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Dispatches From Brazil’s World Cup: ‘No One Lives Here Anymore’

What is left of Favela do Metro.

This was once someone’s home in Favela do Metro, five minutes from Maracanã Stadium. June 13, 2014. (Photo by the author)

Favela do Metro was once a community of 700 families living a five-minute walk—just up the Rua São Francisco Xavier—from Rio’s legendary Maracanã Stadium. Now it’s a couple of storefronts and a tonnage of rubble. All of the 700 families are gone, uprooted by a World Cup agenda that looked at their homes and envisioned parking lots for the Maracanã. Even that was too much for city planners, as the parking lot has yet to be built, with the World Cup already underway. Perhaps it will be ready for cars by the start of Rio’s 2016 Olympics. When I asked one of the former favela residents, hanging around a food stand, to explain the delays, he said, “If they can’t finish the World Cup stadiums, do you really think they care about this place?”

Instead, all around are empty lots—case studies in demolition, with the jagged remnants of what were once people’s homes there for all to see. There are dolls with missing heads and limbs, couches without cushions and razor-sharp exposed springs, and a sink leaning precariously on a mountain of wood shavings. The owners’ memories have become someone else’s garbage. On one wall is spray-painted, “What happened to the families? No one lives here anymore.”

Theresa Williamson of the NGO Catalytic Communities, providing translation, told me the story of what happened to the favela’s former residents. The first 100 families evicted by the city—in November 2010, just after the 2016 Olympics were awarded to Rio—were forced out in a chaotic rush. Without any time to consider their options or organize any kind of collective response, they were shuttled out at gunpoint, and resettled in Rio’s far west zone, two hours away from their former homes. It was a violent eviction, and the first to gain any kind of international media visibility.

The 600 remaining families then started organizing. They sued the city. They protested. They forced the city government to grant them public housing within a few minutes of Favelo do Metro so the disruption to their lives would be as minimal as possible. As Williamson said, “This is an example of what happens when you resist eviction—the more you resist, the better the outcome.”

Still, this was a painful process that took three years to play out, and those three years were ugly as sin. With hundreds of residents still living in Favelo do Metro, the city began to unceremoniously knock down homes and leave behind low hills of trash. Rats infested the area. Drug traffickers found new homes in the empty lots. The city claimed it needed to develop the area for the games—instead, it brought blight.

Two middle-aged men, former residents of Favelo do Metro, sat around a plastic table between the sidewalk and a demolished home. We asked them why the city would hastily evict this community, only to leave wreckage behind: “They didn’t give us a reason why we had to leave. They just came, pushed us out, and knocked the buildings down. Brazil spends and spends on ‘the future.’ Meanwhile, there’s nothing for the people of today.”

I was also able to speak with Eomar Freitas, another former resident of Favela do Metro. His was the last home standing. He still has a storefront where he sells drinks and food. “I’ve lost over 90 percent of my business, but I refuse to leave,” he said. “If I live elsewhere, the mayor wins.” The mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, is seen by Freitas to be as much—or more—of a culprit when it comes to the false promises of new homes that accompanied the destruction of Favela do Metro. “The mayor’s mouth is like a baby’s ass. Nothing but shit.” Eomar says the new housing the residents won is serviceable but smaller and of a lower quality than their former homes. For example, hanging photos on the wall is impossible, because the walls are so brittle that they won’t hold a nail.

In the lot right next to Eomar’s storefront are several hundred workers clearing out the rubble for the purpose of paving it with cement asphalt for a parking lot. We speak to the workers there, all of whom live in favelas of their own. They are also in a construction workers’ union. You can only wonder why displacing and destroying the homes of other working-class people is union work. One of the people with me, a favela organizer, is actually recognized by one of the workers from a demonstration at another favela he was destroying. She asked him, as a favelado, how it made him feel to tear down these homes. “It makes me feel strange and disturbed in my heart,” was his answer, using a word in Brazilian-Portuguese that doesn’t have an exact English parallel.

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This is the other Rio, a place of real estate speculation and mega events for foreign consumption. It’s a place that loves soccer, but hates how it’s being used and has no patience for treating this moment as World Cup business as usual.

As Eomar said to me, “Look around my store. You’ll see posters of [Argentina’s] Lionel Messi and [Portugal’s] Cristian Ronaldo. No Brazil players. In yesterday’s game of Brazil vs. Croatia? I was rooting for Croatia.”

For background on Brazil and the World Cup, check out Dave Zirin’s new book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin heads to Rio 

When Jonathan Schell Introduced Me to Robert McNamara

Jonathan Schell

(Credit: David Barreda)

I guess I’ve probably known a nicer, more humble human being than Jonathan Schell. But certainly no one who approached Jonathan’s stature or legacy. I’ve also met a handful of more accomplished writers, but absolutely no one who came close to approaching Jonathan’s humility.

Schell passed away on March 25. Last night, friends, colleagues and admirers gathered in All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan to pay tribute to his life and legacy and to affirm our commitment to carry on his work. His death left a tremendous void. There are precious few activist/writers who combine Jonathan’s stylistic skills, his elegant and accessible manner, his acute humanity, his strategic sense, his reverence for history and his amazing, unfailing optimism.

Jonathan’s journalistic credits for The New Yorker in his early years and later as The Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent are prodigious and singular and have been well chronicled in numerous places, including here by David Remnick and here by Katrina vanden Heuvel. I’m going to talk about the time that I knew him, just a small slice of his remarkable life.

When Jonathan’s monumental bestseller The Fate of the Earth was published in 1981, it was lauded by The New York Times as “an event of profound historical importance” and quickly became the bible of the anti-nuclear movement, American’s most potent progressive force at the time. Seventeen years later, he came back to nuclear abolition with a special issue of The Nation called The Gift of Time, later published in book-form by Metropolitan. At that time, I was working as The Nation’s publicity director.

Jonathan’s unique contribution was to build bridges with the most unlikely allies. In a series of conversations he conducted for the book with generals and defense officials who helped to make nuclear policy during the cold war, Jonathan found surprising common cause with newly converted anti-nuclear advocates like Robert McNamara, General George Lee Butler, a former commander of the Strategic Air Command, and eventually that paragon of radicalism himself, Henry Kissinger. Jonathan used these conversations and conversions to strengthen his impassioned plea for action and The Gift of Time made indisputably clear that nuclear abolitionism was far from a strictly left-wing cause.

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As part of The Nation’s campaign to amplify Jonathan’s call, I was tasked with organizing a small speaking tour with stops in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The idea was to put Jonathan together publicly with some of those unlikely allies to make the case for nuclear abolition. McNamara and the late Democratic Senator from California, Alan Cranston, both agreed to participate.

Shortly thereafter, I found myself at dinner with this august trio. At first I was uncharacteristically quiet, content to listen in as these elder statesmen talked politics, baseball and—oddly, I remember thinking—gardening. The next opportunity, though, I got up the gumption to tell the extremely disarming McNamara a little about myself. While concerned about what the unfailingly polite Jonathan would think of me hectoring his new ally, I told McNamara that it was a little surreal for me to be organizing a speaking tour for him twenty-five years after my parents used to trot me out to antiwar rallies as a little kid where we denounced him by name. I was unsure how the former secretary of defense would react, and I’ll never forget his rueful smile as he quietly told me that my parents did the right thing. And I’ll always remember Jonathan’s Cheshire-cat grin and vigorous nods of approval following the exchange.

To me, this conversation symbolized what was so special about Jonathan: his unique ability to build bridges which brought together in common cause this lefty child of a red-diaper baby with a core member of LBJ’s war cabinet.

Thank you, Jonathan.

 

Read Next: “Remembering Jonathan Schell: 1943–2014

California Just Abolished Due Process for Public School Teachers

Attorneys for Vergara v. State of California

Attorneys Theodore Boutrous and Marcellus McRae are joined by nine California public school students who are suing the state to abolish its laws on teacher tenure (AP Photo/Nick Ut) 

Two kinds of people in California have a problem with public school teachers: high schoolers who hate math class, and education reform ideologues who despise teacher unions. On Tuesday, those two forces high-fived in court after scoring a legal victory against labor protections for educators.

Throughout the trial in Vergara v. State of California, reform advocates alleged that the rules of tenure—the due process procedures that govern the dismissal and layoff of senior public school teachers—are unconstitutional because they violate the the state constitution’s statutes on equal protection and educational equality. The plaintiffs, nine California public school students, claimed that subpar teachers did such a bad job that they violated students’ educational civil rights. Moved by their testimony, Judge Rolf Treu sided with the disgruntled youth, citing the principles established in Brown v. Board of Education to assail tenure as a violation of children’s entitlement to an equal education.

Two unions, California Federation of Teachers and California Teachers’ Association, have announced that they will appeal, calling the lawsuit “fundamentally anti-public education, scapegoating teachers for problems originating in underfunding, poverty, and economic inequality.”

But already, hardline reformers are gunning to use a similar legal strategy to dismantle tenure in other states. Helming the campaign is StudentsFirst, an aggressive national lobbying organization run by former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

The decision mirrors the reform movement’s rhetoric: (1) teachers are directly responsible for their students’ performance, (2) ineffective teachers diminish students’ future economic prospects and (3) therefore anything that needlessly prevents schools from canning “bad” teachers must be abolished in the name of equality. Tenure rules, Treu declared in the tentative decision published this week, had “resulted in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students.”

Except education is slightly more complicated than that. Corporate-minded reformers, who see urban schools as petri dishes for behavioral economic research, assume that with the right inputs, inequality can be fixed by restructuring personnel. But progressive education advocates say that while teacher quality can deeply influence a child’s academic growth, responsible education policy should take into account the school’s overall social conditions. Focusing on the “metrics” of individual teachers often ignores (or deliberately distracts from) crucial factors outside teachers’ control, such as poverty and violence in the surrounding community, or the policy and management decisions of principals and education officials.

Frank Wells, a former English teacher and now spokesperson for the CTA, tells The Nation that while teachers understand first-hand that “there are definitely inequities in the system,” scrapping tenure scapegoats educators. “There’s no child being given unequal protection because of these [tenure] laws. These laws do not assign teachers to these schools. School districts and principals do.”

While opponents ridicule tenure policies as a “permanent employment” guarantee, in essence, the concept of tenure guarantees only a fair hearing. When faced with the threat of dismissal, Wells explains, teachers who have earned tenure, generally after two years on the job, have the right “to appeal the decision and have it looked at by an independent body, to make sure there are valid reasons, that the teacher really is not performing and is doing a disservice to kids.”

As a labor-rights precept, Wells adds, tenure is intended not to keep teachers from being dismissed when there is “a legitimate cause to do so,” but rather to “protect teachers who do belong in the classroom from being fired for arbitrary reasons—for speaking out on behalf of kids, on behalf of safety issues.”

Currently, according to the National Council on Teaching Quality, twenty-nine states have laws that list “ineffectiveness” as grounds for dismissing a teacher, not including California, and all but four states allow multiple appeals of dismissal decisions.

But beyond dismissal policies, the very definition of “effectiveness” was on trial in Vergara. While educators and reformers agreed that the school system suffers from inequality, each side advanced diverging visions of how to judge education quality.

The debate centered on so-called “value-added assessments”—the statistics-based method of evaluating teachers championed by reform groups and their Silicon Valley philanthropist funders. Unionized teachers, however, have legally challenged state and federal reforms that base professional evaluations on student test data. In Vergara, teacher advocates pointed to empirical research that challenges “value-added” ratings, showing “surprisingly weak associations” between teachers’ in-class performance and test scores.

Teacher advocates counter the anti-union, pro-firing rhetoric behind the lawsuit by positively linking increased education quality to robust labor rights. Far from coddling “grossly ineffective” teachers, they argue, the job security provided by tenure is critical to the quality of their work. The promise of career stability helps draw excellent teachers to the profession and helps schools retain an experienced workforce.

In fact, research by progressive scholars shows that experience and retention, along with a supportive work environment, are integral to developing a capable teaching workforce. If plaintiffs were concerned with equality, the opponents noted that struggling schools in high-poverty communities of color tend to suffer disproportionately from high turnover and less-experienced teaching staff.

The Vergara trial hinged on the framework of “accountability” that has fueled the Obama administration’s education reform agenda. Initiatives like Race to the Top grants and the Common Core curriculum guidelines have pressured school districts to emphasize standardized testing, data and ranking. Just as tenure reform makes it easier to fire teachers, this data obsession pushes districts to flunk more students and label schools as “failing.” And not surprisingly, those labeled failures tend to be poor kids of color.

Advocates say that to close the socioeconomic achievement gaps that reformers claim to be addressing, the real fix isn’t a sudden injection of pedagogical genius but a more elementary remedy: concrete resources to hire more qualified teachers and support staff, and to fully fund programs, so students can reach their full academic potential in a nurturing, dignified environment.

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To that end, Duane Campbell of the Democracy and Education Institute in Sacramento noted that “a teacher union-led campaign—along with union allies” were instrumental in pushing through major increases in education investments in this year’s state budget. As for the big reform groups, he quipped, “Where were the corporate ‘reformers’ and the Democrats for Educational Reform, Student[s]First, Michelle Rhee crowd during the campaign to fund the schools? Absent.”

The philosophy of the Vergara ruling reveals the problems of “reforming” education into a commercial service—reducing teaching and learning to a mechanical churn of reward and punishment. Meanwhile, educators are already telling us about what their classrooms need to thrive. Listening to teachers might be a better way to fix schools than looking for new ways to kick them out.

 

Read Next: Owen Davis on the Newark school reform wars

Bernie Sanders Is Beating the Austerity Hawks

Bernie Sander

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Bernie Sanders does not believe that government always gets things right.

But the independent senator from Vermont does believe that where government has the capacity to act on behalf of those in need, it should do so.

In a capital where an awful lot of folks still buy into Ronald Reagan’s “government is the problem” calculus, Sanders knows that government can be the solution. Indeed, he recognizes that for those most neglected by an economy that almost always takes care of CEOs and celebrities but often fails clerks and construction workers, government is able to provide answers that the private sector cannot or will not produce.

“In the US Senate today, my right-wing colleagues talk a lot about “freedom” and limiting the size of government,” says Sanders. “Here’s what they really mean: They want ordinary Americans to have the freedom not to have health care in a country where 45,000 of our people who die each year because they don’t get to a doctor when they should. They want young people in our country to have the freedom not to go to college, and join the 400,000 young Americans unable to afford a higher education and the millions struggling with huge college debts. They want children and seniors in our country to have the freedom not to have enough food to eat, and join the many millions who are already hungry. And on and on it goes!”

Sanders cannot always get the Senate to consider the alternative. But as the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, he has the authority and the bully pulpit to focus the nation’s attention not just on the neglect of military veterans—an issue that has long been his focus—but on the solutions government can provide for them.

Even before the details of how veterans are forced to endure excessively long wait times to access VA medical care were revealed, Sanders had written and advanced major legislation to address the underfunding of VA services and a host of other programs for veterans.

Unfortunately, though the measure Sanders proposed was backed by every major veterans group, it was blocked last February by Senate Republicans.

Then came the revelations of the extent of the dysfunction at VA hospitals—most recently in the form of a Veterans Affairs Department audit describing how more than 57,000 veterans have been forced to wait at least three months for their first appointments. And that another 64,000 veterans who asked for appointments over the past ten years never got the attention they requested—and deserved.

Sanders saw an opening to talk about what could, and should, be done. He started looking for allies. He found one in Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and Vietnam War POW.

Together, Sanders and McCain crafted a response to the crisis. Yes, there were compromises. But the outlines of what Sanders had previously proposed were very much in evidence in the proposal to spend $35 billion over three years to dramatically improve VA staffing and to provide resources for vets seeking care from doctors close to home.

Sander told the Senate, “The cost of war does not end when the last shots are fired and the last missiles are launched. The cost of war continues until the last veteran receives the care and the benefits that he or she is entitled to and has earned on the battlefield.”

This time, the Senate agreed.

The often bitterly divided chamber voted 93-3 in favor of the Sanders-McCain plan.

When conservative Republicans objected to the price tag, McCain told them, “Make no mistake: this is an emergency.”

The most austerity-obsessed Republicans—Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin—still voted “no.”

But most of Senate Republicans, including some of the chamber’s most conservative members, voted “yes,”

In so doing, they recognized the need for an ambitious expansion of government service, and of government aid to those who are most in need.

How ambitious?

The Sanders-crafted measure the Senate backed seeks to

* Authorize leases for twenty-six new medical facilities in seventeen states and Puerto Rico.

* Designate funds for hiring more VA doctors and nurses to provide quality care in a timely manner.

* Expand existing VA authority to refer veterans for private care. Veterans experiencing long delays at the VA could seek care instead at community health centers, Indian health centers, Department of Defense medical facilities or private doctors. The two-year program also would offer those same options to veterans who live more than forty miles from a VA hospital or clinic.

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The measure also expands accountability, giving the VA the authority to remove or demote administrators who have failed to meet the needs of vets, while creating incentives for reducing wait times at VA facilities. It also recognizes that healthcare is not the only need vets have; so the measure includes language to assure that “all recently-separated veterans taking advantage of the Post 9/11 GI Bill get in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.”

And, notes Sanders’s office, “for the first time, those same education benefits would be extended to surviving spouses of veterans who died in the line of duty.”

This is a big response to a big problem.

It still faces hurdles. The austerity hawks who are so good at thinking up reasons to go to war but so bad at paying for them—and so very bad at meeting commitments to those who serve—will keep raising objections. House Republicans are making predictable demands for “offsets” equaling the cost of the VA initiative, peddling the fantasy that other programs must be cut in order to find the money to aid veterans. The Philadelphia Inquireris hails the Senate measure as “an unusually swift and welcome response” that has “broad support and the potential to alleviate some of the department’s serious shortcomings.”

The prospect that a major problem will be met with a major response is real—as is the recognition that Senator Sanders has been right all along: sometimes government has to be part of the solution.

 

Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on the upheaval in Iraq

At the Frontlines, Youth Continue to Fight Queer and Trans Homelessness

Rainbow Youth

Ban Nguyen, 16, and Ivy Hammond, 17, stand in the shade of a rainbow flag s they listen during a protest rally at the East Los Angeles Recorder Office in LA on May 26, 2009. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

This piece originally appeared in {Young}ist and is reposted here with permission.

The LGBT Rally for Homeless Youth began even before the hundreds of people who had gathered in Washington Square Park stood at attention before the stage, while they were still milling around and greeting one another. A smattering of joyous attendees, young and old and somewhere in between, took to the empty stage to dance in the late afternoon sunshine. Some performed near-acrobatic feats of motion—leaping, and falling, and seemingly flying—while others swayed their salt-shaker hips and laughed. The crowd clapped for them all.

On June 2, the Ali Forney Center, the National Coalition for the Homeless, and their friends and supporters kicked off the National Campaign for Youth Shelter with a rally calling for the end of homelessness among young people, and young LGBT individuals in particular. Junior Labeija, of the film Paris is Burning and the New York City ballroom scene, MC’ed the event with signature sass and curtsies for all the “fierce warriors” of the LGBT community. As the dozen or so speakers came up to the microphone, sheltered by Labeija’s paper parasol, the message that emerged was one of outrage, of hope, of shared history, and love. “When I was fifteen years old I was homeless and I used to ride the subways,” said Labeija, “Just because we come out of the closet, doesn’t mean we have to live in the streets.”

According to the campaign, there are 500,000 homeless youth in the United States; 40 percent of them are LGBT. This number comes from The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Many other studies estimate the number to be much higher. The Center for American Progress, for example, put the number of homeless minors alone at 1.7 million, and the 18- to 24-year-old population, for which there are even poorer estimates, at anywhere between 750,000 and 2 million.

However, many counts of homeless youth focus on homeless families with children at the expense of children who are on their own, outside of a family structure. The numbers the campaign uses are of young people who are alone on the streets without shelter. The number of LGBT youth in this situation are so staggeringly high because many are abused within their homes or thrown out of them entirely for being who they are. Once on the streets they are exposed to hunger and devastating physical and mental health problems; many trade sex for survival. They are also criminalized in droves by the police; trans women of color are singled out in particular as targets of violence.

The demands of the campaign are three-fold: A long-term federal commitment to give safe shelter to anyone in the United States under the age of 24, an immediate commitment to add 22,000 shelter beds and the appropriate services that come with them and a comprehensive effort to count the number of homeless youth in the country to determine how many more beds will be needed in the near future.

This number 22,000 comes from the most recent point-in-time count, the traditional method by which homeless individuals are counted by government agents and volunteers from communities across the country. Seeing as these are only the bodies that could be counted by volunteers in a single night, the actual number of unsheltered youths 24 or younger is undoubtedly much higher.

Carl Siciliano is the CEO of Ali Forney Center, which he founded in 2002. The Center provides homeless LGBT youth in New York with a safe place to stay, community and support. I spoke to Siciliano about the origins of the campaign and how the formulation of its demands came about. “Most of my focus has been on New York City in the past few years,” he said, “In New York City at least homeless kids have the subway system to sleep in. But kids are talking to me about freezing in the winter, being pimped out, and just terrible things, and it’s really opened my eyes to the fact that as much as I’ve been focusing on New York City and New York state, I feel that the root of the problem is a grossly inadequate federal response.”

State and local response to youth homelessness has been slow, sometimes progress is made, but more often beds are lost. In New York City, for example, Mayor Bloomberg attempted every year to cut the number of shelter beds for homeless youth, already fewer than 300 when he took office. The population of children sleeping in New York City’s municipal shelter system in 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, was up 22 percent from the previous year. As of January 2014, the Coalition for the Homeless has the number of homeless children in the city at 22,712.

Meanwhile, efforts to combat youth homelessness on the federal level have largely been toothless, focused on maintaining past gains, rather than pushing for progress that is swift and sweeping. “Most of the advocacy for homeless youth has been around trying to retain and maintain the [Runaway and Homeless Youth Act] funding. This is only funding 4,000 beds, so, yeah, it needs to be reauthorized every year, but it struck me as really problematic that there wasn’t advocacy for LGBT issues.” In this vein of creating a national movement, the next rally for the National Campaign for Youth Shelter will be a march in DC on December 8.

Last week’s rally, at the start of Pride month and three weeks before the forty-fifth anniversary of Stonewall, looked back at the history of the LGBT movement since the ’60s, using the power of past and continuing struggles to launch this new campaign. The names of Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha Johnson and others were invoked often throughout the rally. So was ACT UP and the many campaigns and court cases that eventually brought down DOMA. Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case which, last summer, made it illegal for the federal government to deny married gays and lesbians equal protections and benefits, was among those who spoke out against youth homelessness.

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Martin Boyce, a veteran of Stonewall and lifelong LGBT activist reflected on the many victories since Stonewall, but added poignantly that, “some things haven’t changed, homelessness hasn’t changed. Or maybe I should say it has changed. Because it was episodic in my day, it’s an institution now.”

This sentiment was echoed in the words Chris Bilal, of the organization Streetwise and Safe and a generation that came of age decades after the Stonewall riots.

“Spaces that were once safe havens for the criminalized and the brutalized amongst us became private parks and dog walks,” said Bilal. “We are pushed out of parks just like this through intimidating and discriminatory policing tactics like stop-and-frisk and the use of our condoms as evidence that we are prostitutes.”

The rally concluded on a note similar to the one it had started on, with a performance by a trans woman of color, introduced as “Miss Tara,” of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” And with these words from Siciliano, who was last to speak,

“The LGBT community is considered different because of how we love. There’s something remarkable about that. As a community we’re defined by how we love.”

 

Read Next: “How Did This Highschool Student Go from Being Suspended 20 Times to Graduating Valedictorian?”

Autopsy Report: Oklahoma Officials Failed to Properly Insert IV During Botched Execution

OK death chamber

The gurney in the execution chamber at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary (AP Photo, File)

Oklahoma officials failed to properly insert an IV into death row prisoner Clayton Lockett, despite his having healthy veins, according to a preliminary autopsy report released by attorneys Friday.

Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, died during a botched lethal injection that the White House said fell short of “humane” standards. Media witnesses saw Lockett writhe and kick, apparently in pain, after he was already declared unconscious. He died forty-three minutes after the procedure began.

An independent autopsy, performed by Dr. Joseph Cohen, revealed that Lockett’s veins were in excellent condition for the injection procedure. Despite that, punctures on Lockett’s arms and groin area indicate that medical professionals failed in multiple attempts to set an IV in his veins. Attorneys say Dr. Cohen’s findings contradict official claims that Lockett’s vein collapsed during the procedure.

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Little is known about the medical professionals who botched Lockett’s procedure, since Oklahoma law shields the identities of execution team personnel. An initial report from Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections said a phlebotomist placed the IV into Lockett, in violation of the state’s execution protocol. When asked by Tulsa World in May, DOC officials reversed this claim, saying that the person was actually an EMT.

Dr. Cohen is requesting additional information to complete the autopsy, including a medical examination of his heart and larynx, which were removed by officials after the execution. He is also asking for Oklahoma’s execution policies and procedures and Lockett’s complete medical and prison records.

“Dr. Cohen has begun a critically important inquiry into the botched execution of Clayton Lockett,” says Dr. Mark Heath, assistant professor of anesthesiology at Columbia University and expert in lethal injection executions, in a statement. “However, to complete this inquiry, Dr. Cohen will need the state to provide extensive additional information beyond what the body itself revealed. I hope that Oklahoma provides everything he asks for so that we can all understand what went so terribly wrong in Mr. Lockett’s execution.”

Read Next: “Migrant Children Accuse Border Patrol Agents of Physical and Sexual Assualt”

On ‘Tonight,’ Christie Yuks It Up, but the NJ Pension Crisis Looms Big

Governor Chris Christie

Governor Chris Christie speaks with talk show host Jimmy Fallon (YouTube)

At home in New Jersey, Chris Christie is facing a huge fight over pensions that could wreck his political future, but on Thursday night the governor was yukking it up on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, dancing to “The Evolution of Dad Dancing,” pretending to be outraged at fat jokes and Bridgegate jokes, and—when asked point blank, “hypothetically,” if he could beat Hillary Clinton in 2016—answering, “You bet!” But not so fast.

In addition to lawsuits by the unions whose pension money was grabbed last month by Christie to balance the state budget, a coalition of more than seventy union and labor organizations, community groups, environmental and student organizations are mounting a campaign against looting the pension. On Thursday, hundreds of union members rallied in Trenton over the pension crisis. Their point: that state employees have already been forced to pay substantially to help balance the budget, and that now it’s time for the New Jersey’s millionaires and corporations to pay their fare share.

When Christie announced in May that he was unilaterally canceling more than $2.4 billion in state contributions to the public employee pension fund, he tore up his signature legislative achievement, a pension reform plan that he had hoped would be the basis for his run at the White House.

On the one hand, that law was supposed to show his ability to work across the aisle to enact hard budget choices, since the legislation—which slashed benefits, hiked employee payments and raised the retirement age—had been rammed through with the help of a few Democratic party bosses allied to Christie. But it was also supposed to show Christie’s ability at sound economic stewardship by putting the state pension system on a sound footing.

It might have done that, by 2018—had not Christie decided to take the money to balance the state budget, rather than raising taxes. (Raising taxes is poisonous for the chances for any GOP standard-bearer, in today’s toxic Republican party climate.) But shredding his great legislative achievement may now have also doomed his chances at being president. Even The Washington Post has now editorialized that Christie’s decision to tear up the pension agreement may have ended his chances for the White House:

Pension reform was the signature accomplishment of his first term and one of the keys to his reelection. It presumably would be a cornerstone of Christie’s case for the presidency if he runs. On May 20, however, Christie threw all that into doubt. He announced that New Jersey would have to cut a scheduled payment to the state’s pension fund by $900 million this year; he also requested legislative authority to reduce next year’s payment by $1.5 billion.

The New Jersey Education Association, the Communications Workers of America and many other unions representing firefighters, police and other public sector employees filed suit, as Christie Watch has reported, to stop Christie’s pension grab. A judge has agreed to expedite the lawsuits and a hearing is set for June 25. But even if the unions win their case, the fiscal year expires June 30 and the budget has to be balanced. Christie taunted his opponents this week saying there was no alternative to his plan:

There is no Plan B. This is the plan. And I have continued confidence that this plan will be supported from whatever legal challenge that goes after us, as I’ve said from the beginning.

Christie may say there is no Plan B to his pension grab. But a coalition of over seventy labor, environmental, student and faith-based groups under the banner of Better Choices Campaign disagrees. “Of course there’s a Plan B,” Rob Duffey, policy and communications coordinator for New Jersey Working Families, a leader in the coalition, told Christie Watch. “But really our Plan A should be to raise the revenue we need to meet our obligations today and invest in a strong shared economic recovery. We should start by asking those who have gotten a free ride over the last four years, the wealthy and corporations, to pay their fair share.”

The coalition wants to restore the tax on high-income earners which was in place in 2009 when Christie first was elected. He let it expire and efforts by the legislature to reinstate the “millionaires tax” have been vetoed several times by Christie.

Additional revenue should come from eliminating various corporate loopholes, many created during Christie’s administration, a surcharge on corporate taxes and elimination of the skyrocketing tax subsidies handed out by the governor, the group maintains.

It may be necessary, given the time squeeze, to delay for this year the pension payment increases that were supposed to be implemented but next year a progressive tax plan could get the state back on track.

The coalition has been aggressively pushing back against Christie’s action through rallies, op-eds and lobbying the legislature. A letter sent to legislators signed by the president of the NJ Education Association and more than other groups including local leaders of the CWA, SEIU, UFCW, the state Sierra Club and the state League of Women Voters, stated:

For four years the Governor has balanced the State Budget by shredding the safety net, cutting services on which working families rely, and disinvesting in our state’s greatest assets of education, environment, and infrastructure. At the same time, Governor Christie has protected wasteful and ineffective tax cuts for the state’s wealthiest residents and biggest corporations. He has cut programs that put people to work to implement a plan of welfare for the one percent… This is a pivotal moment for the Legislature to change course. We must embrace a forward looking, sustainable vision for our state and make the necessary investments to protect New Jersey’s most vulnerable and ensure its working families thrive. We therefore respectfully call on the Legislature to incorporate substantive and sustainable revenue streams that are not regressive into the FY2015 budget.

Its leaders are optimistic that the stranglehold Christie has had on state politics the last four years is weakening. Democratic and Republican political leaders are already jockeying to run for governor in the next election, and Christie, a lame duck governor with his eye on Washington, has been weakened by Bridgegate and exposés of the business deals heaped on his political allies.

An influential state legislator, Senator Raymond Lesniak, who chairs the Senate Economic Growth Committee, announced this week he planned to introduce a bill to tax the wealthy that would ensure the pension fund was actuarially sound by 2019, only a year later than originally planned. Lesniak offered a sweetener to Republicans, according to the Bergen Record, by including the elimination of the estate tax:

Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, said Wednesday that his proposal would increase state income tax rates for those making $350,000 and higher, but also eliminate New Jersey’s estate tax. Lesniak is billing the tax policy changes as a compromise because Democratic legislative leaders have favored higher tax rates for higher-income residents and their Republican counterparts have long sought to repeal the estate tax. If enacted, Lesniak said, his bill would net $850 million in new revenue while protecting the pension payments Christie is cutting.

In addition to taxing the wealthy, there are many business tax loopholes and corporate tax subsidies that could provide the money to keep the state’s budget balanced, without looting the pension fund.

A new report this week by the liberal research group New Jersey Policy Perspective revealed that during Christie’s administration business tax subsidies have surged. A whopping $4 billion has been given out in the past four years alone, compared to a little over $1 billion in the decade before and the money went to only one percent of the state’s companies. Ostensibly to bring in new jobs, much of the money in fact was handed to companies already in the state, as the report states:

Some of New Jersey’s highest-profile subsidy “wins” this decade are hollow victories, as the state increasingly uses public tax dollars to merely shift private economic activity and jobs around the state—consider the $210.8 million tax break for Prudential to vacate its office space in Newark’s Gateway Center and build a new tower a few blocks away; the $102.4 million subsidy to Panasonic to move its headquarters one train stop, from Secaucus to Newark; the $81.9 million award to Goya Foods to move one mile from Secaucus to Jersey City; or the $40 million grant for Burlington Coat Factory to build a new facility (on land it already owned) less than half a mile away from its current location on Route 130.

And the report went on, the $4 billion has done little to help the state economy:

The unprecedented growth in subsidies, however, has so far done little to significantly improve the state’s economy. Four and a half years into the surge, New Jersey’s economic recovery remains far behind that of its neighboring states and the nation. Just 40 percent of the jobs New Jersey lost in the recession have been recovered (including only 48 percent of private-sector jobs); the state has the highest share of workers who have been unemployed for more than six months; and New Jersey continues to lead the nation in the percentage of homeowners (one in twelve) who are in foreclosure. The lack of economic payoff thus far for New Jersey isn’t surprising, since state taxes—whether actual rates or, in this case, tax breaks ­– are not the primary or even tertiary factor influencing business location and job creation decisions.

“New Jersey has bet the ranch that handing out tax breaks to mostly large corporations alone will somehow improve our economic future,” says Gordon MacInnes, president of the NJPP, in an interview with Christie Watch. “So far, it’s clear that the bet isn’t paying off.”

Interestingly, the largest subsidy, $390 million, went to resuscitate the megamall at the Meadowlands, a project awarded to a client of David Samson’s law firm. Samson, a close confidant of Christie, was appointed chairman of the Port Authority until a series of conflict of interest scandals along with Bridgegate caused him to resign in March.

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The latest tax subsidy was announced this week, a $82 million tax break to the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team to move its practice center across the river from Philadelphia to Camden, New Jersey. With the facility only expected to employ 250 people, the tax break amounts to a subsidy of hundreds of thousands of dollars per job and its not even clear that New Jersey will gain new jobs. With Camden so close to Philadelphia, some of the current practice facility staff may just travel to the new site.

MacInnes called the subsidy “among the worst we’ve seen under the Economic Opportunity Act. The net benefit to the state is incredibly low…”

Even the Koch brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity could not stomach this tax break. “This amounts to nothing more than a ‘free gift’ to a politically connected billionaire,” said AFP state director Daryn Iwicki, “and it’s one we can ill afford given the enormity of the State’s fiscal problems. How many failures do we have to see? How many times must taxpayers be left on the hook before we realize this kind of corporate welfare just doesn’t work? It’s regrettable that Gov. Christie and others in the Legislature continue to buy into the idea that these kinds of corporate welfare handouts will bring jobs and economic growth. If they were right, Atlantic City would be a bastion of prosperity today but it’s far from it.”

 

Read Next: New Jersery unions are in revolt against Christie’s attack on pensions

How Iraq’s Crisis Got Started, and How it Didn’t

Iraqi mourner

An Iraqi mourner waves an old flag of Iraq during the funerals of victims killed in clashes with security forces in Falluja, January 26, 2013. (REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)

The tragedy unfolding in Iraq now—one that could turn that country’s death toll of nearly a thousand a month to five or ten times that number—is heartbreaking. We’ll get to that, and what might happen, in a minute. But let’s first take on the despicable hawks, neoconservatives and George W. types who make the argument—like the one made by David Brooks in The New York Times today, and which has been repeated over and over again since 2011 by the likes of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol and others—that President Obama cavalierly abandoned Iraq three years ago, pulling out too soon and leaving Iraq to its own devices.

Here are the facts. After being elected in 2008, Obama tilted to the advice of his more hawkish advisers on Iraq. The relative doves that provided advice to Obama’s campaign, including people like Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress, who’d supported a rapid drawdown of US forces, were eclipsed by those, such as Colin Kahl, who wanted a slow, cautious, step-by-step drawdown. Indeed, that’s what happened. And the Obama administration tried its best to work out a plan for a long-term US-Iraqi security agreement, such as the one it’s implementing in godforsaken Afghanistan now. But those negotiations failed. Ostensibly, they failed because of certain sticking points, such as the demand from the United States that Iraq provide legal immunity to US troops, which Iraqis felt was a violation of their national sovereignty. But the real reason that the talks stalled, and then collapsed, was because the Iraqis didn’t want the United States to stay. Not only did many Sunnis, who might have favored the United States as a stabilizing presence, say that America was an occupying power, but the government installed by George W. Bush and Co., heavily weighted toward extremist, sectarian Shiites with close ties to Iran, didn’t want the United States to stay either. And that’s partly because Iran, which has enormous influence in Baghdad—where its ambassadors are routinely drawn from the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—didn’t want any US role in Iraq, and Tehran made its wishes clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in no uncertain terms. So, short of toppling Maliki, the United States was out. (It should be pointed out that many critics on the left, including me, opposed Obama’s efforts to maintain a US force in Iraq beyond 2011.)

Meanwhile, it was W.’s neocons, and idiots such as Paul Bremer, who after 2003 obliterated Iraq’s social, political and military institutions, dissolved the armed forces, destroyed the Baath party and handed power to sectarian Shiites and the Kurds. The fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can have the support that it appears to have in Sunni areas of Iraq—despite its brutal history of summary executions, beheadings and onerous social diktats—is the result of putting in place a sectarian, Iran-linked Shiite bloc that viewed all Sunnis as apostates and would-be terrorists.

So what we see today is the harvest of those errors, and they can’t be fixed now by the United States. (Indeed, if Iraq is able to cobble together forces to retake Mosul and Falluja in the next months and years, at great human cost on both sides, it will be because Iran intervenes in support of Maliki et al. There’s no role for the United States.)

Now, what’s happening in areas seized by ISIS is horrible: mass executions, threats to kill anyone who worked for the government, leaflets proclaiming that new social restrictions on women and free expression are imminent, and more. (Of course, Maliki’s government isn’t a whole lot better. And people are fleeing Mosul, at least 500,000 so far, because they fear brutal reprisals and air strikes by the Iraqi government, which is what has been happening further south in Anbar since 2013.)

There is a real danger that ISIS and its allies can set up a rump statelet in northwest Iraq and northern and eastern Syria controlled by ISIS, and its allies, including groups more closely affiliated to Al Qaeda. (Al Qaeda broke with ISIS because the latter group was too willing to kill Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite.) In fact, however, ISIS can’t hold Mosul for long, and it doesn’t have a prayer of capturing Baghdad—nor can it get anywhere near Najaf and Karbala, the Shiite holy cities. But threats by ISIS commanders targeting those two cities are designed to inflame Shiite fears, and so they have, including in Iran, which sends countless pilgrims to Najaf and Karbala every year. Already, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite chieftain and revered leader, is calling for a full Shiite mobilization, and undoubtedly Iran will be willing to help set up Shiite paramilitary groups in Iraq, if it isn’t already doing so. (Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reports that the head of Iran’s IRGC’s Quds Force is in Iraq, and that Iranian forces are already involved, but that’s not confirmed.)

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The battle in Iraq is part of a regional conflict, with both sectarian and state-power dimensions, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. (Unfortunately, the United States seems to have sided with the Sunni and Saudi side in this battle, with catastrophic results in Syria.) The solution, therefore, lies in a regional détente and compact between Tehran and Riyadh. The United States, which otherwise ought to stay out of the fight, ought to encourage such a deal, though its influence is less than stellar at this point. In recent weeks, there have been signs that Tehran and Riyadh are trying to improve relations, which could stabilize Syria and Iraq and ease Saudi fears of a US-Iran nuclear accord.

For Iran, which styles itself as the leader of the world’s Shiites, ISIS is a grave threat. Saudi Arabia, all too willing to mobilize Sunni fighters against Shiites in Iraq and Alawites in Syria, may be beginning to realize that ISIS (and Al Qaeda) could threaten Saudi Arabia too, and that things have gone too far. (Pakistan, which supports jihadists in every direction, seems never to have figured this out.) It’s possible to imagine Saudi Arabia and Iran agreeing on what to do in Syria, and in Iraq, though a hell of a lot more people might have to die first.

So far, there’s no reason to suspect that ISIS has the United States in its sights. Indeed, ISIS ought to be grateful to Washington for American support for the jihad in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad. So, by staying out of Iraq the United States will lessen the likelihood that ISIS will turn against Washington, and use terrorist attacks to make its point. That’s a big incentive not to use US airstrikes against ISIS positions, as Maliki has called for, and let’s hope that the CIA and the Pentagon keep their drones elsewhere, too. Striking ISIS will just give radicals there more reason to target the United States, and certainly won’t be effective in destroying a regional movement with plenty of money and support—and lots of US weapons that they’ve captured in Mosul and elsewhere.

Read Next: The Iraq-Syria civil war challenges both the US and Iran

US Media Split Over Intervening in Iraq (Again)

Bombing in Iraq

A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad in March 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

In a column yesterday I asked, “As Iraq Crumbles, Will US Media Back Obama Bomb Strikes?” As the day went on, as you know, things in that country went from worse to worst. And top news outlets here started weighing in, on their editorial pages or commentary, on the question.

Among the few to strongly oppose US intervention, at least for now, was The New York Times, which did so much in its news pages to help pave the way for the 2003 invasion. From an editorial posted late last night:

The United States has a strategic interest in Iraq’s stability and Mr. Obama on Thursday said America was ready to do more, without going into detail. But military action seems like a bad idea right now. The United States simply cannot be sucked into another round of war in Iraq. In any case, airstrikes and new weapons would be pointless if the Iraqi Army is incapable of defending the country.

Why would the United States want to bail out a dangerous leader like Mr. Maliki, who is attempting to remain in power for a third term as prime minister? It is up to Iraq’s leaders to show leadership and name a new prime minister who will share power, make needed reforms and include all sectarian and ethnic groups, especially disenfranchised Sunnis, in the country’s political and economic life—if, indeed, it is not too late.

On the other hand, Times columnist David Brooks in a new column blames most of the problem on… Obama. Of course, he leaves out the part about the Iraqis ordering us to get out. Brooks concludes: “The president says his doctrine is don’t do stupid stuff. Sometimes withdrawal is the stupidest thing of all.”

Fareed Zakaria at The Washington Post casts most of the blame on Maliki and concludes: “Washington is debating whether airstrikes or training forces would be more effective, but its real problem is much larger and is a decade in the making. In Iraq, it is defending the indefensible.” A columnist at the Los Angeles Times, Paul Whitefield, suggests Bush and Cheney should take care of the mess, since they caused it, but exactly how they’d do that remains a mystery.

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But that appears to be a minority view right now. The always-ready-for-war Washington Post called for action to halt an ISIS takeover: “Not to do everything possible to avert that outcome would be a dereliction, and one that Americans might greatly regret for years to come.” David Ignatius may draw laughs with his urging the US to convene a Middle East “peace conference” where Sunni and Shia would, you know, “reconcile.” John McTernan at The Guardian closes with this howler: “We have to go back to Iraq to rescue democracy. After all, as Margaret Thatcher said at the time of the Falklands, why else do we have armed forces?”

Representative John Boehner suggests Obama took a “nap” while Iraq crumbled and naturally ol’ reliable arch-hawk (arch and hawk) Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post claims Obama isn’t just napping, he’s “surrendering.” Michael Gerson also makes Obama the goat. And at the same site James Dubik argues that there are no good options—but, hey, the US must take action. The Wall Street Journal, what a surprise, slams Obama for the “Iraq Debacle.”

And yes, the expert on all things Iraq, Judy Miller is back!  And telling us she warned about all this, on Fox, natch (because Curveball told her?).  Here’s a roundup of Fox hawks calling for bombers or at least drones.

For context for all this, see my book (now in updated e-book edition) on the media failures for a decade of the Iraq war, So Wrong for So Long.

 

Read Next: William J. Astore explains how we all got drafted into the American national security state.