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UPDATE: ‘The Guardian’ and ‘Washington Post’ Win Pulitzer Prizes for NSA Reporting

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald speaks to media in Hong Kong on June 10, 2013. (AP/Vincent Yu)

UPDATE 3 pm: Yes, it's a win—and go here for full list of prizes, and finalists, and comments by Edward Snowden, and more, such as fiction, poetry and theatre winners.

Earlier: They won a prestigious Polk Award the other night for their wide-ranging and groundbreaking journalistic work on the NSA and Edward Snowden—and they took a risk flying to the United States to pick it up. But now it’s Pulitzer day, and we’ll soon get an answer to the question that’s been posed for months: Will the committee up at Columbia University honor them with a major one?

Speculation has run riot for the past several weeks. Back in the days when I was editing Editor & Publisher we would have had that halfway solved by now. My ace reporter Joe Strupp found a way each year to get leaks from Pulitzer panel members, put them together, stick out his neck and predict, or rather reveal, the three finalists in most categories, although the winners, picked at nearly the last moment, were harder to get and we felt we shouldn’t reveal them out-front anyway.

However, we would then run fun stories about how most of the winners were told hours or a day in advance, making some of the “surprise” shots at 3 pm on the Monday afternoons a little goofy.

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So it’s safe to say that Poitras and Greenwald, and compatriot Bart Gellman, know what’s up by now. But stay tuned this afternoon. (Years ago I covered Greenwald’s work extensively in my books on Iraq and the media and on Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning.)

Meanwhile, here’s the full Greenwald-Poitras press conference in New York.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Stephen Colbert Gets Letterman’s Job—and Right-Wingers Freak Out.”

Pat Tillman, the Boston Marathon and the Tale of Two Anniversaries

Pat Tillman

Former Arizona Cardinal and US Army Ranger Pat Tillman (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions)

Two wrenching anniversaries loom in the world of sports. Both are in many respects conjoined by the dominant narratives of the twenty-first century. Both show how the military adventures of the last decade have even breeched the escapist sanctity of the sports page. Both contain elements of tragedy, honor and courage. But you can be sure that one of these anniversaries will get a whole hell of a lot more attention than the other.

On Monday, April 21, the Boston Marathon will take place, and we will be compelled to remember the horror of last year’s bombing attack at the finish line. Three were killed and more than 250 were injured. Two immigrant brothers, driven by their anger, ideology and alienation towards what is called the “Global War on Terror” set the blasts. Two brothers: one now dead the other facing state execution.

Now, one year later, we’ll have what will surely be an emotionally raw celebration of what makes the city that hosts the marathon “Boston-Strong.” Expect round-the-clock media coverage. Expect the names of the dead to be remembered. Expect every politician with a pulse to exploit their particular version of what last year’s bombing “means.” (Here’s hoping that they learn the lesson David Gregory of Meet the Press discovered, and not blithely tread upon the post-traumatic stress of those who were damaged a year ago. The media’s “reality television” just might be someone else’s reality.)

As everyone follows the—we hope and pray—safe and successful completion of the marathon, there is a very different kind of anniversary the following day. April 22 marks ten years since the death of NFL player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman. Expect the media to take cursory notice and expect a press release from the NFL, but don’t expect much else. That’s because the Pat Tillman narrative doesn’t exactly lend itself to swelling music and sonorous sound bites.

Compelled by the attacks on 9/11, Tillman exited the NFL in his prime, leaving millions of dollars on the table to join the Army Rangers. Square-jawed, Caucasian and handsome as hell, he was a dream for people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, David Frum and everyone who drooled at the thought of a glorious, post-9 /11 clash of civilizations. Yet after several missions into Iraq, in a war Tillman believed was “fucking illegal,” he started to read the work of people like Noam Chomsky and other critics of the war. Upon his return to the United States, Tillman even expressed a desire to meet Chomsky .

On April 22, Pat Tillman was killed. The first story, repeated at his nationally televised funeral, was that he was shot down by the Taliban in a ferocious firefight. He was posthumously given a Silver Star, which is awarded when a soldier falls at the hands of enemy combatants. The Bush Pentagon public relations machine was in overdrive, using Pat Tillman in death in a manner he refused when still alive. As his mother Mary Tillman said to me in 2008, “What’s so disturbing about after Pat’s death is the way the media ran with the perception they had of him, some kind of caricature of who they thought he was. It was so off that it was like he died twice.”

As if exploiting his death to aid the Iraqi war drive wasn’t obscene enough, the truth then emerged—Tillman actually died at the hands of fellow Army Rangers, killed in an incident described as “friendly fire.” His military journal and his uniform were burned on site. His death report was falsified.

Tillman’s family has undergone a decade-long quest to find out what actually happened and why they were lied to about his death. As Mary Tillman said to me in 2011, “If it had happened to someone else, Pat would be busting through walls to find the truth.”

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But the truth has been hard to find. The person who oversaw what Pat’s father, Pat Tillman Sr., called a “falsified homicide investigation,” Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, wasn’t indicted or brought up on charges. Instead, he was promoted by President Obama, before eventually resigning in disgrace so he could write a book and appear on The Colbert Report.

Today, in Fenway Park, the Army has used the post-marathon Boston-Strong narrative of recovery and community to aid its recruitment efforts. As the blog WMTC discussed, the many screens of Fenway Park now show ads that blare, “There’s strong and then there’s Army Strong!” The message could not be clearer: there is Boston Strong, there is Army Strong and one is only as, well, strong as the other. If you want to keep Boston strong and prevent more bombings, you better join up and make sure than the Army is strong as well. There are no ads to suggest that maybe occupying countries, sending in armed drones and conducting dirty wars in remote lands will create conditions that bring the war back to the United States.

The Army and the government can’t use the Tillmans like they use the Boston Marathon for the simple reason that the Tillmans refuse to be used. That’s also what makes the Tillman anniversary so difficult for the mainstream media, the armed forces and the NFL to commemorate. By continuing to search for the truth, by refusing to let Pat be turned into a prop for war, the Tillmans have no value to those who benefit politically or economically from this era of endless war. For the rest of us, however, the Tillmans are invaluable. They deserve something the US Congress, the NFL and the mainstream media have refused to give them over the last decade: our unconditional solidarity and support as they search for the truth.

 

Read Next: Why is Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald playing the union buster?

Joy Behar Beats Chris Christie—and Women Love It

Joy Behar

Joy Behar at the 2010 GLAAD Media Awards (Nick Stepowyj/Flickr)

A couple days ago, a friend of mine witnessed this scene on West 65th Street in Manhattan: in a crowd lining up to get tickets for The View, two middle-aged women were talking excitedly about Joy Behar, though the comedian hasn’t co-hosted the show for nearly two years. Suddenly, one of the women lunged at her friend, acting out that startling moment when New Jersey governor Chris Christie stole the podium from Behar during a ninetieth-birthday roast of former Governor Brendan Byrne on April Fool’s Day.

“She’s my heroine,” the lunging lady said. “She stood up to that fat man.”

The second woman replied, “She’s fearless. She got right up in front of him.” Then she mimed the stern posture of what might be a mother reprimanding a son who towered over her. “I’ve known women like her in my neighborhood all my life,” she said.

Other women in line were nodding in agreement, one saying to another, “If Chris Christie thinks he’s going to get somewhere by treating her this way, he’s a fool.”

It’s easy to overlook the effect Behar’s run-in with Christie has had on public perception, especially on women. When the governor tried to intimidate the 71-year-old comedian, as he has so many women before her, she called him a bully and a coward. And when he physically got up in her face, she came back at him with more searing jokes.

Christie attacks anyone who publicly disagrees with him, of course, but he’s best known for bullying the female teachers who’ve protested his cuts to education, or the mother who politely asked, “You send [your children] to private schools, so I was wondering why you think it’s fair to be cutting funding to public schools?” (“Hey Gail,” Christie responded, “…it’s none of your business. I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me where I send mine.”) His lawyer’s report that “exonerated” him of Bridgegate tried to paint Bridget Anne Kelly as psychologically unstable after another Christie aide broke off a relationship with her. As if feminine emotion caused the five-day traffic nightmare on the world’s busiest bridge.

Five former governors and five comedians spoke at the Governor Byrne roast, and Behar wasn’t the only one who detoured to roast Christie instead. But she was the only one he took on physically. We know all this thanks to Ryan Lizza, who led a long New Yorker piece, “Crossing Christie,” with the roast incident and put his cellphone video of it (below) on YouTube. (A clearer but edited version is here.)

It went down like this: Like others at the event—including Governor Byrne himself—Behar cracked wise about Christie’s weight. “You have to have your eye on the White House,” she said. “It used to be the House of Pancakes.” Sitting on the dais next to the lectern, Christie touched Behar’s arm and reminded her, “This is a Byrne roast.” When that got big applause, he stood up and, amazingly, tried to grab Behar’s notes. “Stop bullying me,” she told him. The audience laughed awkwardly: She called him the B-word to his face. Back in his seat, Christie said something that was inaudible and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?”

No doubt she provoked him, but, unable to control himself (you might say he was too emotional), he took the bait. He stood up again and, as she backed away in fear, he took over her space at the lectern, asking her, “Really? Really, is that what you’re thinking?” Christie went beyond, say, Rick Lazio’s infamous move into Hillary Clinton’s space during a 2000 debate and into something more reminiscent of Ralph Kramden telling Alice “to the moon!” But Christie regained his composure, delivered a zinger (“At least I don’t get paid for this”), and returned to his seat.

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Behar was noticeably rattled, as Lizza says, but she didn’t back down. “I really don’t know about the presidency,” she jibed. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”

In this brief encounter, you could find Christie’s entire governorship: he intimidates, he threatens, he can’t stand not to control the mic and he always gets the last word.

But Behar was, for once, a female who got the last word—she signed off with a joke about feeling safe from Christie’s wrath because she was “taking mass transit home.” Sure, she was scared of him, but she rebounded. Repeatedly. That’s why she’s a hero to the women waiting in line to get into The View.

 

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on the right-wing freakout over Colbert hosting the Late Show.

The ‘Real Racists’ Have Always Worn Suits

Paul Ryan

Representative Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

This week we’ve commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the monumental piece of legislation aimed at outlawing discrimination based on race. A three-day-long “civil rights summit” was organized at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, where many past and present activists and politicians spoke on the legacy of the Civil Rights Act.

With the commemoration has come further discussion about the contemporary face of American racism (Chris Hayes hosted a great segment on the topic last night with Salon’s Brittney Cooper and New York’s Jonathan Chait). Over at BET, Keith Boykin wrote:

Despite the progress of the past half century, the struggle continues. “The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” So said baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron in an interview with USA Today this week, in which he seemed to compare the racist klansmen of the 1960s with the supposedly post-racial cynics of our current generation.

You see, today’s racists don’t wear white hoods and scream the N-word. They wear dark suits and scream about government handouts. They don’t set up racist poll taxes to deter Blacks from voting. They set up voter ID laws to do the same thing. And they certainly don’t defend lynch mobs, which legitimize vigilante justice. Instead, they defend Stand Your Ground laws, which achieve the same purpose.

But I have trouble with this framing. It’s neat and easily digestible for anyone with only a cursory understanding of American history and racism, and therefore popular as a means of telling that history. It has broad appeal, but it’s not accurate. It flattens history and does the work of placing the onus for past bad deeds on a select few. It reinforces the image of “the real racist” as one who expressed their hatred in demonstrably violent ways. It suggests that racists have simply become more sophisticated, changing the tactics of their hatred from burning crosses to writing legislation, from white hoods to business suits, as that Hank Aaron quote contends.

Here’s the problem with that narrative: the architects and gatekeepers of American racism have always worn neckties. They have always been a part of the American political system.

I understand the impulse in wanting to find some way to convey that what we’re dealing with currently is a system of racism that is less overt than it once was. Saying things like “we’ve gone from white hoods to business suits” is one way to seem to speak to contemporary racism’s less vocal, yet still insidious nature. But it does a disservice to the public understanding of racism, and in the process undercuts the mission of drawing attention to contemporary racism’s severity.

It wasn’t the KKK that wrote the slave codes. It wasn’t the armed vigilantes who conceived of convict leasing, postemancipation. It wasn’t hooded men who purposefully left black people out of New Deal legislation. Redlining wasn’t conceived at a Klan meeting in rural Georgia. It wasn’t “the real racists” who bulldozed black communities in order to build America’s highway system. The Grand Wizard didn’t run COINTELPRO in order to dismantle the Black Panthers. The men who raped black women hired to clean their homes and care for their children didn’t hide their faces.

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The ones in the hoods did commit violent acts of racist terrorism that shouldn’t be overlooked, but they weren’t alone. Everyday citizens participated in and attended lynchings as if they were state fairs, bringing their children and leaving with souvenirs. These spectacles, if not outright endorsed, were silently sanctioned by elected officials and respected members of the community.

It’s easy to focus on the most vicious and dramatic forms of racist violence faced by past generations as the site of “real” racism. If we do, we can also point out the perpetrators of that violence and rightly condemn them for their actions. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that those individuals alone didn’t write America’s racial codes. It’s much harder to talk about how that violence was only reinforcing the system of political, economic and cultural racism that made America possible. That history indicts far more people, both past and present.

 

Read Next: The function of black rage

Eritrean Refugees at Risk

Immigration protest in Israel

Eritrean refugees are one of the main groups in this protest against Israel's hard line on immigration, Tel Aviv, January 5, 2014. (Reuters/Nir Elias)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled a repressive dictatorship since 2001. Their small northeast African country, which has a population of 4-5 million and was once touted as part of an African “renaissance,” is one of the largest per capita producers of asylum seekers in the world.

Many languish in desert camps. Some have been kidnapped, tortured and ransomed—or killed—in the Sinai. Others have been left to die in the Sahara or drowned in the Mediterranean. Still others have been attacked as foreigners in South Africa, threatened with mass detention in Israel or refused entry to the United States and Canada under post-9/11 “terrorism bars” based on their past association with an armed liberation movement—the one they are now fleeing.

It’s not easy being Eritrean.

The most horrifying of their misfortunes—the kidnapping, torture and ransoming in Sinai—has generated attention in the media and among human rights organizations, as did the tragic shipwreck off Lampedusa Island in the Mediterranean. But the public response, like that to famine or natural disaster, tends to be emotive and ephemeral, turning the refugees into objects of pity or charity with little grasp of who they are, why they take such risks or what can be done to halt the hemorrhaging.

This is abetted by the Eritrean government, which masks the political origins of these flows by insisting they are “migrants,” not refugees, and no different from those of other poor countries like Eritrea’s neighbor and archenemy, Ethiopia. This fiction is convenient for destination countries struggling with rising ultra-nationalist movements and eager for a rationale to turn Eritreans (and others) away.

But this is not a human—or political—crisis amenable to simplistic solutions. Nor is it going away any time soon.

The Source

Eritrea’s history has been marked by conflict and controversy from the time its borders were determined on the battlefield between Italian and Abyssinian forces in the 1890s. A decade of British rule was followed by federation with and then annexation by Ethiopia. Finally in the 1990s, after a thirty-year war that pitted the nationalists, themselves divided among competing factions, against successive US- and Soviet-backed Ethiopian regimes, Eritrea gained recognition as a state.

Since then Eritrea has clashed with all of its neighbors, climaxing in an all-out border war with Ethiopia in 1998–2000 that triggered a rapid slide into repression and autocracy. The government has survived by conscripting the country’s youth into both military service and forced labor on state-controlled projects and businesses, while relying on its diaspora for financial support, even as it has produced a disproportionate share of the region’s refugees. This paradox underlines the strength of Eritrean identity, even among those who flee.

Eritrea is dominated by a single strong personality: former rebel commander, and now president, Isaias Afwerki. He has surrounded himself with weak institutions, and there is no viable successor in sight, though there are persistent rumors of a committee-in-waiting due to his failing health. Meanwhile, the three branches of government—nominally headed by a cabinet, a National Assembly and a High Court—provide a façade of institutional governance, though power is exercised through informal networks that shift and change at the president’s discretion. There is no organizational chart, nor is there a published national budget. Every important decision is made in secret.

The ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), a retooled version of the liberation army, functions as a mechanism for mobilizing and controlling the population. No other parties are permitted. Nor are non-governmental organizations—no independent trade unions, media, women’s organizations, student unions, charities, cultural associations, nothing. All but four religious denominations have been banned, and those that are permitted have had their leaderships compromised.

Refugees cite this lack of freedom—and fear of arrest should they question it—as one of the main reasons for their flight. But the camps in Ethiopia and Sudan reflect a highly unusual demographic: Most such populations are comprised of women, children and elderly men, but officials of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ethiopia and Sudan say that among those registering in the camps there, close to half in recent years have been women and men under the age of 25. The common denominator among them is their refusal to accept an undefined, open-ended national service. This, more than any other single factor, is propelling the exodus.

The UNHCR has registered more than 300,000 Eritreans as refugees over the past decade, and many more have passed through Ethiopia and Sudan without being counted. The UNHCR representative in Sudan, Kai Lielsen, told me last year that he thought seventy to eighty percent of those who crossed into Sudan didn’t register and didn’t stay. Thus, a conservative estimate would put the total close to a million. For a country of only four to five million people, this is remarkable. And it is the combination of their vulnerability and their desperation that makes them easy marks.

The Trafficking

For years, the main refugee route ran through the Sahara to Libya and thence to Europe. When that was blocked by a pact between Libya and Italy in 2006, it shifted east to Egypt and Israel. Smugglers from the Arab tribe of Rashaida in northeastern Sudan worked with Sinai Bedouin to facilitate the transit, charging ever-higher fees until some realized they could make far more by ransoming those who were fleeing.

The smugglers-turned-traffickers eventually demanded as much as $40,000-$50,000, forcing families to sell property, exhaust life savings and tap relatives living abroad. As the voluntary flow dried up, they paid to have refugees kidnapped from UN-run camps after identifying those from urban, mostly Christian backgrounds (those most likely to have relatives in Europe and North America).

I spoke with one survivor in Israel last year whose story was typical. Philmon, a 28-year-old computer engineer, fled Eritrea in March 2012 after getting a tip he might be arrested for public statements critical of the country’s national service. Several weeks later, he was kidnapped from Sudan’s Shagara camp, taken with a truckload of others to a Bedouin outpost in the Sinai and ordered to call relatives to raise $3,500 for his release. “The beatings started the first day to make us pay faster,” he told me.

Philmon’s sister, who lived in Eritrea, paid the ransom, but he was sold to another smuggler and ransomed again, this time for $30,000. “The first was like an appetizer. This was the main course,” he said. Over the next month, he was repeatedly beaten, often while hung by his hands from the ceiling. Convinced he could never raise the full amount, he attempted suicide. “I dreamed of grabbing a pistol and taking as many of them as possible, saving one bullet for myself.”

Early on they broke one of his wrists. During many of his forced calls home to beg for money they dripped molten plastic on his hands and back. After his family sold virtually everything they had to raise the $30,000, he was released. But his hands were so damaged he could no longer grip anything. He couldn’t walk and had to be carried into Israel. Because he was a torture victim, he was sent to a shelter in Tel Aviv for medical care. In this regard, he was one of the lucky ones.

For some 35,000 Eritreans who have come to Israel since 2006, each day is suffused with uncertainty, as an anti-immigrant backlash builds. The government calls them “infiltrators,” not refugees, and threatens them with indefinite detention or—what many fear most—deportation to Eritrea. Philmon has moved on to Sweden, where the reception was more welcoming, though there, too, a virulent anti-immigrant movement is growing.

Last year, the Sinai operation began to contract due to a confluence of factors: increased refugee awareness of the risks, the effective sealing of Israel’s border to keep them out and Egyptian efforts to suppress a simmering Sinai insurgency among Bedouin Islamists. But this didn’t stop the trafficking—it just rerouted it.

What I found in eastern Sudan last summer was that Rashaida tribesmen were paying bounties to corrupt officials and local residents to capture potential ransom victims along the Sudan-Eritrea border—and even within Eritrea and Ethiopia—and were holding them within well-defended Rashaida communities there. Such captives would not be counted by government or agency monitors and would not show up at all were it not for the testimony of escapees and relatives.

Last fall, Lampedusa survivors revealed that Libya is becoming another site for ransoming and kidnapping, illustrating that as one door closes, new opportunities arise across a region of weak states and post–Arab Uprising instability. What Sudan and Libya have in common is not the predators but the prey. And the practice is expanding as word spreads of the profits to be had, much as with the drug trade elsewhere. And it will continue to expand as long as there’s a large-scale migration of vulnerable people with access to funds and no coordinated international response to stop it.

Eritrean refugee flows today run in all directions. They’re facilitated by smugglers with regional and, in some cases, global reach. The gangs behind this engage in a range of criminal activities, within which human trafficking is just a lucrative new line of business. Some have ties to global cartels and syndicates. Some have political agendas and fund them through such enterprises. Most are heavily armed.

Under such conditions, a narrowly conceived security response could quickly spin out of control and escalate into a major counterinsurgency, as in the Sinai in Egypt. For weaker states across the Sahel, the risks of ill-thought-out action are infinitely greater.

What Needs to Happen

An effective approach to this crisis would start with education and empowerment of the target population and involve efforts to identify and protect refugees throughout their flight. A key step is the early, uncoerced determination of status according to international standards. This could be coupled with an expansion of incentives to deter onward migration, including education, training, employment and, where appropriate, integration into host communities. But none of this can work without refugee engagement in the process itself.

Then, and only then, would a security operation targeted at the smuggling and trafficking have a chance of success. But it, too, needs to be multidimensional in substance and regional in scope. Each state in this network is acting independently of the others. Sudan has arrested individuals implicated in trafficking, including one police officer, but has not cracked down on corrupt officials or gone into Rashaida communities to take down the ringleaders. Ethiopia has instituted security measures within the refugee camps on its northern border but is not working with Sudan on cross-border movement. Egypt has launched military operations in the Sinai where the torture camps are situated, but the announced aim is to break up the Islamist insurgency—the government denies trafficking is taking place. A coordinated initiative would start with a conference of affected states, and it would have to be supported by donor states and appropriate agencies (Interpol among them), not only in terms of aid but also intelligence, logistics, coordination and communication.

But if the trafficking operations are truly to be rolled up, the marginalized populations from which they arise and on which they depend need to be offered sufficient incentives to withdraw support for the criminals. This means access to resources, economic alternatives to off-the-books trading, involvement in the local political process, education for their children and more. These people need to be made stakeholders in the states where they live, which is not the case today for the Sinai Bedouin or the Sudan-based Rashaida or most of the other groups involved in trans-Sahel smuggling.

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Meanwhile, to dry up this particular supply of prey, political change is needed at the source, in Eritrea. That means, at a minimum, opening up the political system and the economy, limiting (not necessarily ending) national service, releasing political prisoners, implementing the long-stalled constitution and ending controls on travel so those who do want to go abroad as migrant workers can do so without illegally crossing borders and going through illicit smuggling networks.

The most important thing the United States can do to facilitate this process is convince Ethiopia to back off the border dispute that centers on a frontier town, Badme, and accept in practice—not just rhetorically—the 2002 Border Commission ruling that went in Eritrea’s favor.

Ethiopia’s intransigence on this issue—and US inaction—has long been the Asmara regime’s most powerful argument for keeping the lid on all forms of dissent. Eritreans will simply not trust Washington—or Addis Ababa—until they see some evidence of good faith.

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on racism in Israel

Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled a repressive dictatorship since 2001. Their small northeast African country, which has a population of four to five million and was once touted as part of an African “renaissance,” is one of the largest per capita producers of asylum seekers in the world.

Many languish in desert camps. Some have been kidnapped, tortured and ransomed—or killed—in the Sinai. Others have been left to die in the Sahara or drowned in the Mediterranean. Still others have been attacked as foreigners in South Africa, threatened with mass detention in Israel or refused entry to the United States and Canada under post-9/11 “terrorism bars” based on their past association with an armed liberation movement—the one they are now fleeing.

It’s not easy being Eritrean.

The most horrifying of their misfortunes—the kidnapping, torture and ransoming in Sinai—has generated attention in the media and among human rights organizations, as did the tragic shipwreck off Lampedusa Island in the Mediterranean. But the public response, like that to famine or natural disaster, tends to be emotive and ephemeral, turning the refugees into objects of pity or charity with little grasp of who they are, why they take such risks or what can be done to halt the hemorrhaging.

This is abetted by the Eritrean government, which masks the political origins of these flows by insisting they are “migrants,” not refugees, and no different from those of other poor countries like Eritrea’s neighbor and archenemy, Ethiopia. This fiction is convenient for destination countries struggling with rising ultra-nationalist movements and eager for a rationale to turn Eritreans (and others) away.

But this is not a human—or political—crisis amenable to simplistic solutions. Nor is it going away any time soon.

The Source

Eritrea’s history has been marked by conflict and controversy from the time its borders were determined on the battlefield between Italian and Abyssinian forces in the 1890s. A decade of British rule was followed by federation with and then annexation by Ethiopia. Finally in the 1990s, after a thirty-year war that pitted the nationalists, themselves divided among competing factions, against successive US- and Soviet-backed Ethiopian regimes, Eritrea gained recognition as a state.

Since then Eritrea has clashed with all of its neighbors, climaxing in an all-out border war with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 that triggered a rapid slide into repression and autocracy. The government has survived by conscripting the country’s youth into both military service and forced labor on state-controlled projects and businesses, while relying on its diaspora for financial support, even as it has produced a disproportionate share of the region’s refugees. This paradox underlines the strength of Eritrean identity, even among those who flee.

Eritrea is dominated by a single strong personality: former rebel commander, and now president, Isaias Afwerki. He has surrounded himself with weak institutions, and there is no viable successor in sight, though there are persistent rumors of a committee-in-waiting due to his failing health. Meanwhile, the three branches of government—nominally headed by a cabinet, a National Assembly and a High Court—provide a façade of institutional governance, though power is exercised through informal networks that shift and change at the president’s discretion. There is no organizational chart, nor is there a published national budget. Every important decision is made in secret.

The ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), a retooled version of the liberation army, functions as a mechanism for mobilizing and controlling the population. No other parties are permitted. Nor are non-governmental organizations—no independent trade unions, media, women’s organizations, student unions, charities, cultural associations, nothing. All but four religious denominations have been banned, and those that are permitted have had their leaderships compromised.

Refugees cite this lack of freedom—and fear of arrest should they question it—as one of the main reasons for their flight. But the camps in Ethiopia and Sudan reflect a highly unusual demographic: Most such populations are comprised of women, children and elderly men, but officials of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ethiopia and Sudan say that among those registering in the camps there, close to half in recent years have been women and men under the age of 25. The common denominator among them is their refusal to accept an undefined, open-ended national service. This, more than any other single factor, is propelling the exodus.

The UNHCR has registered more than 300,000 Eritreans as refugees over the past decade, and many more have passed through Ethiopia and Sudan without being counted. The UNHCR representative in Sudan, Kai Lielsen, told me last year that he thought seventy to eighty percent of those who crossed into Sudan didn’t register and didn’t stay. Thus, a conservative estimate would put the total close to a million. For a country of only four to five million people, this is remarkable. And it is the combination of their vulnerability and their desperation that makes them easy marks.

The Trafficking

For years, the main refugee route ran through the Sahara to Libya and thence to Europe. When that was blocked by a pact between Libya and Italy in 2006, it shifted east to Egypt and Israel. Smugglers from the Arab tribe of Rashaida in northeastern Sudan worked with Sinai Bedouin to facilitate the transit, charging ever-higher fees until some realized they could make far more by ransoming those who were fleeing.

The smugglers-turned-traffickers eventually demanded as much as $40,000-$50,000, forcing families to sell property, exhaust life savings and tap relatives living abroad. As the voluntary flow dried up, they paid to have refugees kidnapped from UN-run camps after identifying those from urban, mostly Christian backgrounds (those most likely to have relatives in Europe and North America).

I spoke with one survivor in Israel last year whose story was typical. Philmon, a 28-year-old computer engineer, fled Eritrea in March 2012 after getting a tip he might be arrested for public statements critical of the country’s national service. Several weeks later, he was kidnapped from Sudan’s Shagara camp, taken with a truckload of others to a Bedouin outpost in the Sinai and ordered to call relatives to raise $3,500 for his release. “The beatings started the first day to make us pay faster,” he told me.

Philmon’s sister, who lived in Eritrea, paid the ransom, but he was sold to another smuggler and ransomed again, this time for $30,000. “The first was like an appetizer. This was the main course,” he said. Over the next month, he was repeatedly beaten, often while hung by his hands from the ceiling. Convinced he could never raise the full amount, he attempted suicide. “I dreamed of grabbing a pistol and taking as many of them as possible, saving one bullet for myself.”

Early on they broke one of his wrists. During many of his forced calls home to beg for money they dripped molten plastic on his hands and back. After his family sold virtually everything they had to raise the $30,000, he was released. But his hands were so damaged he could no longer grip anything. He couldn’t walk and had to be carried into Israel. Because he was a torture victim, he was sent to a shelter in Tel Aviv for medical care. In this regard, he was one of the lucky ones.

For some 35,000 Eritreans who have come to Israel since 2006, each day is suffused with uncertainty, as an anti-immigrant backlash builds. The government calls them “infiltrators,” not refugees, and threatens them with indefinite detention or—what many fear most—deportation to Eritrea. Philmon has moved on to Sweden, where the reception was more welcoming, though there, too, a virulent anti-immigrant movement is growing.

Last year, the Sinai operation began to contract due to a confluence of factors: increased refugee awareness of the risks, the effective sealing of Israel’s border to keep them out and Egyptian efforts to suppress a simmering Sinai insurgency among Bedouin Islamists. But this didn’t stop the trafficking—it just rerouted it.

What I found in eastern Sudan last summer was that Rashaida tribesmen were paying bounties to corrupt officials and local residents to capture potential ransom victims along the Sudan-Eritrea border—and even within Eritrea and Ethiopia—and were holding them within well-defended Rashaida communities there. Such captives would not be counted by government or agency monitors and would not show up at all were it not for the testimony of escapees and relatives.

Last fall, Lampedusa survivors revealed that Libya is becoming another site for ransoming and kidnapping, illustrating that as one door closes, new opportunities arise across a region of weak states and post–Arab Uprising instability. What Sudan and Libya have in common is not the predators but the prey. And the practice is expanding as word spreads of the profits to be had, much as with the drug trade elsewhere. And it will continue to expand as long as there’s a large-scale migration of vulnerable people with access to funds and no coordinated international response to stop it.

Eritrean refugee flows today run in all directions. They’re facilitated by smugglers with regional and, in some cases, global reach. The gangs behind this engage in a range of criminal activities, within which human trafficking is just a lucrative new line of business. Some have ties to global cartels and syndicates. Some have political agendas and fund them through such enterprises. Most are heavily armed.

Under such conditions, a narrowly conceived security response could quickly spin out of control and escalate into a major counterinsurgency, as in the Sinai in Egypt. For weaker states across the Sahel, the risks of ill-thought-out action are infinitely greater.

What Needs to Happen

An effective approach to this crisis would start with education and empowerment of the target population and involve efforts to identify and protect refugees throughout their flight. A key step is the early, uncoerced determination of status according to international standards. This could be coupled with an expansion of incentives to deter onward migration, including education, training, employment and, where appropriate, integration into host communities. But none of this can work without refugee engagement in the process itself.

Then, and only then, would a security operation targeted at the smuggling and trafficking have a chance of success. But it, too, needs to be multidimensional in substance and regional in scope. Each state in this network is acting independently of the others. Sudan has arrested individuals implicated in trafficking, including one police officer, but has not cracked down on corrupt officials or gone into Rashaida communities to take down the ringleaders. Ethiopia has instituted security measures within the refugee camps on its northern border but is not working with Sudan on cross-border movement. Egypt has launched military operations in the Sinai where the torture camps are situated, but the announced aim is to break up the Islamist insurgency—the government denies trafficking is taking place. A coordinated initiative would start with a conference of affected states, and it would have to be supported by donor states and appropriate agencies (Interpol among them), not only in terms of aid but also intelligence, logistics, coordination and communication.

But if the trafficking operations are truly to be rolled up, the marginalized populations from which they arise and on which they depend need to be offered sufficient incentives to withdraw support for the criminals. This means access to resources, economic alternatives to off-the-books trading, involvement in the local political process, education for their children and more. These people need to be made stakeholders in the states where they live, which is not the case today for the Sinai Bedouin or the Sudan-based Rashaida or most of the other groups involved in trans-Sahel smuggling.

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Meanwhile, to dry up this particular supply of prey, political change is needed at the source, in Eritrea. That means, at a minimum, opening up the political system and the economy, limiting (not necessarily ending) national service, releasing political prisoners, implementing the long-stalled constitution and ending controls on travel so those who do want to go abroad as migrant workers can do so without illegally crossing borders and going through illicit smuggling networks.

The most important thing the United States can do to facilitate this process is convince Ethiopia to back off the border dispute that centers on a frontier town, Badme, and accept in practice—not just rhetorically—the 2002 Border Commission ruling that went in Eritrea’s favor.

Ethiopia’s intransigence on this issue—and US inaction—has long been the Asmara regime’s most powerful argument for keeping the lid on all forms of dissent. Eritreans will simply not trust Washington—or Addis Ababa—until they see some evidence of good faith.

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on racism in Israel.

Bernie Sanders Raises Battle Cry Against Citizens United: ‘I Vote for Democracy!’

Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Citizens United is not just the default reference for US Supreme Court decisions—including the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling—that have ushered in a new era of corporate dominance of American elections. It’s the name of the conservative group that encouraged Chief Justice John Roberts and the most activist Court majority in American history to tear the heart out of what were already weak campaign finance laws.

Citizens United still exists as an activist group that produces documentariesACLU: At War with America, Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration, Fire From the Heartland: The Awakening of the Conservative Woman, America at Risk: Hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich—and organizes gatherings that highlight right-wing policies and politicians. On Saturday, Citizens United hosted something of a kickoff for the Republican presidential race in the first-primary state of New Hampshire.

Organized in collaboration with the Koch brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Citizens United’s “Freedom Summit” attracted a list of peakers that included leading contenders (and wannabes) for the GOP nod. Indeed, Greg Moore, the director of AFP-New Hampshire, described the summit as the first “cattle call” of 2016.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made his pitch to the Koch crowd.

So did Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

And former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

And perennial (if never quite announced) contender Donald Trump.

The Freedom Summit was not entertaining objections to the latest Supreme Court decision to steer more big money into politics—in the case of McCutcheon v. FEC—or to the political machinations of bottom-line corporations and self-serving “mega-donors.”

But across town, on the same day, the objection was raised.

The New Hampshire Institute of Politics on the campus of Saint Anselm College was packed Saturday for a town-hall meeting with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who roused the crowd with a condemnation of the money power that is corrupting American elections and governance.

“In the United States of America, billionaires should not be able to buy elections,” declared Sanders, to thunderous applause.

“If we do not get our act together, we are moving towards an oligarchic society,” he continued, arguing that, “We have got to fight to defend American democracy.”

Like some of the Republicans who will be in New Hampshire this weekend, Sanders has talked about running for president. And his visit to the first-primary state has stirred speculation about a possible bid.

The independent senator says he is months away from any kind of decision. What he’s doing now is inviting progressives to join in a conversation about how to take on the money power. It’s a conversation he’ll carry forward May 9 and May 10 in Northampton, Massachusetts, with a series of events, including an appearance with the activist group Progressive Democrats of America.

What Sanders has already made his decision about the absolute absurdity of the High Court’s approach to cases like Citizens United and McCutcheon.

“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” Sanders said after the McCutcheon ruling.“To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

Sanders has also decided that a constitutional amendment is needed to push back against Supreme Court decisions that threaten to make the dollar more consequential than the vote in American elections.

The “Democracy is for the People” amendment, sponsored by Sanders and Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Florida, is one of several proposed by members of Congress in response to the national outcry over the Citizens United decision—an outcry that, so far, has seen sixteen states and close to 600 communities demand that the Constitution be amended to address the crisis created, and now compounded, by the court.

It reads:

Section I. Whereas the right to vote in public elections belongs only to natural persons as citizens of the United States, so shall the ability to make contributions and expenditures to influence the outcomes of public elections belong only to natural persons in accordance with this Article.

Section II. Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power of Congress and the States to protect the integrity and fairness of the electoral process, limit the corrupting influence of private wealth in public elections, and guarantee the dependence of elected officials on the people alone by taking actions which may include the establishment of systems of public financing for elections, the imposition of requirements to ensure the disclosure of contributions and expenditures made to influence the outcome of a public election by candidates, individuals, and associations of individuals, and the imposition of content neutral limitations on all such contributions and expenditures.

Section III. Nothing in this Article shall be construed to alter the freedom of the press.

Section IV. Congress and the States shall have the power to enforce this Article through appropriate legislation.

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Sanders is blunt with regard to the crisis.

“The disastrous 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United threw out campaign funding laws that limited what wealthy individuals and corporations could spend on elections,” he has argued. “Since that ruling, campaign spending by Adelson, the Koch brothers and a handful of other billionaire families has fundamentally undermined American democracy. If present trends continue, elections will not be decided by one-person, one-vote, but by a small number of very wealthy families who spend huge amounts of money supporting right-wing candidates who protect their interests.”

And Sanders is blunt about the necessary response.

“Clearly, if we are to retain the fundamentals of American democracy, we need to overturn the Supreme Court decision,” explains the senator, who argues that the time has come for “overturning Citizens United.”

It is part of what Sanders sees as a :political revolution” that has as its point the establishment of electoral landscape where the vote matters more than the dollar.

In New Hampshire Saturday, Sanders summed the concept up with a declaration that earned a standing ovation:

“I vote for democracy!”

Take Action: Tell Congress to Pass the ‘Democracy Is For People’ Amendment

Could Working on Keystone XL Give You Cancer, Asthma?

Keystone XL protest

Demonstrators march at a Washington, DC, protest against Keystone XL in 2011 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Two prominent public health organizations are pressing the State Department to study the public health implications of the Keystone XL pipeline before reaching a decision on its approval.

“There is an increasing recognition that the environments in which people live, work, learn and play have a tremendous impact on their health,” reads a letter sent Friday to Secretary of State John Kerry by the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the National Association of County and City Health (NACCHO). “The administration will certainly benefit by having a clear understanding of how the proposed Keystone XL pipeline could impact the public’s health, including the health of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The letter asks for a “comprehensive” assessment to include a review of scientific studies regarding the health effects of processing tar sands. Those could include increases in respiratory conditions like asthma, exposure to heavy metals, cancer and occupational health and safety risks affecting workers involved in tar sands production, said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of APHA. APHA is the oldest organization of health professionals in the country, representing providers, officials, educators and policy makers. NACCHO represents 2,700 local health departments.

“It raised our concern,” Benjamin said of the pipeline proposal. “We’re not saying don’t build it, and we’re not saying do build it. We want to make sure the decision is data-driven and has a health component to it. At the end of the day, they’re going to make a decision based on a complicated set of metrics, but we think health ought to be one.”

Whom the pipeline might put at greatest risk is a question that “absolutely needs to be though about,” Benjamin added. “If they put it through communities already economically and physically, from a health perspective, devastated, there is going to be a disparate impact when something bad happens, like a pipeline leak.”

NACCHO’s associate executive director David Dyjack said health risks could arise at each step of production, from extraction to transportation to consumer use, but that how the local effects of tar sands differed from other fossil fuels production cycles is not well understood. “We are advocating for smart and informed decision making,” Dyjack said. “The uncertainty around the tar sands led us to submit the letter—why don’t we get some clarity?”

The letter from APHA and NACCH follows a similar one sent in March by National Nurses United, and a February letter from Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Sheldon Whitehouse.

“Everybody’s looking at every other issue but public health,” Boxer said on a conference call with reporters on Friday . “It’s crucial that these groups be listened to.”

Supporters of the pipeline have criticized Boxer and Whitehouse’s calls for a public health study as a delay tactic. Boxer said she wasn’t sure how long an assessment would take, but that a review of existing peer-reviewed research should be relatively simple. Whitehouse argued there is “no urgency” to bring Alberta’s tar sands oil through the United States. “The tar sands are not going anywhere,” he said. “We don’t want to be in situation where we rush now in order to regret later.”

Meanwhile, KXL’s proponent are asking the administration to speed up its decision making process. Eleven Democratic Senators sent a letter to the White House on Thursday asking the administration to approve the pipeline by May 31. The signees include Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, John Walsh of Montana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, all facing challenging re-election races in conservative states with significant fossil fuel interests.

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Asked about the political implications of the pipeline decision, Boxer said her colleagues will “do what they have to do to represent their states well and follow their conscience. What we’re doing is just saying that, when it comes to public health and the survival of the planet, you need to pay attention to that, whether it’s an election year or an off-election year.”

“We’re already seeing misery,” Boxer said, referring to reports of high rates of cancer near production regions in Alberta, Canada, and pollution from the piles of petroleum coke, a tar sands byproduct, in several cities in the American Midwest. “There’s a lot of money and a lot of power behind [the pipeline], but I do believe at end of day people want to make sure that their kids are healthy.”

Read Next: Harvard’s fight over the university’s potential fossil fuel divestment

Why Do Bosses Want Their Employees’ Salaries to Be Secret?

Job fair

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Asking someone at a party how much they make in a year might get you a weird look. Asking someone about their salary at work might get you fired. Seem unfair? Don’t bother complaining: Washington just once again reaffirmed the boss’s inalienable right to punish workers for talking about whether they’re being treated fairly.

In a narrow vote this week, the Senate politely smothered the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have protected workers’ rights to compare and discuss their wages at work. Aimed at dismantling workplace “pay secrecy” policies, the legislation built on the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which strengthens safeguards for women and other protected groups against wage discrimination. Both measures aim to fill gaps in the enforcement of longstanding civil rights laws, which, half a century on, are still failing to combat the most insidious forms of discrimination—the subtle labor violations that grease the gears of economic inequality. Wage discrimination has persisted in large part because workers are routinely discouraged or outright banned from discussing compensation levels with coworkers.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would have shielded workers from retaliation if they discuss their salaries with coworkers. Employers would have had to “prove that pay disparities exist for legitimate, job-related reasons,” according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. In addition, the bill would have closed disparities in the legal remedies available for violations of the Equal Pay Act, so workers could claim the same kinds of damages provided under other wage discrimination laws. And overall, workers would have had an easier time seeking compensation in federal court, rather than the bureaucracy of the National Labor Relations Board, which tends to yield weaker penalties.

The bill would also have directed the Labor Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to proactively gather data and investigate wage discrimination on a broader scale.

To partially offset the Senate defeat, President Obama signed two executive orders that placed similar mandates on federal contractors, but while that would cover a substantial chunk of the workforce, many millions of workers may remain effectively gagged at work.

Yet making pay fair is not just a matter of correcting payrolls. Despite all the handwringing on Capitol Hill around the oft-cited seventy-seven-cents-to-a-dollar figure, the restrictions of speech in the workplace attest to a more systemic power imbalance.

According to a 2003 study, “Over one-third of private sector employers…recently surveyed admitted to having specific rules prohibiting employees from discussing their pay with coworkers. In contrast, only about 1 in 14 employers have actively adopted a ‘pay openness’ policy,” which explicitly protects workplace discussion of wages. A 2011 survey estimated that 50 percent of workers are subject to some kind of restriction on discussing their pay with coworkers—slightly more women than men, with the largest concentration among private sector workers (about 60 percent, compared to less than 20 percent of public workers). The gaps vary along demographic lines: women workers, single parents and married childless women tend to face higher rates of these secrecy controls than do married mothers. And although civil servants generally had far lower rates of pay secrecy, the practice was more prevalent among women in the public sector.


(Courtesy: Institute for Women’s Policy Research)

Many of these workers will never even know that they’ve unfairly benefited from or suffered from unequal pay. Ultimately, the big winner in this game of secrecy is the boss, who profits directly from the ignorance and pliability of workers who don’t grasp their own economic situation.

So there’s a gap between what’s fair and what’s legal. Discussing wages in a private workplace isn’t technically covered by any First Amendment guarantee against censorship, but the issue of pay secrecy raises crucial questions about workers’ freedom to learn and communicate about their labor conditions.

In unionized workplaces particularly, where there is additional protection for organizing-related activities, the National Labor Relations Board and the civil courts have consistently sided with workers, ruling that under the National Labor Relations Act, wage discussions should be considered “concerted activity for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

Marianne DelPo Kulow, a Bentley University law professor who has researched wage discrimination, explains via e-mail that the right to discuss pay generally hinges on federal labor law, not the Constitution, per se:

This right is premised not on the First Amendment but instead on the notion that workers are in the best position to know whether their employer is following the law and so such conversations not only protect workers but also ensure enforcement of workplace laws and regulations.

But of course, the perennial chicken and egg dilemma is that workers are reluctant to seek this knowledge, or simply are unaware, or in denial, that they might be getting cheated.

Lily Ledbetter had been a loyal employee of Goodyear Tires for nearly two decades before she discovered she had been underpaid for years. What angered her most wasn’t the lost pay but the betrayal of her economic dignity.

“When I was hired they let me know that if I discussed my pay, I wouldn’t have a job. So I had no way to know,” she said in a 2012 interview on One Thing New. When the 60-year-old Alabama mother realized (thanks to an anonymous tip) that she had been paid less as a plant supervisor than male coworkers, she recalled, “I felt devastated. Humiliated…. It just really made me sort of sick that all this time I had been getting awards and being told I was doing a great job, and no one had ever said I wasn’t making what I should be. I had no idea how much less.”

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Employers have defended their restraints on workplace speech as a business prerogative, as if payscales were “trade secrets,” or by suggesting that too much disclosure leads to “jealousies and strife among employees.”

In other words, if workers really knew what their bosses were doing, their anger would start to unravel the complacency, along with ingrained fear and anxiety, that employers use to keep their labor obedient and their production chains running smoothly.

The struggle for fair pay isn’t captured in wage statistics; it’s part of a struggle against the asymmetry of knowledge that divides management and labor—and fundamentally, a struggle for a democratic workplace. In the economic superstructure, the real depths of of the wealth gap are not between coworkers but between workers and the CEOs on top. Yet those stunning inequalities are not contemplated in any legal concept of “paycheck fairness.” Workers are, of course, trained to view such inequalities as central pillars of the corporate edifice, just as society has normalized the interlocking inequalities in race and gender that are plainly on display in our communities and workplaces every day.

Whether we’re cheated through clandestine wage discrimination, or facing institutionalized racial and gender segregation, we’re surrounded by reasons for “jealousy and strife”—all hiding in plain sight. But the core social mechanics that drive inequality at all levels of the economy are not so visible, thanks to the rules that enforce our collective blindness.

Read Next: Zoë Carpenter asks, “What’s the GOP’s Excuse for Opposing Equal Pay This Time?

Why Is Northwestern Football Coach Pat Fitzgerald Playing the Union Buster?

Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

The first thing you have to understand are the power dynamics that exist inside of a college football locker room. The football coach is Zeus, God of Thunder. He—and it is always he—does not just determine your playing time, your media exposure and your overall status in the group. He also determines whether or not your scholarship will last past the year. You go to school at his pleasure. In the best-case scenarios you are gifted a benevolent despot. In the worst, he never lets you forget the power he holds over your head.

Enter Pat Fitzgerald, the esteemed coach of the Northwestern football team. The former star Wildcats player has led his team to a 55-46 record during his time in charge. Fitzgerald has played the role of school ambassador, rainmaker and recruiter. His team wins and his players graduate. Now, however, he is playing another role, that of union buster. Northwestern Wildcat football players are due to vote on April 25 about whether to formally unionize, following the earthshaking National Labor Relations Board ruling that stated they were in fact not student-athletes but employees at the school, and Fitzgerald is on a full-court press to prevent that from happening. Although it is against the law for him and his staff to openly threaten players who want to vote union, Fitzgerald is lobbying hard to make sure that a no-vote takes place in two weeks.

As he said publicly, “I believe it’s in their best interests to vote no. With the research that I’ve done, I’m going to stick to the facts and I’m going to do everything in my power to educate our guys. Our university is going to do that. We’ll give them all the resources they need to get the facts.” [my emphasis]

It is unclear what “facts” Fitzgerald is trafficking in, but one wonders if included in his antiunion truth kit is the fact that Fitzgerald is the school’s highest-paid employee, with a salary of $2.2 million per year. He is the first sports coach to ever be the highest-paid employee in school history. Another fact is that Fitzgerald received a $2.5 million loan from the school upon signing his last contract. The players, meanwhile, are asking for a seat at the table and an extension of health and educational guarantees. Even if they vote yes, there will be years of appeals. In fact, Northwestern filed suit on Friday, to appeal the original NLRB ruling. Yet despite all of this, it is too much for the ball coach to abide.

Why is Fitzgerald, a former player, pushing back so hard against the efforts to unionize? Is it pressure from the NCAA, which sees unionization as a threat, in its own words, to “blow up” its entire operation? Is it those in power on a Northwestern University campus that has been hostile to any kind of on-campus organizing? Is it pressure from well-heeled alumni who are being very public about why the players need to vote no? Does Fitzgerald simply not want to break the time-honored power dynamic in a college locker room of Coach as God? Maybe it is as simple as the words of ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson who said, “Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is now in the position of being an employer whose employees are entitled to vote on whether to unionize.” Like so many bosses, maybe he does not want his workers to have a seat at the table. Clearing the table, maybe, but not a seat.

Whatever the backroom reasons, they are collectively less important than his influence. Since Fitzgerald has started to flex his muscle, a team that almost unanimously signed cards to apply for union membership now has numerous players speaking out publicly against the April 25 vote. Despite this, former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who was leading this struggle before his graduation, is confident that April 25 will go their way. I was at an event with Kain Colter at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC, last week. He acknowledged that the players are under pressure to vote no, but still felt a strong degree of confidence that the vote would go their way. Colter said, “I think it’s tough when you have some criticism that they’ve got. Some people came down [on the players], hollered, and even people within the Northwestern alumni base. That’s obviously tough, but I think they are strong and they still believe in the issue.” Colter believes, with unblinking self-assurance that the basic message they carried will win out over any efforts at intimidation. “I’m very confident,” he said. “All it boils down to is do you want to vote for having rights or not.”

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Whether or not the Northwestern football team votes “yes,” this issue is not going anywhere. The NLRB has still cleared the way to organize at other private universities. As Ned Resnikoff reported, state legislatures are at work trying to either make this ruling apply to public universities (Connecticut) or block its extension (Ohio). The issue is not going anywhere because the system itself is manifestly unjust, and Northwestern’s efforts to strangle this movement in the crib will fail. Pat Fitzgerald is a fine coach. He should stick to coaching and get out of the union-busting business.

Read Next: Dave Zirin talks sports mascots with members of Idle No More.