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In Politics and Art, ‘Stories Are Dangerous’

Anne Bogart

Anne Bogart (Screenshot Courtesy CUNY TV/YouTube)

Something to keep in mind this political season comes from the theater world. “Stories are dangerous,” even “fascistic,” says Anne Bogart, artistic director of the SITI Company and author of the new book What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling.

Humans have always told stories, myths and fables to impose order and meaning on life, of course. But, speaking on public radio’s The Really Big Questions with host Dean Olsher this weekend, Bogart said there are two ways to tell stories: There’s the “fascistic” way, which she defines as telling “a story that has everybody feeling the same thing.” (She says that’s why she doesn’t like Spielberg.) “The other way to tell a story,” she says,

is to create moments in which every audience feels something different or has different associations. Much, much trickier. It requires more responsibility…. And I say fascistic and I mean it literally. The role of fascist art was to make one feel small and the same. And the role of humanist art—I would just make up a name—is for everyone to feel that they take up a lot of space and that they have an imaginative and associative part to play.

Olsher: Stories can mesmerize us. In fact, research is showing us that stories break down our critical function and we are suckers for stories. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them as art, but when they start to get into our politics, which they do in a big way, and even in our science, that’s when I get scared for us.

Bogart: Stories are super-dangerous, and I think it’s why most of my life I resisted them. And yet… a story is a tool. So the question is, how can you be responsible with stories, and can you find room for discourse inside of stories? It’s just too easy for stories, as I said, to be fascistic. But I do not believe that we’re ever going to get away from stories, and so therefore we have to learn how live with them or live in relationship with them.

Olsher: They are propaganda, aren’t they?

Bogart: Oh, absolutely. I use stories all the time to get my point across, and that’s a kind of propaganda, too—to talk people into my point of view. And they’re powerful and they’re seductive.

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Listen to Bogart here, and listen here to Olsher analyze the power of stories with other guests, including psychologist Melanie Green, who says that stories influence our behavior and beliefs even when we know they’re false.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on racial politics in theater

The Preordained: Why LeBron James Was Always Coming Back to Cleveland

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers fans cheer as then-Cav LeBron James takes the floor in the 2007 NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

In 2013, I predicted that LeBron James would shock the world and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many, “insiders” with pipelines into executive suites and owners’ boxes said there was no way this would happen. The consensus was that the four-time-MVP would never marry the last years of his prime to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise and a wretched team owner, Dan Gilbert, who insulted James like a bratty adolescent on his way out of town.

All logic said they were right. But I still thought they were wrong and was confident, even throughout this last Bynum-and-Bailey circus of a season in Cleveland, that LeBron would find his way home. I apologize for this self-aggrandizing “snoopy dance” over my predicting something correctly, especially when my personal record of predictions is, on the whole, wretched. (My belief that a Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry–led Knicks team would make the 2008 NBA finals remains a sore subject.)

But for me, the idea that James would return to Cleveland, no matter how much of a train wreck of a franchise it had become, seemed preordained, even obvious, to anyone paying attention to his off-court persona. First of all, LeBron James is the most “meta”, self-aware, consciously cinematic athlete we have ever seen. If Michael Jordan was the superstar of his own blockbuster movie, LeBron has always aspired to be actor, producer and director. Every step he takes has one eye on posterity. “The Decision” of 2010, when LeBron “took [his] talents to South Beach”, which brought him the rings that he craved but left hurt feelings and bad vibes in its wake, did not fit the script that LeBron James had already written in his own mind. If LeBron sees himself as Martin Scorsese, The Decision was his Bringing Out the Dead. By coming home to possibly bring a sports championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964, LeBron James can make Goodfellas. He can produce and direct his own magnum opus even—perhaps especially—if it means an ending where he’s eating egg noodles and ketchup.

Securing a title for Cleveland would establish a legend far greater than winning multiple championships in Miami. Dragging a snake-bitten city to the heights of the sports world and smashing on all of the Modellian bad karma in his path would establish a narrative singularly his own. Choosing to return to Cleveland, a city that has lost almost a fifth of its population over the last two decades, makes him a prospective folk hero.

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LeBron, as I wrote in 2013, has always aspired to be something more than a collection of specialty sneakers. Early in his career, he said he wanted to be a “global icon like Muhammad Ali” without the clearest sense about what that meant. In recent years, by speaking out for Trayvon Martin or becoming the first prominent NBA player to say that Donald Sterling had no business in the league, it seemed like he was figuring out what Jordan never did: that “being Ali” meant standing for something bigger than yourself.

By going back to Cleveland, LeBron is embracing his power as someone transformative, someone who could be, without cliché or Nike branding, more than an athlete. By making all the haters, from Dan Gilbert to the fans who burned his jersey, to the vicious media voices, sob in gratitude over his return, he is making this about more than just his own redemption, but theirs as well. Even by insisting on maximum money and not succumbing to the owner-friendly media-driven narrative that stars should accept less “for the good of the team”, he is doing right by young players currently getting hosed by a boss-friendly collective bargaining agreement. It may take some time to make it all work in Cleveland, but by shouldering the burden of a city’s collective damaged psyche and demonstrating the power to rebuild the most burned of bridges, LeBron is going for folk-hero status. He is attempting to produce the ultimate movie of his athletic life. Succeed or fail, it will be a collective thrill to see him try to write the final act. In other words, he’s already won.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Real Losers of the World Cup

No Water For Motown: Why Detroit Is Denying Its Citizens This Basic Human Right

Detroit River

Detroit skyline seen across the Detroit River from the riverwalk in Windsor, Ontario (Bernt Rostad/CC 2.0)

When Netroots Nation convenes its 9th annual conference in Detroit this month, I hope that attendees arrive pre-hydrated. Because despite living at the hub of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet—taken together, the Great Lakes represent more than one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater—Detroit residents are running out of running water. They’re also running into city and state bureaucracies that, alarmingly, don’t seem to care.

In March, when the winter freeze finally began to thaw, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the city’s public utility, announced that it would resume shutting off water to delinquent customers, at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 per week. As a result, some 40 percent of DWSD customers will lose their water supply by the end of the summer; 70,000 of these customers are residential, which means that 200,000 to 300,000 Detroiters could be directly affected. This is, to be sure, a public health crisis.

The city would have an easier time explaining itself if it were being at all consistent in its treatment of delinquent customers. In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Anna Clark noted that Joe Louis Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Red Wings, was $82,255 in arrears on its water bill as of last April; Ford Field, where the NFL’s Detroit Lions play, owes more than $55,000; and city-owned golf courses owe more than $400,000. No date has been set to give these commercial customers their shut-off notices. Meanwhile, Clark writes, “the city is going after any customers who are more than sixty days late and owe at least $150.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed that (sadly) compares Detroit to Donetsk, Michael Hiltzik writes bitterly that in Ukraine, “[W]arring pro- and anti-Russian forces are using basic necessities of life, such as water, as weapons against the civilian population….The same thing is happening in Detroit, where city officials have subjected the civilian population to mass shutoffs of water for past-due bills, then placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way getting service restored.” And it’s service, mind you, that’s seen a 119 percent rate increase over the last ten years, including an 8.7 percent uptick approved by the city council just last month.

The average monthly water bill for a family of four in Detroit is nearly double the national average. Chris Hayes reported on MSNBC that, though the E.P.A. recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewage, some residents of Detroit pay 20 percent of their pretax income for these services. Those who can’t pay face a shutoff—and a stigmatizing blue slash of paint in front of their houses, signifying that they are, in fact, waterless.

On June 18, four advocacy groups—Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization—submitted to the United Nations a report documenting the situation. In response this week, UN experts condemned DWSD, noting, “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation and Senior Legal Adviser at the Prosecutor General’s Office, continued, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

And as if depriving people of a basic human right isn’t outrageous enough, the byzantine legal and financial machinations behind the city’s actions are truly galling. The details, as described in Counterpunch by Detroit lawyer Tom Stephens, are dizzying—even the oversimplified Godfather analogy that he uses to analogize the city’s shady dealings requires a careful parsing—but they boil down to the simple premise that Motown values its financial-institution creditors more than its own citizens. It’s but another example of the 1 Percent’s preferences taking precedence over the Ninety-nine’s necessities. Indeed, many believe that DWSD’s strong-arm tactics are part of a larger plan to make the utility more attractive to private investors.

One of emergency city manager Kevyn Orr’s first acts was to sign off on the hiring of his former employer, Jones Day, as the law firm supervising the city’s bankruptcy—”despite the fact,” Mark Binelli wrote in The New York Times last year, “that Jones Day already represents some of the very banks holding said debt, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.” (Experts estimate that Detroit’s bill for Jones Day’s services will be around $100 million.) None of this is, of course, evidence of cronyism, but if it walks like a duck…

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As part of the Netroots Nation conference, National Nurses United (The union is also active in the Robin Hood Tax movement) is holding a march and rally on Friday, July 18, to condemn Detroit’s shut-off program as a violation of human rights. If you’re attending Netroots Nation, I encourage you to participate in the action, which begins at 12:30 pm outside the Cobo Center in Downtown Detroit.

“There is,” writes author and activist Jane Jacobs in the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” She could have been describing the Chapter 9 bankruptcy restructuring of Detroit. As Michigan’s brahmins work to appropriate and repurpose every last penny, they’re strangling and humiliating Detroit’s most valuable asset—that is, Detroiters themselves.

 

Read Next: John Nichols against austerity in Detroit—“Water Is a Basic Human Right.

Sherwood Anderson Has Some Notes on Ohio to Share with LeBron James

LeBron James and Sherwood Anderson

LeBron James (Photo by Keith Allison/Creative Commons) and Sherwood Anderson (photo by Carl Van Vechten/ Library of Congress)

Clever, indeed, LeBron James’s purchase of a round-trip ticket when he took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010. Everyone knows it is the most efficient way to travel.

But does he have something to read for the flight?

Southbound, sources tell The Nation, James was spotted with a well-thumbed copy of Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again.

But northbound now, what will James (and his talents) read?

The Nation humbly submits that James could do worse than Wolfe’s predecessor, Sherwood Anderson, native and bard of the state of Ohio. Anderson’s most well-known work is Winesburg, Ohio, but more apropos, more to the point, perhaps, would be an essay Anderson published in the August 9, 1922, issue of The Nation, titled, “I’ll Say We’ve Done Well.”

From 1922 to 1925, The Nation published a series of essays called “These United States,” with contributions from some of the most prominent writers of the day: Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson. (We have written previously on this blog about the essay on California.) Sherwood Anderson’s essay on Ohio is easily one of the best.

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have,” James declares in his Sports Illustrated announcement.

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In the essay excerpted below, Sherwood Anderson, though from the western part of the state, arrives at a similar conclusion about Ohio. He does so, however, through somewhat more roundabout, sarcastic reasoning.

I am compelled to write of the State of Ohio reminiscently and from flashing impressions I got during these last ten years, although I was born there, my young manhood was spent within its borders, and later I went back and spent another five or six years as a manufacturer in the State. And so I have always thought of myself as an Ohioan and no doubt shall always remain, inside myself, an Ohioan.

Very well, then, it is my State and there are a thousand things within it I love and as many things I do not much like at all….

Ohio is a big state. It is strong. It is the State of Harding and McKinley…. And now Ohio has got very big and very strong and its Youngstown, Cincinatti, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, and perhaps a dozen other prosperous industrial cities can put themselves forward as being as ugly, as noisy, as dirty, and as mean in their civic spirit as any American industrial cities anywhere. “Come you men of ‘these States,’” as old Walt Whitman was so fond of saying, in his windier moods, trot out your cities. Have you a city that smells worse than Akron, that is a worse junk-heap of ugliness than Youngstown, that is more smugly self-satisfied than Cleveland, or that has missed an unbelievably great opportunity to be one of the lovely cities of the world as has the city of Cincinnati? I’ll warrant you have not. In this modern pushing American civilization of ours you other States have nothing on Ohio. Credit where credit is due, citizens. I claim that we Ohio men have taken as lovely a land as ever lay outdoors and that we have, in our towns and cities, put the old stamp of ourselves on it for keeps.

Of course, you understand, that to do this we have had to work….

To be sure, the job isn’t all done yet. There are lots of places where you can still see the green hills and every once in a while a citizen of a city like Cleveland, for example, gets a kind of accidental glimpse at the lake, but even in a big town like Chicago, where they have a lot of money and a large police force, a thing like that will happen now and then. You can’t do everything all at once. But things are getting better all the time. A little more push, a little more old zip and go, and a man over in Ohio can lead a decent life.

He can get up in the morning and go through a street where all the houses are nicely blacked up with coal soot, and into a factory where all he has to do all day long is to drill a hole in a piece of iron….Nowadays all you have to do, if you live in an up-to-date Ohio town, is to make, say, twenty-three million holes in pieces of iron, all just alike, in a lifetime. Isn’t that fine? And a night a fellow can go home thanking God, and he can walk right past the finest cinder piles and places where they dump old tin cans and everything without paying a cent….

And so, as far as I see, what I say is, Ohio is O.K.

* * *

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

Read Next: The Nation Welcomes Canada Into Existence… With a Shrug ”

Against Austerity in Detroit: ‘Water Is a Human Right’

 A mother and child sit on the beach on Belle Isle in Detroit, Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Water is a human right.

The United Nations formally “recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.”

A new European Citizens Initiative declares, “Water is a public good, not a commodity.”

Former President Jimmy Carter writes, “Clean water is a basic human right. Without it, the other rights may not even matter. Human societies cannot be healthy, prosperous and just without adequate supplies of clean water. What could be a more basic right than clean water?”

So why are children in Detroit marching through that battered city’s downtown with signs reminding officials that “Kids Need Water to be Healthy” and “Kids Without Water Can’t Brush Their Teeth”?

Why are religious leaders being arrested when they seek to prevent the shutoff of water services to families who cannot afford to pay bloated bills?

The answer is that, thanks to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, Detroit is again providing a stark example of what happens when right-wing officials implement an unthinking and inhumane austerity agenda. Since Snyder imposed “emergency manager” control on Detroit last year— effectively disempowering local elected officials and putting the governor and his appointees in charge—the city’s residents have faced plenty of threats from unelected “managers” who are determined to balance the books of a financially strapped city on the backs of its hardest-hit residents.

But none of those threats has been so extreme, or so dramatic in their illustration of the crisis created by austerity policies, as the rush by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and its for-profit contractors to shut off water to some of the poorest families in America.

Under pressure from the governor’s emergency manager, the DWSD has so far this year shut off the water for approximately 17,000 households and small businesses that owed on their bills. And that’s just the start. In a city that has been brutalized by deindustrialization— where the official unemployment rate is 14.5 percent and where the real rate is dramatically higher; where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty line—water rates have spiked by almost 120 percent over the decade. Even as the city has gone through a bankruptcy crisis, rates have continued to rise at a dramatic rate.

Families and small business owners have struggled to keep up, but today an estimated 138,000 accountsare past due— including those of roughly 90,000 low-income families. Many families have paid their bills by cutting back on other necessities, but many others are struggling— while, at the same time,Snyder’s managers are pocketing hefty checks and toying with privatization schemes that have the potential to enrich private, out-of-town interests.

The Detroit officials who have ordered the shutoffs say they are simply creating pressure to get bills paid, and argue that they are trying to do so in a responsible manner. But environmental writer Martin Lukacs counters:

The official rationale for the water shut-downs—the Detroit Water Department’s need to recoup millions collapses on inspection. Detroit’s high-end golf club, the Red Wing’s hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users are also owing—a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.

The targeting of Detroit families is about something else. It is a ruthless case of the shock doctrine—the exploitation of natural or unnatural shocks of crisis to push through pro-corporate policies that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance.

Congressman John Conyers, D-Detroit, has called on the DWSD to stop the shutoffs, making the case that “in the 21st Century, in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one should ever go without safe, clean water.”

The congressman has aligned with the Detroit Water Brigade, a grassroots movement that is organizing to stop the shutoffs and to get water to families. They’ve drawn international support. Canadians living across the river in Windsor have been organizing to deliver water to Detroiters.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN special rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, has made it plain that “[d]isconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.” And the Blue Planet Project, a global movement to promote water justice is petitioning President Obama (and Governor Snyder) with a message that “[t]he U.S. government is obligated to respect the human right to water and sanitation, yet the thousands of water cut-offs currently taking place in Detroit, Michigan, is a violation of this basic right.”

Conyers says the Obama administration and federal officials have options to act. In particular, he is “calling on President Obama to make available some of the $200 million still apportioned for Michigan from the Hardest Hit Fund, a reserve made available for relief from impacts of the Great Recession, for water service relief.” Additionally, the senior congressman is “requesting that US Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell formally designate the water crisis a public health emergency eligible for federal relief.”

But Detroiters have over the past several years come to be recognize that the plight of their city, even as it is assaulted by the governor’s austerity measures, is often neglected by federal officials.

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It will be harder to neglect Detroit in coming days, however, as Netroots Nation brings its ninth annual gathering (and Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren) to the city. And National Nurses United, the activist union that has been promoting a “Robin Hood” tax on financial speculators as an alternative to austerity cuts, is working with dozens of local, state and national groups to organize a July 18 “Turn on the Water! Tax Wall Street!” march and rally.

The registered nurses plan to “declare a public health emergency and demand a moratorium on the unprecedented water shutoffs in Detroit.”

Their message is a blunt challenge to austerity:

Gov. Snyder is allowing the tragedy to continue with an endgame of privatizing the public water department—the latest in a string of gifts to Wall Street. The historic transfer of public wealth to private hands overseen by Snyder has cost the public jobs, pensions, vital public safety services, and civic jewels like Olmstead Island Park.

Now they have come for our water.

Let’s Tax Wall Street, Get Our Money Back, and Turn on the Water!

Read Next: Katrina vaden Heuvel asks why Detroit is denying its citizens water.

The 12 Scariest Findings in the New Report on the Bundy Ranch Standoff

Bundy Ranch Protestor

An armed protester patrols a bridge near Cliven Bundy's ranch outside Bunkerville, Nevada. April 12, 2014. (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

The standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Clark County, Nevada, has faded from the headlines, but a startling report released today by Southern Poverty Law Center warns that the incident may have some long-lasting, and potentially bloody, consequences.

Many of the militia members that flocked to the ranch were part of the anti-government Patriot Movement, an extremist movement with a long history but that gained serious steam during the Obama presidency. In 2008 there were about 150 Patriot groups nationwide—and there are over 1,000 today.

The SPLC report finds that this reawakened movement has drawn a very dangerous lesson from the standoff, which ended with the Bureau of Land Management backing off and leaving the ranch: a lesson that the federal government can be scared off by heavily armed militias.

That’s not to say the Bureau of Land Management should have engaged in a firefight, but the report makes clear the Patriot Movement has been energized by the “victory.” Already, a couple that was at the ranch undertook a headline-grabbing shooting spree in Las Vegas after getting amped for conflict weeks earlier in Clark County. The report highlights several other low-level incidents that haven’t gotten much media attention.

It also details, through interviews with militia members who were at the ranch—goaded on, also, by support from conservative politicians and media outlets—just how eager many participants were for battle. Here are the twelve scariest findings from the report:

1. “Almost overnight, thanks largely to the Bundy’s video going viral on antigovernment websites, the family’s fight with the federal government became a touchstone for various Tea Party Republicans, libertarians, antigovernment Oath Keepers and militia members, many of whom saw in the footage the beginnings of a war.”

2. “After watching the video from his home in Anaconda, Montana, 650 miles away, Ryan Payne, 30, an electrician and former soldier who had deployed twice to the Iraq war, became enraged […]

“Payne left that day with another member of his militia, Jim Lardy, and drove through the night, a few sleeping bags in tow, burning up cell phones hoping to bring every militia member they could. On April 9 he sent out an urgent call for the militias to mobilize. ‘At this time we have approximately 150 responding, but that number is growing by the hour,’ he wrote, offering directions to the Bundy ranch. ‘May God grant each and every one of you safety, wisdom and foresight, and courage to accomplish the mission we have strived for so long to bring to fruition. All men are mortal, most pass simply because it is their time, a few however are blessed with the opportunity to choose their time in performance of duty.’”

3. “In a low-lying wash where gates held the Bundy herd, an angry, heavily armed crowd grew, defying orders and engaging in a tense game of chicken with BLM rangers in riot gear demanding through loudspeakers that they disperse. They shouted profanities and gripped their weapons.

“Militia snipers lined the hilltops and overpasses with scopes trained on federal agents. What happened was not unplanned. As Payne later told the SPLC, he had ordered certain gunment ‘to put in counter sniper positions’ and others to hang behind at the rance. ‘[M]e and Mel Bundy put together the plan for the cohesion between the the Bundys and the militia…. Sending half of the guys up to support the protestors…and keep overwatch and make sure that if the BLM wanted to get froggy, that it wouldn’t be good for them.’”

4. “Writing on his blog hours after the standoff, Mike Vanderboegh, an aging government-hating propagandist from Alabama who heads the III Percent Patriots, characterized the standoff in grandiose terms. ‘It is impossible to overstate the importance of the victory won in the desert today,’ he gushed. “The feds were routed—routed. There is no word that applies. Courage is contagious, defiance is contagious, victory is contagious. Yet the war is not over.’”

5. “Ignoring the fact that Bundy and his followers were the ones who drew their weapons, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told The Los Angeles Times, ‘You can’t just show up with guns blazing and expect to win the hearts and minds of the public.’ Chaffetz, a firm advocate of those protesting the BLM, concluded, ‘The federals need a little more Andy Griffith and a lot less Rambo.’”

6. “A month after the standoff, San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner Phil Lyman led a protest against a ban on the use of motorized vehicles in Recapture Canyon that was meant to protect archaeological sites from damage.”

“Waving Gadsden flags just like those draped over the slain officer in Las Vegas and decrying the actions of the BLM, Lyman and several dozen ATV riders—including members of Bundy’s family—rode into the canyon to defy BLM authority. Lyman told the SPLC that the ride was meant to be a peaceful protest, but he did little to conceal his rage over what he characterized as federal tyranny.”

“‘If things don’t change, it’s not long before shots will be fired,’ Lyman said, joining other conservative lawmakers such as Chaffetz in warning of violence if the federal government didn’t rein in the BLM. ‘We can avoid it. But it’s not going to be by the people changing their attitudes and accepting more intrusion into their lives. It’s going to be by the federal government acknowledging people’s freedom.’”

7. “This May in Texas, militias and their allies came to protest a BLM survey of more than 90,000 acres along the Red River, fearing the federal government was planning a land grab.”

8. “A month earlier in Utah, two men pointed a handgun at a BLM worker in a marked federal vehicle while holding up a sign that said, ‘You need to die.’”

9. “In New Mexico’s Otero County, a brewing confrontation between state and federal officials ended after BLM officials opened gates cutting off water for grazing cattle to protect the jumping mouse. Again, there were conspiracy theories demonizing BLM efforts to protect the environment.”

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10. “[I]n mid-June, more violence erupted, as a BLM ranger and a California Highway Patrol officer were shot and wounded, allegedly by a self-declared sovereign citizen, Brent Douglas Cole, who was camping outside of Nevada City, Calif.”

11. “None of this has tamped down the rhetoric. The Bundy standoff has actually brought the spotlight to the antigovernment movement, and its leaders are soaking up the attention. Polarizing figures such as former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack and Stewart Rhodes of the Oath Keepers have been eager to take advantage of the moment. Mack, a longtime militia darling who has led a push for county sheriffs to stand against federal law enforcement agencies, told one crowd, ‘We don’t believe that bureaucratic policies and regulations supersede the Constitution. I came here because I don’t believe the BLM has any authority whatsoever. Grazing fees do not supersede life, liberty and the pursuit of property.’”

12. “Among [Bundy’s current supporters] are politicians belonging to the Independent American Party (IAP)— the same party whose banner rabidly anti-immigrant former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo ran under during his bid for to become governor of Colorado. In late May, at an IAP event to honor Bundy for ‘his courage in standing up for state sovereignty,’ Bundy and his wife, Carol, signed paperwork to join the Nevada chapter. ‘Cliven Bundy is my hero,’ Janine Hansen, an IAP candidate running for Nevada’s 2nd congressional district, told a gathering of supporters. ‘We cannot allow this incredible opportunity that Cliven has given us to die.…  It’s time that we are no longer serfs on the land in the State of Nevada. It is time that we become sovereign in our own state, our own sovereign state. It is long past time. We are not the servants of the BLM.’”

 

Read Next: An interview with Jesse Jackson about stopping the rebirth of the Old Confederacy in the New South

Did Child Labor Build Your Smart Phone?

Samsung

Samsung Electronics headquarters in Seoul (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

Big electronics brands often sell themselves as the vanguard of enlightened capitalism, not only solving our everyday problems through technological fixes but also making the world a better place along the way. To polish that image of technocratic progress, multinationals like Apple and Samsung frequently conduct well-hyped “corporate social responsibility” monitoring campaigns—showing that their overseas factories are eco-friendly, and that their supply chains are humane and “sweat free.” But labor advocates say a Chinese supplier factory for Samsung reveals that dirty labor practices are still lurking within these companies’ the ultra-slick assembly lines.

A new investigation by the US-based watchdog group China Labor Watch has uncovered numerous labor violations at a Korean-owned Samsung supplier in southern China, Dongguan Shinyang Electronic. The group’s field research and undercover infiltration of the facility revealed underaged workers and punishing labor conditions.

The major allegation is that Shinyang has employed at least several teens under age 16, the legal working age in China, and many more under age 18. They were hired, CLW says, as part of a labor dispatch system in which agencies funnel short-term “student workers” to factories that need surplus labor to handle seasonal influxes in export orders. Student temps are paid at lower rates despite doing comparable work. The New York Times followed up with a report affirming the identity of three girls, aged 14 and 15, who were apparently hired with false identification.

The CLW report echoes a 2012 investigation by the group showing similar use of child labor. But it also follows a glowing annual report from Samsung about the progress of its social responsibility programs. According to that report, multiple factory audits on 100 Chinese supplier plants—conducted by an outside auditor commissioned by Samsung—found “no instances of child labor.” The report did, however, note that other labor problems were widespread, including overtime violations and chemical safety hazards. Nonetheless, Samsung accentuated the positive, focusing on its programs to monitor and improve labor standards in supplier factories.


(Courtesy: China Labor Watch, “Another Samsung Supplier Exploiting Child Labor” [PDF])

Though Samsung stood by its record after CLW’s report was released, the activists contend that abuse and exploitation remain endemic to China’s electronics manufacturing labor structure. Harsh conditions are actually built into the rigors of the job. At Shinyang, workdays last up to eleven hours, with rigid production quotas and supervisors looming over workers while barking orders. Children were afforded no special protection. In one case described in the report, child workers on the assembly line struggled to meet a 700-piece hourly production quota because the factory’s cumbersome plastic tweezers were slowing them down (evidently production rates were far better monitored than labor conditions). According to the report,

they noticed that other workers had metal tweezers, which were more effective. A supervisor told the child workers the location of a store where they could buy these metal tweezers. This… required them to take a bus to reach it. Feeling helpless, they made the trip to buy the tweezers on the next day.

The report describes a grimly disciplined factory floor: Workers were subjected to penalties for various misbehaviors, like repeated lateness, or just showing a “bad attitude.” There was a preference for hiring women over men.

Workers were ill-prepared for occupational hazards, CLW says. The production process involves routine “contact with harmful chemicals such as ethyl alcohol, industrial alcohol, and thinners,” but workers do not all receive protective gear, like gloves and masks; they must specially request it.

The steady stream of export orders allowed workers to accumulate about 120 hours of overtime in a month, more than triple the legal limit of thirty-six hours, CLW reports. Factory workers often rely heavily on overtime to scrape by, because of low base wages. Although monthly base wages at Shinyang were close to the local minimum wage, workers could more than double their pay through overtime and other subsidies and bonuses. And temp workers, who were denied overtime pay, made only about two-thirds that amount. Additionally, the company allegedly undercut workers’ long-term economic security by failing to make mandatory social insurance contributions for temp workers, and by underpaying insurance for regular workers.

The researchers noted that workers’ housing consisted of spartan, stuffy dormitories with as many as ten to a room. Cheap, plain meals were served from the factory canteen, segregated from the special dining area for Korean staff.

Meanwhile, outside the drab factory grounds lies the southern boomtown Dongguan, replete with flashy storefronts and high rises—marking the sharp inequalities that drive the massive exploitation of the vast workforce of migrants from outlying regions. The combination of poverty wages and the soaring cost of living in cities feeds into an increasingly volatile labor climate—and seems to be driving a recent surge in strikes and protests.

China’s recent efforts to strengthen social insurance for workers has sparked labor strife as well, as violations of the employer mandates are widespread. Earlier this year, a dispute over social insurance contributions at the multinational Yue Yuen shoe factory triggered a historic strike involving tens of thousands of workers.

Though Chinese law technically guarantees workers the right to unionize with the government-run official union federation, CLW observed no union presence at the factory. The closest thing to a grievance procedure was an “opinion box.”

Of all the harsh aspects of Shinyang’s labor system, perhaps the most degrading was their lack of control over their working conditions. New hires were reportedly given blank contracts to sign, and receive their final contratcts with the employment terms inked in “only a month after being employed”—effectively leaving them with no control over their working conditions for weeks.

In response to CLW’s allegations, Samsung provided a written statement to The Nation claiming that “the supplier in question” had been inspected three times since March 2013, and no incidents of child labor were detected. The company also noted a sophisticated identification security system that it had recently implemented at supplier factories in order to screen out underaged workers. But the company added, “We are urgently looking into the latest allegations and will take appropriate measures in accordance with our policies to prevent any cases of child labor in our suppliers.”

A teenage worker interviewed by the Times was undaunted by Samsung’s tightened security protocol: “The factory can just borrow real identification cards from other factories to register us,” she said. “And the system for checking employees as they enter the factory is not that strict.”

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So given the sharp contrast between reports from the shop floor and Samsung’s own audit reports, CLW isn’t buying the official line. Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells The Nation via e-mail:

Child labor, unpaid overtime or wholly unpaid wages and benefits, over a hundred hours of overtime a month, poor living conditions, unsafe workplaces, and other common labor violations in the electronics industry are heavily influenced by the view of buyers—often international brand companies like Samsung, Apple, HP, Dell, Sony, etc.—that the manufacturing link in their business model must be constantly costed down. Electronic manufacturing companies operate on slim margins, and they continue to operate by suppressing labor costs.

The situation at Shinyang elucidates how the market for consumer electronics in the Global North is dependant on grueling labor conditions in faraway factories. With exploitation baked into China’s warp-speed assembly lines, the CLW report suggests it will take more than glossy annual reports to correct these systemic abuses.

Yet there are reforms that could promote meaningful corporate accountability: if workers had functioning, genuinely representative unions, they themselves could serve as auditors and help enforce standards directly at work. At Shinyang, however, CLW reports that when asked about a union, “workers said they have never heard of one.” For now, they’re stuck with the opinion box—unless and until they find the courage to show more “bad attitude.”

 

Read Next: A grassroots labor uprising—at your bank?

North Carolina Will Determine the Future of the Voting Rights Act

Rosanell Eaton

93-year-old Rosanell Eaton heading into federal court (photo by Jennifer Farmer, Advancement Project)

Winston-Salem—In 1940, 19-year-old Rosanell Eaton took a two-hour mule ride to the Franklin County courthouse in eastern North Carolina to register to vote. The three white male registrars told her to stand up straight, with her arms at her side, look straight ahead and recite the preamble to the Constitution word-for-word from memory. Eaton did so, becoming one of the few blacks to pass a literacy test and make it on the voting rolls in the Jim Crow era.

Eaton, a granddaughter of a slave, is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. She’s devoted her life to expanding the franchise, personally registering 4,000–5,000 new voters before losing count. “My forefathers didn’t have the opportunity to register or vote,” she said. “It is my intention to help people reach that point when they could do something.”

Now, as a result of North Carolina’s new voting restrictions—widely regarded as the most onerous in the country—the 93-year-old activist could be disenfranchised by the state’s voter ID requirement because the name on her driver’s license does not match the name on her voter registration card.

Eaton testified in federal court in Winston-Salem this week against North Carolina’s voting law, as part of a challenge brought by the Justice Department and civil rights groups to enjoin key provisions before the 2014 election under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. “Voting should be free and accessible to everyone,” she told Judge Thomas Schroeder of the Middle District Court of North Carolina.

Eaton was always the first one in the courtroom, looking resplendent in a fashionable pantsuit and matching hat. Her presence and testimony was a reminder of the long struggle to win the right to vote and the serious consequences of restricting that right today.

Eleven witnesses—a mixture of civil rights activists, legislators and election experts—testified against the law, known as House Bill 589, over the course of four days. I spent the week in court alongside Eaton. Here are my ten takeaways from the hearing:

1. The law disproportionately burdens African-American voters.

The plaintiffs, including DOJ, the North Carolina NAACP and the League of Women Voters, focused on three specific provisions of the law—the reduction of early voting from seventeen days to ten days, the elimination of same-day registration during the early voting period and the prohibition on counting provisional ballots cast in the right county but wrong precinct. In recent elections, African-Americans were twice as likely to vote early, use same-day registration and vote out-of-precinct.

In 2012, for example, 300,000 African-Americans voted during the week of early voting eliminated by the state, 30,000 used same-day registration and 2,500 cast out-of-precinct ballots. Overall, 70 percent of blacks voted early and African-Americans made up 42 percent of new same-day registrants.

“It is as if House Bill 589 were designed to deter the very practices that encourage turnout among blacks,” testified expert witness Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2. The case is not about voter ID (yet).

The most controversial provision of the new law doesn’t go into effect until 2016 and thus wasn’t discussed much in court. But the state is doing a test run in 2014, where poll workers will ask for photo ID but voters don’t have to show it. Because of the potential for confusion, the North Carolina NAACP asked Judge Schroeder to enjoin the test run. Expect to hear a lot more about voter ID when the case goes to a full trial in July 2015.

3. Voter fraud is not a problem in North Carolina.

During the 2004 and 2008 elections, there was 1 case of voter impersonation out of 7.8 million votes cast. “I am not aware of specific instances of voter impersonation,” North Carolina elections director Kim Strach said in her videotaped deposition, which was shown in court.

The state presented no tangible evidence of voter fraud to justify the new restrictions. “There is no evidence we had problems with these enhanced forms of participation,” Senator Dan Blue, the Democratic minority leader, testified. (Ironically, the law does nothing to restrict absentee voting, where the potential for fraud is greatest.)

Lawyers for the state seemed to be arguing, in the vein of Donald Rumsfeld, that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. “If you don’t look for voter fraud, how can you find it?” testified Phil Strach (husband of Kim Strach), the former general counsel for the North Carolina GOP. (If a tree falls in the forest…)

Chris Coates, the former head of the Voting Section in the Bush Justice Department, who represented Judicial Watch, said the state was under no obligation to produce instances of fraud as a rationale for the law, despite the rhetoric of the GOP legislators who passed the bill. “If the interest trying to be achieved is combatting voter fraud, there does not have to be evidence that fraud has been committed in the state,” he said.

4. The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision transformed the legal and legislative landscape on voting rights.

A month after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Section 4 of the VRA, the North Carolina Senate took a sixteen-page bill passed by the House, which dealt exclusively with voter ID, and transformed it into a fifty-seven-page voter suppression behemoth.

“It was a 90 percent different bill,” testified Representative Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Cumberland County. “It was an ambush on the people of North Carolina.”

The Senate took only two days to debate the new bill, which repealed or curtailed nearly every reform that encouraged people to vote in the state. The House passed the Senate’s version in a matter of hours, with no amendments offered or public input. “It was, bar none, the worst legislative process I’ve ever been through,” Glazier said. “If you were writing a textbook on legislation, this was a textbook example of how not do it.”

5. Section 2 is no substitute for Section 5.

Not only did North Carolina not have to approve its voting changes with the federal government thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, the burden of proof shifted from the state to the voters most impacted by the law, as did the legal standard needed to show discrimination under the VRA. “You have the burden of showing clear evidence,” Judge Schroeder reminded the plaintiffs several times.

Under Section 5, North Carolina could not implement any voting change that left minority voters worse off. But under Section 2, plaintiffs have to show that the “totality of circumstances” leaves a minority group with “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process.” The simplicity of Section 5 has been replaced by the complexity of Section 2. What would have been a slam-dunk case for the government and civil rights groups is now a long slog.

“As a practical matter, African-Americans will have less opportunity than white voters to register, cast a ballot and have that ballot counted,” DOJ attorney Bert Russ argued.

North Carolina Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters countered that voters had no constitutional right to expanded voting opportunities like early voting. “The fact that they were good policies doesn’t mean they are entitled to them.”

“We’re not contending that Section 2 requires the adoption of early voting, same-day registration or the counting of out-of-precinct ballots,” Russ responded. “But in cases where these reforms were already adopted, where black voters disproportionately relied on them…when the state chooses to eliminate them without good reason, we’re likely to prevail on the merits.”

North Carolina is the first post-Shelby challenge to new forms of vote denial and abridgement other than voter ID (a judge in Wisconsin struck down a voter ID law under Section 2 for the first time in May). There are few relevant precedents in this area, which makes the outcome more uncertain.

6. North Carolina history cannot be ignored.

In 1965, black registration lagged fifty points behind white registration in the state. Decades after the passage of the VRA, the gap narrowed but remained significant. That changed starting in 2000, with the adoption by the legislature of early voting (2000), the counting of out-of-precinct provisional ballots (2005) and same-day registration (2007). North Carolina became one of the most progressive states in the country with regard to voting rights. As a consequence, black turnout increased 65 percent from 2000 to 2012—in 2008 and 2012, African-Americans registered and voted at a higher rate than whites for the first time in state history.

A year later the legislature repealed the reforms that boosted black participation. “In one bill, they obliterated what many of us worked on for twenty to thirty years to increase voter participation,” Blue testified.

MIT political scientist Charles Stewart, an expert witness for DOJ, said the elimination of same-day registration will reduce black participation by 3 percent—a significant number in a state known for close elections, where Obama won by 14,000 votes in 2008.

In 1996, North Carolina ranked forty-third nationally in voter turnout. By 2012, that number had jumped to eleventh. Now North Carolina is poised to tumble downward again. “Based on my experiences, you will have angry voters, you will have long lines, people will leave without voting,” testified Gary Bartlett, the head of the state board of elections from 1993 to 2013.

7. This is not just a black-versus-white issue.

“Young voters are uniquely targeted by this law,” argued Democratic super-lawyer Marc Elias, on behalf of a group of student voters. HB 589 ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and eliminated state university IDs as an acceptable voter ID. (You can enter a federal courthouse in North Carolina with a state university ID, but you won’t be able to vote with one in 2016.) In addition, young voters were 8.9 percent of the electorate in 2012, but 25 percent of same-day registrants. Elias is making the novel argument that the abridgement of young voter participation violates the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Judge Schroeder seemed skeptical of this argument.

Blacks and students weren’t the only ones from benefitting from the state’s voting reforms. Dale Ho of the ACLU noted that in 2010, 200,000 North Carolinians voted early, 27,000 used same-day registration and 5,000 cast out-of-precinct provisional ballots.

8. As goes North Carolina, so goes the nation.

Control of the US Senate may hinge on the outcome of the Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. A drop in voter turnout because of the voting restrictions could swing the election to Tillis and the Senate to the GOP.

“If the court doesn’t grant an injunction, there will be African-Americans who won’t be able to use same-day registration, who won’t have their provisional ballots counted, who won’t be able to get to early voting or will face obstacles if they do,” Russ argued. “Even though the problem will be magnified in a presidential election, there will be problems in November.”

On a more fundamental level, North Carolina brazenly took advantage of the Shelby decision to pass the country’s most sweeping package of voting restrictions since 1965. If the state gets away with it, expect other states to follow suit.

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9. The voting restrictions could lead to a voter backlash.

In 2012, we saw that efforts to restrict the right to vote in states like Ohio led to higher voter turnout among targeted groups. While I’m somewhat skeptical of the “voter suppression leads to higher voter turnout” theory, the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina has done a superb job of organizing voter discontent against the GOP legislature.

On the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, the North Carolina NAACP is placing fifty young organizers in fifty counties with a goal of registering 50,000 new voters. “How many of you are going to leave here and remember the blood of the martyrs?” the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP asked at a “Moral March to the Polls” rally in Winston-Salem after the first day of court hearings. Hundreds of hands went up.

10. This is just the beginning of the legal battle.

It’s tougher for plaintiffs to win a preliminary injunction than a full trial, especially in an off-year election when voter turnout is lower and restrictions on voting are perceived as less costly. “I’m not here to decide the ultimate merits of the case,” Schroeder said. “The question is the urgency of the injunction…. What is the irreparable harm before November?”

It’s very possible the plaintiffs could lose the preliminary injunction hearing and win the trial in July 2015, when they’ll have more time, more expertise and more evidence, like voter ID, to draw on.

As for the judge, Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, is regarded as one of the smartest and most conservative judges on the Middle District of North Carolina. He asked the plaintiffs a lot of questions about the standard he should use to examine the evidence and the harms to prospective voters in 2014. He seemed to grasp the significance of the case and struck me as tough but fair. He’s expected to issue a ruling sometime in the next month.

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on why the Voting Rights Act is needed now more than ever

Did the CIA Illegally Spy on the Senate? Now We May Never Know

US Senator Dianne Feinstein

US Senator Dianne Feinstein (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

The Department of Justice will not investigate whether the Central Intelligence Agency illegally spied on staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee and removed documents from committee servers, McClatchy confirmed Thursday. The CIA also claimed committee staffers took documents from the intelligence agency without authorization, and that claim will also not be investigated.

“The department carefully reviewed the matters referred to us and did not find sufficient evidence to warrant a criminal investigation,” Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr told McClatchy.

It’s a fizzling denouement to one of the more fascinating political dramas of the Obama era. Earlier this year, without any warning, Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein took the Senate floor and delivered a lengthy, forceful speech directly accusing the CIA of spying on private committee computers and removing sensitive documents. It was an unprecedented public eruption of tensions between the security state and the legislative branch.

The backstory is that the Intelligence Committee conducted an extensive investigation into Bush-era torture, and produced a 6,300-page report that is not yet public. It’s reportedly a “searing” indictment of the agency—and the CIA responded by denying many of the damning charges.

The problem is that investigators came across what’s known as the “Panetta review,” an internal review ordered by the former CIA director that reportedly confirms most of the worst findings about torture by CIA agents. It’s this review that Feinstein publicly charged the CIA with removing from private committee computers after gaining illegal access.

This is a serious charge—it’s not substantially any different from CIA agents breaking into a physical Senate office and removing files.

What’s odd about Justice’s refusal to pursue a formal investigation is that Feinstein claims Brennan essentially admitted the cyber break-in. This is what she said during her speech back in March:

[O]n January 15, 2014, CIA Director Brennan requested an emergency meeting to inform me and Vice Chairman Chambliss that without prior notification or approval, CIA personnel had conducted a “search”—that was John Brennan’s word—of the committee computers at the offsite facility. This search involved not only a search of documents provided to the committee by the CIA, but also a search of the ”stand alone” and “walled-off” committee network drive containing the committee’s own internal work product and communications.

According to Brennan, the computer search was conducted in response to indications that some members of the committee staff might already have had access to the Internal Panetta Review. The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the Internal Review, or how we obtained it.

Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computers.

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A second-party retelling of a confession may not be enough to obtain a conviction, but it’s hard to imagine there is not enough smoke here to at least pursue an investigation. Aside from the immediate implications regarding Bush-era torture—and, with the revelations this week about CIA spying in Germany, an agency that may essentially be going rogue—the incident raises grave concerns about constitutional separation of powers, as Feinstein herself noted in her speech.

Feinstein said she is at least happy that Justice won’t investigate the CIA’s claim that committee staffers essentially stole the Panetta report from CIA computers, a charge she firmly rebutted, at length, in her March speech.

Others took a more aggressive stand. Senator Mark Udall, a member of the committee, doesn’t think this is over:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t directly criticize the Justice Department on Thursday, but did restate that he believed the CIA was engaged in wrongdoing.

 

Read Next: Rebecca Gordon asks, Does America Still Torture?