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Ferguson, Missouri—Images of police officers using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters this month have shocked the world, raising awareness of America’s increasingly militarized police forces, many of which are subsidized by the federal government.
While most of the photos from the Ferguson protests were taken on West Florissant Avenue, cell phone footage obtained by The Nation shows how the heavily armed police also made themselves known at Canfield Green Apartments, the neighborhood where Michael Brown was shot and killed on August 9. The video provides another example of the intimidation tactics so commonly used by law enforcement since the beginning of protests in Ferguson earlier this month.
The footage, captured by Canfield Green resident Marquez Larkin on the evening of August 13, features a line of about twenty police officers clad in riot gear, guarding the entrance of the neighborhood. Larkin said he and his brother, Khalil Fells, had just been herded back away from West Florissant at gunpoint.
They saw an unidentified man approaching the blockade of officers, walking back and forth at least three times. Larkin whipped out his cellphone and began to record. In the video, the man can be seen putting his hands up and yelling at the police before multiple popping sounds, which Larkin said came from police shooting rubber bullets, can be heard. The popping continues as the man turns around to walk away. Larkin and a crowd of spectators ran in the opposite direction of the police. Although it’s unclear from the video whether the man is shot, Fells said he saw him get hit in the foot.
Minutes later, a white woman approached the blockade, according to Fells. Although this moment was not captured on camera, another witness at the scene, Hakeem Ibery, also saw an “older white woman” approach the officers.
Fells observed, “Everybody clapped. They wanted to see what will happen to her. All [the police] said was, ‘Ma’am, can you please turn around?’”
She turned around and walked back to the crowd.
Each weekday morning, ex–assembly line workers, struggling single moms, and other job-seekers shuffle into government offices to get help retraining for a new career, to start over as a radiology technician or programmer, perhaps, or finish an associate’s degree. These workforce investment programs are set up to offer workers a chance to jump-start a new livelihood in a sagging labor market. But after decades of plowing billions of workforce investment dollars into federal job training initiatives, it’s still hard to tell how much these programs are helping workers regain their footing in an increasingly precarious economy.
Congress recently reauthorized the main funding law for workforce development, the Clinton-era Workforce Investment Act (WIA), purportedly to invest more wisely in the country’s downtrodden workers. In an apparently bipartisan push to “improve accountability and transparency within the system,” the legislation streamlines coordination between employers and agencies, strengthens oversight of program outcomes and cuts some programs deemed ineffective. But both the training programs and the new reforms amount to small drops in a very deep bucket of labor stagnation.
Moreover, since the reforms do not alter the decentralized structure of the workforce investment system, it won’t resolve the main criticism of WIA—that its investments don’t pay off for workers.
Does the WIA Help or Hinder Prospective Workers?
A recent New York Times report tells the stories of embattled workers who were duped by predatory for-profit diploma mills or sucked into useless vocational courses, with virtually no oversight from federal or state regulators.
In a particularly egregious example, for-profit Corinthian Colleges recently collapsed in the wake of a lawsuit brought by the State of California. The company, which draws most of its funding through federal loans and aid, is charged with unjustly refusing to release data on job placement for graduates, and marketing false promises to “the state’s most particularly vulnerable people—including low income, single mothers and veterans returning from combat.”
The good intentions but sometimes botched outcomes of the workforce investment system could be read as both an argument against government intervention in the labor market, or a sign that Washington has not invested enough.
It’s actually both and neither. Federal data generally show that WIA has yielded concrete gains for many workers in terms of re-employment and boosting wages, even as funding has dropped sharply, from $4.7 billion in 2000 to less than $3 billion today. But the law is limited in its scope and its funding, and helping workers adapt to a volatile and deeply unequal labor market is a challenge that neither government, nor individuals, can overcome with a training certificate.
The WIA system operates on federal vouchers that can be spent at an institution of the trainee’s choice, under a decentralized, self-directed service model based on what the legislation terms “individual empowerment.” As workers navigate a marketplace of programs ranging from nursing-aide courses at for-profit technical schools to basic education programs for teen drop-outs, they are guided by a local One-stop Center, an office that provides job search assistance and referrals for services. Depending on the level of services a local center offers, it often operates more like a job fair than a career counseling resource.
The problem is an inherent asymmetry of information between the companies and prospective students.
“There are private providers charging a lot of money,” says Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public affairs and economics at the University of Texas, Austin. When job-seekers are eager for any career opportunity, “unless those individuals have some independent reliable source of information, it’s hard for them to make choices.”
Although states may set general performance standards for clients receiving vouchers, Heinrich says, “they may not track that you took your voucher to the truck training driving school, and I took mine to a different driving school. The information on our performance in these programs may not be compared or shared with other students seeking similar types of training; they may not even know if you dropped out, and I kept going, or we both dropped out.”
States do compile data on program outcomes to submit to the Labor Department—and the new reform legislation aims to promote better data tracking. But detailed program data are typically not readily accessible to the public, Heinrich says, so job-seekers are hindered from making informed choices.
Meanwhile, as workers are “individual empowered” in the training marketplace, they have little protection from being taken advantage of. State workforce agencies are generally responsible for approving and overseeing programs, but the structure of the law allows schools to operate relatively autonomously, without monitoring whether they are fulfilling their claims to students.
But despite weak oversight, WIA’s reputation as a federal boondoggle seems overblown. A controlled study by Heinrich and other UT-Austin researchers, based on comparative data from twelve states, found that WIA participants saw “an average increment in earnings for women of nearly $2400 per year (about 26% of average earnings), and an impact for men [of] about $1700, or 15 percent of average earnings.”
Are There Better Training Models?
Some federal dollars, however, are better spent than others. Various studies highlight the relative effectiveness of more structured programs that link people to specific sectoral training and work opportunities—such as a niche local manufacturing industry that can sustain long-term jobs. This approach would be more akin to the training framework under WIA’s predecessor, the Job Training Partnership Act. That was a more regulated training structure that coordinated workers with local institutions and employers, and imposed concrete performance requirements for government-contracted programs. In other words, research shows that, ultimately, people struggling to stay afloat might benefit from a structured job-training path, rather than individual “free choice.”
Then again, there is only so much that job training can do. As many progressive economists point out, the so-called “skills gap” is a common excuse that employers invoke to justify their reluctance to hire more workers and pay them a living wage, and to mask structural unemployment and corporate greed.
But that doesn’t mean training programs are not worth investing in. Government policies have allowed corporations to expand inequality and massively downsize and offshore jobs. As a social imperative, the victims of these economic assaults deserve least some recompense, including resources to reconnect to the labor market.
One shortcoming of the WIA’s implementation, Heinrich says, is that the government has not prioritized funding for the programs proven to work. Specifically, education programs aimed at disadvantaged workers, such as poor women and people of color, tend to see greater economic gains from workforce development than training workers displaced from established careers. In addition, though the government tends to narrowly measure programs’ performance through short-term job placement rates, in the long run, workers likely gain more from sustained investment in education, tailored to their personal goals. “The quick short-term job placement might not be the right fit,” Heinrich says, “and if you take more time to assess the person, or really work with them to get the skills that they want, or need, then it might take longer [for them] in training.”
Though expanding training opportunities won’t fix the unemployment crisis, the government owes the jobless a fair chance to restore their livelihoods. Under a policy regime that has relentlessly disinvested from social programs, workforce investment provides at least one resource for workers to make the best of a bad situation.
When Gogebic Taconite LLC began moving in November 2010—the same month Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin—to develop an open-pit iron mine in one of the most environmentally sensitive regions of northern Wisconsin, the Florida-based mining firm got a lot of pushback. Residents of the region objected, along with Native American tribes. So, too, did citizens from across Wisconsin, a state that has long treasured the wild beauty of the Penokee Range. Environmental and conservation groups voiced their concerns, as did local and state officials from across the political spectrum.
The outcry heightened as Gogebic Taconite and its allies promoted a radical rewrite of existing mining regulations in order to promote a project that could grow to be four miles long, more than a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep. Democratic and Republican legislators began to ask tough questions. Yet Governor Scott Walker -- who as a state legislator had supported strict mining regulations -- remained “eager to advance a mining bill.”
Wisconsin media outlets reported extensively during the 2011 and 2012 on the governor’s determination to overrule objections to the grand schemes of an out-of-state corporation. Now, those same media outlets are reporting on newly released documents that show the mining firm secretly steered $700,000 into “independent” efforts to provide political cover for the embattled governor.
The documents, released as part of legal wrangling over a “John Doe” investigation into alleged fund-raising abuses during the recall elections of 2011 and 2012, have revealed both big contributions and big concerns on the part of a key investigator about “an appearance of corruption.”
Walker, of course, denies any wrongdoing, as does Gogebic and the group that managed the money.
Yet there is no question that the governor provided substantial support for the mining company. During a long, high-profile battle, he dismissed and denied a broad array of objections to Gogebic’s plans.
The Nature Conservancy argued that the proposed changes to Wisconsin mining regulations would “pose serious risks to the rivers, lakes, wetlands, groundwater and other natural resources.”
The Sierra Club announced that “the largest ever mine proposed in Wisconsin presents unacceptable risks to Lake Superior and the sensitive and exceptional Bad River Watershed which includes…the largest freshwater estuary on Lake Superior.”
“It’s devastating,” said Annie Maday, a member of the tribal council of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which argued that the mine could destroy wild rice beds and pollute waters on its nearby reservation. “They’re going to destroy my home.”
When the state Senate took up the bill, it was opposed by Bob Jauch, the Poplar Democrat who represents northwest Wisconsin. “Our job is not to be Santa Claus to the mining company and Scrooge to the taxpayers,” Jauch said. “This is a bill that offers a sweetheart deal for the mining company and shortchanges the taxpayer.”
State Senator Dale Schultz, a Republican who broke with his party to oppose the mining legislation at several key points, said, “My conscience simply won’t allow me to surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open debate.”
When the controversial rule changes were approved by the legislature in 2013, Walker announced that he was “thrilled” to sign the bill.
What went unmentioned at the time was the extent to which Gogebic Taconite was “thrilled” with Walker.
The documents that were briefly unsealed last week by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit—which is weighing whether to permit the continuation of the “John Doe” probe into alleged illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and so-called “independent” groups that supported the governor—shined light on the shadowy political networks that developed to aid Walker. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that the “hundreds of pages of documents that… showed Walker’s team sought to solicit funds for the Wisconsin Club for Growth from an array of nationally known donors to fend off his 2012 recall. Real estate developer Donald Trump, industrialist billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson were all targets.”
The documents reinforce the image of the governor, who is seeking re-election this fall and preparing a 2016 Republican presidential run, as a master political operative who worked every angle to secure record amounts of money for his own campaign and for “independent” groups that were supportive of it. In one of the unsealed documents, a fund-raising aide consulting with Walker before he met with wealthy donors advised: “Let them know that you can accept corporate contributions and it is not reported.”
The documents reveal details of a number of huge and previously unreported donations. Yet the one that raised the most eyebrows had to do with the mine project.
As the recall fights heated up, Gogebic Taconite moved $700,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which in turn steered resources to other groups that cheered on Walker and his Republican allies.
“Because Wisconsin Club for Growth’s fundraising and expenditures were being coordinated with Scott Walker’s agents at the time of Gogebic’s donation, there is certainly an appearance of corruption in light of the resulting legislation from which it benefited,” argued Dean Nickel, the former head of the state Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Unit who investigated the fund-raising scheme for the state Government Accountability Board.
Walker has admitted that he helped steer money to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, but when asked whether he knew of the Gogebic money, he answered vaguely, “Not to my knowledge.” Pressed by reporters on whether “the previously undisclosed funds and subsequent legislation were part of some pay-to-play scheme,” the governor replied, “That’s a ridiculous argument.”
The governor has every right to make that claim, as do his most ardent apologists.
But in Wisconsin, a state that historically took great pride in its clean elections and high ethical standards, voters have a right to ask, based on records and revelations, whether it really is all that ridiculous to find in them “an appearance of corruption.”
Read Next: Deepa Iyer on why all communities of color must work to put an end to police brutality.
To paraphrase bell hooks, the events of this summer show with bracing clarity that there are huge swaths of this country that love black culture and hate black people. It is difficult to not see this reality in the events of the last week: events that counterpose something as American as apple pie, the Little League World Series, and something else that is frankly also as American as apple pie: the killing of unarmed black men and women by police.
On the Little League side, Hollywood could not have painted a more soul-stirring tableau. We have the charming, charismatic champions of the United States, called Jackie Robinson West, hailing from the great metropolis of Chicago. JRW is a team consisting entirely of African-American kids. The fact that such a team has ascended to the finals of the Little League World Series is an astounding accomplishment both athletically as well as demographically. JRW is the first all African-American team to become US champions in over thirty years. During that same thirty-year stretch the number of African-Americans who play baseball has plummeted dramatically, their roster spots in Major League Baseball falling from 19 percent to 8 percent of all players. In college baseball, less than 6 percent of rosters have African-American players.
What else has happened over the last three decades in this country? We have seen the rise of neoliberal economics, the gutting of the social safety net, the explosion of economic inequality and the hollowing out of our cities. One casualty of the new urban-normal has been Little League programs, Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers: the very infrastructure baseball demands. This period of decimation has been followed more recently by an era of gentrification, as the wealthy have moved back into the cities, exploding property values, pushing poor disproportionately black residents to the margins and creating a twenty-first-century phenomenon: the suburbanization of poverty and dislocated ghetto sprawl. With these developments, baseball in urban communities has withered, likened by sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards to a corpse on life support.
Yet here is Jackie Robinson West. It beats the odds, and America is cheering on this fact without examining what made those odds so daunting in the first place. Instead, people are choosing to enjoy this dynamic, magnetic team named after the most universally praised of sports trailblazers, a man who has become a collective symbol of racial reconciliation.
Meanwhile thet same dislocation and suburbanization of poverty that has gutted urban baseball has also produced and created areas like Ferguson, Missouri, a place that has gone from majority white to majority black over the last generation, with the police seamlessly shifting its approach from Officer Friendly to occupying army. To judge by recent polls, white America doesn’t see poverty, police brutality and institutionalized racism in Ferguson or anywhere else. That era is considered long done, defeated by the individual heroism of people like Jackie Robinson. The logic goes, if racism was still throbbing in this country, then the kids from Jackie Robinson West, not to mention Mo’ne Davis, would never have stolen our hearts.
If we choose to see racism as an awful memory, like smallpox, instead of as a living virus, then the killing of Michael Brown is the fault of Michael Brown. Officer Darren Wilson must be being railroaded by a “lynch mob” and the leaving of Michael Brown’s unarmed corpse on the streets of Ferguson for hours was just an unfortunate clerical error. By that logic, all the deaths of black men and women at the hands of the police is the deracialized expression of the system working as it should.
If the white majority can go to sleep at night content with the idea that Michael Brown is dead because of the individual choices of Michael Brown, then they don’t have to confront racism as a living, breathing virus, needing to be confronted, quarantined and destroyed. They can cheer for Jackie Robinson West, put on a copy of the movie 42 afterward for the whole family, and marvel at how far the American experiment has allowed us to travel from those dark days before people like Robinson and, of course, Dr. King emancipated us from our past. Anyone who says otherwise surely must be one of those “race hustlers,” otherwise known as—all together now—“the real racists.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were still with us to speak for himself. If only the real Jackie Robinson could pop up as a public service announcement before Jackie Robinson West plays in the Little League World Series to repeat the words he said about police brutality fifty years ago: “One cannot expect [black] leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.”
If only the real Jackie Robinson were alive today, he would undoubtedly say that there is nothing post-racial about a world where two black people are killed on average by police every week. He would say, as he said in the 1960s, “All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens as an individual.”
If only the largely white Little League crowds cheering this electric team from Chicago could know as stone-cold fact that if Jackie Robinson were alive, there is no question he would be brimming with pride during the day at the play of the team that bears his name, but at night he’d be in Ferguson committed to the struggle for civil rights. He would also be challenging his white fans to care: to not isolate themselves from what Ferguson has exposed but to help confront it. He would repeat the same words he uttered fifty years ago: “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”
Read Next: Ferguson and Parallel Universes.
The radio host asked over the phone whether I was in Ferguson. “No,” I told him. “I’m watching the news unfold just like your listeners.”
By the time the first caller asked his question—why I and others were ignoring the role an “anti-social culture of thuggery or gangster rap” plays in teaching young people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to have no fear of consequences—the mistake in my assumption was clear. It seemed as if I was watching the news from Ferguson from a vantage point a universe away from that inhabited by host Jim Bohannon and, possibly, many of those who listened in on more than 500 stations nationwide Tuesday night.
I expected a reasonable discussion in which Bohannon, a veteran broadcaster, would take a position to the right of one I had taken in this space on the topic of Ferguson. What I got instead was some perspective on the challenges of having such a conversation across race and political divides at moments like this, when facts are so hard to come by.
The findings of recent polls on public perception of events in Ferguson run by Pew Research Center and The New York Times in partnership with CBS News reveal vastly different understandings of what’s happening depending on the race of the person polled. According the Pew report, four in five black Americans believe that the shooting of Brown by Darren Wilson “raises important issues about race,” compared to 37 percent of white people polled. Sixty-five percent of black people polled said the police had gone too far in responding to protesters in the wake of the shooting, compared to a third of white people. On Tuesday night, the host’s arguments and his selective reading of the coverage offered some context to the numbers. Among his arguments and framing of the issues were the following:
The primary problem in Ferguson is violent protesters.
The first question Bohannon asked was what police might do to quell the crowds, which seemed to me an odd place to start the conversation. Of the 163 arrests that have reportedly been made in Ferguson since Wilson killed Brown, 128 of those arrests have resulted in charges for failure to disperse. Just four have been for assaulting officers.
Audio from a correspondent in Ferguson that Bohannon played at the start of the segment confirmed that protesters are overwhelmingly peaceful. Yet the host still wanted to frame the conversation as one about violent anarchy raging in the Midwestern suburb. It’s a perspective similar to those described in a recent report from St. Louis in which white residents interviewed characterized the Ferguson protests as the result of “misplaced anger” and “bullshit.” They appear to be primarily concerned about how protesters’ actions (not Wilson’s) make their city and region look to the rest of the world.
The starting point for any conversation on what’s happening in Ferguson should be that a young man was killed and his lifeless body left in the street for hours. The starting point should be that his family, the community and the nation are still waiting for answers as to why.
The police shouldn’t be criticized for their use of force—including their militarized response—given that it’s hard to tell peaceful protesters from those who are violent.
See above for the breakdown of who among the crowds is doing what.
Melissa Harris-Perry made an important related point in her on-air exchange Saturday with MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee: it’s also worth considering that the people of Ferguson can’t tell police officers who take seriously their mission to serve and protect apart from those whose training or biases leave them unable to use appropriate force during encounters with members of the community. NPR’s interview with retired twenty-three-year veteran DC police officer, Ronald Hampton, offers his take on what appropriate force looks like:
If I go to arrest someone and they are resisting, the policy is that I am authorized to use force necessary to make the arrest that is equal to force being applied. I might be wrestling around them, but all I need to do is get the cuffs on them and get them to the police. Anything beyond that violates the policy.
But Wilson’s actions were justified because Brown was charging him.
Bohannon had decided to echo a version of events that has come to dominate conservative blogosphere: that Brown was running toward Wilson in the moments before the officer killed him. If you watch the video at the link, be sure to hang in until the 2:10 mark, when the woman claiming to be Officer Wilson’s friend offers the well-worn crazed-and-“drug-fueled Negro” angle, saying, “He [Wilson] really thinks he [Brown] was on something, because he just kept coming.”
In Bohannon’s opinion, any eyewitness accounts (and there are at least three) that challenge the mystery woman’s version of events have no merit. He won’t consider them, he said, because one of those eyewitnesses—Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson—has been reported to have been with Brown at the unrelated alleged robbery that took place before the shooting. It’s difficult to see how or why eyewitnesses who say Brown was running away from Wilson when he was killed would be collaborating in a lie, but that’s what Bohannon seemed to think.
What is clear is that the details are in dispute. That’s why people have been protesting in Ferguson: They want a thorough and just investigation that results in a presentation of the facts. Nationally, there’s some skepticism that this is even possible. According to that Pew poll, more than three in four black respondents say they have no or not much confidence in the investigation into the shooting, compared to a third of white respondents.
Let’s hope for an investigation that surprises the skeptics. Let’s hope for an investigation that somehow transcends the stark divides between the parallel universes from which Americans seem to be observing Ferguson.
Read Next: Mychal Dezel Smith on strange fruit in Ferguson
—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.
“Gruesome Tales Surface of Israeli Massacres Against Families in Gaza Neighborhood,” by Max Blumenthal. AlterNet. August 17, 2014.
The coverage of Gaza in the past month has for the first time truly become humanized, ceding more place to Palestinian voices and to reporting. The tragedy of one family drowns out another, and given the intensity and depth of the current massacre, so many disastrous events fall off the map: Max Blumenthal's article is a very moving description of what is happening in Gaza before and after the missiles start falling. It gives a sense of Israel's targeting, of the destruction of the infrastructure as well as that of lives, of the sense of panic before and during attacks, and the loss after them - but also, movingly, of small acts of solidarity which tie people together.
—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.
"Mental Health Cops Help Reweave Social Safety Net in San Antonio," by Jenny Gold. NPR. August 19, 2014.
The idea of "smart justice"—diverting individuals with mental illness into treatment rather than jail—is evident in San Antonio with its six-person mental health squad. Through answering emergency calls where mental illness may be an issue, the unit acts more like a group of social workers than law enforcers. As a result, the jails aren't overcrowded and the city and county have saved $50 million over the past five years. It seems like San Antonio figured out what should have been common sense all along: having the dignity to take the needs of individuals with mental illness seriously.
—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.
“Why don’t we hear about women victims of state violence?,” by Verónica Bayetti Flores. Feministing. August 14, 2014
In this piece, Bayetti Flores asks a very important question. And as you may have guessed from the headline, she questions why we have heard very little about cases of police violence against women and LGBTQ individuals. She talks about how we use social media to communicate with one another, and she explains how we bring with us to these discussions our internalized racism, our anti-black bias, we bring misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. She talks of how we calculate innocence and worth and how those most at risk of state violence don’t make the cut. They are sex workers, they are black, they are Latina, they are trans women, they are immigrants, they are queer, “or, God forbid more than one of those at once.” So why are we not also outraged about the deaths, the beating, the sexual violence against these women? And why do more people not know who they are?
—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.
"Activists Connect Shooting of Michael Brown to Movement for Reproductive Justice," by the Feminist Newswire. Feminist.org. August 13, 2014.
It is important, perhaps more than ever before, to consistently integrate our conversations about the plights of this nation in an intersectional framework. Very fortunately, many activists have done just that and are beginning to widen the way in which we talk about Ferguson, civil rights, and how the genocide of black and brown bodies in this country is a feminist issue. In this article, the Feminist Newswire frames the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the window of another very specific civil rights issue: reproductive rights. This article also touches on the hashtag activist movement happening called #reprojustice, a term, Imani Gandy, senior legal analyst at RH Reality Check has used when discusses the important of this intersectional discussion: “Black women are raising children and fearing that their children are going to be gunned down in the street. That affects their ability to parent freely."
—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.
"Republicans Hate the New AP History Exam,” by Avi Asher-Schapiro. VICE. August 20, 2014.
With the release of a new standard for the Advanced Placement US history exam, which aims to look more critically at the country's founding, conservatives are training their fury on what they see as undermining civic pride and patriotism and displaying history through a "leftist" perspective.
This is hardly the first time conservatives have tried their mightiest to rewrite history – there was an epic fight in the Sixties over historian John Hope Franklin's history Land of the Free that was so vitriolic that one man said he'd rather be thrown in jail than let his daughter be in the same room as the book. One of its big offenses: favorite treatment to Martin Luther King, Jr. Paying attention to the foundational parts of our country's history that subjugated its black citizens – who weren't treated as humans, let alone afforded the benefits of citizenship – and noting the exploitation of immigrant labor is a bridge too far for these conservatives. Better not teach history than learn from it.
—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.
“The Tenuous Future of Climate Migrants,” by Manish Vaid and Tridivesh Singh Maini. Himmal. August 11, 2014.
At least for now, Bangladesh has more at stake than other countries in the global warming crisis. The swampy country could have one-fifth of its territory submerged in water due to climate change. But this issue doesn't only affect Bangladeshis—the governments of the countries where the displaced may migrate must also pay attention. In Himmal magazine, Manish Vaid and Tridivesh Singh Maini argue that the Indian government must change its policies to accommodate "climate refugees" from its neighbor.
—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.
“The Wisdom of the Exile,” by Costica Bradatan. The New York Times. August 16, 2014.
Costica Bradatan does the brilliant and beautiful work in this New York Times opinion piece of exploring the richness of the unknown, the depth of being uprooted and the arguably necessary experience of exile. Such an experience, through its lightness of being, yields the ability to create a world anew, he says, but also the chance the totally redraw the lines of yourself. "As an exile you learn that the world is a story that can be told in many different ways," he writes. "Certainly you can find that in books, there is no deeper knowledge than the one that comes mixed with blood and tears, the knowledge that comes from uprooting." Could it really be, as Bradatan suggests, that exile (in all its forms) be necessary for both the philosopher and the common wo(man)?
—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.
“St. Louis: A City Divided,” by Jeanette Cooperman. Al Jazeera America. August 18, 2014.
"In St. Louis, segregation— geographic, cultural and economic—is normal," writes Jeannette Cooperman for Al Jazeera America. The Ferguson protests have a history that needs to be considered in any debate or discussion involving the current unrest. St. Louis has been "chopped into bits, remaining socially and economically segregated long after racist laws were erased from the books." The Mississippi and Missouri rivers have been used as racial divides and artificial boundaries carve the metropolitan into ninety separate municipalities, many of which can't afford good schools or highly trained police forces. In addition to this, the control of black people's movement can be traced back to the 1700's and in 1916, St. Louis became the first city to pass a segregation ordinance by referendum. This fascinating piece delves into the history behind today's Ferguson and is a must read for anyone interested in truly understanding the plight of a deprived yet resilient community.
Read Next: What Nation interns are reading the week of 08/015/14.
This month, the US military announced that the air force had delivered more than 110,000 meal rations to stranded Yazidi refugees in Iraq, in a mission that prompted President Obama to hail “the skill and professionalism of our military, and the generosity of our people.”
Also this month, a new report found that the nation’s food pantries serve 620,000 families with a member in the military—another troubling indication that service members battling against poverty must often rely on the generosity of our charities.
The stunning figure, which represents roughly a quarter of the households of military members on active duty, the Reserves or National Guard, shows that even as the United States purports to wind down its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and soldiers return to civilian life, they are resettling into a hostile economic climate, on a precarious landscape of joblessness and debt.
The data comes from an extensive quadrennial report published by Feeding America, a national network of tens of thousands of food aid groups and programs. The study also found that one-fifth of the households served by the food pantry network had a member involved with the armed forces, either currently serving or a veteran.
Feeding America spokesperson Maura Daly tells The Nation that the numbers reflect trends that local partner organizations have been observing anecdotally. “What we’re seeing in the data… is indicative of many working poor families in America, where one income is supporting an entire household and multiple needs,” Daly says. For the client population generally, over half the households served have at least one member who is employed, yet nearly three-quarters live in poverty. They’re caught in a knot of impossible choices: as they stretched their monthly budgets, about two-thirds were torn between paying for either utilities or for food, or between food and medical care.
(Courtesy: Feeding America)
For military families, constantly moving from station to station may feed into the hardships undergirding food insecurity, especially if families end up stuck in, say, a more expensive city, and struggle to secure a long-term job. (Military spouses typically suffer higher unemployment rates and earn less than non-military peers, according to federal surveys.)
In the San Diego area, where 27 percent of the households served by Feeding America have a current or former military member, Jennifer Gilmore, executive director of Feeding America San Diego, tells The Nation via email that from the local clients they serve, “we have heard that struggles are associated with the higher cost of living in certain areas and difficulty for family members to hold steady jobs amid transfers and deployments.” Veterans may face even worse hardships, scraping by on meager disability payments and retirement funds.
The Pentagon has disputed Feeding America’s methodology, suggesting that its statistical definition of military households was imprecise, but everyday tales of wrenching family struggle keep bubbling to the surface.
Mike Hernandez, a 37-year-old veteran in San Antonio who left the Navy in 2006, told NBC News that after struggling with PTSD disability and chronic unemployment, with three young daughters to feed, he reluctantly resorted to the food pantry:
It’s pure embarrassment. I hate it. I don’t like it. It’s like taking away the pride you have and making you humble… You have to go there and I hate to say it, but it makes you feel like you’re begging for food.… Why can’t there be some type of program to help us out? We didn’t do anything wrong. We come out of the military, next thing you know we’re left to fend for ourselves and you just can’t make it.
Feeding America’s findings parallel other studies revealing extraordinary levels of hardship among military families.
Operation Homefront, a charity serving low-income military households, recently reported that requests for food assistance had for the past several years stood at “nearly triple the pre-recession levels of 2008,” and requests for help with utilities bills and housing costs had also tripled.
According to a recent health study of post-9/11 veterans in Minnesota, over a quarter reported experiencing food insecurity in the past year, nearly twice the national rate.
Young male veterans from the post-9/11 war era face severe jobless rates; veterans age 18 to 24 hover around 24 percent, compared to 16 percent among nonveteran peers. And so far, federal policies to encourage private businesses to hire newly returned veterans have not significantly dented the post-military jobs deficit.
Jobless veterans may soon fall into an even deeper hole. Thanks to congressional gridlock, as of late June long-term emergency unemployment benefits had lapsed for nearly 300,000 veterans who have been unemployed for more than twenty-five weeks, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Many veterans and their families are also getting squeezed by harsh cuts to food stamp benefits that kicked in last November, when Congress failed to restore critical stimulus funding. The cutbacks have affected some 900,000 veterans, according to the CBPP. A typical family of three could see their benefits drop by about $30 a month. When dealing with chronic joblessness or poverty wages, veterans—be they just-returned Iraq troops or aging pensioners—might resort to a neighborhood food pantry regularly to tide them over between benefits payments. Meanwhile, data on sales at military-based grocery stores indicates that food stamp usage by military households at the commissaries reached an all-time high in 2013, after climbing dramatically since 2007.
As for those currently serving, a steady paycheck from Uncle Sam hardly guarantees economic security.
A 2010 federal survey showed more than eight in ten service members reported “$10,000 or more in credit card debt, a mortgage, or a car loan,” and “one-third indicated that they had trouble paying monthly bills.” Service members are also vulnerable to a shady predatory lending industry that specializes in bilking military households.
Financial strains are both a symptom and a cause of deeper social and psychological troubles that plague countless military families, such as depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries—all exacerbated by an inadequate healthcare infrastructure and the stress of debt and poverty.
With so many risks weighing on low-income military families, not even a decent meal can be taken for granted. Soldiers are no more deserving of basic food security than anyone else, of course—no one should have to suffer food insecurity. But it’s both predictable and tragic that so many of the people who are commissioned to secure the country must return home to fight for survival in their own communities.
Read Next: Michelle Chen on economic justice in Ferguson.
In my sports/politics circles, the question has come in fast and furious: Where are the athletes—always code for “black male athletes”—speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and the people of Ferguson? It’s a very understandable question. It’s also the wrong question. It’s understandable, of course, because there is a history of black athletes being the faces and symbols of the struggle in the United States against racism. It is impossible to imagine early resistance to white supremacy and lynching without recalling the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. You cannot tell the story of the civil rights movement without creating space for the story of Jackie Robinson. The black power movement of the 1960s could not be told without Muhammad Ali and two brave souls, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics.
People are also asking the question because the sight of black athletes making this kind of stand is hardly ancient history. In 2012, Carmelo Anthony, the Miami Heat led by LeBron James, and many other athletes posed with hoodies for Trayvon Martin, when it looked like George Zimmerman would not even be arrested for stalking Martin and taking his life. Kobe Bryant even felt a rather thunderous backlash when he was dismissive of these kinds of actions. Hell, there were NBA players threatening to wildcat strike over Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rants just a few months ago. People desperate to be inspired in very difficult times want to see more of this.
As Justice B. Hill wrote in a commentary on BET’s website,
[Black athletes] were quick to jump on Donald Sterling for his racism; they’ve been slow or silent altogether in standing up and speaking out about a killing that should never have happened… At some point—and this is that point—Black athletes like Doc Rivers, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Torii Hunter must stand as a Black president did. They must insist that no more cop killings of unarmed Black men will be tolerated.
Given especially the twenty-first-century narcotics of fame, iconography and killer visuals, imagine what would happen to Twitter and assorted social media if we had a 2014 version of this press conference. Maybe Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, LeBron James, and Carmelo gathered together to say that the killing of two black men a week by police for the last six years has to stop.*
It is also understandable why many yearn for an athletic speakout on this, given the racial divide in the United States, with more white Americans believing in ghosts than in the realities of institutional racism. The thought is that black athletes with their white fan bases have an opportunity, not to mention an obligation, to reach white America in a way that is unparalleled in the culture.
Yet this is also—to put it bluntly—the wrong question for those who want to see racial justice. Unlike the case of George Zimmerman, which involved an extremely repellent individual vigilante who hunted down Trayvon Martin and was not going to be arrested, this is a case of a police officer doing the killing. This is the case of challenging a very entrenched set of racist law enforcement practices both in the St. Louis metro area and throughout the country. These practices have become militarized in recent years, creating a reality where many communities feel less like neighborhoods and more like occupied territory. (The fact that as many have pointed out, the same company supplied the tear-gas canisters used in Ferguson and in Gaza speaks volumes.) This is not going to be challenged by players posing on Instagram with their hands up. This isn’t the damn “ice bucket challenge.” To uproot these police practices will take the kinds of mobilizations we have yet to see from organizations with the funds, members and capacity to take on the ways in which black neighborhoods are policed.
Instead of asking, “Where are the athletes?” We should ask. “Where is the AFL-CIO?” “Where is the climate justice movement?” “Where is Amnesty international and the ACLU?” “Where is the reproductive justice movement?” I know that some of these organizations are starting to move in pieces—some unions, some climate justice activists, some people in the repro justice movement—but we need the full weight of these organizations. We need them using their reservoirs of power, money and influence to demilitarize police departments, demand civilian review boards for the police and stop the violence. We need them showing the true meaning of solidarity; the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and our struggles are conjoined. If an athlete is inspired by this level of activism and is willing to take on the pressure from the media, ownership and their own inner circle, and speak out, then that’s great. It also would be a true echo of the past. All of sports history shows that athletes tend to speak out in response to mass movements. They don’t start them. They amplify them. Let’s stop demanding athletes take actions that we don’t demand of ourselves or the organizations around us. There is real work to be done, and it doesn’t involve waiting for LeBron to save us.
* Yes, there have been moments, such as when the Washington football team ran out onto the field with their hands up. Washington wide receiver Pierre Garcon also posed for an Instagram picture along with several teammates with his hands raised. Given the owner of the Washington football franchise, the racist brand that they represent and the pressure they are under to change their name—not to mention Garcon’s own vociferous defense of this brand—these actions can provoke as much cynicism as inspiration.
Read Next: For many politicians, Ferguson isn’t happening.
“The most important political figure in Europe—I think it’s fair to say she is—is coming to Kiev, ” said Stephen Cohen on The John Batchelor Show this Tuesday. Cohen, contributing editor for The Nation and author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold Wars, and The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin, is referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s upcoming visit with President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, which is scheduled for this Saturday. In debating whether Merkel’s position has or has not changed, Cohen asserted, “The fact that she’s going to Kiev is an enormous concession for Kiev. She is coming…but she wants something in return. I have to assume that what she wants in return is for Poroshenko to declare a cease-fire before something happens in the East.”