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Wisconsin Governor Walker and His Appointees Push Policy to Punish Students Protesting Right-Wing Speech
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

In the latest attempt to silence protesters, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his appointees on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents are pushing a new policy that would suspend or expel students who protest right-wing speech on campus. Thomas Gunderson, an organizer for Our Wisconsin Revolution, discusses why the legislation lacks legitimacy. 

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference on March 13, 2013, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin speaks at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference on March 13, 2016, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

We're now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today's interview is the 84th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

The battles over "free speech" on campus have loomed large in the era of Trump, with conservative provocateurs invited to campuses across the country only to claim that they are being silenced when students protest them. In one of the latest salvos in the battle to claim "freedom of speech" for the right wing, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies are pushing a policy that would suspend or expel students for protesting in ways the university deems infringe on the free speech of another.

Today we bring you a conversation with Thomas Gunderson, an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an organizer (both on and off campus) with Our Wisconsin Revolution. Gunderson is organizing against Gov. Walker's policy.

Sarah Jaffe: The University of Wisconsin and Scott Walker's appointees there made headlines again last week with some sort of "free speech" policy. Can you explain that?

Thomas Gunderson: The big issue with it is that it is complicated to explain. The moral of the story is that it essentially threatens to suspend and expel students who ... violate a new set of really obscure and vague policies that the Board of Regents will be proposing.

So, you don't know what the policies that you could potentially be already violating are?

Pretty much. That is the really scary part. They promote it as a bill that is done to protect "freedom of speech" and "freedom of expression" while the obscure language really just chills the student body ... many think that this is the real intention of it, given that, really, the only thing that is concrete about it is that students will be suspended and students will be expelled.

For disrupting speech, right?

Yes, or disrupting just ordinary activity. Whatever that could mean.

Was there a particular incident on the University of Wisconsin's campus that made this seem necessary to the regents, or is this sort of a response to the national feelings that everybody is having about campus free speech?

This is really just about having a corporately captured state legislature and now, at this point, Board of Regents in Wisconsin. The Board of Regents policy is the other side to the Campus Free Speech Act, which comes out of the Barry Goldwater Institute from Arizona, a hard-right libertarian-esque type of think tank.

What would that act do?

That was pretty much giving the Board of Regents the go-ahead to make a new set of policies regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression, which is also just a huge irony. In Wisconsin, they are acting as if the University of Wisconsin Madison Board of Regents has been a stalwart of academic freedom when it has recently removed tenure and made the university a more exclusive place by raising the price of it.

This is all happening in the context of ongoing changes and attacks on the university. Could you talk a little bit more about those over the last few years?

I think it was around two years ago that they made pretty sweeping changes to what was once really sound tenure protection at the university. It caused a huge backlash among faculty and there has been a huge problem with retention since, as well as rising prices. It has really been pretty much an all-out assault on what once made [the] University of Wisconsin system kind of special.

Yes, I remember when Walker tried to change the Wisconsin Idea. Can you explain to people what that is?

Yes. That was really a sneaky Walker move, where he tried to slide in language changing that the goal of the university wasn't to promote the sifting and winnowing [of] the pursuit of truth, and instead to ... saying that the university's goal is to apply a sound workforce for Wisconsin.

Walker's attacks on the university have gone back to when he was first elected, but also, the university has been the source of a lot of the protests against him, going back to the Teaching Assistants Association ... who started the Wisconsin Uprising back in 2011.

Correct.

On the one hand, we have something very specific here with Walker's specific motivations toward the university system. On the other hand, we are seeing similar attacks on public universities around the country, and we are seeing this particular obsession with student protest being somehow antithetical to free speech nationally. I wonder if you could talk about where you see these attacks on the university and on free speech in the broader national context.

It is especially annoying that they are just trying to do this in the UW system right now, because just in the recent year they have politically attacked both professors and students. Members of the state legislature have openly attacked professors and students whose expression, whose free speech they have found disagreeable.

For anything like a "free speech" legislation to have any sort of legitimacy to it, the restrictions upon free speech have to necessarily be viewpoint and value-neutral restrictions. That this would be the case in the UW system at the current moment is just completely unrealistic. I think that is what has many students, at least in my circles, very concerned about this: that they will be people who are targeted. Particularly a lot of minority groups at the university, those that are here are really worried about it.

In the moment of Trump, Wisconsin, of course, has been living with Scott Walker for a while now, so you have seen a lot of the things that are now being moved to the national level there.

Right. Just another really bizzarro quintessential timing thing of it is that as we speak, UW Madison is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the student Vietnam protests here on campus. If these policies were around then, those students wouldn't have only been pepper-sprayed, but they also would have been possibly getting suspended or expelled or worse.

Since we are talking about this and the work that people are doing on campus being potentially under threat, talk about what Our Wisconsin Revolution has been doing on campus.

At the moment, there [have] been a lot of op-eds written. We are trying to really just bring awareness that this happened on Friday the 6th [of October]. We also have a petition circulating that everyone is welcome to sign, saying they support the students and their right to freedom of expression and speech, and the language of this legislation is too vague and we believe will be used to target already marginalized students. We are, hopefully, going to build up some student awareness and, hopefully, be able to make something happen when the Board of Regents is actually at the University of Wisconsin Madison in these coming weeks, because they have not banned protests quite yet.

When did Our Wisconsin Revolution get started and when did the campus branch get started?

Our Wisconsin Revolution is fairly new. It is the state affiliate of Our Revolution. It arose in Wisconsin over this past summer, in June. I was able to attend the convention where we elected our board and made plans to get a Dane County and Madison chapter officially affiliated. Being that Our Wisconsin Revolution started in the summer, this is Our Wisconsin Revolution's student chapter's first semester. There has been a lot of energy around it, just because at this point, we have taken the [Bernie] Sanders vision and really tried to apply it to Madison, which has meant opposition to a new jail that the county board has been trying to build, and really building membership and awareness at this point.

Going forward, do you have anything coming up with Our Revolution on or off campus that people should know about?

We don't have a specific event planned at the moment, but the third Thursdays of every month we have a social mixer with the Democratic Socialists of America and that is always a great time. People should come to our general assembly meetings on the fourth Thursday.

How can people keep up with you online?

We have Facebook pages for both the student chapter and the state affiliate and county affiliate. Also, we have a webpage, as well: www.Ourwisconsinrev.com.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

What Breitbart's Email Leaks Mean for Public Perception of the "Alt-Right"
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

BuzzFeed's leak of Breitbart's emails are not a revelation but confirmation that Milo Yiannopoulos, Steve Bannon and their supporters were not only in cahoots with white supremacists, they were aware of the violence they were stoking. While the leaks have widened the rift that developed between the Breitbart gang and the "alt-right" in the wake of Charlottesville, they likely will not unseat Breitbart from electoral politics without massive public pressure from anti-fascist movements.

Far-right British commentator Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted from Sproul Plaza at the UC Berkley campus after a speech. (Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)Far-right British commentator Milo Yiannopoulos is escorted from Sproul Plaza at the UC Berkeley campus after a speech. (Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
 

The celebrity of Milo Yiannopoulos has always been a balance between career-end charades and headline-grabbing stunts. While tabloids were still fawning over his wedding photos, especially on the race of his new husband, BuzzFeed was preparing a feature that further demolished his defenses against allegations of white nationalism. In the story published on October 5, Joseph Bernstein unveiled what was apparently years of private emails and Breitbart memos that outlined the far-right publication's relationship with open white nationalists, including Yiannopoulos's clear reliance on them. What this revealed was how Yiannopoulos's celebrity became a tool by which Stephen Bannon engaged in an information war to "defend the West."

While the term "alt-right" was roundly used to describe Yiannopoulos as he railed against Black Lives Matter and feminism, it was always a bit misapplied. The "alt-right" has always meant white nationalism, though in a dressed-up form that would rather cite esoteric German philosophers than David Duke. Yiannopoulos, a queer Jew, did not fit that bill, and while he enjoyed denouncing Muslims and immigrants, he did not meet the ideological litmus test that white nationalists like Richard Spencer or Jared Taylor might.

Instead, Yiannopoulos led what is now called the "alt-light," a slightly more moderate sphere of angry far-right populists that have helped to mainstream "alt-right" memes and talking points without committing to their more shocking political fantasies. People like Anne Coulter, Lauren Southern, Gavin McInnes, Rebel Media and, of course, Breitbart, are all figures in this canon, and Yiannopoulos was simply their loudest and most prolific icon. Gaining fame by leading the misogynist troll army during Gamergate, Yiannopoulos was ported over the pond to work at Breitbart as a tech editor, but it was his pithy blogs going after Breitbart's favorite targets that garnered his celebrity. In 2015 and 2016, Yiannopoulos mingled with white nationalism, bringing people like male tribalist Jack Donovan onto his podcast and writing his much-cited outline of the "alt-right" for Breitbart.

What has allowed for Breitbart's and Yiannopoulos's success has always been plausible deniability. Yiannopoulos can say almost the same things as the "alt-right," but then ducks away from accusations since he effectively refused to take the final rhetorical step: He wasn't talking about people of color or women per se, just these particular people. This has been a known strategy for years as Breitbart replaced Fox News as the radical right organ of news. The email leaks show that Breitbart's connections to white supremacists were real.

In email after email, Yiannopoulos's directives came down from Bannon, who excoriated Yiannopoulos anytime he refused to hone in specifically on Muslims and those "we are in an existential war" against. Yiannopoulos, for his part, made friends with the white nationalists early on, especially with Weev, the famous troll known for his vulgar neo-Nazism and work with The Daily Stormer. Yiannopoulos's articles were shaped and edited by Devin Saucier of American Renaissance, the most prominent white nationalist organization in the country that focuses much of its time on trying to prove race differences in intelligence. Other "alt-right" figures did direct edits on stories, and far-right Breitbart investors like Rebekah Mercer of the Mercer Family Foundation filtered stories to Yiannopoulos through Bannon. While Yiannopoulos played the innocent dupe to the racism of the "alt-right," in email after email, according to BuzzFeed News, he not only understood its racism full well, but it appeared as though he and Bannon reveled in it and used Breitbart as a well-coded tool to stoke those racist feelings in readers.

The relationships of tech impresario Peter Thiel and Bannon and the Neoreactionary movement -- specifically race and IQ proponent Curtis Yarvin -- was again made explicit, but this inspired few surprises. Yarvin became famous under the pen name Mencius Moldbug, and wrote a blog outlining his opposition to equality, democracy and social progress. Moldbug's ideas have had major currency in Silicon Valley, and Thiel, as a major right-wing tech figure, was able to shelter himself from direct connections with Yarvin until the report was released.

Most damning of all, however, is likely the clip of Yiannopoulos's April 2016 Texas karaoke event, where "alt-right" leaders threw up "sieg heils," and Richard Spencer laughed in the audience. The private event was not open to the media, and presumably Milo had no intention of revealing his open admiration of the "alt-right" shown at the bar. Mike "Enoch" Peinovich, the host of the white nationalist troll-podcast The Daily Shoah, described on his show his own relationship with Yiannopoulos after the fact, admitting he was also at this karaoke event and that they had exchanged contact information.

What is more shocking, however, is the relationship that Yiannopoulos and Breitbart maintained with journalists at mainstream publications. Mitchell Sunderland at Vice's women's platform Broadly sent one email telling Yiannopoulos to go after the "fat feminist" Lindy West, a woman who has seen some of the most aggressive sexist harassment in the post-Gamergate internet. The undercurrent here is that Yiannopoulos's brand of reactionary abuse was a popular pastime for people in the media, and his antics created more clickbait stories for even leftist publications to lap up.

There have been few believers in the "alt-light" claims of anti-racism, or of Bannon's arms-length relationship with Neoreaction and the "alt-right," and that is the dark spot that BuzzFeed's info dump really elucidates. With such a massive leak as this, with such damning evidence, one could easily expect that the result would be firings (Vice did fire Mitchell Sunderland for his correspondence with Yiannopoulos), denouncements and social exorcisms. What is more shocking, in a sense, is that none of that will result because all of this is simply a confirmation for what has been both publicly known and privately accepted. That Breitbart is a tool for the development of white nationalism, that people like Bannon and Yiannopoulos know full well the type of violence they are stoking, and that backers like the Mercers and Thiel are allying with a revolutionary white supremacist movement is not particularly striking. Instead, we simply have the map laid out, our educated assumptions made transparent.

The recent fragmentation of the "alt-right," which really started with schisms in the days after Trump's victory, hit a fever pitch after Charlottesville. The effect of the social shift and the subsequent online platform denial the "alt-right" faced, as well as the betrayals that Yiannopoulos has brought on the "alt-right," has given him no quarter in the wake of this revelation. Yiannopoulos went as far as to go on social media to declare that it was an "alt-right" plot to reveal this information. "I am told a figure on the Right paid one of Richard Spencer's nutty goons $10,000 for this video," Yiannopoulos wrote on Instagram, with little evidence of this transaction. "I have been and am a steadfast supporter of Jews and Israel. I disavow white nationalism and I disavow racism and I always have." Figures like Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars have picked up on Yiannopoulos's allegations, pushing a conspiracy theory that establishment journalists colluded with white nationalists to bring down Yiannopoulos.

Spencer, for his part, has continued his anti-Yiannopoulos campaign on social media and podcasts, repudiating a figure he once celebrated. Around the troll-sphere of the "alt-right," Yiannopoulos's response to the revelations and his inability to take ownership for his racist protocols has further demonized him. The former alliance between the "alt-right" and the "alt-light" has been delivered a heavy blow, and no amount of revelations of previous collaboration is going to resurrect their Trumpian beast. Instead, this has the ability to permanently sever any future connections, and for "alt-light" figures who attempt to co-opt the energy of white nationalists, it will act as a warning about the potentially public nature of that friendship.

Revelations like this could cause Thiel and the Mercers to try and back away from their public associations with white nationalist people and movements, but if what we already know about them was not enough for them to go dormant, this is likely not dangerous enough either. It is unclear how Breitbart will respond, if the network will use this as an opportunity to clear its ranks, or to simply ignore the allegations and press forward with its mission. The only thing that forces these connections to dissolve is massive public pressure -- the kind that only organized movements with clear goals can grasp. All of these figures have been the target of anti-fascists over the past 18 months, and that is not likely to abate, but it will require larger coalitions of stakeholders to permanently unseat Breitbart's place in the American electorate.

Trump's Latest Muslim Ban Is Defeated Again in Court
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

President Trump's latest attempt to bar some citizens of eight Muslim majority countries from entering the US suffers a second defeat, as another federal judge rules that the latest policy is unconstitutional. We speak with Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

TRANSCRIPT

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump's latest attempt to bar some citizens of eight countries from entering the US has suffered a second federal court defeat. On Wednesday, US District Judge Theodore Chuang of Maryland ruled Trump's own words helped convince the judge that the latest policy is, quote, "an inextricable re-animation of the twice-enjoined Muslim ban" and is likely to be found unconstitutional.

This comes after a federal judge in Hawaii blocked most of the latest version of a travel ban on Tuesday, just hours before it was set to take effect. US District Judge Derrick Watson had previously blocked plans by the administration to ban refugees and travelers from six Muslim-majority nations. This week, he ruled the latest ban, quote, "plainly discriminates based on nationality" in violation of the law as well as, quote, "the founding principles of this Nation."

AMY GOODMAN: The revised ban removed Sudan from the original list and added the countries of Chad and North Korea and some government officials from Venezuela. The new order also includes restrictions on citizens from Iraq, as well as all citizens of Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia. Both the Maryland and Hawaii orders will allow a ban on some North Koreans and Venezuelans to go into effect. The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments this month on an earlier version of a travel ban, but canceled the hearing after Trump issued new restrictions. The White House has vowed to appeal the latest ruling.

For more, we're joined by Baher Azmy, who is legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Baher.

BAHER AZMY: Hi, Amy and Nermeen.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what just took place, a Maryland court ruling after the Hawaii judge ruled.

BAHER AZMY: Yes. So, this is the third iteration of the Muslim ban, which attempts to clothe the previous versions, that were just very facially, obviously directed at nationality, with some legal pretense. The previous versions simply banned all individuals from these eight countries. This version had a purportedly neutral rationale -- that is, these are countries who insufficiently -- share insufficient security information with the United States. But these two courts saw through that rationale and agreed that the threat of discrimination from the first to the second to the third is still intact.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let's go to Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking on Wednesday. He defended this third travel ban of the Trump administration.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: The Department of Justice is resolutely focused on dealing with the terrorism threats that we face. They are real. The military tells us they can expect not a reduction after ISIS is defeated, but maybe even an increase in attacks. The president's executive order is an important step to ensuring that we know who is coming into our country. It's a lawful, necessary order that we are proud to defend. And indeed, most may not know, the Supreme Court has already vacated one court's injunction against that order. And we are confident we'll prevail, as time goes by, in the Supreme Court.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that's Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking Wednesday in defense of this ban.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I mean, it's as if -- imagine Orval Faubus, the segregationist governor of Alabama [sic], bans all black applicants to the University of Arkansas -- sorry, Arkansas. And then that gets struck down by the courts, and he next decides to ban all applicants from 10 high schools to the University of Arkansas, nine of them happen to be all-black high schools. No court would accept that as reasonable or nondiscriminatory. And that's what we have in the case of this latest version of the Muslim ban.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what happens now, with these two federal courts, one in Hawaii -- and I couldn't help think about Hawaii being one of the judges that struck down the ban, because of what Jeff Sessions famously said on a right-wing radio show: "How is it possible that a man on an island in the Pacific can stop the president of the United States?"

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, which speaks to the general insufficient regard that Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration have for democracy and constitutional principles. So, no doubt the government will attempt to appeal these injunctions, but the courts of appeals governing both of these district courts have previously upheld the prior injunctions, so they probably won't have much success in the court of appeals and will ultimately seek review in the Supreme Court.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But the justification, of course, that the Department of Justice has given is that the countries now listed on the ban are listed because an extensive intelligence-sharing evaluation that the US undertook in all of these different countries concluded that these countries don't have sufficient restrictions in place, and that's why the countries were selected, so, in fact, it has nothing to do with Muslims or anybody else.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, that's the justification, but I think it speaks to the lack of credibility that this administration has. I mean, had this been enacted by the Bush administration or the Clinton administration, given the traditional deference courts give to executive branch officials in the context of immigration, you'd expect courts would step back. But this is just utterly implausible as a national security justification, given the way it simply reanimates the prior obvious discriminatory actions the government took, and given the sort of lack of a sufficient national security rationale once you scratch below the service. I mean, we already investigate these countries. It's not like there aren't national security protocols in place when someone applies for a student visa from Iran. So, it's simply a reanimation and speaks to the lack of credibility that this administration has in the realm of constitutional law.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to another issue, but it deals with refugees, a federal judge on Wednesday ordering the US government to allow an undocumented immigrant teenager in custody in Texas to have an abortion. The judge said she was, quote, "astounded" that the Trump administration was trying to block the procedure. The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit on the teenager's behalf, said the 17-year-old girl, who's living unaccompanied in a refugee resettlement shelter in Texas, had been granted permission from a judge to terminate her pregnancy, but officials with the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies refused to transport her to a women's health clinic for an abortion. The Justice Department, which is defending the Health and Human Services Department, has not commented on whether it will appeal the ruling.

BAHER AZMY: Yeah. I mean, this is a remarkable action that the government took, and it reflects kind of three undemocratic strands or reactionary strands of the Trump administration: first, the de facto attempt to block a court order by not allowing this young woman to access what the court authorized her to access, by not letting her out of the jail; second, a deep antipathy to migrants and undocumented migrants or refugees; and third, this sort of reactionary pro-life cast that they want to enforce. They do not want to, in their view, aid and abet one's constitutional rights. And this is Jeff Sessions at work in all three dimensions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, before we conclude, Baher, I wanted to ask you about what -- because everybody has pointed to the fact that both the Hawaii and the Maryland ruling, the injunctions placed on Trump's third version of the travel ban, are, number one, partial bans, and that they're quite distinct from one another. So what are the differences between them? And what do they still allow to go into effect? Is it just that it will apply to citizens of North Korea -- officials from Venezuela and citizens of North Korea?

BAHER AZMY: Yeah, I mean, I think -- in short, I think they're far more similar than they are different. Both allow the restrictions to remain in place on North Korea and Venezuela, because those weren't meaningful restrictions anyway. The Maryland ruling is a bit narrower, because it only protects those who, quote, "have bona fide connections to the United States," so those with -- who are applying for visas to the United States who may have existing connections to the United States. And the Hawaii one applies more broadly to anyone who seeks to enter the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we're going to leave it there, but of course continue to follow this all. Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Guantánamo Prisoners on Hunger Strike Say Guards Threatened to Kill Them by Stopping Force-Feeding
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

Guantánamo Bay detainees who are on hunger strike have accused officials of a sudden change in practice that could result in them starving to death, as doctors threaten to stop force-feeding them and are no longer monitoring their medical condition. We speak with Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, which represents eight of the 41 Guantánamo detainees. Reprieve is urging supporters to join a solidarity hunger strike with the detainees. Among those participating are British Labour Party MP Tom Watson, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, comedian Sara Pascoe, director Mark Rylance and French-born actress Caroline Lagerfelt.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: That's Roger Waters performing, here at Democracy Now!, "We Shall Overcome," accompanied by the high school student Alexander Rohatyn on his cello. Waters led the Countdown to Close Guantánamo campaign on behalf of prisoners at the US naval base in Cuba. This is Democracy Now! I'm Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Guantánamo, where hunger-striking prisoners say US military officials have threatened to stop force-feeding them and are denying them basic medical care, in a move the prisoners and their lawyers say threatens to kill them. In an op-ed for The Guardian, hunger-striking Guantánamo Bay prisoner Khalid Qassim writes, quote, "They have decided to leave us to waste away and die instead. … Now as each night comes, I wonder if I will wake up in the morning. When will my organs fail? When will my heart stop? I am slowly slipping away and no one notices," end-quote.

Qassim has been in prison for 15 years without being charged with a crime, and writes that a hunger strike was, quote, "the only peaceful way I thought I could protest." He is one of 41 men remaining in Guantánamo. Ten were charged or convicted before a commission, but the rest are being held in indefinite wartime detention without trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights lawyers have long opposed force-feeding in Guantánamo, saying the brutal way it's implemented is akin to torture. But those same lawyers say they oppose the sudden suspension of feedings and basic medical care, since their clients' health is precariously declining and such care may mean the difference between life and death.

The international legal charity Reprieve is now calling on supporters to join a solidarity hunger strike with the prisoners. Among those who have heeded the call are British Labour Party MP Tom Watson, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, comedian Sara Pascoe, actor David Morrissey, director and actor Mark Rylance and French-born actress Caroline Lagerfelt.

For more, we go to London, where we're joined by human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, founder and director of the international legal charity Reprieve, which represents eight Guantánamo prisoners.

Clive Stafford Smith, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don't you lay out what's happening? What people may remember during the Obama years is the force-feeding that prisoners called inhumane. They called it torture. Now explain what's happening.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: I will. And good morning to everyone. Back under President Obama, we had force-feeding, which -- there's a large swath of the medical community that says that that's unethical per se. But the way it was done and is done in Guantánamo Bay is gratuitously painful. General Bantz Craddock said in The New York Times that they were making it "inconvenient" -- his word -- by making it more painful.

Well, just recently, starting on September the 20th, we learned that President Trump's team down there have added a pernicious twist. So what they're doing now is they've stopped force-feeding the prisoners, for now, and they've said to the prisoners that the prisoners can go forward and they can starve themselves, until their organs fail, until they get serious mental illness, until they go blind. And at that point, they're going to start force-feeding them again to stop them from actually dying. So they wait until they're half-dead, and then keep them half-alive and then keep them forever, at the cost of $11.8 million per prisoner, in Guantánamo Bay.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What's the justification for that? I mean, why do this to them now?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, the reason behind this, I'm afraid, is they're trying to coerce the prisoners out of their peaceful protest. And, you know, this is just wrong. Imran Khan, the well-known Pakistan politician, who is a strong supporter of Ahmed Rabbani, one of my clients, has written in The Washington Post today that there's a long tradition that we, as Americans, have fro peaceful protest. And the idea that the Trump administration would try to bully these guys, who have been on hunger strike for four years asking for just one thing -- you know, give me freedom, or give me a fair trial -- that they should use this sort of medical malpractice to bully people out of it is just disgusting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us the story of your clients, Ahmed Rabbani and Khalid Qassim if you can quickly tell us, to give us a sense of who are these 41 men who remain languishing at this US prison in Cuba.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: So, there are 41 people, at a cost of $500 million, that could be well spent on something else. Of those, 15 of them are potentially going to have some form of trial, fair or unfair, in Guantánamo Bay. And the rest are forever prisoners who aren't going anywhere. And some of them, instead of being high-value detainees, are, by definition, low-value or no-value detainees.

Let me just tell you about Ahmed Rabbani. Ahmed -- and this is all corroborated in the Senate CIAtorture report. Ahmed was originally sold to the US for a bounty by the ISI, who said he was a really bad dude called Hassan Ghul. When they got him, Ahmed said, "No, I'm not. I'm a taxi driver from Karachi." And indeed, in the Senate report, it says, "You know, this is what he says. We don't believe him." He then spent 545 days in the dark prisons of the CIA torture process, including being exposed to strappado, an old torture that was done by the Spanish Inquisition. And, you know, what did they get for that? Absolutely nothing, except they abused this poor guy beyond measure. He was then taken to Guantánamo Bay, where he patiently waited for his release back to his wife and son, who was only 19 months at the time he was detained. And then, after losing patience, in 2013, he decided, "What can I do?" He went on a hunger strike. He did that, and then he was force-fed. And he's been force-fed for four years. And I've seen him down there. He is now 92 pounds, if you can believe it. He is just a shadow of his former self. And there he is.

And Khalid [Qassim], in some ways, is even worse. Khalid, you know, I've known him for some years. He is absolutely nobody. I hate to say that. It sounds, you know, like I'm disparaging him. I'm not. But he is absolutely nobody, from Yemen, and yet he's still in Guantánamo also.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, you say that Ahmed Rabbani now weighs 92 pounds. So at what point will he start being force-fed again? Because the idea is, as you pointed out earlier, that they don't actually want these people to die.

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Well, that's a good question, because if you look at the medical literature, when you get under 30 -- you know, 30 percent below your normal body weight, that's when you're in real danger of dying. And he's now 33 percent below his normal body weight, and there wasn't much of him to begin with. So he is in real danger.

I spoke with him yesterday in a legal phone call, this privileged call I had with him, and he's not sounding good. And indeed there's a whole syndrome, a medical syndrome, of hunger strikers. When you lose thiamine, you begin to get psychotic. You begin to get to where you can't make voluntary and competent decisions. And what I'm afraid -- I mean, none of these guys want to die. They just want justice. But what I'm afraid, with Ahmed, is he's getting beyond the point where he can make sensible decisions, and he just might end up doing something really stupid and ending up dying down there.

AMY GOODMAN: You're calling on supporters to join in a solidarity hunger strike. Are you doing this? Can you talk about what you're calling on supporters to do and what you're calling on the Trump administration to do right now?

CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: Sure. Well, look, let me first say I don't want any of you to hurt yourself medically, and perhaps you shouldn't be quite as stupid as I am sometimes. I did five days of a solidarity hunger strike, just because I think it's really important when I talk to my clients that I can say, you know, "We will take on your protest for now. I just want you guys to eat a little bit to keep yourself alive, while we sue to stop this nonsense." And we did sue this week, and I hope to goodness the judge is going order the government to behave themselves properly.

Now, in terms of what we want, if I may, I've got some notes from yesterday. And, you know, this is the message that Ahmed Rabbani has for President Trump. This is a quote: "What is the benefit of keeping this place open? They're spending over $500 million a year on this place. They could have saved the money, sent us away, whatever, and not have this headache. Show mercy, President Trump, if there is any in your heart. Use the money to give to your soldiers, your people, not wasting it here. Help the poor people. Help the needy in the US You've got fires in California, hurricanes. Use the money for that." Really, look, either just set them free, or do what we've done in America for the last 200 years, which is give them a trial. And I would love to have that trial. I don't think the government would. And then we'd get them out.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Clive Stafford Smith, we want to thank you so much for being with us, human rights lawyer, director of Reprieve, which represents eight Guantánamo prisoners.

That does it for our show. Juan González will be speaking at Princeton today at noon. I'll be speaking on Saturday in California. We'll be broadcasting from Marin on Friday.

 

Man From The Past
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM
Trump's Game Plan: Racism and Violence as Decoys
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

Millions of football fans must have felt grateful to President Trump for provoking the entire National Football League into a goal line stand last month. The sight of hundreds of players on the sidelines, arms linked with coaches and owners during the playing of the national anthem, not only soothed fears that a disrupted season lay in the NFL's future, but gave those fans tacit permission to keep on enjoying the games without being too disturbed about brain trauma on the field, collusion in the front office, or demands for racial justice.

Once again, Trump had made it all about Trump, then quickly blitzed on to fresh outrages.

Had anything really happened?

Maybe.

One long-time national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24th, was "the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam." From it, he foresaw the possibility of a civic conversation emerging that would create "unity in our communities."

On the other hand, could that Sunday of Accord have actually been no more than a Hail Mary pass designed to briefly shore up a vulnerable sport? Could that show of NFL unity have helped to block growing concerns that, amid a blizzard of negative news and views, pro football was beginning to fade as America's most popular spectator sport?

In other words, could Donald Trump have saved professional football? Give him credit for this: he certainly spun a mild demonstration against racism into a flagrant case of disrespect for the flag, the military, our wars, patriotism, the nation, and above all else, of course, Donald J. Trump. With his usual skill, he then reshaped that sizzling package into yet another set of presidential pep rallies for his own fans, that much-invoked "base." In the process, he also helped highlight the Jock Spring that had stirred last year when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the anthem. Though it seemed to fade after the initial blast of publicity, it was revitalized last month when the president labeled any football player who knelt or sat or stayed in the locker room during the playing of the pre-game anthem a "son of a bitch," the same term he used last year to describe the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre.

Trump's slur clearly resonated with the resentment many everyday white male sports fans often seem to have when it comes to bigger, younger, better-paid African-Americans who don't appear grateful enough for the chance to live out their daydreams. Keep in mind that the NFL, like the National Basketball Association, is a predominately black league. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has a relatively small percentage of African-American players, although many Latinos and Asians. (Only one active baseball player, Oakland's Bruce Maxwell, an African American, has taken a knee.)

The Coming of the Jock Spring

When it comes to racism and professional sports, the arc from Muhammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the Army on April 28, 1967, to Lapchick's next most important sports day is a distinctly interrupted story. In that long-gone year, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a San Jose State sociology professor, Harry Edwards, staged protests against racism. Among their demands was that Ali, the heavyweight champion, be allowed to fight again, since every American boxing commission had by then refused to license him and his passport had been taken away. Those protests culminated in an enduring image of resistance: African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting black-gloved fists into the air from the medal stand of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The Empire immediately struck back (as it would do 50 years later to Colin Kaepernick). Smith and Carlos were thrown off the U.S. team and hustled out of Mexico. They spent years as jobless heroes. Ali himself would not be allowed to return to the ring for another three years. The boundaries of the power of athletes to express themselves politically were now set. The O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan generations of black sports stars would remain determinedly apolitical, concentrated on pleasing the white men who controlled their endorsement contracts. The most revolutionary movement in sports in those years came from women tennis players, led by Billie Jean King, who fought for equal economic rights and an end to the tyranny and corruption of what passed for amateurism (still widely practiced in college sports today).

The Jedi returned in 2016 when, after a week of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a lone gunman's attack that left five Dallas police officers dead, basketball stars Carmello Anthony, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul exhorted their fellow athletes at an ESPN awards gala to speak up, oppose racial profiling, and use their influence to renounce all violence. As James said at the time, "The four of us we cannot ignore the realities of the current state of America. The events of the past week have put a spotlight on the injustice, distrust, and anger that plague so many of us. The system is broken. But the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new. But the urgency for change is at an all time high."

It briefly seemed as if a Jock Spring might indeed be stirring and it seemed fitting as well that it would start in basketball, where international stars with guaranteed contracts in a relatively liberal league had some clout. But there would be no meaningful follow-up until, on August 26, 2016, in a more conservative and controlled sport, Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem before a pre-season game. It was one of the most vivid image of American resistance to racism since Smith and Carlos. He was Rosa Parks with a helmet. At some point, someone finally noted the link that connected Kaepernick to Smith and Carlos: Harry Edwards, the now-retired Berkeley sociology professor, was a 49ers team adviser.

As the season progressed, Kaepernick regularly dropped to his right knee because, he said, he refused "to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." He later referred specifically to the shooting deaths of unarmed black men by white police officers.

Then-candidate Trump's immediate response was: "I think it's a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try -- it won't happen."

It took the rest of the season, but another link between 1968 and 2016 became apparent: Kaepernick would be shoved out of the game and left a jobless hero to some (and an ungrateful turncoat to others). By season's end, he had become a free agent and Trump, of course, had become president. In a move that could only please the new president, the NFL owners apparently colluded in informally banning Kaepernick from the game. A healthy, 29-year-old with Super Bowl experience, he hasn't been hired since, not even as a backup quarterback. The rationales have included claims that he's lost his skills or doesn't fit into existing offensive schemes. They ring hollow when you compare his supposedly degraded abilities to those of some of the lesser talents who take the field every week.

Even if there was a billionaire team owner whose politics were sympathetic, it seems clear that Kaepernick was simply not considered worth the trouble in Donald Trump's America. Owners of sports teams are dependent not only on fan support but on media and political complicity to sell tickets and to strong-arm cities into financing their stadiums. Being perceived as soft on "unpatriotic" black athletes could damage their relationships with their own mostly conservative base.

Nevertheless, the blooming of a Jock Spring looked even more likely this season as other athletes stepped up and dropped down. Kaepernick was unsigned but stars like Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins kept the protest alive. One of Jenkins' teammates, Chris Long, who is white, even stood beside him, a hand supportively on his shoulder. After the game, he told reporters, "I think it's a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality." 

There even seemed to be a spring awakening in the grandstands and living rooms of America. Some fans questioned the morality of finding pleasure in the deadly head-banging of black guys killing themselves for the entertainment of white guys, even as others began to complain, in a Trumpian fashion, about the intrusion of social issues into what had been considered their sanctuary from real life. There was concern, too, that politics, which they had been told has no place in sports, would upset the personal dynamics within their favorite teams. Coaches have always emphasized the need for "unit cohesion" -- the same catchphrase the military used in the past when it was still trying to keep either blacks, women, or gays out of the line-up.

Trump Takes the Field

And then, of course, President Trump strode onto the field. Not only did he put those uppity black "son of a bitch" players in their place, but he impugned their manhood by saying that there wasn't enough violence in the game. He similarly dissed the owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, daring them to fire any player who refused to stand for the anthem and later tried to go after them where it hurts, tweeting, "Why is the NFL getting massive tax breaks while at the same time disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country? Change tax law!" (This was, however, a ludicrous claim, since only the NFL's headquarters, a non-profit corporation, qualified for such exemptions and the league had waived that right several years ago for public relations reasons.) 

As a result, pro football's arm-linking response seemed, at the time, like an attempt to redeem itself to its fandom. It would, however, turn out to be a gesture that signified nothing more than a hollow pageant of pragmatic unity. To survive, in other words, the league reacted not with a show of force, but with a photo op that they thought might be reassuring to fans and advertisers alike.

That Sunday of Accord was kicked off by Pakistani-born Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, the league's first non-white majority owner and one of at least six owners who had donated a million dollars or more to Trump's campaign. His team was playing the Baltimore Ravens in London as part of a plan to bolster pro football by globalizing it and it was there, thanks to the time difference, that he became the first owner to stand entwined with his players. 

The NFL is, in fact, moving toward the end of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement with those same players. It ends after the 2020 season, already sure to be a politically charged year. This will be the first agreement since the full impact of the league's betrayal of those same players -- its willingness to ignore the widespread brain injuries the sport causes participants -- became well documented in the groundbreaking reporting of the New York Times's Alan Schwarz and then the book and the film League of Denial.

The latest revelations of the link between playing pro football and brain injuries put the NFL in the same league with those other classic civic criminals, the tobacco companies and the Big Oil promoters of climate change denial, not to mention a sycophantic media that offered years of cover for all the deniers by creating a false balance in its reporting and claiming a lack of definitive scientific evidence.

Still, the NFL's biggest concern is undoubtedly the potential drying up of its player and fan pipelines, which has already begun (and to which the president has been lending a distinctly helping hand when, at least, it comes to his base and the league's fan base). Despite attempts to create safer practice models and tackling techniques for the sport, there has been a distinct drop in youth football participation in recent years as evidence mounts that early play leads to harm.

Prominent players and former players have even declared that they would not allow their sons to play or recommend the sport to other children. As former Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback and Fox NFL Sunday broadcaster Terry Bradshaw put it, "If I had a son today, and I would say this to all our audience and our viewers out there, I would not let him play football." After 20 years at ESPN, former player Ed Cunningham even quit broadcasting because of his concerns about traumatic brain injuries. "I can no longer be in that cheerleader's spot," he said.

The Sundays since that day of linked arms have offered anything but conclusive evidence as to who's really winning the hearts and minds of football fans and Americans more generally, but if a guess had to be made, so far the embattled Donald Trump has proven to be the provisional winner. He's used it to rally his base (and Republicans more generally), while the protests have continued, but at a diminished level, and the owners have begun slipping away from the sidelines and returning to their luxury boxes. Having had their moment of symbolism with their players, they now seem to be preparing for another kind of symbolism entirely. In their fashion, they are reportedly getting ready to lock arms with Donald Trump by threatening either to bench any players who kneel for the anthem or possibly change league rules to make standing mandatory

And yet, as far as we can tell, the fans have not been heeding Trump's directive to "leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway."

Oh wait, one fan actually did.

On Sunday, October 8th, Vice President Pence walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis after about 20 members of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the anthem. Supposedly there for a ceremony honoring retired Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, he had flown in (and would fly out) at taxpayer's expense (chalk up a quick $242,500) and, reportedly at the president's bidding, he was clearly planning to walk out as soon as a knee hit the ground. (A protest was, of course, guaranteed since it was Kaepernick's former team on the field.) The VP was, it seems, running a play for the Coach-in-Chief.

Soon after, in a letter to owners, Commissioner Goodell supported standing for the anthem, while one of the most powerful owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, threatened to bench any player who did not do so.

The players had yet to come together in any meaningful way either as free men or as mercenary gladiators. A journeyman veteran, DeAngelo Hall of the Washington Redskins, spoke openly about his concerns for personal financial security, while Russell Okun of the Los Angeles Chargers published an open letter calling on the players to address inequality together.

Then, a seeming turnover. Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, charging own collusion against his employment. A few days later, the owners voted, at least for the moment, not to penalize players who refused to stand for the anthem, prompting a protesting tweet -- "Total disrespect for our great country!" -- from Trump.

So even as the Sunday of Accord became a distant dream, the reality of a Jock Spring was still spiraling in the air. Would it lead to a score by progressive players, would it be intercepted by Trump? Would America -- sports fans and a-sportuals alike -- come to understand that the issue was more than a political football? Would they grasp that it was a locker-room lesson in how kneeling for principle could be a man's way of finally standing up?

The Power of Stories: Why We Need More Than Facts to Win
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

In this Progressive Pick excerpt from Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, George Monbiot examines the power of stories, as what he calls "the means by which we navigate the world." Those who tell the stories wield the power. How do stories undermine facts, values and beliefs? "If stories reflected the values most people profess -- democracy, independence, industrial 'progress' -- the rebels would be the heroes," writes Monbiot.

Powerful stories like the Narnia series move us to cheer the triumph of values that contradict our own. (Photo: Manuka / iStock / Getty Images Plus)Powerful stories like the Narnia series move us to cheer the triumph of values that contradict our own. (Photo: Manuka / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The idea that human nature is inherently competitive and individualistic isn't just harmful, argues George Monbiot in his new book. It's also contradicted by psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis provides a compelling argument for how we can reorganize our world for the better from the bottom up. Order it today by donating to Truthout!

In this excerpt from Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot talks about the power of stories. Stories are the tool we use to make sense of the world: We will only be able to supplant the story of neoliberalism, which has shaped the outlook of so many minds, with a compelling new story. 

You cannot take away someone's story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however outdated and discredited it may be. Change happens only when you replace it with another. When we develop the right story, and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. Those who tell the stories run the world.

The old world, which once looked stable, even immutable, is collapsing. A new era has begun, loaded with hazard if we fail to respond, charged with promise if we seize the moment. Whether the systems that emerge from this rupture are better or worse than the current dispensation depends on our ability to tell a new story, a story that learns from the past, places us in the present and guides the future.

Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. In his illuminating book Don't Even Think About It, George Marshall explains that "stories perform a fundamental cognitive function: they are the means by which the Emotional Brain makes sense of the information collected by the Rational Brain. People may hold information in the form of data and figures, but their beliefs about it are held entirely in the form of stories."

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something "makes sense," the "sense" we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

Drawing on experimental work, Marshall shows that, even when people have been told something is fictitious, they will cling to it if it makes a good story and they have heard it often enough. Attempts to refute such stories tend only to reinforce them, as the disproof constitutes another iteration of the narrative. When we argue, "It's not true that a shadowy clique of American politicians orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centre," those who believe the false account hear that "a shadowy clique of American politicians orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Centre." The phrase "It's not true that" carries less weight than the familiar narrative to which it is attached.

A string of facts, however well attested, has no power to correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative 'truth' established in their minds.

The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Effective stories tend to possess a number of common elements. They are easy to understand. They can be briefly summarised and quickly memorised. They are internally consistent. They concern particular characters or groups. There is a direct connection between cause and effect. They describe progress -- from a beginning through a middle to an end. The end resolves the situation encountered at the beginning, with a conclusion that is positive and inspiring.

Certain stories are repeated across history and through different cultures. For example, the story of the hero setting out on a quest, encountering great hazard (often in the form of a monster), conquering it in the face of overwhelming odds, and gaining prestige, power or insight is common to cultures all over the world, some of which had no possible contact with each other. Ulysses, Beowulf, Sinbad, Sigurd, Cú Chulainn, Arjuna, St George, Lạc Long Quân and Glooskap are all variants of this universal hero. Our minds appear to be attuned not only to stories in general, but to particular stories that follow consistent patterns.

In politics, there is a recurring story that captures our attention. It goes like this:

Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. The hero -- who might be one person or a group of people -- revolts against this disorder, fights the nefarious forces, overcomes them despite great odds and restores order.

Stories that follow this pattern can be so powerful that they sweep all before them: even our fundamental values. For example, two of the world's best-loved and most abiding narratives -- The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series -- invoke values that were familiar in the Middle Ages but are generally considered repulsive today. Disorder in these stories is characterised by the usurpation of rightful kings or their rightful heirs; justice and order rely on their restoration. We find ourselves cheering the resumption of autocracy, the destruction of industry and even, in the case of Narnia, the triumph of divine right over secular power.

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If these stories reflected the values most people profess -- democracy, independence, industrial 'progress' -- the rebels would be the heroes and the hereditary rulers the villains. We overlook the conflict with our own priorities because the stories resonate so powerfully with the narrative structure for which our minds are prepared. Facts, evidence, values, beliefs: stories conquer all. 

Copyright (2017) by George Monbiot. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.

Mnuchin Gives Away the Game: "It's Very Hard Not to Give Tax Cuts to the Wealthy"
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks to members of the White House press corps during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks to members of the White House press corps during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 25, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

For weeks President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have been peddling the demonstrable lie that their tax proposals are primarily geared toward helping the middle class, not the wealthiest Americans. But in an interview with Politico's Ben White published Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin gave away the game, admitting: "It's very hard not to give tax cuts to the wealthy."

The math, given how much you are collecting, is just hard to do," the treasury secretary added.

But as The Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney notes, the math is not hard at all. In fact, the White House's own tax framework, released last month, had a useful suggestion: add in a higher top marginal rate.

"An additional top rate may apply to the highest-income taxpayers to ensure that the reformed tax code is at least as progressive as the existing tax code and does not shift the tax burden from high-income to lower- and middle-income taxpayers," the framework says.

When asked about Mnuchin's comments during Wednesday's press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn't deny that the rich would benefit enormously from Trump's tax plan. Instead, she claimed that cutting taxes for the middle class remains "the focus and the priority."

Mnuchin's comments came as the Senate debates a GOP-crafted budget proposal that Republicans need to pass in order to pave the way for a tax plan that non-partisan analyses have shown would almost solely benefit the top one percent, while increasing taxes on some low-income and middle class families.

On social media, critics mocked Mnuchin's claim, suggesting that it exposes the tax "scam" Trump and the GOP are attempting to ram through Congress -- despite the fact that an of Americans disapprove of the plan.

Our Summer of Fire and the Fires to Come
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. Early morning mandatory evacuations happened on Adobe Canyon Road and Calistoga Rd. (Photo:Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatened the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa, California, on October 13, 2017. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Out-of-control wildfires have devastated the Western US this year, causing not only immediate deaths and untold property damage, but dangerous levels of smoke pollution and long-term health effects. The impact of wildfires on human health and ecosystems will keep rising, unless serious and emergency measures are taken to counter climate change and its effects.

A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. Early morning mandatory evacuations happened on Adobe Canyon Road and Calistoga Rd. (Photo:Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatened the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa, California, on October 13, 2017. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Explosive wildfires have raged in Northern California over the last two weeks. Forty-one people are dead, and at least 6,700 structures have been destroyed, making these the most destructive fires in the state's history. Parts of the city of Santa Rosa have burned to the ground. Extremely hot and dry conditions, continuing impacts of the state's drought, and high winds combined to create fires so fast-moving, many residents were forced to flee for their lives with only minutes notice. Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate. In the last several days, better weather has been helping firefighters fight the blazes, though many are still continuing. Air quality in the region has been called the worst in recorded history due to wildfire smoke.

The fires in Northern California come after a summer of infernos and smoke spanning the West.

It began in Seattle on August 1, 2017. Coming out of work that day, I looked around to try to fathom why the entire atmosphere was thick with haze. Maybe the city's smog had suddenly become abominably worse for unexplainable reasons? Looking around, I noticed it was smoke that lay everywhere. It filled my throat and lungs. The world seemed suddenly wrong, without sense.

These days, and especially this summer, living on Earth feels like existing in dread of the next environmental apocalypse. That day, it felt like it had arrived.

That night, I heard the news. Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia was blanketing the area.

For the next two weeks, it was hard to take a breath outside. The air was acrid, lung-burning. The blue, fresh summer skies Seattle is known for were extinguished. Being outside felt like walking in a stagnant, dead, smoky bubble. The sun and moon eerily appeared through a deep haze, orange or blood red. It was like living in an alternate universe. The smoke returned throughout August and early September.

The Seattle Times said that the region's "natural air conditioning," marine air blown by winds from the west, had broken down. Air quality levels in August plunged so severely, at times Seattle and Portland had air quality worse than Beijing. Elderly people, children and those with compromised respiratory systems were warned to avoid going outside. The general population was told to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.

I was happy to get out of town on August 11 to head for the Oregon coast and hiking in the Redwoods in Northern California. I looked forward to being able to breathe fresh air again. But it became clear the smoke went way beyond Washington State. As we drove into Eugene, giant plumes of white smoke billowed out of the Willamette National Forest to the east. Further south, more clouds filled the sky from the North Umpqua complex fire. Driving down Highway 101, we came to Brookings on the Pacific coast at the southern tip of Oregon. Smoke choked the town. A fire up the Chetco River had just "blown up" and was spreading in all directions. A few days later, we heard that people were being evacuated immediately due to the fires' rapid spread, in certain spots all the way down to the ocean.

Arriving in Redwood National Park, we were amazed to see the skies there clouded with smoke. In the late afternoon in the Tall Trees Redwood Grove, rays of sunlight angling through smoke and off the trees turned the grove a beautiful but surreal red. Coming home in late August, Oregon was smothered in smoke far thicker than it had been in Seattle, from the southern border almost to the northern. It was hard to imagine people having to try to live and function every day in this.

Summer of Heat and Western Fire

This summer, Seattle broke records for the driest in recorded history, the most consecutive days without rain -- 55 -- and also tied for the warmest summer on record.

Similar conditions were present throughout the West. High-pressure systems repeatedly set up and refused to budge along the north Pacific coast or slightly onshore, and blocked any developing weather systems from the west. After weeks without rain, forest brush and understory that had grown thick after an unusually wet winter withered and dried to a crisp. It was like jet fuel awaiting a match. It was only a matter of time until lightning strikes from dry storms, as well as humans, set things alight.

Scorched by record temperatures, British Columbia (BC) went up in flames in July. Fires raged all summer and 1.2 million hectares burned -- the equivalent of 4,680 square miles -- an area almost as large as the state of Connecticut. The area burned exceeded the yearly average of area burned in BC from 2006-16 by almost 10 times.

In Oregon this summer, a Rhode Island-sized area went up in flames. The Chetco Bar Fire scorched old-growth redwoods in a protected grove at the northern edge of the Redwoods range, severely burning 25 percent of the trees. Another major fire was one along the Columbia River Gorge in northeast Oregon. Started by fireworks on September 2, the fire was fanned by extreme heat and easterly winds. It exploded. Dozens of hikers were forced to hike for their lives to escape. Embers crossed the Columbia River and set off new fires in Washington.

In late August and September, offshore winds created by high pressure inland pulled in more smoke to the Seattle area, now from Washington's own wildfires. Ash fell from the sky, reminding people of the volcanic explosions from Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

The smoke didn't just make life miserable at times this summer for the millions of people throughout the West; it was downright unhealthy.

Joshua Benditt, a pulmonologist with the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, said he was getting many calls from his patients with lung problems due to the wildfire smoke. Benditt said the poor quality of air from the smoke meant, "It's very difficult for patients with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and even some other kinds of lung diseases. It's quite irritating to them and it can cause coughing and wheezing and actually even respiratory failure."

Bonnie Henry, a deputy provincial health officer in BC, told the Vancouver Sun in August that emergency calls and hospital visits had increased 20 to 50 percent among people with respiratory and other health conditions.

In the inland regions closer to the fires, the air was worse than on the coast. Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, described how desperate the situation was becoming for people in Seeley Lake, Montana where elderly, children and sick people were choking on smoke.

These types of conditions existed to varying degrees for weeks throughout the West. Air quality values ranged from "unhealthy for sensitive groups" to "very unhealthy" and worse. In early September in Spokane, Washington, air quality reached hazardous levels for several days.

satellite image from NASA on September 5 showed smoke being blown across the US by the jet stream. NASA said, "Smoke from wildfires can be very dangerous. A 2017 Georgia Tech study showed the smoke from wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals into the atmosphere." This study directly measured the amount of emissions from several Western wildfires of some of these potentially dangerous gases, as well as particulate matter pollution that is a mix of microscopic solids and liquid droplets. The study found that the particulate pollution from wildfires, already known to be a large source of particulate pollution in the West, was actually three times worse than previously thought.

A 2016 study, called a "Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure" found that globally, the estimated premature mortality caused by wildfire smoke is 339,000 people yearly. High levels of particulate matter in the air from wildfire smoke have led to increases in deaths in Malaysia, Russia and Australia. The study drew a clear connection between wildfire smoke exposure and increased morbidity for people with asthma, COPD and general respiratory problems.

The Georgia Tech study cites other scientific studies that have linked particulate matter (PM) from wildfires to increased respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. While more research is required to fully resolve the whole picture of health impacts of PM in humans, the health impacts from fire smoke is clearly cause for real concern, when literally millions of people are living for weeks at a time in regions choked with wildfire smoke.

Climate Change and Increasing Forest Fires

Wildfires have been a natural occurrence in the history of forests over many, many millennia. In many ways, fires have played a crucial role in helping regulate and regenerate the health of the forest. Natural variation in weather patterns is one factor in creating conditions for wildfires. But what has been happening over the last several decades is far from normal.

Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Service at the University of Alberta, says the "evidence is becoming more and more overwhelming" of the link between climate change and increasing fires globally. The length of fire seasons worldwide increased by 19 percent from 1978 to 2013, due to longer periods of warm and dry weather in a quarter of the world's forests. While the pattern is not uniform, various parts of the world are seeing clear changes over the last decades, according to Flannigan, including Alaska, Siberia, the boreal forests of Canada and elsewhere.

In the Western US, the length of the wildfire season has increased from five months long in the 1970s, to seven months today with 2015 being the worst wildfire season in the West on record as tracked by the National Interagency Fire Center, with over 10 million acres burned. As of October 15, the amount of land burned in 2017 would rank third highest. According to the EPA, of the 10 years with the largest acreage burned, nine have occurred since 2000.

In the Pacific Northwest as a whole, temperatures have risen 1.5°F since 1920. Extremely warm temperatures and drought mix with historically low amounts of winter snowpack to create conditions setting the table for fire.

The connection of climate change and a warming planet to increasing forest fires isn't just confirmed by observational statistics. Scientific studies have started quantifying the contributions of a warmer planet to increasing fires. A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that over half of the increases in "fuel aridity" (metrics that measure the degree of lack of moisture in fuels) since the 1970s, and a doubling of the amount of forest area burned since 1984 were due to human-caused climate change. A 2017 study in the same journal concluded global warming was responsible for increasing the severity and probability of the hottest monthly and daily events in 80 percent of the globe that they were able to study.

In a sense, the relationship isn't rocket science, but it is basic science. Warming temperatures means warmer air, and warmer air holds more moisture, sucking it out of plants and trees making them drier and more likely to ignite and readily burn. When this happens over whole regions of millions of acres, these conditions predispose regions to burn more readily. When the warmth and dryness lasts for longer periods of time, the time when wildfires happen also lengthens.

There are other ways in which climate change is contributing to increasing fires in the West. Lightning strikes are increased by warmer temperatures. It's estimated that for every degree Celsius of warming, strikes increase by about 12 percent.

Furthermore, bark beetle infestation of forests is spreading northward and to higher elevations throughout the West as the planet warms. As winters become warmer and spring comes earlier, conditions for beetle survival increases. Drought-induced stress severely weakens trees' ability to fend off beetles. Beetles interfere with a tree's nutrient delivery and this can kill trees, providing more raw fuel for fires. The beetle infestation has killed tens of millions of acres of forest in North America, and is the largest known insect infestation in North American history.

Human-caused activity is contributing in other ways to forest changes and fire increases.

Forest and other natural habitat continues to be eaten up by new housing and sprawl, driven by the inability of capitalism to restrict development and protect natural areas. Forest Service policy over many years has been to suppress fires, and this has contributed to a build-up of large amounts of fuel on public lands. As human habitation continues to encroach on forests, more fires are sparked. The US Forest Service is also increasingly pushed to try to fight fires to protect houses and towns, in some cases further adding to build-up of fuel. Many foresters are advocating that more scientific criteria be used to differentiate when and which fires should be fought, and which should be allowed to burn up accumulated fuel and return the forests to a more natural fire cycle.

The 2017 Fires and the Larger Picture of a Changing Climate

The smoke and fires this summer were a wake-up call about how quickly things can change in the natural environment and how large the stakes are. But is this devastating summer just the beginning of much worse things to come? And if this is the harbinger of the future, what will this mean for the health of humans and ecosystems?

This summer has been one of truly devastating "natural" disasters overall. Intriguing and important scientific debates emerged from this hurricane season, including over whether global warming was causing more extreme and long-lasting weather events, such as Hurricane Harvey's stall over Houston that caused record rainfalls.

Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University, has been studying the relation between the warming of the Arctic, the loss of sea ice and changes that are being observed in weather patterns in the Northern hemisphere, particularly at certain times of the year.

She has advanced a theory that the warming of the Arctic is causing the jet stream to wobble at certain times, creating big waves that draw warmer air up into the Arctic from the southern latitudes. Francis believes that with these big waves, which have been observed, the jet stream is also weakened in its flow from west to east. The jet stream then becomes more susceptible to any obstacles in its path -- physical ones, such as mountain ranges, but also areas of warm temperature, for example. The weakened, wavy jet stream leads to weather patterns that are more persistent. The main cause of this phenomenon is the way in which global warming is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic, lessening the temperature difference between the Artic, and the mid-latitudes.

These phenomena are also further warming the Arctic and melting more sea ice via a number of feedback loops.

Truthout asked Francis via email if this Arctic warming may also be responsible for hot, dry weather patterns that have occurred more frequently in the West over the last several years in summer, contributing to such massive wildfires.

She replied, "There are several new papers that connect Arctic warming and sea-ice loss in the Pacific sector of the Arctic with a strengthened Pacific ridge in the jet stream (large northward bulge), but the mechanism is not simple."

"It appears that there are two factors that need to happen simultaneously to create the strong, persistent ridge that has been so prevalent in recent years along the western coast of North America. One factor is the natural occurrence of a ridge in this location, owing usually to warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures along the west coast -- e.g., a pattern known as a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation. If there is also substantial ice loss/warming in the Pacific Arctic sector, that ridge tends to be strengthened, which makes it more persistent. This favors the conditions conducive to wild fires: dry and hot."

This link is alluring, if not yet definitively proven. Truthout also spoke with Nick Bond, research meteorologist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. He said that the weather pattern we saw on the west coast this summer with the persistent ridge of high pressure was very unusual, but, "There's plenty of internal variability in the system -- I'm kind of reluctant, one particular weird year, to ascribe too much to that, but on the other hand, this weather we're having, is the kind of weather we expect to be more common in future decades ... in the long term maybe this is something we better get used to."

So, whether this summer's pattern of persistent high-pressure ridges and abnormally hot, dry weather is already a result of climate change enhancing natural variation, or if it's a harbinger of what's to come, these are important things to watch. Regardless, it's clear that the West, along with the planet, is warming overall, and that this is contributing to the conditions leading to larger wildfires right now. The impact of increasing wildfires on people's health and ecosystems will keep rising, unless serious and emergency measures are taken to counter climate change and its effects.

In the US, Debtors' Prisons Are Alive and Well
October 18th, 2017, 07:16 PM

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org. 

Officially, the United States ended debtors' prisons in 1833. Unofficially, as we saw in the Justice Department's report on racially biased policing in Ferguson, there is a system of fines and fees for minor crimes that often result in jail time for the poor, mostly black citizens who cannot afford to pay them.

To provide more context on the issue, I talked with Peter Edelman, Georgetown University law professor and former staffer for Robert F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton, about his new book Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.

Rebecca Vallas: So, just to start off, what got you interested in writing this book?

Peter Edelman: I'd been working on poverty issues for long time, and I thought I'd kind of seen everything. But when it came out that Ferguson's budget was based on hauling everybody into court and whacking them with these huge fines and fees, it got me interested. I realized this is really something that people need to know more about than they do.

Part of what you did to research for the book was to speak with an array of lawyers who represent clients facing these problems. (In full disclosure, I'm one of those people you spoke with in my capacity as a recovering legal aid lawyer who used to represent these clients.) Would you mind sharing one of the client stories that came up in your research?

Absolutely. Vera Cheeks, who's a resident of Bainbridge, Georgia, was pulled over and ticketed for rolling through a stop sign. The judge hit her with a $135 fine -- which in this business is a relatively small one -- and ordered her to pay in full immediately. She told him she was unemployed and caring for her terminally ill father and had no money.

The judge said he would give her three months of "probation" to pay up, and he sent to her a room behind the courtroom where Cheeks says, "There was a real big lady, and there were cells on both sides of the room and there was a parade of people paying money to the lady. They were all black. It was like the twilight zone, totally mind-boggling."

The woman said Cheeks now owed $267; the fine, plus $105 for the for-profit probation people, and $27 for the Georgia Victims Emergency Fund. The woman put a paper in front of Cheeks and told her to sign it. Cheeks said she would not. The woman said, "You're refusing to sign the paper? I'm going to tell the judge and put you in jail for five days." Cheeks still refused and finally the woman demanded $50 or else Cheeks would go to jail right then. Cheeks' fiancé, who was at the courthouse, raised the money by pawning her engagement ring and a lawn implement.

She avoided jail, but Cheeks remained at risk of being locked up if she was late with even one payment.

You mentioned that this practice first drew serious national attention after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, which cast eyes, nationally, on Ferguson. But not only was this not a new phenomenon, it has not been restricted to Ferguson. I personally saw something very similar play out in Philadelphia when I was still working in legal aid. What's the story behind the rise of fines and fees? You've put a face on the issue for us, but what's driving what has really become a national trend?

Well, you could say Grover Norquist. It's the anti-tax rebellion that goes back quite a bit in the past, certainly a couple decades or more. Municipalities just didn't get the money they needed to run their government, so they turned to going after people who were essentially defenseless because there aren't anywhere near the number of lawyers that we need. And then you get added to that the broken windows.

You're referring to broken windows policing.

Yes, absolutely. There was this belief that if we brought people in on junky little stuff, that would clean up the city. The big source of it that they use around the country is driver's license suspensions. In California, for example, 4 million people just a couple years back had lost their licenses. They didn't actually throw them in jails, like they do in many, many other places in the country. But they could take it out of their paycheck or their tax return. And so California was making billions of dollars going after these people.

And they don't take away the driver's license only for something you did when you're driving. They do it for a lot of different things.

People may be most familiar with traffic violations, but your book looks at a whole other range of types of fines and fees that states and localities are now leveeing on people, largely black and brown, largely low-income populations, some of which are particularly shocking. For example, you expose in your book that in 43 states people are actually charged for exercising their right to counsel if they need a public defender.

That shocked me. It was a terrific study done by Joe Shapiro of NPR. It doesn't compute, right? If you're low-income and charged with a crime, you're supposed to get a lawyer. And 43 states are charging money for it.

Well, you're a recovering lawyer, too. How is this not unconstitutional?

Well, it is. But it's got a combination of weasel language in the Supreme Court case, and it's also so prevalent you would need the legislature to fix it and they want the money. And to sue in each instance is just very difficult, so there it is. The judge says, "Looks like you got a nice tattoo on your arm there, so you must have the money to pay for the lawyer or pay for the fine," or, "You've got these fancy shoes and so you're able to pay."

Wrapped up in this is effectively a vicious cycle. The people that you're profiling in this book begin without having actually committed any crime, and it never ends just because they are poor and can't afford to get out from under a debt.

Well, this raises money bail, because it's a major player in all of this. So, as you said, someone who's innocent, but has allegedly done some very small-potato thing. Nonetheless, bail is set at $500 or $1,000, and they don't have it and they can't get it. So how do they get out of jail? They plead guilty even though they're not. Then they get a payment plan. And then they can't pay it.

At that point, when they haven't paid it and they have pleaded guilty, it's a whole new violation. They owe the criminal debt; they didn't pay so they're back in jail again. There's another bail deal. There's more money that they owe. It goes on and on and on.

I think it's helpful sometimes to put concrete examples to "small potatoes offenses." Things like laws against public urination. There is also a different kind of subset of what I think of as the criminalization of survival, where we criminalize the types of behaviors that people need to engage in to scrape by. This is one of the stories I shared with you for your book -- one of my own clients had sold blood platelets to a blood bank to supplement her family's income from food stamps and disability benefits, because it wasn't enough to live on. She ended up being charged with what's known in public assistance jargon as an IPV, an intentional program violation, which can itself bring criminal penalties.

Yes, it's not just the fines and fees and the money bail. There's issues with vagrancy and you can't sleep in a car and you can't sleep standing up and you can't sleep lying down. Instead of having mental health services and housing to help people, they just tell them to get out of town. There's a man in Sacramento who I talk about who had mental health issues. He was arrested 190 times.

190 times. So, we've talked about a lot, but I'm curious what shocked you the most in doing research for this book.

The one that really got me are chronic nuisance ordinances. For example, say a woman calls 911 to get protection from domestic violence. If it happens two or three times, the police have been given the power to say to the landlord, "This woman is a chronic nuisance, and you have to evict her." And it's just totally shocking.

Now the good news is the ACLU in various parts of the country has found or been found by the person who has been hurt in this way, and won lawsuits. In Pennsylvania, both the local town and the whole state changed their laws.

I mean it sounds like common sense that a domestic violence survivor shouldn't be punished for experiencing domestic violence. It is sort of astounding to think that litigation could be necessary to make that the law of the land.

It's stunning.

Your book argues powerfully that we need to be addressing these problems. But we also can't miss the fact that addressing these problems is part of a larger anti-poverty agenda.

That's the last third of the book. It is about seven places that I visited and met the people doing the work. They're organizers and they're people who help families in a variety of ways, whether it's early childhood or mental health support or the Promise Neighborhoods that President Obama started.

If we're serious, we certainly have to have de-carceration. And Lenore Anderson in California with Prop 47, they've done the best job in the country and they're the first ones to tell you that it's not going to work if people get out but they're homeless or they can't find a job. They're going to be back in. So, one way to look at it is it's not going to work if we don't actually attack poverty itself.

There's obviously a lot at stake under the current administration. There is a lot of real fear on the part of communities as well as advocates working on these issues who had been seeing a tremendous amount of bipartisan agreement and momentum up until the election when it came to criminal justice reform, and obviously now there's not a lot of hope on that front at the federal level. But it sounds like you're arguing for there being a lot to be done at the state and local level in the meantime.

The action is heavily, mostly at the state and local level. Some of the things are suing in federal court and when you get up to the Supreme Court if you don't have the five votes then that way of doing it doesn't work. But that's going and meanwhile all of these things that are happening at the local and state level and that's now for example the chief justices and chief judges of all of the state systems as a group are strongly speaking about the fines and fees and not that long ago, ten years or so, they were talking about how "what a nice thing it is that we were getting money." And then somebody said, "Wait a minute, that's not right."

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on August 13. It was edited for length and clarity.

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on August 13. It was edited for length and clarity.