06/24/2018 04:05 AM
600-Pound Heroin Spoon Sculpture Placed Outside OxyContin Creator's Corporate Headquarters by Protesters
The sculpture remained in place for over two hours before city workers arrived to remove it.

Addiction profiteer and OxyContin creator Purdue Pharma just can’t get a break. The privately held pill-pusher palace faces myriad lawsuits for being a driving force in the addiction crisis currently gripping the nation, most recently coming from the state of Massachusetts on June 12. Then, the opiate factory announced massive layoffs this week, the second such move of 2018, along with a focus shift to drugs that actually help people rather than kill them.

Just days after the layoffs were announced, employees at the family-owned death factory arrived Friday to find a most challenging piece of street art outside of the Stamford, Connecticut, headquarters of the company who still totally sells addictive painkillers: a nearly 600-pound sculpture of a heroin spoon, bent and dirty with residue.

Massachusetts artist Domenic Esposito tells the Hartford Courier that his sculpture represents addiction as an epidemic, as well as paying tribute both to his brother’s 14-year struggle with addiction, and his mother who always finds the dirty spoons that signal his relapses. 

Esposito said his brother started with OxyContin and Percocet and moved to heroin.

“People say [OxyContin and Percocet] aren’t a big deal, but then you’re hooked and you run out of money and you turn to heroin.

“My mom would call me in a panic ... screaming she found another burnt spoon,” Esposito said. “This is a story thousands of families go through. He’s lucky to be alive.”

The Danbury News-Times reports that the sculpture was installed as part of the Fernando Luis Alvarez Gallery’s “Opioid: Express Yourself” multimedia exhibit. Strategically placed by Alvarez to block both a driveway and a sidewalk, the sculpture, called “Purdue,” remained in place for over two hours before city workers arrived to remove it.

Alvarez was arrested for both a misdemeanor—for putting the sculpture outside the painkiller palace and thus blocking traffic—and a felony, for (amicably) refusing to remove it under police orders. 

Purdue Pharma issued a predictably meaningless statement in response to the installation.

“We share the protesters’ concern about the opioid crisis, and respect their right to peacefully express themselves. Purdue is committed to working collaboratively with those affected by this public health crisis on meaningful solutions to help stem the tide of opioid-related overdose deaths.”

The “Purdue” spoon remains in police custody.


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06/22/2018 10:47 PM
These States Are Poised to Risk Eliminating Secure Votes with New Electronic Voting Machines
A handful of states may not embrace transparency tools.

For the first time in a dozen years, states are looking at replacing their aging voting machines and related computer systems. But a survey of the early legislative debates surrounding this prospect suggests that some states are not heeding advice from federal officials, academics and other experts saying that ink-marked paper-ballot systems are the wisest foundation for the most secure and verifiable elections.

This apparent dichotomy comes as states and the federal government have made an unprecedented effort to ramp up cyber-security precautions and training before 2018’s fall midterms, and as the voting machine industry is offering products that offer striking new options to make vote-counting more transparent and trustable.

The open question is whether legislators and election officials are looking to embrace newer technology and verification protocols, or whether they are drawn to more opaque systems that they have grown familiar with—and which are commercially available. As always is the case with 3,069 counties running America’s elections, there is a range of inclinations on voting modernization.

“I think there is a real variety. It varies according to the state,” said Marian Schneider, president of the Verified Voting Foundation and former Deputy Secretary of Elections and Administration in Pennsylvania. “I think there’s a risk that [some] states are going in that direction [sticking with legacy technologies]. I will say that especially in states that have used paperless DREs [direct recording equipment—or touch-screen computers] since 2002 and 2004. There’s a comfort level there that they don’t want to give up.”

In April, Congress appropriated $380 million to help states with cyber-security efforts in response to Russian meddling in 2016. While most of those funds have gone to hardening the computer systems that comprise the voting process—from voter registration databases to programming systems for the latest election to vote tabulators—some states have set aside some funds toward replacing their voting machinery. Even though Congress’s action is the first since 2002 for voting infrastructure, the appropriation is far from enough for states to fully modernize.

Still, the funding has prompted a handful of states to begin discussing replacing their infrastructure, giving a preview of what’s likely to come after the November midterms. That’s because the voting machinery used by most states is at least a decade old, and has known security vulnerabilities and operational limitations—such as DRE’s inability to conduct recounts because there’s no backup record if computer memory cards err.

These technological choices differ on several levels—from what voters see and interact with, to the ways that ballots are marked (by voters with pens or machines printing them out), to the ease of which ballots can be examined during close counts, to their capacity for post-election audits, to the operating costs over their lifetime use. Needless to say, some vendors have been lobbying officials in anticipation of once-a-decade sales.

Consider the range of the early legislative actions and discussions thus far:

Georgia. The state is one of five nationally using entirely DREs. As its 2018 legislative session ended, an eleventh-hour bill to replace its 16-year-old machines failed after critics pointed out problems with its wording; the kind of equipment that would be allowed (the paper ballots produced would record voters’ choices with QR codes—dot matrix squares similar to barcodes—which activists said were not as transparent as ink-marked ballots); and an insufficient post-election process to audit the software’s accuracy. After the bill died, a commission was formed to report by the year’s end. At its first meeting in June, the top question seemed to be “whether Georgia should use pen-and-paper ballots or touchscreen machines to print ballots,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Ohio. In early June, Ohio’s House passed a bill to spend more than $100 million to buy new voting machines. Before it passed, an amendment to require Ohio buy paper ballot-based systems and use so-called risk limiting audits (to verify counts post-election) was defeated on party lines. Its sponsor, Democratic Rep. Kathleen Clyde, who is running for Secretary of State, argued that the paper-based system and audits were the best practices suggested by federal security agencies, following congressional hearings on the Russian meddling. However, her opponents in the GOP-led chamber countered that they wanted Ohio counties to have more flexibility to decide what technology was best for them.

New Jersey. In late May, its Assembly held its first hearings on a bill to start replacing its 14-to-18–year-old paperless DRE system, which, like Georgia, cannot do recounts or audits. The legislation would begin installing optical-scan systems, where voters mark a paper ballot that is then scanned by high-speed counters. However, not every election official wanted to go that way. As reported, Mary Melfi, county clerk in Hunterdon and New Jersey Association of Counties president, worried about ballot printing costs. Shona Mack-Pollack, deputy superintendent of elections in Passaic County and New Jersey Association of Election Officials second vice president, also objected to an “all-paper” system, saying voters should use familiar touchscreens that produce an individual paper record that can be audited. “That would prevent the inevitable shenanigans that are inherent to paper,” she said, citing the 2000 election in Florida where partisans argued over voter intent surrounding computer punch cards. (That technology hasn’t been used by any state in many years.)

Varying Attitudes to Modernization

These comments and their apparent resistance to what’s being touted as the best practices for tamper-resistant and verifiable counts go deeper than the technology now available. In Georgia and New Jersey, election officials aren’t just facing differing costs with running elections that use paper records, compared to paperless DREs. They also are facing new tasks surrounding audits and other verification protocols, because newer technology is making that phase of election administration more transparent and accurate.

While not every state has the ability to quickly institute the most sophisticated audits—because those assessments depend on how the ballots are scanned, numbered, stored and retrieved—there is an underlying issue of political will, or administrative willingness, to embrace the newest technology and utilize it, said Verified Voting’s Schneider.

“I think what you are outlining is the enormity of the work and the challenge that Verified Voting faces in advocating for this,” she said, when presented with the reactions from New Jersey, Ohio and Georgia. “If we want to be able to put in place processes that allow us to be confident that the election was tabulated correctly—and we are just talking about the tabulation piece; I’m not talking about other pieces [like registration databases and precinct voter lists]—if we want to do that, it’s a sea change. There’s a lot of work to be done to make that sea change a reality.”

But on the more positive side, other states are moving toward more transparent systems. For example, Pennsylvania, where Schneider was a senior election official and which has some of the oldest DREs in the country, will have new voting machines with paper trails for the next presidential election. Spokeswoman Wanda Murren told that the state is looking at “hybrid” systems, where “voters can choose between a paper ballot that they will mark by hand, or they can vote electronically and the system will produce a paper record. The voter checks the paper record, verifies their votes, and then inserts the paper record into a ballot box, just as they would with a hand-marked ballot.”

Other states have also moved to paper ballot-based optical-scan systems. Michigan began installing these systems in 2017, following problems with its 2016 presidential election. In 2017, Virginia decertified its WINVote system, a paperless DRE that many computer security experts said was especially vulnerable to hacking. On the other hand, Nevada recently decided to update its system using a touchscreen system that produced a voter-verified paper trail. In contrast, neighboring California’s 2018-19 state budget includes $134 million for new systems, which “must be certified for use… by the Secretary of State’s office,” spokesman Sam Manhood said. “Every voting system in our state is required to use a paper ballot or produce a voter verified paper audit trail.”

Big Data and Voting

Hovering over these state-by-state developments is a larger question: how will today’s big data advances and computational tools change election administration? This goes beyond partisans acquiring raw data like updated statewide voter registration lists to identify recipients for their campaign’s messaging.

In the summer of 2018, the biggest focus, by far, concerns cyber security. Many of the steps being taken to harden voting systems are not being advertised, because to do so would undermine their potential effectiveness. On the other hand, the newest optical scanners all have the capacity to create numbered digital images of every paper ballot cast, which can be very useful in determining who won and lost close races—before candidates filing for costly and divisive recounts. (On the other hand, the software creating the ballot images, like all software, has to be monitored for its accuracy.)

Here, too, election officials have mixed opinions on what raw data and ballot information should be disclosed while the count is ongoing and before winners are certified.

“There are some officials who are fine with putting all their data and information on the web,” said Tammy Patrick, senior adviser for elections at Democracy Fund. “I’m at a conference in North Carolina. North Carolina puts all their data out on a VPN [virtual private network]. Anybody and everybody can have access to it. But part of the challenge there is you don’t always have common data definitions and representations. Once you allow that data to be public, someone who is not conversant in what that data means can draw the wrong conclusions, and that can be incredibly problematic.”

“That’s where having things like a common data format, which we are working on, will help with the transparency and investigation of where improvements can be made,” she continued. “Part of the challenge is you need to have clearly defined rules of what gets published, what goes online. If you’ve ever been in a tabulation room and seen voted ballots, you’ll see some people put their names on them. In some states, that means it doesn’t get counted. In other states, it does… but if it’s all online…”

Patrick’s comments reflect how the latest technology is changing voting machines and verified voting. Indeed, the latest voluntary voting system guidelines from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission suggest that paper ballot-based systems are best for various reasons, from cyber security to the vote verification process. (Those haven’t formally been adopted because the body has vacancies lacking a quorum.)

But the E.A.C., which does not tell any jurisdiction what to buy, also has older guidelines that have led to it certifying paperless systems that are still on the market—systems that were developed before Russian meddling raised cyber-security issues and manufacturers added digital ballot imaging features to the optical scan counters. Even as the election administration field is moving away from DREs, about a third of American voters use them, congressional researchers reported in April.

“The challenge is how do we leverage technology to make the process better, more verifiable, more transparent—but without opening a Pandora’s box of security vulnerabilities,” said Schneider. “We have to be diligent, vigilant, take steps to protect ourselves and to recover if something happens. That’s the point [recovering from any meddling that] I don’t think enough people are getting.”

These questions will not go away. In coming months, particularly after the November midterms, states and counties will have a short window to decide if they are buying new machinery—if the funds are available—so they can get started with testing and training to use it before the 2020 presidential election.

Historically, voting systems are replaced at best every dozen years or so. Thus, the decisions that soon will be made will affect how Americans will vote and how much confidence they will have in the results for the next decade or more. In a time of great partisan divisiveness, the stakes for American democracy could not be higher—if the public is to trust and accept the results, when their candidates lose or win.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.



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06/21/2018 10:27 PM
We Now Have a Terrifying Militarized Law Enforcement System — And It's the Unavoidable Result of Living in a War Economy
The proliferation of military weapons and gear corresponds to that of para-militarized law enforcement officers.

On June 5, a call came into the Broward County Sheriff's Office alleging an ongoing hostage situation at the family home of student activist David Hogg, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Law enforcement officers arrived on the scene only to find no such situation: Hogg and his family had been swatted.

Swatting involves falsely reporting a crime, which leads to the deployment of heavily armed law enforcement officers, usually para-militarized Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, who anticipate confronting violence. Hogg was not home, and was therefore unharmed, but previous swatting victims have not been so fortunate.

Just two months before, Hogg had gathered with an estimated 800,000 Americans in Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives on March 24, which was inspired by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to rally support for more stringent gun control policy. Among the specific policy objectives of the demonstration was to advocate for an assault weapons ban, like that which was enacted in 1994 but has since expired. The reasoning behind this current push for an assault weapons ban, as with the 1994 ban, endures: Civilians should be barred from possessing military-style weapons.

Had David Hogg been home, the swatting of his home might have been the second time in less than four months that his life had been threatened by an assault weapon. That’s too many encounters for an entire lifetime.

As this current gun control movement argues that the militarization of civilians is something to be avoided, perhaps it is also time to extend this same consideration to civilian law enforcement.

Treating Law Enforcement Like War

“Weapons of war have no place in our communities,” the March for Our Lives insisted. Yet, such weapons are scattered throughout and utilized in communities across America. And they include more than assault weapons.

With more than $5.4 billion in donated equipment from the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program and $34 billion in grants from the Department of Homeland Security, state and local governments have equipped their law enforcement officers with a military arsenal. Among other materials, this arsenal includes “armored personnel carriers, M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers, and infrared gun sights,” materials more suited to sites of hot war than neighborhoods in Indiana. Federal funding outfitted police officers in and around Fargo, North Dakota, which, as of 2011, had an average murder rate of two per year since 2005, with assault rifles on every squad car, Kevlar helmets, and a more than $250,000 armored truck.

The proliferation of military weapons and gear corresponds to that of para-militarized law enforcement officers.

Modeled after the military and armed as such, SWAT teams are the most visible and recognizable manifestation of the militarization of law enforcement. And they’re becoming more numerous. Research has suggested that 80 percent of towns with populations ranging between 25,000 and 50,000 residents had SWAT teams as of the mid-2000s. That represents a major increase from the mid-1980s when only 20 percent of such towns had a SWAT presence. And these para-militarized law enforcement officers are being used more often: Deployments increased 1,400 percent between 1980 and 2000.

Perhaps more disturbing than the growing number of para-militarized units is what their deployments are meant to achieve. Research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis determined that the majority of SWAT deployments in their research sample between 1986 and 1998 were for warrants (34,271) as compared to barricaded suspects (7,384) and hostage situations (1,180). A more recent 2014 study from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reaffirms this trend. Using incident reports from SWAT deployments between 2010 and 2013 from law enforcement agencies across the country, the ACLU found that 79 percent of evaluated SWAT deployments were to act on a search warrant. Sixty-two percent of those search warrants were to conduct drug searches. According to the ACLU, these searches are “almost always” conducted by SWAT teams armed, to some extent, with “assault rifles, battering rams, and distraction devices.”

In other words, many of the between 50,000 and 80,000 SWAT team raids that occur every year somewhere in the country with military-grade equipment are to perform standard functions of crime control, prevention, and investigation. Militarization has transformed civilian law enforcement officers into something that more resembles soldiers responding to war than public servants. An assault rifle is probably no more needed to execute a warrant than it is to hunt deer.

Racist and Deadly

The March for Our Lives was visibly intersectional: Black and Latinx youth shared their experiences with gun violence alongside the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Naomi Wadler gave voice to the violence faced by Black Americans “whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.”

Wadler was could have just as easily been referring to the Black Americans in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Huntington, West Virginia; and Ogden, Utah, who were 24 times, 37 times, and 40 times more likely than Whites to be affected by SWAT deployments, respectively, according to the ACLU in 2014. ACLU documentation of known SWAT deployments between 2010 and 2013 revealed the existence of staggering disparities and disproportionalities. Where the number and race of those affected were known, 39 percent of those affected by all SWAT deployments were Black. Only 20 percent were White. Black Americans, who make up approximately 13 percent of the national population, were found to be 42 percent of those on the receiving end of SWAT teams acting on search warrants where the number and race of those affected by such deployments were known.

The racist underpinnings of the War on Drugs, which was launched by the Nixon administration to harass Black communities according to Chief Domestic Advisor to President Nixon John Ehrlichman, have combined with the militarization of law enforcement. The result has been that suspected drug use among Black Americans is disparately addressed using militarized action. Despite the fact that Black Americans are no more likely to use or sell drugs than their White counterparts, the ACLU found that Americans of color, including Black Americans, were 61 percent of those impacted by SWAT drug raids. Drug searches constituted 68 percent of the SWAT raids that involved Americans of color, but only 38 percent involving Whites.

Whether practiced by civilians or law enforcement, militarization can have deadly consequences. An analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety of known mass shootings that occurred between January 2009 and January 2015 revealed that the use of assault weapons or high capacity magazines led to 155 percent more people shot and 47 percent more fatalities. Data on law enforcement killings in four states compared to data on the transfer of 1033 equipment uncovered a positive correlation between law enforcement possession of military equipment and civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

Consistent with the ACLU’s observation that the burden of law enforcement militarization falls disproportionately on people of color, the New York Times determined that Americans of color represented half of the civilian deaths it documented.

Amplified law enforcement militarization has occurred in a context in which Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of law enforcement violence in general. Data from arrests between 2008 and 2012 indicated that Black Americans were subjected to force by law enforcement at rates 2.5 times higher than the overall rate and 3.6 times those for Whites. determined that Black Americans constituted 25 percent of those killed in 2017 as a result of encounters with law enforcement.

Gun violence of the kind that Wadler referenced has uniquely devastated Black communities, but law enforcement officers have played an outsized role in that devastation. According to an investigation from the Washington Post, Black Americans represented 23 percent of those shot by law enforcement in 2017. The threat of gun violence loomed large in the predominantly Black community of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. Law enforcement stared down protesters with tanks, automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols and confronted them with tear gas and smoke bombs.

A Climate of Fear

Even schools, which have seen some of the deadliest episodes of violence perpetuated by assault weapons, have witnessed the militarization of law enforcement.

A 2014 audit from the Washington Post found that law enforcement agencies connected to a variety of educational institutions across 33 states, including more than a dozen schools, have received military gear and weapons through the 1033 Program. The presence of the 1033 Program has been especially apparent within the Los Angeles County Police Department (LCPD), which the Washington Post describes as “among the biggest public-school beneficiaries of the program.” As of the 2014 audit, the LCPD had obtained 61 M-16 assault rifles, three grenade launchers, and one MRAP. It’s difficult to see how the presence of law enforcement officers armed with weapons of war in schools might improve student safety. However, it’s easy to see how that might create a climate of fear, especially for students of color.

Furthermore, it’s possible that the sense of safety compromised by the militarization of law enforcement might be greater than what is gained when it comes to crime deterrence. A 2017 study sought to evaluate the relationship between the use of military equipment and law enforcement outcomes as measured by crime and arrest rates. It determined that the use of military equipment led to a reduction in various crimes. A 10 percent increase in military equipment produced a crime reduction rate of 5.9 crimes per 100,000 people, which is modest at best.

Is such a limited decrease sufficient to justify what might have happened to David Hogg and his family?

Nevertheless, heightened militarization is exactly the approach to safety, in schools and beyond, that is being suggested.

President Barack Obama tried to curb the alarming spread of military equipment to state and local law enforcement. His administration offered new prohibitions and stipulations on the exchange of military-grade equipment between the federal government and local law enforcement in 2015. Among other changes, the administration prohibited the exchange of grenade launchers, weaponized vehicles, and rifles.

By November 2017, President Donald Trump had undone the decision.

Military-grade weapons and gear banned by the Obama administration might become more entrenched in America’s schools thanks to President Trump: Immediately following the school shooting in Parkland, the president suggested positioning more law enforcement officers in schools and even arming teachers as a means of thwarting school shootings. These solutions, Trump’s version of the infamous National Rifle Association “good guy with a gun” theory, would create or deepen problems while solving none. Studies have shown that the presence of law enforcement officers already portends increased chances of arrest in some cases, thus perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. And that’s one of the best case scenarios. Recall the study positively linking the transfer of military equipment to civilian deaths: Students could face being killed by both fellow students and law enforcement officers armed with military-grade firearms from the federal government meant to protect them.

No reasonable American would be comfortable with the active presence of automatic and semi-automatic rifles, MARCbots, Mamba tactical vehicles, sniper rifles, ballistic shields in schools. Maybe they don’t belong actively roaming the streets of our communities in the hands of law enforcement officers either.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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06/20/2018 05:01 PM
Why Is the Vatican Meeting With a Morally-Challenged Finance CEO?
Peace, like the environment, should not be dictated by market forces.

With summer temperatures on the rise, the pope’s June 9 meeting with Larry Fink—CEO of the investment firm BlackRock—and other executives on the issue of climate change couldn’t be more timely. Back in 2015, the pope issued an encyclical on climate change, highlighting that unchecked consumption and greed cause massive devastation to our planet. The pope has repeatedly brought climate change to the forefront of international discussions, including connecting the issue of worldwide hunger with war and climate change.

Forced migrations, hunger, water pollution/scarcity, increased poaching, escalating global insecurity, and the lack of political will to find sustainable solutions are just a few of the common connections between war and climate change. Considering the countless conflicts that have raged across the world and the continued threat of climate change, it’s well past time to hold institutions accountable for profiting on the backs of global destruction.

In October 2017, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink announced that he was going to start holding companies accountable to be good corporate citizens. BlackRock is the world’s largest investment firm, controlling more than $3 trillion in assets. Some of these assets are linked to weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, meaning that Mr. Fink should follow his own advice and set an example for Wall Street.

CODEPINK has been calling on BlackRock to stop investing in weapons of war. There should be no profit in war (or climate destruction). The pope has been meeting with financial and oil executives because their leadership is needed to pull us out of a spiraling climate crisis. We also recommend that the pope speak to corporate leadership about ending war, as it compounds and escalates the impacts of climate change. In the pope’s 2015 Climate Encyclical he states, “The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded or promoted by market forces.”

Peace, like the environment, should not be dictated by market forces. When a company’s bottom line is driving decisions, its executives are not considering the impacts of their products on others. BlackRock invests in companies like Lockheed, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing. These companies make the bombs, missiles, tanks, and warplanes that destroy other communities. Their legacy of environmental contamination includes polluting groundwater and leaving behind depleted uranium in soil for generations.

The legacy of war and climate change also includes the destruction of families. Whether through forced migrations or death, families are ripped apart. Pope Francis raised the issue of refugees and forced migrations during his 2018 World Peace Day address. There are over 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world. U.S. military interventions and U.S. produced weapons have played a leading role in displacing millions around the globe. Conservative estimates state that since 2001, U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have displaced 10 million people.

The impacts of war and climate change disproportionately impact those who have less, while an elite few let profits drive their decisions and line their pocketbooks. This is why we must Divest From War and invest in solutions like renewable energy. Our investments—personal and public—should reflect the needs and priorities of our local communities, not the bottom lines of Wall Street.

Learn more about how you can be a part of the solution at

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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06/18/2018 04:33 PM
Supreme Court Decides to Let Political Extremists Run Wild in Key Election Case
The Court all-but dismisses partisan gerrymandering.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday all-but dismissed one of the most-watched election law cases in recent years, saying those in Wisconsin filing a lawsuit that sought to show how extreme partisan gerrymandering was anti-democratic had no basis to sue.

It also took no action on a second partisan gerrymandering case from Maryland.

“The Court has not found that this presents an individual and personal injury of the kind required for Article III standing,” the majority said in the Wisconsin case, sending it back to a lower court. “A citizen’s interest in the overall composition of the legislature is embodied in his right to vote for his representative. The harm asserted by the plaintiffs in this case is best understood as arising from a burden on their own votes.”

The Court’s narrow reading of the issue of extreme partisan gerrymandering was not surprising. In a 2017 ruling on race-based gerrymandering, which is illegal, the Court's conservatives said that extreme partisan behavior was an inherent part of politics and should not be regulated.

The Wisconsin case sought to show how the state’s GOP-led legislature in 2011 segregated each party’s reliable voters by party to draw legislative districts after the 2010 Census to create a red super-majority. In the Maryland case, those suing said a Democratic-led legislature had overreached to erase a GOP-held House seat.

The Wisconsin suit was the most carefully watched of the two gerrymandering cases, because it involved statewide jockeying of political districts, as opposed to a single congressional seat. It was also the platform for advanced analysis that showed how the use of technology was able to tilt the electoral playing field to game political advantage based on voter turnout patterns. 

The decision will reverberate on many political and cultural levels. Seen from a partisan standpoint, the Court is saying that the plaintiffs’ efforts to demonstrate that Wisconsin’s Republican mapmakers were able create a structural head start in the likely popular vote was fair game—even if it led to one-party rule for most of this decade. Beyond the technicalities of how the GOP nullified their opposition’s ability to win in typical election cycles (2018 is not a typical year), the Court’s majority is saying that rebalancing elections to create greater equality among voters is not a constitutional priority.

Going deeper, the Court’s action is likely to signal that ruling parties in supermajority state legislatures are free to tinker with the rules of voting and elections as they see fit—to preserve their power. (Wisconsin was one of more than a dozen red states that drew extreme gerrymandered maps after the 2010 census, leading to super majorities in their state legislatures and House delegations. Those ultra-red majorities then passed many of this decade’s voter suppression, anti-union, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT and anti-safety net laws.

While there is a tendency among the judiciary to keep a certain distance from the political process—as a co-equal branch of government and separation of powers—the fact remains that the Court is not seeking to rebalance the most glaring anti-democratic features in the fundamentals that shape the electoral process.

On a cultural level, the Court is signaling that American democracy will remain a deeply uneven system, where governing classes can advantage themselves and take steps to undermine the participation and power of their opponents or under-represented constituencies.

Inequality in elections is going to remain a formidable obstacle. Only last week, in purple North Carolina, did the Republican-led legislature propose anew series of election rules that would disadvantage a key Democratic voting block—African Americans who voted on the weekend before the Tuesday general election. The state’s GOP proposed, among several measures, to eliminate the early voting option used by 200,000 citizens in 2016.

That move came despite a federal appeals court in 2016 rejecting an earlier slate of anti-participatory election reforms, saying those measures targeted the state’s black voters “with almost surgical precision.” But now, with the Supreme Court not acting on the partisan gerrymandering cases, the political process will be freer to revert to more aggressive tactics to advantage one side—where partisan power apparently carries more constitutional weight than equality among the electorate.  



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06/14/2018 05:26 PM
UNC Punishing Student for Protesting Pro-Slavery Monuments
Doctoral candidate Maya Little issues a statement and petition against the anti-Free Speech tactics.

Maya Little has spent a year protesting—in nearly every legally sanctioned way—the presence of a Confederate statue named “Silent Sam” on the campus of her college at UNC-Chapel Hill. On April 30, frustrated by the University’s continued inaction, she finally took the only recourse available to her. Little poured red ink and her own blood on the statue’s pedestal, the mixture a symbolic representation of the blood of African-Americans that already stains the monument to the Confederacy.

“I smeared my blood and red ink on the statue because the statue was lacking proper historical context,” Little, a UNC doctoral student in history, told the school’s paper a day later. “This statue, Silent Sam, was built on white supremacy. It was built by white supremacists. It was built by people who believed that Black people were inferior and wanted to intimidate them. So these statues were built on Black blood. These statues symbolize the violence toward Black people. Without that blood on the statue, it’s incomplete, in my opinion. It’s not properly contextualized.”

Silent Sam was erected in 1913. Speaking at the dedication ceremony, North Carolina industrialist Julian Carr bragged that he had once “horse-whipped a negro wench” near the statue site and praised Confederate soldiers for protecting “the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately” after the Civil Waran unambiguous lauding of the Ku Klux Klan for carrying out terror against black citizens. The school’s refusal to remove the statue, which costs the university $621,000 a year to maintain, suggests a steadfast refusal to break, even now, with Carr’s explicitly stated dedication to white supremacy.

Little was arrested by UNC police for her protest and faces a misdemeanor charge of defacing a public monument. Earlier this month, she learned that the school’s Honor Court is also charging her with violating the university honor code. Considering both UNC’s history of ignoring similar actions by students, the charges reek of hypocrisy, and seem a transparent effort to chill both free speech and student activism, particularly in relation to Silent Sam.

Little has issued a statement about the Honor Court charges and the school’s history of punishing dissent by its black students. Supporters have launched a petition demanding that all charges against Little—filed by the university and its police force—be summarily dropped. Please sign the petition here. Little's message, in its entirety, is below:

On June 4, the UNC Office of Student Conduct officially charged me with violating the honor code by “stealing, destroying, or misusing property.” My Honor Court hearing may very well coincide with the criminal trial I already face for spilling red ink and my blood on Silent Sam. The Honor Court will determine whether my protest against Confederate monuments is conduct unbecoming of a UNC affiliate.

I can find no record of the Honor Court charging students for painting Silent Sam Carolina blue in 1982. But Daily Tar Heel records confirm that neither campus nor Chapel Hill police made any effort to arrest those students. Similarly, the paper reported that NC State students who painted Sam in 1974 were released by campus police without charges. At UNC, dousing the monument in paint in the name of basketball is deemed a pastime while doing the same to contextualize and fight racism is a crime. Revealing the racist violence upon which Sam was built—exposing a truth the university would like to keep coveredcould result in my expulsion.

UNC uses its disciplinary boards to punish political activism and its police to suppress free speech. Chancellor Folt and the Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety and Risk Management, Derek Kemp, appointed an undercover police officer to infiltrate our movement and lie to and gather information on students fighting against racism. Why was it necessary to use tactics designed to entrap and engender mistrust among us? Perhaps because they are longstanding tactics of UNC administrators targeting anti-racist activists. Kemp and Folt carry on a practice that can be traced to campus police collusion with the FBI to spy on Black Student Movement (BSM) members in the 1970s. It is likely that black students protesting the 1971 murder of James Cates by a white motorcycle gang in the Pit were also targets of this surveillance. This spring, Silent Sam protesters created a series of historical markers to educate the public about Cates’s murder and the untold history of white supremacy at UNC. When UNC police ripped apart these markers on April 30, 2018, they destroyed the only memorials to Cates that existed on our campus.The Honor Court, Board of Trustees, and Faculty Council have stood by idly as members of campus police, Derek Kemp, and Chancellor Folt continue to violate our First Amendment rights. How long will students be punished for demanding that black lives matter at UNC?

In 2015, another activist wrote “Who Is Sandra Bland?” on Silent Sam. It was a fitting addition to a statue christened by boasts about horsewhipping a black woman who had sought safety on university grounds. Not only did UNC fail to protect her, it bestowed an honorary degree upon her attacker, Julian Carr. To this day, he holds that honorific. He is memorialized in the names of a building I have taught in and the town that I live in.  Those who speak up are silenced and targeted, but violence against people of color and women goes unpunished. That violence is then celebrated in the protection of monuments such as Silent Sam, Aycock Hall, and plaques to families including the Kenans, who built their wealth on enslaved black labor. These are the crimes I hoped to expose when I poured my own blood on Silent Sam. Now I ask, how will UNC’s Honor Court act? Will they preserve what Dr. King called “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension,” or will they stand for the rights of their peers fighting for racial equality?

It is time to truly uphold lux libertas, light and freedom, at UNC. Chancellor Folt, the Board of Governors, and Margaret Spellings have already shown their opposition to both. The student representatives of the Honor Court have chosen to investigate me, but they can still take this opportunity to act for free speech—and against white supremacy.

Maya Little,

UNC Student and Graduate Worker


This article was produced by Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.


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06/13/2018 08:27 PM
A Movement Emerges to Free Former Students from Crushing Loan Debts
Student debt cancellation for 44 million people could usher in the next wave of social change.

Every so often, perhaps once or twice in a person’s lifetime, the trajectory of society changes. It happened in the 1930s, when the country found a new sense of shared purpose as it rebuilt itself under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It happened after World War II, when the era of technological and economic progress seemed as if it would never end. It happened in the 1960s, as large segments of society dedicated themselves to civil rights and social advancement.

It happened along darker lines in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan persuaded many people that government—an instrument of the people—was a hostile and somehow foreign power in our lives.

We think it’s happening again, in a positive way, and we believe that student debt has a key role to play in the next social transformation. As we’ll explain in a moment, a new movement is underway to free more than 44 million people and their families from this debt so that they—and the rest of us—can prosper. But first, some background.

A New Mood, a New Movement

The United States experienced several decades of growing economic inequality after the nation turned away from its sense of shared purpose and began to celebrate runaway competition and individual greed. Our shared sense of commitment to civil rights fractured as politicians, culminating with Donald Trump, have demagogically exploited race and religion and gender and sexual orientation to break down the communal fabric that is the source of our country’s greatest achievements. Their goal is to distract the public from the widening gap in wealth and income between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the population.

But there are signs of a new social shift all around us, as hopeful as the early signs of spring. The Occupy movement was one of its early harbingers, and millions of people came together around the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

In the wake of the 2016 election, we saw more signs of social shift: in the Women’s March, a global phenomenon where millions affirmed their positive values after Donald Trump’s inauguration; in the protests against Trump’s Muslim ban; in movements like Indivisible that are fighting to elect better candidates; and in the inspiring example of the Parkland high school students’ movement for saner gun policies.

We’ve also seen signs of a political shift in the public’s changing attitude toward issues like Medicare for All and the $15 minimum wage. Policies that were once considered outside the political spectrum are now part of mainstream debate.

Each of these signs reflects a deep undercurrent of change. The Occupy and Sanders movements reflect a renewed commitment to economic justice and basic principles of fairness. The Women’s March and protests against the Muslim ban reaffirmed the worth of every human being. Efforts like Indivisible affirm democracy, Medicare for All and the minimum wage movement affirm the principles of community, and the Parkland protests affirm life itself.

Free the 44 Million

We believe student debt cancellation is the issue that will usher in the next wave of social change. We’ve been working on this issue for several years. In that time, we have seen an even greater shift in attitude than we would have thought possible. When we began, the idea of canceling student debt and allowing the 44 million Americans who hold it to prosper was considered outside the pale.

“We can’t afford it,” people would tell us.

A recent report from the Levy Institute found that the opposite is true. Using widely accepted models, economists Stephanie Kelton, Marshall Steinbaum, Scott Fullwiler, and Catherine Ruetschlin found that canceling this debt would actually boost economic growth and create more than a million new jobs.

“It’s impractical,” people said.

That’s not true, either. Roughly 95 percent of this debt is held by the federal government. That means we, the people, can cancel it at any time. The remaining debt could be purchased by the federal government and canceled.

People also told us that canceling student debt would create what economists call “moral hazard.” If people know that this debt has been forgiven in the past, the logic goes, they’ll accumulate more of it in the expectation that the new debt will be forgiven too.

There’s a way to solve that, too. As more and more Americans are beginning to realize, every young person in this country should have access to a tuition-free college education. This was once available to many, if not most, students across the country. Public universities in states like New York and California were available at low or no tuition cost. Land-grant colleges, dating back 150 years or more, also provided tuition-free education. What was done before can be done again. All it takes to restore and expand tuition-free public college is the will to build a sustainable future.

The Trap

In fact, today’s burgeoning student debt only exists because our country abandoned the principle that young people who are willing to work hard should have access to higher education, regardless of their economic circumstances.

As low- or no-tuition education was taken away, a new and insidious mechanism was put in place. Students and their families were told to take on personal debt to pay for their education. They were told that higher wages and greater opportunity would allow them to earn back that cost and pay off their debt.

It wasn’t true. Instead, generations of young people have been trapped in a system that lures them in and then charges them exorbitant interest. They are exploited by debt servicers and hamstrung by years of weak job opportunities for young graduates. In addition, many people were misled by nefarious private for-profit colleges and training programs. This exploitation has hit minority communities especially hard.

It’s time to cast off that trap and set them free. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, young people must once again have the opportunity to attend public universities on a tuition-free basis. The movement for debt-free college education is a sister project to our goal of student debt cancellation.

The Age of Community

The Levy Institute report has had a major impact on the political conversation. Colorado Rep. Jared Polis cited it when he drafted a new bill that would cancel all student debt and reverse the Republican tax giveaway to billionaires and corporations.

Today, Rep. Polis’s bill has gained a number of cosponsors from across the country. They include Representatives Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Ro Khanna of California, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Bobby Scott of Virginia, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut.

The bill has gained at least one major detractor, too. Donald Trump told the country what he thought in a tweet (how else?). On Memorial Day, when presidents have traditionally led the nation in solemn remembrance of those who gave their lives in battle for their country, Trump tweeted this:

“A Democratic lawmaker just introduced a bill to Repeal the GOP Tax Cuts (no chance). This is too good to be true for Republicans...Remember, the Nancy Pelosi Dems are also weak on Crime, the Border and want to be gentle and kind to MS-13 gang members…not good!”

Trump is the avatar of the Age of Selfishness—an age we believe is about to give way to the Age of Community. He is the final, most extreme reflection and force of that selfish age. We believe that people across this country understand that our nation works best when we act together: to come out of the Great Depression, to fight fascism in Europe, to build postwar prosperity with highways across the land and rockets to the moon.

One of the greatest efforts of that postwar era was also education-related. The G.I. bill made education available to every returning soldier: rich or poor, Northern or Southern, white or black—although, tragically, racism prevented some African-American veterans from taking advantage of it. The G.I. bill contributed to a postwar era of prosperity.

As Stephanie Kelton has pointed out, the total amount of student debt in this country is roughly the same as the tax giveaway Trump and the Republicans gave to corporations and the already wealthy. There is symmetry in that. The tax bill was an expression of the Age of Selfishness. Repealing it and canceling student debt, as Polis’s bill would do, is an excellent way to welcome the new Age of Community.

Freedom to Prosper

As the call to cancel student debt grows across the country, a new organization has been formed in response. Freedom to Prosper ( is dedicated to building support for freeing 44 million Americans, along with their families and communities, from the student debt trap.

The Freedom to Prosper website offers the vision of an America without student debt. It also provides information on the nature of the problem and offers visitors a chance to join the movement and get involved.

Freedom to Prosper is a community-oriented movement. It seeks to bring us all together: people from all walks of American life, including those who went to college and those who didn’t. Studies have shown that when there are more college graduates in a community, everybody’s wages go up. That includes non-college-educated workers.

By growing the economy and creating a million-plus jobs, the student debt cancellation movement will help everyone in this country. It will reflect and promote the new Age of Community, a win-win proposition for all Americans. And it will end the decades-long injustice of the student loan trap, freeing all of us to prosper.


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06/13/2018 01:17 AM
Hightower: Americans Have Uncovered the Lie of Trumpism — And They're Fighting Back
"Progress is a nice word," said Bobby Kennedy. "But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies."

"Progress is a nice word," said Bobby Kennedy. "But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies." Over the decades, that sobering reality has confronted every group of Americans who've endeavored to advance our society's democratic ideals of fairness, justice and opportunities for all. From the revolutionaries of the 1770s to today's grassroots rebels engaged in multiple struggles for democratic rights, every inch of progress has been vehemently opposed by entrenched enemies of change. Invariably, the upstart activists of democracy movements find themselves trivialized as unworthy and uppity by elite protectors of the status quo -- "What is it those people want, anyway?" they ask with dismissive sneers.

In the early 1900s, that question was answered succinctly and eloquently by Samuel Gompers, the founding president of the American Federation of Labor. Union organizers were routinely being oppressed and literally brutalized by rapacious corporate barons, hired thugs and corrupt politicians and judges -- yet they kept organizing, protesting and challenging the power structure. Why? Not just for themselves, Gompers explained, but for the Common Good:

"What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures."

A century later, we again find ourselves in want of essentially the same elements of progress sought by the nascent AFL. While Americans were able to make important advances on Gompers' enlightened agenda during the New Deal years and on into the 1980s, the light has steadily dimmed ever since under the relentlessly regressive public policies and miserly budgets of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and even (though to a lesser degree) Obama.

And now comes The Donald, along with his slaphappy cabinet of Daffy, Sleepy, Sleazy, Creepy, Larry, Curly and Mo. They're "governing" by using such political tools as Trump's tweets, presidential name-calling, melodramatic firings, made-for-tv rallies, dog whistles, overt bigotry, Sean Hannity and a constant loop of lies. All of this is given 24/7 saturation coverage by a bedazzled news media that can't take its eyes off of Trump's round-the-clock freakshow, absurdly and erroneously branding each performance "populism."

The helter-skelter zaniness, however, is like a magician's smokescreen - a distraction from the Trumpsters' sleight-of-hand manipulations being made daily out of public view. Such devious tricksters as Pruitt, Zinke, DeVos, Mnuchin, Mulvaney, Sessions and Pence do their real jobs behind closed doors. In collusion with K-Street's powerhouse lobbyists, Koch-allied front groups, and the GOP's congressional leadership, they are systematically supplanting true democratic populism with an omnishambles of new rules to enthrone corporate supremacy over all other interests.

While the mass media have largely failed to cover the scale and pernicious substance of Trumpism, the majority of Americans have figured it out on their own. After all, even though he is buoyed by a collection of totally enraptured, see-no-evil Trumpistas, it is glaringly obvious to everyone else that he has abandoned "the forgotten working class" he so loudly touted in his campaign. Virtually every action of his presidency has blatantly robbed poor and middle-class families in order to further enrich the already rich and powerful. That is why he is so staggeringly unpopular, earning historically low public approval ratings from the start of his bizarre tenure.

More than merely disproving his policies and behavior, people have spontaneously erupted in a fierce, grassroots resistance movement. Trump's recurring abuses of women, Dreamers, Muslims, immigrants, poor people, science, nature, Puerto Ricans, students, union members -- and whomever or whatever irks him next -- have been met with a rising level of open rebellion, ranging from a record number of nationwide mass mobilizations to hundreds of local pop-up protests.

This bold resistance has spooked a mess of congressional Republicans, who are now stuck not just having to defend both his psychotic outbursts of racism, misogyny, etc. and his embarrassing flip-flop from "populist champion" to a shameless puppet for corporate elites -- but also are forced to defend the shame of their own unquestioning embrace of all-things-Donald. They are the enablers of the senseless harm he is doing to our people and our nation. Already, 42 congress critters, including craven House Speaker Paul Ryan, have announced that rather than face the voters' fury, they're retiring.

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06/12/2018 09:10 PM
The Supreme Court Just Dealt Another Big Blow to Our Voting Rights
Ohio voter purge decision will have consequences for years to come.

This week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding Ohio’s Republican-led voter roll purges may end up as one of the decade’s most consequential anti-voter rulings, shadowing its 2013 ruling gutting the National Voting Rights Act’s enforcement provisions.

The Court’s conservative majority, in a 5-to-4 ruling, applied a narrow technocratic reading of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) over the method that Ohio removed registered but infrequent voters. The NVRA laid out a process where someone who did not vote in four years—two cycles—would get a postcard informing them of their inactive status, and pending removal, if they didn’t vote in the next federal election.

But the NVRA’s wording was ambiguous, laying out a four-year trigger for starting the removal process, but elsewhere stating voters couldn’t be purged “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted, seized on that ambiguity and created a “supplemental process” accelerating the removal process. Husted mailed cards to inactive voters, which, if not returned, hastened their purge from the voter rolls.

What was additionally devious—and partisan—about Husted’s new process was that it was disproportionately used to purge registered Democrats from Ohio’s urban epicenters, while removing far fewer Republican voters from surrounding suburbs. Investigative reporters from Reuters found twice as many Democrats were purged in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus as were purged in the surrounding suburbs.

However, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, addressed the narrow letter of the law—the technicalities of the voter notification and removal process—as opposed to the spirit of the national law to expand voter registration opportunities.

A key NVRA provision, Alito wrote, “simply forbids the use of non-voting as the sole criterion for removing a registrant, and Ohio does not use it that way.” Instead, “Ohio removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.” In other words, Alito said that Ohio did not simply purge people for failure to vote, as the law forbid.

The Court’s more liberal justices strongly dissented. Justice Stephen Breyer noted that Husted cast an unduly wide net and removed many voters due to “the human tendency not to send back cards received in the mail.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the Court’s conservatives turned the NVRA inside out—using a pro-participation law to make it harder to vote.

“Ohio’s Supplemental Process reflects precisely the type of purge system that the NVRA was designed to prevent,” she wrote in a dissent. “Under the Supplemental Process, Ohio will purge a registrant from the rolls after six years of not voting, e.g., sitting out one Presidential election and two midterm elections, and after failing to send back one piece of mail, even though there is no reasonable basis to believe the individual actually moved.”

Sotomayor, citing briefs filed by civil rights groups, noted that the ruling’s impact would be to make it harder for the poor, people with disabilities and veterans to vote. While she did not say it, those constituencies tend not to support GOP candidates—such as those in Husted’s party.

“It is unsurprising in light of the history of such purge programs that numerous amici [groups filing briefs] report that the Supplemental Process has disproportionately affected minority, low-income, disabled, and veteran voters,” she said. “As one example, amici point to an investigation that revealed that in Hamilton County, ‘African-American-majority neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10% of their voters removed due to inactivity’ since 2012, as ‘compared to only 4% of voters in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.’”

Sotomayor continued, “Amici [filers] also explain at length how low voter turnout rates, language-access problems, mail delivery issues, inflexible work schedules, and transportation issues, among other obstacles, make it more difficult for many minority, low-income, disabled, homeless, and veteran voters to cast a ballot or return a notice, rendering them particularly vulnerable to unwarranted removal under the Supplemental Process.”

Regional Impacts

The Court’s ruling was “a victory for election integrity,” Husted said, and was praised by President Trump in a tweet. But beyond the political rhetoric, the ruling underscores that there are two Americas when it comes to voting.

Blue-state America, as seen by responses on Twitter and other forums, said that the right to vote is sacred and universal and must be upheld. While that is a moral statement, it is not the current law in red states. Republicans are free to impose transactional barriers to the process—and keep doing so.

Ohio was not alone in arguing for aggressive purges. Fourteen states, led by Georgia, filed a brief defending Ohio’s purges. Some of these states have ongoing legal fights over registration barriers and limiting ballot access. (The states were: Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.)

This excerpt, summarizing the Republican attorneys general’s argument, illustrates how GOP office holders intentionally create processes to limit voter participation and then concoct legal arguments to defend it.

“Ohio’s list-maintenance process does not ‘result in’ (i.e., cause or produce) the removal of a person’s name from the official list of voters ‘by reason of ‘ (i.e., as a proximate cause of) that person’s failure to vote,” their brief said. “Removal is not, for instance, directly related to a person’s failure to vote, because it is more closely related to and purely contingent upon a person’s failure to respond to the address-confirmation notice sent as part of the Confirmation Procedure.”

Remarkably, Alito, writing for the majority, adopted that rationale. Looking ahead, one can expect Republicans in some of these states to try to ramp up voter purges this summer—as the NVRA bars removals 90 days before all federal elections.

Philip Bump, writing for the Washington Post, noted there are more infrequent Democratic voters in the 10 largest states than Republicans.

“Democrats outnumber Republicans in most large states, but they often vote less frequently,” he said. “The upshot is that both nationally and in the 10 largest states in the country, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is larger among those at risk of being purged by an Ohio-style rule than among the overall voting pool.”

Four of those 10 most-populous states are Texas, Michigan, Georgia and Ohio, which all took pro-purge stances before the Court. They are also states that would be politically purple, or trending purple, were it not for GOP-led legislation and regulations to make it harder to cast a ballot—like the “supplemental” procedure at issue in the Ohio litigation.

Despite 2018’s apparent blue voter turnout wave, the Supreme Court’s validation of Ohio’s aggressive purges is a stark reminder that in America, there are dueling partisan versions of who should and should not vote—cloaked in how arduous or friendly the process is.

It may be that Democratic voter turnout in November will rival 1974, the midterm after Richard Nixon resigned. But rulings like the Court’s Ohio voter purge decision will last for decades. And voter purges were not the biggest election law case before the current court term: hyperpartisan gerrymanders, or segregating likely voters by party, is up next.


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06/11/2018 04:34 PM
Internet Defenders Say Net Neutrality Isn't Yet Dead As 'Most Important Battle' Begins
"Any lawmaker, of any party, that fails to sign the discharge petition in support of the CRA will regret it come election time."

As the FCC's rollback of net neutrality protections officially took effect on Monday, a broad coalition of free press and digital rights campaigners vowed to maintain pressure on members of Congress to either restore the federal rules "or prepare to face our wrath" in the November midterm elections.

Supporters of net neutrality rules—which require internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all online content equally—are aiming to convince House Speaker Paul Ryan and additional Republicans to support a Congressional Review Act (CRA) that would overturn the FCC's party-line vote.

Last month, a few Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the CRA, which was spearheaded by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

"Now we're fighting an uphill battle to get the House of Representatives to do the same," explains the BattleforNet coalition, which includes Fight for the Future, Free Press, and Demand Progress. "It's not going to be easy, but if the whole internet comes together to fight, we can win."

"In the House, we'll need 218 lawmakers to sign on to a 'discharge petition' in order to force a vote past leadership to the floor," the coalition's website outlines. "That means we'll need to convince all the Democrats and about 25 Republicans to support the CRA. The clock is ticking—if the CRA resolution doesn't get a vote this year, it dies when the new Congress comes into session."

So today is not the end of #NetNeutrality. It's the beginning of the most important battle yet.


Or text BATTLE to 384-387 (msg & data rates apply, reply STOP to opt out)

Then spread the word, and get ready to fight.

— Fight for the Future (@fightfortheftr) June 11, 2018

Now that the repeal is in effect, ISPs "have the green light to begin degrading our access to the internet," said former FCC commissioner and Common Cause special adviser Michael Copps. "Monopoly phone and cable companies will undoubtedly seek to maximize profits by favoring their own content over their competitors and creating fast lanes and slow lanes ultimately at the expense of consumers."

With that in mind, Battle for the Net is promoting three ways constituents can urge their congressional represenatives to back the discharge petition:

Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, "a former Verizon lawyer, bucked the lawignored public opinion and twisted the facts to make his ill-advised case for handing control of the internet to the anti-competitive cabal of giant phone and cable companies," as Free Press's Timothy Karr noted in an op-ed on Monday.

"Poll after poll after poll after poll shows large majorities of Republican voters in opposition to the FCC's repeal," Karr pointed out. "Any Republican seeking re-election in the fall can't run from this polling data or from the people back home who demand real net neutrality."

"People are pissed off. And rightly so. The gutting of net neutrality is a symbol of our broken democracy. It's the worst of the worst that the D.C. swamp has to offer," Fight for the Future's Evan Greer said in a statementMonday.

"But it has sparked an unprecedented backlash from across the political spectrum, and internet users are coming out of the woodwork to fight tooth and nail in Congress, in the courts, and at the local and state level," she continued. "This summer we'll channel our anger productively and harness the power of the internet to mount an unprecedented district-by-district campaign to get Congress to do their job."

"The internet is coming for net neutrality. There is nowhere to hide," Greer concluded. "Any lawmaker, of any party, that fails to sign the discharge petition in support of the CRA will regret it come election time."


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06/08/2018 05:12 PM
The Parkland Students Win an Important Journalism and Activism Award
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are the deserving recipients of the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award.

At 3:18 PM on February 14, 2018, as the world now knows all too well, fourteen students and three staff members were killed and seventeen others were wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The count made the shooting one of the deadliest of the many school massacres we have all endured in the decades since Columbine. This time, however, the response was different: an activist movement for greater gun safety legislation emerged in its aftermath, eventually leading to the launch of the ‘Never Again’ movement and the nationwide March for Our Lives protests. Despite their own grief and trauma, writers and editors at the Eagle Eye, the Stoneman Douglas student newspaper, responded professionally and courageously, at once reporting on and participating in the growing movement for social change.

Interviewed the following month on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Rebecca Schneid,  a 16-year-old junior who is co-editor of the Eagle Eye, told the cable news network’s senior media correspondent Brian Stelter that “the purpose of journalism is to raise the voices of people that maybe don’t have a voice. And so I think that in its own right journalism is a form of activism.” Speaking from the nation’s capital, where she and the other student journalists were covering the massive March for Our Lives rally, Schneid told CNN, “The partnership of the two is the only reason that we are able to make a change.”

Schneid also told Elle magazine she was marching as “a first-hand witness as both a journalist and a survivor of the destruction and devastation to the plague of gun violence” and “so that no other publication has to sit down with the parents of their dead classmates, teachers, and coaches to try to do them justice by writing a story in their memory.”

Sophomore staff writer Brianna Fisher, 15, said she was marching “because my voice should be heard and will represent those who no longer have a voice.” And Zoe Gordon, another 15-year-old sophomore staff writer, added, “I am marching with the Eagle Eye newspaper staff and the rest of the Douglas community for not only my safety, but for the safety of the millions of kids across America.”

One would think the passionate empathy and brave actions of these young journalists would be universally praised—or at least not pilloried. But whether or not journalism should be a form of activism remains a controversial question, at least in some mainstream media circles, and the students’ remarks were predictably met with a torrent of commentary from all over the political and journalistic spectrum. Conservative websites disapproved, of course; but so did Associated Press reporters like Meg Kinnard, who said: “Journalism is not activism. This should not have gone unchallenged.” Josh Kraushaar of the National Journal agreed. “Journalism isn’t activism; it’s presenting the facts, honestly and objectively,” he said, adding, “It’s this mentality that’s killing trust in our profession.”

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times disagreed, tweeting that “Journalism *is* activism in its most basic form.” He added: “Does anybody think that even the fairest and most diligent of investigative reporters wrote their horrifying stories hoping that nothing would change?” And Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post noted, “Journalists perform acts of activism every day. Any good journalist is an activist for truth, in favor of transparency, on the behalf of accountability.” A spokesperson for the NewsGuild union also weighed in, stating, “When people in power are sowing doubt about basic facts, journalism looks like activism.”So when the student journalists at the Eagle Eye noted that it was the job of journalists to “present facts and elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur,” they were not only speaking on behalf of other Parkland students, but many more mature practicing journalists as well.

The board of the Global Center, a non-profit educational foundation dedicated to developing socially responsible media, strongly agrees with the Parkland students’ assertion that “Journalists can USE the facts to describe an issue that plagues society.” That’s why, as board chair, I am proud to announce the selection of the student journalists at the Eagle Eye as this year’s recipients of “The DANNY,” more formally known as the Danny Schechter Global Vision Award for Journalism & Activism, given annually to individuals who best emulate Schechter’s practice of combining excellent journalism with social advocacy. The award includes a $3,000 donation to the paper’s journalism scholarship fund to support future reporting. (Previous winners include Jose Antonio Vargas of Define American and Patrice O’Neill of Not in Our Town. )

The late Danny Schechter was one of the first journalists to marry reporting with ardent activism against racism and other social ills, and to advocate forcefully in his work for increased tolerance and openness. While at CNN and later ABC News, Schechter pushed hard against the constraints of the cable and broadcast news media. In frustration, he left ABC to partner with me in the independent production company Globalvision. Together we began producing regular programming about such controversial topics as apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses around the world.

We knew from first-hand experience at CNN, ABC, and CBS that the commercial world was not very open to such coverage. So we offered it instead to public television, where we both had started our broadcast careers. Rather than being welcomed, we were instead told by top PBS media executives that our public opposition to the racist regime in South Africa was “too controversial” and that human rights was “‘an insufficient organizing principle’ for a television program.” The PBS reaction, combined with deceitful, highly organized right-wing protests against us, led to our being branded with a metaphoric scarlet letter “A” and told that our advocacy meant that we weren’t really journalists at all. 

Such views, while they are eroding, are still somewhat prevalent in today’s media world, as we see from some of the reaction to Rebecca Schneid’s comments on CNN. But as the pace of change in the media world continues to accelerate, more and more people within the field are beginning to raise questions about such outmoded views regarding the role of advocacy. Increasingly it is becoming understood that journalists with strong, transparent points of view are giving us news and insights we truly need and can use.“If what we’re doing is advocating for the public,” says Patricia Aufderheide, professor of communication studies at American University. “That’s our job.”

Media theorist Jeff Jarvis, professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, agrees. He says if a piece of journalism “isn’t advocacy, it isn’t journalism. 

“Isn’t advocacy on behalf of principles and the public the true test of journalism?” Jarvis asks. “The choices we make about what to cover and how we cover it and what the public needs to know are acts of advocacy on the public’s behalf. Don’t we believe that we act in their interest? After all, what is a journalist, if not an advocate on behalf of the public?”

Gun violence—and the epidemic of school shootings that is only one of its manifestations—is among the leading issues of our time, and we applaud the reporters and editors of the Eagle Eye for both their exemplary reporting in the face of personal tragedy and for advocating for change at the same time. As Danny Schechter’s life and work demonstrated, the two are not and should not be exclusive; after all, as Rebecca Schneid and the Parkland students’ courage and resolve show us once again, it’s the job of journalists to “elevate the voices of the oppressed that allow for actual change to occur.” And as Rebecca Schneid reminded us all in a recent article for the Guardian, “We are articulate. We have opinions. We demand change. And we are not going anywhere.”


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06/07/2018 06:35 PM
Georgia County Commissioner Took Her Oath of Office Over Malcolm X Autobiography Held by Mother
She raised her free hand into a fist as she was sworn in.

Newly-elected commissioner Mariah Parker took the oath of office for Georgia's District 2 County Commissioner in a decidedly personal way.

Parker had her mom, Mattie Parker, hold a copy of  "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" for her to swear upon as she raised a fist with her free hand.

"It's time for a new vision for Athens, one where we finally address the poverty and discrimination that hold our community back," Parker wrote on her campaign website.

The Georgia Alliance for Social Justice posted a supportive message of Parker's swearing-in, writing, "This is what America is about to look like."


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06/06/2018 10:23 PM
Here’s What America’s Election Experts Think It’s Going to Take to Fix Our Democracy
There's no silver bullet. It's going to take dedication and focus on a number of key issues.

As the vote counts are finalized and the dust settles on California’s June 5 primary, one thing that’s clear is the pre-election predictions and fears about its “top-two” system, where the two top vote getters, regardless of party, face off in the fall, were wrong.

The system, which was instituted in 2010 and backed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was promoted as elevating more moderate candidates. The 2018 primary showed that wasn’t the case. Democrats, echoing other 2018 primaries, saw swarms of grassroots-backed progressives and fewer party-backed centrists face off. Republicans saw a mix of incumbents and challengers standing with President Trump or ignoring Trump while playing up local ties. In both cases, the political middle was barren.

And the two major parties, for different reasons, thought they would be shut out of the fall ballot—and that didn’t happen either. Democrats feared too many candidates would dilute their numbers, giving the GOP a boost; Republicans feared too many Democrats would keep them from placing second. So the major parties, once again, showed they hold more sway than widely assumed, and can’t be so easily dislodged.

There’s a big picture lesson in all of this for political reformers—one that some of the nation’s leading election law scholars noted at a recent Stanford Law School conference on the Constitution and Political Parties. That lesson is there is no silver bullet, or single reform, that’s going to fix the anti-democratic or uglier side of our political system.

“I want to start with that, because it introduces this idea of, ‘Just one more reform and we get things back. This is the next reform. We didn’t tinker with the last one just right,’” said Samuel Issacharoff, NYU Law School professor of constitutional law. “Let me give a catalog of some of the reforms that many of us who think about these things have been seduced by over the years, and I include myself. I’ve loved each and every one of these.”

Issacharoff’s ensuing confession was remarkable—and didn’t even include some of the latest solutions, such as New York Times columnist David Brooks pushing multi-member congressional districts (to theoretically have more ideological diversity) and ranked-choice voting (where voters list their top choices and the second- and third-place votes for the least-successful candidates are reassigned until a majority winner appears).

“‘Open primaries, not closed primaries,’” Issacharoff continued, referring to how parties in different states allow non-party members to vote in their primaries—or don’t. “That’s going to start getting the broader base. That’s going to make the parties more responsive than they are in general. [That will prompt] more participation, more democracy in the nominating process. That means that the citizenry will be more heavily invested… [but] what that gave rise to was the tyranny of a minority of the majority.”

“More funds into the party,” he said, citing another reform that might reverse the growth of outside independent spending. “Let’s start relaxing the campaign contributions into the parties themselves, as opposed to pushing it out. We’ve heard more of that today, and I believe in that or I believed in that, I thought that was a great idea… Allow coordination, allow parties to start maintaining some discipline over the candidates. That will empower the parties again. Or ‘more super-delegates,’ because that is more elite control, more peer review. Or ‘less super-delegates,’ because that’s [not] anti-democrat. I loved them all.”

“The reason I raise this is, when you start having a catalog of reforms that are going to almost get you there and they keep failing, sometimes you’ve got to step back and say, ‘What is it that we’re trying to restore and what are the reasons that it is not taking hold?’” Issacharoff said.

His answer partly was to remind people that political parties existed for many reasons that are easily overlooked today—even if there is frustration with the two major parties. They controlled the nominating process. They kept constituencies in line. They helped immigrant communities integrate into America by patronage jobs. They are the bedrock behind a functioning legislative process—or the opposite, which can be seen as political parties are collapsing in Italy, Spain, France and India and leaving vacuums.

“That’s shocking and that’s the pattern across the democratic world right now. So that leaves one element that the parties play that I think we underestimate its significance. Which is parties were the mechanism of transmission of ideas, interest, and loyalty between mass institutions, non-state institutions in the society, and the political process,” he said. “So that sense of the parties having some center of gravity outside the state was what gave the parties a sense of dynamism and made them responsive to the needs of the population. Once that fails, the institutional frailty of the parties becomes more and more apparent.”

Issacharoff is not defending today’s two major American political parties, per se. But he is asking the questions of what’s their useful roles, what’s not, and he’s urging political reformers to look at a larger landscape than a silver-bullet solution—as most reforms have not achieved their intended goals.  

Going back to this week’s top-two California primary, the final results won’t be known for days because of the vote-counting process. But one thing that’s clear is the voter turnout was low—more in line with typical midterm elections than what’s been seen in other states where Democrats have come out in numbers suggesting this is a blue wave year.

Another Question: Why People Vote

Why more people didn’t vote is an open question. The press was telling Californians that their state could hold the key to whether Democrats gained a quarter of the seats needed to retake the House majority. In short, they were told the state held a big key to resisting Trump. There also were important local races, such as an open mayoral seat in San Francisco.

At the Stanford Law School conference, Burt Neuborne, who is the founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and has worked on civil liberties cases dating back to the Vietnam War, confessed that progressives have been losing election law cases for decades and said it’s hard to convince ordinary people that their votes really matter. On the other hand, he said voting was important to a person’s self-expression, dignity, sense of community, and noted that the political system is a reflection, for good and bad, of society at large. But rather than merely fighting in legal trenches to remove “transaction costs, things like voter ID, that are part of voter suppression,” Neuborne said he has begun to think a new priority is called for.

“So I think that we have to at least begin to think about how we increase the perceived value of voting. That is the only way we’re going to pull people in. I spent a career taking costs down, I want to spend some time now taking perceiving value up,” he said. “And one way to do it is the way we talked about yesterday. And that’s to get rid of gerrymandering once and for all. And to at least enhance the likelihood that there are genuinely competitive elections.”

“And the second one is campaign finance reform,” he continued. “I don’t accept the fact that we’re locked in an airless box, that we have to stay inside the existing [legal] parameters. To me, there are seven fundamental analytic mistakes that are there—waiting to be kicked over, and one of them will be kicked over in a way that will change. And I’ll just quickly summarize what the seven are, and then suggest some wiggle room.”

Neuborne’s starting point is the U.S. Supreme Court 1976 ruling, Buckley v. Valeo, was wrong to assert that spending money is a form of political speech deserving the highest First Amendment protections—more than picketing, other forms of protest or equality among citizens. 

“I know this is an argument that has been lost and lost and lost and lost. [But] campaign spending is not pure speech,” he said. “It is communicative action, there’s no question that it’s communicative action. But why it has to be called pure speech, why it should receive more protection than picketing, why it should receive more protection than demonstrating, why it should receive more protection than burning a draft card as a form of protest. Why the spending of large amounts of money on a campaign should be characterized as more deserving of constitutional protection than other categories of communicative activity, I still don’t understand.”

“The second is, I still don’t understand why equality is not a compelling government interest, even if you go to pure speech,” Neuborne continued, referring to how the courts have eviscerated public financing schemes—to allow a more economically diverse slate of candidates. “The maintenance of political equality in this system is absolutely crucial to a strong and vibrant democracy, and if you don’t have it, your democracy is in trouble. And of course, the [Supreme] Court didn’t say it wasn’t a compelling interest. What they said was, public funding could be a less drastic means, but… made it very difficult to have public funding.”

Other Supreme Court rulings also were wrong he said. There’s no reason why political contributions should be regulated but political spending should not. Also, the current definition of political corruption in campaign finance law has become meaningless, he said, allowing operatives outside of campaigns and political parties to spend big to sway elections and curry favor with winners.

“I just want to put on the table... the idea that independent expenditures cannot result in corruption. That’s nonsense,” he said. “Everybody in this room knows that independent expenditures can. What the Supreme Court did is it froze the election cycle in single election, and it said because the person making the independent expenditure doesn't have any connection with the candidate; therefore, there can’t be any corruption. Did they forget that people run for reelection? Did they forget that you might want to make it very, very useful for the person making the independent expenditure to keep making independent expenditures in future elections? So the chance for corruption is there.”

Right now, Neuborne thinks the one reform that might curb the extremism that marks today’s political arena is Congress regulating independent expenditures and loosening the restrictions faced by parties with raising money and spending it on candidates. Both the GOP and Democrats support that, he and other election law specialists noted

“In other words, instead of letting massive independent expenditure votes on either side play disproportionate roles in the electoral process, tell them that that’s going to be regulated,” he said. “But if the money is cycled into the political party system, which really should be the engine that's driving the electoral process, we can do that. That can be done, I think, with relatively minor tinkering with the existing system.”

Neuborne’s suggestion won’t address the frustrations that people on both sides of the aisle feel about the two major parties. But just as Issacharoff has spent decades looking at individual reforms and seen how they fail to deliver as promised, Neuborne’s suggestion doesn’t hinge on a new Supreme Court majority or a future constitutional amendment.

It looks at an outsized dysfunctional feature of a complex system and says start there. And it does that against a backdrop of millions of Americans who still cast ballots, even if they are frustrated or worse with the choice of candidates and political system.



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06/06/2018 08:21 PM
'Reformist' Crown Prince Has a Clear Message to Saudi Women: Shut Up and Drive
Some of the nation’s most vociferous advocates for women’s equality are behind bars.

The June issue of Vogue Arabia is dedicated to the “trailblazing women of Saudi Arabia” and the much-awaited June 24 date that will give Saudi women the right to drive. The cover shot is a glamorous photo of Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud in the Jeddah desert, perched in the driver’s seat of a vintage red 1980s Mercedes-Benz convertible.

“It is easy to comment on other people’s societies and think that your own society is superior, but the Western world must remember that each country is specific and unique,” the princess told Vogue. “We have strengths and weaknesses but, invariably, it’s our culture, and it’s better to try to understand it than to judge it.”

But unlike the wealthy, pampered princess, for decades Saudi women themselves have been judging, and desperately trying to change, their society. They have been fighting to lift the travel ban since 1990, when 47 women piled into cars and drove around the capital. They were arrested and thrown in jail. Their passports were confiscated, those with government jobs were fired, and they were denounced in mosques across the country. Similar protests took place in 2011, 2013 and 2015.

Many Saudis believe the faces of these activists should be gracing the cover of Vogue Arabia and social media is ablaze with “corrected versions” of the magazine. But instead of celebrating the true Saudi heroes, since May 15 at least 11 activists, both women and male allies, have been arrested. One of the activists is in her 60s and another is 70 years old. Four have since been released.

They are accused of “suspicious contact with foreign parties” and undermining the “security and stability” of Saudi Arabia. In a vicious smear campaign, the state-run media released their photos with the word “traitor” stamped in red across their faces. These peaceful activists may now face up to 20 years in prison for their work against the decades-old driving ban.

One of the best-known activists, 28-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul, has been arrested several times, including in March, just days before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embarked on a three-week whirlwind visit to the United States to improve Saudi Arabia’s reputation and his role as the nation’s chief “reformer.” On this occasion, Al-Hathloul was not arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia but for driving in the nearby United Arab Emirates, where women are allowed to drive. In a spectacular abuse of power, she was snatched from her vehicle, deported to Saudi Arabia, imprisoned, and later released with a ban on using social media or leaving the country. Despite complying with the ban, she was re-arrested on May 15 and is reportedly being held incommunicado.

These Saudi women have been fighting for the right to drive but also for women’s rights more broadly. For while gaining the right to drive certainly brings Saudi Arabia a step closer to joining the 21st century, the biggest impediment for women has not been the inability to drive—or the fact that they, by law, must be totally covered in public. The biggest obstacle to women’s freedom is the male guardianship system that is a form of gender apartheid. Under this system, a woman, no matter her age, is treated as a minor and must live under the supervision of a wali, or guardian. This is a legally recognized male —her father, husband, uncle, or some other male relative (even her son)—who must grant formal permission for most of the significant issues affecting her life. Women are not allowed to marry, obtain a passport, travel—or drive--without the permission of their guardians.

Saudi Arabia is also the most gender-segregated society in the world. The government enforces sex segregation in virtually all workplaces except hospitals, and it fines businesses that fail to comply. In food outlets, including U.S. chains such as McDonald's or Kentucky Fried Chicken, all lines and eating areas are separated to keep unrelated men and women apart. The men’s section is usually the airy, front section, while the women and children are relegated to the back, shielded from public view. The majority of public buildings have separate entrances for men and women. Some even ban women from entering.

Now some of the nation’s most vociferous advocates for women’s equality are behind bars. Human Rights Watch said the arrests have sparked a “frenzy of fear.” Kareem Chehayeb of Amnesty International says that the recent sweeping crackdown on human rights activists is not an anomaly. “While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to present himself as a reformer, peaceful human rights activism that calls for reforms continues to be criminalized,” said Chehayeb. "It simply doesn't make sense.”

It does make sense, however, when you look at the chilling message it sends to Saudi women. It says that he, Mohammed bin Salman, is the agent of change who will dictate the pace of reform, not the Saudi women who have been fighting for their rights for decades. It says that he, Mohammed bin Salman, deserves and will get the credit for these reforms, not those who have been imprisoned over the years for their advocacy. Bin Salman’s message to women is simple: Shut up and drive.

So the next time you hear the hoopla about Saudi women driving or some propaganda story about the reformist crown prince, think about al-Hathloul and the women who have risked their lives not just to drive a car, but to drive out the extreme misogyny that forms the basis of the present-day Saudi regime.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.



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06/05/2018 06:21 PM
Minority Lawyers Face Crushing Debt As They Fight Trump Administration Policies
They're taking an enormous gamble in a rigged game.

Law school applications are up this year in what some are calling a “Trump Bump,” since around a third of applicants were inspired to apply by Trump’s election. Nearly half of them identify themselves as members of a minority group. They’ve seen lawyers fighting Trump administration policies that discriminate against their communities and want to do the same. If these minority applicants succeed, they could change the balance of power in American society. If they fail, they will find themselves crushed under a lifetime of debt. But few are aware that they are taking this enormous gamble in a rigged game.

On average, minority students end up in lower-ranked law schools, which they pay more to attend than white students, resulting in higher debt burdens. Minority law graduates have lower bar exam passage rates, employment rates, and income levels. Given the intense competition for paid social justice positions, few of them will end up in careers where they can support themselves while fighting for the ideals that brought them to law school in the first place.

Legal education has failed and will continue to fail minorities. This shouldn’t be surprising, since the entire American system of restricting admission to the practice of law has long been designed, explicitly or implicitly, to exclude minorities. Nowadays, of course, minorities are no longer simply prohibited from entering law school. Instead, the system loads many of them with staggering debt before killing their hopes, leaving them hanging from the very bootstraps they had hoped to use to rise.

Attack on the Night Schools

If you want to practice law today, you minimally have to graduate from college, then law school, and then pass a state bar examination. This is a far cry from 1851, when, in the grip of the anti-elitist ideals of Jacksonian democracy, Indiana declared that all of its citizens were entitled to practice law, the only requirement being “good moral character.” Not until 1932 did that state concede that its lawyers might need some other training -- and this wasn’t as unusual as it might seem. Before the turn of the twentieth century, the vast majority of America’s lawyers had never attended the few law schools that then existed. (Most of them had not gone to college and some hadn’t even completed high school.) Instead, like Abe Lincoln, most apprenticed in a lawyer’s office and read up on state laws before passing a short oral bar exam. Apprentices had to persuade a lawyer to take them on, had to pay him, and could not perform other work to support themselves while apprenticing.

The early twentieth century saw an explosion of new law schools founded to serve the needs of those for whom such conditions were daunting, especially minorities, recent immigrants, and women. Generally located in urban centers, those schools charged low tuition and were staffed with practicing lawyers who taught after working hours, so that their students could earn a living.

There was widespread horror at the prospect of night schools allowing a horde of undesirables to become lawyers who might charge cheaper fees and so undercut mainstream attorneys. As a result, the Association of American Law Schools, representing the more expensive, university-affiliated institutions, banded together with the American Bar Association (ABA) to campaign for states to raise the requirements for aspiring lawyers. The target: keeping minorities out of the profession.

Shortly after World War I, for instance, a New York lawyer argued that it was “absolutely necessary” to require law school applicants to have attended college or the country wouldn’t have lawyers “able to read, write, and talk the English language -- not Bohemian, not Gaelic, not Yiddish.” Similarly, at a 1929 ABA meeting, a member claimed that the majority of complaints received by the Philadelphia Bar Association concerned “Russian Jew boys” and insisted that “these fellows that come up out of the gutter” be required to complete a college education to “absorb the American ideals.”

The process of restricting admission to the bar took decades. In 1923, although most aspiring lawyers attended law school, no state required them to do so. Only in the post-World War II years did all but a handful of states insist upon a law degree for everyone who wanted to practice in the legal system. Meanwhile, the ABA would be appointed the accrediting body for law schools in almost all jurisdictions and the cheaper, more accessible night schools would either close up shop or transform themselves into elite clones as best they could -- and raise their tuitions to match.

Why do Minority Law Students Pay More for Worse Educations?

In 1968, the year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, only 1% of American lawyers were black. Other minority groups had so few lawyers that the numbers weren’t even tallied. Since then, those figures have steadily increased, but the percentage of minority students in the elite law schools that offer the best chances for a prestigious, well-compensated career remains far lower than at non-elite ones. (The same has been true of women: while, in 2016, female law students outnumbered males for the first time, only six of the top 20 law schools had at least half-female student bodies.)

The reason: Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. Minority and underprivileged students have consistently had lower average LSATs than white and wealthier test takers, even when other ways of measuring their abilities and achievements did not show a difference. There has been much debate about the causes of this score gap. The expense of the preparation courses that teach LSAT-taking skills is certainly one reason. Others suggest that the test itself has hidden racial biases, since it calls for analyses that might be performed differently by those with different backgrounds. (Or perhaps not so hidden: as late as 1986, LSAT takers had to answer questions about a reading passage set in a country where slavery was legal, featuring slaves who insisted that they found their condition “extremely pleasant.”)

The LSAT score gap means that American law schools have developed a kind of educational apartheid: minorities disproportionately end up at lesser law schools. In 2017, for instance, Arizona Summit Law School topped the charts as America’s most diverse law school, while also earning another record: worst bar passage rate. Only around 27% of its graduates passed the bar exam on their first try and only 34%landed long-term, full-time legal jobs.

Minority students generally pay more for the privilege of going to these lesser schools, again thanks to the LSAT. Schools offer merit scholarships to students with high scores in order to increase their rankings. Lower-scoring students pay full sticker price and so, in essence, fund those scholarships, which tend to go to a wealthier, less diverse group of students in what some critics have dubbed a reverse Robin Hood effect.

Exploitation Disguised as Opportunity

Elie Mystal, an iconoclastic legal pundit, counsels law school hopefuls that of America’s more than 200 law schools, “there are maybe 20 schools that are worth paying full price for. There are maybe another 20 schools that are worth it if you are getting reduced, in-state tuition. And that’s being extremely generous.” So why do so many minority students end up at lesser schools that offer them a significantly lower chance of success? In his recent book Law Mart: Justice, Access, and For-Profit Law Schools, law professor Riaz Tejani dissects the way low-ranked law schools market themselves to students with low LSAT scores by promising to provide “access to justice.” Accepting students who will largely fail to get legal jobs in the name of allowing them the opportunity to access a legal education is, Tejani claims, symptomatic of a neoliberal model of legal education, which offers “social inclusion” at a steep price “devoid of social protectionism.”

The profits to be made from marginal students are significant, since tuition hardly varies between law schools regardless of their quality. Indeed, in 2011, New York Law School, which ranked in the lowest tier of such institutions, was charging more than Harvard Law School. The 2010 graduating class of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, another bottom-tier institution, had a total debt of more than $87 million. Nearly all of this borrowing was from federal loan programs and, given Cooley’s dismal employment statistics, it’s likely that taxpayers will have to cover the significant portion that will never be repaid. Despite such statistics, the class Cooley enrolled in 2017 was the third largest in the country, behind only Georgetown and Harvard.

The average graduate will have taken on more than $100,000 in debt (the amount a woman crowd-sourced last year to pay off what she owed after law school in order to achieve her new goal of becoming a cloistered nun). Such a debt is a far heavier burden for minorities, since the lists of schools with the highest proportion of them and of those with the lowest percentage of graduates employed in full-time legal jobs show considerable overlap. For example, in 2015, Charlotte School of Law had the fourth highest percentageof African-American students among law schools (36%) and also the highest percentage of 2016 graduates who were either unemployed, employed in temporary or part-time work, or working in nonprofessional jobs (59.12%). The few minority lawyers who obtain high-paying legal jobs have overwhelmingly gone to a top law school. Three-quarters of current black law firm partners went to one of the top 12 law schools, and nearly half went to either Harvard or Yale.

Mind the Justice Gap

In a book widely considered to have launched the ongoing debate about the future of law schools, Brian Tamanaha notes that “perversely, the United States has an oversupply of law graduates at the same time that a significant proportion of the populace -- the poor and lower middle class -- go without legal assistance.” This “justice gap” is, in part, the result of the high cost of legal education. Even those who went to law school to help members of their community regularly find themselves unable to afford to do so -- if they want to meet their monthly loan payments.

Access to affordable legal services offers a small but crucial boost to families struggling against poverty and discrimination. As studies like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City demonstrate, those who have no choice but to represent themselves face large financial, social, and emotional costs in the overwhelmingly likely event that they lose in housing court or when trying to obtain debt relief or pre-trial release or a restraining order. Society as a whole then pays the price for the associated loss of productivity and the cost of baseless or useless incarceration. Affordable representation can quite literally be a matter of life and death. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has pointed out, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.”

There have been a number of proposals to lower the cost of becoming a lawyer, including by making law school shorter, returning to an apprenticeship model, or establishing programs to train “legal technicians” in limited areas of the law. But while you could fight evictions effectively with cheaper and briefer legal training, you’ll never become a judge that way. For such positions, the broad, theory-based education offered by law schools is a virtual necessity. Critics, in fact, worry that a return to shorter, lower-cost programs would harden what already looks like educational apartheid. Minority applicants could be dumped into the equivalent of vocational programs and left without hope of rising to the sorts of positions of power in which change might begin to be implemented within the legal system.

Solutions are not simple, but change is clearly needed in areas ranging from admissions standards and law school coursework to the nature of the bar exam itself -- and that undoubtedly only begins to touch on the deeper biases embedded in the system. In his prescient 1977 book, Unequal Justice: Lawyers and Social Change in Modern America, historian Jerold Auerbach argued that biases in the legal profession have “particularly serious consequences” in a country where we depend on lawyers to interpret and implement the principle of equal justice under the law. The difference that the rise in the number of female judges has made is already evident. For one thing, male judges are 10% more likely than female ones to rule against sex-discrimination claims.

Imagine, then, what a difference more minority judges might make. Unless the current system of education changes, however, that difference will remain a figment of the legal imagination.

Erin L. Thompson, after practicing as a lawyer, is now an assistant professor of art crime and a pre-law adviser at John Jay College (CUNY). She has previously written for TomDispatch on curating an exhibit of art made by detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Follow her on Twitter at @artcrimeprof.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, and Nick Turse's Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead.

Copyright 2018 Erin L. Thompson


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