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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.

 

Read Next: Whose summer break?—students fix the “Utah man,” lower the Confederate flag and ask Hillary for their money back.

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.

 

Read Next: Scientist and activist committed to ending AIDS perishes on MH17

Bad News

Tom Tomorrow

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Four Little Boys and the Price of Play in Gaza

Bakr children

Palestinians mourn over the lifless bodies of four Bakr Children. July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

When the Palestinian national soccer team secured entry into the 2015 Asia Cup, winning the right to play in an international tournament for the first time in its eighty-six-year history, crowds gathered by the hundreds to dance, play music and watch the triumph of their national team on large movie-sized television screens on the beaches on Gaza. The oceanfront represents the illusion of freedom for a land otherwise encircled by walls and checkpoints. People often gather on the beach to celebrate because it is a refuge from densely populated squalor that defines so much of an area that they have been compelled to call home. This is especially the case for children.

That brings us to the four Bakr boys. There was Mohamed Ramez Bakr, eleven years old, Ahed Atef Bakr and Zakaria Ahed Bakr, both ten, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, nine. They were all killed by an Israeli Defense Forces military strike while playing on the beach in surroundings as familiar to them as a corner playground.
 The first shell sent them running. The second took their lives. Existing in a land where are you are always underfoot, the beach is one of the precious few places a child can freely roam. In Gaza City, which sewage and pollution could make unlivable by 2020, according to a United Nations study, this is one of the only places where the air feels clean in your lungs. In a land where soccer fields are constantly under bombardment—Israel says that parks and stadiums are popular places for Hamas to launch rocket attacks—the beach is where you go to play.

The Bakr boys were killed in an area they believed to be safe. Mohamed’s mother, grieving at the hospital, was quoted by CNN as saying, “Why did he go to the beach and play—for them to take him away from me?” Several reporters on hand were shocked at what happened. Ayman Mohyeldin of NBC, tweeted: “4 Palestinian kids killed in a single Israeli airstrike. Minutes before they were killed by our hotel, I was kicking a ball with them #gaza.” After this, Mohyeldin was taken off the air, and was only allowed to return following an online campaign launched to defend him. The reasons behind NBC's decision to pull him and then return Mohyeldin to Gaza are still very much in depute. Whatever the cause, Mohyeldin was doing the kind of journalism that forced people to see Palestinians as actual human beings.

* * *

When people write, tweet, and message me with their unquestioned belief that Hamas is using the children of Gaza as human shields, I often wonder whether they make these assertions out of unknowing ignorance or out of a deeper kind of “let them eat cake” cruelty.

Maybe they don’t know that these same “human shield” accusations, made in 2008 and 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead bombing of Gaza, were found to be without evidence by Amnesty International.

Maybe they don’t know that to even speak of “human shields” in Gaza is absurd, because the Strip is fenced-in and residents have little right to come and go as they please. Maybe they don’t know that Gaza City is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, with most of Gaza’s 1.8 million people living in the urban heart of Strip.

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People in the United States may be ignorant about these overcrowded conditions, but the Israeli military commanders are certainly not. Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal quote that if the poor were starving and without bread, we should “let them eat cake,” has become Netanyahu’s “let them find shelter.” He says, “Let them evacuate” when the only truly safe place is on the other side of a checkpoint. Someone fleeing one missile strike may be heading directly into another.

Perhaps these four little boys are examples of the “telegenically dead Palestinians” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told us we should disregard. Or perhaps what Netanyahu fears is people who see nothing “telegenic” about dead children. Perhaps he knows that there are people who cannot imagine anything more human than a group of children playing on the beach, and cannot imagine anything more inhumane than taking their lives from the sky.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Cowardice, The NBA and #FreePalestine

Scientist and Activist Committed to Ending AIDS Perishes on Flight MH17

Hayes Kim All In

Several passengers who perished on flight MH17 were HIV researchers en route to a conference in Melbourne, where they believed their discussions could end the AIDS epidemic. “There was a real sense of profound optimism going into this conference,” The Nation’s executive editor Richard Kim told Chris Hayes on All In Friday. One researcher in particular who was aboard the flight, Joep Lange, believed that the medical community possessed the necessary knowledge required to end AIDS—they only lacked the resources. “That struggle, to get the political will and human resources—that was Dr. Lange’s entire life. He was not just a brilliant researcher and scientist. He was an activist,” said Kim.

—Hannah Harris Green

Fuzzy Math From Iran Hawks

Iran flag

(Blondin Rikard, Creative Commons)

Being a Washington analyst means never having to say you’re sorry. And so it has been throughout the diplomatic process with Iran, where naysayers who stridently opposed talks have found themselves dealing with the reality of negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program by not dealing at all with their past records on the matter.

The best recent example of this phenomenon can be found in the latest report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), one of the think tank’s whose work and influence was discussed at length by myself and Eli Clifton in a feature for last week’s edition of The Nation.

Only days before Iran and world powers announced an extension of talks for an additional four months, the FDD put out a report seeking to quantify the sanctions relief Iran had reaped from the first six months of the interim deal. What stands out most about the report is its fuzzy math, which leads it to fuzzy conclusions.

The FDD’s report, “Sanctions Relief: What did Iran Get?,” posited that Iran’s sanctions relief has been greater than the Obama administration has let on. FDD offers that Iran has received some $11 billion in direct relief and even more in indirect relief—that is, the benefits Iran has accrued from its stabilizing economy (more on that in a bit).

That figure is at odds with what FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz predicted it would be after Iran and world powers inked an interim agreement in November, laying the groundwork for the current talks. At the time, the United States left most of its sanctions in place but lifted its bans on certain types of transactions and unfroze a portion of Iranian assets abroad. The Obama administration said the deal would bring the Iranians about $7 billion in relief. Dubowitz argued that direct sanctions relief alone—leaving aside any additional indirect benefits—would be closer to a windfall of $20 billion.

Now that the first six months of the interim agreement has run its course, Dubowitz revised his numbers downward by nearly half, to the $11 billion figure for direct sanctions relief. When asked about the discrepancy on Twitter, he deflected by claiming the distinction between direct and indirect relief—one he’d readily made in November, with inflated numbers—was “artificial.”

Even the $11 billion number needs to be carefully considered. For instance, in his recent analysis, Dubowitz includes the profits Iran has reaped from its sale of condensates, a liquid product formed when certain types of natural gas are pumped to the surface. FDD estimates that condensates accounted for about $5 billion of Iranian exports, a figure that was lumped into the $11 billion in direct relief.

But condensates, as FDD admits later in its analysis, were not exempted from sanctions by the Joint Plan of Action signed by Iran and world powers in Geneva in November. Instead, Iran is able to sell condensates because of what FDD calls a”loophole” in a 2011 sanctions law. Without the inclusion of $5 billion in condensate exports, Dubowitz’s figure of $11 billion in sanctions relief quickly falls below the Obama administration’s initial estimate of $7 billion.

What’s more, FDD’s analysis veers towards portraying all of Iran’s economic gains as stemming from the November deal. But that discounts the role played by the change in Iranian leadership last summer. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, the administration of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has taken steps—such as raising interest rates and cutting subsidies—to stabilize the economy independent of any sanctions relief.

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Notably, Dubowitz pooh-poohed Rouhani’s election as unimportant, a contention rendered implausible not only by the Iran’s improved economic management, but also by what all parties regard as serious Iranian engagement on the nuclear file.

The upshot of the FDD analysis is that the US must keep up pressure on Iran. With his past support for using sanctions as a tool of regime change—an all-too-frequent goal of sanctions hawks—one has to wonder if Dubowitz, as he claims, really wants diplomacy to succeed.

 

Read Next: Eli Clifton on the billionaire funders of the anti-diplomacy lobby

China Bars Sex Worker Rights Activist From Traveling to International AIDS Conference

Ye Haiyan

Sex workers' rights advocate Ye Haiyan

With a billion consumers, China is a land where everything can be bought and sold, and sex is no exception. Alongside pirated movies and blue jeans, the exchange of carnal pleasures for money is a pillar of China’s capitalist boom. But its workers toil underground, often in extraordinarily abusive conditions. Now, a lone voice for China’s sex workers is being gagged on the eve of her appearance at the International AIDS Conference in Australia—an echo of the painful silence surrounding China’s hidden human rights crisis.

Ye Haiyan, who goes by the online alias Hooligan Sparrow, is known for raising hell to defend sex workers from exploitation and violence, as well as for her pioneering outreach work on HIV/AIDS. She has been effectively denied permission to attend the AIDS Conference in Melbourne. Evidently the Chinese government has “blacklisted” her from traveling abroad, continuing a growing pattern of suppressing dissidents.

Ye’s planned presentation at the conference focused on the theme of “sex workers as human rights defenders.” Her work takes a harm-reduction approach, emphasizing the public health imperative of engaging sex workers in fighting HIV/AIDS, and the structural oppression fueling the spread of the epidemic globally.

Although sex work has thrived in China since dynastic times, its modern incarnation has become a flashpoint for prickly political and cultural tensions. From stereotypical seedy brothels to the highest circles of Chinese officialdom, there is burgeoning market for sexual services wherever there are people willing to pay. But as in the West, sex workers are systematically disenfranchised as citizens and economic actors. Ye shed a harsh light on these workers’ struggles in 2012 by blogging about her experience living as a sex-worker-for-a-day in the southern city of Wuhan, documenting the hardships and abuse faced by both the workers and the poor farmers and migrant laborers they served.

On her blog (quoted in The Daily Beast), she recalled watching a colleague get swept away by authorities: “I felt useless…. I watched my sisters being plundered by the police and there was nothing I could do to help them.”

According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation on China’s sex workers, sex workers told researchers of “arbitrary fines, of [having their] possession of condoms used as evidence against them, of being detained following sex with undercover police officers, and of having almost no hope of winning remedies for rights violations by clients, bosses, or state agents [a well as] high risks of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.”

Some women interviewed by HRW from 2009 to 2011 described torture as an occupational hazard. A sex worker from Hebei recounted the interrogation routine: “They look for evidence. If you don’t admit, they’ll beat you. But if you can bear the beating, usually they’ll detain you for 24 hours and then let you go. But if you admit to prostitution when they beat you, [you might] be sent to Re-education [labor camp] for six months.”

While sex workers are socially marginalized, the government hypes anti-prostitution crackdowns as part of its crusade against corruption, known as “sweeping away the yellow.” Typically, according to HRW, prostitutes are portrayed as symbols of an “ugly social phenomenon” that threatens “socialist spiritual civilization.”

Ye challenged the government’s dehumanizing rhetoric in 2010, when authorities staged massive raids on brothels and exposed women to public shaming. Ye and her group, Chinese Women’s Rights Workshop, demanded not only protections for sex workers’ rights but full legalization of the industry. Global Voices quoted Ye’s criticism on social media:

Previously, I had no intention of making demands for legalization, I had only hoped that under the current state of things, the rights and interests of our sisters would receive greater protection.…

But the crackdowns this year have been insane and leave me feeling hopeless. Every day when you look at the news, you see sex being criminalized everywhere across the country; when they see the cameras, sisters will hang their heads our cover their faces as they get paraded around, exposed and publicly humiliated. So, I decided I could no longer hesitate or be wimpy about this.…

Yes, I’m pro-legalization, and this fight is against the persecution of sex!

Ye had observed firsthand how aggressive policing had made local sex workers apprehensive about using the condoms her group distributed, for fear they could be used as “evidence.” She advocated legalizing prostitution into an open, regulated market system (perhaps appealing to the government’s development agenda of controlled free-market growth).

And she urged the public to recognize the anti-democratic roots of the stigma surrounding the sex industry:

Chinese people are too closed-off in their lives, too cut off from information. Many don’t even know what it means to be alive, never mind embrace their own rights and interests or respect the rights of others.…

Regardless of whether or not you support them, sex workers still have the right to make their voices heard and to express their own demands.

The controversy that triggered the recent travel ban was more directly related to the government: she had openly condemned a Hainan school principal and government official accused of raping a group of girls. She was then physically assaulted and evicted, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

If it is politically motivated, the grounding of the Hooligan Sparrow before the AIDS conference reflects the government’s clumsy desperation to suppress civil society and maintain social power.

“Part of what [Ye] has really done extraordinarily well is to humanize the kinds of abuses sex workers are subject to, and…to humanize the face of sex work itself in China,” says HRW’s China Director Sophie Richardson. “And I think that makes some people, both officialdom and society deeply uncomfortable, because it remains such a taboo subject.”

Richardson adds that the government’s treatment of sex workers is also a test of its willingness to confront the reality of China’s HIV/AIDS crisis. “These are people who are among the best allies in that fight,” she says, “except that they’re marginalized, and abused and kept out of the discussion.”

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Ye took to Twitter on Saturday to express her frustration at being unable to travel and to present some themes of the lecture she would have given at the conference. she urged the activist community to focus on sex workers’ rights beyond just issues of HIV/AIDS transmission, and to place their struggles in the context of “overall human rights development.”

“I hope women’s organizations, as well as human rights defenders organizations to pay more attention to sex workers’ groups and include the voices of sex workers’ groups,” she stated. “Sex workers are women, yet not really accepted by the women’s groups; we defend the human rights of sex workers, but do not receive much direct support from human rights organizations. It would require a major, global change to achieve real equality for all.”

Even if she can’t leave the country, the absence of Ye’s voice at the AIDS conference shows exactly what’s missing from the global human rights discussion—and why it matters that she cannot be there to speak for herself.

 

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on why the child migrants from Central America have a legitimate claim to asylum

Right-Wing Media: Forget Putin, Blame Obama

Obama

Barack Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lemarque) 

This morning, Fox & Friends showed a clip of Senator Diane Feinstein advising Vladimir Putin to “man up” and take responsibility for the attack on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that killed all 298 people aboard. “[T]he nexus between Russia and the separatists has been established very clearly,” Feinstein said. “So the issue is, where is Putin?”

But Steve Doocy says she’s looking for the wrong guy. “She’s asking, Where’s Putin?” he said. “We’re asking, Where is the president?”

And that pretty much sums up the right-wing media spin on the Ukrainian disaster: forget Putin, Obama’s the guy we’ve gotta get under control. They’ve been bashing the president for attending fundraisers since the crash, for using the wrong words, for not being Ronald Reagan, for not being Samantha Power, and for somehow engineering the entire tragedy in order to distract us from Benghazi the IRS the crisis at the Mexican border.

According to Fox, the smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud is that Obama stuck to his schedule instead of immediately returning to the White House after the plane was downed Thursday morning. That day, Obama made his first statement about the “terrible tragedy.” It lasted about forty seconds and came at the beginning of a prearranged speech about infrastructure he gave in Delaware, where he also did a photo op, before flying to New York for two fundraisers that night.

“We have 300 people shot out of the sky, likely by one of our biggest enemies. And the president’s raising money,” Sean Hannity said Thursday night. “What’s next? He’s going to put golf flags—since he plays golf 180 times—at half-mast? I mean, where is presidential action here?”

“Missing in action,” replied K.T. McFarland, a Fox national security analyst, who worked for the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

McFarland appeared on another Fox show earlier that day to say that when the Soviet military shot down a Korean passenger plane that had accidentally veered into Russian airspace in 1983, President Reagan handled it like an action hero. Reagan, she said, “was on vacation at his ranch in California. He immediately came back to Washington [and] canceled his vacation.”

She also lashed out at Obama for talking about the crash as “being a ‘tragedy.’ That’s compared to Reagan who talked about it being a ‘crime against humanity.’”

Reagan’s supposedly superior response to Obama’s in similar circumstances has been the conservatives’ number-one talking point. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough repeated it today, saying, “[Reagan] immediately canceled his vacation”—only to eat crow moments later when Mika Brzezinski insisted, “No, he didn’t, actually.”

Mika was right. Reagan did not rush home “immediately.” He returned to Washington only under pressure.

Rachel Maddow did a rundown last week of all the attacks on commercial airliners by military forces across the world (including our own, on an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, while Reagan was president). She included footage of then-NBC correspondent Chris Wallace, who reported that first day that Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes, “says the president has no plans to cut his vacation short, that he has the same ability to get information and issue orders at his ranch that he has at the White House.”

(Speakes went on to announce Reagan’s schedule for the day, saying, as recorded by The Washington Post, “The president, as usual, is planning a horseback ride this morning and will generally work around the ranch in the afternoon. The weather there is as it is here, sunny and warm.”)

Meanwhile, it’s been largely up to Wallace to correct his Fox colleagues’ rewrite of history. As he told the nonplussed crew at Fox & Friends last week:

He was in Santa Barbara at his ranch when that happened, and quite frankly he didn’t want to leave. And his advisers realized how terrible this looked, and eventually persuaded him he had to fly back to Washington and had to give this speech to the nation, but it did take him four days.

At Obama’s press conference on Friday (which took place one day, not four, after the Malaysian Airlines crash), he called it (using Reagan-strength language) “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.”

Blunted by history, the Fox talking point swerved after Obama’s presser. The idea now was to mention UN Ambassador Samantha Power as often as possible for sounding tougher on Russia than Obama. Brett Baier praised her for saying “Russia can and must end this war,” while Obama, Baier complained, merely said that “Russia and the Ukranians have the capacity to end the war.” In Foxland, small differences loom large.

Fred Thompson, playing the surrounded male guest on Fox’s Outnumbered, tried to make it clear that even girls have more balls than Barack. The country did get a presidential-level speech, he said, “but it came from Samantha Power,” adding, “Most people think [Hillary] is tougher than the president.”

The emasculation began at the start of the Ukrainian conflict, when right-thinking pundits fell hard for manly man Vladimir Putin, and Sarah Palin ridiculed Obama for wearing “mom jeans.” But their crush on the shirtless tiger-fondler has spiraled to Cliven Bundy levels of embarrassment as Putin is fingered for giving sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons to drunken separatists who shoot down civilian planes and then deny international crash experts access to the crime scene.

And so this morning, after Obama gave a short statement on Ukraine, Brit Hume griped that Obama used “weak and gentle” language, and Fox commentators continued to mention Power as the apple of their eye.

Of course, according to the right, whatever the crisis, Obama is always using it to distract from something that would otherwise sink his presidency.

“I don’t want appear to be callous here, folks,” Rush Limbaugh said Thursday, “but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border? And, no, I’m not suggesting anything other than how the media operates. Anyway, it’s eerie. It is really eerie.”

On his radio show last week, Michael Savage segued from skewering the “illiterate peasants” that Obama is letting “invade” our country to saying, Isn’t it convenient that just as the border crisis is heating up, this plane is shot down?

But it was Fox News contributor and former congressman Allen West who got to the Grand Guignol, writing on his website: “The blood on Vladimir Putin’s hands was poured by Barack Obama who is indirectly responsible, accountable accountable [sic] and no different than Neville Chamberlain’s weakness in the face of the 20th Century maniacal dictator Adolf Hitler.”

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“So much for no drama Obama,” he concludes. “He is purposefully creating drama globally.”

As Media Matters dryly notes, “West did not expand on” how “he thinks Obama is ‘purposely creating’ ‘drama’ like the Malaysia crash.”

Sometimes the right-wing crazies over here sound like right-wing crazies everywhere. Top pro-Russia rebel commander Igor Girkin, for example, says the Malaysian plane flew into eastern Ukraine full of dead passengers, whose corpses were merely strewn across the countryside by the missile. So whose fault was that?

It won’t take them long to find it was Obama’s. Especially if they watch Fox.

 

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