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Surprise! NYPD Commissioner Bratton Doesn’t Think Race Had Anything to Do With Eric Garner’s Death

William Bratton NYPD

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Today, Eric Garner will be laid to rest. Garner was 43 years old and died last week after an altercation with NYPD. A police officer placed him in a chokehold and pushed his head into the ground until he stopped breathing. We know this because the incident was captured on video.

Garner is the latest in a long line of black people beaten and/or killed due to police brutality. But Police Commissioner Bill Bratton would rather we not think about race.

“I personally don’t think that race was a factor in the incident involved in this tragic death,” Bratton told The New York Observer. He’s watched the video and doesn’t think “the issue of race entered into this at all.”

Bratton made the same mistake that most people make when discussing racism in America. He takes the absence of any explicit references to race to mean that race/racism played no role in this interaction. No one used any racial slurs, the silver bullet of racial animus. None of the officers yelled, “Choke him! He’s black!” No one said that black men are animals who aren’t fit to live. Nothing of that sort happened. And because of the way we understand racism as an individual feeling of hatred toward a group of people based on skin color, it’s easy to then conclude that race wasn’t a factor here.

But history is present whether we invite it to the table or not. We don’t escape America’s history of racism because we believe ourselves to be good people, or that we’re just doing our jobs. It’s already defined our lives.

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Racism created these neighborhoods where people live in poverty without access to decent jobs. Racism has determined which activities are illegal and who has been arrested for those actions. The selling of untaxed cigarettes, for example, for which police officers were attempting to arrest Eric Garner, is a petty crime that is almost exclusively enforced in communities of color. Racism taught us who is and is not a threat. Racism provided the justification for eliminating the threat. Before Eric Garner ever met Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who put him in the chokehold, racism had completed the work of shaping how they would interact.

While Bratton has ordered the entire police force to be retrained on the use of force, if he were actually committed to this never happening again, he would also order them to take classes on unlearning racism. Mayor de Blasio would be wise to fire Bratton, as it was a terrible choice for commissioner all along.

As for Eric Garner, may he rest in the peace he was denied while he was alive.

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Eric Garner’s death due to police violence.

Why Is the 2022 World Cup Being Held in a Country That Practices Modern-Day Slavery?

Migrant workers

Migrant construction workers on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar (Reuters/Stringer)

This summer, the populist fervor of Brazil’s World Cup sparked riotous street protests against the country’s economic hierarchy. But the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is being built in an even more unequal country, and there will likely be little public unrest, just vast expanses of deserts and skyscrapers, where the country’s poorest workers are forced to toil in silent captivity.

In this miniature oil empire, a tiny elite lords over an impoverished majority of imported workers. Now that thousands of those migrants are constructing the state-of-the-art arenas and gleaming modern transit hubs of world football, rights advocates are pushing for an abolition of Qatar’s medieval labor regime.

Human rights activists estimate the true costs of the World Cup in terms of the rising migrant death toll, estimated at about 1,200 nationwide since the World Cup was awarded, projected to reach 4,000 by the time the games begin. According to advocates, the harsh labor conditions at the game sites and surrounding infrastructure have led to a massive fatality rate; causes range from construction-related injuries to cardiac arrest to suicide.

In recent weeks, the Qatari government has presented reform plans such as strengthening employment contract law, improving housing standards and better regulating wage payments. Though it has shown more openness to labor reform than other Persian Gulf states, the government disappointed advocacy groups by stopping short of endorsing a minimum wage or unionization rights, and providing no set timetable for policy changes. Recently, the Qatar Foundation, a quasi-governmental think tank, issued one of the most extensive analyses yet of migrant labor issues, with similar reform recommendations, but still did not endorse the radical changes that rights groups have demanded.

Though the reform proposals encourage greater transparency and oversight of employers, along with international collaboration with migrant’s home countries, they basically leave intact (aside from a name change) the traditional structure of labor sponsorship, known as the kafala system, which activists say is at the root of the mistreatment and exploitation of migrants.

Investigations by media and advocacy groups like the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Human Rights Watch have revealed that workers bound by kafala, mostly from South Asia, often live in squalid encampments, labor all day in hazard-prone, sweltering building sites and often suffer fraud and wage theft. But the social and political isolation cuts the deepest. Workers are legally captives of their employers, blocking them from changing jobs or leaving the country.

The Qatar Foundation’s report, authored by the migration studies scholar Ray Jureidini, recommends developing “standardized ethical recruitment practices in the labor sending countries” and cutting down on excessive recruitment fees that put migrants in heavy debt. The report also recommends standardization and transparency in contracting. Nonetheless, it does not address workers’ needs for freedom of movement and the autonomy to break from an employer or leave the country. It also dismisses the idea of an equal pay law, arguing that “Qatari citizens have the highest GDP in the world,” so comparable wages for poor foreigners would be unfeasible.

Activist warn that whatever the law states, migrants in the kafala system typically have almost no legal recourse against abusive employers or protection from retaliation for challenging authority. The ITUC’s report on Qatar labor quotes a driver from the Philippines: “we are afraid to complain to the authorities. We see that workers who do complain are either blacklisted, deported or threatened. Our managers told us that workers who go on strike get deported within 12 hours.”

Even when migrant contract workers lose their jobs, they may end up stranded indefinitely if their employer does not give permission for them to return home. Workers who run away or are “abandoned” by their bosses might wind up homeless, unemployable and trapped on foreign soil.

Besides the World Cup labor camps, female household workers are even more vulnerable to abuse, as well as sexual violence. Thousands of domestic workers reportedly flee their bosses each year. A domestic worker, who ran away from a boss who had raped her, told the ITUC: “When I see a Qatari man, I am always afraid because I am thinking they will catch me and put me in jail, and send me to the Philippines. Running away from your sponsor is very difficult because I don’t have any legal papers, and then I cannot get a good job.”

Rights groups say the problem of migrant labor in Qatar is not simply that laws are not followed or enforced but that contracts are often used to control workers rather than to establish a mutual partnership, and thus lock them into an extremely oppressive system.

Union activists have called for a full abolition of the kafala system and guarantees of a minimum wage, freedom of assembly and collective bargaining, in accordance with international labor standards. The ITUC has even pushed for a rerun of the Qatar vote to stop the games altogether.

ITUC General Secretary Sharran Burrow tells The Nation via e-mail that the Qatar Foundation’s latest recommendations will be toothless unless migrants are guaranteed equal treatment and access to justice:

None of the reforms proposed in the Qatar Foundation report are going to work without rule of law, including a competent and fully-staffed labour inspectorate and a functional judiciary. If you look at the thousands of workers trapped in deportation centres, or with unsolved complaints, this is nowhere in evidence in Qatar. Once again, Qatar has shown a blind spot on the fundamental right of freedom of association. Not a word is mentioned in the Qatar Foundation report about Qatar meeting it’s international obligations.

But another challenge to reform is Qatar’s social and cultural anxiety about the country’s huge demographic imbalances. Qatar has one of the highest ratios of migrants to citizens, with foreign workers making up some 85 percent of the population.

James Dorsey, longtime observer of Mideast soccer politics and senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, says that while the “enlightened autocracy” that rules Qatari society might be open to basic improvements in working conditions, the fundamental shift needs to begin on a cultural level. If Qatari officialdom ultimately decides to broach political issues like union rights and freedom of association, he says, it would follow “as a consequence of” other social and political restructuring as the country faces the fallout of minority rule.

At the same time, change is being accelerated by public pressure, as Qatar faces greater worldwide scrutiny in its bid to gain “soft power” through cultural and commercial investments.

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“What the Qataris are realizing is that their winning of the right to host the World Cup not only gave them leverage, but gave others leverage,” Dorsey tells The Nation. “So suddenly…groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, they have moral authority,” amid the public outcry over worker deaths. “The ITUC,” he adds, “potentially has 175 million members in 153 countries, presumably a majority of those members are football fans, so it can actually move bodies.”

The upshot of World Cup 2022 is that in the glaring spotlight of football’s globalized populism, Qatar is finally being held to account for labor abuses that would otherwise be dismissed as just the cost of doing business. And fans around the world will now see that their fellow workers have paid the ultimate price for a few days of sporting spectacle.

 

Read Next: China Bars Sex Worker Rights Activist From Travelling to International Aids Conference.

Rick Perry Uses Immigrant-Bashing as Path to 2016

Rick Perry

On July 21, 2014, in Austin, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced he is deploying National Guard troops to the Mexican border to combat criminals that Republican say are exploiting a surge of children and families entering the US illegally. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The last time, on June 23, that Christie Watch paid attention to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential hopes (“Will Rick Perry’s Comedy Show Be Renewed for Another Season?”), it was pretty hard to take the gaffe-prone, oops!-inducing, goofy Texan seriously. A month later, nothing’s changed, except that Perry has moved from circling around another national run to diving right in. And, although the competition is stiff, Perry seems to be angling to be the GOP’s most conservative, hawkish, in-your-face anti-Obama partisan in the race—which takes some doing. So why is it important to keep track of Perry, who’s mired in the low single digits in most polls? Because the views that he’s been expressing lately are downright dangerous, and he could succeed in pushing the GOP field even further to the right.

That’s especially true in connection with immigration, where Perry is separating himself from the more establishment-leaning Republicans who might look for a compromise with President Obama on the issue—at least, if they weren’t under pressure from the Tea Party and from those espousing radical, anti-immigration views. Perry is scrambling to lead those forces now.

On July 20, during his most recent foray north to Iowa—his third visit to Iowa already in 2014, and he’ll be back again in August for a Christian-right powwow—Perry announced his latest gambit, telling an Iowa crowd that if President Obama doesn’t crack down hard on people coming across the Mexico-Texas border, he’ll do it himself, according to The Des Moines Register. Said Perry:

We’ve sent the message that if we don’t get the satisfaction that the federal government’s going to move and move quickly, then the state of Texas will in fact fill that void.

In a dramatic, grandstanding gesture on returning to Texas, Perry proclaimed that he’s dispatching a thousand members of the Texas National Guard south to the Rio Grande Valley (“As governor of Texas, I’m activating the Texas National Guard”), a move that Texas Democrats said will cost the state at least $12 million a month and do no good. But Perry, like many of Europe’s far-right parties, is appealing to nativist, anti-immigrant fervor among the Tea Party and the GOP ultra right, contrasting his harsh anti-immigrant stance with President Obama’s pro-reform stand. And he blamed Obama, who recently paid a visit to Texas—and met with Perry to discuss the growing problem of unaccompanied young children entering the United States—for the fact that Latin American workers and their families want to come to America. It’s a sharp tilt to the right for Perry: Back in 2012, of course, Perry expressed views that were far less hostile to undocumented immigrants, especially children, than what he’s saying now, and he was pilloried for it by other candidates; so, it appears, Perry isn’t going to make that mistake again.

At the same time, in an effort to outflank his Tea Party competitors such as Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Perry has decided to take the lead in demonizing the foreign policy views of libertarian/isolationist Senator Rand Paul. He kicked off the assault with an op-ed in The Washington Post on July 11, in which the Texas governor blasted the Kentucky senator for advocating “a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world.” Instead, Perry called for US airstrikes in Iraq plus “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing.” Paul hit back at Perry in a Politico op-ed, calling Perry “stuck in the past,” but Perry was widely praised by the dominant hawkish and neoconservative wing of the GOP, and it touched off a battle, becoming increasingly nasty, within the Republican party that promises to intensify. And despite Paul’s principled stand against American interventionism, he’s likely to execute a tactical retreat on foreign policy and national security issues under pressure from Perry, Rubio and Cruz, along with Chris Christie, who’s opted to adopt a mostly neoconservative, pro-Likud foreign policy, too.

So, as Perry goes back and forth from Texas to Iowa, he’s drawing positive attention from neoconservative outlets such as The Weekly Standard and other conservative publications and writers. (Even Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s sharp-tongued blogger who was implacably hostile to Perry in 2012, has been saying nice things lately.) The Weekly Standard recently touted a new Gallup survey showing that Perry is one of four potential 2016 candidates with 40-percent-plus ratings for “favorability,” the others being Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan. In a Weekly Standard column called “Rick Perry, Version 2.0,” Fred Barnes writes:

Rick Perry is no longer dead. He is alive, well, and hyperactive as a national political figure. He’s now a leading candidate to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, assuming he runs. He has admirers in the media. Jennifer Rubin, the hard-to-please blogger for the Washington Post, wrote recently: “The media and voters are seeing a Rick Perry largely absent in the 2012 race—shrewd, self-possessed, competent and calm.” He has fostered ties to the community of conservative experts and intellectuals. For seven hours this spring, four prominent foreign policy experts met with Perry at the governor’s mansion in Austin. As they walked to their hotel afterwards, one of them said, “Is that really the same guy we saw in 2012?”

And it’s not just The Weekly Standard that’s taking the clownish Perry seriously. Everyone, it seems, is taking note of Perry’s immigrant-bashing Iowa speech for its ability to bring Republicans to their feet. In a long feature on July 22, entitled “Seeking redemption in 2016, Rick Perry finds power in immigration standoff,” The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker interviewed Perry during his most recent Iowa visit, stressing his thundering call to stop people from coming to the United States illegally:

“I will tell you this,” [Perry] added, his voice growing louder. “If the federal government does not do its constitutional duty to secure the southern border of the United States, the state of Texas will do it!” The activists rose to their feet and cheered. Perry had scored a touchdown.

Noting that Perry had abandoned wearing cowboy boots, adopted “hipster” glasses and is now “more bookish than buckaroo,” the Post cited Perry’s ongoing effort at “intellectual reinvention”:

What he lacks in sizzle from 2011 he’s making up for with newfound substance on issues such as the economy and turmoil in the Middle East. … He sat on a panel in January with former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Next month, he flies to China for his second World Economic Forum and is planning a fall trip to England, Poland, Croatia, Romania and the Baltics.

Charlie Cook, the veteran political prognosticator, writing in National Journal, is paying serious attention to Perry, too. Citing coverage from The Des Moines Register, Cook writes:

A piece this Sunday on Texas Gov. Rick Perry in The Des Moines Register by the paper’s top political reporter, Jennifer Jacobs, caught my eye. Jacobs’s observations about seeing Perry on the stump in Iowa in recent days matched my impressions from a meeting with him last month. Jacobs observed that “a guy who in the past didn’t seem like he could run for a governor’s office much less the Oval Office seemed like a different candidate, Iowans said, after Perry talked about ‘prosperity and hope and freedom,’ as well as a favorite topic of his lately, immigration reform.” Jacobs went on: “‘We know how to secure the border,’ said Perry, the governor of Texas, his voice rising from quiet solemnity to a loud command, ‘and if the federal government will not do its duty, then I will suggest to you that the state of Texas will.’ ” Jacobs then noted, “That remark brought the audience of about 200 northwest Iowa Republicans to their feet for an extended standing ovation. And the room was buzzing after the 16-minute speech at the dinner, a fundraiser for nine county Republican parties.”

And Cook concludes:

Since Perry’s 2012 debacle, many observers have tended to write off his chances. But whether one agrees with him or not, he seems to have enough raw talent, combined with the benefit of past experience, that blowing him off might be premature.

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Yet in all the reporting from Iowa, most reporters had trouble finding voters ready to take Perry seriously. As the Chicago Tribune/Bloomberg reported, typically, one Iowa GOPer put it this way:

“I don’t think he is a serious candidate,” said Jim Cownie, a prominent Des Moines businessman and Republican. “I don’t think he can get going again. I think he’s perceived as being a little lacking in intelligence and he played into that when he lost his train of thought at the debate.”

Oops.

 

Read Next: Despite scandals, Christie gets good press in Iowa.

We’re Arresting Poor Mothers for Our Own Failures

Shanesha Taylor

Shanesha Taylor, photographed by the Scottsdale police at the time of her arrest. (AP Photo/Scottsdale police)

You’ve probably heard the name Shanesha Taylor at this point. She’s the Arizona mother who was arrested for leaving her children in the car while she went to a job interview. Her story went viral thanks likely to a truly heart-wrenching, tear-stained mugshot. Taylor, who was homeless, says her babysitter flaked on her and she didn’t know what else to do while she went to a job interview for a position that would have significantly improved her family’s financial situation.

You may also have heard the name Debra Harrell. She’s the South Carolina mother arrested for letting her 9-year-old daughter play in a park alone while she worked her shifts at McDonalds. It’s the summer, so Harrell had had her daughter play on a laptop at her McDonalds location until the laptop was stolen from their home. Instead, she let her daughter go to the park with a cell phone for emergencies.

Neither of these are ideal situations for children. Being locked in a hot car can cause heat stroke, and thirty-eight children die from it every year. About 58,200 children are abducted by non-family members in a given year, many of them from parks. Considering there are about 74 million children in the country, both of these events are relatively rare, and neither Taylor’s nor Harrell’s children were actually harmed. But a slight danger remains.

Whose fault is it that these children were put in these situations to begin with? These weren’t mothers doing drugs or other dangerous activities and neglecting their children; they were both mothers trying to hold down jobs to provide for their children while stuck swirling in a Catch-22. Can’t work or interview without childcare, but can’t afford childcare without a job that pays enough to cover the ever-increasing cost. Taylor and Harrell are both holding up their end of the deal: don’t rely on public assistance, go out and get work to provide for your children. Our country has reneged on its end of that deal: we’ll help you pay for someone to watch your children if you go to work.

In the mid-1990s, President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law that changed welfare in America profoundly. One of the major changes welfare reform brought about was the work requirement. Now, even women with young children were required to be working, or looking for work, in order to receive benefits. In a radio address after signing the bill, Clinton promised that if poor people went to work, “we will protect the guarantees of health care, nutrition, and child care, all of which are critical to helping families move from welfare to work.”

We broke that promise. State and federal childcare spending last year fell to the lowest level since 2002. Much of the money available for childcare comes to states through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or today’s version of welfare, but TANF hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since 1996. It’s lost a third of its value since then. The money spent on childcare has declined from a high of $4 billion in 2000 to $2.6 billion in 2013. That means fewer and fewer children get subsidized care. The number of children served by subsidies is at the lowest level since 1998. In Taylor’s home state of Arizona, childcare spending has been axed by 40 percent, dropping 33,000 kids. In Harrell’s, it was cut by more than 30 percent, dropping 2,500 children.

We’ve also taken the rug out from under any mothers who might need assistance because they can’t find work or the work doesn’t pay enough. In 1996, welfare reached 72 percent of poor families with children. That had dropped to a mere 26 percent by 2012.

So when a homeless mother needs to go to a job interview or a mother making less than $8 an hour needs to go to work, what options have we given them? Few, if any.

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(That doesn’t even to get into the fact that Harrell may wrestle with erratic schedules, finding out when she has to be at work a week ahead of time or less and making it challenging just to find childcare, let alone afford it. Or that Taylor may face a long time without another job interview in an economy with an unemployment rate for black women currently at 9 percent, compared to the overall 6.1 percent rate, and the next one may not pay enough to cover care.)

Both of these women are now out of jail. Taylor’s charges are likely to be dropped and she is also close to getting her children back, while Harrell’s case is pending but she’s been reunited with her daughter.

Yet both are still being punished. Taylor’s charges will only disappear if she completes not just parenting classes, but substance abuse classes despite drugs not playing any role in why her kids were left in the car. The message is that she is a “bad” mom because she tried to get a better job without a babysitter. Harrell has lost her job at McDonalds, which means she now has time to be with her daughter but no income to cover care if she tries to get interviews for another one. And in Harrell’s case, her neighbors were quick to cast blame on her, tsking her for daring to think she could leave her child in a public park because she might get “snatched.”

Low-income mothers of color are trying to fulfill their end of the bargain. But they face multiple roadblocks, many of which we’ve set up in front of them. No one should be surprised when they end up making choices we don’t think are best.

 

Read Next: What do recent conservative Supreme Court rulings mean for women’s economic security?

Russian and American News Media Give ‘Mirror Image’ Accounts of MH17 Crash

Flight MH17 Crash Site

A pro-Russia fighter secures the area at the crash site of flight MH17 near the village of Hravbove, Eastern Ukraine. July 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka) 

Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen discussed Russian and American media reactions to the MH17 crash on the Thom Hartmann Program Friday.  "Alas, the American mainstream press is saying, essentially…the shoot-down of that commerical aircraft is the fault of Russian President Vladimir Putin," says Cohen, contending that the American press does not adequately address the complex series of events that led to the crash, or its own government's involvement in the catastrophe. In a "mirror image" of the American account, Russian media speculate that the United States is at fault because it empowered Kiev to wage a heavy artillery plane assault on Eastern cities in Ukraine, which in turn allowed rebels access to air defense equipment.  According to Cohen, this conflict is part of what he calls the "new Cold War" that has been going on since at least February.
—Hannah Harris Green 

Appeals Court Advances Mortal Threat to Obamacare

Obamacare supporters

Obamacare protest (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

A divided three-judge panel in the nation’s capital ruled Tuesday morning that the federal government cannot provide Affordable Care Act subsidies through exchanges run by the federal government—a decision that, if it stands, would functionally end Obamacare as it exists today.

Halbig v. Sebelius is based on an idea first advanced by a conservative scholar deeply opposed to the healthcare law. It involves a drafting error in the Affordable Care Act—a “glorified typo,” in the words of the Center for American Progress’s Ian Millhiser.

The law creates exchanges for buying individual health insurance plans in each state, and says states can either create their own or have the federal government step in and do it for them. Twenty-seven states, usually controlled by conservative governors or legislatures, declined to create exchanges and have federal ones.

But in the section governing subsidies, a literal reading of the law appears to limit federal subsidies to people who are buying in “an Exchange established by the State.” The conservative activists behind this lawsuit—and the two judges who agreed with them Tuesday—say this means that people who aren’t in exchanges “established by the state,” that is the people in twenty-seven states with federal subsidies, are ineligible for subsidies.

The language is indeed a little unclear, and that line should have made it explicit that subsidies would be available in all exchanges, state or federal. But the Supreme Court has long held that ambiguous language in isolation does not vitiate the otherwise discernible intent of a law—and here it’s extremely easy to figure out what the Democrats who passed the ACA intended, not least because they filed a brief with the court explaining that, of course, the subsidies were supposed to go to any person in an exchange.

To believe otherwise, as the two judges in this case claim to do, would be to assume that Democrats intended to pass a law that would fail within a few years of enactment.

That’s just what would happen if this decision holds. A recent Urban Institute study found that 7.3 million people—close to two-thirds of all Americans enrolled in exchanges—would lose $36.1 billion in subsidies. People would start dropping out of the exchanges and declining to buy insurance because they couldn’t afford it; in turn, health insurance companies would have to jack up premiums for existing customers to make up for the lost revenue. The individual insurance market would essentially collapse in twenty-seven states.

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As a political matter, that could be a bit tricky for the conservative politicians celebrating the decision, like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. The 183,000 South Carolinians projected to receive subsidies on the federal exchange there would lose their subsidies, which cover about 80 percent of the premium costs should Tuesday’s decision in Halbig be affirmed by the Supreme Court. Most of those people are probably middle or lower-middle class, since they are eligible for subsidies.

That’s a tough thing to champion, even for conservative politicians. They should also be wary of an ultimate victory for the plaintiffs in Halbig because, conservative governors would feel immense pressure to enact a state exchange to avoid the massive loss of subsidies and skyrocketing premiums.

But we’re a long way from that. The Obama administration—which has already said subsidies will continue to flow as Halbig is litigated—quickly asked for an “en banc” ruling from the entire DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a majority of Democratic nominees. It would likely not rule in favor of the plaintiffs, and were the Supreme Court to consider that decision, most legal experts just don’t see enough existing case law for the conservative majority to affirm the plaintiff’s view. If it does, however, Obamacare will spin badly off its axis.

 

Read Next: John Nichols on the struggle for water rights in Detroit

Detroit's Fight for Water Rights Is Showing How to Battle (and Beat) Austerity

Detroit water

Protesters rallying outside Detroit’s water department in May 2014. (KTLA)

The austerity agenda as it plays out on the ground in American cities is often so relentless in demanding cuts in public services that it is easy to imagine that it cannot be upended. And that goes double for Detroit, where Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has given his appointed “emergency manager”—rather than local elected officials—control over critical decisions regarding city operations.

But that does not mean that austerity always wins.

Last week, protests by Detroiters and allies from across the country focused local, national and international attention on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s program of shutting off water service for thousands of low-income families that have fallen behind in paying bills. On Friday, religious leaders and community activists were arrested after blocking trucks operated by the private contractor that was responsible for the shutoffs. At the same time, a mass march filled the streets of downtown Detroit with protesters arguing that the most vulnerable citizens of a city hard hit by deindustrialization ought not be further harmed by the loss of a basic necessity that the United Nations deems a human right.

Members of National Nurses United and the Michigan Nurses Association declared the city to be “a public health emergency zone.” And Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, told the crowd, “Water should be available to everybody. It shouldn’t be something that only people who can afford it can get.”

On Monday, the Water and Sewerage Department announced that it was suspending water shutoffs for fifteen days. The department says it is merely “pausing” to do more education about what it refers to as a “collection campaign” to get payment for unpaid bills from residents of a city that is itself in the midst of a bankruptcy process. Activists with the People’s Water Board coalition say, “We have a little over two weeks to make [the halt to shutoffs] permanent.”

There is actually a great deal that must be done. “The city of Detroit’s fifteen-day moratorium on water shut-offs, announced [Monday] nearly four months after the shut-offs began, is welcomed but inadequate relief for a city in which thousands of residents either have lost or face the continuing threat of losing access to water,” announced the ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, both of which have argued that the water shutoffs violate both civil and human rights.

That focus on civil and human rights has been central to what has developed into a powerful challenge to to a specific manifestation of austerity in Detroit—a challenge that could serve as a model for other fights on the local, state and national levels.

The decision to suspend shutoffs came just three days after the arrests and the mass march brought the issues into clear focus—as was duly noted in local media. “The decision comes after the city has put into national spotlight for a policy that has been framed as a human rights issue for low-income residents who can’t afford to pay their bills,” the Detroit Free Press explained Monday. “It also was announced on the same day that a group of Detroit residents filed a lawsuit in the city’s bankruptcy case asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to restore water service to residential customers.”

Last week, Judge Rhodes told a representative of the Water and Sewage Department at a hearing, “Your residential shutoff program has caused not only a lot of anger in the city and also a lot of hardship”— adding, “It’s caused a lot of bad publicity for the city it doesn’t need right now.”

Those statements came before Friday’s march and rally, which garnered significant media attention and featured an appearance by actor and water rights activist Mark Ruffalo, who said, “The American people have got to know that this is wrong, and that it’s happening here and that it should be stopped.”

At Friday’s rally, Jean Ross, RN, co-president of National Nurses United, read an NNU declaration that warned, “We need clean water for proper sanitation to combat the growth and spread of multiple infectious diseases and pandemics. We need clean water for a safe and healthy environment. We demand the guarantee that all Detroit residents have immediate and full access to clean water.”

That message echoed the demands of local groups such as Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, People’s Water Board and the Michigan chapter of the National Action Network and Moratorium Now!—all of which are supporting the lawsuit—for an end to the shutoffs that have left some families without water while forcing others to sacrifice other necessities in order to pay what critics decry as excessive water fees.

Friday’s protests in Detroit also addressed the broader question of how cities, states and the nation should respond to financial turbulence. At several Detroit events over the weekend (when Netroots Nation met in Detroit) this writer joined Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, in discussions that focused attention on the unfairness of austerity responses that put too much pressure on low-income families while paying too little attention to the role of financial speculators. This continues to be the case, despite the fact that a recent Demos study concluded, “Detroit’s financial expenses have increased significantly, and that is a direct result of the complex financial deals Wall Street banks urged on the city over the last several years, even though its precarious cash flow position meant these deals posed a great threat to the city.”

Ellison, the author of legislation to create a “Robin Hood Tax” on financial speculation, asked Friday’s rally, “Instead of shutting peoples water off why don’t we raise the taxes on these corporations? We have a bill that would tax the transactions on stocks, bonds and derivatives so people can meet their basic needs like water.”

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Making that connection is important. What is happening in Detroit is part of a much broader scenario, in which decisions about how to pay bills and cover costs are too frequently made with little attention to human needs.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that when those human needs are brought into focus, the policymakers start to pay attention—and sometimes, they start to change the policies.

Read Next: Michelle Chen on the sex worker rights activist that China barred from attending the International AIDS Conference

A Young Climate Activist Reflects on Lessons Learned

G20 Climate

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

This is my tenth year as a climate activist—I just turned 22. Raised on a farm in Maine, there is one word that best describes my journey: evolution. My 12-year-old knees trembled when I first spoke in public. I was the epitome of introversion. I avoided rallies because they scared me. Now, I’ll gladly lead a rally. I’ll chant, if I believe in a cause. I’ll speak in front of anyone at any time. I’ll participate in direct action, if I think it’s necessary. Purpose gave me a voice.

Back at the beginning, I didn’t know that this kind of evolution was possible. I didn’t have role models who had traveled these roads. In the hopes of providing some guidance to other young climate activists, a decade seems like a good time to take stock of the lessons that I’ve learned.

My career as an activist began when I joined a campaign to protect a place I dearly love, Maine’s North Woods, from aggressive corporate development. I did research, testified at public hearings, wrote letters to newspapers and public officials and worked with local environmental organizations—all to protect my home.

When I entered high school, I was surprised that there was no environmental club, so I started the Climate Action Club (CAC). We began with small projects—letter-writing campaigns, recycling batteries, energy audits on classrooms. Eventually we launched the largest reusable bag campaign in the state, became the first school to install solar panels as a result of a student initiative and without government subsidies, won national and international awards and galvanized a movement in our school and community. We were even featured on the Sundance Channel. I learned that one person and one group of passionate committed individuals can build a powerful movement. This is when I started First Here, Then Everywhere, a website that aims to connect youth activists and spread the message of youth empowerment.

During the summer of 2012, I discovered the frightening power of the fossil fuel industry. That’s when I co-founded Divest Harvard (DH), a student-run campaign calling on Harvard to divest from fossil fuel companies. We join hundreds of divestment campaigns worldwide in a movement that aims to open political space for climate legislation by stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry.

Divest Harvard, just like the CAC, began with a small group of people in a room trying to figure out how to launch a campaign. Within three months, we had over 3,000 students in support of divestment, and we were featured in news outlets around the world. Now, as we enter our third year of campaigning, Divest Harvard is continuing to build momentum with almost 70,000 people who have publicly declared their support. It is yet another example of First Here, Then Everywhere.

I have distilled eight lessons from my first decade as an activist. The first four relate to effective strategies in the climate movement. The last four reflect my personal growth as an activist.

1) Adopt an “all of the above” climate strategy. The climate movement is unique for many reasons—one of which is that the potential audience is greater than that of any previous social movement. Therefore, the strategies and tactics used to engage people must be as diverse as people themselves. I strive to provide inclusive, varied and individualized avenues for engagement in campaigns.

2) Because climate change is urgent, it means that we need to be thoughtful—not reactive. I’ve been in a lot of situations where there is a dire sense of urgency to act because climate change is so pressing—even if the action is risky, ill-timed or counterproductive. Yes, climate change is urgent, and yes, we need to act quickly. But this urgency requires us to act strategically and thoughtfully because there isn’t time to fix major mistakes and cause mass alienation. We have one opportunity to build a climate movement, and the window for action is drawing to a close. So let’s make sure that we are thoughtful about our campaigns and do things right the first time.

3) Create choice points. Essential to good storytelling is the “choice point.” This is the moment when someone makes a decision that defines their narrative. For example, one of the powerful facets of the fossil fuel divestment moment is that it forces a choice: As an investor, will I support climate destruction, or will I move my money into climate solutions? The choice defines the person or institution. Creating choice points for yourself and others allows commitment to take shape. When it comes to voting or taking climate action—a clear choice can turn the tide.

4) Confront power to expose power. I learned this lesson through two experiences. First: the fossil fuel divestment movement. The movement puts the spotlight on the fossil fuel industry and the injustices that it perpetrates—from impacting frontline communities to political capture to climate denial. Divestment aims to expose the ways in which the fossil fuel industry uses its great power against the interests of society. This issue has become a focal point of international attention through conversations and confrontations over divestment.

Similarly, Divest Harvard exposed Harvard University’s values when we organized our first act of civil disobedience. Our campaign had called for an open public meeting on divestment with the administration for nearly a year. Our meetings with administration officials were off-the-record, leaving us no way to fully expose the shortcomings of their arguments. But Harvard refused to engage in public dialogue, despite the fact that free exchange is a core value of a Harvard education. Last spring, we resorted to direct action to create momentum towards an open meeting. We blockaded the doors to the administration building, while asking for a public debate. The result? The school arrested a student for the first time since the Vietnam War protests. Later that day, Margaret Atwood spoke on campus. When asked about the DH arrest that morning she said: “Any society where arrest is preferable to open dialogue is a scary place.”

5) Don’t use activism as a crutch. One of my professors gave me this piece of advice. I’ve often felt guilted into doing activist work. I’ve worried that taking time off or saying “no” to something would make me a “bad activist.” But activists need to be fully developed as people. I’ve been intentional about enabling all parts of my identity to flourish because I am more than just an activist. An effective activist is also an effective human being.

6) Don’t be afraid to evolve. Allowing myself to evolve has been central to my effectiveness as an activist. There have been times when I felt myself becoming ideologically attached to a certain theory of change. This made me reluctant to explore alternative avenues and perspectives. Now I try to remember that evolution is a necessary and natural part of life, including activism. It’s a process to embrace. I’ve felt frustrated and angry at the ideological rigidity of some activists’ and their refusal to entertain new ideas and strategies. Open and ever-evolving dialogue is necessary to grow a movement.

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7) Look to your peers. I have many adult role models, but there is something uniquely energizing in the social solidarity among peers. We are the first generation that will feel the effects of climate change. We are fighting for our futures. We understand each other when we say that we may not want to bring children into a climate-wrecked world. This connection will sustain our movement for years to come. We commiserate, deliberate, and celebrate.

8) Connect with your deepest sources of motivation. The beautiful thing about the climate movement (and most social movements) is that the motivation for action originates in love and empathy. Even if—on the surface—the climate movement seems to be about hating the fossil fuel industry and raging over political gridlock, the motivation is love for home, family, places, people, landscapes, creatures, ideas and the possibility of a better future. I’ve come to realize that connecting with this core inspiration for action is crucial to building a sustainable movement. We can’t nourish ourselves on hate. Let love and empathy give you purpose so that you can find your true voice.

 

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The Downing of Flight 17 Should Trigger Talks, Not More Violence

MH17 Flight

A piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lies in the grass near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The violence in eastern Ukraine has now claimed more innocent victims, with 298 dead in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Children, scientists headed to an AIDS conference, families on vacation—their deaths add to the hundreds of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of refugees victimized by the spreading conflict, which the Kiev government is now escalating.

The shooting of a civilian airliner is clearly a tragic mistake that no one wants to own, but that comes all too often in war zones. Currently, the Dutch government—193 of its citizens perished in the crash—said it “would hold off assigning blame as it pursues its top priorities of recovering the victims’ bodies and conducting an independent investigation of the crash site in eastern Ukraine.”

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However, in the United States, the tragedy has triggered a ferocious chorus of media and political condemnation of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Putin is called the “puppet master” or worse, with commentators asserting that he can end the war at will. The separatist militias in the east are scorned as Moscow’s pawns. The Kiev government’s bombing of its own cities and people is treated as a necessary response to Russian provocation.

All this ignores the context of this crisis and worse seems designed to fan the flames of the conflict. Already the United States has imposed new sanctions on Russia and is pushing its reluctant European allies to join. The Russians have responded with sanctions of their own. The Ukrainian government’s attacks in the eastern regions continue, with US aid and involvement certain to increase.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

 

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