A VICTORY FOR DEMOCRACY: Pressured by watchdog groups, civil rights organizations and a growing national movement for accountable lawmaking, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) announced on April 17 that it will disband its Public Safety and Elections task force. This entity has been the prime vehicle for proposing and advancing what critics rightly describe as voter-suppression and anti-democratic initiatives—not just restrictive Voter ID laws but also moves to limit citizen-proposed referendums. The task force has also been the source of so-called Castle Doctrine laws, which limit the ability of police and prosecutors to pursue inquiries into shootings of unarmed people like Trayvon Martin.
The announcement marked a dramatic turn of events, with major implications for state-based struggles over voting rights and elections, as well as criminal justice policy. But it does not mean that ALEC will stop promoting one-size-fits-all “model legislation” at the state level. The disbanding of the task force appears to be a desperate attempt to slow a recent exodus of high-profile corporations from the group’s membership rolls.
Anger over the Martin case intensified the focus on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and on the role of ALEC and the National Rifle Association in passing similar measures. ALEC, a right-wing “bill mill,” had already been under increasing scrutiny since the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation launched the ALEC Exposed project last summer. Pressure by the CMD; civil rights groups like the NAACP, National Urban League and Color of Change; and good-government organizations such as Common Cause and People for the American Way led to decisions by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s and other major corporations to drop their affiliations with ALEC. In many cases, the corporations suggested that while they were comfortable working with ALEC to push for policies favorable to their business interests, they didn’t relish being drawn into debates about issues like voting rights and gun control. ALEC’s decision cannot be seen as anything other than a response to the pressure the group has felt as those high-profile corporate members quit it almost daily.
But no one should see the dismantling of this task force as an excuse to stop paying attention to ALEC, or to stop pressuring corporations—and legislators—to quit the group. It remains one of the primary sources of anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-consumer and anti–public education legislation in the states. That’s why activist groups continue to say that ALEC must be exposed and challenged. JOHN NICHOLS
DEATH OF A LABOR ACTIVIST: On April 5 police in Bangladesh found the body of Aminul Islam near the Tangail-Maymanshing highway, 100 kilometers from his home. His body showed signs of torture, including crushed toes. According to his organization, the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Islam had called his colleagues two nights earlier to suggest they close the office early because he had seen a police van parked outside. BCWS has been in the cross-hairs of the National Intelligence Service since at least 2010, when it organized protests that spurred an increase in the country’s minimum wage to roughly $36 per month. On “what appear to be flimsy charges,” according to Human Rights Watch, authorities had detained Islam with two of his co-workers, Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter. A 2010 report released by the International Labor Rights Forum described the arrests as part of a “government campaign to shut down” BCWS and “quell worker resistance.”
The night he disappeared, Islam told colleagues he was going straight home but then called back to say he was meeting a worker who needed immediate help. He was never heard from again. In an April 11 letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, Human Rights Watch wrote that the conditions of his death “raise concerns of involvement by Bangladeshi security forces.”
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of apparel. Although in theory it is legal to organize, says Akter, a former apparel worker who was fired after trying to form a union, “our workers are not treated to that.” She says the intelligence service tortured Islam in jail and demanded he disavow BCWS. She also thinks security forces may be responsible for his murder.
“They have killed him,” says Akter. “But they also give us a message, that nobody is safe here now…. Not me. Not my colleagues. Not our families…. We don’t know who is next.” JOSH EIDELSON
ABOLITION, WITH A CATCH: Connecticut is poised to become the seventeenth state to abolish the death penalty—and the fifth in the past five years. On April 11 the House passed a Senate version of an abolition bill, which Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy has promised to sign. An earlier bill to abolish the death penalty was passed in 2009 but was vetoed by Republican Governor Jodi Rell. This new bill passed 20-16 in the Senate and 86-62 in the House.
The bill contains a number of compromises, made to secure the necessary Senate votes. The legislation will not be applied retroactively, meaning that eleven men will remain on death row. An amendment to the bill stipulates new conditions for prisoners sentenced to life without parole that will mirror death row: segregation, isolation for twenty-two hours a day and no contact visits. According to Senator Martin Looney, a key supporter of the bill, lawmakers consulted with the state’s corrections commissioner in crafting that language to ensure it would not run afoul of the Eighth Amendment. “He was concerned that if we were to go any further in terms of severe restrictions we might possibly create a challenge on those grounds, that the conditions were being too harsh,” Looney said. Michael Ross, the only Connecticut prisoner to be executed in the past fifty-two years, gave up his appeals after living on death row for eighteen years. He was executed in 2005.
Fifty-seven people who escaped a death sentence are already serving life without parole in Connecticut. Death penalty opponents say the crimes of this group are often indistinguishable from those committed by death row inmates, demonstrating the arbitrariness of the system. These fifty-seven will remain in the general prison population, unlike such convicts going forward. MELINDA TUHUS