths as people fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries are forced to travel through harsher terrain. Barrier construction is also devastating the environment.
What's more, the appropriations bill includes other funding for further border militarization, including $65 million to speed up the hiring of additional Border Patrol agents and $170 million for additional technology along the border. Although the $65 million doesn't pay for additional agents, it does pay for changes to hiring practices in preparation for the additional funding for more agents that US. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) anticipates in the following year.
The continued militarization of our border terrorizes border communities and fails to address the lack of accountability for horrific abuses committed by CBP agents.
The good news: The detention quota -- an inhumane federal policy that AFSC and our partners have along with partners have worked for years to abolish -- has been eliminated. The detention quota required Immigration and Customs Enforcement to maintain spaces to detain 34,000 immigrants on a nightly basis, and for many years, was a driver of the mass detention of immigrants in the US.
The bad news: The bill provides funding to detain well above the number of immigrants that the quota required. In fact, it provides funding for ICE to detain 39,324 immigrants each day across the US.
For much of the last year, the number of people held in detention exceeded the quota, recently averaging between 40,000 and 42,000 people per day.
Although we've eliminated the quota as a driver for detention, Congress is now handing over funding to allow the administration to keep detaining thousands of immigrants, ripping apart families and lining the pockets of the for-profit prison corporations that own and operate most ICE detention centers.
The good news: Despite Republican attempts, the bill does not pull funding from or otherwise punish sanctuary cities. Nor does it limit Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which helps young people who came to the US as children avoid deportation and obtain employment authorization.
The bad news: The bill maintains the outrageously high funding levels for immigration enforcement. Immigration detention and deportation destroys communities, rips apart families, violates due process rights, and often sends people back to situations of dire poverty and extreme violence.
It also unfortunately maintains funding for E-Verify. Employment verification systems like E-Verify lead to exploitation of workers and a permanent divide in the workforce. To compound those problems, E-Verify has been plagued with errors and problems. Continuing this program will perpetuate existing workplace discrimination and lead to more labor violations.
The bottom line? This bill could have been much worse. The fact that it's not is due to intense public pressure rejecting the Trump administration's plan to build a wall on the southern border. Thank you to everyone who took action and contacted their member of Congress!
However, this compromise bill also clearly demonstrates the dangers of focusing only on the border wall. Though that piece of the president's budget proposal was rejected, the administration still won $1.5 billion more for an already bloated and deadly immigration detention and deportation machine.
This is why we at AFSC will continue to oppose any funding for border militarization or immigration detention or enforcement. We need to keep up the pressure on both Republicans and Democrats to reject the administration's xenophobic rhetoric that says we need to keep immigrants out. Instead we must work toward humane policies that respect the rights and dignity of all.
The Haitian-American community is now facing a looming deportation deadline. Up to 55,000 Haitians could be forcefully repatriated to their fragile, struggling homeland if the Trump administration refuses to extend a temporary protected status that has allowed them to legally reside and work in the US after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. Haitians' temporary protected status, or TPS, is set to expire on July 22. Immigrant rights advocates say Haiti is still reeling from Hurricane Matthew, which, in October 2016, destroyed the country's southwest peninsula. The hurricane killed more than 1,000 people and decimated villages and farmland. Haiti is also suffering from a devastating cholera epidemic that erupted after the earthquake. For more, we speak with Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami.
AMY GOODMAN: We're broadcasting from Tampa, Florida. The Sunshine State, particularly southern Florida, is home to a very large, vibrant Haitian population, with many living in the Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti. Well, the Haitian-American community is now facing a looming deportation deadline. Up to 55,000 Haitians could be forcefully repatriated to their fragile, struggling homeland if the Trump administration refuses to extend a temporary protected status that's allowed them to legally reside and work in the US after an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010. Haitians' temporary protected status, known as TPS, is set to expire July 22nd.
Earlier this month, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, James McCament, wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly suggesting the Haitians should be deported as early as January. In the letter, McCament said conditions in Haiti have improved considerably. His conclusion and recommendation contradicts an assessment done by the Obama administration in December. Under Obama, the State Department examined the same circumstances and recommended Haitians be allowed to remain in the United States. Immigrant rights advocates note Haiti is still reeling from Hurricane Matthew, which, in October 2016, destroyed the country's southwest peninsula. The hurricane killed more than a thousand people and decimated villages and farmland. Haiti is also suffering from a devastating cholera epidemic that erupted after the earthquake. On the campaign trail in September, Donald Trump visited Little Haiti in Miami, Florida and vowed to be a champion for the Haitian-American community.
DONALD TRUMP: Whether you vote for me or you don't vote for me, I really want to be your greatest champion. And I will be your champion, whether you vote for me or not.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Trump speaking last year in Little Haiti.
Well, for more, we're joined now in Miami, Florida, by Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami.
Marleine, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what you understand is happening right now to the Haitian community who came to the US under temporary protected status?
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Good morning, Amy, and thank you so much for having me.
Well, as you clearly indicated, over 50,000 Haitians, some who have been living in the US for an average of seven-and-a-half to 15 years, who have made their lives here, built their families, their homes and businesses here, are facing deportation to Haiti. So, Haiti, as we know, is not equipped and ready to absorb all these refugees. And when President Obama approved TPS, it was so that Haiti has a chance to recover. And we know, based on what we've heard, that Haiti has yet to recover, not only that it's suffering for all the natural disasters that you mentioned, and the imported cholera epidemic and Hurricane Matthew, which destroyed all the crops and livestock, forcing people to live in caves. So, these people are really living in fear of deportation, because they have their families to consider, they have their businesses to consider, there are their homes, you know, to consider. So it is really creating and wreaking havoc in thousands of families in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe Little Haiti to us? Last night, we were just in Miami. I was speaking to a Haitian man who talked about the fear that the whole community is facing right now. How many Haitians live in Miami? And the 55,000, though, goes well beyond Miami, right? It's throughout the United States, in places.
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: For example, another concentration of Haitians is New York.
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Yes, indeed. Miami has the highest concentration of Haitians than any other places in the US So, of course, many of the TPS holders, 40 percent of them, do live in Miami. And Little Haiti is a place that has been built by immigrants. When Haitians were freed in the late '70s, early '80s, they were, you know, let free—set free in Little Haiti, which was a very depressed and drug-infested area at the time. But through resilience and determination and hard work, Haitian immigrants have turned Little Haiti into a vibrant, culturally diverse and culturally rich neighborhood, which is considered probably the most—the fastest-gentrified area in the US So, we are facing the hard process of gentrification. At the same time, we are also risking being deported to a country that is, you know, in trouble right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Why the change of heart? Can you talk about the Trump administration's reversal, what it looks like, from the Obama administration?
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Well, then-candidate Trump, now President Trump, did promise to be Haitians', you know, greatest champion. And a lot of Haitians, you know—I guess some voted for him. And we are all expecting him to do the right thing. We hope that he will do the right thing, because, you know, sending all these people back to Haiti will be a travesty, because he did promise, and then these people have created a life here. And then, they send remittances to at least half a million people in Haiti. It is in the best interest, national interest of the US, for the 50,000-plus Haitians to remain here, continue to contribute, socially, financially and otherwise, and then keep these remittances flowing, so that people will not risk their lives to come here as a result of these, you know, waves of deportation. So, it is in the best interest of the US to keep the Haitians here, allow them to continue living here with their families. Plus, it is the humane thing to do. And President Trump needs to keep his promise, because, in Creole, we say a promise is a debt, pwomès se dèt. A promise is a debt.
AMY GOODMAN: About 500 Walt Disney World employees could be impacted by the looming removal. Can you talk about Disney World in Orlando coming out for the continuation of TPS?
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Yes. So, the CEOs of Disney World did come out over a week ago advocating for TPS, because they have over 500 employees who have been model employees, because Haitian immigrants, like most immigrants in this country, are hard-working people. They work two, three jobs, and they have strong work ethics. So, we are very encouraged by the decision of Disney World to come out in support of temporary protected status. And we hope that the Chambers of Commerce and other employers, who, some of them, are already laying people off, they will heed the call of Disney World to keep these people employed and then to put pressure on the Trump administration to renew TPS sooner than later, because the employers are getting the signal that it might not be renewed, and so some people are being fired right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Both Disney and UNITE HERE, the union that represents many of the company's workers, again, calling for extending the temporary protected status. This is Walt Disney Company in a statement, saying, quote, "Given the current situation in Haiti we support efforts to extend the Temporary Protected Status for Haitian nationals. The more than 500 cast members who are currently part of this program have been and are an important part of our Walt Disney World workforce in Central Florida." Also, legislators, congressmembers, Marleine, can you talk about what their response is right now, both Republican and Democrat?
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Yes, indeed. The entire Florida delegations and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have advocated for a renewal of TPS. So, they've written letters. And now we are encouraging them to pick up the phone, because now we're beyond letters right now. They've been very supportive thus far, but now they need to go up a notch. So, in Florida, we are focusing on Senator Bill Nelson and Senator Marco Rubio to pick up the phone and then call Mr. Trump, President Trump, and ask him to renew TPS now. And then we also encourage listeners and TV viewers to also do their part by tweeting, supporting us on social media, hashtag #RenewTPSNow and #YesForTPS. We need to get this done, because it is only fair. It is only also the humane thing to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Marleine Bastien, I want to thank you for being with us, giving a sense, as we travel this country covering the movements that are changing America, what's happening here in Florida.
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami. Thank you.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we speak with Anand Gopal, who has covered the Middle East for years, talking about what's happening in Syria. Stay with us.
Under pressure from activists and in anticipation of a California state ban against the inhumane practice of keeping and breeding orcas in captivity, SeaWorld announced an end to the practice. However, that has not stopped SeaWorld from exploiting what it calls the last captive birth of an orca with a livestream featuring the pregnant Takara.
Visitors look at orca whales at SeaWorld in San Diego, July 17, 2013. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker / The New York Times)
April the Giraffe -- a giraffe at the Animal Adventure Park in upstate New York -- gave birth to a baby calf on April 15, completing weeks of a live stream from the zoo. Toys R Us sponsored the live feed, which attracted millions of viewers, brought in thousands of dollars in donations, and launched their own site and store for April the Giraffe. The New York zoo's successful marketing campaign has now inspired SeaWorld in San Diego to launch a similar one, as it provides updates and livestream discussions with trainers featuring a pregnant 25-year-old orca in captivity named Takara.
Takara's baby is supposed to be the last to be born into captivity after the company announced in March it would end its captive breeding program as legislation in California was being pushed through to ban it.
"SeaWorld's business model is exploiting animals for money," Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer who appeared in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, told Truthout. "I am saddened but not surprised by SeaWorld's marketing and promoting of Takara's pregnancy. Ever since SeaWorld started breeding captive orcas, they have marketed their breeding program as a humane alternative to wild captures, which they were forced to stop because of legislation and public outcry. No amount of veterinary care, PR spin or loving stories from trainers make this anything more than a tragedy from both Takara and her newborn calf's perspective. Takara, herself captive-born, is giving birth to an animal who will never know the life he or she was meant to live. I can't see anything redeeming about that."
Takara was born in captivity in 1991 at SeaWorld San Diego to orca parents captured near Iceland. She will be giving birth to her fifth calf, two of which were taken from her -- one transported to a park in Spain, and the other transported to SeaWorld Orlando. Orcas in the wild generally give birth to a calf every six to 10 years, but this will be Takara's third calf in just six years. Another orca similar to Takara, named Kalina, died suddenly at the age of 25 in 2010. Kalina was forced to give birth five times in a short span of time, which likely contributed to her early death. Female orcas in the wild live on average to around 50 years.
"SeaWorld's exploitation in any way of Takara giving birth to this calf proves they had no intentions of ending their breeding program or their circus-style shows, and fought viciously until the very end to try and kill the California bill banning captive breeding, which has now become law," former SeaWorld trainer John Hargrove told Truthout. Hargrove testified as an expert witness to the California Coastal Commission in their push to ban SeaWorld's captive breeding program despite SeaWorld's attempt to sue the Commission for doing so. "Takara was taken from her mother Kasatka at the age of 12 and shipped to Florida with her first calf Kohana, then SeaWorld took Takara's daughter when she was only three years old and shipped her to another country where now she has been inbred multiple times. With no mother or any other adult female to help or teach her, Kohana rejected her two calves and the second died at only 10 months old."
Takara then had a male calf named Trua in Florida, but Takara was shipped away to the Texas park where they needed a dominant female. There, she was artificially inseminated again. "In the wild, [female orcas] are 13-15 years old before they become pregnant with their first calf. SeaWorld has forcibly artificially inseminated females as young as 8 years old," Hargrove said. "In the wild, it takes three years or more before a female could become pregnant again. SeaWorld has forced pregnancy as soon as the females first begin to cycle at 18 months via artificial insemination. Although inbreeding does not occur in the wild, it happens at SeaWorld."
Activists are pushing for SeaWorld to send Takara and her new calf to live out the rest of their lives at a marine sanctuary where the orcas can live somewhat normal lives in the ocean, free from being forced to perform in circus-style shows and live in the stressful environment at SeaWorld. "Captivity itself is toxic for killer whales, but 'the show must go on!'" said Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, former SeaWorld Trainer, in an interview with Truthout. "This means Takara is exposed to a constant barrage of amplified music, pneumatic gates, construction noises, tourists banging on the glass, and more. Some have called it an 'acoustic nightmare for cetaceans.' Approximately 40 percent of her captive diet is composed of smelt, a food item not eaten by killer whales, anywhere, and all of her diet is frozen-thawed fish. This raises nutritional concerns for a growing calf. Orcas are predators, not scavengers, preferring more nutritionally robust live-kill vs. frozen-thawed and relatively dehydrated dead fish."
Ventre added that orcas in captivity often fight in the tanks, with nowhere to go like they would in the ocean. This is contributing to a stressful environment, and compounded with poor nutrition, provides a very dangerous environment for pregnant females. Orcas swim on average over 60 miles per day in the wild, but at SeaWorld are confined to small concrete and steel tanks, which deprive them of the type of social interactions they would experience living in the wild.
Unlike the water in the ocean, the water in orca tanks is filled with so much chlorine to neutralize the orcas' own waste that the water burns the eyes of the trainers and the orcas who have to swim in it. SeaWorld also regularly doses its orcas with antianxiety, antidepressant medications, proton pump inhibitors to reduce stress-induced ulcers, and antibiotics to mitigate infection from the dental issues orcas often face in captivity.
SeaWorld has tried to grapple with and rebrand itself in the wake of the Blackfish documentary, and activist-driven movements raising awareness of the inhumane, cruel and unsafe practices associated with keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment. In response to these movements, the company has promised to end captive breeding, yet is helping its new stockholder continue the practice in China.
"Takara was pregnant when SeaWorld President Joel Manby made that announcement [to end breeding in captivity at SeaWorld parks] last March. So at this point, SeaWorld is to be given credit for living up to the promise of ending captive breeding," said Ventre. "That said, I find it completely hypocritical for SeaWorld to tout 'ending orca breeding' on one hand, but on the other, [it] just sold 21 percent of its stock to a wealthy Chinese company intent on expanding captivity in the East. [SeaWorld has] also agreed to offer consultation services to the company. This is where SeaWorld is not living up to its promise. Hopefully the media and public will soon pick up on this contradiction."
(Photo: Pixabay; Edited: LW / TO)
Republicans in Congress spent International Workers' Day advancing legislation that could end mandatory overtime pay in the United States.
The House Rules Committee on Monday set the parameters for considering the bill, in motions passed on party-line votes. Full deliberation on the proposal should begin on Tuesday, according to Republican leaders.
The proposal would allow employers to offer 1.5 hours of paid time off, for every hour worked over the 40-hour overtime threshold. Current rules, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, force managers to pay employees time-and-a-half, for overtime.
"The legislation provides no guarantee…that workers can take the time off when they actually need it," House Democrats pointed out last week, in opposition.
They also said the change would allow bosses to force employees into longer work weeks, making it "legal for employers to deny workers their overtime pay."
Although it isn't officially recognized in the US, Monday was the internationally celebrated Labor Day. May Day was first established over a century ago to honor the "Haymarket Martyrs"–four anarchists in Chicago who were executed in the 1880's for the murder of seven police officers, and another who hanged himself in prison awaiting his death sentence.
All five were posthumously exonerated in 1893 by Gov. John Peter Atgeld, citing a lack of evidence of their culpability. Altgeld's order also pardoned two other anarchists who were on death row.
Some Democratic lawmakers participated in demonstrations on Monday to protest President Trump's policies toward immigrant workers.
"While Donald Trump made new unhinged comments and threats, we spoke out for the rights of immigrants and workers," Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) tweeted on Tuesday.
Donald Trump's tax plan rewards the captains of industry, the captains of Wall Street, the captains of real estate, like, well, like Trump himself. But the middle class, not so fast. The poor, not at all. Someone needs to tell Donald Trump that banksters and real estate tycoons sporting navy golf polos aren't blue-collar workers. The tax scheme is a stab in the back of that indigo shirt.
President Donald Trump signs new executive directives on tax regulations, at Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's office in Washington, DC, April 21, 2017. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk / The New York Times)
As he ran for office, Donald Trump repeatedly reminded audiences that he was "really, really rich," but assured voters that as president he would be a working man's champion, a blue-collar Superman.
He said he would stop corporations from offshoring manufacturing jobs with a border adjustment tax on imports. He would end trade cheating and declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. He would launch within his first 100 days a $1 trillion infrastructure improvement program to create millions of jobs fixing the nation's airports, bridges and roads.
Trump's record of promise-keeping to America's working men and women in his first 100 days is this: So far, no good. The tax plan, well, the one-page tax sketch that the administration released last week is symbolic. While it would slash federal levies on fat cats and corporations, administration officials refused to say it would help the middle class at all. And it contains no border adjustment tax.
The tax plan rewards the captains of industry, the captains of Wall Street, the captains of real estate, like, well, like Trump himself. But the middle class, not so fast. The poor, not at all. Someone needs to tell Donald Trump that banksters and real estate tycoons sporting navy golf polos aren't blue-collar workers. The tax scheme, like so many of Trump's other pledges to workers, is a stab in the back of that indigo shirt.
On the campaign trail, Trump said rich people like him should pay more in taxes. Yet, the tax plan he offered last week would cut his taxes -- by tens of millions a year. That's because it would eliminate the alternative minimum tax. This is a levy intended to require billionaires like Trump to pay at least something after subtracting their multitude of special-rich-people deductions.
Trump has refused to release his tax returns -- the first American president to keep them secret since Gerald Ford, who provided summaries. But Trump's 2005 return, uncovered in part by a newspaper, shows that he had to pay $31 million as a result of the alternative minimum tax.
Trump's plan also calls for eliminating the estate tax. That is paid only by people who inherit more than $5.5 million -- as Trump's children will. And it calls for cutting by more than half, to 15 percent, the tax paid by entities called pass-through corporations. Trump's attorneys indicated in his presidential financial disclosures that his approximately 500 businesses are almost all pass-throughs.
Trump will be hobnobbing with his country club buddies in benefitting from this break. A 2015 study by the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research found that the top 1 percent gets 69 percent of pass-through income.
Right now, a worker can't get in on that low 15 percent tax rate unless reporting income below $37,950. But doctors and lawyers and investment bankers would get that special discount rate, no matter how much they make, as long as they pay a few bucks to establish a pass-through corporation. Trump's plan would allow a lawyer paid $1 million a year to cut his taxes by $180,000 by setting up a pass-through.
Certainly, with all of those perks going to the nation's most wealthy, Trump's tax men would assure workers that they will benefit too.
Not really. When asked on ABC's "Good Morning America" last week whether the middle class would pay more under the plan, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: "I can't make any guarantees."
And the director of Trump's National Economic Council, Gary D. Cohn, could not say how much of a break -- if any -- a middle-income American would get under the plan.
If it's not absolutely clear who Trump's tax plan would benefit, there's also this from George Callas, the senior tax counsel for the Speaker of the House. Callas wants a permanent break for corporations, saying of a temporary one:
"It would not alter business decisions. It would not cause anyone to build a factory. It would just be dropping cash out of helicopters on corporate headquarters for a couple of years."
Lots of small towns in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- towns that suffered when corporations offshored factories, towns that voted for Trump -- would really benefit from cash dropping out of helicopters for a couple of years.
But that's not Trump's plan.
Trump's money men, Mnuchin and Cohn, said slashing levies on the wealthy will pay for itself because giving the rich more cash will spur economic growth. So, no need to worry about Trump's tax cuts ballooning the national debt, they assured.
This is called the Laffer Curve. Really.
Economist Arthur Laffer, an adviser to Trump, explained to the Washington Post last week that it works like this: "When you think about cutting that corporate rate, let's say, from 35 to 15, that's not going to cost you any money."
He convinced the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush this hocus-pocus would work. And now, he has bamboozled Trump.
Both Reagan and Bush cut taxes. Both also left the country with larger deficits and uneven economic growth. Reagan raised taxes several times after his initial 1981 cut. Bush gave the country the Great Recession.
Laffer still insists his curve works, contending, "It's a no-brainer."
No. It's voodoo economics. That's what George H.W. Bush called it.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group that advocates fiscal restraint, estimated that Trump's Laffer tax plan could reduce federal revenue by $3 trillion to $7 trillion over a decade. The economy would need to grow at a rate of 4.5 percent to make that proposal self-financing.
It grew at a pathetic 0.7 percent during Trump's first quarter in office. In President Obama's last quarter, the fourth of 2016, it increased at 2.1 percent. To rise at 4.5 percent would be phenomenal. Maybe paranormal.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, put it this way: "It seems the administration is using economic growth like magic beans: the cheap solution to all our problems."
Ronald Reagan, who like Trump was adored by blue-collar workers, promised that benefits from his massive tax cuts for the rich would trickle down to the rest. That never worked. But now Trump is taking advice from the same Svengali and promoting the same flim-flam plan.
Those heartland workers can't tolerate another hit. But it's not just taxes. The health insurance proposal Trump is pushing would cost many low- and middle-income workers thousands of dollars more a year. Trump has proposed eliminating the Chemical Safety Board, which prevents workplace deaths. He delayed rules protecting workers from deadly silica and beryllium. He signed a law ending a requirement that large federal contractors disclose and correct serious safety violations. Trump has no federal infrastructure plan and reneged on naming China a currency manipulator.
These are all the actions of a president protecting the captains of commerce, not one championing blue-collar workers.
Censorship tactics have become more complex, posing new challenges for journalists and non-journalists alike, a new report finds.
In its annual "Attacks on the Press" report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented a range of censorship cases from around the world and revealed a new world of media repression.
"[Censorship] is definitely becoming more sophisticated and complex and is occurring at a variety of levels," CPJ's Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch told IPS.
CPJ's Executive Director described these new strategies as "repression 2.0" in the report, stating; "Repression 2.0 is an update on the worst old-style tactics, from state censorship to the imprisonment of critics, with new information technologies including smartphones and social media producing a softening around the edges."
At the end of 2016, there were almost 260 journalists in jail, the most CPJ has ever documented.
Turkey is the world's leading jailer of journalists with over 145 imprisoned journalists, more than China, Egypt, and Iran combined.
The country's media crackdown deepened following the July 15, 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent imposition of a state of emergency which the Turkish government allegedly used to shut down over 50 newspapers, 30 TV channels, and three news agencies.
The government also reportedly used anti-terror laws to imprison journalists, including the chief editor of Turkish daily newspaper Cumhuriyet Can Dündar who was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of disclosing state secrets, espionage, and aiding a terrorist group. Most recently, life sentences are being sought for 30 people with ties to Zaman newspaper, which is associated with Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen whom the government accuses of organising the coup attempt. The newspaper has since been under government control.
In Kenya, authorities are increasingly using a new mechanism to control the media: money.
"As revenues drain away from traditional media due to the inroads of digital technologies, the use of financial-induced self-censorship, or 'fiscing', can also ensure that journalists are more 'reasonable' in their reporting," said journalist Alan Rusbridger in the report.
"Murder is messy. Money is tidy," he continues.
However, the control of information is not unique to developing countries, said Rasch.
In the US, President Donald Trump has raised anti-media hostility to levels "previously unseen on a national scale," said journalist Alan Huffman in the report.
President Trump has consistently described some media organizations as "fake news," most recently reiterating the claim that media fabricate stories during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). "They have no sources, they just make them up when there are none," he told attendees.
Trump's rhetoric often emboldened his supporters who would boo journalists. Huffman described one case in the report where a Trump supporter wore a T-shirt that suggested the use of lynching, stating: "Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED."
The president has also restricted and even denied access for reporters perceived as unfriendly, including those from Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post, and has threatened to change libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists and news agencies.
In one chapter, Christian Amanpour noted the similarities in such "poisonous" trends in the US and around the world.
"The same dynamic has infected powerful segments of the American media, as it has in Egypt, Turkey, and Russia, where journalists have been pushed into political partisan corners, delegitimized, and accused of being enemies of the state. Journalism itself has become weaponized. We cannot allow that to happen," she stated.
In Ecuador, the government has allegedly used social media as a way to suppress journalists.
After tweeting that Ecuador's former Vice-President Lenin Moreno had not paid income taxes, journalist Bernardo Abad's twitter account had been blocked for violating its terms of service. By the end of the week, nine accounts had been temporarily suspended after also tweeting about Moreno's taxes.
Radsch told IPS that with the internet and social media, there are now "more outlets for repression and threats."
China has taken this to the next level, making plans to link journalists' online posts to their finances.
Under the country's proposed social credit plan, journalists who write or speak critically of the government could face personal financial consequences including decreased credit score or a denied loan. Such censorship goes beyond the business as usual tactics of shutting down reporters' social media accounts to affecting journalists' daily activities.
Rasch highlighted the need to advocate for an open internet and the rights of journalists.
"[We must] remember the importance of the press that continues to help us make sense of all the information that we are bombarded with all the time," she told IPS.
She also recommended journalists adopt secure communication practices in order to maintain their privacy and their sources' privacy.
Most importantly, journalists must stand strong and commit to fact-based reporting.
"This is the best and most important way to fight back against the new censorship," said Simon.
"Journalists cannot allow themselves to feel demoralized. They need to pursue their calling and to seek the truth with integrity, honestly believe that the setbacks, while real, are temporary," he concluded.
A billionaire-backed conservative group is targeting Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as she tours the country in support of her new book, according to a memo obtained by Politico.
"We view (the) book launch as the soft launch of her presidential campaign," said executive director Colin Reed. "We'll do the same to her as we did with Hillary Clinton in 2014," Reed added.
America Rising's backers would stand to lose some cushy tax breaks and regulatory favors if the progressive policies advocated by Sen. Warren were enacted. For her part, Warren denies that she's running for the presidency and notes that this is her 11th book.
America Rising is tracking a number of potential contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
The group appears to be taking special interest in Warren, however. Reed's memo cites her "enormous sway" over the party and describes her -- inaccurately -- as its "titular head." (Reed does not appear to know what the word "titular" means.)
The Rise of America Rising
America Rising was formed in 2013 by Matt Rhoades, the director of Mitt Romney's failed 2012 presidential campaign, and it represents the worst of what our current political system offers. Its goal is not to debate the issues or offer solutions to the nation's problems. Instead, the PAC gets cash from big-money donors and spends it trying to tear down its political opponents.
The Republican National Committee's "autopsy" of its 2012 presidential loss reportedly concluded that the party needed an organization that would "do nothing but post inappropriate Democratic utterances and act as a clearinghouse for information on Democrats."
In the time-honored Washington tradition of "failing up," the leader of the party's most recent failure was chosen to head up the new operation. But, to be fair, Rhoades was not an entirely inappropriate choice. One of his early career highlights, if you can call it that, involved funneling "oppo" information to a seedy but popular website called "The Drudge Report" on behalf of George W. Bush.
The group made a splash the following year when it sent "trackers" to record everything key Democratic candidates did and said on the campaign trail. The goal was to record a "blooper" that could be played over and over on news and social media to embarrass the candidate.
Hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, who specializes in "vulture capitalism" -- purchasing distressed assets and squeezing every last dollar out of them. Singer's fund earned the "vulture" label by purchasing the debts of distressed governments like Panama's and Peru's, and then pressuring the authorities to force repayment. In Argentina's case, the fund's tactics including seizing an Argentine vessel docked in an African port.
Singer, a major Republican donor, is the founder of a hedge fund called Elliott Management Corporation. He flooded New York's 19th Congressional district with money last year in order to successfully defeat reform Democrat Zephyr Teachout. Teachout offered to debate Singer, whom she labeled "the actual voice" of her opposition, but he declined to respond. Singer was America Rising's largest reported donor.
Wrestling magnate Linda McMahon, who ran the World Wrestling Entertainment empire with husband Vince McMahon and is now Donald Trump's head of the Small Business Administration. McMahon gave $6 million to Trump's campaign -- money Trump has reportedly used in ethically dubious ways.
Hilcorp Energy Corporation, a Texas-based fossil fuels company that has been sued for violating the Clean Water Act in Louisiana. Hilcorp allegedly damaged oyster beds by dredging canals without the proper permission, using a destructive technique known as "prop washing."
The company was recently ordered to clean up a 4,200-gallon oil spill in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, and last month oil was reportedly leaking from an abandoned Hilcorp well head on the lower Mississippi. Also in March, regulators reported that a Hilcorp gas line in Alaska's Cook Inlet was leaking 225,000 to 335,000 cubic feet of gas per day and demanded that it be repaired or shut down.
Hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, a self-described "Reagan Republican" who once testified before the US Senate that US stock markets are "fairest, most transparent, resilient and competitive markets anywhere in the world" -- a claim that would surprise hundreds of thousands of documented victims of Wall Street investor and borrower fraud.
Health insurance executive Mike Fernandez, who became a billionaire in the HMO business before becoming a major Republican donor. Fernandez, who supported Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, initially opposed Trump in 2016 and supported Hillary Clinton. In December 2015 Fernandez declared Trump "unelectable."
Real estate tycoon Ronald Weiser. Weiser, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party who also acted as the Republican National Committee's national finance chairman, was a member of Donald Trump's fundraising committee in 2016.
Money for Nothing
What are these big-money interests getting for their money? America Rising's Facebook page is an oddly listless affair. Its Twitter feed still features unflattering and now outdated photos of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, the candidates on last year's Democratic presidential ticket.
The real "value proposition" for efforts like America Rising lies in their ability to plant destructive stories about their opponents in respected news outlets (a category that does not include Drudge). These efforts are more difficult to trace.
The group's current anti-Warren efforts include sending trackers to videotape the senator's book tour, in hopes of catching her saying something embarrassing, and a somewhat sophomoric "candidate page" attacking the Massachusetts Democrat. It has posted similar pages for Sanders, Booker, and other Democratic presidential prospects.
All in all, America Rising's efforts have an oddly dated feel to them. Its social media effects feel perfunctory, and its "gotcha" approach to tracking seems like a relic of past campaigns. Politicians like Warren and Sanders have so far proven resilient against the politics of negativity. America Rising's billionaire patrons could find more constructive uses for their money.
(Photo: Trestletech; Edited: LW / TO)
Our country has major problems with its drinking water supplies. Nearly one quarter of people living in the United States get their drinking water from one of the 18,000 water systems in all 50 states that reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015, according to a new report. This news comes as the Trump administration eyes deep budget cuts to programs safeguarding drinking water and public health.
Many of the violations were "health based," meaning that they involved a specific danger to human health rather than a simple violation of federal requirements for reporting and monitoring. About 27 million people nationwide were served by drinking water systems that reported "health-based violations" of federal standards in 2015, according the report, which was released on Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Health-based violations were most frequently triggered by chemical byproducts of disinfection treatments that are linked to cancer, or the failure to properly treat surface and groundwater to remove dangerous pathogens. Violations were also caused by lead and copper contamination; nitrates and nitrites that can cause the potentially fatal "blue baby syndrome" in infants; and coliform bacteria, which can cause illness and are often an indicator of fecal contamination.
The report is based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency's drinking water tracking system and may be incomplete because sometimes water utilities and state agencies fail to report problems to the federal government, according to the NRDC. The group claims the EPA and state regulators are not doing enough to protect drinking water while the nation's aging sewer and water treatment systems deteriorate underneath our feet.
"The problem is twofold … we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure," said Erik Olson, the director of NRDC's health programs and co-author of the report.
States with the highest number of drinking water violations relative to their population include Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Washington and Ohio, according to the report. Trump won a majority in 7 of the top 10 states with the most violations.
The group says Trump's proposed budget cuts would make the problem worse, especially in rural areas. Systems serving less than 500 people accounted for just over half of the health-based violations and 70 percent of all Safe Drinking Water Act violations reported in 2015. Meanwhile, Trump wants to pay for heavy increases in military and border security spending by making deep cuts to clean energy programs and public health agencies.
The White House has proposed slashing the EPA's budget by 31 percent, including $600 million in water-related programs and grants, according an official budget blueprint and an internal memo leaked online. In addition, $129 million would be cut from the EPA's enforcement budget, and the US Department of Agriculture's rural wastewater program would lose $498 million in funding. More than 200 people working on water quality programs at the EPA would lose their jobs.
"Americans have a right to safe, clean drinking water, but President Trump is killing that right with a meat axe," said Jamie Consuegra, a legislative director with the NRDC.
Luckily for environmentalists and anyone who drinks tap water, Trump's wishes have not come to political fruition, at least not after Congress's first round of budget negotiations since he became president. Over the weekend, lawmakers averted a government shutdown and agreed on a five-month federal budget that leaves funding for the EPA largely intact, according to reports.
Trump was frustrated by the negotiations, particularly because Democrats have refused to include funding for his proposed wall on the border with Mexico. On Monday, he tweeted that voters would need to elect more Republican senators in 2018, or the Senate could change its filibuster rules in order to avoid making budget compromises with Democrats.
"Our country needs a good shutdown in September to fix this mess!" the president added.
The NRDC argues the EPA needs more funding to protect drinking water, not less. Many potentially dangerous chemicals and other contaminants are not included in federal drinking water regulations, and the EPA has not added any substances to the list since the law was last updated by Congress in 1996. Only perchlorate, a dangerous chemical used in rocket fuel that has seeped from military weapons disposal sites, has been slated for regulation, but the EPA has not established perchlorate standards for drinking water since proposing to regulate the pollutant six years ago, according to the report.
"We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country," Olson said.
Environmentalists have honed in on drinking water issues ever since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan erupted into the headlines in late 2015. Lead contamination caused by faulty water quality treatments poisoned residents in the majority-Black city, where state officials recently agreed to replace aging delivery lines.
Similar problems have exacerbated a lead contamination crisis in East Chicago, Indiana, where Trump's EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, recently made a brief appearance and spoke to residents who have been forced to use water filters or leave their homes completely.
The NRDC determined last year that 18 million people in the US were served by drinking water systems that reported federal lead violations. Lead can cause an array of cognitive and other health problems, especially in children.
An elections watchdog is calling for a criminal investigation into whether the campaign of former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, the NC Republican Party and their attorneys falsely accused hundreds of citizens of voter fraud in the wake of last year's election, which McCrory narrowly lost to Democrat Roy Cooper.
At the scandal's center is Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky (HVJT), a prominent Virginia law firm that filed most of the voter challenges. It's headed by Jill Holtzman Vogel, a three-term Virginia state senator from Fauquier County who's running for lieutenant governor in the June 13 primary. The firm's other principals include a former chair of the Federal Election Commission and a former assistant attorney general for the US Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Last week Democracy North Carolina released "The Deceit of Voter Fraud," a report documenting how in the aftermath of the November 2016 gubernatorial elections the McCrory-NCGOP-HVJT team had filed legal paperwork charging about 600 voters with committing fraud or casting suspect absentee ballots. Nearly all of the accusations proved false, and the watchdog group wants state and federal officials to look into whether the protest filings may have violated state and federal laws against harassing and intimidating innocent voters, corrupting the election process and obstructing an election canvass.
"The crusade did not stop even after McCrory's attorneys were told by some elections officials that their claims were wrong, that they were confusing voters' names with other people, that they were using bad data," the report says. "Instead of stopping, the attorneys caused more charges to be filed that maligned more innocent voters."
HVJT, which has offices in Warrenton, Virginia, and Washington, DC, offers expertise in elections law, lobbying and government ethics. Politico has described the firm as "specializing in untraceable pressure groups for conservative causes." Its client roster has included Karl Rove's American Crossroads, US Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Vogel has long experience working for GOP groups going back to 1996, when she served as staff counsel for the 1996 Republican National Convention. She went on to serve as counsel in the Florida presidential recount of 2000, acting on behalf of the Bush-Cheney campaign in West Palm Beach and Osceola County, and as chief counsel of the Republican National Committee. She also served as deputy counsel at the Department of Energy under President George W. Bush.
Her firm has been recognized as among the top in its field by Washingtonian, Politico and Campaigns & Elections. But Democracy North Carolina documented sometimes careless errors on the part of its attorneys, which in some cases resulted in innocent people being named as suspected wrongdoers in media reports.
"It's very suspicious, the behavior of her law firm," said Democracy North Carolina Executive Director Bob Hall. "It looks like a calculated disinformation campaign."
Tainting a Fair Election
Jill Holtzman Vogel's name does not appear in the Democracy North Carolina report, but those of several of her employees do.
They are Erin Clark, who before joining HVJT worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's 2014 re-election campaign as assistant to the senior advisor; Gabriela Fallon, a former litigator who's worked on presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional races; Steve Roberts, a former fundraiser for the Republican National Committee; and Steven Saxe, an associate with a background in state and federal electoral politics.
The report also notes that HVJT partner Jason Torchinsky served as counsel for the Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund, which led the fight over the 2016 gubernatorial vote count. Torchinsky formerly served as deputy general counsel to the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. He was also counsel to the American Center for Voting Rights, a group set up in 2005 by key players in the Bush-Cheney operation and Republican National Committee to publish reports claiming massive voter fraud by Democrats that necessitated strict voter ID laws like the one championed by McCrory and other North Carolina Republicans but rejected by the courts as racially discriminatory.
Back on election night 2016, McCrory appeared to be winning until late returns from Durham County put Cooper ahead by about 5,000 votes out of 4.7 million cast. For the next month, the McCrory campaign and NCGOP -- with help from the HVJT attorneys -- fought to give McCrory the win. Their weapon was the "election protest," a legal proceeding to address mistakes, misconduct and other "irregularities" that could affect the election's outcome. The Democracy North Carolina report states:
Through open records requests and interviews, Democracy NC determined that a majority of the protests were prepared and sent by email to the county boards of elections by attorneys retained by the McCrory campaign from the Warrenton, VA-based law firm of Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky (HVJT). The attorneys also prepared a smaller number of similar protests that local Republican officials hand-delivered to their county board of elections. Disclosure reports on the State Board of Elections' website indicate the Pat McCrory Committee and Pat McCrory Committee Legal Defense Fund paid the HVJT law firm $98,000 in late November and December 2016.
Democracy North Carolina speculates that the effort may have been aimed at sowing enough confusion about the election's fairness to trigger a state law that would allow the Republican-controlled General Assembly to determine the winner. US Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat representing eastern North Carolina, told The News & Observer that there appeared to be a correlation between counties selected for protests and those with active black political groups.
However, the protests were rife with problems. They "were apparently hurriedly produced and often contained sloppy errors, incorrect references, and false or misleading information," the report found. "A minimum level of research would have revealed that dozens of the individuals charged with voter fraud in the protests were completely innocent."
Some of the protests involved mistaken identities, such as confusing a Jr. with a Sr. Others accused people of having felony records or voting in multiple states when that was not the case. In some counties, protests were lodged over having one person witness multiple absentee ballots, which is not illegal. And in a few cases, the attorneys continued to pursue legal proceedings against individual voters even after county elections officials informed them that an allegation of voter fraud was false.
For example, HVJT lodged a protest with the Stokes County elections board over a ballot cast by one Larry G. Smith, charging that he had a felony record and thus was ineligible to vote. In response to the board's request for more information, Clark sent an email with a link to a felon named Larry D. Smith. When the board's director pointed out her error, Clark emailed back thanking him for "the open dialogue." However, she did not withdraw the protest, which the elections board discussed and dismissed at its next meeting.
In that proceeding as in most others, the HVJT attorneys did not follow up on the protests by appearing at the hearing. The no-shows led county elections boards to dismiss some protests for lack of evidence and raised red flags for Democracy North Carolina.
"The lack of follow up raises questions about the real purpose of filing a blitz of protests," the report says. "Was it was only a show to bolster the intense publicity about voter fraud tainting a fair election?"
A Trail of Defamation Charges
Vogel did not respond to Facing South's request for comment. But NCGOP Chairman Robin Hayes told the Associated Press that Democracy North Carolina is the one trying to bully voters, calling the group's actions "nothing short of voter and citizen intimidation." McCrory described the group's actions as "Orwellian" and said it should release its list of financial supporters, which it already does.
However, the NC State Board of Elections appears to be taking Democracy North Carolina's criticisms seriously: It has added the information the group documented to the board's ongoing investigation into the protests, said spokesperson Pat Gannon. The board is also in the process of revamping the protest form to require protestors to swear under penalty of perjury that the information submitted is true and accurate, make clear it's a felony to submit a fraudulent form, and disclose when a candidate, political party or organization has requested or financed the filing. (See the proposed changes here.)
Back home in Virginia, Vogel is under growing pressure for her role in another case involving defamatory statements, this time against state Sen. Bryce Reeves, one of her Republican rivals for lieutenant governor.
Last fall, an email sent to some of Reeves' supporters accused him of having an affair with a campaign aide, which the senator has denied. Reeves, a former undercover police officer, filed a lawsuit and obtained subpoenas for internet records associated with the email, which was sent out under the name "Martha McDaniel." Here's how the Washington Post described what those subpoenas turned up:
According to records provided by Google and two service providers, the Gmail account used to send the message was set up with a certain cellphone number -- one belonging to Vogel's husband, Alex Vogel. The account was accessed via two IP addresses, one associated with the Vogels' Upperville estate and the other with their neighbors, who share a wireless, non-password-protected Internet system with the Vogels because of the lack of high-speed access in their rural area.
Alex Vogel, who also has extensive experience as an attorney for Republican causes, is a partner in his wife's law firm and managing partner of VogelHood Group, a policy research and consulting firm. The Vogels have denied sending or authorizing the sending of any such emails, releasing a statement saying that "there are many ways a person can send an anonymous email and make it appear to have originated from another sender." Vogel told her local newspaper that she was "horrified" by the email.
Reeves offered to help pay for a third-party forensics analysis to shed light on what happened, but the Vogels didn't respond. Reeves has since hired a prominent defamation attorney who has warned Vogel to preserve her computer, cell phone and other records. He also has asked a judge to allow his attorney to depose Vogel as well as her neighbors and two campaign supporters.
Meanwhile, four residents of Guilford County, North Carolina, who had their votes falsely challenged after last year's election have filed a civil defamation lawsuit -- though the action doesn't name Vogel's law firm. Instead, it targets local Republican Party official William Clark Porter IV for submitting post-election protests that contained inaccurate and defamatory statements. But underneath Porter's signature on the protests are the words "authorized by / spr" -- as in Steve P. Roberts, the HVJT attorney who submitted the protests to the county election board.
That's why Democracy North Carolina believes it "will likely take a criminal investigation to go behind the local protest filer to uncover a larger pattern of illegal activities and, as appropriate, hold accountable the attorneys and other architects of the McCrory-NCGOP crusade."