On March 24, 1980, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero was celebrating mass in the open-air chapel of a hospital in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. A red Volkswagen pulled up outside. A man in the car raised a rifle and took aim through an open door. He fired one shot striking Romero in the chest. The priest died at the altar.
Thirty-eight years later, on March 24, 2018, thousands of young people will converge on Washington for the March for Our Lives calling for real actions to curb gun violence. In Romero, they will find an urgent lesson about what can happen when justice is denied and gun violence runs rampant.
The assassination of Romero, a gentle and fearless champion of the poor who persisted in his work despite savage, U.S.-sponsored military repression, set off the Salvadoran civil war, which raged from 1980-1992.
Martyrdom was an unexpected role for this modest cleric, whose friends were street vendors and whose hobby was photography. The conservative Catholic hierarchy welcomed his appointment as archbishop of El Salvador in 1975. They assumed his mild manner would lead him to bless the oligarchic status quo in a country dominated by 14 wealthy families.
Romero surprised his colleagues. As spiritual leader of the overwhelmingly Catholic country, he did not espouse the “liberation theology” of the country’s more radical priests. But he dedicated his ministry to the poor majority and did not hesitate to denounce the country’s armed forces, which defended the country’s largest landowners with assassinations and massacres.
Romero knew his nationally broadcast calls for soldiers to disobey orders to kill made him a threat to the Salvadoran military and its CIA advisers.
“If they kill me,” he said, “I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.”
Three weeks after he spoke those words, he was shot and killed. Nearly four decades later, he has risen again. Earlier this month, the Vatican of Pope Francis took another step toward the canonization of Oscar Romero.
Legacy of Guns
The impact of the Salvadoran civil war on the United States, though largely forgotten today, was profound.
In December 1980, nine months after Romero was killed, four American churchwomen were murdered by Salvadoran government forces because of their work with the poor. A month after that, two American advisers from the AFL-CIO were gunned down by a right-wing death squad for their work on land reform.
The war in El Salvador polarized the politics of Washington throughout the 1980s, with liberal Democrats opposing military aid to a murderous regime that was backed to the hilt by President Ronald Reagan.
The conflict, wrote reporter Ray Bonner recently in the Atlantic,
“pitted leftist revolutionaries against the alliance of countries, oligarchs, and generals that had ruled the country for decades—with U.S. support—keeping peasants illiterate and impoverished. It was a bloody, brutal, and dirty war. …. Peasants were shot en masse, often while trying to flee. Student and union leaders had their thumbs tied behind their backs before being shot in the head, their bodies left on roadsides as a warning to others.”
When the conflict finally ended in a peace agreement in 1992, an estimated 75,000 civilians had been killed. Investigators for a U.N. truth commission concluded U.S.-backed forces, advised by the CIA and the Pentagon, were responsible for 95 percent of the civilian deaths.
Most consequentially, the Salvadoran civil war set off an exodus of a million Salvadorans to the United States—which President Trump now seeks to reverse.
In January, Trump vowed to end the protected status that was granted to Salvadorans in 2001 following two devastating earthquakes. A few days later, during a White House meeting on immigration policy, the president characterized countries like El Salvador as “shithole” (or was it "shithouse"?) countries.
Trump’s disdain is a symptom of American amnesia. In the 1980s, El Salvador was the subject of presidential speeches and front-page stories in the Washington Post and New York Times. Today is it is a forgotten country, the footnote to an insult.
Romero would have defended his country from such abuse, but without rancor. He would not shrink from or downplay El Salvador's terrible problems of gang violence, unemployment and malnutrition. “The pastor must be where there is suffering,” he said.
As a man of peace who did not disdain politics, Romero would also celebrate the country’s free press, especially its most independent news site, El Faro (The Lighthouse), as well as its functioning democracy in which left- and right-wing parties compete in free, fair and peaceful elections.
And Romero would have reminded the president of the U.S. government’s complicity in the deterioration of El Salvador. The gunman who killed him, and then escaped, was an associate of ultra-rightist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was trained in the United States at the International Police Academy. The IPA was predecessor to the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, which activists dubbed School of the Assassins for the terrible human rights records of some of its graduates.
Several Salvadoran generals who have blood on their hands lived unmolested in the United States for years after the war ended.
“Many Americans would prefer to forget that chapter in American history,” notes Bonner, who covered the war for the New York Times. “Those under the age of 40 may not even be aware of it. Salvadorans haven’t forgotten, however."
Today, Oscar Romero is perhaps the most famous Salvadoran in the world. The country’s only international airport is named for him. His life and legacy are celebrated at San Salvador’s Museum of the Word and the Image. Pope Francis may certify him as a bonafide saint as early as May.
But there was nothing otherworldly about Romero. To those who knew him, he was an ordinary man guided only by his deep faith in humanity that compelled him to speak truth to power. In his life and martyrdom, the students marching on Washington will find an inspirational exemplar of peaceful change, a man who risked his life to stop the scourge of gun violence and who will never be forgotten.
On Monday, Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler and the children of founding family members were arrested while peacefully protesting the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline. They were joined at the independently organized protest on unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, Canada) by Canadian and American allies who oppose the pipeline for violating Indigenous rights, worsening the effects of global warming, harming the environment and its wildlife, as well as threatening the health and well-being of local communities from Canada to the Pacific Coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California.
Rex Weyler, a founding member of Greenpeace, said: “Forty-six years ago, Greenpeace got its start right here in Vancouver protecting this coastline, and the world, from the sorts of ecological disasters and social disruption that Kinder Morgan’s pipeline threatens. Like then, we stand now for protection of the natural bounty that keeps our communities alive and prosperous. We stand here on the land and by the waters of the Tsleil Waututh people, who have shown us generosity and taught us responsibility, in solidarity and prepared to go to jail, to preserve the ecological integrity of this coast for ourselves and future generations.”
Barbara and Bob Stowe, daughter and son of Greenpeace founders Dorothy and Irving Stowe, said: “We see a lot of parallels between the fight against Kinder Morgan today, and Greenpeace's first action: sailing a boat to stop nuclear bomb tests in Alaska in 1971. Like Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, those tests did not have Indigenous consent and would devastate a pristine environment. Both projects amounted to a government-approved home invasion on indigenous territory. Today, we will stand with Coast Salish Peoples against it. If our parents were alive today, they'd be standing right here with us.”
A British Columbia judge recently issued an injunction to stifle protests along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Weyler, an American-Canadian who grew up and was educated in the United States, was joined by Barbara and Bobby Stowe, the children of Greenpeace co-founders Dorothy and Irving Stowe. They protested in solidarity with Indigenous and environmental allies, risking arrest to stop construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline and to prove that Big Oil CEOs won’t succeed in limiting the free speech of concerned citizens and their right to peaceful assembly. This comes against the backdrop of Energy Transfer Partners’ (ETP) baseless $900 million lawsuit against Greenpeace and others alleging that independent organizations formed a “criminal enterprise” that instigated violence to damage the company. But the transparent goal of the oil industry is to squelch any and all opposition to its pipelines.
Monday's protest, however, continues the overwhelming momentum in the fight to keep the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from being constructed. Today’s protest was one of several independently planned this week by Canadian and American individuals and follows the recent Indigenous-led march of more than 10,000 people who voiced their opposition to the pipeline and its harmful effects, making international news in the process. This was followed by the announcement of Washington Governor Jay Inslee that he too opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion because it would threaten our climate and the existence of the Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale. Greenpeace applauded Governor Inslee and called for him to continue using the full weight of his influence to ensure the Trans Mountain expansion is never completed, and for his fellow elected officials in Washington, Oregon, and California to do the same
Pipelines like Trans Mountain, Keystone XL, and Enbridge’s Line 3 worsen the effects of climate change because of their high carbon emissions when oil is extracted and burned. Further, research into Kinder Morgan, Trans Canada, and Enbridge have shown that from 2010 to the present they have had 373 hazardous liquid spills from their U.S. pipeline networks, jeopardizing the safety of drinking water. Further, expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline would increase tar sands oil tanker traffic along the Pacific Coast. The noise these ships make would jeopardize the survival of the Southern Resident Killer Whale, whose numbers have dwindled to just 76 in recent years. And since more tankers mean more spills, any increase in coastal traffic puts marine life and local fish populations at risk, including the tourism and fishing industry jobs they support.
On Monday night, Pat Elder taught his usual GED class at Great Hills High School in Maryland. On Tuesday morning, he woke up to the news that his building had been the site of yet another school shooting; just before 8am, a male student with a handgun opened fire, injuring two fellow students and exchanging fire with police officers before being pronounced dead.
Elder was in shock. As the director of the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, an organization that fights militarism in education, the horrific incident was yet more evidence of an argument he'd been making for years: that guns, even in supposedly educational marksmanship and Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) programs, have no place in schools.
This latest shooting was morbidly effective timing for a campaign by the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy to end marksmanship programs in American high schools, starting with a petition.
"We are set to send as many as 150,000 emails at the beginning of next week," Elder told AlterNet. The coalition boasts dozens of groups including World Beyond War, Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, On Earth Peace, and Stop Recruiting Kids. "The petition is unique," he said, "because it targets not federal legislators, not Congress, but it targets state legislators. What we're trying to do is we're trying to shut down firing ranges in public high schools."
The ultimate goal is to change legislation, Elder said:
"We are targeting individual state legislators in order to do so. Our hope is that we can perhaps have legislation introduced in at least a half a dozen statehouses before long. I'm convinced that the United States Military Entrance Processing Command, which is the recruiting branch of the military, is intent on putting as many juvenile fingers around as many triggers, whether they be virtual or real, as possible."
JROTC programs, he believes, are part of that recruiting. There are approximately 3,800 JROTC programs in American schools, according to Elder, 2,000 of which have marksmanship programs under the auspices of the Civilian Marksmanship Program. The program, Elder noted, "has assets that exceed that of the NRA. The Civilian Marksmanship Program is much more embedded in the public schools. It is a lackey for the NRA, and senators Lautenberg and Simon in 1996, when the Civilian Marksmanship Program was made into a private congressionally authorized entity, called it a boondoggle and a gift to the NRA in the public schools."
The programs, which teach students how to fire weapons, are concentrated in the South. "Alabama is much, much more likely than, say, Rhode Island to have these types of programs in the public schools. Military recruitment rates in Georgia are three times that of Connecticut, and so there are certain areas where the militarism is much more established as part of the culture of the society."
As for Great Hills, Elder explained that Maryland has conservative and liberal enclaves, but, "Great Mills High School is certainly in a red area. It is within two miles of the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center, which is a naval facility which is just about the size of the Pentagon. It's massive."
As part of the petitioning campaign, Elder wants to make sure parents understand an even more insidious part of the relationship between schools and the military. Even if their kids aren't in marksmanship programs, their data may still be passed onto military recruits. Embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a cornerstone of national educational policy, is a rule that says, "if a military recruiter requests the name, address, and phone number of students in a particular high school, then this high school has to hand it over, but the high school must tell parents they have the right to opt out."
The problem, Elder continued, is that this law "does not specifically say how the heck that's supposed to happen, so most schools really don't do much at all. They may put something in the student handbook, buried on page 36, or it may be buried on the website, but most parents don't know."
It was a mild Saturday afternoon last December in Chennai, India’s Semmozhi Park. The park was full: couples strolling hand in hand, families having picnics, solitary people reading newspapers on park benches. Overhead, clouds passed in the sky, and below, the grass was dappled with winter sunshine.
Under a canopy of trees, a group of women lay sleeping. With their yoga mats out and covered with thin blankets, the women cut an unusual scene amid the strangers. Some lay curled on their side, their hands clasped loosely; others sprawled on their front, their limbs outstretched. Passers-by were puzzled; others stared with suspicion. A few shouted distractions, but the women did not stir.
United in their sleep, the women had a purpose. On the fifth anniversary of the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, the women were among 22 collectives across India that had gathered to assert their right to public space. Sleeping together in the bright light of day, the group confronted the feeling of vulnerability familiar to any woman in India, replacing fear with a sense of connection and pride.
“We want to create space to fight sexual violence, but also move from fear toward a sense of trust and belonging,” explains Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, a global volunteer-led collective which develops strategies to eradicate gender-based and sexualized violence. One of the collective’s projects, Meet To Sleep, encourages participants, whom she calls “action heroes,” to shift the fear-based relationship women have with their cities by taking a nap together in public parks.
This kind of independence is not without risks in a country that has seen sexual violence escalate in recent years. Seventy-nine percent of women in India report experiencing sexual harassment in public, according to a 2016 survey by ActionAid UK, a non-profit focused on lifting women and girls out of poverty. Reported crimes against Indian women, meanwhile, have increased 34 percent in the past four years according to recent statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. But recently, thanks to a wave of bold activism dedicated to reclaiming public space, women are gaining the confidence to explore their cities.
While America was busy marching to protest the election of Donald Trump in January 2017, Indian women were also taking to the streets. In the city of Bangalore, New Year’s Eve celebrations turned into a “night of shame” after it emerged that women had been groped, harassed and molested en masse. Instead of denouncing the widespread sexual violence, a number of government ministers caused uproar with victim-blaming remarks, including Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi, who claimed “women should not be out after sunset.” Outraged by the sexist comments and mounting cases of harassment, a collective, I Will Go Out, was formed with the intention of encouraging women and girls to claim equal right to public spaces.
“Calls started pouring in from sisters and allies across the country who wanted to channel their outrage into action-oriented petitioning,” explains I Will Go Out coordinator Bhani Rachel Bali. Using social media to connect with like-minded individuals, the word soon spread, and on January 21, 2017, the nationwide #IWillGoOut march mobilized 5,000 people across 30 cities and towns in India to protest sexual harassment and gender inequality.
What started as a reactive protest evolved into monthly meetings, where a diverse group of volunteers came together to lobby for safer infrastructure, better public transport, and gender sensitization in public institutions. “The intention to change the state of affairs brought hundreds of strangers together under one hashtag,” explains Bali. “Four months later, we address each other as sisters.”
Despite the growing conversation around gender-based violence in India, being out in public for leisure remains a fearful prospect to many women. Patriarchal attitudes about male and female roles are deeply ingrained, and women are cautioned from childhood about their bodies and behavior.
“The fear narrative around public space has suited patriarchy,” says Patheja of Blank Noise. “It’s this relationship between fear, warning and control, and possession of the domestic as the safer space versus the street.”
The idea for Meet To Sleep emerged over a decade ago, after Patheja asked her action heroes to develop a wish list of things they wanted to do in their cities. “We were already unlearning fear and warnings, and learning instead to occupy, be idle in public spaces, and make eye contact,” she says.
Today, Patheja issues a regular call to action on social media for women to gather in public parks such as Bangalore's Cubbon Park and “sleep alone together.” To date, the movement has helped hundreds of participants challenge sexual harassment while creating positive memories for the body in relation to the city that patriarchy once taught them to fear.
“It’s very important for women to physically act on this whole concept of acquiring and reclaiming public space, and not just talk about it,” explains Neha Singh, founder of Why Loiter? a growing movement in Mumbai that encourages women to wander public spaces, day and night, with confidence. “It gives you strength, changes your worldview, makes you a more political person, and helps you think that you can do anything.”
Anger can’t sustain itself
While Singh says that it’s important to protest sexualized violence when it occurs, Why Loiter? centers around the pleasure principle–and that guiding force has sustained the movement.
“Anger can’t sustain itself, but pleasure can, and it does,” says Singh. Ultimately, the hope is that the movement will normalize the sight of women outside having fun, creating broader societal change.
Elsewhere, the action heroes of Blank Noise say sleeping out in the open has already altered their behavior. Patheja recalls one participant telling her, “I’m now walking in the middle of the pavements and getting my space,” while another said, “I’m not apologizing for the way I dress.”
As a growing interest in feminist activism sweeps across India, women are no longer relying on the government to define their politics.
“People have given up on politicians and are taking individual action, or collective action, regardless of what the government are doing,” says Singh. Many movements are focused on enacting social change on a smaller scale. “People are trying to bring about change in their own neighborhoods, their own cities, in their own families, friends, and colleagues,” adds Singh.
Armed with a new sense of confidence, these activists are changing the fabric of their communities, one step at a time. For Bali, the coordinator of I Will Go Out, this is just the beginning: “We believe the women of this country are unstoppable.”
In the days following the upset victory of Democratic candidate Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, journalists and pundits searched for reasons why his GOP opponent, Rick Saccone, lost in a cluster of southwestern counties that Donald Trump had carried by 20 points. While many saw the race as a bellwether of Trump’s waning popularity, others zeroed in on the personal qualities and positions of the two men, and some pointed to the role of labor unions in a heavily working-class region. For these latter analysts, union support was more or less synonymous with the grassroots, but what was missing in this equation was the impact of newly-formed women’s networks in the Pittsburgh suburbs whose members fanned out not only in their own neighborhoods but in the rural areas where support for Trump had once been strongest. As one GOP voter told The New York Times, “if it wasn’t Lamb yard signs, it was his supporters knocking on doors.” Many of the doorknockers belonged to those networks of women.
Their presence came as no surprise to University of Pittsburgh historian Lara Putnam, who, with Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, had been studying the “resistance movement,” and especially women’s role in it, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and several other midsize cities for many months leading up to the election. “Lamb’s campaign was powered by two core Democratic constituencies routinely portrayed as irreconcilable: college-educated suburban progressives and traditional blue-collar labor,” Putnam wrote in Democracy. “What’s really powered this, the viability of the campaign,” she told Yahoo News, “is two separate forces that have managed to work well together.”
The networks they are writing about began to take shape soon after the 2016 election. It was clear from the unprecedented turnout for the post-inaugural women’s demonstrations that Trump’s ignominious defeat of Hillary Clinton had spurred hundreds of thousands of women to action. In city after city, a spark leapt from Pantsuit Nation, the pro-Hillary Facebook group that had gone viral over the course of the presidential race, to the Women’s March, bringing hundreds of thousands of women into the streets on January 21, 2017.
But the question on everyone’s lips was, could all that energy be channeled into the kind of sustained and effective political work needed to weaken Trump and the Republican hold on Congress, beginning with the mid-term elections? Putnam and Skocpol claim that it could. Many women, they discovered, became determined to move beyond their initial outrage to reclaim “citizen ownership of public life.” In their recent article in Democracy, the two scholars offer a description of women in suburban “middle America” who are “leaning in … mobilizing politically at the grassroots level” to make a difference in politics. The outcome in District 18 indicates that in at least one race, they have.
Network members focus on supporting (mostly) Democratic candidates whose positions they find congenial, challenging gerrymandering, lobbying for specific bills in state legislatures and pushing for changes they would like to see in their own communities. Their rich knowledge of local conditions, political and otherwise, makes them highly effective at pinpointing key issues, canvassing and getting out the vote. Their deep and longstanding personal ties with one another motivate them to become reliable, hardworking volunteers.
The movement Skocpol and Putnam sketch out resembles the Tea Party in its organization but, they argue, it is not a left-wing version of the Tea Party insofar as it has a broad ideological range (from center to left, and even reaching out to moderate Republicans) and is also highly decentralized. Network members try to work in harness with the local Democratic apparatus but on occasion feel compelled to challenge it. In one Pittsburgh suburb, for example, a women’s group recruited a Democratic lawyer who was willing to run as an independent in the race for a local judgeship in order to oppose a lackluster candidate who had been endorsed by both the Democratic and Republican parties.
While retaining their independence from conventional political organizations, network members occasionally turn for advice to one of the national “resistance” organizations that have emerged in the wake of 2016 (Indivisible, for example, offers a useful manual for grassroots organizers), but not necessarily allying with any particular one.
Effective as these networks may prove to be in turning red states and districts into blue ones, at the moment they do not appear to be especially interested in advancing women per se along more conventional political lines by, for example, persuading them to run for office (though some members do, especially at the local level). In this sense, they more closely resemble the grand dame of women’s political organizations, the League of Women Voters (LWV), which has been around for almost a century. LWV was created in 1920 by the merger of several women’s suffrage organizations, just as they were on the verge of victory. Its stated goal was “to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters … [and] use their new power to participate in shaping public policy.” But this has never taken the form of recruiting female candidates.
Across the country, women are dramatically underrepresented in the 500,000 elected offices that exist at all levels. The proportion of women in Congress has never exceeded 20 percent; in state legislatures, they’ve managed to reach 25 percent, but fewer than 19 percent of the mayors of large cities are female. And when it comes to voting for their sisters, certain groups of women fall woefully short. In 2016, white college-educated women—the demographic pundits assumed would be most enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton—gave her only a six-point margin over Donald Trump—51 percent to 45 percent. Black women were much more supportive: Those who were non-college educated gave Clinton 95 percent of their votes, those with college degrees, 91 percent. For Hispanics, the numbers were also enthusiastically pro-Hillary—70 percent and 65 percent, respectively. The weakest support for Clinton came from non-college-educated white women: only 34 percent.
Whether Clinton failed to ignite women voters because of her unique baggage and misjudgments or because of a profound degree of misogyny in American culture remains an open question. Whatever the case, Clinton’s defeat has generated a range of political responses by women—not only the local networks that Putnam and Skocpol describe, but also many new and newly reawakened organizations focused specifically on getting more women into office. One immediate result is that, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, more than 430 women have declared or are considering declaring their candidacy for the U.S. House, and another 50 for the Senate.
The National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) is one example of a “newly reawakened organization.”
It was formed in 1971, at a time when the women's movement was, like today’s networks, largely grassroots and diffuse, but unlike them it was also vocally anti-establishmentarian, with many activists rejecting electoral politics as useless at best, corrupt at worst. The founders of NWPC thought otherwise. As their own chronicle recounts, these women, “[s]purred by Congress’s failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970 … believed legal, economic and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation’s political decision-makers.”
The founders included Gloria Steinem, already an icon of second-wave feminism; two New York representatives, Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug; Dorothy Height, longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women; and Eleanor Holmes Norton, then a leading civil rights lawyer who would go on to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and eventually become Washington, D.C.’s delegate in the U.S. House. The group also included one Republican: Elly Peterson, former vice-chair of the Republican National Committee.
As evidence of its success, the NWPC points to dramatic increases in the number of women elected as mayors, state legislators, and members of Congress since its founding, as well as the growing prominence of women’s issues on political agenda. Presenting itself as “multi-partisan,” it has worked to increase women’s representation in both major parties. When Congress finally did pass the ERA, in 1972, it threw itself into organizing a nationwide grassroots ratification campaign. Remaining active and, to a great extent, maintaining a feminist presence as many other second-wave organizations have faded, NWPC continues to recruit and train women to run for office at all levels, and to endorse and support pro-choice women for both appointed and elected positions.
While the NWPC cleaves to its original mission, the political landscape surrounding it has changed. As Gloria Steinem reminded me recently, the organization “was founded to raise the importance of women in elected and appointed office. It was bipartisan, with a statement of purpose that included reproductive freedom. There were more such Republicans then—remember, they supported the ERA long before Democrats did. … The NWPC hasn't changed, but the Republican Party has.” In an era of profound polarization, bipartisan support for issues like reproductive rights can no longer be taken for granted.
Protecting reproductive rights is, of course, the main focus of Planned Parenthood, an even older organization (founded over a century ago) that is more vibrant today than ever. Established in 1916 by birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger primarily to provide reproductive health services to women, the organization has always also had to play a political role in American society. Under the charismatic leadership of Cecile Richards, who just stepped down as president, Planned Parenthood has over the years fended off repeated assaults on reproductive rights, energizing millions of women as voters and civic activists in the struggle.
Supporting 56 chapters and over 600 health facilities, Planned Parenthood spends well over a billion dollars a year. Few other women’s organizations or individual female candidates can rely on such hefty budgets. Indeed, funding has always been a major issue for female candidates. As Susan Chira recently noted in The New York Times, although more women than ever are contributing to political candidates, the size of their donations is limited by their own (lack of) personal wealth. In Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Chira pointed out, “men still gave the most money and were the largest individual donors.”
Activists seeking to promote female candidates became aware of this particular challenge early on. Following close on the heels of NWPC, in 1974 one group established the Women’s Campaign Fund to provide financial support to women candidates. The organization stipulated, however, that those it backed had to be committed to creating “common ground,” a type of politics that “encompasses a set of values and a type of leadership, an alternative to the sharp-elbowed politics that keeps America gridlocked. Common Ground means asking, listening, and hearing what your colleagues and constituents value and need. Common Ground means bringing allies and opponents together through communication, collaboration, and principled negotiation—then taking action.” This, according to the organization, could be achieved by electing more women to public office at all levels.
But funding continued to be a concern for female candidates. In 1985 Emily R. Malcolm, a longtime political operative and heir to an IBM fortune, founded Emily’s List, an organization that operated on the principle that “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (i.e., it makes the dough rise). This was “a reference to a convention of political fundraising that receiving major donations early in a race is helpful in attracting other, later donors.” Malcolm went on to preside over the List until 2010. During her tenure, the organization raised and spent nearly $270 million to help elect dozens of pro-choice female candidates, including Senators Barbara Mikulski and Tammy Baldwin, the Senate’s first openly gay member; Representatives Nita Lowey and Jolene Unsoeld; and Texas Governor Ann Richards. Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, founded in 1999, also funds women candidates, but, as its name indicates, focuses on younger women; it is nonpartisan.
Other activists contended that money alone was not sufficient to advance women candidates; special measures were needed to get them to run in the first place. In 2011, Erin Loos Cutraro, who had been the political director of Women’s Campaign Fund, broke away to found She Should Run, an organization that offered “The Incubator,” “a first-of-its-kind virtual community and series of resources for women considering a run for office.” Similarly, Running Start, a spinoff of the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, works to “inspire young women and girls to political leadership.”
Despite their feminist leanings, the National Women’s Political Caucus, She Should Run, and Running Start, are avowedly non-partisan, a stance that entitles them to claim 501(c)(3) tax status, which, in turn, allows donors to make their contributions tax-deductible. Other organizations protect their C-3 status by spinning off separate entities to lobby and support political candidates; for example, Planned Parenthood is divided into two branches—a (c)(3), which provides services, conducts research and does public education; and a (c)(4), the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which aggressively resists efforts to restrict choice. The Action Fund has, in turn, set up a Political Action Committee, which campaigned vigorously for Barack Obama as well as Hillary Clinton.
Many of the more recently formed organizations forego the 501(c)(3) designation altogether in the interest of pursuing more specific goals, becoming 501(c)(4)s or 527s. Some take this step to advance a particular demographic: Higher Heights, for example, aims at promoting Black women leaders, Latinas Represent serves Latinas, and the Victory Fund, LGBTQ candidates. Others eschew nonpartisanship in favor of a narrowly partisan political range; Run for Something only supports Democratic women under age 35 who wish to run for office, while Emily’s List, as noted above, funnels money to pro-choice Democratic women. Emerge America and its numerous state chapters help women become leaders not just in politics but in education and business, but they must be Democrats. By contrast, VoteRunLead manages to keep its 501(c)(3) status by emphasizing the openness of its mission: “to educate diverse women to unleash their political power, seek public office and transform American democracy.”
Given the variety of their foci and structures, these explicitly feminist organizations can offer a range of options for women seeking to become politically active—especially those on the Democratic side of the aisle. But their variety may also be their weakness; can all of them survive? And, equally important, can they work in tandem with “co-ed” blue organizations such as Swing Left or Sister District, both of which aim to shift surplus political resources from “deep-blue” regions to red ones deemed susceptible to being “turned”? Or will the feminist groups end up competing with the others for members and money? Another recently formed network, Action Together, seeks to avoid that kind of outcome by bringing “progressive” people together “in productive and mutually-supportive ways,” but women who are aware of feminists’ long and often unhappy history of working in coalition with the Left may be wary of conceding any of their autonomy to such a group.
Meanwhile, the vibrant, restless realm of social media acts as a perpetual political centrifuge, regularly spinning off new, seemingly urgent causes that threaten to draw women activists—and their supporters—away from electoral tasks. In the past few months alone, #MeToo/Time’s Up and now the March for Our Lives/#Never Again Movement have come to dominate the headlines (though even they have had to compete with the president’s daily outrages for air and print space). While both movements address causes that are obviously important for women candidates, they may crowd out other issues (especially local matters) that are more central to a given campaign. The timing and significance of such causes and their relevance for particular candidates will no doubt affect the outcome of many races in November.
Thousands are expected to gather in Washington, D.C. on March 24 for the March For Our Lives, speaking out for gun control and student safety in light of mass shootings like the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17.
While the streets of D.C. will be full of those supporting the Never Again movement, students across the country will also come together in their own communities. The hundreds of sibling marches stretch not just from coast to coast but around the world.
March For Our Lives organizers are demanding gun control measures, including increased background checks and the banning of assault rifles.
For these budding organizers, their demands are personal. Alexandria Goddard, a senior at Sunset High School in Portland, Oregon, and one of the student organizers of March For Our Lives Portland, remembers the moment she heard about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It was Valentine’s Day, during the Winter Olympics.
“I was watching figure skating and the pair that just came off the ice was the American couple that’s married and they said the perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day is on the ice together and it was just this beautiful moment of love,” Goddard said. “Then the news broke and I got a notification on my phone that there’d been a shooting in Parkland and that there were 17 dead. And it was just this moment of, this is a holiday about love and there are 17 families missing someone to love and that was the first thing that made me just so angry.”
Goddard had her own frightening experience at Sunset High in the fall of this year, a false alarm over a shooter in the school. When Goddard heard that the Parkland shooting had taken place in the freshman building, it brought back memories of the false alarm, and of sending frantic texts to her mom and close friends.
Across the country, students of all ages, with support from local organizations and national heavy hitters like Everytown for Gun Safety, are uniting under the resounding message that gun violence and mass shootings must end. CNN reports that there have been 17 such shootings in 2018 so far.
In Los Angeles, 21-year-old Gavin Pierce, a film student and one of several lead student organizers on the march, got involved by attending a volunteer meeting hosted by March and Rally Los Angeles. Now, a coalition has formed including Women’s March Los Angeles, Pierce’s organization Students March, and more than 60 students of all ages.
“The cool thing about this one is that so many minds have been coming together to offer different perspectives and to really find a strong sense of unity,” Pierce said. “While that’s definitely there with the other marches I’ve worked on in the past, with this one it’s on a larger scale.”
According to the Washington Post, since the Columbine shooting in 1999, “more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours.” Pierce spoke about the effect of gun violence on those who have grown up in a culture of such violent acts.
“When someone can wake up and read a headline on the news that says there’s been another mass shooting, tens of students have been killed, and that’s regular to people, and we just have the same conversation, that shows that there’s a really underlying profound illness in our society and it takes collective action to purge that illness out,” Pierce said. “We’ve been having this conversation so long that now is the time to actually say, enough is enough.”
For some student organizers, it’s their first foray into activism. Ethan Block, a sophomore at Hopewell Valley Central High School in New Jersey, who is helping to organize March For Our Lives Philadelphia, said he was inspired to speak out by the Parkland students.
“I’d seen before how after every school shooting it was thoughts and prayers and then maybe there was some flare of frustration but then it all just went away until the next shooting,” Block said. “I was very frustrated about this, and for a long time I’ve felt that I didn’t really have any power to change that. But when I saw the Parkland kids come together and say, you know, this isn’t going to be just another school shooting, we want to use our voices and use this traumatizing experience to propel a movement forward… and I really wanted to join as well.”
These students are not just mobilizing their peers to fill the streets this weekend, but to change laws. Guided by the messaging of the national March For Our Lives, the students are calling for universal background checks, banning high-capacity magazines and ending the sale of assault weapons.
Student organizers across the country voiced frustration with inaction from their representatives, but are prepared to take on leadership where their elected officials will not.
“If adults aren’t going to end this, if Congress isn’t going to end this, if everyone’s just going to keep talking in circles, then we’ll stand up and we’ll fix this ourselves, we’ll do the work where adults haven’t been willing to,” Pierce said.
“We need as voters to see change, or else we will vote them out of office,” said Conor Heffernan, a senior at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy in Austin, and one of the organizers of March For Our Lives Austin. “It’s just that plain and simple.”
Heffernan said that though gun culture in the progressive city of Austin is less prevalent, there is a “very proud gun culture” in the state of Texas.
“Our movement does not seek to infringe upon their right to keep arms,” Heffernan said. “We don’t want to infringe upon that right, we recognize the existence of the Second Amendment. What we want to see is regulation.”
Arguments around the Second Amendment also arose among students in Wisconsin, where Bay Port High School senior Maddy Pritzl is one of two students leading the way in planning marches across the state. Pritzl said her high school is more conservative and that there has been “an interesting dialogue between myself and my peers,” along with some “backlash” from the community.
“The day that most kids are absent from school is the opening day of hunting because everyone just wants to go out there and use their guns,” Pritzl said. “I don’t really think that everyone in my community especially understands the reasoning behind the march or the walk-out, or why people are so fed up with mass shootings, especially in schools, and why people want to talk about gun control.”
Student organizers hope that the energy of the past few weeks carries forward, not just in terms of turn-out for this weekend, but for the potential to generate change.
“It’s important that we create a voting bloc made up of all Americans of all different ages, of all different creeds, religions, ethnicities, races—it doesn’t matter because these sorts of senseless tragedies have touched all walks of American life,” Heffernan said. “It’s a uniquely American problem.”
March leaders are taking the first step by having voter registration at the marches. In Portland, Goddard said they’ve received support in training volunteers to run the registration, and even received donated forms. Heffernan said he hopes the march provides an opportunity to create momentum around voting.
“We hope to create a bloc of voters who won’t vote for anyone who either takes money from the NRA or doesn’t support the small, commonsense gun reforms,” Heffernan said.
Some, like Pritzl, are also thinking about other ways for youth to engage before they are of age to vote, such as implementing lobbying days.
“I think one thing that we should really emphasize across the state, and in our local marches is that just because we’re marching today doesn’t mean the movement stops here,” Pritzl said.
Pritzl thinks the current wave of activism across the country is strengthened by teens speaking out on behalf of their peers.
“It’s a whole different generation of voices, it’s not just the talking heads that we see on the TV,” Pritzl said. “It’s kids that we can relate to ourselves so I think that’s another reason why it’s become so popular and it’s picked up a lot of momentum.”
Story image: a katz/ Shutterstock
After a number of decidedly anti-labor appointments to top positions in the Trump administration’s Department of Labor, it was clear that big business would be a major player in the department’s activities. Indeed, last December, with support from the National Restaurant Association, the department proposed a “tip pooling” rule that would allow employers to control workers’ tips, including taking them for themselves.
But tipped workers yesterday gained a victory against what critics have more aptly termed the “tip stealing” rule: a provision forbidding employers, including managers and supervisors, from stealing tips was included in the omnibus budget bill, with bipartisan support, including from Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta. The provision would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit employers from pocketing employees’ tips. Tipped workers often earn less than minimum wage, relying on their tips to supplement their pay.
“This landmark victory belongs to all the restaurant servers, bartenders, car wash workers, valets, attendants, and all the other tipped workers in America who fought back when the Trump administration proposed its misguided tip-stealing rule,” Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said in a statement.
Under the DOL’s proposed rule, employers would be allowed to “pool” employees’ tips, ostensibly to share tipped workers’ wages with other staff—for example, a restaurant’s wait staff could be required to share their tips with back-of-the-house employees such as cooks. But there was no language prohibiting employers from keeping the tips.
The Economic Policy Institute estimated that under the proposed rule, workers would lose approximately $5.8 billion in tips to their employers. What’s more, the Labor Department appears to have reached similar conclusions: The department’s political appointees attempted to bury the DOL's own research, which showed that workers would lose out under the rule.
But as tipped workers learned about the proposal, there was a huge backlash—and furious organizing against it. Indeed, many tipped workers and their allies, mobilized by the workers’ advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, submitted over 200,000 public comments on the rule and launched protests nationwide. Memorably, activists dropped a banner reading “Trump: Don’t Steal Our Tips!” from the roof of the DOL building.
According to the National Women’s Law Center, two-thirds of tipped employees are women. The federal tipped minimum wage has remained at $2.13 since the 1990s, and in the 18 states where the minimum tipped wage is $2.13, nearly one in five tipped workers live in poverty—more than twice the poverty rate of non-tipped workers. Discrimination plays a role too, as black workers, on average, receive fewer tips than white workers, and sexism in tipping is also rampant, with many women workers subject to sexual harassment. The DOL’s proposed rule would only compound these inequities.
At a House Appropriations Committee hearing in early March, House Democrats Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut questioned Acosta about the proposed rule. Acosta claimed that “no one wants” employers to steal tips, but that the department did not have the authority to outlaw tip stealing. As Clark continued to press the issue, the secretary said that he would “absolutely” support legislation that would prevent employers from accessing employee tips.
Clark and DeLauro introduced the Tip Income Protection Act the next day.
Their proposed worker protections were added to the omnibus budget bill. The House has passed the bill and the Senate must pass the budget plan by Friday at midnight to avoid another government shutdown.
Earlier in the hearing, Clark asked Acosta a simple question: “Have you ever worked for a tipped wage?” Acosta replied that no, he had never worked for a tipped wage. “Well, I have,” said Clark. The workers who mobilized against the proposed rule—and won language in the omnibus bill—also know what it’s like to work for a tipped wage.
A quarter-century after the United Nations designated March 22 World Water Day, its observance is more urgent than ever. Around two billion people consume unsafe water every day; close to a million die each year from related contamination and disease. Another 700 million—most of them women—travel hours by foot to the nearest water source. Global freshwater demand, meanwhile, is expected to spike a third by 2050, as climate change and pollution put further strains on supply.
Clean water shortages don't always conform to stereotype—the problem of mega-city shantytowns and famously arid deserts. This century's water crisis is a hydra-headed beast that reaches far into the last place you'd expect to find it—in that lushest of biomes, the Amazon rainforest.
How is this possible? In a word, oil. Since the 1970s, the petroleum industry has spilled billions of barrels of crude and related pollutants in the rivers and forests of the Upper Amazon. In much of Ecuador and Peru, traditionally abundant groundwater sources—rivers, streams, and lagoons—are contaminated beyond use. Nowhere is this truer than northeastern Ecuador, sometimes called the "Amazon Chernobyl," a region that was contaminated over the course of three decades by the U.S. oil firm Chevron (then known as Texaco).
For years after the poisoning of their water sources, the four ancestral nations of the region—the Kofan, Secoya, Siona and Waorani—did not understand why so many people, especially the young, were getting sick, and dying of cancer and strange illnesses. During a visit to the region several years ago, a Kofan elder named Emergildo Criollo explained to me that the concept of toxic pollution had no meaning in their cultures prior to oil—the idea literally did not exist.
"In our language, 'water' is a synonym for 'clean'," Criollo told me. "How could we ever have imagined that the companies could turn water into sickness?"
When I first met Criollo in 2015, he was busy with an ambitious project called Clear Water, to build small-scale rain catchment systems in rural indigenous communities devastated by oil. When I returned to the region last month, I found him even busier. Criollo, who watched two of his children die after drinking contaminated river water, now sits on the leadership council of a recently formed indigenous organization named the Ceibo Alliance. Together with a partner NGO, Amazon Frontlines, Ceibo this winter celebrated the construction of the 1,000th water system in the region, which together provide clean water to more than 1,000 families in 72 communities across five million acres of critically threatened primary forest.
"We have banded together in a joint struggle to ensure that all of our families have access to clean water," Criollo told me at the Ceibo Alliance compound, just outside the regional capital of Lago Agrio. "Our struggle is the same as our fellow water protectors in North America. We are defending water, defending life, defending our territory. We won’t stop until all of our families are safe from the toxins the companies have dumped on us for so long."
Ceibo and Amazon Frontlines have a goal of providing fresh water to every community in the area that needs it by the end of 2018. They are already close: Only 10 communities without clean water sources have yet to receive the catchment systems. On March 22, World Water Day, the groups launched a campaign, #LessOilMoreWater, to raise awareness and funds for the final stretch. The campaign seeks to raise $100,000 for the remaining 150 systems by August 9, Indigenous Peoples Day.
The systems are simple, cheap and well-suited for rainy regions where extractive industry has ruined the groundwater. According to the World Health Organization, around 90 million people depend on rainwater catchment for their main drinking water supply. Though largely free of impurities, domestic rainwater harvesting still requires filtration. The model used in the Clear Water project involves a zinc roof and a layer of sand to reduce microbial activity to safe limits.
Building and maintaining the systems has provided the communities with more than just clean water and peace of mind. After years of feeling helpless under the onslaught of state-backed oil companies, the systems have helped generate a feeling of empowerment that goes beyond the water issue.
"With every water system that we build, we are also building courage, and political power, and the possibility to free ourselves from the shadows of the companies," says Norma Nenquimo, a Waorani member of the Ceibo leadership council. "Clean water gives us life, but also freedom."
At a recent meeting of the Ceibo leadership council, I heard variations of this theme from each of the four nations. Hernan Payaguaje, a Secoya member of the Alliance, said that the communities are building upon the water project to confront future challenges. "The water project has brought our people together and given us the strength to confront the government and the companies, to protect our rivers and to defend our territory," he said. "If we leave our lives up to the designs of outsiders, we will be condemned to drink and cook with water full of heavy metals and hydrocarbons."
Contamination in the Ecuadorian Amazon did not end when Chevron (Texaco) pulled up stakes in the late 1990s. More than 1,500 new oil wells have been drilled in the region during the last five years, bringing the total number of active wells and drilling platforms to nearly 5,000. Nearly 1,000 rainforest region spills were officially reported in the last decade, releasing the equivalent of 4,000 gallons of waste a day. This long-term catastrophe is the cost of extracting just nine years of proven reserves, or less than three months of U.S. oil consumption.
As they struggle to bring clean water to their communities, the indigenous leaders of the Ceibo Alliance understand that their local crisis reflects a planetary emergency.
"It's important to tell our story to the world, and that the world listens," said Emergildo Criollo, the Kofan leader whose own two children died after drinking toxic water. "We hope that our struggle can inspire others in the world to organize, to resist, and to create new ways of living that don’t depend on the destruction of the planet."
Support the #LessOilMoreWater campaign.
Watch a video and scroll down for photos of the rain catchment systems in operation. (credit: Amazon Frontlines)
Dear Ms. Nicole Hockley,
I have read your open letter to me dated November 15, 2017, regarding gun violence. I wanted to respond sooner, and I tried to do so on December 14, the five-year anniversary of the death of your son, Dylan, at Sandy Hook Elementary, but found myself at a loss for words. So perhaps it is fitting that I write to you now, while you and your family are here in Washington, D.C., for “March for Our Lives,” in support of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Please let me first offer my deepest sympathies for your loss. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “There is no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.” I agree with that sentiment. Life’s natural order is for children to bury their parents. Only in times of war should a mother ever bury her child first. Dylan was in first grade. He was not a soldier. But he was a casualty in a war on our own soil.
As a parent myself, one of the most painful realizations I’ve had is that I will not be alive to witness all of my child’s life. I will not know how “it all turned out.” As a parent, you will witness your child’s birth, nurse their skinned knees, cheer them on at their college graduations, walk them down the aisle at their wedding and spoil your grandchildren until that final day when we, as parents, take our last breath and let them go on to live their lives without us. I often reflect on the pain of that final day—not in my own death, but in knowing I will never know how my child’s story ends.
Dylan’s story did not end naturally. The pages of his life were torn out by a mass shooter. I know you still have your son Jake with you and that must be some comfort to you, but I imagine when you lose one child, the worst thing that can be said is to take comfort in the child you still have. How would I feel if someone asked me to choose which child I could live without?
You have asked me not to accept these national tragedies as the “norm.” I want you to know that I will not. To accept mass shootings as the norm in our society is to say that your son Dylan died in vain. To accept mass shootings as the norm is to say that all the other men, women and children who have died at the hands of gun violence have also died in vain. No one dies a violent death in vain. If they did, that would mean we are willing to sacrifice our most vulnerable, our children, to maintain a violent way of life. That cannot be who we are as a society.
We have all heard the expression we are only as strong as our weakest link. If our weakest link is allowing anyone to pick up a military-grade weapon and senselessly slaughter innocent people then I would say we are not a very strong country at all. Our freedom to own a gun is not absolute and inflexible and should not include the ability to own any possible weapon of war intended for use solely by trained experts. There must be a reasonable balance.
You have made many salient points including Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) to protect families and communities from gun violence, federal public safety grants, and more. I want you to know that I was truly moved by your final line to me: “To have part of my legacy be in protecting American lives.”
As you know, gun control is a volatile issue in our country, but we have weathered many volatile issues in our history before and we’ve always made the right choice in the end. We did so after we searched our souls and realized that doing what is right may not always be what is popular at the time.
So, I would ask all of us to search our souls now. Do we have a spiritual contract to leave the world a better place than we found it? Have we left the world a better place when children are dying in the arms of their teachers? Have we left the world a better place when we are dying in theaters or concert halls or nightclubs or praying in our churches?
To change the hearts and minds of those we must change will be difficult. Hell, it’s going to be nearly impossible. Change is always messy in the beginning, cleaner in the middle and glorious in the end. Still, time is and always has been on the side of change.
Love of country and love of each other can look like many things to many people. But genuine love is never toxic. I will not be alive to see the end of my children’s story, but I will do everything in my power that when they see the end of mine—they will know I did what I could to leave the world a better place for them.
Thank you again for your letter, Ms. Hockley. I will keep it, and the memory of your son, with me always.
The President of the United States.
P.S.: Ms. Hockley, this is me now, speaking directly to you. The president may never read your letter. He may never respond. But I wanted you to know that I read your letter. I felt it deserved a response.
You deserve to be heard. You have a voice. We all have a voice.
If we all don’t speak up, our voices will never be heard.
I want to acknowledge how extraordinarily difficult it must have been to write that letter. I am grateful you found the strength to write it. Your experience and knowledge have incredible value. No one else has your unique perspective. That holds true for all of us—and why we should all speak up about the issues we care about. Words have power. Silence is deemed as approval.
Your letter reminded us to have the courageous conversations we all need to be having with our friends, our families, our churches, and our communities.
Your letter reminded us to write our own letters—even if we suspect we may never get a response from the person to whom they are written.
Sometimes we don’t know who our words are truly meant for—but we must trust they will find the person who needs them. In speaking your truth, you will also find you are not alone in your thinking.
Each day we are writing a page in our own life story, by using the words we speak and the words we do not. With the actions we take and the actions we do not. We are the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves.
Your story, Nicole Hockley, is a powerful story. But it is not a tragedy. It is a love story. All stories are love stories in the end.
I believe we do have a spiritual contract to leave the world a better place.
Your letter to the president was about leaving the world a better place. That is love. That is the love you have for Dylan, for Jake, and for the world itself.
You have not let Dylan down. You have not let yourself down.
You have, instead, lifted all of us up with you.
Thank you for using your voice, Nicole.
We hear you.
Read Nicole Hockley’s Open Letter to the President in The Guardian
Six months since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico, the island is the site of a pitched battle between wealthy investors—particularly from the technology industry—and everyday Puerto Ricans fighting for a place in their island’s future. The Puerto Rican government has pushed for a series of privatization schemes, including privatizing PREPA, one of the largest public power providers in the United States, and increasing the number of privately run charter schools and private school vouchers. For more, we speak with best-selling author and journalist Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” Her latest piece for The Intercept, where she is a senior correspondent, is “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It has been six months since Hurricane Maria battered the island of Puerto Rico. It was the most catastrophic storm to hit the island in over a century. As many as 200,000 people remain without power in what’s considered the longest blackout in U.S. history. Energy officials say some areas won’t have power restored until May.
On Tuesday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz tweeted, “Six months after Maria things are not what they should be. Thousands still w/o electricity due to neglect and bureaucracy. Our lives matter!”
The devastating storm has reshaped Puerto Rico in countless ways. The official death toll remains at just 64, but independent counts put the total number of fatalities at over a thousand. According to a recent study by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have fled to the U.S. mainland since the storm. Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló is moving to privatize PREPA, one of the largest public power utilities in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: The governor is also pushing for privately run charter schools and private school vouchers. On Monday, teachers across Puerto Rico held a one-day strike to protest the privatization plan. Meanwhile, displaced Puerto Ricans protested Tuesday in Washington, D.C., outside the headquarters of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Well, today we spend the hour looking at the future of Puerto Rico, which was already facing a massive economic crisis before the storm hit six months ago. We’re joined by two guests. From Toronto, best-selling author and journalist Naomi Klein, author of many books, including The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She has just published a major piece for The Intercept on the future of Puerto Rico; it’s titled “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island.” And here in New York, Puerto Rican anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla, who teaches at Rutgers University. She is founder of the Puerto Rico Syllabus.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Naomi. You’ve just returned. You’ve just written this epic piece. Explain what you found and what you mean by your title, “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island.”
NAOMI KLEIN: Good morning, Amy and Juan and Yarimar. It’s great to be with you.
So, what I’m referring to is that in this moment, when so much attention is focused on the failures of FEMA, the failures of the entire relief and reconstruction project—as it rightly should be, because this is an ongoing humanitarian emergency—we’re seeing the strategy that we’ve seen in many other disaster zones, that we’ve spoken about many times, which is exploiting that state of shock and distraction and emergency to push through a radical corporate agenda. You referred earlier to the plans to privatize PREPA, to open up Puerto Rico’s school system to charter schools and vouchers, at the same time as radically downsizing and closing 300 schools, on the back of already having closed more than 340 schools by exploiting the economic crisis in the past decade. All in all, we’d be talking about the closing of half of Puerto Rico’s public schools. So, a radical downsizing, deregulation and privatization of the state.
But that isn’t the only thing that’s going on in Puerto Rico. There is also a powerful resistance movement, that was really gaining ground before Maria hit, that was resisting this illegitimate debt, this previous shock doctrine strategy of exploiting the economic crisis to push these very same policies. But they aren’t just saying no. They are also proposing a people’s recovery process that would rebuild Puerto Rico in the interest of Puerto Ricans, a very, very different vision that’s grounded in food sovereignty, in growing much more of the food Puerto Ricans eat in Puerto Rico, by small farmers using agroecological methods; not privatizing Puerto Rico’s electricity system, but shifting to a decentralized, community-controlled model that is based on renewable energy—all kinds of other deeply democratic changes. And so, there’s this pitched struggle and a kind of race against time over whose vision for the island is going to triumph in this window.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Naomi, you begin your piece talking about the town of Adjuntas up in the mountains of Puerto Rico and also about one of these grassroots organizations that even before the storm had already been pioneering at least electricity generation for their own center. Could you talk about that some?
NAOMI KLEIN: Sure, Juan. I mean, one of the things that I found most striking when I was reporting in Puerto Rico was, you know, we heard so much about what didn’t work. And almost everything didn’t work. The food system collapsed. The energy system completely collapsed and is still in a state of collapse.
But there were a few things that did work. And one of the things that worked in the community that you’re referring to was solar power. And there was—there is this community center in Adjuntas which is called Casa Pueblo. It’s been around for decades. It’s been at the center of a lot of major fights in Puerto Rico, against open-pit mining, against logging, against gas pipelines. But they’ve also been building their alternatives. And they’ve had solar panels on their roof for more than 20 years. And after Maria wiped out the electricity grid, it turned out that Casa Pueblo’s solar panels, rooftop solar panels, survived, survived the hurricane-force winds, survived the falling debris.
And so you had this beacon. Arturo Massol, who is the director of the board of directors of Casa Pueblo, described it as an energy oasis. So, in the midst of this sea of darkness, you have this community center that has light, the day after Maria, because their solar panels survived. And so, people came there. It becomes this hub of people-to-people recovery. They start handing out solar lanterns. And it becomes this kind of field hospital, where people plug in their medical devices. So this is, you know, very intensely practical. And we saw some similar things happening on farms, as well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Naomi, this was a town that was—not only had no electricity and no water, but was completely cut off from the rest of the island for quite a while because of the roads washed out, right?
NAOMI KLEIN: As so many communities were, you know, outside of San Juan, particularly in the mountains, where roads were either obstructed by fallen trees and branches or by mudslides. So, yeah, completely cut off. It’s weeks before they receive any substantial aid.
AMY GOODMAN: Its founder got the Goldman Prize, is that right? The environmental prize in San Francisco. Him, his son and the community building this place that became this sunny satellite, just shocking, given what was around, the darkness around them.
NAOMI KLEIN: And it’s not the only example of this that I saw. I also saw an amazing example of this in the community of Mariana, in Humacao, where, you know, as—where an amazing mutual aid center was constructed, in the failure of FEMA, in the failure of the state to respond to this disaster. So people linked in with the Puerto Rican diaspora, got their own solar panels installed, and then this become—you know, while I was there, I witnessed an elderly man come in, plug in his oxygen machine, because this was still—and at this point, it was five months after Hurricane Maria—the only source of electricity in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us about who the—what you call the Puertopians are.
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, Yarimar, I think, can talk about this, as well. The Puertopians, as some of them call themselves, are part of this influx of what the Puerto Rican government refers to as high-net-worth individuals, who they’ve been trying to attract as a way, a sort of backwards way, out of the ongoing economic emergency in Puerto Rico. So, in 2012, a couple of laws were passed to attract very wealthy people to Puerto Rico by giving them essentially the most favorable tax system in the world. And it’s particularly favorable if you happen to be Americans, because Americans who move to Puerto Rico are exempted from paying federal taxes.
But in addition to that, these twin laws, Act 20 and Act 22, mean that if you relocate to Puerto Rico for just half the year—so you can basically just skip winter, which I’m sure, to New Yorkers, sounds very appealing just about now—so you spend 183 days in Puerto Rico, and, in return, you don’t pay federal taxes. You don’t pay taxes on dividends. You don’t pay taxes—capital gains taxes on interest. And if you change the address of your financial services company or your cryptocurrency company, then you’d pay a 4 percent corporate tax rate. So, if you think about what’s just happened to U.S. tax law, where Trump has offered this huge tax reduction which brings the corporate tax rate to 20 percent, Puerto Rico is besting that with a 4 percent corporate tax rate. So they’re doing absolutely everything they can to lure high-net-worth individuals and these very mobile industries, that basically can do what they do from wherever they have access to data. And so, now there’s a big push to attract the cryptocurrency market to Puerto Rico.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, we don’t want to get into cryptocurrency, but if you could just briefly explain—since you write about cryptocurrency—Bitcoin and blockchain, just to give people a sense of what you mean?
NAOMI KLEIN: So, just last week there was a major conference in San Juan in one of the luxury hotels, the Vanderbilt Hotel, which is actually owned by one of these high-net-worth individuals who moved to Puerto Rico because of these favorable tax rates. And so they had this conference, which originally was called “Puerto Crypto,” and then, because of concerns about crypto-colonialism, they renamed themselves “Blockchain Unbound.” Essentially, what it was is a trade show for people who see the future of finance in currencies like Bitcoin.
And they are attracted to Puerto Rico because it holds out the promise that they can convert their cryptocurrencies into harder currencies while paying no taxes whatsoever. And so, that’s—so it was a combination of a trade show for cryptocurrencies and a kind of an advertisement for Puerto Rico put on by the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, pitching the island as this never-ending vacation where you can have this incredible tax holiday.
And part of the irony of this is that cryptocurrencies are one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. It is an incredibly wasteful way to create money. It’s the sort of gamification of money. So, right now, Bitcoin uses as much energy in the creation of this currency as the state of Israel uses to—consumes energy. So this is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. And here you have Puerto Rico, battered by climate change and also unable to provide power to its own people, being—pitching itself as a hub for the cryptocurrency market.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Naomi Klein, senior correspondent for The Intercept. Her piece for The Intercept—she’s just back from Puerto Rico—”The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Ricans and Ultrarich 'Puertopians' Are Locked in a Pitched Struggle over How to Remake the Island.” When we come back, she’ll be joined by Yarimar Bonilla, associate professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University. Stay with us.
In "progressive" New York City, reminders of inequality abound: A homeless woman asleep outside of a bank, a man begging for spare change outside of Starbucks. But as city officials have boasted about making New York City "the fairest big city in America," they have remained committed to punishing New Yorkers who don't -- or can't -- pay the subway fare.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to paint himself as a national progressive leader and been praised in books by progressive authors. During his campaign and first term, de Blasio has railed against income inequality to bolster several proposals around housing, education and even a "millionaire's tax." At the same time, he has clung to the "broken windows" theory of policing, which focuses on aggressive police enforcement of low-level offenses like jumping a turnstile. Last month, he went to new lows to keep the city on the criminal punishment track started under Rudy Giuliani and beloved by the most conservative voices in the US.
After Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced in February that he would not, with notable exceptions, prosecute fare-beating arrests, Mayor de Blasio insisted that many turnstile jumpers "have money in their pocket" to try to undercut sympathy for fare beaters from, ironically, an inequality perspective. For someone whose political identity hinges on being seen as a defender of the poor, the mayor's attempts to divert the conversation away from poverty is strategic. His anecdote-based line of reasoning, however, is not.
A month has passed since de Blasio's controversial comments, but the city has still not produced any data about how much money people have on them when they're stopped or arrested for fare beating. Of course, even if someone has, say, $100 on them, the mere fact of having actual money on your person doesn't preclude someone from living in poverty or scraping to get by -- the sort of economic squeeze that might make evading the fare appealing. The mayor's fare-beating squabbling, in fact, seems to parallel conservative denials of poverty, like an infamous 2011 Heritage Foundation report that argued poor people aren't really poor because they own air conditioners and have cable television.
While our "inequality-fighting" mayor struggles to grasp the concept that a subway turnstile might be an economic barrier, he added insult to injury last month by echoing Giuliani in implying fare beaters pose a unique public safety threat. During a press conference with New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Jimmy O'Neill, de Blasio pointed to rising subway robberies as a reason fare-beating arrests must continue. The city has not offered evidence that fare evasion has caused robberies to go up. The simple notion that someone "criminal-minded" enough to jump a turnstile might also be committing robberies seemed, to de Blasio, clearly self-evident.
The fare-beaters-as-dangerous-predators trope didn't end there. Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O'Neill noted, anecdotally, that fare-beating stops produce guns (a theme that the conservative New York Post hammers home time and time and time again). What does the data say? Buried within an impassioned defense of broken windows fare-beating arrests by the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, it was reported that nine guns were recovered by the NYPD during fare-evasion stops last year, and 10 in 2016.
Citing statistics provided by New York State's Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) says cops conducted more than 27,000 arrests for theft of services (fare evasion) in 2016; more than 19,000 in 2017, (overwhelmingly of New Yorkers of color, of course); and issued hundreds of thousands of summonses involving police stops. That leaves the rate of gun recoveries via fare-beating arrests/stops at somewhere around 0.0001 percent -- a rate worse than even the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
As the city clings to "broken windows" policing, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and other so-called "progressive" prosecutors (if such people exist) don't offer a promising solution if you're too poor to pay the subway fare. While fare-beating arrests offer the sort of medieval criminal punishment nonsense that should be buried in the past, Vance's "won't-prosecute" proposal isn't necessarily new (he made a similar announcement last year), inclusive (dubious gang designations and certain felony and misdemeanor convictions make one ineligible for Vance's mercy), or game-changing.
In fact, the vast majority of people who are arrested for fare beating are already released, argues Christian Covington, an attorney who has worked on police accountability issues. In 2016, for example, the overwhelming majority of those arrested in Manhattan for fare beating were either released with time served, had their charge dismissed or were compelled to perform community service, according to the New York Times. Only 320 out of almost 10,000 arrested were prosecuted by Vance's office and sentenced to jail. "They are trying to make themselves look good, when they are just doing the same thing they have always done," Covington said.
The meat of the punishment for hopping a turnstile isn't in the prosecution; it's in the arrest, the time held by police and the ordeal of having to show up to court and having to pay a fine or be forced to perform community service. Regardless, Vance's move, even though extremely modest, should be watched closely.
Some might remember that the late, former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson made similar proclamations in 2014 that his office wouldn't prosecute low-level marijuana cases -- except when they did. Indeed, low-level pot possession prosecutions continued in Brooklyn, including under his successor, Eric Gonzalez, a career prosecutor who has been labeled a "criminal justice reformer" by some in the media.
Of course, whether Gonzalez is blowing smoke about marijuana possession reform, or whether Vance is about not prosecuting fare evasion, cops can and will continue to stop, question and enforce against thousands of poor Black and Latino New Yorkers every year for low-level offenses.
Broken windows policing continues even as fare-beating arrests and criminal summonses have dropped around the city, and civil summons for quality-of-life crimes have gone up. Police-issued civil summonses, which are the preferred "reform" by some liberal lawmakers in the city, can affect a person's credit score, and those who are summonsed aren't provided court-appointed counsel, which can result in worse outcomes -- especially in a city where police summonsing patterns have proven to be incredibly illegal. In fact, if mass issuance of civil summonses is the endgame of "decriminalization," it is crucial to not simply ask to decriminalize offenses. The point should be to not punish people for being poor. Period.
Either way, short of radical changes, poor people of color in the US's "fairest big city" will be stuck between an effort to "decriminalize" and normalize punishment through summonses, the public relations stunts of prosecutors and Mayor Broken Windows' refusal to stop arresting his way out of poverty.
Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission.
* This interview originally appeared on the blog of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
To help make sense of where we stand as an economy, as a country, and as human beings, Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Laureate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Arizona, shares his thoughts with Lynn Stuart Parramore on the Age of Trump, foreign policy, dissent in the internet age, public education, corporate predation, who’s really messing with American elections, climate change, and more.
Lynn Parramore: You’ve been looking at politics and international relations for quite a long time. Over the decades, what are the continuities in these areas that stand out in your view?
Noam Chomsky: Well the continuities are the message of the Athenians to Melos: “the powerful do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must” [from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War]. It’s often disguised in humanitarian terms. The modalities and the context change. The situations change, but the message stays the same.
LP: What do you see as the most significant changes?
NC: There are some steps towards imposing constraints and limits on state violence. For the most part, they come from inside. So for example, if you look at the United States and the kinds of actions that John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could carry out in Vietnam, they were possible because of almost complete lack of public attention.
I don’t know if you know, but as late as 1966 in Boston we could barely have an anti-war action because it would be violently broken up with the support of the press and so on. By then, South Vietnam had been practically destroyed. The war had expanded to other areas of Indochina. The Reagan administration, at the very beginning, tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done in 1961 with regard to Central America. So they had a white paper more or less modeled on Kennedy’s white paper that said the Communists are taking over. It was the usual steps, the propaganda, but it collapsed quickly. In the case of the Kennedy white paper, it took years before it was exposed as mostly fraudulent, but the Wall Street Journal, of all places, exposed the Reagan white paper in six months. There were protests by church groups and popular organizations and they had to kind of back off. What happened was bad enough but it was nothing like Indochina.
Iraq was the first time in the history of imperialism that there were massive protests before the war was even officially launched. It’s claimed by people that it failed, but I don’t think so. I mean, they never began to do the kinds of things that they could have done. There were no B-52 raids on heavily populated areas or chemical warfare of the kind they did in Indochina. By and large, the constraints come from inside, and they understood that. By the time you got to the first Bush administration, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they came out with a national defense policy and strategic policy. What they basically said is that we’re going to have wars against what they called much weaker enemies and these have to be carried out quickly and decisively or else there will be embarrassment—a way of saying that popular reaction is going to set in. And that’s the way it’s been. It’s not pretty, but it’s some kind of constraint.
There are increasingly conditions in international law, like the Rome Treaty [the 1957 treaty that established the European Economic Community] and so on, but great powers just ignore them if they can get away with it, and getting away with it means ignoring the constraints of other states, which, in the case of, say, the U.S., don’t amount to much. Or internal constraints from changes inside the society, which have put in conditions of some significance, I think.
It’s almost unimaginable now that the U.S. could carry out the kind of war it did in Indochina, which is something recognized by elite opinion. A typical example is Mark Bowden’s op-ed in the New York Times the other day about [Walter] Cronkite and how he changed everything. Well, what did Cronkite say? He said, it doesn’t look as if we’re going to win. That’s the criticism of the war. That’s the way it was perceived at the time, and that’s the way it’s still perceived by intellectual elites. But if you look at public opinion—which doesn’t really get investigated much so it’s not too clear what it means, but it’s interesting—the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was running polls on all sorts of issues in the '70s and '80s, and when the Vietnam War ended in 1975, about 70 percent of the population described the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral, not a mistake. That stayed pretty steady for several years until they stop asking the question. The director of the study, John Rielly, interpreted that as meaning too many American were being killed. Maybe. There’s another possible interpretation of “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” which is that the U.S. was carrying out a crime against humanity. But it was never investigated because there’s too much cognitive dissonance. Elite intellectuals can’t perceive that possibility.
Everybody had a comment when the war ended, and so the hawks said, “stab in the back” [i.e., civilian critics undermined the military] and “if we’d fought harder we would have won.” The doves went kind of like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who was maybe the most extreme. In 1975 when the war ended, he said the war began with blundering efforts to do good. “Efforts to do good” is virtual tautology, facts irrelevant; and “blundering” means it failed. He said that by 1969 it was clear that it was a disaster because the U.S. could not bring democracy to Vietnam at a cost acceptable to us. That’s the far left critique of the war in 1975. And Bowden, who is writing from a critical point of view, basically reiterated that point a couple days ago: Cronkite’s great contribution was to say, “look, it looks as if we can’t win, and if we can’t win…” I mean, Russian generals said the same in Afghanistan. We don’t honor them for that.
LP: When you talked about protests in Understanding Power before the digital age, you mentioned that it was difficult for dissenters and protesters to connect with each other. How has the internet changed that? Protesters are obviously under surveillance when they are online, but they are able to connect with each other more quickly. Has there been a net gain to those who want to object to wars and oppression? Or is this illusory?
NC: You may remember, during the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, which were being organized through social media, at one point [Hosni] Mubarak actually closed down the internet. That increased the mobilization. People just started talking to each other. It’s a different kind of communication. It means a lot more. So I think, yes, social media do offer opportunities for quick organization and transmission, but typically at a pretty superficial level. Face-to-face organizing is something quite different. The same, incidentally, has been found in electoral politics. Andrew Cockburn had an interesting article in Harper’s during the  campaign in which he compared studies on the effect on potential voters of advertising, you know, TV, and the effect of knocking on doors and talking to people. It was overwhelming that the latter was more effective. We’re still human beings.
LP: Companies like Google and Facebook increasingly control the information we can access. They’ve even been enlisted to vet stories, to weed out fake news, though there’s evidence that they may be weeding out legitimate dissent. Yet they are often applauded as if they’re doing a service. How is this sort of thing affecting our freedom?
NC: It’s service for a bad reason. The younger people just don’t read much, so they want something quick, fast, easy. You go through a newspaper, it takes time. You have to see what’s at the end of the column, not just what’s in the headline. So this kind of instant gratification culture is drawing people to these quick summaries. Practically everybody’s on Facebook (except me).
The other thing they’re doing which is kind of interesting has to do with microtargeting, which is being used for electoral manipulation. There are some cases, which have not been discussed as far as I know outside the business press. During the last German election, there was a lot of talk of potential Russian interference, you know, it’s gonna swing the election. Well, it turns out there was foreign interference, but it wasn’t Russian. It was a combination of the Berlin office of Facebook and a media company in the U.S., which works for Trump, Le Pen, Netanyahu, other nice guys. They used Facebook in Berlin to get a demographic analysis of parts of the population to allow them to microtarget ads to individuals in favor of AfD, the neo-Nazi party, which may have been a factor in their unexpectedly high vote in the election. This was reported in Bloomberg BusinessWeek. This was a real case of electoral manipulation but somehow it doesn’t make the headlines.
LP: Which brings us to the narrative of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. I understand you’re not very impressed with this line.
NC: Well it’s very hard to take seriously for a number of reasons. One reason is the work of Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues [“How Money Won Trump the White House”]. There really is manipulation of elections, but it’s not coming from the Russians. It’s coming from the people who buy the elections. Take his study of the 2016 election [“Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election”]. That’s how you interfere with elections. Or the pretty spectacular study that he and his colleagues did about a year ago on Congress “How Money Drives US Congressional Elections,” where you just get a straight line [correlation between money and major party votes in Congress]. You rarely see results like that in the social sciences. That’s massive manipulation. Compared with that, what the Russians might be doing is minuscule. Quite aside from the fact that the U.S. does it all the time in other countries.
LP: It’s clear from leaked emails that the Democratic National Committee meddled with Bernie Sanders in his quest for the 2016 presidential nomination by favoring Hillary Clinton when it was supposed to be unbiased towards all candidates. What do you think it would it take for a real reformist candidate, a true populist, to ever win the presidency?
NC: What it would actually take is popular organization and activism. With all its flaws, the U.S. is still a pretty free country. In this case, Democratic Party managers had to manipulate to keep Sanders from winning the nomination. His campaign, I think, was really spectacular. I couldn’t have predicted anything like it. It’s a break with over a century of American political history. No corporate support, no financial wealth, he was unknown, no media support. The media simply either ignored or denigrated him. And he came pretty close—he probably could have won the nomination, maybe the election. But suppose he’d been elected? He couldn’t have done a thing. Nobody in Congress, no governors, no legislatures, none of the big economic powers, which have an enormous effect on policy. All opposed to him. In order for him to do anything, he would have to have a substantial, functioning party apparatus, which would have to grow from the grass roots. It would have to be locally organized, it would have to operate at local levels, state levels, Congress, the bureaucracy—you have to build the whole system from the bottom.
It’s kind of intriguing now; I’m sure you’ve seen the polls where he turns out to be the most popular political figure. Well, in a functioning democracy, the person who is the most popular political figure should appear somewhere. But nothing he does gets reported. It’s taking place, it’s having effects, but from the point of view of the liberal media, it’s as if it doesn’t exist.
LP: What about recent events in California with Senator Dianne Feinstein, who got a big surprise by failing to win the state Democratic Party endorsement for a sixth term? Is this like the Sanders phenomenon, where people who want basic things like universal health care and worker protections are making their preferences heard by refusing to support candidates who are unresponsive?
NC: She was voted down, and like the Sanders campaign or [Jeremy] Corbyn in England, there is a groundswell, and if it could be turned into something sustained and with a serious base, it could mean a lot. Traditionally, this has always been built around the labor movement, and that’s why the corporate sector is so dedicated to destroying the unions. It’s coming up in the Janus case, which was heard the other day, which will probably be voted in favor of Janus, which will be a lethal blow to public unions. [Mark Janus is the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME involving the issue of whether government employees represented by a union must pay dues to cover the cost of collective bargaining and resolving grievances.]
The whole U.S. private sector is passionate about destroying the union movement. This has been going on for a long time, but now they really think they can strangle it because it’s the core of activism for almost anything. Take a look at, say, health care. In Canada, in the '50s, it was the unions who were pressing hard for national health care, and kind of interestingly, in the U.S. the same unions were pressing for health care for themselves, auto workers in Detroit. These are two pretty similar countries, but with this striking difference in outcomes on health care.
A more interesting case is England. There’s a pretty good article that just came out in the latest issue of Jacobin, which runs through the history of British health care, and it’s quite interesting. It began in England under Bevan in the late '40s. They got what was the best health care system in the world—still is, probably, and certainly was then. It started with mine workers in Wales who developed their own cooperative health system on a small scale. Aneurin Bevan was a Welsh mine worker. The cooperative system was picked up by the Labour Party as a program, and the Labour Party actually won the election in 1945, and Bevan pushed it through, and they got the National Health Service.
Well, there’s two points that are critical for the U.S. It’s the unions. That's why you have to destroy the unions. You destroy solidarity. It’s the same reason for the attack on public schools, the attack on social security. These are all based on the idea that somehow you care about others, the community, and so on, and that’s completely unacceptable in a culture where you want to try to concentrate wealth and power. You don’t want people to have anything to do except to try to gain whatever they can for themselves. In that case, they’ll be very weak, of course. It’s only when you organize together than you can confront private capital.
Secondly, there was a political party. The American political system probably wouldn’t be accepted by the European Court of Justice as a legitimate system. There’s no way for independent parties to enter the system. The Labour Party in England started as a very small party. But because the system allows—as most democratic countries do—small parties to function, they were able to develop and work within Parliament and expand and get political figures and the government and finally ended up being a big party. That’s almost impossible in the U.S. If you look at a ballot in the U.S., it says Democrat, Republican, Other. Nobody can break in. It’s a political monopoly. It’s two things that aren’t really political parties. You can’t really be a member of the Democratic Party, you can’t participate in designing its programs. You can be a member of the Labour Party. These are big differences, so I think two huge problems in the U.S. are the deficiencies of the political system, which shows up in the kind of things that Tom Ferguson and his colleagues study—you know, the enormous power of concentrated wealth in determining the outcome of elections and then the policies afterwards. That’s one, and the other is the destruction of the labor movement.
LP: Let’s talk about the attack on public schools, which Gordon Lafer has outlined in his book, The One Percent Solution.
NC: Yes, a very interesting book.
LP: He discusses efforts by ALEC and other corporate-backed groups to dismantle public education, to get legislation passed to replace teachers with online education, increase class sizes, replace public schools with privately funded charters, and so on. You’ve talked about the history of mass education. How do you see this corporate agenda for American schools?
NC: You know, mass public education was, with all its flaws, one of the real contributions to American democracy. It was way ahead of other countries all the way through, including the college level with land grant colleges and so on. Europe just began to match that after World War II. Here it was happening in the late 19th century. Now there’s a real concerted effort to destroy the whole public education system. ALEC and Koch Brothers just recently announced a campaign taking Arizona as the test case because they figure Arizona is probably an easy one since it has probably the lowest per capita expenditure for education and a very right-wing legislature. What they’re trying to do—they describe it openly—is to try to essentially destroy the public education system, turn everything to vouchers and charter schools. It’ll be an interesting battle, and if it works in Arizona they want to do it elsewhere.
It’s a huge corporate offensive. It’s very similar to attacks on unions. First the Friedrichs [Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which the Supreme Court deadlocked on the issue of the right of public-sector unions to collect fees from workers they represent, including those who don’t join the union, to cover bargaining and other activities], now the Janus case, and they’ll probably succeed. This right-to-work legislation is just unacceptable in other countries. In fact, in the NAFTA negotiations, at one point Canada proposed that part of a revision should be to ban measures that undermine labor rights like the right-to-work legislation. It’s kind of like using scabs. It’s just not heard of. But Reagan introduced it here—I think the U.S. and South Africa were the only countries that allowed it. In fact, the U.S. has never even ratified the first principle of the International Labour Organization, the right of association. I think the U.S. must be alone, frankly. It’s very much a business-run society.
LP: What are students being trained for now in the corporate vision of education that is taking over the country? What kind of future will they have? And what does it do to the idea of a democracy?
NC: Students will be controlled and disciplined. The education doesn’t leave any room for interaction, for creative activity, for teachers to do things on their own, for students to find a way to do things, I’ve talked to teacher’s groups. I remember once I was giving a talk and a sixth-grade teacher came up to me describing experiences. She said that after one class a little girl came up and said that she was really interested in something that came up and wanted to know how she could do some more on it. And the teacher had to tell her, you can’t do it. You have to study for the MCAS, the Massachusetts version of the regular exam [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System]. Everything depends on that. Even the teacher’s salary depends on that. So you can’t do anything creative as an individual. You follow the rules. It’s the Marine Corps. You do what you’re told. No associations. It’s a perfect system for creating a deeply authoritarian society.
It’s also kind of a two-tiered system. It’s a little bit like what Sam Bowles and Herb Gitnis [co-authors of Schooling in Capitalist America] discussed when they wrote about early mass education. For the general worker, turn them into industrial workers, but for the elite, you have to have creativity: MIT, Harvard. You have to have people to create the next stage of the economy.
LP: In the last several years, we’ve had a number of protest movements, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement, which have often met with hostility or dismissal in the liberal press. Take #MeToo: the protest against workplace sexual harassment and violence has shown solidarity along class lines and across countries. For example, Latina farmworkers and Indian feminists back it. Yet some in the liberal press compare #MeToo protesters to McCarthyites and warn of witch hunts, despite the fact that the movement is helping to shift power away from oppressive management towards workers in challenging things like forced arbitration clauses that deny workers the right to take charges to court.
NC: It’s a very valid protest and it’s an important movement. Charges do have to be subject to some kind of verification. Just allegation is not enough. As far as I know, the left-oriented groups like EPI [Economic Policy Institute] are in favor of ending forced arbitration, which also affects many other kinds of charges. I think they’re focusing on labor rights.
LP: That’s true, but it seems that some may not be recognizing #MeToo as really part of the labor rights struggle.
NC: That’s interesting. Yes.
LP: Let’s talk about the broader issue of economic inequality. This year, wealthy elites polled at the World Economic Forum in Davos listed inequality as number 7 on their list of global worries. They’re more worried about other things, like data breaches and involuntary migration. Do you think that they may be comforted by the fact that they’ve avoided some scary scenarios, like, for example, a real populist president in the U.S., and can therefore relax a bit? Should they be more worried?
NC: The danger that they perceive is that it might lead to a popular uprising, so you have to control that. There are the standard excuses about merit, which is a joke when you look at the details. I mean, take Bill Gates—a perfectly admirable person, but, as I’m sure he’d be the first to say, he based his fortune on two things, one, decades of work in the state sector which created the technology—the creative, risky work which was done since the '50s. He picked it up and marketed it. The second is the World Trade Organization, which gives him monopoly-pricing rights. I mean, that’s great but…
LP: Kind of goes against the Horatio Alger myth [the belief that anybody can get rich just by working hard].
LP: Finally, as you look ahead, what do you consider to be the biggest threats to human beings in the future? What should we be most concerned about?
NC: Climate change and nuclear war. These are really existential threats. And what’s happening now is just astonishing. If media were functioning seriously, every day the lead headline would be this amazing fact—that in the entire world, every country is trying or committed to doing at least something. One country—one!—the most powerful country in history—is committed to trying to destroy the climate. Not just pulling out of the efforts of others, but maximizing the use of the most destructive means.
There’s been nothing like this in history. It’s kind of an outrageous statement, but it happens to be true, that the Republican Party is the most dangerous organization in human history. Nobody, not even the Nazis, was dedicated to destroying the possibility of organized human life. It’s just missing from the media. In fact, if you read, say, the sensible business press, the Financial Times, BusinessWeek, any of them, when they talk about fossil fuel production, the articles are all just about the prospect for profit. Is the U.S. is moving to number one and what are the gains? Not that it’s going to wipe out organized human life. Maybe that’s a footnote somewhere. It’s pretty astonishing.
Fort Benton, Montana -- On Tuesday in Chouteau County District Court, Leonard Higgins, the 66-year-old retired Oregon state worker turned climate activist who shut off a tar sands pipeline to fight climate change, was sentenced to three years deferred imprisonment, meaning he will serve no jail time. He was also ordered to pay restitution of $3,755.47. The prosecution sought $25,630 in restitution, but the sentence followed the recommendations of the defense.
Higgins was convicted in November 2017 of criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass, charges which could have carried a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and fines of up to $50,000.
As he openly admits, on October 11, 2016, Higgins cut two chains to enter a fenced enclosure around the Enbridge (formerly Spectra) tar sands pipeline in Coal Banks Landing, Montana, and turned the emergency shutoff valve. He is one of five climate activists who simultaneously shut down pipelines in four states as an act of civil disobedience, temporarily halting the flow of all tar sands from Canada into the US, disrupting 15% of US daily oil supply. These “valve turners” selected those pipelines because tar sands is the most carbon-intensive, climate-damaging form of oil, and thus for them, burning it constitutes an emergency. A two-minute video about the action is posted here.
There is no dispute about the facts of the action Higgins and others took. On the contrary, they were open and deliberate, alerting the pipeline companies in advance of the shut down, allowing time for the companies to shut down the pipelines themselves, in some cases. Higgins and his fellow activists live streamed their actions and then waited calmly for police to arrive and arrest them.
“His motivations were not selfish, but selfless,” said defense attorney Lauren C. Regan, one of Higgins’ defense attorneys and the founder and executive director of The Civil Liberties Defense Center, in her statement before the court. “He attempted to act out of the public interest, not to harm anyone. He was in Chouteau County to try and prevent catastrophic climate change that will eventually affect the good people of this county just as it is already impacting island nations, the Arctic, and coastal regions around the globe.”
“This is not a crime for which he received any benefit,” said presiding Judge Daniel Boucher. “He should have this removed from his record.”
In Higgins’ statement to the court, he expressed respect for the court and the authority of the judge, and took responsibility for trespassing, cutting two chains to enter the pipeline enclosure, and accidentally damaging a metal plate on an electric motor in his act of civil disobedience. He pointed out that his was an act of conscience.
“The facts of climate science, the tragic impacts of changes already underway, and the negligence of government in responding drove me across the line from a public employee to someone who would consider civil disobedience,” Higgins said. “There is strong evidence that we may have already crossed this line. Today I’m here in part because of my faith in the courts, in humanity and in the law. I say this not to ask for leniency from the court but to ask to stand here and take responsibility for the actions which I have taken.”
Higgins and his attorneys signaled that they planned to appeal his conviction, because he was not permitted to mount a “necessity defense,” which would have argued that his action was necessary and justified in order to prevent climate harms much worse than the consequences of trespassing and interfering with the pipeline. Granting necessity defense would have allowed the defense to call expert witnesses and present evidence on climate change and the climate harms done by tar sands. Before trial Higgins’ defense team petitioned Chouteau County District Court and the Montana Supreme Court to allow it to mount such a defense, but both petitions were denied without hearing.
“I appreciate the chance to present the intent of my action more fully than I was able to at my trial,” Higgins said yesterday, a reference to the fact that the jury was not permitted to hear evidence pertaining to climate change. “I look forward to appealing to the court for my 6th Amendment right of a full defense to present my case again with the full scope of information available,” he said.
“It is highly likely we will file notice of appeal to challenge denial of necessity defense,” said Regan. “But for that denial, we may not have even been here today. There could have been a very different outcome [in] the jury’s deliberations if they had been allowed to use necessity defense in their decision-making process.”
Two other valve turners, Ken Ward, who acted in Washington state, and Michael Foster, who acted in North Dakota, were also denied the right to a necessity defense, and convicted on felony charges. Ward was convicted of second-degree burglary and sentenced to community service with no jail time. Foster was convicted of criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief (both felonies) and criminal trespass (a misdemeanor), and sentenced to three years in prison, including two deferred. He is serving time now. Both have appealed their convictions, partly because necessity defense was denied.
However, the necessity defense was recently granted to fellow valve-turners Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, whose trial is pending in a Minnesota court and expected to take place this summer. It’s the first such written decision in a climate case in U.S. history. Leading experts in the fields of climate science and civil disobedience will testify for the defense. Immediately following the Minnesota decision, necessity defense was again granted in a climate action case in Spokane, Washington.
Necessity defense in climate cases is a rapidly evolving area of law, the stakes of which are rising as climate change accelerates, and as more citizens protest fossil fuel extraction and expansion amid an intensifying crackdown on protest and citizen action.
2017 was the third hottest year on record and saw record storms, droughts and forest fires. In February this year, Arctic temperatures soared above freezing. More pipeline protests generating more arrests of activists have sprung up nationwide, including against the Line 3 pipeline expansion in Minnesota, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, the Trans-Pecos Pipeline in West Texas, the Diamond Pipeline in Memphis, the Sabal Trail Pipeline in Florida, and others. At the same time, several states have passed laws that would criminalize and toughen penalties for peaceful protest and non-violent direct action. More states are considering such measures.
That makes the trials of Higgins and his fellow climate activists important precedents. More such trials are coming, with more serious charges and penalties at stake. The Civil Liberties Defense Center and the Climate Defense Project are working on appeals in the valve-turner cases, and to advance climate necessity defense in general.
One of the worst weeks in Facebook’s history—its stock tumbled, Congress and Parliament demanded top executives testify and explain, and the Federal Trade Commission opened a new investigation—is due to a simple fact: the company shares and sells privacy-breaching profiles of millions of users.
Facebook’s latest troubles rose to the top of the news this weekend when a series of investigative reports in the U.S. and Britain found that private political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, created by Trump’s former political guru Steve Bannon, had stolen 50 million Facebook user profiles. The profiles were intended to be used in the 2016 election for the electoral equivalent of psychological warfare: to push, prod, play on prejudices, you name it, and provoke millions of Americans in swing states to vote for Donald Trump—or not to vote for Hillary Clinton.
It turns out Trump’s campaign didn’t use Bannon’s psychological warfare machine after all. Cambridge Analytica's data simply wasn’t as good as Facebook’s own customized advertising platforms, in conjunction with the Republican Party’s voter files. Beyond that takeaway, to stop giving Bannon credit where it's not due, Facebook’s problems stem from the fact that it's a privacy-busting social media platform.
But this feature, which some people find deeply disturbing, isn’t unique in Silicon Valley. Rather, it is indicative of what’s coming under the rapidly developing Internet of Things. That realization puts Facebook’s latest political turmoil, and the various governmental responses, into an odd category: what’s noisy today isn’t likely to change what’s coming tomorrow, as the loss of privacy is a given for the touted benefits of a wired world.
“This is not a story about hacking or data breaches, but about Facebook’s privacy policies,” said Paul Resnick, a professor of Information at the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan. “Cambridge Analytica gathered some information about 30-50 million people, via a FB app, but it's not clear that it got very much about each person.”
While Resnick noted that Facebook “tightened its privacy policies four years ago, so that apps now can gather even less information about a user’s friends than they could then,” there’s plenty of current debate about whether those steps were meaningful or akin to sticking a proverbial finger in a leaky dike. (Facebook was under an FTC consent decree to enforce privacy protections, which led it to announce a new investigation Tuesday.)
“Cambridge Analytica was basically using Facebook as it was designed: as an enormous and enormously valuable trove of data about people,” Alex Shephard wrote in the New Republic, saying that Facebook, not Bannon’s crew, was the “shady” actor. “Facebook’s apparent indifference to Cambridge Analytica’s malfeasance for the past two years is an acknowledgment of this basic reality. The occasional bad actor—and there have been several—is the price of the company’s business model, which is to sell its users’ data.”
Sandy Parakilas, the "platform operations manager at Facebook responsible for policing data breaches by third-party software developers between 2011 and 2012,” made much the same point in a Guardian report. “Parakilas, 38, who now works as a product manager for Uber, is particularly critical of Facebook’s previous policy of allowing developers to access the personal data of friends of people who used apps on the platform, without the knowledge or express consent of those friends.”
But academics and others who study social media, including the information gathering practices powering its lucrative advertising business, say that everybody using social media like Facebook should know their private lives are being mined for profit. Needless to say, most social media users are not thinking about that when sharing personal thoughts or taking part in some public political activity.
“When someone violates your privacy for profit, like we’re seeing with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it feels like you’ve been robbed,” said Will Potter, professor of journalism at the University of Michigan and a noted civil liberties advocate. “But we have to remember that we gave Facebook the keys to our personal information. And it doesn’t stop there.”
But Potter makes a larger point—one that casts whatever pending action the FTC may take in a diminished light: whatever fine they may levy will be a business expense and not impede Silicon Valley’s evolving drive to monitor people’s behaviors and tie in their digital devices to create a so-called Internet of Things.
“In [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg's ‘manifesto,’ for instance, we should remember that he promised: ‘We are committed to always doing better, even if that involves a worldwide voting system to give you more voice and control.’ This data breach should put an end to any possibility of Facebook being used for voting, and it’s an opportunity for all of us to rethink the trust we have put in social media companies.”
Bigger Picture: Privacy Shrinks as the Internet of Things Grows
In 2014, Pew Research published a report describing how the Internet of Things will thrive by 2025 and discussed its promises, perils and unknowns. What it says about vanishing privacy and its personal and societal implications resonates with the latest Facebook brouhaha over 50 million user profiles being easily accessed and stolen.
“Many experts say the rise of embedded and wearable computing will bring the next revolution in digital technology,” the Pew summary began. “They say the upsides are enhanced health, convenience, productivity, safety and vastly more useful information for people and organizations. The downsides: challenges to personal privacy, over-hyped expectations, and tech complexity that boggles us.”
JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, described what's coming: “The proliferation of sensors and actuators will continue,” he said, referring to the many apps, devices and home appliances that are now commercially available. “‘Everything’ will become nodes on a network. The quality of real-time information that becomes available will take the guesswork out of much of capacity planning and decision-making.”
But as Pew’s report noted—and as Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica boasted of doing, but failed to do in 2016—the capitalists behind Silicon Valley’s revolution want to deploy computing not just to sell things, but to provoke and change behavior.
“Many expect that a major driver of the Internet of Things will be incentives to try to get people to change their behavior—maybe to purchase a good, maybe to act in a more healthy or safe manner, maybe work differently, maybe to use public goods and services in more efficient ways," the report said. “Laurel Papworth, social media educator, explained, ‘Every part of our life will be quantifiable, and eternal, and we will answer to the community for our decisions. For example, skipping the gym will have your gym shoes auto tweet (equivalent) to the peer-to-peer health insurance network that will decide to degrade your premiums. There is already a machine that can read brain activity, including desire, in front of advertising by near/proximity. I have no doubt that will be placed into the Big Data databases when evaluating hand gestures, body language, and space for presenting social objects for discussion/purchase/voting.’”
The specter of a disruptive digital Big Brother disturbs privacy advocates such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, which for years has called on the FTC to pressure Facebook to abide by its 2011 consent decree—which the latest disclosures about Cambridge Analytica’s theft of millions of user files appear to have flaunted.
Frank Pasquale, a law professor and EPIC advisory board member, told Pew’s researcher that expansion of the Internet of Things will result in a world that is more “prison-like” with a “small class of ‘watchers’ and a much larger class of the experimented upon, the watched.” In another article, he predicted the Internet of Things “will be a tool for other people to keep tabs on what the populace is doing.”
While others offer less doomsday-ish scenarios, one impact is certain: privacy will vanish.
“It [the Internet of Things] will have widespread beneficial effects, along with widespread negative effects,” Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, told Pew. “There will be conveniences and privacy violations. There will be new ways for people to connect, as well as new pathways towards isolation, misanthropy, and depression. I’m not sure that moving computers from people’s pockets (smartphones) to people’s hands or face will have the same level of impact that the smartphone has had, but things will trend in the similar direction. Everything that you love and hate about smartphones will be more so.”
What’s also clear is that different kinds of personal information—writings, speech and behavior—will also be tracked, Pew’s experts said; often with unanticipated side effects or impacts.
“The Internet of Things is too complex. It will break, over and over,” said Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition. “They will also be prone to unintended consequences: they will do things nobody designed for beforehand, most of which will be undesirable. We aren’t evolved enough as a species or society to create apps and services that are useful to humanity in the Internet of Things. We’ll try to create efficiencies but be thwarted by nature’s complexity. False positives from contextual movements will break people’s willingness to have devices track their expressions and thoughts. Try using speech recognition in a crowded room. Now, imagine that it is your thoughts being tracked, not merely speech. Google Glass has already attracted backlash, before a thousand people are in the world using it. [It was taken off the market and sold to the U.S. military, beta testers previously told AlterNet.] Our surveillance society feels oppressive, not liberating. No comfortable truce will be found between the privacy advocates and the ‘screen everything’ crowd.”
Facebook’s latest travails are resonating because it is a global social media platform with 2 billion users, that is being exposed as insufficiently protecting people's privacy. But its gathering of private information, data mining and synthesis is hardly unique in Silicon Valley. If anything, Facebook’s practices are in line with where Silicon Valley wants to take the world: toward an Internet of Things where everyone and everything are wired together, and where privacy, as it's now known, is disappearing.
Last Wednesday, students across the country participated in a national walkout in support of gun control reform in the wake of last month’s shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school. Young people walked out of their classrooms and into the streets to engage in courageous political expression, in sharp contrast with adults in Congress who have yet to take action. But other protests in the wake of the Parkland shooting have been as impactful, and certainly not as logical.
The student walkout itself has drawn protest from those who disagree that gun control is the solution. The "Walk Up, Not Out” movement is led by parents who believe more “kindness” among students, rather than gun control legislation, will end gun violence. Those at the helm of Walk Up have shared ideas such as increased school security measures that would effectively transform schools into prisons and could have negative consequences for students of color. They have also expressed support for mental health resources while ignoring how scapegoating the mentally ill fails to address the real problem. The real problem is guns and insufficient regulation of gun owners who have access to weapons that kill hundreds in minutes (the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of gun violence).
Walk Up’s ultimate premise is that the responsibility for ending school violence should be placed on the shoulders of young people who are in school to learn, while demanding nothing of the policymakers who are actually in positions to make change. The movement seems to place the blame for shootings on those who are purportedly complicit in the bullying and marginalizing of students who go on to become mass shooters.
One viral Facebook post shared last Thursday by psychologist Rebecca Wald explores this in depth:
“The myth that school shooters are outcasts fighting back against bullies dates back to Columbine. At the time it was widely reported that Harris and Klebold were social rejects, and much was made of the meanness of popular kids. But the FBI concluded that ... kids didn't like the boys because they did creepy things like walking around giving the Nazi salute. ‘Walk Up, Not Out’ is a campaign of cowardice, promoted by adults who want there to be a solution to school shootings that asks literally nothing of us. No tough choices, no exercise of political will, no speaking out to power—just lecturing kids on how to do better.”
Walk Up is emblematic of a number of potent, dangerous social biases, especially with regard to gun violence’s disproportionate effects on women, and double standards in societal perceptions of people of color. It exhibits a gaping racial blindspot; Americans have sympathy and concern for bullying in the wake of a massacre committed by a white male shooter, while hate crimes against young black and brown people in recent years have triggered no such response. Walk Up's leaders haven't said a word about trans students, whose right to safely use the bathroom and report abuse is increasingly being challenged by the federal and state governments.
Wald also addressed this in her post: “This argument only applies to crimes overwhelmingly committed by white boys. Their crimes are tragic betrayals of an underlying innocence that is never attributed to black boys selling drugs on the corner.”
In 2015, a 14-year-old Muslim boy was handcuffed and taken into custody for building a clock. In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police for brandishing a toy gun in a playground. In 2013, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by a vigilante for walking on the streets at night wearing a hoodie. We have no problem with accepting black and brown people as dangerous, but we pull out all the stops to humanize mass shooters hailing from white communities. Women are disproportionately affected by gun violence, yet they are pressured to proactively stop the hypermasculine violence that targets them. Walk Up’s message of telling young people to just “be nicer” to one another ignores the implications this language has for young women and the pressure it places on them.
A number of statistics exemplify the connection between gun violence directed at women or initiated by people with records of abusing women. Every year, hundreds of women are killed for rejecting men; more than 1,600 women are killed by men every year. Annually, an average of 760 Americans are killed with guns by spouses, ex-spouses or intimate partners, and the majority of these cases involve guns and collateral damage that claims the lives of other victims. Domestic violence victims are five times more likely to be killed when their abusers have access to a gun.
Among women who are targeted by violence, indigenous women suffer at higher rates than any other demographic, while homicide rates against trans and lesbian women, particularly those of color, have steadily risen in recent years, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
A plurality of mass shooters, from those responsible for last year’s Sutherland Springs shooting that killed 26, to the 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado that killed three, have disturbing records of violence against women and children prior to their attacks. The 19-year-old perpetrator of the Parkland shooting was said to have abused his ex-girlfriend. The 2014 mass shooting at sorority houses near UC Santa Barbara was committed by a man who identified as a social outcast and sought to exact universal revenge on women for rejecting him, yet those who knew him said he seldom made any effort to approach women.
No one should be forced to perform sexual favors, go on dates or give their time and attention to any man who asks for it, nor should anyone live their lives in fear of offending the wrong person so that we as a society can avoid mass tragedies. Common sense says law enforcement and policymakers have an obligation to ensure that women and other marginalized groups aren’t backed into corners because of their representatives’ failures.
The Walk Up, Not Out movement’s victim-blaming implications are sexist. Violent men don’t stop being violent when they get the positive attention they desire from women, and no woman has any obligation to bestow that positive attention. If the #MeToo movement raising awareness about sexual exploitation and harassment has taught us anything, it’s the prevalence of male entitlement to women’s bodies. If we tell students to be nicer to gun-loving, Nazi-saluting kids instead of reporting them, we could just as easily tell girls and women never to say no to men.
Until we deal with the root of the problem head-on—guns and our lack of common-sense gun laws—we will continue to buy into a brand of victim-blaming that reinforces racial bias and disproportionately targets young women.