IPS Blog

U.S. NGO letter to President Obama on Climate Negotiations in Paris

Dear President Obama,

On behalf of our environmental, social justice, faith, consumer and partner organizations who collectively represent millions of Americans, we thank you for taking important steps to keep fossil fuels in the ground by rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline and cancelling some upcoming Arctic lease sales. We are equally grateful that your administration continues to harness the Clean Air Act’s successful pollution-reduction tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Power Plan and rules for transportation sources. These are important steps but much more will be necessary if we hope to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

The actions taken in the next decade will either avert the worst harms from climate disruption by limiting warming to below 1.5°C or commit the world to unacceptable harms for billions of people. You have the capability to negotiate a climate agreement in Paris that will mark the turning point in the world’s efforts to avert catastrophic climate damage and thus protect the human rights of present and future generations.

In order to do so, we ask that you:

  • Greatly increase our country’s emissions reduction commitment for Paris—as demanded by both science and justice;
  • Pledge to keep at least 80% of U.S. proven fossil fuels reserves in the ground; and
  • Finance a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050 in the U.S. and contribute the U.S.’ fair share of finance for adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage in developing countries.

President George H.W. Bush signed and the Senate ratified the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. In so doing, the U.S. agreed to take the actions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change, and also agreed as a matter of fairness that the world’s rich, developed countries, having caused the vast majority of the problem, would take the lead in solving it. Today, the U.S. remains the world’s largest cumulative carbon emitter. Having caused the greatest share of the problem to date, the U.S. must now meet its obligations to respond, and must understand that human rights, equity and fairness matter and are vital to unlocking cooperation in the international negotiations.

Independent scientific analysis demonstrates that our country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is not yet consistent with keeping warming below even 2°C. A far greater commitment will be necessary to account for our nation’s historic responsibility and serve as the basis of a just international agreement. A recent Civil Society Review concludes that the current U.S. INDC represents only about one-fifth of our country’s fair share of mitigation action. For these reasons, in advance of the Paris talks we urge you to greatly increase the U.S. commitment to reduce emissions at home and finance a just transition abroad, in line with what science and justice demand.

You have stated that the transition to a clean energy economy is going more quickly than anticipated, and that “if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.” As a fundamental policy to achieving our emissions goals, leaving fossil fuels in the ground is critical to protect people from the ravages of oil, gas, and coal extraction. A major study from Stanford University found that that it is feasible for the U.S. to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, and that doing so will generate a net increase of two million American jobs and a reduction of approximately 62,000 air pollution-related deaths per year.

A study by Carbon Tracker has demonstrated that the world needs to keep 80 percent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to keep warming below even 2°C. As the leader of the world’s largest historical emitter, we urge you to exert leadership by pledging to keep at least 80% of U.S. proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Two critical first steps are needed in order to implement this pledge: placing a ban on fracking and other dangerous extraction techniques, and ending fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters to keep these publicly owned resources in the ground where they belong.

Finally, we urge to you commit to financing a just transition to a renewable economy at home and abroad. We request that you exert pressure immediately on Congress to make good on the $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund. In Paris, the U.S. should commit to a clear roadmap for the provision by developed countries of $100 billion in public, grant-based funds for climate actions in developing countries by 2020, as well as a plan to scale up climate finance beyond $100 billion annually after 2020. The U.S. should also commit to targets to significantly increase public finance to meet the cost of mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage in developing countries, particularly for the most vulnerable communities and nation-states. This includes committing to mechanisms for raising new and additional resources such as a financial transaction tax (as France has committed to), halting subsidies for fossil fuel production immediately and investing those public dollars in clean energy solutions that benefit communities on-the-ground.

You recently proclaimed that “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking action to fight climate change.” On behalf of the millions of Americans that our organizations represent, we urge you to bring reality to your rhetoric—and be the bold climate leader that both the domestic and international communities need.

Respectfully submitted,

ActionAid USA
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for International Environmental Law
Friends of the Earth US
Greenpeace USA
Institute for Policy Studies, Climate Policy Program
Public Citizen
Sustainable Energy & Economy Network

An Open Letter to the Top 1 Percent

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Dear Top 1 Percenters,

Rampant economic inequality in America today, many of you seem to believe, shouldn’t particularly concern us. America, you insist, has always been about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes.

If we understand you correctly, America wouldn’t be America without equality of opportunity. But taking any steps that would make our nation’s actual distribution of income and wealth more equal would essentially be unforgivable socialism.

Have you thought this through? Do you really support true “equality of opportunity” for all children, yours included?

Imagine if we did have that true equality of opportunity. Your children, in such a society, would have the same opportunity to prosper as all other children. They’d have a chance to make it into the top 1 percent, just as you have.

What would that chance be, if we had true equality of opportunity? Each child of yours would have the same likelihood of ending up in the top 1 percent as any other child: 1 percent. And if you have three kids, the odds that all three of them would end up in the top 1 percent would stand at one in a million.

In fact, if we had true equality of opportunity, your kids each would be ten times more likely to end up in our poorest 10 percent than in our richest 1 percent.

You doubt that? Well, consider for a moment what true equal opportunity would mean. Take that exclusive private school your kids attend. If we had true equality of opportunity, only 1 percent of elite private school seats would go to the children of top 1 percenters. The other 99 percent of elite private school spaces would have to go to, well, the other 99 percent.

True equality of opportunity would entail some other inconveniences for your family. If everyone had the exact same opportunity, your children would only have a 1 percent shot at getting to that dear old elite college you attended. You wouldn’t be able to pull strings to get your kids admitted.

Or think about that cushy executive position in the family business that you’re holding for your oldest? To have true equality of opportunity in America, you would have to hire for that position strictly on the merits. Your son or daughter would still, of course, have a chance to win that slot, but so would every other family’s child.

That multi-million-dollar inheritance you’re planning to drop on your kids? You’d have to forget that in an America really about equality of opportunity. In a real equal-opportunity society, your kids would get no more of a financial head start than any other kids.

But none of this should give you any pause, if you truly mean what you say when you pledge your eternal support for “equal opportunity.”

With all respect, we suspect that you don’t really mean what you say. If you really did believe in meaningful equality of opportunity, you would be voluntarily be leaving 100 percent of your estate to charity. But you’re not. Even the most philanthropic of wealthy Americans make a safety net for their children their top priority in estate planning.

And almost all of you top 1 percenters don’t hesitate to use your wealth to give your children a leg up over other people’s children.

So we doubt that you support perfect equality of opportunity, or even something close to that. But you do have an alternative. A modest inequality of opportunity would be perfectly tolerable — to the vast majority of Americans — if we had as a nation more equality of outcomes.

Back a half-century ago, we did have more “equality of outcomes” in the United States than we do now. We had a much narrower gap between rich 1 percenters and everyone else. If you didn’t make it near the top 1 percent in those years, you could still be doing okay. We had a robust and growing middle class.

Contrast that to the situation today. Families that don’t make it close to the top face a life of economic insecurity — and watch the kids from that top start their lives off with a huge head start over everyone else. Do you consider that harsh reality a prescription for a safe, stable, healthy society? We don’t.

So faced with the choice between true equal opportunity and a less extreme inequality of outcome, what would be your pick?

Behind Door Number One, a world of true equality of opportunity and extreme inequality of outcome, sits a private jet for you, with the risk your children might wind up poor.

Behind Door Number Two, a mid-20th century level of inequality of opportunity and outcome, sits no private jet for you. But you do get a seat in first-class, along with the comfort of knowing your children will enjoy financial security even if they don’t have the ability to create it for themselves. Despite your rhetoric, wouldn’t you really prefer Door Number 2?


The Harsh Reality of ‘Ban the Box’ Reform Efforts

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

One in three Americans has a criminal record. Regardless of conviction, circumstances, age, and severity of crime, this record can and does have significant effect on that person’s ability to find housing, employment, education, food assistance and even essential health care.

That’s one hundred million Americans. Stunning. Thanks to cell phone video and social media, more and more of us are witnessing the injustice and brutality of racial profiling and criminalization of low-income, black, Latino, and transgender people nationwide. These realities have given rise to #BlackLivesMatter, investigations into Ferguson-type revenue extortion for minor code violations, moves to end destructive Zero Tolerance policies in poor, majority-black schools, and to reforms of unjust mandatory minimum sentencing laws. There is even a rare bi-partisan recognition that our shocking levels of mass incarceration are in need of reform.

Incremental Reform Underway

In the vein, over 6,000 federal prisoners won early release and streamed home—or to overcrowded halfway houses or immigrant detention centers—this weekend. This is a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million incarcerated people in the US, but it means everything to those released and their loved ones. And it’s arguably very important symbolically.

President Obama travelled to Newark, New Jersey in the wake of the release to highlight some obstacles that returning citizens face after release from prison. One of the most significant barriers is the barrier to employment. Studies show that job applicants who must check the box revealing criminal records are only half as likely to advance past the application process than those without records. It’s even worse for black applicants with record; they are only one-third as likely to advance in the application process.

To begin to address the pervasive problem, President Obama repeated his call to to ‘ban the box‘ for formerly incarcerated people This policy takes several forms, but usually eliminates the box on job applications which someone with a criminal record would otherwise need to check. Employers can still run background checks on the internet of course, and may inquire about criminal records later in the process. Over 100 cities and 19 states have some form of this policy. It may apply to local or state, private or public employers, depending on the legislation. Obama is calling for it at the federal level in some circumstances.

On the face of it, it’s a good first step. However, when you consider that it is black people who disproportionately have criminal records, and that employers will hire white people with criminal records over black applicants with no records, how far does it really go? Indeed, could it even give the formerly incarcerated white applicant an added advantage over the black applicant?

Other Collateral Consequences

This is just one of the many issues we must confront as the political climate has grown more intolerant of over-crowded prisons. What are formerly incarcerated people coming home to? Over-crowded halfway houses? Effectively prolonged sentences because no half-way house is available? Exclusion from over 800 occupations? No access to housing, to food assistance, to health and mental health services? Disenfranchisement? Further indenture through private parole companies? Even an initiative with the good intention of eliminating the barrier of the criminal record box on job applications may turn out to have negative consequences for some black home-comers.

Take the Injustice Out of the Criminal Justice System

Wouldn’t it be better not to lock up so many people in the first place? Mass incarceration and the ‘war on crime’ didn’t decrease the crime rate. Indeed violent crime rate came down aswe started reducing the prison population. Children suspended, expelled and referred to the juvenile justice system haven’t been helped. They’ve been sentenced to a stunning lack of opportunity and a drastically increased possibility of much more time behind bars as adults.

The black unemployment rate still hovers around 10%, nearly double that of whites in October 2015. The poverty rate for black Americans is nearly three times higher than that of whites. Though black children make up only 18% of the preschool population, they are about half of those suspended. We’re talking 3- and 4-year-olds. Black schoolgirls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. And all black students are three times more likely to experience suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal justice system than their white peers for similar offenses. Over 70% of suspensions, expulsions and referrals are of black and Latino students.

And this matters. Just one suspension doubles a child’s chances of never finishing high school. Children with expulsions are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Once in the juvenile justice system, that child’s re-incarceration by age 25 is nearly 70%.

It’s madness. It’s racist. It’s unjust. It’s inhumane. Bringing home 6,000 federal prisoners a few months early and delaying disclosure of criminal records for federal job applicants are both better steps to take than no action at all. Indeed it represents a positive change in the way we think about mass-incarceration and obstacles to re-entry. It no doubt will have a trickle-down effect to state prisons and state laws where the vast majority of people are suffering unjustly. But is a “trickle-down” effect enough?


How The Assault at Spring Valley High Brutally Demonstrates the ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’


Officer Ben Fields had not a moment’s hesitation in putting a black girl in a chokehold to yank her from her desk chair, slam her to ground and throw her across her classroom. The video of this assault has gone viral and has rightly prompted outrage from white people.

Here’s the thing: The suspension, expulsions, beating and arresting of black students in the U.S. is closer to the rule than the exception when childish behaviors occur at school. The national statistics on how often school discipline involves authorities physically attacking students isn’t available. But we do have data on the disproportionately high rates of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal justice system that black children experience in our schools on a daily basis.

Here are some recent stories illustrating the data:

Honor student Kiera  Wilmot, a black high school sophomore, was arrested for conducting a science experiment that had been going viral on the internet by putting household cleaner and a piece of aluminum foil in a bottle and making smoke.  She was charged with two felonies.

A 14-year-old black student from Texas was choked by a school police officer “for his own safety,” during a lunch-room tussle with another student.

A 12-year-old black boy was arrested for engaging in a staring contest with a white student, who while giggling, told the teacher that she felt “intimidated” though she had started the game.

Dontradrian Bruce, a black high school student who earned all A’s and B’s, held up three fingers–the number of his football jersey- in a photo taken by his science teacher as he completed a successful science project. Dontradrian was suspended for 21 days, accused of making a gang sign.

Kyle Thompson’s school principal said that Kyle was such a great kid, he wished his school was full of Kyle Thompson’s. Yet when this 14-year-old black student declined to show his teacher a note he had written, the child was led from school in handcuffs, barred from all public schools in the state for a year and is spending a year under house arrest.

The criminalization of black children starts almost the moment that child leaves her mother’s door. According to a recent report from the National Education Association, black children represent only 18% of pre-schoolers, but they make up nearly half of all pre-school suspensions. Anecdotal evidence is sometimes even more horrifying than the data itself:

Joah was 3 years old and his mother received a call from the school that he hit a staff member on the arm, was deemed “a danger to the staff,” and suspended. He was suspended 5 times that year. 

A little 5-year-old black child in Mississippi was required to wear black shoes as part of the school’s dress code. The family didn’t have black shoes for him and his mother colored in some white and red sneakers with black magic marker. He was nabbed by the cops at school and sent home in the back of a police vehicle.

Due to a spike in crime by juveniles in the 1990s, social scientist John Delulio propagated a myth of the rise of “superpredators.” These superpredators were to be “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “have absolutely no respect for human life.” This false panic paved the way for Zero Tolerance policies that over-criminalized childish behaviors in schools. Consequently, we’ve seen expulsions and suspensions almost double since then.  The Vera Institute reports that about 2 million secondary school students are now suspended annually. Compare that to the fact that just 3 million students graduated high school that same year.

Black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. Black students in middle school are suspended at a rate almost four times more often than white youth, and  three times more likely than white youth for the same infractions overall. Particularly alarming is that over 70% of all students receiving school-related arrests and referrals to law enforcement are black or Latino.

The consequences of both this excessive criminalizing of children and the racial bias in harsh punishments are extreme. The Kirwan Institute cites studies showing that a single suspension in the first year of high school doubles the dropout chance for that child. Children who experience expulsions are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Once caught within the juvenile system, the psychological and economic consequences can have a lasting and burdensome impact on children while simultaneously decreasing their educational and financial opportunities, and increasing the chances of re-incarceration. People incarcerated as youth are nearly 70% more likely to be in jail again by age 25 than youth who were not referred to juvenile detention.

The current discipline policies in our schools undoubtedly criminalize our children and criminalize them with a bias, especially against black youth. When officers like Ben Fields react to a child who won’t relinquish her cell phone with excessive violence and arrest, he is potentially condemning her before she has even had the chance to grow up. Right now, our school policies assume black kids are criminals and we should beat ‘em up, kick ‘em out and lock ‘em up.

Are you outraged yet?

The Budget Deal: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Photo from Shutterstock.com/trekandshoot

Photo from Shutterstock.com/trekandshoot

As Congressional dysfunction seemed to be barreling us toward a government shutdown, comes the news of an 11th-hour deal, announced Monday at midnight.

Let’s start with the good news. Our government, it appears, won’t be shutting its doors. The United States will pay its bills rather than endangering its own economy, and the rest of the world’s, by defaulting on them. Let’s pause and take a breath and/or tear out a few hairs as we reflect that this is what passes for “good news” these days.

We are three years into a budget deal, the Budget Control Act, that was supposed to restrain the budget deficit by making equal cuts to the military and non-military parts of federal spending over a ten year period. In two of those three years, Congress basically said, “Yes, we really mean to do this, but not right now.” House and Senate Budget Committee chairs Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Patty Murray (D-WA) negotiated a bipartisan deal that returned some of the money that was originally cut. Now, the deal before them would do the same thing for the next two years. They are the dieters who promised themselves they would start that diet next year, now deciding, “Nah, it can wait until 2018.”

Some good things will come out of this.

Programs for child health and nutrition, education, environmental protection and myriad others that were due to be drastically cut will likely get a reprieve. As will the diplomatic and international assistance functions , including aid to Syrian refugees, that constitute our alternative to a foreign policy of war.

But so will that foreign policy of war. As George Orwell might put it, in this universe of equality for the military and non-military sides of our budget, one side is more equal than the other. According to this budget deal, the original limit on next year’s military spending of $523 billion will now increase to $548.1 billion, while the rest of our government’s funding (the “discretionary” part that Congress votes on every year) will rise from $493.5 to $518.5 billion.

And the military budget gets even more equality than that. In recent years Congress has been funding its wars through a separate account called the “Overseas Contingency Fund”, over and above the “regular” military budget. The beauty of this fund, from the defense hawks’ point of view, is that it’s not subject to the restraints of the 10-year Budget Control Act. And while this account is supposed to fund current military operations, it has in practice become a slush fund for military projects that have nothing to do with the wars we are currently fighting. The new deal currently on the table gives that fund more money, too.

And oh yes, it’s not at all clear that this new deal will become law. Numerous members of Congress are venting their unhappiness with it, including many of those for whom shutting down the government would be a statement of principle. Telling our government to stop functioning – also still on the table, at least for a few more days.

Government shutdown or an ugly deal? That’s the choice this Congress is giving us. We have a long way to go in the fight for a budget that puts peace, people, and the planet first.

Who stands to benefit the most from Carl Icahn’s new super-PAC? Carl Icahn.

Carl Icahn super-PAC

(Image: Juli Hansen / Shutterstock)

The nation’s political system just doesn’t have enough influence from the billionaire class.  That was apparently the sentiment, absurd as it may sound, behind billionaire Carl Icahn’s recent decision to launch a super PAC with $150 million of his reported $21 billion fortune.

What does Icahn hope to accomplish with this venture?  Lower taxes for himself and his friends, of course. Icahn has targeted corporate tax reform and specifically the provisions that enable companies to defer the taxes owed on their overseas profits.  Unsurprisingly, he’d prefer to enable tax dodging companies with funds in offshore tax shelters to bring the money home at a significantly reduced tax rate.

Icahn, who ranks number 22 on the Forbes list of American billionaires, is a major shareholder of Apple, a company that holds a reported $181 billion in offshore tax shelters and stands to benefit tremendously from the changes Icahn seeks.

While Icahn’s audacious actions should certainly turn heads, he is simply the latest billionaire to make news for trying to buy influence in our broken electoral system.  The New York Times recently reported that just 158 families provided half of the early contributions to presidential candidates this cycle. In fact, as an older, white, self-made, urban, Republican financier, Icahn fits in the most common demographic of this group.

All told, less than one quarter of one percent of the American population contribute more than $200 to political campaigns, parties, or PACs. Only four hundredths of one percent give more than $2,600 in an election cycle.  That’s just two out of every five thousand people!  And that money’s well spent, too. A major study from Princeton published last year showed that economic elites and business groups have substantial power over U.S. government policy making while the vast majority of Americans do not.

Former President Jimmy Carter recently made headlines calling the United States “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.” He went on to say, “we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to the major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

Given the Times reporting and Icahn’s recent actions, along with the countless other examples of legal bribery by the billionaire class in recent years, Carter’s statement is far from unfounded.  What is remarkable is that a former U.S. President is speaking so plainly about the condition of our modern electoral system and that a billionaire is so brazen in his efforts to subvert the legislative process to his benefit.

Efforts to fix our broken campaign finance system are underway from groups like Represent.us and Move to Amend as well as by the quixotic Presidential candidate Larry Lessig.  These efforts are pushing back against innumerable odds, but are building support for a widespread grassroots movement.  This movement might be the only thing able to counter the immense influence of the billionaire class.

How the U.S. criminal justice system operates as a debt-based system of racial control

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

Green Cottenham was loitering at a train station in Columbiana, Alabama. Along with several other young men, he was arrested and convicted of vagrancy in less than 24 hours. Cottenham was sentenced to three months of hard labor. To add insult to injury, he was charged a $38 fine. Unable to satisfy the fine, he was sentenced to an additional three months of hard labor.

Alana Cain was charged with theft, accused of stealing from the New Orleans, Louisiana law firm where she worked. After pleading guilty, Cain was ordered to pay $1,800 in restitution and additional fines and fees that amounted to about $950. Late installment payments and an encounter with law enforcement due to a broken taillight culminated in her arrest.

Cottenham was arrested in 1908, a time characterized by pervasive racial segregation, terrorism from white supremacists in white sheets, and rampant political oppression.

Cain, similarly young, African American, and convicted of a petty crime, was arrested in 2015.

White elites sought to more firmly reinforce their control over African American life as Reconstruction waned in the 1870s. They relied on a series of legal measures that coalesced into what were colloquially known as the Black Codes. White-dominated state legislatures throughout the South established stringent, criminal consequences for previously petty offenses in order to neutralize the political gains made by African Americans through the Reconstruction Amendments. Laws against vagrancy and contract severance especially entrapped African Americans within the criminal justice system, capitalizing on the persistent poverty of the African American community. Even the theft of a pig, worth mere dollars, to feed a starving family could result in five years of imprisonment.

In 1901, John Davis was travelling through the Alabama countryside to meet his ailing wife at her parents’ home. Along the way, he was stopped by Robert Franklin, the local constable, who wrongfully claimed that Davis owed him money and demanded his payment. Davis asserted that he did not owe Franklin any money, but was powerless to stop his arrest. He was quickly convicted. After his sentence to ten months of hard labor, Davis was hit with a barrage of fines and court fees that he could not pay. His labor was sold by the court to Robert Franklin in order to satisfy his debts.

Like so many others, Davis was trapped in this system of convict labor leasing until his debts were deemed paid. This debt-based collusion between the state and private entities proved to be quite profitable to both. For instance, Alabama garnered $164,000 in revenue from leasing convicts by 1890 (a $4.1 million value today). Private entities, companies and individuals alike, were finally able to solve the labor shortage and revenue crises left in the wake of Emancipation.

More than a century later, one in fifteen African Americans have fallen victim to the same debt-based system of racial control that terrorized Green Cottenham and John Davis at the dawn of the 20th century.

Where once white landowners fueled the indebtedness of African Americans, that task has since been assumed by the state. Beginning in the early 2000s, many states attached hefty fees and fines to the same petty offenses criminalized by the Black Codes like vagrancy and more recent ones like unpaid parking tickets. These amplified laws exploited the economic vulnerability of African Americans like the Black Codes before them.

In early 2013, Clifford Hayes was homeless in Georgia and in need of a place to rest. Instead, he was arrested for failing to pay the more than $2000 he owed to cover the fines and probation fees associated with an arrest in 2007. A judge ordered Hayes to either pay up or risk being sentenced to eight months in jail. Hayes lamented that neither the court nor the private probation company would take his dire financial situation into account. Hayes was forced to decide between using his limited income from disability benefits to pay his debt and going to jail.

No longer abusing the labor of African Americans like John Davis, the state and private entities have instead turned their attention to nickel and diming those like Clifford Hayes as a more direct means of profit accumulation. In the midst of declining revenue and funding, the state has levied the burden of maintaining the criminal justice system on African American defendants. For example, Ferguson, Missouri utilized a barrage of fees, fines, and court costs to supply 20 percent of its budget, playing on the poverty of its 70 percent African American population. More than 8,000 state agencies received some share of the $4.5 billion obtained from civil asset forfeitures by the Department of Justice, a practice that has been shown to disparately target and impact poor African Americans. Sentinel, the private probation company monitoring Clifford Hayes in Georgia, made at least 40 percent of its profits in 2012 from charging defendants, preying on the many African American defendants who were unable to pay.

W.E.B. Dubois once observed that “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery,” referring in the latter part to the state-sanctioned racial oppression (among other atrocities) forced upon African Americans like Green Cottenham and John Davis post-Reconstruction. As Alana Cain and Clifford Hayes demonstrate today, many African Americans remain enslaved, having been criminalized and controlled by the criminal justice system because of their poverty.



Seven Substantive Issues That Divide the Democratic Candidates

(Image: CNN)

(Image: CNN)

The first Democratic presidential debate differed immensely in substance and tone from the two Republican debates held thus far as candidates acknowledged, as Bernie Sanders put it, that they were “sick and tired of hearing about [Hillary’s] damn emails” and ready to dig into the serious issues of our time.

While the candidates agreed on many mainstay Democratic policies ranging from the need to address skyrocketing student debt and climate change to their support for guaranteed maternity leave, they did vary in their positions on some very key issues.  Here are the top seven issues that split the candidates.


After confirming that Bernie Sanders was indeed serious about not being a capitalist, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper clarified if any other candidate would like to take a stance against capitalism. No one budged.  Sanders clarified his views saying, “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.”

Wall Street

Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders laid out firm plans for dismantling the “casino, speculative, mega-bank gambling” that takes place on Wall Street, as O’Malley put it.  Hillary claimed to have a tougher plan to regulate the banks, but stopped short of calling for breaking up the Too Big To Fail banks.  It’s hard to ignore the fact that the bulk of Clinton’s lifetime campaign funding comes directly from Wall Street.  None of the other four candidates made this point on stage, but Sanders hit a major applause line saying, “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress.”

The Greatest National Security Threat to the U.S.

When asked what the greatest threat to national security is, Lincoln Chafee cited the chaos in the Middle East, Jim Webb cited China and the Middle East, both Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton cited the spread of nuclear weapons in Iran and elsewhere.  Bernie Sanders distinguished himself from the pack citing climate change as our greatest threat, saying unless we act, “the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”

Gun Control

The focus of the gun control portion of the debate was on Senator Sanders’ record, having voted against the Brady Bill. He defended his record as a leader from a rural gun owning state who’s taken a strong stance on gun control in recent years. Somewhat awkwardly, he asserted in the third person, “Bernie Sanders has a D-minus rating from the NRA.”  While all the candidates agreed on the need for instant background checks and closing the gun-show loophole, Secretary Clinton made clear that she thought Sanders was not strong enough on guns.

Iraq War

Bernie Sanders called the war in Iraq “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the United States,” a point Lincoln Chaffee echoed in his remarks.  Hillary Clinton, who voted in favor of the war, attempted to show her good judgment as shown by her appointment to Secretary of State, but did not explain why she supported the war in the first place.  The candidates also split on the prospect of enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea Clinton supports and Sanders does not.

Mass Surveillance

Lincoln Chafee defended his support for the PATRIOT Act, the legislation that led to the creation of the modern surveillance state, saying it was a 99 to 1 vote.  Sanders was quick to point out that he was only candidate on stage to vote against the legislation, although he was in the House of Representatives at the time, not the Senate.  He went on to say that he would shut down the mass surveillance program at the NSA. When asked about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Sanders and Chafee were the only candidates to support varying levels of leniency.  O’Malley and Clinton both called for criminal proceedings as Clinton stated Snowden must “face the music.” Jim Webb chose not to take a position, claiming it was an issue for the courts.

Legalizing Marijuana

The two top candidates split on their views about legalizing marijuana as Sanders said he would support legalization while Clinton said she would not.  Both candidates clarified they did not want to see non-violent drug offenders in prison, but Clinton did not specify how she would reduce this without changing federal drug laws.  The three other candidates did not weigh in on this issue.


We can look forward to hearing more about where the candidates’ positions differ on issues in the upcoming debates, where the focus will likely shift more towards taxes, a topic barely discussed during this debate. While the candidates overlap on many issues, clear differences in policy and politics divide them, giving voters a clearer picture of who most closely represents their views entering into the campaign season ahead.

The Real Meaning of ‘Collateral Damage’

Child in Afghanistan hospital

(Image: Flickr / ResoluteSupportMedia)

The destruction of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, with 22 dead so far, including doctors, other staff and patients, capped a week that also saw the bombing of​ another hospital in Afghanistan, plus the U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian bombing of a wedding party in Yemen set up in tents far out in the desert, away from anything remotely military. (What IS it about wedding parties that U.S. and allied bombers keep hitting them?).

The Pentagon relied on its language of “collateral damage,” trying once again to distance itself from any responsibility for this most recent atrocity in Afghanistan.  But there is no distance.  This is the direct and inevitable result of an air war waged by U.S. pilots flying U.S. planes dropping U.S. bombs on an impoverished and war-devastated country still immersed in the war that began 14 years ago this week. Since that time the U.S. has spent $65 billion to train and equip a military and police force accountable to U.S. goals and the U.S.-installed government.  But it hasn’t worked.

Kunduz is a large city in northern Afghanistan, and while residents and others had noted moves by the Taliban to surround the city in recent months, it wasn’t until last week’s seizure of the town by Taliban forces that US-backed officials in Kabul took any notice. The corruption-rife and widely discredited Afghan government then sent troops from its US-trained army to try to retake the city, even announcing two days later that the Taliban had been routed. But residents and other observers reported the Taliban remained largely in control, and the U.S. sent warplanes on bombing raids, ostensibly to bolster its junior partners.

Eye (and ear) witnesses from the international humanitarian organization reported that despite having provided precise GPS coordinates to U.S. and Afghan military authorities to prevent exactly this kind of attack, the hospital was “repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched.” The Pentagon refused to take responsibility, saying only that its airstrikes “may have resulted in collateral damage.” President Obama expressed condolences to the victims but refused to apologize for the strike.

According to Heman Nagarathnam, MSF Head of Programs in northern Afghanistan, “the bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round. There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again. When I made it out from the office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames. Those people that could had moved quickly to the building’s two bunkers to seek safety. But patients who were unable to escape burned to death as they lay in their beds.” Those who burned to death included three children and the patients in the hospital’s intensive care ward.

The attack on the hospital, with its horrific civilian casualties, is the inevitable result of an air war against heavily populated cities.  But more broadly, it is one more example of the consequences of a strategy of trying to defeat terrorism by war. In Afghanistan, as in the escalating wars in Syria and Iraq, the claim we so often hear from U.S. officials is true: “there is no military solution.”  But the actions of the U.S. government – military action being almost all we see – belie that claim.

In Syria, there may be a small bit of hope for negotiations – despite the harsh rhetoric, both Obama and Putin made subtle but significant concessions in their UN speeches, and it may be that the current escalations on both sides are prelude to some kind of negotiations.  (President Obama reiterated what Kerry outlined more specifically, that Assad’s ouster is not a precondition or something that has to happen immediately.  President Putin, even while stating support for Assad, stated clearly that he believes what stands against terrorism in Syria and so what must be protected is the Syrian government and “its” army – not “his” army, thus leaving open a shift in Russian support away from Assad alone to support for the Syrian state and military, assuming Moscow can count on continuing protection of its various interests in and around Syria.)

But the fighting continues. In Syria, the U.S. and Russia are both conducting airstrikes ostensibly against ISIS, but the civilian suffering significant casualties. Despite its claims of backing only “moderate” opposition forces, the Pentagon just admitted that one of the ephemeral U.S.-armed coalitions of just such “moderate” rebel fighters is actually working to arm the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “Unfortunately, we learned late today that the NSF (New Syrian Forces) unit now says it did in fact provide six pickup trucks and a portion of their ammunition to a suspected Al-Nusra Front (group),” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said.

It remains a very grim time – the situation in Kunduz remains highly unstable, and with the destruction of the MSF hospital, continued fighting now means injured civilians have lost the most important provider of emergency medical care available.  More Afghan civilians will die.  In Syria, if the possibilities of negotiations are rising, there’s likely to be a greater military escalation before and even during such talks….meaning more Syrian civilians will almost certainly be killed.

The wars are far from over.

A Significant Step Forward on the Road to Reform

Utah Senator Mike Lee  joins bipartisan group on criminal justice reform (Image: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) joins bipartisan effort on criminal justice reform (Image: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com)

Weldon Angelos is a young father who wouldn’t have been able to be in his two children’s lives until he was 80 and his children were old and grey themselves. Angelos made mistakes and sold  some marijuana.  Because he also happened to have a gun in his possession, he got a 55 year mandatory minimum sentence. At a Senate press conference today, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah stood alongside six of his Senate colleagues to roll out a monumental criminal justice reform bill. Senator Lee, who worked on this 2004 case, reported that the judge knew it was an unjust sentence, but lamented that he couldn’t do anything about it…only Congress could.

And  today, Congress is.  The Senate Judiciary Committee started rolling that ball toward a fairer criminal justice system.

“The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” Democratic  Senator Patrick Leahy cited the recent call from the Pope to Congress to heed the Golden rule as he and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled “The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act

As New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, a co-author of this bill, pointed out, “More African-Americans today are incarcerated than all those enslaved in 1850.” Booker was instrumental in many of the provisions of the bill that ameliorate some of the worst aspects of our criminal justice system—those affecting our nation’s children in federal custody.

Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project says this is the is “the most substantial criminal justice reform legislation introduced since the inception of the ‘tough on crime’ movement, and is the best indication we have that those days are over.”

Highlights of the bill include:

  • Reducing and retroactively reducing unfairly long sentences for non-violent for drug offenses
  • Increasing anti-recidivism programs
  • Reducing sentences for incarcerated people who participate in rehabilitation programs
  • Limiting the use of solitary confinement for young people incarcerated in federal facilities
  • Expanding sealing and expungement criteria for some juvenile offenses
  • Providing the possibility of parole for some offenses committed while a juvenile
  • Providing for the compassionate release of elderly prisoners

This legislation could have been stronger, it could have eliminated unfair mandatory minimums altogether. It could have done more to reduce “collateral consequences” that present almost insurmountable barriers to citizens returning to their communities after incarceration; it could have provided for expungement of records of formerly incarcerated adults after three years of successful reentry. It could have done much more. And so there is much more work to be done.

But for a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators to come together and do what they were elected to do is a big deal. And this legislation is a big deal, too.  The prospects in the Senate are uncharacteristically bright for passage given that the House is hardly prone to bipartisanship or compromise.  In the words of Senator Dick Durbin, “What’s going to happen in the House? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

But for the sake of Weldon Angelos’ children and thousands of others, still young enough to need their father present in their lives, GOP-controlled House of Representatives should do its job and allow their dads and moms to come home.