The New York Yankees of Egyptian soccer, Al Ahly, have officially expelled one of its top players, striker Ahmed Abdel Zaher. Did this extraordinary act take place in the aftermath of a heartbreaking loss? No, the team had actually just triumphed 2-0 and Zaher had even scored a goal. Was there an off-field scandal? Did Zaher find himself caught with steroids, or bullying teammates or running a dog-fighting ring? None of that. He was, by all accounts, a model citizen. Zaher’s crime was choosing to remember the massacred victims of Egypt’s dictatorship on the field of play, and in the Egypt of 2013, such an act will not go unpunished.
After Zaher scored in Ahly’s 2-0 win over South Africa’s Orlando Pirates in the African Champions League in Cairo on Sunday, he flashed four fingers while running back down the field. That simple gesture has changed his life, because flashing four fingers in today’s Egypt is a gesture as incendiary as raising a black gloved fist in 1968.
The Arabic word for “fourth” is Rabaa, and uttering the word “Rabaa”—like whispering the word “union” in nineteenth-century coal country—can get you in all kinds of trouble. It was just last August when hundreds of peaceful Egyptian supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi were killed by security forces at the Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque. They were sitting in and demanding some kind of electoral justice after Morsi was deposed by Egyptian General Abdel Al-Sisi. After they had occupied the area for six weeks and with no end in sight, Al-Sisi had them summarily slaughtered. Once the blood had been washed away, the dictatorship has set about the project of erasing any memory that such an atrocity had occurred. Currently situated at the site of the massacre, a statue has been erected. It is not to commemorate the dead, but it’s a monument to the Egyptian military and police. And yet there are those throughout Egypt who choose not to forget. Their symbol is those four raised fingers: “Remember Rabaa.”
Ahmed Abdel Zaher in particular had a dear friend die in Rabaa. He wanted him to be remembered. Al Ahly however, would have none of it. The club already has a very precarious relationship with the current dictatorship. This stems from a match last year against Al Masri in Port Said where Al Ahly saw seventy-two of its fans killed. Most died of asphyxiation, as waves of Al-Masri fans pressed them against locked gates. It is widely believed, with ample supporting video evidence, that security officials did not intervene so as to punish the hyper-intense Al Ahly ultra fan clubs who played a leading role in the ouster of President-for-life Hosni Mubarak. Since Port Said, the Al Ahly ultras have demonstrated, sat-in and fought in the streets, demanding justice for those killed. But management at Al Ahly seems desperate to not ruffle any more feathers, and Zaher will pay for that with his job, if not worse. He is also due to be “interrogated by the state-run Egyptian Football Association in the coming days.
Al Ahly may be the ones officially putting Zaher “up for sale”, but his release was clearly engineered by the Egyptian state. Only after sports minister Taher Abouzeid said that “dissuasive sanctions await the player by his club and the soccer association,” and that he was confident the team would make “the right decisions,” did Al Ahly buckle and send him packing. They then released a statement, seemingly out of commitment to turn this tragedy into a farce, saying that “the club’s principles” were rooted in “its firm rejection of mixing politics with sports.”
At least Zaher is not being singled out. Last month, Egypt’s Kung Fu Association banned international star Mohamed Youssef from participating in international championships for two years after he wore a T-shirt bearing the four-finger sign at a tournament in Russia. Youssef was not wearing it while competing but during the medal ceremony where he was awarded the gold. Last week there was another kung fu tournament in Malaysia where Youssef’s replacement, Hesham Abdel Hamid, won the silver. He also flashed four fingers to both remember Rabaa and support his teammate. Abdel Hamid was also punished and stripped of both his medal and prize winnings. As one fan of the sport said to me, “Egypt has not won any medals for years. Yet they punish their champions.”
What is so informative about this crackdown is that Egypt’s dictatorship has committed not only to punishing athletes but punishing their best athletes. They are not only going after demonstrations of remembrance of Rabaa but doing so on the highest possible cultural platforms where they are fully aware it will engender the widest possible coverage. The message is clear: no one is safe, and you will remember Rabaa at your own risk and your own peril.
And yet despite the crackdown, the resistance continues. I spoke with Abdullah Al-Arian, a history professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and author of the forthcoming Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt. He said, “Since the tragic events at Rabaa, the wave of protests has only grown across the country. The attempts to censure the actions of conscientious Egyptian athletes and artists who oppose the return to authoritarianism, reflects a desperation on the part of the current regime due its failure to establish its legitimacy. Zaher’s demonstration in solidarity with the victims of the military is a clear sign that the leaders of the coup have not yet succeeded in their mission.”
This “mission” to establish legitimacy, can take place only if people allow the dictatorship to control the memory of what was done to achieve power. That’s what makes the actions of Zaher, Youssef and Hamid so brave and so important in the quest to achieve democracy in the region. Their message is simply to never forget.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous talks about a new draconian anti-protest law in Egypt.
A new Gallup poll says 76 percent of Americas support raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour, including 58 percent of polled Republicans. On last night’s Ed Show, Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols contrasted that public opinion with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s policy record. In January, the now re-elected Republican vetoed a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $8.50, opting instead for a $1 increase. “If there’s a core issue, it’s these economic justice issues,” Nichols said, “On these, we’re seeing the majority of Republicans saying it’s time to get working on raising wages for working Americans.”
It remains to be seen whether President Obama’s phone call to French President Hollande yesterday will fix the glitch in the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, talks that were sabotaged by French perfidy last week—or, in the opinion of Israel, hawks and neoconservatives, by French heroism.
After returning to Tehran after the talks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif bluntly blamed the French for wrecking the talks. What happened, it seems, is that an American draft of an accord was dismantled by the French, who opposed it and forced a rewrite, surprising Iran (and, apparently, the United States as well). So the Iranians had to back off the accord and return home for consultations before resuming talks on November 20. Tweeted Zarif:
No amount of spinning can change what happened within 5+1 in Geneva from 6PM Thursday to 545 PM Saturday.But it can further erode confidence
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 11, 2013
Mr.Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?
No, it was France.
Zarif was contradicting Secretary of State Kerry, who after the talks ended said that the P5+1, including the United States and France, were in agreement and that it was Iran who scuttled the negotiations.
Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, doesn’t agree, and his account tallies with Zarif’s. Reports the Associated Press:
Russia’s foreign minister says Iran had accepted a U.S.-draft proposal on a nuclear deal, but last-minute amendments blocked an accord last week in Geneva. Sergey Lavrov’s account fits with comments from Iran and world powers. But it offers additional insights into how Washington apparently led the negotiations seeking to ease Western concerns that Iran could one day produce nuclear weapons—a charge Iran denies. Lavrov did not mention which country offered the 11th hour amendments. Others, however, say France raised concerns over issues such as a planned heavy water rector that produces more byproduct plutonium.
Still, RT.com reports, Lavrov is optimistic.
What happened during the phone call between Obama and Hollande isn’t known. It’s a curious failure of American diplomacy for the United States to have gone into last week’s talks without all of its ducks in a row, those ducks being the UK, Germany and France. Did Kerry not know of the impending French wrecking ball? In any case, after their call, according to AFP, Obama and Hollande were back on the same page, publicly at least, speaking of a “unified proposal” and saying that now it’s all up to Iran:
Hollande and Obama “confirmed their full support for the text agreed” by the P5+1 group of world powers at this weekend’s talks, which they said forms “the basis for a serious, solid and credible agreement”.
“Now it is up to Iran to give a positive answer,” the statement said.
By all accounts, Obama and his team are committed to a positive result from the talks in Geneva. They’ve pushed hard to get the Senate to hold off on new Iran sanctions, and they’ve told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shut up, essentially. Let’s hope that Obama convinced Hollande that a deal is in the works, and that the United States won’t stand for any more interference by the French.
Bob Dreyfuss looks into AIPAC’s role in the negoatiations with Iran.
Yesterday, In These Times’s Mike Elk got his hands on a private document showing how DC-based political groups have moved to block the United Automobile Workers organizing effort at the Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Though workers at the plant, VW and the UAW seem largely in agreement about forming a workers’ council at the factory, prominent anti-union groups have swarmed Chattanooga to obstruct the deal. A consultant named Matt Patterson, formerly with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, authored the document, obtained by Elk, that spells out his efforts to mobilize Tea Party, libertarian, and local media attacks on the VW organizing drive.
In his proposal to donors, Patterson says his plan is to kill the momentum for unionization in the South, noting, “significant impact can made be over the next year in Tennessee, Alabama, and throughout the South to keep the UAW from organizing the foreign-owned auto facilities.”
Though much of Patterson’s tactics have been concealed until now, he did author an op-ed in May that called on Southerners to regard the union-drive as a chance to reenact the “bloodiest days of the entire Civil War.” Patterson wrote:
One hundred and fifty years ago an invading Union army was halted at Chattanooga by the Confederate Army of Tennessee under General Braxton Bragg. The Battle of Chickamauga was one of the bloodiest days of the entire Civil War, and a resounding defeat for the Northern forces. Today Southeastern Tennessee faces invasion from another union— an actual labor union, the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW has its heart set on organizing Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, which employs several thousand and supports thousands more throughout the Southeast. […]
No wonder Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd warns that unionization “will be like a cancer on [Chattanooga’s] economic growth.” Indeed it would be, though perhaps an infection is a more apt metaphor, an infection borne by an invading union force from the North. One hundred and fifty years ago, the people of Tennessee routed such a force in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Let their descendants go now and do likewise.
The battle Patterson romanticizes in his column resulted in over 34,000 casualties. One of the leading officers in the battle, Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest—a wealthy slave-trader—went on after the war to found the Ku Klux Klan, a group that helped powerful elites suppress black-white labor unity through a campaign of terrorism and murder.
While Patterson seems to be making a handsome profit by sowing divisions at the VW plant, some may read his Civil War analogy as an appeal for violence.
Liliana Segura asks why thousands of prisoners should have to die behind bars for nonviolent crimes.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The bustling, fast-paced, wired metropolis city of Seoul is what most people know of South Korea. Now the fifteenth largest economy in the world, South Korea’s economy is driven by the exports sector controlled by corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, LG and Daewoo. These chaebols have significant global market share: 37 percent in LCD TVs, 33 percent in hand-held phones and 9 percent in automobiles. The term “chaebol nation” aptly describes South Korea’s economy: the top 30 chaebols account for 82 percent of the country’s exports.
It’s hard to imagine that just two generations ago, farming fueled the nation’s economy. In the 1970s, farmers accounted for half the population; today, they represent only 6.2 percent. South Korea’s rapid transformation from an agrarian economy to a highly industrialized one wasn’t accidental; it was the outcome of the central government’s development and trade liberalization policies that in the early 1980s began to see farming as part of Korea’s past, not its future.
The major blow to Korean agriculture fell in 1994, when South Korea joined the WTO and the Agreement on Agriculture, which effectively forced the government to eliminate quotas and tariffs even while major agriculture exporting blocs like the United States and European Union still gave billions in subsidies to their own farmers. The result of all this liberalization: South Korea is only 20-percent self-sufficient in grain production, compared with the 1970s when it was at 70 percent.
If South Korean chaebols and the politicians that represent them had their way, small farmers—the majority of South Korea’s agricultural sector—would all but disappear under the logic that they are uncompetitive in the global marketplace. They argue that it would be far more efficient for the country to continue to import cheap food from less developed countries—including through the process of acquiring land outside of Korea, like in Africa and South East Asia.
And yet, despite a series of domestic and international policies that have sought to systematically eliminate them, South Korean farmers and peasants are fighting back. They have protested the WTO and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) for two decades, inspiring peasant farmers throughout the global south to mobilize against the free trade regime. At home, they are trying to build a domestic food sovereignty movement that is ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and economically resilient by producing healthy food, creating dignified rural livelihoods and reviving farming communities.
Instead of being blinded by South Korean high-tech bling, our eyes should be on South Korea’s food sovereignty movement. It offers the rest of us robust alternatives to the highly consolidated, industrialized, energy-intensive and chemical-dependent globalized food systems that dominate all of our lives.
In August, we co-organized and participated in a Food First Food Sovereignty Tour where we visited South Korea’s leading organic farms and progressive farmer-consumer cooperatives. South Korea is now a leader in the Asian region in organic production, so much so that the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements set up its offices there. And while there were many inspiring organic farms and gardens, two organizations stand out: the Korean Women Peasants Association (KWPA) and Hansalim.
Korean Women Peasants Association
“The food that is being sold by capitalism is sold as a commodity instead of food that sustains us,” explained Jeong-Yeol Kim of My Sister’s Garden, a KWPA project. “That’s why we believe that helping farmers thrive is the only way to fix this food crisis, and the pathway to do so would be to ensure that consumers and every citizen join us in the process of making this come true.”
We visited My Sister’s Garden in the small village of Bongang, where 14 women peasant farmers collectively grow and distribute a weekly “gerubi”—similar to a community supported agriculture (CSA) box—comprised of organic produce they grow and packaged foods they make, such as pickled radish and pear juice. KWPA operates 26 of these producer communities throughout the country. On the day we visited, they were packaging and sending 141 boxes to the Bluebird Children’s Center in the city where parents come to pick up the boxes. “Children today have no connection to the rural land,” explains Jeong-Yeol. Unlike previous generations, many children today no longer have grandparents or relatives living in the countryside who are connected in any way to farming. “So part of the effort of this partnership is to expose children to food production.”
According to Jeong-Yeol, My Sister’s Garden plots were started in response to the devastating impacts of agricultural trade liberalization on the rural economy. “Just within ten years, 10 percent of farmers have fled to the cities here in Korea,” she explained. The reason? The globalized food production system. “We think that the solution to this crisis is to focus on small-scale farmers and give a solid foundation for each farmer to survive.” Each farmer takes on 15 consumer households, earning 1,500,000 won—approximately $1,400—per month. When more consumers wish to join, they encourage a new garden plot to be created so that more women peasant farmers also can earn a dignified income.
Optimizing profits is not the goal; rather, sharing with both consumers and other producers is at the center of the project’s philosophy. They are seeking to bring as many people as possible into an economically viable and socially just system to reverse the decline of rural communities. Despite their prevalence in agriculture, Korean peasant women lack equal rights and opportunities, which makes a project like My Sister’s Garden an even more important empowered space for peasant women to make decisions on all aspects of their production and distribution.
In the small village of Uiseong, just a few hours away from Bongang, KWPA members started a native seed protection program to defend Korean native seeds against corporate takeover. “A lot of our native seeds are being bought up or taken by Syngenta or Monsanto. There are no national Korean domestic seed companies left,” laments Jung-mee Han, a plum, mung bean, rice and garlic farmer and member of KWPA.
“We are all farming different crops,” adds Jeong-mi Kim, president of the Uiseong Native Seed Protectors. “Because we couldn’t take care of all the seeds ourselves, each member is responsible for preserving and cultivating several crops.” They also distribute seeds to low-income farmers who cannot afford them. “We’re not just saving seeds,” explains Jeong-mi. “We are tracking, monitoring and sharing seeds among farmers, and nationally, we sell them to increase consumption of native agriculture.”
These KWPA projects seek to radically alter the structure of the Korean food system and to de-commodify the linkages between consumers and producers. It has not been in vain. In 2012, KWPA was awarded with the Food Sovereignty Prize for their work to defend the rights of small-scale women farmers in Korea and preserve the cultural heritage of Korean native seeds.
In 1986, even before farmers’ markets and CSA programs became popular in the United States, South Korean farmers and consumers began Hansalim. “Han” in Korean means great, one, whole and together, and refers to all living things on earth. “Salim” refers to domestic activities that must be managed to care for one’s home, family, children and community, as well as to revive and give life.
With 2,000 growers and 380,000 consumer members, Hansalim is among the world’s largest and most successful agricultural cooperatives, creating an alternative economy that supports organic farmers and local agriculture, producing healthy food and protecting the environment in the process. Despite the global financial crisis, its sales have been growing annually by 20 percent.
“Farmers at the time realized that they would need to collaborate with consumers in the city,” explains Woon Seok Park, a Hansalim farmer. “Hansalim was created from that point of view, that consumers and producers could make a movement that went beyond mere market transactions to one of understanding each others’ conditions.”
At Hansalim, consumers and growers meet each year to select what and how much they will produce and deliberate on prices for the following season. The coordination on such a massive scale—navigating production, price, harvest, distribution and processing—is, to say the least, remarkable.
It deeply impressed one US organic farmer: David Retsky of County Line Harvest, who reflected back to Hansalim growers, “I come from California where I am just trying to make my business work. We’re competing with other people, so for me to see so many producers in the way of a collective, I’m amazed to see it working quite well.” To further demonstrate their commitment to support Hansalim farmers, consumers established a product stabilization fund in case of bad harvests caused by multiple factors, including rising fuel costs and climate change. Unlike many farmers who have been forced to throw in the towel in recent years due to extreme weather, which has caused crop failures, this fund has been a lifeline to Hansalim farmers who have been able to stay on the farm.
Hansalim farmers know that climate change poses a challenge to the viability of agriculture in Korea. That’s why “we only handle local food,” explains Woon Seok, because “using Hansalim products is a way to combat climate change.” Hansalim doesn’t exclude non-organic growers from the cooperative. While it encourages organic production, proximity is most important because of the high environmental costs of shipping food over long distances, including refrigeration. Hansalim also runs the only livestock feed factory in Korea that uses only local feed sources from nearby farmers. Unlike the majority of livestock farmers, Hansalim livestock is therefore not dependent on feed imports that make up the majority of South Korean grain imports.
Hansalim also informs consumers about the environmental benefits of locally produced food. On each product, it lists the distance and carbon saved by consuming this locally produced good versus one that would have been imported. To make this figure relevant to the lives of consumers, the label also lists an equivalent energy savings, such as the number of hours of electricity used to watch television or to light a fluorescent bulb.
Replacing Competition with Sharing
Hansalim and KWPA are responses to government policies that have liberalized Korean agriculture and sacrificed farming to expand export markets for chaebols. And it’s about to get worse.
South Korea has signed nine bilateral free trade agreements, and twelve more are under negotiation, including a trilateral one with China and Japan. The most significant pact is the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), which, after massive protests in South Korea, passed in 2011. According to Doo Bong Han and Kyung Min Kim of Korea University, under the KORUS FTA, Korean agriculture will lose $626 million in production value. Estimates by the South Korean government also predict that 45 percent of Korean farmers will be displaced under the KORUS FTA.
In recent weeks, South Korea has also signaled its interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most ambitious free trade agreement the world has ever seen, which would account for 40 percent of the world’s economy. If Seoul joins, it would be the fourth-largest economy in the pact, following the United States, Japan and Australia.
These free trade agreements, it is argued, will strengthen global demand for the high-tech commodities that constitute the core of South Korea’s export-oriented economy—and as such, Korean agriculture must either adapt or perish.
Hansalim and KWPA, however, demonstrate that competition is not inevitable, necessary, or the only path forward. More than 1 million households in Korea today are members of cooperatives like Hansalim, demonstrating the viability and growing interest in alternative food systems. By stressing instead the concept of sharing and the notion that “consumers and producers are one,” these cooperatives have shown that a different economy is possible.
The fate of South Korea’s countryside remains to be seen, but if history is instructive, we know that Korean peasants have endured and resisted. In the legendary Donghak rebellion of 1894, peasant farmers rose up with their bamboo spears against the Chosun King for levying heavy taxes on them to grow Korea’s industrial might and bolster the monarchy’s power against foreign invaders like China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Donghak peasants were influenced by a philosophy that at its center argued for human equality, a radical notion during feudalism. The rebellion was quashed with the help of the Japanese, but the idea that all humans are equal and all living beings are one prevailed—and continues to inspire today’s social movements.
In Korean folklore, the mung bean, or nokdu, is symbolic of the resilient spirit of the Korean peasants. In the harshest conditions, nokdu sprouts and grows, feeding the hungry. In the face of domestic and international policies that have systematically undermined their livelihoods and depressed the countryside, Korean peasants and farmers are sprouting, growing, and inspiring Koreans and global citizens alike by demonstrating that another economy and food system can thrive—even under the harsh conditions of corporate trade regimes.
While nearly everyone has focused on the Dylan Davies fakery in CBS’s bogus Benghazi report, McClatchy veteran Middle East correspondent Nancy Youssef late yesterday presented a long list of other factual problems, or at least very dubious assertions, in the segment. Taken together, they further the notion that Lara Logan had an agenda and cooked, or accepted weak, evidence to make her “case.” Read the entire piece here.
“Logan’s mea culpa said nothing about other weaknesses in the report that a line-by-line review of the broadcast’s transcript shows,” Youssef reports.
This arrived as a CBS spokesman revealed that a “journalistic” review of their segment is ongoing, which is vague and may mean little. Of course, they had to “review” the segment after The Washington Post, The New York Times and Media Matters destroyed it. They are still not promising a full probe or naming an independent panel (à la Rathergate).
And there’s this good reminder in the piece:
Logan claimed that “it’s now well established that the Americans were attacked by al Qaida in a well-planned assault.” But al Qaida has never claimed responsibility for the attack, and the FBI, which is leading the U.S. investigation, has never named al Qaida as the sole perpetrator. Rather it is believed a number of groups were part of the assault, including members and supporters of al Qaida and Ansar al Shariah as well as attackers angered by a video made by an American that insulted Prophet Muhammad. The video spurred angry protests outside Cairo hours beforehand.
Still, many media writers/critics remain oddly passive, raising the chances that CBS fulfills its goal of turning the page on this scandal quickly.
And nothing peeves me more than prominent media writers/critics crediting CBS with offering a belated apology/correction, of giving them “points” for it, even if they think it didn’t go far enough. I’ve seen this time and again in the past few days.
For example, Alicia Shepard, who has done great work in the past as media writer, editor, and ombud, in a piece at Columbia Journalism Review, called Lara Logan’s apology last Friday “brave.” Last Friday, Erik Wemple at the Washington Post, wrote: “Lara Logan this morning delivered a clinic on how a media organization should correct the record on faulty reporting…. And with those words, about 10 tons of pressure drained from the Manhattan offices of ‘60 Minutes.’ ” (Really?) Tom Rosenstiel, longtime director of the American Press Institute, has called the “60 Minutes” correction highly unusual and so he deserves credit for that.
Here’s Rosenstiel on PBS NewsHour this week: “CBS deserves credit for admitting that they made a mistake. That’s unusual in broadcast. We don’t see corrections on television in the course of normal activity. And mistakes are made all the time.”
True, mistakes are often made. But (1) not normally on the level of a completely false interview that forms the major part of a full segment on a hot political subject via the top-rated network news show and (2) now completely debunked, in a humiliating and high-profile way, by the two leading US newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post.
For veteran media critics to give CBS any credit whatsoever for pulling the story is disgraceful. What other choice did “brave” Lara Logan and team have? It is unfathomable to imagine them not offering at least the very brief apologies that did come. So they deserve credit for that? Saying so only blunts the strong criticism of what 60 Minutes aired and the questions left unanswered.
Again, Rosenstiel, when asked what CBS needs to do now: “[W]hat they owe us, what they owe the public is assurances that there—that there isn’t something that—in their processes that will allow this to happen again. They need to reassure the public, look, we understand what we did wrong, and it’s not—and—and we have learned from this and it’s not going to happen again. You can trust us in the future.”
Of course, that does nothing. That’s the easiest thing to say: It won’t happen again (even though we won’t tell you why it happened this time). You can trust (but why?). We’ve learned a lesson (such as?) In fact, Lara Logan has already essentially done this in her ninety-second statement on Sunday, assuring viewers that “truth” is still her show’s highest goal. The views of the Rosenstiels will only bolster the chances that, in fact, this sort of thing will happen again, and again.
And for the larger picture, let me recommend Amy Davidson’s post at The New Yorker.
Greg Mitchell surveys major criticisms of the “60 Minutes” Benghazi story.
The sixteen-year incumbent Democrat who Sawant challenged in the nonpartisan citywide race, Richard Conlin, conceded Friday evening. The former Seattle city council president acknowledged that Sawant had defeated him after the challenger took a 1,640 vote lead in an ongoing count on ballots from the city's November 5 election.
Sawant, whose campaign energized young people, communities of color and neighborhood activists to provide its come-from-behind energy, describes her electoral seccess as "historic."
"Our campaign us not an isolated event, it's a bellwether for what's going to happen in the future," declares Sawant.
It also renews an urban radical tradition that has deep roots.
America has a rich history of radical politics at the municipal level. Over the past century has seen “sewer socialists” manage the affairs of major cities such as Milwaukee and join city councils, schools boards and county commissions from New York City to Butte, Montana.
The last big-city Socialist Party mayor was Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler, who finished his final term in 1960. More recently, Bernie Sanders served as the independent socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in the 1980s; while Benjamin Nichols, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, served as mayor of Ithaca, New York, in the 1990s. And just last year, 19-year-old Socialist Party member Pat Noble was elected to the regional board of education in Red Bank, New Jersey.
But Seattle is a major urban center, with what many local analysts have portrayed as an entreched politics. So Sawant’s progress has been seen locally as big news. The Seattle Times headlined its Wednesday edition “Socialist Sawant Now Leads Seattle Council Race.”
“I think we have shown the strongest skeptics that the Socialist label is not a bad one for a grassroots campaign to succeed,” Sawant declared as the count turned her way.
A former software engineer who now teaches economics at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant ran a Socialist Alternative “Fund Human Needs, Fight Corporate Greed” campaign that argued: “We live in one of the richest cities in the richest nation on earth. There is no shortage of resources. Capitalism has failed the 99%. Another world is both possible and necessary—a socialist world based on the needs of humanity and the environment.”
Sawant pulled no punches in her platform, which began with her signature proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 and hour and then promised to:
* Seek “A Millionaire’s Tax to fund mass transit, education, and living-wage union jobs providing vital social services.” She proposes to: “End corporate welfare. Tax freeloading corporations. Reduce the unfair tax burden on small businesses, homeowners & workers.”
* Support efforts to “Unionize Amazon, Starbucks & low-paid service workers.”
* Commit to “No layoffs or attacks on public sector unions!”
Sawant won 35 percent of the August citywide primary vote and a place on the November 5 citywide ballot along with Conlin. In the officially nonpartisan race, Conlin had the backing of most of the Democratic leadership in a city where Democrats tend to win most elections; he also had the support of a number of major environmental groups. But both candidates obtained endorsements from labor organizations and Sawant won the enthusiastic support of the city’s politically potent alternative weekly The Stranger.
“An immigrant woman of color, an Occupy Seattle organizer, and an economics instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction,” argued The Stranger in an editorial that celebrated Sawant’s run. “She is passionate but thoughtful. She speaks comfortably on non-economic issues. She is likable. And most important, she’s winning over voters.”
In August, The Seattle Weekly wrote: “We like her because she’s an honest-to-god socialist who’s willing to throw a few Molotov cocktails into the cloistered hatch-pits of our terribly staid civic ‘debates.’ ”
Sawant took on not just a veteran incumbent but a political process that, for the most part, favors candidates of the two major parties and a narrow range of ideas. But just as Robert Sarvis's unexpectedly strong Libertarian campaign for governor of Virginia (where he finished with almost 7 percent of the vote) offered an indication that Americans are frustrated by the constraints of traditional two-party politics, Sawant’s democratic-socialist campaign in Seattle offers evidence that a bold rejection of austerity has significant popular appeal.
“Seattle has become a really unaffordable city and overall, not just in Seattle but everywhere in the country, people are fed up, angry and frustrated with the political system,” Sawant said, explaining her strong finish. “They’re fed up with the political dysfunction and they’re hungry for change.”
John Nichols explains the growing populist appeal of politicians like Elizabeth Warren.
This past August, the Lafayette-based IND Monthly published a story about a 54-year-old man named Bill Winters, incarcerated at a medium-security prison in Epps, Louisiana. Winters, who is black, was arrested in June 2009, after he drunkenly entered an unlocked oncologist’s office on a Sunday morning, setting off a security alarm. When police arrived, he had rummaged through a desk drawer, and was in possession of a box of Gobstoppers candy. Winters was convicted of simple burglary a week before Thanksgiving, and given a seven-year prison sentence—hardly a slap on the wrist. But a few days later, the prosecutor in his case, Assistant District Attorney Alan Haney, sought additional punishment for Winters, under the state’s habitual offender law. Based on his record of nonviolent offenses, which went back to 1991 and ranged from cocaine possession to burglary, the trial court resentenced Winters to twelve years without any chance of parole. But Haney was still not satisfied. He appealed the ruling, arguing that the court had imposed an “illegally lenient sentence” and that the rightful punishment was life without the possibility of parole.
At a subsequent hearing, Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft estimated that Winters had been arrested more than twenty times, calling him a “career criminal who victimized a lot of citizens in our city.” But it seemed clear that he was more of a thorn in the side of law enforcement than a looming threat to society. His brothers, Dennis and James, testified that Winters had been homeless at the time of his offense and that he had a history of addiction; James had overcome his own drug problems and said that he would be willing to “take [Winters] in and work with him.” A former Lafayette police officer who had once worked at a correctional facility where Winters was held, said that although he did not know him well, Winters “didn’t cause problems” and had potential for rehabilitation. But this past summer, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision: “The state asserts that because of the defendant’s particular multiple offender status, the law mandates a minimum sentence of life in prison without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. We agree.”
Dennis Winters was incredulous when he heard the news about his brother. “What? This makes no sense,” he told IND Monthly. “I don’t understand what these people are trying to do. He’s not a violent person. He’s fragile. He wouldn’t hurt anybody, except maybe for himself. I just don’t get how they’re going to give him life for some Gobstopper candy.”
Today, Winters joins hundreds of Louisiana prisoners sent to die in prison after committing similarly nonviolent offenses, from drug possession to property crimes. The national numbers are tallied in a major new study released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, titled “A Living Death: Life without Parole For Nonviolent Offenses,” which documents scores of cases with echoes of Winters’s story. Across the country, defendants have been given life without parole for such crimes as having a crack pipe, “siphoning gasoline from a truck” and, in another Louisiana case, shoplifting a $159 jacket.
Tales of outsized sentencing for minor crimes may not surprise anyone familiar with the well-documented excesses of three-strikes sentencing in California, for example. But the ACLU’s report is the first to attempt to grasp the national numbers, specifically concerning nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars. The report found 3,278 prisoners serving life without parole in 2012 for nonviolent crimes, of which 79 percent were for drug crimes. This is not the complete picture—Bill Winters himself is not among the prisoners covered—and crucially, only includes formal life-without-parole cases. It does not include life sentences where parole is a possibility—if largely only in theory, given the increasing reluctance of parole boards to free prisoners. It also does not include, say, 100-year sentences, or the kinds of stacked, decades-long sentences that are, in effect, permanent life sentences. “The number of people serving death-in-prison sentences after being convicted of nonviolent crimes is not known,” the report concludes, “but it is most certainly higher than the number of prisoners serving formal life-without-parole sentences for nonviolent crimes.”
Indeed, a report released earlier this year by the Sentencing Project found that one in nine prisoners in the US are serving a life sentence and that “those with parole-eligible life sentences are increasingly less likely to be released.” Including life with parole, the report estimated that “approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses.”
Determining what qualifies as “nonviolent” is similarly complicated. As the ACLU points out, “Although the term ‘violent crime’ brings to mind very serious offenses such as rape and murder, some jurisdictions define violent crime to include burglary, breaking and entering, manufacture or sale of controlled substances, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, or extortion.” In other words, the number of prisoners serving life without parole who are far from the “worst of the worst” is higher still.
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Regardless of the exact numbers, and perhaps not surprisingly for the state known as the prison capital of the world, it is clear that Louisiana is home to a disproportionate number of these sentences. It also provides a dramatic illustration of the explosion of permanent life sentences over the past four decades: “In Louisiana, just 143 people were serving LWOP sentences in 1970,” the ACLU notes. “That number had increased to 4,637 by 2012.” The report found that Louisiana had the highest number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole out of all the states: 429. Florida was a distant second, with 270. (Thanks to the drug war, federal prisoners accounted for the largest share at 2,074.)
Among the Louisiana prisoners highlighted in the report are Fate Vincent Winslow, who, while homeless, “acted as a go-between in the sale of two small bags of marijuana, worth $10 in total, to an undercover police officer;” Timothy Jackson, who stole a jacket from a department store in New Orleans, Paul Carter, convicted of “possession of a trace amount of heroin residue that was so minute it could not be weighed;” and Sylvester Mead, a Shreveport man who drunkenly threatened a police officer while seated, handcuffed, in the back of a patrol car.
Mead’s case, like Winters’s, shows the way in which prosecutors’ wishes consistently trump judicial power when it comes to sentencing people for such crimes. Not only did his trial judge oppose the initial charge of public intimidation, he made it repeatedly clear he opposed sending Mead to die in prison. Mead’s verbal offense “does not warrant, under any conscionable or constitutional basis, a life sentence,” he said. But Mead’s prosecutor appealed multiple times seeking a harsher sentence because of his old convictions. After his previous sentences were vacated by a higher court multiple times, Judge Leon L. Emanuel was bound by Louisiana’s mandatory sentencing statute to hand down a sentence of life without parole. “No matter how long this Court were to deliberate about this matter, it cannot fashion a legal result to explain that the life sentence without probation or suspension of sentence is unconstitutionally excessive,” he concluded.
Such statements from judges are not unusual, it turns out. “In case after case reviewed by the ACLU, the sentencing judge said on the record that he or she opposed the mandatory LWOP sentence as too severe but had no discretion to take individual circumstances into account or override the prosecutor’s charging decision,” the ACLU found. Mandatory sentencing schemes are certainly to blame—in Louisiana, they account for almost all—97.6 percent—of the surveyed nonviolent LWOP sentences. But while mandatory sentencing ties the hands of judges, such punishments do not impose themselves. Prosecutors have the power to seek or not seek them.
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Bill Winters was not the first defendant to find himself in the crosshairs of Lafayette ADA Alan Haney. Indeed, in 2007, Haney created a “career criminal program,” as described by the local Daily Advertiser, to “identify repeat offenders all over Lafayette Parish.”
“We basically had to start this whole project from scratch,” he told the City-Parish Council in September 2010, according to the Advertiser. Thus far, he boasted, some forty-nine people had been sentenced as habitual offenders with the help of the initiative.
In the fall of 2009, the same year Winters was convicted for stealing Gobstoppers, a 29-year-old black man named Travis Bourda was convicted for possessing 130 grams of marijuana “with intent to distribute.” Writing to the ACLU, Bourda insists that no drugs were actually found in his posession and that his court-appointed lawyer “filed no motions, failed to investigate,” and “made no objections at trial.” His initial sentence of eight years was increased to fourteen after Haney filed habitual offender charges based on Bourda’s previous record, which included “carnal knowledge of a juvenile” when he was 19. Responding to Haney’s attempt to seek a sentence of life without parole for Bourda, the trial judge wrote: “I believe a life sentence under the circumstances…would be an unconstitutional sentence. I believe that fourteen years is more than enough considering the underlying charge was possession with intent to distribute marijuana, and that the amount of marijuana involved was not significant.”
But in 2011 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with Haney, vacating the fourteen-year sentence and imposing life without parole. Today, Bourda is serving his sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, famously known as Angola.
Angola prisoners were not allowed to receive visits or speak on the phone to the ACLU. But in response to the questionnaire sent out by attorney Jennifer Turner, who authored the report and corresponded with more than 600 prisoners, Bourda described himself as “the most miserable person there is.” He wrote that he was diagnosed as schizophrenic when he was 13 and that he hears voices that tell him to do things. In a separate, handwritten letter, he wrote to “share my thoughts about the Habitual Offender law,” which he describes as “the most unconstitutional law there is.”
“We paid our debts to society for the past crimes we committed,” Bourda wrote.” “…There is never any forgiveness once you have a record.” In his opinion, he added, “the prosecution is abusing his discretion on a certain race of people which we know to be black individuals.”
Whether or not prosecutorial discretion is to blame, Bourda’s observation about race is certainly supported by the numbers. The ACLU report shows, and Turner wrote to me in an e-mail, that “the racial disparity in life without parole sentencing for nonviolent crimes in Louisiana is staggering.” While the state would not provide figures according to race, the ACLU calculated that black prisoners “comprise 91.4 percent of the nonviolent LWOP prison population in Louisiana,” despite the fact that “Blacks make up only about one-third of the general population in the state.” Black defendants in Louisiana “were 23 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to LWOP for a nonviolent crime.”
There are many factors that could explain this. “The racial disparity can result from disparate treatment at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, points of arrest, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing,” Turner explains. She adds, “In Louisiana, it may also have to do with how prosecutors wield their enormous discretion in deciding whether to charge defendants as habitual offenders.”
I contacted Alan Haney’s office by phone and e-mail to discuss his Habitual Offender Division, but have not received a response. In the meantime, the ACLU report is only the most recent to cast a stark light on Louisiana’s sentencing excesses. While some recent reforms in the state have sought to mitigate some of Louisiana’s harshest sentencing statutes, they still preserve the power of the prosecutor to decide if and when to trigger mandatory sentences. In a report released by the Reason Foundation last month, which closely examines the state’s determinate sentencing laws and makes recommendations for reform, the authors found that a 2012 law signed by Governor Bobby Jindal to allow courts to waive mandatory minimums in some cases put all the power in prosecutors’ hands, giving prosecutors “much more power than they previously had.”
The ACLU also makes recommendations for reform. It calls on the states and federal government to get rid of laws that mandate or allow life without parole for nonviolent crimes, and exhorts state governors, as well as the Obama administration, to commute such disproportionate punishments. “Life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses defy common sense,” it concludes, and “are grotesquely out of proportion to the conduct they seek to punish.”
In Bourda’s words, “I never committed a capital offense such as murder….I don’t deserve to be sentenced like a hard-core criminal.”
Liliana Segura interviewed a former prosecutor who encourages jurors to refuse issuing convictions for nonviolent drug offenders.
Thanks to the invaluable Colorlines for finding this video produced by poet, activist and UCLA undergrad Sy Stokes. Sending a powerful message with his poem “The Black Bruins,” Stokes calls out his school for its dismal black student enrollment—only thirty-five black students in the incoming class are expected to graduate, and of the black males at the school—who make up a tiny 3.3 percent of the overall male population— 65 percent are athletes.
Affirmative action was voted down in 1996 after California voters passed Proposition 209—a law that prohibits California public entities, including UCs and state schools, to consider race, gender, ethnicity or national origins in their admissions processes. In 1998, the first year Proposition 209 took effect, UCLA’s black student acceptance rate fell from about 38 percent to 23 percent.
The New York Times today reports, in an odd turn of phrase, that the Obama administration’s second-biggest enemy in its search for a deal with Iran is, well, the US Congress. Says the Times, the administration “is gingerly weighing a threat to the talks potentially more troublesome than the opaque leadership in Tehran: Congress.” That’s because the Senate is considering the passage of yet another round of anti-Iran sanctions, following the passage last summer of a similar bill by the House. Making explicit the fact that he understands perfectly that yet more superfluous economic sanctions now, in the midst of delicate talks with Iran, could upset the whole thing, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said: “I understand the problem that this creates at the negotiating table.”
In other words, he understands it—and he wants to do it anyway.
Today the leaders of the US negotiating team are on Capitol Hill, trying to dissuade senators from that sort of outright sabotage. Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Wendy Sherman, are meeting with members of the Senate Banking Committee and others to beg, plead and cajole the Capitol Hill busybodies, many of whom are strongly influenced by the Israel lobby and its chief arm, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. So far, it appears that the Democratic-controlled Senate, despite its AIPAC ties, is willing to go along with White House requests to avoid interfering in the talks. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
Proponents of tougher sanctions could seek avenues beside the Banking Committee to move a measure.… Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is likely to oppose such a move, however. Mr. Reid on Tuesday warned against attempts to force “extraneous issues” into the debate over the defense bill.
Obama administration officials have been reaching out to a number of lawmakers in recent days to tamp down any momentum for new sanctions. Mr. Kerry has personally spoken with key senators while traveling in recent days, and was to speak to top Senate Democrats on Wednesday.
As for AIPAC itself, it issued a statement saying that it won’t accept any delays in sending a wrecking ball aimed at the talks. “AIPAC continues to support congressional action to adopt legislation to further strengthen sanctions, and there will absolutely be no pause, delay or moratorium in our efforts.”
The comment on “pause, delay or moratorium” follows an effort by the White House, which recently met with American Jewish organizations, to seek exactly that: a moratorium on new anti-Iran sanctions while the talks are underway. As the AP reported on October 29:
The White House has updated Jewish and pro-Israel groups about its talks with Iran amid concerns by some of the groups about the U.S. easing sanctions pressure on Iran over its nuclear program.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, attended the meeting along with the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The White House’s National Security Council says senior officials told Jewish leaders that the U.S. will not let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon but wants to resolve the nuclear issue through diplomacy.
The Obama administration is asking Congress to hold off on new sanctions while it pursues diplomacy. But Israel and AIPAC are pressing the administration to retain harsh economic sanctions.
That’s tricky for AIPAC, and for Israel. Because if they defy the White House and push aggressively for new sanctions and fail, it will be a major, even unprecedented defeat for AIPAC—plus, it makes outright enemies of the Obama administration and the president himself. Scuttlebutt after the White House meeting suggested that the Jewish groups (AIPAC, the ADL and the AJC) had quietly agreed to allow the negotiations to unfold without the added interference of new sanctions.
Laura Rozen, reporting for Al-Monitor, penned a detailed report on the talks between the White House and the Jewish groups, at which Sherman was joined by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, and two top White House aides, Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes.
Following the talks, there was conflicting information about whether or not the Jewish groups (which, collectively, make up the bosses of the Israel lobby) had agreed to a “pause” in their lobbying efforts. According to Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, the four groups did indeed agree to a moratorium:
Though they refrained from describing it as “a deal” or a quid pro quo, sources familiar with the meeting said they had agreed to a limited “grace period” only after hearing assurances from the Administration that it had no intention of easing sanctions or of releasing Iranian funds that have been “frozen” in banks around the world.
That was later denied by the same groups, according to The Jerusalem Post:
A report published in Haaretz on Friday claiming that US Jewish leaders have agreed to halt their lobbying efforts in support of a new sanctions bill against Iran has been roundly denied by their organizations.
“No one has given any commitment to make some public moratorium,” said sources with an organization represented at the meeting, “categorically denying” that any such commitment was given.
However, in an on-the-record interview with Haaretz, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman (who attended the White House gathering on October 29) confirmed the cease-fire:
ADL National Director Abe Foxman has confirmed that leaders of major Jewish organizations have agreed on a limited “time out” during which they will not push for stronger sanctions on Iran.
“That means that we are not lobbying for additional sanctions and we are not lobbying for less sanctions,” Foxman told Haaretz, as well as US media outlets.
Foxman was responding to a report in Haaretz on Friday that cited understandings reached among the leaders of four major Jewish organizations who participated in a Monday meeting at the White House with a group of senior White House officials led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Foxman was specific, too:
Foxman made clear, however, that the hiatus is only tactical in nature. “We still believe that sanctions have worked and that additional sanctions would also work,” Foxman said, “but the Administration feels otherwise. They believe that further sanctions at this time would harm prospects for a diplomatic solution.”
“We didn’t change our positions and they didn’t change their positions. But we’re not going to be out there before the end of the next two meetings of the P5+1 with Iran.”
The risk for the Israel lobby is enormous. If it tries to wreck the talks and fails, because members of Congress—especially Democrats in the Senate—sanely agree to postpone a new round of sanctions, it will look powerless and ineffective. So it has to tread carefully, all while being pushed, hard, by Netanyahu and Co. in Israel.
According to Politico, Senate Democrats are willing to give the White House room to negotiate:
Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said his panel will not draft new economic penalties toward Iran until the Senate has fully digested that briefing. Even then, Johnson said he will defer to his leadership and the White House to give him the green light. …
Two members of Democratic leadership, Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Chuck Schumer of New York, both said they remain undecided on pursuing new sanctions and will continue to talk to top administration brass.
Read Dave Zirin's take on a recent incident of locker-room racism in the NFL.