Allison Kilkenny | The Nation

Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Occupy Offshoots Return to Highlight Student Tuition Hikes, Food Sovereignty

Over the course of the past week, actions by offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement have brought attention to the issues of student tuition hikes and food sovereignty.

In New York, a group of students at Cooper Union took over the college president’s office last week to protest a decision to begin charging tuition for the first time in at least a century. The trustees’ decision caused an uproar at Cooper, previously one of the last remaining free colleges in the country. The school claims it has no choice as it faces a $12 million annual deficit and, as a result, has decided to reduce its financial aid to 50 percent scholarships.

Activists believe the decision will lead to dire consequences, including limiting access to education. Occupy Wall Street states at its website that Cooper Union is by far the most diverse of all elite colleges: “white students are a minority here and two-thirds of the student body attended public high schools.”

In response, fifty students took over President Jamshed Bharucha’s office on the seventh floor of the school’s Foundation Building in Manhattan and signed a statement of no confidence in the president. Nine full-time members of Cooper Union’s art faculty signed onto the petition.

“Out of deep concern about the direction of the Cooper Union under President Jamshed Bharucha, the full-time faculty of the School of Arts adopts a resolution of a vote of No Confidence in President Jamshed Barucha,” the statement reads.

As of Tuesday, Bharucha’s office is still occupied.

“In case you were wondering if last night was the end the office is STILL occupied. Twenty-four students beginning to wake. #BharuchaStepDown,” Free Cooper Union tweeted.

“Institutions funded by philanthropy and real estate earnings are clearly unsustainable as foundations for a quality education, but the school’s economic problems and its board’s regressive solutions mirror the situation currently taking place at countless other universities, both public and private,” OWS states. “From CUNY tuition hikes to the torpedoing of Medgar Evers College to NYU’s unprecedented land grab, students across the city are fighting back. As student struggles continue across the globe, Cooper Union is a flashpoint for something much larger than itself.”

“The ongoing fight at Cooper Union is but one part of the broader struggle against austerity, debt, and all other symptoms of capitalism,” the group states.

Occupy could have also included Buena Vista High School in its list of austerity consequences. The Michigan school was closed six weeks early because the district—comprising 400 mostly black, mostly poor students—doesn’t have enough money to continue operations. The district has laid off all its teachers and all but three employees.

On the West Coast, another offshoot of the Occupy movement, Occupy The Farm, experienced a resurgence this week when activists returned to a plot of land owned by the University of California where a few of them had been arrested earlier in the day.

The activists had moved in over the weekend in order to plant crops.

Last spring, I wrote about Occupy the Farm’s efforts to highlight the issues of food sovereignty, climate change and the overall health of society. At the time, OTF activists had moved onto the Gill Tract, a patch of land along the San Pablo Avenue in Albany, California. The location was chosen because Gill Tract contains the last acres of Class One soil left in the urbanized East Bay. According to the group, ninety percent of the original land has been paved over and developed, irreversibly contaminating the land.

“We envision a future of food sovereignty,” OTF stated, “in which our East Bay communities make use of available land—occupying it where necessary—for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs.”

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Food sovereignty is really an issue of food security, which is why this movement has been embraced at a global level. La Via Campesina, an international movement that coordinates peasant organizations of small producers, agricultural workers, rural women and indigenous communities from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, defines food sovereignty as “the right of people to define agriculture and food policy, including prioritizing local agricultural production, access of peasants and landless people to land, water, seeds and credit.”

A healthy society eats good food and ensures the sovereignty and dignity of the people growing its food.

OTF activists have returned a year later to Gill Tract in order to fight the same battle. “This space is really important,” said organizer Lesley Haddock. “We’re not going away.”

“We feel that as public land, we all have a stake on what happens to it. We like to see it turned into an urban farm and we intend to see that happen,” said Haddock.

The university plans to develop the lot into a senior housing complex and a national chain grocery store.

University police officers have warned the activists they could be arrested for trespassing, but thus far the standoff remains peaceful.

While Congress dallies on immigration reform, groups are calling for the Obama administration to stop deporting people who are set to gain documented status. Read Aura Bogado’s take.

Occupy the Pipeline: Fracking Threat Comes to NYC

A massive new pipeline that will carry hydrofracked gas is being constructed in New York City. The pipeline, built by subsidiaries of Spectra Energy, will carry the gas from the Marcellus Shale, a bed that lies under Pennsylvania and New York State, into New York City’s gas infrastructure. Naturally, the construction of such a pipeline, carrying controversial highly pressurized gas, has been met with resistance.

In the spring of 2012, Occupy the Pipeline emerged, raising health and safety concerns about the pipeline.

For starters, the group states the Marcellus shale has seventy times the average radioactivity of natural gas and possesses extremely high radon content. Worse, monitoring radon content doesn’t appear to be a priority for federal regulators. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stated radon risk assessment is “outside their purview.” High radon levels have been linked to increases in the risk of lung cancer among non-smokers, a claim Occupy the Pipeline restates in a video that was recently picked up by Upworthy (the video currently has been viewed over 470,000 times):

In the video, Occupy the Pipeline also addresses other safety concerns, for example, contaminated water and a 2010 explosion from a pipeline of similar size and pressure in San Bruno, California. That explosion killed eight people and destroyed thirty-eight homes. Overall, Spectra Energy has a dismal safety record that includes seventeen safety violations in 2011, a $15 billion fine for contaminated pipelines and multiple facility explosions. At one time, Spectra was named the number-one gas polluter in British Columbia.

“The pipeline is an explosion risk,” says Eric Walton, a member of Occupy the Pipeline. “We believe that installing a thirty-inch [diameter] pipeline that carries highly flammable gas at pressure greater than that of water through a fire hose directly below the street in neighborhoods as densely populated as the West Village and Chelsea is nothing short of unbridled hubris.”

“This is the first time that [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] has approved a pipeline of this kind in such a densely populated area and we believe it’s a disaster in waiting,” he adds.

The 2010 documentary Gasland, which detailed the consequences of hydraulic fracturing, documented cases of homeowners who say their water has been discolored, and in some communities, people were able to ignite the water coming out of their faucets.

“The Spectra Pipeline would increase the demand for fracked gas and make New Yorkers complicit in a method of fossil fuel extraction that is causing untold harm to the environment in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere,” says Walton.

In October 2012, George Pingeon, 27, a protester form Occupy the Pipeline, chained himself to a backhoe in order to delay the pipeline construction. Pingeon remained locked to the backhoe for an hour before police arrived and collared him. A month earlier, police arrested six pipeline protesters after they chained themselves to Spectra’s construction equipment on the Gransevoort Pier.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo attended a conference at the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan last August, he was greeted by over 100 protesters who had gathered outside to protest against fracking. At the time, Cuomo said there’s a lot of emotion surrounding the issue.

“The demonstrations, we’ve seen them pro, and we’ve seen them con, all over the state,” he said. “Let’s make the decision on the facts. Let the science dictate the conclusion.”

Occupy the Pipeline activists are also fans of science, says Walton.

“We recognize the scientific consensus that fossil fuels cause global warming. We believe that the need to stop extracting and burning hydrocarbons could not be more urgent and that the construction of infrastructure to transport fossil fuels only postpones the day that we as a city and as a society free ourselves from the fossil fuel addiction that imperils the very future of life on this planet.”

Concerns over the pipeline construction extend beyond the activist community. West Village residents have tried to derail the pipeline construction (upward of 5,000 complaints have been filed by locals), and in September of last year, opponents sued the Hudson River Park Trust for allowing Spectra to build beneath the waterfront park without first doing an extensive environmental review.

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A weird addendum to the story: Occupy the Pipeline activist Lopi LaRoe says she has been contacted by federal officials, not out of concern over radon levels but over her use of Smokey Bear in an anti-fracking meme that reads, “Only YOU can prevent faucet fires.”

“I was recently served a cease and desist order by the US Forest Service,” says LaRoe. “Not only is it an attempt to suppress political speech, it comes at a time when the US Forest Service is pushing hard to allow fracking in our national parks.”

Recently, the US Forest Service began to consider allowing horizontal drilling for natural gas in the George Washington National Forest and the Pawnee National Grasslands.

When will big environmental groups divest from fossil fuels? Read Naomi Klein’s column.

May Day in NYC: Youth and Immigrant Rights Activists Demand Reform

All photos by Allison Kilkenny.

This year’s May Day events featured the familiar tableau of union members marching in matching T-shirts and carrying their banners, while an insane number of police officers crept along the perimeters of Broadway, monitoring the peaceful procession. But this year also included an especially reenergized contingent of youth supporters and immigrant rights activists.

Of course, that’s not to say young people and advocates of immigration reform haven’t turned out in prior May Days. Certainly, Occupy Wall Street injected the worker-led event with a ton of youthful energy, but this year definitely possessed a different, more serious note. For many immigrant rights activists, they feel they’ve reached a critical moment, and if real reform is ever going to come, it will be now or never under President Obama’s leadership.

For youth, they have never lived in a world in which workers have held the upper hand. All they have known is the decline and bottoming out of unions, and the young people I spoke to cited non-unionized workers’ actions as sources of inspiration, particularly the fast food workers’ organizing recently seen in New York City.

Gregory, a student at Rutgers and delegate of the Young Workers Committee, a project of the Transit Workers Union formed to get youth more involved in the union, said he joined the protest because it’s important youth become engaged in workers’ struggles.

“Youth are the future. If they’re not involved now, then they’re not going to be involved later, and then they’ll get steamrolled when it comes time to the companies making decisions. If they haven’t been involved from the beginning, it’s going to be easy for companies to take advantage of them,” he said.

“The entire service industry isn’t unionized—banking isn’t unionized—but in a lot of other countries, they are. Bankers in Korea are unionized,” he added.

Angela Cassie, a member of TWU, said she was attending the event to support young activists.

“Youth do care about workers’ rights,” she said, emphasizing TWU’s commitment to supporting and training youth who may have no prior experience with, or exposure to, organizing the workplace.

“There’s always strength in numbers. We need to build that because people deserve a voice in the work place.”

And if any union knows the struggles of workplace negotiation, it’s TWU.

“Our contracts have hit mediation and we kind of went into a stalemate when it comes to negotiating with the companies,” said Cassie. “Another issue we face is union-busting firms in terms of organizing.”

Which is precisely why the morning event at Bryant Park was, in part, a tour of companies TWU accuses of being union-busters, such as the law firms Ford & Harrison and Jackson Lewis, and the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. Protesters charged into lobbies, shouting slogans like, “Union busting is disgusting!” before security inevitably asked them to leave. At the MTA protest, a particularly overzealous security guard got in the face of activist Jeff Rae, screaming at him. The protesters left without further incident.

Activists inside the lobby of Ford & Harrison.

The only arrests happened later at the anti-capitalism march departing from Tompkins Square. As is the custom at wildcat marches, youth clad in black led the police on a chase throughout the city, oftentimes, but not always, outrunning officers, and the march culminated in eight reported arrests. While some of the youth were undeniably rowdy and furious with police, I did witness one young man being arrested for the crime of telling a police officer to stop harassing a female photographer.

Officer arresting a protester from the anti-capitalism march.

In the evening, thousands of activists gathered at Union Square for the traditional march down broadway. At the front of the march, immigrant rights groups proudly carried banners that read “People Power” and “Stop Deportations,” while chanting in Spanish, beseeching President Obama to listen to them.

We’re here because we are demanding legalization,” said Gonzalo Venegas, a 28-year-old member of a hip-hop activist group from the Bronx, who performed in front of the crowd during a rally in Union Square. “For us, the idea of immigrant rights and workers’ rights goes hand in hand.”

That “hand in hand” relationship is especially evident in the restaurant industry, where undocumented workers might account for more than 700,000 of the industry’s 12.8 million employees, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

An aerial view of the protest at Union Square.

Though they account for a huge part of the workforce, and ultimately contribute enormously to the overall productivity of the United States, undocumented immigrants have never been in more jeopardy.

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In four years, Obama’s administration has deported as many undocumented immigrants as the administration of George W. Bush did in his two terms, but many immigrants’ rights activists still believe Obama is their best shot at a path to citizenship.

Will Obama live up to his Guantánamo rhetoric? Read the Editors’ take in this week’s issue of The Nation.

Immigrant Rights Groups, Labor, Occupy Plan May Day Protests

Protest groups across the country are gearing up for May Day protests on Wednesday. In New York, Occupy Wall Street has posted a schedule for the day, kicking off with young workers marching from Bryant Park in solidarity with the Transport Workers Union. Occupy says it plans to visit the offices of union busters and companies with whom the TWU members have contract disputes.

At around noon, protesters will then go on an “immigrant worker justice tour,” in order to highlight the daily struggles facing immigrants and workers in New York City. Activists will visit several workplaces in midtown to “demand an end to exploitation of immigrant workers” with the march ending at Senator Schumer’s office for a speak-out on what real immigration reform looks like.

Occupy has also scheduled an event to “Save The People’s Post Office” where protesters will meet at the Peter Stuyvesant Post Office at 14th Street and First Avenue. I previously have written about the fake USPS budget crisis and how our pro-privatization Congress refuses to allow the Post Office to save itself.

The evening will culminate with a rally for labor and citizens’ rights at City Hall, a May Day People’s Assembly at Foley Square and a memorial for Kimani Gray, the Brooklyn teenager slain by the NYPD, at Zuccotti Park. Protesters plan on addressing racial profiling under stop-and-frisk, full legalization for immigrants, an immediate end to deportations, the injustices of the 1 percent and the devastating consequences of austerity.

Nationally, May Day protests have already attracted the attention of authorities. FBI agents in Seattle and Olympia have reportedly been showing up at people’s houses, schools, workplaces and even favorite jogging routes to question individuals about their May Day plans.

The agents were mostly chummy with the people they contacted. As one woman talked to agents, another housemate described their manner as “jokey and flirty—I almost thought they were gonna ask her out!”

Flirty or not, they identified themselves as members of the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit. Apparently, the vandalism of May Day 2012, and the potential demonstrations on May Day 2013, are terrorism investigations. (Which, frankly, seems to me like a grave insult to anyone from Boston to NYC to Kandahar who’s been a victim of, or lost a family member to, actual terrorism.)

In one case yesterday, the agents reportedly turned up at a public park to intercept two joggers. The joggers said “no, thanks” and went home. About 20 minutes later, the agents reportedly showed up at their house.

This highly invasive behavior by authorities isn’t unusual. In 2012, the NYPD raided activists’ homes before the annual protests. At the time, the National Lawyer’s Guild said it was aware of at least five instances of the NYPD’s paying activists visits, including one where the FBI was involved in questioning.

Ayn Dietrich, a spokesperson for the FBI, would neither confirm nor deny anything about the visits to the Seattle Stranger. However, she did say, “We do all kinds of routine activities throughout the state on any given day. If we have people out there, it could be community outreach, emergency response, or investigative work…. We sometimes knock on doors when there’s an issue of a missing child. We’re around the community, especially with ethnic minority groups, to let them know they can come to us to report hate crimes.”

It’s ironic Dietrich specifically mentioned ethnic minority groups, given that they’re doing some of the most serious planning around May Day, specifically in fighting for immigrant rights, legalization and an end to deportations. In California, large protests are expected because some undocumented immigrants and their supporters view this as their best chance in many years for immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

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Reporter David Olson writes that many grassroots immigration activists are unhappy with key elements of the Senate immigration bill, such as the thirteen-year wait for potential citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which Olson says many view as “excessive,” and a trigger mechanism in the bill that makes a path to citizenship dependent on the implementation of stringent border security measures.

Though there is considerably less press coverage of this year’s May Day in comparison to last year’s events—when activists were still coming down from the frenzied energy of the Occupy movement’s apex—now is actually the time when the most exciting grassroots workers’ actions are taking place. Fast food workers in New York City and Chicago have shown innovative ways non-unionized workers can fight for living wages and demonstrated for workers everywhere that labor rights aren’t just for a select sect, but rather for everyone who has ever worked for a day’s wages.

I will be live-tweeting from May Day 2013. Follow me at @allisonkilkenny and check back here for a full report.

Elites May Finally Realize Austerity Isn't the Answer

José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, at the European Development Days in Brussels, October 16, 2012. (Flickr/EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)

In the past week, political officials and economic experts in several countries have indicated they believe austerity is not, and indeed never has been, the answer to pulling the world’s economies out of recession. First, everyone found out Paul Ryan is super bad at math (shocker). As it turns out, the paper the House Budget Committee chairman has been using to make the case for austerity was discredited after it became known that essential data was excluded from the study, leading to “serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and growth.”

The Harvard professors who produced the paper have acknowledged their grave error.

Of course, Ryan’s quest for austerity was never really about accurate figures or projections. His was an ideological battle that might as well have been waged by plucking random numbers from the ether for all that “facts” actually figured into the debate. The people at the bottom rungs of our society know austerity doesn’t work. They’ve known that for years. After all, it is the people relying on public services like schools who see the direct impact of austerity in their day-to-day lives.

However, it seems as though at least some societal elites are finally waking up to the fact that budget cuts don’t work during recession.

Bill Gross, manager of the world’s largest bond fund for Pimco, and widely considered one of the most influential voices in the bond market, launched a harsh attack on the euro zone’s severe austerity measures.

“The UK and almost all of Europe have erred in terms of believing that austerity, fiscal austerity in the short term, is the way to produce real growth. It is not,” Mr Gross told the Financial Times. “You’ve got to spend money.”

This week, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the bloc should place a greater emphasis on policies that stimulate growth in the short term and less on cutting government spending. As The Wall Street Journal reports, Barroso’s statement is only the latest in a series of public statements that indicate a “shift in European economic policy is under way.”

The International Monetary Fund last week point-blank said the bloc should ease back on austerity, while a number of governments outside the EU have already made that call, noting budget cuts are hindering economic recovery. Spanish Finance Minister Luis de Guindos said over the weekend that his country’s new budget plans that will be presented later this week will emphasize economic growth and reduce spending cuts.

Oh, also, austerity has led to widespread protests, societal collapse and agony for the poor masses, but entities like the EU and IMF shy away from laying out things in those kinds of stark terms.

Recent austerity protest in Spain:

As the WSJ notes, the euro-zone economy has contracted for five straight quarters to the end of 2012 (most experts agree official figures for the first quarter of 2013 will show six quarters of decline), and austerity has contributed to declines in spending by households and businesses and a rise in the unemployment rate to a record high of 12 percent.

Though spending cuts and tax increases have helped reduce deficits across the seventeen EU countries that use the euro, the region’s overall debt rose because the countries’ economies have flat-lined and fewer companies and households are paying their taxes.

The Seattle Times reports that, of the four countries that have accepted outside financial assistance by the end of 2012, Portugal and Spain saw their deficits swell—Portugal’s deficit increased to 6.4 percent of the country’s annual GDP from 4.4 percent the year before, and Spain’s jumped to 10.6 percent from 9.4 percent. Meanwhile, Greece’s deficit rose to 10 percent of GDP from 9.5 percent, and the country remains mired in deep recession. As a result, these are also some of the countries where we have seen high unemployment, the greatest social unrest and most terrifyingly, the rise of right-wing extremism in the case of Greece.

Der Spiegel reports on Greece, “The worse the financial crisis gets and the harsher the budget cuts imposed by European creditors are, the worse the terror gets on the streets. Foreigners have been attacked, homosexuals chased and leftists assaulted. Some were beaten to death. There are parts of Athens in which refugees and minorities no longer dare to go out alone at night, and streets are echoingly empty. Foreign merchants have had to close their doors, while journalists and politicians who criticize these developments receive threats or beatings.”

Euronews on the rise of the extreme right wing in Europe:

But one would have to be in the streets, living among the people, to notice these developments. For academics and politicians, largely shielded from the realities of austerity, these kinds of cuts have always ranged from the ideological to the theoretical.

In America, unless politicians send their kids to public schools, the reality of an epidemic of school closings in Chicago and Philadelphia probably doesn’t hit close to home if they send their kids to private schools.

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The Guardian and Bloomberg have said “austerity is on trial,” but we already know the outcome of this trial. Budget cuts during recession only worsen the economic realities for billions of citizens. If elites needs a refresher on that reality, they need only walk outside and talk to the people reliant on public services and stagnant (and declining) wages.

For communities of color, acts of “foreign terrorism” stoke race-based fear and violence. Read Aura Bogado’s interview with Sohail Daulatzai.

Congress Refuses to Allow USPS to Fix Its Budget Woes

Representative Darrell Issa. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It's been a truly bizarre and painful experience watching the budget negotiations between Congress and the US Postal Service. The USPS has consistently presented lifesaving ideas to an apathetic Congress that seems utterly unconcerned with saving a federal service that caters primarily to the economically disadvantaged and employs over 574,000 union members.

In 2012, the postal service lost $16 billion, largely due to the 2006 Postal Accountability Enhancement Act (PAEA) which mandates that the Postal Service fully fund retiree health benefits for future retirees. This is the only time Congress has demanded universal health care coverage. 

Two years ago, I wrote an article for Truthout in which I spoke with Chuck Zlatkin, political director of the New York Metro Area Postal Union. He said the following about USPS's strange future-funding of retirees:

It's almost hard to comprehend what they're talking about, but basically they said that the Postal Service would have to fully fund future retirees' health benefits for the next 75 years and they would have to do it within a ten-year window.

Naturally, USPS suggested that this be the first provision to axe, but Congress hasn't pushed for a repeal of PAEA. Next, USPS approached Congress with the idea of suspending Saturday mail delivery, but Congress prohibited USPS from making that change. In short, the Postal Service has approached the government time and time again with ways to save itself, but Congress has rejected every idea.


Well, a lot of it has to do with the whole catering-to-the-poor-and-employing-union-workers thing.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has been fighting to cripple the USPS under the guise of "reform" for years. Issa first went to war with the USPS soon after the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the Postal Service reached a collective bargaining agreement that would have guaranteed USPS over $4 billion in cost savings on employees over the life of a contract. At the time, Postmaster Patrick Donahue hailed the deal as a victory for the Postal Service, its employees and the people they serve.

But then, as the union was preparing to vote on the agreement, Issa called a hearing on the contract—a completely unprecedented move. Here was a Republican chair of the Oversight Committee grilling the postmaster general about an agreement upon which a union was currently voting.

Zlatkin called the move election tampering.

Because Issa has had it out for the Postal Service and its union from day one, he consistently heaps the blame for failed negotiations on the USPS. Strangely, Issa made it seem as though the reneging of cutting Saturday delivery was the Postal Service's idea, and not, in fact, Congress's fault. Issa quickly announced he would hold a full committee hearing to waste everyone's time—er... discuss the matter:

"The Postal Service’s decision to first pursue modified Saturday delivery and then renege on its cost-cutting plan has seriously set back efforts to advance postal reform legislation,” Issa said when announcing the hearing

He promised “to review a wide variety of options to bring the troubled agency back from insolvency."

Issa has largely been successful in villainizing the Postal Service precisely because the USPS serves the poor and marginalized. Sure, wealthy Congress members, prominent bloggers and elite columnists probably don't use the Postal Service—they rely on FedEx, UPS and email—but millions of Americans (primarily the poor and elderly) still use the Postal Service.

This week, the LA Times published letters from readers who thought the Times minimized the need for Saturday delivery.

"Not everyone uses email, and the private delivery companies are much more expensive than the Postal Service. It seems there is a push to privatize every possible service run by the government," wrote Sue Roediger.

"Agreed: The U.S. Postal Service doesn't exist mainly to provide jobs. But providing pretty good jobs is an excellent reason to maintain the service and six-day-a-week delivery," Frank Stricker wrote.

The lack of passionate defense of the USPS is a direct result of the United State's two-tier society. Those of us who can afford privatized services like FedEx and UPS prefer those companies over the long lines at the post office. The fact that the caricature of the post office (long lines with only one teller at a single open window) is a direct result of budget woes doesn't really concern us because we can upgrade to more expensive services, while those left behind, i.e., the poor, make due with dwindling public institutions. Unfortunately, those who can afford privatized services wield all the power and hog all the media airtime, and so those who rely on public services like the USPS are under-represented in the national conversation about whether or not to save institutions like the Postal Service.

And let's be clear: This isn't just an attack on the USPS. This is an attack on one of the country's last great unions.

Privatized versions of the USPS, FedEx and UPS have been accused copiously of union-busting, not to mention FedEx's shady tax-dodging history. FedEx spent $8.7 million in campaign contributions and $71 million in lobbying expenditures form 2001 to 2010. It paid a .0005 percent effective tax rate recently, and spent a whopping 42 times as much on lobbying Congress as it did paying taxes by utilizing 21 tax havens.

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So we know what it looks like when mail delivery is treated as a business: Congress-approved tax-dodging, union-busting and price-gouging.

Meanwhile, as the USPS scrambles to save itself, Representative Issa hopes for death by slow suffocation.

Saturday mail is here to stay (for now). John Nichols explains why

As Boston Ends Desegregation Busing, Students Face New Inequities

Black students get on the bus at South Boston High School in 1975 following court-ordered integration. (AP Photo/J. Walter Green)

Massachusetts' governor Deval Patrick warned last week of state budget cuts and significant increases in transportation fees if lawmakers are unwilling to accept tax hikes. Secretary of Administration and Finance Glen Shor said legislators' current plan may prompt the need for $783 million in cuts to non-transportation programs, including $362 million in new education initiatives.

Like most states, Massachusetts has been struggling to balance its budget, and in the process, officials have been making huge cuts to public programs. In December 2012, Governor Patrick ordered spending cuts across state government to close a projected $540 million budget hole that included chopping $9 million in local aid to cities and towns.

Local officials have been scrambling to find programs to cut and outsource on the cheap. In March of this year, the Boston School Committee threw out the last remnants of a busing system first imposed in 1974 under a federal court desegregation order. The idea is this: instead of busing kids across town to achieve integration, the committee believes students will attend schools closer to home.

Mayor Thomas Menino appointed a special advisory group in 2012 to overhaul the system that many call wasteful and expensive. Transportation alone costs the city $80.4 million a year—about 9.4 percent of the school system's operating budget, almost twice the national average. Furthermore, the old bus system sometimes resulted in weird districting where children who live on the same block ended up going to different schools.

There have also been complaints of inefficient bus routes that result in children arriving nearly an hour late to school in some cases. The four bus yards were managed by First Student Inc., but authorities have acknowledged that the blame for the late arrivals is not confined to the contractor, and changes involving transportation options for special needs students, closing and merging campuses and consolidating more than 1,500 routes have affected route times.

Computer software used by the department has also been blamed for underestimating the time it takes to drive from the bus yard and to pickup stops and schools. Drivers are harshly punished for being late, and can sometimes lose up to a day's pay if they are more than five minutes late to work.

“The reason why we said this is not fair is because the city tried to put the blame on the manager and on the drivers when the city knows exactly where the problem is coming from,’’ said Jean Paul, a bus driver from the Charlestown yard who helped start the petition. “The biggest problem is the software they used for the past two years, Zonar. They keep adding stops, changing stops, changing schools. That’s creating a mess.’’

Last month, school officials announced they are planning to recommend a new transportation company to oversee daily operations of the city's more than 700 buses. The recommendation called for awarding a five-year contract to Veolia Transportation Inc. School officials declined to disclose the cost of the proposed contract, but they claim the bid came in $6 million less than anticipated.

The Harvard Crimson applauded Menino's support of axing the old busing system. "We encourage the new mayor to use the neighbourhood school system—and the budget savings that ending busing has created—to focus on improving access to quality public education for all of the city's residents," the Crimson declared.

But the concern among many Boston residents, some of who lived through segregation and the introduction of the old busing system, is that switching to neighborhood schools will worsen the city's class segregated school system where wealthy kids from wealthy communities go to well-funded schools, and poor kids are stuck with underfunded schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

Worse, because of budget cuts and school closings, more and more poor kids will be forced into fewer and fewer neighborhood schools that are always having their funding cut by the state. And as the schools continue to close, the bus routes will undeniably grow longer for some children. It seems as though the problem is less a question of complicated bus routes and more that schools continue to close, forcing children to commute longer to the next yet-to-be-closed facility.

Parents were successful in stripping a "walk-zone priority" from the new deal, which reserves half the seats in each school for students who live within a mile. The problem with this component is that it is perceived to benefit those who live near good schools, i.e., wealthy families, since oftentimes a good school means high real estate values.

Nationally, we've already seen the effects of school closings, and it's clear the first victims of austerity are always poor people of color. The Chicago Public Schools' plan involves closing 53 schools and 61 buildings, mostly in black neighborhoods. Many in Chicago have called the closing scheme racist since it disproportionately affects people of color. The outcry was so loud that Schools Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett was forced to respond specifically to the accusations of racism, saying that while she understands the proposals have caused communities anguish, "change is inevitable" and she "will not accept…the proposals I am offering are racist."

Institutional racism doesn't necessarily require its individual players be foaming-at-the-mouth racists. These players need only obey the numbers, and if balancing the budget requires lowering the hammer on people of color, well… change is inevitable.

The Associated Press spoke with Ginnette Powell, who endured the battle over desegregation in Boston in the 1970s.

Tears come to her eyes when she talks about how it took her decades to return to the place where she never felt safe as an African-American seventh-grader. 

"It was scary because of what you were going into, getting bricks thrown at your bus. I remember the bus windows being broken," said Powell, now 48.

Elaine Ng, executive director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, told the AP, "I think that we can't move forward, looking at how to improve our schools and access to our schools without looking at how the past impacted the present."

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Ng learned to speak English as a kindergarten student in a Boston public school. But after her family moved from Chinatown to a white neighborhood in 1976, students threw stones at her when she walked to school. Ng said one of her frustrations is that people don't recognize all the ripple effects busing had. 

"It didn't matter whether or not you were on a bus," she said. "Racial tensions in the city were just really high."

It really wasn't that long ago—really, the blink of an eye in terms of our collective historical timeline—when school integration was met with vicious resistance.

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The uproar started in 1974, when a federal judge imposed busing after a lawsuit claimed black students were getting lower-quality education than children who attended mostly white schools. Black students were bused to schools in white areas, and white students went to black neighborhoods. The National Guard was called in amid demonstrations and riots; school buses got police escorts. 

The unrest continued for years. In 1976, a news photographer caught a white teenager attempting to spear a black man with an American flag during a busing protest outside City Hall. In 1979, 15-year-old black football player Darryl Williams was left paralyzed by a white sniper's bullet during a high school game.

Numerous parents and activists have complained about the termination of the busing integration system. “No way we can stand around the playground and say, ‘Yeah, we’re all getting a fair shake,’“ one father testified.

Dropping desegregation busing and switching to a neighborhood schooling system will inevitably lead to segregated access. Unless there is a mechanism in place to ensure equality of access in all Boston communities—and we already know there's not—it is inevitable that wealthier communities will have access to the good schools, while the poor majority will be left to cram inside the handful of schools that manage to survive the age of austerity.

At Indiana University, austerity and race go hand-in-hand. Read StudentNation's primer on this week's campus-wide strike.  

Thousands Protest the UK Government's Brutal Austerity

British Prime Minister David Cameron. (Reuters/Peter Macdiarmid)

Britain's government has introduced sweeping changes to the country's welfare, justice, health and tax systems, including a "bedroom tax" that will reduce housing subsidies that primarily benefit poor people. The levy ostensibly aims to "tackle overcrowding and encourage a more efficient use of social housing," resulting in an estimated million "social housing" households losing 14-25 percent of their housing benefits.

The Guardian:

Critics say it is an inefficient policy as in the north of England, families with a spare rooms outnumber overcrowded families by three to one, so thousands will be hit with the tax when there is no local need for them to move. Two-thirds of the people hit by the bedroom tax are disabled.

Thousands of trade unions, advocates for the disabled, leading churches, and anti-poverty protesters held marches against the changes over the weekend, calling the cuts "unjust." In a joint report released over the weekend, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland criticized the government of perpetuating myths about poverty in an attempt to justify the cuts.

The Methodist Church's public policy adviser, Paul Morrison, told the BBC the cuts suggest people in poverty “deserve” the situation they are in. 

“Our feeling is that these benefit changes are a symptom of an understanding of people in poverty in the United Kingdom that is just wrong,” he added.

Keeping with the theme of penalizing poverty, and as Morrison states, making it seem as though poor people "deserve" their plight, the government refers to the bedroom tax as an "under-occupancy penalty," again placing the onus on the poor.

The cuts have already resulted in some seriously warped means testing. The AP reports parents whose children are not considered "disabled enough" by local officials have been told they must pay. A particularly heartbreaking testimony came from a bereaved couple who couldn't bear to change the bedroom of their 7-year-old daughter after she died of brain cancer. Under the cuts, they'd essentially be forced to pay a fee for their grief. 

Opponents point out the government hasn't considered other options, like taxing mansions or second homes rather than coming after the poor yet again.

Frank Field, a minister in the previous Labour administration and now a government adviser on fighting poverty, told The Guardian that “the government is introducing social and physical engineering that Stalin would have been proud of.”

Finance minister George Osborne and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith on Monday have labelled opponents of their plan as "shrill."


"Of course, if you listened to the shrill voices of the Left you'd think that every change to the welfare system, and any attempt to save money, marks the beginning of the end of the world," Osborne and Duncan Smith wrote in an article published in Britain's Telegraph newspaper.


The new welfare measures include increasing benefit payments by just one percent for the next three years, well below the rate of inflation of 2.8 percent, a move Osborne and Duncan Smith said would save taxpayers $3bn a year.

In total, nearly ten million households will be hit by the Tory-led coalition's brutal cuts, leaving UK families £891 ($1355) a year worse off. Other changes include the slashing of help with Council Tax bills and cuts to welfare benefits.

Daily Mirror:

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of homeless charity Crisis, said: “Our poorest households face a bleak April as they struggle to budget for all these cuts coming at once. 

“People are already cutting back on the essentials of food and heating. The result will be misery—cold rooms, longer queues at food banks, broken families, missed rent ­payments and yet more people facing homelessness.”

Charities warn that up to 600,000 more children could sink into poverty by 2015 due to the cuts. (It's estimated that three million children already live in poverty in the UK).

Alison Worsley from Barnado's, a children's charity, said, “By breaking the link between benefits and ­inflation, MPs are condemning ­children in Britain’s poorest families to growing up stuck in the poverty, placing them at greater risk of chronic childhood illness, slipping behind at school and being unemployed in the future.”

“These alarming figures reveal that not only are the poorest families in the country being left behind compared to everyone else, but also that their living ­standards are going into reverse as they struggle to absorb the impact of wave after wave of policy decisions that hit families with children the hardest," said Barnado's Imran Hussain.

The government will now measure which citizens qualify as disabled using much harsher standards, and according to research done by Scope, a disabled charity, and think tank Demos, up to 5,000 people with disabilities will lose £23,000 ($34,932) each over the next five years. Meanwhile, another 26,000 people will no longer qualify as disabled.

The Mirror reports an estimated 3.7 million disabled people will lose a total of £28 billion ($42.6 billion) by 2018 because of the changes.

More than 50 social policy professors signed a letter urging the government to reconsider the cuts, citing that the harsh austerity measures will result in the poorest tenth of households losing the equivalent of 38 percent of their income.

The professors say the changes will undermine public support for the welfare state which they call, "one of the hallmarks of a civilised society," and "welfare states depend on a fair collection and redistribution of resources, which in turn rests upon the maintenance of trust between different sections of society and across generations."

A separate report submitted by academics from six UK universities concluded that Britain's poorest are worse off today they they were at the height of cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1983.

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The Guardian:

The Poverty and Exclusion project reports that 33% of British households lacked at least three basic living necessities in 2012, compared with 14% in 1983. These include living in adequately heated homes, eating healthily, and owning basic clothing items such as properly fitting shoes. 

"Despite the fact that the UK is a much wealthier country, levels of deprivation are going back to the levels found 30 years ago," says the report, titled The Impoverishment of The UK.

Guest workers on "cultural exchange" at McDonald's in the US are going global with their fight against the company. Read Josh Eidelson's report.

Security Staff Barricade Chicago Board of Education in Anticipation of Mass Rally

Chicago teachers hit the streets on their historic strike, September 2012. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

Chicago officials announced last week that they plan to close fifty-four under-enrolled schools this year in the country’s third-largest district to help close a $1 billion budget deficit. It is the largest mass district closing of schools ever in the United States, and the announcement quickly inspired outrage among teachers, parents and activists.

A teacher I spoke to, who worked at one of the schools marked for closures, expressed concern that the “welcoming schools” students will be transferred to lack social and emotional support systems to aid the students’ transition, and that some of the schools are far across gang territory, making the commute to the new schools more perilous than it already is in a city with infamous gun violence.

President of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), Karen Lewis, declared, “Closing 50 of our neighborhood schools is outrageous and no society that claims to care about its children can sit back and allow this to happen to them. There is no way people of conscience will stand by and allow these people to shut down nearly a third of our school district without putting up a fight. Most of these campuses are in the Black community. Since 2001 88% of students impacted by CPS School Actions are African-American. And this is by design.”

Lewis added, “These actions unnecessarily expose our students to gang violence, turf wars and peer-to-peer conflict. Some of our students have been seriously injured as a result of school closings. One died. Putting thousands of small children in harm’s way is not laudatory.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel described the closings as tough, but needed.

“If we don’t make these changes, we haven’t lived up to our responsibility as adults to the children of the city of Chicago. And I did not run for office to shirk my responsibility,” he said.

Emanuel was out of town when schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett made the closures announcement.

Many activists have called the proposal a racist decision that targets black, Latino and low-income communities, since the closures are happening mostly in poor black neighborhoods.

“I don’t see any Caucasians being moved, bussed or murdered in the streets as they travel along gang lines, or stand on the steps of a CPS school,” said activist Wendy Matil Pearson as opponents of the school closing plans protested outside Horatio May Elementary Community Academy in the Austin neighborhood.


Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance, accused the mayor of trying to drive African Americans out of the city.

“He says that he wants to turn around the city of Chicago, make a new Chicago. Does that new Chicago mean no black folks?” she said. “Where are people going to go? They’re not going to stay around in the community if there are no schools!”

The protesters said they don’t buy the mayor’s claim students will get better educations when they are moved out of buildings with low enrollment. The district has said the money saved from closing schools will be used to improve the “welcoming schools” where students are relocated.

“It’s a lie!” protesters repeatedly shouted.

Activists called for a mass rally on Wednesday in response to the closures. Security staff responded by erecting barricades across the Board of Education in downtown Chicago, and authorities sent out a memo to school principals telling them to report on protesters and their actions.

The memo states, “There may be those who wish to disrupt the education of our children. While we respect the right of those who wish to peacefully protest and express themselves, this cannot be at the expense of our children’s future.”

Curiously, the memo doesn’t mention how school closures are far more likely to “disrupt” education than a day of protest.

Perhaps most alarming is the mention of First Amendment rights, surrounded by scare quotes.

“Protestors often explain away their acts of disruption based on ‘1st Amendment rights’, but then go far beyond those rights in their acts.” At Firedoglake, Kevin Gosztola accurately points out that the Chicago Public Schools obviously misunderstand the meaning of the First Amendment.

A section, “Rights and Restrictions of Protestors,” suggests “incitement,” which is speech “intended and likely to cause imminent law breaking,” would not be permitted. This is a clear misunderstanding of the First Amendment. As articulated, it could be used to target and punish anyone in schools, who is suspected or caught discussing planned acts of civil disobedience because that would, to CPS, be “law-breaking.”

The section also claims “true threats,” which are words “directed against a particular person who would reasonably perceive in the message a danger of violence,” and “fighting words,” which are words “directed at a particular person, face-to-face, which might provoke an ordinary reasonable person to violence,” are prohibited. But, aren’t children supposed to tell people who say not nice things about them they don’t like those not nice things instead of hitting people? Yet, CPS, which must be staffed with individuals suffering from anger management issues, says “fighting words” might lead a “reasonable person” to engage in violence, as if it would ever be “reasonable” to violently attack someone for merely saying something combative to them.

It asserts, “Protesters do not have a right to block pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or to prevent entry and exit from buildings,” and, also, “Protesters do not have a right to harass other members of the public.” Who determines what is harassment and what is the consequence if caught “harassing” someone from the “public”? (Note: Further down in the memo it says people using “true threats” or “fighting words” may be “escorted away.”)

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The memo appears to be an effort by CPS to transform schools into even more totalitarian places as students, parents and activist allies attempt to fight to maintain access to education.

This has been a month fully of authoritarian actions by the CPS, following the banning of Persepolis, a graphic novel about growing up in Iran amid the Islamic Revolution. The novel was banned due to “graphic language and images,” according to Byrd-Bennett, referring to images of government torture.

Author Marjane Satrapi responded: “These are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame.”

The document further warns that if civil disobedience does occur, the “names and information of all teachers and students who left the building” are to be documented. It also instructs the reader to document what media is covering the action.

Becoming even more muddled, the memo lists a “lock down” as a form of civil disobedience, which isn’t correct. A lockdown is an administrative or security response to activists occupying a space.

CPS seems much more concerned with managing the public’s perception of the mass closings than in facilitating a space for students, parents and activists to save their schools.

Union-buster par excellence Scott Walker is on the move. Read John Nichols’s take on his new “manifesto.”

Strike Debt Abolishes $1.1 Million of Medical Debt

(All photos by Allison Kilkenny)

Strike Debt, a group that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, has planned a week of actions in multiple cities across the country to mark the abolition of $1.1 million in medical debt belonging to 1,064 people as part of the “Rolling Jubilee” project.

While that may already seem like a huge number, Strike Debt claims it’s only getting started and ultimately hopes to abolish around twenty times what they raised, which would be nearly $12 million.

“What we do is buy debt for pennies on the dollar,” Jacques, a member of Strike Debt, explained to activists gathered at Bryant Park on Thursday evening. “And instead of collecting on it like the debt collectors, we basically abolish it. We’re here today because we purchased over one million dollars of medical debt from over a thousand people in Kentucky and Indiana who had emergency room debt.” (A full report of the purchased debt can be found at the Rolling Jubilee’s transparency site.)

In order to kick off the “Life or Debt” week of action, protesters planned a medical bankruptcy tour to the various health insurance companies who Strike Debt sees as being exploitive of the sick and vulnerable by using insurance payments to fatten the wallets of the companies’ CEOs instead of using that money for actual healthcare.

Paused before Aetna’s offices on Park Avenue, an activist announced to the group that Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini received over $10 million in total compensation last year, which is around 300 times the average worker’s pay.

A woman named Jamie spoke in front of Aetna’s office about how she wrote a letter to Bertolini after being denied coverage by the company due to a chronic work industry.

“I was frightened and heartbroken,” Jamie said. “I just couldn’t believe it. How could someone in charge of care turn their back on someone in unrelenting pain?”

Jamie’s letter was returned, unopened.

At the front of the procession, Strike Debt activists carried a banner that read “62% of all bankruptcies are due to medical debt.”

Another activist carried a sign: “Medical bills: death by spreadsheet.”

In front of the insurance giant CIGNA, a protester recounted the death of 17-year-old Natalie Sarkisyan, who died after having her liver transplant surgery first denied and then later delayed by the company.

In 2007, Natalie’s mother addressed a crowd of supporters in front of CIGNA’s Philadelphia headquarters.

“CIGNA killed my daughter,” Nataline’s mother Hilda told security. “I want an apology.” Sarkisyan was not able to speak to [CIGNA CEO] Hanway; a communications specialist talked to her instead. After their conversation, employees heckled the group from a balcony; one man gave them the finger. CIGNA called the police and had the family and their friends escorted from the building.

A CIGNA executive later apologized for the incident in a letter about a month later.

Over the weekend, Strike Debt activists have planned a free health fair and march to highlight hospital closings. The march will feature sites like the closed St. Vincent’s community hospital, which will enjoy a “second life” as the site of luxury condos priced between $1.4 and $8.2 million. The tour will be followed by free legal advice and health care at Judson Church. On Saturday, practitioners will also be on call to answer medical questions at Strike Debt’s website.

“These debts are literally killing patients, students, providers and communities,” the group states at its website. “They deepen the already entrenched inequalities that divide races, classes, and genders. Our healthcare system doesn’t make us well; it prolongs our illnesses in the name of profit.”

In Los Angeles, homeless vets are fighting for a place to sleep. Read Jon Wiener’s take in the April 8 issue of The Nation.

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