You might not consider your local post office to be a hotbed of political foment. But last Tuesday, the nation's window clerks and other mail service staff assembled in Chicago to declare that, despite efforts in Washington to privatize and downsize the Postal Service, nothing would keep these workers from their appointed rounds.
Rallying with the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) under the banner of “The US Mail is Not For Sale,” post office workers marched to protest recent moves by the office superstore Staples. The chain is at the center of a highly controversial “public-private partnership” deal to turn its store counters into quasi-post offices. At the APWU convention, the union amped up its call for a nationwide boycott of Staples to oppose plans to pilot the so-called “Retail Expansion Plan” at 82 stores in California, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and potentially expand nationwide.
Following weeks of postal workers’ campaigning, with support from the AFL-CIO and numerous public and private service-worker unions, Staples has apparently pulled back and announced that the expansion plan would be ended and incorporated into the existing “Approved Shipper” program, which more generally allows private retailers to market certain postal products. In an email to The Nation, Staples states the company has ended the pilot for now, but “will continue to explore and test products and services that meet our customers’ needs.”
Calling the move a “ruse”—merely a name-change to deflect bad publicity—union leaders vowed to keep up the resistance. They remain wary of the potential expansion of the Approved Shipper program, seeing it as part of the USPS administration’s agenda of selling out postal infrastructure and union jobs to the Big Box retail industry.
In theory, the union supports making postal services more available—just not when those services come at the cost of the postal workforce. In analysis of the Staples plan published in April, APWU President Mark Dimondstein stated, “The APWU favors expanding service. But postal services must be provided by highly-trained uniformed employees of the U.S. Postal Service – whether it’s at the Post Office or Staples.”
Though many details of the plan were not disclosed publicly, internal and business documents indicate that the Retail Expansion Plan extended a trend toward commercialization by expanding privately-managed postal access points and using Staples employees to take on traditional “window duties.” This would go far beyond offering products like stamps and boxes over the counter—a service that is already available at tens of thousands of private businesses nationwide—to actually replace postal jobs.
The USPS has already privatized a chunk of its retail and delivery infrastructure. Thousands of privately contracted postal outlets nationwide currently work under a special public-private revenue sharing arrangement. The USPS's corporate delivery deals have gained more public attention, ceding critical market share through partnerships with logistics giants like Fed Ex, UPS and recently, Amazon.
The potential impact of the Staples retail partnership was illustrated in San Francisco, where according to the APWU, service cuts have coincided with the expansion of services at nearby Staples stores. In a May statement, following cuts to customer service hours at over half of local post office stations, San Francisco Local president Geoffray Dumaguit said: “They’re shutting the doors at 5pm and posting signs sending people to private locations—including Staples—to conduct postal business. This will inconvenience and irritate our customers, who often need to visit a post office after work.”
Postal workers raise concerns about both job and service quality. The APWU cites information on the deal revealed in a recent National Labor Relations Board hearing (along with a heavily redacted agreement) showing that “Packages dropped off at Staples stores will be placed in unsecured containers” and not “considered ‘mail’” until received by the USPS, meaning that it lacks a level of federal protection. It also notes that the Staples employees would receive only a fraction of the amount of training that official postal clerks undergo, without completing the same background checks and would not be bound by a postal oath of duty. Staples retail associates might make as little as $9 per hour, compared to $25 per hour for a typical postal worker. The company could also purchase USPS products at a discount and resell them retail at full price, for a hefty profit.
Advocates have also challenged the USPS’s argument that expanding access to postal services via Staples would improve overall access. According to an analysis on Savethepostoffice.org by Steve Hutkins, “There are over 1,200 post offices within two miles of a Staples store”—a sign that additional outlets at Staples could be redundant. Unless, of course, the clandestine aim was to close “redundant” post office branches and allow Staples to corporatize postal retail work.
Hutkins tells The Nation via email: “The fact [is] that the leadership of the Postal Service—along with many in Congress and the mailing industry—would like the USPS to get out of the retail end of the postal business. The Staples idea was just the latest attempt.”
In light of past public statements by the USPS suggesting parallels between the Retail Expansion Plan and the more explicitly privatized Contract Postal Units, the program appears to reflect the agenda laid out in a 2012 internal memo describing an “Approved Shipper Plus” program: That plan's stated purpose was to help “determine if lower costs can be realized with retail partner labor instead of the labor traditionally associated with retail windows at Post Office.”
The Staples initiative grew out of a longstanding push for postal privatization that began in the 1970s and intensified in the Reagan Era, as Washington pushed to replace government functions with “free enterprise” solutions. In recent years, the USPS’s financial turmoil—driven in large part by pension funding gaps that many see as the artificial product of budget manipulation—postal officials have schemed of programs to consolidate postal outlets and incrementally shrink the (allegedly overpaid and bloated) workforce.
In its 2013 report to Congress, the USPS boasted, “To improve efficiency and reduce costs, we consolidated 143 mail-processing facilities, eliminated 1,847 delivery routes, and… reduced the size of our career workforce by more than 37,400 employees during the year” through attrition, and at the same time, “the Approved Shipper program increased its annual revenue by 57 percent.” Closures of government-run post offices have numbered about 100 annually in the past four decades.
Mark Jamison, a former postmaster and now postal labor activist, says via email, through a combination of eroding retail operations and contracting out critical functions, “Privatization is coming through a thousand little nudges and cuts, not through a grand gesture—it will sneak in, is sneaking in through the back door.”
The response to creeping privatization has been clamorous labor mobilization. The Staples boycott campaign draws on the USPS’s legacy of providing a relatively equitable, meritocratic labor structure to marginalized groups, particularly black workers, due to early adoption of non-discrimination employment practices. The APWU also appealed to customers who see their post offices as pillars of their communities. As an institution and civil service, postal labor still holds considerable political leverage.
The American Federation of Teachers, representing another embattled public professional workforce, also recently voted to join the boycott. So educators across the country could potentially deny Staples of a major chunk of its back-to-school supply business.
Meanwhile, Staples faces financial troubles as well, even shuttering an estimated 225 of its own stores. Perhaps from a business standpoint, the corporation's recent walkback on the partnership points to growing fear that with a boycott, the program might hurt its bottom line more than it helps.
So, even if free-market forces threaten to ravage the postal service, your neighborhood postal clerk can still compete on brand. “The postal network is useful and essential infrastructure," Jamison argues, and in the long run, "the current efforts are akin to privatizing the highway system, or eliminating any oversight over utilities.”
In recent years, communities have turned out to defend their local post offices from closures, with grassroots petitions and protests to preserve one of the last pillars of our communications infrastructure that truly belongs to the public. The solidarity between community and labor suggests that, on top of concerns about losing the social services of a highly trusted institution, both customers and workers see value in a public organization that offers a living wage and a strong union. The civic investment embodied in the postal seal still delivers a moral dividend that no corporation can match.
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After noting the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and declaring that it was concern for the emperor which, as a consequence of the crime, “first makes appeal,” The Nation allowed several weeks to pass without comment about the political fallout of the deed. Lead editorials instead focused on the situations in Mexico, Haiti and Albania (ultimately connected to broader European conflict, but perhaps not obviously so just yet). With what now appears mordant irony, a scholar named H.W. Horwill—later known for his Dictionary of Modern American Usage—mused, in a laconic dispatch from London dated July 10, on the difficulties of prediction in politics. “Wars and rumors of wars,” Horwill wrote, “afford abundant opportunity for lucky and unlucky shots, metaphorically as well as literally.”
By the issue dated July 30, however, prediction was no longer the name of the game, and The Nation could no longer ignore the conflict already threatening to tear Europe apart—disturbingly suddenly, if along predictable seams.
On July 23 the Austrian ambassador to Serbia submitted the Dual Monarchy’s ultimatum: Serbia must crack down on the nationalist networks responsible for the archduke’s assassination, as well as allow an unprecedented level of meddling by Austria in Serbia’s internal affairs. The terms were impossible for Serbia to accept, and were designed to be so; militaristic elements in the Austrian government had long desired a conflict with Serbia, and the primary proponent of peace in that government, the archduke, was now dead. Serbia rejected the ultimatum. Austria rejected British offers to negotiate a resolution and, on July 28, declared war.
“A crisis of extreme gravity has developed in the European situation,” the first sentence of The Nation’s July 30 issue solemnly observed. A subsequent note picked up the thread:
A few pages later readers found the magazine’s full editorial on the subject, written (without a byline, as most articles were then) by Rollo Ogden, the same editor of The Nation’s then-parent publication, The New York Evening-Post, who had previously written about Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The editorial gives an incredible sense of Americans in July 1914 looking in horror at the precipitate escalation of tensions on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
(Bishop Joseph Butler, for the record, was a widely read eighteenth-century English theologian and philosopher who influenced David Hume and Adam Smith. In a late essay, Matthew Arnold praised Butler’s “sacred horror at men’s frivolity.”)
As if in apology for having not kept its readers updated on the developing story for the last four weeks, The Nation’s editorial continued:
The editorial concludes with an unmistakable allusion to the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:
Back Issues is following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.
Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at email@example.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
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The recent reports of moms getting arrested for leaving their kids unattended while they work or go to a job interview shows the reality of “work-life balance” when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. The burden for many low-wage hourly workers isn’t seeking balance, it’s walking a tightrope. Millions of workers have nonstandard schedules, irregular shifts or on-call jobs without set hours, so they scramble from shift to shift, from daycare to night classes, or anxiously call in each day in hopes of getting a few hours of work. Having no control over your work schedule means your boss controls not only how much you’re paid but how much time you spend with your kids.
Labor advocates are calling for workplace policies that give workers more stable schedules and more control over their hours. Now Washington may step in with legislation to check the volatility of the daily grind.
The “Schedules that Work” bill (introduced by Representatives George Miller and Rosa DeLauro and Senators Tom Harkin and Elizabeth Warren) is the proletarian answer to the workplace “flex” policies that are common in corporate offices. After all, poor parents need flexibility more than anyone, as they cope with the chaos of economic hardship and work unstable jobs with few benefits..
The bill provides workers a so-called “right to request,” or the ability to engage in a dialogue with their boss about a schedule change ahead of time, without fear of retaliation. In some cases, the employer would be mandated to accommodate a family or medical issue. Shift and on-call workers in some low-wage industries would also gain protections against arbitrary schedule changes.
Middle-class professionals may regularly negotiate work time through flexible work arrangements, generous paid leave time and telecommuting options. But in industries like retail chains or fast food, where “just in time” production systems require round-the-clock processing and sales, part-time and shift workers struggle between not getting enough hours to earn a living wage, and having to work whatever shift their manager dumps on them at any hour. Survey data shows that about half of hourly wage workers lack control over their work schedules.
Unless they can persuade their boss to accommodate their needs, a volatile schedule can destabilize their family lives. Parents struggle to find last-minute babysitting arrangements to take a shift, or they may be unable to enroll in a regular daycare that requires up-front monthly payments, since their income varies week to week.
A punishing work schedule derailed Tiffany Beroid’s whole career path. She was trying to hold down a full-time position as a customer service manager at a Walmart in Maryland, while studying to be a nurse. But when she asked for a schedule change to allow her to juggle her school and work duties, she tells The Nation, the management was less than family friendly: “[Walmart] retaliated by cutting my hours. So even though I was full-time in the system, I was receiving nineteen or twenty-five hours some weeks, maybe forty hours if I was lucky, once a month.”
Her situation was further complicated by her pregnancy, which caused blood pressure problems that prompted her to request light duty at work—on her doctor’s advice. Then, she says, the management abruptly forced her to take unpaid leave, and the strain on her family eventually forced her to drop out of school.
Under the Schedules that Work Act, workers like Beroid would be entitled to a schedule change if their request related to health, family caregiving duties, another job they are working or an educational or training program. The employer could refuse for “bona fide business reasons,” according to an analysis by think tank Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), but they would in any case have to consult with the employee “in a timely, interactive process.”
Workers in certain industries where shift work is prevalent—restaurants, retail and building cleaning—would be entitled to least two weeks advance notice of their schedule. Employers would pay an hour’s wages for each shift change without twenty-four hours’ notice. If a worker shows up for a shift and is sent home early—say, because business is slow—she can get compensated for at least four hours of wages. On-call workers, who are required to check in to confirm their schedules, also get an hour’s pay if they call-in but get no work.
But as with many labor protections geared toward low-wage workers, enforcement is a sticking point. Labor advocates say workers may face retaliation for merely requesting a schedule change.
After Beroid dropped out of school, for example, Walmart dropped her. She had become involved with OUR Walmart, a national union-backed organization that advocates for a fairer and more family-focused scheduling policies. Following months of campaigning, the company reformed its workplace policies in March to provide greater accommodations, including light duty, to women with pregnancy complications. But Beroid barely had a chance to savor the victory before she suddenly lost her job—she suspects, because of her activism. (Beroid says she has filed a complaint of unlawful dismissal with the National Labor Relations Board. Walmart, which has denied previous charges of retaliation against activist employees, states via e-mail that she “was dismissed from the company because she didn’t always show up for work when she was scheduled”).
Beyond Walmart, Beroid says, the federal legislation would give workers a mechanism so employers can be held to account. “Even though Walmart has made these changes for the public’s eyes, if they’re not enforcing them, I know if the bill was actually to take effect, then they would have to follow these rules and enforce these policies.”
CLASP policy analyst Liz Ben-Ishai says via e-mail that since enforcement is generally driven by individual workers’ complaints, taking legal action against a boss would be hard for “low-wage workers without support or resources, who fear retaliation.” But the Labor Department could “proactively enforce” fair-scheduling policies, by undertaking “targeted investigations of companies that are, for example, known to violate other laws and therefore more likely to be in violation of this one.”
The legislation parallels “right to request” policies that have already passed in San Francisco and Vermont. San Francisco workers. And several states, including New York and California, have “reporting time” laws that guarantee a certain minimum pay for shift workers if their hours are suddenly cut. Some companies have individually instituted flexible scheduling practices, as studies have shown this can improve workplace productivity and limit turnover.
Research by Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration shows that among early-career workers, aged 26 to 32, overall nearly 40 percent “know their work schedule one week or less in advance.” Workers of color are more likely to work on such short notice. About three in four hourly workers reported experiencing unstable schedules in the past month, and “[p]art-time employees, skilled tradesmen, and workers in low-status occupations are particularly likely to know their schedule at most a week in advance.” And lost time is lost income: hourly workers with unstable schedules reported that “their hours vary by what amounts to about 50 percent on average of their usual work hours.”
There are many other legislative solutions that advocates are pushing to make wage work more family friendly and sustainable for poor households. Paid sick days policies, which have been introduced or enacted in several states and cities, allow workers to attend to medical needs without losing wages. Stronger social support programs, such as public childcare and pre-kindergarten, along with a higher minimum wage, would also provide more financial bandwidth to cope with precarious jobs.
But regardless of how much they make per hour, scheduling stability is key to economic stability, especially for the growing number workers who work insecure jobs, lack basic benefits like healthcare or do not have a union to represent them.
Beroid still campaigns with OUR Walmart to make sure it upholds its new policies. “There’s a lot of associates in the store who are afraid to speak out,” she says, despite the reforms. “So there’s a lot of women, whether they’re single or married, that are trying to provide for their children, trying to work with the way Walmart gives them schedules, of going to work late at night, being back to work early in the morning, not able to provide childcare.”
As her daughter nears her second birthday, Beroid plans to go back to school. And she’d like to return to Walmart, too, once her boss is ready to offer a real work-life balance—one that lets her set her own priorities.
Read Next: “We’re Arresting Poor Mother’s for Our Own Failures.”
Like Marco Rubio—who, earlier this year, put forward a much-criticized “anti-poverty plan”—Paul Ryan doesn’t like poverty, either. (And neither does Rand Paul, as explained in a Wall Street Journal analysis of Ryan’s, Rubio’s, and Paul’s poverty ideas.) And like Rubio and Paul, Ryan might like to run for president in 2016, in a Republican candidate field that so far lacks anything like a front-runner. So that’s the context for Ryan’s speech on July 24 at the American Enterprise Institute to release a 73-page plan called “Expanding Opportunity in America.” Among progressives, the left, most Democrats, and people who actually know something about poverty and inequality, Ryan’s plan has been widely panned, too, and for good reason.
The release of Ryan’s plan, clearly an opening salvo in what Ryan hopes will be his 2016 presidential bid, comes amid a growing realization among Republicans that the GOP has utterly lost any ability to appeal to poor, working-class and lower-middle-class voters, in part thanks to the lasting impression left by Mitt Romney’s elitist, country-club, 47 percent-bashing 2012 campaign. In that context, as Christie Watch detailed last week in a special, three-part series on “reform conservatism” (see Part I, Part II and Part III), Ryan’s plan ought to be seen as part of the GOP’s fits-and-starts effort to recast its appeal to people who don’t own businesses or clip investment coupons. As the Christie Watch series detailed, however, the “reformicons” of the GOP—like George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”—don’t really signal a break with Republican orthodoxy, nor is Ryan’s repackaging of traditional Republican views on the social safety net. But he’s already won major plaudits from one of the leading lights of the reform-conservative movement, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who says that Ryan’s blueprint “synthesizes ‘reformicon’ ideas with proposals that fit pretty easily under the other possible rubric for a renovated conservative domestic policy.”
We’ll get to the details of Ryan’s plan in a minute, but at first it’s useful to point out that Douthat is absolutely right when he contrasts Ryan’s allegedly “big” ideas with the fact that among Democrats—and that would include President Obama—there is virtually no sign that they’re planning to put forward anything that remotely resembles a big idea. There is, says Douthat, a “growing contrast between the policy ferment on the Republican side of the aisle and the staleness and or small-ball quality of the Democratic Party’s ‘what comes after Obama?’ agenda,” such as “an expansion of Social Security to a guaranteed income.” True, that.
Amid the widespread disparagement of Ryan’s plans by even moderate liberals, who recognize that it’s mostly yet another Republican plan to wrap any and all anti-poverty program into one big, unregulated block-grant ball of wax for the states, there is at least some grudging respect for one part of Ryan’s plan, namely, his scheme to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC, which had its origins as a conservative, Milton Friedman-backed idea, has since earned strong support on both sides of the aisle. The Washington Post says in an editorial:
Mr. Ryan’s best idea is a substantial expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a wage supplement for low-income workers administered through the tax code. Currently the third-largest federal poverty-fighting program at $59 billion per year, the EITC has a proven track record of lifting families out of poverty and stimulating work effort. But it offers only skimpy assistance to childless adult workers, which Mr. Ryan would remedy by doubling the maximum annual credit for such workers to $1,005 and lowering the eligibility age from 25 to 21. It’s nearly identical to a proposal in President Obama’s 2015 budget that would have cost roughly $60 billion over 10 years.
And there’s something to be said about what the Ryan plan signals as a change in tone in what has been a long-running GOP message. That message, which reached an ear-splitting crescendo in 2012, was that a huge cross-section of America’s working poor and working and middle classes don’t pay any federal income taxes. As Neil Irwin points out in an analysis in The New York Times, conservatives and outlets such as The Wall Street Journal have long argued that forcing low-income workers to pay taxes would cause them to have some “skin in the game” and make them resistant to increased government spending. As Irwin writes:
“Workers who pay little or no taxes can hardly be expected to care about tax relief for everybody else,” wrote The Wall Street Journal in 2002, in an editorial notable for calling those low-income Americans “lucky duckies” for their low tax bills. “They are also that much more detached from recognizing the costs of government.” This is also the nub of Mr. Romney’s polarizing comments to donors in advance of the 2012 election. “These are people who pay no income tax,” he said, referring to people who were set to vote for President Obama. “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”
So at least give Ryan credit for refusing to refer to the poor as “lucky duckies.” But his proposal to block-grant money to the states is an old, worn-out GOP idea, and a piece in The New York Times succinctly describes why the block grant idea isn’t anything new:
But the lack of seriousness in the plan is demonstrated by its supposedly big idea: It would combine 11 of the most important federal poverty programs into something called an “opportunity grant” that would be given to the states to spend as they see fit. The eliminated programs would include food stamps, what remains of the welfare system (known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), Section 8 housing vouchers, and low-income heating assistance, among others. This technique should sound familiar. Members of Mr. Ryan’s party have spent years promoting the idea that states can do things better than Washington. As Rick Santorum repeated endlessly in 2012, “Cap it, cut it, freeze it, and block-grant it to the states.”
A 24-year-old single mother of two…could go to a local social services provider for help. Instead of applying for food stamps, housing vouchers and welfare checks, she would meet with a case manager and draft an ‘opportunity plan’ to achieve her goals, targeting money where it is needed most…. The catch: she would have to sign a contract and meet certain benchmarks for success…. Failure would mean a cut in aid while exceeding expectations would earn her a bonus. There would be a time limit on assistance, and Ryan said the plan would need to show strong evidence of positive outcomes and poverty reduction.
Flaws aside, clearly Ryan hopes that his plan will catapult him into the ranks of the serious, and seriously wonky, 2016 contenders. It won’t win the Ayn Rand–loving Wisconsin any support on the left, but Ryan—who’s often not considered in presidential polls that focus on Rubio, Paul, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and others—is starting to get presidential traction. As Hot Air tells us:
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Republican Party’s bookish former vice presidential nominee, is starting to look like a candidate for the presidency in 2016. In August, Ryan will publish a book with a distinctly campaign-themed title, The Way Forward. On Tuesday, the Federal Election Commission approved of a nationwide book tour sponsored by Ryan’s publisher and the Political Action Committee the Wisconsin congressman founded, Prosperity Action PAC.
Back in May, as Politico reports, Ryan met with some big-money Republicans:
Rep. Paul Ryan told a group of business elites and donors at a New York City fundraiser that he’s asking friends and supporters “to keep their powder dry” as he mulls a 2016 presidential bid, two attendees told POLITICO.
And a recent Gallup Poll found Ryan clustered with Paul, Huckabee and Rick Perry as the would-be candidates with the highest “favorability” rating.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is at a fateful crossroads. He can go all-in on Ukraine, upping the ante by increasing military supplies to the retreating rebel separatists in Ukraine’s southeast, providing open military backing to their cause, and as a last resort ordering an invasion by Russian troops. Or, on the other hand, he can relinquish his would-be stranglehold over Ukraine and accept Ukraine as a unitary state, probably oriented toward Western Europe and the European Union, while establishing normal relations with Ukraine on the lines of, well, Poland. Whatever legitimacy and moral authority that Putin had left, shredded as it was by the annexation of Crimea and the massive covert operation that Russia has set into motion in Ukraine’s southeast, disappeared entirely with the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 by half-drunk, incompetent rebel forces.
In recent weeks, the separatists have suffered defeat after defeat in the face of an offensive by Ukraine’s army, at significant cost in destruction and lives lost, but without far more overt Russian aid it’s not likely that they can hold out much longer. As The New York Times reports today:
Although fierce fighting continues, particularly near the Russian border, the Ukrainian military has made major advances in recent days, and Mr. Poroshenko’s aides have told allies that they believe the military operation can be completed in up to three weeks, provided there is no invasion by Russia or a large new influx of weapons and fighters across the border.
Not that Putin has to worry about either US or European military action. Even if Russia were to invade Ukraine, the chances that the United States or NATO would engage Russian forces is close to zero. The United States has little or no strategic interest in Ukraine, and despite its penchant for bluster and tough talk NATO has no significant military capacity to speak of without the United States. According to a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans have no interest whatsoever in the United States’ getting involved militarily in Ukraine, although the percentage of Americans holding a “favorable” view of Russia has fallen to an all-time, post–Cold War low of just 36 percent. Even if Russia invades Ukraine, the poll reveals that Americans oppose sending troops, by a hefty margin of 68 to 30 percent. According to the Chicago CFR, that’s “because Americans do not see Russian ambitions as a threat to US vital interests.”
Nor, barring a major escalation, does Putin have to worry much about economic sanctions, in part because Russia’s economy is far too integrated into the world economy—unlike, say, Iran’s or North Korea’s—and in part because Western Europe’s trade and financial ties to Russia are so interwoven that, short of an outright invasion of Ukraine, Putin probably doesn’t have to be concerned with stiff EU sanctions. As an analysis in today’s New York Times makes clear, President Obama’s pro-forma pressure on the EU isn’t likely to have much of an effect, as Britain, France and Germany all insist on maintaining the primary of their financial, arms trade, and energy ties, respectively, what one analyst calls the “triple lockout.” (A story in The Washington Post goes so far as to point out that Holland’s trade in flowers with Russia could be a factor in that country’s response to the shootdown of Flight 17, although the overwhelming tie between Holland and Russia is natural gas, not flowers.) As The Moscow Times notes, “For all the tough talk, Europe is not likely to punish Russia over last week’s downing of an airliner over Ukraine.”
Despite his sometimes-soothing rhetoric about diplomacy and negotiations, however, there’s little sign yet that Putin is concerned about either a NATO military response, economic sanctions by the United States or the EU, or Russia’s drastic fall in world public opinion. According to US officials, some of the artillery directed at advancing Ukrainian forces is coming from within Russia itself. As Michael McFaul, the just-retired former American ambassador to Russia, told The Wall Street Journal:
If true, this represents a serious escalation on Putin’s part. … Instead of using last week’s tragedy as a pretext for ending this war, he seems to be doing the opposite, doubling down.
By many accounts, Russia hasn’t halted the supply of heavy weapons to the beleaguered separatist fighters, including tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons systems. But, according to General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Russia’s military is a reluctant and cautious participant in the Ukraine war, a view that contradicts the oft-stated belief that Putin is under pressure from “hawks” within Russia, including its military. Dempsey, who said he’s been in touch with senior Russian military officers during the crisis, doesn’t believe that the military is driving the issue—which means it’s Putin, not the generals, behind it. According to Reuters:
Russia’s military is likely a reluctant participant in Ukraine’s conflict, the top US military officer said on Thursday, adding that although he had not spoken to his Moscow counterpart in about two months he was keeping an open line of communication. “I think the Russian military and its leaders that I know are probably somewhat reluctant participants in this form of warfare,” General Martin Dempsey said, noting Russia’s use of both conventional forces along the border and of proxies inside the country.… Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced concerns about the implications of Russia’s actions on its ties with the United States and with Europe. “My real concern is that having lit this fire in an isolated part of eastern Europe, it may not stay in eastern Europe. And I think that’s a real risk,” Dempsey said. “I’m keeping an open line of communication with my counterpart and he’s doing the same with me.”
This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org.
Last Friday, just before the Federal Communication Commission closed its comment period for its upcoming rule on “network neutrality,” a massive coalition of Asian, Latino and black civil rights groups filed letters arguing that regulators should lay off of Internet Service Providers regarding Title II reclassification and accept FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s original plan. In other words, something close to half of the entire civil rights establishment just sold out the Internet.
The civil rights groups letters argue that Title II reclassification of broadband services as a public utility—the only path forward for real net neutrality after a federal court ruling in January—would somehow “harm communities of color.” The groups wrote to the FCC to tell them that “we do not believe that the door to Title II should be opened.” Simply put, these groups, many of which claim to carry the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr., are saying that Comcast and Verizon should be able to create Internet slow lanes and fast lanes, and such a change would magically improve the lives of non-white Americans.
The filings reveal a who’s who of civil rights groups willing to shill on behalf of the telecom industry. One filing lists prominent civil rights groups NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Urban League, the National Council on Black Civil Participation and the National Action Network. The other features the Council of Korean Americans, the Japanese American Citizens League, the National Black Farmers Association, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, OCA, Asian Pacific American Advocates, the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Coalition and many more.
Of course, the groups listed on these filings do not speak for all communities of color on telecom policy, and there are civil rights groups out there that actually support net neutrality, including Color of Change and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Joseph Torres with Free Press told Vice that communities of color believe a free and open Internet is essential in the digital age, especially when most non-whites do not own radio stations, broadcast outlets or other forms of mass media. “Protecting real net neutrality is critical for people of color because an open Internet gives us the opportunity to speak for ourselves without having to ask corporate gatekeepers for permission,” Torres says.
A number of K Street consultants have helped make this epic sell-out possible.
The Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) coordinated many of the participants in the anti–net neutrality filings sent to the FCC last week. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation of MMTC, showing that the group has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from Verizon, Comcast, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and other telecom sources while reliably peddling the pro-telecom industry positions. For instance, the group attacked the Obama administration’s first attempt at net neutrality, while celebrating the proposed (and eventually successful) merger between Comcast and NBC.
Martin Chavez, the former mayor of Albuquerque, now works with a group called the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP) to corral Latino civil rights groups into opposing net neutrality. Last month, Chavez hosted a net neutrality event on Capitol Hill to call on legislators to oppose Title II reclassification. As Time recently reported, Chavez is on the staff of one of Verizon’s lobbying firms, the Ibarra Strategy Group.
“HTTP is nothing more than an industry front-group that is at best misinformed and at worst intentionally distorting facts as it actively opposes efforts to better serve the communications needs of Latinos,” says Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which strongly supports net neutrality. His group has filed its own letter to the FCC.
Still, telecom cash has become a vital source of funding for cash-starved nonprofits. OCA, the Asian-American civil rights nonprofit formerly known as the Organization of Chinese Americans, counts Comcast as a major donor and sponsor for its events and galas. Not only did OCA go on to sign the anti–net neutrality letter last Friday, the group wrote a similar filing to the FCC in 2010, claiming absurdly that Asian-American entrepreneurs would benefit from having ISPs able to discriminate based on content. Similarly, League of United Latin American Citizens, better known simply as LULAC, has been a dependable ally of the telecom industry while partnering with Comcast for a $5 million civic engagement campaign. Here’s a picture of LULAC proudly accepting a jumbo-sized check from AT&T.
As Vice first reported, telecoms are desperate for third-party approval, and have even resorted to fabricating community support for their anti–net neutrality lobbying campaign.
Perhaps the bigger picture here is how so many of the old civil rights establishments have become comfortable with trading endorsements for cash. Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and other telecom companies have donated, either directly or through a company foundation, to nearly every group listed on the anti–net neutrality letters filed last week. We saw a similar dynamic play out with Walmart when the retailer handed out cash to civil rights groups in order to buy support for opening stores in urban areas.
Times have changed. Just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s children have embarrassingly descended into fighting bitterly over what’s left of his estate, the civil rights groups formed to advance Dr. King’s legacy seem willing to sell out their own members for a buck.
Read Next: “Why Is a Nice Network Like MSNBC Silencing Protest?”
Could any good come out of the latest and most publicized instance of a journalist protesting pro-Israeli coverage in the media? Now that former MSNBC contributor Rula Jebreal's appearances have been cancelled for her stating the obvious—that Israeli voices overwhelmingly outnumber those of Palestinians, including at MSNBC—will anyone at the network be embarrassed enough to actually do something about it?
As Jebreal told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, “I hope that MSNBC and other networks will actually revise their policies and will have more voices. It doesn’t have to be me. It’s not about me. We have a media scandal that we need to expose. We are responsible for these failing policies in Gaza and in Israel.”
The latest controversy began when Jebreal, a Palestinian and a former anchorwoman on Italian TV, appeared on Ronan Farrow’s MSNBC show, and he asked a good question: Why the discrepancy between what American officials like John Kerry think privately about Israeli airstrikes on Gaza (“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said sarcastically on a Fox News hot mic) and what they say in public?
Among the reasons, Jebreal said, are AIPAC, donors like Sheldon Aldelson, and the mediasphere itself. “We’re ridiculous,” she said. “We are disgustingly biased when it comes to this issue. Look at how many airtime Netanyahu and his folks have on air on a daily basis, Andrea Mitchell and others. I never see one Palestinian being interviewed on these same issues.”
That last point is hyperbole, especially regarding MSNBC, which, she later conceded, is “better than others.” But point taken, and the point stings, especially when she directed it, however briefly, at Andrea Mitchell, the NBC correspondent whose MSNBC show airs right before Farrow’s.
Within hours, Jebreal learned that she was persona non grata at MSNBC, where for two years she was a paid contributor and the only Palestinian in that role. Later that day, she tweeted, “My forthcoming TV appearances have been cancelled! Is there a link between my expose and the cancellation?”
The next night, Chris Hayes, considered one of MSNBC’s more sympathetic hosts on Palestinian issues (and a Nation editor at large), had Jebreal on. While he agreed with her that Israeli voices far outweigh Palestinians in the media, including his network, he said that airtime is a “bad metric” to judge fairness, and that it’s very hard to book Hamas spokespeople. She countered that not all Palestinians are Hamas (which, by the way, she criticizes as “extremist” and “the ultimate liability for the Palestinian people.”)
Hayes also said that media like The New York Times and MSNBC are better at showing the Palestinian side now than they were in earlier Israeli/Gaza conflicts. She replied that more footage and more stories on the devastation in Gaza don’t make up for a lack of context—they’re not delving into the history and the effects of the Israeli occupation.
As for her cancelled bookings, Hayes said, essentially, that’s what happens when you bite the hand that feeds you:
Let me take you behind the curtain of cable news business for a moment. If you appear on a cable news network, you trash that network and one of its hosts by name on any issue—Gaza, infrastructure, spending, sports coverage or funny Internet cat videos—the folks at the network will not take kindly to it. Not some grand conspiracy at work—a fairly predictable case of cause and effect.
“Not the greatest of moments for the generally high-minded Chris Hayes,” Eric Wemple writes. “Read those words again and see if you don’t find a shrugging endorsement of network suits seeking to stifle a dissident in-house voice. To the credit of MSNBC and Hayes, of course, he invited Jebreal back on air precisely to rehash her anti-MSNBC slam.”
Still, Jebreal says she was stunned. “I never experienced anything like this,” she told Goodman:
I mean, I understood doing what I did in Egypt would lead me to be kicked out of the country. I understood in Italy, where Berlusconi controlled most of the media. I was shocked, because most of my friends in the Middle East would tell me, “You know, you will have an issue in America.” And I always thought, “No way. We are truth tellers. We are fact checkers. We are people that actually cover both sides. This is what America stands for.”
Jebreal isn’t the only TV journalist who’s been punished recently for questioning the party line on Israel and Gaza. After CNN correspondent Diana Magnay tweeted that a group of Israelis who cheered the shelling of Gaza and allegedly threatened her were “scum,” she was reassigned to Moscow (where she might be skating on other thin ice).
Even more hair-trigger was NBC’s reaction in pulling highly respected reporter Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza. NBC didn’t explain its action, but shortly beforehand, Mohyeldin had delivered an emotional report about four Palestinian boys killed by Israeli airstrikes while playing soccer on the beach in Gaza. Just minutes before, Mohyeldin had been kicking the ball around with them. After a huge social media backlash, an apparently contrite NBC returned him to Gaza.
This might be stretching, but the Mohyeldin incident makes it seem possible that shame and some raised consciousness among the NBC staff could begin to change the peacock network’s kneejerk response on Israeli-Gaza issues.
In covering the Jebreal episode, Max Blumenthal found both frightening intimidation and green shoots of dissent behind closed doors at NBC/MSNBC:
An NBC producer speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed Jebreal’s account, describing to me a top-down intimidation campaign aimed at presenting an Israeli-centric view of the attack on the Gaza Strip. The NBC producer told me that MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC executives are micromanaging coverage of the crisis, closely monitoring contributors’ social media accounts and engaging in a “witch hunt” against anyone who strays from the official line.
“Loyalties are now being openly questioned,” the producer commented….
According to the NBC producer, MSNBC show teams were livid that they had been forced by management to cancel Jebreal as punishment for her act of dissent.
Given that MSNBC has the most diverse lineup of hosts and guests of any news network—and that with Jose Diaz-Balart’s new show, the anti-Fox network can finally boast a Latino host—and given the backlash it’s facing over Jebreal, the channel is probably keenly aware of the need for more Palestinian guests and contributors.
But if MSNBC does bring in more Palestinian voices, how much would it let them say?
Update: At the top of this post I wrote initially that Rula Jebreal was “canned for stating the obvious.” I meant “canned” to refer to MSNBC cancelling her scheduled appearances, not to terminating her contract. As mentioned later in the story, the contract ended last month when Jebreal chose not to renew it. The text has been updated for clarification.
Here is Jebreal on Chris Hayes’s show:
Jebreal comes on Ronan Farrow’s show at about 6:30:
Read Next: Sharif Abdel Koudouss on the state of hospitals in war-torn Gaza
As the latest graduation season came and went this past spring, the traditional mortarboards worn by graduates were adorned with a new addition—bright red tape spelling “IX.” Simultaneously referencing the gender-equity provision Title IX and red-tape bureaucracy, students from Brown, Stanford and many schools in between came together in repeating a rallying cry: “Red tape won’t cover up rape.”
The refrain and accompanying red-tape tactic were originally used at Columbia University in 1999 and 2000, when a group of twenty-three students took federal action against their school for what they viewed as a systematic failing to support survivors of sexual assault. In addition to their federal complaint, activists plastered the names of accused rapists in bathroom stalls across campus and tried to stage a protest at an event for prospective students, which was promptly shut down.
Despite the decade that has passed since the original Columbia protests, one in five women are still sexually assaulted while in college, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In response to the campus sexual assault epidemic, which President Obama deemed an affront to decency and humanity, the Obama administration formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January, with a comprehensive report titled “Not Alone.” It has four main goals: to identify the scope of campus sexual assault; to help prevent sexual assault; to ensure that schools are responding effectively when sexual assault does happen; and to enhance federal enforcement efforts.
Vice President Joe Biden recently explained the need for increased involvement from the White House and told Time: “If you knew your son had a 20 percent chance of being held up at gunpoint, you’d think twice before dropping your kid off. Well, my God, you drop a daughter off, it’s one in five she could be raped or physically abused? It is just outrageous.”
In 1990, the government began its first large-scale effort to address the college sexual assault epidemic by passing the Clery Act. The law, which is also known as the “Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act,” was passed by Congress after Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University, was raped and murdered in her college dormitory. It specifies procedures that colleges must follow regarding resources and treatment of sexual assault survivors. A student who believes his or her school has violated the provisions set forth by the Clery Act can file a report anonymously to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Unlike the Clery Act, however, complainants of Title IX cannot maintain anonymity. Title IX is a more recent addition to the toolkit students can use against their schools if they believe it to be mishandling claims of sexual assault. Under the Obama administration, the muscle behind Title IX’s application to sexual violence has been strengthened. What was once known primarily for its part in reducing gender inequality in college sports is now being used to combat sexual violence on college campuses.
The Department of Education sent a letter to colleges across the country in 2011 warning them that inadequate responses to sexual assault allegations would constitute violations of Title IX, and, potentially, loss of federal funding. On May 1, 2014, the Department of Education released for the first time the list of schools under investigation for failing to comply with Title IX. The list includes fifty-five colleges and universities. Although the White House task force and its report have been met with enthusiasm from anti-sexual assault activists, its recommendations will ultimately go unimplemented in many schools unless they are mandated by law. For that to happen, Congress needs to take action. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are leading efforts, but will need support from their colleagues in Congress to turn any of their ideas into law. For now, students and young people across the country are the ones making substantive improvements on their college campuses to stop sexual assault before it happens, and to ensure that when it does, schools are helping survivors, not their own reputations.
A Culture in Crisis
On the 168-acre campus that straddles the Charles River outside Boston, Vanessa (a pseudonym), an undergraduate student at MIT, is anxiously preparing to present at a poster session required for class. As Vanessa stands next to her 5' x 3' poster a professor approaches, and her presentation comes and goes, but the professor isn’t done yet. “Why are you such a bad presenter?” he asks. “Were you abused as a child?”
While Vanessa refrains from responding, her professor continues anyway, reasoning to himself aloud that she couldn’t have been abused as a child because she had turned out “normal.” Vanessa has nightmares so vivid that she once fell out of her bed in terror and injured her back. But for Vanessa, the nightmares aren’t only at night. She frequently has panic attacks and experiences symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She no longer enjoys an active social life like the one she used to have. These days, she doesn’t even like talking to people all that much. She has trouble recognizing herself as the same person she was before.
Before she was in an abusive relationship where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped. Before she tried to get academic accommodations from MIT and found herself neck-deep in an abyss of bureaucracy that seemed more worried about protecting itself than protecting her. It took her a long time to realize that their relationship was neither normal nor acceptable. While her assaulter doesn’t go to her school, it was in the classroom where she made the connection. After learning more about sexual assault in college, she began to see parallels between what she was learning about and her own relationship.
“Whoa, this is really creepy,” she thought to herself. “A lot of this stuff is sexual assault. That’s rape.” The relationship ended soon after. She started experiencing panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD that made it harder and harder for her to keep up with her classwork. She went to MIT’s Student Support Services, or S3, as many MIT students call it. “I wanted to make sure I could get academic accommodations,” she explained. “The end result was not that I got help but that I got reported to a bunch of other offices,” Vanessa said about her experience with Student Support Services. Still, at one of her meetings with S3, she decided to bring along her academic adviser. “Oftentimes, things don’t go well for you in meetings,” she said. So she wanted a third-party representative to be present at the meeting.
Two days after the meeting, she got a call from the Dean of Student Support Services telling her she could no longer speak to her adviser about anything related to her sexual assault. The dean said it would be a “conflict of interest” for the adviser. The professor couldn’t properly advise her on class choices while simultaneously helping her fight to get the academic resources she needed, he told her. “I mostly just lost my right to speak to my adviser,” she said. “We are forbidden from speaking.” Her professor received the same call. Vanessa suspects the dean chose to call rather than say, email, so there would be no physical record of the message. She eventually filed a Clery report, which is different than making a Title IX claim. A Clery report allows the petitioner to maintain anonymity and is more about systematic failings of a school’s treatment and resources for survivors of sexual assault. Title IX addresses specific complaints and requires the complainant to give his/her name. Vanessa chose to use the Clery Act because she wants to go to graduate school at MIT and thought that a public Title IX complaint would hurt her admission chances.
“After I filed my complaint, not much happened,” she said. She wrote an anonymous article for MIT Tech, the campus newspaper. She’s heard that the Department of Education requested information from MIT, which she interprets as a positive signal that something is happening. “I was expecting very little and I got very little,” Vanessa said. She remains frustrated at how convuleded the system is, and how it doesn’t seem like it’s designed to actually help students like her, but instead to protect the school from liability. “You basically need to go in with a copy of Title IX and highlighted sections,” she said. She adds that she was lucky she knew that going in but isn’t sure what other people would do in similar situations.
“I don’t know how many other students need help but don’t know anything,” she said. In the end, it seems like Vanessa made all the right choices. She knew the difference between a Clery report and a Title IX claim and was able to protect her anonymity on campus as well as her chances at graduate school. She brought her adviser with her to one of her meetings to serve as a witness in case anything went awry.
The Department of Education seems like it’s investigating MIT, at least partly as a result of the report she filed. Still, she says, she does have one regret: bringing an untenured professor to her meeting. “I probably should have brought a tenured professor,” she said. She’s worried about the effect this could have on his career. He hasn’t said anything to Vanessa to indicate such, but then again, he’s not allowed to. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the system as well as Vanessa.
A Call to Action
There was no one scandal that prompted Nowmee Shehab, 22, to become heavily engaged in efforts at Emory University to create a supportive environment for survivors of sexual assault. She readily acknowledges that she doesn’t have a single, all-encompassing answer to the question of why she first got involved.
Elizabeth Neyman, 21, will be a senior at Emory this year and said that she “noticed that there weren’t adequate resources for survivors” and “wanted to be a part of the solution.” Still, it was more of a gradual recognition than a striking epiphany. Both got involved not because of a specific horrific incident or a less-than-adequate university response, but instead because they both saw a widespread issue and were determined to make a difference A series of high-profile colleges and universities mishandling reported sexual assaults, the newly created White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and strong organizing efforts from students across the country thrusted the issue of campus sexual assault into the national spotlight.
Shehab and Neyman are, just two of the many students who have capitulated their campuses into action. Still, the tangible changes they have produced, alongside the less tangible but no less important transformations in conversations and attitudes, show the change-making power of millennials. Neyman, for one, helped organize a group on her campus called Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA). Just a few years after the group’s inception, they’ve trained nearly 2,000 students on what to say, what not to say, and how to support survivors of sexual assault. That figure is all the more impressive considering that SAPA almost never existed. When its founders originally approached Emory’s student government to become a chartered organization, they were asked skeptically asked what made their club different from another group on campus that focused on prevention efforts. SAPA concentrates on helping survivors, but some members of the student government weren’t buying it. Eventually, they were able to convince the hesitant members of the student government, and SAPA was born.
Shehab, meanwhile, was a coordinator for RespectCon, an annual conference at Emory that focuses on sexual violence. Originally founded in 2013, this year’s conference was themed “Sexual Violence Prevention through a Social Justice Lens.” Simultaneously, Shehab led efforts to increase conversations about sexual assault within Emory Pride and worked as a programming assistant at the Center for Women on campus. Neyman helped reform Emory’s sexual misconduct process. Originally, the same people who decided if a student who was caught cheating or imbibing would be suspended also dealt with sexual assault charges. The new policy changes this, because the intricacy of sexual violence requires that people be familiar with the subject to handle it well. Additionally, Neyman has worked with Emory University Hospital, which serves tens of thousands of patients in the Atlanta area each year, to ensure that survivors of sexual assault who come to the hospital will have the resources they need. Starting in August, Emory University Hospital will offer increased resources to every survivor of sexual assault that walks through its doors.
Neyman and SAPA are also pushing for minimum sanctions on students who are found guilty of sexual assault. The typical sentence, she noted, is a one-semester suspension, and no one convicted of sexual assault has been expelled in the last nine years. Of course, processes aren’t everything. Neyman said that survivors of sexual assault have emailed administrators asking if their assaulters were returning to campus, only to be repeatedly ignored. That’s why Neyman and other activists have worked hard to transform attitudes on campus, because changes in policy, while an important and necessary step, will not solve everything. Shehab agrees that there’s still room for improvement.
“Rape culture is not something people think about a lot,” she said. She points out the irony that many people feel comfortable telling a rape joke, but not talking about consent. “There’s still a stigma attached to talking about consent,” she said. Problems like these are why the recent report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is so important. While Neyman noted that she has already worked on implementing some of the recommendations from the task force, she also said that the she “has never felt this affirmed or validated.” Shehab, who’s spending the summer interning for Representative. David Cicilline (D-RI) through the Victory Congressional Internship program, said it’s “really awesome that the White House acknowledged the severity of the issue.”
Although the issue is attracting more and more attention across the spectrum, from the White House and others, Shehab noted that “it’s not like sexual violence has just increased. It’s always been there.” Despite this fact, it’s hard to ignore the recent increase in awareness, media attention and government resources being devoted to the issue. And when you ask yourself why, it’s difficult to imagine similar progress being made without the efforts of young people like Neyman and Shehab, who have helped propel campus sexual assault into the national discourse. While Shehab is still figuring out what she plans on doing after graduation, she’s sure that she’ll remain involved with the issue. “Everyone is affected by sexual violence. And it’s everyone’s job to prevent it,” she said.
A New Generation of Leaders
Dana Bolger, 23, wasn’t aware of the ins and outs of sexual assault reporting policy when she was raped and stalked by a fellow student while attending Amherst College. “When I went to report to my college dean, he encouraged me to go home, get a job at Starbucks, wait for my assailant to graduate, and then return to campus when it was safe,” Bolger said. “In other words: to take time off from my education so that my rapist could comfortably conclude his. At the time, I thought that what my dean said wasn’t particularly nice or ethical, but I didn’t know it was also against the law.” That’s what Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, 24, set out to fix when they founded Know Your IX, an organization created about a year ago.
The organization is a campaign that, according to its website, aims to “educate all college students in the U.S. about their rights under Title IX. Armed with information, sexual violence survivors will be able to advocate for themselves during their schools’ grievance proceedings and, if Title IX guarantees are not respected, file a complaint against their colleges with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.” Both Bolger and Brodsky, along with many members of the Know Your IX staff, are survivors. While Know Your IX is both run and driven by survivors, Bolger says they’re also trying to expand the movement to include more queer survivors, survivors of color and survivors from different strata of the socioeconomic spectrum.
Bolger graduated from Amherst this year and now works for Know Your IX full-time. Brodsky, who graduated from college in 2012, balances her studies as a student at Yale Law School with serving as the other founding co-director of Know Your IX. Although the organization is in its infancy, its founders have been incredibly successful in garnering attention from the media and the public at large, making concrete strides in public policy surrounding campus sexual assault and, most importantly, providing survivors of sexual assault with the information and resources they need to make informed choices.
“Schools are treating this as a PR problem, as an image risk to be swept away so that, in the high-stakes games of college rankings and university branding, they don’t scare off prospective students or alumni dollars,” Bolger said. “They treat survivors like liabilities to be managed, mitigated and swept aside.” Bolger, however, has refused to be “swept aside.” So has Susanna Vogel, 20, a college student at Davidson College in North Carolina, who wrote an article for Her Campus Davidson and is helping improve her school’s sexual assault misconduct policy after she was raped in her junior year.
Vogel’s assortment of extracurricular activities reads like that of someone who never sleeps: she’s the vice president of the Davidson Women’s Action Committee; former president of Changing Minds, a mental health awareness group; student solicitor for the Honor Council; member of Turner Eating House; and director of the 2013 Vagina Monologues and V-day efforts at Davidson. This is, of course, in addition to her studies as a psychology major. After talking with various administrative officials, Vogel chose to file a report through the Dean of Students office, which would then be heard by the Sexual Misconduct Board.
“I endured ninety days, a quarter of a year, of waiting and agonizing over what would happen,” she said. Eventually, after an emotionally taxing process, Vogel’s attacker was found responsible. The hearing then moved to the sentencing stage; he was mandated to spend twenty hours in counseling to discuss relationships and alcohol consumption and he could not go to a select few locations on campus, like her eating house (similar to a sorority) and dormitory. Vogel was, to say the least, disappointed by the outcome, which she described as a slap on the wrist. But she doesn’t like to dwell on the past and has instead focused her energy toward reforming the present sexual misconduct policy at Davidson.
“Being raped and going through the sexual misconduct process stripped me of my sense of agency. Working to help change the process means that even if the student who assaulted me is still on campus, other survivors will have a better shot at justice. It gives me my power back,” Vogel said. “Working to create change means that maybe all of my suffering wasn’t for nothing. This isn’t a very noble reason to get involved, but it’s an honest one.”
This spring, Vogel drafted a petition with two other students that included specific proposals to improve Davidson’s sexual misconduct policy. The suggestions were wide-ranging, from incorporating a minimum sentence of a one-semester suspension for any student found guilty of sexually assaulting or raping another student, to conducting a survey of the campus to get a better idea of what needs are and are not being met with regard to the school’s sexual assault policy.
Vogel and the other two creators of the petition had an initial goal of 500 signatures, or a quarter of the 2,000-member student body at Davidson. Within two days, they had 1,000 signatures. Now, with the help of the broader Davidson community, they’re at 3,000. They delivered the petition to the Dean of Students and to the college president. Soon after, the dean and the president sent an e-mail to the entire college announcing that Davidson will launch a task force in the fall to consider the reforms Vogel and others proposed in the petition.
As for the future, Vogel isn’t sure what’s next. Her career plans are still up in the air, but she does want to spend some time working with survivors of sexual violence. One thing is definite, though: she’s returning to Davidson this fall. “I’m coming back to Davidson,” Vogel said. “I refuse to let him take anything else from me. Davidson offers a great education and fantastic opportunities. I will see the accused student frequently. It will be hard. But my life has to go on and changing location will not fix the damage that has been done. I need to move forward not, run away.”
Read Next: Want colleges to protect students from sexual assualt? Take action to give Title IX teeth.
Two games. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on a security camera dragging his unconscious wife-to-be Janay Palmer by the hair, after knocking her unconscious, and the National Football League has chosen to suspend him for two games. Rice in fact will return to the field just in time to wear the NFL’s pink-festooned uniforms to celebrate their deep commitment to breast cancer awareness—and their even deeper commitment to selling sixty-dollar jerseys marketed aggressively to their female fan base. In fact, the Ray Rice all-pink number is available for purchase right now. The NFL actually needs a Violence Against Women Month instead, to raise awareness about a killer that malignantly throbs in every locker room. But that is not going to happen, and it is worth understanding why.
The NFL, as many have been writing for too many years, has a violence-against-women problem. The incidents are too many to catalogue. But by suspending Ray Rice for two games, a lighter suspension than the league’s marijuana smokers receive, Roger Goodell and his coterie of owners are sending a message that it just doesn’t matter. I don’t know why anyone would expect more from a league notorious for racist nicknames, out-of-control owners and a locker-room culture that would shame some high schools. But still. Two games. I did not think the NFL had the capacity to stun me with its blockheadedness, but I was wrong.
There is without question an important discussion to have—an unheated discussion not made for sports radio—about why violence against women and football seem to walk arm-in-arm. We could discuss the inability for football players to compartmentalize violence, taking the hyper-aggression of their sport home with them—something that affects families in the armed forces as well. There is a discussion we need to have about its connection to traumatic brain injury, and the ways that some of the side effects according to the NFL’s own neurologists, are mood swings, fits of temper and the inability to connect emotionally with the people in their lives. There especially is a discussion we need to have about a culture of entitlement that starts in high school and runs even more profoundly in college football, where young men produce billions in revenue and are often “rewarded”, since they can’t be paid, with a warped value system that says women are there to be taken.
If we can confront how players deal with violence and with the women in their lives, then we can prevent tragedies before they take place. Unfortunately, the NFL has shown absolutely zero interest in taking this issue seriously. The league didn’t do anything after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovon Belcher killed the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life in front of his coach and general manager.If they did not do anything then, they are not about to take it seriously now. It is very difficult to not be cynical about why it is so casually indifferent to this issue. To discuss violence against women means by necessity to talk about everything endemic in the NFL that creates this culture. The NFL has been aggressively marketing its sport to parents, telling them that, despite what they may have heard, football is as healthy for their children as a Flintstones vitamin. To discuss the causes of violence against women means to put its golden goose under the harshest possible light. It means producing negative publicity, and it means blowing wind on the brushfire movement of young parents who do not want their children playing this sport. To not discuss it, however, means not only ignoring a problem that won’t go away. It means sending a message to every general manager, coach, player and fan that the worth and humanity of women is at best negligible.
That is why when Rice’s coach John Harbaugh said, upon learning of Rice’s suspension, “It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process,” he is just taking his cues from the league that provides him with employment. Harbaugh also said, “He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way.” Unfortunately, the only lessons that kids are going to learn from this episode is that the vaunted “shield” of the NFL protects perpetrators of violence against women, for the sake of what it sees as the greater good. When its “breast cancer awareness month” begins, people should take these jerseys and light a big old bonfire outside of NFL stadiums. They are symbols of a monstrous joke that sees women as either revenue streams, cheerleaders or collateral damage to what takes place on the field.
Read Next: Dave Zirin on the transformation of safe havens in Gaza into warzones
The recent downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine has received a huge amount of attention from the press, but, according to Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, neither the mainstream media nor our government are adequately acknowledging the already violent atmosphere that surrounded the crash. On Democracy Now! this morning, vanden Heuvel explained that the tragedy should have presented an opportunity to end violence that she says has already escalated into civil war: “There should be a renewed effort, not to trigger more violence, but to trigger cease-fire, to trigger talks that could end the humanitarian catastrophe in the southeast of Ukraine.”
—Hannah Harris Green