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‘The Nation’ Welcomes Canada Into Existence… With a Shrug

Fathers of Confederation by Robert Harris

(Public Domain)

On this day, 147 years ago, the Confederation of Canada thundered into existence. Birthed by an act ratified by the British parliament in March 1867, Canada was initially comprised only of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In an editorial published May 30, 1867, The Nation basically shrugged:

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Low-Wage Workers’ Newest Ally Is a Washington Bureaucrat

Tennessee Auto Worker

Workers assemble Volkswagen Passat sedans in Chattanooga, Tennessee (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

It’s no secret that the floor has fallen out from beneath American workers. The minimum wage is now 25 percent lower than its peak in 1968. Collective bargaining rights are being stripped away. Businesses are downright stealing from their employees, to the tune of $185 million in 2008—three times more than what was stolen in all bank, gas station and convenience store robberies. Others are skipping out on their obligations by misclassifying their workers as independent contractors.

Given the political climate, the prospects for reversing the race to the bottom across low-wage industries seem a bit grim. There are, however, glimmers of success in the minimum-wage campaigns throughout the country. And there’s also a new bureaucrat in town, one whose role is little discussed but of real significance in the effort to restore eroded wages and workplace standards.

In early May, Boston University economist David Weil took over as director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour division, where he’s responsible for enforcing a slate of statutes that set minimum requirements for employers and protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers. He’s the first permanent administrator in a decade, and was confirmed only after Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules so that a simple majority could approve a nominee. Weil previously advised the division on strategic labor law enforcement, and is known for his work on the franchise industry and on labor violations in the construction industry.

The laws under Weil’s oversight—including the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act—are the bedrock of American labor rights, but for decades the agency has been criticized for lax oversight. The Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report on the Wage and Hour division in 2009, writing that the agency “left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn.” The result, the GAO wrote, “is unscrupulous employers’ taking advantage of our country’s low-wage workers.”

Weil is keenly aware of the sorry state of low-wage labor, and the challenges facing his division. “We are in a period of time where working people have experienced—for a long time—the diminishment of their voice,” he said in an interview.

Weil described the division’s challenges as two-fold, the first being basic resource constraints. Historically, the bulk of Wage and Hour’s enforcement activity was investigating individual complaints—a strategy that amounted to a game of whack-a-mole, considering that the DOL has only 1,100 investigators to oversee 135 million workers in more than 7 million businesses.

Perhaps more critical are structural changes in the workplace that have occurred over the past two decades. As Weil explains it, market pressure pushed firms to farm out more and more activities that weren’t considered “core” to their business, relying on third-party contractors and franchise systems. Weil has studied this trend extensively; he calls it “fissuring,” referring to a rock breaking apart. (He credits his wife, a geologist, for the term.)

“The more a rock fissures, the fissures get deeper. Once you started shifting out this work to other parties, those parties in turn started shifting out the work,” he explained. “The employment relationship gets pushed further and further out to firms that are in more head to head competition.… Practices like off-the-clock work start popping up more and more and more and start defining the competitive position for the firms operating in those industries.” The effects cascade, as cheaters make it more difficult for responsible employers to compete. “The costs, obviously, are borne by the workers who are deprived of their wages, or sometimes their rights.”

Weil is now presiding over a major shift in how the division polices the workplace. Although the department will still respond to individual complaints, Weil is directing the bulk of his resources to targeted investigations in industries and sectors where labor exploitation is endemic. Those industries tend to employ many low-wage, low-skill or undocumented workers who, Weil said, “because of that are much more or much less likely to exercise the rights the law gives them to do things like complain.”

Weil said the division will also put extra effort into educating workers about their rights, and employers about the law, in the hopes that outreach will improve compliance. “But if we find employers…who are essentially competing on the basis of not complying and are playing the kind of games we see in, let’s say, misclassifying employees as independent contractors…there we’ll use the full range of enforcement tools we have available.”

The aim of the targeted strategy is ambitious: to not just resolve complaints against individual employers, but to change norms and employer behavior in entire industries. “In all of this work, whether it’s thinking about how we allocate our time to outreach, how we use our enforcement tools, how we respond to complaints, we’re constantly asking these questions: What’s the impact? How is this action ultimately going to bring this industry or this sector or this part of the country into greater compliance with the law?” Weil said.

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Weil will also play a key role in raising standards, not just enforcing them. He’s responsible for a portfolio that includes raising the salary threshold at which employees are eligible for overtime pay, raising the wage floor for federal contractors, and implementing an extension of minimum wage and overtime protections to home healthcare workers. With action to lift the minimum wage and other standards across the economy unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House at any point soon, it’s the Wage and Hour division that will leave a greater mark on the American workplace.

Weil’s record as a scholar and critic of exploitative employment structures is some reason for optimism about his ability to make the Wage and Hour division a more effective ally for American workers. Indeed, the president of the International Franchise Association (a trade group that is currently suing to block Seattle’s $15 an hour minimum wage hike), called his views “downright frightening.”

“He’s the most knowledgeable wage and hour administrator in 35 years,” said Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, of Weil. “He’s really devoted himself to studying labor standard issues, and enforcement of wage and hour issues in particular.”

Workplace trends like wage theft and misclassification may seem like small issues compared to the scale of the gap between rich and poor in the US. But the race to the bottom is one of the defining elements of the American inequality crisis, and its certainly a place to start. The enforcement and regulatory agenda that Weil oversees is, he said, fundamentally “about redressing what has become an increasingly problematic political climate in which to address inequality.”

He continued, “People feel how out of whack we’ve gotten in the specific case of the minimum wage, but I think more generally people understand that standards in our workplace have eroded. I feel fundamentally—maybe this is partly my roots as an educator—that an important part of what we do is to make the connection with what people feel in their daily or weekly or monthly budgeting, and some of these trends and why we need to turn them around. Because this has been going on for too long.”

Read Next: Michelle Chen takes a look inside New York’s food industry

Wage Theft, Dangerous Conditions and Discrimination: Inside New York’s Food Industry

Restaurant Workers

Fastfood workers on strike in New York City. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

New Yorkers see food as an indulgence and a craft, amid a brimming urban cornucopia of artisanal honey farmers, craft breweries and bustling farmer’s markets. But good eating for this city is not just a lifestyle but a serious industry—one that’s often as hard on its workers as any fast food kitchen or factory farm. Processing plants and industrial bakeries churn out much of the city’s specialty food. And for workers, Gotham’s glamorous harvest belies a hidden rot.

According to a new report published by Brandworkers and the Urban Justice Center (disclosure: the author once interned and volunteered at UJC), the city’s food manufacturing workforce of 14,000 is an often neglected link in the food chain, tarnished by dangerous jobs, poverty wages and discrimination.

In a survey of the workforce, the vast majority immigrants and people of color, workers earned nearly $8 less than the industry average. About 40 percent of those surveyed reported being injured on the job—like in a fall or getting struck by equipment. Over half said they “had to work sick in the past year,” and most had never received workplace health and safety training.

In this industry known for organic baguettes and vintage pickles, labor practices contrast sharply with the nostalgic artisanal imagery. Some workers said they were repeatedly shorted on overtime pay. One worker estimated that he lost $6,000 or $7,000 each year in unpaid overtime wages. Others complained of erratic schedules that left them struggling to get enough hours to support themselves.

Drawing from census data and interviews, the report reveals sharp inequalities throughout the manufacturing sector. Women, who make up about 38 percent of the workforce, suffer from lower wages and tend to work in lower positions, even among long-term employees. Undocumented immigrants earned $2 less per hour on average than workers with legal status. Overall, one in five workers surveyed reported experiencing some kind of discrimination, sometimes resulting in lower pay or “being given harder, dirtier, or more dangerous work.”

One interview detailed the kind of discrimination that keeps women stuck in lower positions:

At the company where I work, a young man arrived to work a little while back, and now he is already a manager in spite of the fact that there’s another coworker, a woman, who had more experience, more knowledge, and everything. She was not valued. It’s terrible.

Workers often face retaliation for trying to organize. One worker recalled, “when we were organizing, the people that they viewed as leaders—like the people who most supported bringing in the union—well, they were fired, so those were the consequences they had to face for trying to assert their rights.” While other sectors in the food system have historically been unionized, such as transport and distribution workers, the decentralized structure and social marginalization of the labor force has impeded workplace organizing in manufacturing firms.

Brandworkers has helped advocate for workers in some of the most egregious cases. At a local kosher producer, Flaum Appetizing, the group helped bring a legal challenge citing “a failure to pay overtime and, at times, the minimum wage—for grueling work weeks as long as 80 hours.” There were also complaints of senior managers hurling anti-immigrant epithets at workers, and finally, the illegal firing of seventeen workers who had simply “demanded payment in accordance with the law.”

But the case was exceptional in that the workers managed to win a legal claim against the company through the National Labor Relations Board. The company was ordered to reinstate the workers and provide back pay. According to Brandworkers, however, the company retaliated “using unfounded allegations about immigration status.” This prompted a citywide campaign for a boycott, which eventually involved 120 stores’ refusing to carry Flaum until they gave the workers their due. In 2012, justice was finally served with a legal settlement of $577,000 and the institution of a “a binding code of conduct protecting workplace rights.”

Some campaigns may take longer to ripen. At Amy’s Bread, a prominent gourmet local bakery, workers have been protesting for months, complaining of low pay and a lack of affordable healthcare, and calling for better working conditions and a more mutual relationship between workers and the management. Although the management rebuffed the group’s demands for labor dialogue last winter, the group says it is pursuing a “new escalated phase of the campaign” that aims to reach out to the public “to start educating customers about their opportunity to help create a sustainable Amy’s Bread.” Through social media campaigning and picketing, workers and community allies have banded together to shame the company for labor practices unbecoming of a business branded as a chic mom-and-pop shop.

In a past interview with Salon.com , founder Amy Scherber rejected the reports of mistreating workers and suppressing organizing, and said the company opposed the workers’ campaigning with Brandworkers’ assistance, because it “just stirs up everybody who is really happy doing what they do.” In a follow-up email exchange with The Nation, Scherber says again that the staff are “treated well,” and “I have always had an open door and have told them to come and talk to me at any time,” but the company has still “not had a discussion with a third party involved at this point.” As the public campaign intensifies, however, if consumers find the labor spat distasteful, perhaps the power of reputation can help catalyze the rank-and-file organizing.

As a grassroots worker center, not a formal union, Brandworkers follows the syndicalist organizing model of the Industrial Workers of the World, which emphasizes workplace-based direction actions. This approach, says Daniel Gross, a Brandworkers activist and attorney, enables workers to “set a union standard and hold it with their own direct action and solidarity, rather than a collective bargaining agreement.” Offering technical assistance and legal aid, Brandworkers is more of a sous chef, Gross says via e-mail: “The lion’s share of our work today is helping current workers develop as leaders and build their own campaigns for dignified jobs.”

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Beefing up workplace rights across the industry requires coordination among rank-and-file organizers, labor advocates, government and consumers, integrated into an ethical food movement. So advocates are pressing the city to incorporate labor rights into its food policy, and innovations in food production into its economic development policy.

A 2013 report by the think tank New York City Food Policy Center outlined a multi-pronged approach to strengthening the city’s food workforce by investing in training, small business development and commercial infrastructure to create about 10,000 “good food jobs.” Some of these would involve seeding new businesses with strong labor standards. Other new jobs would be upgrades from low-end production work to better-compensated positions in, say, organic agriculture, transporting from regional farms or packing fresh produce to facilitate local specialty retailers. Another step forward would be committing institutions to reward responsible producers through procurement policies—for example, by requiring that schools and hospital cafeteria contract with producers that meet high labor standards or employ union labor.

New Yorkers take eating seriously while often neglecting the labor that feeds them. But truly good eating demands integrity from seed to skillet. The city is now realizing the value of blending fair food principles with fine food traditions.

This piece has been updated with news on the Amy’s Bread campaign.

 

Read Next: John Nichols on Harris v. Quinn.

We Denounced the Israel Lobby Back in 1976

UN Caricature

Photo by Pat Oliphant, Denver Post

Noam Chomsky’s essay on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, published in the next issue of The Nation, references the American veto of a UN resolution in January 1976, favoring a two-state solution to the long-festering dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. At the time, The Nation was only beginning to publish articles critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories; in the 1940s, it had prominently advocated the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and supported Israel at practically every point since. In an editorial published early in February 1976, the editors supported the Ford administration’s veto at the UN, but argued against its proposed reductions in military aid to Israel.

Yet one week later, The Nation published what was then its most critical article on the subject. Written by Irene Gendzier, professor of history at Boston University, “The Israeli Debate We Never Hear” could in large substance be reprinted with equal relevance today.

Gendzier’s essay concludes with a warning that American policy in thrall to the bellicose delusions of the Israeli right risked losing touch with the reality of the conflict.

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Gendzier’s article represented a turning point in The Nation’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. By the time a special issue titled “Myths About the Middle East” was published in December 1981—with contributions from Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Mortimer, Michael Reisman and others—a definite change had occurred. But in the first half of 1976, the magazine’s position remained fairly ambiguous. Gendzier’s essay met with a strong, if tacit, rejoinder in the May 1 issue, which contained an essay by the veteran Middle East journalist Frank Gervasi titled “Myths and Realities: The Rights of the Palestinians.” The first sentence sets the tone: “In the mephitic clouds of propaganda generated by Arab spokesmen…”

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Sports and violence, Israel’s red card

From Pride to Freedom Summer to ‘Aycock’ Hall, Students Mass for Racial Justice

Zoraida

Zoraida Reyes, 28, at a protest in Santa Ana this spring (photo: Hairo Cortes)

Last spring, TheNation.com launched its biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on student and youth organizing. For recent dispatches, check out June 3 and June 15. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch. Contact studentmovement@thenation.com with tips. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).

1. Zoraida’s Death Calls Queer and Trans Immigrants to Mourning and Action

On June 23, mourners gathered in Santa Ana, California, to honor the life of Zoraida Reyes, a 28-year-old undocumented transgender Latina born in Mexico and found dead on July 12 in Orange County. Zoraida’s passing joins with three other “suspicious deaths” against transgender women of color in June alone, in Northeast Baltimore, Cincinnati and Fort Myers, Florida. This is a saddening moment for our community, especially as LGBTQ communities come together for Pride—the outcome of a revolution started by transgender women of color. Zoraida’s legacy of openness, authenticity and passion for immigrant and transgender rights will live on as DeColores Queer Orange County, a Latin@ LGBTQ grassroots organization she helped establish, will set up a fund dedicated in her honor. On July 11, DeColores is hosting an annual dragshow fundraiser, with proceeds going to Zoraida’s fund, and an annual conference intended to address inter-community needs specific to the Latin@ LGBTQ community. Our theme this year emphasizes trans queer family acceptance within our communities, where “la familia” extends to respect all aspects of authenticity and being.

—Roberto Carlos

2. Pride’s Rejection of Palestinian Justice Sparks Queer Student Outcry

On June 28, the Queer People of Color Collective of San Diego State University called out SDSU’s Pride Center, the campus LGBTQ center, for the contents of a leaked e-mail message from the coordinator of the center. In the note, regarding sending invitations to student organizations for SDSU’s Rainbow Flag Raising Ceremony, was an instruction to include Aztecs for Israel, but to “hold off” from inviting Students for Justice in Palestine because of the “kind of organization they are”—despite that both groups have publicly expressed support for the queer community. QPOCC views this as an Islamaphobic act by a white-dominated campus leadership. We call on SDSU to send an invitation to SJP along with a formal apology.

—Thomas Negron Jr.

3. Fifty Years Later, Freedom Summer Rises

From June 25 to 29, students from across the country gathered in Mississippi to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project and reignite the spirit of freedom struggle. At Tougaloo College, a center of Mississippi civil rights activism, young people—including members of the Ohio Student Association, Dream Defenders, Project South, the Student Justice Alliance and many more—participated in the Freedom Summer Youth Congress and the Freedom 50th conference. The week was filled with strategy sessions, conversations and intergenerational moments. The events culminated with a student-led action to support the rights of Nissan workers in the state of Mississippi with four hundreds students and community members.

—Joshua Dedmond

4. Two Years After the Strike, US Students Converge on Quebec

From June 19 to 22, more than 200 students from Canada, the US and Mexico, and as far as France and Hong Kong, converged at the Montréal Student Movement Convention. As young people in the US face an ever-worsening debt and tuition crisis, students looked to Québec, where the student strike in 2012 mobilized more than 300,000 students and blocked the Liberal Party’s plans to hike tuition. The convention, more than a year in the making, was organized by local student associations in Québec, as well as budding student unions in the United States, including Portland, Ohio, Michigan, California, Florida, Chicago, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and New York. The weekend blended nuts-and-bolts organizing with workshops and small breakouts and culminated in a general assembly fusing American and Québec-style direct democracy. Students departed ready to continue expanding international solidarity and vowing to spend the coming year organizing an even bigger conference with an even more diverse attendance next year.

—The Organizing Committee of the MSMC

5. In Milwaukee, ICE Gets Shut Down

In the early morning hours of Thursday June 19, nearly 100 students and community members from Wisconsin gathered outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in downtown Milwaukee to protest ongoing immigration raids that have criminalized and torn apart local families. Ten activists with Voces de la Frontera and Youth Empowered in the Struggle, including myself and members of one family affected by the raids, chained ourselves together using PVC pipes, to block vehicle exits at both ends of the building. The goal was to stop immigration vans from leaving to detain people that day; we did just that. The action was organized as a local response to ICE and in solidarity with the national #not1more campaign calling on President Obama for executive action to stop deportations.

—Ceasar Crayton

6. In Atlanta, Campus Radio Turns Up

Georgia State University’s student-run radio station, WRAS, has a reputation as one of the country’s leading college radio outlets. In 2009, the station broke into the Atlanta Arbitron top-ten morning drive time rankings among 18- to 34-year-olds. For years, Georgia Public Broadcasting has been trying to get GSU to hand over WRAS to fill a perceived programming void in Atlanta, most recently in 2008, but university administrations have recognized how integral WRAS is to the Atlanta community and rebuffed the efforts. On May 6, however, President Mark Becker decided to hand over all daytime broadcast hours to GPB, a deal made entirely in secret, without any student input. The Atlanta listening community, as well as the student DJs and station alumni, has risen up in protest. On Sunday, June 29, hundreds of people joined in nearby Hurt Park and marched to the station. Although GPB took over the daytime signal on the station this same day, station supporters are committed to pushing administrators to return WRAS entirely to student control.

—Yoon Nam

7. The Student-Led Stop to High-Stakes Testing

On June 20, both houses of the Rhode Island General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a three-year moratorium on the use of high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement in Rhode Island. This major step caps the Providence Student Union’s almost two-year campaign to end high-stakes testing in favor of more student-centered learning and performance-based assessments. Students and allies are now urging Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee to sign the bill and ensure that no students through the class of 2017 will be barred from graduating simply because of their score on the state assessment. This legislation is just the beginning; we will keep fighting for the empowering education—hands-on learning, discussion-based teaching and more—that all students deserve.

—Providence Student Union

8. The Dorm Formerly Known as Aycock Hall

For years, students at Duke University have protested the Aycock dorm, named in honor of former North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock, a racist Southern Democrat who led a white supremacist campaign in the 1890s that inspired mob violence against black people and established Jim Crow in North Carolina. Last spring, a coalition of student organizers including the Black Student Alliance, Duke NAACP and Students for a Democratic Society launched a campaign to change the name of the building. Through months of outreach, we gathered widespread student and faculty support. In January, the Duke Student Government unanimously passed a resolution on the building’s renaming. In May, following meetings with University President Richard Brodhead, who initially raised concerns about the possibility of a future onslaught of building renamings, members of the Duke Board of Trustees and the President’s Committee on Black Affairs, the board voted to rename the building East Residence Hall and affix a plaque acknowledging the history of the naming.

—Prashanth Kamalakanthan, Adrienne Harreveld and Jacob Tobia

9. When Will the Feds Stop Siding With Loan Sharks?

On Wednesday, June 25, students and debtors from the Colorado Student Power Alliance and Colorado Jobs with Justice attempted to enter the Rocky Mountain regional Department of Education. Six organizers were prepared to confront the branch’s executive director about the multiple federal violations charged to Navient, a former unit of Sallie Mae, and demand that the Department of Education immediately cut all ties with the corporation. Navient’s violations include inadequately disclosing payment allocation methods to borrowers, spreading out borrowers’ payments across multiple loans in a manner that maximizes late fees and inadequately disclosing how borrowers could avoid late fees. Those present were stopped by security in the lobby and forced outside to the sidewalk. There, we donned blindfolds and held signs reading, “Dept. of Education Stand with Students & Borrowers,” “Stop Turning a Blind Eye” and “We Want a Debt Free Future.” This summer, as part of the Debt Free Future campaign, students and borrowers across the country plan to continue to pressure the Department of Education through escalating direct actions until it cuts the contract with Navient.

—Kaitlyn Griffith

10. Is There a Factory Fire at Your Campsite?

On June 20, 100 students from United Students Against Sweatshops stormed the REI store in College Park, Maryland, demanding the retailer stop selling North Face apparel due to the record of factory violations in Bangladesh by VF Corporation, North Face’s owner. REI refused to meet with us over VF’s refusal to sign the Accord, a legally binding contract formed by Bangladeshi unions requiring brands to fix unsafe factories. After another VF factory caught fire last week injuring more than fifty workers, students responded this weekend with national actions at 10 REI stories, REI headquarters and the house of VF CEO, Eric Wiseman.

—Chanelle Yang

The Saga of Christie, Samson and the American Dream Megamall: Part I

Governor Chis Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

The following is Part I of a Christie Watch investigative report concerning the role of Chris Christie, the Wolff & Samson law firm, and several top Christie aides in the multibillion-dollar American Dream complex at the Meadowlands. Part II will be published tomorrow.

If you’ve crossed the George Washington Bridge, at least when the lanes are open, and headed south down the New Jersey Turnpike, you’ve passed by it. If you’ve gone to see the New York Giants play at MetLife Stadium, you can’t have missed it. And if you commute north on the Turnpike though the vast swamp and wetlands just outside New York City, you see it every day. We’re talking about the enormous, misshapen orange, red and blue monstrosity of an edifice that sits there, an empty shell, one that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the “ugliest damn building,” adding: “I can’t take it anymore.”

But the project, unused and decaying—originally dubbed Xanadu (as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “stately pleasure-dome”) and now reborn as the American Dream mega-complex—could be the latest, and biggest, conflict-of-interest scandal in the tangle of scandals plaguing the New Jersey governor, according to an investigation by The Nation’s Christie Watch. Among those mixed up in the multibillion-dollar Meadowlands redevelopment project, besides Christie, are a colorful cast of characters. Leading the pack is David Samson, the founder of the über-powerful New Jersey law firm Wolff & Samson, Christie’s political mentor and disgraced former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Two former assistant US attorneys, who worked with Christie during his tenure as US attorney for the District of New Jersey (2002–08) and then served in his administration, are enmeshed in it, including Michele Brown, who headed New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority; and Ralph Marra, currently the top lawyer for the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. There’s Lori Grifa, a Wolff & Samson attorney and Samson’s chief political enforcer, appointed by Christie to head New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) and the Meadowlands Commission. And there’s Jon Hanson, a wealthy developer with close ties to Christie.

First planned in the late 1990s as a gigantic, Mall of America–style complex with a mind-boggling array of attractions including skydiving facilities, an indoor ski slope, a movie complex and the largest Ferris wheel in the United States, under Christie it has expanded even further into a project incorporating an indoor water park, an amusement park, a giant ice rink, an aquarium, a performing arts center and a facility for bungee jumping.

Leave aside, for the moment, whether or not such a project is needed in the most densely populated, traffic-clogged state, filled already with countless malls. The project, precariously financed and putting New Jersey taxpayers at risk, involves a stunning web of conflict-of-interest arrangements, at the heart of which—and representing nearly every side—is David Samson, Wolff & Samson, and their clients. He and his firm have ties to both the state and local government agencies that will provide tax supported bond financing. He has represented as counsel and overseen massive contracts for the company that will pull together private funds for the project as well, and it is still another Wolff & Samson client, Triple Five, which is actually building the project. Grifa, the Wolff & Samson lawyer, first played a key role for the state of New Jersey in getting it off the ground and then brought Triple Five, the builder, as a client to Wolff & Samson, where she works alongside Jeffrey Chiesa, who served as attorney general and chief counsel under Governor Christie before going back to Wolff & Samson.

Christie, who’s pushed hard to move American Dream forward, has strongly backed legislation that will allow the state to play an important behind-the-scenes financing role in it. His top political appointees have brought in new developers when others pulled out, and they have maneuvered to arrange state financing aid.

Particularly troubling is the likelihood that the complicated state and local bond-financing scheme they have developed will siphon off sorely needed tax revenues.

“The project crossed the line from a public policy point of view with the bonds,” said Dennis McNerney, a Democrat and the former county executive of Bergen County, where the project is located, in an interview with Christie Watch. “Democratic Governors McGreevey and Corzine had said there would be no public money involved with the Meadowlands mall, but Christie said, ‘You know what, it’s going to be public money.’” According to McNerney, the bonds have been approved both by Christie and by Kathleen Donovan, the Republican who is currently the county executive of Bergen County, though they haven’t yet been issued. “But the day they are there will be a loss of revenue for the taxpayers,” says McNerney.

At every step of the way Christie, his top aides, and Wolff & Samson were there to keep the ball rolling. Paul Ghermezian, a project executive for the company developing the site, gives Christie credit as prime mover. At an event in April, held with the governor to announce the revised plan for the Meadowlands complex, Ghermezian, looking over at Christie, said, “Governor, you were there, you sat in on the meetings, you pushed where you needed to push—you pushed us where you needed us to be pushed.”

When Chris Christie won the governorship in 2009, the long-stalled project—designed to be built on state-owned wetlands—was made a key focus of top officials in his administration, and Samson and his law firm took a major interest in getting it moving.

Samson and Christie have been close since the early 2000s. In 2002, the two men bonded when Christie was the US attorney and Samson was the state’s attorney general. In 2009, Samson served as counsel to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign, and later that year Samson ran Christie’s transition team, helping to select key appointees. Two longtime Samson associates and law firm members were given top roles in Christie’s administration, Grifa as head of DCA and the Meadowlands Commission, and Chiesa—who also served under Christie in the US attorney’s office—as Christie’s chief counsel and then attorney general.

Beginning in February (with “David Samson’s Tangled Web at the Port Authority”), Christie Watch has reported extensively on the Samson-Christie connection, even as Samson found himself caught up in Bridgegate and related scandals and was forced to resign as Port Authority chairman. Christie and Samson have a close, symbiotic relationship, and Wolff & Samson is inextricably tied to the Christie administration and its projects, vastly benefiting from lucrative contracts with the state, its bond sales, and as legal representative for numerous, multibillion-dollar projects tied to New Jersey and to the Port Authority.

Nothing illustrates that more profoundly than the maneuverings of both regarding the American Dream Meadowlands project.

Samson’s ties to the project go back to at least 2006, when Colony Capital took over financing responsibility for what was supposed to be a $2 billion project, which had been planned since the late 1990s as a destination mall complex. Construction started in 2002 when the real estate frenzy was in its prime and speculators bet that assets would continue rising in value regardless of problems with the project. But after sinking in hundreds of millions of dollars, the initial developer ran out of money. When Colony Capital stepped in, both Samson and Grifa were state lobbyists for the firm.

Colony Capital agreed to put together a $1 billion loan package, but when the financial crisis exploded in 2008 Colony’s gamble went bust, along with one of its prime investors: Lehman Brothers. Construction on the mall ceased in August 2009, but not before its looming hulk rose over commuters on the Turnpike. By then, it was the laughing stock of the region.

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Enter Jon Hanson. Soon after his election in November 2009, Christie appointed Hanson, a wealthy real estate developer who led Christie’s political fundraising team and who was a member of the Samson-led transition team, to come up with a plan for the Meadowlands project which, by that time, had $2 billion sunk into it. Colony insisted that the project couldn’t go forward without state help in the form of tax-exempt bonds. Hanson was named by Christie to lead a commission on the future of the Meadowlands boondoggle, and in the Report of the Governor’s Advisory Commission On New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment, Hanson did indeed recommend that the project get state aid. Behind schedule and in need of at least $875 million, Christie got on board. “On Xanadu, you have essentially two choices you’re confronted with: Make it work, or tear it down.”

First, a developer willing to take it on needed to be found. Hanson and Grifa led the effort. Grifa, just appointed by Christie to DCA and to chair the Meadowlands Commission, had official responsibility for overseeing development in the area. Long associated with Samson, Grifa had started at Wolff & Samson in 1997, and in 2002 she served as Samson’s chief of staff when he was attorney general. In April 2011, Hanson and Grifa signed up a Canadian company, Triple Five, which had built the largest mall in the United States, Minnesota’s Mall of America, to revive the Xanadu fiasco. When the company proposed massively expanding the plan for the project, it received the blessing of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority’s general counsel, Ralph Marra. The NJSEA oversees the Meadowlands Sports Complex, where the American Dream project is, along with other sports and convention centers on state land. Like others in this saga, Marra had close ties to Christie. During the 2000s, Marra served as Christie’s top deputy in the US attorney’s office. In 2009, after Christie left the office to run for governor, Marra oversaw the massive Big Rig III investigation, timing its unfolding—which resulted in scores of arrests of leading Democratic local and state officials—to give Christie an election boost in his campaign against then-Governor Jon Corzine. Perhaps as a thank-you, Christie appointed Marra to the sports and exposition post. To be continued.

Tomorrow: How Christie and his cronies got the project funded—with the public’s money.

Read Next: Will the Tea Party actually ditch the GOP?

Drones Are Great. Just Ask a Drone!

Tom Tomorrow

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‘Exporting Gaza’: The Arming of Brazil’s World Cup Security

World cup protest

World Cup Protest, 2014 (photo by Ben Tavener, courtesy of CC BY 2.0

When I was in Brazil for those first days of the World Cup, I was—with many other journalists—tear gassed by military police. I saw sleek, urban-outfitted tanks in the streets and I felt concussion grenades send subsonic shrapnel crashing into my eardrums. I didn’t see the drones flying overhead, but then again, no one without a Hubble telescope is supposed to see the drones.

I also saw militarism that was less high-tech, and more of the traditional boots-on-the-ground variety. Several of the favelas—precarious communities of the poor that were once sanctuaries for both outlaws and revolutionaries—are under full-scale occupation. This has sparked protests by favela residents against the violence of living under constant police subjugation

The level of high-tech hardware on display is hardly different from what we have seen at previous World Cups and Olympic games. Gunships and missile launchers have over the last dozen years become as much a part of the scenery as the FIFA Fan Park and Olympic Village. The problem, though, is not really how the media has yawned past these kinds of post 9/11 security imperatives (although this is a problem). It’s the way that in too many host countries the militarization does not go away when the mega-events end. Instead, it becomes the new reality. If you buy a drone you are not, as a security official in London told me in 2012, “going to just put it back in the box.” Surveillance culture becomes normalized, and through the Trojan horse of sports, a fresh Orwellian reality is born.

Brazil’s leaders are unashamed of this overwhelming show of force. The state has expressed grave concern, at different times, about protesters, crime and terrorism. Tragically, if not predictably, they have also chosen to see protest as an act of crime and even an act of terrorism unto itself. I witnessed this repeatedly, with the effect of turning the World Cup host into, as one activist said to me, “a facsimile of the old dictatorship.”

Concern about protesters, crime and terrorism have all undoubtedly played a role in the security buildup, but Brazil has also built up its armed forces dramatically in recent years as a way to show the world that its new global economic might would be matched militarily. Yet the presence of such overpowering—not to mention high tech—weaponry raises a critical question: Who is arming Brazil? Who supplies—and profits—from their new normal?

The answer is found in Haifa, Israel, at two different multibillion-dollar weapons and electronics manufacturers: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems. Rafael is a for-profit company owned by the Israeli state, while Elbit is a private corporation. Elbit’s earnings are up dramatically, with its drone airplanes providing crowd surveillance during the World Cup. As Chief Executive Officer Bezhalel Machlis said in an interview with Bloomberg, “The intelligence-gathering electronic and optics technologies of Elbit and our Brazilian partners are perfectly suited for the homeland security challenges at these events.” The providing of high-tech militarism caused their second-quarter net income to “rise 30 percent to $50 million.” Bloomberg News wrote antiseptically that Brazil’s desire to increase purchases of Elbit’s weaponry was “given fresh impetus after the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June [2013] prompted record numbers of people to take to the streets in protest at a range of issues including spending on state-of-the-art stadiums.”

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As for Rafael, it was founded in 1948 by the newly established state of Israel to arm the country against those who once resided in its territory. Rafael has an even stronger foothold in Brazil than Elbit. As Flavie Halais, writing for Open Democracy reported last year, “Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has bought a 40 percent stake in Brazilian GESPI Aeronautics. Back in 2010, Brazil and Israel signed a security cooperation agreement, with news reports stating the agreement dealt specifically with the World Cup and Olympics. Since then, officials from both countries have met to develop partnerships for mega-events and Israeli security experts have given several conferences and workshops for Brazilian officials and members of the Municipal Guard.”

This flow of arms from Israel to Brazil has sparked a movement in Brazil led by the Frente em Defesa do Povo Palestino–SP (Front in Defense of the Palestinian People–São Paulo), which is composed of dozens of Brazil’s civil society organizations and unions, and is a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Last year they protested at the Latin American Aerospace and Defense fair in Rio attended by arms manufacturers from around the world all competing—with the help of scantily clad models—to arm Brazil for the World Cup and the Olympics. The event was seen as a triumph for the thirty Israeli arms manufacturers who were, according to an insider,given special access to Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer and Secretary of Defense Celso Amorim.

“What Rafael, Elbit and Global Shield are doing is exporting the very tactics used on the Gaza Strip,” said one activist to me in Rio. “They are taking neighborhoods of poverty and anger and creating Gaza in the favelas of Brazil. The goal of anyone who sees themselves as a part of civil society should not be more Gazas.” From even the most basic humanitarian perspective, this is unassailable, particularly given the events of this week, as collective punishment, bombings and demolitions, have been the state response to the discovery of three dead Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. We should be figuring out how to demilitarize Gaza so the 1.8 million people who call that strip of land home have freedom of movement and opportunity without the constant specter of military incursion. Exporting the “Gaza security model” to the cities of the future is a recipe for dystopia. Using the World Cup—and our collective love of soccer—to create that new normal is both frightening and enraging. This sport, created and nurtured by the poor across the world, is now being played in exclusion zones under the watchful eyes of drones in the skies and boots on the ground. We may be rejoicing in the beautiful game right now, but we also need to fight to reclaim it.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on FIFA, the World Cup’s true bloodsuckers

25 Years Later, America Is Still Struggling to ‘Do the Right Thing’

Spike Lee

Spike Lee (CC 2.0/Domenico)

Twenty-five years ago today, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. Controversial then and still volatile now, it has since taken its place among the greatest American films ever made. It has a lot to say (it was written directed by Spike Lee, so of course it does) about race, class, power, sex and community. Any number of moments could be the topic of their own essay. But we mostly remember this movie for one scene: the flying trash can.

 


 

It’s the end of the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself), the delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, just wants to get paid and go home. His friends, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem, won’t let Mookie’s boss, Sal, close up shop until he makes right what they feel is his mistreatment of them as patrons of his restaurant. (Buggin’ Out is mad that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” has no black faces on it, while Radio Raheem didn’t appreciate being told to turn down the music on his larger-than-life boombox). Tempers flare, words are exchanged (including the infamous n-word), and Sal takes a bat to Radio Raheem’s prized possession. “I just killed your fucking radio,” he says. Enraged, Radio Raheem lunges at Sal and the entire pizzeria breaks out into a brawl. When the police arrive on the scene, they apprehend Radio Raheem. Using his baton, one of the officers applies a chokehold that stops Radio Raheem’s breathing. The officers put his body in the back of squad car and drive away, leaving the neighborhood’s black residents to assume Radio Raheem is dead and the police will get away with killing him, as they’ve done so many times before.

Mookie watches all of this. Moments after taking it all in, he walks toward a trash can, removes the lid and trash, picks it up, runs toward Sal’s Pizzeria, screams “HATE!” and hurls the trash can through a window. A riot ensues.

“I think all of black America threw that can,” Lee told People in 1989.

Lee noticed something about the criticism his film was receiving, particularly from those white critics who thought it might incite race riots. “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police,” he said, “They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.” The property rights of a white business owner took precedence over the life of a black man. It’s in that context where small acts of rebellion, like Mookie’s throwing the trash can, come to represent all of the frustration, anguish, and rage that are products of having to live under a racist system. Did he “do the right thing?” What’s the “right” response to a society that refuses you humanity?

I ask that question while thinking about Ersula Ore. According to The Huffington Post, the Arizona State University English professor is being charged with “assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, refusing to provide identification when requested to do so by an officer and obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare” after being stopped by university police while walking on campus on May 20. Video of the incident from the police car’s dashboard camera shows Officer Stewart Ferrin slamming Ore to the ground while handcuffing her. According to Ore, the officer pulled up next to her and asked whether she knew the difference between a sidewalk and a road. She replied, “Do you always accost women in the middle of the road and speak to them with such disrespect and so rudely as you did to me?”

“He throws the car door open actually, is what happens, and he’s towering over me,” she told CNN, “He’s intimidating. I don’t know why he’s so aggressive.” Ferrin demanded that Ore produce her ID.

Ferrin: “Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID.”
Ore: “Are you serious?”
Ferrin: “Yes, I am serious. That is the law.”

Ore: “I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. Everybody has been doing this because it is all obstructed. That’s the reason why. But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over and ask me, ‘Do you know what this is? This is a street.’”
Ferrin: “Are you aware that this is a street?”
Ore: “Let me finish.”
Ferrin: “OK, put your hands behind your back.”

Ore repeatedly tells Ferrin not to touch her. He tells her she’s going to slam her. She responded, “You really want to do that? Do you see what I’m wearing?” He replies that he doesn’t care what she has on. Ferrin, true to his word, slams Ore to the ground, leading to “expos[ure of] her anatomy to all onlookers,” according to her lawyer. When she’s back on her feet, Ore kicks Ferrin.

A statement from ASU said that authorities “have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved.”

Did Ore “do the right thing?” I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the more pertinent question is why she was put in such a position to begin with.

This past Friday (June 27), the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and BAMcinematek hosted a screening of Do the Right Thing to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. In a videotaped appearance, President Barack Obama (he and first lady Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date) said, “…Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”

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From the fictional Radio Raheem to the real life Ersula Ore, to all the black people who have been harassed, assaulted, and killed by police and vigilantes in between, it’s pretty clear America still can’t see itself in black bodies. And it doesn’t seem to want to try.

 

Read Next: Farah Jasmine Griffin on why Obama’s love for Billie Holiday doesn’t mean black girls aren’t suffering.