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What Does the Democratic Party Actually Believe?

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (REUTERS/Jacquelyn Martin/Pool)

To put it crudely, the dilemma facing the Democratic party comes down to this: Will Dems decide next time to stand with the working people, or will they stick with their big-money friends in finance and business? Some twenty years ago, Bill Clinton taught Democrats how they can have it both ways. Take Wall Street’s money—gobs of it—while promising to govern on a heart-felt agenda of “Putting People First.”

It worked, sort of, for the party. Not so much for the people. New Democrats prevailed. Old labor-liberals lost their seat at the table. Among left-wing malcontents, Bill Clinton became “slick Willie.”

Now economic adversities have blown away the Clinton legacy, which is rightly blamed for much of what happened to middle-class wage earners. New voices like senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherod Brown are demanding a new new politics—big governing reforms that really do put people first. The old New Dems are stuck with their moderation and obsolete economic doctrine that is utterly irrelevant amid the nation’s depressed circumstances.

Sooner or later I expect politics will change, because the injuries and adversities will not go away in the absence of stronger government interventions. For now, however, the Clintonites are the Democratic Party, having deliberately excluded liberal thinkers and activists from the ranks of government policymakers for two decades. Economic experts recruited by the Obama administration are more likely to have been trained at Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. They do not personally share the public’s anger.

So here is the unspoken subtext for 2016 and beyond: What does the Democratic Party actually believe? Democrats argue among themselves, but try not to provoke fratricidal accusations. The question is sufficiently hot that it is no longer a subterranean discussion. The Washington Post and The New York Times are chewing on it too.

A recent Post article warned Democrats to lay off the “inequality” talk for fear of sounding like “class warfare.” Well, yes, it is. As billionaire Warren Buffett remarked, the class warfare has been underway for some years . “Our side won,” he said.

The president has made several fine speeches on the issue, but the Post says the White House has already decided to drop it. Talk specifics, but keep it cool. Robert Borosage, director of the Campaign for America’s Future, suggests this is a recipe for “passive voice populism.”

The New York Times produced a tougher piece on the Dems’ intramural debate. It described in disturbing detail how closely Hillary has relied on the financial constituency. “As Wall St. Faces Scorn, It Warms to Clinton,” the headline said. She was, after all, a senator from New York. And when she ran for president and lost in 2008, organized labor was enthusiastically on her side.

Still, Hillary Clinton is dangerously out of step with the new zeitgeist. If she already has the 2016 nomination locked up, as her campaign gremlins keep telling us, it’s hard to imagine she would desert the finance-friendly politics that supported her rise to power.

The Hillary question has many corners to it. On one hand, it could achieve the epic breakthrough of electing a woman. On the other hand, it might postpone the restoration of progressive economic polices for another four years.

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For that reason and some others, Clinton could run and lose the election. Still, many Dems see her as as the best prepared candidate and the best compromise among contending party factions. Dems do realize the need to hold onto the White House and Supreme Court appointments in order to derail the Roberts Court’s attack-happy right-wingers. Or, who knows, maybe she will decide not to run.

In other words, this dilemma will not be resolved by one election, or maybe several elections, because it is larger than individual candidates and their personal qualities. Nor is it limited to Democrats (witness the nervous breakdown of the Republican Party). We are really looking at the capture of representative democracy deformed by the deadly embrace of capitalism.

Only the people themselves can dig themselves out of this trap. My personal hunch is that Democratic office holders will not find the courage to embrace the future and the reform vision that some of their colleagues are advocating until their party feels threatened by its own constituencies. That is, the Dems need to experience more of the surprise rebellions that took down some old bulls in the GOP. If the people cannot get either major party to lead the way, maybe they will need to create a new party that will.

 

Read Next: On NSA spying, Hillary Clinton is either a fool or a liar.

A Grassroots Labor Uprising—at Your Bank?

Bank of America

(Reuters/Fred Prouser)

You might think the Great Recession taught us all a lesson about the dangers of letting market speculation, corporate oligarchy and an overheated financial system take over the global economy. And yet, even as workers and governments remain scarred from the 2008 financial disaster, Wall Street and its political cronies are already hard at work penning an international program to further deregulate the financial infrastructure. And this time, they’re targeting the inner gears of capital: the financial service sector.

The Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) builds on the template of past free trade deals like NAFTA, but focuses on the financial service sectors, like computer technicians and bank tellers. And as service worker unions join the resistance to free trade alongside factory workers and farmers, a campaign is underway to organize Wall Street’s rank and file.

According to negotiating documents released online by Wikileaks last month, the finance section of the TISA draft reads as a wish list of deregulatory measures penned by Wall Street, and it would expand market liberalization to more than two dozen countries, including those of the European Union, Switzerland, Mexico, Israel, Turkey and Australia. Trade ministers are seeking to make it easier for financial services and other professional labor—from loan officers to security guards to data processors—to be traded like global commodities and undermine working conditions in the process.

The labor sectors covered by TISA relate to many of the services that help society run, including core public programs like healthcare, telecommunications infrastructure, the post office or municipal water systems. But one of the major aims of TISA is to “liberalize” private sectors beyond the earlier trade deals’ provisions for trades in goods and lowering of tariffs. Although financial markets are already intermeshed globally, TISA would further whittle down regulatory safeguards on transnational financial services, such as marketing of insurance, and on the labor these firms use. So the workers that process financial transactions may find their jobs increasingly digitized and “exportable”, just like bank transfers or stock trades. By further deregulating the infrastructure of wealth itself, TISA gives companies greater leeway to outsource and offshore “white collar” jobs once deemed insulated from free trade.

In response, TISA has drawn protests from both civil servants and bank clerks worldwide. They fear that while earlier waves of trade liberalization led to factory closures, deregulating the service economy could bring similar devastation to “white collar” employees.

In a joint statement of opposition, the union association Public Services International, together with various civil society, labor and rights groups, denounced the TISA’s “hyper-deregulation-and-privatization agenda” and the lack of transparency in the trade talks:

Democracy is eroded when decision-making about important sectors– such as financial services (including banking, securities trading, accounting, insurance, etc.), energy, education, healthcare, retail, shipping, telecommunications, legal services, transportation, and tourism– is transferred from citizens, local oversight boards, and local or provincial/state jurisdiction to unaccountable “trade” negotiators who have shown a clear proclivity for curtailing regulation and prioritizing corporate profits.

A unique feature in the opposition to TISA is the prominence of finance workers—the tellers, loan officers and customer service agents that conduct the daily mechanics of global commerce. They’re generally not a sector known for its alignment with anti-capitalist struggles, but UNI Global, an international service union association based in Switzerland, sees these workers as a fulcrum in financial infrastructure. Its UNI Finance division has launched the Global Finance Workers Alliance to organize for reform from within the sector.

Corporate impunity is both a labor issue and a moral issue for finance labor. They see the corruption of the big banks as reflected in the mistreatment of workers and the offshoring and displacement of service jobs, which firms can now do easily online in cheaper markets—by outsourcing to call centers, for example.

Despite some efforts by regulators to rein in the big banks since the 2008 disaster, an analysis of TISA’s financial provisions by Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland indicates that the accord would lead to a drastic erosion in the oversight and regulation of financial institutions.

One proposed provision, for example, would require that countries set financial rules in a way that would “expedite the ability of licensed insurers to offer insurance services across borders” giving massive insurance firms greater access to domestic markets, while minimizing government oversight. Another proposal would deregulate specific public finance programs, like state-run pension funds or disaster insurance. Other provisions would expand corporations’ ability to keep their data secret to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

As with previous free-trade deals, the accord would be enforced through an extralegal framework that allows corporations to challenge government regulations as virtual sovereigns, potentially undermining commercial, environmental and public health regulations.

Elise Buckle, UNI Finance global policy coordinator, tells The Nation, “The TISA regulation is really for the banks to be able to do whatever they want, to shift people around, have a kind of free flow of information, IT and people. And that’s of course [to allow] them to reduce their cost, but at the expense of human rights.”

In addition to mobilizing finance workers against the TISA and related trade deals, UNI Finance is seeking to build long-term solidarity and labor consciousness throughout the financial services industry. With the turmoil of the Great Recession and ongoing attacks on labor power such as TISA, the group believes that the conditions are right for a worker awakening in the nerve center of global capital: Wall Street.

In collaboration with Communications Workers of America, UNI is coordinating an alliance of US labor and community organizations known as the Committee for Better Banks, with the aim of campaigning nationally and globally for better working conditions and union rights for US bank workers. The coalition is organizing in solidarity with UNI Finance and finance sector unions in other countries, as part of an international effort to raise labor standards across the global financial system as a whole, and thus push back against the trend of offshoring financial jobs to squeeze labor costs.

The group’s recently published survey of the finance workforce shows that in contrast to their bosses, who have seen hefty pay hikes and bonuses following the financial collapse, frontline employees struggle with extremely low wages (more than a quarter rely on public assistance), and are constantly stressed by low job security, strenuous schedules and mass layoffs.

Sometimes the industry pressure pushes workers toward risky, perhaps unethical marketing tactics. One worker testified that her “mentally abusive” boss had created a high-pressure workplace where “they don’t care about their customers and just want them to open more products. ... As an employee, we push sales just to be able to keep our job.”

At their recent inaugural rally in Manhattan, activists with the committee highlighted the economic gulf between bank workers in the US and in countries where bank workers are unionized: in poorer countries like Tanzania and Brazil, for example, bank employees enjoy more generous health and retirement benefits, along with job security protections. Yet their American counterparts, they argued, are not only impoverished but often terrified about challenging their bosses due to fear of losing their jobs in retaliation.

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Seeding labor consciousness in such a precarious workforce is a challenge, but the committee envisions a grassroots labor uprising from within the banking sector that can press for curbs to exorbitant CEO pay, demand stronger government regulations and encourage whistleblowers to call out corruption.

“We really think the employees are at the center of the ethical transformation that banks have to do to avoid another crisis,” Buckle says.

They may never totally overturn Wall Street from within, but the workers who occupy capitalism’s underbelly are well positioned to leverage their labor power against a morally bankrupt system.

 

Read Next: Why the Supreme Court’s attack on labor hurts women most

How Obama Could Become the Good Jobs President and Help 21 Million Americans Join the Middle Class

Obama Light

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Last Monday, President Obama defied Republican threats to file suit against him for his use of executive orders. “If House Republicans are really concerned about me taking too many executive actions,” the president said, “the best solution to that is passing bills. Pass a bill, solve a problem.”

Republican obstruction is so extreme that House Speaker John Boehner can’t even get what he wants done, much less what the country needs. House Republicans have blocked countless jobs plans, stonewalled immigration reform, stopped a hike in the minimum wage and prevented emergency unemployment benefits from even getting a vote.

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So Obama has begun to act—often belatedly and timidly in his supporters’ view. He has tempered deportation of the “dreamers,” kids born in the United States to undocumented immigrants, and promises more action on immigration. He has ordered that the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act not be enforced against gay couples. He has issued a bevy of minor common sense measures on gun control (like making it harder for the mentally ill to get a permit). His push for executive action on climate change will have real impact. And recently, he lifted the minimum wage for federal contract workers to $10.10 an hour, shaming Republican obstruction of this long overdue measure.

Republicans are simply drinking the Kool-Aid if they think they can make Obama’s initiatives an issue in the fall elections. Americans want action, not more dysfunction.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

 

Read Next: Dear Democrats, economic inequality is not an act of God.

What’s Stopping Congress From Reversing ‘Hobby Lobby’?

Hobby Lobby

(AP photo/Ed Andrieski)

Democrats in the House and Senate will unveil legislation that would reverse the immediate effects of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and force closely held corporations to provide contraceptive coverage to employees regardless of whether the owners object.

A common misconception about the case is that the Court ruled the Affordable Care Act violated the religious freedom precepts laid out in the Constitution by requiring contraceptive coverage. It clearly didn’t—rather, the Court’s five conservatives ruled it violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which forbid the federal government from “substantially burden[ing] religious exercise without compelling justification.”

All it would take, then, to undo the immediate effects of the ruling would be for Congress to go back and pass legislation overriding the RFRA.

That’s what Democratic Senators Patty Murray, Mark Udall and Dick Durbin are proposing to do with their bill unveiled Wednesday morning, the Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act. In the House, Representatives Louise Slaughter, Diana DeGette and Jerrold Nadler have a companion bill with the same name.

The legislation would explicitly forbid employers from refusing to offer health coverage, including contraceptives, that is otherwise guaranteed by federal law, and would make explicit that the RFRA cannot override the Affordable Care Act. It would still allow exemptions for houses of worship and religious non-profits.

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“After five justices decided last week that an employer’s personal views can interfere with women’s access to essential health services, we in Congress need to act quickly to right this wrong,” said Murray. “This bicameral legislation will ensure that no CEO or corporation can come between people and their guaranteed access to health care, period. I hope Republicans will join us to revoke this court-issued license to discriminate and return the right of Americans to make their own decisions, about their own health care and their own bodies.”

The immediate prospects of the legislation are fairly dim: or rather, it is certainly dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House, and faces a tough path in the Senate, where it will come for a vote next week.

But the idea is to begin legislative momentum now for an eventual reversal of the RFRA—and in the meantime, put Republican Senators on the record now about whether they think corporate executives should be making healthcare decisions for their female employees.

 

Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on Hobby Lobby and the religious rights of Muslim prisoners

Losing to Germany Wasn’t Actually the Worst Thing to Happen to Brazil This World Cup

Brazil fan World Cup

A Brazil fan reacts while watching a broadcast of the 2014 World Cup Semifinal. July 8, 2014. (Reuters/Uselei Marcelino)

The key numbers in Brazil are not 7-1, the score of yesterday’s historically lopsided World Cup semifinal loss to Germany. Yes, those numbers matter. Yes, it was a dark day in the history of Brazilian sports that will be remembered in shocked silences for as long as a soccer ball is kicked around in the country. Yes, it may even sway a presidential election in the country this October. But these are still not the key numbers.

Here are some other numbers that will have much more bearing on both Brazil’s present and future. These are the numbers that animate far more debate and discussion inside of Brazil than the US media, with their view from Copacabana beach, have portrayed.

$11-14 billion. That is how much the World Cup is going to end up costing the country. No one in government, when asked, is actually even sure as to what the final bill is going to be. This is not unique to Brazil by any means. Mega-events produce this kind of economic uncertainty and graft wherever they nest. But in a country where health and education are pressing issues, it stings.

250,000. That is the number of people—overwhelmingly poor—who may be displaced by the time all the confetti has been swept away. Many of those losing their homes live in Brazil’s favelas. These communities, under constant attack by real estate speculators and the military police, have formed the backbone of Brazil’s urban culture for over a century. Several of these communities have been under military occupation during the Cup leading to brave, albeit uncovered, protests far from the public eye.

2016. That’s the year the Olympics are coming to Rio de Janeiro. If people in Brazil were this upset about hosting a soccer tournament, how will they feel about paying for Olympic golf? Also if people in Brazil found FIFA to be imperious, wait until they get a load of the IOC. One of their lovely aristocrats in charge will undoubtedly say some variant of “Let them eat horse dressage” before it’s all said and done.

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Yes, a 7-1 loss is a brutal way to exit the World Cup. But masses of people throughout the country have already committed themselves to fighting a different kind of brutality: the hosting of mega-events on their backs. That anger isn’t going anywhere. The question will be whether Brazil can sustain the level of militarization that has muted the protests during the World Cup. It is probably economically unsustainable to maintain the FIFA police state for the next two years. That will open more space for dissent, and these dissenting voices must be heard. It’s Brazil now. FIFA and the IOC have both stated their desires to return the Olympics and World Cup to the United States. Unless we want to experience this brand of weaponized gentrification-on-steroids, we would do well to amplify Brazil’s fighting voices and encourage those around us to listen. It’s not about solidarity. It’s about common survival.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the truth about militarization and the World Cup

It’s Official: Corporations Are Religious People

Tom Tomorrow

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ABC News Helps Dinesh D’Souza Hype His Latest Conspiracy Theory

Dinish D'Souza ABC

Dinesh D'Souza and Michael Eric Dyson on ABC News

In yet another of the MSM’s misbegotten attempts at political “balance,” ABC News’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos lent right-wing conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza a veneer of legitimacy to promote his latest “documentary,” America: Imagine the World Without Her. Guest host Martha Raddatz omitted mention of why else D’Souza has been in the news lately—he recently copped a plea to making illegal political contributions through straw donors, a felony for which he’ll be sentenced in September. But she did squeeze in an invaluable plug, saying, “It’s a very interesting movie. Everybody should go see it and continue a debate like this.” (Is it too conspiratorial to suggest that the omission and the plug were prerequisites for his appearing on the show?)

The debate was between D’Souza and MSNBC contributor Michael Eric Dyson, but giving a prestige platform for D’Souza’s latest wack-job theory (this time it’s a nefarious connection between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) is akin to giving climate deniers equal media time with climate scientists.

Dinesh D’Souza is the author and filmmaker who likes to cherry-pick coincidences from the past to explain present-day liberal politics—like his Newt Gingrich–endorsed theory that you can’t grasp “how Obama thinks” unless you understand his Kenyan father’s raging “anti-colonialism.”

To her credit, Raddatz introduced D’Souza’s recently released movie (currently number twelve at the box office) by saying, “[you] essentially have a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama turning this nation into a socialistic nation, something you said started when Hillary Clinton was in college.”

D’Souza denied it was a conspiracy theory, but then went on about how Clinton and Obama were both influenced by radical community organizer and writer Saul Alinsky. Hillary met him in high school and wrote a college thesis on him; as a young community organizer in Chicago, Obama was influenced by some of Alinsky’s teachings.

And therefore… what? Hillary and Barack telepathically exchanged Alinsky vibes so they could turn the country red decades later? As Crooks and Liars points out, D’Souza didn’t mention that the right is now embracing Alinsky’s tactics or that in high school Hillary was also a Young Republican and a “Goldwater girl.” Nor are secret socialist sympathies evident in these two centrist Democrats. Hillary, knocked by left and right for only ambiguously owning up to her substantial wealth, is more of a Wall Street symp. A front-page New York Times story today starts: “As its relationship with Democrats hits a historic low, Wall Street sees a solution on the horizon: Hillary Rodham Clinton.” As for Obama, if only he followed Alinsky’s emphasis on confrontation a little more.

This is hardly the first time the corporate media has offered their stage to far-right media figures. A few years ago, CNN signed up (and has since waved adieu) RedState.com’s Erick Erickson and St. Louis Tea Party activist Dana Loesch as paid contributors. In April, ABC News brought on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham as a contributor; she’ll continue appearing on Fox News, where she subs for Bill O’Reilly. (Ingraham recently lit into the children being held in detention at the border for “complaining that the burritos and eggs they’re being given in their holding areas are making them sick…. I’ll bet there are American kids who would like free food before they go to bed at night.” Not that she’s for giving free food to hungry American kids, either.)

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It’s not that Tea Party types shouldn’t appear on the networks’ signature Sunday shows; they should, they’re in the news. It’s just that when they do, they’re not grilled terribly hard. It’s as if mainstream media are as afraid of the far right as John Boehner is.

I wrote above that ABC helped legitimize D’Souza. Let me amend that: “gets” like D’Souza or Ingraham help legitimize ABC News with the Tea Party right. Sometimes seeking balance is really a plea to call off the dogs.

Read Next: Leslie Savan on how to stand up to chickenhawks

Want Colleges to Protect Students From Sexual Assault? Take Action to Give Title IX Teeth

Protest at Amherst College

Photo by Jisoo Lee

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to be partnering with Know Your IX to demand appropriate consequences for colleges that fail to address sexual assault and rape on their campuses. We’re publishing this piece by Alexandra Brodsky and Dana Bolger of Know Your IX to give our readers a chance to find out more about this vital campaign.

Last July, members of Know Your IX were busy preparing for our national protest to pressure the Department of Education to hold colleges accountable for how they handle campus sexual assault. As we put the finishing touches on posters and chant sheets, two organizers got to chatting about school administrators. Wagatwe Wanjuki and John Kelly realized that they had both been raped at Tufts University, six years apart. Both had turned to the school for help; in both cases, the school failed to support and protect them. And both, they discovered, had felt the brunt of this institutional betrayal from the very same dean. He had been at the center of Wanjuki’s complaint half a decade before and still, as Kelly experienced firsthand in 2013, he continued to deny students not only basic respect and empathy but also their civil rights.

You’d think the university would have gotten it right by now.

Know Your IX is a national survivor-run campaign to end campus sexual violence by educating students about their Title IX rights and empowering them to hold their universities accountable for violations of the civil rights law. Many people think Title IX is just about women’s sports, but in fact it prohibits all forms of gender discrimination in education, including sexual violence and harassment. As part of their Title IX responsibilities, schools that receive any federal funding must actively combat gender-based violence and respond when students of any gender are harmed. When they don’t, they deny survivors access to the full range of educational opportunities available to their peers: as many survivors can attest, it’s impossible to pursue a full range of educational opportunities when you’re studying, eating and sleeping on the same campus as your rapist.

Yet despite the promise of Title IX, student survivors’ experiences—and federal complaints—indicate that few schools respect students’ rights.

Sexual assault on college campuses has dominated the news as of late, as outlets from The Nation to The New York Times examine the crisis and United States senators hold roundtables and hearings to discuss it. The current national outcry over campus sexual violence may be new, but the violence itself isn’t—and the Department of Education knows that. This isn’t the first time that many of the schools currently under investigation for Title IX violations by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights are facing scrutiny. The OCR has investigated several universities, including Tufts, multiple times in the last decade alone.

Fortunately, the federal government is beginning to recognize what students have known for too long: investigations alone won’t spur schools to make real changes. We’re heartened by the department’s new efforts to give Title IX teeth. For example, in response to student demonstrations like our protest last year, this spring the OCR published a list of the dozens of colleges and universities currently under investigation for Title IX violations—an unprecedented move on the agency’s part and an important first step to hit universities where it hurts: their reputations.

But we can’t stop there. A major reason Title IX hasn’t been effective in ending campus sexual violence is that school administrators know the Department of Education doesn’t hold schools accountable for violating the law: in its entire history, the OCR has never sanctioned a school for sexual assault-related violations. Instead, even when the government exposes terrible abuses, it gives schools second (and third, and fourth) chances to improve—with devastating consequences for students like John, who suffer assaults at schools where students have been complaining about policies and administrators for years. Just as campus rapists have perpetrated violence while confident their schools will never hold them accountable, so too do universities flout their legal responsibilities without fear of repercussions.

This needs to change. Unfortunately, the OCR has only one tool expressly at its disposal to sanction schools: the complete removal of federal funds. This measure is far too blunt an instrument, and would hurt the very students it means to help by drying up financial aid and educational opportunities—perhaps why, in part, the department has been reluctant to issue formal findings of noncompliance in the first place.

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That’s why Know Your IX and our partners ask that Congress provide the OCR with the explicit authority to levy fines against schools in violation of Title IX. These sanctions would send a clear message to schools (and the country) that their institutional violence and civil rights violations won’t be tolerated. While the fines alone might not convince a school to change—and while they should not be so onerous that they harm current students—the resulting headlines, read by prospective students and alumni donors across the country, will be unambiguous; in the prestige game of American academia, a rape fine would deal a deep blow.

We wish we lived in a country where we could appeal to schools’ moral compasses—but US colleges and universities have proven time and again that they won’t take sexual violence, and equal access to education for all students, seriously, until they have more at stake. We need to speak to them in the twin languages they understand: money and reputation. Armed with the power to levy fines, the OCR could ensure that it is more expensive for schools to violate survivors’ rights than to respect them.

Now is our opportunity. Senators Claire McCaskill, Kirsten Gillibrand and Richard Blumenthal are looking to introduce legislation this fall to combat campus sexual violence. They know, as we do, that the OCR needs more tools at its disposal. And they’ve already held a series of roundtables to discuss, among other reforms, the possibility of issuing legislation granting the OCR fining authority. Join Know Your IX and The Nation in calling on Congress to fight to make Title IX’s forty-two-year-old promise a reality.

Yes, Arresting Subway Dancers Is Still a Way of Criminalizing Black Youth

subway dancer

(CC 2.0/Dan Nguyen)

Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize–winning history about what amounted to re-enslavement of many black people from the end of the Civil War up until World War II, locates the roots of the modern prison-industrial complex in America’s post-Reconstruction era, the convict leasing program and the Black Codes. The Black Codes were laws—criminalizing acts ranging from vagrancy to speaking too loudly in front of white women—passed with the sole purpose of arresting black men and forcing them back in unpaid labor. Blackmon writes:

Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men.

Early in the twentieth century, Southern states passed laws that further criminalized the behaviors and very existence of black people in public spaces, establishing Jim Crow segregation. In 1984’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion, Manning Marable writes, “South Carolina insisted that black and white textile workers could not use the same doorways, pay windows, bathrooms or even the same water buckets. Many cities passed ordinances which kept blacks out of public parks and white residential districts. Atlanta outlawed black barbers from clipping the hair of white children and women in 1926.”

“At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics,” writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness (2010). “It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization.”

I cite these sources because it’s important to understand the history of criminalizing black bodies for seemingly mundane actions.

Back in May, I wrote about how the crackdown on New York City subway dancers, mostly adolescent black boys, was another way of criminalizing black youth even as the number of people stopped and frisked by the NYPD plummeted. In a column for the New York Daily News, Harry Siegel responds:

Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation that the 46 reckless endangerment arrests in the first four months of this year [for subway dancing] amounted to “criminalizing black youth.” Smith, putting words in Bratton’s mouth, went on: “Those scary, disorderly, dancing young black bodies. Always causing fear.”

That seems to be more Smith’s obsession than Bratton’s, reducing these teenagers from people to totemic symbols and ideological props, as though dancing on the trains is some sacred ritual and any attempt to move it to parks or other places people are free to leave proves the NYPD’s secret role as the racist art police.

There’s no bigger conspiracy of race, class or culture here. The issue is simply about how shared, confined common spaces can be used. Hearing progressives who adore public transportation and disdain cars insist subways must double as performance spaces makes my brain hurt.

My argument has never been that subways “must double as performance spaces.” I haven’t made a public art argument with regards to the subway dancers, though I’m not opposed to doing so. (I’m also not sure how I put words in Commissioner Bratton’s mouth, as what Siegel quotes I didn’t attribute to Bratton.) What I’ve said is that arresting these mostly black teenage boys is further criminalization of black youth and black bodies, an assertion I continue to stand behind. However one feels about subway dancers’ high-flying antics, we should be able to agree they shouldn’t be arrested.

If there are real complaints about subway dancers’ posing a threat to people’s safety, then that’s something the city has to deal with. But the answer can not and should not be to arrest these kids. We can not making dancing a crime (look how that turned out in Footloose).

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Siegel goes on. “[F]or anyone serious about social justice, there’s no shortage of pressing work. The NYPD continues to arrest an excessive number of young black and Latino men and burden them with criminal records for marijuana even though they’re no more likely to use it than their rarely hassled white and Asian peers—and even though New York State actually decriminalized personal possession decades ago.” I agree. Saddling young men of color with criminal records for possession of marijuana is abhorrent. But their being arrested for dancing isn’t somehow better. We are a nation addicated to solving social problems through punitive measures that serve no one, least of all those already burdened with a history of second-class citizenship.

We should be limiting the contact between our youth and police. The way to do that is not to criminalize a harmless behavior—and after all, even Siegel concedes that “the dancers haven’t actually injured any riders.” They’re not simply being asked to move elsewhere. They are being arrested and charged with misdemeanors. Does that seem “light”? Well, the stakes are always higher when black people interact with the police—on any level. Ask Nubia Bowe from Oakland.

Siegel concludes: “With so much worth fighting for, why are so many fixated instead on the unhindered right of young men to dance on trains and then ask riders for change or a buck or two? Is that really all they think these talented, entrepreneurial teenagers are capable of?” Sounds like “soft bigotry of low expectations” argument, but Siegel misses the point. Whether or not dancing on the subway continues isn’t my biggest concern. These kids are unequivocally talented, and I would love to see them be able to practice their art with the full support of their community and their city, in whatever space that may be. My issue is that we’re arresting them. We are continuing to police black bodies under the guise of public safety, but all we do is criminalize otherwise benign behaviors and punish black youth.

That’s a historical arc that hasn’t bent anywhere.

 

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