Late Friday afternoon, a panel of Democrat-appointed judges on the Sixth Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction from a Democrat-appointed district court judge striking down Ohio’s cuts to early voting. Two hours earlier, however, a trio of Republican-appointed judges on the Seventh Circuit overturned an injunction from a Democratic judge blocking Wisconsin’s voter ID law.
This is why elections matter. And the courts are increasingly becoming the arbiters of who does and does not get to participate in them.
In May, Wisconsin district court Judge Lynn Adelman issued a strong decision invalidating the state’s voter ID law. Three hundred thousand registered voters in Wisconsin did not have a government-issued ID, Adelman found, and those without ID were disproportionately black and Hispanic. Wisconsin presented no evidence of voter fraud to justify the burdens of the new law.
The court axed Adelman’s ruling just hours after hearing the appeal, in a swift and stunning decision that allows Wisconsin to immediately implement its controversial law less than two months before the midterms.
The court’s one-page opinion said:
The district court held the state law invalid, and enjoined its implementation, even though it is materially identical to Indiana’s photo ID statute, which the Supreme Court held valid in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board. It did this based on findings that it thought showed that Wisconsin did not need this law to promote an important governmental interest, and that persons of lower income (disproportionately minorities) are less likely to have driver’s licenses, other acceptable photo ID, or the birth certificates needed to obtain them, which led the court to hold that the statute violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act
After the district court’s decision, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin revised the procedures to make it easier for persons who have difficulty affording any fees to obtain the birth certificates or other documentation needed under the law, or to have the need for documentation waived. This reduces the likelihood of irreparable injury, and it also changes the balance of equities and thus the propriety of federal injunctive relief. The panel has concluded that the state’s probability of success on the merits of this appeal is sufficiently great that the state should be allowed to implement its law, pending further order of this court.
The appeals court ruling is suspect on a number of fronts.
1. The Crawford case was not filed under the Voting Rights Act and did not center on racial discrimination in voting.
Section 2 of the VRA prohibits a voting system where the “totality of circumstances” shows that minority voters “have less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
Adelman found that was the case in Wisconsin. “The evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that this unique burden disproportionately impacts Black and Latino voters,” he wrote. Data from the 2012 election “showed that African American voters in Wisconsin were 1.7 times as likely as white voters to lack a matching driver’s license or state ID and that Latino voters in Wisconsin were 2.6 times as likely as white voters to lack these forms of identification.” According to a University of Wisconsin study, 78 percent of black men ages 18–24 in Wisconsin lack a government-issued ID.
In Crawford, the Supreme Court said that Indiana had a compelling interest in preventing voter fraud, even though the state presented no evidence of voter fraud to justify the law. Six years later, however, it’s clear there’s no practically no evidence of voter impersonation in America, whereas the burdens of voter ID laws are much better understand.
“The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin,” Adelman wrote. “The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past…. It is absolutely clear that Act 23 will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.”
The absence of a compelling state interest and the presence of a discriminatory impact on blacks and Hispanics—which was not the case in Indiana—led Adelman to block the law.
2. Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the Crawford decision, is now a critic of voter ID laws.
“My opinion should not be taken as authority that voter-ID laws are always OK,” he told The Wall Street Journal last year. “The decision in the case is state-specific and record-specific.”
Stevens now says he agrees with Judge Souter’s dissent in the case. “As a matter of actual history, he’s dead right. The impact of the statute is much more serious” on poor, minority, disabled and elderly voters than the evidence in the 2008 case indicated, Stevens said.
3. Approving a law of this magnitude less than two months before a major election is certain to cause electoral chaos. Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been blocked since March 2012—in four different lawsuits in state and federal court.
Nine percent of Wisconsin’s electorate lacks a government-issued ID, compared to Indiana, where 99 percent of registered voters had ID.
Even if these hundreds of thousands of voters possess the underlying documentation to obtain a voter ID—like a birth certificate (seven witnesses at the trial didn’t have access to theirs)—they’d still have trouble getting one.
According to an amicus brief filed by One Wisconsin Now, 257,000 voting-age Wisconsinites don’t have a car in their household. Moreover, only thirty-three of Wisconsin’s ninety-two DMVs are open full-time during business hours. Wisconsin is very different from Indiana in that respect, notes the brief:
41 [DMVs] are open just two days each week, seven are open just a few hours for one day each month, and three are open just one day every quarter.… Only one DMV service center in the entire state of Wisconsin is open on a Saturday. No other DMV in the entire state operates in the evenings or on weekends.
Nearly all of Indiana’s 140 BMVs are open five days a week, Wisconsin has only 33 full-time sites; Indiana has 124 that are open on the weekends, Wisconsin has one.
According to the DMV website, the 92 DMV service centers are open for a combined total of approximately 9000 hours per month. If the 330,000 electors [without ID] attempted to obtain their ID during the one-month period preceding the election, the DMV would need to process on average 37 eligible electors each hour, every day of operation for the entire month.
4. Wisconsin Republicans also eliminated early voting hours on nights and weekends in 2014, which further reduces access to the polls. Over 250,000 Wisconsinites voted early in 2012, one in twelve overall voters, favoring Obama 58 to 41 percent over Romney.
Take a look at this chart:
It just so happens that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a major proponent of voter ID laws and cutting early voting, is locked in a tight re-election race against Democrat Mary Burke. Is making it more difficult for people to vote his strategy for victory?
Saturday marks twenty years since the Violence Against Women Act was signed into law. The country has made real progress toward reducing domestic violence, thanks in many ways to VAWA. Domestic violence incidents rates have dropped 64 percent since 1993; murders have also decreased. VAWA vastly expanded resources for shelters, crisis centers and hotlines, as well as education programs, safe public transportation and research, all meant to prevent violence.
Clearly, there is work to be done. And much of the unfinished work of VAWA is increasing the economic security of women in abusive situations.
Intimate partner violence and economic status are inextricably intertwined. Three-quarters of victims say they stayed with their abusers longer because of economic reasons. It’s not hard to see why: a woman leaving an abusive partner will need housing and employment to stay independent, but both are put at risk by the abuse itself. Workplaces are public spaces that can be easy for abusers to access: the leading cause of death for women at work is homicide. And controlling women financially by threatening their jobs is a way of making them stay longer.
Yet in forty-three states, there is no legal protection to keep women from being fired because they are victims of domestic abuse. Just four states that do have protections go further and mandate that reasonable accommodations, like changing phone numbers or desk locations, be given to victims so they can stay on the job without risking their health.
The lack of employment protections can lead to situations like the one Carie Charlesworth, a teacher in California, found herself in. Her abusive husband invaded her school’s parking lot and put the school on lockdown—and then the school fired her because of the endangerment. Many women go through this: in a study of thirty-two women in abusive relationships, 91 percent ended up fired or resigning from their jobs because of their abuse. Firing someone for these reasons doesn’t just re-victimize her, it also cuts off a lifeline she’ll need to be able to escape the situation.
A federal law to protect all victims from employment discrimination was introduced in March, but it hasn’t even been referred to committee or scheduled for a vote.
Troubles don’t end for women once they’re fired for their abuse, however. Eighteen states ensure that these women can get unemployment benefits, but women in the remaining thirty-two may not even be able to tap that lifeline once they’re out of work, leaving them even more vulnerable. Ensuring that all women can get unemployment benefits if their abusers succeed in getting them fired would create the most basic baseline of support.
Housing is also a huge issue for victims of violence. As Monica McLaughlin of the National Network to End Domestic Violence told MSNBC’s Irin Carmon, “When we do our survey every year, we ask service providers, ‘What are survivors asking from you?’ And housing rises to the top every time.” Nearly 10,000 victims are turned away from services on a typical day, and more than 40 percent of those women are seeking emergency housing, while 18 percent need transitional housing. Twenty percent of homeless women say that domestic violence is the primary reason they don’t have housing.
And over the past twenty-five years, communities began adopting “crime-free housing” ordinances, which mean landlords can kick out tenants who have a certain number of visits from police. That may mean victims of abuse face a choice between calling the authorities when they’re being hurt and risking eviction or not calling and staying in their homes. RH Reality Check’s Annamarya Scaccia found sixty known ordinances like these around the country. VAWA protects those in federally subsidized housing, while twenty-five states and Washington, DC, have laws that are meant to protect victims from eviction. But some, such as North Carolina’s, are weak—merely prohibiting housing discrimination against victims. In all other states, victims put their private housing at risk simply for calling for help.
There are certainly other measures that can protect more women. As Carmon writes, it can be all too easy for an abuser to get a gun, something that significantly increases the chance that a woman will be killed by her partner, and there are ways to keep those guns out of abusers’ hands. Increasing funding for existing services, which have been starved in recent years, would also help. But until we address the economic barriers victims face, many will continue to be trapped in dangerous, and often deadly, situations.
“Homeland” is back. Not just the Showtime drama, which is returning in October, but the word, with all its totalitarian-lite implications. As if they flipped a collective switch, pundits, politicians and President Obama transformed America overnight into “the Homeland,” a place both pastoral and martial, where fearsome invaders are always heaving at the gate.
And the word has Chris Matthews hopping mad. “I am very uncomfortable with the phrase ‘homeland.’ It strikes me as totalitarian,” he said in a long rant on Hardball earlier this week:
It’s a term used by the neocons, they love it. It suggests something strange to me. Like who else are we defending except America? Why don’t you just say ‘America’? Why doesn’t [Obama] say we defended against attacks against this country? As if we’re facing some existential Armageddon threat from these people. Do you buy the phrase ‘homeland’? I never heard it growing up, never heard it in my adulthood. It’s a new word. Why are we using it? Is there some other place we’re defending? What are we talking about when we say ‘homeland’? What’s it about?
Actually, it’s not a new word at all. When used to refer to America (and not the “homelands” of other people, as in “the Palestinian homeland”), “homeland” first hit these shores in 2001 just weeks after 9/11, when George W. Bush formed the Department of Homeland Security. The word became an overnight sensation as media figures—though few real people—robotically substituted it for “America.” In his 2002 book Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think, Chris Matthews himself solemnly invoked the term.
But today Matthews is right: “Homeland” gives off an authoritarian vibe. It evokes the Russian Motherland, the German Fatherland and, worse, the Nazi’s “Heimat,” or homeland.
Watch the video:
Matthews can be unintentionally hilarious when chews on a bone, which he does like no one else in the press. But his emotional overreactions to what seem like mere pet peeves can be a mood ring for the national psyche. Whether it’s a tingling up his leg over the charismatic 2008 Obama (which in all honesty had other people’s limbs tingling, too), or a fury at Republicans clipping the adjective Democratic to the rodent-like DemocRAT, the man is often on to something.
And now he’s a human thermometer taking measure of war fever. This time around, he doesn’t want to be played like a chump, as he was when he initially supported the invasion of Iraq and said, in 2003, “We’re all neo-cons now.”
Now he’s not. “WMD. Homeland. It’s the language of the neocons,” he says. “It’s the language to get us further into wars.”
“Homeland” immediately puts us on a warlike footing, but with extra goodness built in. (In 2001 I wrote, “If at worst ‘homeland’ sounds a bit totalitarian, at best it sounds like a new line of Campbell’s soups.”) It has all the easy and shallow patriotism of “USA! USA!” but with loads of gravitas.
“Homeland” is more specific than “America”—it encourages us to visualize ourselves getting bombed or buried under debris from falling office towers, to see America as a fortress that can and will be breached.
And the heightened ability to visualize horror is what’s driving us now toward war (or, as John Kerry puts it, “a very significant counter-terrorism operation”). Americans’ big shift toward supporting air strikes in Iraq and Syria came only came after seeing the beheadings of two Americans on video. Visuals, or “optics,” rule. (See “Has The World Been Bamboozled By The ISIS PR Machine?”)
In the first episode of the coming Homeland, agent Carrie Mathison is dubbed “the Drone Queen,” and she doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe that’s because she can’t visualize the people she’s blowing up as more than stick figures. In Season 2, Homeland was one of Obama’s favorite shows. Will he still be a fan?
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Yehun and Miriam have little hope for the future.
“We didn’t do anything and they destroyed our house,” Miriam told me. “We are appealing to the mayor, but there have been no answers. The government does not know where we live now, so it is not possible for them to compensate us even if they wanted.”
Like the other residents of Legetafo—a small, rural town about twenty kilometers from Addis Ababa—Yehun and Miriam are subsistence farmers. Or rather, they were, before government bulldozers demolished their home and the authorities confiscated their land. The government demolished fifteen houses in Legetafo in July.
The farmers in the community stood in the streets, attempting to prevent the demolitions, but the protests were met with swift and harsh government repression. Many other Oromo families on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s bustling capital are now wondering whether their communities could be next.
These homes were demolished in order to implement what’s being called Ethiopia’s “Integrated Master Plan.” The IMP has been heralded by its advocates as a bold modernization plan for the “Capital of Africa.”
The plan intends to integrate Addis Ababa with the surrounding towns in Oromia, one of the largest states in Ethiopia and home to the Oromo ethnic group—which, with about a third of the country’s population, is its largest single ethnic community. While the plan’s proponents consider the territorial expansion of the capital to be another example of what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the country’s “terrific efforts” toward development, others argue that the plan favors a narrow group of ethnic elites while repressing the citizens of Oromia.
“At least two people were shot and injured,” according to Miriam, a 28-year-old Legetafo farmer whose home was demolished that day. “The situation is very upsetting. We asked to get our property before the demolition, but they refused. Some people were shot. Many were beaten and arrested. My husband was beaten repeatedly with a stick by the police while in jail.”
Yehun, a 20-year-old farmer from the town, said the community was given no warning about the demolitions. “I didn’t even have time to change my clothes,” he said sheepishly. Yehun and his family walked twenty kilometers barefoot to Sendafa, where his extended family could take them in.
The Price of Resistance
Opponents of the plan have been met with fierce repression.
“The Integrated Master Plan is a threat to Oromia as a nation and as a people,” Fasil stated, leaning forward in a scuffed hotel armchair. Reading from notes scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, the hardened student activist continued: “The plan would take away territory from Oromia,” depriving the region of tax revenue and political representation, “and is a cultural threat to the Oromo people living there.”
A small scar above his eye, deafness in one ear and a lingering gastrointestinal disease picked up in prison testify to Fasil’s commitment to the cause. His injuries come courtesy of the police brutality he encountered during the four-year prison sentence he served after he was arrested for protesting for Oromo rights in high school and, more recently, against the IMP at Addis Ababa University.
Fasil is just one of the estimated thousands of students who were detained during university protests against the IMP. Though Fasil was beaten, electrocuted and harassed while he was imprisoned last May, he considers himself lucky. “We know that sixty-two students were killed and 125 are still missing,” he confided in a low voice.
The students ground their protests in Ethiopia’s federal Constitution. “We are merely asking that the government abide by the Constitution,” Fasil explained, arguing that the plan violates at least eight constitutional provisions. In particular, the students claim that the plan violates Article 49(5), which protects “the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa” and gives the district the right to resist federal incursions into “administrative matters.”
Moreover, the plan presents a tangible threat to the people living in Oromia. Fasil and other student protesters claimed that the IMP “would allow the city to expand to a size that would completely cut off West Oromia from East Oromia.” When the plan is fully implemented, an estimated 2 million farmers will be displaced. “These farmers will have no other opportunities,” Fasil told me. “We have seen this before when the city grew. When they lose their land, the farmers will become day laborers or beggars.”
Winners and Losers
The controversy highlights the disruptive and often violent processes that can accompany economic growth. “What is development, after all?” Fasil asked me.
Ethiopia’s growth statistics are some of the most impressive in the region. Backed by aid from the US government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country’s ruling coalition, is committed to modernizing agricultural production and upgrading the country’s economy. Yet there is a lack of consensus about which processes should be considered developmental.
Oromo activists allege that their community has borne a disproportionate share of the costs of development. Advocates like Fasil argue that the “development” programs of the EPRDF are simply a means of marginalizing the Oromo people to consolidate political power within the ruling coalition.
“Ethiopia has a federalism based on identity and language,” explained an Ethiopian political science professor who works on human rights. Nine distinct regions are divided along ethnic lines and are theoretically granted significant autonomy from the central government under the 1994 Constitution. In practice, however, the regions are highly dependent on the central government for revenue transfers and food security, development and health programs. Since the inception of Ethiopia’s ethno-regional federalism, the Oromo have been resistant to incorporation in the broader Ethiopian state and suspicious of the intentions of the Tigray ethnic group, which dominates the EPRDF.
As the 2015 elections approach, the Integrated Master Plan may provide a significant source of political mobilization. “The IMP is part of a broader conflict in Ethiopia over identity, power and political freedoms,” said the professor, who requested anonymity.
Standing in Gullele Botanic Park in May, Secretary of State Kerry was effusive about the partnership between the United States and Ethiopia, praising the Ethiopian government’s “terrific support in efforts not just with our development challenges and the challenges of Ethiopia itself, but also…the challenges of leadership on the continent and beyond.”
Kerry’s rhetoric is matched by a significant amount of US financial support. In 2013, Washington allocated more than $619 million in foreign assistance to Ethiopia, making it one of the largest recipients of US aid on the continent. According to USAID, Ethiopia is “the linchpin to stability in the Horn of Africa and the Global War on Terrorism.”
Kerry asserted that “the United States could be a vital catalyst in this continent’s continued transformation.” Yet if “transformation” entails land seizures, home demolitions and political repression, then it’s worth questioning just what kind of development American taxpayers are subsidizing.
The American people must wrestle with the implications of “development assistance” programs and the thin line between modernization and marginalization in countries like Ethiopia. Though the US government has occasionally expressed concern about the oppressive tendencies of the Ethiopian regime, few demands for reform have accompanied aid.
For the EPRDF, the process of expanding Addis Ababa is integral to the modernization of Ethiopia and the opportunities inherent to development. For the Oromo people, the Integrated Master Plan is a political and cultural threat. For the residents of Legetafo, the demolition of their homes demonstrates the uncertainty of life in a rapidly changing country.
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In 2002 I moved back to my hometown, Cincinnati, for a few years. I was drawn in part by activism there in the wake of the police shooting of a 19-year-old black teenager named Timothy Thomas and subsequent riots. The outrage and sense that real change was possible were strong, as I imagine they’ve been in Ferguson, Missouri, since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown there last month.
Cincinnati has been in the news lately for exactly this reason, drawing comparisons to Ferguson at The Washington Post, The New Republic and elsewhere. The upshot seems to be that Cincinnati emerged from the upheaval of April 2001 with improved police-community relations and that Ferguson’s residents can look there for guidance on how to move forward. Among the evidence that’s been offered to support this claim: in the six years leading up Cincinnati’s pivotal shooting, fifteen men—all of whom were black—died at the hands of police. In the ten years since, eight men have been killed by police, six of whom were black.
Those involved in Cincinnati’s reforms point to two developments that have led to the drop in police killings and what they say is an increase residents’ trust of police: (1) The Department of Justice investigation and subsequent “consent decree,” that is, a settlement between the city’s police department and the federal agency; and (2) the Collaborative Agreement, a document—negotiated and agreed to by city government, local activists and the police union—that led to reforms such as improving police training, setting up a civilian complaint board and equipping police with tasers with the expectation that they would then be less likely to use lethal force. It’s the blueprint that figures in heavily with what Cincinnati organizers have offered Ferguson in recent weeks.
The people of Ferguson have already secured Justice Department involvement. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his agency’s intention to examine whether there’s a pattern and practice of racially discriminatory policing and civil rights violations in Ferguson. Already, there’s debate about how meaningful the federal government’s involvement can be. During a recent segment of Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, guest Phillip Atiba Goff put the onus squarely on city officials, arguing that a consent decree is “really a lever for progressive law enforcement that wants to do the right thing.” In other words, if city leadership is resistant, it’s a safe bet that no substantive change will result.
It’s an interesting argument, given that my memories of then-Chief Thomas Streicher in Cincinnati are not of a forward-thinking reformer. And he wasn’t, according to those who covered his tenure. The experience may have changed him. Streicher is on the record a decade later praising aspects of federal involvement in Cincinnati:
Thomas Streicher, the former Cincinnati police chief, said his city’s consent decree transformed the way the department analyzed police shootings. Police began to look not only at whether they were justified in shooting, but whether officers could have used less-deadly tactics. “Instead of creating a condition where police have to use force, create a condition that eradicates the need to use force,” Streicher said.
Others there agree that federal intervention provided a much-needed stick and shook local leaders from their own inertia:
People who were involved with the Cincinnati agreement insist that Department of Justice monitoring is crucial. Federal oversight kept opposing sides at the table in the early days of negotiations. “A lot of it was forced, initially,” said Robin Engel, who heads the Institute of Crime Science at the University of Cincinnati and helped police implement reforms.
Cincinnati has seen changes in how police approach the community. A civilian complaint board was established in 2002 to independently investigate allegations of misconduct. Cameras have been placed in squad cards. The foot pursuit policy has changed, requiring officers to consider whether chasing a suspect makes sense given the seriousness of the offense. Officers who shoot civilians are immediately named publicly.
That’s not to say that all is rosy in my hometown, and listing improvements isn’t meant to imply that Ferguson should adopt some one-size-fits-all approach to addressing racial bias in policing. There isn’t one. But as we continue to pay attention to the demands made and victories secured by Missouri activists and the commitments national organizers are making to building on the movement there, it’s worth reflecting on lessons learned a decade ago in another Midwestern city.
It’s the classic Catch-22 of the doomed job search: How do you get a job? You need experience. And how do you get experience? Get a job. But for many, the unemployment cycle gets further twisted when it intersects with the debt cycle. When prospective employers run credit checks, a bad report becomes a financial scarlet letter.
New York City policymakers are pushing a landmark bill that could free workers from the chains of bad credit history—pernicious records of old debt or loan defaults. The new City Council legislation would impose a general “ban on personal credit checks by all employers, employment agencies and licensing agencies.” The measure aims to comprehensively shield workers from what economic justice advocates see as an arbitrary and inherently discriminatory screening process.
Those most affected by “bad credit” histories are typically victims of circumstance, not con artists. They’re often people who’ve fallen on hard times, like Alfred Carpenter, who recalled in an interview with the advocacy group New Economy Project (NEP) how a bad knee injury, combined with a lack of health insurance, drove him into bankruptcy:
I started noticing, everywhere I went, I suddenly was not good enough to work there. Then I realized it was the bankruptcy. I went to [look for jobs at] all these nice stores where they loved me…. But the bankruptcy just killed me. I was on welfare for awhile—there’s no reason a guy like me should be on welfare, a strong, able guy who’s a very good worker—but basically it was a blacklist.
But don’t credit checks reveal useful background information about how trustworthy a job-seeker is, especially if they are seeking a job in, say, sales or security? Actually, there’s no evidence that credit reports correlate with a prospective employee’s competence or propensity to commit financial crime, and plenty of evidence that they invade privacy and institutionalize discrimination.
The credit history check, say labor advocates, is not an effective evaluation tool but an arbitrary measurement that tracks people into a self-fulfilling prophecy of structural disadvantage. Many people’s credit problems are not their fault, but the result of the joblessness and turmoil of the recession. Meanwhile, these checks are routinely used by big retailers when vetting applicants for low-wage jobs, which also feed into social inequality in the communities beset with cyclical debt and poverty.
According to survey data analyzed by Demos, “Households that include someone without health coverage are more than twice as likely to report that their credit score has declined a lot in the past three years.” Medical debt is hardly a measure of one’s character—unless you want to blame poor people for their poor health.
Sometimes the credit stain comes from heavy student loan debt. This not only penalizes those trying to invest in the promise of higher education, but also disproportionately burdens students of color, particularly amid the steadily rising cost of college.
“These credit reports are really a proxy for race,” says NEP Co-Director Sarah Ludwig. Since one’s credit history is colored by structural social deficits, she adds, “the credit information is a reflection back of a financial system that is itself inequitable. So you use that to deny people jobs, and you’re just perpetuating inequality.”
Originally designed for loan applications, the credit-checking industry, dominated by three mammoth financial firms Equifax, Experian and Transunion, has expanded in recent years to shape various arenas of economic life, from jobs to housing to insurance plans.
Botched credit forecloses economic opportunity on a massive scale. According to Demos, about 10 percent of unemployed people surveyed “have been informed that they would not be hired…because of the information in their credit report.” And yes, paradoxically, experiencing extended unemployment is also linked to poor credit, which in turn worsens employment prospects.
Often the information in a credit report is not just irrelevant but even inaccurate. Surveys analyzed by state Public Interest Research Groups show that an estimated 70 percent of credit reports “contained either serious errors or other mistakes,” such as incomplete loan records.
In a testimony for NEP, former Marine Emmet Pinkston said that an erroneous credit report led to a rejection from a job with the Transportation Security Administration, which he should have qualified for, and derailed his long-term job prospects. “One by one,” he recalled, “other jobs started to say: ‘Look, you have to do something about your credit.’ So I found myself stuck at a very low income job. The credit entry was inaccurate, it was wrong to begin with.”
The racial trendlines reveal the role of credit in promoting self-justifying segregation. Demos reports that “sixty-five percent of white households in our sample describe their credit scores as good or excellent,” compared with 44 percent of black households. Black families are more likely to report “fair or poor” credit history. In sum, credit checks are a measure of the unfairness of the economy, rather than the trustworthiness of an individual.
But some communities have acted to curb employment credit checks. As of 2013, ten states, including California, Illinois and Connecticut, have passed laws limiting the use of credit checks. Last year, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced parallel federal legislation in Congress.
The New York bill would be one of the most comprehensive of its kind, broadly barring all employers and agencies from using credit history for employment purposes under the city’s human rights law. The only exemption would be jobs explicitly subject to credit checks under state or federal law.
In a statement announcing the bill, Council Member I. Daneek Miller of Queens argued: “Rather than accept this discrimination, which occurs primarily in communities of color, we should work to ensure that all [job applicants] have an equal opportunity in the hiring process.”
The bill has broad support from the City Council’s Progressive Caucus and advocacy groups, but faces the looming threat of the financial industry lobby, which is known for campaigning fiercely to weaken similar legislation in other jurisdictions.
By decisively preventing poor credit from tainting the hiring process, NEP hopes to turn the tables of the financial gauntlet by demanding accountability from the credit industry’s gatekeepers. “We don’t have illusions that ending employment credit checks solves all problems,” says Ludwig, “but we do believe that it…will go a long way to eliminate this completely unjustifiable barrier to jobs.”
Since there’s no reason for a spotty financial past to cloud a person’s economic future, a simple block on credit checks might give countless workers a chance to prove their real worth—by starting with the clean slate they deserve.
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The pregame program of the profoundly awkward Thursday night CBS game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens was on a toboggan ride toward collective mortification. An NFL reeling from the revealed reality that it cares nothing about domestic violence—or women at all beyond their capacity to buy its crap—was in a drowning death grip with a CBS network that had spent billions on its new Thursday night NFL package. On the day of the broadcast, CBS realized that having a pregame video of Rihanna, who before this week could safely be called the most well-known domestic violence survivor on the planet, did not seem like the best of ideas. The network also belatedly came to understand that it could not just light some fireworks and pretend this was business as usual, not when Jon Stewart, gesturing for so many of us, took time Wednesday night to give the league a one-finger salute. Not when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was continuing in real time to drown in lies about what he knew and when he knew it.
So CBS responded to the mushrooming scandal by putting on its “Bizarro Olivia Pope” hat and revamped the entire operation. Struck from the set was the Rihanna opener. Smashed to smithereens was the pomp and fireworks. Instead, CBS presented an awkward, hybrid news/sports/entertainment set featuring respected members of its news division alongside the CBS and NFL Network jockocracy. “Norah O’Donnell and Deion Sanders break down domestic violence, only on CBS!” Clearly the golden goose had to be saved. All hands were on deck, and any pretense of a separation between CBS’ news and entertainment wings, or between CBS and the NFL, were out the window.
Instead, we had Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti speaking about this being “a seminal moment for domestic violence” and a series of pregame news reports about the “sobriety” of this moment. The method was obvious: if CBS and the NFL—together!—could show that they take domestic violence seriously, then fans could exhale and, having its guilt at watching Goodell’s league expiated, sit back to enjoy the commodified violence on the field of play. It was just “Are you ready for some football?” except instead of Hank Williams Jr., Scott Pelley was on hand to get us in the mood. The entire operation felt about as sincere as Roger Goodell’s “independent” investigation into whether the NFL had seen the tape of Ray Rice removing his then-fiancée Janay from consciousness.
Then James Brown, the longtime anchor of CBS NFL coverage, actually brought something of profound value to the proceedings. Speaking directly to the camera, Brown said the following. (You are going to want to reread this and share it as widely as possible.)
Two years ago I challenged the NFL community and all men to seriously confront the problem of domestic violence, especially coming on the heels of the murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs football player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins. Yet, here we are again dealing with the same issue of violence against women.
Now let’s be clear, this problem is bigger than football. There has been, appropriately so, intense and widespread outrage following the release of the video showing what happened inside the elevator at the casino. But wouldn’t it be productive if this collective outrage, as my colleagues have said, could be channeled to truly hear and address the long-suffering cries for help by so many women? And as they said, do something about it? Like an ongoing education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about.
And it starts with how we view women. Our language is important. For instance, when a guy says, ‘You throw the ball like a girl’ or ‘You’re a little sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion. Women have been at the forefront in the domestic violence awareness and prevention arena. And whether Janay Rice considers herself a victim or not, millions of women in this country are.
Consider this: according to domestic violence experts, more than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners. That means that since the night February 15th in Atlantic City [when the elevator incident occurred], more than 600 women have died.
So this is yet another call to men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds and as Deion [Sanders] says to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly.
Damn. Thank you, James Brown. Thank you for speaking up and speaking out. Thank you for using your platform for some good. The historian Howard Zinn famously once said, “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” There is also no “internal investigation” deep enough, no pregame show somber enough, no press conference emotional enough, to cover the shame of how the the culture of the NFL has enabled violence against women both inside and outside the league. There are many roads that lead toward ending domestic violence: fighting poverty, creating more resources for survivors and building a less degrading society are all imperatives. But in addition to that, domestic violence will never end until men see it as both a political principle and a moral imperative to stand up and say, “No more.” In front of an audience of millions, James Brown has officially launched that conversation.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Take a look at the World section of nearly any mainstream news outlet and the main story will be Iraq, Syria, Ukraine or Gaza—all of which are suffering acutely from their respective conflicts. Yet even together they hardly enjoy a monopoly on gruesome civil wars or protracted refugee crises.
At a time of so many global calamities, it’s easy for smaller countries in which the United States lacks a vested interest to fall by the wayside. And that’s exactly what’s happened in the Central African Republic (CAR).
For the past two years, sectarian Christian and Muslim militias in CAR have been waging war against each other’s communities with horrific violence. Over 2,600 Central Africans have died, and nearly 1 million of the country’s 4.5 million residents have been displaced, creating an urgent humanitarian crisis.
Yet although the country is teetering on the edge of complete chaos, the outside world is paying very little attention.
Coup and Counter-Coup
An aptly named country in the heart of the African continent, CAR has a history shared by countries throughout Africa and the broader post-colonial world: colonization followed by independence and subsequent political turmoil.
Since gaining its independence from France in 1960, the small country has seen at least five coup d’états and numerous protracted civil conflicts, many of which have exploited the country’s ethnic, religious and regional divisions.
The latest unrest dates back at least to 2003. That year, former CAR army chief of staff François Bozizéseized the presidency from Ange-Félix Patassé, who had been CAR’s first democratically elected leader but whose rule had been marked by civil strife and upheld by foreign troops.
A civil war, known as the Central African Republic Bush War, broke out the following year when rebel groups attempted to overthrow Bozizé. The war raged for four years before a shaky truce was reached. However, violence resurged in December 2012, when rebel groups accused the government of not abiding by the peace agreements that were signed at the end of the Bush War.
By March 2013, the mostly Muslim Seleka faction had ousted Bozizé and installed Michel Djotodia as president, making him the majority-Christian country’s first Muslim leader. Yet this apparent political victory did little to stem the unrest the Seleka were sowing throughout the countryside. By June 2013, rampaging Seleka fighters had deliberately killed scores of civilians and destroyed 1,000 homes in Bangui and other provinces.
In an effort to distance himself from their violent crimes, Djotodia attempted to disband the Seleka militias last September, but many of them refused to disarm. The Seleka burned villages, looted homes and murdered civilians as swaths of the country descended into lawlessness.
The brutality of Seleka gave rise to the mostly Christian militias known as the anti-balaka. The new militias, whose name means “anti-machete,” proceeded to carry out their own violent reprisal attacks on Muslim villages, introducing a dangerous sectarian element to a conflict where civilians were targeted with increasing frequency.
Last December, the fighting dramatically escalated, with anti-balaka forces launching coordinated attacks on Seleka fighters in the capital city of Bangui. They also deliberately targeted Muslim civilians, including women and children. In retaliation, Seleka fighters murdered more Christian civilians. Amid the increasing sectarian violence around the capital and international pressure calling for him to step down, Djotodia resigned the following month.
The United Nations drafted a resolution authorizing France to send troops to the beleaguered nation last December. In April, as the crisis showed no signs of de-escalation, the Security Council voted unanimously to send 12,000 peacekeeping troops set to arrive in September, in addition to the 2,000 French soldiers.
Political developments inside CAR have so far done little to stem the violence. A tentative late July ceasefirefell apart after only a couple of days. In August, CAR elected its first Muslim prime minister, Mahamat Kamoun, but the Seleka fighters have rejected him and are refusing to join the unity government. Clashes continue while the fate of the people remains in the balance.
Women and Children First in Suffering
The human toll of the conflict has been considerable. A UN report from January found rampant violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, mutilations and targeting of civilians based on religion.
Much of this abuse has been directed at innocent women and children. Last December, for example, UNICEF reported the gruesome beheadings of two children and the mutilation of another.
Meanwhile, children fleeing the violence have fallen prey to disease and malnutrition while trekking across jungles to the relative safety of their neighbors’ lands. Many children are unable to return to school, while those lucky enough to attend have been crammed into overcrowded classrooms.
For women, the biggest fear remains sexual violence. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) opened up two women’s centers in early 2014 and interviewed 125 women and girls—the youngest being only 7 years old—who had come to the group for help. Of those 125, a startling 84 percent had been raped.
The prospects for rape survivors getting assistance remain grim. The combination of limited resources and a culture that typically remains silent in the face of sexual violence means that many women will never receive help.
Although both sides of this sectarian conflict have perpetrated horrific violence on militants and civilians, the anti-balaka fighters are currently the main perpetrators, according to Human Rights Watch. Alongside vicious attacks against civilians, anti-balaka fighters have pillagedand burned mosques in what Amnesty International has described as a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in the western part of the country.
Some 300,000 Muslims have fled CAR altogether, while others remain in hiding, hoping that French and or African peacekeepers will be able to provide them with protection.
But it’s a fraught existence, even for those who find help. Earlier this year, neighboring Chad sent special forces to evacuate scores of Muslims from Bangui. Christians cheered as a convoy of trucks, sent to the airport and to mosques to pick up Muslim evacuees, left the city, headed towards Chad. When a Muslim man fell off the truck, he was attacked by a mob that cut off his hands and genitals.
A Wave of Refugees
The fighting is creating a displacement crisis that could grow to rival Syria’s if left unchecked.
As of July 2014, there were 528,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Central African Republic—that’s 12 percent of the population—and 60 percent of the figure are children.
The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) estimates that there are nearly seventy makeshift refugee camps in Bangui alone—including the M’Poko Airport, where nearly 100,000 people have gathered for safety. As security issues abound, the UN’s World Food Program has struggled to deliver food to M’Poko.
But outside of Bangui, information on the location and condition of IDP camps is extremely limited. Very few government officials or international observers are even present in the provinces outside the capital, making information difficult to gather.
Another 398,000 people have taken refuge in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other neighboring countries, which are hardly paragons of stability or human rights themselves. (A Haitian saying—“running from the rain but falling in the river”—comes to mind.)
Meanwhile, CAR is facing a dire humanitarian situation. According to USAID, as many as 2.5 million people need immediate assistance, and 1.7 million people face acute food insecurity.
The World Is Not Watching
The international community hasn’t done nearly enough to alleviate the suffering in CAR. In 2013, CAR was the fifth most underfunded UN appeal and appeared in ECHO’s “Forgotten Crisis Assessment” in both 2012 and 2013.
In January of this year, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released the Central African Republic Strategic Response Plan, requesting $551 million for emergency assistance. But according to OCHA’s financial tracking service, only about $366 million has been pledged by donors. Organizations that provide vital services, like the World Food Program, are still reporting substantial funding shortfalls.
Not only has the international community failed CAR, the media’s scant coverage of the crisis means that the average Westerner is wholly unaware of what’s happening in the country. Unlike for Gaza, there have been no marches or protests in support of humanitarian aid for the civilians in the Central African Republic.
“Unfortunately, there does not exist much political will to address human rights crises in Africa, even those on the grand scale and magnitude of what’s been occurring in CAR,” explains human rights activist and Africa expert Jeffrey Smith. “A case in point is the recently concluded US-Africa Leaders Summit, which did not address the underpinning issues of human rights or good governance in a meaningful or genuine way.”
Crises like the situation in Central African Republic “do not merely erupt spontaneously or overnight,” adds Smith. “They are quite often the result of long-term and routine human rights abuses that are left unaddressed.”
President Obama’s foray into Iraq has been billed as a humanitarian intervention. If the United States actually intervened in countries for purely humanitarian reasons, there would be millions of dollars in aid money and assistance for the country in the heart of Africa that is on the brink of collapse.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” has been the cry of the thousands who took to the streets seeking justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9. According to multiple witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air—a gesture generally understood to signal surrender—when Wilson shot him to death. The police have a different story: they say Brown was the aggressor, having reached for Wilson’s gun while the officer was still in his vehicle, and later charging toward Wilson. This version of the story, frankly, sounds ridiculous. And now there’s more reason that ever to doubt the police’s explanation. CNN has reported on two witnesses that had not previously given statements to journalists:
Two men, shocked at what they saw, describe an unarmed teenager with his hands up in the air as he’s gunned down by a police officer. They were contractors doing construction work in Ferguson, Missouri, on the day Michael Brown was killed.And the men, who asked not to be identified after CNN contacted them, said they were about 50 feet away from Officer Darren Wilson when he opened fire. An exclusive cell phone video captures their reactions during the moments just after the shooting.
“He had his f**n hands up,” one of the men says in the video. The man told CNN he heard one gunshot, then another shot about 30 seconds later. “The cop didn’t say get on the ground. He just kept shooting,” the man said. That same witness described the gruesome scene, saying he saw Brown’s “brains come out of his head,” again stating, “his hands were up.”
At this point, I need someone to answer this question for me like I’m stupid: What else is needed to arrest Darren Wilson? I’m not asking what a prosecutor would need to for a murder conviction, or even what a grand jury would need to bring formal charges. What else is needed for police to say, “Darren Wilson, you shot and killed someone, you are under arrest”? What more?
At least six witnesses have given near-identical accounts of what happened to Michael Brown. A shot was fired, Brown ran, Wilson kept firing, Brown put his hands in the air, and Wilson kept shooting. The autopsy shows Brown was hit six times. He was unarmed. What more do you need to make an arrest?
And I’m not of the belief that arrest, a trial or even imprisonment constitute real justice. That punishment model does not create a more just world. But currently, it’s what we have. If under this system, the value of black life is such that an 18-year-old can be shot and killed in cold blood and the police can’t even place the person responsible in handcuffs—a month and counting later—I find it difficult to maintain faith that we’ll one day move to model of justice that respects black humanity. Our lives are too expendable.
A majority of the United States Senate has voted to advance a constitutional amendment to restore the ability of Congress and the states to establish campaign fundraising and spending rules with an eye toward preventing billionaires and corporations from buying elections.
“Today was a historic day for campaign finance reform, with more than half of the Senate voting on a constitutional amendment to make it clear that the American people have the right to regulate campaign finance,” declared Senator Tom Udall, the New Mexico Democrat who in June proposed his amendment to address some of the worst results of the Supreme Court’s interventions in with the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decisions, as well as the 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that it’s going to take more than a majority to renew democracy.
Fifty-four senators, all Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats, voted Thursday for the amendment to clarify in the Constitution that Congress and the states have the authority to do what they did for a century before activist judges began intervening on behalf of wealthy donors and corporations: enact meaningful campaign finance rules and regulations.
But forty-two senators, all Republicans, voted no. As a result, Udall noted, the Republican minority was able to “filibuster this measure and instead choose to support a broken system that prioritizes corporations and billionaires over regular voters.”
The Republican opposition effectively blocked further consideration of the amendment proposal, since sixty votes were needed to end debate and force a vote. And, even if the Republicans had not filibustered the initiative, actual passage of an amendment would have required a two-thirds vote.
Though the Republican move was anticipated, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has been one of the Senate’s most ardent advocates for reform, expressed frustration with the result. “I am extremely disappointed that not one Republican voted today to stop billionaires from buying elections and undermining American democracy,” said the senator, who has advocated for a more sweeping amendment to address the influence and power of corporate cash on American elections and governance. “While the Senate vote was a victory for Republicans, it was a defeat for American democracy. The Koch brothers and other billionaires should not be allowed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars electing candidates who represent the wealthy and the powerful.“
Now, said Sanders, “the fight to overturn Citizens United must continue at the grassroots level in every state in this country.”
Sanders is right to reference the role of grassroots movements.
Four years ago, when the US Supreme Court removed barriers to corporate spending to buy elections, serious reformers said a constitutional amendment would be necessary to reverse the Court’s Citizens United ruling. Most pundits and politicians, even those who recognized the threat posed to democracy by the opening of the floodgates for big money, dismissed a constitutional fix as too bold and too difficult to achieve.
But the people embraced the constitutional route to reform. Grassroots organizing succeeded in getting sixteen states and close to 600 communities to formally demand that Congress act.
At the same time, the money poured in, with campaigning spending breaking records in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections—and heading toward breaking the record for midterm elections in 2014.
That was enough to shake up even the most cautious Senate Democrats, who began moving earlier this year to advance the Udall amendment. Though activists wanted a stronger amendment, the Senate deliberations confirmed that there is broad support for a constitutional response to the money-in-politics mess—and that a substantial number of senators now see that constitutional response as right and necessary.
“Less than five years after the Citizens United decision sparked national outrage, we have seen the movement to get big money out of politics go from local, grassroots organizing to a vote in the United States Senate,” explained People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker, who worked with activists from Public Citizen, Common Cause, Free Speech for People and other groups to collect and deliver 3.2 million signatures on petitions supporting an amendment. “Today’s historic majority vote is a remarkable milestone for this movement and a platform for taking the fight to the next level. The debate in the Senate this week is a debate that Americans across the country who are passionate about fixing our broken democracy have wanted to see.”
With the DC debate done, for now, the fight goes back to the grassroots. Activists with groups such as Move to Amend, Public Citizen’s “Democracy is for People” campaign and Free Speech for People will continue to organize and agitate, not just for an amendment but for an amendment that makes it absolutely clear that money is not speech, that corporations are not people and that citizens have a right to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
“We have amended the US Constitution before in our nation’s history. Twenty-seven times before. Seven of those times to overturn egregious Supreme Court rulings. For the promise of American democracy, we can and we will do it again,” declared John Bonifaz, the president of Free Speech for People, said Thursday. “The pressing question before the nation today is whether it is ‘we the people’ or ‘we the corporations and big money interests.’ This not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is a deeply American issue. Whatever our political differences may be, we all share the common vision of government of, for, and by the people. Today’s US Senate vote is just the beginning. While this amendment bill did not receive this time the required two-thirds support in order to pass the Senate, we will be back again and again until we win. History is on our side.’
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