"There's a lot to be excited about. It's awesome to be part of a movement that is changing our society." - Robbie Rogers
On Saturday one of the most depressing sports stories of the last year became one of the most inspiring when Robbie Rogers announced that he would be signing with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. In February, the 25-year-old soccer told the world in the same breath that he was gay and he was retiring. “I wouldn't want to deal with the circus,” he said. “Are people coming to see you because you're gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: 'So you're taking showers with guys — how's that?... (Expletive) it. I don't want to mess with that."
It was an understandable but tragic surrender to the anti-gay bigotry that has historically defined professional sports from the stands, to the locker room, to the front office. Now Robbie Rogers is done surrendering. He’s returning to the sport and doing it with the unbridled joy of George Costanza, saying, “I’m BACK BABY!”
Yes, Robbie Rogers has officially un-retired and will become the first openly gay male North American athlete to take the field in one of the "big five" sports. Playing alongside superstar and friend Landon Donovan, and coached by former USA men’s national soccer team helmsman Bruce Arena, Rogers’ return is a testament to how much has changed since NBA player Jason Collins came out last month. Rogers saw how much support Collins received and was moved from his previous pessimism that he would never be accepted. His compunction to return was cemented after speaking at an LGBT youth forum to 500 kids.
"I seriously felt like a coward," he told USA Today. "These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I'm 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?"
After deciding to come back, Rogers realized that the greatest obstacle was his own trepidation. ''I don't know what I was so afraid of," he reflected. "It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I've learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people…. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.''
Another sign of the times is that Rogers was raised in a very religious home and still considers himself a devout Catholic. As he said, "Being Catholic — and people may disagree — but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I've always lived that way.” That sound you just heard was Rick Santorum’s head exploding.
Now in one day, instead of representing the past – the idea that the only way a male athlete could come out would be if he also retired – Robbie Rogers will represent the future.
When Jason Collins said he was gay in the pages of Sports Illustrated, Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend who came out in 1981 wrote astutely, “I think -- and hope -- there will be an avalanche. Come out, come out wherever and whoever you are. It is beautiful out here and I guarantee you this: You will never, ever want to go back. You will only wonder why it took so long.”
We haven’t seen an avalanche yet. But just as Collins’s announcement made it easier for Robbie Rogers, this latest news will make it easier for the next person to be honest and public about who they are. It will also make it easier for reluctant teammates to get over themselves and be the kinds of allies every LGBT athlete both needs and deserves. Not an avalanche, but brick-by-brick, we are seeing before our eyes the building of a new paradigm in men’s sports. It will continue to develop until in a not-to-distant future, the issue of having a gay teammate simply won’t be an issue at all.
As for Rogers, he sounds profoundly happier now than he did when he retired with his head down. ''I want to get back to soccer, which is what I love,'' Rogers said to the Associated Press. ''I get to do something I love, and I get to help people and be a positive role model. I'm really excited to set a great example for other kids that are going through the same thing I went through. It's a perfect world for me, a perfect world.''
Simple concept: people who consume food should have information about what’s in their food.
And if foods contain genetically modified organisms, consumers surely have a right to know.
Who could disagree? Most senators, that’s who.
While sixty-four countries around the world require labeling of foods with genetically engineered ingredients, while the American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association have passed resolutions supporting this sort of labeling in the United States, the Senate voted 71-27 to keep Americans in the dark.
US Senator Bernie Sanders proposed an amendment to the federal farm bill that would have allowed states to require clear labels on any food or beverage containing ingredients that have been genetically modified. Sanders said, “I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child.”
Fearing lawsuits from multinational biotechnology, agribusiness and food production firms—which also maintain some of the most efficient lobbying teams in Washington—even states with long histories of consumer protection and right-to-know legislation have been cautious about introducing this sort of food labeling. The Sanders amendment addressed that threat, establishing a clear federal policy that states are allowed to require clear labels so that consumers know what they’re eating.
“Monsanto and other major corporations should not get to decide this, the people and their elected representatives should,” said the independent senator from Vermont, where the state House recently voted 99-42 to call for labeling.
When the Senate vote came on Thursday, however, only twenty-four Democrats, two independents (Sanders and Maine’s Angus King) and one Republican (Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski) backed the labeling amendment. As Food & Water Watch’s Patty Lovera noted, “Many of (the “yes” votes came from senators who) represent states with active grassroots campaigns to pass state laws on GE labeling, including both senators from Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, as well as Senator Bennett from Colorado, Senator Tester from Montana, Senator Reid from Nevada, Senator Heinrich from New Mexico and Senator Schumer from New York.”
Of the 71 “no” votes, twenty-eight came from Democrats—many of whom fancy themselves consumer advocates and backers of the public’s right to know. The other forty-three “no” votes came Republicans, almost all of who say they want to free up the states to experiment and innovate.
Unfortunately, some of the loudest lobbyist voices in Washington say different.
As I noted in intro to my interview with Alex Gibney, director of the new We Steal Secrets film re WikilLeaks, he has been slammed by Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks Twitter feed for months, for various reasons, no doubt. It seems that Assange early on got some kind of leaked script or transcript for the film in process. Gibney hit back for basing a critique on some words on the page, when a film is a quite different experience.
Then this week, with the film’s release date in the US approaching—that is, yesterday—the WikiLeaks Twitter feed said it had been leaked the finished film and they posted a nearly point-by-point “fact check.” Gibney responded by pointing out, among other things, that the transcript was missing a key and substantial part of the film—Manning’s words from the chat logs and elsewhere. These appear in the film typed on the screen but not spoken, so he surmises that someone made an audio copy of the film at a screening and leaked it to WikiLeaks. This morning he tweeted: “WL has published an incomplete and inaccurate transcript based on non-final version.”
Anyway: We likely won’t see a Gibney point-by-point rebuttal of WikiLeaks’ point-by-point rebuttal. But here he responds to a fairly critical review of the film by my former colleague Kevin Gosztola, co-author of my book about Manning, Truth and Consequences. Note: I have not yet seen the film myself.
The recent imbroglio involving the IRS allegedly targeting conservative groups for investigation is not the first time the agency has been accused of politicizing its tax assessments—and, as it almost goes without saying, it hasn’t always been right-leaning groups who have drawn its scrutiny.
A major scandal erupted in 1951 after it was discovered that individual IRS agents were being routinely bribed into ruling in favor of certain, typically affluent, taxpayers. A Nation article in early 1952 titled “Internal Confusion in Internal Revenue,” by Norman Redlich, argued that IRS scandals “will exist as long as personal judgments determine how much money individuals and corporations shall pay to the Federal Treasury each year.” Moreover, Redlich argued, vague or lax enforcement regulations—precisely what caused a woefully understaffed IRS office in Cincinatti in 2010 to scrutinize groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names—lead to shoddy evaluation practices and, ultimately, to a loss of confidence in the tax collection process and in the government as a whole.
The quickest way to destroy confidence [in the tax system] is to let the public think that some persons…are “getting away with something”…
Corruption in tax-gathering can never be entirely eliminated from a tax system as extensive as ours. But it can be minimized, and certainly it should not be encouraged by inefficient organization, careless administrative practices, lax enforcement of the law, or patronage politics.
While the current scandal suggests the presence of “corruption” only in the loosest sense, the point remains. As we quoted Michael Macleod Ball, chief of staff at ACLU’s Washington legislative office, in our editorial last week: “Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets.” Much of this, we argued, is due to the hazy legality surrounding campaign finance in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Sadly, it often seems this vicious circle is precisely the goal of those groups who now claim to be victimized, and who have been trying to insert billions of dollars into the electoral process and to starve government agencies like the IRS for years.
The Nixon administration aggressively used the IRS to go after its “enemies,” as Senator Frank Church’s Senate Intelligence Committee documented with devastating detail in its mid-1970s reports. Years before the Church Committee, however, the tax lawyer Joseph Ruskay wrote for The Nation, in “New Muzzle for Churchmen” from 1972, about how Nixon’s IRS “has demonstrated an unprecedented interest in the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-war activities of certain religious organizations.” In 1976, an article titled “The IRS Bullies the New South,” by Jason Berry—who wrote most recently for the magazine about Pope John Paul II’s legacy, in 2011—reported that the agency was routinely using its investigative powers to target leaders of the civil rights movement so as to “offset the gains” made in the previous twenty years. “In Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, the IRS functions, in effect, as an arm of political systems which are trying by economic means to keep blacks out of power,” Berry wrote. As in the early 1950s and as today, those local agents were permitted to unfairly target civil rights leaders because of “the structure of the IRS nationally and the perversion of its legitimate powers by regional agents.” After Citizens United, the rules governing the tax status so-called social welfare groups are “very much in flux,” as we argued in last week’s editorial: “It is absurd—and wrong—to expect IRS auditors to sort the mess out.” But so long as the federal regulations regarding money in politics remain unclear—to the benefit of those with much of it—that absurdity will doubtlessly continue.
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Recent reports that the Obama Justice Department obtained two months’ worth of phone records of Associated Press reporters reveal a distressing pattern of executive overreach. Even more disturbing was the disclosure that the department investigated the reporting activities of Fox News chief Washington correspondent as a potential crime—solicitation of leaks.
A bipartisan group of House members have proposed a Telephone Records Protection Act, which would require the government to obtain court approval before requesting telephone records from service providers. As The Nation’s editors wrote, this act would create a “baseline standard for protecting the privacy of every American, including the reporters, imperfect as they may be, who arm the citizenry with the power which knowledge gives.” Write your representatives now and implore them to take this vital step toward protecting Americans’ privacy and democracy.
As The Nation editorialized this week, “Prosecution of whistleblowers, dragnet seizure of phone records, the threatened criminalization of basic news-gathering—it’s dangerous for the media, and dangerous for democracy.”
After the announcement that the government had taken phone records from the Associated Press, it seemed to light a fire under normally docile White House reporters. This episode of The Young Turks breaks it down.
Brilliant. The Daily Show’s Jason Jones interviews right-wing radio host Wayne Allyn Root, who says the IRS targeting of conservatives “is one of the biggest scandals in modern American political history, maybe in all-time political history.” But profiling folks for the color of their skin or their religion (i.e., Muslim) is “a completely, 100 percent different situation,” says Root, who has a tendency to exaggerate. That kind of profiling, he says, “has never ruined a human being’s life in the history of the world.”
Jones then brings on three people—a Muslim-American, an African-American and a Dominican-American—to tell how they’ve been profiled, but to Root, their stories are nada. Only when they become millionaires who get audited by the IRS, only then will they know true suffering.
Students and teachers link arms around Chicago City Hall. (Credit: Sarah-Ji)
E-mail questions, tips or proposals to email@example.com. For earlier dispatches, check out posts from January 18, February 1, February 15, March 1, March 15, April 2, April 15, April 26 and May 10.
1. Chicago Students Stage Citywide Boycott to Protest School Closings
On Monday, May 20, the Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools organized a citywide boycott so that students could join a three-day march in protest of school closures. More than two hundred students participated from high schools across the city. In the morning, students met at Williams Elementary, which the school system ordered to be put on lockdown. From there, we marched three miles downtown, where 26 activists were occupying City Hall in an act of civil disobedience. The action ended with a large rally at Daley Plaza, with speakers ranging from teachers union president Karen Lewis to third grader Asean Johnson. On May 22, as activists occupied the central lobby, Chicago’s unelected board of education voted to close 50 schools. Students and allies are overwhelmingly upset—but the fight for these schools is not over.
2. After Thousands Walk Out, Philly Student Union Heads to Chicago
I was one of the 2,000 Philadelphia students who walked out of school on Friday, May 17, to assert a student voice in the face of school closings and disinvestment. By Saturday, I was in Chicago joining the struggle against school closings there. Chicago’s closings, like Philadelphia’s, are primarily in black and Latino neighborhoods. After marching through the north, west and south sides of the city, I spoke alongside students from Chicago at Daley Plaza. Next, we marched and held hands around City Hall—where teachers and community members were arrested for sitting in. Students from Philly, Boston, Baltimore and Detroit came to support Chicago’s fight. As students, we will continue fighting in every city until we have the schools we deserve.
3. Sparked by the LAPD, USC Mobilizes Against Racial Profiling
On May 4, the Los Angeles Police Department deployed 79 officers in riot gear to shut down a peaceful graduation celebration attended primarily by black and Latino students at the University of Southern California. Nine student leaders were arrested, six spent the night in police custody and others were herded off the block and physically assaulted. Charges against arrested students are still pending and await court proceedings on May 30. This incident, along with a string of similar happenings, sparked what has become known as the #USChangeMovement. On May 6, more than 200 students, faculty and local residents sat-in at Tommy Trojan to protest and exchange stories of discrimination and racial profiling at USC and in the greater Los Angeles area. On May 7, more than 1,000 people attended an on-campus discussion with students, the LAPD, the USC Department of Public Safety, the HR Commission and USC senior administration members to seek answers and draft joint solutions. USC students are propelling citywide movement to end racial profiling, excessive force and selective law enforcement—all while embracing peace, intellect and understanding.
4. In South LA, Students Defend Community Schools
In October 2012, Crenshaw High School received notice from LA superintendent John Deasy that the school would undergo a “transformation” starting this summer. Under the transformation, more than half of Crenshaw’s teachers—many of whom are older, black or active in the union—have been rejected from returning. The conversion of Crenshaw into three magnets means students have to reapply—likely pushing many out. This move comes at a time when Crenshaw has been showing improvements through its innovative Extended Learning Cultural Model, which prioritizes culturally relevant education and project-based learning. Connecting Crenshaw with recent upheaval at other black and Latino high schools in South LA, the Crenshaw community has been organizing against the transformation. As part of the Coalition for Educational Justice, Taking Action and the school’s Sierra Club, we’ve given presentations and developed a survey to ask our fellow students about their experiences at the school. The data from the 500 students we’ve collected will be presented at a forum on May 28 for students to voice their opinions about school transformations all over South LA.
—Jonathan Alvarado, Keeja Stewart, Tauheedah Shakur, James Law and Erick Galvan
5. In Sacramento, Trans Justice Hits the Senate
On April 29, dozens of Gay-Straight Alliance club activists joined together in Sacramento for Queer Youth Advocacy Day to rally for middle schools and high schools where all students can succeed. We spoke to legislators about the School Success and Opportunity Act (AB 1266), which makes sure California schools know that transgender students have the full right to participate in all school programs. Students shared their experiences of how not being included with students of the gender they identify with can have disastrous consequences such as forcing them to drop out of school. Others talked about school districts that do allow them to participate fully, like LA Unified, which shows that implementation of this bill is possible and positive experiences can come from it. The bill has now passed through the assembly and is headed for the senate, where we will continue to advocate to keep all students in school.
—Keanan Gottlieb and Logan Henderson
6. Across California, Students Put the School Police State on Trial
When students in California have problems like not getting to class on time, fighting or breaking school rules, schools handle these situations with suspensions, expulsions, and school police tickets that hit youth of color hardest. For the past five years in LA, the Community Rights Campaign has built a student movement that organizes on buses, in our neighborhoods and at city hall and the school district board. We led a fight against the top school police citation—$250 truancy and tardy tickets—and won big changes to that policy last year. We have now joined with other youth and community groups, allies and advocates across the state around a new legislative agenda. Last year we passed five bills to reform zero tolerance policies. This year, in response to the post-Newtown push for more police in schools, we are trying to pass AB 549, a bill that would help limit the role of police in school districts and prioritize funding for counselors, intervention workers and other mental health services. The bill will be headed for a full assembly floor vote if it clears its final committee hearing this week.
—Carlos Elmo Gomez
7. Investments on Check at Middlebury
On Nakba Day, in solidarity with global demonstrations for Palestinian rights, a coalition including Palestinian, Israeli, and American Jewish students staged a checkpoint at Middlebury to call on the college to divest from companies doing business with Israel. At Middlebury, Justice for Palestine has united with an array of campus groups, including environmentalists calling for the college to divest from fossil-fuel companies, to make the call. Politicized by the trustees’ failure to honor their initial commitment to vote on divestment in May, students are refusing to budge from an intersectional analysis of oppression in divestment organizing—for which four students were arrested in March and five were nearly expelled in the fall—and are gearing up for escalation.
8. A New Union at Penn
On March 28, after a year of planning and relationship building, subcont
—Penny Jennewein and Leslie Krivo-Kaufman
9. How Long Will Sallie Mae Profit Off Student Debt?
On May 9, twenty students from the United States Student Association, the Student Labor Action Project and allied organizations met with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to discuss the DOE’s relationship with Sallie Mae, the largest private owner of student debt in the country. Sallie Mae made $84 million in profit on federal loan servicing contracts last year alone. The students came to the table to pressure Secretary Duncan to break Sallie Mae’s contract or incentivize the companies processing federal loans to enroll debtors in programs like Income Based Repayment that prioritize helping people with student debt get back on their feet. On May 30, students from across the country are going to Sallie Mae’s shareholder meeting in Newark, Delaware. We plan to pressure Sallie Mae to open up about their relationship with ALEC and their process for paying their top executives.
10. How Long Will Students Wait for Arne Duncan?
On June 1 and 2, student debt advocates from across the Midwest are coming together in Chicago to discuss a national student debt campaign, the first of a series of regional meetings to tackle educational debt. The campaign’s focus and strategy will be hammered out this summer with participating organizations. Based on existing conversations, the initial goals and strategies revolve around a commitment to quality higher education as a public good that should be affordable and accessible to all. Three areas to advance this long-term goal include: providing support to borrowers currently paying off the existing $1 trillion in debt; addressing causes of declining affordability and quality, including changes to state funding and financial aid policies; and addressing the role of Wall Street and the growing financialization and privatization of higher education without the burden of financial hardship.
In a speech yesterday, President Obama laid out his vision for the future of the United States’ efforts to stop terrorists from attacking American citizens. He defended his use of drones and the killings of American citizens abroad who pose a threat to Americans. But, as Nation National Security Correspondent Jeremy Scahill points out, Obama provided very little legal justification for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. He spoke with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow yesterday about Obama’s effort (or lack thereof) to deal with terrorism legally and without killing innocent individuals.
US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment duck their heads in the back of a Humvee as smoke and dust rise from a roadside bomb. (AP Photo/Jim MacMillan)
Before you express an opinion about President Obama’s national security speech yesterday, if you didn’t see it live the read the whole speech on the White House’s website. It’s an important and transformative speech, one that is already drawing howls of outrage from right-wing pundits, hawks in Congress and the neoconservatives.
It was a clarion call to end the war on terrorism. Said Obama: “We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ ” Al Qaeda is on the “path to defeat” (actually, it’s pretty far along that path), and its imitators, affilates and clones are either focused on local struggles or, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are far weaker, he said, adding: “None of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11.” Among the Al Qaeda types, he said “While we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.”
That couldn’t be clearer. Global War on Terrorism, R.I.P. Explicitly, Obama said that the United States can go back to its pre-9/11, less-hysterical, less-frantic mindset. “We have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11,” said Obama.
In an important section of the speech, Obama insisted it’s time to rewrite, and in so doing, weaken, the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda et al.:
The AUMF is now nearly 12 years old. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
I’d highlight two phrases. The first, “not every collection of thugs that labels themselves Al Qaeda,” which means that the president is sticking it to the hawks who say that literally dozens of rabble-rousers around the world must be targeted by the CIA and the Pentagon. And second, of course: “This war, like all wars, must end.”
Some controversy surrounds the drone issue, still. The Nation—and its specialist, Jeremy Scahill—have focused enormous attention on the issue, and Code Pink—whose founder, Medea Benjamin, repeatedly interrupted Obama yesterday—has done the same. But too much can be made of this. First of all, a drone is just another weapon in the American arsenal, not unlike cruise missiles, which President Clinton unloaded on Al Qaeda in 1998, and other lethal power. Since taking office, after stepping up the use of drones, Obama and John Brennan, who was Obama’s terrorism adviser in the White House and now the CIA director, have steadily reduced the use of drones every single year since 2009. In his speech yesterday, and in classified instructions to the CIA and the military, Obama is further placing restrictions on their use. The CIA’s ability to use drones is being sharply reduced and restricted to Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the number of strikes has fallen sharply in 2013. By 2014, when US forces leave Afghanistan, the CIA will stop firing drones into Pakistan altogether. Meanwhile, if drones are going to be used by the Pentagon against individual targets, the military will operate under new guidelines that will limit strikes, reduce civilian casualties, and probably prevent the killing of American citizens, except in extreme cases.
As The New York Times reports, in discussing the classified parts of the new drone policy that Obama didn’t mention in his speech, but which underpin what he said:
The new classified policy guidance imposes tougher standards for when drone strikes can be authorized, limiting them to targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, according to government officials. The guidance also begins a process of phasing the C.I.A. out of the drone war and shifting operations to the Pentagon.
Giving operations to the Pentagon still leaves room for abuse and overuse of drones, and the secrecy that attaches to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which will have responsibility for drones, means that it will be opaque, at best, to the public. It’s unclear yet what an “imminent threat” is—in the past, the government has interpreted imminent to mean almost anything, though most people would view that word as implying something like the ticking-time-bomb scenario. And, there’s still some question over the use of so-called “signature strikes,” used against unidentified people and targets. But by insisting on what Obama called a “continuing, imminent threat,” it would appear that drone strikes against nameless “militants”—often the generic “military-age males”—will be ruled out.
In his remarks, Obama didn’t exactly “go Bulworth.” But reading between the lines, I’d say that the president put into words his clearly felt belief that the military and the CIA aren’t the right tool to use against a terrorism threat that can be dealt with, as before 9/11, by intelligence and law enforcement.
Robert Dreyfuss looks into Iran’s critical upcoming election.
Protesters mobilize at Freedom Plaza. Credit: Greg Kaufmann.
Gisele Mata of Whittier, California, never considered herself a political activist. Other than making some calls on behalf of President Obama during the 2012 campaign, her focus was on her work, family, church and volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader.
But on Monday morning at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC, she was ready to march to the Department of Justice, where she would risk arrest in order to save her family’s home and stand up for other people facing foreclosure.
“Banks are doing extreme things to get people out of their homes, so it requires extreme action,” Mata told me. “I wouldn’t be here except the banks are not being monitored so we have to stand up as citizens. They are getting away with acts of inhuman behavior and the Justice Department is not reacting.”
Mata was among 500 activists from across the country who came to the nation’s capital to “Bring Justice to Justice”—participating in three days of action organized by Home Defenders League and Occupy Our Homes. They were calling for the criminal prosecution of banks for ongoing illegal activity, including illegal foreclosures; and for resetting mortgages to a property’s fair market value for the more than 13 million homeowners still at risk of foreclosure.
Mata and her family have been in their home for more than ten years. Their struggle began in 2009 when she and her husband were laid off from their jobs in retail and engineering, respectively. They survived by cashing out on their 401(k)s and working in low-wage jobs.
“We didn’t have any problems until last year,” she said, when they no longer could afford both their home and food for their family of five. So Mata and her husband requested a mortgage modification from Bank of America.
“We asked them to tack on what we owed to the principal, and to give us the going interest rate because we still have a high rate,” she said. “We aren’t even asking for a principal reduction. Plus we’re both working, we have equity in our home—but they still refuse.”
Her eldest daughter is now working as a massage therapist. Her husband is again employed as an aircraft parts quality inspector—for $13 an hour, compared to the $19 hourly wage he previously earned—and Mata earns commissions as a sales representative for an energy company. But the high interest payments they are paying force them to choose between a roof over their head or food for the family.
“Right now we’re choosing the roof and getting food from our church in order to make payments on the mortgage,” she said. “And we go to the 99 cent store and buy Top Ramen [noodles] and tuna fish. That’s pretty much how we make it.”
But even as the Matas continue to make their payments, Bank of America continues to push for foreclosure. Her dealings with the bank in an effort to get a modification tell a story that is now all too familiar in this country.
“Negotiating means paperwork multiple times over and over again,” she said. “As soon as you get it in they switch your point-of-contact and then you have to start over again. And as many times as they ask is how many times you do it, or else they won’t consider you for the modification. No one is holding them accountable.”
Ann Haines of St. Paul, Minnesota, was also ready to get arrested after experiencing an even more extreme nightmare in dealing with US Bank. She had lived in her home with her three sons for thirteen years, and was struggling to meet a monthly mortgage payment that had risen from $800 to $1300.
“I work in intake at a methadone program,” she said. “I see people at their lowest and my nature is to help. So I was foolishly thinking that by asking the bank for help I would get it.”
Instead, what she got was US Bank telling her to stop making payments for three months so she would be eligible for a modification, followed by the bank sending her the wrong modification application. She then arrived home one day to find her locks changed and a realtor going out her back door. The bank proceeded with a sheriff’s sale.
“It was terrifying and you don’t know what to do,” said Haines.
Legal Aid was able to stop the sale of her home, since the bank admitted it had sent her the wrong modification application and foreclosed while she was still in underwriting—a process known as “dual tracking.” (This is now barred under the California Homeowners’ Bill of Rights and the just-passed Minnesota Homeowners’ Bill of Rights.)
“But what really inspired me to fight was the attorney for US Bank sitting across from me in court and saying, ‘The only negotiation US Bank is willing to do right now is to get her out,’ ” said Haines. “He didn’t have enough courage to look at me, but he said it.”
“Two days later the eviction case was magically closed,” said Haines.
She described herself as “elated” that she no longer fears losing her home at any moment. But she still felt the need to be in Washington, DC, to support other struggling homeowners.
“I don’t want to be arrested, jail is scary for me,” she said. “But I’m willing to do it to show that this is serious. There are too many people going through this, and the banks have to be held accountable. If I did something wrong they would hold me accountable.”
Cammy Dupuy of Gonzales, Louisiana, isn’t affiliated with any particular group—she had learned about the action in recent weeks on the Internet. She was also prepared for arrest, though not particularly looking forward to it.
“I’m really nervous and scared to go to jail,” said Dupuy. “But if that’s what it takes to let people know they’re not alone—the shame shouldn’t be put on people.”
Since 2006, Dupuy’s mortgage has had so many different banks and loan servicers attached to it that the trail is dizzying. As a result, she has had her paperwork lost as servicers change, not been provided new mailing addresses for payments, fought off two sheriff’s sales and even received modification “offers” that would have had her paying double-digit interest rates and waiving her right to sue for the mishandling of her note.
Throughout her struggle, Dupuy has found herself alone.
“The thing about Louisiana, nobody talks about foreclosures, and they don’t put signs out in people’s yards like in other states, so they really keep it from the public,” she said. “But I’ve been pulling up the sales on my local sheriff’s website and every month there are quite a bit just in my parish alone.”
Dupuy said a lot of people are “just walking away because they don’t know what to do.”
“I’m tired of feeling alone. I want people in Louisiana to start talking about it, start standing up, start doing something,” said Dupuy. “The people in Louisiana fear the law. But if all of us come together and take a stand then fear shouldn’t be a problem.”
By the end of the day on Monday, Mata was arrested on the steps of the Department of Justice along with sixteen other nonviolent activists. (The nonviolence by activists didn’t translate to nonviolent arrests by Homeland Security officers, who used tasers.) The demonstrators had set up an encampment and also blocked traffic along a very busy Constitution Avenue. Mata and others didn’t give their names when booked—they didn’t want this to be just another routine booking and quick release—so she was held until Tuesday evening.
“I told them I was [Bank of America CEO] Brian Moynihan,” said Mata, and many of the other demonstrators who were arrested used the names of bank CEOs as well.
Dupuy was arrested along with six other homeowners Wednesday morning while blocking the lobby entrance to Covington & Burling—a prominent international law firm that has represented JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, UBS and other major banks. Haines was one of the demonstrators blocking the entrance too, but because she was on the outside of the building, police just removed her from the space.
In addition to representing the large banks, organizers said the law firm epitomizes the “revolving door” between serving government and serving Wall Street’s interests, noting that Attorney General Eric Holder was a partner at Covington & Burling before coming to the DOJ, and former Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer left his post in March to become vice chair of the firm.
For three straight days, these homeowners and their supporters—mostly low-income people of color—demonstrated what it means to personally sacrifice for the good of others, to move beyond hopeful words to deeds and actions.
I hope that those of us who seek change feel their urgency, and will follow their lead to take more and greater action—together.
Victories in Minnesota: Progressive Budget and Homeowners Bill of Rights
According to Carol Nieters, executive director of SEIU Local 284, in 1971, Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson called education equity—poor school districts that were struggling—and high property taxes “the issue of our time.”
The state legislature responded by creating a “general education levy” that equalized and created dedicated funding for schools, and also lowered property taxes.
“It went forward like that for like the next four decades,” said Nieters. “It put Minnesota in a place to be a premier state in education.”
But then along came Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura who body-slammed the levy, and Governor Tim Pawlenty who presided over nearly a decade of disinvestment from schools and taking from school appropriations to plug other holes in the budget.
“As a result, we’ve now got ten or eleven four-day school districts, and other than core curriculum, everything else is cut out—arts, music, in some cases languages,” said Nieters.
But this week the state reaffirmed its commitment to education. At a time when so many states are opting to close schools that primarily serve low-income students, Minnesota passed a budget that closes corporate tax loopholes and increases education funding and equity.
The 2013 budget erases the state’s $627 million budget deficit, raises the income tax by 2 percent on the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans, raises $424 million by closing corporate tax loopholes and reduces property taxes by $400 million.
The budget uses new revenues to make key investments in education, including: fully funding optional, all-day kindergarten; increasing special education funding by $236 million; and importantly, passing two levies that will make funding for all school districts more reliable, while also providing additional resources to local districts with the greatest need.
“This budget gets to equity in education and reduces property taxes,” said Nieters. “Over four decades later we are doing the same thing we did right in 1971.”
She said the budget was achieved by the union and its progressive allies reaching out to groups all across the state that were pursuing a “common interest of stronger communities [through] an educated society and workforce.” They began organizing prior to the 2012 election with a message that wealthy individuals and corporations must pay their fair share in order to strengthen education. Many Democrats ran on that platform, and the party picked up enough seats to win majorities in both the House and Senate.
After the election, the grassroots coalition kept the pressure on the newly elected legislators to follow through on their commitments. In the last few months alone, there were thousands of calls, visits, letters and e-mails to representatives, and a “Students’ Day” for parents and children at the Capitol, with students from kindergarten through high school attending.
The budget was passed Monday night by the legislature, and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton signed it into law yesterday.
“We engaged organizations all over the state—and we can make a difference if we do that,” said Nieters. “The voice of the people can be heard over the folks with the money. But you gotta get out there.”
* * *
On Sunday, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights by a bipartisan 123-0 vote. The Senate passed a companion bill last week, so now it just awaits Governor Dayton’s signature.
The bill protects homeowners through a number of provisions, including: requiring loan servicers to offer modifications to all eligible homeowners; banning “dual tracking,” which occurs when a bank forecloses on a homeowner before communicating a decision on a loan modification application; and allowing homeowners to take the servicer to court to stop foreclosure if the servicer fails to comply with any aspect of the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights. (Also important, lawyer’s fees and court costs would be covered if the homeowner proves his or her case.)
Ann Haines, the homeowner from St. Paul interviewed in the DOJ story above, testified along with other homeowners at a House hearing on the bill in January.
Democrats and the Farm Bill
I always expect the worst from the House Republicans when it comes to SNAP (food stamps) and the Farm Bill. So while much attention and anger has been focused on the $20.5 billion cut proposed by the House Agriculture Committee—which would take food stamps away from nearly 2 million people and result in several hundred thousand low-income children no longer receiving free school meals—my reaction was more along the lines of… yeah, what did you expect?
I was actually more disturbed that the Democratic Senate Agriculture Committee would vote for a $4.1 billion cut in food stamps—even though the average benefit is about $1.46 per person, per meal, and a recent Institute of Medicine report demonstrates that benefit levels are already too low to stave off hunger. The cut “would mean $90 less a month for 500,000 families already struggling to make ends meet,” according to Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. Berg noted that an amendment by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand would have prevented the SNAP cuts “by instead cutting subsidies for crop insurance companies, many of which are foreign owned.”
Unfortunately, the committee failed to pass Senator Gillibrand’s amendment, and Senate Democrats proved yet again that the party’s commitment to those who are the most economically vulnerable is about as thin as Republican cut proposals are deep.
But the party outdid itself on Wednesday when the Farm Bill was debated on the Senate floor. As Center on Budget and Policy Priorities president Robert Greenstein describes:
Senator David Vitter offered—and Senate Democrats accepted—an amendment that would increase hardship and will likely have strongly racially discriminatory effects. [It] would bar from SNAP, for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time—even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since…. The amendment would [also] mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members. So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut…. Senator Vitter hawked his amendment as one to prevent murderers and rapists from getting food stamps. Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.
Antipoverty advocates suggest contacting your senators—particularly Harry Reid, Debbie Stabenow and Richard Durbin—to tell them that you oppose this provision. They suggest doing it as soon as possible since it’s unclear how quickly the Farm Bill will move.
You might also suggest to them that the party check Lost and Found for its spine, too.
But at Least We Have Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer introduced the Half-in-Ten Act of 2013, which would establish the Federal Interagency Working Group on Reducing Poverty. The working group would develop and implement a national strategy to reduce poverty by half in ten years, integrating federal policies on poverty reduction, and also provide regular progress reports to Congress.
“Our policies and programs addressing poverty have not kept pace with the growing needs of millions of Americans,” said Congresswoman Lee, who chairs the new Democratic Whip Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity and consistently represents the interests of low-income Americans. “It is time we make the commitment to confront poverty head-on, create pathways out of poverty and provide opportunities for all.”
I would imagine this bill has about as much a shot at passing the House as this blog has at becoming Speaker Boehner’s favorite bedtime reading. Nevertheless, I’m always thankful for Representative Lee—I’m glad the Democratic whip is supporting her efforts—and it’s always worthwhile to keep up with her work and listen to what she has to say.
And That Goes for Senator Bernie Sanders, Too
Senator Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, introduced legislation yesterday to reauthorize and strengthen the Older Americans Act, which supports Meals on Wheels and other critical programs for seniors such as in-home care, transportation, benefits access, caregiver support, chronic disease self-management, job training and placement and elder abuse prevention.
“With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, our country’s growing population of seniors includes many who rely on these critical programs to help them stay in their own homes and communities,” said Sanders, speaking at an Older Americans Summit.
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.
In a letter endorsing Senator Sanders’s bill, National Council on Aging president and CEO James Firman writes that the legislation “can empower seniors and improve their health and economic security, bend downward the long-term entitlements cost curve, and promote greater program efficiency and coordination.”
The bill would also require the Bureau of Labor Statistics to create a consumer price index for the elderly that would account for spending on high-inflation goods and services like healthcare, prescription drugs and heating homes.
A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency (Tuesday, June 4, 8:30 am – 4 pm, 20 F Street NW Conference Center, Washington, DC) We have a US jobs emergency. More than 11 million Americans are still out of work, and the austerity push is only making matters worse. States have been forced to implement deep cuts to emergency unemployment benefits even though almost 40 percent of the unemployed have been jobless for more than six months. Great panels—with great people—on how to create good jobs and raise labor standards. Among the participants: Dean Baker, Maya Wiley, Ellen Bravo, Sarah Bloom Raskin, Nona Willis Aronowitz, Dorian Warren, Annette Bernhardt, Ai-Jen Poo, Gar Alperovitz, Joseph Geevarghese, Madeline Janis and Deepak Bhargava. Presented by the Roosevelt Institute. Register here.
2013 Mississippi on the Potomac Reception (Tuesday, June 4, 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm, AFL-CIO, 815 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC) The event marks the tenth anniversary of the Mississippi Center for Justice, a not-for-profit public interest legal organization that works against the odds to provide legal assistance to some of the most vulnerable and neglected communities in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country. For more information about the reception, contact Lauren Welford at 601-709-0859 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here to sponsor the event or purchase individual tickets.
Clips and other resources (compiled with James Cersonsky)
“Why I Am Fasting to Keep Families Together,” Gabriela Abendano
“SNAP Rolls: They’re Elevated for a Reason,” Jared Bernstein
“What You Should Know About the Philly Student Walkout,” James Cersonsky
“Farmworkers Fight Wendy’s, the ‘Last Holdout’ on Fair Food,” Michelle Chen
“One Community’s Effort to Take Back its Schools,” Equal Voice News
“Ongoing Joblessness in Michigan,” Mary Gable and Douglas Hall
“U.S. Retailers See Big Risk in Safety Plan for Factories in Bangladesh,” Steven Greenhouse
“Poverty Flees to the Suburbs,” Josh Harkinson
“No Head Start for Jacob,” Yannet Lathrop
“Though Enrolling More Poor Students, 2-Year Colleges Get Less of Federal Pie,” David Leonhardt
“Poverty up 20 percent among N.J. children 5 and younger, report says,” Susan K. Livio
“Family Cap Rule Punishes California Kids,” Ashley Morris
“Why I Am Moved to End Domestic and All Types of Violence,” Marcia Olivo
“A Long Cold Summer For Young People Looking For Work,” Isaiah J. Poole
“Unions Make the Middle Class,” Andrew Satter, Lauren Santa Cruz, and Karla Walter [VIDEO]
“Doing away with food deserts in the District,” Michael Shank
Studies/Briefs (summaries written by James Cersonsky)
“A State-by-State Snapshot of Poverty Among Seniors,” Zachary Levinson, Anthony Damico, Juliette Cubanski and Patricia Neuman. Kaiser Family Foundation. The Census Bureau’s standard poverty measure is based on food costs, family size and age of family members. A more recent, supplemental measure covers a range of other poverty-related factors, including homeowner status, regional differences in housing prices, tax credits, in-kind benefits and expenses ranging from income taxes to healthcare. For seniors, half of whom spent at least 16 percent of income on healthcare in 2009, this last factor is critical. Under the supplemental measure, this report finds, the senior poverty rate is higher in every state, at least twice as high in twelve states and roughly 20 percent in six states (California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, Georgia and New York). Nationally, the senior poverty rate is 15 percent under the supplemental measure, compared to 9 percent under the official measure. For incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, the percentage of seniors increases from 34 to 48 percent under the supplemental measure. These findings, the authors say, weigh critically on Medicare and Social Security policy.
“The Economic Security Scorecard: Policy and Security in the States,” Wider Opportunity for Women. What constitutes economic security? This report hones in on twenty state-level policy areas covering eighty-five policies: income and job standards, including minimum wages, state earned income tax credits, paid sick leave and unemployment insurance; saving and asset policies, including college savings and retirement plans; supports including childcare assistance, medical assistance and property tax relief; and education and workforce training policy. The report evaluates states according to their performance in each of these areas. Washington is the only state that receives higher than a C grade (B-), followed by Vermont and Oregon (C+). Scoring D+, Mississippi, Alabama and Utah anchor the bottom of the rankings. The report finds that a state’s budget size, median income and overall fiscal health are not strongly related to its economic security score. It finds a stronger relationship between education levels and security; among the top five states, an average of 35.1 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 24.1 percent for the bottom five. Overall, it finds, most states fall short on job quality standards.
“The Wall Street Wrecking Ball: What Foreclosures Are Costing Us and Why We Need to Reset Seattle Mortgages,” United Black Clergy and Washington Community Action Network. Across the country, and particularly among people of color, homeowners are still feeling the aftershock of the financial crisis. This report shines a spotlight on Seattle. A staggering 33.5 percent of Seattle homeowners, 42,411 in total, are underwater on their mortgages. Between 2008 and 2012, 16,515 homes were foreclosed on. The report estimates that if banks reset these underwater mortgages to fair market value, homeowners would save an average of $9,253 annually, pumping $392 million into the local economy and helping to create 5,800 jobs.
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.
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.
Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.
Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.
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
“The banks are throwing families out into the streets with no regard and no one is holding them accountable.”
—Gisele Mata, California homeowner, arrested at the Department of Justice
James Cersonsky wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.