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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since May 2011

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What about the Woman Strauss-Kahn Allegedly Assaulted?

May 17, 2011 ·

As details emerge in the case of International Monetary Fund chief and alleged assaulter Dominique Strauss-Kahn, my eye is on how his wrecked political clout is getting all the attention. The brutal assault of a hotel housekeeper that Manhattan District Attorney Artie McConnell described yesterday to a judge, who subsequently ordered that the IMF's managing director be held without bail at the Rikers Island jail complex? Not so much.

The IMF leader was (I think it's safe to use the past tense here because it’s doubtful he'll re-emerge in politics, regardless of the outcome of this apparently damning case) a very likely French presidential candidate. In fact, he was widely seen as the Socialist Party's best hope for unseating French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Within hours of the story breaking, comments about a "Sarkozy setup” flooded the comments sections of online news reports, and soon emerged as their own articles.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn speaking in Singapore. Photography by International Monetary Fund

As this story develops, it's all about Strauss-Kahn, instead of the woman (so far unidentified), who accuses him of brutally attacking her. At her workplace. This woman, who was cleaning a $3,000-per-night hotel suite, is a human being. She deserves compassion as the global punditocracy conjectures about what's going happen to the IMF without that French "rockstar" at its helm.

My work focuses on the trafficking and exploitation of immigrant domestic workers. Of course, I'm reading the news coverage with interest. Over the past days, I have been watching how HER story is covered, in light of her occupation, ethnicity (reporters say that she's an African immigrant), and status as a crime victim. Usually, housekeepers are treated as silent, anonymous machines of the household, hotel, or office building, if they're noticed at all. But surely a vicious attack would shed light on the fact that this is a real person…right?

While I mostly work with household workers in private homes, the life of a hotel chambermaid is very similar. Being a housekeeper at a hotel (or anywhere else) doesn't exactly put you on equal footing with the wealthy and powerful when you are in "their" space. So when you're stuck in a bedroom (or private household) with them, what are your defenses?

Statistics about the frequency of sexual assault of hotel maids are difficult to find, but here's what I know about New York City's household workers, from a 2006 report by the Data Center and Domestic Workers United: "Thirty-three percent of workers experience verbal or physical abuse or have been made to feel uncomfortable by their employers. One-third of workers who face abuse identify race and immigration status as factors for their employers’ actions." What we do know about the conditions of hotel housekeepers is that immigrants comprise the majority of that workforce, as do women of color, and that their workplace is dangerous on its own, let alone with the additional risk of sexual assault. Rushing to keep up with demand, hotel housekeepers have an injury rate 40 percent higher than workers in the overall service sector.

I have many other questions too. The two that come to mind immediately are:

  1. Do Europeans and North Americans just assume that being subjected to sexual aggression is a given if you're a woman working as a maid in a wealthy man's home or hotel suite?
  2. Why would anyone assume that a working-class woman would lie about a sexual assault to get money from a settlement?

I can't fathom why anyone would believe these things, but here we are in the comments section in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and ABC News where every fourth word is "setup" and where the maid's getting very little empathy. I don’t think the people writing these comments or news stories are malicious. It's just a symptom of the way household workers are treated in the United States and around the world. They are servants, and therefore — for hotel guests and the people who can afford to have them clean their homes — barely human.

Strauss-Kahn's lawyer Benjamin Brafman said that he represents "good people who have gone astray…that doesn’t mean their lives should be destroyed." The themes of many of the reports and commentaries I have read center around the feeling that it would be a tragedy for this politician's career, and his removal would put the global economy at risk.

Because this "just" involves a hotel housekeeper, there's not a lot of conjecture about the tragedy she'll face as she tries to put her own life back together. Even if the reason that reporters aren’t covering her story with humanity is that they want to respect our legal system's promise of "innocent until proven guilty," they're missing the broader point: this storyline isn't uncommon. No one is talking about the countless other household and hotel workers who have endured sexual harassment and assault at the hands of wealthy (or even middle-class) men around the world.

Why? Perhaps because it's supposed to be a fact of life that poor women’s bodies are collateral damage of war, prizes for global accomplishment, or simply a means to an end. Women who are household workers or "servants" are even more vulnerable to dehumanizing sexual assault than others because their relationships are inherently unequal to their employers. We don’t have scientific studies of the relative risks, but we have hundreds of testimonies of household workers who have been trafficked, exploited, and assaulted, and our common sense that tells us there are many more out there.

Of course it isn’t uncommon that famous/wealthy men who assault women usually dominate the news. What will Strauss-Kahn do next? Even when their conduct is deemed improper without being illegal, there's a lot of hand-wringing over how prominent men such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, and former Sen. John Edwards, will suffer for their indiscretions.

Poor guys.

But I feel worse for the woman Strauss-Kahn is accused of assaulting.

Remarks at the Len Weinglass Memorial

May 16, 2011 ·

Below are Phyllis Bennis' remarks at the Len Weinglass Memorial. Weinglass, one othe U.S. leading political defense lawyers and civil rights activists, passed away on March 23rd, at the age of 77.

What an amazing celebration of such an amazing life.  Lenny was a gift to all of us.

I’m not sure how many of you heard the news, but yesterday the U.S. government announced they are declassifying the Pentagon Papers.  It’s been 40 years – how many hundreds of thousands of copies have been published, read, translated into other languages, studied, used to build opposition to new wars.  And still parts of it remain classified, remain redacted. Forty years.

I first met Len Weinglass during the Pentagon Papers trial. I was very young – one of the scores of students and sort-of students and not-quite students working as organizers on the Indochina Peace Campaign and its parallel organization the Pentagon Papers Peace Project. From the beginning, Len was like the WAY older brother I never had. He was ‘Lenny” from the start; for reasons I never quite understood he always called me a childhood nickname no one else but my family ever used.

Leonard Weinglass

We ran into each other pretty often, although we didn’t really work directly together. Until we did, starting in the mid-1970s. Lenny was in LA, I was in South Dakota learning how to investigate jurors while working on one of the Wounded Knee trials.  I came back to LA and started doing jury selection work with Len – the Skyhorse-Mohawk case, Bill & Emily Harris’ SLA trial, a bunch of trials of Vietnamese, Iranian and Palestinian protesters. Lenny's ability in a courtroom was legendary for good reason. After one trial of Iranian students protesting at the Beverly Hills home of the Shah's sister, Lenny not only won the acquittal, but had the jurors so won over to our side that one of them, an older white Jewish wealthy Beverly Hills resident, came over to me and one of the defendants after the verdict, put her arms around both of us, and said "good luck, girls, in the struggle in your country!"

(It was after one of those trials that Len urged me to “get a license, so we can get you appointed by the court and get you some money!”  “A license as what?" I wanted to know.  A licensed investigator, of course. So I did. And he did. And I kept my private eye license for 30 years.)

Lenny was a wonderful friend. I was house-sitting for him one summer, taking care of his great dog Kefir, the sort-of great-grandfather of his beloved Lucca. I remember, because it took me most of that summer to read Edward Said’s magisterial Orientalism – the book that transformed so profoundly how academics and eventually the rest of us understood the role of the U.S. in the Middle East. Lenny and I talked about it years later.

I worked with Lenny and an extraordinary team of lawyers for 21 years defending the LA 8 – the seven Palestinians and one Kenyan facing deportation for McCarthy-worthy guilt-by-association charges. My friend and trial colleague David Cole reminded me that Lenny invented the term “terrorologist” during the cross-examination of one of the government witnesses in that case.  And when every hearing began, if the whole legal team wasn’t in town yet, in this seemingly-endless trial that involved complicated constitutional issues of freedom of speech, freedom of association, the rights of non-citizens in the U.S., the one question from the judge was always “will Mr. Weinglass be participating?”

Lenny was the most luminous star of our movement – for many of us, as long as we can remember being political beings. He wasn’t always the brightest star on the biggest stage, or in front of the most intense spotlight, because he stood back, always urging others forward. But in the smaller rooms, where he would laugh and keep all of us laughing, where he would tell us stories that brought other countries other struggles other peoples to vivid life – that’s where he was the brightest star. And in the courtroom. That’s where he shone in a whole different way than everybody else.

At an early moment in the LA 8 case, a government attorney frustrated by the obligation to protect any rights for these ostensible terrorists, whined to journalists, “we didn’t expect the Weinglasses of the world” to show up in this case.

But Lenny did show up. He always showed up, to fight for people’s rights, to fight for justice. They say that history is made by those who show up. Lenny knew that movements are also built by those who show up. So he did, for all of us, over and over again, as we worked to build movements against wars, against occupation, for justice.

Lenny taught us all. Without even trying he led teams of wanna-be Weinglasses, Weinglasses-in-training, junior Weinglasses and every one of us became better lawyers, better investigators, better organizers, better activists, better people – for being on Lenny’s team.  It was a better team than the Giants any day.

Thanks, Lenny.  For showing up.

The Lineup: Week of May 16-22, 2011

May 16, 2011 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Raul A. Reyes contrasts Mitt Romney's positions on immigration issues with the story of his family's repeated migration across the U.S.-Mexican border, and Andrew Korfhage urges Americans to ditch disposable plastic bags.

Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. Deconstructing a Paul Ryan Sound Bite / Sam Pizzigati
  2. Mitt Romney's Mexican Roots / Raul A. Reyes
  3. Stand up to Big Plastic / Andrew Korfhage
  4. State Budget Battles are about More than Cutting Deficits / Michael B. Keegan
  5. Debt Ceiling Kabuki / Donald Kaul
  6. Tea Party Rebels Quickly Tamed / Jim Hightower
  7. War Gets Easier All the Time / William A. Collins
  8. Tea Partiers March to Lobbyists' Tune / Khalil Bendib

Lobbying the Tea Party

Crossing the Lexicon

May 14, 2011 ·

Osama bin Laden's demise raises many moral, legal, political, and historical questions. As I've edited and posted a steady stream of commentary about this post-9/11 milestone, one persistent editorial question has touched on all these issues.

Specifically, which verbs are appropriate for conveying what U.S. Special Forces did to carry out their mission after they burst into the al-Qaeda leader's Pakistani compound? Did they simply kill bin Laden? Murder him? Assassinate him? Execute him?

Most Americans consider Osama bin Laden a dangerous and evil man. With so many of us feeling that the world is better off without him, few are questioning the legality of the operation that ended his life. As a former New Yorker who lives in Arlington, VA, it's easy for me to relate. I was already at work in a downtown DC newsroom on September 11, 2001 when those planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and several years earlier my daily commute required me to change trains underneath the World Trade Center. I still wince whenever I glance at the Manhattan skyline. Yet, as an editor committed both to accuracy and to speaking truth to power, I need to probe this issue carefully.

One of the dictionary definitions of assassination is "to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons." The Saudi-born terrorist certainly was killed at home, and he was killed for reasons that could easily be described as "political." However, Merriam-Webster defines "murder" as "the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought." That's more problematic because it raises another question: did the U.S. government commit a crime by killing bin Laden?

This is no abstract concept. In the 1970s, Congress delved into the issue following years of CIA covert operations that relied on assassination as a foreign policy tool. (Fidel Castro survived the CIA's attempts to kill him by, among other things, trying to get him to smoke a toxic cigar. The U.S. government was complicit in the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected leader of what's now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Ultimately, President Gerald Ford, under pressure from lawmakers in the wake of the Church Committee's findings about those CIA activities, barred the unseemly practice with an executive order. Subsequent U.S. presidents renewed the order, except for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who rejected this restriction in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

This hard question is getting short shrift in the mainstream media. The Washington Post, for example, merely explained that certain killings are "exempt from the assassination law" by quoting legal adviser to the State Department Harold Koh. A former dean of the Yale Law School and a prominent expert on international human rights, Koh claimed in March 2010 that "the use of lawful weapons systems — consistent with the applicable laws of war — for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful…And hence does not constitute 'assassination.'"

Human Rights First appears to support Koh's view. Responding to claims by Omar bin Laden that his father's killing violated international law, the group states that "assuming the existence of an armed conflict against al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was targetable."

Some prominent progressives, meanwhile, have raised strong questions about the framework embraced by Koh and Human Rights First. Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former National Lawyers Guild president, says that "extrajudicial executions are unlawful, even in armed conflict." Noam Chomsky calls the operation that ended bin Laden's life a "political assassination."

Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner finds that the fluctuating set of "facts" about "the circumstances of bin Laden's killing indicate that the order to the Navy SEALs was to kill, although with all the changes in the story we cannot be sure." It's a key distinction. "Such an order to kill, whether bin Laden or others killed by drones in Pakistan, is likely contrary to international law and could constitute summary execution," Ratner told me in an email.

Referencing the same ambiguities, AlterNet's Joshua Holland helpfully unpacks the competing arguments, variously rooted in international and U.S. domestic law, and concludes:

What's clear is that people on both sides of the debate have had an emotional reaction to bin Laden's death. They're embracing as fact whatever claims support their reactions, and selecting only those sources of law that lend credence to their previously held assumptions.

So, it seems, reasonable people, including progressives, can disagree. What do you think? Please weigh in by commenting below or posting your opinions on the IPS Facebook page.

Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, an Institute for Policy Studies editorial service that provides bold opinions for newspapers and new media.

Obama Falls Flat in El Paso

May 11, 2011 ·

Pity President Obama.

His supposedly important immigration speech fell flat. Nobody is taking him seriously on this issue, which could make or break his re-election campaign.

As House Republican leaders demand $2 trillion or more in budget cuts, Obama's political obligations to Latinos are obliging some hard-to-believe promise-making. By travelling to El Paso to steer the country to a different conversation about immigration, Obama escaped for a day the eternal gridlock of a divided Congress.

His blueprint for immigration reform, unveiled in El Paso, fails to advance the debate forward. Instead, it emphasizes the responsibility of "people living in the U.S. illegally" (the term Obama's speechwriters apparently prefer to "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers.") Unbelievably, Obama's immigration plans would be far more punitive for undocumented people than any previous proposal. He's calling for "a series of fines," in addition to a requirement that immigrants pay back taxes as part of a path to legalization/citizenship. His plan would also make newly-legalized immigrants wait for eight years before they can apply for residence.

Under Obama's plan, immigrants would have to wait longer, pay more, than they do now, while enjoying fewer rights. Meanwhile, Republicans are committed to intertwining the issues of terrorism and immigration. 

On the same day, Republican House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, introduced the Secure Visas Act. It's a bill sold as an anti-terrorism measure that would make it easier to take away visas from individuals from certain countries without judicial review. Notably, Mexico is one of the countries on the list.

Obama says his hands are tied with regard to the high number of deportations occurring during his presidency, but advocates have already demonstrated that he can act on his own to provide relief to the undocumented people in this country, the majority of which have already been living here for a long time.

The American Immigration Council has delineated with clarity what he can do within the law to stop the deportations of certain individuals. Obama’s Department of Homeland Security has the ability to grant "deferred actions" on deportations, and allow undocumented individuals with good moral character to apply for an Employment Authorization Documents, or work permits as they are usually known. These documents don't grant permanent residency or voting rights, but they can be useful in facilitating the immigrant integration process. With an EAD, undocumented immigrants would be able to work legally, apply for a driver’s license, and get a credit card. Nothing from Obama’s speech touched on this issue, showing that he's not willing to risk anything politically. His pretty words about keeping families together are just that.

Unfortunately for him, Obama's considerable rhetorical skills aren't enough to convince the immigrant community, and its many allied voters, that he's serious about immigration reform.

Pity him. It might cost him his re-election.

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