Ana Maria Dueñas was waiting for a bus in El Cajon, California, on an April day in 2011 when a Border Patrol agent approached her and asked for her papers. Dueñas had lived in the United States for more than three decades; her five children are US citizens, as well as her six grandchildren. But Dueñas herself didn’t have papers, and so she was taken to a nearby Border Patrol station and instructed to sign a form that read, “I give up my right to a hearing before the Immigration Court. I wish to return to my country as soon as arrangements can be made to effect my departure.”
According to a class action lawsuit filed in 2013 by the American Civil Liberties Union, Dueñas was one of potentially thousands of immigrants who were pressured into expediting their own expulsion by signing Voluntary Departure forms, without being properly informed of the consequences, or of other options. Dueñas alleges that she was told, incorrectly, that she had no chance of obtaining legal status through an immigration judge; that she was threatened with a minimum of two months in detention if she did not sign the form; and that she was not told that once she agreed to leave the United States and her family, she would be barred from returning for ten years. Shortly after being taken into custody she was removed to Tijuana, Mexico, where she’s lived ever since.
Now, Dueñas may have a chance to return. On Tuesday, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties announced an “historic” settlement with the federal government, which has agreed to reform the voluntary departure process, and to allow the plaintiffs to reenter the country and seek legal status. A federal court still must approve the class portion of the settlement, which would let other people who waived their due process rights return to plead their case. Hundreds of thousands of people were removed to Mexico “voluntarily” over the period covered by the lawsuit, according to the ACLU, meaning that even if only a small fraction are ultimately included in the class, the settlement could reunite a significant number of families.
“We’re very pleased that we were able to reach what we feel is such a favorable settlement,” said Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. “It shows that the government can provide better due process protections to people who are subject to immigration enforcement.”
The settlement won’t end voluntary departure, which for many people carries fewer legal penalties than an order of deportation. But the government will have to reform the process. Border Patrol agents will be required to give detailed information about the consequences of waiving the right to an immigration hearing, and to give immigrants considering voluntary departure access to telephones so they can consult lawyers, relatives, and foreign consulates, and reach a newly created hotline with information about the process. Previously, immigrants in short-term custody were not always given time to make calls, Riordan said. As a result even some immigrants who had attorneys were unable to contact them, and agreed to voluntary departure when it was against their interest.
For other people, “voluntary departure could be their best option, sadly, under our broken immigration system,” said Riordan. “What we’ve been able to achieve through this settlement is enacting a number of protections that make treatment in short-term custody more fair.”
The government has also agreed to allow the ACLU to monitor its compliance with the terms of the settlement. “We will monitor ICE and Border Patrol closely to ensure that these agencies never again trick or coerce vulnerable individuals into signing away their fundamental rights,” staff attorneys Mitra Ebadolahi and Gabriela Rivera wrote in a statement.
The settlement has particular resonance given the Obama administration’s efforts to speed up deportation proceedings for the record numbers of unaccompanied children who’ve crossed the border in recent months. Many of the children are appearing in court without lawyers, raising questions about due process. “A lot of the problems in the child migrant crisis have to do with fairness of processing,” Riordan said. “If those values of fairness [affirmed by the settlement] are translated into the unaccompanied minors context, hopefully that would mean better decision-making and better protecting of human rights.”
Read Next: Karen Houppert reports on the thousands of children braving Immigration Courts alone.
Police officer Daniel Holtzclaw worked the evening shift, from four in the afternoon until two in the morning, patrolling the northeastern part of Oklahoma City. Between February and June he allegedly sexually assaulted at least seven women while on duty, including a 57-year-old grandmother who says she was forced to give Holtzclaw oral sex after he pulled her over. According to police chief Bill Citty, Holtzclaw coerced the women, all of whom were black, into sexual acts by threatening to arrest them.
“They’ve pretty much got power in the palm of their hand. And it’s your word against theirs,” one resident of the neighborhood Holtzclaw patrolled told a reporter. Another said that rumors of the assaults had been circulating for weeks.
News of Holtzclaw’s arrest last Thursday was overshadowed by the police brutality occurring in Ferguson, Missouri. The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and the crackdown on people protesting his death highlighted endemic problems of racial profiling, brutality and militarization within American law enforcement. Several writers pointed out after Brown’s death that women of color are often left out of these stories of police violence. Sometimes that violence is lethal. In many other cases it’s sexual in nature.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University and the principle investigator for a Department of Justice–funded research project on police integrity, about sexual assault by police officers. “There are many opportunities for someone, if they were a predator, to engage in crimes of sexual violence that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do because of the power and authority they have [as a police officer].”
It’s hard to tell exactly how big the problem is, because few people are collecting data. Researchers have to rely on arrest reports and press accounts, which leave out unreported or unprosecuted cases. But even that limited evidence suggests sexual assault is a significant issue in police forces. According to the Cato Institute, more than 9 percent of reports of police misconduct in 2010 involved sexual abuse, making it the second-most reported form of misconduct, after the use of excessive force. Comparing that data to FBI crime statistics indicates that “sexual assault rates are significantly higher for police when compared to the general population.”
Many cops arrested for sexual misconduct are, like Holtzclaw, repeat offenders. Stinson said that multiple victims of the accused often come forward once a case against an officer is publicized. Others never report the crimes against them, making justice elusive. “Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, and against police officers it’s probably even less reported,” said Jen Marsh of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. In Oklahoma City, several of Holtzclaw’s victims were only identified once investigators began tracing his contact with the public while on street patrol.
As Samuel Walker wrote in his 2002 report “Driving While Female,” officers who commit sexual crimes are often considered “rogue,” in contrast to officers who engage in department-sanctioned forms of racial profiling like stop and frisk. But the Department of Justice was sufficiently concerned about “recurring accusations of sexual offenses implicating law enforcement officers,” that it underwrote an executive guide with policy recommendations for stamping out sexual misconduct in police forces. Though the guide was completed in 2011, it’s not clear if it actually led to changes within individual police forces. The International Association of Police Chiefs, which created the guide, did not return a request for comment. Last year the director of IACP’s research center told The American Prospect, “We think there’s a good-faith effort by police departments out there to be more accountable,” but offered no supporting evidence.
Meanwhile, sexual misconduct is a persistent problem in some police departments. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is examining a variety of allegations against officers from the San Diego Police Department, many of them having to do with sexual abuse. One officer is accused of coercing sexual favors from women he’d stopped for driving while intoxicated. Several women accused another officer of groping them while conducting pat downs.
According to U-T San Diego, many of the alleged victims of San Diego police officers were sex workers, homeless, intoxicated, mentally ill or had criminal records. On a national scale, the lack of data makes it hard to track the demographics of victims of sexual misconduct by police. Stinson’s research suggests that about half are under the age of eighteen. According to a 2007 report prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “rape and sexual abuse by police [in the United States] are primarily reported by women of color.”
“What we’ve seen in sexual assaults committed by law enforcement is that they’re targeting victims seen as vulnerable or ‘less credible,’ whether they’re engaged in sex work or are committing a crime. A police officer uses that as a way to control the victim,” said Marsh.
Better data collection would be a small start to tackling the problem. Another would be to mandate that states share information about cops who’ve been fired or resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct. There’s even a database set up for it: the National Decertification Index, which lists officers who’ve lost their certification. But contributions are voluntary and with only thirty-seven states participating, it’s a leaky sieve.
One legislative reform that’s been proposed is extending the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires prisons and jails receiving federal money to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual violence by staff, to apply to anyone who is stopped or detained by law enforcement. Stinson said that requiring police officers to change partners and supervisors between their shifts could help, as could the use of body cameras, although he cautioned that there were still important privacy concerns to consider regarding the use of recording equipment. Other advocates point to the small proportion of female cops as a problem; according to the International Association of Police Chiefs, less than 14 percent of police are women.
More challenging, but just as necessary, are changes in the way that law enforcement works in communities of color, with sex workers, and others at risk of police violence. It will be difficult to encourage more women to report cops who commit sexual crimes if the victims don’t have reason to believe that their assailants are truly “rogue” actors, and that other members of the department will take their complaints seriously. “Who are they going to call?” Penny Harrington, the former chief of the Portland, Oregon police and founder of the National Center for Women and Policing, has asked. “It’s the police who are abusing them.”
Read Next: Soraya Chemaly asks, “How Did the FBI Miss Over 1 Million Rapes?”
Sometime in the next month President Obama is expected to announce changes to immigration enforcement policies, potentially relieving the fear of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants. Specifics aren’t clear, but press reports and immigrant rights advocates close to the discussions indicate that reforms on the table include widening the group of people temporarily allowed to remain and work in the United States; carve-outs for tech and agricultural interests; and changes to the way immigration authorities enforce the law in the field.
Just the prospect of a unilateral move has triggered accusations of tyranny from the right, though even conservatives are beginning to acknowledge that legal constraints on the president are not clear cut. Already, the executive actions are a major political event. But undocumented immigrants and their advocates are increasingly concerned that the practical impact of Obama’s orders will be far more limited than the hype suggests—and they’re trying to raise the bar for what bold action really means.
Arturo Carmona, executive director of the social justice group Presente.org, said his organization was prepared to reject the option reported to be at the top of the list of reforms the White House is considering because it is not inclusive enough. That proposal is an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows some immigrants brought to the United States as children to stay and work, to include their parents and those of US citizens. Such an extension would likely cover four to five million people at most—a number that Carmona called “a non-starter.”
“This proposal promises more deportations, more families being separated,” he told me. “This is not what we’ve been working so hard for.”
Marisa Franco, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said that expanding DACA for such a select group of people was “bottom-shelf stuff,” adding, “The president can and should do more.”
On Wednesday, eleven undocumented immigrants launched a campaign to encourage Obama to consider extending relief broadly, “to all individuals who are integral members of our evolving American community,” as they wrote in a letter to the director of Homeland Security. The eleven, who asked that their own deportations be deferred, represent a range of circumstances. “Our families need urgent relief now, and here’s the key question—just how inclusive and humane will President Obama’s executive action be?” the activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is one of the eleven, said at the National Press Club in Washington. “Who will be left out, and why?”
Kamal Essaheb of the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups coordinating the “1 in 11 million” campaign, said that deferred action and work permits should be available to anyone who can demonstrate strong ties to the US. “Their US citizen family members, their length of time in the US, whether they’ve contributed to the US economy somehow, whether they work in a critical industry, whether they’ve created jobs—all of those things should be weighed in before we decide to expel somebody from the community,” he said. “We don’t want to get it half right. If we’re going to try to insert justice back into the immigration system, lets go all the way and develop policies that are consistent with our values.”
It’s hard to estimate how many people might receive relief under that subjective policy, but other immigrant rights groups have pointed to the estimated 8 million people who would be protected from deportation under the comprehensive reform bill that passed the Senate last year as a concrete minimum. That ask has been backed up by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and several top Democrats including Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Nancy Pelosi. “It would be my hope that the president’s lawyers would advise him on the broadest possible prosecutorial discretion,” Pelosi said in an interview with Univision earlier in August.
But Carmona is troubled that Democrats who’ve called for bold executive action in the past have lately been quiet. He complained that he’s “not seeing messages from the left” to raise expectations, which Obama has warned activists they need to “right-size.” Carmona isn’t not the only one concerned. Last week, a coalition of thirty groups cautioned Democrats not to throw immigrants under the bus in the hopes that doing so will help them keep the Senate.
“To be clear, any attempts by our ‘allies’ in Congress to delay or dilute administrative reforms will be viewed as a betrayal of Latino and immigrant communities with serious and lasting consequences,” the coalition wrote in a letter obtained by Politico. “Inaction and delay in the name of perceived political expediency would be both morally outrageous and politically disastrous. We will not forgive and we will not forget those who stand in the way of the relief our families so desperately need.”
As advocates press for expansive administrative relief, they’re also concerned about what the situation will be like for people who are ultimately excluded. As troubling as the record number of people removed from the country during Obama’s tenure are the ways in which they’ve been caught up in the deportation machine—by an agency with poor oversight that has used racial profiling and partnerships with local police to net as many deportable immigrants as funding allows. Whether the administration will do anything to make sure immigration agents in the field actually exercise discretion is a key question.
A more specific priority for immigrant rights groups is ending Secure Communities, a data-sharing program that entangles local police with federal immigration authorities and has failed to achieve its goal of increasing removals of noncitizens who’ve committed serious crimes. “We don’t think you can reform a failed program,” Franco said.
The idea that bold executive action will hurt Democrats has currency within the Beltway. But it’s also possible that an administrative move that’s perceived as weak will sever the threads tying Latino voters to Democrats, threads that have frayed over several years as the administration deported record numbers of immigrants. “The president has zero credibility with the immigrant rights movement,” Carmona said. Alice Ollstein has a great report over at ThinkProgress of how frustration with the slow pace of reform is coming back to haunt Democratic lawmakers, despite their attempts to blame Republicans for inaction. Franco told me that activists are already starting to talk about “dramatic escalation” in the event that the White House delays or significantly dilutes the executive orders, including work stoppages, and said that voting could be called into question.
Essaheb of the National Immigration Law Center took a more guarded tone. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “This administration’s record on immigration has not been great. We think the president has an opportunity to turn that around in the coming weeks.”
For the first time since Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, his family has a scrap of solid information about his death: the number six. That’s how many times Brown was shot, at a minimum. According to Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner of New York City who conducted a private autopsy at the request of Brown’s family, one of the bullets, probably the last, entered the teenager’s skull at an angle that suggests he was leaning forward.
The stark detail of the preliminary autopsy, complete with a diagram of a man that Baden marked in black ink to show the bullet holes, stands in sharp contrast to the selective way that the Ferguson Police and the St Louis County Police have released information. “Troubling,” is the word that Attorney General Eric Holder chose on Monday to describe their conduct. So far, local officials have offered details that seem intended to smear Brown while hiding others that might clarify the circumstances of his death.
After refusing for days to name the officer who killed Brown, Ferguson police finally identified him on Friday as Darren Wilson. Wilson himself has skipped town, and police still have not released his or any other official report of the shooting. That silence enabled an anonymous account of the shooting from someone claiming to have heard it from Wilson’s wife to get traction in major media outlets, even though it closely resembles another account, originally attributed to Wilson, that had already been dismissed as fake.
What officials did deem appropriate to share—despite the Department of Justice’s objections—was a report of a man stealing cigarillos from a convenience store, and a video of the theft that police say implicates Brown. No one has offered a cogent explanation for why the report of the robbery warranted a public airing while those of Brown’s death do not. Two such reports exist, one written by the Ferguson Police Department, and another by the St. Louis County Police. Both are cited in the account of the convenience store robbery: “It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident detailed under Ferguson Police Report #2014-12391 as well as St. Louis County Police Report #2014-43984. In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department.”
Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson was at best unclear, and at worst misleading, about how the robbery and Brown’s death are related. Several hours after announcing details about the convenience store theft in a way that insinuated it had prompted Wilson to engage Brown, Jackson clarified, “The initial contact between the officer and Mr. Brown was not related to the robbery.” Then Jackson refined the official story yet again, telling reporters that Wilson “made the connection” to the theft when he saw Brown carrying a box of cigars.
St. Louis County is also sitting on basic findings from the official autopsy. Yet a very selective scrap of information was leaked to The Washington Post on Monday by two sources familiar with that county report: that Brown had marijuana in his system when he died, meaning only that he’d used it sometime in the last month. Predictably, right-wing commentators seized on this information to vilify Brown.
Officials have chosen particular details about the protests to highlight. At a press conference early Tuesday morning, Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson set a couple of handguns and a Molotov cocktail on a table beside him, and said they’d been taken from “violent agitators” the night before. The optics served to justify the aggressive responses from police that have served only to embolden the minority of protesters engaging violently with police.
In the ten days since Brown was killed, law enforcement have tried to quell protests with rubber bullets and tear gas, with at least four different police forces, with a charismatic captain, with a curfew, by forcing protesters to walk, not stand, and finally with the National Guard. On Tuesday, Johnson said police would again try a “different operational plan,” which seemed to amount to “hoping that protesters will stay home” at night.
There’s been a lot of talk about trust, and its absence, in Ferguson and elsewhere. “In too many communities around the country, a gulf of mistrust exists between local residents and law enforcement,” President Obama said Monday. The mistrust in Ferguson is rooted in history, but it’s also being deepened in real time. History tells us that justice is unlikely to be served in this case; the conduct of the local officials charged with investigating Brown’s death only signals to the community that this time will not be different. In that context, not staying home at night seems like the only way to ensure that it will be.
Read Next: Alex Vitale asks how we can end militarized policing.
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.
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.
Read Next: John Nichols reports on the constitutional crisis in Ferguson, Missouri.
“This whole area, this city is a racial powder keg,” one man at a protest in Ferguson, Missouri told the Los Angeles Times, two days after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. In an attempt to explain why the St. Louis suburb has been filled with demonstrators, showered in tear gas and rubber bullets, and patrolled by armored vehicles in the days since, reporters have unearthed a “history of racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement” that, editors of The New York Times wrote, “produced so much of the tension now evident on the streets.”
The racial disparities that define Ferguson are indeed shocking. More than two-thirds of the town’s residents are black, but almost all of the officials and police officers are white: the mayor and the police chief, five of six city council members, all but one of the members of the school board, fifty of fifty-three police officers.
Most of the time, those officers search and arrest people who don’t look like them. In 2013, 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson involved black people. The skewed numbers don’t correspond at all to the levels of crime. While one in three whites was found carrying illegal weapons or drugs, only one in five blacks had contraband.
But is Ferguson really exceptional? The town is just north of one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, St. Louis. Most cities in America, however, are still highly segregated when it comes to their black and white populations. The high percentage of black Ferguson residents below the poverty line—28 percent—is in fact consistent with the percentage of black Americans who live in poverty throughout the country. The point is not that Ferguson’s particular history and statistics don’t matter; rather, it is that whatever shock, outrage and action they inspire should be amplified exponentially. It’s easier to accept ugliness, though, by pretending a mirror is a window to somewhere else.
The unequal application of the force of the law is also well documented across the country. Five times as many whites use illegal drugs as black Americans, and yet black people are sent to prison on drug charges at ten times the rate of whites. And disparity is evident in other police forces; for example, only 10 percent of the New York Police Department’s recruits in 2013 were black.
The whiteness of Ferguson’s political leadership is a national trait, too. Since Reconstruction, only four states have elected black senators: Illinois, Massachusetts, South Carolina and New Jersey. Voters in twenty-five states still have never elected a black representative to the House.
We know also that the killing of a young, unarmed black person isn’t unique to Ferguson. It wasn’t unique to Sanford or Jacksonville; nor to Staten Island; Beavercreek, Ohio; Dearborn Heights, Michigan; Pasadena, California; or any of the other cities that, as Jelani Cobb writes, now bleed together in “the race-tinged death story” that “has become a genre itself.”
There’s a crisis all right. But Ferguson is not its heart so much as a capillary finally burst. That many find the sadness and rage in Ferguson more needing of explanation than the militarized response is particularly telling.
Read Next: Dani McClain explains why the murder of black youth is a reproductive justice issue.
Shortly before seven on Friday morning, US aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs on artillery controlled by Islamic militants in northern Iraq. Barack Obama, as The New York Times noted, is now the fourth US president in a row to launch military action in that country.
Like his predecessors, Obama wrapped the military option in humanitarian packaging. He said on Thursday that the “limited” action he authorized was intended to protect American facilities and personnel in the city of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region, and to prevent “a potential act of genocide.” Kurdish forces retreated suddenly on Thursday from advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and thousands of civilians belonging to minority ethnic groups are besieged on a barren mountaintop. Militants have also taken control of Iraq’s largest dam, a rickety structure on the Tigris River that could send catastrophic floodwaters through the city of Mosul and surrounding areas if it is breached.
“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these,” Obama said. “I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As commander in chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.”
Hawks are already angling to do exactly that. “These actions are far from sufficient to meet the growing threat that ISIS poses,” Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said in a joint statement following the president’s announcement that he’d authorized the strikes, along with airdrops of food and water to the civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. As they have previously, McCain and Graham called for wider strikes against ISIS not only in Iraq but also in Syria.
Conservative commentators are salivating, too. Here’s The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, quoting John Bolton: “‘The problem is not just Iraq, but the entire Middle East’…why not act in Syria? Why not commit to eradicating the Islamic State, which threatens the United States and our allies? Why set a date certain to pull all troops out of Afghanistan, repeating [Obama’s] Iraq error?”
At this point it would be surprising if McCain et al. did not call for escalating a conflict in the Middle East. Still, the quick opportunism of the hawks illustrates the danger of assuming that military action will serve humanitarian ends or that the word “limited” really means anything. By declaring that “we have a mandate to help” in Iraq as well as “the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre,” the president opened a door for the armchair warriors, while putting only vague boundaries around the mission. That the administration is using the word “genocide” is particularly significant, as it carries implications under international law.
As John Cassidy points out, defending the civilians on Mount Sinjar and the city of Erbil means that the United States will be fighting ISIS in two areas. Clearly there’s a humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar, and the presence of US personnel and a consulate in Erbil gives the administration a defensive rationale for the strikes. But ISIS has been terrorizing northern Iraq for months; the fact that the United States is stepping in only now that the Kurds—”a loyal and reliable American ally,” noted the Times—are threatened by ISIS suggests that the objectives are more complicated. Representative Adam Smith of Washington State, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, indicated as much. In contrast to the Iraqi government, “the Kurds are worth helping and defending,” he told the Times.
If strikes against ISIS are being made on a humanitarian basis, it’s hard to see why they would be limited to the protection of Kurdistan. If—more plausibly—they’re based on other calculations, then the talk of humanitarianism is in keeping with the long tradition of applying a moral gloss to military action. A recent cautionary tale is provided by the campaign in Libya, sold as a last resort to prevent mass violence but which has ended up in chaos.
Though the strikes are being described as a sudden and confined response to a dramatic shift in the conflict, the drums for re-engagement in Iraq have been beating for months; the administration may not be stepping in time yet, but it’s been steadily picking up the pace. In June, even as Obama warned of “mission creep,” he nevertheless sent a few hundred troops and military advisers back into the country. It’s clear that the administration—and the American public—doesn’t want to get more deeply involved in the Iraqi crisis, but that’s cold comfort in the face of overwhelming historical evidence that even “limited” military action has undesirable, cascading consequences. Meanwhile, little has been done to heal the political fractures fueling ISIS.
So where is the anti-war left? “Certainly this rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis—people are dying for lack of food and water—deserves U.S. and international action,” wrote Kevin Martin, the executive director of Peace Action. “But this gut-wrenching situation must not be used to justify US escalation of the war, entailing certain if unknown disastrous unintended consequences, as we’ve seen before in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.” Few progressive lawmakers, however, had expressed such reservations at the time of publication. (Check back for updates.)
“America has been striking Iraq from the air for more than two decades,” The Economist noted. Yes, and for what?
Update: California Representative Barbara Lee, one of the House's most outspoken critics of the Iraq war, issued a statement on Friday afternoon saying that while she supports "strictly humanitarian efforts to prevent genocide in Iraq," she "remain[s] concerned about U.S. mission creep in Iraq and escalation into a larger conflict, which I oppose. There is no military solution in Iraq. Any lasting solution must be political and respect the rights of all Iraqis." Lee said that the president should request approval from Congress for any further military action.
Representative Jim McGovern, one of the authors of a resolution that passed the House in July banning military involvement in Iraq without legislative approval, echoed Lee's call for congressional authorization. “These strikes do involve the United States directly in hostilities, regardless of how limited they are and regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian purpose involved," he sad in a statement. "If these operations are continuing when Congress returns in September, then Congress needs to take action to authorize them."
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy warned that "the president needs to better explain how this intervention is strictly time and scope limited. The risk is that this intervention draws us into the broader fight between Sunni and Shia forces in Iraq."
“I oppose open-ended military commitments, which the President’s actions in Iraq could become," Senator Richard Blumenthal said in his own statement. "The President owes the American people a better, fuller explanation of the scope and strategy of military actions. I am deeply concerned that these actions could lead to prolonged direct military involvement, which I would strongly oppose.”
“We are on a slippery slope,” Representative John Garamendi, a California Democrat, told Politico. “Where this ends, I don’t think any of us know. But the president has to be very, very clear about timing and purpose. Thus far, it’s insufficient from my point of view.”
These fears about the undefined duration and scope of the air campaign were all but confirmed on Saturday, when President Obama told reporters, “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks...This is going to be a long-term project.”
The release of a long-delayed investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s post-9/11 interrogation methods was held up yet again on Tuesday after the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee objected to the amount of information that had been censored by the Obama administration.
“I have concluded that the redactions eliminate or obscure key facts that support the report’s findings and conclusions,” Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday in a statement announcing her decision to delay publication of portions of the report, which was assembled by her committee. Feinstein said she had written a letter to the White House detailing which redactions she felt were heavy handed.
The administration blacklined 15 percent of the executive summary, and went so far as to redact pseudonyms that the committee had created specifically to protect the names of CIA officers involved in interrogations. The administration also reportedly redacted crucial information that refutes claims about the value of information obtained through brutal interrogations, which the CIA has made to justify its tactics.
“Try reading a novel with fifteen percent of the words blacked out. It can’t be done properly,” Intelligence Committee member Martin Heinrich explained in his own statement.
Other members of the committee were swift to condemn the redactions. Carl Levin called them “totally unacceptable” and said that in reviewing the document he “saw multiple instances where CIA proposes to redact information that has already been publicly disclosed.” Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, decried the CIA’s redactions as “excessive” and suggested they were intended “to cover up acts that could embarrass the agency.”
The censorship is the latest in a series of inappropriate attempts by the CIA to smother the report, which is expected to show that torture was more prevalent and cruel than previously acknowledged, and much less effective at gathering intelligence than proponents of so-called enhanced interrogation claim. CIA officers not only hacked into Senate computers and spied on committee staffers preparing the report; they also filed a criminal report with the Justice Department on the staffers that had no factual basis. (Keep in mind that it’s the Intelligence Committee that oversees the CIA, according to the Constitution, not the other way around.) Then, after the committee voted to declassify the report—on a bipartisan basis—CIA director John Brennan began working with the very same people who oversaw the torture program during the George W. Bush administration to craft the agency’s response.
Even more egregious than the CIA’s attempts to keep its recent history in the shadows is the Obama administration’s complicity. The White House allowed the CIA to wield the black pen on a report that exposes its own misconduct and falsehoods. Obama has so far defended Brennan, who presided over the CIA’s unconstitutional attempts to thwart the Intelligence Committee’s work and yet denied outright that any such activity was taking place until an inspector general report forced him to apologize. Brennan is either an incompetent director or a liar; yet Obama claimed on Friday to have “full confidence” in him.
The administration has reacted coolly to the most recent accusations of censorship. Spokesman Josh Earnest assured reporters that the CIA left 85 percent of the executive summary legible—a numerical contortion that glosses over the fact that the 480-page executive summary is already a very small portion of the 6,600-page report, which will remain classified.
“We tortured some folks,” Obama acknowledged on Friday. “And we have to, as a country, take responsibility for that so that, hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.” The CIA’s conduct in response to the Senate report is a crystal clear indicator that hoping for the agency to do the right thing is not simply naïve but flagrantly irresponsible. If the president is content to grant the CIA immunity for its current flouting of the law and the separation of powers, as well as for the torture it meted out in the recent past, there’s nothing to keep an executive with fewer scruples from reopening a chapter that the public hasn’t even been allowed to read.
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Rupert Murdoch has a solution for global warming: “Stop building vast houses on seashores.”
That was probably the most sensible thing the media mogul had to say in a Sunday interview with Australia’s Sky News, during which he demonstrated astonishing ignorance about climate science. “We should approach climate change with great skepticism,” Murdoch said. Considering that his media empire is the animating force behind climate denial, this isn’t a shocker. Still, his comments illustrate how the right has hardened its position on global warming—or, as in Murdoch’s case, simply reversed it. This is the same Rupert Murdoch who, seven years ago, warned that global warming “poses clear, catastrophic threats,” and argued, “We certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction. We must transform the way we use energy.”
His comments also reveal how deeply into the bucket of shoddy science skeptics are willing to reach in order to support their claims. Here are the three most egregiously inaccurate statements Murdoch made:
1. “Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here, and there will always be a little bit of it. At the moment the North Pole is melting, but the South Pole is getting bigger.”
Though it’s true that the earth has previously experienced changes in average temperature, never before has such a large shift happened so quickly. A 2013 study by scientists at Stanford found that climate change is occurring ten times faster than any time in the past 65 million years. It took thousands of years for the earth to emerge from the last ice age; now, the time scale is in decades.
A study finding a 7.5 percent increase in the volume of sea ice in Antarctica is the skeptics’ weapon du jour, promoted recently by the Murdoch-owned Daily Mail as a blow to climate science. But that’s compared to a 75 percent decline in Arctic sea ice. Currently the Arctic is losing ten times as much ice every year as the Antarctic is gaining, so modest gains in Antarctica won’t do much to counter sea level rise. Meanwhile, two separate studies published in May concluded that the Antarctic ice sheet has in fact “gone into a state of irreversible retreat,” suggesting that the accumulation in Antarctica is a temporary phenomenon that will yield to melting ice and sea level rise on a scale even greater than predicted by the IPCC.
2. “In terms of the world’s temperature going up, the worst, the most alarmist things have said…3 degrees Centigrade in one-hundred years. At the very most one of those will come from man-made, be man-made.”
It’s not clear where Murdoch got his numbers, but they don’t match up with serious scientific assessments of climate trends. The most recent IPCC report predicted a temperature increase of about 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and accounts virtually all of that warming to human activity. At that threshold, the IPCC warned, the risks are “high to very high,” meaning “severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities.”
One degree of warming attributable to human activity is actually the best-case outcome predicted by the IPCC. Achieving it is only possible with significant reductions in carbon emissions worldwide.
3. “If the sea level rises six inches, that’s a big deal…but we can’t mitigate that, we can’t stop it. We’ve just got to stop building vast houses on seashores and go back a little bit.”
Again, it’s not clear where Murdoch’s figures come from. Oceans have already risen by eight inches since 1870, according to the IPCC, and they’re on track to rise another one to four feet by the end of the century. That should certainly discourage people from purchasing luxury coastal estates like the $9 million beach house in Oyster Bay that Murdoch sold in 2011. But what about the vast cities on seashores—like Miami, which is already under pressure as seawater seeps up from below through the porous limestone that underlies the city? How should they go about getting “back a little bit”?
Most people in the world can’t afford the luxury of thinking about climate change as a simple real estate challenge. And rising sea levels are only one facet of the looming global crisis. Shrinking glaciers threaten water supplies. Crop yields have already begun to decline, and the global food supply is in jeopardy. Scientists predict intensified heat waves and heavy rains, and the spread of infectious disease as mosquitos and other hosts move into new territory.
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Republicans are furious about the flood of children streaming across the US-Mexico border, and are criticizing the president for not deporting the children fast enough. But now that Obama has asked for nearly $4 billion to help kick the kids out more quickly, they don’t want to fund the emergency measures.
The $3.7 billion Obama requested would boost border security as well as housing and legal services for the children, the majority of whom are fleeing violence in Central America. According to Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has become the GOP’s figurehead on the issue, too much of that money is going to shelter, healthcare and legal assistance, and not enough to enforcement. “President Obama’s appropriations request only deals with one aspect of the current crisis on our southern border, while barely addressing its root cause: an unsecured border,” Perry wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday. He wants Obama to send surveillance drones and 1,000 National Guard troops to the border.
Most minors are simply handing themselves over to border patrol agents, suggesting that a porous border isn’t really the problem. And even if the border were completely sealed, there’s still the question of what to do with the tens of thousands of children here already. Perry ignored the fact that the Obama administration is bound by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which bars the government from immediately deporting children from countries that do not share a border with the United States—such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where the bulk of the children are from. The law requires border patrol to turn the children over to Health and Human Services and entitles them to due process so they may apply for humanitarian relief. Obama is trying to speed up deportations, to the consternation of immigrant rights and humanitarian groups. But unless Congress changes the trafficking law, the only way to do so is to make the legal system work faster by paying for more lawyers and judges.
Republicans are considering all sorts of roadblocks to the emergency funding bill. Some want any spending to be offset with cuts elsewhere. Others are insisting that Congress amend or repeal the trafficking law before they authorize any funding, a move that would deny children due process and, even if it were ultimately blocked by Democrats in the Senate, would at the very least hold up resources that are badly needed in the shelters where the children are housed.
Republicans, Perry included, are paying lip service to the idea that the crisis is a humanitarian one, but they don’t want to provide any humanitarian relief. As Jackie Calmes and Ashley Parker suggest in The New York Times, that’s because approving such funding “would help get [Obama] out of a situation that they believe is of his own making.” According to Perry, it’s more important for Obama to visit the border than it is for Congress to do something to address the situation. For Republicans, it’s more palatable to perpetuate the crisis and blame it on the president than to do anything that could be considered a “win” for the Democrats. Certainly it won’t be kids who win if Congress does agree to fund a smoother pathway to mass deportation.
It’s ironic that the same people who are apoplectic about Obama’s use of executive authority are now claiming that he’s the one not doing enough to fix the border crisis. Even House Speaker John Boehner, who is suing the president over his unilateral moves, had the gumption to attack the White House for not acting on its own in this instance. “He’s been president for five years! When is he going to take responsibility for something?” Boehner reportedly shouted at a press conference on Thursday morning. “We’re not giving the president a blank check.”
Republicans complain that Obama is cutting them out of the legislative process. As the border crisis demonstrates, however, it’s hard to detect real will on the part of the GOP to legislate.
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