The Watchwomen of Democracy in Trump’s America

One year ago today, I published my first blog post on 21 Cent Peace. At the time, the political news cycle was already dominated by Donald Trump. But I, and many others, hoped and believed we would be living under Hilary Clinton’s presidency by now. For the first time, the United States would be led from the highest office by a woman! Even before the “Trump Tapes” showed the future president bragging about sexually assaulting women, we had seen the misogyny in his rhetoric and knew that a Trump presidency, with a GOP-lead Congress, would try to turn back the clock on women’s rights and many other important gains our country has made in the past few decades.

On November 8th, Trump’s unexpected victory shocked us. The nation had to scramble to ready itself for the authoritarianism on display in Trump’s campaign. It would now be operating from the head of the federal government. With the GOP retaining the House and Senate, there was only one remaining check on Trump’s power: the people. Resistance movements quickly formed. And, as has been true through all social justice battles in our country’s history, women provided the bulk of the muscle and energy!

The right-wing agenda being advanced by Trump and his allies is destructive and unpopular. Policies that strip away healthcare and replace it with tax breaks for the rich, target specific ethnic or religious groups, attack women’s reproductive rights, abandon the commitment to workers and the environment, and defund public institutions like education, can’t survive in a healthy democracy. For that reason our system of democracy itself – fair elections, independent judiciary, and an independent press – has been the primary target of the GOP since Trump’s inauguration. But their agenda hasn’t gotten as far as I, and others, worried it would have. I had feared that the Republican realignment, combined with Trump’s authoritarian tactics, would cause federal employees to compromise their values, the press to become his mouth-piece, and the population to cower. In this dystopian nightmare, the opposition party would become enfeebled providing no alternative to the New Order.

That hasn’t happened. In fact, Trump’s presidential legacy at this point is massive, broad-based resistance to his rule! His executive orders have been tangled up in courts, his legislative agenda has been stalled, and the conduct of his administration is increasingly under question, with a Watergate-scale investigation into his campaign, as well as his own conduct.

To be sure, Trump, along with Republican-held legislatures at the national and state level, have done plenty of damage domestically and internationally. But the Republic survives because of organized opposition, with women leading the way! Hillary Clinton isn’t president, but in the era of Trump, one could make the strong case that the United States is woman-led. There are too many examples to include them all, but I present in this post some of the notable examples of women, in their work and in their lives, demonstrating the courage that is the oxygen in the lungs of our democracy.

Alison Grimes – Defending the right to vote

Last week the presidential advisory commission on election integrity, set up by Trump’s executive order, requested voter registration data from all of the states. The commission is chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Trump’s false claim that millions voted illegally and this resulting committee show that the GOP wants to make it more difficult for citizens to participate in elections. The authoritarian stances Trump takes and seems to admire in other leaders are critical to advancing their right-wing agenda since the Republican Party platform is so unpopular. They have to weaken democracy in order to keep funneling wealth to the wealthy.

One way that our democracy has already been weakened, is the Interstate Crosscheck program which has been used to purge voters from registration rolls in 27 states. The wide-scale voter suppression tactic was developed and promoted by Kobach, himself. Investigative reporter Greg Palast wrote about Interstate Crosscheck in his Rolling Stone article, “The GOP’s Stealth War Against Voters”. In a follow up article after the election, Palast wrote that the program removed over a million people from voter rolls prior to the November election.

In the US, states run elections and control most election laws. The information Kobach’s presidential advisory commission requested from the states could facilitate a nation-wide version of the Interstate Crosscheck program. In 2014 the New York Times wrote an article about Kobach’s repeated efforts to restrict voter access:

Mr. Kobach has been a major conservative voice on voter issues for years. He has helped states write strict laws requiring proof of citizenship, presided over the “Kansas project” — a national hunt for double registrations — and, most recently, tried to keep a Democratic candidate on the ballot with the potential to help Kansas’ endangered Republican senator, Pat Roberts.

If Kobach’s commission is able to collect that data, they could make it available for GOP-controlled states to purge their voter rolls of duplicates based on similar unreliable and heavily Democratic-leaning false positives as seen in the Interstate Crosscheck.

The data request has been met with resistance by election officials at the state level. At a time when people are concerned about hacking and online vulnerabilities, passing off personal data, including parts of social security numbers and voting history, isn’t a popular move for a Secretary of State to make.

Kentucky’s Secretary of State Alison Grimes, while not the first, may have been the strongest rejection of Kobach’s request. Grimes’s statement is notable as Kentucky went to Trump 62.5%. She has also followed up her official statement by blasting the data request in media appearances.

Grimes has fought the extreme right-wing agenda before. In 2014 she challenged Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat in a race that garnered huge outside attention and cash. Unfortunately, she lost. The voter data request is her first direct encounter with the Trump Administration and she has stood her ground, to no surprise. Grimes has been vocal about protecting democratic institutions in the era of Trump. She spoke at the Lexington, KY Women’s March on January 21st stating, “When democracy is broken for one of us, it is broken for all of us.”

The Women’s March – Asserting power in uncertain times

The Women’s March, January 21st, 2017 was a historic day. The massive resistance to Trump and the GOP agenda was unified and ignited through hundreds of marches across the country and around the world. Its energy has since flowed into the airport protests against the Muslim Ban, the town hall events against repealing Obamacare, and infused the Tax Day, March for Science, and People’s Climate March trio of street actions in April.

The unprecedented threat of a Trump presidency with a GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Senate was matched by the massive outpouring of people in the streets. Over 3,000,000 people took to the streets; the largest mass mobilization of our lifetimes! Fortune magazine named the co-chairs Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Bob Bland, among the “World’s Greatest Leaders”! Their work, along with many others, showed the world the resilience of the American people!

At the Women’s March on Washington, Gloria Steinem gave the keynote address emphasizing that power is ultimately with the people. But it takes work to defend democracy, including “putting our bodies where our beliefs are”.

The size of the Women’s March and its sister marches made certain that Trump’s agenda would face an energized opposition that was ready to fight in the streets, the airwaves, the courts, and the boardrooms.

Sally Yates – True patriotism

As expected, the new president moved quickly into authoritarianism by signing an executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Iraq, from entering the US. The move set off massive impromptu actions at airport across the country. In this moment, acting US Attorney General Sally Yates set the standard for courage. Her name became widely known when Trump fired her after she instructed the Department of Justice (DOJ) not to defend the executive order after it had quickly been blocked by an injunction.

Since her firing, it’s been revealed that Yates had previously warned Trump officials that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had lied about problematic connections to foreign governments and was now vulnerable to blackmail. The White House did nothing for 18 days, leaving our national security compromised. Eventually they fired Flynn, but he has continued to be the focus of an investigation that threatens to derail Trump’s presidency.

Linda Sarsour – Legal fight against the Muslim Ban (Sarsour v Trump)

Yates’s stance against the Muslim Ban from inside the executive branch was mirrored by Linda Sarsour’s outside challenge. Apart from being one of the co-chairs of the Women’s March, Sarsour was the lead plaintiff for the lawsuit brought against the Muslim ban by Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The case was known as “Sarsour v Trump”, but was never litigated as the White House decided to make a new Muslim Ban rather than defend the first one.

Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! interviewed Sarsour about the lawsuit, which challenged the Muslim Ban on the grounds that it violated the Constitution by targeting a religious group and not upholding equal protection under the law. She explains that Yates’s stance against the executive order from within the DOJ gave her own challenge more standing.

Mobilizing for social justice causes is a part of Sarsour’s life. In 2011, the White House recognized her as a Champion of Change. Following the Women’s March and her legal challenge to the first Muslim Ban, she lead the New York City “A Day Without Women” action on International Women’s Day. As a Palestinian-American woman who proudly wears a hijab, her very existence challenges the Right’s Islamophobic, nationalist, and misogynist rhetoric. But her skill as organizer is the real threat to their agenda. It has earned her admiration from progressives and ire from the conservatives.

April Ryan – The power of professionalism

The reason Trump tweets out comments that destroy his credibility is because it’s far less damaging than making those comments in a room full of reporters. Trump and his team learned early on in his presidency that he can’t hold it together for a extended round of questioning. April Ryan is the one who taught that to them.

Ryan is the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. In a February press conference she asked Trump about his campaign pledges to revitalize cities. His rambling response exposed just how unprepared he was to even talk about, much less deal with issues affecting our country. The true tell of his unfitness came when Ryan asked a follow up question about the involvement of the Congressional Black Caucus. Trump completely fell apart. He excitedly asked the reporter if she would set up a meeting between him and the CBC. He suggested it four times before recovering a little and returning to rambling, this time about CBC chair Representative Elijah Cummings.

Ryan’s professionalism showed Trump and Company that they are out of their league. Empty answers get challenged; losing your composure exposes your failings further. Later she gave the same lesson to Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

The pressure of the press digging for answers has forced the administration into strange patterns, such as banning recording equipment from press briefings. The Trump Administration’s lies and theatrics don’t stand up to journalism done in a responsible, professional manner. As a result of reporters like Ryan, the White House press operation, which is usually an efficient messaging conduit for a President, has not been able to flood the country with disinformation the way it had hoped. They have been forced into a defensive position, avoiding the press, and trying to smear journalists.

Christine Pellegrino – Flipping seats

On May 23rd, Christine Pellegrino won New York’s Ninth District State Assembly seat 58% to 42%. The voters in that area favored Trump in the general election, 60 – 40. Trump’s ahistoric unpopularity, however, has changed the landscape since November. The 2017 special elections have forced the GOP to spend more to win seats that they’ve safely held for years. Pellegrino actually flipped a seat for the Democrats. The high profile House seats in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia, have a more direct line to Trump than a state legislator. But one lesson we’ve learned in the new right-wing alignment is that state capitols are critical.

Pellegrino’s campaign delivered on a message of lifting up working families. She took bold progressive positions and may have pointed the way to victory for Democrats in other up-coming elections.

ADAPT – Women with disabilities fighting to save healthcare

Secretaries of state, like Alison Grimes, took a stand against Trump’s voter commission last week. At the same time, an organized effort pushed back the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempt to pass the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Senate version of the Obamacare replacement, before the July 4th recess. One headline-grabbing action was a group of protesters, mostly women and most with disabilities, who held a sit-in at the Denver office of Senator Cory Gardner demanding he commit to protecting Medicaid. Ten people were arrested, at least one pulled from her wheel chair. The group included Jordan Sibayan, Robin Stephens, Dawn Russell, Jacqueline Mitchell, Dawn Howard, and Carrie Ann Lucas.

The BCRA will decrease Medicaid spending by an estimated 26% by 2026 and 35% by 2036. There’s an estimated drop in enrollment as a result. Medicaid is intended to cover people with disabilities, among others. The protest in Gardner’s office was organized by ADAPT, a direct action advocacy organization for people with disabilities. Their work exemplifies Gloria Steinem’s call to “put our bodies where our beliefs are”.

The BCRA is still a threat to pass when the Senate reconvenes. The work of the ADAPT, along with other activists, has disrupted its passage for the time being. The passion and energy they’ve shown guarantees it will face a fierce opposition whenever the bill makes its way back.

Trump continues to make his own headlines through mean comments and tweets that he directs towards women who criticize him. At times it seems like there is no limit to his shamelessness. But the more important narrative is how women have stood up and fought back against his hateful, greedy agenda at every turn. That story is being written by the remarkable women I’ve included here, and the countless others doing great work we all see everyday. From them springs the well of hope!

Sources and Resources:

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons

The Washington Post (Oct 8 2016) – “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005”

The White House (May 11 2017) – “Presidential executive order on the establishment of Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity”

Rolling Stone (Aug 24 2016) – “The GOP’s stealth war against voters” (Nov 11 2016) – “The election was stolen – here’s how…”

New York Times (Oct 16 2017) – “Kris Kobach pushed Kansas to the right. Now Kansas is pushing back.” (Jun 29 2017) – “Alison L. Grimes: 7:48 29 Jun 2017”

Courier-Journal (Sept 26 2014) – “Grimes, McConnell: Paid for by outside donors”

Youtube (published by Jennifer Miller) (Jan 22 2017) – “Sec. of State Alison Lundergan Grimes at Women’s March on Washington Sister March–Lexington”

Fortune (Mar 24 2017) – “Why the Women’s March on Washington organizers are among the World’s Greatest Leaders”

Youtube (published by LesGrossman News) (Jan 21 2017) – “Gloria Steinem rips mentally unstable Donald Trump Women’s March Washington Dc full speech 1/21/17”

New York Times (Jan 30 2017) – “Trump fires acting attorney general who defied him”

Document Cloud (viewed July 1 2017) – “Letter from Sally Yates”

New York Times (May 8 2017) – “Sally Yates tells senators she warned Trump about Michael Flynn”

United States District Court Eastern District of Virginia (Jan 30 2017) – “Case No.1:17-cv-00120: Sarsour v Trump”

Democracy Now! (Jan 31 2017) – “Sarsour v. Trump: Palestinian-American activist sues the President to overturn Muslim Ban”

Obama White House Archives (viewed on July 4 2017) – “Champions of Change: Linda Sarsour”

New York Times (Mar 8 2017) – “‘Day Without a Woman’ protest tests a movement’s staying power”

YouTube (published by Tony 24/7 Eyes) (Feb 16 2017) – “Donald Trump April Ryan Congressional Black Caucus press conference”

Democracy Now! (June 23 2017) – “White House says ban on cameras in press briefing ‘not reportable'”

YouTube (published by Dose of Dissonance) (Mar 28 2017) – “Sean Spicer’s heated exchange with reporter April Ryan at White House press briefing”

Long Island Press (May 24 2017) – “Pellegrino beats Gargiulo in special election for NY Assembly”

Denver Post (June 29 2017) – “Disabled protesters arrested at Sen. Cory Gardner’s Denver office after 2-day sit-in”

Congressional Budget Office (June 29 2017) – “Longer-term effects of the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 on Medicaid spending”

The Undeserving

The rhetoric against increasing the minimum wage and universal single-payer healthcare is a disgusting search for the undeserving among us; those who shouldn’t expect mercy. Who doesn’t get paid a living wage? Who works forty hours a week and lives in poverty? Who doesn’t get health insurance coverage? Why? What are the reasons for denying what’s needed to live?

Raising the minimum wage to a living wage goes a long way to ensuring that people are able to cover their nutrition, housing, childcare, healthcare, and other basic expenses. States and cities around the country have recognized this by raising their own minimum wages above the federal minimums which languish at $7.25 for a non-tipped worker, $2.13 for a worker who receives tips (the employer is expected to make up the difference if wages plus tips doesn’t equal $7.25 an hour).

The Fight for $15 is a nationwide effort by organized workers pushing to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The campaign has succeeded in states like New York and California and cities like Seattle. Minneapolis is poised to be the first non-coastal city to pass a $15 minimum wage. In each of these cases, the increase is phased in overtime and at different schedules for different types of businesses.

California increases its wage to $15 by 2022 for businesses with 25 or more employees, and by 2023 for smaller businesses. New York raises the wage in New York City first; $15 by 2018 for businesses with 11 or more employees, 2019 for smaller businesses. The Long Island and Westchester reach $15 by 2021. The minimum wage for the rest of the state gradually increases from $12.50 in 2020 to $15 after that in increments to be determined. New York’s law allows for tipped workers to be paid a $10 wage with a tip credit. The $15 minimum wage took effect in Seattle January 1st of this year.

The city of Minneapolis is poised to pass an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. The current minimum wage is the state’s $9.50. A living wage in Minneapolis is $11.36. A wage hike seems inevitable but the details around tips and youth employment still need to be worked out.

City staff held a series of listening sessions during the past year to get input on how to go forward. There was vocal opposition from the restaurant industry, but they weren’t alone. The listening session I attended had speakers not against raising the minimum wage in general, but against raising the minimum wage for restaurants, youth employment, and certain non-profit employers. They argued that the wage for these groups doesn’t need to be higher because with tips their earnings are sufficient, or because they’re young and therefore shouldn’t be fairly compensated, or because this specific type of employment is its own reward. For one reason or another members of these groups don’t deserve to have their time compensated at a rate equal to a living wage for full time work. These are similar to the points made by the US Chamber of Commerce and its many allies in office. As a result, millions of people to get up every morning, work a full work day and return home with less than needed to keep their family out of poverty. A recent UC Davis study showed that the working poor on the low end of the wage distribution often can’t cover the costs of a family.

Meanwhile, the US is alone in the developed world as a nation that doesn’t ensure universal healthcare. There are groups to whom we do guarantee health insurance coverage through Medicaid, Medicare, State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and the Veterans Administration (VA). The VA covers veterans. Medicare is for people 65 years old or older. SCHIP is a state-run federally funded program that covers children living in low-income families that don’t qualify for Medicaid, and Medicaid covers people with disabilities or other situations that makes getting health insurance through an employer difficult. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 36% of people in the US get health insurance through one of these programs. Everyone else is expected to get health insurance on their own. The most common way to do this is through one’s employer; 49% of people fall into this group. People whose employment doesn’t provide health insurance or are unemployed can buy it on the individual market; 7% get coverage this way. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, expanded the number covered by Medicaid and setup ways for those on the open market to get a better deal. Since Obamacare has been implemented the number of uninsured has dropped, but there’s a remaining 9% who don’t have coverage. And, shamefully, we maintain a system that doesn’t guarantee them help in the case of illness or injury.

Even worse, the bills to repeal and replace, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in the House of Representatives and the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) in the Senate, are estimated to add 22-23 million people to the ranks of the uninsured boosting that percentage to roughly 16%. Those pushing for this change has to justify their position by declaring those who will lose coverage, and potentially care, unworthy of receiving it. The ACA’s Medicaid expansion for low-income Americans was the pathway for most of the people who gained coverage under the law. The arguments in favor of repealing the law and rolling back the Medicaid expansion hit usual conservative rhetorical points: the people losing coverage aren’t working hard enough or well enough, they aren’t taking good enough care of themselves, or they aren’t me so my taxes shouldn’t help them. Like with poverty wages, we are expected to be okay with a significant percentage of people being without health insurance because, for one reason or another, we shouldn’t feel obligated to help them.

The good news is that people across the country are fighting back against the politics of denial. The movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour continues to win in the era of Trump. The organized resistance to repealing and replacing Obamacare has been formidable. Today it succeeded in delaying the Senate vote on the BCRA until after the July 4th recess. That gives constituents more opportunities to contact their legislators about the bill.

For both the issue of a living wage and the issue of healthcare, human decency may be our best guide. How do we expect someone to live if they work full-time and don’t earn a living wage? How do we expect someone to stay healthy if they don’t have the ability to pay for health care? These questions should guide everyone, conservatives and progressives, to recognize we are all in this together and denying basic needs to anyone, for whatever reason, leaves us all worse off.

Sources and Resources:

California Department of Industrial Relations (Dec 2016) – “New minimum wage phase in requirement 2017-2023 SB 3 frequently asked questions”

New York State (viewed June 26 2017) – “New York State’s minimum wage”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  (viewed June 27 2017) – “Living wage calculator”

US Chamber of Commerce (Jan 10 2014) – “A better approach than the minimum wage distraction”

University of California – Davis (viewed June 27 2017) – “Who are the working poor in America?”

Kaiser Family Foundation (2015) – “Health insurance coverage of the total population”

Congressional Budget Office (CBO) (June 26 2017) –“H.R. 1628, Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017”

The New York Times (June 27 2017) – “Vote delayed as G.O.P. struggles to marshal support for health care bill”

State of Emergency Part 4: Flint

In September 2015 the Detroit Free Press reported Dr. Mona Hanna-Attish findings which showed a concerning jump in the number of children living in Flint, MI with elevated lead levels. Her data was made public about a year and a half after the city had switched its water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in April 2014. Shortly after that change, people were raising concerns with the safety of their tap water. In October 2014 General Motors (GM) announced that it couldn’t use the Flint River water because it was corroding parts. It was another year before authorities advised the public to not drink or bathe in the water. Three years on, the Flint water crisis continues with residents relying on bottled or filtered water to avoid the dangers of their municipal water supply.

(Mari Copeny, better known as Little Miss Flint, as been an ambassador and tireless advocate for the Flint’s cause. She has represented the struggle at the Women’s March, as well as the March for Science. Her work can be supported through her GoFundMe campaign.)

The State of Michigan was in control of Flint operations through an emergency manager when the city switched water sources. They ignored the concerns from residents about the foul-smelling, off-colored water and the physical ailments it seemed to be causing. The residents of Flint had no recourse through their elected officials, as they were no longer in power. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan published a report called “Here’s to Flint” that investigates the ways democracy was denied to Flint residents.

The Emergency Manager Law didn’t cause Flint’s financial problems. The cause was, in large part, a diversion of monies generated by a state sales tax meant to be used for local aid. The Emergency Manager Law caused the cities and school districts under increasing budgetary stress to lose their self-governance as well. Like Detroit Public Schools and Benton Harbor, which I’ve written about previously, Flint is a majority-Black community with a high poverty rate. The right-wing strategy in Michigan, led by Governor Rick Snyder, reorganizes the priorities of government from serving people on the basis of need and equity to facilitating corporate profits at the expense of vulnerable populations, especially those made so by racial and economic inequalities.

Detroit Public Schools’s students being placed in the controversial Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) is an example of a public institution under EM leadership ignoring its mission to educate and instead turn the schools into a laboratory and profit-engine for education technology corporations. Benton Harbor losing acreage of its city park to the Harbor Shores development is an example of a city under emergency management handing over public assets in support of a corporate agenda. Reverend Pinkney’s arrest and imprisonment demonstrated the use of force to squash decent. The Flint water crisis is an example of negligence and disregard towards a minority community known to be directly in harms way. The issues that have emerged under emergency management in Michigan are instructive for the issues that will emerge under the national right-wing corporatist rule.

Flint’s water contamination problems went beyond lead. There were e.coli concerns, other pathogens, and a tragic outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed twelve people. The injustice went beyond bad judgement. As of last week, fifteen public officials have been charged with a range of crimes, including manslaughter, obstruction of justice, lying to a police officer, conspiracy, willful neglect of duty, tampering with evidence, and misconduct, among others.

Official decisions inviting an environmental danger that disproportionately affects communities of color may become a heart-breaking feature of the new GOP alignment under President Trump. Within days of taking office, Trump ordered the environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline to be dropped and the project moved forward without the consent of the Standing Rock Sioux or full accounting of the potential risks and response procedures a pipeline leak would cause. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the environmental review was in deed inadequate. More recently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director Scott Pruitt’s decision to not ban the chemical chlorpyrifos, which is used in pesticides. The New York Times reported,

Decades of research into the effects of chlorpyrifos strongly suggests that exposure at even low levels may threaten children. A few years ago, scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that it should be banned altogether.

As National Public Radio (NPR) reported in March, there is no legal basis for the EPA to decide against a ban on a substance their own research shows posing a threat to consumers or people in the area of application. The ban was being fought by chemical manufacturer, Dow Chemical, which seems to have flipped the agency in an unprecedented way.

Around the same time as the EPA’s decision to not ban chlorpyrifos, a group of agricultural workers in Bakersfield were exposed to a pesticide containing the neurotoxin and many experienced vomiting, nausea, and fainting as a result. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed Eriberto Fernandez, a migrant worker, who talked about how agricultural field workers, a majority of whom are Latinx, are at the highest risk from having chlorpyrifos legally applied to crops. The ranks of agricultural workers include a disproportionate number of children, who are at a heightened risk from toxins due to their smaller size and developmental stage.

When the government shifts from protecting the public to protecting corporate profits, the risk to people and the potential for Flint water crisis-sized catastrophes increase. What happened in Flint, from the risky cost-cutting decision to the criminally negligent response, should be impossible in the 21st century USA. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more likely under the leadership of Trump and the GOP. We must keep attention on Flint and figure out ways to support their recovery. It’s likely we’ll need to support another community in a similar environmental justice catastrophe.

As Flint residents continue to fight for justice, their struggle has taken on many forms. People were threatened with losing their homes due to unpaid water bills, although that was successfully defeated. People have been arrested as they confront officials over the ongoing problems. The Genessee county Land Bank has come under fire after one of its members made racist comments against the Flint population and blamed them for the ongoing water crisis. Good governance should prevent each and all of these problems. But for now, good governance isn’t the goal; not in Michigan nor at the federal level.

This post is the final part of the “State of Emergency” series:

Part 1 – Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law

Part 2 – Detroit Public Schools

Part 3 – Benton Harbor

Sources and Resources:

Featured image source: credits to He-myong Woo

Detroit Free Press (Sept 24 2015) – “Doctor: lead seen in more Flint kids since water switch”

Little Miss Flint (June 5 2017) – “ 5 Jun 2017 2:42pm”

ACLU of Michigan (Mar 8 2016) – “Here’s to Flint: documentary on the Flint water crisis”

MLive.Com (Oct 13 2014) – “General Motors shutting off Flint River water at engine plant over corrosion worries”

MLive.Com (April 13 2014) – “How Michigan’s revenue sharing ‘raid’ cost communities billions for local services”

Detroit Free Press (June 14 2017) – “These are the 15 people criminally charged in the Flint water crisis”

Indian Country Today (June 14 2017) – “Breaking: DAPL approval illegal, judge finds”

New York Times (May 15 2017) – “A strong case against a pesticide does not faze E.P.A. under Trump”

Democracy Now! (May 19 2017) – “VIDEO: Migrant farmworkers may have been sickened by toxic pesticide greenlighted by EPA under Trump”

Truth Against the Machine (May 4 2017) – “Rick Snyder poisoned Flint residents—now he’s threatening homes”

The Young Turks (TYT) (May 18 2017) – “Flint City Council descends into chaos”

Truth Against the Machine (June 4 2017) – “EXCLUSIVE: Flint official reveals Land Bank drug use, calls Flint state’s ‘enema’”

Food, Not Bombs, are Needed in Yemen

Yesterday, Democracy Now! reported on a widespread cholera outbreak that has affected over 100,000 people including 859 deaths. Amy Goodman interviewed Dr. Miriam Aldogani and Anas Shahari who are both in Yemen working for Save the Children. Aldogani gave this report:

We [inaudible] treated people of cholera. We see a lot of case—we saw a lot of cases in a diarrhea treatment center, which is—I am in Hudaydah. There is two main hospital centers for treating cholera, a lot of cases there. There’s a problem that the [inaudible] and with very hot weather. And even the fuel is very expensive. And because there is no electricity, so imagine, with cholera and the very harsh weather, the situation has become worse. Due to the shortage of medical supply and treatment, we try to do the best. And also, as my colleague Anas mentioned, the health system collapsed. There is no salary, no [inaudible] of the hospitals or health centers. This has made—the situation is very bad.

Cholera often arises in places experiencing military conflict, like Yemen. The bombs destroy the infrastructure that makes clean water available. Shahari put the cause and effect in these terms:

Well, the war—the war has destroyed all the—like most of the infrastructure we have here in the country. We don’t have any sanitation system. The water network is destroyed. We don’t have electricity. People who need to boil water before drinking it do not have the cooking gas. Fuel is very expensive, as Dr. Mariam said. The economy of the country is collapsed, has already collapsed. The health system has collapsed. I mean, the war has destroyed everything in this country. And as a Yemeni person, what I am looking for here is to stop this war, to find peaceful solutions between the parties in order for the children, who are paying the heaviest price, to continue their lives and to see brighter futures.

An article written by the BBC in March describes the war between the recognized government lead by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Houthi rebels seeking control of the country. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US, UK, and France started an air campaign in support of Hadi’s forces. The indiscriminate nature of the bombings could constitute war crimes. Human Rights Watch says both sides of the conflict are guilty of unlawful violations, but the majority of civilian death has come from the Saudi strikes. The group warns that US support, including weapons sales, makes our country complicit in the crimes and could open our officials up to legal liability.

The fighting and the resulting cholera outbreak are only two of the many converging catastrophes the war has brought to Yemenis. PRI’s The World reported yesterday on the widespread famine that is driven by drought, Saudi naval blockades, and a collapsed banking system (also a result of the war). The UN estimates that 63% of the country is food insecure.

BBC infographic

There’s no simple solution to the conflict. But the scale of human suffering demands action. The US has a direct connection to the problem: our bombs, employed by the Saudis, are causing most of the death and destruction driving the humanitarian crisis. One way we can have an impact is by stopping the massive arms deal President Trump recently negotiated with Saudi Arabia.

The joint resolution, S.J. Resoluton 42 aims to do just that. Sponsored by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and cosponsored by senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Al Franken (D-MN), and Jeff Merkeley (D-OR), S.J. Resolution 42 disapproves a number of the weapons systems the Trump administration agreed to sell to the Saudis much of which would likely end up being used in the Yemen conflict.

Contact your senators and tell them not to add more fuel to the Yemeni humanitarian crisis. Tell them to vote ‘Yes’ on S.J. Resolution 42.

Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121

UPDATE (6/14/2017): The Senate failed to pass S. J. Res. 42. You can see how every senator voted at the Senate webiste. A companion bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 102. The Capitol switchboard reaches your congressperson too.

Sources and Resources:

Democracy Now! (June 12 2017) – “Cholera death toll tops 859 in war-torn Yemen as U.S.-backed Saudi assault continues”

BBC (Mar 28 2017) – “Yemen crisis: Who is fighting whom?”

Public Radio International’s The World (June 12 2017) – “These people are fighting off a famine in Yemen”

United States Congress (May 25 2017) – “S.J.Res.42 — 115th Congress (2017-2018)”


Piercing the Civil Veil

Each of us, at our core, has hopes and dreams for ourselves and loved ones. Political philosophers have wrestled through the ages about the nature of self-interest versus the common good, especially when our needs come into conflict with those of other people. While I haven’t read or heard of a system that perfectly manages the two, every organized society attempts to at some level, for better or worse. Most of the world’s many modern cultures embraces the pursuit of self-interest within a set of rules. In the United States of America, the foundation for the rules are enshrined in the Constitution, best articulated in the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment declares all of the liberties usually associated with a “free society”: Congress can’t make laws restricting freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, or publicly complaining about the government. The Second Amendment, of course, asserts the right to keep and bear arms.  Amendments three through eight limit the state’s ability to infringe on your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness by insisting on a home owner’s consent if soldiers are going to be staying on their property, warrants for searches and seizures, due process for the accused, speedy and public trials involving a defense lawyer, federal trials involving a jury (if the issue at hand exceeds $20), and disallowing cruel and unusual punishment. The Ninth Amendment makes clear the other eight are only some, not all, of our rights. And the Tenth says that powers not given to the federal government nor barred from the states by the Constitution can fall to the states or to people.

The complex system of laws in our country, rooted in the Constitution, creates a veil of civility. Of course reality is complicated, but ideally, we all behave according to the rules, everyone is equally protected by the rules, and everyone is better off because of it. Behind the veil, our self-interests are being advanced by the benefits of living in a civil society when we all respect each other’s rights.

Even in the ideal, however, our constitutional rights don’t protect us from horrific acts like the terrorist attacks we’ve seen recently abroad in Manchester and London, and at home in Portland. In these cases, individuals or groups employ deadly violence to kill, maim, and instill fear. The goal of these heinous acts is to degrade the veil of civility. In these cases, our rights don’t stop that from happening. Instead, our rights serve to restore civility by guiding our response. Those who resort to terrorism aren’t powerful enough to destroy our civilized order out right. Only we have that power and they know it. Their goal is hurt enough of us that the rest of us, out of fear, turn on one another burning down the standards and institutions that protect us all.

Again, reality is complicated. Our history has example of both defending rights while bringing perpetrators of violence to justice and allowing our fear and prejudices to amplify the assault on civilization. Both paths have their signatures.

Defending against terrorism and restoring the civility that it threatens is marked by acts of courage: standing up to hatred and claiming public space peace. Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, the men killed in the Portland train attack and Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who survived, demonstrated this, as did Ariana Grande and the One Manchester concert. It means leading through unity like London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, defending sub-groups who may become targets of retaliation, while neutralizing dangerous actors.

Terrorists want us to believe that our neighbors are dangerous and our government is evil. People whose words or actions reinforce that message, especially powerful leaders, aid the terrorists. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May both exploited the attacks in Britain for their own personal gain. They are piercing the civil veil to drive forward their own self-interest at the expense of the common good.

Trump attacked Mayor Khan and the US judges who blocked his travel ban from six majority-Muslim countries. Despite having a responsibility to protect our country, he instead fired off a politically motivated, poorly conceived travel ban that violates people’s rights. The judges who struck it down are doing their responsibility, defending people’s rights. The result is that we aren’t any safer and people are divided against each other.

Following the attacks in Manchester and London, Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement saying that the United Kingdom’s response may violate human rights laws. Similar to Trump’s Muslim ban, her words tell one group of people to fear their neighbors and another group of people to fear their government. It’s a remarkably similar message to the one people who detonate bombs and wield knives are trying to send.

We must stand with courage against anyone who threaten our civil society, whether they are violent extremists or politicians. We have courageous leaders in and out of office who have shown what it takes to defend our communities and defend our rights. History tells us we are not guaranteed to choose the right path but doing so is in each of our self-interest.

Sources and Resources:

Featured image source:

The Oregonian (May 30 2017) – “Portland MAX attack: What you need to know Sunday morning”

BBC (June 5 2017) – “One Love Manchester: Dancing policeman captures spirit of city” (June 4 2017) – “Donald J. Trump: 6:01 am 4 June 2017” (June 5 2017) – “Donald J. Trump: 5:44 am 5 June 2017” (June 6 2017) – “Theresa May: 3:01 pm 6 June 2017”

Immigration Enforcement Close to Home

I have two cities where I feel at home: Minneapolis, where I live; and Ann Arbor MI, where I have a base of love and support in my friends and family. In the past week both cities were shown to be unwelcoming. Two high-profile incidents, one in each city, became the latest in a wave of aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions.

On Wednesday 5/24 a group of ICE agents sat down for a meal at the restaurant Sava’s in Ann Arbor, MI. After eating, they took three of the kitchen workers into custody on charges they were in the country illegally. The news site, MLive reported that the raid upset community members for being an unduly disruptive method for addressing a low-level civil offense.

Unfortunately, this story is symbolic of our nation’s relationship with its immigrant communities. Undocumented immigrants do a significant share of the work in our country, especially when it comes to nourishment and care. The Labor Department estimates that 47% of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers in 2014 were unauthorized, accounting for the largest group (citizens made up 31% and authorized immigrant workers 22%). Pew Research Center estimates undocumented workers accounted for 17% of the total agricultural workforce; 13% of construction; and 9% of hospitality, including restaurants like Sava’s. All three of these industries rely on undocumented workers to a higher degree than the average across all industries, which is 5%.

Like the ICE agents in Ann Arbor, we all eat meals that have been provided, in large part, by unauthorized immigrant labor. It’s an entrenched part of the economy. This isn’t a new phenomenon and it’s not likely to change with the way things are currently set up. For that reason, many aspects of our society are organized to carryout their mission given the reality that our communities include people who are undocumented. Public schools, for example, don’t inquire into the status of students or their family members. Local law enforcement doesn’t deal with immigration matters because immigration is a federal matter. In many places, there is an explicit ordinance barring police and city officials from inquiring about citizenship status which is meant to promote public safety by allowing undocumented residents to access essential services without fear of being detained and deported. However, the law still allows for aggressive and often frightening enforcement of immigration status like we’ve been seeing more frequently recently. The Ann Arbor raid fit this pattern by being conducted in a way that disrupted a business and took people off the job, not to mention the strangely cynical act of eating at the restaurant immediately prior to arresting the staff. The case that made news in Minneapolis was even more concerning because information about the policing action that should have been made public was suppressed and, as of this writing, the full story still isn’t known.

On May 19th a video posted to Facebook by Ricardo Levins Morales showed an interaction that took place May 14th on a Metro Transit train. In the video you see a Metropolitan (Met) Council Police officer Andy Lamars asking a rider Ariel Vences-Lopez if he is in the country illegally. A voice off the screen, presumably the person shooting the video, asks the officer if he’s authorized to enforce immigration law. Lamers answers, “No. Not necessarily.” The video went viral and has been viewed over a million times. It appears that the incident ends with Lamers backing off. If you read the Pioneer Press article written about the incident at the time, you would get the same idea. There is no mention of any arrests or other law enforcement action against Vences-Lopez.

New information made public this week shows that Vences-Lopez had actually been arrested and tased as a result of the interaction seen in the video. By the end of the week it had been reported that he was being deported. The incident had already been causing immigration rights advocates, such as the Minnesota Immigration Rights Action Committe (MIRAC) to speak out. After all, like Officer Lamers says in the video, Metro Transit police are not necessarily authorized to enforce immigration law. Metro Transit police chief John Harrington agrees and stated publicly, “We will not function as immigration and customs officials”. That all being true, how did a 23 year-old end up being tased, jailed, and set to be removed from the country as a result of what started as a transit fare check?

The information needed to answer that question, including Vences-Lopez’s name, was suppressed making it difficult for journalists and civil rights attorneys to investigate. The Pioneer Press wrote,

Vences-Lopez’s name was originally redacted from the Metro Transit police report on the incident, and officials said that the report included all that would be made public at the time.

After the Pioneer Press asked on Thursday which portion of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act allowed Metro Transit to redact the name, a spokesman said he would confer with the agency’s general counsel and return with an update.

Early Friday evening, Metro Transit confirmed Vences-Lopez’s name.

Local writer, Tony Webster wrote a blog post titled “Metro Transit’s secret arrest and deportation” that described the problems he faced as a journalist trying to learn about Vences-Lopez’s situation. Along with his name being withheld, there was no incident report from May 14th, and it wasn’t even known if he was arrested until Harrington gave a report to the Metropolitan Council meeting on May 24th. The secrecy is an immediate concern. As Webster says in his post,

State law is very clear: the name of anyone arrested, cited, or deprived of liberty is ‘at all times public.’ We don’t have secret police or secret arrests in America, so it’s a critical measure of accountability and transparency.

While it’s shocking that the man, who had appeared so non-confrontational in the Facebook video, had been tased and arrested and scheduled to be deported. It’s easier to understand how this can happen when the people who would advocate on Vences-Lopez’s behalf, like immigration lawyers, have difficulties finding him.

The Pioneer Press reported on the immigrant rights protesters demanding that Lamers be fired that showed up at the same Met Council meeting where Harrington confirmed Vences-Lopez’s arrest. MIRAC was involved in organizing the demonstration which included people voicing public comments as well as chanting. At one point the meeting was called to recess because the members of the public were not allowing the Council to move on to other matters. Two days later, the newspaper reported that Vences-Lopez had been transferred to ICE custody from Hennepin County jail and was being removed from the country. The same article confirmed that Metro Transit police department is doing an internal investigation into the matter and Lamers wasn’t employed at Metro Transit police.

I didn’t believe my hometown was a place where this would happen. The suppression of information surrounding the arrest makes it even more troubling. Detention and deportation disrupt lives, families, and communities. When that type of enforcement is carried out, we need to be certain that it was done in the right way for the right reasons. The best way to ensure that is by making information public in a timely manner so people can see how decisions are being made and gauge their consequences.

Immigration enforcement has been a heightened concern as we are roughly four months into President Trump’s America. He ran on an outwardly xenophobic platform that vilified Mexican immigrants as criminals, and now he is presiding over a crackdown. In April, the Washington Post reported that immigration arrests are up 32%. Among those, people without criminal records had the most dramatic increase. The number of non-criminal immigrants detained doubled compared to the same time period last year.

Immigrants rights advocates are working to create a more humane and sensible immigration system in the United States protects people while fairly meeting the needs of the economy. Until those important changes happen, we need to ensure the current policies and practices are lawful and prioritizing safety. The rights of individuals, whatever their immigration status, must be recognized. That requires transparency on behalf of law enforcement. The humanity of people, whatever their immigration status, must be respected as a valued life and as a family or community member. That requires compassion.

Sources and Resources:

Featured image source: screenshot from Ricardo Levins Facebook

MLive (May 25 2017) – “Ann Arbor politicians condemn ICE arrests at Sava’s restaurant”

Department of Labor (survey conducted between 2000-2014) – “National Agricultural Workers Survey”

Pew Research Center (Nov 3 2016) – “Hispanic Trends – 1. Industries of unauthorized immigrant workers”

Facebook: Riardo Levins Morales (May 19 2017) – “Ricardo Levins Morales: May 19 at 12:37pm”

Pioneer Press (May 19 2017) – “Video shows a Metro Transit officer asking rider’s immigration status, and the chief wants to know why” (May 27 2017) – “Metro Transit’s secret arrest and deportation”

Pioneer Press (May 25 2017) – “Protesters disrupt Met Council meeting over viral video of officer’s immigration question”

Pioneer Press (May 26 2017) – “That Metro Transit passenger asked about his residency status — he’s being deported”

Facebook: MIRAC (viewed on May 28 2017) – “Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAc)”

The Washington Post (April 16 2017) – “ICE immigration arrests of noncriminals double under Trump”

Deals, Not Values, Arm the World

Among the deluge of news about President Trump in the past week was his first overseas trip to meet with other world leaders. The tour started in Saudi Arabia. Trump’s choice of Saudi Arabia as his first visit reinforces the historically strong bonds between it and the US. While the two nations share many strategic goals for the Middle East, they don’t share many values when it comes to democracy and human rights. This tension has always made the relationship a little awkward. This was illustrated during this recent visit when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rightly criticized Iran’s record on human rights while standing with Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, a country that is arguably worse in terms of un-democratic policies, oppression of women, and support for terrorism.

Holding anyone accountable for their misbehavior wasn’t the point of Tillerson’s address, though. The centerpiece was the announcement of a $109 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia (some reports put the number at $110 billion) which was lauded as a way to create American manufacturing jobs, while making the world safer. In actuality, the deal belies the true shared values of these two seemingly unlikely allies: war and oil.

Al Jazeera published a piece by international relations expert Hamad Althunayyan that gives an overview of the historic and current state of the US-Saudi Arabia partnership. The alliance was enshrined by President Franklin Roosevelt in his official statement in 1943, “I hereby find that the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States”.  Althunayyan describes this position in the context of an “oil for security” doctrine in which the US bolsters Saudi Arabia’s military might while the Kingdom ensures access to precious fuel. The article explains how the relationship between the two countries suffered under President Obama largely due to the Saudis’ skepticism about the Iran Nuclear Deal, which is the crown jewel of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. In the twilight of his presidency, Obama denied sales of certain weaponry to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the high number of civilian casualties in the Saudi-led bombing campaign of Yemen which further bothered the Kingdom. The Trump Administration has been loudly critical of the Iran Nuclear Deal and hasn’t shown any queasiness about actions in Yemen. In fact during his time in Riyadh, Trump made a statement explicitly saying that he will not be critical of how ally nations conduct themselves. It was a reiteration of a statement Tillerson made earlier framing the work of the State Department under Trump being situational rather than values-driven,

I think it’s really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values, and in some circumstances, we should and do condition our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people. They should. We should demand that. But that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation.

Althunayyan sees these differences in approach from Obama to Trump as a welcome opportunity for the Saudis.

The massive arms deal is a symbol of the larger relationship between these two countries and its potential going forward. Just because Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow for freedom of speech, has a guardianship law that makes women second-class citizens, and bombs civilian targets in its air campaigns doesn’t mean they can’t be business partners. Unfortunately, this is only a boost, not a reversal, of US policy under Obama. Before this latest, largest deal was agreed to, Saudi Arabia was already the leading purchaser of US weapons according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Data related to the international trade in weapons shows that it deserves scrutiny that goes deeper than the number of jobs created. The profit potential of military conflict appears to cause and sustain the conflicts. There would likely still be an arms industry in a completely peaceful world, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the scale of current trends.

SIPRI reports that international trade in weapons has been increasing since it reached a 40-year low in 2003. In 2016 arms dealing was the highest it has been since 1990, the waning years of the Cold War. The USA is the leading weapons exporter with 33% of total sales, supplying over 100 countries. Russia is second. The two Cold War adversaries account for roughly 56% of the total. Given their geo-political differences, they’re often fueling opposing sides of conflicts. For example, the devastating war in Yemen features Saudi Arabian bombing campaigns supported by the US against Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran which is supported by Russia. The most deadly conflict in the world at the moment is in Syria where Russia supplies over 90% of Assad’s imported fire power. Turkey, and through it the Syrian Opposition, gets most of its weaponry from the US.

It’s difficult to claim that arms deals are making these situations safer. The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and caused millions to flee their homes risking their lives as refugees. The war in Yemen has had a disastrous toll on civilians including the bombing of schools and hospitals by the Saudi-led, US-backed, airstrikes. The destroyed infrastructure is causing cholera outbreaks and a blockade is plunging the country into famine.

The recent rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula may be the most naked example of for-profit conflict. The Washington Post reported in April how the South Korean government had agreed to install the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, but the president at the time Park Geune-hye was impeached and removed from office shortly after. The presidential contenders in the recent election, including the front-runner and eventual winner Moon Jae-in, were vocally opposed the controversial system. Shortly after taking office, the Trump Administration engaged in combative language and posturing with North Korea which they used to justify a rushed installation of THAAD before a president who opposed it would take office. Regardless of air defenses, a military conflict with North Korea would result in thousands of deaths. It’s a dangerous game, not a safety measure, to make provocations in order to expedite weapons deals.

The arms manufacturing industry creates a unique problem in pursuit of peace. Without deadly conflict, the market for weapons would be much smaller. Even when not being deployed, swollen arsenals can be used to threaten and destabilize regional foreign relations. If the US were to take its platitudes about peace in Israel-Palestine seriously and succeed in finding political solutions in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and elsewhere, it would create a bubble in the weapons sector. Weapons manufacturing, because of its strategically sensitive nature, is less likely to be outsourced and therefore is an important part of domestic manufacturing. For senators and congresspeople, its easy to want to support those high-quality jobs. But we need wars to justify the weapons contracts. To that end, lobbyists are employed to promote war. Lee Fang, a reporter for  The Intercept, recently tweeted out a report meant to convince legislators to support Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. It’s an example of the propaganda machine that supports arms dealing.

Based on the US governments actions and recent statements, we don’t need to worry about an economic bubble. Rather, we should worry about endless war. We have a multi-billion dollar a year industry that is seen as a sacred cow for politicians and requires the continual destruction of people and threat of further destruction to maintain the profit margins needed to attract investment. It’s a seriously entrenched system with terrifying human costs.

We shouldn’t applaud deals that flood the world with killing devices. We shouldn’t accept budgets that boost weaponry while cutting badly needed domestic programs. What is done by our government is done in our name. While Trump and Tillerson don’t believe our values should interfere with business deals, the ultimate power rests with us. If we determine our foreign, domestic, and economic policies must adhere to minimum humanitarian standards than they must. The wars will end when we, as a broad international peace movement, end them.


Sources and Resources:

Featured image source: SIPRI

US Department of State (May 20 2017) – “Remarks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at a press availability”

Al Jazeera (May 19 2017) – “The US-Saudi relations in the Trump era”

Office of the Historian (Feb 18 1943) – “President Roosevelt to the Lend-Lease Administrator (Stettinius)”

New York Times (Dec 16 2016) – “U.S. blocks arms sale to Saudi Arabia amid concerns over Yemen War”

US Department of State (May 3 2017) – “Remarks to U.S. Department of State employees”

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) (Feb 22 2017) – “The state of major arms transfers in 8 graphics”

SIPRI (Feb 20 2017) – “Increase in arms transfers driven by demand in the Middle East and Asia, says SIPRI”

Business Insider (Apr 11 2016) – “Here’s a look at the weapons the US is sending to Syrian rebels”

Frontline  (Feb 11 2016) – “A staggering new death toll for Syria’s war — 470,000”

The Guardian (Sept 16 2016) – “One in three Saudi air raids on Yemen hit civilian sites, data shows”

Al Jazeera (May 19 2017) – “WHO: Speed of Yemen cholera outbreak ‘unprecedented'”

Relief Web (Mar 22 2017) – “Millions in Yemen knowingly pushed to the brink of famine”

The Washington Post (April 26 2017) – “U.S. starts ‘swiftly’ installing controversial antimissile battery in South Korea”

Lee Fang via Twitter (May 22 2017) – “May 22 2017 4:34pm”

Celebrating Mothers Day in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Sunday May 14th was Mother’s Day. It was a memorable day for me, in part because I attended church, which doesn’t happen very often (less frequently than Mother’s Day, to be honest). I was visiting friends in Appleton, WI and tagged along with them to their Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation’s service. The sermon and related discussion included the range of experiences people have as mothers or with their mothers which are rarely explored in the themes and traditional Mother’s Day celebrations. It was a warm and caring recognition of the important role mothers play in our lives but also an honest validation of the complexity inherent in any role or relationship, including motherhood.

As I listened to the speakers, my mind wandered through a thread of news stories I had recently heard. In January, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) host Kerri Miller, along with Marcheta Fornoff, had a segment on women being the fastest growing prison population. The conversation she led was based on statistics published by The Sentencing Project that show a 700% increase in the number of incarcerated women from 1980-2014, from 26,378 to 215,332. It also states that more than 60% of women in state prisons have children under the age of 18. Taken together, a rapidly increasing number of people are experiencing motherhood from behind bars.

Besides a faster growth rate, there are other disparities between the women’s prison population versus the men’s. 63% of incarcerated women are locked up for non-violent crimes, compared to 46% for men. The percentage of women incarcerated for drug crimes has doubled from 12% in 1986 to 24% in 2014. One of Miller’s guests, Valena Beety, attributed this increase to the devastating War on Drugs. On May 10th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to US prosecutors instructing them to pursue the most severe charges and sentencing possible for drug crimes. If fully implemented, that strategy will ensure that more people are being sent to prison, especially women as they are more likely to sent to prison due to drug offenses.

Of course, the other major disparity in drug law enforcement is racial. In the MPR segment, Beety says,

The war on drugs is not a war on all people who use or sell or are involved with drugs. It’s on people of color who use and sell, and people in poverty who do so. We see this disparate impact on women as well.

According to The Sentencing Project numbers, the incarceration rate for Black women is twice that of White women. (Although that rate has been dropping since 2000, which is a positive trend.) Hispanic women have a rate 1.2 times the rate of White women.

Not all mothers behind bars are in prison. Many are in jail waiting for trial. The punishment for their crime may not include doing time; they may not even be found guilty when their case is heard. This is a situation that hits poor mothers the hardest, because they are less able to pay bail. The day after AG Sessions announced the new harsher sentencing guidelines, activists launched an effort to free Black mothers from their jail cells in time for Mother’s Day. Calling it Black Mama’s Bail Out Day, a number of organizations dedicated to ending the practice of money bail raised funds to pay for the release of Black mothers who otherwise would be locked up pretrial on Mother’s Day.

Today, Black Lives Matter tweeted out a report saying, “Thanks to your overwhelming love & generosity we were able to bail out over 100 Mamas last week!    ♥” While the big push for Mother’s Day is over, the campaign to end money bail continues and can be supported through the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund.

The money bail system is generating activity in many ways and in many places. The Minnesota Freedom Fund recently started as a project that pays the bail of people when it’s under $1000. When the person returns for their court date, the Fund gets its money back. That’s how public bail works. There is also a for-profit private bail system which is far less generous. The ACLU and Color of Change have joined together to seek it’s abolition.

Our country is remarkable in the way it puts people in jails and prison. It’s one of two countries (the other being Indonesia) that uses a system of money bail to keep non-dangerous people locked up while awaiting trial. I found it fitting that this Mother’s Day people challenged our society to better care for all of its members.

Sources and Resources:

Featured image source: Dream Defenders

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) (Jan 10 2017) – “The number of women in prison is rising. Why?”

The Sentencing Project (Nov 2015) – “Fact sheet: incarcerated women and girls”

National Public Radio (NPR) (May 12 2017) – “Sessions tells prosecutors to seek ‘most serious’ charges, stricter sentences”

Black Lives Matter (May 16) – “Twitter: May 16 2017 11:08am”

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund (viewed on May 16 2017) – “National Mama’s Bail Out Day!”

Star Tribune (April 5 2017) – “University of Minnesota student takes on injustices in the bail system”

ACLU and Color Of Change (May 2017) – “Selling off our freedom”


State of Emergency Part 3: Benton Harbor

A 2011 article published by Truthout describes the situation in Benton Harbor under Emergency Management and the sense among many residents that the city is being taken advantage of by the Whirlpool corporation which has its headquarters there. In 2014, a recall effort was launched against James Hightower, who was mayor at the time, in part due to Hightower’s support of a $2.3 million loan from the impoverished city to the giant corporation. The recall effort was ended after a prominent Benton Harbor activist, Reverend Edward Pinkney was arrested and sent to prison for allegedly altering the dates on the petitions needed to trigger the recall election. A 2014 Truthout article describes how the charges against Pinkney seem to be politically motivated and the penalty, a 10 year prison sentence, is severe for a crime that would usually be considered a misdemeanor.

In Part 2 of the “State of Emergency” series, I wrote about the Detroit Public Schools being used as testing ground for a education technology company. The case in Benton Harbor is similar: a majority-Black town was forced to give up public assets, acreage of a public park, and make expenditures, for a private interest, the Harbor Shores development. The project was backed by Whirlpool and pushed through by the Emergency Manager at the time, Joseph Harris. It was opposed by many in Benton Harbor, including Rev. Pickney who led protests against the project while the PGA was holding a large event at the Harbor Shores golf course, which includes the annexed acreage of former public park.

Could it be that Rev. Pinkney’s questionable conviction and harsh prison sentence are meant to intimidate others who might fight back against Emergency Manager actions in Michigan? At the time of Pinkney’s trial in November 2014, Flint had already had its water source switched from Detroit’s system to the Flint River, there had been two boil water advisories issued, and the GM plant switched away from the river water due to its corrosive properties. There had not been public acknowledgement of the underlying problem, however. The example of Pinkney no doubt sent a message to anyone thinking about fighting back against the injustices in Flint.

Threatening activists with arrests and incarceration is a common tactic. We can see numerous examples in current events. During the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s months of protests against Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), water protectors were arrested by the hundreds and subjected to humiliating treatment in jail and faced with trumped up rioting charges. Journalists were also being arrested and charged with rioting. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was notably charged with rioting after reporting on the Labor Day weekend clashes between water protectors and security guards in which the security guards used attack dogs against the nonviolent activists. The charges were dismissed by a judge for lack of evidence before it ever made it to trial. I recently saw Goodman speak at Augsburg College in Minneapolis where she said that she believed the charges against her were meant to keep other journalists away.

In 2017, there has been a wave of immigration activists being targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a Code Pink activist was convicted of disorderly conduct for laughing at Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing, and Oklahoma passed a new law that would raise the raise and broaden the penalties for protesting pipelines, such as the Keystone XL pipeline that would run through Oklahoma and was recently revived by one of President Donald Trump’s executive actions.

States taking legal action against dissidents and activists is an age-old problem that many, including the authors of the Bill of Rights, have tried to rein in. It’s one of the vulnerabilities in any system that preserves the legitimate use of violence against internal enemies; by changing the definition of enemy, the state can target anyone it deems a problem. It seems to be a favorite tactic of right-wing, corporatist politicians as shown by Rev. Pinkney’s imprisonment. When policies don’t have public support, and shilling for corporations like Whirlpool or ETP rarely does, they have public opposition. Public opposition is most powerful when it has a large, broad-based support. Those pushing an unpopular corporatist agenda end up having to scare people away from voicing their opposition, few things are more frightening than a prison sentence.

Of course in a free society, people shouldn’t be afraid of voicing their opposition to policies or politicians. They should be free to boycott companies or assemble. When someone does break the law, their treatment and punishment should be proportional to the damage caused and should never be more severe because of a political message associated with the act. This is why the right-wing movement in the state of Michigan, in the form of Emergency Management, and across the country at the federal level and in many states is incompatible with the free society that we all wish to live in.

Sources and Resources:

Truthout (May 03 2011) – “Democracy on hold in Benton Harbor”

Truthout (Dec 16 2014) – “Rev. Edward Pinkney imprisoned for fighting the Whirlpool Corporation”

21 Cent Peace (Mar 28 2017) – “State of Emergency Part 2: Detroit Public Schools”

Indian Country Media Network (Oct 25 2016) – “A call for Justice Dept to act on DAPL civil rights abuses”

Democracy Now! (Sept 6 2016) – “Dakota Access Pipeline Co. attacks Native Americans with dogs & pepper spray”

The New York Times (Oct 17 2017) – “Judge rejects riot charge against Amy Goodman of ‘Democracy Now’ over pipeline protest”

WBUR (Mar 27 2017) – “Federal judge releases 2 Vermont migrant activists arrested by ICE”

The Hill (May 3 2017) – “Code Pink activists convicted for disrupting Sessions’s confirmation hearing”

The Intercept (May 6 2017) – “Oklahoma governor signs anti-protest law imposing huge fines ‘conspirator’ organizations”

Amy Goodman (May 5 2017) – “Covering the Movements: Augsburg College”

The City of Lakes Tossed in the Waves of a New Political Emergence

The political energy across the country is amped up! We have just passed President Trump’s first 100 days in office and people are activated. Yesterday, May 1st, was the fourth nation-wide day of massive protest in less than four weeks. We’re seeing heightened engagement by constituents meeting with and contacting their congress people. Special elections are getting extraordinary attention and campaign contributions. And there’s been a sharp increase in people seeking to run for office, especially among women and scientists.

The national political climate resonated loudly in Minnesota. Our Women’s March in St. Paul had an estimated 90,000-100,000 people, the largest demonstration in state history! We rallied at the MSP airport against the Muslim Ban. We had a Tax Day march, March for Science, a Climate March, and a May Day March. Every time our national congressional delegation returns home, the good people of the 3rd District make a heroic effort to get Erik Paulsen to meet with them.

The super-charged political environment is already reshaping the leadership in the city of Minneapolis. In the past 10 days, we have seen the people who work on racial justice block a police appointment and a wave of progressive challengers surge in the 2017 city council races.

On Wednesday, April 26, Police Chief Janeé Harteau appointed Lt. John Delmonico as inspector the 4th Precinct, which covers the North Minneapolis and was the site of an 18 day occupation by activists following the police killing of Jamar Clark. Delmonico was a controversial choice in a city trying to mend a fractured relationship between the police and the majority-Black North Side. Back in 2014, he claimed a photograph of Mayor Hodges and Navell Gordon, a canvasser with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), showed the two flashing gang signs. In reality they were simply pointing at each other as they posed for the picture during a get-out-the-vote event. KSTP’s coverage of Delmonico’s comments was dubbed Pointergate and was ridiculed by media organizations across the country. It was obvious to any reasonable person that the mayor and Gordon were making normal gestures for an informal photo. The suggestion that they were making gang signs was rooted in toxic racist stereotyping based on Gordon being a Black man. So when it was announced that Delmonico would be promoted to leadership in the 4th precinct, it set off a public outcry led by Wintana Melekin, an organizer with NOC.

A few hours later, Mayor Hodges over-ruled Chief Harteau’s appointment adding to the new controversy being called Appointergate. Back when Pointergate first broke, North Side community leader Nekima Levy-Pounds wrote a blog post in the Star Tribune explaining why the coverage of photo was so problematic, especially for people of color and people who are trying to reintegrate after being convicted of a felony, as Gordon was:

For white Minnesotans who do not personally know any young African American men, it is all too easy to take the media’s word as absolute truth and embrace the negative racial stereotypes that are being perpetuated about the young man in the photo.

Public disagreements between the mayor and chief of police aren’t ideal, but they’re less damaging than having a police leader in position who could be antagonistic with the community. The fact that the Mayor Hodges ultimately over-turned Delmonico’s appointment shows that the racial justice community in Minneapolis has gained significant clout. We’re in a better position than ever before to work toward equity in our law enforcement.

Now running for mayor herself, Levy-Pounds released a video statement Friday via Facebook that lays out why this new controversy shouldn’t be ignored and how we can avoid similar problems in the future. I encourage you to watch her statement to get a full understanding. I only summarize her key points. Levy-Pounds points out that people in the city want a change in leadership, this is evident in the number of challengers in city office races, specifically the number of people of color running for city council. The recent Appointergate controversy is just an example of why people want change. Levy-Pounds faults Chief Harteau for making an inappropriate appointment and Mayor Hodges for not stopping it before it became a public dust-up. She points out that community-police relations is known to be a problem by everyone in city leadership, including city council members who have paid out millions in police misconduct settlements. She calls for the mayor and chief to develop a process going forward that includes hearing from community members, especially those that live in the 4th precinct. In her wrap-up, she reiterates that there have been a number of new people who have stepped up to lead by challenging incumbents and that we all should be supporting the people who we want to have represent us.

We are in the season for DFL ward conventions which endorse (or not) candidates for city council. In Minneapolis, the DFL-endorsed candidate is highly likely to win in most cases. The results from the conventions are inline with Levy-Pounds assertion: people are looking for change. With crowded races, including a surge in candidates of color and challengers from the left, many long-serving incumbents have failed to get the party endorsement.

On the first weekend of conventions, Aprill 22nd, went badly for incumbents. The powerful president of the council, Barb Johnson (Ward 4), had her endorsement blocked by the challenger Phillippe Cunningham. Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), one of Johnson’s allies on council, also had her endorsement blocked by challenger Janne Flisrand. Both Johnson and Goodman have been serving on the council since 1997. A third incumbent, Blong Yang (Ward 5, entirely within the 4th precinct), lost the endorsement to challenger Jeremiah Ellison, the son of US Congressman Keith Ellison and the first candidate to be endorsed by NOC. Lisa Bender (Ward 10), running unopposed, was the only incumbent to win endorsement on the day.

On April 29th, the second round of ward conventions followed the trend set in the first. Kevin Reich (Ward 1) was blocked from endorsement by progressive challenger Jillia Pessenda. (Full disclosure: I live in Ward 1 and was a delegate for Jillia.) She led the delegate count on every ballot, but fell short of the 60% threshold required for endorsement. A third candidate, Zach Wefel, participated in the debates and speeches but suspended his campaign after the first ballot. The candidates talked about housing issues, business and the minimum wage, city priorities, and police accountability. Reich and his supporters point to accomplishments from his past two terms. But the desire for change that Levy-Pounds emphasized in her statement, is powering the challenge from Pessenda. She and her supporters believe we can and must do better.

Also on April 29th, incumbent John Quincy (Ward 11) was blocked from endorsement by challengers Jeremy Schroeder and Erica Mauter. Alondra Cano (Ward 9), a progressive champion on the council, also faced a tough challenge and was able to get the endorsement only after the convention suspended the rules and voted to endorse by majority vote. Ward 13 was less eventful with incumbent Linea Palmisano winning endorsement early in the day. Ward 8 is an open seat. The DFL endorsed Andrea Jenkins, who as a trans woman of color would bring experiences to the council that have never had representation before.

May 6th is the date for the last group of conventions. They will also likely feel the electricity in the current political environment. The concrete effect of so many “No Endorsement” results means that the campaigns will continue on in the political charged environment through November. Candidates in those drawn out contests will also have fewer resources coming from the party. Symbolically, it demonstrates an upheaval at the grassroots level.

A follow-up article on the appointment of Delmonico to the 4th precinct reported that Chief Harteau told council members Barb Johnson and Lisa Goodman about the decision before she told Mayor Hodges. Johnson and Goodman are generally seen as opponents of the mayor. That act raised questions about political motivations behind the contentious promotion and further entrenched the feeling that city leadership is due for an overhaul. With a mayoral race, park board positions, and other city elections happening this year, there’s little chance the hyper-engaged citizenry will calm before the November 7th.

There’s no indication that the political fervor is limited to Minneapolis. If other communities are as charged as the city, and the indications are that they are, the wave of activity could affect leadership far beyond the City of Lakes. The 2018 Minnesota governors race is beginning to accelerate. People from both parties are announcing their bids. Voters will also be electing their state representatives and half of the state senators next year. Nationally, 2018 will determine if Trump continues to have his party controlling the both houses of the legislature. The Resistance has held up for the first one hundred days. Will the new politics that are transforming Minneapolis have a similar transformative effect on our country?

Sources and Resources:

National Public Radio (NPR) (Feb 23 2017) – “Trump’s election drives more women to consider running for office”

The Atlantic (Jan 25 2017) – “Professor Smith goes to Washington”

Star Tribune (Jan 21 2017) – “90,000-plus march in St. Paul with message for Trump”


Vanity Fair (Nov 7 2014) – “‘Pointergate’ is the most pathetic news story of the week”

Wintana Melekin (Apr 26 2017) – “Facebook post: April 26 2017 at 11:50”

Star Tribune (Nov 7 2014) – “Dear White people: Mayor Betsy Hodges is not in a gang”

Nekima Levy-Pounds (Apr 28 2017) – “Facebook post: April 28 2017 4:01pm”

Star Tribune (April 29 2017) – “Minneapolis mayor: Chief deliberately waited to tell of controversial appointment”

Minneapolis City Council candidates:

Ward 1: Kevin Reich (incumbent), Jillia Pessenda

Ward 2: Cam Gordon (incumbent)

Ward 3: Steve Fletcher, Cordelia Pierson, Ginger Jentzen, Samantha Pree-Stinson, Nick “L.A. Nik” Pilotta

Ward 4: Barb Johnson (incumbent), Phillippe Cunningham, Stephanie Gasca, Marcus Harcus

Ward 5: Blong Yang (incumbent), Jeremiah Ellison (DFL-endorsed), Raeisha Williams

Ward 6: Abdi Warsame (incumbent), Tiffini Flynn Forslund, Mohamud Noor, Fadumo Yusuf

Ward 7: Lisa Goodman (incumbent), Janne Flisrand, Joe Kovacs

Ward 8: Andrea Jenkins (DFL-endorsed), Terry White

Ward 9: Alondra Cano (incumbent), Mohamed Farrah, Gary Schiff

Ward 10: Lisa Bender (incumbent)

Ward 11: John Quincy (incumbent), Erica Mauter, Jeremy Schroeder

Ward 12: Andrew Johnson (incumbent), William Jaeger

Ward 13: Linea Palmisano (incumbent)