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Will the Supremes Save Democracy From Minority Rule?

Fri, 2017-10-20 16:49

The Supreme Court now has the power to put a decisive end to extreme gerrymandering — if Justice Anthony Kennedy and the four liberal-leaning justices can craft a clear and manageable standard to identify when partisan mapmakers go too far.

But what if it doesn’t? What happens if Kennedy sides with the conservative justices, who in the oral arguments for Gill v. Whitford earlier this month, described the various mathematical standards that can detect a gerrymander as “sociological gobbledy-gook” or found them as imprecise and arbitrary as the recipe for their spicy steak rub?

Well, there’s a sobering way to answer that simply by looking at what happened the last time the Supreme Court agreed to revisit partisan gerrymandering, in the 2004 case Vieth v. Jubelirer. Then, as now, reformers eagerly anticipated that the court would provide that clear standard to determine “how much gerrymandering is too much.”

RELATED: Civil Liberties A Supreme Court Case Could Make Partisan Gerrymandering Illegal

BY David Daley | October 2, 2017

The political conditions were similar, and so was the makeup of the court. During the 2001 redistricting cycle, both political parties demonstrated their adeptness at using new technology like geographic information systems to create partisan seat advantages by manipulating district boundaries. Texas even embarked on a rare second round of mid-decade redistricting. Academics were calling for greater judicial scrutiny and advancing new regulatory prescriptions.

Those looking for a standard were disappointed — and it was Justice Kennedy who cast the decisive vote. While four Justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens) sought the adoption of specific tests to identify and remedy unconstitutional gerrymandering, Justice Scalia’s determination that there were no judicially discernible or manageable standards to separate legal from illegal gerrymanders carried the day, in  a 5-4 vote.

Kennedy, however, held out the promise that a standard might emerge in the future, warning that “courts should be prepared to order relief,” because if they “refuse to entertain any claims of partisan gerrymandering, the temptation to use partisan favoritism in districting in an unconstitutional manner will grow.”

Few people anticipated just how prescient that warning was. Without the threat of judicial review, strategists in both parties were free to use districting to maximize “partisan favoritism,” against the rights of citizens to cast an equally weighted vote. Vieth initiated a quiet revolution, the impact of which we are only now beginning to see clearly.

Karl Rove laid the strategy bare in the Wall Street Journal — making it clear that Republicans would attack down-ballot local races with an eye to dominating 2011 redistricting — but slumbering Democrats, still convinced they led a coalition of the ascendant, must not have read the paper that day.

Republicans noticed the opportunity and were determined to make the most of it, especially after Barack Obama’s decisive win in 2008 left the GOP in need of a road back to power at a time when political winds and demographic changes were not in their favor. Redistricting provided that path. Republicans launched a plan called REDMAP — short for the Redistricting Majority Project — and put $30 million toward capturing control of state legislative chambers nationwide in 2010, with the intent to capture every seat at the table when new state legislative districts and the new congressional lines were drawn the next year.

Karl Rove laid the strategy bare in the Wall Street Journal — making it clear that Republicans would attack down-ballot local races with an eye to dominating 2011 redistricting — but slumbering Democrats, still convinced they led a coalition of the ascendant, must not have read the paper that day. Rove’s op-ed pointed out that if Republicans could win 107 state legislative seats across 16 key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and North Carolina, they’d have unilateral control of drawing nearly 190 of the 435 US House seats.

The only word Rove got wrong was nearly: REDMAP proved so successful that Republicans were able to draw 193 US House districts with Democrats frozen out of the process. Democrats, in comparison, controlled only 44.

But the spoils of the Great Gerrymander were reaped in 2012. Democratic US House candidates won 1.4 million more votes than Republicans. But the GOP held the chamber with a majority of 234-201.

The overall level of partisan gerrymandering nearly tripled nationwide, even while some states, like California, reduced the bias in their plans by taking control of the redistricting process out of the hands of the state legislature.

In some of the 18 states where bias was significant, Democrats actually received more votes, but Republicans received more seats. Only one of these states, Maryland, was controlled by Democrats. Historical studies suggest that 2012 was one of a handful of times in the nation’s history where partisan gerrymandering likely determined control over the House of Representatives.

In state legislatures like Wisconsin, the results were absurd. Even though they received 174,000 fewer votes than Democrats, Republicans took 60 of the state’s 99 state assembly seats. This outcome would eventually become the basis upon which Bill Whitford, a retired Wisconsin law professor, would bring partisan gerrymandering back to the Supreme Court.

While Justices Roberts and Gorsuch seemed very concerned about the constitutionality of the Court stepping into the jurisdiction of the “political branches” and deciding whether electoral outcomes are constitutional or not, they seemed completely unaware of the massive political impact that Vieth has already unleashed. We are living through the consequences of a smoldering constitutional crisis right now, and it could further engulf the nation within the next four years.

The level of partisan bias under the current redistricting plans is such that even a historic “wave” election the size of 2008, with congressional Democrats winning 55 percent of the popular vote, is probably not enough to yield control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Or in 2020. In other words, American voters are no longer determining who controls the House of Representatives every two years. Instead, wildly gerrymandered state legislatures are selecting districting plans that can defy the will of the people for a decade.

It could get worse. While gerrymandering may thwart majority rule in the House of Representatives, other arcane features of federal electoral systems can contribute to perverse outcomes. The US Senate is designed to underrepresent more populous states, so it would not be surprising for the 2018 and 2020 elections to yield a majority of seats to the party with fewer votes.

The White House, the Senate and the House — all under the control of the party with fewer votes. It’s not hyperbole, but a possible outcome of the 2018 election. However you describe the prospects of unified minority rule, you can’t call it democracy.

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Hollywood, Washington and the Enablers

Fri, 2017-10-20 14:55

This past week, with the revelations about disgraced former Miramax and Weinstein Company head and serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, it has been impossible to ignore the correspondences between Hollywood and Washington, where another sexual predator now occupies the Oval Office. Hollywood has always been something of a den of iniquity commanded by aggressive satyrs, and Washington’s movers and shakers have long taken a page from that den. Powerful men will be powerful men, which means that they will likely exploit, harass and abuse women.

The difference is that when Weinstein’s rapacity became public knowledge, he was promptly banished from decent company, shorn of his career, his family and his reputation, and turned into a pariah, while Trump has paid no price for his depredations — and I don’t mean just sexual depredations — whatsoever. To the contrary, Trump keeps upping the ante of amorality until it is clear that there is absolutely nothing he can do, no line he could possibly cross that would weaken the servility of Republican officeholders or the infatuation of the GOP rank and file. Tolerance for Weinstein’s transgressions had its limits. Trump’s is limitless.

There is that difference, and the fact that Weinstein only made movies, while Trump holds the fate of the entire world in his hands.

But this isn’t about the similarities between a Hollywood monster and a Washington one, no matter how inescapable they are, or about how Hollywood finally responded when pushed, and how Washington won’t. Nor is it about how insecure men in positions of power, whether it be Hollywood, Washington, Silicon Valley or Wall Street, often attempt to camouflage those insecurities through intimidation, abuse and destruction, especially of women.

And it isn’t even about the brave women who came forward to challenge Weinstein’s cosseting, even though that is a big story with potentially large political and cultural ramifications.

This is about the people who let the louts get away with their behavior: the enablers. This is about how we live in a culture of enabling where people are increasingly complicit in letting power define values, which is a way of letting our values steadily erode. The real lesson of Weinstein and Trump is that men of influence can get away with anything in America today because the old firewall of morality is so easily breached, and that firewall is easily breached because morality is less important in America than money and status and power or even the vicarious association with these things.

In short, this isn’t about Weinstein’s and Trump’s failings of personal character. It is about the failings of our social character.

In short, this isn’t about Weinstein’s and Trump’s failings of personal character. It is about the failings of our social character.

For Exhibit A, look no further than Weinstein. By any normal standard, he was a reprehensible human being even without accounting for his treatment of women. His bullying, his rants, his temper, his reign of terror were common knowledge in Hollywood for decades. Apparently, his sexual harassment was an open secret too. Dozens if not hundreds of people knew. Those who worked for him and facilitated his liaisons knew. Those agents who sent clients to him knew. The attorneys who drafted the nondisclosure agreements that Weinstein forced the women he assaulted to sign knew. The executives who paid the settlements knew. A number of entertainment journalists knew. They all knew. They knew he was at best a beast, at worst a possible rapist.

And yet Weinstein was coated in Teflon for decades — his outrageous conduct either hidden or written off as the prerogatives of a mogul. Now that Weinstein’s cover is blown, the excuse the enablers have proffered for their silence is fear — fear that he would take revenge, fear that he would blacklist them in Hollywood and abort their careers, or, among journalists, fear that he would pull ads from their publications. The other side of the fear was favor. Weinstein knew how to offer the carrot as well as the stick, and he gave generously to liberal causes, which seemed to give him protection.

It doesn’t take much to see how feeble these excuses are. When you break them down, they amount to this: I was willing to pimp for Harvey Weinstein so that I could advance my career. For, in reality, it wasn’t fear that motivated these enablers. It was opportunism, and it was the vicarious exhilaration they got from drafting in the wake of Weinstein’s power, which finally proved crucial in the mogul’s demise. It is no small thing that Weinstein only became vulnerable when his movies stopped making money and his power began to wane. It wasn’t morality that did Weinstein in. It was the faltering economics of independent features.

Now that Weinstein has at long last been vanquished, we can turn to our monster-in-chief and his enablers. It is important to repeat (and repeat endlessly) that Trump has helped redraw the boundaries of moral behavior in America, which consequently makes him one of the most influential moral figures of our time. Surveys indicate that hate crimes have skyrocketed in the Trump era.

They also indicate that bullying has increased.

He has not only degraded our political discourse and governance, he has degraded the traditional rules of civility, which even Republicans once felt obligated to abide by because their hatreds were not socially acceptable.

No longer. But Trump, as I have written here frequently, has always been more symptom than cause. Weinstein got away with his behavior because those enablers normalized it as the way things are done in Hollywood. Trump gets away with his because his enablers normalize it as the way things should have been done in America but weren’t.

RELATED: Society Are We Monsters?

BY Neal Gabler | May 11, 2017

Who are those enablers? To some extent, the media — certainly the right-wing media who keep lowering the bar for Trump, but also the mainstream media who, while commendably holding Trump to account for his political gaffes, are loath to venture into moral territory and berate him for his contraventions of norms.

To a much larger extent, he is enabled by Republican officeholders, who once reviled him but now have generally fallen in line. Sen. Robert Corker has declared Trump a danger to America, and labeled him unfit to serve. He has also said that his fellow Republicans agree.

And yet, not a single Republican officeholder of whom I am aware has called for his impeachment or resignation. Just as Weinstein was allowed to assault women, Trump is allowed to undermine the country. And the enablers enable.

Partly this is because Trump basically supports what they support: punishing the powerless, empowering the powerful. And partly it is because, like Weinstein’s enablers, they claim fear — in this case, fear of being “primaried” by “alt-right” candidates who promote Trump’s policies and mimic his incendiary rhetoric. But, again, just as Weinstein’s enablers are fully culpable for letting him continue, these Republicans are fully culpable for Trump. They are trading their souls for their hopes of staying office.

And then there are the worst enablers of all: that 40 percent or so of Americas who support Trump and, as The New York Times’ Thomas Edsall pointed out in a recent column, will continue to support him no matter what he does, substituting their enthusiasm for his heinous values for traditional values.

However many enablers Weinstein had, it was nowhere near 40 percent of Hollywood. Still, like Weinstein’s enablers, Trump’s 40 percent know. They know that Trump is a moral bankrupt, that he is a racist and worse, that his transgressions against every decent American and against the democratic process itself are ongoing. They know, and they like it. In Hollywood, moral degeneration was a subculture — a genuflection to power. In America, these enablers threaten to make it a culture.

Moreover, while we know what the Hollywood enablers got for their efforts, and what Republican enablers hope to get, it is far murkier what these tens of millions of ordinary enablers will get from protecting Trump.

Here are some guesses. They seem to get a sense of retribution against those whom they regard as contemptuous elites — that old right-wing straw man. They seem to get a vicarious charge from their president’s bullying of the less fortunate. They seem to relish disruption. But perhaps above all and most importantly, they seem to exult in the negation that Trump personifies of traditional morality — oddly enough, the morality that right-wing Republicans so stridently shill — because that old morality has constrained them from voicing how they really feel about things. Our moral revolution, then, is about spite.

That may be the symbiosis between the disaffected millions and Trump. Enabling Harvey Weinstein, his enablers claim, was a necessary evil to protect themselves from his revenge. Enabling Donald Trump isn’t self-protection. It is a way to destroy morality as we have always known it.

So there will be no reckoning for Donald Trump as there was for Harvey Weinstein, unless it is at the ballot box, because, for a sizable chunk of Americans, Trump no longer exists outside the parameters of morality as Weinstein did. In Hollywood, Weinstein still had some traditionalists to contend with, some people, especially women, who believed that his treatment of women was unconscionable. Trump is beating those traditionalists back, with the 40 percent wielding the bludgeons.

What this means is that it is not just the monster whom we have to fear and blame. It is the enablers who let him be a monster. If we hold the monster accountable, why not hold them accountable too? The preservation of what remains of our nation’s soul may depend upon it.

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The Battle over Free Speech on Campus

Fri, 2017-10-20 14:13

This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The battles over “free speech” on campus have loomed large in the era of Trump, with conservative provocateurs invited to campuses across the country only to claim that they are being silenced when students protest them. Just this week white nationalist Richard Spencer is holding a “free speech” event at a campus in Florida — but only he can choose the press that covers it. In one of the latest salvos in the battle to claim “freedom of speech” for the right, Scott Walker and his allies in Wisconsin are pushing a policy that would suspend or expel students for protesting in ways the university deems infringe on the free speech of another. Thomas Gunderson is an undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and is organizing against the policy with the group OUR Wisconsin Revolution.



Sarah Jaffe: The University of Wisconsin and Scott Walker’s appointees there made headlines again last week with some sort of “free speech” policy. Can you explain that?

RELATED: Civil Liberties In the Age of Trump, a Chilling Atmosphere

BY Bill Moyers | October 18, 2017

Thomas Gunderson: The big issue with it is that it is complicated to explain. The moral of the story is that it essentially threatens to suspend and expel students who will violate a new set of really obscure and vague policies that the board of regents will be proposing.

SJ: So you don’t know what are the policies that you could potentially be already violating?

TG: Pretty much. That is the really scary part. They promote it as a bill that is done to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression, while the obscure language really just chills the student body. Many think this is the real intention, given that really the only thing concrete about it is that students will be suspended and students will be expelled.

SJ: Was there a particular incident on the University of Wisconsin’s campus that made this seem necessary to the regents, or is this a response to the national feelings that everybody is having about campus free speech?

TG: This is really just about having a corporately captured state legislature and now, at this point, board of regents in Wisconsin. The board of regents policy is the companion to the Campus Free Speech Act, which comes out of the Barry Goldwater Institute from Arizona, a hard right libertarian-esque type of think tank.

SJ: What would that act do?

RELATED: Democracy & Government Where Free Speech Ends, Ignorance Begins

BY Michael Winship | March 13, 2017

TG: That was pretty much giving the board of regents the go-ahead to make a new set of policies regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression. Which is also just a huge irony. In Wisconsin, they are acting as if the University of Wisconsin—Madison Board of Regents has been a stalwart of academic freedom when it has recently removed tenure and made the university a more exclusive place by raising the price of it.

SJ: This is all happening in the context of ongoing changes and attacks on the university. Could you talk a little bit more about those over the last few years?

TG: It was around two years ago that they made pretty sweeping changes to what was once really sound tenure protection at the university. It caused a major backlash among faculty and there has been a huge problem with retention since, as well as contributing to rising prices. It has really been an all-out assault on what once made University of Wisconsin system special.

SJ: Yes, I remember when Walker tried to change the Wisconsin Idea. Can you explain to people what that is?

TG: Yes. That was really a sneaky Walker move where he tried to slide in language saying, as in the institution’s tradition, the goal of the university wasn’t to promote the sifting and winnowing the pursuit of truth, and instead to change the language to saying that the university’s goal is to apply a sound workforce for Wisconsin.

SJ: Walker’s attacks on the university have gone back to when he was first elected, but also, the university has been the source of a lot of the protests against him, going back to the Teaching Assistants Association and the Wisconsin Uprising back in 2011.

TG: Correct.

Wisconsin State Journal, Oct. 19, 1967.

SJ: One the one hand, we have something very specific here with Walker’s specific motivations toward the university system. On the other hand, we are seeing similar attacks on public universities around the country and we are seeing this particular obsession with student protest being somehow antithetical to free speech nationally. I wonder if you could talk about where you see these attacks on the university and on free speech in the broader national context.

TG: It is especially annoying that they are just trying to do this in the UW system right now, because just in the recent year they have politically attacked both professors and students. Members of the state legislature have openly attacked professors and students whose expression, whose free speech they have found disagreeable.

For anything like a free speech legislation to have any sort of legitimacy to it, the restrictions upon free speech have to necessarily be viewpoint and value neutral restrictions. That this would be the case in the UW system at the current moment is just completely unrealistic. I think that is what has many students, at least in my circles, very concerned about this, that they will be people who are targeted. Particularly a lot of minority groups at the university, those that are here are really worried about it.

SJ: In the moment of Trump, Wisconsin of course has been living with Scott Walker for a while now, so you have seen a lot of the things that are now being moved to the national level there.

TG: Right. Just another really interesting timing thing of it is that as we speak UW—Madison is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the student Vietnam protests here on campus. If these policies were around then, those students wouldn’t have only been pepper sprayed, but they also would have been possibly getting suspended or expelled or worse.

SJ: Since we are talking about this and the work that people are doing on campus being potentially under threat, talk about what OUR Wisconsin Revolution has been doing on campus.

TG: We have a petition circulating that everyone is welcome to sign saying they support the students and their right to freedom of expression and speech. We are pointing out that the language of this legislation is too vague and we believe will be used to target already marginalized students. We are going to build up some student awareness and, hopefully, be able to make something happen when the board of regents is actually at the University of Wisconsin Madison in these coming weeks.

SJ: How can people keep up with you online?

TG: We have Facebook pages for both the student chapter and the state affiliate, and county affiliate. Also, we have a webpage, as well:



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

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Sent to Destroy Sanders’ Case for Democratic Socialism, Danish Right-Winger Bolsters It

Fri, 2017-10-20 14:00

This post originally appeared at Common Dreams.

In a televised debate with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on CNN Thursday night that quickly became a social media sensation, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tore into the “fraud” that is the Trump-GOP tax plan, slammed America’s corrupt campaign finance system that allows the wealthiest Americans to buy policies and politicians, and “dunked on” a Danish representative of a right-wing think tank who challenged Sanders on his support for Scandinavian social democratic policies.

Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute, charged late in the debate that Sanders wants to spend like a Scandinavian nation, but not tax like one.

Sanders responded by highlighting the benefits citizens of Denmark, Sweden and other Scandinavian nations reap as a result of paying more in taxes and concluded that these benefits far outweigh the costs.

“How much do you pay when you go to the hospital, if you have cancer, God forbid, and you went to the hospital?” Sanders asked.

“Zero,” Kirkegaard said.

“And what about college in Denmark?” Sanders went on. “Our kids can’t afford to go to college. How much does it cost to go to college in Denmark?”

“Well, in fact, you get a government stipend to go to college,” Kirkegaard said.

“Oh. In other words, not only is it free, they give you a stipend, because they want to make sure — correct me if I’m wrong — that they take advantage of the wisdom of all of the kids,” Sanders replied. “They want to make sure that every kid in that country gets the best education he or she can have.”

“Wow,” tweeted Josh Miller-Lewis, Sanders’ deputy communications director, “Bernie just dunked on this guy from the Peterson Institute.”

“Bernie Sanders just (peacefully) disarmed a Danish Pete Peterson plant — brilliantly,” added Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation.

By the end of their exchange, Kirkegaard conceded that familiar right-wing talking points about single-payer healthcare—for instance, the oft-repeated claim about extraordinarily long waiting lists—are false.


This guy is getting fired. #CNNDebateNight

— People For Bernie (@People4Bernie) Oct. 19, 2017

Sanders concluded the debate by calling on Americans to resist attempts by Cruz, President Donald Trump and the Republican Party to “give $1.9 trillion in tax breaks to the top one percent” and “throw 15 million people off of Medicaid, cut Medicare by over $450 billion, cut Pell Grants [and] cut programs like the Women, Infant and Children program.”

“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. This Trump Republican tax proposal is a disaster,” Sanders concluded. “And the American people have got to stand up. And together we are going to defeat that awful proposal. Thank you very much.”

Watch Sanders’ full closing speech:

.@SenSanders closing argument: Together, we are going to defeat the awful tax cuts for the rich being proposed by the GOP #CNNDebateNight

— People For Bernie (@People4Bernie) Oct. 19, 2017

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He Defended North Carolina’s Voter Suppression Law. Now He’s Set to Become a Federal Judge There.

Fri, 2017-10-20 11:55

This post originally appeared at Mother Jones.

In July 2013, North Carolina enacted one of the country’s most restrictive voting laws. The measure required certain forms of government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, cut the early voting period and eliminated same-day voter registration, out-of-precinct voting and preregistration for high school students. The North Carolina NAACP called it a “monster” voter suppression law, filing a lawsuit against it for intentionally discriminating against voters of color.

The GOP-dominated North Carolina legislature hired Thomas Farr, a prominent Republican lawyer based in Raleigh, to defend the law. “I strongly deny that the legislature engaged in intentional discrimination,” he told a federal appeals court during a hearing in June 2016. “It was not a nefarious thing.”

RELATED: Activism Rev. Barber: Systematic Racialized Voter Suppression is the “Election Hacking” the US Must Address

BY Democracy Now | October 6, 2017

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals strongly disagreed, striking down the law a month later for targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” The court said the legislature had requested data on the voting methods African-Americans were most likely to use and then curtailed those very things, like early voting and same-day registration. The judges called this evidence “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times” and blocked “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”

Farr appealed to the Supreme Court, saying “the decision insults the people of North Carolina and their elected representatives by convicting them of abject racism.” The court declined to hear the case, leaving the 4th Circuit’s opinion in place.

Soon, Farr could be in charge of deciding voting rights cases like the one he lost. President Donald Trump nominated him in July to be a federal judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which spans 44 counties from Raleigh to the Atlantic Coast. Civil rights groups are mobilizing against Farr’s nomination, which was voted on Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. [NOTE: On Thursday, Oct. 19, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance Farr’s nomination to the Senate floor for a vote.] Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to senators that Farr’s record “puts him at the forefront of an extended fight to disenfranchise African-American voters in his home state of North Carolina.”

Farr has been at the center of fierce battles over voting and representation in North Carolina in recent years. He was hired by the North Carolina legislature in 2011 to defend its redistricting maps for Congress and the legislature, which have repeatedly been invalidated by federal courts. The Supreme Court struck down two of the state’s congressional districts because the legislature had packed black voters into heavily minority districts in order to reduce the influence of minorities in adjoining districts held by white Republicans. A lower court also struck down 28 state legislative districts for discriminating against African-American voters, calling the maps defended by Farr “among the largest racial gerrymanders ever encountered by a federal court.”

RELATED: Democracy & Government Trump’s Voter Suppression Team Is Playing the Long Game

BY John Light | July 12, 2017

In addition to his defense of new voting restrictions and racial gerrymanders, civil rights groups have sharply criticized Farr for his links to Jesse Helms, a former US senator from the state who once led a 16-day filibuster against naming a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. and was called “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country” by Washington Post columnist David Broder. Farr served as Helms’ campaign lawyer during his Senate runs in 1984 and 1990, two of the most notoriously racist campaigns in modern American history. In 1990, when Helms faced off against former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, the city’s first black mayor, the North Carolina Republican Party sent 125,000 postcards to predominantly African-American households falsely telling them it was a crime to vote if they’d moved within 30 days of the election, with a punishment of “up to five years in jail.”

The Justice Department sued the Helms campaign, saying that the “purpose of the postcard mailing…was to intimidate and/or threaten black voters in an effort to deter such voters from exercising their right to vote.” The lawsuit said officials from the Helms campaign and the state Republican Party had discussed the mailing with “an attorney who had been involved in past ballot security efforts on behalf of Sen. Helms and/or the Defendant North Carolina Republican Party.” The Raleigh News & Observer later identified that attorney as Farr. (Farr told the Senate recently that he’d only learned of the mailings after the fact and was “was appalled to read the incorrect language printed on the card and to then discover it had been sent to African-Americans.”)

In that same campaign, Helms ran an ad a week before the election that showed white hands crumpling a job rejection letter, while the narrator said over ominous music: “You needed that job and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” The “White Hands” ad was co-written by Thomas Ellis, who had been Farr’s law partner for more than three decades. Ellis was an outspoken segregationist and had led the Pioneer Fund, which funded eugenics research that claimed whites were genetically superior to blacks. In 2007, Farr gave a speech honoring Ellis at his alma mater, Hillsdale College, a private Christian school in Michigan.

Farr’s nomination reflects how Trump is reshaping the federal judiciary with far-right judges. Despite the administration’s inaction on many fronts, Trump has already filled more judicial vacancies than President Barack Obama did during his entire first year. The seat on the Eastern District of North Carolina has been vacant since the end of 2005, the longest judicial vacancy in the country. Obama nominated two African-Americans to fill the seat, but they were blocked by Republican senators. Though the Eastern District is more than a quarter African-American, there has never been a black judge there.

Many of the issues Farr has litigated in recent years could soon come before him if he is confirmed. This week, there’s a trial challenging the congressional maps the state redrew after its initial maps — the ones defended by Farr — were ruled unconstitutional. Though North Carolina is a swing state, Republicans have a 10-3 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation, due in large part to gerrymandering.

Vanita Gupta, who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Obama, says Farr’s nomination is part of a broader effort to restrict voting rights, from the administration’s controversial “election integrity” commission to the Justice Department’s reversal of its earlier opposition to Texas’ voter-ID law and voter purging in Ohio. “Mr. Farr’s nomination appears to be part of an overall campaign by the Trump administration to suppress voting rights in America,” she wrote to US senators this week.

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Daily Reads: Violent White Supremacist Group Doesn’t Fear Law Enforcement; “Trump’s Benghazi?”

Fri, 2017-10-20 11:06

We produce this news digest every weekday. You can sign up to receive these updates as an email newsletter each morning.



The whole base is destroyed” –> An Afghan Army unit “was almost completely wiped out” in southern Afghanistan on Thursday “in a Taliban attack that used what is becoming one of the group’s deadliest tactics: packing vehicles captured from security forces with explosives and driving them into military and police compounds.” Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal report for The New York Times that at least 43 of the base’s 60 soldiers were killed in the attack.

Onward, for now –> The Senate passed a budget resolution yesterday that smooths out differences with the House’s version and will allow Republicans to pass tax cuts that run-up deficits by up to $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. But New York magazine’s Margaret Hartmann notes that this is just the first stage of a four-part process, and “there are many reasons Republicans should still be extremely concerned about their effort to deliver a bill to President Trump by Christmas.”

Prior to the vote, retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who has become Trump’s nemesis in the GOP caucus, “lambasted the budgetary process… calling the Senate budget a hoax and saying that he would dismantle the Senate Budget Committee” if he were its chair. Niv Elis has more at The Hill.

It’s Trump’s party now –> “In a rare public speech” on Thursday, George W. Bush blasted Trump without specifically naming him, according to ABC’s Arlette Saenz. “Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication,” the former president said.

But Bush is out of politics, unlike his former adviser Ed Gillespie who’s running for governor of Virginia. The Economist points out that Gillespie and New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno are two formerly traditional, business-friendly, establishment-type Republicans who “have turned Trumpian,” running campaigns that are “nativist, race-baiting and unconcerned with accuracy.”

This angle of Bush’s speech didn’t go unnoticed.

Bush is currently campaigning for Ed Gillespie, who is running ads about scary latinos murdering Virginians

— Oliver Willis (@owillis) Oct. 19, 2017

Allegations keep coming –> “Los Angeles police are investigating Harvey Weinstein for rape after an Italian actor filed a report alleging he sexually assaulted her in her hotel room in 2013,” reports Claudia Rosenbaum for Buzzfeed. In an op-ed for The New York Times, “Lupita Nyong’o: Speaking Out About Harvey Weinstein,” the actress says: “I have felt such a flare of rage that the experience I recount…was not a unique incident with me, but rather part of a sinister pattern of behavior.”

Racist, violent, unpunished” –> A.C. Thompson, Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham report for ProPublica on a Southern California group called Rise Above Movement, which trains white supremacists to fight, and posts videos of its members attacking leftist protesters online. Despite the fact that many within the “alt-right fight-club” have serious criminal histories, “law enforcement officials… either would not comment about RAM or said they had too little evidence or too few resources to seriously investigate the group’s members.”

Their identities have been largely a mystery” –> “Financial firms are still fighting to get billions out of [bankrupt Puerto Rico] as it tries to rebuild,” yet the identities of those holding the island’s bonds are often obscured. But an investigation by In These Times finds that “some of the most aggressive players demanding debt repayment in Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy court are so-called ‘vulture firms’ [which] specialize in high-risk ‘troubled assets’ near default or bankruptcy and cater to millionaire and billionaire investors.” Sarah Jaffe recently interviewed Jonathan Westin about the unmasking of one of the biggest debt holders.

Ripoff –> At Pacific Standard magazine, Rick Paulas explains why cities that shower companies with tax breaks and other perks in order to “create jobs” often get the shaft when all is said and done.

Trump’s Benghazi?” –> As Donald Trump faces increasing criticism over his condolence calls to the families of soldiers who have fallen under his watch, the military has opened up an investigation into the ambush that killed four US Special Forces Operators in Niger. According to TIME’s Eli Meixler, the probe “will examine the military’s preparation for the operation as questions swirl about the quality of the US Africa Command’s intelligence reports, including why the Oct. 4 ambush wasn’t anticipated.”

White House chief of staff John Kelly defended his boss on Thursday, attacking Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), the lawmaker who relayed Trump’s seemingly insensitive remarks to the pregnant widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson to the press. But Alex Daugherty, Anita Kumar and Douglas Hanks report for The Miami Herald that Kelly “gets the facts wrong” while offering an ostensibly unflattering anecdote about the lawmaker.

And Jacqueline Thomsen report for The Hill that Wilson’s office “has received several threatening phone calls” since the story broke, and they were deemed serious enough that she’s currently under protection.

Armageddon by accident” –> Dan De Luce, Jenna Mclaughlin and Elias Groll report for Foreign Policy that “rising tensions between North Korea and the United States,” which have been “exacerbated by two impulsive nuclear-armed leaders,” have “sparked fresh concerns inside and outside the Pentagon that a potential miscalculation — driven by heated rhetoric or technical mistakes — could lead to an accidental conflict on the Korean Peninsula.”

Not old news –> “The number of networks of Russian-sponsored trolls spreading propaganda to the United States and Europe may number in the hundreds,” write McClatchy’s Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, and a former top defense official says that they’re still active today, in both the US and Europe.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is joining with two of his Democratic colleagues to sponsor legislation that would force greater disclosure of the sponsors of online ads on Facebook and other social media sites. Axios has the details.

And Ev Ehrlich writes at USA Today that “our society has always protected itself from monopolists, be they utilities, railroads, oil companies, or financiers, acting against abuses while preserving innovation and economic growth,” and calls for lawmakers to “break up the Google-Facebook-Amazon web monopoly” once and for all.

Ratcheting up –> Sam Jones reports for The Guardian that “the Spanish government is to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and impose direct rule after the region’s president refused to abandon the push for independence that has triggered Spain’s biggest political crisis for 40 years.”

A hard lesson in “democracy” –> An 11-year-old Cub Scout has been kicked out of his “den” for asking a Colorado state senator some tough but respectful questions about gun control and some controversial comments the lawmaker had made about African-Americans. Kieran Nicholson has that story for The Denver Post.



Daily Reads was compiled by staff and edited by Kristin Miller.

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Making the World a Safe Place for Women

Thu, 2017-10-19 16:31

This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Studio moguls and CEOs are falling like flies due to ever-growing accusations of sexual harassment. Some wonder at the speed and breadth of the deluge. Some A-listers with less-than-credible histories fear a “witch hunt.” Others do not — like the millions of women who have already put themselves and their experiences forward on Alyssa Milano’s #MeToo meme.

If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.

— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) Oct. 15, 2017

Sarah Jaffe recently spoke with two veterans of the fight against gender violence in all its forms. Mariame Kaba runs an organization called Project NIA, an abolitionist organization focused on ending youth incarceration, and has worked in domestic violence organizations, as well as anti-sexual assault organizations. She organizes with a project called Survived and Punished which is dedicated to ending the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Shira Hassan is the founder of Just Practice, which focuses on “community accountability” — or the idea that we can solve problems without using the police or state system. Specifically, Just Practice looks at sexual violence and intimate partner violence. Shira has spent the last 25 years working with young people in the sex trade industry.



Sarah Jaffe: 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 conversation around sexual harassment and sexual violence in public, in the media, on social media has progressed at all? Does it look different right now from when you began doing this work?

Mariame Kaba: 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 how do we address people drinking and then assaulting people?

I came of age at a time before social media. The conversation was very much limited to having talks with your friends about this. Beyond that, you were talking with folks in a support group setting, storytelling and divulging that you had been raped. It didn’t feel like you had to premise your conversation around 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 [think about] 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.

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

Equality for Women — How Far Have We Come?

February 26, 2013

I think the conversation has definitely changed. Especially the way in that we have the conversation much more publicly. It is a lot different than 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 it is a more democratized platform — different people are in the conversation.

I don’t see this conversation happening in the same way [with] young people in the sex trade or with a lot of the young people who I know, who are more street-based. Sexual harassment is something they are thinking about and angry about but 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. And yet 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.

SJ: One of the things about this big public conversation is that 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 of “Oh my god. This is never going to end.”

SH: There are stories that overwhelm me and stop me in my tracks, but they are also the stories where there is a face to the story. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed has been something that I counter with action and I counter with healing. I don’t actually feel overwhelmed by survivor stories. I feel overwhelmed by inaction around survivor stories.

MK: For me, it is the difference between asking “What can I personally do?” versus what we can do. When I think of what I can do as an individual person, it feels more overwhelming. But I have worked toward a collective idea of healing and a collective idea of action and organizing.

SJ: Right now we end up with this story of one survivor has to come forward and file charges with the police and then this one perpetrator will be held accountable and…that doesn’t work.

MK: I understand people feeling completely depressed and debilitated who are counting on a criminal punishment response to this, 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 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. When people do access the system, they are screwed over by it, literally, in all different kinds of ways. They, also, then feel a sense of disempowerment.

SH: Not only can’t the system do it, but I think our belief that it can is the part that I think we feel most betrayed by most often. I think there are some of us who have let go of that betrayal because we have just stopped trying to get water from a stone. 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 [think] that we have so many more things to try away from the system than with it.

SJ: In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, one of the things that some people have been talking about is the whisper network. 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. It is a problem that they just end up assuming that it is still our job to avoid perpetrators.

Washington, DC Women’s March. (Photo by Liz Lemon/ flickr CC 2.0)

MK: 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 and 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.

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.”

There also is the fear that if you do admit it, 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 did this. It is still the “women survivors” who have to do all the heavy lifting.

MK: Exactly. 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.

SH: Lists of sexual predators got started with people in the sex trade, in particular trans 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.

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, 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 because 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.

SJ: You have done work, also, 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 Marissa Alexander. Talk about how that also comes into these discussions of “What can we do?”

MK: 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 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.

RELATED: Activism Solidarity — Plus 10 Other Reasons Women Showed Up to March

BY Hannah Norman | January 22, 2017

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 COs watching them and leering. Sometimes people are raped.

SH: I just want to complicate the fact that even though we are talking about prison abolition because of the harm that it causes to our entire community and because of the legacy of slavery, we are absolutely talking about consequences for people and real consequences. Though it feels good to wear the “kill the rapists” T-shirt, it also isn’t the thing that is actually going to get us the world we want to live in.

MK: We trouble the idea of community. We think about the fact that we have actual skills that we need to develop to figure out how we intervene when violence occurs, either when it occurs to us or when it occurs to people we love and care about or it occurs to strangers in our communities.

We have to build up the skills of being able to say, “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”? 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.

SH: 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, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the knife made.” 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?

I want to see conversations where we are not only thinking about, “How does Harvey Weinstein get held accountable?” but we are thinking about, “How do we transform this culture that we are living in? How do we hear and really hold survivors? How do we make sure that we all have a voice so that we can truly connect and be with each other to the end of this game, not just to the next incarceration or to the next lawsuit?”

SJ: How can people keep up with both of you?

MK: People can keep up with me on Twitter, where I am @prisonculture. They can read my blog

SH: You can subscribe to the mailing list for Just Practice on the website or



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

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Why the Democrats and Movements Need Each Other

Thu, 2017-10-19 14:55

This post originally appeared at In These Times.

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.

Why Some on the Left are Turning to the Democratic Party

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 grass-roots 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.

RELATED: Activism Will Bernie Sanders’ Political Movement Have Life Beyond the DNC?

BY John Light | July 25, 2016

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 5 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.

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.

Such a victory would be unprecedented, but the challenge is being embraced by a new grass-roots 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 US 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 health care. 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 health care 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 health care system.

Why Movements Need Electoral Politics

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.

Refusal isn’t easy, and that is an important reason why movements depend on electoral politics.

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 US 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.

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One Nation, In Sickness and in Health

Thu, 2017-10-19 13:14

A couple of things observed after successful surgery and a week in the hospital:

  • For reasons seemingly unrelated to your operation, you will find bits of surgical tape attached to odd parts of your body for days after your return home.
  • While confined to your hospital bed, you will hear and say the words “urine” and “urinate” more than you have in your entire previous life.
  • Most important, time and again you will be amazed and comforted by the dedication, competence and patience of virtually every doctor, nurse, nursing assistant, physical therapist and cleaner you meet — especially the nurses and nursing assistants, who clearly are in charge of the joint.

Which is why it’s so infuriating to compare the true public service of these men and women to the man who is supposed to be our public-servant-in-chief — he who insists on trying to torpedo Obamacare and on running our country and government into the ground by fomenting policies fueled not by duty or patriotism but by incompetence, ego and petty vindictiveness.

RELATED: A Special Report Is Health Care Doomed?

BY Bill Moyers | March 4, 2017

It’s a given that our health care system, one-sixth of our nation’s economy, is a nightmare. And that despite my encomiums of praise for the medical profession stated above, there also are stinkers out there quick to abuse the system and make a big fast buck, especially in the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

Yet while Obamacare is a deeply flawed program — ultimately, single-payer is the way we must go or face economic and social ruin — it still has been a step in the right direction (“the end of the beginning of the reform we need,” in the words of advocate Wendell Potter), and could in some ways be patched until we yield to the obvious and make universal health care a right for every one of us.

But no. Dear Leader, frustrated by the Republican congressional majority’s repeated inability to repeal and replace Obamacare, decided to take matters into his own hands and issue executive orders that make a mockery of medicine’s guiding principle: First, do no harm. And all to take revenge on his predecessor, whose name he believes must be expunged and thrown down the memory hole.

RELATED: Health & Science Doctors Are Warming Up to Single-Payer Health Care

BY Rachel Bluth | August 22, 2017

One executive order allowed cheaper policies but fewer protections and benefits. The other cut subsidies to health insurers that help cover the costs of medical insurance for low income individuals and families, resulting in projected premium increases of up to 25 percent by 2020 and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, costing the government $194 billion over the next 10 years. Genius.

As Sarah Kliff at Vox observed, “This is a policy that helps nobody and hurts millions.”

But at his Monday Cabinet meeting, Trump brayed, “Obamacare is finished. It’s dead. It’s gone. You shouldn’t even mention it. It’s gone. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore.”

Yet like so much of Trump’s bragging, it wasn’t so. Or so we thought. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander came forward with a bipartisan compromise that restores the subsidies for a couple of years but also yields to conservatives and gives states more leeway in regulating health plans. Trump seemed to say he supported it. And then he didn’t. What’s more, many conservatives, especially in the House, are opposed. So… more mayhem.

All of this is reflective of what commentator Andrew Sullivan calls “nihilist, mindless reactionism.” The president, Sullivan writes, is “a reactionary fantasist, whose policies stir the emotions but are stalled in the headwinds of reality. He can’t abolish Obamacare because huge majorities prefer it to any Republican alternative, so he is sabotaging it.”

On the campaign trail, Trump bragged how he would immediately “terminate” Obamacare and replace it with something “really, really great that works.” But if for some reason you don’t know by now, he’s all radio talk show bombast and no substance. To fix our health care system requires hard work, study and a solid determination to create something that serves the collective need and protects each of us at our most vulnerable. There’s no evidence of that hard work happening in the White House or on Capitol Hill.

As I’m recovering from my time under the knife, I’ve been reading Keeping On Keeping On, the latest volume of diaries and other ephemera from the English playwright and essayist Alan Bennett. Now in his 80s, one of his bête noires is conservative attacks on Britain’s National Health Service.

“The word patient means a sufferer,” Bennett writes, “and when someone comes to the doctor they are coming not because they want to buy something but because they want help. Structure and restructure the Health Service how you will doctors are not shopkeepers, patients are not customers and medicine is not a product.”

A hospital stay has a way of making you focus and realize things about yourself and the structures that keep us alive and well. Proper medical care for all should be a boon to our society, a miracle of public policy that sustains and protects. Mindless cant and empty braggadocio are not policy. They’re a disease that threatens the health of the nation. And Mr. Trump, you’re the Typhoid Mary spreading the contagion.

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How the Swindlers of Silicon Valley Avoid Paying Taxes

Thu, 2017-10-19 12:01

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

The sleeper issue in Donald Trump’s tax-cutting agenda is a potential bombshell called the “territorial tax system.” It doesn’t get the headlines, or even much political discussion, so the public is clueless. The industrial titans of Silicon Valley like it like that. Their proposal would fundamentally alter the taxation of US multinational corporations, and beneficiaries would include celebrated brand names like Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Those tech giants and other globalized companies have been after Congress for years to make the switch to “territorial.” But corporate execs are not making their campaign noisy, because their so-called “tax reform” would be a dead turkey if citizens understood the threatening implications.

RELATED: Democracy & Government Hacking Trump’s Tax Plan

BY Sarah Jaffe | October 5, 2017

That seems unlikely. The big names of information technology are popular companies and, yes, global trade is complicated stuff, hard to explain in a few sentences. Scores of independent watchdogs — citizen organizations like Tax Analysts and Americans for Fair Taxation — are sounding the alarm and lobbying members of Congress. But it’s an uphill struggle, especially since the Democratic Party has not tried to alert voters and mobilize public opposition.

In my experience, this is how American democracy frequently fails its promise. Politicians privately blame people for indifference; I mostly blame politicians for ducking their obligations. In my decades as a political reporter, I have found that people of ordinary intelligence can usually see through the corporate smoke and understand complex issues if the pols explain things with plainspoken clarity.

Political parties used to be personal teachers, going door to door in neighborhoods, listening to gripes and opinions, plugging the party line and ticket. In modern politics, cynical candidates needn’t bother. They can parrot what the pollsters tell them people want to hear. I prefer politicians who tell people what they need to know.

So here are critical points about the “territorial” tax system people need to understand but corporate advocates won’t mention: If the scheme is passed, American companies with operations dispersed globally would pay US taxes only on the profits earned within the territory of the United States. In the current system, Washington attempts to tax multinationals on their worldwide earnings but fails miserably because the corporations have figured out fiendishly complicated ways to hide their profits in low-tax foreign countries. (That speaks to a separate but related item on the multinationals’ current wish list for tax reform: “forgiveness” for the roughly $600 billion in profits they would owe once they repatriate those profits, an issue I have addressed previously in this column.)

RELATED: Economy & Work The GOP Tax Plan is What We Knew it Would Be — Tax Cuts for the Rich

BY Josh Bivens and Hunter Blair | September 28, 2017

At first glance, the territorial approach sounds vaguely patriotic — an “America first” approach to the taxation of US multinational corporations. In reality, this new system would be more like the “Get Out of Jail Free” cards in the game of Monopoly. The legislation would allow an ingenious scam, in which America’s celebrated high-tech champions would be rewarded for abandoning the mother country if they decide the price is right.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a nonpartisan organization, has warned, “Corporations would have even greater incentives to engage in accounting gimmicks to make their US profits appear to be earned in offshore tax havens such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, where corporate profits are not taxed.”

The logic for companies is not complicated. Silicon Valley and other sectors like the drug industry are notorious for dodging US taxes. A basic technique involves assigning the supposed “ownership” of a company’s profit-making functions to affiliates in cooperating foreign nations. This works especially well for intangible assets like intellectual property — drug patents or hard-to-value high-tech innovations. The process reeks of fraud, but government enforcement has either been intimidated or overwhelmed by the volume of fictitious deals. The new territorial system does not in theory prohibit these fraudulent corporate arrangements with foreign countries; it merely ends Washington’s failed attempts to collect the taxes.

The examples of US companies doing fraudulent deals or ignoring the rules are so numerous they seem like business as usual. Bermuda, for instance, has a GDP of only $5.5 billion, but Fortune 500 companies claimed, in the most recent year for which statistics are available, that they harvested a total of $104 billion in profits from Bermuda. The European Union’s antitrust commissioner accuses Apple of funneling $15.2 billion in profits from two Irish subsidiaries to an unnamed office that had “no employees, no premises, no real activities.” And the commissioner has accused Amazon of an illegitimate tax agreement with Luxembourg, ordering that country to collect $293 million in unpaid taxes from the American retailer.

RELATED: Economy & Work Robert Reich: Five Reasons the GOP Tax Plan Is a Cruel Joke

BY Robert Reich | October 11, 2017

2017 policy paper from the Urban Institute, citing scholarly sources, traced the twists and turns of a single tax evasion without naming the company or its invention. Here’s how an American company hides its profits from the US tax collector:

Suppose a US high-tech company patents a new product and sells the patents to its Irish affiliate. If the product is not yet being marketed, the value of its patents is difficult to ascertain. The US parent company charges its Irish affiliate a low price, minimizing its taxable income from developing the new product. Once the product’s success is established, the Irish company can then charge a high royalty to a contract manufacturer in China, causing a large share of the profits of the corporate group to be reported to Ireland, with a 12.5 percent [tax] rate. Further techniques then can be used to shift the reported profit from Ireland to a subsidiary in the Cayman Islands or Bermuda, eliminating even the low Irish tax.

Warning to Nation readers: Do not try to use any of these maneuvers on your personal income tax. You might go to jail.

Would Trump’s version of territorial taxation stop US corporations from using these accounting tricks? Critics say of course not. We don’t know the official answer at this point, because private negotiations are still under way between the high-tech industry and congressional Republicans. Trump has allegedly left the details to Congress, but who knows whether that’s true.

Martin Lobel, a Washington lawyer who chairs the group Tax Analysts, said it is inconceivable that the GOP would shut down these tax gimmicks so favorable to big business. “There are no such things as ‘American multinationals,’” Lobel said. “These corporations are called multinationals for a reason. They will invest wherever they can make the most profit. If the tax code allows them to make more profits offshore, that is where they will invest, despite the millions of dollars of subsidies our tax code gives them.”

RELATED: Economy & Work A Tax on Wall Street Trading is the Best Solution to Income Inequality

BY Dean Baker | June 1, 2017

Lobel and other opponents of the territorial scheme point out that tax-dodging by multinationals injures Americans in broader ways. As ITEP explained: “The ability to avoid US taxes entirely on profits on foreign operations, rather than simply deferring taxes on those profits, would provide a strong incentive to locate real investment overseas rather than in the United States. Less investment in the United States would put downward pressure on the wages of American workers.”

The outcome of Trump’s tax-cutting agenda is imperiled because of the political chaos the president has inspired. Recode, an informed website that covers Silicon Valley, reports that the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents Apple, Google, Microsoft and others in Washington politics, supports the goal of a territorial system but has withheld endorsement because it isn’t satisfied with the details. In other words, the lobbyists are working the squeeze play that powerful interests typically apply at this stage of legislative debates.

It would help if the Democratic Party made some noise and raised some of the obvious arguments against shifting to territorial taxation. “If territorial becomes a public issue, Democrats will be against it,” Lobel predicted, “because Democrats represent small business and small business gets screwed by this, since they don’t get any benefits and it puts them at competitive disadvantage by the big multinationals.”

Reformers like Lobel suggest there is a plausible remedy for America’s confused tax system. Washington legislators could follow the model of a unitary system like the one California uses for its state taxes: It determines the tax liability by calculating a company’s profit in the state based on its sales, personnel and property — the same elements that businesses use in their investment decisions.

Lobel is not confident the public would rebel against the territorial system if the Democrats decline to take the lead. Party leaders are shy for the usual reasons: They are divided among themselves. Some of their best friends — and donors — are Silicon Valley billionaires, who generously support progressive social values and provide sustaining contributions to affiliated liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress.

Reforming and taxing multinationals is a divisive matter for Democratic leaders and other influential elites — though not for rank-and-file Democrats, who are overwhelmingly in favor of raising taxes on both multinationals and wealthy individuals. The passive silence at the top of the party and the boiling disappointment down below may be seen as a leading indicator of the party’s troubled future.

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Daily Reads: A Frustrated North Carolina GOP Attacks the Courts; Did Voter Suppression Give Us to Trump?

Thu, 2017-10-19 11:12

We produce this news digest every weekday. You can sign up to receive these updates as an email newsletter each morning.

Seems almost universal –> In a sign of how pervasive workplace sexual harassment is, “more than 140 women — including legislators, senior legislative aides and lobbyists — came forward to denounce what they describe as pervasive sexual misconduct by powerful men” in the California legislature. Adam Nagourney and Jennifer Medina have more at The New York Times.

Rigged” –> At Mother Jones, Ari Berman writes that claims that voter suppression played a significant role in 2016 “were practically ignored, when they weren’t mocked,” but the reality is that those efforts ultimately “threw Wisconsin to Trump,” and “possibly handed him the whole election.”

More than one burning crisis” –> The Nation’s Michelle Chen writes that “toxic smoke, destroyed homes and fears of deportation are hitting immigrant communities all at once across Northern California.”

Vann Newkirk II reports for The Atlantic that Hurricane Maria “exposed and intensified” Puerto Rico’s “ecological crisis and its human consequences,” and asks: “Can it build a sustainable future?”

Really odd behavior –> Nahal Toosi reports for Politico that “staffers at the National Security Council drafted and circulated a statement of condolence for President Donald Trump to make almost immediately after a deadly ambush of US soldiers in Niger earlier this month,” but for some reason “Trump never publicly issued the statement.” Now, “some two weeks later, [he’s] in hot water over his initial silence on the soldiers’ deaths.”

According to The Washington Post, “President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.” And CNN later reported that Trump sent a personal check after his staff initially refused to comment on the Washington Post story.

Clash at the Supreme Court” –> At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern explains why rumors of a serious feud developing between Neil Gorsuch and Elena Kagan “are such a bombshell.”

Deadly negligence –> Ryan Grim and Aída Chávez report for The Intercept that “children in the for-profit foster care system are dying at alarming rates, but the deaths are not being investigated.” A two-year Senate investigation found that “the companies and agencies charged with keeping foster children safe often failed to provide the most basic protections or take steps to prevent tragedies.”

Somalia’s pain –> Abdi Latif Dahir writes for Quartz that last week’s deadly attack, which killed more than 300 in Mogadishu, has touched the whole country profoundly. “The collective rage over the bomb attack ignited a renewed sense of unity among Somalis, leading to protests in major cities and the staging of solidarity events. Even the leaders of Somalia’s feuding federate states put aside their political differences and condemned the attack.”

Garbage in, bad law out –> Esquire’s Charles Pierce writes about how easy it is for the Supreme Court to make bad law when the justices rely on bad data to guide them. 

Shake-up –> Alex Seitz-Wald reports for NBC News that “a shake-up is underway at the Democratic National Committee as several key longtime officials have lost their posts, exposing a still-raw rift in the party and igniting anger among those in its progressive wing who see retaliation for their opposition to DNC Chairman Tom Perez.”

So much for not doing evil –> “Unlike Russian efforts to secretly influence the 2016 election via social media,” an “American-led campaign” to instill fear and loathing of Muslims during the final months of the 2016 election season “was aided by direct collaboration with employees of Facebook and Google.” Benjamin Elgin and Vernon Silver have that story for Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, “Twitter took 11 months to close a Russian troll account that claimed to speak for the Tennessee Republican Party even after that state’s real GOP notified the social media company that the account was a fake,” reports Kevin Collier for Buzzfeed.

And his colleagues, Rosalind Adams and Hayes Brown, spoke with four American activists who were enlisted by Russian operatives during the 2016 election, and found that “while they found their contacts strange, they never suspected that they were the target of foreign recruitment.”

A move that experts say breaks federal law” –> According to Emily Singer and Ashley Edwards at Mic, an email was sent to Army recruiters this week instructing them not to enlist any lawful permanent residents. Given that “a Defense Department official said in April that the Trump administration had no plans to deny noncitizen recruits from serving,” the notice has left recruiters confused.

Fox picked for henhouse guard –> Donald Trump nominated Thomas Farr — a prominent Republican lawyer who defended North Carolina’s strict voter-ID law that was struck down when a court ruled that it targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision” — to be a federal judge. In his second appearance in today’s roundup, Ari Berman writes for Mother Jones that “Farr could be in charge of deciding voting rights cases like the one he lost.” His Senate confirmation hearing is scheduled for today.

Meanwhile, Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times that North Carolina’s ultra-conservative legislature has seen parts of its agenda blocked in the state courts, and now Republican “lawmakers have seized on a solution: change the makeup of the courts.”

Crackpots and political dunces” –> The conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin pulls no punches in criticizing “the Trump administration’s economic ignorance,” citing a number of others on the right who worry that the White House’s “quackery” may imperil the GOP’s efforts to cut taxes.

Not recommended for in-bed reading –> Next year, a special version of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 will be released that can only be read when heated up with a flame. Andrew Liszewski has more at Gizmodo, and Jo Frenken shared this video to Instagram.

This week our colleagues from Super Terrain are working in the Lab as a last stop on their all-over-Europe printing adventures. They showed us this remarkable book they made “Fahrenheit 451.” — @superterrain #printingadventures #heatsensitive #fire #experimental #artistsbook #allblack #screenprint

A post shared by Jo Frenken (@charlesnypelslab) on Sep 12, 2017 at 6:27am PDT



Daily Reads was compiled by staff and edited by Kristin Miller.

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Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump

Wed, 2017-10-18 18:12

Back in the 1930s a scholarly intramural feud to choose the inscription for the new library at my future alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, ended in a draw. From many nominations the competition came down to two finalists. Both said the same thing in different tongues: “Ye Shall Know The Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free,” from the biblical Gospel of John, and its Latin counterpart: “Cognoscetis Ventatem et veritas liberabit vos.”

Fortunately — at least for me — the selection committee chose English. As I crossed that plaza as a student in the 1950s, and twice later when I spoke at commencement, I would look up (mainly to check the time on the huge clock high on the iconic tower rising above the library), catch a glimpse of the inscription, and be grateful that so many of my professors had fought hard to prevent the politically appointed Board of Regents from dictating exactly what truth could be taught. Some paid a dear price for defending academic freedom, among them survivors of a ferocious campaign waged the previous decade by the state legislature to fire the university president, a political assault bravely resisted by many faculty and students alike.

Attacks on the Academy at large occur frequently in America, and none more intensely than now. Just consider these items from the news:

  • A Republican legislator in Arizona introduced a bill that would prohibit state colleges from offering any class that promotes “division, resentment or social justice” without defining what he means by those words – Arizona earlier banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades K-12.
  • A Republican state senator in Iowa introduced a bill to use political party affiliation as a test for faculty appointments to colleges and universities.
  • A Republican legislator in Arkansas filed a bill to ban any writing by or about the progressive historian Howard Zinn, author of the popular A People’s History of the United States.
  • In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker tried to remove all references to the university’s commitment to the “search for truth.”
  • Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature has stripped state workers and professors of their collective bargaining rights for professors.
  • Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has called on conservative college students to join the fight against the education establishment.
  • A leader of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee wants to protect students in the classroom from intimidation by “the academic elite.” He announced that “Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.”
  • The right-wing organization Turning Point USA created a “professor watch list” and has been publishing online the names of professors “that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”

Joan Scott

No one I know has followed this trail with keener interest or deeper concern than Joan Wallach Scott, one of the most respected and influential scholars of our time. Professor Emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, she has been praised for groundbreaking work in feminist and gender theory, celebrated as a mentor, and honored as the author of several books; her latest, Sex and Secularism, will be published this fall. Earlier this year the American Academy of Arts and Sciences awarded her the Talcott Parsons Prize for distinguished contributions to the social sciences; previous recipients included Clifford Geertz in anthropology; C. Vann Woodward in history; Albert Hirschman in economics and Daniel Kahneman in psychology.



Bill Moyers Professor Scott, connect these dots for us. What’s the pattern?

Joan Scott: The pattern is an attack on the university as a place where critical thinking occurs, where free thought is encouraged. This is not new, it’s been going on for a number of years. It can be seen in the defunding of state universities. It can been seen in attacks on free speech at the university, particularly on the supposed tenured “radicals” who are teaching in universities. The Trump election brought it the fore and made it possible for a number of different groups whose aim is to stop the teaching of critical thinking to to launch direct attacks.

Moyers: You’ve said there’s a kind of bloodlust evident at work. What do you mean by that?

Scott: Richard Hofstadter, in his famous book which was written in the time of the McCarthy period in the 1950 and 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, talks about the deep hatred that some Americans had for what they consider to be elitist intellectual activity. I think that’s what’s happening now — the vicious unleashing of attacks on professors and students, the clear decision by the right to make free speech their campaign and to demonstrate that universities and particularly students are dangerous leftists who would deny to others the right of free speech. The right as the victim of the intolerant left. It is a concerted plan to depict the university itself as a place of dogmatic ideological thinking — an institution somehow out of step with the way most Americans think. What I mean by bloodlust is a kind of vicious vindictive description of the universities and their faculties.

RELATED: Democracy & Government Betsy DeVos Confirmed Despite Massive Protests

BY Diane Ravitch | February 7, 2017

For example, you read that quote from Betsy DeVos. She was warning students that they don’t have to be indoctrinated by professors at their universities. But the reason you go to university is to be taught, is to learn how to think more clearly, to call into question the ideas that you came with and think about whether or not they are the ideas you will always want to hold. A university education at its best is a time of confusion and questioning, a time to learn how to think clearly about the values and principles that guide one’s life. Of course, it’s also a time to acquire the skills needed for jobs in the “real world,” but the part about becoming an adult with ideals and integrity is also important.

Moyers: Richard Hofstadter referred in particular to what he called “the national disrespect for mind” that he said characterized the country in the 1950s. Is that true of what’s happening today or is this more a deliberate political strategy to try to put the opposition off balance? Do they disrespect the mind or are they in need of a political tool to weaponize the culture wars?

Scott: I think it’s both. I think there is a disrespect for the mind that Trump, for example, exemplifies. His is a kind of strategic thinking that’s more about shrewdness than about intellect. His attack on “elites” is meant to rally his base to rebel against the powers that be — in Washington especially. I don’t think he cares much about higher education per se; he just wants to demonstrate that learning isn’t necessary for business or government. He wants to elevate mediocrity to a heroic virtue. But I also think there’s a concerted effort on the part of groups of the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers, of people like Betsy de Vos, to call into question the very function of public education in general and of the university in particular.

Moyers: Back in the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) railed against universities, artists, writers and journalists, his followers howled along with him in trying to persecute their perceived enemies. As you listen to what’s happening today, do you ever hear McCarthy’s voice resonating in your head?

Scott: I do. In some ways it’s even worse today. The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death. McCarthy was scary, but not like that. There’s been a lot of talk about left student groups violating the free speech of the right. And certainly there are examples of students shouting down speakers whose political views they don’t want to hear, views they think don’t belong on a university campus. I certainly don’t support that kind of behavior. But what’s not been covered to the same extent is the attack by the right on people with whom they disagree. A large number of university teachers have been targeted for speeches that they’ve made, they’ve been harassed and threatened. Take the case of Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She gave a commencement speech at Hampshire College in which she called Trump a racist and a white supremacist. Fox News carried it, and she received hateful emails, among them death threats — she’s African American — so there we threats to lynch her too. She canceled all of her speaking engagements because the threats were so violent. They make McCarthy look tame in comparison. McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats: “I have a gun pointed at your head.” So there’s something now about the unleashing of violent hateful speech that is more prevalent than it was even in the days of Joseph McCarthy.

Bill Moyers Essay: The Ghost of Joe McCarthy

Moyers: If I may raise your personal story: Your father was suspended back then from his job as a high school social studies teacher and two years later he was fired because he refused to collaborate with an investigation into a purported communist infiltration in the New York public schools. How old were you at the time?

Scott: I was 10.

Moyers: Were you afraid?

Scott: Yep. Although we weren’t supposed to be afraid; we were supposed to be proud. And I certainly was proud of the principled stand he had taken. But yes, I was also afraid. FBI agents routinely came knocking at the door. The phone was certainly tapped. Years later I got a copy of my father’s FBI file, most of which was redacted. There were all sorts of amazing things in it; things that I thought at the time were maybe paranoid worries on the part of my parents turned out to be even more true than I thought they were. A couple of times I gave the wrong birthdate to get a summer job before I was 18. They had my name in my father’s FBI file with three different birthdays listed under it.

Moyers: Father and daughter!

Scott: They were doing even that? I was 16, 17 years old. So we were certainly afraid. We were worried. I had friends whose fathers were in jail. But the personal danger was the fear of going to jail or losing one’s job. The visceral expressions of hatred, the death threats, that are coming out now in social media. These are more frightening than my experiences as a kid.

Moyers: How long was your father out of work?

Scott: He never taught again. He had different kinds of jobs doing educational projects or working in various other places. But he defined himself as a teacher and he lost that permanently.

Moyers: What was your father’s name?

Scott: Samuel Wallach.

Moyers: His defense was both brave and eloquent. Let me read it to you:

I’ve been a teacher for 15 years, a proud American teacher. I have tried all these years to inspire my youngsters with a deep devotion for the American way of life, our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Hundreds of my youngsters fought in World War II and I know their understanding of the need to fight for their country was inspired by my teaching and the Bill of Rights… From that teaching, our youngsters got the feeling that we are living in a country where nobody as a right to ask what are your beliefs, how do you worship God, what you read.

“As a teacher and a believer in those fundamental principles, it seems to me,” your father said, “that it would be a betrayal of everything I have been teaching to cooperate with the committee in an investigation of a man’s opinions, political beliefs and private views.” If I may say, that’s one for the ages.

Scott: Yes it is.

Moyers: Did he live long enough to see your career as a scholar unfold?

Scott: Yes. he lived till he was 91 and he was proud of me. He would be even prouder now, I think, of the kinds of things I’ve been saying lately about academic freedom. All of my work in some way or another speaks to political issues according to the upbringing that I had, which was deeply rooted in exactly those principles that you just read.

Moyers: Ariel Dorfman has an essay in the current edition of The New York Review of Books. He says, “Never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis.” He describes what’s happening as “an assault on national discourse, scientific knowledge and objective truth.” Where is this taking us?

Scott: Oh God, where is this taking us? I hope not down the road of the kind of fascist thinking that was going on in Italy and Germany in the ’20s and ’30s, but it certainly feels we could move in that direction, toward an extremely dangerous authoritarian populism. Because the thing about education — and why I’m so passionate about the position and status of the university — is that it’s supposed to teach citizens how to think better, how to think critically, how to tell truth from falsehood, how to make a judgment about when they’re being lied to and duped and when they’re not, how to evaluate scientific teaching. Losing that training of citizens is an extremely dangerous road to go down because it does open people to the kind of toxic influences that Dorfman describes.

Moyers: Here’s the challenge: Two-thirds of Americans today don’t have college degrees. As politics last year and this year reveal, many of them have a deep resentment toward those who do, and toward the colleges and institutions that produce many of today’s so-called elite. How do you persuade those people that academic freedom is relevant to their lives?

Scott: One way is that even before college and university, teaching in public schools K–12 has to deal with what it means to learn the truth; it has to teach respect for science, for the authority and lessons of history. It also has to teach kids to question things — how to question them. I think if you start this at a lower level than at university, people who didn’t go to university would have some sense of how to make a judgment about the honesty or not of politicians. I think the anger that is being directed to universities and so-called elites at universities is actually an anger that’s displaced from politicians (who promise to make things better and never do), from employers, it’s an anger at the economic system that has put so many of these people out of the kind of work that once was so satisfying to them. Did you read in The New York Times that long article about the closing of the plant that made ball bearings in Indiana?

Moyers: It was four pages long and I thought at first, well, who’s going to read this? And I couldn’t stop reading it.

RELATED: Economy & Work What Can We Do to Get American Industry Back on Its Feet?

BY Kristin Miller | August 10, 2017

Scott: I couldn’t stop, either. Partly I was trained first as a labor historian, so this was my kind of story. But it also gives an example of the misdirected anger I was talking about. This woman — whose anger, and the anger and resentment of her colleagues — had been directed at Mexicans and in favor of the wall that Trump wants to build, when in fact the anger should be directed at the employers who are increasing the profits they were already making by employing cheap labor in Mexico. It’s capitalism, not elites and university teachers, that is the problem for vulnerable Americans, indeed for all Americans. The growing gap between rich and poor, the seeming lack of concern for the health and well-being of ordinary people, the obscene salaries made by CEOs who are increasing profits by moving their plants to places where labor is cheap — that’s where the problem is, not in schools, colleges and universities.

Moyers: She is an everyday American — the woman who was in that story — and she and her co-workers were doing a very good job in the factory, making a decent living, and boom! Their jobs were gone.

Scott: And the humiliating part of it [is], they were asked to train the people who were going to be their replacements! I think this is humiliation beyond belief.

Moyers: You’ve put your finger on something very important. There’s a cruelty in politics and capitalism in America today that is often called to account by professors doing splendid research about exactly what has been happening to our workers. The real ruling elites would prefer to hide that research or stop it altogether.

Scott: Exactly, and blame it on others — on immigrants, on Mexicans, on so-called elites.

Moyers: In your lectures and essays you use a term that we don’t hear very often today. You say the pursuit of knowledge is not an elitist activity but a practice vital to democracy and to the promotion of the common good. What do you mean by the common good and how does academic freedom contribute to it?

Scott: What I mean by the common good is that we understand we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves, that we live in societies together and must help take care of one another because you never know when you’re going to need to be taken care of by others. And it’s not enough to say that your family or your church is going to take care of you. Societies are collective entities, we’re meant to be connected to one another; the function of government is to administer that connection. We’ve increasingly lost that sense of community, of the notion that there is something we contribute to and benefit from that is called the common good. I think I would date the beginnings of that loss to the Reagan administration and to the notion that somehow we were all separate individuals who only ought to be interested in ourselves. There were a number of court cases in the early ’80s when class-action suits were brought, only to be thrown out by Reagan judges on the grounds that individual injury had to be proven, that you couldn’t use statistics about discrimination in the labor force. You had to have individual cases and each one had to be remedied as an individual matter. There was the tax reform movement that treated progressive income taxes as assaults on individual autonomy rather than what they are — a shared responsibility for ourselves and others in the society that we all live in. People began to say they didn’t want to pay property taxes any longer because they had no children in schools (and most property taxes were used to support the public schools). As if the education of society’s children didn’t have an impact even on childless people! The common good is the notion of shared collective responsibility and reciprocity. It’s that that we’ve lost.

Moyers: I grew up in a small town in East Texas in the ’30s and ’40s; I was the son of one of the poorest men in town but I was friends with the daughter of the richest man in town. Both of us went to good public elementary schools, shared the same good public library, played in the same good public park, drove down good public roads, attended the same good public high school, and eventually went on to good public colleges — all made possible by people who came before us, whom we would never know: Taxpayers!

Scott: They were people who were taking their responsibility for you in the sense that you were the next generation of a society that had benefited them and that they needed to benefit by continuing to support it.

Moyers: You mentioned Ronald Reagan. His kindred spirit Margaret Thatcher (prime minister of the United Kingdom) declared there is no such thing as society.

Scott: Yes. The late ’80s and ’80s — that’s the beginning of the turn away from collective responsibility to a kind of selfish individualism that we now associate with or call neo-liberalism.

Moyers: So colleges and universities contribute to understanding the need for a social contract — pursuing knowledge and understanding is important to responsibility and reciprocity. You’ve said that there is an important distinction between the First Amendment right of free speech that we all enjoy in some circumstances and the principle of academic freedom that refers to teachers and the knowledge they produce and convey. What exactly is that distinction?

RELATED: Society Rethinking Higher Education in a Time of Tyranny

BY Henry Giroux | October 10, 2017

Scott: Well, free speech is what we all have and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Academic freedom refers to what happens in the university, particularly in the classroom, and to the importance of the teacher having the right to teach and share  what he or she has learned, has proven her competence to teach, having gone through a series of tests and certifications including research and writing to demonstrate her abilities and knowledge. I don’t think students have academic freedom in that sense but they do have the right of free speech; they can express themselves, but their ideas are not subject to the tests of the judgment of their peers or to scientific affirmation as  teachers are.  A biology teacher does not have to accept a student’s essay that insists creationism rather than evolution is the explanation of how we got to be where we are. That student is not being denied his right of free speech when he’s given a low grade for not having learned the biology. So the university is the place where the pursuit of truth is taught, the rules for learning how to pursue it are explained, and students begin to understand how to evaluate the seriousness of truth. Those are incredibly important lessons, and only the teachers’ academic freedom can protect them because there will always be  people who disagree with or disapprove of the ideas they are trying to convey. There are students whose religious upbringing is going to make them feel really uncomfortable in a class where certain kinds of secular ideas are being presented. There are students whose ideas about history or sexuality are going to be similarly challenged to question, to affirm or to change those ideas. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be exposed to them; that’s why they’re at school. That’s why they come to school and to university: to be taught how to think well and critically about material that they’re being presented with. But it’s the teacher who is certified to teach them how to do that.

Moyers: You write that free speech makes no distinction about quality; academic freedom does.

Scott: Yes, and there’s actually a wonderful quote from Stanley Fish, who is sometimes very polemical and with whom I don’t always agree. He writes, “Freedom of speech is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value. Each of these is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right.” Freedom of speech is not about that. Freedom of speech is about expressing your opinion, however bad or good, however right or wrong, and being able to defend it and argue it and be argued with about it in public forums. But that’s not what academic freedom is about. That’s not what the classroom is about. I would have a hard time banning even Richard Spencer [founder of the white nationalist movement] from speaking on a university campus, however hateful and dangerous I find his ideas.

Moyers: You quote Robert Post, the former dean of Yale Law School, who seems to suggest that professors do not have an unfettered right of free speech in the classroom, that they’re constrained by the need to teach their subject matter so that their job as educators limits their rights of free speech. Is he splitting hairs there?

Scott: Yes and no. I think he’s right that the criticism of too much political advocacy in a physics class for example is something that one could reasonably object to, that students who come to learn math or physics and who have to hear a speech about the war in Iraq for example, probably are right that they shouldn’t have to, that that’s not what they’re there in that class for. It doesn’t mean that that professor can’t speak outside of the classroom on those issues. But where it gets tricky is in classes where, say, history classes and a professor is teaching material that some students find objectionable because they think it’s too critical of the story that they want to be told.

Moyers: In one of your lectures you asked some questions that were rhetorical in nature—

Scott: I asked, but didn’t answer them — yes. Am I going to have to answer them now?

Moyers: Yes, the reckoning is here. So — should a professor be able to teach that human activity does not contribute to global warming?

Scott: I think it’s questionable. I’m with the climate scientists; I find it very hard to think that that would be a credible scientific position. How much human activity has contributed, OK, what other sorts of influences there have been, OK, but I think somebody getting up and saying that there is no proof whatsoever of human influence on climate change, I would have a hard time accepting the seriousness of a professor who taught that.

Moyers: What’s the difference between a climate denier and a Holocaust denier?

Scott: I think not much these days. I think not much at all because the climate denier tries to prove, as the Holocaust denier does, that the facts that demonstrate that there was a Holocaust and that there is climate change are wrong and don’t exist — against all evidence that they exist.

Moyers: Should a professor be able to teach creationism in the biology curriculum if half the students believe it?

Scott: No. Absolutely not.

Moyers: Why?

Scott: Because, again, we’re talking about what counts as science. If the students don’t want to learn about evolution, they shouldn’t be in the course. A biology course that teaches creationism is not a science course, it’s a religion course. So the students demanding that creationism be given credence in that course are out of line and are denying the academic freedom of the professor. They are calling into question the scientific basis of the material that’s being presented. And students are not in a position to do that.

Moyers: So you’re saying that both sides of that argument don’t carry equal weight in the training of future scientists, right?

Scott: Yes, exactly.

Moyers: Are professors being “ideological,” to put your quotes around it, when they refuse to accept biblical accounts as scientific evidence?

Scott: No, I think they’re being true to their callings as professors of biology. And I think in fact to do anything else would disqualify them in the scientific communities in which they operate.

RELATED: History Important Lessons From Orwell and Churchill for Resisting Authoritarian Rule in Trump’s America

BY Steven Rosenfeld | September 27, 2017

Moyers: Is there really no difference between the structures of discrimination experienced by African-Americans and criticism of those structures leveled against whites?

Scott: I think there is a huge difference between those things because I think what is being pointed out by African-Americans is that from slavery forward they have been living in a supposed democracy which treats them as less than other citizens, less than whites in the society. And I think that pointing out that there are structures of discrimination in the society, deeply rooted racist structures, that segregate housing, that send black children to ill-equipped schools, that discriminate in the workplace — these  are truths about our society that must be faced. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ta-Nehisi Coates article in The Atlantic?

Moyers: Yes I have.

Scott: Your question, or my own question, made me think about it. He makes a very passionate argument about the structures of racism that go deep in American society and that if we’re going to correct them, must be addressed and pointed out, which is not to say that every white is a racist but that the way things are organized and the often unconscious biases that people bring to relations with African-Americans, need to be put on the table and examined for what they are.

Moyers: It makes a difference in lineage whether your great-grandfather owned slaves or was owned as a slave. Whether your grandfather was lynched or wore a white robe and did the lynching. Your circumstances can sometimes be traced back to those differences.

Scott: Yes — although probably not directly. But the structures that created those differences and those affiliations continue to organize life in our society.

Moyers: Do you think that the strategy on the right is to provoke situations that can be used to demonstrate that it’s the left that is shutting down freedom of speech today?

Scott: I do, yes. I think that’s what people like Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative provocateur, are all about. He comes to a campus, he insults people, he engages in the worst forms of racist and sexist speech. And the point is to provoke leftist reaction to him that can then be used to discredit the left. And my sense is that what the left needs to do is find strategies that will defuse the situation rather than play into their hands.

Moyers: After the outbursts that greeted Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, a city councilwoman there said, “I don’t appreciate that these are racists coming to UC Berkeley to spew hate.” Would you argue that racists should be silenced?

Scott: I don’t think we can argue that. I think what we need to do is expose them for what they are and fight back. I think we need to let them speak. They have free speech rights. At the same time we have to argue that other groups must not be shut down, either — say, students standing up for Palestinian rights. They have the right to speak just as often and just as much as racists like Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer. There has to be equal treatment of these groups even though the right wing groups are, because of their publicity stunts, gathering all of the attention while quietly left wing groups such as the Palestinian students are being shut down or—

Moyers: You’re not at peace with some of the behavior on the other side, either.

Scott: No.

Moyers: You’ve warned about the moralism that’s appeared in some college courses. And I know you have expressed some concern about so-called trigger warnings.

Scott: Well I think trigger warnings assume that students are fragile and need to be protected from difficult ideas. I don’t think students need to be protected from difficult ideas. And I think the problem of trigger warnings is that they have been used to police what’s taught in classes, to avoid subjects such as rape, violence, race — these need to be discussed.

Moyers: What about minority students who have experienced considerable hostility growing up in an inhospitable culture, who have been silenced or marginalized by that hostility, and want colleges to be safe spaces against the hostile culture?

Scott: I don’t think colleges are safe spaces. It’s one thing to have a fraternity house or a community center where students can go and talk about their shared experiences. But it’s another thing to have safe spaces in the sense that the university’s providing them with protection from what they have to experience and find ways of protesting and resisting.

Moyers: Let’s talk about what happened at Middlebury College back in March. Charles Murray, the controversial author of The Bell Curve, a book some critics denounced as racist, was invited to speak at this small liberal arts college. Much of the audience turned their backs on him and a couple of hundred students chanted, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” and, “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it.” Murray finally had to deliver his talk via a video feed from a locked room. Ironically, perhaps, later reports suggested that the audience was driven less by Murray’s work and by free speech rights than by the larger political forces of partisanship and polarization and anger throughout the country. Murray himself said that he and his audience probably had something in common: They all hated Trump. As you know, the Harvard scholar Danielle Allen took a position that angered some of her liberal friends. She compared Charles Murray’s experience at Middlebury with that of the black high school students who integrated Central High School in Arkansas 50 years ago,. They had to be protected by the National Guard from a violent white racist mob. Danielle Allen said that Charles Murray and his sponsors were like those students who were trying simply “to go to school.” They were also “trying, simply, to keep school open. And in this moment they, too, were heroes.” Were they?

RELATED: Democracy & Government Where Free Speech Ends, Ignorance Begins

BY Michael Winship | March 13, 2017

Scott: I think the comparison is a bad one. Because in the one case, Little Rock, these kids were not just trying to keep school open, they were trying to integrate the school. An all-white school. They were trying to go to school in a school that had historically kept them out. So this was a protest against a longstanding form of discrimination that required enormous courage and resulted in fact in the integration of the school. To compare that to students protesting a speech by an invited outside speaker who has had no experience of that kind of discrimination, a white man, an academic who has always held a university position and despite the criticism of some of his work has never been removed from the tenured position that he enjoys — with all the privileges of an academic life — to compare that momentary experience of being shouted down or treated unfairly as he was (because I don’t think they should have shouted him down) — it’s just a comparison that makes no sense to me. It raises the incident with Charles Murray to a level that is not at all comparable or in the same register as the experience of the Little Rock Nine.

Moyers: Earlier we both seemed to agree that there was a political motive to the right’s current attacks on the academy — and that what’s involved is Trump’s crusade to discredit his critics and opponents — as well as the right’s appetite for alternative facts to challenge knowledge-based and evidence-driven reality, which get in the way of their drive for power.

So there’s a politically conservative outfit named the National Association of Scholars that wants to “evaluate the academic elite.” They would eliminate peer review — that is, scholars charged to judge competence of professors and replace them with ‘experts’ who are “of genuinely independent minds.” They don’t want you scholars assessing each other’s work, they want someone on the their side doing that. How does this play into the right’s attack on the academy and Trump’s crusade against knowledge?

Scott: I think the National Association of Scholars is the inside group that’s looking to transform the academy in conjunction with the outside group. I don’t think they are probably coordinating with one another or maybe they are, but I think the effect is the same. Bringing in so-called “neutral outside experts” to judge the quality of academic work seems to be impossible because it’s precisely within disciplines that the judgment and evaluation and regulation of academic work happens. If you’re not in the discipline, you have no way of knowing what the standards are, what the history of changing modes of interpretation have been, whether the work is following acceptable patterns of proof and evidence. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. Who are these neutral outside experts?” What is the standard of neutrality that they’re offering? Somebody who doesn’t know anything about history and therefore can decide that our book about slavery is well-done or not? Somebody who isn’t a scientist or who is a scientist but is not trained to understand how physics operate and whether string theory is a good thing or a bad thing. What constitutes neutrality on the part of these so-called experts which is better than the expert judgment of peers — people within the discipline who understand how and why scholars do the research that they do?

Moyers: So sum up the state of academic freedom in late 2017 as we approach the end of Trump’s first full year in power.

Scott: It’s under grave threat. And it’s under grave threat from many different directions. And it’s up to those of us in the academy who care about the universities and who love the teaching that we do, to somehow keep open that space of critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth — to keep that space open and protected from the forces that would destroy it.

Moyers: Thank you, Joan Scott.

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Road Kill: Side-Swiping the Environmental Protection Act

Wed, 2017-10-18 17:15

A senate appropriations subcommittee, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will resist the Trump administration’s efforts to slash spending for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department this week. Last summer, Murkowski warned the White House that there was no chance her panel would agree to cut the EPA’s $8 billion budget by almost a third. But the budget isn’t the only thing that’s endangered. The administration is leading a campaign to toss out a growing list of rules and regulations that protect our environment and the all plants and animals that are trying to thrive alongside us.

An Endangered Act
The Endangered Species Act itself is under attack. Since January, congressional Republicans have launched at least 46 legislative assaults on the legislation or a specific species, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Five bills to amend the legislation were advanced by the House Natural Resources Committee just this month.

“The ESA is a landmark statute created with noble intent,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement reported by The Washington Post. “It also includes fatal design flaws that inhibit greater success and handicap state-led, science-based recovery strategies.”

One measure proposes to allow weighing economic factors in the decision to list an endangered species or not. While another amendment would not only remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list but also limit further review of the removal. And another says that state and local government data must also be considered as “best available” science when the federal government makes a decision about a species. But environmental advocates fear that if more decision-making power on the fate of species is given to state and local governments, industry interests and money will hold even more sway.

The Battle Over the Rusty Patched Bumblebee

Rusty patched bumblebee

First up was the decision to “delay” the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the rusty-patched bumblebee as an endangered species. Over the past two decades the population and range of this Midwestern bee had declined by 90 percent. The Endangered Species Act, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), was signed into action in 1973 by Richard Nixon. The ESA protects species and also “the ecosystems upon which they depend.” But corporate interests want unfettered access to many of those same ecosystems and the profits that come from spraying, plowing, logging, mining, drilling or fracking. After environmental groups sued, the rusty patched bumblebee got its endangered designation back last spring. But a growing number of species are having a rougher time.

Rejected Protections
Earlier this month the US Fish and Wildlife Service denied protection to 25 species that scientists have found to be imperiled.

The Pacific Walrus

Pacific walrus

The Pacific walrus spends its life in the Arctic on large chunks of sea ice. And while climate change is slowly melting the walrus’ habitat, climate change denial could well speed up its demise. The walrus was denied protected status early this month. The Guardian reports:

Although the federal agency acknowledged the species was facing “stressors” from climate change — primarily the decline of sea ice, ocean warming and ocean acidification — it said the population was currently stable and could possibly adapt to the changing environment.

This assurance was met with dismay by the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation group that began legal action 10 years ago to list the walrus. “This disgraceful decision is a death sentence for the walrus,” Shay Wolf, the Center’s climate science director, told The Guardian. The decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic pushes walruses ashore where there is less food and a greater danger to walrus offspring from predators. The decision was not based on any scientific evidence showing the walrus is secure, according to the Center, but rather on the agency’s argument that climate-change models are unreliable after more than 30 years out. Unless the Fish and Wildlife Services reverses this decision, the Center for Biological Diversity plans to sue.

The Florida Keys Mole Skink

Florida Keys mole skink (Photo by Jonathan Mays, FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute)

The Fish and Wildlife Service relied on the same inability-to-see-the-future argument to turn down a listing petition for the Florida Keys mole skink, a colorful lizard that is already facing serious decline on the beaches and in the coastal forests that are threatened by coastal development, rising seas and destructive hurricanes like Irma. The Washington Post reports, “The service determined that while the skink’s habitat could shrink by as much as 44 percent at the high end, most of the habitat and soils that the species needs ‘will remain into the foreseeable future,’ at least out to the year 2060.”

Bicknell’s Thrush

Bicknell’s thrush (Photo by Alan Schmeirer)

Bicknell’s thrush is a rare migratory songbird that nests in dense spruce-fir forests at high elevations in the mountains of the Northeast and Southeastern Canada. Climate change is shifting its habitat to higher elevations and constricting its range. But the administration’s position is, again, that we cannot see the future. The Center for Biodiversity told The Adirondack Explorer that much of the thrush breeding habitat will vanish over the next century and maintains that the agency’s refusal to list the bird is,“absolutely political.” A spokesperson for the USFWS denied that their decisions were political, maintaining that they are following the standards defined in the ESA itself, “a species must either be in danger of extinction now (endangered) or at risk of becoming so in the foreseeable future (threatened).”

A Growing Number of Rejections

Black-backed woodpecker

Other rejected species include the black-backed woodpecker, which is threatened by logging practices in coniferous forests; the Northern Rocky Mountains fisher, a rare cousin of the mink and otter, that is succumbing to trapping, logging and climate change in old growth forests; Kirtland’s snake, which has lost its prairie wetland habitat to urban sprawl, agriculture and climate change; and a number of species of crayfish, toads and snails.

The high number of rejections was particularly galling to the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for many of the listings. Noah Greenwald, who heads its endangered species program, told The Washington Post that the agency had to make decisions for 62 possible listings by the end of September — and 29 were rejected, six species were protected, six decisions were delayed and 21 are yet to come. While Greenwald said he didn’t see a definitive pattern in the rejections, he did note that at least two of the six listed species are found in remote areas where they do not compete with industry or development.

Rolling Back Species Protection

Yellowstone Grizzly

Yellowstone grizzly (Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park)

The Yellowstone grizzly, whose numbers have increased from fewer than 150 to more than 700, was removed from the endangered species list last summer after 42 years. The New York Times reported that a number of conservation groups and Native American tribes opposed the move, arguing that the grizzly’s future is far from certain given that the ecological uncertainty of climate change could easily become a future threat. In good news for grizzlies, however, a US District judge ruled that a small population of grizzly bears living in Montana and Idaho near the Canada border can be considered endangered even if they are not “on the brink of extinction.”

Last summer, the Associated Press reported that the Alliance for Wild Rockies sued the Federal Wildlife Service, warning that the bears would become extinct unless the agency listed them as endangered and increased limits on logging, mining, and other industry in the grizzlies’ habitat. The judge’s ruling clarifies that the ESA does not require that a plant or animal species be on the “brink of extinction” before it is listed as endangered.

Whales and Sea Turtles

Leatherback turtle (Photo by Brett Morrison)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service also killed a new rule that protected endangered whales and sea turtles from getting caught by vessels that use mile-long drift gill nets. The rule would have shut down the use of these long nets for swordfish fishing for up to two seasons if too many of nine different species of whale and turtle were being snagged. A fisheries spokesman told the Associated Press that the rule would have more substantial economic impact than they originally realized.

Of course, all these actions have defenders on both sides. In an email to, NOAA fisheries said it’s wrong to characterize the rule rollback as politically motivated. NOAA fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein wrote: “This was not a political decision. It was based on science. Even the Marine Mammal Commission, the science panel that advises the government on protection of marine mammals, recommended that we NOT adopt the new regulations. They said, ‘Further, the Commission finds the proposed regulations to be inadequately justified, inconsistently applied, not based on the latest and best available data and science, and unlikely to achieve the stated goal.’”

NOAA says that protections put in place in the late 1990s have already greatly reduced the number of entanglements of the endangered species and that the new rules were not necessary. Milstein further notes that the decision was made after a normal review process including a period of public comment. Read more about the rules changes at the Los Angeles Times.

Humpback whale breaching. (Photo by Glen Edney)

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

Wed, 2017-10-18 11:00

This post originally appeared at In These Times.

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 US cities on Oct. 3 called for the US 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.

RELATED: A Special Report Vulture Capitalists Circle Above Puerto Rican Prey

BY Bill Moyers | September 30, 2017

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 US 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 US 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.

Vultures Circle the Island

When Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in May, it was the largest municipal bankruptcy debt in US history. Puerto Rico’s more than $74.8 billion in debt and $49 billion in pension system obligations surpasses Detroit’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 US-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 Oct. 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.

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 by vulture 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.

The Top 10 Vultures

Here are the top 10 vulture firms involved in 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.

1. Autonomy Capital

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

Headquarters: 90 Park Ave., 31st Floor, New York, NY, 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 battle with 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.


2. Decagon Holdings / The Baupost Group

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

Headquarters: 10 Saint James Ave., Suite 1700, Boston, MA, 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.

RELATED: Activism Unmasking Puerto Rico’s Biggest Debt Holders

BY Sarah Jaffe | October 12, 2017

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 St., the location of the Prudential Tower, Boston’s second tallest building, with 52 floors.

On Oct. 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 Dec. 31, 2016.


3. Canyon Capital Advisors LLC

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

Headquarters: 2000 Avenue of the Stars, 11th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 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 1980s, 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.


4. Monarch Alternative Capital

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

Headquarters: 535 Madison Ave., New York, NY, 10022 & 52 Conduit St., 6th Floor, London, England W1S 2YX, UK.

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 US 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 health care 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.


5. Goldentree Asset Management

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

Headquarters: 300 Park Ave., 21st Floor, New York, NY, 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 lawyer for 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 Oct. 10, according to the US Department of Energy.

GoldenTree has not disclosed whether it currently owns PREPA bonds.


6. Aurelius Capital Management LP

RELATED: Environment How Puerto Rico Recovered Before

BY Kate Aronoff | September 28, 2017

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

Headquarters: 535 Madison Ave., 22nd Floor, New York, NY, 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 Brodsky, Samuel 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.


7. Tilden Park Investment Master Fund LP

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

Headquarters: 452 Fifth Ave., 28th Floor, New York, NY, 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 US 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 interview with 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.


8. Fundamental Advisors LP

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

Headquarters: 745 Fifth Ave., 25th Floor, New York, NY, 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.)


9. Oaktree Capital Management

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

Headquarters: 333 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA, 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 US 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.


10. Stone Lion Capital

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

Headquarters: New York, NY, US.

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 don’t know the answer, and I think that’s the wrong thing to focus on. I think knowing that isn’t going to solve any of Puerto Rico’s problems. Literally. It’s not going to help anyone with anything.”

Note: One of the top 10 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. We learned it may be related to the Carlyle Group.

The Rest of the Debt
This is necessarily an incomplete list. The alliances, although they are the loudest voices in the proceedings, represent only about 21 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.

Laura Moscoso and Ethan Corey contributed research and fact-checking.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and is part of a collaboration between In These Times and Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

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Daily Reads: Deal Announced but Trump Reverses Himself on Bipartisan Health Fix

Wed, 2017-10-18 10:45

We produce this news digest every weekday. You can sign up to receive these updates as an email newsletter each morning.

About that “bipartisan health care deal” –> Two key senators, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, announced on Tuesday that they’d come to an agreement on a bill that would stabilize Obamacare’s exchanges while giving insurers a bit more flexibility. Billy Wynne and Timothy Jost have the details — and game out the likelihood of the bill’s passage — at the Health Affairs Blog.

But according to the Associated Press, the deal is already “reeling after President Donald Trump reversed course and opposed the agreement and top congressional Republicans and conservatives gave it a frosty reception.”

Clash in Kirkuk –> Military officials are trying to contain the fallout after “US-armed and -trained Iraqi government forces clashed with US-armed and -trained Kurdish forces in the disputed city of Kirkuk” over the weekend. Robbie Gramer and Paul McCleary report for Foreign Policy that the firefights, which followed a Kurdish independence referendum last month that was vehemently opposed by Baghdad, has left our “Iraq policy in disarray and open[ed] the door for greater Iranian influence in the country.”

The religious right never had much quarrel with far-right populism –> The New Republic’s Sarah Jones on how Trump “stole the soul” of this year’s Values Voter Summit.

A remarkable performance –> A day after Trump was forced to walk back his claim that Barack Obama didn’t call the families of soldiers who died on his watch, he did so himself, reportedly telling the pregnant widow of a sergeant killed in an ambush in Niger that her husband “knew what he signed up for … but when it happens, it hurts anyway.” Miami’s ABC station has that story at the link.

In the interim, the president invoked the death of White House chief of staff John Kelly’s son, who was killed after stepping on a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010, to buttress his claim. Ashley Parker reports for The Washington Post that Kelly had “gone out of his way to keep the death of his son free from politics” until Tuesday, when his boss “thrust his son into the public and political glare.”

At The Atlantic, David Graham writes that by starting this kerfuffle, Trump managed to shift the news cycle away from the deaths of the four soldiers killed in an attack that some have called “Trump’s Benghazi.” According to Graham, “the Pentagon still doesn’t understand what happened, and is conducting a preliminary review to see whether there should be a formal investigation and whether military procedures need to be changed.”

How not to drain a swamp –> The Center for Public Integrity’s Carrie Levine reports that “several major corporations and trade groups secretly bankrolled a plush hideaway for lawmakers at the same Republican National Convention in Cleveland where Trump gave the speech” promising to “drain the swamp” in DC.

Uptick –> Maurice Chammah and Tom Meagher report for The Marshall Project that “this year will be the first since 2009 in which there were more executions [in the US] than the year before.” And eight more are scheduled before year’s end.

Third time isn’t the charm –> Cristian Farias at New York magazine: US District Judge Derrick Watson blocked the third iteration of Trump’s travel ban from going into effect. “On Tuesday, a federal judge in Hawaii — the same one Jeff Sessions once derided as a ‘judge on an island in the Pacific’ — dealt the president yet another setback in his bid to impose travel restrictions on a number of nations, most of them Muslim-majority.”

Really? –> Internal White House documents circulated by Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, “allege manufacturing decline increases abortions, infertility and spousal abuse.” Damian Paletta reports for The Washington Post that the documents “were presented without any data or information to back up the assertions.”

All the other Harvey Weinsteins –> Molly Ringwald, teen megastar of the ’80s, speaks out at The New Yorker about her own experiences dealing with abusive men as a young Hollywood actress.

Subpoenaed –> Last week, we mentioned that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was refusing to testify before congressional investigators looking into potential collusion with the Russians. On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Manafort. NBC’s Marianna Sotomayor and Kasie Hunt report that “the committee expects Page will invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer questions.”

Meanwhile, Robert Mueller “has interviewed the cybersecurity expert who described being ‘recruited to collude with the Russians,'” according to Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider.

On Tuesday, a federal judge “dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought against the Associated Press by a Russian billionaire with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Eric Tucker has that story.

And “Russian trolls posing as Americans made payments to genuine activists in the US to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues,” reports Shaun Walker for The Guardian.

Losing some old friends –> Kevin Wilshaw, a prominent British neo-Nazi and former organizer for the white supremacist National Front, announced on the UK’s Channel Four News that he’s gay and his mother is Jewish, and disavowed the movement he helped build. Paraic O’Brien has more.



Daily Reads was compiled by staff and edited by Kristin Miller.

We produce this news digest every weekday. You can sign up to receive these updates as an email.

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Losing a Brother: Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey Fight for ‘The Right to Know’

Tue, 2017-10-17 17:27

This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

President Trump’s recent pronouncements have only drawn more attention to both the “Take a Knee” movement and the issues of police shootings and systemic racism. Just yesterday, free agent Colin Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL charging the organization with collusion because no team has signed him to play this season. Recently Sarah Jaffe talked with sibling organizers Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey. Their brother, Delrawn Small, was shot by a New York City police officer in 2016. Now they are lobbying for a law to hold the NYPD more accountable. Sarah Jaffe spoke to them after a recent rally in the city where the protesters also took a knee.



Sarah Jaffe: Tell us about the Right to Know Act.

Victor Dempsey: The Right to Know Act is legislation that we are trying to get through that would hold the police accountable for their actions and instate more transparency and everyone feels a little safer.

SJ: What would the law actually do if it was passed?

Victor Dempsey: The first bill would require officers to identify themselves and explain the reason for official interaction. The second bill would help end deceptive and unconstitutional searches by requiring officers to explicitly convey a person’s rights to refuse a search warrant. This would be in effect when their consent is the only legal justification and objective proof that a person gave informed and voluntary consent.

RELATED: Society ‘The Force’ Tells the Story of Reform and Crises at the Oakland Police Department

BY Titi Yu | October 13, 2017

SJ: Tell us your story. Why is this important to you and your family?

Victoria Davis: On July 4, 2016, NYPD officer Wayne Isaacs shot and killed my brother, Delrawn Small, and left him to die in the street without assistance. Wayne Isaacs was still sitting in the car when he shot Delrawn.

My family is demanding that Isaacs be held accountable [for killing our brother]. But we also know that holding one officer accountable will not end police violence. We need strong policy changes to help end abusive policing in New York City. Our family is demanding the Right to Know Act be passed and [for] Wayne Isaacs to be held accountable as civilians are always held accountable.

Dempsey: From the first day my brother was murdered by Wayne Isaacs, it was portrayed by certain media outlets that my brother assaulted Wayne Isaacs or he was in the wrong. It took roughly eight days for the video to surface and to show the truth. Having that transparency shows that an officer can actually lie about an incident to protect himself.

If that can happen to us, any scenario could happen. Someone could be walking down the street and a cop pulls them over for any unjust reason or just because they feel like they can without identifying themselves properly. People don’t know their rights to a search or if they can not give consent to a search.

SJ: Since your brother’s death, you have been working with the families of other people killed by police to do something about this, right?

Davis: Yes, we have. Inadvertently, I guess, we have become activists. We have always had a strong moral compass, the three of us: me, Victor and Delrawn. We had certain values and morals that we already lived by. This is not something foreign, advocating or fighting for people or standing up in the face of injustice. We just hadn’t done it in a public way until now.

Dempsey: What Victoria is saying is [that] our whole lives we have always looked at right and wrong from a point-blank perspective, and tried to help people encountering challenges to try to motivate and pushed people to do better for themselves. The murder of our brother kickstarted us to get more involved, to contact and connect with organizations and people and try to raise awareness. I remember before anything happened to my brother, being heartbroken seeing other cases — whether it was the Akai Gurley case or Nicholas Heyward or Kimani Gray.

Davis: Although we weren’t directly impacted, we have always understood how those occurrences reflect how people of color are treated and how they are handled by people who are hired to serve and protect.

RELATED: Civil Liberties Why Colin Kaepernick Matters

BY Samuel G. Freedman | August 15, 2017

SJ: Recently, you did a protest where you all took a knee outside of City Hall. Can you tell us a little bit about that and the significance of that action?

Dempsey: Being a football player and an avid football fan, when Colin Kaepernick took the original knee and recognizing why he took that knee after my brother’s death, it was really heavy on our hearts. The action that we took that day was, we had watched the city council, a few days previously at noon, to take a knee. We decided that we need to hold them accountable as well. People are getting on board with NFL players because they have that platform, the celebrity, so to speak, to get their voices heard. Our voices get heard selectively by people who want to listen.

Davis: The thing is that people were forgetting. It started to become a hashtag with some racist rhetoric. For the past few weeks, people have been forgetting the reason that Colin Kaepernick had originally taken the knee. He wasn’t against the national anthem, the flag or any of those things. He was taking a knee in solidarity with the victims and the families of police and state murders. For the murdered. For families like us who have loved ones who were killed by a police officer who was hired to serve and protect.

Dempsey: We wanted to align ourselves with him and take the knee with him to show that we appreciate what he is doing — and we are fighting as well. We are not just sitting here. We are fighting. And we are going to do whatever we can in our power to help make a change, because it has to stop.

Delrawn was a human. He was a kind person. He was a reliable person. He meant everything to us.— Victoria Davis

Davis: We don’t want anyone to forget why it was done in the first place. I think that sometimes people take hashtags and they do it for different reasons; it becomes almost like a fad. Taking a knee and putting faces to these victims and putting faces to the hurt cannot make everything right in our lives and make us just able to move on and move forward. We take a knee and that is taking a stand.

We still have to go back to our lives without Delrawn. Things have been terrible since he has been gone. But once we change the narrative and the way we see these police killings, then we will see it as not just a hashtag, but that these are humans, these are people. Delrawn was a human. He was a kind person. He was a reliable person. He meant everything to us.

SJ: For people who are listening or reading in New York, what can they do to support the work you are doing here around the Right to Know Act, and what can people do around the country to support the broader struggle that you and other families are facing?

Davis: We do live in the age of social media. Social media is the biggest platform. Definitely, I encourage people to follow the Justice for Delrawn Facebook page and the @Justice4Delrawn Twitter page. Sometime in the near future we should have an official webpage. We deal with a lot of organizations. We are part of Families United 4 Justice, which is an organization collectively of families who have been affected by police brutality — which is national. We encourage people to follow [them]. Use all of the information that you have gained online or meeting with families, speaking with the families, whether it is in person, online and just help change the narrative.

Dempsey: Support, as far as going to City Council meetings, pressuring the council to let them know change has to be made. It is not just only in New York. Like Victoria said, we live in a social media age. Retweeting tweets, following pages, supporting it, continuously push the word out and let people know we are not going to stand around while people are getting killed.

Iris Baez, mother of Anthony Baez (killed by NYPD in 1994); Hawa Bah, mother of Mohamed Bah (killed by NYPD in 2012); Victor Dempsey, brother of Delrawn Small (killed by NYPD officer in 2016). (Photo by Alberto Morales)

Victoria: Delrawn was a huge part of our life. He was our caretaker. Our mother died when we were children, so Delrawn has always been not just a sibling, but a father as well. A person who would lead us and guide us. Our confidant. He was a person that loved and cared for us and his children. He has three children. We have huge shoes to fill and trying to figure out how to do that is hard. Reliving the situation, the murder over and over again is hard. Grief and mourning is terrible in itself. Missing someone is terrible. If someone walks out of your life, that is terrible. But, to miss someone when they were taken unjustly is just…it is the worst, because all of these questions of why? How?

These police killings and murders affect families in all types of ways. It is a trickle-down effect. It makes you feel not safe and we are supposed to. These people who took an oath to serve and protect, but if they couldn’t do that for me, then what else…?

Dempsey: Like my sister said, we want accountability — and not just for Wayne Isaacs, but for the whole NYPD. When officers commit a crime, which it literally is committing a crime, it is not looked at as a crime. It is looked at as “Oh, in some instances, it was justified because he was in fear for his life.” That is a key phrase that officers use these days: “I was afraid for my life,” so they discharge their weapons.

This is a continuous battle of emotions. It is a continuous fight within yourself to keep pushing forward. We come out to these rallies, to these functions to support, to gain support, and it is very hard. It is emotionally draining, but we do it because we know our brother did not die in vain.

The awareness aspect of this is much bigger than just saying, “OK, we need a change.” Like Victoria said, we have to hold everyone accountable. These council members who are taking knees and making these statements, they need to be held accountable. They need to be at our court dates with us fighting against the unjust things that are happening. They cannot just do it for whoever is looking or whoever is running for office. They cannot do it for that. They cannot use the lives of people that are suffering and not acknowledge it.

That is one of our biggest things right now, is everyone needs to be aware. If you are going to hashtag something, if you are going to say you stand for something, at least stand with the people that are actually suffering.

Our trial starts Oct. 18 at Brooklyn Supreme Court for Wayne Isaacs, the officer who murdered our brother. We ask anyone and everyone to support that. Attend the courts. We try to pack the court as much as possible just to let the system know that we are holding them accountable. Not just the families: as a community, as a unit, as a whole, collectively, everyone. We will do the same for any other families or any other situation that needs to be rectified.



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

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White Nationalism and Christian Right Unite at Values Voter Summit

Tue, 2017-10-17 16:47

As the first sitting president to take the podium at Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit, President Trump may have offered history a footnote with his Oct. 13 speech, but by the following day his remarks were all but forgotten, as Steve Bannon’s stemwinder, a steaming stew of vitriol, splashed across mainstream media. On the Sunday shows, Bannon was the focus.

The former White House strategist, ousted from the West Wing in the days following the president’s mixed-messaging on the violence perpetrated by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, remains unrepentant.

Before he joined the Trump campaign, Bannon courted some of those very same people at Breitbart to expand the reach of the site beyond more traditional conservative circles, according to a report by Joseph Bernstein of BuzzFeed. Now back at Breitbart, Bannon has free rein to push the dark worldview he’s peddled for years in the over-the-top, fear-mongering propaganda movies he’s produced, and the Christian right is lapping it up, all in the service of Bannon’s power-grab for control of the Republican Party.

RELATED: Media Frightbart

BY Todd Gitlin | March 11, 2017

Beginning with Trump, conference speakers lauded attendees at this weekend’s gathering as the keepers of “Judeo-Christian values,” which were described as being under threat. Several, including former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) described Europe as having been lost to Islam, warning that the United States could be next. Despite the fact that the US takes in few refugees from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries, Frank Gaffney, a titan of the right’s anti-Islam cottage industry, dragged out a far-right hashtag for those few who make it in: “refujihadis.” Author Brigitte Gabriel, a Christian born in Lebanon, also railed against refugees from the war-torn nations of Africa and the Middle East, claiming they carried disease to the US and raped American women. They “hate America,” she said, and she gave a shout-out to Bannon, echoing his call for an end to Senate filibuster rules, which she said were stalling the implementation of Trump’s agenda.

While the purported threat posed by Islam has been preached to the “values voters” in years past, gone this year was the veneration of so-called “free-market” capitalism as a core notion of right-wing Christian ideology, leaving Bannon’s rallying cry for economic nationalism to flood the zone. And in Bannon ally Sebastian Gorka, another former White House adviser to Trump, the Values Voter Summit for the first time featured a speaker known to proudly wear the emblem of a group sympathetic to the Nazi cause in Europe. Neither Bannon nor Gorka are regarded as being particularly religious.

Neither is Trump. Just before the 2016 election, Christian pollster George Barna surveyed a group he calls “SAGE cons” — spiritually active, governance-engaged conservatives — and said found that a mere 1 percent described Trump as an exemplar of “Godly character.” Barna said his polling also found that 77 percent described Trump as “arrogant,” 61 percent as “rude,” 52 percent as “a bully.” Yet 91 of them percent voted for him anyway, Barna said in a breakout session. And at the summit, the assembled SAGE cons gave Trump gave a hero’s welcome.

RELATED: Democracy & Government A Fish Called Bannon

BY Michael Winship | March 1, 2017

Trump, after all, represents the ultimate smack-down of the cultural changes wrought by civil rights and feminism, the forces the Christian right organized to oppose over 40 years ago. The applause lines in his speech told the tale of a people motivated not by such traditionally Christian values as charity and acceptance, but by talismans of identity laced with tacit prejudices, such as the implicit anti-Semitism of the so-called “war on Christmas” theme revived by Trump. Speaking of department-store workers, Trump claimed, “They don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ because it’s not politically correct…Well, guess what? We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

“We stand united behind the customs, beliefs and traditions that define who we are as a nation and as a people,” he added.

The president suggested that “faith and prayer” could replace “federal regulation,” without specifying regulation of what.

Trump didn’t need to spell out too much; he never specifically mentioned the NFL players whose firing he urged just weeks ago. He never mentioned the words “abortion” or “birth control.” He had learned the SAGE-con code: “America’s heritage,” “sanctity of life,” “religious freedom.” (Just in case anyone should miss his greater point, he did, however, boldly state that he would protect the world from “radical Islamic terrorism.”) As president, he could leave to others the specifics of the fearful, nationalist worldview that holds his base together.

For that base, Trump is delivering, and he reminded them of all he has done — especially his naming of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Plus, he’s undoing the legacy of the nation’s first black president. To sweeten the pot just ahead of his speech, he revoked the subsidies to low-income subscribers to Obamacare, and when he noted this, the crowd roared its approval. And from the looks of the audience in the room, I’d venture to say that a plurality, if not a majority, were on Medicare.

RELATED: Democracy & Government CPAC Dispatch: How Donald Trump Killed Movement Conservatism

BY Adele M. Stan | February 24, 2017

At every Values Voter Summit since the first held in 2006, there is usually an overarching narrative theme, an action theme, and several threads that serve as a glimmering subtext. This year’s big, sprawling narrative was the threat to Western civilization posed by Islam in particular, and non-Western and nonwhite nations in general. The action theme was “war” on the Republican establishment in general, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular. The decorative threads included the supposed threat posed by transgender people, various descriptions of feminism as either a “criminalization of masculinity” (Todd Starnes of Fox News) or a dead movement (Dana Loesch of the National Rifle Association), and a sustained attack by several speakers on the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil-rights organization which, in 2010, famously added FRC to its list of hate groups “for knowingly spread false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people,” according to SPLC Senior Fellow Mark Potok.

Preceding a panel led by retired Gen. Jerry Boykin of FRC, conference-goers were treated to an anti-SPLC video produced by Prager University. Throughout the conference, different narrative strands were often woven together, as when Gaffney accused SPLC of working with the Muslim Brotherhood, presenting a slide featuring the two organizations’ logos side by side and naming it the “red-green axis” (after the colors of the respective logos).

Gorka urged conference-goers not to fret over his and Bannon’s ouster from the White House. “The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens,” he said with a cartoon-villain inflection.

And indeed, it was Bannon who brought the fire. He opened with a famous quotation from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. “To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven… A time of war and a time of peace.” He then declared the present moment to be a time of war — “against the Republican establishment.”

“This is not my war,” he added. “This is our war.”

That establishment, he said, is “personified by Mitch McConnell.” But the Senate majority leader, who was bashed by speakers throughout the conference, wasn’t the only one on Bannon’s enemies list, which includes Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), despite Corker’s announcement that he will not run again. Corker’s crime, according to Bannon, is the fact that he dared to criticize “the commander-in-chief of the armed forces” while “we have young men and women in harm’s way.” Meta-message: Criticize Trump and Bannon will force you from office with the threat of a primary challenge.

Bannon rattled off the names of sitting senators currently in his sights: Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Dean Heller of Nevada and John Barrasso of Wyoming. The problem with them, by Bannon’s lights, isn’t that they don’t vote with for the president’s priorities — they do. It’s that they haven’t come to the microphones to defend the commander-in-chief.

One of the Summit’s star speakers was Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who, with Bannon’s support, unseated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the Sept. 26 Republican primary.

Moore, of course, is famous for having placed a monument to the Ten Commandments in the courthouse, refusing to stand down when the religious display was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court. When the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage a legal right, Moore instructed county clerks not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He was ultimately ousted from the bench for refusing to uphold the US Constitution — but not until years after he led the charge, according to Talking Points Memo, against the removal of a mandate for racial segregation in public education from Alabama’s state constitution. Moore’s speech at Values Voter was a hash of misused literary citations, a barnyard joke and a poem he wrote about his vengeful deity: “You think that God’s not angry that our land’s a moral slum? How much longer will it be before his judgment comes?” (Well, it almost rhymes.)

Roy Moore, GOP Senate candidate and former chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court speaks during the annual Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit on Oct. 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The incoherence of Moore’s speech mattered not, as he is the walking, talking embodiment of Bannon’s formula for seizing power within the GOP: A dark, hypernationalist, racialized identitarian ideology dressed in the language of Christianity, contempt for the US Constitution and the promise of violence to come.

Moore is also the gauntlet thrown by Bannon at Trump’s feet. The president endorsed Strange in the primary matchup, enduring an embarrassing loss. Soon after Moore won the primary, Trump deleted his tweeted endorsements of Strange. For Trump, few epithets pack more punch than “loser.” Bannon likely thinks he’s found the formula to keep Trump doing his bidding. And perhaps he has.

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How the US Paved the Way for ‘Generational’ War

Tue, 2017-10-17 13:43

This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.

It took 14 years, but now we have an answer.

It was March 2003, the invasion of Iraq was underway, and Maj. Gen. David Petraeus was in command of the 101st Airborne Division heading for the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Rick Atkinson, Washington Post journalist and military historian, was accompanying him. Six days into a lightning campaign, his division suddenly found itself stopped 30 miles southwest of the city of Najaf by terrible weather, including a blinding dust storm and the unexpectedly “fanatical” attacks of Iraqi irregulars. At that moment, Atkinson reported,

[Petraeus] hooked his thumbs into his flak vest and adjusted the weight on his shoulders. “Tell me how this ends,” he said. “Eight years and eight divisions?” The allusion was to advice supposedly given the White House in the early 1950s by a senior Army strategist upon being asked what it would take to prop up French forces in South Vietnam. Petraeus’ grin suggested the comment was more droll quip than historical assertion.

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BY Andrew Bacevich | October 10, 2017

Certainly, Petraeus knew his history when it came to American interventions in distant lands. He had entered West Point just as the American war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down and did his doctoral dissertation at Princeton in 1987 on that conflict (“The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era”). In it, he wrote,

Vietnam cost the military dearly. It left America’s military leaders confounded, dismayed and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money and qualified people for a decade… Vietnam was an extremely painful reminder that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply.

So no wonder he was well acquainted with that 1954 exchange between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and former Korean War commander Gen. Matthew Ridgeway about the French war in Vietnam. Perhaps, the “droll quip” aspect of his comment lay in his knowledge of just how badly Ridgeway underestimated both the years and the troop numbers that the American version of that war would eat up before it, too, ended in disaster and in a military as riddled with protest and as close to collapse as was imaginable for an American force of our era.

In his thesis, Petraeus called for the military high command to be granted a far freer hand in whatever interventions the future held. In that sense, in 1987, he was already mainlining into a 21st-century world in which the US military continues to get everything it wants (and more) as it fights its wars without having to deal with either an obstreperous citizen army or too many politicians trying to impose their will on its actions.

And by the way, though his Najaf comments have regularly been cited as if they were sui generis, as the Ridgeway reference indicates, he was hardly the first American military commander or political figure to appropriate Joan of Arc’s question in Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan: “How long, oh Lord, how long?”

As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam recounted in his history of the Vietnam years, The Best and the Brightest, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson turned to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Earle Wheeler in a June 1965 meeting and asked of the war in Vietnam, “What do you think it will take to do the job?”

Wheeler’s answer echoed Ridgeway’s 11 years earlier, though in the escalatory mode that was typical of Vietnam: “It all depends on what your definition of the job is, Mr. President. If you intend to drive the last Vietcong out of Vietnam it will take 700,000, 800,000, a million men and about seven years. But if your definition of the job is to prevent the Communists from taking over the country, that is, stopping them from doing it, then you’re talking about different gradations and different levels. So tell us what the job is and we’ll answer it.”

A Generational Approach to America’s Wars

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BY Bill Moyers | September 26, 2017

Not so long after that moment on the outskirts of Najaf, the 101st Airborne made its way to Baghdad just as the burning and looting began, and that would only be the prologue to David Petraeus’ war, to his version of eight years and eight divisions. When an insurgency (actually several) broke out in Iraq, he would be dispatched to the northern city of Mosul (now a pile of rubble after its 2017 “liberation” from the Islamic State in Washington’s third Iraq War). There, he would first experiment with bringing back from the Vietnam experience the very strategy the US military had hoped to be rid of forever: “counterinsurgency,” or the winning of what in that war had regularly been called “hearts and minds.” In 2004, Newsweek was already hailing him on its cover with the dramatic question: “Can This Man Save Iraq?” (Four months after Petraeus ended his stint in that city, the police chief he had trained there went over to the insurgents and it became a stronghold for them.)

By the time the occupation of Iraq turned into a full-scale disaster, he was back at Fort Leavenworth running the US Army’s Combined Arms Center. During that period, he and another officer, Marine Lt. Gen. James Mattis — does that name ring any bells? — joined forces to oversee the development and publication of Field Service Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations. It would be the first official counterinsurgency (COIN) how-to book the military had produced since the Vietnam years. In the process, he became “the world’s leading expert in counterinsurgency warfare.” He would famously return to Iraq in 2007, that manual in hand, with five brigades or 20,000 US troops, for what would become known as “the surge,” or “the new way forward” — an attempt to bail the Bush administration out of its disastrous occupation of the country. His counterinsurgency operations would, like the initial invasion, be hailed by experts and pundits in Washington (including Petraeus himself) as a marvel and a success of the first order, as a true turning point in Iraq and in the war on terror.

A decade later, with America’s third Iraq War ongoing, you could be excused for viewing the “successes” of that surge somewhat differently.

In the process, Petraeus (or “King David” as he was supposedly nicknamed by Iraqis during his stint in Mosul) would become America’s most celebrated, endlessly featured general and go on in 2008 to head US Central Command (overseeing America’s wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq). In 2010, he would become the US Afghan commander, largely so that he could perform the counterinsurgency miracles in Afghanistan he had supposedly performed in Iraq. In 2011, he became Barack Obama’s CIA director only to crash and burn a year later in a scandal over a lover-cum-biographer and the misuse of classified documents, after which he morphed into a go-to expert on our wars and a partner at KKR, a global investment firm. In other words, as with the three generals of the surge generation now ascendant in Washington, including Petraeu former COIN pal James Mattis (who also headed US Central Command), he presided over this country’s failing wars in the Greater Middle East.

And only recently, 14 years after he and Atkinson were briefly trapped outside Najaf, in his role as a pundit and prognosticator on his former wars, he finally answered — and not quippingly either — the question that plagued him then. Though his comments were certainly covered in the news (as anything he says is), in a sense no one noticed. Asked by Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour whether, in Donald Trump’s America, it was “smart” to once again send more US troops surging into Afghanistan, he called the Pentagon’s decision “heartening,” even as he warned that it wasn’t a war that would end any time soon.

Instead, after so many years of involvement, experience, thought and observation, in a studio without a grain of sand, no less a dust storm in sight, he offered this observation:

“But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, [and] go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable. We have been in Korea for 65-plus years because there is an important national interest for that. We were in Europe for a very long period of time, still there, of course, and actually with a renewed emphasis now, given Russia’s aggressive actions. And I think that’s the way we need to approach this.”

In proposing such a “generational struggle” to be handed on to our children, if not grandchildren, he’s in good company. In recent times, the Pentagon high command, too, has been adopting a “generational approach” to Afghanistan and assumedly our other wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa. Similarly, the scholars of the Brookings Institution have urged on Washington’s policymakers what they call “an enduring partnership” in Afghanistan: “The US-Afghan partnership should be recognized as generational in duration, given the nature of the threat and the likely longevity of its future manifestations.”

Even if, under further questioning by Woodruff, Petraeus wouldn’t quite cop to a 60-year Afghan war (that is, to a war lasting at least until 2061), his long-delayed answer to his own question of the 2003 invasion moment was now definitive. Such American wars won’t end. Not now. Maybe not ever. And in a way you can’t be much blunter or grimmer than that in your assessment of the “successes” of the war on terror.

A Military Success Story of the Strangest Sort

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BY William J. Astore | September 13, 2017

Until James “Mad Dog” Mattis hit Washington in 2017, no American general of our era was ever written about as much as, or in a more celebratory fashion, than David Petraeus. Adulatory (if not fawning) profiles of him are legion. Even today, in the wake of barely avoided felony and other charges (for, among other things, lying to the FBI) — he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the handling of classified documents and was sentenced to two years of probation and a fine — he may still be this country’s most celebrated general.

But why exactly the celebration? The answer would have to be that he continues to be lauded and considered a must-quote expert because in Washington this country’s war on terror and the generalship that’s accompanied it are now beyond serious analysis or reconsideration. Sixteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, as America’s wars continue to spread across the Greater Middle East and Africa — thanks in part to Donald Trump and the need for “adult day care” in the White House — are still treated like the only “adults in the room” in our nation’s capital, like, in short, American winners.

And yet consider recent events in the central African country of Niger, which already has an operating US drone base, another under construction, and about 800 American troops quietly but permanently stationed there. It’s also a country that, until this moment, not an American in a million would have been able to locate on a map. On Oct. 4, four Green Berets were killed and two others wounded during a “routine training mission” there. Patrolling with Nigerian troops, they were ambushed by Islamic militants — whether from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or a new branch of ISIS remains unclear. That officially makes Niger at least the eighth country, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya, to be absorbed into Washington’s war on terror and, in case you hadn’t noticed, in none of them has that war ended and in none have US forces triumphed.

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BY Tom Engelhardt | September 6, 2017

And yet you could comb the recent mainstream coverage of the events in Niger without finding any indication that those deaths represented a modest new escalation in the never-ending, ever-spreading war on terror.

As was inevitable, in Iraq and Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic “caliphate” is finally collapsing. The city of Mosul is back in Iraqi hands, as is Tal Afar, and more recently the town of Hawija (with a rare mass surrender of ISIS militants). Those were the last significant urban areas controlled by ISIS in Iraq, while in Syria, the “apocalyptic ruins” of the Islamic State’s “capital,” Raqqa, are also largely in the hands of forces allied with and supported by the air power of the US military. In what are now the ravaged ruins of Syria and Iraq, however, such “victories” will inevitably prove as hollow as were the “successful” invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq or the “successful” overthrow of Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi. Meanwhile, the Islamic State may have spread its brand to another country with US forces in it. And yet, across a vast swath of the planet, the wars of David Petraeus, James Mattis and the other generals of this era simply go on and on in a region being fractured and devastated (and whose vast numbers of displaced refugees are, in turn, helping to fracture Europe).

Worse yet, it’s a situation that can’t be seriously discussed or debated in this country, because if it were, opposition to those wars might rise and alternatives to them and the by-now brain-dead decisions of those generals, including newly heightened air wars and the latest mini-surge in Afghanistan, might become part of an actual national debate.

So think of this as a military success story of the strangest sort — success that can be traced directly back to a single decision, now decades old, made by a long-discredited American president, Richard Nixon. Without returning to that decision, there is simply no way to understand America’s 21st-century wars. In its own way, it would prove an act of genius (if, at least, you wanted to fight never-ending wars until the end of time).

In any case, credit, when owed, must be given. Facing an anti-war movement that wouldn’t go away and, by the early 1970s, included significant numbers of both active-duty servicemen and Vietnam veterans, the president and his secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, decided to try to cut into its strength by eliminating the draft. Nixon suspected that young men not endangered by the possibility of being sent into the Vietnam War might be far less eager to demonstrate against it. The military high command was uncertain about such a move. They worried, with reason, that in the wake of Vietnam it would be hard to recruit for an all-volunteer military. Who in the world, they wondered, would want to be part of such a discredited force? That was, of course, a version of Nixon’s thinking turned upside down, but the president moved ahead anyway and, on Jan. 27, 1973, conscription was ended. There would be no more draft calls and the citizen’s army, the one that had fought World War II to victory and had raised such a ruckus about the grim and distasteful war in Vietnam, would be no more.

In that single stroke, before he himself fell prey to the Watergate scandal and resigned his presidency, Nixon functionally created a legacy for the ages, paving the way for the American military to fight its wars “generationally” and lose them until hell froze over with the guarantee that no one in this country would seem to care a whit. Or put another way, can you truly imagine such silence in “the homeland” if an American draft were continually filling the ranks of a citizen’s army to fight a 16-year-old war on terror, still spreading, and now considered “generational”? I doubt it.

So as American air power in places like Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan is ramped up yet again, as the latest mini-surge of troops arrives in Afghanistan, as Niger enters the war, it’s time to put Gens. David Petraeus, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster and John Kelly in context. It’s time to call them what they truly are: Nixon’s children.

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Daily Reads: Trump’s Sabotaging Himself on Obamacare; Bergdahl Faces Life in Prison

Tue, 2017-10-17 10:24

We produce this news digest every weekday. You can sign up to receive these updates as an email newsletter each morning.


It’s certainly a mess –> On Monday, Donald Trump declared that Obamacare is “dead,” “gone” and added: you “shouldn’t even mention” it. Moments later, he said Obamacare was a “mess” and blamed it for the spike in premiums that his decision to halt cost-sharing payments for low income families is expected to cause. Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh writes for US News & World Report about why his state will join 17 others in a lawsuit against the White House that seeks to force the president to re-establish the payments.

At Vox, Ezra Klein argues that Trump does not grasp that the public tends to blame the party that controls the White House and Congress for disastrous policy outcomes, and is relying on the kind of “hostage taking” strategies that Republicans used successfully when Democrats were in power. It’s a major miscalculation, says Klein.

#MeToo –> That hashtag has taken off on social media as women from all sorts of industries shared their own stories of sexual harassment and workplace abuses. The Nation’s Joan Walsh wonders “what if we women had been able to devote all of the time and energy that we spend fending off all of this s–t to…our writing, our organizing, our art, our health, our children, partners, families, friends and communities”?

One of the most important whistleblowers ever interviewed by 60 Minutes –> That, according to CBS correspondent Bill Whitaker, is Joe Rannazzisi, the former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency unit that investigates the pharmaceutical industry. On Sunday, he detailed how “the opioid crisis was allowed to spread… aided by Congress, lobbyists, and a drug distribution industry that shipped, almost unchecked, hundreds of millions of pills to rogue pharmacies and pain clinics.”

Yesterday, Trump declined to express his support for Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), his own pick to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, after it was revealed that Marino “championed the industry-friendly legislation” featured in the report. Newsday’s Dan Janison has more on that story.

Meanwhile, Blair Miller reports for Denver’s local ABC affiliate that “opioid-related deaths fell by more than 6 percent in Colorado in the two years after the state started selling recreational marijuana, according to new research published in November’s edition of the American Journal of Public Health.”

Inflammatory –> “A directive to immigration officials across the country to try to portray undocumented immigrants swept up in mass raids as criminals came directly from then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly,” reports Alice Speri at The Intercept.

Trench warfare on environmental groups –> At Talking Points Memo, Cameron Joseph reports that EPA head Scott Pruitt “in effect declared trench warfare on environmental groups on Monday, ending a practice he dubbed ‘Sue & Settle’ by which the EPA would often settle lawsuits brought by outside groups in an attempt to get the agency to enforce its own rules.”

How to Wipe Out Puerto Rico’s Debt –> Ellen Brown writes at The American Prospect that the 2008 Wall Street bailout could serve as a model for deeply indebted Puerto Rico.

Rage –> Kevin Drum at Mother Jones looks at “the rage of rural voters,” and sees no way forward as long as they’re inflamed by conservative claims that their economic insecurity is the product of “elites” and “Hollywood liberals.”

Danger warning –> Florida Gov. Rick Scott “declared a state of emergency in advance of a speech white nationalist Richard Spencer is scheduled to give at the University of Florida” this Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Heart-wrenching –> As fires continue to rage in northern California, Frances Dinkelspiel writes for The Daily Beast about frantically searching for her 62-year-old brother who “has some developmental issues” and who went missing after the home he lived in burned down.

Desertion –> Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared from his base in Afghanistan and was later captured by the Taliban, “could spend the rest of his life behind bars after he pleaded guilty Monday to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy,” report CNN’s Devon Sayers and Holly Yan.

This is not normal –> In his Monday evening acceptance speech for being awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Sen. John McCain lashed out at the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” that helped Trump to power, and warned that “people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems” are “unpatriotic.”

Meanwhile, Trump held a Rose Garden press conference “designed to convince supporters and detractors alike that everything’s terrific, moving ahead of schedule and getting even better,” reports Joshua Dawsey for Politico

And The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Greg Jaffe look “inside the ‘adult day-care center,'” detailing “how aides try to control and coerce Trump.”



Daily Reads was compiled by staff and edited by Kristin Miller.

We produce this news digest every weekday. You can sign up to receive these updates as an email.

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Michelle Alexander and Paul Butler Talking About ‘Chokehold: Policing Black Men’

Mon, 2017-10-16 17:34

Earlier this month at the Brooklyn Museum, scholar and MSNBC legal analyst Paul Butler joined Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, for a conversation about his latest book, Chokehold: Policing Black Men. As a former federal prosecutor, Butler uses his firsthand experience to demonstrate how the legal system is structured to target and criminalize black men.

In the video, the two criminal justice experts talk about the biggest misconceptions that people have about their rights; the intersection of race, class and gender and the significance of it in the criminal justice system; the problem with African-Americans internalizing many of the ideas promulgated by the media that they are the problem, not the system; and ideas for ways to disrupt the criminal justice system in a way that would force a real reckoning.




Paul Butler, visiting professor, Harvard Law School, Albert Brick Professor in Law, Georgetown University, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men and Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. (Photo courtesy of the Heinz Foundation) Michelle Alexander, visiting professor, Union Theological Seminary, author of The New Jim Crow. (Photo by Sam Hollenshead)

Michelle Alexander: When I was invited to this event and asked if I would be interested in supporting the launch of this book and the message you’re trying to share in it, I immediately said yes, because I had read this book. Not only are we friends and go back, but I had read this book and immediately was struck by Chapter 7, entitled, “If You Catch a Case.”

Now, when I started out as a civil rights lawyer and I was working at the ACLU, representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, I would frequently get calls from church groups, community organizations that would say, “Can you come out and give us a, ‘Know Your Rights’ presentation?” “Can you come out and talk to our church?” Or, “Talk to the kids in our mentoring program because they’re getting harassed by the police nonstop, they’re being tossed, there’s all this craziness going on and somebody needs to come and tell them about their rights, what they can do when the police come after them.”

And at first, I’d say yes I’d go out there and bring my briefcase and set up my podium. But after I had been doing the work for a while, talking about what the Fourth Amendment is supposedly meant to mean — your right to remain silent, your right to refuse consent to search, your right to ask for an attorney, your rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution, after doing the work of representing people whose faces were smashed to the pavement when they tried to assert their rights, who found extra charges thrown at them when they said, “You don’t have the right to do that to me,” I said to myself, I’m not giving these ‘Know Your Rights’ presentations anymore. I need to find a way to tell these people: You have no rights, you’re black, there are no rights in this Constitution that a cop is bound to respect.

And, what you have done with Chokehold is write the book that I wish I could have given people. When they asked me, “What are my rights?” And “What should I do when the police come after me?” I urge all of you, not only if you’re black but if you know any black people, you need to get this book — if for no other reason than for Chapter 7, which gives detailed instructions, step-by-step instructions, regarding what to do if the police come after you. How to prepare, especially if you’re a black male, for the inevitability of hostile police contact. I just want to say thank you, not only for writing a book that is so compelling and readable and makes such powerful, provocative points, but for also writing a guide for ordinary folks that’s honest and real about what rights they may think they have and what’s real for them on the street and how best to protect them when they find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun or when the sirens go on. Thank you for that.

Paul Butler: For that chapter, I don’t know if you guys remember that commercial where the man would say, “Not only am I the president of the Hair Club for Men, I’m also a client. So, obviously, I’m not the president of the Hair Club for Men, either, or a client. [laughter]

But, Chapter 7 was like making that move for me. I was a prosecutor, as you heard, and I graduated from the citizens of the District of Columbia, the young black men there to public corruption. And I was working at the Justice Department — I had the highest-profile case in the section against a United States senator, prosecuting him for public corruption. And while I was working on that case, I got arrested and prosecuted for a crime I didn’t commit. Now, I’m not going to tell you what happened because I want you to buy Chokehold, [laughter] and learn about it.

But, I’ll give you a hint. Things worked out fine for me, and the reason things worked out fine was I had the best lawyer in the city: Michelle Roberts. I had the resources to have her represent me. Things worked out fine for me because I had legal skills, I literally had prosecuted people in the courtroom where I was being prosecuted. Things worked out well for me because I had social standing. We made sure the jury knew things about me that shouldn’t have mattered, like I was a lawyer, but that did matter. And, the other reason things worked out fine for me is because I was innocent. But, that didn’t seem like the most important reason. In some ways, it seemed like I would have been better off being guilty and having that great lawyer and those legal skills, than innocent and not having that. I beat my case. I want other people, and especially brothers to know how to beat theirs.

And, again, it’s real talk, it’s — when I was writing that chapter, what I was thinking of was the genre of horror because when you’re a black man in the system, again, they’re out to get you. And, so, how can you have a better outcome. And, again, when people say, “Oh, just, you know, assert your rights to the cops,” Michelle put it best: “A black man has no rights that a cop is bound to respect.” But there are ways to have better outcomes and, so, that’s what that chapter is about and I’m really glad you liked it.

MA: No, I greatly appreciated it. And I wonder if you would just say a little bit about some of the misconceptions about what kinds of rights people think they have, as opposed to what is real. You know, I found that when I was giving these “Know Your Rights” presentations, over and over people would say, “The police said such and such and it was a lie. Can they do that?” The notion that the police are legally allowed to lie to you, to tell you that your friend already snitched on you, or that your mother actually ratted you out and said that you had dope in the car, or that the police can lie to you and actually train to lie to you and that that’s not illegal — it’s not considered wrong, but actually part of how the system works. That, yes, the police actually can seize your money, take the money out of your pocket, seize your car, and then not charge you with a crime but keep your cash and keep your property. That’s not illegal?

There’s so many misconceptions about how the system works and it’s so blatantly unfair and defies people’s common sense about how any democracy that claims to be the land of the free ought to work, that there’s a sense of wild disbelief that, even if they had a lawyer, that they couldn’t actually challenge this police conduct in a court of law successfully. What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions that inspired you to write that chapter?

PB: It’s a great question. And, it’s funny, because when I was a prosecutor, sometimes defendants would tell me that their cops were lying and I’d say, “You mean you think this cop has nothing better to do but to make up a lie about you to put you in jail?” When I got prosecuted, the cop got on the stand and lied his ass off. And my defense attorney friends, they get mad at me; they say, “Well, it shouldn’t have taken that to make you understand.” What I’ve said is that being prosecuted made a man out of me, a black man, and so now I understand a lot of what I didn’t understand before, including that rights don’t matter a whole lot for African-American men in the system.

The country that African-American men live in is not free.— Paul Butler

We have this sense that you have all these rights — the right to not talk to the police, the right to refuse consent. And some of those you certainly should try. Again, if the police ask you, “Can we search your car? Can we search your book bag?” I think all of us should just say “no,” to get the police used to hearing “no” and not responding. The police don’t have to read your Miranda warnings. If they don’t, that means that what they say can’t be used in court. What you say can’t be in used in court. But there are lots of exceptions to that. The police don’t even have to tell you why you’re being arrested. The Supreme Court’s never required that.

If we look at the different stages of the process, how to avoid the attention of cops is so important. That’s where, when I was writing sometimes, I talked to defense attorneys, I talked to cops, and they’d say things like, “Well, if it’s more than two black men together, outside, if it’s three black men. A black man in a car with a white woman. Three black men in a car.” So, a long list in Chokehold that will break your heart. The country that African-American men live in is not free.

I want to make it clear that this is not a race to the bottom. The claims that I’m making about black men could, as well, apply to other groups: black women, Latino people, Native people, trans people. Chokehold is about the intersection of blackness and maleness; it’s about race and gender, but other groups certainly experience some of the same dynamics with the cops.

MA: One of the things that I really appreciated about your book was that you acknowledge that black women do not have it better off. They’re not better off in this system than black men. And that it’s important to acknowledge the particular experience of black men or black women in the intersection of race and gender and how that plays out in the context of the system of mass incarceration. But to write a book that’s specifically about black men isn’t to deny the importance of the experience of black women. I think you did a better job, frankly, than I did in my book. I wrote in The New Jim Crow — I had a line in the book that said, “Look this book focuses on the experience on African-American men and I hope other scholars will pick up where I have left off and apply some of these ideas and themes more broadly in other context” — but I didn’t do what you did in this book, which is to drill down and explore kind of what the significance of intersectionality is in the context of our criminal justice system.

So, I wonder if you would say a little bit more about that, why it’s important for us to think very carefully about kind of the particular intersection of race, and class, and gender, in the context of the criminal justice system. And, also, why programs like, you know, My Brother’s Keeper, that have excluded black women from their focus are so problematic.

PB: Yes, so, I think about in Chokehold, the event at the White House where President Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper and it was the most bipartisan moment of his presidency. So, My Brother’s Keeper is a program for African-American boys and men, boys of color and men, Latinos and Native-American men as well. And, at this White House ceremony, there were people you’d expect to be there, like, the major leaders of the civil rights organizations. And, some people who you might not expect, like, Mayor Bloomberg, Bill O’Reilly, a lot of people.

Mayor Bloomberg had said a couple of weeks before that the problem with Stop and Frisk in New York was that too many light people were being stopped and not enough black people because of political correctness. When I saw him there cheering on this program for black men, I said, “What’s up with that? Why would he be there?” President Obama even made a joke about it. He said, “If I have Bill O’Reilly and Al Sharpton at the same program, I must be doing something right.” Well, maybe not. [laughter]

There’s nothing about black male achievement that creates these kind of strange bedfellows because as we saw, a lot of people think that the problem is us, that we need to just fix our culture, the way that we perform masculinity, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about being shot by the police. One concern about those programs is that they reinforce that stereotype. President Obama said the idea of My Brother’s Keeper came to him after Trayvon Martin was killed. Trayvon Martin didn’t need a male role model; he was on his way to his dad’s house when he was gunned down. So, it was unclear how a program designed to foster black male achievement would make a difference in the kind of structural concerns, the entrenched white supremacy that was about why Trayvon Martin was killed, why Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland — why they were killed.

One concern about these programs and about this sole focus on black men is that they get the problem wrong. The problem is not brothers; the problem is, again, the system working the way it’s supposed to. This dynamic of law and policy in our everyday practice is subordinating, keeping black men down, and then blaming us, punishing us for the subordination. And, the other concern is that they leave women out. So, this was President Obama’s signature racial justice initiative. The most feminist president in history, married to a lawyer, two wonderfully smart daughters, but why would he leave half of the race out if this is his main racial justice thing?

Again, the concern is it stems from a particular view of black men as, again, needing fixing and then it will be all good. That’s not how racism works, that’s not how white supremacy works, right? Black girls live in the same neighborhoods, have the same teachers and deal with the same cops as black boys. I thought that there needed to be an analysis that focused on race and gender, but I wanted to do it different from the way that some people had done it before.

Again, Michelle, I think your work, obviously — it started this movement. I think it was great. But one of the things I like about black culture is this call and response, right? You take it here and then give it to me and then I’ll give it back to you. You see that in hip-hop, you see that in visual art and we see that in scholarship. So I looked at Michelle’s work and I thought, “Is there anything left to be said?” And, one thing I thought: “Well, how about drilling down on this focus on race and gender?”

The subordination of black men has always been as much about gender as about race. So it wasn’t enough, as you saw in the exhibit, for black men to be lynched — their penises had to be cut off and stuck in their mouths. In police cases, we see this repeated pattern of sexual violence against black men as well. Punishing us for gender as well as race. That’s Chapter 5 — check it out and, again, let’s have this back-and-forth. Let’s continue, because it’s hard. I’m a proud black man, I’m proud to be an African-American man. I’m mad at the injury that white supremacy does to my masculinity. At the same time, I don’t know what it means to empower maleness in a patriarchal society. So that’s something that, Michelle, you have to help us with.

MA: I think that one of the things that neither of our books does is explore, carefully, the unique experience of women of color and black women in the era of mass incarceration. But there is a new book that does and, so, I want to give a shout-out to a book that I really encourage folks to pick up and read, as well, called Invisible, No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, by Andrea Ritchie. I think it’s a wonderful complement to your book and, also, a phenomenal book by Susan Burton, called Becoming Ms. Burton, describing the experience of one of my friends and heroes, who has become a real leader in the movement of formally incarcerated people for the restoration of their basic civil and human rights. And I think that those authors and their work is such an important compliment to your book and to the work that we’re trying to build together. So I encourage folks to check out that work as well.

PB: And when we think about building communities, intentional communities, it’s so important to come together with other folks who are doing the work that you’re doing. So with Andrea’s book about black women — there’s a writer’s retreat that Kimberlé Crenshaw, who’s the architect of intersectionality, she sponsors in Negril, every year — and that’s where Alvin and I hang out, that’s where Andrea and I went back and forth. She’s writing a book about black women, I’m writing a book about black men and the police. The Soros Justice Fellows — that’s where I get to hang out with Michelle and Susan Burton. So, again, these communities are all intentionally formed but really generative. So when we think about, “Well, what is it that we can do to make a difference,” it’s so important to come together with other people who feel like you do and to work together.

MA: You know, I want to circle back, though, to this kind of whole question of, it’s the system, it’s not us that’s the problem.

PB: Yes.

MA: Because one of the things that you highlight in your book is that, for example, black police officers are more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects than white police officers, and that there’s also survey data that suggests that many stereotypical views of African-Americans, negative stereotypes, are actually held more intensely by black people than by white people. Not all stereotypes, but some of the most damning stereotypes are actually held more intensely by black folks than white folks. And, certainly, it was my experience when The New Jim Crow first came out, that I received some of the strongest pushback from black preachers, when I’d be on their radio shows, who would argue most strenuously that really it was black men who were the problem, that they needed to pull up their pants, they needed to act right. And one of my deep concerns is that the system of mass incarceration really has turned the black community against itself in ways that the system of Jim Crow segregation, for example, did not. And that the shaming and the blaming in this era has been so internalized by so many of us that it’s difficult for us to imagine that, kind of as you put in the book, that we didn’t bring all of this on ourselves. That, perhaps, we actually are responsible for this tidal wave of punitiveness that’s washing over us. So I’m curious what your response is to that.

After an event that I did a couple of years ago, I was introduced to an Asian-American man who runs an academic enrichment program for urban kids, black kids, and he came up to me after my talk and said, “You know, I have shared this book with my students because I want them to come to see that they’re not the problem. That they actually believe the worst things that are said about them in the media.” And he’s like, “In so many ways, that’s the critical different between these urban black kids and immigrants who come to this country; they don’t actually believe all the crap that’s said about them.” So I wonder — if we say it’s the system, it’s not us that’s the problem, whether we’re fully aware of the extent to which we have internalized many of the ideas of the system in a way that make us very much complicit with and part of the problem.

PB: Yes, I think that’s so true. With regard to black cops, when I looked at the data, threat vulnerability perception — that’s what it’s called when the cop sees your cell phone but he thinks it’s a gun and he shoots you; it happens quite frequently with black men more than any other group. Who’s most likely to do that? The data suggest Latino cops, then black cops. An African-American man, looking at the data, is actually safest around a white cop. Now, all we have is that data; we don’t have an explanation for why that is. One reason might be that black cops are selectively deployed in black neighborhoods and so they have more exposure. But a number of other studies have suggested that African-American cops are more likely to shoot a black person.

MA: Boyz n the Hood highlighted that, and that was a long time ago.

PB: Yes, and my first book was about hip-hop and criminal law — and hip-hop is full of stories about, well, as NWA puts it, “The black cops showing off for the white cop.” I think we need black police officers, we need communities that are patrolled by people who look like us, in part because most of what cops do isn’t arrest people. They arrest a whole lot of people, but most of what they do is what we call community caretaking. And it’s important to have black people in that position.

But in terms of the concerns that I identify in Chokehold about violence, against the erosion of civil liberties, about how black men don’t live in a free country, black cops don’t make a difference there. And I know, based on my experience living in the District of Columbia — in the District of Columbia, black people were actually overrepresented on the police force. Blacks are about 50 percent of the city’s population, about 70 percent of the cops are black.* And guess what else? DC has the highest rate of black male incarceration of any jurisdiction in the country. So part of what was going on is — what happened when I was a prosecutor, one of the reasons I was hired — is for jurors who were, at the time, mainly African-American, who would come to a criminal court. In DC, like New York, like Chicago, like a lot of cities, if you go to criminal court, you will think that white people don’t commit crimes. They’re just not present in the numbers that black and Latino people are there.

One of the reasons I was hired was to be a black prosecutor for jurors who had these concerns to see this chocolate skin, it’s supposed to make them think, “It’s all good. This brother’s up here, go to sleep.” I’m so glad that those jurors didn’t go to sleep and the first thing that I wrote about when I left the prosecutor’s office and started teaching was this amazing intervention they were making in nonviolent drug cases. When they knew the guy was guilty and they would say, “Not guilty,” because they said there were too many black men in jail. You know, if there was a way to keep some out, and these were old black people who had moved to DC from North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s and it was a bother to be called to jury duty but it was also an honor. But, for once, these jurors had a little power over the law and when they got that power, they used it the best way that they knew how. And, Michelle, I know you’ve had some great ideas about ways to use the criminal process and including the tragedy that 95 percent of people plead guilty — ways to disrupt. So I don’t know if you want to talk just for a moment about that.

MA: Well, sure. You know, I mean, it actually wasn’t my idea, it was Susan Burton’s idea. Susan Burton, in a conversation with me a few years ago, she called me up one day and said, “You know, a group of us organizers have been thinking about ways to crash this system. What could we do to disrupt this system in a way that would help to capture the attention of this nation and kind of force a real reckoning?”

And she said, “One of the ideas that came up was what if, what if we all exercised our right to trial. If it’s true that 95 percent of all cases are plea bargained out, if we just started exercising our right to trial, wouldn’t the system just crash? Wouldn’t it just grind to a halt?”

And I had to acknowledge that she was right, that there aren’t enough judges, there aren’t enough prosecutors, there aren’t enough defense attorneys — you couldn’t call enough people to jury duty to manage the millions of cases that churn in and out of our system every day. But, of course, the problem is that the US Supreme Court has ruled that you effectively can punish someone for exercising their right to trial and if people began to exercise their right to trial as a form of protest, on a large scale, prosecutors could threaten people with life imprisonment, that we’re going to add decades to your time if you don’t cop a plea.

And I remember Susan saying, “Well, yes, maybe some of us are going to have to risk our lives in order to bring this system to a halt.” But it’s difficult for me to advise people to exercise their right to trial just for the sake of doing it to make a point, knowing that, yes, prosecutors can throw decades of time at you simply for the inconvenience of taking your case to trial.

I think it is important to recognize that this system depends on our cooperation in order for it to hum along in the way that it does.— Michelle Alexander

So there are strategies to disrupt the system, but they come with a price. And as Susan said then, “Well, during the civil rights movement, during the black freedom struggle, people had to be willing to risk their lives.” And people are, in fact, risking their lives every day on the streets when they even take the risk of speaking back to a police officer who says, “All right, nigger, spread your legs. It’s time for you to be frisked.”

So I have trouble advocating for that as a strategy, knowing what the consequences would be. But I think it is important to recognize that this system depends on our cooperation in order for it to hum along in the way that it does. The minute we all decided to no longer cooperate, it would come crashing down. But on the point of kind of what our responsibility is in all this, one of the things that I also wanted to raise is that your book devotes a whole chapter to violence — specifically, violence in inner-city communities and the so-called black-on-black crime that is often raised as a justification for not only harsh punitive sentencing practices but also extremely harsh forms of policing. And you write at the beginning of the chapter that many people told you not to write this chapter — that you had people basically begging you, “Don’t devote a whole chapter to the subject of black-on-black crime.” I wonder if you could say a little bit about why you decided to do so and what you felt was critical for people to understand.

PB: White supremacy doesn’t only explain our brutal policing and mass incarceration. White supremacy also explains this extraordinary risk that black men have of being victims of violence. Victims — either as people who are harmed or people who are harm-doers. And the concern I have is that often the problem gets framed as about black male deficiencies — that the brothers just need to stop smoking each other. And that it’s not placed in a context in which if you think about the culture that’s most implicated in black people being at risk for violence, it’s not black culture, it’s white culture. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Two factors explain what’s going in places like Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles — if you have high poverty, segregated neighborhoods and easy access to guns, that’s a recipe for violence. The reason why white men don’t commit some street crimes at the same level as black men is about the privilege that they have, even as low-income white folks, to not live in these areas. So, if we look at the data, white poor people live in areas that are much closer to middle-class people than black poor people do. There’s no poor like black poor. I talk about that data in Chokehold.

We’re creating this recipe for disaster and we have to ask — there’s a national conversation about why there’s easy access to guns going on right now, a national conversation, that if, like previous national conversations, won’t go anywhere, right? But we also need our conversation about why it is that 7 out of 8 of the people who live in these high-poverty, segregated neighborhoods are black or Hispanic. That’s about choices that white people make, choices not to live — the magic number for black people is 10 percent; actually, that’s the magic number for white people.

If a community is more than 10 percent black, white people won’t move there; they feel unsafe. So the choices that people make about where they live, who they love, in terms of race, who they send their kids to school with — these are all implicated in the creation of these communities, these neighborhoods that are breeding ground for violence. Are there things that brothers could do to make a difference? Yes.

But at the end of the day, those kinds of strategies — getting people to graduate from high school, that makes them much less at risk for going to jail. So we should focus not just on those reforms, but we need to think about transformation. And I think one of the wonderful things about the work that Michelle is doing is [that] it’s not just about criminal justice — she’s helped us understand that the problem is much broader than that. Maybe we can fix the police. Maybe. Maybe we can reduce incarceration. But what we need to do is not reform but transform. And what needs to be identified, specifically, as a problem is white supremacy.

MA: Well, that’s exactly kind of what I wanted to ask you. This will be my last question. I want to invite people who have questions to come to the microphones that are out here, if you have questions for Paul or want to join this conversation. But I want to ask you a little bit about kind of this question of what it would take to transform this system.

At one point in your book, you observed that if the police were behaving in white communities the way they routinely behave in black communities, there would be a revolution — a literal revolution. And history suggests that you’re right. In fact, the American Revolution was inspired in large part by arbitrary and abusive kind of police practices.

And I wanted to ask you: What is your view of why, if that’s true for white folks — if that kind of policing would inspire a revolution for whites, why do you think it hasn’t in the same way for blacks? And I want to kind of preface it by saying, in some ways it has inspired revolutions, right? The Black Panther Party — multiple efforts have been made in this country to engage in genuinely kind of revolutionary resistance against the police and we know how those stories have ended. And in part, that could be the answer to the question itself.

It’s something that I wrestled with as well, once I finally woke up to the severity of what was going on in these communities, which is why have we been as quiet as we have for so long, even in the face of a literal war being waged on our communities. And what might be kind of the way forward and in the beginning of your book, you say, “It’s much bigger than just mass incarceration or reforming of the police.” But then I was struck at the end that when you talk about prison abolition, you are still talking about ending prisons; you’re not talking about a larger revolution that would kind of challenge the nature of American democracy or try to remake American democracy as a whole. So I wonder if you could just say a few words about when you say, “transformation,” and that we need to challenge white supremacy, what does that mean for you?

PB: It’s hard because if you look at reforms of police, like when the Justice Department comes in, when I looked at the data — I talk about this in Chokehold — they just work about half the time. Half the time, violence goes down after the department comes in. The other half of the time, guess what happens? Police violence goes up. But in those places where it goes down, what that means is that fewer people are beat by the cops, fewer people are killed by the cops. So is it worth it to do those kinds of reforms? For those lives that are saved, for those bodies that are preserved, the answer is, yes, it’s worth it.

But that gets in the way of the larger project about transformation. In Chokehold I say, “OK, there are specific things we can do that will make the police better. There are specific things we can do that will make our criminal process more effective.” But what we need — the activists, the folks who would have been runaway slaves, the people who would have held housing on the Underground Railroad, the people who would have led insurrections — we need you to be the activists for abolition, for transformation, for abolishing white supremacy. That’s a conversation; all of those are conversations. So if you ask me now three things to do to abolish white supremacy, I’d have my own ideas, but I welcome yours as well. Same thing with abolition.

With abolition, people are usually concerned, very concerned about the 5 percent — except they don’t know it’s 5 percent — 5 percent are locked up for murder or for sex crimes. So 95 percent of people are not locked up for what we think of as the most serious crimes. So even not knowing what to do about those 5 percent right now, we can start with that 95 percent. We can start with the 80 percent of people who are locked up who have mental illness or addiction. Prisons — I would say that they’re the largest provider of mental health services, except they don’t actually provide those services. What they do is house people. We can start with the 10 percent of people who are 55 or older — another mind-blowing statistic — prisons are opening assisted living facilities for people who, obviously, don’t need to be in prison.

So again, why focus on abolition? Because prisons are violent places that degrade the soul. When I was a prosecutor and I had to go interview a witness in a prison, the first thing I would do when I left is go home and take a shower. You want to wash that off of you. And it’s a shame that any human being has to live like that — that we do that to people, that we stick them in cages, especially for the vast majority who would not harm us if we weren’t there. Is that going to end white supremacy? No. That’s why we need all of us to do both of those tasks. So, in Chokehold, I suggest a division of labor. The folks who aren’t sure what they think about abolition — work with the NAACP, work with the ACLU, or work with organizations that want reform. The title of one of my favorite books, But Some of Us Are Brave — for the folks who would have been out there with Harriet Tubman — your work is to abolish white supremacy. Your work is to come up with a way to do that and then to do it.

The event was presented in conjunction with The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America, organized by the Brooklyn Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative with support from Google. This event was presented in partnership with Open Society Foundations and The New Press. Thank you to the Brooklyn Museum for allowing to film the conversation and present it here.

Editor’s Note: Although 70 percent of the Washington, DC police force are minorities, only 60 percent are African-American.

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