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In CNN’s Tax Debate, Bernie Sanders Showed How Democrats Can Win with Socialism

Thu, 2017-10-19 19:50

Had Wednesday night’s CNN debate on tax reform instead been one for the presidency, the odds for Democrats would look pretty good. Ted Cruz, an unlikable Republican, was pitted against Bernie Sanders, the country’s most popular politician, who articulated a common-sense vision for an America based on equality and a redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom.

But rather than embracing this bold vision, the Democratic establishment seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Following the debate, news broke that the DNC had pushed out a number of progressives from its leadership positions, including many who had supported Rep. Keith Ellison in his leadership bid against current chair Tom Perez, Obama’s Labor Secretary. 

One of the few correct things Ted Cruz said at Wednesday night’s debate was that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represent “the heart of the Democratic Party.” This recent purge at the DNC raises the question of whether the party is interested in having a heart at all. Or, for that matter, in winning.

To understand why Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism presents a promising way forward for Democrats, it’s important to understand that the GOP’s current agenda is both hollow and incoherent—on economic issues in particular.

Lies vs. honesty

Throughout the debate, Cruz doubled down on Republicans’ talking point that cutting the corporate tax rate would fuel economic growth—the GOP plan would slash the official rate for corporations from 35 to 20, even though today’s effective corporate tax rate sits well below either of those figures. “When you cut [corporate] taxes the result is everyone benefits because you have more opportunity, better jobs and higher wages,” Cruz claimed.

The trouble with that story is that it’s patently false.

“We have run a four-decade-long experiment in reducing effective marginal tax rates on the rich, both in the individual and corporate tax systems, and it has definitely failed to fuel economic growth,” Marshall Steinbaum, a Fellow and Research Director at the Roosevelt Institute, tells In These Times via email. “What it has done is vastly increase pre-tax income and wealth inequality by facilitating the concentration of power between and within corporations—which I would argue was its aim all along.”

On taxes and other issues, the GOP’s economic talking points tend to rest on a dogma about how the economy should work which isn’t actually supported by evidence. Sanders put the debate in starker and more common-sense terms:

“Senator Cruz wants to see legislation pass that would give $1.9 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1 percent, significantly increase the national debt being passes on to our kids and our grandchildren, and in order to pay for these tax breaks for billionaires, he wants to throw 15 million people off of Medicaid, cut Medicare by over $450 billion… I do not believe that America is about giving tax breaks to the very, very wealthy and cutting life and death programs for working families.”

Cruz would likely have had a much easier time debating an establishment Democrat than a socialist. Jabs about billionaires’ campaign funding would strike close to home for DNC insiders, whereas similar attacks seem to wash off Sanders. This partially explains why Cruz decided to go after Obama’s record rather than push back on the merits of Sanders’ argument: That every American deserves healthcare, free education and a host of other benefits that are considered standard in many other industrialized nations.

For more than 50 years in American politics, accusations of being a socialist have struck fear into the hearts of Democrats. Sanders welcomes the term. “I am a democratic socialist and I ran as an Independent,” Sanders responded when prodded by Cruz. “You didn’t run as a right-winger, you ran as a Republican.”

What taxes are for

Republicans have long tried to craft a reputation for themselves as deficit hawks, even though governmental projections of their current tax plan—as Sanders mentioned—estimate that it would add trillions of dollars to the federal deficit.

In that sense, the GOP plan would seem to fail on its own terms. But that would require the party to genuinely care about the deficit in a way that it never has. On its own, the national debt doesn’t make much of a difference in terms of people’s day-to-day lives. What matters is how that money is spent, and Republicans have historically been better at understanding that than Democrats.

“There’s absolutely no economic justification whatsoever for caring about government deficits in the current economic environment.” Steinbaum explains. “In this, the Republicans have outmaneuvered Democrats time and time again. It’s one of the classic and consequential long-term political failures of the center-left over the last 30 years.”

At a time when inflation has been sluggish, expansionary programs make both economic and political sense. Such policies would help jump start the economy while garnering political support in a populist moment. In contrast to what you might expect from most Democrats, Sanders was able to reframe last night’s debate away from Cruz’s fear-mongering about taxes to what services the government should be expected to provide.

In a sly casting move, CNN recruited a Danish citizen and think tank employee to ask Sanders a gotcha question about the notoriously high taxation rates in Scandinavian social democracies. Ultimately, however, the questioner was forced to admit that Cruz’s demonization of European healthcare systems for being expensive and riddled with long waiting lines was “just not true,” and that his home country is in many ways better at meeting basic needs than his adopted one.

You don’t need to be a socialist to agree that the government should be spending more on the programs that make a positive difference in working peoples’ lives. Especially in the United States, the definition of what constitutes a democratic socialist is somewhat fluid, and many have argued that Sanders is closer to a New Deal Democrat than even a European social democrat.

What Sanders and a rising tide of socialist-aligned organizers and elected officials represent, though, is a break from the fiscal conservatism that has defined the last 20 years of Democratic Party politics, and a defense of good, big government. Whether raising the tax rate to 90 percent for the highest income earners counts as socialism is a debate worth having, but the embrace of such a goal by Democrats would represent a radical shift in how the party has related to tax policy: Seeing taxes as not just as a way to pay for vital programs, but as a means of redistributing wealth and power away from the one percent.

Lessons from the UK

Britain’s political landscape might actually offer a more hopeful way forward than Denmark’s. Conservatives are rapidly shedding members and support under disastrous leadership, and lack either youth support or rising stars. Labour, the opposition party, is unified around an uncompromising socialist vision, and may well be poised to take back the government in the next general election.

If Democrats knew what was good for them, the party could start down a similar path: embrace the fact that Sanders and Warren are the heart the party and lean hard into a redistributive agenda, going after Trump while proposing a visionary path forward. There are better conduits of that message than Sanders, but grooming them for office and national leadership would require the party to refashion itself into a welcoming place for left populism and—on a basic infrastructural level—investing in state parties rather than consultants.  

The DNC, by contrast, seems content to keep losing.

Trump’s Heritage Foundation Speech Is a Sign of the Coming All-Out War Within the Right

Thu, 2017-10-19 14:29

The Heritage Foundation, where Donald Trump delivered a brief speech Tuesday night, has been called the birthplace of Paul Ryan, the Republican leader of the House. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Steve Bannon, a key adviser to Trump and former chief strategist, once said that Ryan was born in a petri dish at Heritage and dismissed him as a “limp dick motherfucker.”

That kind of intraparty animosity would be surprising if we lived in a different political culture. Bannon and Ryan are both self-identified conservatives. Heritage, a D.C.-based think tank, is one of conservatism’s flagship institutions. It deserves much credit, or blame, for making the movement into a powerful force in contemporary U.S. politics. Its policy papers shaped the Reagan administration's agenda in the early 1980s, and its fervor for tax cutting and deregulating helped move American society in a decisively neoliberal direction.

Those were simpler times. Trump’s appearance at Heritage revealed a right-wing movement—and a Republican Party—at the breaking point, being pulled apart by two very different kinds of lunacy, represented by Bannon and Heritage, with Trump right in the middle. No wonder he sounds so unhinged so much of the time.

Trump didn’t say anything newly outrageous in his Heritage speech. It was the blandness of the event that was revealing. Its primary purpose was to sell the Trump administration’s tax-cut plan, which Heritage “scholars” have helped craft, just as they did during the Reagan era.

Before addressing the tax cuts, Trump first gave a list of the accomplishments that “they” say dwarfs any previous administration in U.S. history, naturally. (He didn’t say who “they” are.) These include appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and repealing the Clean Power Act. Trump also listed a number of things that we all agree on, according to him, including the belief that freedom is a gift from God, that judges should interpret the Constitution as it’s written, that children should honor the flag and that strong nations have strong borders.

Once on the subject of taxes, Trump recited his prepared talking points: Tax cuts for working Americans means job growth. The tax burden on businesses is crushing them. Lower the rates and “you will see things happen like have never happened before.” And then he pivoted to how we’ll all be liberated to say “Merry Christmas” this holiday season.

All told, Trump actually said little about the tax cuts themselves, perhaps because it’s difficult to say very much without revealing what they actually are—a payoff to the wealthy right-wing philanthropists who bankroll institutions like the Heritage Foundation.

Founded in 1973 with seed money from the beer baron Joe Coors, Heritage exists largely to provide an intellectual gloss to an agenda of liberating rich people from taxes and unshackling corporations from regulations. Charles and David Koch, the oil industry moguls, have been among its major supporters, along with legions of similar corporate tycoons.

So it’s no accident that the “Blueprint for Reform” published by Heritage prior to the 2016 election recommended gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—a directive the Trump administration is now carrying out.

With the defanging of the EPA, the corporate donor class has seen a big payoff on the regulation side. Now they expect one on the tax side, which is exactly what they’ll get if anything like Trump’s outline of a tax bill passes. An analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that half of the benefits in the first year would go to the top one percent of taxpayers. Their after-tax income would increase by about 9 percent. The average tax cut for the top one tenth of one percent would be nearly $750,000. The plan is, above all, a thank you gift to the super rich.

Which brings us back to Bannon. Using the levers of government to enrich the wealthy isn’t exactly his thing. His own special brand of lunacy is a clash-of-civilizations fantasy that sees the foundations of “the West” as under assault by the forces of globalism, secularism and non-Christian religions.

“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon said in a speech at the Vatican in 2014. “If the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant—to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting—that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”

Perhaps to his credit, Bannon sees Heritage and the GOP establishment for what they are—puppets of their donors, focused mainly on redistributing wealth upward. People, that is, who think pushing back against “happy holidays” is a meaningful act of cultural war. Bannon, meanwhile, sees war in terms of a literal, globe-encompassing battle for the survival of Western, Christian civilization.

Trump’s bland and meandering speech on Tuesday showed just how difficult it is for the GOP to balance these competing lunacies. Both factions are increasingly powerful. The rich represented by Heritage are only getting richer, and buying more politicians, while Bannon’s white Christian nationalists are becoming ever bolder.

Yet the policies that cater to these constituencies are unpopular with the broader public, which rejects both tax cuts for the wealthy and explicit racism. So the GOP is left with Trump’s strategy, on display in his Heritage speech, of peddling a toned down version of the clash-of-civilizations fantasy while selling regressive tax policy as an economic stimulus package.

Probably the most honest thing said at the Heritage event followed Trump’s speech, when the opening lines of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” began blaring as the president exited—a choice as surreal as appropriate.

Neither dominant faction of the conservative movement is getting what it wants from the GOP right now. Bannon is planning his own war against the party in the coming primary season, fielding fringe candidates like Roy Moore, the ex-judge in Alabama with a fetish for placing the Ten Commandments in public places. And big donors are threatening to close their wallets if major tax cuts are not enacted, the GOP having already failed them on Obamacare repeal.

A Republican crackup may not be imminent, at least not yet. But the fault lines are deepening and the contradictions are heightening, while the lunacy continues to spread.

In Those Times: Black Monday Déjà Vu

Thu, 2017-10-19 12:27

The crash of ’87 is a reminder that for all its vaunted rationality, capitalism is an economic system driven by greed and fear.” With these words, long-time In These Times contributor David Moberg began the cover story from the Oct. 28–Nov. 3, 1987, issue.

Thirty years ago, “Black Monday” sent markets into a tailspin across the globe. The ’87 crash was the largest single-day market crash in history, resulting in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars on the stock market and shrunken pension funds.

The crash of 2008, and the resulting Great Recession, offered further evidence that the capitalist system is not just risky, but prone to crises. Today, the shaky foundations of our finance-centered economic system remain largely unchanged.

Moberg ended his piece calling for a new direction in crafting U.S. economic policy:

Politically, the opportunity is ripe to respond with a more cooperative world economic order and domestically with a more democratic, innovative economy that stresses education, research, techno - logical sophistication, social accountability of capital, job security, workplace democracy and equality.

Unfortunately, this positive prescription didn’t take off, and George H.W. Bush won the next year’s presidential election. Thirty years on, we still need real alternatives to a system of greed and fear.

An Exhibit on Japanese Internment Shows How Far We Haven’t Come

Thu, 2017-10-19 12:26

The Alphawood Gallery in Chicago has partnered with the Japanese American Service Committee (JASC) to produce the exhibition, Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties. The exhibition includes photographs of the internment camps taken by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and others, video interviews with survivors and their families, and objects such as ID cards, suitcases and camp newsletters.

In These Times spoke with Ryan Masaaki Yokota, legacy center manager for JASC and a member of the exhibit’s curatorial board. Yokota’s great-grandfather was among the 120,000 U.S. citizens and legal residents held in the camps.

Tell us about your connection to the exhibit.

My great-grandfather came to America in 1899. One month after Pearl Harbor, he was picked up by the FBI. As I learned more about my family’s history, it became a responsibility of mine to protect the story of Japanese incarceration.

How is the Japanese-American community responding?

We have heard from people who identify themselves or relatives in photographs or film reels. It was very moving for one specific viewer, who saw an interview with his parents. This film brings these people back to life.

What do you want visitors to take away?

We want to help people who may not have a familial connection realize that those incarcerated were just like their own grandparents, parents or children. We also want people to realize that, in the end, the Constitution and our politicians are only as strong as we make them. The exhibit is meant to be a call to arms—to encourage people to be more involved in their political processes and safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable.

Racial policy, hate crimes, immigration, civil rights and national security are all themes that continue to reverberate today. Now, we have discussions about a border wall, a Muslim ban and a Muslim registry. We owe it to those who were incarcerated to make sure that this never happens to anyone again. 

Then They Came For Me, Alphawood Gallery, Chicago, through November 19.

Trump Plans to Make It Easier to Kill Civilians with Drones. We Can Thank Obama for Paving the Way.

Wed, 2017-10-18 17:49

This article was produced by a partnership between In These Times and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Barely a month after President Donald Trump announced plans to deepen and extend the now 16-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan, reports surfaced of plans to expand another signature Obama-era policy: the drone war.

Specifically, The New York Times reported in late September that the administration is relaxing Obama-era restrictions on who can be targeted and removing a requirement that strikes receive high-level vetting before they're carried out. According to the paper, the new rules would also "ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare" into new countries, expanding the program's already global footprint.

Across administrations, the use of drones has increased exponentially throughout the course of the war on terror. Even before the rule change, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that the pace of drone strikes and special forces raids had increased from one every 5.4 days under President Obama to one every 1.25 days under President Trump.

In addition to increasing the pace of these operations, the Trump administration has also loosened guidelines designed to protect civilians in areas like Yemen and Somalia, and overseen a notable increase in civilian casualties in war zones like Iraq and Syria.

In this environment, rescinding the Obama administration's already lax restrictions on drone attacks — coupled with Trump’s overt and express disregard for human rights and the rule of law — is clearly cause for concern. But that also shouldn't be a pathway toward normalizing the Obama administration’s own use of drones.

Instead, we need to understand the excesses of the war on terror as a trajectory: The abuse of power under one administration leads to the abuse of power under another. Trump may be driving it more recklessly, but he's still operating a machine the Obama administration built.

Licensed to Kill

The controversy over drones during the Obama administration reached an early flashpoint in 2011, when a drone pilot assassinated a U.S. citizen in Yemen by the name of Anwar Al-Awlaki — followed, two weeks later, by the U.S. killing of his 16-year-old son.

It was another two years before Obama's Department of Justice released a white paper that detailed its legal argument sanctioning Al-Awlaki’s murder. As the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer explained, the paper said the government would only target "imminent" threats, and only when "capture was infeasible." But in practice, Jaffer noted, the administration used an extremely expansive definition of "imminent" that "deprives the word of its ordinary meaning."

"Without saying so explicitly," Jaffer worried, the government was effectively claiming "the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret," virtually anywhere in the world.

That same year, responding to increasing criticism, Obama himself gave a speech attempting to clarify the boundaries of this particular tactic. "America’s actions are legal," the president asserted of the drone war, which he claimed was being "waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense."

So it was perfectly legal, in the Obama administration's view, to launch 10 times more strikes than the Bush administration, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a vast arc extending from Libya to the Philippines.

Meaningless Standards

But if the war on terror has taught us anything, it's that legality is malleable — and never transparent. It’s taught us that accountability is impossible when the laws obscure the crime.

In his 2013 speech, for instance, Obama referenced a set of presidential policy guidelines on drone strikes. Yet these weren't released until August 2016, more than three years after Obama’s attempt at "transparency." Two of those guidelines stated that there must be "near certainty” that a lawful target is present before a strike is approved, as well as a "near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed."

Yet it was never clear what this meant. "The [United States] has never described what post-strike standards, protocols, and mechanisms exist to systematically verify compliance with this policy standard," Amnesty International noted in a critical 2013 report.

Indeed, the Obama administration seemed to take an expansive view of who counts as a "lawful target." It embraced a practice of launching "signature strikes" where the targets were unknown altogether to the people who approved them. Such targeting was based on behaviors deemed to be indicative of terrorist activity, though what exactly that means was never clear either.

In fact, the White House apparently didn't designate many victims as "lawful targets" until after they'd been killed. "It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants," the Times reported in 2012, "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."

That’s why government estimates of civilian causalities have been routinely lower than counts by NGOs. For example, the U.S. government estimated civilian deaths at between 64 and 116 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya combined between January 2009 and December 2015. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s estimate was substantially higher — between 380 and 801, using relatively conservative criteria.

Worse still, there's been no accountability for the government officials responsible for civilian deaths. "[N]o such amends exist for civilians harmed by US drones in Pakistan," the Center for Civilians in Conflict reported in 2012. And no one in Pakistan or Yemen had received "apologies, explanations or monetary payments as amends from the U.S. government."

In other words, not only was the White House's commitment to avoiding civilian deaths a largely symbolic gesture, there was in fact no apparatus for justice at all. If legality is an assertion, and if breaches of the law have no consequences, what could ever make the drone war illegal?

Underlying Violence

These are a mere handful of the serious moral, ethical, and legal problems surrounding Obama's use of drones. They point to inconsistencies, performative justice and a wholesale lack of accountability — all of which characterized the modest restrictions Trump is now rolling back on the global killing program.

Across all administrations, the logic that maintains a seemingly insignificant line between legal and illegal tactics in the war on terror has a great deal to do with Islamophobia. The victims are all Muslims, or those racialized as Muslims, and are mostly out of sight and out of mind.

Most Americans don't see the violence and can't comprehend it — a fact that's abetted not only the escalation of drone warfare, but also the endless wars in the greater Middle East and the erosion of civil liberties at home under the war on terror more generally. And it's why Muslim victims have few prospects for accountability.

It is this system of oppression that ultimately underlies drone warfare, whether under Bush, Obama, or Trump. It's what allows the violence to escalate each year as the war on terror continues — and October 7 marked the start of its 17th year.

Human rights safeguards are meant to be absolute, not relative. Obama’s Democratic Party affiliation doesn’t make his drone warfare program any less illegal than Trump’s brutish brand of Republican politics. It was Obama's skirting of these standards, in fact, that enables Trump to be all the more brutal.

We must demand standards for the war on terror that are based on international human rights and humanitarian law. As Trump’s abuses become increasingly clear, let’s re-imagine what the protection and preservation of human rights looks like and work to ensure that it's our standard regardless of who's in power.

“General Strike, F*ck This Country”: Talking Politics and Punk With Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach

Wed, 2017-10-18 14:47

After more than 20 years of silence, the legendary punk band Jawbreaker reunited this September to headline Riot Fest, where they played their gritty, melodic songs as a packed crowd shouted along. The charged atmosphere in Chicago’s Douglas Park was also filled with something else: the band’s bold, radical political statements—pointing towards a “revolutionary spirit” as a necessary antidote to Trumpism.

“Everyone call into work tomorrow, because general strike, fuck this country,” said Blake Schwarzenbach, Jawbreaker’s singer and guitar player, addressing many thousands of fans gathered in front of the large, outdoor stage. Wearing a black T-shirt reading, “Gaza on my mind” in English and Arabic, Blake denounced the “hell scape we are all living in, in this moment of total sexism, total racism, total corporate capitalist shit.” He thanked the crowd for “supporting art and resistance.” Meanwhile, bassist Chris Bauermeister played the show wearing an orange “Antifascist Action” T-shirt.

These were no small gestures. The band, which broke up 21 years ago, has a cult following, and many of its fans had never seen them play live. Their Chicago performance, in addition to two smaller shows in California, followed years of rumors that there would be a reunion. Jawbreaker headlined after major acts, including Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age and Prophets of Rage.

I spoke with Schwarzenbach about why a band not known for on-the-nose political statements decided to use this highly-anticipated show and giant platform to voice radical political messages. Rather than present himself as an expert or authority, Blake said that he did it “on the fly, like a living person.” Here is our conversation about art, punk, poetry, Palestine and the moral imperative to reject fascism.

Sarah Lazare: Thanks for being up for doing this interview.

Blake Schwarzenbach: Hey, I’ve been silent for 20 years.

Sarah: As I mentioned before, this will primarily be political, not your usual rock interview. I want to give you a chance to explain or expand on any political statements you were aiming to make at your show in Chicago.

Blake: I will do my best. I’m not really a public figure, you know, other than playing music.

Sarah: You’re more public than most of us.

Blake: You wouldn’t know that to see how I live. I’m just a citizen, you know.

Sarah: I know you recently did an interview with BrooklynVegan about how it’s been hard for you to get a job as a dog walker in this horrible economy.

Blake: I felt bad about that, because I felt it came off as disparaging to dog walkers. I wanted that job, I think that’s a great job. Taken as a pull quote, it seemed a bit dismissive.

Sarah: I just took it as a statement about how bleak and precarious the economy is.

Blake: Yeah, I think it is, if you don’t devote your life to being employable. I have a very suspect resume, I think, because of these enormous gaps in it where I try to claim I made music. That was my job, and I don’t think they really buy that in human resources.

Sarah: I’ve listened to Jawbreaker more than half my life and was excited by how many overtly political, radical statements you made during your show. I’m thinking of your “Gaza on my mind” shirt and Chris’s “Antifascist Action” shirt, as well as statements about the much-needed revolutionary spirit in the face of total sexism, racism and corporate capitalism. I’d love to give you an opportunity to explain what your aims were, if you had any, in expressing political views at your show.

Blake: I thought that wearing something would probably be the best way to do it, because everybody’s talking, and I didn’t want to waste that platform. I knew it was an opportunity to express some kind of solidarity with the rest of the world—the whole rest of the world. I’m so tired of speechifying. I’m also aware of being from a place of privilege in my own way, as a band, I didn’t think the world needed a lecture on feminism or racism from a power trio that’s white. I didn’t prepare any remarks, but I think we all wanted to do our little part to acknowledge we had a lot of space and a big microphone for a minute. So I did it on the fly, like a living person.

Sarah: Have you done any activism or organizing around Palestine solidarity or Gaza?

Blake: No. I’ve spoken at anti-war events, I’ve attended rallies. But I don’t know, I haven’t been inclined to be a full-time activist. I support what I can, and I do it through books that I look at and read. I guess it’s a kind of living activism that I admire in others, where it’s a part of your life and not such a big public expression.

Sarah: Do you think now is an important time for artists and musicians to make political statements, in light of Trumpism, climate chaos, mass deportations and the fact that organized white supremacist militias have a direct line to the White House?

Blake: I think it’s always a good time for that. I wish people were better at it. I find most lectures at shows feel like just that. It’s very rare that you find an artist that is living their revolutionary ethos. An artist who doesn’t have to tell: Those are the ones who inspire me in the long-term. Until we have another Fugazi or something, I don’t know how it’s going to happen on the stage.

As I get older, I get a little less explicit. I like sly radicalism. I always think of Leonard Cohen, because I think he’s a very sly radical. He was saying things that were philosophical and reach really deep if you take them on.

We played immediately after Prophets of Rage, an explicitly revolutionary group. They do that very effectively. They’re a giant propaganda machine, in a way, for their ideology. That politically says nothing to me. I don’t know what to do with that kind of rhetoric. I’m all for “power to the people” and everything. I love Chuck D, I grew up listening to his music. But it was a little intimidating for us, coming on right after that. This is a band firing on all cylinders, firing people up. And then it’s an interesting transition to our act, which is kind of no act. It made me think a lot of how we peddle resistance and express the wish for it. I don’t have an answer for that yet. I think good writing does it. It’s just slower—slower than we want.

Sarah: Can you explain what you mean about sly radicalism?

Blake: Well, poetry is what I studied formally, and that’s where I learned to appreciate that. It’s a form that doesn’t really help you very much. It doesn’t hold your hand through a revolutionary process with language and ideas. The poets I studied were the second-generation romantics, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was quite radical in his thinking and a totally complex, fucked up person in his own life. I grew to really appreciate work that makes you work.

Another person just off the top of my head—someone I found really galvanizing when I encountered her work—is Anne Carson, the poet. She also has this completely wild body of work that has no overt political content to it. And yet, she completely rethinks relationships and gender and cultural production just through her rigorous poetic work and performance art. I saw her perform once. She did a show called “Stacks.” It was just her and her partners building piles of things on stage while she incanted this incredible poetic litany. And it was completely about September 11 for me. That was never said in any way, it was kind of this terrifying, beautiful spectacle. And I just thought, “That’s a memory I’m going to carry with me for a long time and draw from.”

That’s another example of someone expressing herself obliquely and subtly. I’m going to carry that for longer than I’m going to carry a perfect position paper.

Sarah: As we saw at your show in Chicago, you have many adoring fans. Are you wanting to find ways to express politics that encourage people not just to follow you, but to think?

Blake: I do it selfishly too, because I want to be engaged in the process. If I’m not being intelligent about it, it’s going to get flat really quickly. I’ve known plenty of bullshit artists over the years, where their bands say all the right things but live in ways that are very out of step of their rhetoric. I am viscerally resistant to that. I don’t want to be that guy. We have that guy in office, we have that guy everywhere in America. I want to do my best to not be that person.

I don’t want to be the guy who uses that for cultural cache. It’s kind of playing at a popularity contest. That’s already going on. That’s our culture right now. I don’t see that as a creative endeavor. It seems empty and unproductive. It’s a short con.

Sarah: What do you consider Jawbreaker’s political legacy to be? Or, if it’s hard to think in terms of legacies, feel free to push back on that.

Blake: I don’t think of us as having a political legacy, other than living well and responsibly—that we’re conscientious people. I’d love for that to be a takeaway later on. There were a lot of things we didn’t do, because we didn’t feel good about it or in the right space emotionally.

Jawbreaker’s a pretty psychological band. We’re all concerned with mental health. That’s a big issue for me, personally. One of the things we’ve always been about is the way the mind works. Depression, anxiety, frustration—those are themes from the earliest songs. That doesn’t always have an overt political spin to it. But if you are unwell, if you’re mentally unstable and thrown into society in a very raw way, it is quickly political and financial.

Personally I’ve struggled with my own mental health for a long time and had to learn how to take care of myself, luckily with some really good friends and family, but unluckily in some institutions and systems that were very unhelpful. I tend to write from that space, about trying to find your place in this world, with those challenges.

Jawbreaker bassist Chris Bauermeister wars an "Antifascist Action" T-shirt. (Alison Green)

Sarah: It seems that we can’t separate personal mental health and wellness from society, at a time when communities are under attack and the front lines are everywhere.

Anyways, when you made your statements, you had a giant platform.

Blake: Yeah. I don’t go to festivals that often. I have played two now. I’m lucky to have played two that were really fun. I was just happy to see people enjoying music. It’s such a rare thing these days. Live music is now the entire industry, so that’s one weird part of it. All these bands have to make their living, not by recording or writing, but by performing. Clubs and venues have become this whole other massive industry. In New York, every show is sold out by necessity I think. So it’s always kind of a do-or-die event, and the amount of inherent capitalist shit is present at every show I see. It’s kind of a bummer. I miss shows where there are 18 people, and you’re seeing some incredible band. That’s very rare here.

Sarah: Well your show was really different from that. You were playing to a huge audience, had a huge platform, and the atmosphere was very charged.

Blake: Yeah, that was kind of a first for us after 20-some years. Everyone knows the lyrics finally. It’s the show we always dreamed of playing. Everybody was caught up. We weren’t playing a new record. That was just really nice.

Sarah: I was struck by the fact that the political shirts you wore made bold statements that you had to stick your necks out for. As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a phenomenon of “progressive except for Palestine,” and you can be demonized for supporting the Palestinian struggle against occupation and apartheid. And we are also seeing antifascists, and people who take antifascist action, being smeared—not only by Trump, but also by some who are left of center and fall into these false “both sides are responsible” arguments.

Blake: Yeah, I was very happy with our shirts. We chose our own, and they were very specific. I’m glad you recognized that. My shirt came from one of my dear friends who is a historian. Her name is Elizabeth Esch. She does a lot of work around U.S. history of racism and capitalism. She’s been a kind of mentor to me in terms of Palestine and Arab identity.

My connection to that issue goes back to September 11, 2001 when I was in New York City. I was so mad at the United State when that happened. That was a strange, off-the-cuff reaction. I didn’t feel victimized. I felt like we had fucked up. And then we did—we really fucked up. We took an opportunity for self-awareness and being checked in a really profound way, as someone infiltrating our implacable defense.

I began graduate school shortly thereafter, and the first book I was assigned was Edward Said’s Orientalism. And I just read that book cover-to-cover. I was really scared, because I was newly in grad school and was paying my way, and I felt like I can’t mess up. So I sat in a chair and read that book front to back. And I went through a really great seminar with about 10 people and talked about it. It drew me into the story of Palestine and that struggle and a lot of poetry in the region. Once you know about it, I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself, suddenly you see it everywhere. Arab identity in New York was so under threat, so under siege. If you knew anybody in that community, you saw very immediately how preposterous these charges and paranoia were. I felt aligned with it from that moment forward.

That’s the long genesis of wanting to say something about that issue. Which, as you point out, no one wants to discuss. There’s always some horrible false equivalency that gets thrown in against it.

I cannot speak for Chris, but Chris is a historian who did his graduate work in German militarism, and I know he chose that shirt for a reason.

I was happy. I think Adam felt a little left out. He was like, “I don’t have a shirt!”

Sarah: It was especially striking for me given that the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel extends to musicians.

Blake: Yeah, I’m torn on that one about musicians in Israel though. I think a band like Radiohead could do a lot of damage by playing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and being this kind of crazy band. I always think going and being yourself somewhere is a good idea. I’m a little torn that they would get flak for that. I can understand not buying SodaStream or doing specific targeted things, but not going and performing and continuing a dialogue or being present for that—I don’t know. That’s not something I’ve read a great deal about.

Sarah: The argument is that it’s not really a dialogue if Palestinians are living under conditions of occupation and apartheid. And it’s in the context of a campaign, initiated by Palestinian civil society groups in 2005.

Blake: I guess I’m saying I agree with it in every way: I’m totally for BDS and a very visible boycott and resistance to that ongoing colonization and occupation. But when it comes to people going to the aggressor and colonial power, then I get a little bit, “Hmmm.” I don’t know. Is it better just not to go? And then, there’s a resistant population in Israel. Are we excluding them as well?

Sarah: Yes, but many from the resistance within Israel are strong supporters of BDS and joining the call for Radiohead to boycott Israel.

Blake: Okay.

Sarah: You talked about being politicized right after September 11, 2001. The United States has been waging constant war since. Is this something you’re paying attention to and thinking about a lot?

Blake: Yes, I do. I pay exactly as much attention as I can without being soul-destroyed by it. I do think people need to inoculate themselves a bit and not just wallow in mainstream media garbage all the time. It can contaminate you, either with cynicism, hopelessness or despair.

Art is how I’ve always found my way for a reason to live and to truth. If you’re fighting all the time, you’re forfeiting a certain degree of living that makes it all worthwhile. I choose my sources carefully, and I don’t watch a lot of big media, just because I don’t get anything from it, other than toxicity. I don’t draw any information from it, there’s very little information being disseminated. I stay off that stream as much as possible.

I feel sorry for those lonely racist uncles out there who are awash in Fox & Friends. They’re so defenseless intellectually. I know a lot of people who have lost relatives to that predatory broadcasting. Perfectly fine elderly people who sit around their house all day. Suddenly they can’t talk to them anymore—they’ve been derailed. It’s actually really sad.

That’s always a question with this stuff: When do you write someone off? I’ve seen that over the years, in the punk scene. It’s such a painful thing if you have to make that determination about someone you were formerly connected to. Are they actually such a danger or so irreparably damaged that you can’t continue to deal with them. I don’t have any wisdom on that, other than that hopefully you can make that decision with a lot of compassion and patience.

I think most people are not beyond redemption. People do get to be wayward and ignorant for a while. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like that right now. There are plenty of people I would not want to redeem.

Sarah: Do you think punk scenes have a special responsibility to address fascism in this current political moment?

Blake: Gosh, I don’t know. We were itching for that fight 20 years ago. It was more imaginary skinheads than real ones at shows, and people getting run out for fairly light transgressions. And now, you could really have a small army come into your venue. I think you have to be fierce and make sure everyone’s safe and say no to bullshit. That’s always required. The stakes feel like they’ve been elevated.

Sarah: Sadly, it’s been my experience that, in various punk scenes, there is sometimes too much room for fascism, too much tolerance. Punk has, at times, had a problem with that.

I think it’s important, as you seem to be saying, for punk scenes to refuse to give fascism an inch.

Blake: Absolutely. I think that’s a no-brainer. Punk shouldn’t have an issue with that. It should always be antifascist. That’s a great thing to say no to. You have an all-ages show. The rule is that anyone can come into the show age-wise. We’re not ageist. The other rule is that you cannot be a fascist. You cannot be a racist and come to this event. This is our event for our people. I don’t think that’s censorship or anything, or whatever that argument is. You can do all that First Amendment shit outside.

Sarah: I want to give you an opportunity to expand on any other political or other messages you’d like to include in this interview.

Blake: You know, I always say what I want in the songs that I write. I find I’m not very effective at expressing it outside of that in interviews. I can write about it. Really, what I have to say, is stuff I’m willing to sign my name to in music. Personally, the work I’ve done—Forgetters, my last band, and Jets to Brazil—those were a lot more of my thinking. Those are my formal statements. I would leave it to that legacy. Anything else I’ll put on Facebook and the book that’s been eluding me the last 50 years. Hopefully I can write some of it down someday.

Sarah: Would you be open to me sending you information on resistance movements within Israel calling for cultural boycott?

Blake: I know what’s going to happen: In These Times is going to get me thrown out of the Park Slope Food Coop for supporting BDS [laughs].

Yeah, I would love that. I would welcome information.

Sarah: Are there any examples of organizing or resistance that you find particularly inspiring?

Blake: On Friday night, I went to see the Freedom Theater, the Palestinian theatrical group that lives in Jenin, in the camps. They did a performance at NYU, surprisingly, of a play called The Siege. It’s the siege of the Church of the Nativity, which happened in 2002, I believe. It was really exciting to see this group. They live in a camp, and they have this incredible theater and brought their show to New York and performed. It was a totally inspiring moment. I know a lot of people worked really hard to help them get here and make this happen. So that was totally inspiring. It was cool. 

Why Democrats and Movements Need Each Other

Wed, 2017-10-18 09:00

A striking feature of the current political moment is that many activists on the Left are flocking to the Democratic Party. At first glance, this makes sense simply as a reaction to the narrow and disputed electoral victory of the bizarre and dangerous Donald Trump.

But the Democrats are not merely gaining voters. They are gaining activists, people who are committing not only to pull the party lever in the voting booth, but who are determined to rejuvenate and transform the party, beginning at the local level. This development is encouraging, and not only because it could make a difference in the 2018 midterms and the next presidential election.

Until the shock and fear of a Trump-led government took center stage, some on the Left viewed elections and movement building as separate, even irreconcilable, paths to reform. While their skepticism about the Democratic Party was not misplaced, we argue that movements also depend on electoral politics. The growth, morale and effectiveness of today’s movements will depend on the success of the current surge of enthusiasm for Democratic Party activism.


Compared to the Obama years and the noisy 2016 election itself, the enthusiasm for Democratic Party activism welling up on the broad Left today is startling. It already overshadows the usual Democratic Party electoral ground game of enlisting labor and other grassroots constituencies to knock on doors, distribute literature and make phone calls to prime voters. Hundreds of groups at the national and local levels have organized to recruit new Democratic candidates and work on campaigns. Long-standing organizations that support Democratic candidates, such as Emily’s List, are seeing unprecedented growth, and movement organizations, from the Democratic Socialists of America to the Movement for Black Lives, are getting involved in local and state races.

While fear of Trump has galvanized even centrist liberals, much of the new energy and organizing know-how is coming from left-leaning activists. Though surprising, it is not hard to explain the sudden enthusiasm for electoral action. The dangers of Donald Trump in the White House and a right-wing Republican Party in control of Congress, the Supreme Court and more than half of the states are glaring.

The path toward this new electoral activism was paved by the Bernie Sanders campaign, which made credible the prospect of engaging in a fight within the Democratic Party for a more radical and democratic economic program, for racial and social justice, and for peace. As historian Max Elbaum has observed, the polarization of the country grew during the 2016 election. But the sectors of the Left that grew the most were those energized by the Sanders campaign. Our Revolution, an organization inspired by that campaign, now claims some 400 local chapters that are trying to shift the Democratic Party to the left, in part by backing progressive local and state candidates.

The path to victory will be difficult. In the House, if the Democrats can hold on to the seats they already have, they still need to win an additional 24 seats. In the Senate, the prospects are more daunting: The Democrats must defend three times as many seats as the Republicans, 10 in states won by Trump, half of those by double digits.

It will take time, then, to oust the Republicans from their commanding position at the national level. That is why so much Left energy has been focused on down-ballot elections. Victories on the local level can matter. Not only do they boost the morale of electoral and movement activists alike, but in our federal system, localities often have significant policy authority.

An astonishing number of state and local elected offices go uncontested. One study found that, between 1992 and 2010, a third of all state legislative incumbents did not face a challenger in the primary and general elections. Another study found that, in six states, half of all mayoral candidates ran unopposed.

In Virginia, for example, where all statewide offices are held by Democrats and Clinton defeated Trump by five points, the lower House of Delegates has long been dominated by Republicans. Forty of the Republicans’ 66 seats were uncontested by Democratic challengers in 2015. While it still might be a long shot, with the election of Trump and the new energy for electoral politics on the left, in 2018 the GOP could lose the 17 Republican House of Delegates seats that voted for Clinton in 2016.

Such a victory would be unprecedented, but the challenge is being embraced by a new grassroots political action committee, Progressive House VA, founded by Josh Stanfield, a 30-year-old Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. The group’s mission is to field and support progressive Democratic candidates in all 100 House of Delegates elections. As of this writing, these aggressive efforts have shrunk the number of upcoming uncontested elections against Republican incumbents from 40 (in 2015) to 10.

Virginia’s example, which points to a key weakness of the Democratic Party, also offers an opportunity to strengthen the influence of the Left. The two major political parties are not parties in the sense of disciplined, unified, hierarchical membership organizations. Rather, they are loose and conflict-ridden confederations of separate leadership groups whose overall structure reflects the complex constitutional and institutional arrangements of the U.S. federal system.

The point, however, is not to belabor the weakness of fractious and institutionally hamstrung political parties, but rather to note that the institutional fragmentation of the Democratic Party makes it susceptible to takeover. As an example of how centrists have exploited this political reality, consider the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 1985. The so-called Third Way was designed to stymie the progressive, pro-labor party activism stimulated by Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, and other efforts to move the party to the Left. And it succeeded—until the recent Sanders challenge loosened the grip that centrists had on the party for the past 30 years.

This kind of synergy between electoral and movement politics may be emerging in the area of healthcare. On the one side, Trump and the right-wing majority in Congress have put forward a series of Draconian legislative proposals to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and especially the provisions that underwrite healthcare for the poor. On the other side, the political furor over these efforts has given a big bump to the Sanders-backed Medicare for All Act, with 16 Democratic senators now signed on. The legislative drama, in turn, is likely to boost the morale and increase the energy of the longer-term movement for a publicly funded healthcare system.


The two major parties also matter because they play a very large role in shaping the life course of movements. This dynamic is often overlooked because the fundamental dynamics of movements and electoral campaigns are different. Movement activists work to raise the issues that divide and anger constituencies, while electoral operatives tend to smooth over the divisions that inhibit the building of the winning majority that elections require. In these respects, movement and electoral dynamics are antagonistic. But that is by no means the whole of it.

Movements also depend on elected leaders who are susceptible to or embrace the challenges that movements generate. They thrive when they get the rhetorical support of the elected leaders who worry about defections from movement-influenced constituencies. Moreover, the policy victories that movements score are ultimately fashioned by elected politicians.

As an example, consider the recent fortunes of the environmental movement. The same year Barack Obama was first elected president, a Canadian firm, TransCanada, had applied for a permit to build a 1,200-mile pipeline across the American Midwest to connect Canadian tar sands oil with Gulf Coast oil refineries. The company and the oil lobby misleadingly claimed that the project would create 140,000 jobs and billions in economic benefits; the Canadian government pressured a newly elected President Obama to approve the project. In April 2010, the U.S. State Department concluded the pipeline would have a limited effect on the environment. Political strategists inside the White House convinced the president to stop using the term “climate change” and to focus on “clean energy jobs” and a “clean energy economy” to avoid drawing fire from the fossil fuel industry and conservatives. Meanwhile, oil lobbyists used propaganda to successfully shift public opinion on climate change. In 2008, acceptance that its causes were human-made was 72 percent. Two years later, only 52 percent agreed.

Environmental activists rejected their insider tactics and began to build a coalition of grassroots groups that went well beyond normal lobbying and interest group politics, bringing together ranchers and land rights advocates in red states like Nebraska, and Native tribes whose land would be violated and water threatened by the project.

At the time, Bill McKibben, a leader of the movement, wrote, “Now we know what we didn’t before. Making nice doesn’t work ... we may need to get arrested.” In late August 2011, protestors mounted a two-week campaign in front of the White House, joined by some of the large environmental groups that are not usually associated with civil disobedience, and more than 1,200 people got arrested. On Nov. 6, 2011, thousands of protesters surrounded the White House in what they called a “solidarity hug” to urge Obama to veto the pipeline. Under intense pressure from the Republican-controlled Congress to move the project forward, in 2015, Obama exercised his veto power for only the third time.

The re-energized environmental movement did its work in the streets. But the crucial point is that friendly Democrats ultimately conceded to the demand. The delays won by a broad and inclusive coalition of opposition groups to the pipeline using direct action, civil disobedience, and mass arrests exerted political pressure on a wobbly president.

The great and transformational movements of the past—the radical Democrats of the Revolutionary War era, or the abolitionists of the 19th century, or the 20th century labor movement, or the Black freedom movement, or the women’s movement, or the movements for personal rights included under the LBGTQ acronym—all scored their successes because they activated the elementary and fundamental power of ordinary people. The essence of that power is the refusal to cooperate in the basic institutional arrangements of a society. That is what movement power is: The power of the strike writ large, encompassing not only refusal in the workplace but in civil society itself.

Refusal isn’t easy, and that is an important reason why movements depend on electoral politics. All of the influences of the institutions that mold daily life collaborate to make the exercise of movement power difficult, as do the immediate threats and punishments that the dominant society imposes on movements. Most of the time, electoral politics legitimizes those threats and punishments, giving the authority of tradition and legal procedure to the threat of force that usually suppresses rebellion. But sometimes, when electoral calculations lead politicians to recognize that they need voter support from among emerging movement constituencies, mass discontent is sufficient to lead at least some political leaders to rhetorically side with the discontented. By doing so, they of course give courage and moral support to emerging movements, as Roosevelt’s campaign rhetoric gave courage to an emerging labor movement, or Kennedy’s rhetoric nourished the Black freedom movement, or Obama’s sympathy for Trayvon Martin encouraged the Movement for Black Lives. The importance of this encouragement cannot be overstated.

Electoral context matters for another reason. The disruption that ensues from movement leverage can cleave the electoral base of a governing party, compelling political elites to respond with ameliorating reform. When that happens, it is elected politicians who fashion the policy measures that respond to movement demands and disorder. We need politicians in charge of that process who lean toward the Left and its movements. Even when movement leverage succeeds in forcing action on policy reform, the movement itself is only one of the influences in crafting the policy change. We want the thumbs of legislators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the scale in legislative deliberations. And that means movements need a rejuvenated Democratic Party.

Four New Books for the Biosphere

Wed, 2017-10-18 06:00

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore (October 2017)

Like deadly sins and dwarves, the keys to understanding capitalism come in sevens. Eco-Marxists Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore use the cheapening of nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives to trace how capitalism has transformed human society and our ecological role. The end result: the modern era, exemplified not in “the automobile or the smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.”

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (October 2017)

O-Six was an American wolf, raised on promises. In Nate Blakeslee’s hands, this Yellowstone canine—named for the year she was born—is a central figure in an intimate intra-wolf drama for power and territory. She’s also a flashpoint in an even more treacherous turf war sweeping the West: the battles among ranchers, hunters, environmentalists and wildlife over whom, if anyone, the land is “for.”

Extreme Cities by Ashley Dawson (October 2017)

For Ashley Dawson, “environment” evokes less the Amazon than jungles of the concrete kind. The climbing human population in cities, plus their vulnerability to disaster, key role in global capitalism and vibrant movements for justice, make them the primary site of climate struggle, Dawson argues. In the wake of this season’s hurricanes, the battle for sane climate policy has never felt more pressing.

The Archipelago of Hope by Gleb Raygorodetsky (November 2017)

Taking the reader on a more remote tour, Gleb Raygorodetsky explores how close dependence on the nonhuman world has given some Indigenous communities keen insight into climate impacts. He also draws on his experiences living among Indigenous peoples, from Ecuador to Finland to Myanmar, to show what centuries of tradition may have to teach the modern world.

From “Me Too” to “All of Us”: Organizing to End Sexual Violence, Without Prisons

Tue, 2017-10-17 12:05

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators about how to resist and build a better world.

Mariame Kaba: This is Mariame Kaba. I am an organizer and an educator. I run an organization called Project NIA, an abolitionist organization focused on ending youth incarceration. I also have a long history of doing work around ending racialized gender violence, having worked in domestic violence organizations, as well as anti-sexual assault organizations. I currently organize with a formation called Survived and Punished, which I helped to cofound. Survived and Punished works to support and uplift the stories and lives of criminalized survivors of violence. I am also a part of a collaborative called Just Practice.

Shira Hassan: My name is Shira Hassan. I am the founder of Just Practice. What Just Practice does is work to give people the space to put into practice how community accountability works. Community accountability is the idea that we can solve problems without using the police or state systems. Specifically, Just Practice looks at sexual violence and intimate partner violence without the use of social services or state systems. It is the survivors who want that. Just Practice is a community project that works to give people the opportunity to work out what that looks like and to create safe space for people to grow and make mistakes while they are learning how to hold people accountable.

My history and what brought me to Just Practice is that I spent the last 25 years working with young people in the sex trade industry through a harm reduction lens. Our work required us to solve problems without the use of police and state systems, because we are very often pushed out of those systems or criminalized if we try to act within those systems. We had to come up with other solutions. We spent years refining those ideas. Now we are trying to put them into practice in the larger world.

Sarah Jaffe: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are in the news because of a powerful, famous man. I wanted to start off with a question for both of you, who have been doing this work for a while. Do you feel like the public conversation around these people—in the media, on social media or wherever you are hearing it—has progressed at all? Does it look different right now from when you began doing this work?

Mariame: The conversation is absolutely different from when I started doing work around sexual assault. I began doing anti-sexual assault work on my college campus. That was in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The focus at that point was really on the question of date rape on campus, and the conversation revolved mostly around people drinking and then assaulting people.

I also came of age before social media. The conversation was very much limited to having talks with your friends. It wasn’t this kind of generalized conversation that is not even really a conversation. It’s more often a one-way harangue or a one-way rant or just venting. It really wasn’t like that. You had to talk to people you knew. Beyond that, you were talking with folks in a support-group setting, storytelling and divulging that you had been raped. It wasn’t this environment of compulsory confession, where you were being forced into disclosing that you were a survivor of sexual violence. It didn’t feel like you had to premise your conversation on disclosing your own experience before you could actually speak to this in a real way. I, yes indeed, am a survivor of sexual assault and violence, but it just felt different at that time. It felt somehow more intimate and less tied to media and social media.

I don’t know when the movie The Accused came out. I often see that movie in my trajectory of coming into my own and understanding sexual violence. That movie felt like a moment that made sexual violence connect much more with the larger media conversation. But, maybe I am remembering that wrong.

Shira: I totally remember when that movie came out, and it really did change the conversation. Bless Jodie Foster.

I think the conversation has definitely changed. We have the conversation much more publicly. It is a lot different from writing people’s names on the bathroom walls, which is what we were doing in the 1990s. Facebook has become the bathroom wall, in a way. I think the way we have the conversation changes. Then, I think because it is a more democratized platform, to some degree, different people are in the conversation than used to be. I do think that, by and large, the people who are having the conversation are still the same, though.

I don’t see this conversation happening in the same way about young people in the sex trade, for example. A lot of the young people I know are more street-based: The idea of sexual harassment is something that people are thinking about and angry about. Gwyneth Paltrow is not commenting on their experiences. She is commenting on actresses in Hollywood. I don’t want to diminish or demean how important those experiences of violence are. At the same time, it is a certain kind of survivor and a certain kind of violence that we are all talking about. I think that part is the same.

Sarah: One of the things about this big public conversation is that, for me, it actually feels more overwhelming. What Mariame called this culture of compulsory confession feels smothering. It just feels like there is nothing we can do. You have been doing work around this for a while and dealing directly with survivors. How do you fight that feeling that this is never going to end?

Shira: There are stories that overwhelm me and stop me in my tracks. But they are also the stories of people I love, and there is a face to the story most of the time for me. The feeling of being overwhelmed is something that I counter with action and I counter with healing. This idea of healing justice, where speaking out is part of that healing. I feel connected to that as an action, not so much connected to that as a burden. I feel like it is a blessing to be amongst survivor stories. I don’t actually feel overwhelmed by survivor stories. I feel overwhelmed by inaction around survivor stories.

Mariame: For me, it is the difference between the question of asking what I can personally do, versus what we can do. When I think of what I can do as an individual person, it feels more overwhelming. It is like, “Well, a lot of my friends are survivors. A lot of people I care and love are survivors. I can’t personally take responsibility for making all of their lives and their pain, I can’t take all of that on.”

You can’t also just take on everybody’s joy either. When I think about it in that kind of individualistic way, it can feel overwhelming. But I have worked towards a collective idea of healing and a collective idea of action and organizing. I don’t think that the issue we have right now is that we have too many organizers. I think we have too few organizers, and that can also feel super debilitating when there is a lot of handwringing or a lot of outrage, but without any direction. I think that can feel overwhelming. Since 1988, since I have been in this field, what has kept me going is that collectivity. And seeking to actually understand and to heal and to be part of that healing process with other people.

Sarah: We end up with this story of one survivor who has to come forward and file charges with the police, and then this one perpetrator will be held accountable. But that doesn’t work.

Mariame: And it doesn’t happen. I think that is another aspect of this, for people who are counting on a criminal punishment response to this. I understand feeling completely depressed and debilitated, because that system doesn’t actually know how to hold firm for survivors. It doesn’t know how to transform harm that occurs. It is a system that most people don’t access, and most survivors still never access for lots of reasons: because they don’t want to, because they have been traumatized in the past by the system, because they don’t want the person who harmed them necessarily caught up in the system. There are a million reasons. Because they don’t want to be raked over the coals themselves. Because they try to solve problems in community.

When people do access the system, they are screwed over by it, literally, in all different kinds of ways. They then feel a sense of disempowerment. I can understand that, if the way you think we are actually going to solve this problem is through that system, I can understand that sense of complete debilitating depression, because that system actually can’t do that.

Shira: Not only can’t the system do it, but I think our belief that it can is part of why we feel so betrayed. Some of us who have let go of that betrayal, because we have just stopped trying to get water from a stone. Frankly, the stone is being thrown at us. So, we are now trying to build shelter from the stone and talk to everyone who is coming inside the shelter about what we can do. That, for me, is perhaps why I feel less overwhelmed. It isn’t that I don’t feel like “Wow, we have an unbelievable amount to do,” because I do feel like that. But, I do feel like we have so many more things to try away from the system than with it. What we have begun to create is this shelter together, where we really can focus on who is inside this huddle and work with each person who is there in a more meaningful way to move forward.

Sarah: In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, one of the things that some people have been talking about is the whisper network. This is the way that women warn each other about certain men in their political circles or in their work circles. And yet, these feel inadequate too—they are not particularly accountable for the people making accusations, which is less a problem than the fact that they just end up assuming that it is still our job to avoid perpetrators.

Mariame: You can’t force somebody into being accountable for things they do. That is not possible. People have to take accountability for things that they actually do wrong. They have to decide that this is wrong. They have to say, “This is wrong and I want to be part of making some sort of amends or repairing this or not doing it again.” The question is: What in our culture allows people to do that? What are the structural things that exist? What in our culture encourages people who assault people and harm people to take responsibility? What I see is almost nothing.

That means, for example, people continue to be rewarded when they do bad things to other people or take negative action against people. We are in a situation where people try to argue over semantics. We don’t have a sense that people are prepared to say, “There is a spectrum of sexual harm. Not everything is rape. And yet, everything that feels like a violation is harm.” We just don’t have that within the larger culture that allows for people to feel like they can take responsibility and that they can be accountable.

The other thing is, we do have the threat that if you do admit that you do this, you might be caught up in the criminal punishment system. You might see the inside of a jail. So your inclination is to deny, deny, deny until the very end. There is just no incentive for you to “come clean” and be like, “I actually did this. Yes, I did rape this person. I did sexually assault them. I did harass them. I did molest them.” We are in this adversarial model where you don’t admit it, and the person who is actually being placed on trial is the survivor, to prove that you actually did this.

I understand, within that, why people feel like they have to whisper and why survivors then have to take on the weight of actually figuring out how to “bring somebody to accountability.” The incentive structure is set up this way.

Sarah: And, of course, not all survivors are women.

Mariame: Exactly. This is what is, to me, the work that we have to do. We have to make community members understand what sexual harm looks like, what it feels like, why it is unacceptable. We have to make violence unthinkable in our culture. We have to make interpersonal violence unthinkable. It has to become that. This is not about punishment, but about organizing. Most people don’t want to organize around these things. That, to me, is the nexus. That is the place that we have to work from if we are really going to transform this into something where it isn’t the survivors or the victims who have to carry the load all the time.

Shira: I want to add one thing: where the history of those lists come from. Those kinds of lists got started with people in the sex trade, in particular transgender women of color, who started creating bad date sheets. These were informal sheets, literally, that were written down and passed around through the community. We used to photocopy them, copy them down and hand them out with people’s physical descriptions. The rest of the world looks at people in the sex trade as completely disposable, but we borrow their tools all the time when we feel disposable.

I want to be sure that we recognize the history and legacy of the tools that are being used, how they are being used and why they are being used before we say that they are not working or important. Because the next thing just has to grow out of that. What is the next thing we are going to do with those lists? We went from the bathroom wall to Facebook. We went from photocopying the sheet with descriptions to passing it around online. We do have the power and capacity to think of “What next?” but we haven’t quite yet. In part, it’s because we don’t have solidarity with each other, and we don’t recognize that the spectrum of sexual violence is something that is happening to all of us. We live in rape culture, and all of this is going to keep happening to us until we can collectively figure out what we are doing here.

Sarah: You have done work around the way that survivors of this violence are often criminalized, themselves. I am thinking about black women and black trans women like Cece McDonald and Melissa Alexander. Talk about that as an understanding that has to also come into these discussions of, “What can we do?”

Mariame: In terms of Survived and Punished, we have come together nationally to put a spotlight on the fact that when you look at who is actually incarcerated and criminalized in the current criminal punishment system, in terms of women and gender nonconforming people, in particular, often these are people who are survivors of sexual violence and domestic violence prior to their criminalization and prior to their incarceration. They have been violated in the first place. They end up criminalized within the system, often for defending themselves against violence or for criminalized survival actions like having self-medicated and used drugs in order to get over some of the stress that they have been put under, being brought in under conspiracy charges for their abusive partner who coerced them into actions. Taking their kids and fleeing and then being charged with kidnapping. All sorts of survival actions.

We understand that the link between criminalization and domestic and sexual violence is inextricable and undeniable, and people find themselves caught up in the system and end up re-violated and re-traumatized within that very system. Then, you are in prison or in jail or an immigrant detention center and those institutions basically are rapists, themselves. People come in, they have to be patted down, they have strip searches, women are made to shower with male corrections officers watching them and leering. Sometimes people are raped in those particular institutions.

We have to be mindful of the fact that the very thing we say we want to end—violence—is being perpetrated by that very same system. We are trying to end violence with more violence. It just doesn’t make any sense. Our work has been to uplift the particular cases of people who have been criminalized by the system and make those connections. It is not just that we are lifting up those cases as exceptional cases, as cases that prove that this “one good person” needs to be released or this one innocent person needs to be released. We are making a broader case that everybody should be free, because almost everybody within these systems has these histories that they bring with them and these institutions are re-traumatizing institutions. They make no one better. In fact, they make everybody worse.

Recently, we organized to help free Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl who killed her father in self-defense. We came together, initially, through the work that so many of us had been involved in in terms of freeing Melissa Alexander. We are part of a long tradition of defense campaigns for Joan Little and Cassandra Keaton and any number of other survivors of violence who have been criminalized for defending their lives or for actions they took in the attempt of surviving. We are trying to bring together many, many different kinds of people, groups, ideas, to leverage this in order to be able to free more people. These are freedom campaigns.

As Shira mentioned early on, who are the survivors we are actually uplifting? Who are the people? What is sexual violence? When we put people in prisons and in jails, often we are sentencing them to judicial rape because we know they are going to be assaulted when they go inside. Yet we are still putting people in that environment to be assaulted. How are you going to be an anti-rape advocate or organizer and still be pressing for people to be put into rape factories?

We have to complicate this conversation around sexual violence and see all the different ways that it is used as a form of social control across-the-board, with many different people from all different genders and all different races and all different social locations. If we understand the problem in that way, we have a better shot at actually uprooting all of the conditions that lead to this, and addressing all of the ways in which sexual violence reinforces other forms of violence. Our work over a couple of decades now has been devoted to complicating these narratives that are too easy, these really simple narratives around a perfect victim who is assaulted by an evil monster and that is the end of the story. The “Kill all rapists” conversation, which just kind of flattens what sexual violence really is, that doesn’t take into consideration the spectrum of sexual violence, therefore minimizing certain people’s experiences and making others more valid.

The last thing I want to add here is my concern over not just the “perfect victim” narrative, but also this idea that we all have the same experience because we have been raped, and we all think the same way about how to address it, and that for all of us being a rape survivor becomes your identity. We were raped. Something bad happened to us. We are trying to address that, but we are not taking on the survivor as a totalizing identity for everything we do in our lives and how that matters. I want more of those kinds of conversations to be happening in public, but somehow, we can’t have those. We can’t have complicated conversations about sexual violence because then you are accused of rape apologia or you are accused of coddling rapists. That is very, very limiting. It means that we are not going to be able to uproot and really solve the problem ultimately.

Shira: I don’t know what is going to happen with Mr. Weinstein, but I know that he has enough money to make what he wants to happen a possibility. The consequences that are going to happen to him, they may never measure up to the harm that he created. Yet we see wide-scale harm happening for people who may ultimately want to be accountable. Sexual violence is very nuanced, and the system that we have is not.

Prison is as not feminist. That is one of Mariame’s famous points. Prison isn’t feminist, because it recreates the same sexual violence and the same fear, the same kinds of oppression. It is the pin on the head of the racist and sexist system that we live in.

That does not mean, however, there should be no consequences. It means real consequences. Consequences that really matter. It means transforming the conditions that exist in the first place for this to even have happened. It is really critical for people to think the difference between punishment and consequences. Punishment often is actually not the same as transformation. Even though it feels good to wear the “Kill the rapists” t-shirt, that isn’t the thing that is actually going to get us the world we want to live in.

Mariame: I also want to talk a little bit about what is hopeful about what is happening in the world around these issues. Shira and I just spent three and a half days in Chicago with 50 people from around the country doing trainings and facilitating discussion and dialogue about how we do community accountability to address sexual harm and interpersonal violence. These folks came together from all around the country and took that much time out of their day, because we understand this as a moment of opportunity for something different. A lot of people are talking now, and there is much more awareness around the fact that the prison-industrial-complex has churned communities and people through a meat grinder, devastating people. Yet, people don’t feel safer. People don’t feel as though violence is “curbed” in any way.

We have to build up the skills of being able to ask questions like: What does it mean to actually center a survivor who is harmed? What does it mean to actually support people who have caused harm? What does it mean to take responsibility for saying, “We refuse in our community to condone when this happens”? One of the things that is so important is that harm causes wounds that necessitate healing. That is what so many people are looking for—a way to begin to heal. How are we going to create in our communities, spaces that allow people real opportunity to heal?

Again, this will not necessarily be accomplished through compulsory confession in a public way. But, how do we hold that people who have been harmed deserve an opportunity for that harm to be addressed in a real way? Often, that is all people want: a real acknowledgement that, “I was hurt. Somebody did it. I want them to know that they did it. I want to see that they have some remorse for having done it and I want them to start a process by which they will ensure to themselves, at least, and be accountable to their community for not doing it again. That is what I am trying to get as a survivor.” I think there is hope in that.

People are doing this work all around the country. People want to be able to engage this. Maybe if more of us do this, maybe we will be talking in 20 years about something totally different, a landscape that is totally different, a way that people start taking accountability for actions that they do that are harmful to other people in a totally different way.

Shira: I think about the Malcolm X quote all the time, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” What we are doing right now, that we are all actively committed to, is figuring out not only how to heal the wound, but how to transform the conditions we are living in. The premise of the community accountability weekend that we spent together was not only around skill transfer, but about reclaiming our imaginations. How do we reclaim our imagination from what the prison-industrial-complex has forced us into thinking are the only solutions that we have? How do we reclaim our imaginations from how capitalism and oppression has divided us? 

Who Owns Puerto Rico’s Debt, Exactly? We’ve Tracked Down 10 of the Biggest Vulture Firms

Tue, 2017-10-17 08:20

EVER SINCE HURRICANE MARIA AND IRMA DEVASTATED PUERTO RICO, a looming question has been what will happen to the island’s $74.8 billion in debt, which had crippled its economy even before the storms hit. Protesters in major U.S. cities on October 3 called for the U.S. government to forgive the debt. Market analysts say repayment is unrealistic now that the island has suffered an estimated $45 billion to $95 billion in hurricane damage.

“They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street, and we’re going to have to wipe that out,” President Donald Trump said on Fox News after a quick stop in Puerto Rico. The following day, the director of the White House budget office, Mick Mulvaney, reversed course, saying: "I think what you heard the president say is that Puerto Rico is going to have to figure out a way to solve its debt problem.”

A legal battle over that debt has been playing out in bankruptcy court since May, and none of the mutual funds, hedge funds, creditors and bond insurers fighting for their share has indicated they will relinquish their claims.

But who are these bondholders, exactly? Their identities have been largely a mystery: There's no complete public listing of their names or the amounts of debt they claim.

Public information access in Puerto Rico is a struggle. Public officials often refuse to fulfill requests, and the Government Development Bank (GDB) of Puerto Rico has kept information about the island’s bondholders close to the vest. The GDB did not even fulfill a request for the names from a governor-appointed auditing commission in June 2016.

The Centro de Periodismo Investigativo went to court in July 2015 to challenge the GDB’s claim that creditor information was confidential and private. After a lengthy appeal process, we obtained the identities of 275 firms that purchased bonds in the Puerto Rican government’s junk bond sale in 2014, the largest such sale in U.S. history. Many of these bonds, however, have since changed hands.

Over the past several months, after a review of court filings, documents from financial firms, government bond issues, off the record interviews, press clippings, FINRA, Puerto Rico’s Office of the Commissioner of Insurance, Open Secrets, LinkedIn and other social media sources, and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, we have put together the most up-to-date list of the owners of Puerto Rico’s debt,  naming dozens of bondholders and providing  dossiers on their backgrounds.

Overall, we have identified more than 30 hedge and mutual funds, insurers and financial institutions that collectively claim billions of dollars  in Puerto Rico’s debt.

The popular narrative of Puerto Rico’s debt holders is that they are “small” individual bondholders—rookie investors who trusted their savings to financial firms. But our investigation reveals that some of the most aggressive players demanding debt repayment in Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy court are so-called “vulture firms.” These hedge funds specialize in high-risk “troubled assets” near default or bankruptcy and cater to millionaire and billionaire investors


When Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in May, it was the largest municipal bankruptcy debt in U.S. history. Puerto Rico’s more than $74.8 billion in debt and $49 billion in pension system obligations surpasses Detroit, Mich.’s $18 billion bankruptcy in 2013. Much of that debt is interest. According to a report by the ReFund America Project, the financial firms like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup that helped structure the bonds built in astronomically high interest rates. Nearly half the debt—$33.5 billion—is interest, and another $1.6 billion comes from fees paid to these firms.

To scrounge up that money, Puerto Rico has been struggling through austerity measures approved last spring by a U.S.-appointed fiscal control board, including school closures and utility bill hikes. In August the control board proposed even more draconian measures, such as massive furloughs.

Then the hurricanes hit. Much of Puerto Rico still lacks access to water, electricity and basic services. As of October 11, 5,037 people (and 82 pets) were living in shelters, 50 percent of banks were closed, 59 percent of land lines and 43 percent of cell towers were down, and 86 percent of the island lacked power. Moody’s estimates that rebuilding will cost between $45 billion and $95 billion.

The fiscal control board has released $1 billion for hurricane relief. According to Gov. Ricardo Rossello, only $2 billion is left in the Treasury Department's account. The government warns that it may run out of money by the end of the month.

The bankruptcy proceedings have been postponed while the island recovers from the hurricane. But while most of the island has been offline, lawyers for the bondholders have not stopped digitally submitting motions in the bankruptcy case.

The financial firms have organized themselves into alliances to aid their quest to get paid. These alliances include the Mutual Fund Group, which claims $7.1 billion in Puerto Rico’s debt; the Ad Hoc Group, which claims $3.3 billion; the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition, which claims $3.1 billion; ERS Secured Creditors, which claims roughly $1.4 billion; and the QTCB Noteholder Group, which claims more than $600 million.

Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through on September 29. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


The alliances can afford to hire prestigious law firms, like Jones Day, to file motions in Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case on their behalf. And with the exception of the Mutual Fund Group, these big alliances are dominated byvulture funds.

For example, while the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition says it represents individual and retired bondholders, it is in fact controlled by vulture funds such as Canyon Partners, GoldenTree Asset Management and Tilden Park Capital Management, which require its clients to invest a minimum of $1 million to $5 million. Of the more than 30 known financial firms vying for Puerto Rico’s debt repayments, at least 24 are vulture firms.


Here are the top 10 vulture firms involved the bankruptcy case, listed in order of the amount of debt they've claimed in court We have compiled their names, addresses, and a bit of history on their business dealings.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $937,585,000

Headquarters: 90 Park Ave., 31st Floor, New York, N.Y., 10016 and Floor 2, Conway House, Conway Street, St. Helier, Jersey

Part of an Alliance: Ad Hoc Group ($3.3 billion)

Type of Bond: General Obligation Bonds

Key People: Robert Gibbins, Derek Goodman

History: Autonomy Capital is an affiliate of Autonomy Americas, which is incorporated in the tax haven of the Channel Islands in the English Channel and claims to manage more than $4 billion.

Autonomy’s clients include insurance companies, foundations, public and private pension systems, and high net worth individuals. The minimum amount required to invest in Autonomy’s funds is between $5 million and $10 million.

Autonomy Capital is one of two firms involved in an ongoing legal battlewith the European Free Trade Association Surveillance Authority, a European watchdog, over millions of dollars worth of assets locked behind Iceland’s capital controls. Iceland, one of the only countries to aggressively regulate banks in the wake of the global financial crisis, instituted the controls after its biggest banks collapsed in 2008.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $912,479,194

Headquarters: 10 Saint James Avenue, Suite 1700, Boston, Mass., 02116 (Decagon is registered in Delaware)

Part of an Alliance: Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition ($3.1 billion)

Type of Bond: Puerto Rican Sales Tax Revenue Bonds

Key People: Seth Klarman

History: Decagon Holdings is a firm within the Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition and owns at least 29 percent of this alliance’s debt—as much as $912,479,194—split among 10 funds, according to court documents.

The paper trail on Decagon is circuitous. These funds were incorporated in Delaware in 2015 as limited liability companies. Decagon is not registered at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the financial industry’s federal regulator, and it does not have a website.

In a document related to the Puerto Rico government’s bankruptcy case, Decagon Holdings only provided a general address, with no phone number: 800 Boylston Street, the location of the Prudential Tower, Boston’s second tallest building, with 52 floors.

On October 3, David Dayen of The Intercept unmasked Decagon Holdings’ real owner: The Baupost Group, a hedge fund that managed roughly $31.5 billion in regulatory assets as of December 31, 2016.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $624,871,695

Headquarters: 2000 Avenue of the Stars, 11th Floor, Los Angeles, Calif., 90067

Part of an Alliance: Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition ($303,080,000)  and QTCB Noteholders Group ($321,791,695)

Type of Bond: Cofina or Sales Tax Senior Bonds and General Obligation Bonds (Issued by the Public Buildings Authority)

Key People: Joshua S. Friedman, Mitchell R. Julis, John Plaga, Jonathan Matthew Kaplan, Dominique Mielle

History: Canyon Capital Advisors LLC was founded in 1990 by Joshua S. Friedman and Mitchell R. Julis, both of whom have been intimately involved in stressed and distressed markets since the early 1980’s, according to information from the SEC.

As of 2016, Canyon employed “over 200 investment professionals” and had offices in Los Angeles, New York, London, Shanghai and Tokyo. The firm advertises itself as having “substantial experience with distressed financials, including liquidations and recapitalizations.”

In 2014, Canyon was one of the hedge funds that jumped on Puerto Rico’s junk bond emission, and requested $50 million of those bonds. It got $28 million.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $606,600,000

Headquarters: 535 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y., 10022 & 52 Conduit St., 6th Floor, London, England W1S 2YX, U.K.

Part of an Alliance: Ad Hoc Group ($3.3 billion)

Type of Bond:  General Obligation Bonds

Key People: Michael Weinstock, Andrew Herenstein and Chris Santana

History: Monarch Alternative Capital has a history of investing in coal power. In February 2017, it became the principal shareholder in Arch Coal, the second largest supplier of coal to power companies in the U.S. The hedge fund owns $190 million (nearly 11 percent of the company). Arch Coal has been accused by United Mine Workers of America of conspiring with Peabody Energy in a scheme to default on $1.3 billion in retiree pension and healthcare obligations.

Monarch Alternative’s team includes former members of JP Morgan and Rothschild & Co, Stone Lion Capital, GoldenTree Asset Management, Davidson Kempner and Och-Ziff Capital.

Founded in 2002 by Michael Weinstock, Andrew Herenstein and Chris Santana, former bankers at Lazard Frères & Co., as of June 30 Monarch managed approximately $4.6 billion and had 63 employees, including 20 investment managers in offices in New York and London.

In 2015, Monarch bought $30 million in Four Seasons Health Care properties, the largest nursing home operator in Great Britain, which was carrying significant debt. In 2006, Monarch bought Oneida Limited, one of the world's largest designers and sellers of stainless steel items, after that company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $587,253,141

Headquarters: 300 Park Ave., 21st Floor, New York, N.Y., 10022

Part of an Alliance: Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition ($3.1 billion)

Type of Bond: Puerto Rican Sales Tax Revenue Bonds

Key People: Steve Shapiro

History: It is very common for vulture fund executives to be former bankruptcy attorneys, as is the case with Steve Shapiro, the executive director of GoldenTree Asset Management. He was a bankruptcy lawyerfor Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, where he represented bondholder committees and reorganized companies in Chapter 11 proceedings and out-of-court restructurings.

At the 2015 Milken Institute Global Conference (an annual gathering of billionaires and global finance power players that cost $50,000 a head in 2017), Shapiro spoke on a panel titled “Trash or Treasure? Finding Value in Distressed-Debt.” He said his firm had its eye on General Motors’ liquidation and found "parts of Puerto Rico…very interesting." He mentioned the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the government-owned corporation that is the sole provider of electricity to the island. PREPA was already mired in debt, leading to serious maintenance problems. When the hurricane hit, that degraded infrastructure was wiped out, causing 88.3 percent of people on the island to still be without electricity as of October 10, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

GoldenTree has not disclosed whether it currently owns PREPA bonds.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $473,417,000

Headquarters: 535 Madison Ave., 22nd Floor, New York, N.Y., 10022

Part of an Alliance: Ad Hoc Group ($3.3 billion)

Type of Bond: General Obligation Bonds, Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority Bonds

Key People: Mark BrodskySamuel Jed Rubin, Esq., Eleazer Klein, Esq., and Jason Kaplan, Esq.

History: Mark Brodsky, founder and manager of Aurelius Capital, is another former bankruptcy lawyer, who for 16 years worked in major law firms in New York.

Much of that time, in the early 1990s, he served as an attorney and co-head of the bankruptcy practice at Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel. (The firm went on to represent bondholders Franklin Mutual and Oppenheimer Funds in a successful challenge to Puerto Rico’s 2015 Recovery Act, which would have allowed the island’s electric authority (PREPA), sewer authority and transportation authority to restructure their own debt.)

From 1996 to 2005, Brodsky was a partner in Elliott Management Corporation, a vulture fund owned by financial tycoon Paul Singer, who fought alongside Aurelius and other firms for the collection of Argentine debt.

Brodsky founded Aurelius in 2006 with $325 million in capital, of which more than half came from pension funds and foundations. Aurelius Capital has $4.83 billion in funds under management and focuses on investing in high-risk debt.

Aurelius has successfully profited from debt restructurings more than once. In Greece in 2012, in the midst of the European country’s financial turmoil, the government had to face what was described as a "small well-funded group of investors" who opposed a 75 percent haircut. Aurelius Capital was part of that group. In Brazil's Petrobras, Aurelius forced a $54 billion default as a "precautionary measure." The firm also attempted to upset a Tribune Co. bankruptcy plan in Chicago, Ill. that had been approved by most creditors; but in that attempt, they failed.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $466,084,719

Headquarters: 452 Fifth Ave., 28th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10018

Part of an Alliance: Cofina Senior Bondholders Coalition ($3.1 billion)

Type of Bond: Puerto Rican Sales Tax Revenue Bonds

Key People: Josh Birnbaum, Jeremy Primer, Sam Alcoff, Robert Rossitto

History: One of the biggest players—and biggest profiteers—in the U.S. financial crisis was Joshua Birnbaum, former managing director at Goldman Sachs and now chief investment officer of Tilden Park Capital Management. During this 15 years working at Goldman Sachs, he led transactions related to subprime mortgages that catalyzed the Great Recession.

After the real estate bubble collapsed, Birnbaum received one of the highest payments in Wall Street history, raking in $17 million in compensation. In his 2007 performance self-evaluations Birnbaum discussed the “very profitable year” and “extraordinary profits” that came from shorting the mortgage market that year, according to the SEC.

Birnbaum left Goldman Sachs in 2008 after he wasn’t named partner, raising much speculation. "The question is really, 'What's his encore?' " asked Geoff Bobroff, an asset management consultant, in an interviewwith The Telegraph.

The answer was Tilden Park Capital Management, which Birnbaum cofounded with fellow Goldman strategist (and Morgan Stanley alum) Jeremy Primer. Tilden Park handles more than $16 billion in assets.

The law firm of Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, which represents the Ad Hoc Group of General Obligation Bondholders in the Title III case, was in turn the legal agent for several Tilden Park transactions, including one of $1,479,825,500 conducted in January.


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $432,140,000

Headquarters: 745 Fifth Ave., 25th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10151

Part of an Alliance: Ad Hoc Group ($3.3 billion)

Type of Bond: General Obligation Bonds, Puerto Rican Sales Tax Revenue Bonds 

Key People: Laurence L. Gottlieb, Hector Negroni, Dana S. Fusaris, Justin Vinci, Robyn A. Huffman and Bruce Kayle

History: Fundamental Credit Opportunities (FCO), a division of Fundamental Advisors, focuses on high-risk investments in states and cities under "financial pressure."

FCO CEO Héctor Negroni was one of three executives of firms holding Puerto Rican debt who attended a panel at Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program hosted by the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York in June. Their presence was surprising, as the event was geared toward to journalists covering state and local fiscal issues, and executives from financial firms tend to shy away from media.

During the panel, Negroni wore a vest with the FCO Advisors logo on top of his checkered shirt. Sitting in a back row of the room, he listened to the other lecturers, and when he did not agree, he raised his voice to speak sharply over the speaker. He argued that commonwealth of Puerto Rico "is completely solvent. There's no reason to be in default, no reason to be in bankruptcy.” (Negroni also took advantage of an pause before the panel to take to the microphone and sing a song, Frank Sinatra-style.)


Puerto Rican Debt Claimed in Court: $410,216,768

Headquarters: 333 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Calif., 90071

Part of an Alliance: ERS Secured Creditors ($1.4 billion)

Type of Bond: Employee Retirement System Bonds

Key People: Howard Marks, Bruce Karsh, Jay Wintrob, John Frank, Sheldon Stone

History: Oaktree Capital Management is an investment firm that manages $100 billion through various hedge funds. It has 900 employees and offices in 17 cities, including London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Sydney. Oaktree's clients include 75 of the 100 largest U.S. pension plans and 50 primary retirement plans, more than 400 corporations around the world and more than 350 foundations.

Oaktree has major interests in infrastructure, real estate and energy. Its energy holdings add up to $2 billion and it holds a "controlling position" in more than 15 companies in that sector.

In 2013, Oaktree Capital purchased 50 percent of Aerostar Airport Holdings, the operator of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport San Juan. In May 2017, it sold its stake in Aerostar for $430 million to Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste and the Canada's Public Sector Pension Investment Board.

The firm also purchased $25 million in Puerto Rico’s 2014 General Obligations junk bond issue.

In Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case, Oaktree Capital claims $410,216,768 in Retirement System bonds through seven funds : Oaktree Funds Opportunities Fund Holdings LP, Oaktree Opportunities Fund IX Delaware LP, Oaktree Opportunities Fund IX (Parallel 2) LP, Opps Culebra Holdings LP, Oaktree Opportunities Fund X Holdings (Delaware) LP, Oaktree Opps X Holdo Ltd and Oaktree-Forrest Multi-Strategy, LLC.


Estimate of Puerto Rican Debt Owned: $325,377,000

Headquarters: New York, N.Y., U.S.

Part of an Alliance: Ad Hoc Group ($3.3 billion)

Type of Bond: General Obligation Bonds, Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority Bonds

Key People: Gregory Augustine Hanley, Alan Jay Mintz, Danielle Schaefer Klyap, Claudia Lee Borg, Elan Daniels

History:Stone Lion Capital was founded by Alan Jay Mintz and Gregory Augustine Hanley in 2008. These two men were once risky debt dealers at Bear Stearns, the bank that infected the financial market with toxic mortgage assets, received a bailout from the Federal Reserve Bank and was later sold to JP Morgan.

In 2014, they requested $100 million from the Puerto Rico government's junk bond issue and received $30 million. However, the firm is claiming, in total, more than $300 million in General Obligation bonds that may have been obtained before or after 2014. It also owns more than $15 million in bonds from Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority.

Eric Michael Friel, senior managing director of Stone Lion Capital, was among the executives who attended the Ravitch event in New York this year. He was formerly a managing director and "risky debt" analyst at Bear Stearns & Co., one of the first banks to collapse in 2008.

“Contrary to popular belief, I believe investors like hedge funds want many of the same things that the people of Puerto Rico want,” he said at the Ravitch event, citing government transparency and Medicaid funding as examples. Noting that his father was a teacher, he added, "I understand the value of a good education, and that's the last thing we want to see taken away from the people of Puerto Rico.”

However, the alliance of which Stone Lion is a member, the Ad Hoc Group, launched an offensive against the Puerto Rican health and education systems with a report commissioned in 2015 mapping  a debt repayment plan. The report, “For Puerto Rico, There is a Better Way,” recommended the dismissal of teachers, cuts in the subsidy granted to the University of Puerto Rico and trims to "excess Medicaid benefits," among other austerity measures.

At the Ravitch event, Friel spoke to press about the need for more transparency from the fiscal control board and the government of Puerto Rico. When CPI asked Friel to disclose the price at which Stone Lion Capital purchased Puerto Rican junk bonds in 2014, he said, "I do not know the answer. I think it is wrong to focus on that, knowing that is not going to solve Puerto Rico’s problems. It literally will not help anyone with anything.”

Note: One of the debtholders, SV Capital, a member of the ERS alliance that claims $389,851,034 in debt, is omitted from this list because we could not determine whether it was a vulture firm. The company is a phantom—it was registered as an anonymous firm in Delaware on August 2016 and is not registered with the SEC.


This is necessarily an incomplete list. The alliances, although they are the loudest voices in the proceedings, represent only about 23 percent of the total debt.

Who are the missing players, and how much do they own? More transparency is urgently needed.

We will continue to follow the bankruptcy filings and post more information as it comes to light.

We will also be reporting on another group of debtholders: mutual funds.

Although most of the alliances are dominated by vultures, one, the Mutual Fund Group, is made up exclusively of three mutual funds:  Franklin Mutual Advisors, Oppenheimer Funds and Santander Asset Management. Another powerful voice in bankruptcy court is  the multinational investment firm UBS, which invested in mutual funds called Puerto Rico Family of Funds. UBS did not join an alliance, but has filed independent court briefs and claims $1.4 billion of the debt.

Mutual funds theoretically represent the interests of small-dollar investors, but many of those involved in Puerto Rico, including UBS and Oppenheimer, have a long trail of fraud claims and lawsuits filed by those investors. We’ll dive into that next. 

A version of this story is available in Spanish on the CPIPR website.

In Myanmar, “Anti-Terrorism” Is Cover for Ethnic Cleansing

Mon, 2017-10-16 19:17

On August 25, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA)—a fledgling insurgent group in conflict with the Myanmar government—attacked multiple border police posts in the western state of Rakhine and killed 12 officers. In response, Myanmar’s security forces launched a bloody campaign against the country’s embattled Rohingya community, a campaign that has killed more than 1,000 people, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Myanmar.

A month since the crackdown, it is estimated that close to half a million Rohingyas, a Muslim minority in the majority-Buddhist state, have fled the army’s brutal offensive into neighboring Bangladesh. The number of Rohingya who have taken transnational sanctuary surpasses even the worst month of the Syrian war’s refugee crisis. Amnesty International indicts the military for sanctioning a scorched-earth operation replete with extrajudicial killings, systematic rape and wanton murder of children. Satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch shows the incineration of entire villages.

UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein says what is transpiring “seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has called on Myanmar authorities to cease military operations, calling the crisis “the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency and a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.” Yet the government defends itself by claiming to be combating terrorism as justification for launching clearance operations in what has amounted to be an indiscriminate crackdown on civilians.

In Myanmar—a fractious, underdeveloped, multi-ethnic country beset by several insurgencies—the Rohingya inhabit an exceptional status of neglect and abuse. Living in squalor and apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine, the 1.1 million Rohingya rank as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities; state-sponsored repression of the group has persisted for decades.

Myanmar’s ruling authorities have long endorsed a racialized conception of ethnicity, and officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups (those that allegedly lived within the country’s boundaries before the 1824 British invasion). Since the 1962 coup, the state machinery has assumed the role of arbitrator, regulator and enforcer of collective identities. A stark example is the ID cards that all citizens are obliged to carry, which state both their ethnicity and religion—two intertwined categories that to a large degree determine one’s place in the country. As such, those adjudicated as “belonging” to the Burmese polity are exclusively defined on identitarian grounds, as other groups are subordinated in a hierarchy dominated by the Burmese-Buddhist majority.

It is then telling that the Myanmar state does not consider the Rohingya as a legitimate part of its socio-political order. Following independence from the British in 1948, the Union Citizenship Act was passed, defining which ethnicities could gain citizenship. The Rohingya were excluded. (It did, however, allow those with families living in the country for at least two generations to apply for ID cards.) With the passing of the 1982 citizenship law, the government rendered the Rohingya stateless. Effectively barred from legal recognition as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnicities, they were excluded from even the basic level of naturalized citizenship because the appropriate paperwork had been denied to them by previous regimes. As a result, their rights to work, education, travel, marriage, and access to health care have been and continue to be severely restricted.

Since then, the state has mounted intermittent, military-led campaigns to effectively purge the Burmese body politic of a people officially deemed by the government to be “Bengalis,” implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh—despite their presence in the region for generations—to foment their erasure. At the same time, state authorities vehemently reject the term “Rohingya” itself as a recent invention, created for political reasons to legitimize a foreign contagion.

In 2015, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD)—led by Aung San Suu Kyi—secured the country’s first electoral victory in decades, ushering in a seven-step roadmap to democracy, referred to as “discipline-flourishing democracy,” after a half-century of dictatorship. The transition, carefully managed by the military brass, has been relatively smooth, and despite tensions between the NLD and the military, they managed to foster a power-sharing arrangement.

But this (partial) political liberalization would not bring about any substantial improvement in the Rohingya’s plight. The army remains constitutionally separated from civilian oversight and retains control of key ministries. It has every incentive to keep ethnic tensions simmering so it can peddle itself as a national security buttress against external threats.

The NLD’s response to the last month’s bloodshed has been tepid. International outcry has aimed at the silence of Suu Kyi, rife with calls from editorials, columnists and fellow laureates to rescind the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991 for non-violent struggle to secure democracy and human rights in the country.

Given that the NLD lacks the organizational cadres of a mass party and relies in part upon the popular mobilization of Buddhist monks, it has been reluctant to confront extremist Buddhist groups that have been at the vanguard of provoking antagonism against the Rohingya such as Ma Ba Tha, a prominent ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim grassroots outfit. It is evident that the party also fears challenging the army’s daunting institutional strength.

The Rohingya’s predicament also stems, in part, from the “war on terror.” Given the appalling barbarism the Myanmar state has inflicted on them, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some Rohingya would turn to militancy—what eventually became known as ARSA, an internationally bank-rolled, ragtag insurgency of a few hundred fighters trained in guerrilla war tactics.

The Myanmar government uses ARSA as evidence of Islamic extremism embedded within the Rohingya, casting them as a sinister threat to the security of the Buddhist majority, while treating Rohingya men as potential terrorists and blocking humanitarian aid in the process. It’s a tactic used by the U.S. state abroad and more recently by the Assad regime in Syria: tarring opponents as extremists while inflicting war crimes upon hapless civilians.

This all has a familiar ring to it. By using disproportionate force that has driven hundreds of thousands from their homes, the government risks fostering conditions for further radicalization that transnational jihadists will readily exploit.

Devoid of protracted international pressure to enforce a ceasefire, Myanmar authorities have little reason to curb their onslaught. And even once hostilities subside, any sustainable long-term solution must involve an overhaul of Myanmar’s exclusionary citizenship law. The Rohingya must be afforded the basic right to exist in the country—a country that otherwise sees fit to exterminate them from its collective memory.

The U.S. Bombed Afghanistan More in September Than Any Month Since 2010, But the Toll Remains Hidden

Mon, 2017-10-16 16:11

On August 21, U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Afghanistan strategy. He made clear that the longest war in modern U.S. history had no end in sight, and that the U.S. government would increase its troop contingent by several thousand soldiers.

According to news reports, another 4,000 U.S. soldiers are slated for deployment to Afghanistan. However, Trump himself admitted the true numbers will remain in the dark, saying in his August 21 speech that the number of U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries would not be released by his administration in the future.  

Nine days later, it was revealed that, instead of roughly 8,000 troops, as previously believed, at least 11,000 soldiers are currently deployed in Afghanistan. That’s not the only instance of information being withheld from the public: During the last days of Barack Obama's presidency, the Pentagon stopped releasing redacted investigations of major civilian casualty events caused by the U.S. military. This included war crimes in Syria, Afghanistan and several other countries where drones are haunting the skies, while special forces units are conducting shadowy operations on the ground.

Trump's speech also dropped the pretense of "nation-building" that many across the political spectrum had used to justify the Afghanistan war. For him, it’s all about hunting down and killing "terrorists.”

Although the word "terrorist" has become vacuous, a label for everything and everyone, the question remains: Who are the "terrorists" in Afghanistan? Are they al-Qaeda, which has been practically non-existent in the country for years? Are they the leaders of the Taliban, which has grown since the start of the U.S.-led invasion and now controls many parts of the country? Are they the extremists of ISIS, whose presence was enabled by the violence of the U.S.-led war and invasion, too? Are they the brutal warlords and militia fighters who have become a crucial part of Afghanistan's landscape and, since allying with the United States in 2001, have led parts of the Kabul government?

From an Afghan view, there are other "terrorists": the drone operators who are remotely killing innocent people on a daily basis, or the Western soldiers who are hunting civilians and collect their body parts like trophies.

For the U.S. government, the answer is chillingly simple. Since 2012, the White House has maintained that every military-aged male in a strike zone is considered as an "enemy combatant." This means what nearly all Afghan men—including teenagers—are considered "terrorists." The same is true for Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Somalis, Yemenites and every other citizen of a country that has the luck to be terrorized by U.S. bombs and rockets, dropped by conventional aircraft or weaponized drones.

"We are all terrorists. If we get hit now, you are going to be called like that too," a Taliban fighter in Nangarhar province in the east of the country told me when I visited his village in May. Local civilians who were nearby agreed with him.

What he said was true. I often thought how I would be described after getting killed by a drone strike, especially while researching in remote regions that are barely entered by Western journalists. Like most Afghan men, I have a beard and black hair. In today's world, that's enough to be called a "terrorist," a danger to Western civilization.

Since Trump took over the presidency, about 2,000 airstrikes have been conducted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. On October 12, a U.S. drone strike killed 14 people; Afghan officials claim the victims were ISIS militants but a local member of parliament alleges those killed were civilians. Last month, the U.S. dropped more bombs and missiles on Afghanistan than in any other month since 2010. Most of these strikes hit Nangarhar province, which was also the target of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), also known as the "Mother of All Bombs", the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the Pentagon's arsenal. According to recent UN data, U.S. strikes in Nangarhar are more likely to result in civilian casualties than strikes anywhere else in the country. But contrary to reports that often describe all victims as "suspected militants" or "terrorists," many dead are civilians.

Provinces like Nangarhar, where the United States has been fighting its "War on Terror" since 2001, are the places where the U.S. lost this war. While the Taliban control many districts of such provinces, after years of constant occupation, many Afghan locals have developed a hatred toward the American soldiers, like their forefathers did towards the Russians and the British.

While Trump is giving one weird speech after the other, the Afghans in these remote areas live in real dystopia. The so-called government in Kabul, which was installed by the United States in 2001, has no influence here.

Instead, the people's lives are controlled by Taliban insurgents who are often deeply connected with the local communities. More than 100,000 U.S. soldiers, who were deployed in Afghanistan during the Obama era, were not able to change this reality. It will not be much different under Trump.

It's not just the mere presence of foreign troops that fuels war, but also what those troops have done and continue to do: carry out air strikes, conduct brutal night raids on civilians’ homes and torture detainees at places like Bagram Air Base—a place so notorious in Afghanistan that, to some, Guantanamo is considered a haven by comparison.

All signs indicate these atrocities will continue in the era of Donald Trump.

The identities of the people who have been murdered by the MOAB are still not known. While the Kabul government supported the attack and later announced that more than 90 ISIS militants have been killed, the White House preferred to stay silent. Too often, similar figures in the past have proven to be bogus. But in the United States, the stories of Afghans are only told when they fit with the interests of the U.S. empire. Otherwise, they remain faceless and invisible—and that’s how Donald Trump wants to keep them.

Our Revolution Somerville’s Campaign to Separate the Progressives from the Poseurs

Mon, 2017-10-16 12:54

SOMERVILLE, MASS.—Most of Rand Wilson’s knocks went unanswered, but seeds were planted. At one house, a 30-year-old registered Democrat, Caitlin, lit up when he mentioned Bernie Sanders.

“So is this what he meant by the political revolution?” she asks.

She didn’t join Our Revolution Somerville (ORS), but did say she would take a closer look at its slate.

In Somerville, the battle for the future of the Democratic Party is waged street by street. Wilson and other ORS members plan to overthrow the political establishment in a city where Democrats have long controlled the levers of power. It’ll be one step, they hope, toward transforming the party.

Wilson, a union organizer with SEIU Local 888, was one of a dozen ORS members who canvassed that day. The goal is to knock on 3,000 doors by Election Day on November 7, turn out new voters for ORS’ endorsed candidates, sign up new members, and get signatures on a petition to put an initiative for paid family and medical leave on the Massachusetts ballot in 2018.

Somerville, a city of 80,000 north of Boston, was once a working-class community. The city’s character began to change in the 1980s, when housing costs skyrocketed. The median home price is now $600,000. In 2016, Somerville’s city council passed a law that requires at least 20 percent of units in new developments be affordable. That’s the root of the conflict that sparked a progressive insurrection.

Federal Realty Investment Trust, a Maryland-based developer valued at more than $9 billion, is completing a 500-unit luxury housing project in Somerville. It began the project before the 20 percent standard took effect, so it asked the city for a waiver to meet the old, 12.5 percent standard. In May, Joseph Curtatone, Somerville’s mayor, floated a compromise that would let Federal Realty meet a 6.25 percent affordable unit standard in return for a $10.3 million cash payment to the city’s community development corporation to purchase affordable housing. The planning board, appointed by the mayor, approved the deal 4 to 1 without taking public comment.

The community development corporation has only purchased 20 homes over the past three years. That move galvanized ORS, which maintains that Curtatone shortchanged Somerville.

Curtatone is widely regarded as an outspoken progressive. He’s been a high-profile defender of same-sex marriage since 2004, defends the Black Lives Matter banner hanging above the entrance to Somerville City Hall (despite pressure from the city’s police union to remove it), and he’s proud to proclaim Somerville a sanctuary city. Yet in 2014, the Village Voice named him one of its 53 worst politicians in America, dinging him as a media darling “who masquerades as a handsome young progressive,” but allows an “elite and privileged cadre of attorneys and real estate slugs” to run the show.

Matt McLaughlin, a Somerville native who represents Ward 1 on the city’s Board of Aldermen and helped found ORS, says the Federal Realty deal has separated genuine progressives from poseurs. “It’s easy to hang a banner and to say that you’re doing progressive things,” he says.

ORS is running a slate of nine candidates for the 11-seat city Board of Aldermen. On Election Day, ORS campaigners will hand out palm cards that read: “We envision a Somerville where people have the resources to thrive. Where working class families are stable. Where immigrants are welcome. And where the community always comes before profit.” 

After Maria, Vulture Firms Are Trying to Bleed Puerto Rico Dry. They Must Be Stopped.

Thu, 2017-10-12 17:38

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.

Jonathan Westin: I’m Jonathan Westin. I am the director of New York Communities for Change.

Sarah Jaffe: This week we learned about Seth Klarman—the person behind the hedge fund that owns a whole bunch of Puerto Rico’s debt. Tell us a little bit about that.

JW: Klarman is a hedge fund manager and is generally seen as kind of a progressive Wall Street guy, but has hid in very intentional ways from being discovered as one of the biggest bondholders of Puerto Rican debt. The way the debt was acquired by many of these hedge fund managers was they bought it for cents on the dollar when they took over debt from Puerto Rico, and are now trying to extract as much as possible out of the island to pay that debt back even though they bought it for cents on the dollar.

SJ: It is almost like the people who buy bad student loan debt. Or bad credit card debt.

JW: Yes. I mean, they are predators. That is really what this is. There is a reason they are called vulture funds. It’s because they prey on very downtrodden folks. They buy up debt from places that most people believe they won’t be able to recover [their money], but then they do everything in their power to extract blood from a stone.

SJ: How did it come out that this was the firm that owned the debt?

JW: One of the groups that has been working the most on the Puerto Rican debt crisis is a group here in New York, based out of Buffalo, Kevin Connor and, who have done lots of work in discovering the folks behind a lot of the things that are happening in this country. Hence, the name LittleSis, the opposite of Big Brother. They were digging on who were the owners of this Puerto Rican debt because so many times in a lot of these cases—this is just like Wall Street tradecraft—they don’t want to be known for what they are doing so they hide themselves in multiple shell corporations. Kevin and his team dug and found this person through random, obscure lawsuit documents that were filed in the debt crisis. They just un-raveled the layers and discovered Klarman.

Then, David Dayen from The Intercept confirmed it. I think it was a mixture of really great investigative work done by LittleSis and really great reporting by David Dayen, who’s been covering this and has been covering lots of the financial crisis and aftermath, to bring it to light.

SJ: You and a bunch of other folks have been doing work around hedge funds as the Hedge Clippers. What does this mean, discovering who owns Puerto Rico’s debt, for Hedge Clippers’ work?

JW: It just confirms, for us, “Who are these people behind so much of not only the crisis in Puerto Rico, but so much of the crisis in this country and around the world?” Puerto Rico is not the only instance of where hedge fund managers have gobbled up debt. They have done it in Argentina. They have done it in Greece. They have done it in many other places. 

It lifts up a person we should now focus our attention on. Which we are glad to do. A lot of the Hedge Clippers strategy has been to illuminate many of these hedge fund managers and all the evil they are doing across the world, going to their homes, going to fundraisers and galas that they are participating in, to expose them. I think many times they do so much of their work behind the scenes and they don’t want to be exposed. It is our job to make sure that people in this world know who the people are that are impoverishing entire countries and nations.

SJ: It is fascinating when you put it that way. That a small group of individuals is impoverishing entire nations.

JW: Yes, a small group of white men in New York, Connecticut, etc. are impoverishing nations. It is insane.

SJ: We are sitting in New York, many, many miles away from Puerto Rico, but you are the director of a community organization that has a lot of Puerto Rican members who are feeling this very personally right now.

JW: Yes. We have a heavily Puerto-Rican membership here in New York. Folks from the diaspora. A lot of folks have moved up here over several decades, but more recently, there has been a lot of Puerto Rican outflow from the island because of the debt crisis and because of the diminishing services. Then, obviously, you couple on top of that Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and wiped everything out. They are in a huge economic crisis and, obviously, our members, my family in particular, we have family who live on the island, we feel it. This is really in our bones, what happened on the island.

We have a lot of New Yorkers. If you look at even Governor Cuomo and Bill de Blasio and, obviously, Melissa Mark-Viverito who is the first Puerto Rican speaker of the city council, out there advocating heavily on behalf of Puerto Rico. As New Yorkers, we feel this. There are so many connections to the island and so much of New York culture is derived from Puerto Rican culture. It is something that hits home for all of us.

SJ: Talk a little bit more about the Hedge Clippers strategy and the work that your members have done around different targets over the last couple of years.

JW: One of the key strategies in New York to really push back on the hedge fund managers that were buying up tons and tons of Puerto Rican debt, was to lift up how New York City pension funds were invested with the same hedge fund managers impoverishing an entire island of folks down in Puerto Rico. We did a number of press conferences and rallies calling for divestment from the hedge funds and successfully were able to get the City of New York to move pension funds completely out of these hedge funds and really send a really sharp message to hedge funds that you can’t go out in your day job and impoverish an entire island of millions of people while taking our tax dollars to do it. We were able to move that money out of these hedge funds.

SJ: Have you had any run-ins or work around Robert Mercer?

JW: Yes. We have done a bit of work within Hedge Clippers and with Make the Road New York looking at Robert Mercer and how he is spending a lot of his money to essentially push anti-immigrant policies across the country. He is based on Long Island. Renaissance Technologies, which is his hedge fund, is based out there. He was Trump’s biggest backer. He and his daughter were seen as very influential in hand picking the cabinet of Trump’s administration, including Steve Bannon, who is the lead racist in charge.

If there was one person that was bankrolling the white supremacist movement in this country, it is Robert Mercer.

SJ: It is interesting, too, because all of these people live in New York and Connecticut. So much for the idea that racism is in one part of the country.

JW: Yes.

SJ: Back to the Puerto Rico question. Trump mentioned the idea of forgiving Puerto Rico’s debt the other day. Of course, his people immediately started to walk it back, but does that give you an opening to press? Especially combining that with now knowing who holds the debt?

JW: Yes. I think Trump has validated many of our positions, which is the debt is gone. It washed away with the hurricane. It is unpayable. We should not pay it and we should force them to cancel the debt. The hedge fund managers that are trying to suck blood out of the island should be forced into cancellation of this debt because there is no way to pay it and, frankly, it is gone.

SJ: It is interesting that debt gets moralized in these ways. Like, “How dare Puerto Rico not pay its debts? How dare Greece not pay its debts.” But, especially when you are buying debt as a speculator for pennies on the dollar, you are doing so with the assumption that there is a huge amount of risk baked into that, that you will not make your money back.

JW: Essentially, they are glorified debt collectors. That is what the hedge fund managers are acting as. In many cases, they are the ones that hiked up all the spending and borrowing. They created the debt and frankly there is no reason Puerto Rico should pay it back. That is part of what Trump was talking about when he was talking about cancelling the debt.

I actually think there are a lot of people in this country that can sympathize with the huge amounts of debt that are piling up and the question of “where is all of this money going in our country and in our economy, and frankly, globally?” It is a continuing push and consolidation of all of the wealth and capital in this country going to folks like these hedge fund managers, while every day Americans are struggling and having to rely on debt to live. This is everyday America. “I am able to pay my rent and water bills by living on credit cards. I am able to send my kid to college by borrowing tons and tons of money.” So much of how we live now is debt created by Wall Street.

In this case, it is an entire island and country that they have impoverished. I think we are now seeing the tragic ramifications in a post-Hurricane Maria world. The only way they are going to get back on their feet is with heavy investments into the infrastructure of Puerto Rico and not putting that money into the pockets of hedge fund managers that are trying to collect immoral debts.

SJ: Are there any actions planned for the next couple of weeks?

JW: Yes, we are taking hundreds of folks from the diaspora, some folks from Puerto Rico, to demand the cancellation of the debt, to really force the president to live up to his own words. We are going to be looking at some of our new-found creditors, specifically Klarman, and looking to do a series of actions around his role in the debt crisis. There are a number of actions we are looking to take to really force the issue that if the island is going to recover, there is no way they can pay this debt and they shouldn’t.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and Hedge Clippers and NYCC and perhaps join any of these actions or put pressure on people?

JW:, there is tons and tons of info on the people that hold Puerto Rican debt and the predators and the hedge fund managers and who they are. NYCC, they can follow New York Communities for Change on Facebook. We post a lot of our events on Facebook and we will be doing a lot of work over the next few weeks on this debt crisis, so they can follow us there, too.

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

Birmingham’s New Mayor Randall Woodfin on How to Win the Political Revolution Down South

Thu, 2017-10-12 13:52

On Oct. 3, Randall Woodfin beat two-term incumbent William Bell in a combative runoff election to become the next mayor of Birmingham, Alabama.

Woodfin’s platform includes sweeping progressive policies such as debt-free college for high school graduates, a summer jobs program for city teens and a $15 minimum wage.

Woodfin beat Bell by a staggering 17 points, even winning Bell’s own neighborhood precinct. The 36-year-old challenger ran a year-long campaign that combined tech-savvy communication and data techniques with an old-fashioned grassroots ground game. His campaign team claims it knocked on 50,000 doors and made direct contact with 19,000 people. political reporter Kyle Whitmire said Woodfin’s campaign was the smartest he’d ever seen in Birmingham politics.

Late in the campaign, Woodfin was backed by national progressive groups including Our Revolution and the Working Families Party, as well as Bernie Sanders.

But his campaign pledges weren’t all in line with a traditional left platform. For example, Woodfin also hopes to expand Birmingham’s police force. In a city where where violent crime is on the rise, Woodfin says his goal is to improve the quality of life for residents in all 99 neighborhoods by directly addressing their concerns, from community safety and job training to police accountability.

In August, I shadowed Woodfin for In These Times during a canvas and saw firsthand his contagious charm, how quickly people seemed calmed by his soft-spoken demeanor, how honest they were with him. Those interactions, he said, built his platform. Now, will those 19,000 people hold him accountable?

When I met Woodfin a week after his victory at a café, he was still in high-five and hug mode, greeting dozens of patrons before we took a seat to talk about how his win is being viewed nationally and what he hopes to accomplish first as mayor.

So, you whooped Bell. Why do you think the margin was so big?

I think we put in the work. We spent our time engaging voters directly. The establishment organizations, all the people with the money, all the people in the know, they spent their time talking to the choir. We went directly to the congregation—the voters. We knocked on their doors. We called their homes. We listened to them and we offered solutions to their issues, and we did that on repeat for a year and six weeks.

After you won, much of the national media was quick to say Bernie Sanders or other national support led to your victory, but they missed the narrative of your grassroots campaign.

Our Revolution supported us in May. We had been running for a year. So, from that standpoint, we put the work in. And I get [that narrative].


Local elections are extremely important in the national context. Issues in 2020, issues in 2018, if they can’t be solved at the national level, then you have to create a bench. That bench is at the local level. We’re looking at a country where the majority of governors are Republican, and so we have to look toward our Democratic mayors for solutions to address the issues that affect people every day.

You have to look at our platform, too. Our platform wasn’t necessarily “center.” It was “lean left.” What we’ve been doing [here in Birmingham] is not working, in terms of actually helping people. I think it’s common sense, pragmatic things we have to do. I don’t call it extreme.

So, there was also this narrative of a far-left progressive running, but the platform you ran on, as you told me in August, came directly out of the mouths of voters you talked to while campaigning.

We got the endorsements of Our Revolution and Working Families Party, but we also got the endorsements of the Birmingham Police Department. Those things don’t usually marry.

Consider what we did. Out of 69 precincts, we won 57. That is every generation. That’s boomer, X, Y. That’s black, white. That’s homeowner. That’s renter. That’s public housing. That’s everything in between. We won the entire city: North, South, East, West. It was a sweep. That’s overwhelming.

We didn’t leave one voter group on the table. If you’re defining that as “far left,” if that’s the new definition of far left, oh well. I don’t think it is. I think it’s one of the most people-centered campaigns the city of Birmingham has ever witnessed. It’s one of the most people-centered campaigns the state of Alabama has ever seen. We ended up raising over half a million dollars, $566-thousand and some change from almost 4,000 donations. So it was everything we did, from doors to phone calls to fundraising. It was grassroots, grassroots, grassroots. People, people, people.

Do you think running that campaign allowed you to tap into a movement that’s happening in the South? Or do you think these people have been ignored in the South?

I think both. Honestly, it’s both.

We’re so quick to define people by party line politics, but I think most people don’t have candidates who can represent their value system wholly, and they’re just looking for someone who can do the best job.

We had to communicate with people who were given 12 options for mayor. We made our way from 12 down to two. The work we put in was never geared toward what we wanted, but what the voter wanted, what the resident needed.

So, does that make you feel a great deal of responsibility?

Man, listen. It is heavy. We have to now govern. We have to address poverty. We have to address bureaucratic issues because people are ready to open their businesses. We have a culture we have to change. We provide a service on behalf of our city so we have to engage people differently on behalf of City Hall. That’s a culture shift. We’ve got to have a sense of urgency to address the issues of crime and workforce training and workforce development.

What policies will you put in place first to move these things forward?

I think we take an immediate look at transparency. That’s the first thing we do. Whatever issues around nepotism and cronyism exist; ex-ed out. I think the second thing we do is take a look at the strategic initiatives around education and workforce and around community development and crime.

You had huge grassroots support. What about those 19,000 people whose doors you knocked on? Are you putting an expectation on them to participate?

Yes. So far, we’ve been operating under two scenarios. Scenario one: People don’t vote and complain. Scenario two: People vote and then check out and don’t hold anybody accountable. I’m asking those 19,000 people and the 211,000 people who live in our city to exercise a third option: Vote and hold me accountable.

Are there leaders locally or throughout the country who you look to for that type of leadership and that type of integrity?

The new mayor in Jackson, Mississippi, [Chokwe Antar Lumumba]. That brother’s tight. We were endorsed and supported by some of the same people. We’re both from the same generation. I’m a huge fan of Walt Maddox in Tuscaloosa. He fights for the people he represents. He does it with integrity. He does it with a sense of urgency. He does it for all people: black, white, everything in the middle. He’s a people’s mayor.

The Birmingham City Council has pushed forward progressive policies in the past. It’s not necessarily a rarity to have someone here who leans progressive.

I think the rarity is this: No one has seen in Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, Gen X and Gen Y campaigning with one another the way we have. I think it’s the campaign. It was how we wrapped technology around that grassroots, door to door movement: micro-targeting, the digital piece. I had a lot of young people around me.

What advice do you have for other progressive challengers as they prepare for similar races?

Out-organize your competition. TV and radio are supplements to organization and organizing. If you want to be successful, the foundation of your campaign should be rooted in the ground. Everything else is a supplement.

How will you run your office differently than Bell has?

We’re going to be open. We’re going to be transparent. We’re going to have a sense of urgency every day, every week, every month. Not just during the election year. We’re going to have a vision and not just say this is what we’re going to do but we’ll report to you: This is what we’ve done toward that goal. It’s a collaborative style. Not just with the city council but with everybody out here, public and private.

You’ve talked about how a progressive candidate or a candidate for the people on the local level is a form of national resistance. Can you talk more about that?

It’s the issue of interactions with police and our young boys. It’s issues of fighting food deserts. It’s infrastructure issues that are at the national level. It’s issues with education, with Betsy Devos, the assault on public education.

The front line of these issues, particularly in an urban area, is going to be the mayor’s office. We have budgets that are large enough to make a tangible quality of life improvement for the people we represent.

The Absolute Buoyancy: Why Corbyn and Labour Are Up and the Conservatives Are Down

Wed, 2017-10-11 16:58

Theresa May’s dream, “the British Dream” in her words, is turning out to be a nightmare. “Like your worst anxiety dream,” as the BBC put it, “playing out for real.”

Following the carnivalesque atmosphere of the Labour Party conference in late September, Prime Minister May’s speech at last week’s Conservative Party conference came off as an extraordinary come down. The speech may have been written to recall the lyrical cadences of the West Wing’s President Bartlet, but it imploded upon May’s reading. A slogan on the conference’s set, promising a country that “works for everyone,” self-destructed as she spoke. A protester handed her a fake P45 notice announcing her termination. Her voice ground down to a hoarse whisper, as she coughed and struggled through her words.

It wasn’t just bad presentation, however. The Conservatives appeared traumatized, as though something had crashed through all their defences, leaving them blindly tearing at one another. May is dragging out her leadership, seemingly flaunting her incompetence in the process. Her rivals are refusing to let her stand down, even though they continue to sabotage her—foreign secretary Boris Johnson is effectively running an open leadership campaign in the right-wing press. The mutual blood-letting is the behaviour of people united only by disaster and the fear of worse to come.

That disaster, for the Tories, has been Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendant Labour Party. In the June election, Labour unexpectedly attracted millions of new voters and experienced its biggest increase in electoral support since 1945, destroying both May’s parliamentary majority and her aura of autocratic power. A new poll by BMG research shows that Labour holds a 5-point lead over the Tories among the general public, with voters now preferring Corbyn to May as their choice for Prime Minister.

The June election wasn’t just difficult for the Tories. It showed that all the old truisms no longer held up. The Left was supposed to be unelectable. Non-voters were supposed to be lost to the voting system. The reactionary press was supposed to crush anyone too left-wing, especially if they could be defamed as anti-British, as Corbyn relentlessly was. All the old verities were made to walk a tightrope in that election, and plummeted down to earth, one by one.

Delayed celebration

For the Tories, the current nightmare didn’t start with this month’s conference: it has been dragging on for months.

A well-attended fringe meeting at the Conservative conference featured a panel titled, “Is the intellectual initiative now with the Left?” The participants’ melancholy answer, overwhelmingly, was yes. A similar sadness has befallen the so-called “Centrist Dad” demographic, which has been the subject of gleeful meme making by Corbynistas. There was a time when Labour’s center-right had novelty, glamour and ideas, a profusion of think-tanks and publications supporting it. It was never a grassroots movement, but it had dynamism. No more.

The center of intellectual gravity during this year’s Labour conference instead was a raucous fringe event, run by the left-wing, Corbyn-supporting group Momentum, called “The World Transformed.” Meetings at the event were packed, featuring dozens of high profile intellectuals and celebrities such as Naomi Klein and David Harvey, as well as Labour MPs including Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn. Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson reported one centrist delegate, exiting the Momentum event, as saying, “Everyone in there is more attractive and talking about more interesting things.”

The celebratory atmosphere felt like a delayed reaction to Corbyn’s 2015 election as Labour leader. At the time, many on the Left had been too wary, too battle-scarred, too worried about the fragility of the gain, to celebrate much. And Corbyn’s leadership was immediately under attack by a Labour Right determined to see off this interloper as soon as it could conveniently be arranged.

The damage done by this disruption, the strength of anti-immigrant sentiment signalled by Brexit and the constant media fire from both the Tories and Labour’s right-flank all compounded such reticence. Since Labour’s shocking showing on election night, however, the sense among the party’s hundreds of thousands of members has been giddiness and exuberance, years of internalised defeat giving way to absolute buoyancy.

What comes next

Along with the jubilee of delayed celebration, those on the Labour Left are also aware they’re part of an upward trajectory that comes with considerable historical responsibility. Labour’s success isn’t due solely to a long-term curve to the left among younger generations. Since the Grenfell fire—in which dozens of working-class people, many of them migrant workers, lost their lives—a new popular class consciousness has begun to form in Britain.

This matters because Corbyn’s analysis has never stopped at elections. His message has always held that Labour has to organize ordinary working-class people, in unions and social movements, to defend their interests and look out for one another. It is this momentous task that now faces the Left in Britain. A left-wing Labour government without such an active base would be isolated, encircled by hostile forces.

So it was critical that Labour’s conference didn’t focus only on policies and motions. Thanks to Momentum, it also took on bold ideas and difficult organizational questions—industrial strategy, antifascism, affordable housing, feminist struggles—that stand outside any governing frame of reference.

Yes, Corbyn and Labour are preparing for the chance to govern. But the movements supporting them are awaiting the chance to change the country, irreversibly.

Rahm Emanuel Wants $95 Million for a New Police Facility. Chicago Activists Have Other Ideas.

Wed, 2017-10-11 14:08

This July, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to build a new $95 million training academy for police and fire recruits in the city’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. After being endorsed by the Chicago Plan Commission in September, the sale of city land for the facility is on the verge of approval from the City Council.

While Emanuel has hailed the project as a “much-needed overhaul” for police training, the effort is being met with resistance from a coalition of community activists and organizations who envision alternative uses for the $95 million.

This coalition has launched a campaign called #NoCopAcademy, seeking to redirect the funds to programs aimed at addressing poverty and offering resources such as jobs and education to community residents.

“This is just the latest version of ongoing divestment from communities of color alongside massive resourcing of policing,” reads a public statement on the campaign’s website. “This plan is being praised as a development opportunity to help local residents around the proposed site, but when Rahm closed 50 schools in 2013, six were in this neighborhood. The message is clear: Rahm supports schools and resources for cops, not for Black and Brown kids.”

Assata’s Daughters, a grassroots organization of Black women and girls working to stop police violence, has helped spearhead the campaign, working alongside other community groups such as the People’s Response Team, For The People Arts Collective, Black Youth Project 100, Grassroots Collaborative, Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and the American Friends Service Committee. 

Many of these organizations have worked together in the past on successful efforts to oppose police brutality, including the #ByeAnita campaign that helped unseat Cook County States Attorney Anita Alvarez; the #SayHerName campaign which helped lead to the resignation of Chicago Police Detective Dante Servin who had been accused of murdering Rekia Boyd; and the fight to win reparations for Jon Burge-era torture survivors.

The coalition plans a broad array of tactics to advance their campaign, including canvassing, political education teach-ins, “takeovers” of public trains, lobbying of alderman and, potentially, civil disobedience.

A mayor under fire

Since his re-election in 2015, Emanuel has been under public fire for his record on policing. The controversy over his alleged cover-up of a video showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times led to a string of protests and calls for the mayor’s resignation. The record-breaking violence in the city has driven affected communities to demand both better public safety and more police accountability. And the Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Chicago Police Department—an agency overseen by the mayor—described a pattern of “racially discriminatory” conduct.

Emanuel’s response to this uproar appears to be investing even more public money into the CPD through this new facility, at a time police already receive over 38 percent of the city’s operating budget. DNAinfo Chicago reports that the training center is specifically designed to address the issues laid out in the DOJ’s report. And for the location, the mayor has chosen a racially segregated neighborhood in economic crisis.

According to the City of Chicago’s Data Portal and 2010 census data, West Garfield Park is 97 percent Black. Over forty percent of the households in the neighborhood are living below the poverty line and a quarter of residents 25 and older do not have a high school diploma.

The neighborhood also has seen its share of police violence. In December 2015, CPD officer Robert Rialmo killed residents Bettie Jones and Quintonio LeGrier in West Garfield Park while Le Grier was undergoing a mental health episode. The State’s Attorney did not charge Rialmo with any crime, and he remains a full-time officer of the CPD making over $84,000 a year.

Rialmo later sued LeGrier’s estate, alleging he suffered trauma after LeGrier missed him with two swings of a baseball bat during the episode. That case is currently pending in Cook County Circuit Court.

Nita, a 19-year old member of Assata’s Daughters, was friends with LeGrier and says his killing shows why the #NoCopAcademy campaign is so important.

“I’ve got involved because I have multiple friends that were killed by police,” says Nita. “When they killed my friend Quintonio, the cop sued Quintonio’s family. I feel like $95 million can go into something way different than police.”

All eyes on city council

If the academy is Emanuel's attempt to mend his reputation on policing, organizers with #NoCopAcademy plan to continue their protests and put the issue in the public eye.

Since the project still requires approval by the full city council, organizers are targeting alderman through phone calls and community engagement while raising the profile of the campaign on social media. And they received one major boost in late September when Chance the Rapper tweeted about #NoCopAcademy to his nearly 6 million followers.   

According to the campaign website, the coalition has much more planned for the coming weeks:

“We plan to fight back together—through the media, train takeovers, canvassing, civil disobedience, and by building a front of popular opposition—to stop this compound.”

How the “Fake News” Scare Is Marginalizing the Left

Wed, 2017-10-11 08:33

Last month, the Russia-Fearmongering-Industrial Complex grew ever greater when reports surfaced that Russian actors had purchased more than $100,000 worth of political ads to display on Facebook. News outlets reported that the ads were designed to criticize Hillary Clinton while bolstering support for Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump—and to lure right-wing votes via appeals for the rights of gun owners.

Even without confirmation of Russia connections, CNN, The Washington Post, Politico, The New York Times and other media sources have been resolute in their attempts to cast the ads as shadowy propaganda designed to prey on U.S. Facebook users. In the process, they’ve postulated noxious canards—namely, the suggestion that racial-justice organizing is a product of Russian machinations—and left the ads’ origins and aims nebulous.

In characterizing the ads as menacing mirrors of right and left ideologies, mainstream media’s message remains clear: Only the corporate-sponsored center can be trusted.

The narrative is one of the latest stirrings of the panicked spectacle that is “Fake News.” In the wake of the 2016 election, pundits pointed their fingers at Facebook, Google and Twitter, accusing them of spreading misinformation about political issues and figures to the U.S. voting citizenry. A circuitous, concern-trolling tactic, the Fake News scare soon gained momentum among corporate media outlets and politicians seeking to find palatable scapegoats for the stunning election of Donald Trump.

When the pressure grew too high to ignore the calls for Fake News containment, the Internet giants took action. Google began to stymie ads it deemed dubious. Facebook floated features to flag Fake News and tweaked its ad policy. Months later, Twitter joined the chorus, essentially echoing Facebook’s approach.

These adjustments, however, haven’t stifled propaganda. On the contrary, they may have stifled dissent. Since Google’s algorithmic updates in April, a number of left-wing sites have seen their search traffic plummet. The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) reported a 67 percent dip in traffic between April and July of this year, with a total decrease of 85 percent since Google implemented changes. (Its editorial chairman David North recently spoke about this to The New York Times.) Left-leaning sites Alternet, Democracy Now, Common Dreams, Global Research and Truthout have suffered similar declines, WSWS reported, ranging from 49 to 71 percent. Alternet and Global Research have issued additional laments, the former claiming to have lost an average of 1.2 million of the 2.7 million unique visitors the site receives from search traffic each month since June.

This may sound familiar. Last year, The Washington Post linked to the now-infamous promulgations of neo-McCarthyist organization PropOrNot, which classified Truthout, and other left-leaning news sources as Fake News. (The Post did not name any sites in its story.) Meanwhile, centrist news organizations have borne no such brunt. The Washington Post, for example, has boasted statistics of 74 to 92 million monthly visitors, thanks in no small part to the corporate web. “Internet users doing searches on Google, since the algorithms were put in place, are diverted from sites such as Truthdig and directed to mainstream publications such as The New York Times,” journalist Chris Hedges wrote in September.

Such developments underscore the perils of relying on private technology companies to regulate political content. In March, Eric Schmidt, the billionaire chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, assured the Fox Business viewership that technology could indeed detect Fake News, suggesting that the best methods would be a matter of companies’ furtive discretion. “[C]omputers should also have the ability to detect “malicious, misleading and incorrect information and essentially have you not see it,” Schmidt said. “We’re not arguing for censorship. We’re arguing, just take it off the page.”

Google-styled censorship is acceptable, Schmidt implied, as long as it’s preemptive. If the claims of WSWS and AlterNet are any indication, it’s not hard to imagine the search behemoth’s interest in silencing voices that condemn the corporate structures that have allowed its success. In light of Google’s recent ousting of a monopoly critic, Barry Lynn, from its think tank, New America, the prospect would seem to grow only more tangible.

What’s more, Facebook and Twitter both have patterns of muzzling activists and people of color while protecting white men. As ProPublica has revealed, Facebook has routinely removed posts of those who rebuke white supremacy and police killings of people of color, even when they don’t violate its policies, while classifying white men a “protected category” entitled to more protections from free speech than such “subsets” as black children. Twitter, meanwhile, is loathe to so much as suspend the accounts of neo-Nazis, preferring to verify their most marketable faces and publish their organizations’ ads.

Soon, Twitter will face Congress over a network of Russia-linked accounts promoting such hashtags as #boycottnfl, #standforouranthem and #takeaknee, as well as news stories with “a primary theme of anti-Americanism.” Some of these stories, according to The New York Times, connected Hillary Clinton to such events as the terrorist attack in Benghazi and focused on wiretapping in the federal investigation of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (In the same handwringing report, the Times fretted about Vladimir Putin’s plan to “darken the image of the United States.”)

Veracity aside, the cardinal sin of these accounts, pundits imply, is their aforementioned “anti-Americanism”: their audacity to attempt to manipulate the public and to “undermine democracy.” Likely a euphemistic way to lambast unsavory messaging about centrist status-quo avatar Hillary Clinton, such an accusation is essentially a baseless exaggeration. As Aaron Maté recently noted in The Nation, the number of accounts under suspicion—200—pales in comparison to Twitter’s 328 million users. “To suggest 200 accounts out of 328 million could have had an impact is as much an insult to common sense as it is to basic math,” Maté wrote. The Facebook case offers an analogue: “A $100,000 Facebook ad buy,” according to Maté, “seems unlikely to have had much impact in a $6.8 billion election.”  

Still, to atone for hosting such apparent affronts to U.S. integrity, Twitter has sought aid from U.S. intelligence agencies “in trying to find and stop illicit interference from other countries,” the Times notes. Meanwhile, Facebook has delivered its ads to Congress, including the Senate and House Intelligence committees. 

The U.S. public has never quite learned the criteria of Fake News, nor has it received a coherent, conclusive explanation of exactly what Russia did. The U.S. public has, however, been given a crash course in corporate, centrist boosterism. Anxieties over the roles of Facebook, Google and Twitter in disseminating of Russian-engineered Fake News have merely posited the corporate state’s centrism as gospel and antagonized the Left in increasingly sophisticated ways. Furthermore, the proposed technocratic solution of relying on these unaccountable megacompanies to determine what information they broadcast will only exacerbate the problem.

As tech companies prepare to cooperate with intelligence agencies, and their owners inch closer to steering corporate media both indirectly and directly, it becomes ever more urgent to recognize the irony of it all: Centrist alarmism doesn’t destroy harmful propaganda—it creates it.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alternet had been listed as fake news by the group PropOrNot, and that the site had lost 1.2 million of its 2.7 million unique monthly visitors. These figures actually reflect the monthly visitors the site receives from search traffic. The story has been updated to correct these errors.

Hurricane Relief, in the Spirit of Ella Baker

Wed, 2017-10-11 06:00

HOUSTON—Underneath a noisy highway overpass sits St. John’s Downtown Church. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which brought 19 trillion gallons of water upon the city and displaced more than 30,000 people, the church gymnasium has been transformed into an aid center.

On September 9, St. John’s was the site of a volunteer training organized by BLMHTX, a Black-led local collective of academics, activists, artists, religious leaders and community organizers.

In addition to passing out gloves and face masks and offering tips on how to remove wet flooring, drywall and mud, the BLMHTX team asked each volunteer to sign an agreement by writer and member Josie Pickens. “Offer help with humility,” it says, and “Listen more than you speak.” The final guideline reads, “Do not expect to be celebrated for your efforts by community members, or anyone. We must remember that this mission is not meant to center the collective or volunteers in any way. We are in these communities to give and not to receive.”

“We did not want to add any additional trauma to those affected,” says Brandi Holmes, BLMHTX director of strategy and community organizing, “and we wanted to show our love, respect, and treat folks with dignity.”

BLMHTX is focusing its energy on low-income communities of color in northeast Houston, where help was slowest to arrive. “Black and Brown communities by government definition are considered underserved,” says Secunda Joseph, the group’s director of smart media and community organizing. “In a time of devastation and confusion, we were sure our communities would be a second thought.” So, just as soon as the water began to drain from Houston’s vast highway system, allowing travel across the city, the group began hosting regular weekend cleanup and aid distribution days that will likely continue for months.

Volunteers arrive early Saturday morning and are organized into mucking teams of five to eight. The teams clear out mud and silt-covered belongings and help families get homes ready for rebuilding. The silt and mud are pervasive, a thin veneer over most everything, hard to remove and hard to forget. Even weeks after Harvey, a drive through Houston involves driving past piles of drywall, fiberglass, wood and furniture. Entire lives lie out on the curb.

The group has now helped more than 600 people. BLMHTX’s network of religious groups, including an anti-hunger program of St. John’s called Bread of Life, allowed the organizers to find the gaps in city services. “A month after the storm, residents on the northeast side of the city are not receiving clear or up-to-date information about the city’s plans to aid with clean-up and basic services and support that are still very much needed,” Joseph says. Those services include assistance from groups like the Red Cross and FEMA. “It is not lost on us or the residents of the northeast side that people in other, more affluent areas of the city have not had to contend with such delays,” she says.

“We are in this for the long haul,” Joseph adds. “We have a multi-phase relief effort that involves not only providing the more immediate needs of mucking and cleaning, but also the more long-term needs, including legal aid, relocation assistance, insurance consultations and mental health services. In the end, we want to see folks in the northeast community restored better than they were before the storm hit.”

The leaders of BLMHTX have worked in this deliberate and determined way since the organization’s founding about two years ago. Their philosophy of social change is rooted in Ella Baker’s model of community organizing: decentralized, local leadership with a focus on direct action, education and community empowerment. They eschew the common tendency then (and now) to value only charismatic male leadership. BLMHTX’s leaders center humility, resist centralized power, and strive to stay accountable to their community above all else. 

Elon Musk Is Not the Hero Puerto Rico Needs

Tue, 2017-10-10 16:52

In what might be considered the world’s greenest bromance, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello and clean energy wunderkind Elon Musk have been exchanging kind words on Twitter in the last few days. According to a tweet from the governor late last week, the two are now in talks about bringing renewable energy from Musk’s Tesla and SolarCity operations to the island, whose long-embattled public utility—the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)—was decimated by Hurricane Maria.

On Friday night, Rossello reported a “Great initial conversation with @elonmusk tonight. Teams are now talking; exploring opportunities. Next steps soon to follow.”

On the one hand, the talks can be seen as a positive development: More than 80 percent of the island remains without power, and the storm could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Puerto Rico to get back online and become a leader in the transition away from fossil fuels. But the budding friendship between Rossello and Musk is also taking place in the context of a massive attempt to privatize Puerto Rico’s electric utility. Musk’s companies could deliver tangible improvements to Puerto Rico’s grid, but they could also prime the pump for a corporate takeover of the United States’ largest public power provider, putting decisions like who gets power and how much it costs into the hands of corporate shareholders.

Beyond questions of ownership, there are logistical concerns that should cast some doubt on the potential deal. “The Tesla team has done this for many smaller islands around the world,” Musk tweeted, “it can be done for Puerto Rico too.” This isn’t exactly true. As Slate’s Eleanor Cummins points out, Tesla’s work on the American Samoa island of Ta’u serves less than 1,000 residents, and similar projects have powered other similarly small islands, luxury resorts and breweries. The population of Puerto Rico is 3.4 million, and where Ta’u had a mostly functional grid before, Puerto Rico’s has been all but leveled by both Maria and decades of disinvestment.

One of Tesla’s largest island power projects—on the also-tiny Hawaiian island of Kauai, population 72,000—may offer a better precedent. For island utilities, making the switch to solar and wind makes even more economic sense than it would on the mainland. Most are inordinately dependent on costly imported oil, leaving Hawaii and Puerto Rico with some of the highest electricity costs in the United States and its territories. What they also have in common is plenty of sunshine, which translates into near-optimum conditions for solar. Yet despite the rapid growth of renewables worldwide in the last several years, several technical and economic barriers remain to a massive switchover. Among the biggest is storage, which is part of what led the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) to team up with Tesla to bring the company’s potentially revolutionary solar panel and battery systems to a scale large enough to potentially power the entire island.

The island’s official goal is to source 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2023. It’s likely now that Kauai will hit that goal ahead of schedule, employing a 55,000-solar-panel farm with nearly 300 utility-scale Powerpack batteries, which allow excess solar power to be used at a later date. KIUC now expects to hit its initial 2023 goal by 2018, and has now upped its target for 2023 to 70 percent renewable generation. If this current success continues, it could be a model not just for bringing solar to utility scale, generally defined as the capacity to generate 10 megawatts of power or more—it could also show what an at least somewhat equitable and democratic public-private partnership could look like. At a time when renewable production and technology is almost entirely dominated by the private sector, such deals will likely be an inevitable part of getting off fossil fuels within the short timeline physics has laid out.

But what’s so different about what happened on Kauai and what Musk is likely to do in Puerto Rico? The KIUC is a rural electric cooperative, owned and operated by its members. KIUC’s board voted to use more solar, and the utility’s legal mandate is to provide affordable, reliable power to its members—not profits to shareholders or venture capitalists. That’s a good deal different than what we already know of negotiations between Rossello and Musk, taking place behind closed doors and being reported out piecemeal through Twitter. For now, PREPA carries a similar mandate to serve the public as a public corporation, though privatization could change that. If its operations are broken up and sold off—as one proposal outlined—different pieces of PREPA (or the utility formerly known as PREPA) could be accountable to different sets of shareholders.

Another question is what Tesla’s entry into the island could mean for Puerto Rican workers. PREPA is currently home to one of the island’s most powerful unions, UTIER. Attempts to privatize the utility—or sell pieces of its generation and transmission operations off to different bidders—could see the union broken up entirely. As is already known, Musk is certainly no friend to labor: Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory has been at the center of a harsh labor dispute as workers have attempted to secure recognition with the United Auto Workers, reporting near-Dickensian working conditions on the factory floor. One Tesla technician told Guardian reporter Julia Carrie Wong, “I’ve seen people pass out, hit the floor like a pancake and smash their face open.” In response to the union drive, Musk promised workers frozen yogurt.

As UTIER organizers have warned for months, Rossello and the oversight board now controlling Puerto Rico’s finances have been clear about their intention to privatize PREPA, and potentially selling off various aspects of the utility to the highest bidder. Musk’s proposal could be an opportunity to curry public favor for privatization.

Four of the board’s seven members penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed back in June calling explicitly to privatize PREPA in order to “modernize its power supply, depoliticize its management, reform pensions, and renegotiate labor and other contracts to operate more efficiently.” In July, they entered into a six-figure-per-month contract with privatization experts McKinsey & Co. to (among other things) draw up “Detailed privatization/corporatization plans supported by financial models and market engagement.” Privatization talks picked up after the island’s brush with Irma, and still more voices from outside the island have joined the call for privatization in Maria’s wake.

Even former House speaker Newt Gingrich has weighed in with perhaps the most blatant post-Maria disaster capitalist scheme yet, laying out a plan for “replacing rather than repairing old highway, electrical, and water systems” to “maximize economic growth,” suggesting that the Trump administration “integrate private sector and private capital to leverage funds” in Puerto Rico. “Once the system is completed,” he adds, “the administration should grant long-term concessions to the private sector under a payment mechanism to reimburse the federal taxpayers and ensure long-term modernization and performance.” Gingrich may not be the power player he once was in conservative politics, but his proposals are more or less in line with those that have emerged from the oversight board.

As a result of Maria, the board has also invoked Title V of PROMESA, the bill that put the board in charge of the island. That provision gives broad mandate to a board-appointed official, revitalization coordinator Noel Zamot, to solicit and approve public-private partnerships without much public or environmental review, bypassing the island’s regulatory process almost entirely.

There’s a 21st century feel good charm to Musk and Rossello’s back-and-forth—and plenty of substantive good that could come from some kind of partnership between PREPA and Tesla. Yet, as of now, the fledgling deal looks to be fitting into a long-running pattern in Puerto Rico: Of Puerto Ricans having decisions about nearly every aspect of life made for them, without much semblance of democratic participation.


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