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Laura Flanders | The Nation

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Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

This Earth Day, Stop the Appalachian Health Crisis Caused by Mountain Top Removal

A year ago this week, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) hosted four leading scientists for Senate and House briefings on the environmental and health impacts of mountain top removal (MTR) mining in Appalachia.

The scientists’ peer reviewed research was damning: mountain top removal, the practice of clearing mountaintops of trees and topsoil and then blasting them with explosives to reveal the coal seams underneath, is polluting the Appalachian watershed decreasing organism diversity, increasing flooding and contaminating ground water. The air’s in trouble too, leading to high rates of cancer, heart and respiratory disease:

Preliminary laboratory tests, using air samples from areas where people are living in Appalachia, show mountain top removal mining dust kills heart cells and impairs vascular function.

Mortality rates in the affected areas of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia are rising:

From 1999 to 2005, there were 4,432 “excess deaths” in Appalachia. It has also been found that babies born to mothers who live in areas with mountain top removal mining have a 26% higher rate of birth defects. That compares to babies born to mothers who smoke during pregnancy who only have an 18% higher risk of birth defects.

Right now, members of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Campaign are back on Capitol Hill preparing to brief House staffers on the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (ACHE Act, H.R. 526), which an impressive group of Democrats has introduced to protect Appalachian families and communities from mountain top removal, what many call “extreme mining.”

The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act’s leading sponsors are Representatives John Yarmuth (D-KY) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY). They’re joined by original cosponsors Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), John Sarbanes (D-MD), Jim Moran (D-VA), Donna Edwards (D-MD), Judy Chu (D-CA), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Michael Honda (D-CA), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Janice Schakowksy (D-IL), Jim McDermott (D-WA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Jared Polis (D-CO).

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This Earth Day why not give your Representative a call and urge them to support the bill. For more information, here’s a compilation of the health studies, with summaries, much of it from the University of West Virginia. And here’s a documentary on the topic by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, On Coal River:

ON COAL RIVER trailer (runtime: 2:36) from Cavanaugh / Wood Films on Vimeo.

What is climate debt? Watch Aura Bogado’s speech from this spring’s Power Up! student convergence.

Tax Loopholes for All!

Tax day is here, and activist-artist Paolo Cirio invites you to a protest tax evasion by availing yourself of an "offshore tax haven"—just as the biggest businesses do. Eighty percent of hedge funds have their companies registered anonymously in the Cayman Islands, he says. That's how they avoid the taxes they'd pay at home. Cirio has not only hacked the Cayman's registry site but created certificates of authentication for the rest of us—using the information he has uncovered.

Cirio, who is a fellow at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, calls Loophole for All

A service to democratize offshore business for people who don't want to pay for their riches. It empowers everyone to evade taxes, hide money and debt, and get away with anything by stealing the identities of real offshore companies.

 

Is it legal? PayPal doesn't think so. PayPal suspended the account of Loophole4All.com, freezing the $700 raised in one month through selling the identities of Caymans companies. The reason: "PayPal may not be used to send or receive payments for items that encourage, promote, facilitate or instruct others to engage in illegal activity."

Cirio is sticking to his art—claiming he's promoting a form of civil disobedience and subverting corrupt and unjust laws through facilitating collective performance. PayPal, he points out, is a company based in Luxembourg, an offshore country, which generates some $145 billion that is not taxed by any home country.

If President Obama sticks with the "chained-CPI," John Nichols writes, it's good news for the Republican Party.

At Thatcher's Funeral, Bury TINA, Too


Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative Party Conference on October 13, 1989. (Reuters/Stringer)

Margaret Thatcher’s fancy funeral will be held this coming Wednesday. Along with the deceased prime minister, can we bury TINA, too?

For thirty years we’ve lived with TINA: “There is No Alternative.” Thatcher deployed her most famous slogan to mean that certain debates were over, especially debates over capitalism. Globalized capitalism, so called free-markets and free trade were the best ways to build wealth, distribute services and grow a society’s economy. Deregulation’s good, if not God.

This week, as the canonization of Margaret Thatcher has played out, it’s clear that while Maggie may be gone, TINA lives.

Both the other guests and pretty much all the callers on a public radio show I was part of embraced TINA, arguing in effect that economic change comes with pain and change was necessary. From each came some version of “Thatcher turned the UK economy around.”

Left activist and author Tariq Ali said on Democracy Now! “The fact that no one has come up with an alternative to the Wall Street crash of 2008 does indicate that there’s some truth to her most famous statement.”

Is that what we really believe?

Looking at the data from the British Office of National Statistics compiled by The Guardian, here’s what I see: in the Thatcher years, unemployment shot up, manufacturing spiraled down and poverty grew. Scratch that—poverty almost doubled, from 13.4 percent to 22.2 percent. Inequality rose.

No alternative? Even Thatcher’s quip “the lady’s not for turning” should remind us there were other routes we could have traveled. Thatcher wasn’t just stubborn, she was specific. She dragged the nation down a defiantly neo-liberal path.  

One of her first moves on coming into office was to liberalize capital markets—think NAFTA a decade earlier. Governed by the belief that free capital provided the answer to the economic difficulties experienced in the 1970s, Thatcher, like Reagan, tore down tariffs. Money roamed free and went where it was wont to go—offshore, where profits were bigger because wages were lower—and to tax havens, where big money could evade the taxes it would otherwise (like the rest of us) have to pay.

In a damning new documentary from Dutch national TV, former McKinsey-researcher-turned-journalist James S. Henry estimates that some 21 to 32 trillion dollars are parked in no-tax tax havens today—only a third of it from the developing world. British accountant and author Richard Murphy credits Thatcher with starting the trend.

TINA would call the practice delicately “tax minimization” or “neutralization.” Murphy calls it breaking the law. It’s not just “the way it is,” it’s the way liberalizing capital markets made it. Public coffers from London to the Potomac are trillions of dollars poorer as a result.

Globalize capital, “neutralize” taxation on the biggest money and where’s a government to go for cash? To little-guy-consumers via the sales tax. While much has been made of the changes Thatcher made to income tax—lowering the rates on the rich and raising rates below—the most effective way her government shifted tax burdens from top to bottom was by nearly doubling the value added or sales tax (from 8 to 15 percent). While big businesses could park money abroad in tax havens, everyday consumers were taxed at the checkout, every time we bought bread or lettuce or socks.   

Was there really no alternative? Some squealed against the onslaught, but it was hard to hear what they had to say, because with the turn in the economy came a shift in the democracy and the media. In TINA’s world, dissenters were what Thatcher called the mineworkers: “the enemy within.” Unions may have needed reform; but working people needed a voice. Under Thatcher they lost the loudest one they had.

Union membership by Britons in the Thatcher years shrank from one in four to one in eight. Part of the decline was a consequence of all that competition with low-wage workers in non-union countries and foreign bosses living too far away to shame. Part of it was due to the brutal “brass knuckle” tactics of security forces in response to strikes. Union mineworkers were bashed on the head by mounted police on picket lines; their wives and children were stopped at police checkpoints when they tried to take their message South; their communities vilified in the news; their supporters were red-baited in debates. In TINA times, who was left to even speak about an alternative?

Union towns and poor and immigrant neighborhoods saw unprecedented levels of police. Financiers saw less. In the city of London, the “Big Bang” delivered “deregulation.” Clamping down on critics, Thatcher freed up finance. Again, it was a choice. A sort of Glass Steagall years ahead of Clinton's,  the Thatcher administration’s decision to put growth first, regardless of the cost to people or the planet, meant doing away with boring, cautious banking, removing regulation, permitting integration, encouraging financialization and demonizing scrutiny by “red tape” bureaucrats. London, like Wall Street, loved all that and shared the love with politicians. Influence scandals, corruption and the crash economy grew. And where the money went, so went the media and the press.

Twenty years on, Thatcher’s celebrated as the one who turned around the UK economy. But turned it where? To a less united place, for sure. As BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders (my sister) put it in a report shortly before Thatcher’s demise:

Going to London these days, sometimes feels like going to a different planet… The ten richest boroughs of London are now worth in real estate terms the same as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales added together... A third of the population was born in another country.

Belgravia is exclusive and also mostly devoid of living and breathing people. The streets have become prestigious property parks for (non-tax-paying) foreign wealth.

Was there really no alternative? To name but one, Thatcher inherited a North Sea Oil boom that turned the UK into a net exporter of oil, generating trillions of dollars of revenue, more oil than Iraq, Kuwait and Nigeria, and more gas than Saudi Arabia by the end of the 1990s.

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Norway used their oil profits to plan for the future and an aging population by building up a soveriegn wealth fund. Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez, used theirs to help the poor.

Britain, let’s just say, did neither of those things; the lion’s share went to pay unemployment benefits. Now, with no national investment bank and no plan, the oil has almost gone. The country’s importing once more.

Could there have been an alternative? What do you think? C'mon. At Thatcher’s funeral, let’s bury TINA, too.

Chileans living under the Pinochet dictatorship know Thatcherism all too well. Read Dave Zirin's take

Margaret Thatcher: Deeds Matter

This article was first published at TheNation.com on January 4, 2012.

The Iron Lady just opened in London where, let’s hope, it generates some serious critique. The critical silence in the United States has been astounding, only made worse by the praise, not just for the film but for its subject, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played in the movie by Meryl Streep.

Newsweek’s holiday double issue slapped Streep as Thatcher on its cover, hailing “The New Thatcher Era.” The feature story in summary reads: “Margaret Thatcher was the infamous Iron Lady the Brits love to hate. This month’s bio starring Meryl Streep proves she was right all along.”

Streep’s already winning awards and accolades, and Oscars are probably on the way. People are saying the film’s no whitewash because it shows the former Prime Minister in her dotage, fighting dementia—three decades after she came to power. Director Phyllida Lloyd has described the treatment as operatic. Streep’s called it revealing. The two collaborated before on the musical Mamma Mia! The truth is, in Lloyd’s hands Thatcher’s iron isn’t just rusty, it’s melted down and depoliticized, made feminist enough to root for and ultimately sad enough for some to sniffle at. The Iron Lady is Thatcher—The ABBA Version. It’s the last thing we need, ever, and especially at this point.

Think of Thatcher and I think of hungry people. Irish hunger strikers, first of all, ten of whom starved to death for status as political prisoners on her watch. Thatcher insisted anti-government rebels in Afghanistan were “resistance fighters,” not terrorists, but it was a different story for the Irish. Indeed, in Thatcher’s time, there was to be no story, no effort to understand the reasons for the conflict in Northern Ireland; certainly there was to be no discussion or consideration in public of why anyone might pick up a gun, or place a bomb or starve themselves to death.

Long before the USA Patriot Act and the 9/11 demonization of asking “why,” Britons were starved of information about the so-called “troubles.” Under an ever-expanding Prevention of Terrorism Act, British journalists were forced to report to police any contact with any “known or suspected terrorist.” Irish parties to the conflict were banned from speaking on radio and TV, yet Thatcher’s government could tell the public any lie it liked. When British secret service snipers shot and killed three unarmed IRA members (two men and a woman, Mairead Farrell) on the island of Gibraltar in 1988, Thatcher’s government released an official story about crossfire and a gun fight and a bomb planted near an old people’s home. Video footage of an impressive little military robot supposedly defusing an incendiary device played on the evening news. It was all a crock. Lloyd’s film shows the IRA’s bombings and bloodshed but not the denial and the deadly government tactics, which likely delayed peace talks for a decade.

Think of Thatcher and I think of the hungry people who started showing up in villages in Yorkshire and Scotland and Wales where work was scarce because Thatcher’s experts decided nuclear power was a better energy source than unionized coalfields. Miners went on strike—for a year. Their wives and children collected soup-kitchen money from their churches and their neighbors and when they ran out, they went down to London where they tried to tell their story of helmeted horsemen charging the ranks of union strikers and police bashing men’s heads in. But Londoners didn’t believe them. They’d heard the miners were greedy and dangerous and a threat to their jobs. After all, “trade union power is the true cause of unemployment,” said Thatcher. The 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers gets a couple of seconds on screen in Lloyd’s film, but there’s no explanation, no follow-up and no consideration: does anyone wish now that they’d listened to the miners then?

“There is no such thing as society. Only individuals,” Thatcher also said. With more spending by successive Thatcher governments on police (so-called “law and order”) and less on just about everything else, “no society” became true soon enough. The Iron Lady shows Prime Minister Thatcher overruling her “wet” male colleagues over waging war with Argentina. A few hundred far-off Falkland Islanders were worth fighting for, she famously decided. A take-control feminist? The film ignores the families in Toxteth (inner-city Liverpool) and Brixton (a largely black neighborhood in London) whom Thatcher found it quite acceptable to sacrifice. Cabinet papers released by the National Archives just now under a thirty-year rule reveal Thatcher’s closest advisers told her that the “concentration of hopelessness” on Merseyside was “very largely self-inflicted” and not worth government repair.

Thatcher didn’t—actually—evacuate Liverpool in the aftermath of the 1981 inner-city riots. She led something more insidious. With her professionally crafted “grocer’s daughter” image, Thatcher gave class-conscious Britons permission to dismiss real human difficulties with a blow-dried bourgeois smirk: Unemployed? Get on yer bike! Said her administration. Got a problem? You’re the problem! In Maggie’s world, deprivation is your own damn fault.

Nor did Thatcher give people permission only to look away. Under Thatcher and egged on by her, those who could leave troubled towns and troubled people did, and so did government. We’d “mind the gap” (between the train and the platform) on the London Underground, but we came not to mind the gap between the rich and the rest, the north and the south; the possibilities people had if they needed things to be public and the possibilities they had if they could pay for the private stuff—the private healthcare, the private school, the private house. Today, in a new time of budget wars, The Iron Lady’s depiction of draconian cuts as feminist guts is chilling. What Thatcher called “harsh medicine” meant one thing for the poor and another for the very powerful then, and it still does. In both instances, there is hell to pay in social fabric.

I don’t remember if Lloyd’s Lady quotes the real lady’s most famous phrase: “There is No Alternative.” Certainly TINA deserves star billing. Thatcher’s quip about globalized capitalism has defined our epoch. People can debate the successes and failures of “the Thatcher era” all they like. One thing’s for certain: we don’t need a new one, because the old one’s still here. The consequences of the politicies Thatcher pioneered and made respectable—deregulation, privatization and globalization—can be measured in public costs and private profits on both sides of the Atlantic. More damning, even, is the enduring cultural habit of denial (looking away) and the political practice of silence—shutting the problem people up.

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Grow the gap between government and the governed and you get what we have: a burnt-out world driven by the super-super-rich where some are stealing others blind and billions are alienated or angry, sure that government has nothing to offer but a bash on the head.

Lloyd’s soft-pop version deals with none of this. Ironically, the “deeds matter” Thatcher herself would probably be the first to dislike this shrunken, personal-over-political fantasy of her inner life. Lucky for us, we don’t need to worry about her. We need to worry about us. We are not demented. There are alternatives. There always have been. What we need (among other things) are more movies about the women—and maybe a few of the men—bringing those to life.

Margaret Thatcher inspired a generation of musicians. Read Peter Rothberg's take.

Take the Oath: A Critic of Marriage Gets Teary


A family celebrates as the Iowa Supreme Court rules in favor of legalizing gay marriage, April 3, 2009. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Christopher Gannon)

It’s inevitable. I’m thinking about marriage.

Not only because of what’s been happening down in Washington, where the Supreme Court’s been hearing arguments on two marriage related cases. I’m thinking about marriage from up closer.

A month ago, a couple close to my partner and me, asked us to serve as witnesses to their marriage down at City Hall in Manhattan. The news came as a surprise. By any possible definition, our friends are radical lesbian feminists, public critics of marriage. We all are. Our two long-term relationships add up to almost fifty years of partnering with no marriage in sight, until now. With just a few hours to think and many questions unasked, we headed down to City Hall with love on our minds, a taxi cab full of contradictions.

Not sure what else to do, I brought a bucket of roses.

Two hours later, there we were at the Manhattan marriage bureau, waiting for the cheeriest public worker I’ve ever seen, James Mitchell, to conduct the ceremony,

Waiting outside the chapel, we took lots of pictures and handed out roses. Our friends, it turns out, thought the red and white buds were just too cheesy to hold, so mostly we gave them away, to the clerks, the cops, the guards, the clean up crews, to the other couples. By the time Clerk Mitchell showed up to officiate, he had a rose of his own, as did just about every one else walking around the marriage bureau.

Mitchell began: “Do you take… to be your spouse?”

Even as my mind chewed over my usual critique, my eyes teared up. Mind is thinking: “marriage is a patriarchal plot, a way to replicate the capitalist status quo, an institution deeply rooted in creepy conservative values and an obsession with control and property…” But my eyes are becoming teary.

Two minutes later, it was over. Our friends “took” one another. They said “I do.” We handed over the rings. They kissed. We witnessed. We all stood there, happy, bemused and misty. Ever since, I’ve been thinking, what is it exactly that’s so moving about a marriage?

Just for the record, I’m for equality of marriage and everything else. Rights are rights and equal protection is in the Constitution, right there in the Fourteenth Amendment. I’m for everyone having free and equal choices and chances and taxes and health benefits, regardless of marital status.

So I’m for marriage equality and I also still think marriage is a patriarchal plot, a way to replicate the capitalist status quo, deeply rooted in creepy conservative values and an obsession with control and property…

It doesn’t help that I’ve been reading about early socialism. At City Hall, I had Robert Owen’s words running through my mind. An early critic of capitalism dating back to the start of the 1800s, Owen added marriage to religion and private property in his trinity of “monstrous evils” driving our competitive capitalist society. After marriage he said,

With these persons it is my house, my wife, my estate, my children, my husband, my property. No arrangement could be better calculated to produce division and disunion in society.*

Owen believed in cooperation over competition and created experimental communities here and in the UK. As one of his followers wrote, the problem with capitalism is that “the present system of competition is founded upon the predominance of the selfish principles of our nature; each is left to take care of himself and if he cannot do that then the world has no place for him.”

Sound familiar? Owen was prescient about many things. He had a word or two to say about women too: in marriage, suffice to say, he thought they were “property in bondage.”

Fast forward, and my friends are hardly property in bondage to one another. (Although if they’re into that sort of thing, that’s their business.) Many things have changed. Two hundred years on, Owen’s communities are long gone; capitalism has yet to croak and marriage is all the rage among men and men and women and women and all the other variations. Who knows what Owen would make of it all?

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I’m still trying to figure out what, to a critic of marriage, makes the ceremony itself tear-worthy. Part of it was all the love at City Hall: our dear friends’ love for each other, our love for them, and ours for each other, and all the other couples waiting to wed: old, young, gay straight, immigrant, affluent and the opposite. The place was brimming with emotion.

But a handful of words were what turned on my tears. In the short civil ceremony they went something like this: “Do you… take… to be your lawfully wedded spouse, to love, honor, comfort and cherish, from this day forward for as long as you both shall live?”

It seems to me it’s the pledging that’s powerful. Pledging faith to someone else. That being the case, maybe selfish isn’t the only possible principle of our human nature.

Thinking about it now, I can hear Robert Owen’s ghost: if we care so much about loving and honoring and comforting and cherishing someone else, what if, as a society, we took that oath to one another?

“I take you neighbor, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live…?”

It sure felt good to stand there with our friends. And just as good to hand out those roses—to everybody.

As the Supreme Court takes up marriage equality for the first time, read Nan Hunter's coverage

___

*Robert Owen, Lectures on the Marriages of the Priesthood in the Old Immoral World, quoted in Barbara Taylor’s “Eve and The New Jerusalem, Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, ” Virago Press, 1983, London.

American Employment Winter: Beware Reports of Spring


A scene from American Winter. (Credit: americanwinterfilm.com)

“Unemployment at 4-Year Low as U.S. Hiring Gains Steam,” headlined The New York Times last Friday as I sat down with the makers of American Winter, a documentary that premieres tonight on HBO. The statistics suggest employment is up and joblessness is down. Watch American Winter, though, and you get a mountain of reasons to take a skeptical look at those numbers.

American Winter follows the personal stories of eight families struggling in the winter of 2011–12 in Portland. (You can watch my conversation with the Emmy Award–winning filmmakers, Joe and Harry Gantz, at GRITtv.) Oregon isn’t the worst place for public services and these aren’t the worst stories in the land, but they are representative. After months without work, teetering on homelessness and hunger, several of the people in the film eventually find jobs, but the jobs pay less (in one case, a man’s wage drops from $22 to $12/hour), the employment is part time and at least one worker (a trained medical technician) has to start gathering scrap metal to make ends half-way meet. And that is just what’s happening beneath the headlines.

The fact is, the same Department of Labor surveys that show that the economy has been adding jobs also show an increase in part-time work, an increase in people holding multiple jobs and only the slightest uptick in pay.

As economics reporter Catherine Rampell reports, “Compared with December 2007, when the recession officially began, there are 5.8 million fewer Americans working full time. In that same period, there has been an increase of 2.8 million working part time.” The share of workers with part-time jobs has risen from 16.9 to 19.2 percent, and so has the proportion that would rather be working more.

If employment were truly up, labor force participation should be headed in the same direction. In fact, the proportion of the adult population officially employed stands unchanged, at a dismal low of 58.6 percent. Here’s a graph from Bloomberg:

US Labor Participation Rate keeps falling.

Are more people simply holding more jobs? The figures suggest so—in February, for example, the number of multiple jobholders was up by 340,000 to 7.26 million, more than the department’s much ballyhooed number of 236,000 jobs created. How many of the new jobs were second or third ones? And how do we arrive at those unemployment numbers anyway? The Labor Department reports that 130,000 people left the labor force during February. That is, they are no longer counted as unemployed, thus shrinking the pool.

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So neither the job creation nor the unemployment numbers are as cheering as they first appear. You can slog through the analysis that contradicts the headlines, or you can watch American Winter  for a check on reality.

As the Emmy Award–winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz warn, with stimulus spending behind us, and with $80 billion in federal sequester cuts ahead, the human consequences of cuts to social services, the decline of the middle class and the fracturing of the American Dream have only just begun to show. Premiering tonight, American Winter airs all month on HBO. If you’d like to help the Gantz brothers distribute this film as part of a movement for change, you can, at Kickstarter.

How to improve wages and hours? One answer: unionize, as research assistants at Oregon State University did this past week. Read more in The Nation’s “Dispatches from the US Student Movement.”

Occupy Hungary? [VIDEO]

This Monday, the Hungarian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment that is raising serious concerns among defenders of civil liberties in Europe. After several years of defeats at the hands of Hungary’s highest Constitutional Court, the conservative right–dominated Parliament voted 265-11 to (in effect) take control over the country’s judicial system and throw into question decades of decisions protecting human rights.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of his party Fidesz insist the constitutional changes are only “technical” or cosmetic. The president of the European Commission disagrees, warning that the new amendment could violate the rule of law, and the US State Department has told  Orban that the changes “could threaten the principles of institutional independence and checks and balances that are the hallmark of democratic governance.”

This weekend saw days of protest, building on student actions first seen last fall. In this exclusive interview, Márton Gulyás (of Kretakor theater) tells GRITtv about Human Platform, a new coalition comprising groups working in healthcare, education, arts and culture, which played a leading role, alongside the Hungarian Student Network and Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in bringing thousands into the streets on Saturday and Monday outside the Parliament.

Gulyas says protestors are hoping to wake their country up and with good reason.  In Orbán’s Hungary, the broadcast media consist almost entirely of government-friendly outlets; the universities, the central bank and even the country’s most prestigious theaters are being rapidly brought under Fidesz control while funds to independents are being slashed. As Princeton professor and Hungary watcher, Kim Lane Sheppele has detailed, Amendment Four would crush indefinitely the independence of Constitutional Court, which has so far been the only effective check on Orban’s power since his election in 2010.

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“The danger is very real,” says Gulyas, who has put his theater career on hold in order to act on the political stage in what he sees as a critical moment.

Since this conversation was recorded, Hungary’s President Janos Ader has signed the amendment, guaranteeing its passage into law. That means that this March 15, when Hungarians are off work for a major national holiday,  could see even more massive protests.

March 15, Hungarian “Revolution Day” marks the start of Hungary’s 1848 revolution whose leaders called for (among other things) freedom of the press, equal treatment under the law, religous freedom and minority rights. One hundred and sixty-five years later, Viktor Orbán’s right-wing power grab has protesters calling for many of the same rights.  As I learned on a recent trip to Budapest, Hungarians are very fond of quoting their national poet, Sándor Petőfi, a hero of ’48 times.  Expect the first line of his celebrated National Song ("Rise Up, Magyar, the Country Calls")  to be recited this year with a whole new resonance.

For more on the student demands, watch this video from Human Platform (click on “CC” for English subtitles). A facebook group to follow: One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary.

Protesters are hitting the streets across the Continent. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.

Greek Workers Take Over a Factory [Video Interview]

Tuesday February 12, was the first day of production under worker control at Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me), a building materials factory in Thessaloniki, Greece, which was abandoned by its bankrupt owners two years ago. Facing thirty percent unemployment and a dismal future for their community, workers in a series of mass assemblies decided to occupy the factory and operate it under direct democratic workers’ control.

As part of a letter being circulated by the Thessaloniki Solidarity Initiative explains:

This experience of worker’s occupation to workers recovery and control is not new—either historically or currently. Since 2001 there are close to 300 workplaces that are run democratically by workers in Argentina, ranging from health clinics and newspapers and schools, to metal factories, print shops and a hotel. The experience there has shown that workers together cannot only run their own workplace, but can do it better. The example of Argentina has spread throughout the Americas, and now to Europe and the United States. In Chicago, workers of New World Windows have begun production under workers control after years of struggles with former owners and bosses. And now in Greece, workers are again showing that the way forward—out of unemployment—refusing the crisis—is workers control and directly democratic self-management.

In this conversation, recorded via Skype just a day after the start of production, solidarity worker Theodoros Karyotis told GRITtv about the background of the struggle, the context out of which the workers’ decision came and what international supporters can do to help.

The biggest help would be to spread the word, to donate…but the most important thing really is to organize themselves. This crisis is not just a Greek phenonomenon but the most vulnerable have a huge instrument in their hands: self organization. This would be the greatest help to our cause.

Karyotis spoke to GRITtv from Micropolis, a community center in Thessalonika, part of the solidarity movement surrounding and supporting the Vio.Me workers.

Time to Go Beyond Judging Rihanna and Chris Brown


Rihanna. (Flickr/Eva Rinaldi)

Thank God for Rihanna and Chris Brown. It’s the one violence-against-a-women-of-color story that money media can’t get enough of.  

To recap, the Grammy Awards took place; Rihanna performed live from the stage. That was news in itself. Four years ago, a much-publicized attack on the musician by her boyfriend, fellow recording artist Chris Brown, left her too beaten and bruised to perform. The two skipped the Grammys that year and Brown was charged with a felony in connection with the attack and sentenced to five years probation and 6 months community service.

Fast forward to 2013. Just days before the Grammies, Brown was back in court on charges he’d failed to complete his community service. Rihanna was seen blowing him kisses from the gallery, and days later, there they were, a cuddly couple at the Awards, Rihanna with a big sparkling rock on her ring finger, unironically performing her ballad “Stay.”

What’s going on? Rihanna told Oprah Winfrey she still loves Brown. In a cover story on Rolling Stone she’s quoted as saying that dating Brown makes her happy and "If it's a mistake, it's my mistake…After being tormented for so many years, being angry and dark, I'd rather just live my truth and take the backlash. I can handle it."

Leaving aside the culturally unfortunate pairing of “angry” and “dark,” when it comes to backlash, Rihanna knows whereof she speaks. Backlash is us. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the young woman’s decision to snuggle up to her batterer, from the MSNBC show host Melissa Harris-Perry to the creator of the HBO series Girls.

Watching Rihanna go back to Brown “breaks my heart in half,” Girls’ Lena Dunham told Alec Baldwin, because of all the young girls who look up to and admire the artist. "[Being a role model] is a platform that you have to take seriously.”

Others swamped Twitter with calls for pundits to lay off: It’s nobody’s business if Rihanna goes back to Brown. As she says, it’s her mistake, her personal choice. And so it goes on.

Two things are striking about this story. First, the conversation is all about Rihanna. Secondly, the more people talk about it, the more obvious it becomes that they have absolutely no faith that our current criminal justice responses to domestic violence work. The assumption is that Brown will beat again, even after arrest, conviction, probation and at least some service.  The statistics bear the skeptics out. This is what should break our hearts.

According to studies compiled by the American Bar Association, between 40 and 60 percent of domestic violence offenders were re-arrested for assault within two years of their first arrest. Treatments differ, but most studies show that probation and parole without treatment have no detectable effects on the likelihood that an offender will offend again. Where addiction and drug abuse is involved, let’s just say, parole without drug treatment parole is virtually useless. 

Those facts are relevant to the other big news story of this week: the reauthorization of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.  Nineteen years ago, VAWA was a landmark piece of legislation that sought to improve responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The 2013 version, passed by the Senate this week, authorizes $659 million over five years for criminal and community programs including hotlines shelters and training. It also expands VAWA to include new protections for LGBT and Native American victims of domestic violence, to give more attention to sexual assault prevention and to help reduce a backlog in processing rape kits. It notably doesn’t expand protections for vulnerable undocumented immigrants.

VAWA now goes to the Republican-controlled house where, in all likelihood, there will be debate and yet more debate over the same old ground: do women lie? Don’t women beat? And heck, if we can’t cut cash for policing, can we take it from those “community” programs? (After all, community groups don’t have the power of the police and prison unions.)

The frustrating thing about all this - one of the things, at any rate - is that this old debate isn't the discussion we need to be having. Nearly two decades on, we need to talk about next steps. VAWA has been critical in breaking the silence around violence against women. It has provided services to survivors. It has developed treatment programs and trained generations of police, but it hasn’t made the violence stop. Mandatory arrest hasn’t done it, and neither has parole. The explosion in the number of prisons—and people in them—hasn’t done much either. There’s been a spike in prisons, but very little decline in gender violence. Indeed, the expansion of mandatory minimum sentencing and incarceration has swept up more and more women into the criminal justice system—and once people get involved in the criminal justice system, violence only gets worse. The Bureau of Justice reports that almost half of all women in jails and prisons had been physically or sexually abused before their imprisonment—a much higher rate than reported for the overall population.

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Nineteen years after the first passage of the Violence Against Women Act, there are more prisons, and more men—and women—in them. But the violence hasn’t stopped. One in four women still reports having been abused by a partner. According to the Justice Department, three women are still murdered every day. The very community programs now under the budget cutters knife may be just the programs we need the most, including drug and alcohol treatment, quality housing, accessible childcare and healthcare—in fact, communities that care.

Nineteen years after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, we need to reauthorize. We also need to do more. Hotlines and shelters are great, but what will make the violence stop? Judging Rihanna won’t do it. Leaving it to the cops won’t do it.  We need to do it, now.

Read Laura Flanders's print feature on feminist activism around the world.

One Billion Rising

There’s talk about union, and then there’s acting in unison. As the President was talking about the State of the Union this week, the organizers of V-day were working with activists all around the world to pull off what will doubtless be the most public breaking of the silence around gender violence that the world has seen.

One Billion Rising is the brainchild of Eve Ensler and the women and men of V-day. For fifteen years, the antiviolence mobilization V-day has used Valentines Day productions of Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, to draw attention to violence against women and girls. As Ensler says, V-day’s goal was to stop the violence that, according to the UN, affects one in three women in the world. Fifteen years on, she decided it was time to escalate—and she put out a global call for one billion people to Strike Dance or Rise today, February 14, 2013.

The call went out a year ago today. At last count, people in more countries than there are countries had announced they would be Striking or Dancing or Rising today. That’s 202 countries and territories. Go to the website OneBillionRising.org. Type in your zip code and you’ll find a Google Map that is a mad mass of risings. You can watch the action in South Africa, India, Congo and many other places via live videostream from home.

The action began at dawn with indigenous women in Papua New Guinea. It is sweeping through Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe to the Americas. The Prime Minister of Australia and the President of Croatia are rising. Migrant workers, domestic workers, nurses, doctors, even the Dalai Lama. Solidarity pledges have come in from movie stars and Dalit women and the president of the United Steelworkers.

By this time tomorrow, what will OBR have achieved? It’s not like some Mayan Calendar prediction of world transformation overnight. Some organizers have taken advantage of the rising to give momentum to legislation. In the US, in Washington, the One Billion Rising Rising will be calling for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. In London, Stella Creasy MP, has introduced a bill to demand more comprehensive sex education—and she’s calling it the One Billion Rising Act.

But OBR’s greatest impact may have to do with borders. Not only has the mobilization brought women from all over the world together into an organizing effort that puts a whole new spin on internationalism, but it has also shone a spotlight on the intersections between so-called “social” and “economic ” issues.

The women and men now working in jobs typically held by women have been the shock absorbers of our economy, said labor leaders on a panel sponsored by One Billion Rising held at Cooper Union last fall. There, National Nurses United co-president Karen Higgins made the point that “the issues women face as workers as well as healthcare providers are very personal to us.”

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NNU is one of a slew of labor groups supporting OBR in this country and abroad, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers, The United Steelworkers, the American Federation of Teachers and Working America. The largest unions in the Philippines and UK, Kilusang Mayo Uno and UNITE, are also participating. Said Higgins this November: “We're seeing more and more the fallout from this economy. Violence against us is rising, not just against nurses, but all healthcare workers, and we’re having to fight with employers who don't want word to get out that we're facing that much violence. That silence hurts us too.… Among our patients, heart disease in women is becoming more of a killer than cancer. And we're watching women, responsible for welfare of family, choosing between their own welfare and those of kids.”

Today women in the Philippines will be rising to end violence against women and simultaneously to raise wages. They are integrated movements. After breaking the silence around violence against women, will the global antiviolence movement take on breaking the silence about the violence of today’s economy?

Read Laura Flanders's review of feminist movement around the world.

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