North Carolina activists protest Republican policies. (Credit: The Daily Courier)
E-mail questions, tips or proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org. For earlier dispatches, check out posts from January 18, February 1, February 15, March 1, March 15, April 2, April 15 and April 26.
1. North Carolina Students Blockade State Republicans
The North Carolina General Assembly is passing an avalanche of regressive policies, including deep cuts to unemployment insurance and public education, restrictions to Medicaid eligibility, racist voter suppression laws and raising taxes on 900,000 working North Carolinians while cutting taxes for the richest twenty-three families. Now, students are standing in resistance with people from across the state. On April 29, seventeen people were arrested for blocking the doors to the State Senate, including two students from NC Student Power Union. On May Day, 350 students from ten different campuses marched to the General Assembly, and five students were arrested for trying to enter the building. On May 6, another group of thirty-one people were arrested—including grandmothers, students, professors and preachers. Mobilizations are planned each Monday until the end of the legislative session.
—NC Student Power Union
2. Florida Youth Rise Up to Defend Pushed-Out High Schooler
On April 22, 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot was arrested at her Polk County high school for conducting an explosive science experiment. The teen, who has no criminal history and maintained good grades, suddenly found herself trapped in Florida’s insidious school-to-prison pipeline, which has continually funneled mostly youth of color out of Florida’s schools and into the criminal justice system. Polk County Superintendent John Stewart has made the decision to place Kiera in an “alternative school” as he considers expulsion proceedings. Dream Defenders finds these actions by Superintendent Stewart reprehensible. We demand that Stewart drop all expulsion proceedings against Kiera Wilmot and allow her to return to her enrollment at Bartow High School. We are calling on concerned individuals to sign this petition, organizations in solidarity to sign this organizational petition and for everyone to contact Polk County Superintendent directly at 863-534-0521 to let him know we will not stand for this in Kiera’s case—or for this kind of treatment for youth in any case.
3. At Dartmouth, It Gets Real
RealTalk Dartmouth is a growing movement of students, faculty, alumni and public supporters that seek to contest a deeply entrenched culture of hate that affects the lives of Dartmouth College students. On April 19, the first of several direct student actions took place to make visible the foundation of our mission—Dartmouth has a problem—at the annual show put on for prospective students. Following the protests, the College announced a day of cancelled classes for students to partake in small group meetings and discuss the campus climate—which many students, faculty, alumni and RealTalk members felt was simply an image-saving move. This is only the most recent and highly publicized example of student dissent. Every year, the college stands witness to sexual assault, racism, homophobia, transphobia and elitism enacted by students who, in turn, face little to no disciplinary action. Through nonviolent protest, RealTalk signals to the administration and to the community that we’ll no longer tolerate this vicious cycle of systematic dehumanization.
4. In Philadelphia, Hundreds Walk Out Against Budget Cuts
The Philadelphia Student Union is a founding member of the Philly Coalition Advocating for Public Schools. We've joined together with teachers, parents and community members to advocate for keeping our schools open and making them better. This year, the School Reform Commission voted to close twenty-three schools in Philadelphia. At the meeting where they voted, nineteen people, including our Executive Director, Hiram, and a PSU alum, Azeem, were arrested. This is just the first phase of a five-year plan to close schools in Philadelphia. Right now, we’re preparing to fight back against the next round of school closures; working with students and staff in schools to ease the transitions when students whose schools closed move into our schools; and, as part of the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools, working with principals and the SRC to get restorative practices in our schools. On May 9, students from across the city walked out and rallied at City Hall to protest the district’s deep budget cuts—which include arts, sports, counselors, nurses and much more.
—Philadelphia Student Union
5. In Chicago, Lincoln Parkers Walk Out for Their Teachers' Jobs
On May 2 at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School, there were many whispers about “the walkout,” how no one was going to show up and how those who did show up would get suspended. When the bell rang at the end of second period, hundreds of students walked outside, and whispers subsided to cheers of teacher-student solidarity. Students were protesting the firing of eight teachers as part of the school's recent implementation of a “Wall-to-Wall” International Baccalaureate program. The walkout started as a series of rumors the afternoon before, a Facebook event was made that night and the walkout happened just twelve hours later. The students staged a peaceful protest, and were not punished.
6. Providence Students Reject the State Rap
The Providence Student Union has been fighting for months against Rhode Island’s adoption of the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP test, as a make-or-break graduation requirement. Students have held creative demonstrations such as a zombie protest and an event where successful adults took (and mostly failed) the test themselves. On April 30, the Providence Student Union staged its own State of the Student Address outside the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education's annual State of Education speech, where students offered their own list of recommendations for transforming their schools. After the event, a group of PSU leaders marched into the State House and delivered their policy recommendations to the Commissioner of Education, the Chair of theBoard of Education, the Senate President and the Speaker of the House.
—Providence Student Union
7. Louisana Students Ward Off the Data Thiefs
In Mandeville, Louisiana, people are angry about the state’s move to hand confidential student information to inBloom, a private data management company. In April, a classmate and I attended an emergency meeting in Baton Rouge on student data sharing. In my testimony I asked, "How would you feel if your personal belongings were stolen and sold to the highest bidder?" We were bullied by Superintendent John White for questioning his motives in selling our information to anyone who wants it without our consent. A few of us will be missing final exams to speak up again at the next board meeting—and we'll continue to educate our peers.
8. Making Space for All Students at Rowan
Project 3 was started by students at New Jersey’s Rowan University who are frustrated with the extreme lack of inclusiveness on campus. Self-segregation is highly prevalent, and students do not feel the university is committed to creating more understanding of historically marginalized communities. Students are proposing the creation of a Multicultural, LGBTQ and Women's Center to provide safe spaces for these communities. A one-person Office of Multicultural Affairs on a campus of over 12,000 students is indicative of our university’s insufficient commitment to inclusion. Students have not been involved nor asked to help create any new initiatives that would establish permanent change. Project 3 looks forward to bringing all interested parties together to establish a new center here.
9. When Will Pomona Workers Get a Break?
On April 30, dining hall workers at Pomona College in California voted 57-26 to form a union with UNITE HERE Local 11. This marked the final victory for workers after more than three years of fighting for respect in their workplace and a voice within the college community. Since this campaign first went public in Spring 2010, workers have spoken out about undervalued work, injuries in the workplace and unjust firings. In December 2011, students, alumni, faculty and clergy stood in solidarity with workers after seventeen people were fired following a document check of the college's employees. After a strong push from the community, the college finally agreed to rehire workers if they returned to the college with a work authorization permit. Now that the union has been certified, this growing community will support workers as the negotiations for a contract begin.
10. What Would Bucky Badger Do?
After organizing for dignity in the workplace in response to unsafe working conditions and discrimination, 105 workers from Palermo Villa, Inc., were fired in May 2012. Students, faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been pressuring Chancellor David Ward to cut the $217,000 contract with Palermo that allows the company to brand its pizza as "the official pizza of Bucky Badger." The campaign escalated from caroling outside the Chancellor's house, a 10,000 signature petition and letter deliveries to a full-blown sit-in at the Chancellor's office on April 29. Twelve students were arrested and subsequently released. Now, Chancellor Ward is calling on the National Labor Relations Board, Palermo and the developing Palermo's Workers Union to rehire eleven workers who were fired illegally—but they still haven't been rehired.
My new “Think Again” column on Niall Ferguson’s ridiculous apology and the issues it raises is here.
My new Nation column advises that regarding the Tribune papers, we worry about Murdoch, not Koch, here.
Alter-Reviews (These are pretty long, but take heart, Reed is below):
Crosby, Stills & Nash with Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Steve Tyrell singing Sammy Cahn at the Café Carlyle.
The final weekend of Jazzfest.
I must have done something nice for someone at some point in my life because fate rewarded me with a last minute ticket to the annual benefit show presented at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring the complete orchestra together with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The old guys were thrilled by the experience, which David Crosby likened to “getting to play with the bigger kids.” They even dressed up in Brooks Brothers suits, like the rest of the band and wore shoes with laces. The show consisted of CSN songs re-imagined with jazz arrangements by members of the orchestra. It was rarely a complete success, but always an audacious and welcome experiment. I say “audacious” because unlike previous participants in these benefit/collaborations, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon or even Willie Nelson, one cannot easily the jazz, or even blues elements of the CSN catalogue.
I particularly liked the latin vibe attached to “Long Time Coming,” the big-band swing of “Military Madness” and back and forth dueling in “Marrakesh Express.” The deserved crowd-pleasers were a wonderful “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” with an impressive Steve Stills solo that mimicked “Within You Without You” and a lovely Crosby/Nash duet on “Guinnevere,” with Wynton Marsalis perched between them playing a quiet trumpet accompaniment.
As it ended, and Nash announced that “I think we have time for one more song before Brooks Brothers takes the suits back,” they ended as do all CSN shows: with a sing-along “Teach Your Children.” But this time the crowd wouldn’t leave and so they formed a second line and danced and chanted around the stage for another ten minutes, with everybody (I imagine) thinking how lucky they were to be there. J@LC has a Chick Corea and a Bobby Short tribute coming up next week so you should be able to find me there too. More here.
I also caught a wonderfully up-tempo show by the great Steve Tyrell who has developed into a kind of latter-day Tony Bennett but with a touch of Tom Waits in his voice. He’s doing a run at the Café Carlyle through May 18 in celebration of his brand new 10th album, It’s Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn. It is also Cahn’s centennial year. I had a wonderful time, as Tyrell is a charming storyteller and an almost irresistible interpreter of the classics to which he devotes himself, pretty much exclusively. (I did get him to give the crowd about a half of “Spinning Wheel” in honor of his B,S& T days and the fact that its original trumpeter Lew Soloff is in the band.)
Anyway, the album was a marvelous idea. Cahn’s songs are quite well known, but their composer is not. Tyrell told the crowd that he was drawn to the material because of the moment in American popular culture when, just before the Beatles, “the old-world thinking ran into the sexual revolution. That’s around 1958. Before that, everybody was ‘goody two-shoes,’ sleeping in twin beds on TV. Then all of sudden, there was the Rat Pack, Las Vegas, James Bond, and Playboy magazine. Things started getting sexy,” Tyrell explains. This is the period most revered by this current generation as witnessed by the success of Mad Men, the remakes of Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, and this year’s salute to James Bond at the 2013 Oscars. And then there’s Diddy with his Rat Pack Vodka commercials.” (Actually Mad Men’s a little later, but still…) The songs--“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”--“Come Fly with Me-- “All the Way,” etc, are often associated with Sinatra. Nobody can compete with that and Tyrell doesn’t try. He’s not new arrangements and a different approach.“
You can’t have a bad time at a Steve Tyrell show, but you can spend a great deal of money. The cover at the Carlyle runs between $60 and $160. My intrepid reporting discovered that a Gray Goose martini will set you back $22.00 plus tax and tip. That’s what I call a kick in the head….
More than 425,000 fans attended the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage
Festival. Here’s a report on the final weekend by one of them:
New Orleans Jazz Festival
by Katelyn Belyus
The rain was gone, and with the sun came droves of people, which is to be expected for the last Saturday of Jazz Fest. After marveling at my stuffed artichoke (and the idea that each year, there must be thousands of artichokes plucked, trimmed, cleaned, and stuffed for the masses), I checked out Robert Mirabal. He's pretty much a jack-of-all-trades from Taos, where he lives a traditional Pueblo lifestyle. In addition to writing poetry and making music (for which he's won two Grammys), he paints, acts, farms, and is known for his work on the Native American flute. From far away, his sputtering movements reminded me of Iggy Pop, and his flute-playing floated through the crowd. “It's the music where the ceremony begins... it's the dance where the ceremony begins... it's the blood where the ceremony begins... demand that! Demand that! Demand that!” He commanded the crowd, and they answered by dipping their hands in some sort of ceremonial bowl that was passed around the first few rows of people. “Your prayers will go to my river,” he promised.
I needed a break from the seriousness, and Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band (also a Grammy winner) was just that. “I wanna thank my granddaddy for introducing me to Zydeco music,” Carrier said before going into the jumpy, accordion-driven “Jalapena Lena.” A blend of Cajun, blues, and rhythm and blues music, Zydeco is a uniquely American, and many a Fest-er celebrated by cheering on the guy playing his washboard and by dancing in the mud, clad in white shrimping boots, their bellies proudly exposed.
Next up: The Little Willies, also known as “Norah Jones' country band.” Of course, they're much more than Jones on the piano and vocals, but it's worth noting that her voice is so well-suited for country, and especially for their vocal harmonies. Their music is a little country, a little bluegrass, marked by the molasses in Jones' voice. It wasn't immediate get-up-and-dance music, but by the time they launched into their cover of Johnny Cash's “Tennessee Stud,” people were moving. Word on the street was they did a stand-out cover of Dolly Parton's heartbreaking “Jolene,” perhaps the finest example of a successful pop song written in a minor key.
I was torn between the two major acts of the night--Fleetwood Mac and Frank Ocean--and I decided on Fleetwood first and Ocean to follow. Of course, FM came out to “The Chain,” and then rolled right into “Dreams,” which, though predictable, did not make it any less awesome. I'm a huge FM fan, but have never seen them live, and I was struck by how effortlessly they come together, even after all these years (or perhaps because of all these years?). And yet they still know how to write solid songs, especially crowd-pleasers, as they revealed with “Sad Angel,” an upbeat song recently released in April that literally asks the crowd to “call out for more.” I danced as best I could, which was no minor feat considering I was up to my ankles in mud, with my boat shoes struggling to stay on my feet. They went into “Rhiannon” and everyone around me-- college guys, hippie gals, parents, kids-- sung along with Stevie, wearing her signature long black sleeves on the hottest day of the weekend. Before going into a few songs off “Tusk,” including the title track and “Sara,” Lindsay Buckingham noted how the album was famously not wanted by record execs but seemed vindicated in its popular appeal that has grown over time. “Time has revealed the reason that was done,” he said about the album before launching into “Not That Funny” and practically shouting at the record label. As they began “Looking Out for Love,” (Buckingham pointed out that he was “defending [love]”), I trudged over to Frank Ocean's stage, my current love whose music I would defend with my life.
I joined the crowd towards the end of “Super Rich Kids,” a cutting critique of said subject matter, with lines like “Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends/ super rich kids with nothing but fake friends.” For those of you unfamiliar with Frank Ocean, I implore you to check him out. A native of New Orleans, he's young, vibrant, and black, and his music is lyrically eloquent and technically lush. He's a cross between hip-hop and R&B, but with intensely personal lyrics. He gained press last summer with the arrival of his Channel: Orange album that coincided with his coming out-- how far out, people tend to disagree-- but he has spoken and written openly about loving another man, and it's both amazing and incredibly sad that it's become such a topic of conversation-- the “out” black R&B kid. Not surprisingly, other artists seem split on the idea-- some embrace him, some question its validity, and some hate him for it, as Chris Brown (who nauseates me to begin with) demonstrated after a very public physical altercation (or were there two?). Ocean, for what it's worth, maintains a very strong sense of privacy, but still remains very public-- he's a perfect example of personal curation in the Twitter age.
I'd heard mixed reviews about his live performances and the sound quality, but when I arrived, his voice was crystal clear, his falsetto mesmerizing, and he was smiling. My heart leapt. The crowd was mixed and knew most of his lyrics, and it was nice to be nestled among so many young people, gay and straight, of all racial backgrounds, who could throw up their hands to “Thinkin Bout You” (featuring an electric cello and Ocean's crisp vocals) and not care who the song was about. There's something about Ocean that crosses racial and gender boundaries and touches people at their core, because of the honest mix of pleasure and pain in his lyrics. I first heard “Bad Religion” last year on an alt-rock station in Philly, and I stopped everything and sat down slowly. I had never heard anything like it-- a love song for a man by a man, as told in this century's confessional: inside a cab, with a non-English-speaking driver who can't judge, with incredible lines about what it is to live disguised, “Taxi driver, I swear I got three lives/balanced on my head like steak knives.” The first time I heard it, I had chills. Hearing it again live was perfect-- aside from his having to stop and re-start because he hadn't been counted in correctly-- and human, and I became untethered as I watched the crowd's wants and needs collide.
I woke up exhausted from a night of dancing to Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots, a happy, upbeat mix of blues, Caribbean, funk and Zydeco fronted by Sunpie Barnes on the accordion and vocals. I’d missed him at the fest, so I caught him at Dos Jefes Cigar Bar on the West Riverside. As I walked in, Sunpie was in the middle of an original that sounded like a funky accordion take on “You Sexy Thing,” and he was surrounded by Fest-ers, their shoes caked with mud a telltale giveaway.
Sunday at the Jazz Fest was glorious—less heat, no mud, and a smaller crowd. I’d come to specifically to see the Black Keys, but had a few stops beforehand.
First up were the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, another brass band with some heavy, sophisticated trumpet work and typically energetic call and response from the crowd. They hit the classic “I’ll Fly Away,” eliciting the most cheers so far from a local band, and the musicians were joined on stage by a pair of kids, one wearing a fake mustache, presumably related to a band member.
I promised my brother I’d check out the Pine Leaf Boys, a Cajun band from South Louisiana he fell in love with around the same time he took an interest in grilling and noodling, a form of bare-fisted catfishing (it’s as painful as it sounds). “Prepare for your mind to be blown,” he texted me. The Pine Leaf Boys were a great, even mix of fiddles, guitars, drums, and accordions. They’ve been nominated for four Grammys but are still waiting for a win. Their energy was contagious, and they played through a whirlwind of Cajun and Creole dancehall hits.
Finally, it was time for the Black Keys, a bluesy indie rock band formed back in the early ‘00s but whose popularity has grown exponentially in recent years (they landed a coveted music spot on SNL in 2011). They started as a garage rock duo—yes, like the White Stripes, Local H, and the Kills—with Dan Auerbach on guitar and vocals and Patrick Carney on drums. For the past few years, they’ve been touring with a full band, which sort of cheapened the duo aesthetic for me, but I was open to hear them. Caveat: I was open to rock out with them. Remember “Heavy Soul?” I firmly believe that song was made for shaking. Even the more recent—and more pop—“Lonely Boy” crushes as a rock song. I last rocked out to it in a room full of 30-somethings at a wedding in upstate New York, and I figured Jazz Fest would be similar. I was wrong.
It’s not that they didn’t play a solid set—they had a diverse mix of old and new tunes, and they kicked off the rest of the band and did the duo thing for a while, too. On “Little Black Submarines” (one of the best songs of 2011, if you want my truth), Auerbach rocked a steel guitar that glinted gold in the sunlight. But the wind was a little too strong, the music was a little too soft, and the crowd just a little too young. The sound was muddied. But really, the crowd was the worst part—they just weren’t into it. Sure, they sang along with the more recent “Gold on the Ceiling,” and a bunch of tracks off of Brothers, including their openers “Howlin’ for You” and “Next Girl,” but the crowd never really got lifted. I was all rubber legs and hair in my face, but next to me was a gym rat tossing beers on the ground, and a couple of pre-teens with their parents. It was crowded, but not too crowded not to dance, and I was mystified. The guys started late, ended early, and did a two-song encore (“Lonely Boy” and “I Got Mine”). It was a good set; it just felt wan.
Luckily, I recovered by hitting the Blues Tent for Taj Mahal, who earned his Grammys that day. He’s about seventy and hails from Harlem; and he does some wickedly good work on harmonica and guitar, among other instruments. The tent was jam-packed, and he opened with “Going Up to the Country, Paint My Mailbox Blue,” a harmonica-fronted ode to an exodus from the city life. He switched to guitar and was joined by The Real Thing Tuba Band. The man is a true blues musician, mouthing along with his guitar as he played, as if his lips were doing the work, not his fingers. His voice is muscle and sinew. His hands play with purpose. He said, “It’s Sunday, so you know you gotta do a piece of church music,” and went into “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” the old Blind Willie Johnson tune. I left right after he finished “Chevrolet” searching for one final act.
The Fais Do Do stage was where the believers were. Del McCoury’s band was playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Apologies: Del McCoury’s band was battling the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was a full-on bluegrass country folk outlet battling one of the most famous brass bands in New Orleans. Del McCoury is seventy-four and looks about that. He hails from Pennsylvania and has been playing bluegrass guitar and banjo since the ‘60s. He even started an annual bluegrass festival called DelFest. His band members are seasoned professionals, and they went head to head with members of the Preservation Hall Band. The crowd was wild and exuberant; it was the perfect merging of bluegrass and jazz, with a fiddler battling a trumpeter (I called a draw). It was the perfect finale. Indeed, this pairing was exactly what I’d come for, without having known it, and both bands were triumphant.
A final note: That night I caught the Brass-A-Holics on Frenchman, and they were awesome—a different kind of brass band, doing pop covers and their own songs, with a nice blend of kitsch and funk. They mashed up Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” hit a high note with the “Rocky” theme, and even went Jersey Strong with Bon Jovi’s “Livin on a Prayer.” What was most interesting is that they feature female keyboardist and electric guitarist, doing massive licks atop a speaker, and they were racially mixed. Definitely worth checking out.
Why Does the Press Still Take the Heritage Foundation Seriously?
by Reed Richardson
Around Washington, and even inside the organization itself, it’s not uncommon to hear the Heritage Foundation referred to as “the Beast.” This is no surprise, since Heritage, founded forty years ago by frustrated right-wingers Paul Weyrich and Ed Feulner, has grown to become perhaps the largest, most lavishly funded conservative advocacy group in the country. Funded by corporations like ExxonMobil, non-profits run by the Kochs and numerous secret individual donors, Heritage currently boasts a staff of 275, an annual budget of $82.4 million, and the ear of nearly every Republican in Congress.
Its massive footprint doesn’t stop there, however. When it comes to influence, Heritage routinely ranks as the single-most popular right-wing think tank in the country among the media. In its annual 2012 think tank survey, media watchdog FAIR found Heritage topped the partisan ranks again with 1,540 press citations, a figure, it should be noted, that outnumbered the combined citations of the top two most-cited left-wing groups. For those of us who beat back ceaselessly against the tide of phony “liberal media bias” claims, this reality is galling. But not nearly as much as the reality that, for a long time now, the Heritage Foundation has done less and less of what might be called honest thinking, and more and more of what could accurately be called intellectual tanking.
Fresh evidence of their analytical posing arrived this past Monday, when Heritage unveiled a patently dishonest report on immigration reform, which pegged the policy’s potential economic cost to the nation at a whopping $6.3 trillion. How dishonest was it? By ignoring any benefits of reform, Heritage overlooked other studies that found a net gain of $300 million to Social Security and Medicare and as much as $1.4 trillion to the national economy over the next decade. In fact, Heritage co-author Robert Rector, at a Monday press conference, openly acknowledged: “It is not an analysis of the entire immigration reform bill.” Of course, he knew that this nuance would be lost in the media scrum that followed its release and, sure enough, many of the usual media suspects quickly conflated Heritage’s one-sided focus on the supposed costs of “amnesty” with that of the entire “immigration reform bill.” In short, Heritage’s report, though utterly worthless as a work of policy analysis, had already begun to succeed at its true goal—handing right-wing opponents of immigration reform a pseudo-economic talking point with which to brandish in the press.
In what passes for good news these days, Monday’s Heritage report did ignite some noticeable pushback among pundits, mostly on the left but, surprisingly, a few on the right as well. For example, Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin and longtime GOP politico Haley Barbour, who normally carry more water for the latest right-wing meme than the capacity of the California aqueduct system, both lambasted it. Rubin said it was an "embarrassment," Barbour labeled it "a political document" and "not serious analysis." Bracingly good candor, to be sure, but let’s temper our celebrating a bit, shall we. After all, Heritage’s latest immigration reform report was essentially the equivalent of giving the Washington chattering classes a do-over from 2007, when the pundits readily swallowed a similarly transparent ideological attack (that one had a $2.6 trillion price tag). And while calling out Heritage’s latest analysis as flawed is a start, it’s a far cry from what those in the media should be doing—courageously outing the entire organization as unworthy of media attention.
If you think that’s a bit harsh, don’t just take my word for it. Listen to current Heritage president, and former Tea Party senator from South Carolina, Jim DeMint last December: “If ever you compromise your research, one time, then no one ever believes you again…My goal is to protect the research and policy people from the politics.” That DeMint would even dare to utter such a statement speaks volumes about the press’s incestuous relationship with Heritage. Why? Because time and again, his organization has either compromised its integrity or pulled its intellectual punches in pursuit of political goals:
– First and foremost are the legendary contortions Heritage has engaged in regarding the individual mandate for healthcare, which it helped pioneer nearly twenty-five years ago. The same mandate it raged against last year as “unprecedented” and “unconstitutional” now that the provision had become a key part of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
– Earlier this year, Heritage went and hired chief Cheney lieutenant David Addington to take over its legal division and, ironically, be a watchdog against "executive overreach" by Obama. The same Addington who argued the vice president wasn’t part of the executive branch and who participated in discussions about destroying CIA videotapes of torture.
– In 2012, one Heritage scholar, so incensed that people might disagree with his organization’s austerity agenda, decided to go from think tank to fight club on a protestor in Seattle.
– What about that time in 2011 when Heritage was caught red-handed arbitrarily swapping out unemployment figures to make its analysis of the House GOP budget appear more plausible?
– Then there was the 2010 fiasco where Heritage flagrantly cut ten pages from a British environmental analysis in a shameless attempt to introduce doubt about climate change, conflicting the actual report’s conclusion.
– Let’s not forget the Heritage blog post from 2008 that subtly warned a United Nations Green Economy Initiative was merely a first step on the road to Nazi/Soviet collectivism and oppression of freedom.
– And then there’s my personal favorite, this 2012 Election Day video-cum-summer-blockbuster-
trailer from Heritage Action, the foundation’s political campaign advocacy arm. In it, the group’s leader dramatically declares that his group is fighting nothing less than “a war to save this nation” from Obama’s policies.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Whatever intellectual legitimacy the Heritage Foundation once had, it should have long ago been exhausted in the legislative corridors of Washington, and along with it the patience and credulousness of the media. Nevertheless, Heritage’s recent immigration reform rollout was accompanied not just by a friendly reception in so-called straight news stories, but a welcoming hand on the nation’s op-ed pages, too. In recent weeks, both USA Today and The Washington Post have given over to DeMint a full column to push Heritage’s anti-immigration reform “research.” Now, it’s one thing to cite Heritage in a news story, where presumably (although, admittedly, not always) opposing viewpoints will also be aired. But it’s quite another to give an extreme right-wing group like Heritage the imprimatur of your news organization by letting them author an opinion piece that will showcase their ideas unchallenged.
This editorial malleability can lead to almost comic consequences. The Post, for instance, perhaps sensing trouble, made a point of running a simultaneous rebuttal editorial this past Monday that accused Heritage of “distort[ing]” the immigration debate. To which one might respond, well yes it is, but guess who else is damn well helping them?
Indeed, the Post seems to have a bit of a soft spot for Heritage as they gave DeMint an op-ed platform right after he was hired back in November to discuss the “new message” he was bringing to the foundation. DeMint repaid this editorial generosity by repeating the same old fully debunked lie about President Obama having “disabled welfare reform last year.” But that isn’t even the most sadly ironic part—to substantiate his charge about welfare reform, DeMint linked to a scurrilous op-ed piece by Heritage fellow Rector that was published, you guessed it, in THe Washington Post.
In the past few days, the Post, among others in the media, very publicly learned an embarrassing lesson about the company one keeps when it came to light that the Heritage report’s co-author, Jason Richwine, harbored some disturbing racial stereotypes. In his recent Harvard dissertation, for example, Richwine wrote: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” Faster than you can say “The Bell Curve,” both the media and even the Heritage Foundation dumped Richwine over the side. But notably, Heritage stuck by their “amnesty” report, even though, in various parts, it echoes Richwine’s pessimistic dissertation about the potential educational progress of a mostly Hispanic immigrant pool.
This shocking level of intellectual intransigence is something of a double-edged sword for the media, however. In such an egregious case like this, the press doesn’t have to exercise much in the way of editorial judgment to see the politicized deception that colors the entire Heritage “amnesty” report. But until the press figures out, once and for all, that reverse engineering policy analysis to satisfy ideological dogma is what Heritage does every day, then it’s liable to keep on sullying its reputation by giving journalistic oxygen to the foundation’s incendiary goals. For the sake of better, more honest discourse in our democracy, it’s the time for the media to finally start treating the Heritage Foundation like the permanent political campaign shop that it is. That means far more skepticism of its actions and far less interest in its obvious ploys for attention. In other words, it’s long past time to start starving “the Beast.”
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Farmworkers pick tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
This is a tough moment in the fight against poverty.
The sequester is the latest chapter in a time-honored tradition of kicking the poor when they are down. A do-nothing Congress certainly isn’t going to do something about poverty without pressure from the grassroots. And it seems that the only way most of the mainstream media will pay attention to the more than one in three Americans living below twice the poverty line—on less than $36,000 for a family of three—is if their lives make good fodder for tabloid television or play out in a courtroom drama.
That said, there are still plenty of people and groups fighting for real change, and plenty of ways you can get involved or stay engaged. I reached out to a handful of folks who dedicate their lives to fighting poverty in different ways. Here is what they asked people to do:
1) From Sister Simone Campbell, Sisters of Social Service, executive director of NETWORK: “Support an increase in the minimum wage to more than $11 per hour.”
What people don’t know is that a large percentage of people living in poverty are workers who support their families on very small salaries. In fact, 57 percent of individuals and family members below the official poverty line either worked or lived with a working family member in 2011.
Pope Francis said on May 1, 2013, that all workers should make wages that allow them to live with their families in dignity. Contact your Senators and Representative to urge them to vote for a minimum wage (one that’s more than $11 an hour) and tipped minimum wage that reflect the dignity of all people.
2) From the Coalition of Immokalee Workers: “Tell Publix: Help end sexual harassment, wage theft, and forced labor in the fields—join the Fair Food Program today.”
Until very recently, Florida’s fields were as famous for producing human rights violations—with countless workers suffering daily humiliation and abuse ranging from wage theft to sexual harassment and even forced labor—as they were for growing oranges and tomatoes.
Today, however, there is a new day dawning for farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields. The CIW’s Fair Food Program is demanding a policy of zero tolerance for human rights abuses on tomato farms, and it’s working. The program sets the highest human rights standards in the fields today, including: worker-to-worker education on rights, a twenty-four-hour complaint line and an effective complaint investigation and resolution process—all backed by market consequences for employers who refuse to respect their workers’ rights.
The White House recently called the exciting new program "one of the most successful and innovative programs” in the world today in the fight to uncover—and prevent—modern-day slavery; and just last week United Nations investigators called it “impressive” and praised its ”independent and robust enforcement mechanism.”
As the veteran food writer Barry Estabrook put it, thanks to the Fair Food Program, the Florida tomato industry is on the path “from being one of the most repressive employers in the country…to becoming the most progressive group in the fruit and vegetable industry” today.
But we need your help to complete this transformation.
One of the country’s largest supermarket chains, Publix Super Markets, is refusing to support the Fair Food Program. Publix continues to buy tomatoes from growers in the old way, where workers have no access to the Fair Food Program’s proven protections. Rather than step up to the highest human rights standards, Publix continues to turn its back on the workers whose poverty helps fuel its record profits.
3) From Ralph da Costa Nunez, president and CEO, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness: “Make a Personal Commitment to Helping Homeless Families.”
More than one-third of Americans who use shelters annually are parents and their children. In 2011, that added up to more than 500,000 people. Since 2007, family homelessness has increased by more than 13 percent. Indeed, there is a growing prevalence of child and family homelessness across America.
While it is important to track the federal, state and local policies that impact homelessness, we can’t forget about getting involved on a personal level with the growing numbers of families that are struggling since the Great Recession.
You can visit a local shelter, meet a homeless family and see first hand the damage poverty is doing to young mothers and children. Then, become a big brother or sister, a role model for these young families to help them dream again. You are meeting an immediate need while also helping to stem generational poverty.
You can also contact your local department of social services, United Way or religious organization to find out where the need is in your community. Also, speak with the homeless liaison at your local school to see what needs they have identified in your neighborhood. There are many ways that you (and your children) can help families right in your community. Here are a few other ideas.
4) From Dr. Deborah Frank, founder and principal investigator, Children’s Healthwatch: “Fund the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) at the maximum authorized level.”
Research by Children’s HealthWatch has shown that energy insecurity is associated with poor health, increased hospitalizations and risk of developmental delays in very young children, and that energy assistance can be effective in protecting children’s health. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) provides low-income households with assistance in paying their utility bills—particularly those that must spend higher proportions of their income on home energy. To be eligible for LIHEAP, families must have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level—less than $35,000 annually for a family of four.
When Children’s HealthWatch compared children in families that do and do not receive LIHEAP assistance—after controlling for participation in SNAP and WIC—we found that children in families that received LIHEAP were less likely to be at risk of growth problems, more likely to have healthier weights for their age and less likely to be hospitalized when seeking care for acute medical problems.
As pediatricians and public health researchers, we at Children’s HealthWatch know that LIHEAP matters for the bodies and minds of young children. Even in these tough economic times, we believe it is critical that President Obama and Congress make a funding commitment that meets the heating and cooling needs of America’s youngest children.
But the President has proposed reducing funding for LIHEAP to $2.970 billion in his FY 2014 budget, down from $3.5 billion for the current fiscal year. (Even funding at the current level has left millions of households without the aid they need to cope with their home energy costs.) Please join the National Fuel Fund’s call to fund LIHEAP at $4.7 billion in FY2014. Although that level is insufficient to meet the full needs of vulnerable households, it will enable states to end a trend over the last few years of needing to reduce the number of households served, cut benefits or both. Contact the President and your members of Congress today.
5) Sarita Gupta, executive director, Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work and Co-Director, Caring Across Generations: “Support of a living wage and basic labor protections for home care workers.”
Caring Across Generations is a campaign that unites people to change the long-term care system that supports each of us, our family members and our neighbors, to live and age in our own homes and communities. One of the key ways we can strengthen this system is to protect the 2.5 million people working as care givers in the United States. With a projected future demand for an additional 1.3 million workers over the next decade, homecare workers make up one of the largest occupations in the nation, yet many of them make below minimum wage.
In December 2011, at a White House ceremony surrounded by homecare workers, employers and people who rely on personal care services, President Obama announced plans for new regulations that would at long last guarantee federal minimum wage and overtime protections for most homecare aides. The moment capped decades of effort by advocates to revise the “companionship exemption,” which lumps professional care workers with teenage babysitters, excluding most homecare aides from the basic labor protections that nearly all other American workers receive.
Following the White House announcement, the US Department of Labor published draft regulations in the Federal Register. During the public comment period, the proposed rule received 26,000 comments with almost 80 percent in favor of providing homecare workers with basic labor protections like minimum wage and overtime pay. But today, over a year after the public comment period closed, we are still waiting for a final rule to be announced.
Join Caring Across Generations and all of our partner organizations in the effort to push for basic minimum wage and overtime protections for care workers, and help us in our final push to ensure that the Obama Administration issues this long-awaited regulation to give 2.5 million care workers a path out of poverty. Visit www.caringacross.org to get involved with the campaign.
More than 40 million workers in this country—and more than 80 percent of the lowest-wage workers—cannot earn a single paid sick day to use when they get the flu or other common illnesses. Millions more cannot earn paid sick days to use when a child is sick.
For these workers and families, paid sick days can mean the difference between keeping a job and losing it, or keeping food on the table and going hungry. Nearly one-quarter of adults say they have lost a job or been threatened with job loss for needing a sick day. And, for the average worker without paid sick days, taking just 3.5 unpaid days off is equivalent to losing a month’s worth of groceries for their family. To make matters worse, the majority of new parents cannot take any form of paid leave of any length to care for a child, pushing many into debt and poverty. The United States is one of only a handful of countries that does not have a national paid leave standard of some kind.
In a nation that claims to value families, no worker should have to lose critical income or be pushed into poverty because illness strikes or a child or family member needs care.
Urge members of Congress to support the Healthy Families Act, legislation that would guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick days. And sign this petition calling on Congress to take up the national paid leave program workers and families urgently need.
7) From Tiffany Loftin, president, United States Student Association (USSA): “Increase regulation of private student loans and hold Sallie Mae accountable for its role in the student debt crisis.”
Throughout the Great Recession, only one type of household debt grew: student debt.
In April 2012, student debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark, and now students owe on average nearly $27,000 by the time they graduate. As student debt and student loan defaults escalate at an unsustainable pace, private student loan lenders continue to increase their profit margins.
Sallie Mae is the largest private student loan lender and one of the chief profiteers off student debt, yet it faces minimal public scrutiny and accountability. With their sky-high interest rates, highly profitable government loan servicing contracts and predatory lending practices, they play a major role in keeping the American Dream out of reach for millions of borrowers.
Join USSA, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), Jobs with Justice/American Rights at Work, Common Cause, the American Federation of Teachers and others at the Sallie Mae shareholder meeting on May 30 in Newark, Delaware.
We’ll introduce a shareholder resolution asking Sallie Mae to be more transparent and accountable about its lobbying efforts, affiliations and executive bonus structure—all part of a corporate strategy to increase their bottom line at the financial expense of borrowers. Sign up to attend the join the shareholder action here.
8) From Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP): “Support Pathways Back to Work”
Even as the economy recovers, too many unemployed workers and individuals with low education and skill levels face a difficult job market. Nearly two in five unemployed workers have been jobless for six months or more; 6.7 million youth are both out of work and out of school.
Subsidized and transitional jobs are a proven way to give unemployed workers the opportunity to earn wages, build skills and connect to the labor market, while also giving businesses an incentive to hire new employees when they might not be able to do so otherwise.
President Obama’s FY14 budget blueprint calls for the creation of a $12.5 billion Pathways Back to Work Fund that includes: investments in subsidized employment opportunities, support services for the unemployed and low-income adults, summer and year-round employment opportunities for low-income youth and other work-based employment strategies with demonstrated effectiveness.
Please share this letter with nonprofits, businesses or other organizations and ask them to sign on to join us in thanking President Obama for his support of subsidized and transitional jobs in the FY2014 budget, and asking the President and Congress to work together to ensure that the Pathways Back to Work Fund becomes law! (This sign-on letter is only for organizations, but individuals are also encouraged to ask their members of Congress to support the Pathways Back to Work Fund—click the “reintroduce” buttons here and here.)
9) From Marci Phillips, director of public policy and advocacy, National Council on Aging: “Invest in the Older Americans Act.”
The Older Americans Act encompasses a range of programs that enable seniors to remain healthy and independent, in their own homes and communities and out of costly institutions. Services include healthy meals, in-home care, transportation, benefits access, caregiver support, chronic disease self-management, job training and placement and elder abuse prevention.
Funding has not kept pace with the growth in need or numbers, and recent cuts before the sequester hit have further eroded investments in key services. About 10,000 people turn 65 each day, and those over 85 are the fastest growing segment of the aging population.
One in three seniors is economically insecure. Social Security accounts for at least 90 percent of the income of more than one-third of older adults, and there has been a 79 percent increase in the threat of hunger among seniors over the past decade. The average duration of unemployment for people 55 and older is almost fifty weeks—longer than any other age group. Over 75 percent of all older adults have at least two chronic conditions, and the average Medicare household spends $4,500 on out-of-pocket healthcare costs.
There is a real need to increase funding for Older Americans Act programs like Meals on Wheels and in-home care. Please share your stories of cuts affecting seniors, so we can share them with Congress and the Administration and protect investments in the Older Americans Act.
10) From Rebecca Vallas, staff attorney/policy advocate, Community Legal Services: “Tell Congress no cuts to Social Security and SSI through the Chained CPI.”
While the “chained CPI” is often referred to as just a technical change, in truth it’s a benefit cut for millions of seniors, people with disabilities and their families who rely on the Social Security system to meet their basic needs. Social Security retirement, disability and survivors benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) serve as a vital lifeline, making up a significant percentage of total family income for many workers and families.
The average yearly benefit for the lowest quintile of earners receiving retirement benefits in 2010 was $10,206—and that represented 94 percent of their family income. Social Security Disability and SSI benefits are incredibly modest as well. The average SSDI benefit is about $1,100 per month in 2013, and the average SSI benefit is less than $550 per month. And for most disabled workers receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), their benefits make up most or all of their income. Even the maximum SSI benefit ($710 in 2013) is just three-fourths of the federal poverty level for a single person, and a quarter of SSDI beneficiaries live in poverty.
The amount a person gets in Social Security or SSI benefits is adjusted annually based on the Social Security Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA). The chained CPI would slow the increase in the Social Security COLA, cutting benefits and eroding the purchasing power of seniors, people with disabilities and their families. Cuts under the chained CPI add up significantly over time. Since the effect of the chained CPI is cumulative, it would be especially hard on people with disabilities, since they typically begin receiving benefits at a younger age than retirees.
The chained CPI is not a more accurate measure of inflation for seniors and people with disabilities. It is based on a concept called the “substitution effect”—which assumes that when the price of one good goes up, a consumer will substitute a lower-cost alternative in its place (e.g., when the price of steak goes up, a person will buy hamburger instead). For Social Security and SSI beneficiaries who are struggling to make ends meet as it is, there’s no room for substitution—and no room for benefit cuts. Benefit cuts under the chained CPI would push beneficiaries to make impossible choices such as not paying the gas bill to afford the water bill, taking half a pill instead of a whole pill or eating two meals per day instead of three to afford the cost of a copay on a needed medication.
Low-income seniors and people with severe disabilities are already struggling and can’t afford cuts. Send this e-mail to Congress to tell them NO on the chained CPI, and to keep Social Security cuts out of any budget plan. For AARP’s chained CPI calculator, click here.
11) From Jim Weill, President, Food Research and Action Center: “Tell Congress: Increase, Don’t Cut SNAP (Food Stamp) Benefits.”
SNAP is a great program—boosting food security, health and nutrition and lifting millions out of poverty and millions of others out of deep poverty. But as a National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine expert committee just found, for most families benefits simply aren’t enough to afford a healthy diet for the month. This means that the program isn’t doing as much for food security, poverty reduction, child development, disease prevention and healthcare cost containment as it could. And despite a series of Pinocchio-inspired political attacks on the program in the 2012 election season and in this year’s run-up to SNAP reauthorization as part of the Farm Bill, public support for the program is high: 73 percent of voters believe the program is important to the country; 70 percent say cutting it is the wrong way to reduce government spending; and 77 percent say the government should be spending more (43 percent) or the same (34 percent) on SNAP. This support crosses parties, demographic groups, and rural, urban and suburban lines.
Here’s what you can do: Tell your Representatives and Senators that the right course for the nation is to improve food stamp benefits (and support at least the temporary benefit boost the President has proposed) and that they must oppose any SNAP cuts being considered by the Agriculture Committees in the “Farm Bill.”
12) From Debbie Weinstein, executive director, Coalition on Human Needs: “Tell Congress to stop harmful cuts to anti-poverty programs now.”
Across the country, federal “sequestration” cuts (aka mindless automatic reductions) are closing Head Start programs weeks early and canceling summer programs for poor 3-to-5-year-old children; some Head Start centers are closing altogether or dropping children. Seniors are losing home-delivered meals or homemaker services that allow them to remain at home instead of being pushed into nursing homes. The long-term jobless are losing 10 to 20 percent of their meager benefits; in Maine, they decided to cut all unemployed people off of assistance nine weeks early. One hundred forty thousand fewer families will get rental housing vouchers, despite waiting for help for years, which will contribute to rising family homelessness. Education is being cut, from pre-school to the Federal Work-Study Program (formerly “College Work-Study”) that helps students finance college through part-time employment. In Michigan, they are eliminating a $137 back-to-school clothing allowance for 21,000 poor children.
These cuts are wrong and foolish any way you slice it—they keep people poor, cost jobs and stall economic growth for everyone.
Send this e-mail to your Representative and Senators and join hundreds of thousands who are fed up that Congress would ignore these problems while fixing just one thing—inconvenient delays at airports. Also, for weekly summaries of the impact of these sequester cuts, click here.
Standing for Communities: ‘The Power of Collective’ (from the Marguerite Casey Foundation via Equal Voice News)
Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)
“Is segregation really bad for everyone?” Steve Bogira
“The Communities of Climate Change Are Leading the Charge,” Center for Social Inclusion
“That Unemployment Form Might Violate Your Civil Rights,” Michelle Chen
“Playing ‘chicken’ against city’s students,” Eileen McCafferty DiFranco
“Surprise fast food strike…in St. Louis,” Josh Eidelson
“Fast Food Strike Wave Spreads to Detroit,” Josh Eidelson
“Documenting Discrimination in Local Rental Markets,” Hannah Emple
“Americans Continue to Voice Strong Support for SNAP and Strong Opposition to Cuts,” Food Research and Action Center
“Critics decry Pennsylvania’s revived asset test on food stamps,” Kate Giammarise
“Disconnected Mothers Need Help in More Than One Way,” Olivia Golden, Marla McDaniel and Pam Loprest
“In Support of the Indian Child Welfare Act,” LaDonna Harris
“House SNAP Proposal Threatens Grave Harm to Poor Single Parent Families,” Legal Momentum
“America Needs to Put its Families First,” Jennifer Martinez
“How People Power Generates Change,” Moyers & Company [VIDEO]
“Fannie and Freddie Should be Making Statutorily Required Contributions to the National Housing Trust Fund,” National Low Income Housing Coalition
“NYC Announces Pilot Expansion of EITC,” New York City
“How the Maximum Family Grant rule hurts families,” Melissa Ortiz
“Mothers Cry for Justice,” Peter Rothberg [VIDEO]
“3 Ways Sequestration Is Taking a Toll on Struggling Americans,” Lauren Santa Cruz and Erik Stegman [VIDEO]
“Fast Food Workers Strike in St. Louis,” Annie Shields
“The Ties that Bind: Helping Mothers Behind Bars,” Nancy La Vigne
Studies/Briefs (summaries written by James Cersonsky)
“Underwriting Bad Jobs: How Our Tax Dollars are Funding Low-Wage Work and Fueling Inequality,” Amy Traub and Robert Hiltonsmith, Demos. The largest employer of low-wage workers isn’t McDonalds or Macy’s—but the federal government. In a report on job standards for federal contractors and federally subsidized jobs, Demos examines the many ways that taxpayer dollars are helping to keep people in poverty through low-wage work. The quantitative analysis covers a subset of private sector contracts, grants, loans, concession agreements and property leases: government contracts, federal healthcare imbursements, Small Business Administration loans, federal construction grants and maintenance of buildings leased by the federal government. Among these jobs, nearly two million pay $12 or less per hour—more than the number of Walmart and McDonalds workers making that amount combined. The largest numbers come from Medicaid-supported jobs (759,000) and direct federal contracts (560,000). Meanwhile, CEOs of government contractors are getting richer—as their maximum salaries are pegged to exorbitant private sector standards. The report calls for an executive order requiring federal agencies to raise workplace standards and ensure compliance with labor law, and oversight over private sector beneficiaries—including evaluation of whether the labor they employ should be through private contractors or moved to the public sector.
“Latinas and Sexual Assault,” Neusa Gaytan and Maralá Goode, Mujeres Latinas en Acción. Though sexual assault affects everyone everywhere, Latinas confront particular challenges. This report gives a Chicago-area profile of the crisis. The numbers tell some of the story: nationally, 11.2 percent of Latina high schoolers are reported to have been physically forced to have sex, compared to 8 percent of all high school students; in 2012, 21 percent of survivors who received services from Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault centers are Hispanic. Of thirteen service providers analyzed in the report, all identified a gap in services for adolescent survivors—a particularly acute problem for Latino/as. In all age groups, Latinas face systemic barriers in accessing services: discrimination and racism from law enforcement and social service staff; unfamiliarity, among some, with legal procedures; and a lack of Spanish-speaking staff providing services for survivors. The report lays out steps for strengthening the legal process, youth outreach and bilingual, culturally-specific service training.
“Preventable Deaths: The Tragedy of Workplace Fatalities,” National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. In 2011, 4,609 workers were killed on the job in the US—and yet the federal government can only levy $7,000 in fines for “serious” workplace safety violations, and the average fine in these cases is only $1,680. What results is a perverse incentive structure for employers not to improve conditions for workers, who may lack knowledge of safety laws or leverage to speak up. This report lays out the conditions faced by the most vulnerable classes of workers, and what local and federal government can do to fix them. Temp workers, for example, tend to be younger, less educated, less likely to be US citizens and more likely to be employed in hazardous jobs like waste management and construction. Model remedies include Cal/OSHA’s robust inspection system for companies that use temp work and Massachusetts’s Temporary Worker Right to Know Law. Immigrant workers face language barriers, service providers and workplace personnel with insufficient knowledge of their legal rights and outright discrimination. Undocumented workers in particular need whistleblower protections for reporting employer abuses. Another class of workers, especially in retail and public services, face workplace violence, including from those they serve. For these workers, the report recommends strengthening on-site security and prevention standards.
US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.
Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.
Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.
People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).
People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.
Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.
Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.
Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.
Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.
Percentage of individuals and family members in poverty who either worked or lived with a working family member, 2011: 57 percent.
Low-income families that were working in 2011: More than 70 percent.
Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.
Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.
Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.
Percentage of entitlement benefits going to elderly, disabled, or working households: over 90 percent.
Food stamp recipients with no other cash income: 6.5 million people.
Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.
Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.
Mothers who are homeless as a direct result of domestic violence: 1 in 4.
Homeless mothers who will experience domestic violence at some point: over 90 percent.
Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.
Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.
Quote of the Week
“If the state is serious about improving the educational results of low income children, then more must be done to reduce child poverty.”
—from California Assembly Democrats’ “Blueprint for a Responsible Budget”
James Cersonsky wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.
A Titan II ICBM in an underground silo. (Steve Jurvetson/Flickr, CC 2.0.)
It’s been a wild news week, what with Israel’s attack on Syria, the gruesome kidnap/rape tragedy emerging from Cleveland and then the circus surroundiing the Benghazi hearings. We won’t even mention Jodi Arias, whoever that is. Sadly overlooked, however, was an exclusive from the Associated Press. Oh, no big deal. Just “rot” and “crisis” and a wave of firings in one program you especially don’t want to witness this in: our nuclear missle launch program.
At Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota the commander confirmed, as the story put it, “the willful violation of safety rules—including a possible compromise of launch codes—was tolerated.” Seventeen members of launch crews have been fired, an unprecedented action in its scope.
Lt. Col. Jay Folds, deputy commander of the 91st Operations Group, responsible for Minuteman 3 missile launch crews at Minot, cited disturbingly poor reviews that they received in a March inspection. “We are, in fact, in a crisis right now,” Folds wrote in the e-mail to his subordinates. Yet beyond routine publishing for the AP scoop, little media attention followed.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel demanded an explanation. Senator Dick Durbin said the issue “could not be more troubling.” The Air Force, perhaps trying to calm fears but only stoking them, revealed that the missiles were still on war footing.
As I’ve done for, oh, the past thirty years, in numeous articles and three books, this is where I remind readers that the US still has a first-strike nuclear policy, and thousands of nuclear weapons, more than two decades after the end of the Cold War—and that we have used nuclear weapons before, setting (and for most Americans, defending) a precedent.
Greg Mitchell’s new book is Hollywood Bomb. His previous books on this subject were Atomic Cover-up and, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America.
The New York Times is again pushing for war in the Middle East, while McClatchy news outlets are again advising caution, Greg Mitchell writes.
Suspected Boston bombers the Tsarnaev brothers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Can we stop talking about “connecting dots”?
I’m all for investigating and catching terrorists, especially before they do their evil deeds. At the same time, however—as the latest reports about the bombings at the Boston Marathon show—“connecting dots” can often be a euphemism for overly intrusive, civil liberties-violating snooping, spying, and deployment of government and FBI infiltrators, provocateurs, and worse.
The New York Times reports today that the FBI “did not tell the Boston police about the 2011 warning from Russia about Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” and it adds:
Had [the Boston police department] learned about the tip, in which Russian officials said that Mr. Tsarnaev had embraced radical Islam and intended to travel to Russia to connect with underground groups, “we would certainly look at the individual,” [Police] Commissioner [Edward] Davis told the House Homeland Security Committee.
Wow. Let’s unpack that for a second.
First of all, since 9/11 there has been a huge and unprecedented expansion of city and state police intelligence units, many of which engage in something close to outright spying. The idea that the Boston police department ought to be shadowing every person who has committed no crime, merely on the basis of tip from the notoriously excessive and unreliable Russian secret service—especially after the FBI, which investigated Tsarnaev and questioned him and his family—is scary. In addition, so far at least, we have no idea just how many potential “terrorists” the Russians have warned us about. It can’t be only the Tsarnaevs. Dozens? Hundreds? No other bombs have gone off since 9/11. Do we want police departments tracking innocent people?
Second, at least some of this is driven by politics. The very committee that Commissioner David testified in front of is controlled by radical-right Republican extremists who can’t wait to find some flaw in the administration’s handling of the Tsarnaev case so they can use it against the president. These are the same bizarre, obsessive Republicans who have sunk their teeth into a utter non-scandal over the September 11, 2012, assault on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and won’t let go. The Times quotes Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican on the committee, who says:
We learned over a decade ago the danger of failing to connect the dots. My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed.
Maybe, but the fact is that we don’t want to live in a country where we have 100-percent effectiveness against terrorism, because that would be a police state.
Third, let’s stop talking about close cooperation with the Russian secret police. I don’t trust Russia’s oppressive secret services one bit, certainly far less than I trust the FBI and the CIA, and that isn’t very much. It is true that Moscow is battling an incipient Islamist revolt in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, in Chechnya, Dagestan and elsewhere. However, their version of how to fight that insurgency is akin to Bashar al-Assad’s version, namely, kill anything that moves. And in many ways, the insurgency in southern Russia, to the extent that it has migrated from nationalism and separatism to some version of radical Islamism a la Al Qaeda, is Russia’s doing. But engaging in ethnic cleaning and destruction of whole cities and towns in Chechnya and elsewhere since 1994, the Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin did a lot to create the vary radicalism that Putin is now fighting. Let’s give the FBI credit, perhaps, for trying to distinguish between a real tip from the Russians and a spurious one.
At yesterday’s dog-and-pony show in Congress, the Republicans—backed by an old ally, neoconservative former Senator Joe Lieberman—tried to wave the bloody Boston shirt about “stove-piping” and the FBI’s alleged failure to alert the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston to the Tsarnaevs. Never mind that the FBI, after looking into Tsarnaev, found nothing. Said Lieberman, in typical high dudgeon, finger-wagging:
The fact that neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security notified the local members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force is really a serious and aggravating omission.
Well, no, it’s not.
In addition, as more information begins to emerge about Tsarnaev’s 2012 visit to Russia, it appears as if the radical Islamists that he came into contact didn’t try to radicalize him but the reverse. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Tsarnaev … got a cool reception from some of the Islamists he hoped to bond with. … While Mr. Tsarnaev did find a circle of friends, some congregants at the Salafist mosque dismissed him as strange. Others said they feared his brashness would attract even more attention to them from Russian authorities.
And the Times adds:
On Sunday agents from the Federal Security Service [FSB], the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, interrogated Mr. Tsarnaev’s cousin, who is in police custody, asking if he impressed the young man with “extremist” views, his lawyer said.
But the cousin, Magomed Kartashov, told them it was the other way around. In interviews, several young men here agreed, saying that Mr. Kartashov spent hours trying to stop Mr. Tsarnaev from “going to the forest,” or joining one of the militant cells scattered throughout the volatile region, locked in low-level guerrilla warfare with the police.
Meanwhile, the Russian security services apparently killed several of the people that Tsarnaev had contact with. Whether they were actual terrorists or just radical Islamists with anti-Moscow (and anti-Washington, perhaps) views can’t be known. Like those killed by American drones, who are often mere radicals who may or may not hate the United States, those killed by the Russians may or may not be guilty of anything other than crossing the FSB.
So, yes, let’s collect and connect the dots. Just not every dot, everywhere, all the time.
Rather than help the Russians track people who have committed to crime, we should engage with them on finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, Robert Dreyfuss writes.
Four updates appear below.
Hundreds of Detroit fast food workers plan to walk off the job beginning at 6 am today, making the motor city the fourth in five weeks to see such strikes. Organizers expect participants from at least sixty stores, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, Little Caesar’s, and Popeye’s locations. Like this week’s strike in St. Louis, and last month’s in New York and Chicago, today’s work stoppage is backed by a local coalition including the Service Employees International Union, and the participants are demanding a raise to $15 an hour and the chance to form a union without intimidation.
Organizers say that over a hundred workers joined the St. Louis strike between Wednesday and Thursday. That included a group of Jimmy John’s workers who alleged that management humiliated them by requiring them to hold up signs in public with messages including “I made 3 wrong sandwiches today” and “I was more than 13 seconds in the drive thru.” “Sometimes I walk for more than an hour just to save my train fare so I can spend it on Ramen noodles,” St. Louis Chipotle worker Patrick Leeper said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. “I can’t even think about groceries.”
A spokesperson for Jimmy John’s declined to comment on Thursday’s strike. McDonald’s did not respond to a Tuesday inquiry about the fast food campaign; Wendy’s did not respond to an inquiry last night.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the fate of the fast food strike wave carries far-reaching implications: Fast food jobs are a growing portion of our economy, and fast food–like conditions are proliferating in other sectors as well. Organizers say the fast food industry now employs twice as many Detroit-area workers as the city’s iconic auto industry. These strikes also come at a moment of existential crisis for the labor movement, a sobering reality that was brought into sharp relief in December when Michigan, arguably the birthplace of modern US private sector unionism, became the country’s latest “right to work” state.
Along with a shared significant supporter—SEIU—the campaigns in New York, Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit have apparent strategies in common. Rather than waiting until they’ve built support from a majority of a store’s or company’s workers, they stage actions by a minority of the workforce designed to inspire their co-workers. Rather than publicly identifying the campaign and its organizers with a single international union, these union-funded efforts turn to allied community groups to spearhead organizing. Rather than training all their resources on a single company, they organize against all of the industry’s players at once. And—faced with legal and economic assaults that have weakened the strike weapon—these campaigns mount one-day work stoppages that are carefully tailored to maximize attention and minimize, but not eliminate, the risk that workers will lose their jobs.
Whether these strategies can ever compel a fast food giant to negotiate with its employees remains to be seen.
“After what I would consider well over three decades of wage suppression, workers in this particular industry—and then I think it’ll go to others—are realizing that their only way up the wage ladder is through their own organizations,” CUNY labor studies lecturer Ed Ott said Wednesday. Ott, a board member of the community organizing group that spearheaded the New York fast food strike, added, “The only way these workers are going to be able to advance these jobs is through unionization. And I think that idea has finally gotten traction.”
Update (9:15 am Friday): According to the campaign, a walkout by twenty workers at Detroit’s 10400 Gratiot Avenue McDonald’s prevented the store from operating. Some workers brought in as strikebreakers to replace those striking workers chose to join the strike instead.
Organizers say that by day’s end, today’s strike could be the largest fast food work stoppage yet, topping last month’s 400-strong strike in New York.
Update (11:50 am): Along with the Gratiot Avenue McDonald’s, organizers say that strikes shut down at least three others stores: a McDonald’s on Van Dyke; a Long John Silver’s on 8 Mile; and a Popeye’s on Grand River, where strikers were joined by US Congressman John Conyers. Strikers plan to converge for rallies at 1 and 4 this afternoon.
McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chipotle, and Long John Silver’s did not immediately respond to requests for comment this morning.
Update (2:05 pm Friday): The campaign now says there are over 400 workers on strike in Detroit, making today’s action the largest fast food strike in US history. That figure includes workers who woke up today planning to work and then changed their mind; at one McDonald’s store, the campaign says eight workers decided at the last minute to join the strike after watching four of their co-workers walk off the job.
In an e-mailed statement, McDonald’s worker Nathaniel Gaines said that after management called him into work early to break the strike, he decided upon arrival to join the work stoppage instead. “I am constantly training new workers, while working the grill at the same time, all at minimum wage,” said Gaines. “Management always changes my hours, so I never have a consistent paycheck…The strike made me feel empowered to do the right thing for myself and my son.”
Update (3:30 pm Friday): In an e-mailed statement, McDonald’s said, “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants. The majority of McDonald’s restaurants across the country are owned and operated by independent business men and women where employees are paid competitive wages, and have access to flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits.” The statement, which also touts “training and professional development opportunities” for workers who want to advance to management, is the same one provided by the company regarding protests in New York and Chicago last month. A McDonald’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to The Nation’s follow-up inquiry regarding the company’s stance on the strikers’ demands; whether management would meet with the striking workers; and whether any strikers would be punished or “permanently replaced.”
For more on this week’s strike in St. Louis, read Annie Shields’s report.
Peter DeFazio (Flickr/Oregon DOT)
Congressman Peter DeFazio has always been a stalwart defender of the United States Postal Service. As a veteran lawmaker and one of its most determined advocates for public services in the House, he knows that the postal service is an essential asset. But he also knows that the USPS “is in a financial death spiral, caused largely by congressional and bureaucratic ineptitude and inaction.”
“Over 70 percent of USPS financial losses are due to a Congressional mandate to prefund retiree healthcare for future employees for the next 75 years. This requires the post office to prefund the healthcare of future employees that have not yet been born. This is stupid and unacceptable,” explains DeFazio .“Rather than avoiding this financial crisis they face, USPS bureaucrats have only offered short-sighted proposals that fail to address their long-term issues and would accelerate the demise of the Postal Service.”
The congressman has battled the bureaucrats with some success. Along with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan, DeFazio was in the forefront of the successful fight to block the postmaster general’s wrongheaded proposal to end Saturday mail delivery. He even found some rural Republican allies for that skirmish.
But the Oregon Democrat knows it’s going to take more than defensive moves by Congress to save the USPS.
To that end, DeFazio has introduced the Postal Service Protection Act, a detailed proposal to “sustain the postal service, avoid unnecessary closures that hurt rural communities, and save American jobs.”
Now, he wants to up the ante by enlisting President Obama in the struggle—or, to be more precise, he’s come up with a strategy to get the president more engaged with saving the postal service.
Obama has sent some good signals; indeed, his budget borrows ideas advanced by Sanders and DeFazio for making the USPS more competitive.
But the congressman is right to want the president to play a more pivotal role in saving post offices and sorting centers, rural routes and urban facilities, from a death by slow cuts. The stronger and louder the support from Obama, the greater the likelihood that the Postal Service Protection Act—which has the potential to gain support from disengaged Democrats and reluctant Republicans—could be enacted.
So DeFazio has taken the rare step—as a congressman—of posting a petition on the Obama administration’s “We the People” website.
About 80% of USPS financial losses since 2007 are due to a Congressional mandate to prefund 75 years of future retiree health benefits over 10 years. In 2012 USPS lost a record $15.9 billion, but $11.1 billion of that loss went to prefund healthcare. This must change.
USPS shouldn’t move to 5-day delivery. This would only save 3%, risk further revenue losses, and slow mail delivery.
USPS needs to re-establish overnight delivery standards to ensure the timely delivery of mail and prevent the closure of mail plants.
USPS needs to generate more revenue by ending a 2006 ban prohibiting USPS from offering new products and services.
Does the Administration support HR 630 and S 316 to make these changes, save American jobs, and allow USPS to remain competitive?
To get a formal response from the White House, the petition must gather 100,000 signatures by May 23.
Almost 20,000 people have already signed. But now it’s crunch time.
“If you support the postal service and want Congress and the White House to consider legislation that would fix the serious financial challenges it faces,” says DeFazio, “please sign the petition and tell your friends to as well.”
President Obama faces plenty of pressures these days, but this is one intervention he can and should make on behalf of American workers and communities.
The USPS cannot take many more cuts. Nor can it shoulder the financial burden that’s been imposed on it. This is a time for urgency. And Peter DeFazio, with his White House petition, has figured out how to focus the energy that is needed to beat the proponents of privatization and to save an essential public service.
Lobbyists are snagging top jobs in Congress—a boon for their former employers. Read Lee Fang’s report.
Tom Corbett speaks on the Pennsylvania state budget. (AP Photo/Bradley C. Bower)
After Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett proposed a 53 percent cut to the state’s 2011-2012 higher education budget, Millersville University President Francine McNairy sent an urgent campus-wide email. Corbett’s “massive cuts are upsetting,” she wrote on March 8, 2011. “We at Millersville are encouraging our students and their families, our faculty, staff and alumni to contact their local legislators and urge them to advocate on behalf of public higher education in Pennsylvania.” On March 28, the men’s cross country team ran a 40-mile relay from Millersville to the state capitol, where they met up with thousands of students and workers from across the state for “United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail.” Three months later, the Republican state legislature lowered a smaller axe—18 percent. Still, this would cost Millersville $6.34 million, including, despite their triumphant, crowd-parting display, all three men’s track teams.
This was Millersville’s first austerity-on-acid trip—a departure from previous, even Republican, administrations. Between 1985 and 2011, the state’s share of its budget plummeted from 60 percent to 25 percent; students’ contribution went from 40 percent to 75 percent. In 2010, Tea Partier Tom Corbett came in to sweep away whatever was left of the state’s blue economy. In 2011, the state cut public education by $860 million (after a Corbett-proposed $1.2 billion), hitting already under-resourced districts, like Philadelphia, the hardest. In 2012, Corbett scrapped the state’s General Assistance fund, a direct subsidy that mostly benefited people with disabilities. Meanwhile, the governor’s 2013-2014 budget, in keeping with previous years, includes a $68 million increase in operating funds and $166 million in capital projects for the Department of Corrections. For Pennsylvanians, these are known quantities: this year, Corbett earned the lowest approval rating in the eighteen-year history of the Franklin & Marshall poll (18 percent). His appearances in Philadelphia are routinely protested. (A September 19 town hall at the Museum of Art was sidelined by chants of “We want education, not incarceration!” and “Corbett go home!”)
Naturally, then, the man Millersville has chosen to usher graduating seniors into the world of debt and unemployment is the same one who rules it: Tom Corbett.
For those who have borne the brunt of Pennsylvania’s austerity politics, Corbett’s anointment as commencement speaker is a slap in the face. “The audacity for someone to bring him in to speak to us—I feel like it’s disrespectful, it’s a cruel joke,” says fifth-year senior Kyle Johnson, who has dealt with cuts to his campus work hours and financial aid issues. “But, you know, the university is a business. You come to find that out once you go along.” On March 8, Johnson received a less-than-reassuring email from Jerry Eckert, chairman of the Commencement Speaker Committee, reading, “I know this note will not satisfy you…this is an opportunity to demonstrate to the Governor and others what a fine University and its students are—a worthy investment by the state!”
An opportunity, indeed—for people like Jerry Eckert. In the weeds of Corbett’s selection are hints of old-boy patronage, a business decision based on shifty insider trading.
Two figures stand out. The first is Eckert, Millersville’s Vice President for Advancement—and an appointed member of Governor Corbett’s higher education committee. The second is Kevin Harley, a 1986 Millersville grad who doubles as a member of the Millersville University Council of Trustees and Corbett’s sitting press secretary. With these gubernatorial ties, the logic of Millersville’s “demonstration” works both ways. For someone whose infamy stems from the unpopularity of his budgetary decisions, Corbett’s selection gives him the opportunity to enter the politically no-frills space of a graduation ceremony and trumpet his abstract devotion to the state’s shrinking education system.
If Corbett’s selection is an under-the-table political play, Millersville has followed in step—violating its own bylaws in the process. For the commencement committee that Eckert chairs, which comprises students, faculty and administrators, “The terms of office begin 1 October, and the committee shall meet at least one time per year, usually during the fall semester, but at other times at the call of the convener or a majority of the members of the committee.” But according to university spokesperson Janet Kacskos, “They haven’t met in the last couple years.” Millersville has “a standing list of folks we’d like to speak at commencement,” she told The Nation, and as sitting governor, Corbett’s appearance is significant.
Eckert issued an apology to the president of the student senate (but not the university at large) for failing to follow procedure. Meanwhile, the governor’s overt stance on his selection has been collegial—that is, apolitical. “His commencement addresses are not—he’s not going to talk about budgets, he’s going to talk about the accomplishments of the students,” says Harley, who dismisses suggestions of any political maneuvering. “He considers it an honor to speak.”
For faculty and students, the university’s apologies are stacking up. At Millersville—and universities the world over—command-and-control governance is part-and-parcel of unforgiving budget politics. Over spring break, the university bulldozed “the Bush,” a patch of forest on campus used for biology research, to make way for a new student housing project. The Friday before the break, all faculty members were emailed about the move—far too late for any to speak up. In November, Millersville’s Council of Trustees overruled the school’s Presidential Search Committee in nominating a slate of potential new presidents for the state to choose from—a possible violation of Pennsylvania Act 188.
“It has become a slippery slope of people being disenfranchised,” says Jill Craven, a Millersville English professor. “There’s an old boys network that works in a particular way. It’s another thing when administrators want to take advantage of that.” Faculty have also felt the blunter edge of the Corbett axe. In March, the union representing the fourteen schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) settled contract negotiations with the state—after nearly two years of negotiations and a November vote authorizing a strike.
What to do about Corbett at commencement?
When the governor spoke at Albright College in 2011, the faculty voted unanimously not to grant him an honorary degree—despite that Albright is a private school that’s off the governor’s operating table. At Millersville, the top-down governance that set the stage for Corbett’s selection has lit a fire under campus dissenters.
Over the course of the semester, student organizers have met with faculty members, faculty union representatives, students from other PASSHE schools and alumni. A SignOn.org petition saying that Corbett “does not deserve the honor of speaking at our ceremony” has amassed over 2,200 signatures (nearly half the size of the Millersville student body). “We have fostered a dialogue amongst ourselves to drive democracy in action,” says Rizzo Mertz, a 2011 Millersville grad. “The amount of collaboration among students, alumni and faculty has been fantastic.”
Come commencement, students and allies plan to stand silently and turn their backs on the governor when he speaks. “He turned his back on us, so we’re going to turn our backs on him, and show him what it feels like in public,” Mertz says.
Mertz has also filed right-to-know requests with the state, PASSHE and the university for documents related to the presidential search and commencement selection. In April, the state rejected most of Mertz’s requests, but did return now-former President McNairy’s November invitation to Corbett, which applauds his “successful professional career” and “commitment to community involvement.”
“Our students and staff are highly respectful,” Kacskos says, about the commencement stirrings. “They all believe in diverse opinions and free speech.”
“This isn’t a matter of free speech,” Mertz rejoins. “It’s a matter of self-respect.”
In the neoliberal university, speech may be free, but it’s also profitable. At a commencement ceremony, speakers have an ideal opportunity to make bank. With no room for rebuttal, counter-speech must be off the premises (as with “alternative commencement” ceremonies) or a silent jam.
Score one for Tom Corbett.
But score another for the forces of popular resentment—who, at an event where imagery trumps debate, don’t seem willing to give the governor’s image back.
For first-person takes on student uprising across the country, read StudentNation's Dispatches From the US Student Movement.
A missing person poster for Amanda Berry, one of the three kidnapped women found alive in Cleveland. (Reuters/John Gress.)
In just the last few days, we’ve seen a series of news stories involving violence against women. The violence comes in different forms—physical, psychological, financial—and from different quarters—a former school-bus driver in Cleveland, the NRA convention in Houston, the military, Congress—and so it’s not surprising that the media, as usual, are delivering these stories as unrelated incidents. But arriving almost simultaneously, these tales of misogyny should jolt us all to connect the dots and to shine an unblinking light on the violence against women that’s always there, just below the surface.
The story of the three Cleveland women who were found alive after being held captive (and, by all accounts, raped, beaten and bound) in a neighbor’s house for ten years is the most shocking. The suspect, Ariel Castro, 52, reportedly let them outside only twice in all that time. Michelle Knight was 20 when she disappeared in 2002, Amanda Berry had been reported missing in 2003 when she was 16, and Gina DeJesus vanished at age 14 in 2004 on her way home from school. Berry’s mother died in 2006 of what friends say was “a broken heart” less than two years after a psychic on The Montel Williams Show told her Amanda was dead. DeJesus’s mother believed her daughter had been sold into the sex trade. On Monday, Berry and her 6-year-old daughter (possibly fathered by Castro) escaped with the help of neighbors Charles Ramsey and Angel Cordero. The other women came out shortly after. Berry and DeJesus are now home, while Knight remains in the hospital.
As this story unfolds, it will serve as fascinating cable TV filler: We’ll learn more of the horrific details and get to know the victims, their friends and families, and the suspect; we’ll urge neighbors to keep a closer eye on each other; and hopefully we’ll learn why the police didn’t follow earlier leads. But this shouldn’t be treated as just the latest incredibly sad and sensational crime story, as if it were devoid of social and political context—or unrelated to the other news of anti-women violence that accompanied it this week.
When I first saw the photo of a freed Amanda Berry with her sister and daughter, and tried to imagine the women’s unimaginable captivity, I couldn’t get another set of images out of my mind—that of “The Ex,” a target mannequin that squirts blood when you shoot her. “The Ex” (variously called “The Ex-Girlfriend” and “Alexa”) is a large-breasted white woman, her clothes party ripped off, blood dripping from her mouth down her cleavage, and she was sold with other “bleeding zombie targets” at the NRA convention in Houston last weekend. A target mannequin that looks like Obama painted green (one happy customer calls him “Barry” in a video that has been removed) also made the news. Buzzfeed reported that the NRA asked the vendor, Zombie Industries, to remove it from display, but it continued to be sold, a reminder of the racism that fuels the pro-gun paranoia. But the NRA didn’t object to displaying “The Ex,” and she still appears on the company’s website, where one commenter writes, “This Zombie Bitch is awesome, reminds me of a girl I knew in High School.”
Here is “The Ex”:
And here she is after getting shot up:
Up until yesterday Amazon was also selling the $89.99 product. (“Great for a bachelor party!” read the only five-star review. “This was a very original, cool way to kick off a bachelor party for a firearm enthusiast, such as myself.”)
Noting that “‘The Ex’ shooting target turns violence against women into a joke and promotes the idea that men should want to kill their ex-wives or ex-girlfriends,” the activist group Ultra Violet petitioned Amazon to stop selling it. In less than 24 hours, 63,000 people signed and “The Ex” was gone.
A similar, if real-life, ex target was Grimilda Figueroa, the former wife of kidnap suspect Ariel Castro. Castro was accused of beating Figueroa, breaking her nose twice, knocking out a tooth, dislocating her shoulders and threatening to kill her and their children, according to a filing in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court. The filing also said that Castro “frequently abducts [his] daughters and keeps them from mother/petitioner/legal custodian.” [UPDATE re misogynists and mannequins, from AP: Castro kept a life-sized, wigged mannequin around to scare Figueroa and others. He'd sometimes drive around with it, and he once told a young nephew of his: "Act up again, you'll be in that back room with the mannequin."]
Figueroa’s brother, Jose Figueroa, told RadarOnline that in 1996 Grimilda and her children with Castro fled from him to a battered women’s shelter. “If she stayed with Ariel, he would have killed her,” Jose said. “She had gone to the hospital and called the police many times but they never did anything.” (Grimilda remarried and moved out long before Castro allegedly kidnapped the three women; she died of cancer last year.)
If Jose Figueroa’s account is accurate, his sister may have saved her life and her children’s, as so many abused women do, by finding refuge in a women’s shelter. But, as we learned this week, men who abuse women will be able to corner them even more easily: The sequester is cutting some $20 million of funding for women’s shelters and protection programs over the next year.
Like all sequester cuts that don’t involve airplane delays, the cuts to shelters are not making the national news, but they are locally. From KSL.com in Utah:
Julee Smith, the director of Your Community Connection in Ogden, said she works with people every day who are running from violent situations. She said many abuse victims need a place to stay, and due to the lack of funding, she has had to start turning them away,
“We literally had a lady call, she had four children and begged to get in our shelter,” Smith said. “She said, ‘I have 45 minutes to get out.’ And we said ‘We’re sorry, we don’t have any room.’ And then the police call and say that she has been abused again.”
Tim Murphy of Mother Jones cites other shelters and domestic violence programs that are being reduced or completely eliminated in Louisiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Oregon and other states. “The projections are bleak,” he writes.
Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) office estimates that 70,120 fewer domestic violence victims will have access to recovery programs and shelters; 35,900 fewer people will get help obtaining non-shelter services such as restraining orders and sexual assault treatment. Cuts to programs related to the Victims Against Crime Act will hurt another 310,574 people.
This increased danger to women has been made possible by the same pols, mostly Republicans, who are too scared of the NRA to pass an expansion of background checks, checks that would block sales of guns to anyone convicted of domestic violence, among other crimes.
And you know that big-shock Pentagon report released Tuesday that estimates 26,000 sexual assaults took place in the armed forces in 2012, a 37 percent increase over 2010? The report that also said fewer than 10 percent of the sex-assault cases end with a conviction at court-martial, while 62 percent of victims who dare to report an assault are rewarded with retaliation?
Well, expect those stats to get worse. The sequester is putting on hold Department of Defense plans to hire 829 “sexual assault response coordinators.” Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Ray Odierno told the Senate Armed Forces Committee last month that sequestration will hurt efforts to reduce sexual harassment and assault in the Army in many ways, from “slowing hiring actions to delaying lab results, which hinders our ability to provide resolution for victims.”
Of course, as we also learned this week, the value of some of those sexual assault response coordinators is questionable to begin with. On Sunday, Lt. Col Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, was arrested in a northern Virginia parking lot for sexual assault. A police report says that Krusinski, 41, was drunk and had grabbed a woman’s breast and buttocks. She fought him off, and his mug shot has the cuts to prove it.
While millions of men worldwide and the institutionalized male establishment at large still believe it’s their right to subjugate women, let’s not leave the impression that only women are victims. In the Pentagon report above, an estimated 13,900 of the 1.2 million active duty men said they had experienced some form of sexual assault in the past year (a far smaller portion than the active duty women). About a quarter of the victims of non-family child abductions are boys. And from 1994 to 2010, about four in five victims of intimate partner violence were female, according to the Bureau of Justice stats. But that leaves one in five victims to be men.
As if to prove the exception to the female-victim rule, there’s Jodi Arias. She was found guilty yesterday of first-degree murder of her ex, Travis Alexander. It was a particularly gruesome murder, with a heavy sexual backstory. A media circus, led by CNN’s sister channel HLN, has been making ecstatic noises over the trial’s every salacious detail.
When the Cleveland story broke Monday, it was hard to tell if HLN resented it for overshadowing the climax of its Jodi Arias witch-burning or welcomed it as a replacement now that the Arias show is winding down.
But instead of another media circus over the story in Cleveland, let’s see if the media and its audience—that is, all of us—can more seriously address the violence against women that is woven into our culture and that politicians in Washington threaten to make worse.
While the Senate moved quickly to end furloughs that were causing air traffic delays, most of the sequester's effects continue, under-reported and unseen, Leslie Savan writes.
This past March, a Philadelphia man named Christopher Knafelc jumped onto the train tracks at a local SEPTA station to save a man who had fallen off the platform and into harm’s way. His story quickly became a tale of heroism and redemption; Knafelc, it turned out, was a “recovering drug addict with a long rap sheet,” according to the Associated Press, a man who “often wondered if he was a good person.”
The answer was yes: Knafelc’s act of bravery meant he could hold “his head a little higher, viewing the good deed he did, and the praise that followed, as another sign that he is on the right path in life,” according to the AP. “It did help reinforce that I’m a good person,” Knafelc said. “I questioned that a lot because of my colorful past.”
This past included charges of theft, a DUI and child endangerment. But the media narrative was clear and feel-good. Knafelc’s act of heroism had redeemed him, proved his worth to society. “It’s amazing,” a transit worker told reporters. “This incident may be the start of really good things for him.”
Knafelc, who is white, is not nearly as well known as Wesley Autrey, the African-American “Subway Samaritan” who in 2007 achieved instant fame after he saved a 20-year-old film student on the train tracks in Harlem. Unlike Knafelc’s case, in which no train was pulling into the station, Autrey saw the lights of an oncoming train and nevertheless, threw himself over the man, lying in a drainage ditch as train cars passed over them. It was an extraordinary act of courage; Autrey was showered with praise and gifts; Donald Trump presented him with a check for $10,000 and saluted him in the pages of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People issue. He was even an honored guest at George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union Address, where he received a standing ovation.
It probably didn’t hurt that before he was hailed as a hero in such official quarters, Autrey was a “modest, hardworking construction worker” and Navy veteran who strived to be a parent to his kids, unlike his own father. “The world looks at black men as deadbeat dads,” he told New York magazine. “But that’s not me.”
But what if it was? What if it turned out that Autrey had a rap sheet like Knafelc’s? Worse, what if it turned out that he had a history of violence and had done time in prison for hurting people? Would “convicted felon” have trumped “hero”? Would he still have been welcome at the White House?
It took just one day for Charles Ramsey, the black man who helped save Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight from a ten-year living nightmare in a Cleveland home, to go from hero to “hero” in the press. “America is embracing the hardworking dishwasher,” the New York Daily News reported on May 8, calling him “America’s hero neighbor.” The next day, the Daily News headline read, “Cleveland ‘hero’ and Internet celeb Charles Ramsey has a criminal past.”
The new narrative turned on revelations that Ramsey is “a convicted felon whose rap sheet includes three separate domestic violence convictions that resulted in prison terms,” as the Smoking Gun revealed on Wednesday afternoon. As word spread and people considered the unfortunate “irony” that this man had committed violence against his wife, adulation turned toward disappointment, hand-wringing and bemusement. (“Perhaps, one might think, it’s unwise for a brand to want such a man as a spokesperson,” Time’s Brad Tuttle wrote in a post about a previously discussed McDonald’s endorsement.) Blog posts were hastily updated; others were written to maintain that he was still a hero, regardless of his past. “The fact that a convicted abuser intervened to stop abuse is a good thing, not a scandal,” Joan Walsh argued at Salon, while also leaving open the possibility that “more details may yet emerge to complicate Ramsey’s character.” (It would be “shameful,” she wrote, if it turned out that he knew anything about his neighbor’s crimes and stayed silent.) At Poynter, the episode was a lesson in “the dangers in lionizing someone at the heart of a breaking news event too soon.”
Behind the backlash against Ramsey was right-wing Cleveland radio host Dave Ramos, who first posted links to his Cuyahoga County criminal profile under the headline: “Hometown ‘Hero’: This Story Stinks.” Ramos insisted that the public was “being fooled” by Ramsey’s portrayal in the press and was determined to set things straight. (Never mind that he had no confirmation that the record he posted actually belonged to the correct Charles Ramsey—that was just a lucky guess.)
To Ramos, it was apparently intolerable that a man that looked, talked and acted like Ramsey could possibly be hailed as a hero. He didn’t bother trying to conceal his racism, citing dubious “sources” who told him that “Ramsey appeared on a local TV station accompanied by an entourage of more than a dozen men, would not budge from the TV station’s green room, and had to be escorted off of the station’s property by police.” In other words, he is not only criminal at the core, he is threatening and generally obnoxious. “He couldn’t freaking speak English!” Ramos said on Twitter, after boasting that he was the first to break the story about his criminal record.
But few seemed as eager to publicly revel in the exposure of Ramsey’s past, even commenters on Ramos’s website. Comments at the Smoking Gun were largely angry and indignant, demanding to know why anyone felt compelled to dig up dirt on a man whose actions were admirable, regardless. On Facebook, the Daily News reported, Ramsey’s ex-wife posted old photos of her former husband, writing, “Ok so for the record ppl do change and you shouldn’t hold the past against someone. The (main) thing is Charles Ramsey did a good deed and those girls are safe.”
Speaking on his own behalf, Ramsey told TMZ that his past actions “helped me become the man I am today and are the reason why I try to help the community as much as I can,” words that one blogger dismissed as a “valiant effort to put a positive spin on some despicable actions.” It makes sense that such a response might come off as self-serving; too many are willing to forgive domestic violence if it is committed by somebody whom people want to love and admire—see celebrities and sports heroes—and the blunt tools offered by the criminal justice system have proven woefully ineffective in addressing domestic violence.
But the question of whether Ramsey is or is not a hero—a term he himself rejects—is ultimately not the most helpful or important, especially when we recall that all those we like to call “heroes” are, in fact, flawed human beings, even if those flaws are never exposed. As a fixed category, the notion of a “hero” applies to very few people in the American imagination—mainly to those who put on a military uniform—and a man like Charles Ramsey fits much more neatly in the public mind into a different fixed category—not just “felon,” with all its permanent implications, but “criminal,” a label automatically assigned to black men. In particular, the notion that black men who have committed violent acts cannot change and should be forever defined by that violence is what fuels our harshest prison policies. If there’s any value in the current debate over Ramsey’s “checkered past,” to me, it is that so many people are daring to suggest that a man who went to prison for a series of violent crimes can be more than that; that people are more than the worst things they have ever done.
Nowhere is this concept more absent than in our criminal justice system, which has lengthened sentences, foreclosed on parole and made pardons a near impossibility. Although the problem of mass incarceration has entered the public consciousness, thanks largely to the excesses of the drug war, the harshest penalties for violent crime (or those labeled “violent” because of any number of aggravating factors) continue to go unquestioned. For anyone who takes prison reform seriously, or is aware of the aging prisoner population, this should be a problem. “The reality is that close to half of the national growth in imprisonment since 1980 consists of increased punishment for ‘violent’ crime,” Berkelely law professor Jonathan Simon has written. “If we are to cut into that growth, and just as importantly, permanently reduce the public appetite to punish drug users and other non-violent prisoners, we need to revisit the policies that send so many to prison for so long.”
But even criminal justice reformers, for understandable reasons, tend to shy from taking on punishments for people who commit violent acts. Legislation across the country is aimed primarily at “nonviolent offenders.” Anti–death penalty activists focus largely on innocent people sent to death row—while widely pushing the next-most-punitive penalty, life without parole, for the guilty. Even behind bars, prisoners serving life without parole have less programming and are less eligible for compassionate release. When it comes to those who commit violent crimes, our most punitive instincts still rein.
Race has everything to do with this. Fear of black criminality continues to drive permanent punishment, based on the idea that African-Americans are less capable of rehabilitation or redemption. So African-American kids are given life sentences at a staggeringly disproportionate rate. So Assata Shakur finds herself on the FBI’s Most Wanted List forty years after the crime for which she was accused, based on the claim that she represents a threat to public safety. So Texas prisoner Duane Buck faces execution date after execution date in part because a state psychologist told jurors that, as a black man, his potential for “future dangerousness” was higher. I recently sat in a Memphis courtroom as a white prosecutor pointed at a black man whom he hoped to send back to death row, imploring jurors not to be fooled by the “well-dressed, well-groomed” man before him. “Not quite the same as he was back then!” he cried, triumphantly, pointing at a sixteen-year-old mugshot of the defendant, confident that the dark image of him in a hoodie would look threatening enough to scare the jury. You can put a black man in a suit, in other words, but underneath it he is still a criminal.
Some criminals, like some heroes, are allowed to be complex, as we are reminded in the wake of mass shootings committed by white men who are immediately scrutinized for signs of mental illness. Confusion and debate over what Ramsey really is—criminal or hero (or jolly Internet meme)—shows how little complexity we afford people like him. It may have taken an extraordinary action, the saving of three white girls, to make him worthy of people’s collective empathy—and it’s certainly likely that if his criminal record included, say, first-degree murder that this empathy would largely evaporate. But if we more broadly applied the logic of legions who have lept to his defense as a changed man, if we started thinking that more people might be worthy of a second chance, we might start to change the conversation around prisons and sentencing.
Every day behind prison walls, inmates—some elderly, some caring for them—wonder, like Christopher Knafelc, if they, too, are “good” people; if they, too might have contributed something to the world if they had been given the chance to try again. Charles Ramsey did. Can we dare to imagine that there are many others like him?
Youth activists from across Florida are rising up to defend a pushed-out high schooler from Polk County. Read more at StudentNation.