Peter Rothberg | The Nation

Peter Rothberg

Peter Rothberg

Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.

End the 'War on Drugs'

Tomorrow's 40th anniversary of President Nixon's declaration of the War on Drugs comes amid growing recognition that the policy, and all that it wrought, is a complete disaster.

Shifting priorities toward a more sensible approach that offers treatment rather than punishment for addicts may seem like a daunting task but public opinion is increasingly opposed to the war on drugs, and many states facing tight budgets are de-emphasizing expensive criminalization in favor of strategies that decrease the penal population.

As Sasha Abramsky explained in an extensively reported and still-timely 2009 piece, "out of economic necessity and because of shifting mores, the country will likely get more selective, and smarter, about how it uses incarceration and whom it targets for long spells behind bars."

Last week, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report declaring unreservedly: “The global war on drugs has failed.” This strong criticism of the status quo was endorsed by the three former Latin American presidents who organized the commission — Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico — along with 16 other prominent world leaders, including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former head of NATO Javier Solana, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson.

Meanwhile, in the US, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of police officers, judges and related professionals, held a well-attended DC rally this past Tuesday, citing its own report criticizing the Obama Administration for doing precious little to reframe drug abuse as a matter of public health rather than one of criminal justice. The report calculates that the war on drugs has brought us 40 million arrests at a cost of one trillion dollars without making even a tiny dent in drug use.

The transpartisan coalition of people who want to end the drug war is one of the most diverse, broad-based alliances in America today, drawing from all regions and most spots on the political spectrum. Join the growing call by signing the Drug Policy Alliance's national petition, and by contacting your member of Congress imploring him or her to help end the war on drugs. Drug Policy Alliance staff will hand deliver your letter to your representative on Capitol Hill.

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Barbie's Rainforest Destruction Habit Revealed

In less than three days, close to one million people have viewed an online spoof video featuring the moment Ken discovers, to his horror, that Barbie is involved in rainforest destruction, and almost 200,000 e-mailers have swamped Mattel’s offices complaining about the company’s use of packaging products from Indonesian rain forests.

Indonesia has one of the fastest rates of forest destruction in the world. The Indonesian government estimates that more than one million hectares of rainforests are being cleared every year, so time is not on our side.

The campaign is being led by Greenpeace International after the organization's investigators used forensic testing, “in country” investigation, mapping data and the tracing of company certificates to reveal that Barbie’s packaging is being produced by Asia Pulp and Paper, Indonesia's most notorious rainforest destroyer.

Greenpeace says that Barbie's manufacturer Mattel, the world's biggest toy company, has failed to take the steps required to remove products linked with deforestation caused by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) from its supply chain. The group says that a promised “investigation” is inadequate and that without a tough new paper and packaging policy Mattel will continue to be directly responsible for the destruction of tropical rainforests.

For background, read this extensive dossier outlining the role of APP and Barbie in rainforest destruction.

In short, Asia Pulp & Paper, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group has been rapidly accelerating Indonesian rainforest destruction, which is hastening dangerous climate change, and pushing wildlife like the Sumatran tiger towards extinction. Less than half of Indonesia’s rainforests remain intact because of companies like Asia Pulp & Paper.

But it doesn't have to be this way. In 2008, Staples, the world's largest office products company, made clear that remaining a customer of APP would be “a great peril to our brand” and committed to the use of sustainable forest products. Moreover, Unilever, Kraft and Nestle have all stopped sourcing palm oil from Sinar Mas affiliates, while Carrefour, Office Depot and Woolworths (Australia) have stopped buying or selling any paper products connected to APP.

Send your letter today imploring Mattel to become a leader in the use of sustainable forest products by dumping Asia Pulp & Paper and implementing a new procurement policy for all pulp and paper products that precludes the use of timber from deforestation.

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March on Blair Mountain Honors Labor History, Calls for End to Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

This post was researched and co-written by Kevin Gosztola.

From Marmet to Blair, West Virginia, hundreds of activists are marching across the Appalachian region this week to honor the historic Battle of Blair Mountain of 1921. This event, designed to mark one of the biggest civil uprisings in the United States history and the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War, however, is not just about history. Appalachia Rising and Friends of Blair Mountain are using the five-day march to protest the controversial practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Dave Roberts of Grist detailed well the brutality of mountaintop removal in a 2008 guest post at TheNation.com:

“Mountain ridges and peaks are clear-cut, stripped of all trees and other flora. Explosives are buried underground, and enormous blasts dislodge millions of tons of rock, dirt, soil, and animal and plant life. That ‘overburden’ is then carted away or dumped into the stream and creek beds in the mountain hollows below, destroying or polluting thousands of miles of running water. Huge 20-story-tall draglines pull away the rock to expose coal seams. Similarly huge machines then yank the coal out and dump the remaining waste down into those streams.”

A coalition that seeks to ignite a major uprising against mountaintop removal, Appalachia Rising declares on its website that it “supports non-violent direct action to build the movement to end strip mining and support sustainability and self-determination in Appalachia.” Through the “March on Blair Mountain,” the coalition hopes to move one step closer to abolishing mountaintop removal, strengthening labor rights, creating sustainable jobs for Appalachian communities and ensuring the preservation of Blair Mountain.

The other major organizational component of this week’s actions, Friends of Blair Mountain, describes itself as a “core group of people involved in preservation efforts at Blair Mountain.” Members, who come from states like West Virginia and North Carolina, constitute a “grassroots group of scholars, activists, concerned citizens, and union workers” committed to commemorating the memory of the miners involved in the Battle of Blair Mountain. (In March 2008 the mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pressure from coal operators had it removed from the list and now it is under threat.)

The Battle of Blair Mountain from jordan freeman on Vimeo.

Organizers describe mountaintop removal coal mining as “an extreme form of coal mining that involves blasting off the tops of mountains in order to extract the seams of coal underneath.” Those living near mountains that coal companies are permitted to blow up for coal often leave their homes instead of enduring the conditions the mining creates—conditions that often include increased flooding and polluted air and water.

As author and activist Jeff Biggers, who has been reporting on MTR for years, explains today in a post at Alternet, “While providing less than five to eight percent of our national coal production, the millions of pounds of daily explosives detonated for mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia, Kentucky, southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee account for the most egregious human rights and environmental violations in our nation—and the unrecognized reality of regulated manslaughter.”

Nearly three days into the march, thus far, activists have been harassed by cars, coal trucks and “emergency” vehicles that at one point made laps around them blasting their sirens and horns. They have been forced to leave their camp site because a county commission decided to violate a prior agreement and demand they pack up and leave or face “mass arrests.” And they have faced sweltering heat along with a big storm.

Despite obstacles, the marchers are determined to march all fifty miles and make it to Blair Mountain by Saturday for a culminating rally that will feature Emmylou Harris, Ashley Judd and other performances by artists along with a speech from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Here’s a recent call to action from the march:

Call for Solidarity: March on Blair Mountain from Grace W on Vimeo.

Visit the Appalachia Rising website for updates and to learn how you can help support the movement against
mountaintop removal coal mining.

Help Fight the HIV/AIDS Super-Epidemic

Thanks to Peter Daou, activist and political and digital media consultant, for alerting me to a growing global 'super-epidemic' of a merged form of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The human toll is staggering. In some sampled populations, fatality rates approach 100 percent. Drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), virtually impervious to even the most effective drugs, has now been reported in 45 countries, including all the G8 nations.

This video from Doctors Without Borders, from Khayelitsha township in South Africa which has one of the highest rates of TB (tuberculosis) and HIV in the world, makes clear the depths of the problem.

(Tuberculosis, a community approach from MSF on Vimeo.)

The good news is that new scientific modeling shows that these trends can be reversed, saving a million lives from TB-HIV disease between now and 2015 with technology and knowledge we already possess. The goal is to convince governments and NGOs to act.

That's where the Advocacy to Control Tuberculosis Internationally (ACTION), a project of advocates working to mobilize resources to treat and prevent the spread of TB, comes in. ACTION's premise is that more rapid progress can be made against the global TB epidemic by building increased support for resources for effective TB control among key policymakers and other opinion leaders in both high TB burden countries (HBCs) and donor countries.

Read the ACTION Brochure to find out more about the group, and learn what you can do to help prevent the spread of infectious disease among the global poor.

Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

I first saw Gil Scott-Heron perform in 1985 at the Brazilian club SOB's in Manhattan, which during that period functioned as his home-base. His unique musical fusion of jazz, blues, rap, funk, and soul was captivating and his radical political vision was transformative, not just for me, but for a generation of musicians and activists especially in the hip-hop community.

The pioneering poet and musician is often credited as one of the progenitors of hip-hop with Public Enemy's Chuck D, Aesop Rock, Talib Kweli, Kanye West and Common all citing the poet/songwriter as a chief influence.

Tragically, Scott-Heron died Friday afternoon in New York at the tender age of 62.

Best known for the song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" which firmly entered the cultural lexicon after appearing on his 1971 album Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron later battled drug problems and was incarcerated for a period during the 2000s, but he never stopped touring, and in 2010 he released the well-received I'm New Here.

His political legacy was vast and his connections to social movements deep. He was particularly active in the civil rights struggle and the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s. He wrote probably the most moving song ever about the perils of nuclear power ("We Almost Lost Detroit"), undoubtedly the catchiest tune decrying the exploitation of mine workers, ("Three Miles Down,") and what became the anthem of the anti-Apartheid movement, ("Johannesburg.")

In 1979 he performed alongside Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and many others at the MUSE benefits at Madison Square Garden, and in 1985 he led the protest anthem "Sun City" in a star-studded line-up featuring Bob Dylan, Steve Van Zandt, RUN DMC, Lou Reed and Miles Davis.

His writing also touched on domestic violence, addiction, the increasing gap between rich and poor, political disillusionment and what a bad actor Ronald Reagan had been.

It's impossible to select a top ten from Scott-Heron's vast canon but the choices below represent an effort to highlight his astonishing musical range, his incisive political commentary and his incendiary live performances.

We'll be compiling additional written and musical tributes in the next few days.



B Movie


Home is Where the Hatred Is


We Almost Lost Detroit


Three Miles Down


The Bottle

Winter in America


Whitey on the Moon


Shut 'Em Down


Comment #1


A Toast to the People

1,500 Reasons to End the Afghanistan War

As my colleague George Zornick reports from Congress, in a surprisingly close contest today, the House rejected an amendment sponsored by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) which called for a withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, preferably one that outlines an “aggressive" drawdown of troops. It lost by only eleven votes, 215-204.

Nonetheless, the vote is the strongest yet for McGovern’s exit initiative and sends a united Democratic message to the president and people that momentum may finally be shifting toward some sort of organized withdrawal plan.

As Paul Kawika Martin, the political and policy director of Peace Action, which organized over twenty organizations to support amendments that would speed up bringing troops home from Afghanistan, said today, “Congress is catching up with voters who believe It’s time to transition from extremely expensive and counterproductive Pentagon strategies in Afghanistan to political negotiations and Afghan-led aid and development.”

It's high time. As we approach Memorial Day, the number of US troop deaths in the Afghanistan War now exceeds 1,500. No more troops should die in this extraordinarily expensive war that's not making us safer.

This powerful video, just released by our friends at Brave New Foundation, makes clear how high the stakes really are.


Sign Rethink Afghanistan’s petition imploring Congress to pass the Afghanistan Exit and Accountability Act.

How to Help in Missouri

The death toll from the Missouri tornado on Sunday now stands at 122, making it the single deadliest tornado in the US since at least 1950. 

The greatest destruction was in the small city of Joplin, Missouri, where at least a quarter of the city's homes and businesses were damaged and much of the city was left isolated and in the dark, with telephone connections largely cut off and many homes without electricity. Joplin authorities still can't estimate how many residents are missing.

As organizations and first responders take advantage of the first sunny days since the tornado hit to comb through debris and crumbled buildings and to provide emergency relief, food and shelter, there are many ways people across the country can help.

The Missouri State Emergency Management Agency is providing details on donating and volunteering.

Feeding America is seeking donations to distribute non-perishable food, emergency cleaning supplies, and personal hygiene items. You can call (800) 771-2303 or donate online.

AmeriCares is working with the National Conference of Community Health Centers to assess needs and mobilize a response for affected communities. This expands AmeriCares' tornado relief operation in numerous Southern states recovering from their own recent disasters. Donations to AmeriCares can be made online or by phone at 1-800-486-HELP. Those interested in volunteering should list their availability and expertise on their Joplin Storm Recovery Volunteer Form.

Heart to Heart International has sent volunteer medical professionals and their mobile medical clinic to the devastated communities in Kansas and Missouri. The group is also sending hygiene kits for people displaced by the storms. You can donate or sign up to be a volunteer online or by phone at 1-913-764-5200.

The American Red Cross has opened shelters in Missouri and Minnesota. The shelter in Joplin is located at Missouri Southern State University and is offering food, cleanup supplies and comfort kits along with immediate care by healthcare workers. Text "REDCROSS" to 90999 to make a $10 donation, or visit the website to donate, give blood or volunteer.

Finally, OzarksFirst.com, a local community and news site, has put together a comprehensive resource with help hotlines, phone numbers and web pages for volunteers and victims. It provides emergency numbers, the state senator’s office number and special hotlines for nurses and doctors looking to lend a hand. Help pages include the Show-Me Response for medical professionals, a Facebook Page for the local hospital, which was badly damaged in the twister, and even resources for locating and reuniting with lost pets.

Please use the comments field below to let us know about other groups and initiatives I've missed.

Bob Dylan's Top Ten Protest Songs

Bob Dylan turns 70 on Tuesday. To mark the occasion I've assembled a (highly debatable) list of what I consider his top ten protest songs with accompanying videos, a surprisingly difficult task given Sony's Music's aggressive online policing of Dylan's catalogue.

Needless to say, Dylan is far more than a protest singer, a guise he purposefully rejected early in his career, most famously with the song Maggie's Farm, commonly considered to be a protest against protest songs.

It's complicated, as the eminent historian and Dylanologist Sean Wilentz explained in a recent interview: "Politics are inescapable for any writer of Bob Dylan’s human and humane scope. His work, I think, shows that around 1963, he abandoned any idea that conventional politics of any kind could really change the world. He’s said more than once that he puts no store in the political game. But he writes, bitingly, that 'we live in a political world,' so it’s always there."

Most importantly, Dylan did write some of the most affecting and evocative songs ever conceived about racial injustice, unnecessary war and the threat of nuclear peril.

Bob Dylan's Top Ten Protest Songs

1. Masters of War

2. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll


3. Hurricane


4. A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall

5. With God on Our Side


6. George Jackson (Performed here by the British reggae band Steel Pulse because Sony has made it impossible to find a video of Dylan doing the song.)


7. The Times They Are a Changin'


8. Only a Pawn in Their Game


9. Senor, Tales of Yankee Power


10. Chimes of Freedom

Is America Still Beautiful without Medicare?

In 1965, the US made Medicare law. Today, Medicare provides primary healthcare for 46 million Americans, more than half of whom subsist on less than $28,000 a year. Now, Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, want to privatize the system and give more say -- and money -- to the insurance industry.

The problems with this plan are legion: It would use Medicare funds to enrich the private insurance firms that have generously donated to Ryan's campaigns through a system of vouchers and block grants to the states. Vouchers may sound like a great idea. Why not allow people to go to whatever healthcare provider they want? The catch is that there is no assurance in Ryan's plan that companies will provide insurance at a reasonable rate to everyone, especially senior citizens.

In other words, Medicare, a free-for-service program which itself pays for healthcare procedures for most beneficiaries and stipulates a range of services, procedures and cap costs, would be replaced by a privatized system to be determined by the health insurance industry.

Moreover, as Paul Krugman recently contended, Ryan's economic rationale for the plan is equally specious: "The point is that privatizing Medicare does nothing, in itself, to limit health-care costs. In fact, it almost surely raises them by adding a layer of middlemen. Yet the House plan assumes that we can cut health-care spending as a percentage of G.D.P. despite an aging population and rising health care costs."

As Erica Payne, founder and head of The Agenda Project and a good friend of The Nation, aptly summarized, “Paul Ryan’s plan will give health care decisions for elderly Americans to insurance corporations. Spreadsheets with plus and minus signs have no business being in charge of the health of our grandmothers and grandfathers.”

To further highlight the regressive nature of the plan, the Agenda Project just released a striking new video dramatically illuminating the consequences of the plan on our nation's elderly population.

After watching the video, please post it to your Facebook page and/or Twitter feed and then call Ryan's Congressional office at 202-225-3031 and politely implore him to call off his effort to eliminate Medicare.

Immigrants for Sale

Today, our friends at Brave New Foundation launched the 'Immigrants for Sale' campaign with a powerful animated video exposing the way private prisons profit off the passage of anti-immigrant legislation, and what that means for the democratic process.

The video is the first in an on-going series documenting the abuse, corruption and corporate influence that drives both the rush to privatize incarceration and the draconian sentencing and immigration laws that make the rush profitable.

The three largest corporate players in the industry -- CCA (the Corrections Corporation of America), The Geo Group and Management and Training corporations -- reap annual profits of more than $5 billion a year at the same time as they dole out more than $20 million annually in lobbying to (mostly rightwing) state legislators to ensure the approval of the regional anti-immigrant laws that fill their coffers.

An NPR report outlined how CCA and co. aim to translate the anti-immigrant rhetoric and political void into a long-lasting cash drive -- believing that illegal immigrants will continue to provide a fresh and highly profitable influx of new inmates to their cells if harsh anti-immigration legislation Arizona-style stays popular.

As Brave New Films' Alex Cabbellero writes at Huffington Post, "CCA founder Tomas Beasly once called his scheme 'more profitable' than selling burgers or cars -- a clear indication that any sense of justice in the prison industry will be forever trumped by cash flows and profit margins."

We have a huge, multi-layered problem with incarceration in this country. The US prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades. Moreover, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years, and returned to the system much more quickly than in the past. This unusually high recidivism rate, a travesty, is directly linked to a decrease in programs aimed at rehabilitation.

Prison privatization just makes this problem much, much worse because recidivism is actually a good thing from the financial perspective of a corporation operating private prisons. The "Immigrants For Sale" campaign is one attempt to stem the tide. Sign the pledge and become part of the nationwide network of Prison Watchers that is following and exposing the players, the money and the victims in this corrupt, anti-democratic rush to mass privatized incarceration.

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