The Nation

‘No Rights Which the White Man Was Bound to Respect’

Over the past decade, white police officers have repeatedly slaughtered unarmed black men—Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, was one of many. On MSNBC, Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry named nine black men who were gunned down while defenseless in the last ten years, before going on to explain that between 2006 and 2012, white police officers killed a black person at least two times a week. She then noted that in 1857 Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney declared in a court opinion that African-Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”—an idea that many white police officers in America clearly still hold true.

Hannah Harris Green

INTERVIEW: Why Pro Wrestler ‘MVP’ Made the Trip to Ferguson

Pro wrestler Montel Vontavious Porter (MVP)

Pro wrestler Montel Vontavious Porter (MVP) made the trip to Ferguson as himself, “as Hassan.” (Wikipedia commons)

His name is Hassan Hamin Assad. But pro wrestling fans know him as Montel Vontavious Porter, otherwise known as MVP. In a sporting spectacle known for its profoundly backward representations of African-Americans, MVP has always chosen to showcase himself as a man of intelligence and confidence that—when playing the villain—could morph into grandiose cockiness. This past week, MVP—“acting as Hassan,” as he said to me, made the decision to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, the site of the police killing of Michael Brown and subsequent clashes with a shockingly militarized police force. I was able to speak with MVP while he was in Ferguson about why he felt compelled to make the journey.

DZ: Why did you, MVP, decide to make this trip to Ferguson?

MVP: Because, I was sitting on the couch, watching the footage coming in.… And, I’ve been saying this over and over, I just got tired of shaking my fist at the TV. My biggest issue was watching the militarized St. Louis County Police come in with a heavy-handed approach, to peaceful protesters. Media blackout, arresting journalists, and I just felt like I had to speak up about our Constitution being trampled on and our constitutional rights being violated.

You’ve now been there a couple of days, what’s your sense of what’s happening on the ground?

I’ve had had the opportunity to speak to a lot of the local residents who were there in the chaos. One guy who was actually, according to him, beaten up by the police in the process. And last night was extremely calm, there were peaceful protests… no violence. But there was no police presence. Earlier in the evening, there were a few black police officers, and I think the local police chief—it was, I think, a minimized police presence. The night, as it got darker and as it got later there were even less police. And, I’m sad to say, that much, much later in the evening—probably around 1 am—a few police responded to minor incident at a McDonald’s. There was nothing going on and they left. They didn’t bother anyone, and as they were leaving, some were throwing rocks and bottles at the police cars as they left. Which is counterproductive to do, but unfortunately you always have that angst.

So what’s your analysis of the approach of the police?

I‘ll paraphrase, because I believe the quote was that the St. Louis County Police Department… they hadn’t even had the opportunity to drill for that type of situation. So, what I think you have is a bunch of overanxious individuals with improper training responding to a situation not knowing how to do so. And as seen in some of the video that’s still shot as well as the accounts of some of the people who were there, you had officers on hand who were—instead of de-escalating the violence were intentionally escalating it. Mocking the citizens, there’s a still photo that I saw of some of the officers with their hands up… The major chant [of the protest] has been “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And there’ve been people walking up and down the street with their hands up and T-shirts that say “Hands up, don’t shoot.” Because allegedly, according to eyewitness accounts, Mike Brown had his hands up in a surrender position when he was shot. And there’s actually a still photo floating around that I saw, and a number of individuals related that they saw firsthand of officers raising their hands up, mocking the protesters and the “Hands up, don’t shoot” pose. That’s not professional, that’s not an attempt to de-escalate violence. There was talk of officers calling them animals. From what I understand it was just a complete lack of professionalism and leadership. Before this, where were the local community leaders? Where was the governor? Where was the mayor? Where was the city council? Where were the people who should have stepped in and called for peace? Where were the people who should have stepped in and said, “Wait a minute, this is not how we handle these sort of situations.”

Speaking of leadership, I don’t know if you knew this or not, MVP, but you are the first person from the world of athletics to actually make the trip to Ferguson and offer solidarity to what’s happening there. Were you aware of that, and are you actually trying to be an example for others to try to leverage their fame to bring attention to what’s happening there?

Well, I wasn’t aware of that, and I think it’s rather unfortunate. I can kind of understand why people wouldn’t want to get involved, but that’s part of my position… I’m so tired of apathy. I got tired of tweeting about it, I got tired of shaking my fist at the TV screen and talking about it. I didn’t come here as MVP, I came here as Hassan, a guy who wanted to stand up for my civil rights and everyone else’s. And if my visibility as MVP can bring more attention to the violation of civil rights and the trampling of the constitution, then that’s cool too. But I didn’t come as a “celebrity” or as a pro athlete, I just came as a citizen that was fed up.

I have to ask: you have always been a strong African-American character in an industry that does not have, to put it mildly, a history of strong African-American characters. Do you feel like you’re also making a statement to the world of professional wrestling that African-Americans need to be treated with more respect and less dehumanization than we’ve seen over the l decades?

While I wholeheartedly agree with your last statement, that thought never crossed my mind, actually. So, one had nothing to do with the other. What I said to a few people in Ferguson was, while the incident might have been set off by a racial distrust, disharmony, discord… whatever you want to call it. It quickly escalated to something much than that. In just this last month there were four African-American men who were unarmed and killed by police. I think that it has to be a conversation about use of force, use of deadly force, and excessive use of force. I think that, and I want to make this very clear, my father was a cop, my brother’s a cop, my sister-in-law’s a cop. I’m the black sheep in a family of cops. I understand how difficult the job is. I also understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and police officers have to be held to a higher standard because we entrust our society to their care. The problem is, when you deal with humans you deal with the frailty of the human psyche and the human ego, and people make mistakes. But when those mistakes are made, somebody has to be held accountable. And in this particular case, we don’t have all of the facts in yet about why this young man was shot, and whether the officer’s life was in jeopardy or whether it was justifiable, but eyewitnesses say that he turned with his hands up, and was surrendering, and was shot multiple times. If that is in fact the case, then somebody has to answer for that. And these other cases across the country… I’m not saying that all cops are bad. There are many who would like to say that. But I believe that you’re complicit by inaction if you witness something illegal take place and you don’t take a step to correct it.

Last question, and I wasn’t going to ask you this, but given that you come from a family of African-American police officers, and given that you’re clearly attuned to these issues it seems appropriate: How big a problem do you think we have in this country of racism in the police departments of the United States, racism in the criminal justice system of the United States? How big of a problem is there that needs to be confronted?

Wow. You got an hour? There are people who often, say, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.” And, “Nobody’s racist anymore.” And, to that I say, all you have to do is go on Youtube and read the comments. That will tell you just how racist people will be if they can’t be called out on it. Where nowadays, racism isn’t as overt as, say, fifty years ago. It still exists, and I’m not just talking about white against black racism. There’s black against white racism. There’s Jewish against Muslim racism… All people, all cultures have some sort of racism. It’s a cultural thing and I think that part of the issue is that people aren’t necessarily taking the steps to be understanding and aware of other cultures. I think that people are willfully ignorant of other cultures, and black people, white people, Asian people… everybody’s guilty of it. And I don’t think, in the near future, we’re going to see racism disappear. In the criminal justice system, of course it exists. Just look at the disparity in sentencing between people who deal crack cocaine and people who deal powder cocaine. We know that crack cocaine is prevalent in the African-American communities and powder cocaine is a lot sexier, and it’s a little more expensive and therefore used by more affluent people. But if you’re caught with crack cocaine, the same amount of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, your sentence is—I think—five times more severe. There’s something to be said for that. I think that there is racism, just recently I believe in Florida there were two of three cops that were fired from the department because they were exposed to be active members of the Ku Klux Klan. It exists. You can’t deny that it exists, but racism is due to an unevolved thinking and as a society, as a human race, we have to become evolved thinkers. Our thinking has to evolve with our technology and everything else. If you don’t like somebody because of the God that they worship, or because of the color of their skin… there’s something wrong with you, not them. But, I’ll also say this, we don’t—and when I say “we,” I’m talking about the African-American community, the inner city—a dialogue has to be had with young black men about how to communicate with white police officers specifically. You don’t escalate the situation by saying, “Hey, man, why you fuckin’ with me?” You have to be able to communicate, and I think it happens on both sides. You have cops who, unfortunately, don’t de-escalate the situation and, by the same token, [young black men] don’t de-escalate the situation. And they say, “You know, I’m tired. I’m fed up with being racially profiled.” OK, when you’re being taken into custody, at that moment, that’s not the time to protest. That’s not the time to resist arrest. That’s not the time to cuss the cop out. Your best bet is to just be as polite as possible and go file a report or go do whatever you can within the proper channels. And as we know often enough, it gets swept under the rug. But if it happens enough, something has to be done.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

At this point, man, I want to make it very clear. They’re showing the video now about Michael Brown and the cigars that he stole and the shop owner who he apparently had a physical altercation with during that theft. However, now it’s being revealed that the officer who stopped him had absolutely no idea that he was involved in that crime. And, just because of that, I’m hearing people saying, “Oh, well now we have to take a look at this in an entirely different light.” Let’s not be distracted from the issue at hand—excessive use of force. And, that leading to an overt trampling of our Constitution. Even if you are the most overt racist and you are glad that Michael Brown is dead, another young dead nigger… that makes you happy… you can’t be happy about the response of the police department coming in and saying, “As of this moment, the constitution is not valid. It’s a media blackout, we’re arresting journalists who try to take our pictures. We’re going to ban satellite trucks from the area. There’s a no-fly zone so media helicopters can’t report on the situation.” This affects you too. This affects everyone. And, you know what? Today, it’s someone else’s kid, it’s someone else’s neighborhood. Tomorrow it could very easily be your kid and your neighborhood.

Is Ferguson’s Ron Johnson the New Captain America?

Ron Johnson Missouri

Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, left, and Governor Jay Nixon at a news conference Friday, August 15, 2014,  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“Leadership, thy name is Ron Johnson.” So announced Mike Huckabee yesterday on Fox’s Outnumbered. Even as the image of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, policeman, was being tarnished by a video allegedly showing him stealing from a convenience store, the media had already found the hero of their story. He was Ron S. Johnson, the State Highway Patrol captain now in charge of law enforcement in the St. Louis suburb.

He’s just what most media want—someone who seems to transcend the left/right and black/white divides and can bring people together. Thursday night, the bald, buff African-American state officer banished the militarized St. Louis County police force and walked with protesters to oversee a peaceful, almost joyous demonstration. Johnson, who was raised in the area, hugged demonstrators, told several young men with tattoos that his son has tats too, and, most important, listened to people.

Johnson also instantly grasped how the surveillance video threatened the perception of Brown’s character and, by extension, the character of all black victims of police violence in the news. And he was subtly critical of Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson for releasing the tape. “I think [the robbery and the shooting] are two separate issues. People in our country commit crimes every day,” Johnson said in an interview with KSDK on Friday. “I don’t want to mix the two. I’m not going to say that one justifies the other, OK? And I think if we’re going to give answers, we need to not give hints. We need to say it.”

The “liberal media” saw his appeal right away. His photo ran above the fold on the New York Times front page two days in a row. Wonkette headlined a story “A Snark-Free Welcome to Captain Ron Johnson, New King of Ferguson,” and went on to say, “Speaking on behalf of the liberal media cabal, we’re behind you, Ron Johnson…”

At the same time, Johnson urged responsible moderation and respect for private property. “In our anger, we have to make sure that we don’t burn down our own house,” Johnson said in a Friday news conference that he turned into a community meeting. Conservatives in particular liked that he said, “This is not a black-and-white issue” (which is not exactly true). And, like Huckabee, they loved his story about his daughter asking him if he was scared in his new role: “I said, ‘Just a little.’ She said, ‘Daddy, I want you to remember when Jesus asked Peter to walk with him in the water. When Peter got scared Jesus picked him up and said have faith.’” “Today,” he told the crowd Friday, “we need to be just like Peter, because I know we’re scared.”

Such a charismatic black male was not around in the aftermath of previous police and would-be police shootings of young black men, not for Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis, when their deaths became potential teaching moments. Those stories ended up as yet another nasty excuse to battle publicly over the nature of black men—are they choir boys or thugs? The schism has become such a media trope that after Brown’s killing, African-Americans started posting side-by-side photos of themselves at #iftheygunnedmedown, one that seems to confirm a “gangsta” stereotype and one that doesn’t, and speculating on which one the press would feature if a cop shot them.

By the weekend, Johnson had all but replaced Brown as the central figure in Ferguson’s drama, a protagonist both sides were eager to celebrate. Of course, it’s slippery at the top, and you never know how long media approval will last or how events will change. Last night, according to NBC News’ Mark Potter in Ferguson, a few rocks and bottles were thrown during the demo, and police threw “some” tear gas. After midnight, he said, looting started again, but protesters tried to stop it.

But there’s no denying the service Johnson has done for his community by defusing an apparent police riot that had gone on for most of a week. He doesn’t walk on water, but he acted bravely in the eye of a national media storm. And not everyone can do that.

Nowhere was that made clearer than when Johnson stood next to the nervous and evasive Governor Jay Nixon. Nixon is a cautious Democrat who nonetheless found the courage last month to veto a critical anti-abortion bill. Interviewing both of them on Friday, CNN’s Jake Tapper said the St. Louis County police apparently hadn’t bothered to contact some eyewitnesses. Was the governor concerned about the quality of the investigations? Nixon, deferring to other law enforcement agencies, wouldn’t quite answer.

But Johnson stepped up and, speaking directly to any eyewitnesses, said, If you know something, find me here “tonight, and give me your name and number” and I’ll make sure it gets done. “I’ll do that.”

Read Next: A reporter arrested in Ferguson speaks

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 08/15/14?

Rikers Island

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.

The Rebirth of Stockholder Capitalism?” by Robert Reich. Guernica, August 8, 2014.

In this article, Robert Reich offers useful terms to understand the paradox of our financialized economy: shareholders have been reaping the profits of most companies at the expense of other stakeholders, a larger category that encompasses employees and customers. Some companies are trying to circumvent this, such as the supermarket brand Market Basket, which reinvests its profits into providing higher wages for employees and lower prices for customers—as opposed to funneling money to shareholders. Inevitably, soon enough the company's board fired the CEO who started the initiative, to great public outrage. The control of companies by shareholders is absolute but benefits no one but shareholders themselves. Because of this, Reich advocates for a stakeholder capitalism, with companies taking into account their customers' constrained salaries and their employees’ basic necessities (and more cynically, purchasing power) in their decision making. These are the most basic measures we could ask for in a strained economy. But I wonder whether shareholders' unchecked power on industry is inherent to capitalism itself, insofar as there are shareholders with the leverage to drive companies according to their own interest. We need deeper, structural reform.

—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.

"What Is a Woman?" by Michelle Goldberg. The New Yorker, August 4, 2014.

Nation writer Michelle Goldberg's piece on the divide between radical feminism and transgender identity adds another dimension to the influx of attention trans rights has received recently (e.g. trans* actress Laverne Cox appearing on Time magazine's cover last June). The complexities behind this particular issue within the trans rights realm has led Goldberg's piece to already face backlash for being one-sided, especially from the viewpoint of the trans community. It goes to show that the process of grasping the politics behind gender is only just beginning despite trans individuals having been in the public eye for years.

—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.

The Most Wanted Man in the World: Edward Snowden in His Own Words,” by James Bamford. Wired, August, 2014.

In this article, James Bamford profiles Edward Snowden in hopes of answering his burning question: What drove Snowden to leak thousands of top-secret documents of domestic surveillance programs? Snowden reveals throughout the piece that he intended for the government to have some idea about what he stole, and that the biggest question is not what new story will come out next, but how that problem will ultimately be addressed.  His answer: We can end mass surveillance with technology, without any legislative action at all. Initially, as he first headed to Hong Kong before releasing the NSA documents, he expected that Americans would collectively shrug and move on from the information he had leaked; and regarding the question of whether or not there is another leaker, Snowden expresses how that simply underscores the NSA’s inability to control the massive amount of private information it has been collecting. This captivating piece is the story of Edward Snowden’s intelligence career and decision to become, as Bamford describes, “a uniquely postmodern breed of whistle-blower.” 

—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.

"This is Why We Are Mad About The Shooting of Mike Brown," by Kara Brown. Jezebel, August 11, 2014

On August 9, 18-year-old Michael Brown did not simply "pass." Michael Brown was shot ten times by a Ferguson Police Officer who stood thirty-five feet away from him. Michael Brown was gunned down. Ten bullets exploded inside of his body. Michael Brown was brutally murdered. Michael Brown was left uncovered and untouched in the street, his body left to burn in the summer heat for hours before any law enforcement official or paramedic came to the scene of the crime. No explanation has been offered to explain this unexplainable and inexcusable atrocity. Except to relay a broader message to a broken community of black people in this country. That Michael Brown was slaughtered. That Michael Brown was assassinated. That Michael Brown's life was violently and maliciously taken from him. His story rests among the countless others who have died beneath a country's fear of color. A life stolen by a country with a dirty, dirty history. On August 9, an 18-year-old was given no justice. He was given no liberty. He was given no protection from his country. And Michael Brown died the most unnatural of deaths. This we know is true.

—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.

"The New Racism: This is how the civil rights movement ends" by Jason Zengerle. The New Republic, August 10, 2014

James Zengerle uncovers the efforts of the Alabama legislature's Republicans, since the 2010 Tea Party wave election, to roll back a half century of progress on all fronts, from Medicaid expansion to the imposition of strict voter ID laws doubtlessly intended to restrict voter participation—and to render moot the civil rights movement's biggest achievements. Zengerle focuses on a state senator, Hank Sanders, who has been marginalized in the wake of the GOP's takeover. In only the past few months black voters helped Thad Cochran win his GOP runoff in Mississippi against an extreme candidate, giving the impression that they can play a pivotal role in the coming midterm elections. "But these will likely be pyrrhic victories," Zengerle notes. "At the state level, Republicans can continue to win by catering exclusively to white voters, pushing the parties even further apart and making state laws ever more extreme. The fact that black people in the South still have the right to vote, and they’re still able to elect black politicians at the state and local levels, is what makes the end of the Second Reconstruction so much more insidious than the end of the First. Lacking white politicians to build coalitions with, those black politicians are rendered powerless. As Kareem Crayton, a University of North Carolina law professor, told me, 'The situation today has the semblance of what representation looks like without very much ability to actually exercise it.'” 

—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.

Let’s Get Naked,” by Kristen Radtke. BuzzFeed, August 11, 2014.

The graphic novel is a male-dominated genre in which women's bodies are distorted and exploited, perhaps even more than they are in other realms of popular culture. In this BuzzFeed article, twenty-three female graphic novelists respond to this trend with representations of female bodies that they feel are closer to their own life experiences. “I look forward to the time when honest depictions of women’s bodies are a normal thing to look at, instead of some kind of statement," writes graphic novelist Anya Ulinich. “I love any excuse to look at naked bodies in a nonsexual context," writes Liana Finck.

—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.

Death in Gaza: Some Counts More Controversial than Others,” by Peter Hart. FAIR.org, August 12, 2014.

The New York Times and Washington Post published articles recently that suggested (read: encouraged) the world to be skeptical of the death toll coming out of Gaza. At the same time, Palestinian and non-state organizations have reported that 84 percent of the deaths in Gaza right now are civilians. But surprise! Israel doesn't agree. The dispute over how many, and who, is being killed should be rather telling. As the author of this piece writes, the quarreling over death toll numbers is " reminiscent of some of the problematic reporting about deaths in the Iraq War. Which might lead one to conclude that what makes a given death toll controversial is linked to who is doing the killing."

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—Crystal Kayiza focuses on the African diaspora, immigration, Black Feminist thought, and police brutality.

Ugandan pop star Bobi Wine ‘denied UK visa over homophobic stance,’” by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire. The Guardian, August 13, 2014.

Recently, Ugandan pop star Bobi Wine was denied entrance into the United Kingdom and was forced to cancel performances over his homophobic stance and lyrical content. But Bobi Wine's visa denial does not come as a shock. For months, gay rights groups have voiced outrage over Uganda’s homophobic policies. But recently, Ugandan gay rights activists were celebrating victories—"Uganda's Constitutional Court recently overturned a ruling that would have seen homosexuals face life imprisonment" – and earlier this month LGBT groups celebrated their third annual pride celebration. As the nation’s former colonial power, there is a level of irony within Bobi Wine's UK visa denial—which offers a major statement against the Ugandan government’s anti-gay agenda. There is no telling what impact the UK's decision will have, but in the coming months the opposition in Uganda will continue to fight against the institutions that oppress sexual minorities.

—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.

Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail,” By Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz. The New York Times, July 14, 2014.  

This New York Times investigation provides a harrowing account of how society’s most vulnerable are treated at Rikers Island, the country's second largest jail. Brutal attacks on inmates by correctional officers are a common occurrence, especially among the mentally ill (77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.) The vivid descriptions of abuse and profiles of inmates subjected to especially cruel treatment shows that mental illness at Rikers Island is met with severe violence. The investigation also reveals that there is no accountability for the correctional officers deplorable behavior, which have left several inmates with major injuries, some even requiring life saving surgery. Sadly, Rikers Island offers only a glimpse into a much larger and more systematic problem that can be found across the country’s correctional facilities—one that reflects a deep lack of understanding and empathy for those suffering from a mental illness. 


Read Next: What Nation interns are reading the week of 08/08/14.

What Matters in Ferguson

Michael Brown Protest

A sign and a pin are pictured on the back of a demonstrator during a protest against the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, August 13, 2014 (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. This is what matters.

The name of the officer has been released (it’s Darren Wilson, who has been on the force for six years), alongside allegations that Brown was involved in a robbery. This does not matter.

It doesn’t matter because people accused of robbery should not be shot. It doesn’t matter because people who put their hands up in surrender should not be shot. It doesn’t matter because a body should not lie in the streets for hours after being shot by a police officer.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department. Everything else is irrelevant.

“Of course, it’s important to remember how this started. We lost a young man in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances,” President Obama said yesterday in his brief remarks on Brown’s death and the protests that followed. What he failed to say, and what is absent from Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement, is how Brown lost his life. He was a teenage black boy in America who was shot and killed by a police officer.

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To not say that is to isolate Brown’s death. If you don’t say “Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department,” then you don’t have to reckon with the entire history of police harassing, beating, terrorizing and killing black bodies. It’s to disconnect his story from Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart and so many more. It’s to say that what happened to Michael Brown isn’t a part of this country’s insistence on criminalizing black bodies. It erases the black codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow, lynching and all other forms of terror visited upon black people in the place they call home.

There should be a thorough and transparent investigation of the killing of Michael Brown. We should learn all the facts of what happened that afternoon. His family and community deserve that much. But we also can’t avoid saying the one thing we do know.

Michael Brown was shot and killed by an officer of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department.

Read Next: The death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in black America.

Paul Ryan’s Welfare Reform Ideas Are Even Worse Than You Think

Paul Ryan

Representative Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

If you ask congressional conservatives about their plan to revive the economy, you’re not likely to get a very detailed answer, since they tend to doubt that the government is the solution—to a bad economy or anything else. But the neoliberal philosopher king of Capitol Hill, Representative Paul Ryan, has rolled out a plan to reduce government and reduce poverty simultaneously. He calls it “Expanding Opportunity in America”—and he plans to do it by shrinking what’s left of the welfare state.

Under the banner of “flexibility for accountability,” Ryan presents an agenda that reflects “deregulation for deprivation,” systematically reducing public assistance in hopes of “incentivizing” people to be somehow less poor. New research shows us that the plan would deepen the damage already inflicted by eighteen years of reforming welfare out of existence.

The centerpiece of Ryan’s latest budget plan is the so-called “opportunity grant,” which consolidates eleven federal programs into a single chunk of funding, including food stamps, subsidized childcare, and housing funds. This ultimately forces welfare admnistrations to parcel out money for, say, rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities, senior centers and subsidized daycare for toddlers, all from the same capped fiscal pot, which in turn dilutes overall funding streams and undercuts resources for directly assisting the poor.

Progressive critics say that this formula has been tried before, with the 1996 welfare reform law that gutted key public assistance programs. Those measures capped benefits and lumped programs into a single pot of funding, with disastrous effects on the poor.

Ryan’s “opportunity grant,” as Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss reported earlier, would impose the same austerity two-step of capping and consolidating. Following the “accountability” framework of the current welfare laws, Ryan’s “opportunity” program would impose strict requirements on welfare recipients, which would humiliatingly micromanage their household spending work-related activites.

The program also promotes the Earned Income Tax Credit, which subsidizes incomes through income tax refunds, as an alternative to direct cash benefits, suggesting that tax breaks are a form of assistance superior to cash payments.

At the heart of Ryan’s plan is an all-out assault on food stamps. Food stamps are a favorite target for small-government conservatives because (1) they run the way a welfare program should—benefits expand based on people’s need, not the political whims of Capitol Hill; and (2) even though benefits are extremely lean, only a few dollars per day, food subsidies are extremely effective at reducing poverty—so it’s the kind of welfare libertarians hate.

The restructuring proposed in the Ryan Plan, according to an analysis by the CBPP, would directly target crucial (and fragile) pillars of the welfare state: because about 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant goes toward food stamps and housing assistance, “the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty—particularly deep poverty.”

Although the 1996 welfare reforms were supposed to promote self-sufficiency—and overall poverty has fallen by some measures—CBPP’s longitudinal analyses shows that “deep poverty”—or living on less than roughly $8.50 per day—has actually surged, particularly among children. And according to new research by H. Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin, published in Pathways, the number of households surviving in extreme poverty, or on less than about $2 per day, has more than doubled since the Clinton-era reforms were enacted.

Although all demographics experienced greater poverty and instability over a fifteen-year period, racial and gender disparities aggravate the effects. Extreme poverty shot up 186 percent among blacks, and 134 percent among whites. While households headed by married couples saw extreme poverty nearly double, single-woman households saw a staggering 230 percent rise.

Fortunately, there’s still enough of the welfare state left to offset some of this trend. When various income supports are factored in, there was just a 50 percent increase in the number of households living on $2 or less per day. Other sources of income may include cash benefits, “contributions from family and friends and income from odd jobs, among other things.” So they’re barely scraping by, much less seizing the job opportunity that Ryan claims is just around the corner.

Today funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant, the main source for cash assistance, managed jointly by states and Washington, is not only frozen but melting away. TANF has seen much of its value erode through inflation since 1996. According to the CBPP, spending on basic assistance declined in real dollars by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011.

Ryan’s plan, which embraces an elitist concept of flexibility by giving more freedom to employers to pay workers as little as possible and more freedom to officials to cut public spending, encapsulates the free-market logic of empowering capital through the unfreedom of labor. The working poor get to eat all the cake they can get. The hierarchy of employers over workers that the Ryan plan promotes reflects a profound mistrust of, along with social disinvestment from, those who already have the least power over their economic lives.

In contrast to Ryan’s rhetoric, numerous studies show that when entrusted with the flexibility to spend cash assistance however they want, people generally use it to fit their rational needs. These actual studies, of course, defy the stereotypes that the poor would rather splurge on frivolous expenses like cigarettes and beer.

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Plus, the dignity of having control over your life—something that chronic poverty tends to rob people of—is priceless. When the economy declines, Schaefer explains, “cash support offers a flexibility to recipients that is absolutely essential if they want to succeed in the labor force. Let’s say someone loses their job and cannot get unemployment insurance (which is pretty common among the working poor). They need some amount of cash to use for the things that will help them find that next job (as long as the government continues to be unwilling to fund jobs of last resort)…. some amount of cash, immediately available when a crisis strikes, is crucial for people to pursue their self interest at the very bottom—and the lack of this is a gap in the current system.”

Ryan is asking the poor to be more flexible in being oppressed—to seize the opportunity to sleep under the bridge of their choice. This rationale presents the poor themselves, not the social system of poverty, as the scourge the government must get rid of. And as long as they’re wiped off the welfare rolls, they really do disappear, in a way. To many in Washington, they were never visible.


Read Next: The US keeps 34,000 immigrants in detention each day simply to meet a quota.

After Ferguson, Will the DOJ Curtail Militarized Policing Across the Country?

Ferguson Police

Police wearing riot gear try to disperse a crowd in Ferguson, Missouri. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

On Thursday night, for the first time since a policeman shot and killed Michael Brown, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were not met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Instead, they got an official escort from the captain of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Some of the change in tone can be attributed to the Department of Justice, which sent officials from six of its agencies to Ferguson in response to the outcry against Brown’s death and the militarized police response that followed. “At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community, I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Lost amid the reports from Ferguson was news that the DOJ is also preparing to wade into a debate about policing nationwide. According to USA Today, the DOJ has initiated a “broad review of police tactics,” including the use of deadly force. The review is expected to be completed next year, and may be accompanied by the creation of special law enforcement commission. Police reform advocates welcome a federal review, but say its impact depends on the government’s willingness to probe its own role in the militarization of the police.

It’s been decades since the government has taken stock of the way police operate around the country. When President Johnson ordered a commission to do so in 1965, it was in response to what he described as the “malignant enemy” of crime. Now events in Ferguson have made it plain that the malignancy lies not in a violent society but within law enforcement agencies themselves.

There are more than 18,000 local and state police departments around the country, and as a result, a patchwork of policies and tactics. This was apparent during the Occupy protests, which some police responded to with riot gear and pepper spray, while others met demonstrators with conversation. Adding to the confusion are the new roles that the federal government has asked police to assume, particularly as collaborators with immigration and counterterrorism authorities. According to USA Today, the federal review will examine these expanded responsibilities as well as new technology and the way police interact with mentally ill people.

Advocates for police reform hope that the DOJ review will lead to more uniformity in how police officers are trained and deployed. “There needs to come out of DOJ a model policy that police departments have to follow in order to deploy SWAT teams. There should be a policy that would govern when it’s appropriate to use military weapons and military vehicles. Right now there’s no oversight,” said Thomas Nolan, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who now chairs the department of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. “Is there a national model that DOJ could formulate to say, ‘These are the tactics and policies that govern the regulation of civilian populations in the course of their exercise of constitutionally protected activities like free assembly and free speech, and freedom of the press’?”

In order to facilitate accountability and oversight, reformers would like the feds to require police to collect more data, and make it easily available to the public—for example, on the demographics of people stopped, searched and shot. “How many unarmed black men have been killed by the police in the last five years? That’s a very hard question to answer, because police departments often are not keeping that data,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project. Solutions could be technological, like requiring police to use body cameras to record interactions with civilians, as well as simple administrative requirements that standardize what kind of data police collect, and how they store it.

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Yet reform advocates also say that the most significant changes need to take place at a higher level than individual police forces. “It’s critical that the federal government start looking at what local police departments are doing, what kind of tactics they’re using,” said Edwards. “But part of that review really has to be looking in the mirror to say, ‘What is the government doing to subsidize and encourage many of those tactics?’”

It’s doing a lot. The Defense Department’s 1033 program has bestowed $4.3 billion worth of surplus military equipment to police around the country, including tactical items like assault rifles and armored vehicles. The Department of Justice itself buys rubber bullets, tear gas and body armor for police. The Department of Homeland Security runs its own grant program that supplies equipment to law enforcement. Body armor worn by Ferguson police officers, as well as the $360,000 Bearcat armored vehicle that patrolled the town in recent days, was purchased with federal money.

“When you dress the police up like soldiers, they start thinking like soldiers. And soldiers engage an enemy,” said Nolan. At the very least, he argued, federal agencies should conduct more thorough needs-based assessments of funding requests—in other words, to ask whether a small-town police force really needs the tank it wants to buy with federal dollars.

That cops are now armed like warriors is a legacy of the government’s drug war, which Edwards links to many abusive police tactics, from racial profiling to deadly home raids. More than 60 percent of SWAT team deployments are for drug searches, and those paramilitary operations disproportionately impact people of color. Although Holder has been permissive with marijuana decriminalization at the state level, he has resisted calls to reclassify the drug, which is currently considered on par with heroin. The overarching problem, Edwards said, was the government’s insistence on treating drugs as a criminal rather than a public health problem.

The prospects for change of this magnitude aren’t great. When Democratic Representative Alan Grayson tried to partially defund the 1033 program in June via an amendment to a defense spending bill, only sixty-one other members of the House voted with him.

“This history of funding local police agencies to fight a drug war and then militarizing them as wars wind down in places like Afghanistan and Iraq—that’s a longstanding relationship that’s not going to end overnight,” said Edwards. “Police departments rely on this funding, they rely on this machinery, and the government seems all too happy to give it to them.” Lawmakers, meanwhile, rely on another longstanding relationship: with the defense industry, the ultimate benefactor from militarized policing.

Take Action: Demand that Cops Stop Acting Like Soldiers

Read Next: John Nichols reports on the constitutional crisis in Ferguson, Missouri.

Hinting at 2016, Christie Wades Through a Boardwalk Protest to Slam State Workers Again

Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

Governor Chris Christie entered yesterday town hall meeting in Ocean City, New Jersey, by passing through a phalanx of scores of angry protesters, at least a few of whom confronted Christie up close. Under brilliant sunshine just steps from the Atlantic Ocean, protesters—along with gawkers in bathing suits—greeted the governor with a cacophony of chants and signs. Among them were Atlantic City casino workers, thousands of whom are slated to laid off in the next weeks as three more casinos shut down; teachers and state workers demanding that Christie fully fund their pension plan; environmentalists opposed to Christie’s plan to build a natural gas pipeline through the pristine Pinelands National Reserve; and others. Entering the town meeting, at the Ocean City Music Pier, Christie threaded his way through the crowd, mostly avoiding the protesters while posing for selfies with admirers, including a pair of teen beauty queens wearing tiaras.

Inside, before a crowd of about 600 people—including many Christie admirers, Republican officials and elected GOP office-holders—the beleaguered governor entered to a standing ovation. And, in prepared remarks and a lengthy Q&A session, Christie tiptoed a bit closer to an announcement of his 2016 presidential bid, coupling that with his tough-guy denunciations of greedy public employees for what Christie calls their unreasonable demands for equity and for getting what they’ve bargained for, especially in pension and healthcare benefits.

Asked by one participant whether he’s planning to run for president, Christie said, “I’m thinking about it, I will be thinking about it, and I’ve told people I’m thinking about it.” He described a family vacation in California this year in which he, his wife, and his children visited the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, during which his daughter supposedly said, “Oh, no, this is going to make him run for president!” It is, he said, a “hard decision,” and he’ll make it by “the end of the year, or the beginning of next year.”

Having set the stage for a presidential run that will focus on his long-running war against state employees, Christie spent much of the event describing his unwillingness to bend in the face of opposition to his slash-and-burn cuts. “I am the last guy standing between them and your wallet. I’m it! I go down, your wallet goes down,” said Christie. By “them,” of course, he meant the teachers, cops, firemen, clerks and other public employees who have the temerity to ask for what’s legitimately been promised to them. Were he to give in to their demands, said Christie, New Jersey will be another Detroit. Throughout his statewide tour this summer—which the governor’s office calls the “No Pain, No Gain” tour—Christie has consistently raised the specter of Detroit to frighten middle-class taxpayers. And he says he won’t budge: “That’s gonna get some people angry. I don’t care. I don’t care!”

His scare tactics aren’t working, at least in New Jersey. As The Record, a New Jersey daily, points out, Jersey voters overwhelmingly oppose Christie’s cuts to pensions and other benefits, by a stunning margin of 53-24. (“I don’t care!”) In addition, The Record reported, 53 percent of New Jerseyans support raising taxes as part of a package to fix the shortfall in pension solvency. But that doesn’t matter to Christie, who’s given up on appealing to his New Jersey constituency, instead focusing now on GOP primary voters and caucus-goers in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

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At one point in his tirade, Christie described how “embarrassing” it was for him—relying on the state’s healthcare plan—to go into a drugstore to fill a prescription and pay only a $3 co-pay. “There is nothing for free in this society,” he said. He said:

I get this health plan now. And I have to tell you the truth, it’s embarrassing. I go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for one of my kids and you know what I pay most of the time? Three dollars. Three dollars for anything. And the guy behind the counter is looking at me, knowing he’s paying for me to get that. I’m embarrassed by that. It’s too rich. We can’t afford it.

Of course, nothing is free: but often underpaid state workers, including teachers, pay a lot as their share of New Jersey’s healthcare plan, and in 2011 Christie pushed through legislation that forced state workers to pay a lot more for pensions and healthcare. Now, what was once a great victory, achieved over vigorous protests and demonstrations by thousands of state employees on the steps of the capitol building in Trenton, isn’t good enough, and Christie wants more.

As Christie Watch has reported lately, Christie is gaining momentum for 2016, ticking up in polls and trying hard to put Bridgegate and related scandals behind him. (During yesterday’s town hall meeting, he didn’t get a single question from anyone about any of the scandals, nor about the controversy over how Christie’s administration mishandled recovery aid from Sandy.) In one recent poll, he was just six points behind Hillary Clinton.

Read Next: Clinton slams Obama on foreign policy, echoing the neocons and far right.

How Much Money Could These Two Iran Hawks Make From Unrest in the Middle East?

Iranian flag

An Iranian flag in front of the United Nations headquarters in Vienna (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

On Monday, I published an article detailing how billionaire gold and silver investor Thomas Kaplan and former UN Ambassador Mark Wallace may have promoted their own business interests through work undertaken by United Against Nuclear Iran, a group that is headed up by Wallace and that shares employees with companies controlled by Thomas Kaplan.

UANI has been an outspoken critic of the White House’s efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, characterizing the November interim agreement as a “disappointment” that provides “disproportionate sanctions relief to Iran.” A former Obama administration official who worked closely on Middle East policy told me, “I’m concerned that [UANI and its allies] don’t understand that failure to address this issue will ensure that Iran gets the bomb or we’re headed toward war.”

Indeed, Wallace and Kaplan, through various public disclosures about silver mines they own or have owned in the past, state that they believe the value of silver will hold steady or appreciate if there is unrest in the Middle East. Those statements raise questions about the two men’s motives in attacking the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts.

But a filing submitted in New York yesterday by attorneys representing Victor Restis, a Greek shipping magnate accused by UANI of doing business with Iran, offers some new clues into the connections between Kaplan and UANI.

Restis, who is filing a defamation suit against UANI, suggests that Kaplan “stands to profit from UANI’s ‘name and shame campaign’” against Restis’s two companies, Enterprises Shipping & Trading and Golden Energy.

The filing reads:

[Kaplan] got his start with help from the family of Leon Recanati, a Greek-Israeli entrepreneur whose family owns and still operates Overseas Shipholding Group (“OSG”), a rival shipping company to Enterprises Shipping and Trading. See Exs. 4, 5. OSG operates oil tankers that compete directly with Mr. Restis’ tanker company, Golden Energy Maritime Corp., whose initial public offering had to be abandoned in 2013 when Defendants launched their defamation campaign that is at the heart of this litigation. See Am. Compl. ¶ 97. OSG would stand to profit if Mr. Restis and his companies were no longer able to operate. Kaplan married Leon Recanati’s daughter Dafna Recanati and was introduced to Israeli investor Avi Tiomkin, by Dafna Recanati’s mother.

Restis’s counsel also infers from Wallace and Kaplan’s statements about silver’s value during periods of geopolitical unrest in the Middle East, that:

UANI’s hard-line campaigns against Iran contribute to the very uncertainty that, in turn, benefits Kaplan, Tigris Financial Group, Wallace, and other Kaplan-controlled companies in which Wallace is involved.

The Wallace-Kaplan connections, which I outlined in my article, are further expanded upon in the court filing. It reads:

Defendant Mark Wallace, founder and CEO of UANI, serves as an officer and/or director of at least six of Kaplan’s companies (Tigris Financial Group, Silver Opportunity Partners, Niocan, Inc., Nio-Metals, Cougar Gold LLC, and Electrum Group). Wallace has not drawn a salary from UANI since 2009, so Wallace appears to be getting his financial benefit indirectly through UANI supporter Kaplan.

I detailed how three employees of Kaplan’s companies, other than Wallace, serve or served in positions at UANI, but the court filing adds a fourth overlapping individual. Restis’s lawyer writes:

Jonathan Powell, an Advisory Board member of UANI and The Institute for Strategic Dialogue was a college classmate of Kaplan’s and serves as a Senior Advisor to Tigris Financial Group.

The filing also raises questions about how UANI “operates rent free out of offices in 45 Rockefeller Center in office space donated by Continental Properties.” Continental Properties’ managing director is Mark Fisch. The filing elaborates:

Fisch and Kaplan jointly fund the Kaplan-Fisch Fellowship at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts. Id. Furthermore, Continental Properties employee Kim Hillman is also a director of UANI.

And, as if the connections between Kaplan and UANI weren’t well enough established, UANI’s counsel is Brian Stack, “also a UANI Board Member and Kaplan’s counsel in other matters,” according to Restis’s attorney.

But the real intrigue in all of this is the access and influence that UANI, a group whose own executive director is betting big on a series of investments he and Kaplan say will appreciate in or retain value if there is unrest in the Middle East, has to Congress and prominent academics.

Wallace has testified three times in his capacity as a UANI official and, at a July Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on Iran policy, all three outside witnesses invited to testify were affiliated with UANI (one did not attend because of sickness).

While access on Capitol Hill for a group with murky financial interests in the shipping industry and gold and silver markets raises eyebrows, Restis’s attorney also points to a possible quid pro quo at Harvard University. He writes:

Kaplan is a member of and donor to the International Council of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. See Ex. 8. The Recanati-Kaplan Foundation (Kaplan’s and his wife’s family foundation) contributed $149,000 to the Belfer Center in 2012. See Ex. 9 In 2013, the Belfer Center appointed a new executive director, Gary Samore, who had just finished serving as an anti-proliferation advisor to the Obama administration. See Ex. 10. Shortly thereafter, Samore became UANI’s President.

I’ve reached out to Gary Samore and a number of current and former UANI advisory board members with positions at the Belfer Center, including Graham Allison, Dennis Ross and Chuck Freilich. None have responded. (The Belfer Center was ranked as one of the least transparent US think tanks in a recent Transparify study on think tank transparency.)

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UANI advisory board member Mark Lagon, a professor at the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University and former director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the State Department, told The Nation that UANI “has done tremendous work.”

Addressing Wallace’s dual role as head of Kaplan’s Tigris Financial Group and executive director of UANI, Lagon said, “I was aware of Amb. Wallace’s role at Tigris. I leave further comment to Mark Wallace, a man of integrity.”

Kaplan, UANI and Wallace have not responded to repeated requests for comment.


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