On Saturday, Missouri All-American Michael Sam took to the podium at the NFL combine to face a throng of reporters that gawked at him like he had just made the journey from Mars. Here he was: the man who would become the NFL’s first openly gay player. The size of the media swarm shows, if nothing else, that the right-wing media that have refused to cover the Michael Sam story by saying explicitly, to take one headline, “We really don’t care that you’re gay, gay people,” are living in a reality of their own making.
Yes, people care. The media that make their money by generating page views are acutely aware that people care. People care because the NFL is the closest thing we have in this country to a national obsession. People care because, beyond NFL fans, there is a collective recognition that this is history being written before our eyes. People care because for all the gay players that have played in the NFL, Michael Sam is the first to “live his truth” openly.
As for Mr. Sam, based on the press conference, he seems to be both savvy as hell and acutely aware that there is no need to stoke the embers of this publicity inferno. It will rage regardless, and the best thing he can do is make the best possible impression on his profoundly risk-averse future employers in the NFL.
The sportswriters in attendance certainly swooned at his every word. Sam dolloped out a series of responses, which suggested less a new archetype of masculinity than a recalling of the old: call it Dick Butkus spliced with Sidney Poitier alongside a dash of Gary Cooper.
Sam looked at the buzzing hive and said, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player.”
When asked if he was a trailblazer, Sam said, “Do I feel like I’m a trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam.”
For those who relish the prospect a hypermacho NFL player holds to mortally damage the age-old trope that equates being a gay male with being weak, Sam did not disappoint. When asked how he would handle an anti-gay slur, he said, “If someone calls me a name, I’ll have a chat with them. Hopefully it won’t lead to anything further.”
Sam even commented on the standing ovation he just received at a Mizzou basketball game by saying, “I wanted to cry, but I’m a man.” Yup, a regular Gary Cooper.
As welcome as it always is to see stereotypes explode (and to imagine Rush Limbaugh’s head doing the same), there is a vexing aspect of Michael Sam’s square-jawed certitude. Bomani Jones, one of the sharpest knives in the sports writing box, somehow laid this out in 140 characters. Jones tweeted, “What Sam can do is separate sexual orientation from notions of masculinity. So what will we say when he reinforces gender norms as such?”
It’s a question worth asking. So many players in the league are caught in what former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann has called “the man box.” This is the locker-room ideology that preaches, “Bullies are heroes; pain—physical or mental—is for wimps; and women are either ‘road beef’ or collateral damage.” We just received a firsthand look, thanks to Richie Incognito and the Miami Dolphins, of what the “man box” looks like when the sportswriter’s romantic prose is stripped away, and it’s ugly as sin.
There are many pinning a set of extremely unrealistic hopes onto Michael Sam: the hope that his mere presence will crack open the man box and let some other emotional truths inside the locker room. Brandon Marshall of the Bears has taken it upon himself to actually try to do this in Chicago. He wants to make the Pro Bowl and redefine entrenched league concepts of masculinity at the same time. It’s different, it’s courageous, and given his own—and the league’s—history with violence against women, it’s brave as hell. Michael Sam, for now at least, just wants to play football. To do so as an openly gay man is, in 2014, a radical act. That also may be the only mountain we can—and should—ask this young man to climb. As Michael Sam says, he just wants to play football.
Read Next: Dave Zirin interviews Wade Davis, executive director of the You Can Play Project.
If a United States senator claims that a key manufacturing facility in his home state would lose a new product line if workers were to vote for a union, might the workers be less inclined to vote for the union?
If legislative leaders in that state threaten to withhold tax incentives for future expansion of the manufacturing facility if a pro-union vote was recorded, might that influence the election?
It would be absurd to try to deny the influence that top elected officials, with powerful connections and control of treasuries and tax policies, could have were they to intervene in this way.
It would be equally absurd for the union to simply walk away from such a blatant assault on not just the rights of workers but the rule of law.
The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, with it’s almost eighty-year history of fighting not just for labor rights but for civil rights and civil liberties in the United States and around the world, is not inclined toward absurdity. So UAW President Bob King announced Friday that the union has asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to investigate the extraordinary level of interference by politicians and outside special interest groups in the mid-February representation election at Volkswagen’s state-of-the-art plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“It’s an outrage that politically motivated third parties threatened the economic future of this facility and the opportunity for workers to create a successful operating model that would grow jobs in Tennessee,” says UAW president Bob King. “It is extraordinary interference in the private decision of workers to have a U.S. senator, a governor and leaders of the state legislature threaten the company with the denial of economic incentives and workers with a loss of product.”
In the complaint that could lead to an NLRB decision to set aside the controversial result of the first vote and arrange a new election, the UAW argues that top Tennessee Republicans “conducted what appears to have been a coordinated and widely-publicized coercive campaign, in concert with their staffs and others, to deprive VWGOA workers of their federally-protected right, through the election, to support and select the UAW.” The campaign by the elected officials, in combination with efforts by anti-union groups from outside Tennessee to publicize it, was “clearly designed to influence the votes” of Volkswagen workers.
“No VWGOA employee could cast a vote without a well-founded fear that the exercise of the franchise could mean both that their job security at VWGOA and the financial health of their plant could be in serious jeopardy,” reads the detailed complaint of the UAW, which cites NLRB standards and precedents regarding similar forms of interference. “Such an environment, foisted on VWGOA workers by politicians who have no regard for the workers’ rights under federal law, is completely contrary to the environment that the National Labor Relations Act demands for union certification elections.”
The process of challenging the vote is likely to be costly and complex. Success is far from guaranteed. But the complaint is credible, and it is vital to the discourse about the future of unions—and the role that right-wing politicians hope to play in thwarting labor organizing not just in the South but nationally. At a time when Republican governors and legislators across the country are using the authority of government to undermine union organizing and to weaken existing unions, it is entirely appropriate—and increasingly necessary—to raise objections to obvious abuses of power and the public trust.
The Volkswagen vote provides a glaring example of the extremes to which anti-union politicians will go.
By any reasonable measure, the most aggressive campaign to prevent Tennessee Volkswagen workers from deciding for themselves about whether to join the UAW was not waged by the company, nor even by the usual cabal of Koch Brothers-funded zealots from Washington.
As the high-stakes vote at the Chattanooga plant approached, the most prominent and powerful Republican elected officials in the region used their positions of public trust and responsibility to attack the UAW and to suggest that a pro-union vote would harm efforts to expand the plant and bring new jobs to the region.
Republican US Senator Bob Corker, a former mayor of Chattanooga, began claiming just hours before the voting began that a new product line would come to the plant if workers voted against the union—and indicated that the line might be lost if the workers chose UAW representation. Volkswagen officials vigorously denied that this was the case, and Corker was never able to produce any evidence to support his claims. Yet, because he made them on the eve of the vote, they were not effectively refuted.
Similarly, State Senate Speaker Pro Tem Bo Watson, a powerful Republican legislator, held a news conference two days before the vote in which he declared that a vote for the union would be “un-American” and announced that the Republican-controlled state Legislature would be disinclined toward providing aid that would assist in the expansion of production at that plant. That was no idle threat, as the state provided a $500 million incentive package to help lure Volkswagen to Chattanooga in 2008.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam played along with the anti-union campaign, lending further credence to the threats.
“In my twenty years on the hill [in the Tennessee legislature], I’ve never seen such a massive intrusion into the affairs of a private company,” said Tennessee state Representative Craig Fitzhugh, a senior Democrat.
The intimidation and threats were covered on a daily basis in Chattanooga newspapers and on radio and television stations. The message was clear. “It’s essentially saying, ‘If you unionize, it’s going to hurt your economy. Why? Because I’m going to make sure it does,’” Volkswagen worker Lauren Feinauer said of what she termed an “underhanded threat.”
When the NLRB counted the votes, the UAW organizing drive was narrowly defeated. Very narrowly. If just forty-four votes swung—out of almost roughly 1,400 cast—the union would have won.
Might the underhanded threats from politicians have shifted forty-four votes?
And might those underhanded threats amount to an inappropriate intervention in the election process?
Anti-union politicians, their allies and financial benefactors will, of course, say “no.”
But Volkswagen officials, who adopted a neutral stance with regard to the initial vote, could say “yes.” If they do, key hurdles to a new election would collapse. The company has made no secret of its desire to establish a European-style labor-management “works council” at the plant. Experts on US labor relations have argued that approval of the union must be a part of that process.
So the UAW’s long struggle to organize the VW plant—and foreign auto manufacturers in other parts of the South—is far from finished. Indeed, as union president Bob King says: “We’re committed to standing with the Volkswagen workers to ensure that their right to have a fair vote without coercion and interference is protected.”
Read Next: Ari Burman's feature on the Southern-led Moral Monday protests.
Let us stipulate that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has blood on his hands for the massacre of protesters in Kiev, and that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin—who seems to view the repression of Ukraine’s opposition with equanimity—bears a lot of guilt for the killings. And let us hope that the cease-fire reached overnight in Kiev, after much to-ing and fro-ing by Western diplomats and desperate phone calls from Vice President Joe Biden, will hold—though it isn’t likely.
Now what? Well, though the United States has little leverage, Washington could start by letting Moscow know that it doesn’t want Ukraine to blow up.
To American hawks and neoconservatives, the crisis in Ukraine ought to trigger a muscular American response. A Wall Street Journal editorial blames “Western passivity” for Ukraine’s tumble into near–civil war conditions, blaming the Obama administration for not taking stronger measures, such as freezing Ukraine’s financial assets. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan says:
It is particularly important now for us to show the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, that America is not some exhausted shell of itself with no adherence to anything larger than the daily concerns of its welfare state, but still a nation with meaning.
And hawks in Congress are demanding, among other things, that the United States immediately offer membership in NATO to Georgia, apparently seeking deliberately to widen the crisis and further provoke Russia. Additionally—and again in the Journal—Bernard-Henri Lévy, the reliable old war horse, demands that the United States pull out of the Sochi Olympics, which would accomplish precisely nothing.
And there’s more. Anna Borschchevskaya, writing in National Review, says: “This is one battle the U.S. cannot ignore.” And Ariel Cohen, the venerable neoconservative at the Heritage Foundation, writes: “An East-West confrontation may be imminent.” But Cohen has little to offer as to steps that the United States might take other than sanctions and, well, bluster.
The tough talk from hawks is expected. But what’s evident in reading their prescriptions is that there is really little or nothing that the United States can do, except perhaps what it’s already doing, namely, having talks with the government of Ukraine and the opposition (at least the mainstream representatives of the opposition), and trying to bring Western Europe and even Moscow into the picture—though contacts with Moscow, at least directly, seem few and far between.
You don’t have to look far for evidence of the lack of American leverage in Ukraine. Take, for example, the inability of the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon and US military leadership even to get Ukrainian leaders to answer the phone.
Hagel spoke with [Ukrainian Minister of Defense] Lebedev on Dec. 13 and ‘warned Minister Lebedev not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion,’ according to a statement issued then by Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog…. Other Pentagon leaders, including Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of the U.S. European Command, have attempted to reach the Ukrainian military without success, said Col. Ed Thomas, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hagel has since attempted to call the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense as the situation worsened, but “the Ukrainian defense minister won’t take Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s calls; in fact, no one at the defense ministry will even answer the phone,” according to Stars and Stripes.
USA Today headlined its article: “Hagel not able to engage Ukrainian counterpart.” And Stars and Stripes says Rear Adm. John Kirby “described the situation as ‘pretty unusual,’ and said nothing like this has ever happened to Hagel since he took office.”
The very nature of the shocking police assault on the protesters may itself be Yanukovich’s undoing, since he’s now losing control both of his own party and of Ukraine’s fractious parliament, plus apparently losing the backing of some of the oligarchs who’ve supported him until now. If so, it’s possible that the accord will lead to new presidential elections, almost certain to empower the pro-Western (and anti-Russian) political powers in Ukraine.
How that will sit with Putin isn’t clear. Putin has both defensive reasons—opposition to the expansion of the European Union and NATO to Russia’s very borders to the south and west, and vast economic interests in Ukraine that he hopes to integrate into a revived Russian power—and offensive reasons for pressing Russian influence in Kiev. The editor of Russia in Global Affairs—on whose board sits Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, along with other prominent Russians, including a former ambassador to the United States is Fyodor Lukyanov. Writing for the BBC, Lukyanov describes Putin’s view thus:
In his view, unrest must be suppressed before it turns into a huge fire. Unrest produces nothing but chaos. A weak state drives itself into a trap. Once a state falters, external forces will charge through the breach and start shattering it until it falls. The West is destructive. It is either unable to understand the complexity of the situation and acts in a primitive way, designating “good” and “bad” players, or it deliberately destroys undesirable systems. The result is always the same—things get worse. The desire to limit Russian influence and hinder Moscow’s initiatives is the invariable imperative of the Western policy.
And he adds:
Putin fears chaos. The main driving force behind his policy towards Ukraine will be not a desire for expansion, but a desire to reduce the risk of chaos spilling into Russia. To this end, anything goes—both defensive and offensive means.
It ought to be the role of the United States to ease tensions in Ukraine, by backing off, supporting a smoother European-Russian dialogue (one in which the words “Fuck the EU” aren’t heard), and hoping for a commitment from all sides in the Ukrainian dispute to come up with a political solution that works. That may mean that Ukraine does indeed reorient toward a closer economic affiliation with the EU, or that it joins the confederation being assembled by Russia, or something in between. But, despite what’s being said by so many in the US establishment, Ukraine is hardly a top American national security interest.
Above all, easing tensions means letting Putin know that Washington isn’t seeking “chaos” in Kiev. And meaning it.
Read Next: the battle for Kiev
Is lobbying going underground? Despite its official decline on paper, Nation Institute reporting fellow Lee Fang argues that the influence industry “is growing very quickly.” In an interview with Democracy Now! hosts Amy Goodman and Juan González, Fang spoke about his latest Nation feature “The Shadow Lobbying Complex,” drawing attention to an Obama executive order banning registered lobbyists. In effect, the order has catalyzed an underground, unregistered lobby industry. Fang also talked about Palantir, a Silicone Valley–based company backed by the CIA and venture capitalists, and the recent uptick in lobby money spent on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Bangladesh.
Life for homeless people in New York got better just a week into the de Blasio administration, as the new mayor restored an emergency provision that relaxed shelter entrance requirements when temps on the city’s streets dropped below freezing. Mayor Bloomberg, who in 2004 made a bold promise to dramatically reduce homelessness but pursued several hard-hearted and light-headed policies, had eliminated those “code blue” rules a year earlier.
And today, de Blasio took another step toward a more humane homeless policy: taking steps to move more than 400 children out of two family shelters notorious for their unsafe, unhealthy conditions. But de Blasio himself called today’s announcement merely a “first public step in a larger strategy to improve homeless services, while we address the underlying causes that have left a record number of adults and children living in New York City shelters.”
Indeed, while the situation facing 400 kids at the Auburn Family and Catherine Street shelters will improve, the fact that 22,509 children (and 29,752 other people) are in city shelters in the first place is the real challenge facing the administration. And meeting that challenge is another subplot in the dance of Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo.
Already the two Democrats—one coming off a huge landslide win, the other aiming for one in November—are jousting on the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy and joining up to push for a federal waiver to save Brooklyn’s hospitals. The waiver came through. The other issues remain on the table.
While homeless numbers were high throughout the Bloomberg years, they spiked after the city terminated its Work Advantage program—a temporary rent subsidy for formerly homeless people. After Work Advantage disappeared, there was no place for people to go after living in the shelter. With the exit door blocked, the population inside swelled.
Many advocates had disliked Work Advantage because of its very short, one or two-year duration, which they argued was not enough time for formerly homeless families to find a way to pay their own rent. The Cuomo administration evidently shared some of those misgivings, and cut state funding for Work Advantage. The Bloomberg administration followed suit, and the program vanished.
Now Cuomo’s people and the de Blasio administration are talking about creating a new subsidized housing program. One question is how much the new program will resemble the disliked Work Advantage scheme. Another is whether, as part of the deal with the state, de Blasio will make good on a campaign pledge to restore a priority status for homeless shelter residents applying for Section 8 or public housing. Bloomberg eliminated that priority on the idea that it drew into the shelter system people looking for a fast-track to a cheap apartment. De Blasio said during the campaign that he’d restore the priority, but has not done so yet.
Why? According to today’s Times:
The city is less likely to depend on federal housing programs as a solution because of the dwindling supply, Mr. de Blasio said. “It will be a tool we use as needed, but I think the central thrust has to be getting at the root causes,” he said.
It’s true that neither Section 8 nor the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) are on rock-solid ground, and both already have lengthy waiting lists. But neither program is melting away anytime soon. De Blasio took a big step toward shoring up NYCHA by eliminating some fees the authority was forced to pay the city. No, public housing and Section 8 aren’t going to solve New York’s homeless crisis, but together they turn over around like 8,000 apartments a year. Families—some 10,000 or them—make up most of the city’s shelter population, so even if a minority of those slots went to shelter residents, it’d make a big difference.
It’s possible that the issue of homeless access to Section 8 and NYCHA is part of the discussions with the state about a replacement for the Work Advantage program. Those discussions have to wrap up before the state passes its fiscal 2015 budget, which is supposed to be by April 1.
But that alone won’t put the homelessness issue to bed. De Blasio said today that a broader effort (“Greater supply of affordable housing. Pushing up wages and benefits. More preventative efforts.”) is needed to really reverse the tide of homelessness. Pushing up wages—at least the minimum wage—is, of course, another gambit in the Cuomo–de Blasio chess match.
Read Next: How universal pre-K could redistribute wealth—right here, right now.
The Israel lobby appears to be panicking.
Earlier this week, New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage cancelled a talk by New Republic senior editor John Judis about his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict, deeming it too controversial. The book, which comes with a blurb from The Nation’s own Eric Alterman, has enraged the right by looking seriously at Zionism’s colonial history and, worse, assuming that Palestinian concerns are as important as Jewish ones. Judis writes that he has taken from the Reform Jewish tradition “the idea that an American Jew should be as concerned about the rights of a Palestinian Arab as he is about the rights of an Israeli Jew. That’s not a view you’ll find today at many of the so-called pro-Israel organizations, or at the evangelical churches that call for the Jewish conquest of Judea and Samaria, but it’s my view, and it’s the one that informs this history.” Evidently, this basic moral universalism is too inflammatory for parts of the Jewish community.
Then, yesterday, news came that a different institution, the Jewish Museum of New York, was scrapping a talk on Kafka by BDS supporter Judith Butler, who pulled out amid a pro-Israel uproar. “[T]he debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended,” said a museum statement.
Meanwhile, there’s The J Street Challenge: The Seductive Allure of Peace in Our Time, a new right-wing documentary that, if the online preview and early reviews are accurate, smears the liberal pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street as dupes of crazed anti-Semites. It was made, producer Avi Goldwasser told the Jewish Press, “in response to what we perceived as a one-sided discussion, dominated by J Street spokespersons, about the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.”
Supporters of the Israeli right are right to worry. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal, and it’s increasingly difficult to reconcile liberalism with actually manifest Zionism. Particularly among younger Jews, the cutting edge debate isn’t between AIPAC and J Street—it’s between J Street and BDS, and it seems as if AIPAC and its allies can’t decide which side it hates more. The BDS movement poses an existential threat that has Israeli leaders terrified, but at the same time, the shrillest of pro-Israel groups thrive when Jews are made to feel under siege. J Street is committed to the safety and longevity of the Jewish state, but the right finds its demand for a Palestinian state alongside it intolerable, and the group threatens the hegemony of Israel hawks in American Jewish life. That’s particularly true at a time when AIPAC and its allies suffered a major diplomatic defeat in the failed push for new sanctions on Iran.
“I believe there’s a major shift taking place in the Jewish American community and in its politics,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami wrote me in an e-mail from Jerusalem. “It’s a shift that is generational and will take time but is certainly a challenge for all those organizations and individuals who’ve experienced only an ‘Israel-right-or-wrong’ relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel.” As a result, those organizations and individuals are lashing out all over the place.
AIPAC is even trying to hire a “National Progressives Outreach Constituency Director” in hopes of making inroads into the left. It’s not going to work. The growing liberal disenchantment with Israel is not a PR problem. It can’t be solved by shutting critical voices out and doubling down on dogma. American Jews are going to abandon Israel unless Israel abandons the occupation, and no amount of censorship and propaganda is going to change that.
Read Next: Michelle Goldberg asks, “What Does the American Studies Association’s Israel Boycott Mean for Academic Freedom?”
This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org
For Chevron, the second-largest oil company in the country with $26.2 billion in annual profits, it helps to have friends in high places. With little fanfare, one of Chevron’s top lobbyists, Stephen Sayle, has become a senior staff member of the House Committee on Science, the standing congressional committee charged with “maintaining our scientific and technical leadership in the world.”
Throughout much of 2013, Sayle was the chief executive officer of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, a lobbying firm retained by Chevron to influence Congress. For fees that total $320,000 a year, Sayle and his team lobbied on a range of energy-related issues, including implementation of EPA rules under the Clean Air Act, regulation of ozone standards, as well as “Congressional and agency oversight related to offshore oil, natural gas development and oil spills.”
Sayle’s ethics disclosure, obtained by Republic Report, shows that he was paid $500,000 by Chevron’s lobbying firm before taking his current gig atop the Science Committee.
In recent months, the House Science Committee has become a cudgel for the oil industry, issuing subpoenas and holding hearings to demonize efforts to improve the environment. Some of the work by the committee reflect the lobbying priorities of Chevron.
In December, the Science Committee, now chaired by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), held yet another hearing to try to discredit manmade global warming. In August, the committee issued the first subpoena in twenty-one years, demanding “all the raw data from a number of federally funded studies linking air pollution to disease.”
Though Chevron has gone to great lengths to advertise a lofty environmental record, the company continues to break air pollution laws while quietly backpedalling on its prior commitments to renewable energy. A Bloomberg News investigation reported that Chevron estimated that its biofuel investments would return only 5 percent in profits, a far cry from the 15 percent to which the oil giant is accustomed, and quietly moved to shelve renewable fuel units of the company. In California, Chevron is battling the newly created cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution. And in states across the country, Chevron has lobbied and provided financial support to a range of right-wing nonprofits dedicated to repealing carbon-cutting regulations, including the low-carbon fuel standard.
Earlier this year, Dow Lohnes’ lobbying practice merged with Levick, a public affairs firm.
(HT: Sheila Kaplan)
Read Next: Lee Fang on new, under-the-table lobbying tactics
When an American drone fired four Hellfire missiles at a convoy of cars travelling from a wedding in Yemen last December, who died?
According to their relatives, the twelve men killed in the attack were shepherds, farmers or migrants who worked across the border in Saudi Arabia. They were fathers and sons. Shaif Abdullah Mohsen Mabkhut al-’Amri was the youngest, at 22; in a photo belonging to his uncle he looks slightly perplexed, eyes fixed on the camera over a sparse mustache and a half smile. Hussein Muhammad al-Tomil al-Tisi, 65, was the oldest killed. Twenty-eight-year-old ’Aref Ahmed al-Tisi’s youngest child, his seventh, had been born less than two weeks earlier. Ali Abdullah, 36, had been a soldier. His father watched as the missile that killed him hit. “I found him tossed to the side. I turned him over and he was dead,” the father remembered later. “My son, Ali!”
These details were collected by Human Rights Watch and published Thursday in a report that suggests that some, if not all of the victims of the December strike were civilians. The report concluded that the attack violated policies for targeted killings that President Obama laid out in May.
The story told by the report is one of disputed identity. Anonymous US officials have said all of the twelve men killed were militants traveling with Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, allegedly a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the primary target of the strike. Officials say al-Badani was wounded, and escaped. Relatives of the dead say they didn’t know him.
The Yemeni government appears less sure of the details. The day after the strike, an official news agency reported the convoy carried “many terrorist members and leaders who were involved in plotting attacks.” But the following day, the general who commands the military zone in which the strike took place and the governor of the region called the attack a “mistake,” and distributed cash and Kalashnikovs to the families of the dead and wounded as a gesture of apology. Although two Yemeni officials who spoke to HRW affirmed the Americans’ story that al-Badani was in the convoy, multiple sources acknowledged to HRW that at least some of the men were civilians. Three suggested members of AQAP had used the wedding convoy as “camouflage.” One said he’d been told the men were “guys for hire—shady.” A Yemeni security analyst said he was convinced that all twelve were civilians.
We’re unlikely to find out exactly who these men were or what sort of threat they might have posed. The administration has refused to release details of the two internal investigations of the attack that US officials told the Associated Press they’d carried out, although they said both inquiries confirmed that all of the men killed were members of AQAP. It’s unclear how that determination was made, although one detail reportedly arousing suspicion was the fact that the convoy was made up of men with rifles. To segregate wedding processions by gender is common practice in Yemen’s tribal areas, HRW pointed out, as is traveling with assault weapons.
“The US refusal to explain a deadly attack on a marriage procession raises critical questions about the administration’s compliance with its own targeted killing policy,” wrote Letta Taylor, the report’s author. The report concludes that the United States has an obligation to investigate the strike futher, and provide a public accounting.
The questions raised by the wedding attack go beyond identity, beyond compliance. Another debate to be had is about the existence of the killing program—its legal basis, its strategic benefits, its moral implications—not just adherence to its rules. This is a conversation the administration has tried to avoid. Although Obama has proposed shifting the CIA’s drone program to the Pentagon to increase transparency, the White House has brushed off Congress’s attempt to broaden its oversight. Last week, the administration forbade CIA officers from attending a hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee, and refused to grant security clearances to committee members so they could be briefed.
We may not know whom we’re killing, but the people left behind know who is responsible for their losses. “We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?” the groom asked in a video shown to HRW researchers. No one, so far, has a real answer for him.
Abdu Rabu Abdullah al-Tisi told HRW he lost four relatives in the strike. “Our tribe is very big,” he said. “It will not forget the blood of our sons; it will not let this blood flow in vain.”
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on a one woman play about America’s drone warfare program
Wade Davis played in the NFL from 2000–03. In 2012 he chose to go public and become the fourth openly gay former NFL player. Davis is now executive director of the You Can Play Project. He has written for numerous publications and just wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated about spending six hours with Michael Sam prior to Sam’s announcement that he would seek to become the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Dave Zirin: Is Michael Sam ready for all of this?
Wade Davis: One hundred percent. And I say that because he was not overwhelmed at all by this. He understood the gravity of it, but he was like, “Look, I’m ready to get this media hoopla over with and to get back to playing ball.” He gets the magnitude of it from a social perspective, but from a football perspective, he says, “Look, I’m a football guy. I’ve been playing it my whole life and I’m better at it than most.” And he’s going to prove it.
Put yourself in the shoes of Wade Davis, circa 2000. If you had come out as an active player, what do you think happens?
First of all, I think people would say, “Well, who is this kid? He’s a scrub. He’s barely making a roster… How many times has he been cut?” But I think the conversation’s different. We weren’t having conversations around athletes and homophobia and sports, or who’s the first athlete that’s going to come out. I think it would be a very different reception not because the sports community is more or less homophobic, but from a national discourse, we weren’t having the same discussions then. There were no marriage equality conversations happening. I just think the entire world was different. I think people would have been like, “Wow, this kid here is crazy. This is suicide.” Whereas with Michael Sam, people are like, “Ok, he can play… so let him play”
How common was it, when you played, as part of the general culture of a locker room, was being “soft” equated with anti-gay slurs, or not being a good player being equated with anti-gay slurs?
In high school, very common. In college, a little less. And in the pros, it’s largely nonexistent. I think there’s always been an unfortunate association with being a gay man as being weaker or soft. The real issue there being that gay men are equated with women, which again says a lot about the problems that our country has with sexism. It should be okay to equate a man to a woman and not to think that means someone’s inferior. It’s unfortunate that this happens so frequently because, I think it is the main reason that guys don’t come out that they’re gay. Because they don’t want to be perceived as weak. It’s not like athletes don’t want to tell their story, or live in their truth. Often our athletic identity and our masculinity are attached. So if you say “I’m gay,” someone will say, “Oh, he’s not man enough.” Or, “He’s not as strong as this other guy.” I think that’s one of the bigger issues.
[This next question was asked just before the release of the Ted Wells report detailing the extent of the bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room.]
One of the first NFL players to tweet support for Michael Sam was a gentleman by the name of Richie Incognito. And I raise that, because in all of the text messages released between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin you saw a lot of anti-gay slurs. When you saw that Richie Incognito sent that out, did your head go towards “this is part of his image rehabilitation” or did it go toward, “wow, maybe Richie has changed.” What was your reaction to that?
Now, this is the first time I’ve been asked this question. So, to be honest my initial thought was that, “oh, this is just his rehabilitation thing.” But then I stood back and I said, “Why am I judging this man?” I only have half of the information. All that I have is the texts, half of the conversation. But I think what we have to not do is vilify athletes as easily as we do. Jonathan Vilma made his comment that he felt uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate. Good. Let’s bring these things out to the forefront. If you have a problem with a gay teammate.
And isn’t it better than an anonymous general manager saying things to Sports Illustrated?
It’s so much better, because a lot of us have a lot of growing to do as individuals, and that doesn’t make Jonathan Vilma homophobic. If I’m at a gay club, and I’m taking a leak, and a man comes and stands too close to me, I get uncomfortable. It’s just a natural thing, how often are you in close proximity with someone else [naked]. Now what makes a difference is that Jonathan Vilma would be OK with it if the person was straight. But now that he knows that Michael Sam is gay… it speaks to the fact that men aren’t used to the prospect of being objectified.
You’re absolutely right. That’s a huge part of it. Men not knowing what women go through on a daily basis.
You know, it all comes down to having experiences. I guarantee that if Jonathan Vilma has a chance to sit down with myself or any other gay person, he’d be like, “You know what? These old ideas that I had about gay people… they really aren’t true.” It’s not all Jonathan Vilma’s fault. Our country has a very monolithic way that they show gay men—the Modern Familys and what not. The exposure’s great, but let’s have some nuance to show that there are different types of gay people, so Jonathan Vilma’s mind can expand and he can say, “Oh, every gay man doesn’t want me.” Most guys look terrible naked, and I should know. And, straight guys look too… there’s a perception that straight guys don’t check out other guys’ penises, and that’s a lie. The one difference is that some straight guys get uncomfortable and think that every gay man wants them. Wrong. Every man does not look like Brad Pitt.
Football is a violent sport. Do you think that it’s possible that players, whether in practice or in games—at the bottom of a pile—could go out of their way to hurt Michael Sam to make some kind of a statement?
I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t think so. Let’s take [hard-hitting safety] Dashon Goldson, right? I don’t think if there was a gay receiver out there, Dashon Goldson could hit a wide receiver any harder. It’s not like they’re going, “Oh, this guy’s straight so I’m going to take a little off of this hit.” Or, “This guy’s gay so I’m going to hit him harder.” Football players play to the max of their abilities because they love it, or because they want to get better contracts or better deals. In the bottom of piles, I’ve been hit or I’ve had my genitalia grabbed or punched. I don’t think it’s going to happen any more or less just because Michael Sam is gay. And, I think that you’re going to find that his teammates are going to protect him more than anyone else because they want the rest of the NFL to know that this is one of their guys. There is a family and a friend dynamic that happens, especially now because people might assume that he will be a target, so his teammates are going to rally around him. And the bond that’s going to be formed is going to be stronger than anything you could have imagined.
The NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, he called the anonymous executives who talked about Michael Sam’s dropping draft status “gutless.” Do you agree with that?
I think it’s interesting that these execs don’t see the brilliance of what Michael Sam is. How many players, or people in general, have stood up in front of the whole world and said, “This is me.” It shows the type of vulnerability that is a strength. It shows courage that any coach, teammate, exec should want to have. So I think they’re looking at it from the wrong angle, and they’re living in the 1940s. And that’s why I’m so grateful for people like Robert Kraft, and the Giants’ owner John Mara and John Elway who said, “Wait a minute. This is the type of guy that I want on my team, because they represent what a majority of the NFL is about.”
Last question for you, sir. There is an aristocracy of NFL players. Everybody knows them: Peyton, Tom—you only have to use first names—hell, Aaron, Drew, we might even be able to put Russell in there after this last Super Bowl, honestly. Last question for you, does it matter to you at all that the aristocracy has not put out some support or love for Michael Sam’s announcement?
No, it doesn’t matter because those guys aren’t typically the ones who do a lot of talking about stuff anyway. I can’t remember the last time Tom Brady spoke out on any issue…
Well, Uggs are very important to him, I hear.
Exactly. And I would say that probably 90 percent of those guys are probably—well, Peyton’s in the film room—somewhere in Jamaica, or somewhere in Paris. So they’re like, “Great, but it doesn’t bother me.” Deion Sanders of the world, who’s my favorite player of all time, spoke up early in support of Michael Sam. So I was very pleased.
Read Next: the Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito and the rot in the NFL
Surprisingly—no, actually, shockingly is the right word—Chris Christie got through an entire town hall meeting with several hundred New Jersey residents on Thursday morning without once being asked to say a single word about Bridgegate, the allegations that he withheld Superstorm Sandy aid from Hoboken, or other scandals swirling around the governor. At a VFW hall in the Port Monmouth section of Middletown, in the middle of areas devastated by Sandy in 2012 and still not rebuilt, Christie put on a masterful display, taking question after question from residents who came to beseech the governor and his cabinet about a wide range of problems, from Sandy aid to family law to treatment of disabilities. But no one—not a single questioner—even mentioned the ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, the governor used part of his performance in Port Monmouth to blame New Jersey’s troubles after Sandy on President Obama, Congress, the Federal Emergency Management Agency—Christie referred to the agency as “the new F-word, FEMA”—and, most surprisingly, the National Flood Insurance Program. He blamed, in short, everyone but himself.
How is it even possible that the lane closing scandal at the George Washington Bridge and the allegations that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno threatened to cut off Sandy aid to Hoboken unless the mayor of that city backed a development project that Christie wanted weren’t even mentioned? And all this in front of perhaps two dozen cameras from national and local television stations and reporters from throughout New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia, plus quite a few national outlets?
First, as usual in Christie’s town hall events—and this one, he said, was his 110th—reporters don’t get to ask questions.
Second, Christie held the event, his first town hall meeting since last spring and his first public appearance in weeks, on friendly territory, in precincts known to support Christie and the Republican party. And as evidenced by interviews conducted by two Christie Watch reporters with participants, there was indeed a strong reservoir of support for Christie in the room.
Third, according to several participants in the event—which was, to be sure, open to any and all comers—Christie aides and staff both outside and inside the hall told attendees that no signs, posters or placards would be allowed. Gert Sofman of Highlands, New Jersey, whose home and business were both flooded by up to six feet of ocean water and who still hasn’t recovered damages, said that the event’s organizers strictly disallowed any sign of activism inside the building. “They’re shutting down any kind of demonstration,” said Sofman. “I’m so absolutely angry at this point.” And Isabel Newson of Keansburg, a lone activist who pulled out a small sign reading “Christie Resign” toward the end of the event, said that two other, similar signs had been confiscated by the staff.
Fourth, Christie himself, in laying out the ground rules for the event at its start, warned that he wouldn’t be passive if anyone challenged him. If anyone, he said, had it mind, with all the cameras present, to “take the governor out for a walk,” well, he said, “We’re all from New Jersey...If you give it, you’re going to get it back.” Anyone familiar with Christie’s bullying, hectoring YouTube videos in which he lays into critics with abandon knew exactly what they were in for.
And finally—and this is most puzzling—there was no sign at the event of any presence by teachers and trade unions who’ve clashed with Christie, of activist groups such as Citizen Action who’ve opposed him, or from groups such as the Fair Share Housing Center, which has emerged as a key critic of how Christie’s administration has handled the distribution of Sandy-related aid.
In a bit, we’ll get to how Christie unleashed a barrage of anti-government, anti-Washington and pro-privatization rhetoric in response to questions about Sandy assistance. But for most of the attendees at the town hall, it was a chance to listen and ask questions of a very personal nature, hoping against hope that the governor and his aides would promise to help. Before the event got underway, your Christie Watch reporters talked to quite a few audience members, and all had tales of woe, of heartbreak and discouragement, even desperation. Joe Wernock, an out-of-work construction and demolition man from Keansburg, lost nearly everything and recovered only $20,000 from insurance. “I want to find out what’s going on,” he said. “The insurance company said that they can’t insure me now unless I lift the house, and I can’t afford to lift the house. They’re fighting with everybody, the people across the street, the guy down the street.” Ron and Jessica Sickler, of Fort Monmouth, said that their house is gutted. “We pay the mortgage in Fort Monmouth and we pay rent in Tinton Falls,” said Jessica. “I think the funds could have been handled better.”
Richard Isaksen, representing the Belford Seafood Cooperative, said the several hundred fishermen in his coop were “barely working” because the creek they have to get through to reach the ocean hasn’t been dredged since the hurricane and is barely passable. And although there was supposed to be several million dollars set aside for the fishing industry, he said, “We haven’t seen a nickel” of the money his group needs to repair the ice machines and other machinery they use for the fish. “We just need some help.”
But none of these people, nor most of the other folks lined up outside to enter the event knew exactly whom to blame, they said. “We’re here to get information,” said Ron Sickler.
And, at the event, Christie did his best to shift the blame for post-Sandy problems away from his office, and his administration, and onto the federal government. Perhaps most outrageously, Christie went ballistic about the National Flood Insurance Program. “The entire flood insurance business in this country has been taken over by the federal government,” said Christie, just getting warmed up. “There’s not much I can do. We’re stuck in dealing with the federal government.… Why they think they’re the best people to deal with flood insurance is beyond me. They don’t have the first idea of what they’re doing.”
There’s so much wrong with Christie’s attack on FEMA and the NFIP that’s it’s hard to know where to start. For decades it’s been obvious that private insurers don’t have the wherewithal to be able to cover flood damage at prices that would be affordable, and so the federal government has come to the rescue. The truth is that the federal government is the only place people can buy flood insurance, because private insurers don’t want to touch it. “Because of the catastrophic nature of flooding, the difficulty of adequately predicting flood risks and uncertainty surrounding the possibility of charging actuarially sound premium rates, private insurance companies have historically been largely unwilling to underwrite flood insurance,” concluded a recent study by the Government Accountability Office.
Responding to Christie, Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) said:
When Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast, I fought alongside my colleagues to ensure the federal government delivered the resources New Jersey families desperately needed to rebuild their lives. Instead of playing partisan politics and passing the buck, the Governor should focus on correcting the botched rollout of the state-run RREM [Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation] program that has left scores of New Jersey families out in the cold.
The federal government cannot be blamed for the state’s lack of transparency, lost applications and the mysterious firings of Sandy contractors. More than a year after the storm, there are still folks not back in their homes that deserve answers. It’s time for Governor Christie to take responsibility for his administration’s mismanagement and do what’s right by the people of New Jersey.
And the Fair Share Housing Center, which has studied the issue in depth, issued a series of reports and statements indicating that Governor Christie’s private contractor, HGI, which was assigned to manage the distribution of Sandy aid, bears most of the responsibility for recent problems.
One member of the audience did indeed try to raise the issue of the problems with HGI with the governor. “All I hear from you is privatize, privatize, privatize,” he said. “Why was HGI fired?” And, indeed, so far the Christie administration has refused to disclose the problem with HGI, hired in 2013 and then dismissed in December without explanation. At today’s town hall event, Christie once again refused to say why HGI was fired, but he had to speak over loud protests from some in the audience, including one man who shouted, “Answer the question!” Still, Christie provided no answers.
Steve Sweeney, the Democrat who is president of the state Senate—a sometimes collaborator, sometimes rival of the governor—issued a statement following the town hall meeting, saying in part:
The administration has twice fired a contractor handling aid in secret and given no reason. They’ve denied people aid, nearly 80 percent according to Fair Share Housing, who should have received it. They’ve failed to properly inform people what documentation they need to receive aid. They provided the wrong information on deadlines and appeals on the Spanish language website, and shut out the people who were misinformed from applying. They rejected African-Americans at rates 2.5 times higher than Caucasians. Millions of dollars that should have been going to homeowners and businesses have been withheld.
These problems were not caused by the federal government. They were caused by his administration’s failed policies.
Christie, who is well known to be a Bruce Springsteen fanatic, brought the Boss into the town hall event, at least indirectly. At the start of the event, as people were filtering in—and again at the close, as the governor made his exit through a curtain at the back of the room—the hall echoed to the strains of “We Take Care of Our Own,” from Bruce’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball. It’s hard to imagine a less appropriate song to be played at a Chris Christie event. Its lyrics are a strong denunciation of Republican go-it-alone policies and a bitter denunciation of the fact that in today’s America many people cant make it on their own. Bruce sings:
I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds the throne.
I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home.
I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone.
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone.
Recently, Springsteen and Jimmy Fallon rocked a hilarious parody of “Born to Run” criticizing the governor’s lane-closing fiasco that went viral on YouTube. And at the Port Monmouth event, one audience member, who identified himself as with the VFW, said he and some friends had discussed what to ask the governor. Here’s what they came up with: “When you go home, will you please destroy all your Bruce Springsteen CDs?” The governor said, in response, that he hopes that the Boss will come around as he gets older.
Read Next: Christie, the GOP's fundraiser-in-chief.