Nobel Peace Prize nominee PFC Bradley Manning has been in prison for more than three years. He is accused of sharing documents that expose US war crimes, government corruption, and corporate influence on US foreign policies. This is the charge, but to me and millions of others, whoever did expose these crimes is a hero and a patriot. Yet the government has chosen to persecute the alleged whistle-blower rather than pursue the criminals.
Manning’s court martial started on June 3. Human rights lawyer Chase Madar, author of the invaluable The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso), is attending the proceedings and blogging at thenation.com during the course of the trial.
This impassioned appeal from Daniel Ellsberg makes clear what an injustice the US government is perpetuating on Manning. Read and share the letter and then check out the Bradley Manning Support Network to see how you can help save the life of a true American hero.
Read Chase Madar - what is in Bradley Manning's leaks anyway?
In our previous blog post we discussed various strategies for defining crossword entries, including simple synonyms, puns or jokes, and general pointers toward the relevant attributes of the answer. But we left out one of our favorite strategies, which is a clue that defines a word by reference to the clue itself.
For example, a clue can be written in a particular form or with specific verbal constraints that exemplify the answer. Our first endeavor along these lines was this one:
HAIKU Recited aloud, an exalted, brilliant stroke—this clue, for instance (5)
More recently, we clued INVERSE thus:
Like “false” to “true,”
Or like this clue (7)
A clue can also make reference to the type of wordplay it uses. That can happen either in the definition part:
CHARADE Drink later. First, burn this clue (7)
or in the wordplay:
HINT Harsh interrogation yields “It’s a hidden-word clue” (4)
Still another type of self-reference is one that simply invokes the existence of the puzzle itself, or the process that the solver is involved with. For example:
CLUE This signal left within (4)
SOLVE What you’re trying to do, primarily: send love all about (5)
This is not a technique that can be used very often, mostly because there aren’t that many words that can describe a crossword clue, and to a lesser extent because it’s a trick that would be spoiled by overuse. But whenever there’s an opportunity to bring this into play—when a grid entry suggests some quality or attribute that a clue might display—we generally consider the possibility.
For solvers, self-reference can be double-edged. On the one hand, it’s generally easy to spot—the phrase “this clue” is almost always present, and almost always a giveaway. On the other hand, any kind of self-referential wordplay has the potential to be a little mind-bending.
Which brings us to our favorite kind of self-reference, one that involves planting a deliberate flaw in the wordplay of a clue. Here are two examples:
ERRORLESS Sorry, reels got tangled up—unlike this clue (9)
INCORRECT …in baroque concert, like this clue? (9)
(The ellipsis in that latter clue was there to join its surface to that of the preceding clue; see this post.)
These are clues (there’s another one in Puzzle 3285 which we won’t spoil here) that flirt with the famous paradox of Epimenides, the Cretan who declared that all Cretans were liars—including, by implication, himself. The clues only work… because they don’t.
What are your thoughts on self-referential clues? Please share your thoughts here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
Former senator Russ Feingold. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Russ Feingold is no longer in the US Senate.
And that is unfortunate.
No one took more seriously the duty to defend privacy rights than the civil libertarian senator from Wisconsin, who served for the better part of two decades as the essential member of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee—and who cast the only Senate vote against the Patriot Act because of the threat he recognized to the guarantees outline in the Fourth Amendment.
But with the report by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald that the NSA has been tracking every call by Verizon business customers, and with The Washington Post report that a National Security Agency program took e-mails and other information from companies that included “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, it is vital that the new Feingolds in the Senate start to make a lot more noise.
With revelations that "open the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants," engagd members of the House and Senate know that congressional response has to be far more aggressive, as past failures by the House and Senate to provide proper oversight has left the Fourth Amendment at best vulnerable and at worst shredded.
Some senators think that’s acceptable. Indeed, Senator Lindsay Graham, R-SC, has declared himself “glad” that the National Security Agency is obtaining the phone records of millions of Verizon customers. And key Democrats, such as Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have adopted a “what’s-the-big-deal?” stance that says the spying is old news that senators should have been aware of.
But many of the sharpest and most engaged members of the chamber are rejecting that assessment. Among those stepping up today were Democrats and Republicans who have histories of expressing concern about abuses of privacy rights. In the House, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, Jr., and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, Virginia Democrat Robert C. "Bobby" Scott moved fast to declare: "The recent revelation that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved the blanket and ongoing collection of telephone records -- including those of everyday Americans with absolutely no ties to terrorism -- is highly problematic and reveals serious flaws in the scope and application of the USA PATRIOT Act. We believe this type of program is far too broad and is inconsistent with our Nation's founding principles. We cannot defeat terrorism by compromising our commitment to our civil rights and liberties."
They're calling for immediate hearings.
But the real action is likely to be in the Senate.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has become increasingly outspoken on civil liberties issues, was quick to respond to the Greenwald story, saying: "The American people have a right to know whether their government thinks that the sweeping, dragnet surveillance that has been alleged in this story is allowed under the law and whether it is actually being conducted."
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who has led the fight to declassify secret rulings by so-called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts, was even more pointed in his response to the revelations.
“This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy. I have had significant concerns about the intelligence community over-collecting information about Americans’ telephone calls, emails, and other records and that is why I voted against the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act provisions in 2011 and the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act just six months ago,” says Merkley. “This bulk data collection is being done under interpretations of the law that have been kept secret from the public. Significant FISA court opinions that determine the scope of our laws should be declassified. Can the FBI or the NSA really claim that they need data scooped up on tens of millions of Americans?”
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who voted against the Patriot Act as a member of the House, made no bones about his objections to Obama-era extensions of a domestic surveillance program that has swept up millions of telephone records on calls by Americans who were not suspected of any wrongdoing.
“The United States should not be accumulating phone records on tens of millions of innocent Americans. That is not what democracy is about. That is not what freedom is about. Congress must address this issue and protect the constitutional rights of the American people,” said Sanders. “While we must aggressively pursue international terrorists and all of those who would do us harm, we must do it in a way that protects the Constitution and the civil liberties which make us proud to be Americans.”
The senator cut the current administration no slack. But he put the broad debate over the NSA phone sweeps—which Senate Intelligence Committee leaders say have been going on since 2007—in perspective.
“As one of the few members of Congress who consistently voted against the Patriot Act, I expressed concern at the time of passage that it gave the government far too much power to spy on innocent United State citizens and provided for very little oversight or disclosure,” said Sanders. “Unfortunately, what I said turned out to be exactly true.”
Their expressions of concern have been echoed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who termed the NSA activities an “astounding assault on the Constitution.”
Paul argues that “If the President and Congress would obey the Fourth Amendment we all swore to uphold, this new shocking revelation that the government is now spying on citizens’ phone data en masse would never have happened.”
The key there is the reference to Congress. The inconvenient truth is that presidents, be they Republicans or Democrats, tend to claim the constitutional space that is afforded them by the House and Senate.
That’s no excuse for the actions of George Bush or Barack Obama. But it is a fact that Congress has done a lousy job of checking and balancing successive administrations who it comes to privacy concerns.
In May, 2011, a complicated set of votes were held on extension of the Patriot Act. Amendments that would have protected privacy rights were defeated and the final vote saw just twenty-three senators—eighteen Democrats including Merkley, independent Sanders and four Republicans including Paul—vote “no.”
That’s way better than the one “no” vote Feingold cast in 2001.
But it is way short of what is needed to defend privacy rights.
With the latest revelation, Congress has an opportunity to do what Feingold begged the House and especially the Senate to do from 2001 on: provide meaningful oversight and real checks and balances on surveillance initiatives that are clearly at odds with a Fourth Amendment protection that says, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”
Feingold warned us five years ago that Congress, through its inaction and its explicit authorizations of unchecked surveillance in the Patriot Act and rewrites of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, ushered in “one of the greatest intrusions, potentially, on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution in the history of our country.”
Ideally, the pair of former senators who once expressed deep concerns about abuses of privacy rights and now serve as president and vice president would take the lead in addressing abuses.
But it is an understanding that the executive branch rarely surrenders authority that had been ceded to it that led the founders to separate the powers of the federal government. They wanted to assure that, when the executive branch did not act properly, the legislative branch could step up.
It is time for Congress to recognize that Feingold was right in his warning. The potential for for intrusions on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment has been realized.
And it must be addressed by a Congress that understands and embraces its role as a defender of the Constitution to which every member swears an oath.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert W. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.
While Walmart rakes in annual profits of more than one billion dollars, the average hourly wage of a Walmart sales associate, according to a report by IBISWorld, is just $8.81. That translates to an annual salary of $15,575, far below the federal poverty level for a family of four. On top of being unjust, Walmart’s low wages come at a high price for American taxpayers: a recent report revealed that, because the retail giant’s employees are forced to utilize government benefits to supplement their meager income, a single Walmart Supercenter could cost taxpayers from $900,000 to $1.7 million per year.
As the largest private employer in the nation, Walmart must be held accountable. Sign The Nation’s open letter to company CEO Mike Duke and the Walmart Board of Directors and demand that Walmart give its workers a raise.
In the most recent of his posts tracking Walmart, Josh Eidelson profiles the CEOs, investors and consultants converging on Bentonville, Arkansas this week where the Walmart Board of Directors will discuss the future of the retail giant.
After arriving in caravans from around the country, Walmart strikers held an action in Bentonville, on June 3 outside the Walmart headquarters.
Gan Golan, of Los Angeles, dressed as the “Master of Degree” holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Interest rates on student loans will double on July 1 unless Congress acts. Since the phrase “congressional action” has become an oxymoron, this will quickly degenerate into an unnecessary crisis, requiring parents and students to threaten their legislators to get any relief.
Why is action even a question? There is a universal consensus—left, right and center—that it is vital to our nation to educate the next generation. If we want to compete as a high-wage, high-skill country, our children will need the best in college or advanced technical training. And all agree that gaining that higher education is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for entering the middle class.
So just as we pay for public education for kindergarten through 12th grade, we should ensure that advanced training or a public college education is available for all who earn it. None of this is even vaguely controversial.
Yet, despite this consensus, we are pricing college out of the reach of more and more families. State support for public universities has lagged. Increasingly, the costs have been privatized, with the bill sent to students and families.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
(AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Never has Joseph Heller’s observation from Catch-22 been more apt than today, as news spreads that the National Security Agency has been using the Patriot Act to sweep up phone call data on every Verizon Business Network customer in the nation—and presumably on residential and cell phone customers as well. Last night, The Guardian published a secret court order, issued under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, that requires Verizon Business Network Services to provide “on an ongoing daily basis” phone records for all “communications (i) between the United States and abroad; or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.” The data to be provided includes the numbers called, the length and time of calls and other routing information, but does not include the actual content of the calls. But the government can learn an awful lot about an individual simply by tracing whom he or she is calling, how often and for how long.
This is a stunningly broad order, and there’s every reason to believe that similar orders exist for other phone providers in the United States. Verizon itself is not the focus of the investigation, so Sprint, AT&T and others almost certainly are under similar orders. An expert interviewed by The Washington Post said the order appeared to be a routine ninety-day renewal of what has effectively been a standing order for all such data. In other words, the federal government is apparently sweeping up records on every phone call any of us makes, without any specific basis for suspicion about any of us.
How can it do so? The Supreme Court long ago ruled that such information enjoys no Fourth Amendment protection, on the theory that when one shares information with a third party, one has no “reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to the government obtaining information from the third party. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has suggested that this doctrine needs to be reconsidered, but until that happens there are no constitutional impediments to such wholesale vacuuming up of data without any individualized basis for suspicion.
Congress has placed some limits on the gathering of such data, but as this order reveals, they are largely meaningless. A controversial provision of the Patriot Act, Section 215, allows the government to demand “business records” from any business, so long as they are “relevant to an authorized investigation…to obtain foreign intelligence information…or to protect against international terrorism.” Section 215 orders are granted in secret, as this one was, and until now little was known about how extensively the government relied upon them, or how “relevant” was interpreted. By this single order, however, the NSA has been given access to records on literally millions of customers, without suspicion about any of them. We don’t know the government’s theory, but it appears that it may be arguing that in order to protect against international terrorism, it is “relevant” to sweep up phone call data about all of us all of the time.
Last year, Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall warned, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of…these secret court opinions. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.” Count me as one of those stunned. The leak of this secret court opinion certainly narrows the gap in our knowledge that secrecy permitted. But it does so by confirming that those most paranoid about government spying were right after all.
Two soldiers scan the area with rifles during a security stop on their convoy as members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit drive to a forward operating base in southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Peter Beinart wants everyone to stop talking about the neoconservatives. Perhaps, if we stop talking about them, they’ll go away? No, it’s not that. Beinart, of course, was once a fellow traveler of sorts with the neocons, as editor of The New Republic from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, when its publisher at the time, Marty Peretz, would reasonably qualify as a neocon or “quasi-neocon.” In that post, Beinart famously supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then, even more famously—as that war degenerated into a catastrophic series of horrors—apologized for his support.
In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, Beinart takes several writers to task, including me, David Corn of Mother Jones, and Ann McFeatters of the Chicago Sun-Times for, well, talking about neoconservatives and their penchant for war—in particular because many of their tribe are among the loudest backers of war against Syria.
Writing in his usual supercilious style, Beinart first cites Corn:
Earlier this week, I Googled “neocons and Syria” and learned that the former want America to go war in the latter. The first story Google offered me was by David Corn in Mother Jones. “How to Be a Good Neocon When It Comes to Syria,” read the headline. The subtitle read: “With Obama moving cautiously, some hawks are angling for a US invasion.
Got it, I thought. “Neocon” is a synonym for “hawk.” But then, in the first sentence, Corn wrote that the “most hawkish neocons desire … a full US military presence in the air and on the ground.” Hmm. If some neocons are more hawkish than others, then “neocon” and “hawk” can’t be the same thing. Four paragraphs later, Corn referred to former Bush-administration ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton as a “neocon favorite.” Why just a “favorite,” I thought. Why not a “neocon” himself? Then, in the next paragraph, Corn explained that “real neocons, it seems, do not get squishy when the question is US troops on Syrian soil.” So there are fake neocons? How do you tell the difference?
He goes on to tackle a recent piece that I wrote for The Nation:
Bob Dreyfuss in The Nation made things worse. “Neocons, Hill Democrats Push for War Against Syria,” read the headline of his piece. So neocons can’t be Democrats or work on Capitol Hill? Three sentences later Dreyfuss made a distinction between “neoconservatives and right-wing military types,” which presumably means that you can’t be a neoconservative while in uniform.
Why is Beinart so upset about our using the term neocon? Here’s the real reason:
Frequently, what neocon really means is “Jewish hawk.” In that way, it’s a bit like “gangbanger,” “mobster,” “illegal” (the noun), or even “terrorist,” terms that could theoretically refer to someone of any religious, ethnic, or racial group but in America today are often reserved for members of only one.
In other words, Beinart is trying to resurrect the old canard that when critics speak of “neoconservatives” they really mean “Jews.” This is so unspeakably stupid a charge that I don’t know where to begin.
First of all, as Beinart himself acknowledges, not all neoconservatives are Jews—and, by overwhelming numbers, the vast majority of Jews are not neoconservatives. That said, there’s no denying the fact that many, many neoconservatives—perhaps, even, the preponderance, are indeed Jewish. There are plenty of reasons for that, historically, related to how the neoconservative movement emerged as a coherent, intellectual-ideological faction from the 1970s onward. And, as they emerged, they self-consciously separated themselves from the traditional affiliation of most Jewish political activists, intellectuals and idea people with liberalism, Democrats and progressive views on disarmament, diplomacy, civil rights and other topics.
But among the countless thousands of journalists and analysts who use the term “neoconservative,” I can think of none—not one!—who is somehow subtly trying to imply that neoconservatives are a Jewish cabal and that somehow that cabal represents Jews in general.
Beinart seems troubled by the fact Corn and I use terms such as “hawks,” “right-wing military types” and “neoconservatives” seemingly to mean different things. Well, that’s because they are indeed different things. In 2002–03, during the period before the war in Iraq, a coalition arose in support of that war. Among its key members were neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, human rights activists, people opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and various kinds of hawks from the military-industrial complex. They weren’t all the same, and they weren’t interchangeable—but they found common cause in supporting the war in Iraq. But one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind—or an editor of The New Republic in 2003—not to realize that the true organizers of the war in Iraq were the friends of Ahmed Chalabi, the backers of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the organizers of the Project for a New American Century and their allies—and nearly all of them were card-carrying neoconservatives.
Not only that, but the neoconservatives use the term in reference to themselves, and they do indeed behave as a kind of collective. Here’s one example of their thinking: Back in 2003, following a conference that I attended at the American Enterprise Institute, I approached Max Singer, a veteran neoconservative activist who co-founded the Hudson Institute, to ask if I might call him later in the day for an interview. “Sure,” he told me, and he gave me his card. After I’d left the room, according to a journalist friend who’d remained behind, Singer approached a top AEI official. “I was asked by Dreyfuss for an interview,” Singer said. “Is he one of us?” Now, it’s possible to read too much into the phrase “one of us,” but it’s also true that the neoconservative movement is very much an in-group, with a strong sense of an us-against-them attitude, in which you’re either a true believer or you’re not.
Not that all neoconservatives agree with each other about everything. They don’t. As Beinart points out, that can make it difficult to define exactly what a “neoconservative” is. The simple answer is that, like pornography, you pretty much know a neocon when you see one.
In his piece in the Daily Beast, Beinart tries manfully to figure out what attributes define neoconservativism. He variously suggests that what might link neoconservatives together could be support for a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy, belief in exporting democracy, backing for American military “dominance,” and so on—all characteristics, for the most part, if most—but not all—neocons.
He then comes very close to accusing me and Corn of anti-Semitism. Corn, he notes, puts Richard Perle in the “neocon” category, while putting Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain in the “hawk” category. And he says:
For his part, Dreyfuss sees Gen. Jack Keane as emblematic of “right-wing military types” while associating the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka with “neoconservatives.” Yet he doesn’t in any way distinguish their beliefs, leading the reader to surmise that what makes Pletka a neoconservative isn’t what she believes but where she works and who she is.
His implication—well, more than an implication—is that I called Pletka a “neoconservative” because of “who she is,” i.e, that she’s Jewish. (For the record, I don’t even know whether Danny Pletka is Jewish or not. And I wonder if she knows whether I am Jewish or not.) The fact is that most politicians, especially current, elected officials, have such a wide range of views on a wide range of subjects that it’s hard to pin them down as being ideological neoconservatives. I doubt that I’ve ever described a politician or a military official as an unalloyed neoconservative. In part, that’s because most politicians and military officers don’t join, affiliate with, or subscribe to the countless thinktanks, ad hoc committees, “open letters,” and other manifestations that mark the neoconservative effort to shape policy, especially since the 1990s. But, as in the case of the Beinart-supported war in Iraq, many hawks and others did support what was indisputably a neoconservative-inspired war of aggression.
Perhaps I missed it, but in Beinart’s list of things that define neoconservatives, he fails to mention Israel. To his credit, in recent years Beinart has emerged—belatedly, and welcome to the club—as a strident critic of Israel and Zionism. For that, he’s been pilloried by many unthinking backers of Israel’s current policies, including (yes) neoconservatives. But he doesn’t mention in his Daily Beast that neoconservatives—whether Jewish or non-Jewish—are also nearly unanimously united in their militant support for Israel and, especially, for Israel’s right-wing parties affiliated with Herut, Likud and their heirs, including Benjamin Netanyahu. For neoconservatives, the American-Israel alliance—against Palestinians, against Iran, against political Islam, Islamists of all stripes, Al Qaeda et al.—is a defining view. I can imagine a hawk who supports Israel far right but who isn’t a neoconservative. I can imagine a Christian fundamentalist who supports Israel’s far right, as the key to the coming Battle of Armageddon and all that jazz, but who isn’t a neocon. (There are legions of those.) But I have trouble imagining a true neoconservative who doesn’t support Netanyahu and Co.
Beinart wants us to stop using the term neoconservative and replace it with “imperialist.” For my part, I’ll stick with “neoconservative.”
Read Bob Dreyfuss’s take on Kerry’s trip to Israel/Palestine.
Sean Bell was killed on November 25, 2006, in New York City. The night before his wedding, NYPD officers approached Bell’s vehicle outside a club and fired fifty shots at him and his companions, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, on the suspicion that one of the young men had a gun and was intending to shoot someone. No gun was ever recovered, and while Benefield and Guzman survived the shooting, Bell did not. Officers Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver (Oliver fired thirty-one of the fifty shots himself) were charged with manslaughter, reckless endangerment and assault, while Detective Marc Cooper was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment. In 2008, all three were acquitted of all charges. They remained on the force until March of last year. Bell was 23 years old.
Oscar Grant was killed on New Year’s Day 2009 in Oakland, California. Officer Johannes Mehserle fired one shot into Grant’s back while he lay face down and restrained on the platform of the Fruitvale train station. He and his fellow officers were responding to a report of a fight involving about a dozen people on the train. Grant and his friends were identified as being involved in this fight and were confronted by the officers, several of them handcuffed, with Grant reportedly resisting arrest, which led to officers’ attempts to restrain him. Mehserle claims to have meant to reach for his taser, pulling out his gun and shooting Grant by accident. The incident was captured on several cellphone cameras. Of the three possible convictions, a jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the charge carrying the least amount of prison time. In November 2010, he was sentenced to two years minus time served, and was released on parole in June 2011. Grant was 22 years old.
Trayvon Martin was killed on February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. During halftime of the NBA All-Star game, he walked to a nearby store to get snacks for his younger brother. While returning home, he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman called the police, and while they advised him not to follow, he disregarded this and approached Martin. A scuffle ensued that ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin in the chest and killing him. All that was found on Martin’s person was a wallet, a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles. The police who arrived on the scene took Zimmerman in for questioning and later released him without charges, determining that under Florida’s “stand your ground” law Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. After forty-five days of national outrage and protest, Zimmerman was finally arrested. He has been charged with second-degree murder and his trial starts June 10. Martin was 17 years old.
The details of each are different, and fiercely disputed by everyone involved, but each story ends the same way—with a young black man dead. It’s an all too familiar story, and I could go on and on, adding to the list many more names, but I mention these three because they have been the most high profile in recent memory and because they have become defining moments in my early adulthood. And I hate that.
I have no desire to be anything but what I am—a black man—but I hate that part of what that means is walking through life prepared to die. I hate that I mark time by whether people were saying “I Am Sean Bell,” “I Am Oscar Grant,” or “I Am Trayvon Martin.” I kinda hate the “I Am…” rallying cry, because none of us are, because they are all dead. I hate the part of being a black man that’s forever conscious of what racism is capable of, and I hate that America thinks I need reminders. I hate that those reminders are Sean, Oscar and Trayvon.
The naysayers and detractors say I and others like me are paranoid for no reason. To them, it wasn’t racism that killed these young men. These are simply unfortunate incidents, these colorblind optimists say, in part brought on by the actions of the young men who tragically lost their lives.
I don’t hate people who think this way; I envy them.
I’m straight-up jealous of everyone that doesn’t have to think about racism. I can only imagine how free they are. I’d like a life that didn’t involve me mourning young men I’ve never met as martyrs. There are people who can say, without laughing, that the election of the nation’s first black president means that racism, as a defining factor of American life, is over. I envy those people who are able to look at President Obama and see only progress. Like many, I was overcome with emotion I still can’t quite define that night in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected. But the thrill is gone and in the aftermath all I can see is Sean, Oscar and Trayvon standing behind him asking everyone “when does this end?” I’d like to think the lesson of their deaths is that racism eats the young and America would do well to abandon it, but history lends me a different lesson altogether, one which has me rigid with anxiety as we approach the trial of George Zimmerman.
I’ve done my best to avoid any news regarding Zimmerman in the past year. In the age of social media that has been an impossible task, but each time something new has reached my eyes it has reaffirmed my decision to ignore it all. The news could only serve to remind me of the psychic toll racism takes on a country still afraid to call it what it is, and I’m full up on reminders.
But I’ll be watching the trial closely, because I want this to be a turning point. I’m breaking out the rabbit’s foot and the four-leaf clovers while avoiding all ladders and mirrors. I’m hoping for change like an Obama campaign volunteer in ’07. I want this trial to mean a new day is upon us.
Last year, while Zimmerman was still at large, I wrote, “The crime of killing a black person still is not greater than the crime of being black.” I want 2013 to prove me wrong. I want this moment to be the one where all those things I hate about being a black man, passed down from generation to generation, cease to exist.
I probably sound as foolishly optimistic as people who think racism is already over. But I think Sean, Oscar and Trayvon deserve some foolish optimism on their side.
Striking Walmart workers rally in Bentonville, Arkansas, on June 3, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Michael Blain)
Bentonville, Arkansas—Competing chants pierced the air, and punctuated one another, as a Walmart pep rally and a union-backed protest took place some fifty feet apart this afternoon.
On a public sidewalk across from Walmart’s “home office” headquarters, international Walmart workers and fired warehouse workers joined striking employees in a demonstration calling for Walmart to avert future deaths in its international supply chain. On the other side of a narrow parking lot, a few of the blue-shirted Walmart employees brought to Bentonville by Walmart management began snapping cell phone photos of their striking co-workers, who sang, “Which side are you on Walmart…. Are you on the side of safety or on the side of murder?” Then a series of well-dressed Walmart staff began leading the blue-shirted employees in the company’s classic cheer spelling out its name: “Give me a W!” “W!” “Give me an A!” “A!”… “What’s that spell?” “Walmart!”
As successive busses drove up to drop off more company-invited Walmart workers under the Home Office awning, managers led the blue-shirted workers in cheering for their arriving co-workers and chanting the letters of the company’s name. The protesters across the lot from them kept up their slow-paced song, sometimes punctuated with “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” and “Stand Up! Live Better!” Some hoisted flags and signs identifying their home countries, and giant cut-outs spelling out “1,239 KILLED,” the combined death toll from a building collapse and a fire in buildings where Walmart apparel has been produced.
The “What’s that spell?” chant continued as Bangladesh labor leader Kalpona Akter took the mic on the sidewalk to call for Walmart to join a binding building safety agreement, and as protesting workers read Bible verses in four languages. Then a half-dozen striking Walmart employees walked into the middle of the parking lot, where they were met by Walmart security and local police. As co-workers sang or chanted on either side of the lot, Seattle striker Preston Johnson presented a security officer with a three-foot-tall list of the retailers who’ve signed onto the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh; it included a dotted line at the bottom for Walmart CEO Mike Duke, who hasn’t. “1,239 folks have died because of factories that were unsafe,” said Johnson, “and we found out that Walmart is one of the companies that had workers making clothes there.” As in past Bentonville confrontations, the Walmart security officer told the workers that human resources staff were available to meet with them individually, but not collectively; the workers declined and marched away.
Interviewed afterwards, Johnson called the action “very powerful, very moving.” He said he believed the crowd had successfully communicated “the seriousness of the issue” to Walmart. But when asked about the protest, Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg e-mailed, “This is the same old story from the unions who have to recycle the same small group of paid activists who they ship in for their made-for-TV stunts.”
Factory Safety Scrutiny
As I’ve reported, striking workers from the union-backed group Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) have been in Bentonville since Saturday, following a series of Freedom Ride–inspired caravans that made stops in some twenty cities. The workers have framed their work stoppage as a protest of retaliation by Walmart against workers who organized for better wages and working conditions. Organizers say at least a hundred workers are participating in the current strike, which is substantially smaller than last fall’s Black Friday walkout, but significantly longer: workers began walking off the job eight days ago, and have pledged to stay out on strike at least through the company’s shareholder meeting on Friday.
This afternoon’s protesters charged that Walmart bears significant responsibility for two disasters in factories it’s used in Bangladesh: the November fire that killed 112 apparel workers at the Tazreen Factory, and the April building collapse in Rana Plaza, whose death toll was the highest in global garment industry history. In an April interview, Tazreen survivor Sumi Abedin told The Nation that she jumped out of the building “not to save my life” but “to save my body. Because if I would be in the factory, my parents would not be able to get my body. I would be burned to death. So I jumped so at least they could find my body outside.”
Walmart stated immediately after the November fire that it could not confirm whether it had used the Tazreen factory; after photos were released showing its apparel there, Walmart announced that it had cut off the factory prior to the fire, and blamed the presence of Walmart goods there on a rogue supplier that it said had continued filing orders without Walmart’s authorization, and was thus being terminated. Subsequent stories in Bloomberg and The New York Times reported that at least three Walmart suppliers were sourcing goods from the factory in 2012, and that Walmart played a key role in vetoing a 2011 proposal under which Western retailers would have paid for the cost of safety improvements in Bangladesh factories.
Similarly, after The New York Times reported that documents from 2012 showed Walmart apparel had been produced in the Rana Plaza building, Walmart announced that it was terminating a supplier based on “unauthorized subcontracting”; that supplier blamed a “rogue employee.” Since the Rana Plaza disaster, Walmart has drawn a new round of protests and scrutiny for declining to join the labor-backed Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. That deal is backed by the global union federations IndustriALL and UNI, and by a battery of European brands, as well as Abercrombie & Fitch and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger.
Rather than sign the labor-backed deal, Women’s Wear Daily reported May 30, Walmart and Gap are working with industry groups, the Bipartisan Policy Center and former US Senators Olympia Snowe and George Mitchell to formulate an alternative factory safety plan. Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, dismissed that competing plan as mere “fun.” “We really don’t buy that,” she told The Nation this afternoon. “We will not accept anything that is not legally binding…. If it is voluntary, then they [already] have their Code of Conduct, they have their CSR [corporate social responsibility] and other policies. Those are not working. Those are failing repeatedly.”
Akter said she believes Walmart is resisting the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh because it would bind the company to pay for the costs of factory improvements, and to cooperate with unions and workers’ groups to monitor conditions. “They don’t want to share their profits with anyone,” charged Akter, and “they don’t want workers’ voice in the workplace.”
The Walmart-Gap plan was also slammed in a rare joint statement by both major US labor federations—the AFL-CIO and Change to Win—and it drew a cold reception from the top Walmart critic in Congress. Last week, on a media call following his fact-finding trip to Bangladesh, Representative George Miller charged that the companies “want to continue a system that they designed and organized.” “If Walmart and The Gap want to stand alongside collapsing factories and burning factories and women jumping out of buildings,” said Miller, “I guess that’s their choice.” Congressman Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, told The Nation that Walmart has “set the pace” and fostered “a system where you either do it under their terms, or you don’t get the contract.” Rather than forcing improved health, safety and workers’ rights, said Miller, the incentive structure set up by Walmart has been “designed to escape those kinds of provisions.”
Along with at least one OUR Walmart member, Akter will be among the Walmart critics presenting resolutions when the shareholders gather at the University of Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena on Friday. The motion to be presented by Akter would allow any group of shareholders who together own a tenth of the company’s shares to instigate a special shareholder meeting to address corporate governance issues. Like three other shareholder resolutions being presented Friday, the proposal is supported by the corporate governance group Institutional Shareholder Services, and opposed by Walmart.
This afternoon’s rally comes amid a week of pre–shareholder meeting protests, including a Monday action in which striking Walmart workers and their family members lined the sidewalk in front of the Bentonville “Home Office,” holding hands and wearing tape over their mouths to represent the company’s alleged efforts to silence workers through retaliation. Reached by e-mail Monday, Walmart’s Lundberg said that a “small and insignificant amount of associates” was involved in the week’s protests, and that “many of our associates from around the country have been vocal in how disappointed they are when people, including this union-affiliated group, disrespect and interrupt their stores.”
Walmart hasn’t been ignoring the planned protests. On Monday, an Arkansas Circuit Court granted a temporary restraining order, requested by the company, prohibiting activists from the United Food & Commercial Workers union or OUR Walmart—other than Walmart employees—from entering Walmart property in Arkansas for “activities such as picketing, patrolling, parading, demonstrations, ‘flash mobs,’ handbilling, solicitation, and manager confrontations” In an e-mailed statement, National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill called the order “Walmart’s latest attempt to silence the voices that are calling for real change at the nation’s largest employer.” The OUR Walmart campaign said that the order would not affect its protest plans; during today’s action, organizers repeatedly reminded protesters to stay on the sidewalk.
Walmart’s Lundberg also noted that the company was bringing “14,000 associates from around the globe” to Arkansas “to participate in activities throughout the week that highlight and recognize the accomplishments of the 2.2 million associates around the world and what they do to take care of their customers.” Those activities include free concerts last night and tonight—headlined by Elton John and country singer Luke Bryan, respectively—for the employees the company’s flown into town this week, and those who live in the area.
Reached by phone last night, Springdale, Arkansas, employee Randal Woods, who’s attending tonight’s concert, said that he had never heard of strikes by Walmart employees; asked about “OUR Walmart,” he initially assumed it was the name of a concert. Woods told The Nation his store was “pretty well staffed,” and that while he hadn’t yet worked long enough to qualify for them, “the benefits are really good.” He said that Walmart’s pay “might seem kind of low, but cost of living’s not so bad here, so it’s pretty competitive.” Asked his hourly rate, Woods answered, “I don’t think I’m actually supposed to release that one.” Woods said Walmart was “within my top five of companies to be working for.”
Interviewed Monday, City University of New York sociologist Ruth Milkman told The Nation that the media coverage of the deaths in Walmart’s supply chain abroad could draw increased public attention and sympathy for the company’s US employees. “It’s become a kind of poster child of low-wage and exploitative work,” said Milkman, “both in this country and in the companies that supply it with the stuff it sells. And so I feel like this is a good approach for them to address those issues. But what the concrete results will be is very hard to say.”
OUR Walmart activists hope to talk to some of the co-workers who were chanting the Walmart cheer this afternoon, and eventually to recruit some of them to join their cause. “They’re probably facing some of the same issues as us, as far as retaliation and being scared to speak up,” said striking sales associate Shawnadia Mixon, who traveled to Bentonville from Baker, Louisiana. “And it’s time to stop the silence.”
“These associates that are out here for the shareholder’s meeting, they are going to be some associates that we see back in our stores0” said Johnson. He said he believed that witnessing the action OUR Walmart took to protect worker safety in Bangladesh would “move them to understand how serious it is to look out for each other, as associates for Walmart.”
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