This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
“Screw the company trying to take our river, and the government. If I die, I’m going to die defending life.” So said María Santos Dominguez, a member of the Indigenous Council of the Lenca community of Rio Blanco, Honduras.
April 1 marks one year since the Rio Blanco community began a human barricade that has so far stopped a corporation from constructing a dam that would privatize and destroy the sacred Gualcarque River. Adults and children have successfully blocked the road to the river with their bodies, a stick-and-wire fence and a trench. Only one of many communities fighting dams across Honduras, the families of Rio Blanco stand out for their tenacity and for the violence unleashed upon them.
The Honduran-owned, internationally backed DESA Corporation has teamed up with US-funded Honduran soldiers and police, private guards and paid assassins to try to break the opposition. Throughout the past year, they have killed, shot, maimed, kidnapped and threatened the residents of Rio Blanco. The head of DESA, David Castillo, is a West Point graduate. He also served as former assistant to the director of military intelligence and maintains close ties with the Honduran Armed Forces.
María Santos Dominguez’s prediction that she would die defending life almost came true. On March 5, seven people attacked her as she was on her way home from cooking food at the local school. They assaulted her with machetes, rocks and sticks. When her husband, Roque Dominguez, heard that she was surrounded, he and their 12-year-old son, Paulo, ran to the scene. The men brutalized them as well. They brought a machete down on the child’s head, deeply slashing his face, cutting his ear in half and fracturing his skull. Roque Dominguez’s hand was severely injured, and he also suffered cuts to the face. (Friends of the Earth has organized a petition urging the Honduran government to investigate, which you can sign here.)
This was the second machete attack Roque Dominguez suffered since the community began its blockade. The first, last June 29, by several members of a powerful family allied with the dam company, left his eye, face and hand mutilated. Days later, a soldier murdered María’s brother, Tomás Garcia, and shot his 17-year-old son, Allan, in the chest and back. The two bullets barely missed Allan’s heart.
Washington has admonished Honduran land rights defenders, even singling out the people of Rio Blanco. The US ambassador to Honduras, in her remarks on International Human Rights Day last December 10, accused the Lenca community of trying to block development, and cited them as an example of people incorrectly taking justice into their own hands. And last June 28, according to the newspaper La Prensa, the ambassador called on the Honduran government to prosecute those who encourage small farmers to occupy lands. Weeks later, a Honduran court leveled exactly that charge, and others, against three leaders of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), of which the Rio Blanco community is a member.
The US government has been a strong force behind the exploitation of natural riches on indigenous and small-farmer lands. In 2009, the United States contributed to a coup against President Manuel Zelaya, which was motivated in part by a desire to quash his support for agrarian reform and greater rights for indigenous and land-based peoples. President Obama backed the unconstitutional administration that followed as it gave corporations free rein for resource extraction, including granting forty-one illegal contracts for dams. Many of those contracts are moving forward in today’s pro-business environment, in violation of Honduran and international conventions requiring free, prior and informed consent by the indigenous peoples on whose territories the projects would be located.
During the period between the coup against Zelaya and today, the US government has given not only political support to the anti-indigenous, law-violating administrations, but also almost $40 million in military and police aid—aid used for repression of citizens and for the so-called drug war. The United States also maintains six military bases in the country.
Washington's support also helped Juan Orlando Hernández impose himself as president following the November 24, 2013 elections, guaranteeing an agenda promoting multinational looting of natural resources. Though the elections were marred by violence, intimidation and blatant fraud by backers of the ruling party—including the buying of votes, the counting of ballots from dead people, manipulation of the count and the selling of election-worker credentials—the US ambassador called them transparent. Hernandez’s business-at-any-cost position was clear from his time as president of the National Congress, when he passed a law that gave mining corporations priority access to water over the needs of the people living in the area, and championed a law creating “model cities,” which essentially turn land over to corporations to manage. As president, Hernandez is now pushing forward these “Special Economic Development Zones.”
Freshly out of the hospital, María Santos Dominguez insists on returning to her home in Rio Blanco and continuing to fight the dam. Many have warned her of the dangers, but she is, to quote one human rights worker who knows her well, “so unbudging.”
COPINH issued a communiqué on March 6 that read in part, “We demand that the authorities not leave this case to impunity… as they have so many aggressions against many Lenca members of COPINH in Río Blanco. We demand justice and an end to violence and threats against the individual and collective rights of the Lenca People of Río Blanco.”
María said, “As Lenca people, these are our lands. Our ancestors fought to defend this land for us. We also have children and grandchildren, and we are going to defend this land for them.”
Read Next: Sam Badger and Giorgio Cafiero on the triumph of the oligarchs in Honduras.
While questions about transparency have of late focused on the government’s surveillance programs, some members of Congress would like to direct some of that scrutiny towards another aspect of the national security state: the targeted killing program.
On Wednesday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff and Republican Walter Jones introduced a bill that would compel the Obama administration to report annually how many people are killed or injured in US drone strikes—and, critically, to make a clearer distinction between combatants and civilians.
How many people the US is killing via drones, and who those people are, has been difficult to determine because of official secrecy. Last year, facing criticism for a lack of transparency and accountability, President Obama announced new guidelines for strikes designed to minimize casualties. The question the reporting requirements seek to answer is whether the government really is “meeting the standard that we’ve set of not striking unless to a near certainty we’re sure that there are going to be no civilian casualties,” Schiff told The Nation.
Administration officials and lawmakers sympathetic to the intelligence agencies have argued that drone strikes result in a low number of civilian casualties— “typically…in the single digits,” Dianne Feinstein claimed in 2013. It’s fair to ask whether we can really draw a meaningful line between nine dead innocents and ten. There’s also evidence that the administration has crafted a definition of civilian so as to artificially lower the casualty count. Reportedly, the administration considers all adult males within the strike zone as combatants—effectively, assuming guilt by location.
“It’s important that we understand how the administration will be defining ‘combatants’ to be able to evaluate the numbers that we ultimately get,” Schiff said. “Are we defining combatants in a way that we clearly know who they are, that they’re fighting against us? Or do we have a more amorphous definition where it’s difficult to tell?”
The requirement would cover all strikes outside “theatres of conflict,” which at the moment refers only to Afghanistan. Schiff emphasized that the public report would not provide any information that would be damaging to national security and thus worthy of classification; it would be a bulk annual tally, with no information about particular strikes, their location or the department involved. Significantly, the legislation compels the administration to provide a count for the deaths and injuries from drone strikes dating back to 2008. That would open the door for critical evaluation of claims made by officials and lawmakers like Feinstein about the number of civilians killed.
A coalition of human rights organizations including Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights hailed the bill as a “modest yet crucial step toward ending excessive secrecy about US drone strikes.” Their statement went further in probing the civilian-military distinction, arguing that pre-emptive, targeted killing in the absence of a direct threat is unlawful regardless of how one defines militant. “Outside the narrow and exceptional circumstances of armed conflict, where international human rights law applies, the United States can only target an individual if he poses an imminent threat to life and lethal force is the last resort. For this and other reasons, we do not necessarily agree that the terms ‘combatant’ and ‘civilian’ apply,” reads the statement.
Schiff said the greatest challenge is getting the bill out of the House intelligence committee, which last year rejected a similar measure, rather than passing it through the full chamber. Still, he judged it “likely” that a coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans similar to the one that drove congressional opposition to the NSA’s surveillance programs will unite to call for transparency in the drone program.
“We’re taking a very small step here because even small steps, in this area, are difficult,” Schiff said. He was clear, however, about its implications. “It’s a way of building support for, ultimately, a change in policy.” Reporting the dead as a statistic may be only a first step, but it’s a necessary one on the way to a conversation about the very real people killed in our name.
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This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll be contributing weekly to TheNation.com. I'll be offering a mix of analysis and original reporting on gender, race and sexual health, and how those issues intersect and overlap. I’m especially interested in how activists and advocates organize their constituencies and advance their goals; their voices will likely show up in this space quite a bit. Thanks for reading. Tips and ideas for coverage are welcome.
Last month, Fox News continued its longstanding practice of attacking progressive black leaders who dare to acknowledge the persistent role of racial discrimination in American life. In addition to the expected jabs at elected officials—for example, Bill O’Reilly referring to Representative Barbara Lee as a “race hustler”—the network took as its targets two women who are neither Beltway types nor policy architects. In March, Fox producers tried a new tactic: Discredit black women intellectuals whose work sparks new conversations about race, gender and sexuality, and try to convince their employers that they’re a liability.
Fox News’ role in the conservative echo chamber has long been to legitimize and mainstream marginal squabbles and gotcha journalism that surface in the far corners of the right-wing blogosphere or are captured by activist-videographers. We've seen it time and again, from the take down of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, to the ACORN sting, to the network's obsession with the New Black Panther Party.
Last week, a faux scandal bubbled up to Fox News from Twitter. In response to news that black conservatives Ben Carson and Armstrong Williams will collaborate on a magazine, EBONY.com senior editor Jamilah Lemieux poked fun at the venture on her personal account, tweeting that she "had drinking games in mind already." Raffi Williams, RNC deputy press secretary and son of Fox News contributor Juan Williams, got involved, tweeting to her that he "hoped you would encourage diversity of thought." She mistook him for white, replying: "Oh great, here comes a White dude telling me how to do this Black thing. Pass." That exchange landed Williams on Fox & Friends. Lemieux had already apologized for the mistake, but on the segment, she was painted as unhinged, and as if the lack of interest she'd expressed in learning more about the magazine made her personally to blame for black Americans' skepticism about the Republican Party. The chyron that ran beneath images of the editor read, “Exposing her true colors: Lemieux spews hate toward black conservatives.” (Full disclosure: Lemieux has been my editor on two pieces for EBONY.com.)
The segment’s most confusing moment came when Williams implied that Lemieux was somehow trampling on his First Amendment rights. He tells the Fox & Friends host, “I’m trying to promote diversity of thought, diversity of opinions, I think that’s what made America great… America’s built for debate. It’s the First Amendment, I think.”
Except that it’s not. The First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing an individual’s speech. It’s true that at one point Lemieux tweeted to Williams, “I care about nothing you have to say.” But with this she was opting out of the conversation, not pushing for a law that would prevent Williams from expressing conservative views.
Fox News’ Megyn Kelly elevated a similar but more complex case earlier in March. This time, at issue was a videotaped interaction between UC Santa Barbara professor Mireille Miller-Young and Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, anti-choice activists who staged a protest on that campus. According to accounts, Miller-Young took a poster showing images of an aborted fetus from one of the protestors and carried it away to her office, at one point obstructing the protestors as they tried to follow her onto the elevator. She faces misdemeanor charges of theft, battery and vandalism as a result. In addition to the legal troubles, Miller-Young has been pilloried in the media. A Los Angeles Times writer called her actions “hotheaded” and “foolish” and a writer at Salon rolled her eyes in similar annoyance over the professor taking the bait.
Point taken. But what’s been missing from discussions of both Miller-Young and Lemieux is that the right wing is having a field day with two black women whose intellectual output offers a new set of stories about who black women are, stories that challenge dominant narratives about race and gender. Miller-Young teaches in the university’s feminist studies department and her work examines racist stereotypes and fetish in porn. Lemieux’s writing, including a response last year to the date rape lyric that eventually ended Rick Ross' endorsement deal with Reebok, consistently calls out misogyny in pop culture and beyond.
In both cases, employers have released statements in response to the incidents. RNC chair Reince Preibus asked EBONY for an apology for Lemieux's tweets, and the media outlet promptly delivered—a move Lemieux said she understands and accepts as an "inconvenient truth" of the digital media landscape in a long piece she posted yesterday at EBONY.com. The response from a UCSB official has itself become part of the Miller-Young story. While that letter to students clearly defends the freedom of expression on campus, the National Review characterized it as a “smear” on the anti-choice protestors.
As the dust settles on both incidents, it’s worth watching for further response from the institutions that give a platform to Miller-Young's and Lemieux’s work. Their ideas shouldn't struggle to find a home just because Fox News tried to discredit them.
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In a case some have called "Citizens United 2.0," the Supreme Court ruled today to strike down caps on the total amount a donor can give to political candidates, parties and political action committees. The case, McCutcheon v FEC, involved a coal tycoon who argued that the laws limiting individual donations to polticial candidates and parties to $123,200 total over two years violated his first amendment rights. Now, wealthy donors can give more than $3.5 million over that same time period. Citizens United allowed Big Business to spend literally as much as it wants. But Citizens United money can go only to outside groups. McCutcheon removes meaningful limits on the total amount an individual can directly contribute to candidates, political parties and political committees.
The good news is that people are fighting back. Public Citizen, Demos, MoveOn and a host of other organizations have organized rapid response demonstrations across the country to protest today's ruling. The demonstrations come in the wake of a growing movement for a “Democracy Is For People” amendment to end unlimited and undisclosed corporate financing of American elections and enable the government to regulate spending by individuals. The amendment would effectively reverse much of the damage of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC and help to mitigate the worst excesses of the McCutcheon decision.
Sixteen states and hundreds of cities and towns across the country have already demanded that Congress act to end the ever-growing influx of big money into politics. Join the movement and ask your senators and representative to support the "Democracy Is For People" amendment. Then, if you have the time, head to Money Out/Voters In and find a rapid response protest near you.
Citizens United and McCutcheon aren't the only Supreme Court rulings that are bad for our democracy. As Ari Berman points out, while the court has given the rich more power over our government, they've simultaneously made it more difficult for every day people to even cast a vote.
Back in October, Slate's Emily Bazelon went on The Colbert Report to break down the dangers of the Supreme Court ruling the way it did today.
This article was originally published in the student-run Yale Daily News.
Under a bill introduced in Congress Thursday, colleges and universities would be required by the federal government to enact anti-harassment policies for the first time.
The bill—named for Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after being harassed by another student—would require policies prohibiting harassment at any institution receiving federal student aid funding. Because nearly all colleges and universities in the United States—including Yale—receive some level of federal student aid funding, the mandate would effectively be universal. Although the University is among those that already have harassment policies in place, the bill would nevertheless seek to strengthen federal support for and control over such policies.
The bill would prohibit harassment by other students, faculty or staff on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. Included in the bill is a recognition of and prohibition on cyberbullying. If passed, colleges and universities would also be required to distribute their anti-harassment policies to students and employees.
“No student or employee should have to live in fear of being who they are. Our schools should not be, and cannot be a place of discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation or violence,” said Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who introduced the bill, in a statement. “This legislation is an important step forward in not only preventing and addressing harassment on campus, but also making sure our students have the freedom to succeed in safe and healthy communities of learning and achievement.”
Though Yale has not publicly taken a stance on the bill, University spokesman Tom Conroy said Yale is firmly opposed to harassment and discrimination of any kind.
Baldwin cited a 2004 study by Rowan University in which 27.5 percent of college students indicated they had seen students bullied by other students. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are twice as likely to experience harassment, according to the study.
If passed, the bill would also create a competitive grant program, run by the US Department of Education, through which institutions can apply to create, expand or improve anti-harassment initiatives.
“The reason why it’s important to have this legislation explicitly is because it holds institutions accountable to creating a hostile environment rather than just the perpetrator of the harassment,” said Hope Brinn, a co-founder of college preparation resource The Collegiate Blog, and an activist against sexual violence at Swarthmore College.
Students at Yale indicated that though the bill may not have immediate ramifications for Yale specifically, it demonstrates the government’s increased attention to the problem of harassment.
“I personally think this is a great step forward in the right direction by the US government,” said Winnie Wang ’15. “This bill reminds us that harassment is a form of sexual and gender-based violence, is greater than ‘just a women’s problem,’ and that we should have zero tolerance for such behavior on college campuses across America.”
Lindsay Falkenberg ’15, who is involved in the Undergraduate Title IX Advisory Board, said she is generally glad to see the bill focus on harassment through technology. Though cyberbullying may be more relevant to younger generations, college-aged adults are still not entirely safe from technology-based harassment, she said.
But Falkenberg is also wary of an approach to minimizing sexual misconduct exclusively through policy. She pointed to work that could be done on the “micro level,” such as changing campus climate through discussions and awareness events.
“There is already so much discussion of policy and efforts on policy [at Yale],” she said. “But there’s only so much that policy can do.”
The bill currently has thirty-two co-sponsors in the House and seven in the Senate, among them Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73. All of the co-sponsors in both chambers are Democrats.
A number of civil rights, legal and education organizations have thrown their support behind the bill, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National Women’s Law Center and the American Association for University Women. Nevertheless, the bill has a slew of hurdles to jump over before landing on President Barack Obama’s desk.
When an earlier version was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg in 2011, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took a strong stance against it, claiming that existing laws already protected students against on-campus harassment. FIRE added that “young adults don’t need special laws that treat them like children.”
Brinn countered FIRE’s claim that existing laws are enough. Because homophobic harassment can be construed as harassment based on gender presentation, Brinn said, it can fall under Title IX. However, she added that it is still important for institutions of higher education to explicitly state that homophobic harassment is not tolerated on their campuses. Introduced in February 2013, the House version of the bill has remained in committee for over a year. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the Senate bill will lead to movement in the House.
The House version of the bill was introduced on the same day that Rutgers announced the creation of a Tyler Clementi Center, which aims to support teaching and research that address challenges students face when transitioning to college.
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Perhaps every political generation is fated to be appalled by the one that succeeds it. In the 1960s, longtime socialist intellectuals were horrified by the anarchic energies of the new left. Then some of those new leftists reached middle age and watched, aghast, as new speech codes proliferated on college campuses during the first iteration of political correctness. I was in college then and am now in my thirties, which means it’s my turn to be dismayed by a growing left-wing tendency towards censoriousness and hair-trigger offense.
It’s increasingly clear that we are entering a new era of political correctness. Recently, we’ve seen the calls to #CancelColbert because of something outrageous said by Stephen Colbert’s blowhard alter ego, who has been saying outrageous things regularly for nine years. Then there’s the sudden demand for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi, meant to protect students from encountering ideas or images that may traumatize them; an Oberlin faculty document even suggests jettisoning “triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” At Wellesley, students have petitioned to have an outdoor statue of a lifelike sleepwalking man removed because it was causing them “undue stress.” As I wrote in The Nation, there’s pressure in some circles not to use the word “vagina” in connection with reproductive rights, lest it offend trans people.
Nor is this just happening here. In England’s left-wing New Statesman, Sarah Ditum wrote of the spread of no-platforming—essentially stopping people whose ideas are deemed offensive from speaking publicly. She cites the shouting down of an opponent of the BDS movement at Galway University and the threats and intimidation leveled at the radical feminist Julie Bindel, who has said cruel things about trans people. “No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of ‘safe spaces’ within which certain individuals can be harassed,” wrote Ditum. “A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.”
Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”
Note here both the belief that correct opinions can be dispassionately identified, and the blithe confidence in the wisdom of those empowered to do the suppressing. This kind of thinking is only possible at certain moments: when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge. At such times, old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system, and it’s still possible for radicals to believe that the ideas suppressed as hateful won’t be their own.
“One of the most striking characteristics of ‘60s radicalism was its aversion to liberalism,” wrote Alice Echols in Daring to Be Bad, her history of radical feminism. “Radicals’ repudiation of liberalism was not immediate; rather, it developed in response to liberalism’s defaults—specifically, its timidity regarding black civil rights and its escalation of the Vietnam War.” Something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, happened after Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, and it’s happening now, as economic misery persists under Barack Obama. There’s disenchantment not just with electoral politics, but with liberal values as a whole. “White liberal” has, once again, emerged as a favorite left-wing epithet.
At times like this, politics contract. On the surface, the rhetoric appears more ambitious and utopian than ever—witness, for example, the apparently sincere claim by Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, that Twitter activists intend to “dismantle the state.” But at the same time, activism becomes less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech. As the radical cultural critic Ellen Willis wrote in 1997, at another moment of widespread left-wing illiberalism, “It’s the general repressiveness of the social climate that encourages moves to ban offensive speech or define any form of sexual oppression in the workplace as sexual harassment. The main effect of these maneuvers is to foment confusion, cynicism and sexual witch-hunts, trivialize sexual violence, and legitimize conservative demands for censorship—while at the same time ceding the moral high ground of free expression to the right.”
There’s a cure for this sort of thing, though it’s worse than the disease. When the right takes power, the left usually discovers the importance of unfettered speech. In the 1980s, with conservatives leading a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding projects deemed anti-Christian and pornographic, tolerance no longer seemed quite so repressively bourgeois. The same was true during the Bush administration, when opposition to the Iraq War got Phil Donahue fired from MSNBC and the Dixie Chicks pulled off radio playlists nationwide. That’s why the Colbert Report was so cathartic when it first appeared—his relentless mockery cut through the bombastic jingoism, the right wing political correctness, that was stifling us.
It’s no surprise, of course, that right-wingers like Michelle Malkin, author of a defense of Japanese internment, glommed on to the recent anti-Colbert campaign. Anti-liberalism is, after all, supremely useful to the right. Some day president Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is going to be sworn in, and an ascendant, empowered conservatism will once again try to curtail dissent in pop culture and academia, just as it always does. Public art won’t be taken down because it’s considered triggering—it will be taken down (or covered up) because it’s considered indecent. There might be another #CancelColbert campaign, but it won’t come from the left. Maybe people will be ashamed, then, that this one did.
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Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a letter that his state will not comply with some federal requirements intended to curb prison rape, the Associated Press reported.
In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that Texas will not be able to meet standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), calling the law “a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess for the states.”
“The governor seems to be surrendering on issues of preventing sexual abuse in his state,” Chris Daley, Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International, told The Nation. “It’s particularly alarming, given that Texas regularly shows up as one of the states with the worst rates of sexaul abuse in its prisons.”
Five of the ten US prisons with the highest rates of inmate-reported rapes are in Texas, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In two Texas prisons—Hughes Unit and Allred Unit—more than 7.6 percent of inmates reported being raped by another inmate, compared with 2.1 percent nationally.
President George W. Bush signed PREA in 2003, a landmark law that established a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission to conduct studies and put forth rules to eliminate prison rape. The commission’s rules, finalized in 2012, require prisons separate adult and juvenile inmates, stop cross-gender pat-downs of juveniles and restrict staff from viewing inmates of the opposite sex shower, change clothes or use the restroom.
Governor Perry claimed the cross-gender viewing provision would be impossible to implement, since women make up forty percent of Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) correctional officers at all-male units. Perry also invoked states rights in objecting to a provision forcing prisons to stop treating seventeen-year-olds as adults, saying it would cost Texas too much.
Daley objects to Perry’s claim that the PREA rules were “created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.” In fact, Daley notes, the PREA commission held several hearings and public comment sessions with corrections officials as it developed its guidelines. TDCJ officials provided comments and letters of input throughout the process.
Lance Lowry, president of a local corrections officers union in Huntsville, told the AP that refusing to adopt PREA standards could open up TDJC and its staff to lawsuits, calling Perry’s letter “short-sighted.” Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Texas is willfully refusing to take measures that would certainly protect some prisoners from rape.
“If they refuse to implement PREA, what they’re essentially saying is ‘We don’t take protecting people from sexual abuse seriously,’” Fettig told The Nation. “This is opening up Texas to a huge liability. You can bet we’re going to watch it.”
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Representative Paul Ryan released his budget blueprint this week, and fans of his work were no doubt pleased: it called for $5 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, focused heavily on domestic, non-military spending. Safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps would face savage cuts, and the Affordable Health Care Act would be repealed entirely. Meanwhile, both corporate and individual tax rates would be lowered.
It is easy to make the case that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer under Ryan’s so-called “Path to Prosperity” plan: one needs only to look at the literally trillions cut from Medicaid and food stamps while the rich pay much less in taxes.
But it’s important to refine that point and note that the financial sector in particular gets many special favors in the Ryan plan. After all, it is one of Ryan’s leading benefactors and he can even be spotted sipping $350 bottles of wine with industry leaders from time to time. And his budget is no doubt a path to prosperity for them.
Moreover, in three crucial ways Ryan's budget not only gives Wall Street more leeway to act recklessly, but makes it more likely that average Americans face the consequences.
Cutting the Securities and Exchange Commission budget: Already, the head of the SEC is complaining that her agency’s budget is not nearly adequate to police the country’s massive financial sector. In a speech earlier this year at SEC headquarters, director Mary Jo White said, “our funding falls significantly short of the level we need to fulfill our mission to investors, companies and the markets.” The SEC has only 4,200 employees, but must regulate eighteen different stock exchanges and over 25,000 different market participants—and the agency’s responsibilities are growing thanks to new mandates from the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.
Ryan has a much different take in his budget: he thinks the SEC is just too big. He doesn’t apply a dollar figure, but makes it clear the agency’s already meager budget should be substantially “streamlined.”
“In the run-up to the financial crisis and its aftermath, the SEC repeatedly failed to fulfill any part of its mission,” his blueprint notes, ticking off a familiar list of whiffs, from the unsound nature of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to the Ponzi schemes run by Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff.
So far, so good. But Ryan goes on: “These failures have taken place despite significant increases in funding at the SEC, which has seen its budget increase almost sixty-six percent since 2004.”
Apparently, the extra money was the problem. “This resolution questions the premise that more funding for the SEC means better, smarter regulation. Adding reams of regulations to the books and scores of regulators to the payrolls will not provide greater transparency, consumer protection and enforcement for increasingly complex markets. Instead, the SEC should streamline and make more efficient its operations and resources.”
In short: since the SEC failed to adequately police Wall Street at a time its budget was increasing, the magic solution would be to cut the agency’s budget, because ipso facto the agency’s performance would get better.
This line of thinking would not be unfamiliar to those who follow Ryan’s recommendations for federal anti-poverty programs, and it’s just as wrong here as it is there. As the agency’s director herself pointed out (on several different occasions), the SEC plainly needs more resources to conduct better regulation of a huge financial sector. Ryan provides no evidence, aside from that odd logical twist, that reducing the number of SEC staffers poring over filings from hedge funds would somehow increase oversight of those outfits.
Transferring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau budget to Congress: Here Ryan resurrects a longstanding GOP proposal: that Congress, not the Federal Reserve, should fund the CFPB.
As it stands now, the bureau’s budget is essentially guaranteed. It can ask the Federal Reserve for funding up to a certain cap, and that request cannot be denied. The caps are fixed percentages of the Fed’s operating expenses. This guarantees autonomy from a Congress where many members (like, say, Ryan) are elected thanks to campaign contributions from the big financial institutions the CFPB polices.
Ryan claims to have a problem with this arrangement only because the Federal Reserve’s profits are supposed to be returned to the Treasury to reduce the deficit, but instead a portion of them are siphoned off to a new bureaucracy—one in which he suggests via scare quotes is ineffective. “Now, instead of directing these remittances to reduce the deficit, Dodd-Frank requires diverting a portion of them to pay for a new bureaucracy with the authority to write far-reaching rules on financial products and restrict credit to the very customers it seeks to ‘protect,’” says the blueprint.
CFPB funding would thus be transferred to Congress under the Ryan plan, and subject to annual appropriations. He doesn’t say what Congress should do with that budget once its under legislators control, but one needs only to look to his SEC budget proposals to get a sense of what would likely happen.
Ensuring Taxpayer Bailouts of Big Banks: This is another up-is-down situation where a lot of unpacking of Ryan’s language is needed. His budget says:
Although the proponents of Dodd-Frank went to great lengths to denounce bailouts, this law only sustains them. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation now has the authority to access taxpayer dollars in order to bail out the creditors of large, ‘‘systemically significant’’ financial institutions. This resolution calls for ending this regime, now enshrined into law, which paves the way for future bailouts. House Republicans put forth an enhanced bankruptcy alternative that—instead of rewarding corporate failure with taxpayer dollars—would place the responsibility for large, failing firms in the hands of the shareholders who own them, the managers who run them, and the creditors who finance them.
Sounds good! But that would actually accomplish the exact opposite.
Indeed, Dodd-Frank gave the FDIC the power to wind down too-big-to-fail banks, which is called “resolution authority.” In a crisis, if a failing bank is deemed too big for traditional bankruptcy, a panel of bankruptcy judges can place it in receivership under the FDIC. That FDIC in turn then makes a plan for winding down the institution safely—something Barney Frank called a “death panel” for big banks.
Crucially, under this structure, taxpayers can’t end up paying for this wind down—Dodd-Frank explicitly forbids it. Any taxpayer money used upfront to ease the firm into bankruptcy would be recouped by a structured sale of the bank’s assets. (Note that Ryan sneakily says the FDIC has the authority to “access taxpayer dollars,” eliding the fact that in the end it has to pay them back.)
Ryan’s alternative is to end FDIC’s resolution authority and simply “place the responsibility for large, failing firms in the hands of the shareholders who own them, the managers who run them, and the creditors who finance them.”
That’s akin to just saying “it will all work out.” It is unlikely in the extreme that the shareholders and managers can somehow bail out a failing big bank, especially in a crisis. Inevitably, Congress and thus taxpayers would have to step in, without any of the established authority like asset sales that the FDIC now possesses.
Ryan’s plan would lead to more taxpayer bailouts of failing big banks—and by stripping down the budgets of the agencies meant to oversee those institutions, make failure more likely in the first place. But in the meantime, his friends on Wall Street could enjoy less regulation, less oversight, and more comfort that taxpayers will someday come to the rescue.
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Blaming the Palestinians for the apparent breakdown in Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-fated shuttle diplomacy is like blaming the victim of a mugging for the crime. Kerry’s diplomacy was always a long shot, and not because the problem is so intractable but because Israel’s government is so ultraconservative and so adamant about its God-given right to “Judea and Samaria” that it was never apparent that an accord could be reached.
The only hope for a deal, if one existed, would have been if Kerry had announced his own plan. It had been reported for quite a while that Kerry had a plan in his back pocket that he was going to announce, outlining the shape of a Palestinian-Israeli accord, according to the American idea. Where is the plan? So far, we haven’t seen it. Now that the talks are faltering, it might be the time for Kerry to show his cards.
The Washington Post headlines its piece, “Obama administration scrambles to rescue foundering Mideast peace talks.” In The New York Times, it’s, "Palestinians Defy U.S. and Israel, Leaving Peace Talks in Peril.” What caused the great kerfuffle is simply that the Palestinians delivered 15 letters to United Nations agencies asking, as is their right, to be admitted as members of those agencies—but not, in a gesture to Israel, to the International Criminal Court, under whose jurisdiction they could have brought war crimes charges against Israel. Until now, the Palestinians had held off on joining UN agencies, mostly a symbolic step, in order not to rile the Israelis. But after months of talks that seemed to go nowhere, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his allies had apparently had enough.
The immediate trigger for the Palestinian action was Israel’s refusal, so far, to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, as called for in an interim agreement in 2013. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had balked, and it appears that Kerry was willing to go as far as to offer the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel, in order to induce cooperation from Israel. Nearly everyone who’s looked at that idea has concluded that it’s a terrible one, and anyway, Pollard has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict—so it was just an odd sort of bribe to Netanyahu.
But the flap over the latest group of Palestinian prisoners is only a smokescreen for the fact that Israel has no signs of being willing to budge on giving the Palestinians a viable state in the lands occupied by Israeli forces in 1967—which, of course, would mean returning to the 1967 borders, pulling the Jewish settlers out and giving the Palestinians access to a share of Jerusalem for their capital. Kerry, it seems, had tried to persuade Israel to go along with a formula like that, part of which involved working out arrangements for US troops to take up positions along the Jordan River, on what would be the eastern frontier of a Palestinian state, in order to assuage Israeli security concerns. Lots of other details had been worked out, including how long settlements might stay, how long Israeli and international forces might remain in what’s now the occupied West Bank, and more. And Kerry had apparently made initial steps toward amassing many billions of dollars from international sources—funds for Palestinian economic development, for resettling Palestinian refugees, for moving Jewish settlers and even for compensating Israel for the costs of accepting Jewish refugees from Middle East countries over the past decades.
Were Kerry to release his plan now, it would either (a) reveal that it was so tilted toward Israel that it was hopeless from the start, or (b) put Israel under great pressure to agree to an even-handed plan that has the full support of the United States. In the long history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States has never once announced a plan of its own or declared its own ideas about what an accord might look like. Instead, under president after president, the United States has always said that it’s “up to the two parties.” But with Israel holding nearly all the cards, that means that any agreement would massively favor the Israeli point of view. Yesterday, a frustrated Kerry threw up his hands, canceled a planned trip to the Middle East, and said, “In the end, it is up to the parties.”
Israel has thrown a series of roadblocks up all along the way, including the most recent, new demand that the Palestinians accept Israel “as a Jewish state,” whatever that means. In Israel's view it seems to mean that Palestinians who currently live inside Israel will always be second-class citizens. In the twenty-first century, what state has the chutzpah to declare (and insist) that it is designed exclusively for a particular ethnic or religious bloc? Well, except for various ultra-Islamic countries, many of which do so in order to placate Muslim extremists within their borders, Israel is the only one. That’s fine, if that’s their choice, but why demand that the Palestinians ratify it before a deal?
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Two wildly different takes on the racial politics of our time opened in New York theaters in the past two weeks.
The most heralded: Bryan Cranston, at height of his fame coming off Breaking Bad, on Broadway in All the Way as President Lyndon B. Johnson twisting arms and skulls to promote passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is, by all accounts, a solid, if somewhat wonkish, play with a bravura performance (see New York Times review). Naturally, J. Edgar Hoover, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Richard Russell all put in appearances. Johnson is shown pushing hard, partly because believes in the bill and partly to further his political ends (he needs a big win to prove he deserves to be president). Of course, Vietnam hovers in the distance.
I haven't yet seen the play so let me concentrate on one I did experience, just last night: Satchmo at the Waldorf, written by the estimable Terry Teachout, author of acclaimed books, including biographies of H.L. Mencken--and Louis Armstrong. It, too, puts racial politics upfront, not music.
This may seem odd to some. Armstrong was nothing less than the most important American musician of the last century--and the most influential singer. (Ponder that for a moment.) His recordings from about 1925 to 1932 changed the course of popular music and jazz forever. The play pays tribute to that but it's true aim is elsewhere.
It's set in Armstrong's dressing room at the Waldorf in New York in 1971, where he has just staggered through a performance, practically on his death bed (indeed, he would die of a heart attack a short time later, in his bed). John Douglas Thompson, in this fantastic one-man show, portrays a not-quite-broken "Satchmo" recalling some of the highlights of his life, going back to growing up fatherless and poor in New Orleans, through his breakthrough years in Chicago and New York and onward to world fame and riches. With Teachout at the helm, it adheres closely to facts (and I can vouch for this, having read several Armstrong bios).
But much of the play revolves around Armstrong's racial identity and relationship with his white, Jewish, mob-connected manager Joe Glaser (also played by Thompson). Slowly we learn how and why Armstrong's stage persona and move away from innovative jazz mainly for black audiences to popular entertaining almost exclusively for whites developed. Glaser wanted the dough and also had to placate his mob partners; he easily exploited Louis, who just wanted to blow--and make people happy, black or white. (Watch part of it here.)
Armstrong was such an ambassador of goodwill it didn't take much arm-twisting. But along with that he lost his creative edge and drew the ire of other black jazz giants, who felt he treated Glaser like his "master" and often acted "minstrely" on stage. Miles Davis (Thompson, again) appears to voice these cruel putdowns. Indeed, most Americans today remember Armstrong for "Hello Dolly," not for the depth of early classics such as "Black and Blue."
But Armstrong counters: He genuinely wanted to please folks. He may have played to segregated audiences in the South--but he was the first to bravely tour there with a mixed-race band. He opened doors for black musicians everywhere (even in Hollywood). And, in one of the best scenes, he recalls famously cursing out President Eisenhower for moving too slow during the Little Rock school integration crisis.
In the end, it's a kind of tragedy within triumph: One of the giants of American history afflicted with doubts that maybe he had let Glaser push him too far from his genius and his race. Yet he remains justly proud of what he did accomplish. And getting ready to delight one more audience, which sadly would be the last.
Below: Early Armstrong with race-based complaint "Black and Blue."
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