IPS Blog

Homecare Ruling a Historic Victory

AijenACTION_cropOn Friday, a federal appeals court upheld a Department of Labor rule requiring homecare agencies to pay the federal minimum wage and overtime.

Two million homecare workers—90 percent of them women and 53 percent women of color—will be affected by the new rule.

Homecare workers—home health aides that care for the elderly and disabled—were among the last domestic workers not to have basic labor protections in the U.S. Along with agricultural workers, all domestic workers (those who worked in private homes) were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.

Anyone want to guess why?

Back in 1938 FDR needed the support of Southern legislators to get his New Deal passed. And the only way they’d support Roosevelt’s legislation was if certain exceptions were made to preserve the Southern way of life.

That, of course, meant preserving cheap African-American labor both in the fields and the homes of white families where black women toiled.

The Fair Labor Standards Act was a devil’s deal. It was historic on many levels and remains the foundation of basic labor protections in the U.S. But it was built on exclusions. The legacy of those exclusions is, sadly, still with us and continues to drive economic inequality today.

Last week’s court ruling marks the end of a long struggle to extend FLSA protections. In 1974, the FLSA was amended to include domestic workers (nannies, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners, and others) but a loophole was created for those who provide “companionship” for the disabled or elderly.

Since then, the “companionship exemption” has meant that employers of homecare workers who care for the elderly or disabled could claim the exemption to avoid paying overtime and minimum wage. And in recent years, large corporate employers have been profiting handsomely from this exemption.

At stake in last week’s decision was whether the DOL had the authority to narrow the definition of “companionship” to make it more in line with actual companionship—such as engaging in conversation, going on walks, or running errands.

But home health care services that require training—which covers practically all homecare workers—can no longer be claimed under the exemption.

Domestic workers and their allies organized for years to see this day, and they have won. It’s a victory for women and racial minorities, the elderly and disabled who need quality care, and everyone fighting to end extreme inequality.

Gender and race-based exemptions were baked into the legal regime that ended America’s first Gilded Age. As we confront rising inequality in our own second Gilded Age, we must focus on correcting the racial and gender inequities left in the wake of the first.

In this fight, domestic workers are leading the way.

Seven Fantasies of the GOP Presidential Debate

Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

The Fox News debate between ten of the top presidential contenders in the Republican primary largely ignored the issues most pressing to ordinary people and to the environment.  Here are the seven worst moments from the debate in which the candidates and moderators ignored or actively opposed pressing issues of inequality.

 

1. Inequality is not a real problem

Not once did a candidate or moderator mention the fact that the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of the country has risen to its highest point since the 1920s, or that one in five children in the U.S. live in poverty.  They didn’t offer solutions to address this absurd situation, but instead acted like it just wasn’t happening.  Should the minimum wage be increased? Is there a problem with Wall Street CEOs making 300 times more than their lowest paid employee? If the candidates had answers for addressing inequality, they certainly weren’t sharing them.

 

2. More tax breaks for the wealthy are needed

When candidates talked about the “flat tax” it’s important to remember that what they really mean is cutting taxes for the wealthy and raising taxes on the poor. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center calculated that shifting to a flat tax would constitute a $250 tax increase for those making between $40,000 to $50,000 and a $495,000 tax cut for millionaires.  The tax code is certainly in need of reform, but a flat tax moves far in the wrong direction. Recent polling from Pew Research shows people are more concerned about the wealthy not paying enough in taxes than even their own tax rate. Why take from the poor to give to the rich?

 

3. Corruption is no big deal

Donald Trump wanted to make clear that when he was a mere donor and not a major candidate, he could get elected officials to do his bidding using campaign contributions. This form of legalized bribery was made infamous by the 2010 Citizens United ruling credited with opening the floodgates of campaign contributions. Rather than address what this means, the candidates tiptoed around the issue, while Trump boasted about buying Hillary Clinton’s presence at his wedding. Serious campaign finance reform is needed and necessary, but you didn’t hear that from this debate.

 

4. Climate change doesn’t exist

If you were holding your breath waiting for the candidates or moderators to mention climate change, you’d have ran out of oxygen long ago.  To Fox News, climate change appears simply not to exist and thus it was not mentioned a single time. Instead, Jeb Bush reiterated his call for aggressive participation in the “energy revolution”, which could more accurately be called the “climate change accelerator”.

 

5. What student debt?

Student debt made an appearance during Marco Rubio’s remarks on having recently held $100,000 in loans. With 40 million student debtors across the country and each graduating class leaving school with more debt than the one previous, it’s clear this issue is critically important to the millions of voters, but apparently not the moderators.

 

6. Growth will solve all problems

John Kasich and Jeb Bush each made aspirational statements that unrestricted economic growth could serve as the panacea to the nation’s woes. Ignored was the fact that such growth would cause undue harm to the ecological systems on which we depend.

 

7. Black Lives (don’t) Matter

Of the entire two plus hour debate, less than 60 seconds was given to what the Fox anchors referred to as “the civil rights issue of our time”. The one candidate asked directly about Black Lives Matter, Scott Walker, refused to acknowledge the movement or the systemic racism that BLM seeks to change and instead offered a curt reply on increased police training.

 

Of course there were many other absurdities and omissions from the debate, but these are the top. What are your favorite doozies from the debate?

Three Necessary Reforms to Reduce Gun Violence in America

Bullet hole

(Image: Shutterstock)

Every day, 31 Americans are murdered with guns. In our society, we’re inundated with statistics — but these 31 Americans aren’t just an abstract number. They are our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. They are men, women, and children — people with dreams for the future.

After a gunman opened fire inside a Louisiana movie theater during a screening of Amy Schumer’s film “Trainwreck,” killing two people and himself, the film’s writer and star described the personal connection she felt to the shooter’s victims. In remarks made Monday, she described Jillian Johnson as “a mother, daughter, sister, and a wonderful wife,” adding, “She was an artist. I think we would have been friends.” Schumer conveyed the heartache experienced by those left in the wake of gun violence, but also emphasized the resolve to transform our country’s lax policies. “Unless something is done and done soon, dangerous people will continue to get their hands on guns,” Schumer said.

Weak gun laws are strongly correlated with a higher prevalence of gun violence. As a prime example, Louisiana’s firearm laws are practically non-existent. As the state’s governor, Bobby Jindal, famously proclaimed, “We love us some guns.” This love for firearms directly translates into some of the highest levels of gun violence in the country.

As evidenced by the press conference held Monday featuring Schumer and her cousin, Senator Chuck Schumer, taking action to promote stricter gun laws is no longer taboo. However, these actions must be bold. There are three clear steps that Congress and state legislators can and should take if they truly intend on preventing future tragedies.

  1. Close the private gun sales background check loophole.

Background checks have been proven to be extremely effective. The Brady Act, authored by Senator Chuck Schumer and passed in 1993, has stopped over 2.1 million gun sales from taking place, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But we must finish the job that the Brady Act began. The law does not extend to private transfers of firearms. 40 percent of gun sales are considered private sales, which means the buyer isn’t required to undergo a background check. Allowing private gun sales to take place without any type of restrictions only makes our cities more dangerous.

Some cities and states have taken matters into their own hands through the use of ballot initiatives. For example, Seattle’s voters approved expanding background checks to private gun sales and transfers in 2014.

  1. Ensure that domestic abusers and stalkers don’t have access to guns.

Federal law prohibits domestic abusers from gaining access to a gun — unless of course it’s through a private sale. Although closing the loophole for private gun transfers is key, it is also necessary to mandate a more comprehensive definition of “domestic abusers” under the current law.

For example, the law excludes domestic abusers who are in dating relationships. This is commonly referred to as the “Boyfriend Loophole.” Thankfully, a bipartisan bill has been introduced in Congress to strengthen existing domestic violence prevention laws. This bill would prevent convicted stalkers from owning a gun, as well.

Despite 82 percent of Americans voicing support for the measure, the gun lobby managed to successfully stop a similar bill in Louisiana this year by misrepresenting the effects of the law.

In addition to adding new regulations, we must enforce our current laws. The federal government has failed to take away guns that individuals had in their possession prior to their domestic abuse conviction. This is especially dangerous — as one study found, “perpetrators who continued to possess firearms after they were prohibited from doing so by federal law were more likely to attempt homicide or threaten their partners with guns than domestic violence perpetrators who had relinquished their firearms.”

  1. Stop open carry laws in every state.

Open carry laws are a direct threat to public safety. As research shows, more guns do not equal a safer society. The idea that we need more “good guys” with guns has proven to be a myth.

Thirty-one states currently allow citizens to open carry without any type of license or permit. Guns in the public space both normalize weapons and violence that can occur with their use. As one Slate author wrote, “If it communicates anything, carrying a gun in public tells bystanders that the carrier is prepared to kill someone.”

From popular chains like Whataburger, to college officials and schoolteachers, people are taking a stand against laws enabling guns to remain a ubiquitous staple in our country. Hopefully, this opposition will reach the halls of Congress as well.

These policy changes won’t stop gun violence completely. But they will provide meaningful first steps in fighting our national gun epidemic, in addition to proving that elected officials are committed to protecting the public safety — as they’ve sworn to do.

Red Herring in the Inequality Debate

It sounds crazy, but a major distraction in our debate about inequality in America today is inequality itself.

I’m referring here to the concept of inequality in the abstract. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe inequality is necessary to a well-functioning society. Without inequality, the logic goes, there would be insufficient incentives for hard work, innovation, and education.

Once this frame of logic enters the debate, it’s hard to move beyond it. Current levels of inequality do get aired, but the discussion often gets mired in questions of relative morality. Yes, $100 billion is a ton of wealth for one family, the Waltons, to control, but what about all those savings their business model brought to tens of millions of Americans? From that perspective, is it unfair?

On top of that, there’s an emotional distraction. Many Americans who are not super-rich themselves nonetheless dream of being super-rich one day. To them, inequality is not only necessary; it’s beneficial.

Want to remove these distractions from the debate?

Then approach our current level of inequality or, to use a less distracting term, our current level of wealth and income concentration, from the other direction.

Under this approach, the starting point in the discussion would be: Is there any level of wealth and income concentration that would be destructive to our society?

And the answer? Yes, of course there is. If one family held all the country’s wealth, our nation as a whole would be worse off. Note how this question overcomes the emotional pull in the inequality debate. While it is common for people to see themselves as future one percenters, no family with a last name other than Koch would delude themselves into believing they could one day control all the country’s wealth.

Next question: At some point, does increasing concentration of wealth and income become destructive to our society?

The answer again must be yes, based only on the answer to the first question. For example, if America were at the point where two families held all of our wealth, further wealth concentration would be undesirable, since we’ve already established that one family controlling all the country’s wealth is undesirable.

Next question: Once we reach the point at which further concentration of wealth and income become destructive, should we implement measures to ensure that further concentration does not occur

Again, the answer must be yes, with no explanation needed.

And, finally, has America already reached the point at which measures should be implemented to prevent further concentration of wealth and income?

Essentially, we’ve now arrived back at the question whether one family should control $100 billion of wealth, but it’s no longer about the Waltons. And the data is overwhelming.

Citizens for Tax Justice reported that in 2012, twelve percent of all capital gains income reported by American taxpayers went to just 400 taxpayers.

On April 24, 2015, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimated that the ten wealthiest Americans now are worth, collectively, half a trillion dollars. The actual number is around $499 billion, but to these folks a billion dollars is no more than a rounding error.

Based on research by leading economist Emmanuel Saez, it was widely reported that between 2009 and 2012, 95% of the income gains in America went to the top one percent.

And there you have it. In order to understand inequality in America, don’t think about inequality.

Hell on Earth

As a progressive person of faith, I’ve had an interesting week. Pope Francis released an encyclical that called on the global human community to practice compassion, for each other and for our common home. In it, the Pope asked that our actions should be carried out in light of our “deepest convictions about love, justice, and peace.” It was inspiring and hopeful.

But the encyclical was released merely hours after a young, white man entered a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire, killing nine people inside. We now know the shooter had long talked of sparking a race war and wanting segregation reinstated.

A day after this horrific event, I attended my weekly Bible study group, where we talked about motivations of the human heart with little mention of what happened in Charleston. We closed the meeting with a prayer, during which we said, “God, we will never understand why these things happen. And we may never know what motivated the person who carried out his terrible act.”

But we do understand. We understand this person committed an act of terror because of the narrative that has permeated our country since its founding – those who are different from us are less human than us, and we can treat them accordingly.

And we do know. We know the shooter was motivated by a conviction that Black people in America don’t deserve the same things as White people in America.

To claim – as people of faith – that we don’t understand or we don’t know is to abdicate our call to be a prophetic voice to the world. We would be failing to act out of love, justice, and peace, as the Pope calls us to.

On Sunday morning, I’m going to sit in a church, like I do most Sundays. Many Christians around the country will do the same. Pastors will lead us in prayer for peace and for comfort. But many of them will neglect to mention the hate-filled narrative against people of color or low income people that is embedded in our structures and systems in this country.

Many pastors will abdicate their call to speak the truth because racism is too uncomfortable and too difficult to talk about from the pulpit. Some won’t want to risk offending people or losing parishioners. It is certainly not “seeker-friendly.”

As people of faith, we are complicit to hate and to racism when we don’t act to dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate it. We are complicit when we don’t speak hard truths about what’s wrong with the world because it’s risky and uncomfortable.

The places of worship where people of faith go to take refuge from the world are no longer safe. And we, as people of faith, can no longer turn a blind eye. We can no longer leave race conversations out of the pulpit – and our Bible studies – because violent, destructive racism literally came into a sacred space this week, and brought hell on earth.

We have to take courage and speak – like the prophets of old – against the injustices of this world. We have to take up the task of demanding love, justice, and peace even when – especially when – it is too risky to do so. It is, simply, our calling and our divine purpose.

There are great ideas on how to move forward at BlackLivesMatter or FergusonAction. For resources on how to have conversations about race in faith communities, visit gcorr.org/resources.

A Tale of Two Supermarkets: One Transition Town’s Efforts to Respond to Gentrification

Small food shop lit at night

(Image: Flickr / Lars Plougmann)

Community resilience is often thought of in concrete terms: growing local food, using sustainable energy, riding bikes and using alternative transit, and lowering carbon emissions.

All of this is tremendously important. But resilience is also a question of who, as well as what. It is possible to imagine a future full of gated neighborhoods that are highly resilient, where wealthy people live in carbon-neutral communities complete with bikes, electric cars, mini-farms, windmills, and solar panels.

This is how gentrification systematically undermines attempts to create resilience for all. It’s why the future scenario of “gated resilience” is one we must seriously consider and work to prevent. We must always ask: who is community resilience really for? It’s also clear that as communities build resilient “amenities,” such as community gardens, green space, walkable business districts, farmers markets, and bike paths, they become more desirable places to live – and real estate prices rise. Tragically, the folks who worked so hard to improve their communities, and make them resilient, get priced out.

Él Platanero and Hi-Lo

According to Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET) organizer Carlos Espinoza-Toro, “Gentrification is a structural problem embedded into our financial and economic system.”

But despite its structural nature, people often approach gentrification as if it was a matter of individual choice. As a neighborhood changes and gentrifies, hurtful fights can break out. “New” and “old” neighbors often battle over potent symbols–such as murals and supermarkets. But it is possible to navigate these conflicts with skill and care, lessening the impact, and uniting the community rather than dividing it. (For an example, see this story about Beth Roy, a mediator who helped a community navigate gentrification in the San Francisco area.)

Take, for example, Tropical Foods Supermarket–or “Él Platanero”–in Dudley Square, Boston. Jeanette’s father, a native of Mexico, has shopped at Él Platanero for many years. He found a sense of community there, where everyone understood one another. Él Platanero was a place where he could connect with people in his native language. In 2014 he learned of the supermarket’s upcoming renovation project. Although it would be under the same owners, he feared the new, remodeled location will mean more expensive groceries and a loss of its unique culture.

Luckily, this story has a positive ending. The supermarket has now been open for business in its new space for a few months. It has brought in new customers, but it has also retained many old ones. Jeanette’s father still shops there and believes this change has had a positive outcome. The culture still remains and its appearance is more polished. Compared to other local supermarkets, her father believes Tropical Foods does a better job at respecting foreign and Latin American products. He can always count on finding his favorite products at reasonable prices.

We find a much more mixed story in neighboring Jamaica Plain, where a Whole Foods took over the “Hi-Lo” supermarket in 2011. Hi-Lo had served the Latino community for almost 50 years in JP. Very much like Tropical Foods in Dudley Square, it was a place to connect with friends.

Jeanette’s mother, of Puerto Rican descent, would visit Hi- Lo whenever she needed a product specifically from her home island. “At Hi-Lo, you almost felt as if you were shopping in a Latin American country,” she said.

This is the situation for many new Americans in search of a taste from home. Unable to find certain products for a good price, they have to settle for what is available.But even though Hi-Lo often had great deals on groceries, a product she most searched for, “pana,” or breadfruit, was always over-priced. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Jeanette had a giant breadfruit tree in the backyard. What was once abundant and taken-for-granted now costs Jeanette’s mother almost $10 for just one piece of fruit.

Whole Foods replaced Hi-Lo in 2011 after its long-time owners retired. This brought about both excitement and disappointment from Latino customers. Some were upset about losing a piece of home, while others were excited about change. Some worried there would be no place to find their products, and others–like Jeanette’s mother–worried that if Latin American products were sold at Whole Foods, the prices will increase even more.

In the end, Jeanette’s mother was right. Whole Foods does not carry breadfruit, and the prices for all its produce are high. While some Latino neighbors may occasionally get groceries at Whole Foods, it is certainly not the community center that Hi-Lo was.

In a gentrifying neighborhood, little “tastes of home” like breadfruit become hard–or even impossible–to find.

Getting Structural

Food is a powerful indicator of gentrification, and signifies who really belongs in a neighborhood. “If an institution like Whole Foods comes into a neighborhood and says it cares about the cultural well-being of neighbors, it should be able to provide food that enhances that well-being,” says Carlos. JP NET put together a “Meet your Neighbors’ Fruits” informational sheet so we can learn more about the fruits our neighbors know and love.

Clearly, fruit by itself does not address the structural causes of displacement. In fact, “It takes much more than one project or policy to address this issue,” says Carlos. “It takes a movement of people who understand it, structurally and systematically.”

Strong movements are built on solidarity. That’s why JP NET hosts bilingual potlucks–on topics ranging from gardening to sports to climate change–in order to build trust across neighborhood divides. “We’ve learned that there is no quick fix to a structural problem,” says Carlos. “Only through conversations, education, and the slow work of relationship-building, can we spark a powerful movement of people who know, trust, and care about each other–and who are willing to fight for community resilience for all neighbors.”

 

A Disappointing New SEC CEO Pay Rule

laughing businessman with arms up

(Image: Shutterstock)

In my more than two decades of work on runaway executive pay, sparking public outrage has never been the problem. The real challenge has been persuading the public there’s something we can do about it.

To help change that, we’ve been publishing a list of more than 30 creative and practical reforms in our annual Institute for Policy Studies Executive Excess reports. We assign each reform a report-card style grade, based on how far it would go towards advancing economic fairness and stability in executive pay policy and practice.

The CEO pay proposal issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission April 29 gets one of our lowest marks. The new rule — an effort to implement just one of a half dozen exec pay reforms in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law — requires U.S. corporations to disclose the relationship between their executive pay and financial performance.

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik has already given this SEC proposal a thorough thrashing. He deftly points out that the rule’s narrow “performance” metric — total shareholder returns — will only increase incentives for executive bad behavior.

“Predatory pricing, skimping on product quality, mistreatment of suppliers, and the manipulation of local communities to extract tax breaks and subsidies for factory locations all reflect the drive to upstream all corporate returns to the shareholders,” Hiltzik notes. “The SEC’s executive compensation proposal further chisels the myth of shareholder value into the rules of corporate behavior.”

Other observers of the executive pay scene worry that the new SEC rules could cause confusion since the new reporting requirements on performance will include the value of realized equity-based pay rather than the grant date value in the calculation of executive compensation.

“If an executive has just received a massive options grant, he might look underpaid this year, but overpaid in 10 years when he cashes it in,” points out Rosanna Landis Weaver, who heads a program focusing on executive compensation at As You Sow.

For all these reasons, we stand by the low mark we’ve been giving this monitor-pay-by-performance form since Dodd-Frank made it the law in 2010.

We base our reform ratings are on five criteria:

Does the reform encourage narrower CEO-worker pay gaps?

Extreme pay gaps — situations where top executives regularly take home hundreds of times more in compensation than average employees — run counter to basic principles of fairness and, at the same time, endanger enterprise effectiveness. Management guru Peter Drucker believed that the ratio of pay between worker and executive can run no higher than 20-to-1 without damaging company morale and productivity.

Does the reform eliminate taxpayer subsidies for excessive executive pay?

Ordinary taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for excessive executive compensation. And yet they do. Government contracts and subsidies routinely make mega millionaires out of corporate executives. And all chief executives benefit from a tax provision that lets corporations deduct unlimited amounts from their income taxes for the expense of executive pay.

Does the reform encourage reasonable limits on total compensation?

The greater the annual reward an executive can receive, the greater the temptation to make reckless decisions that generate short-term earnings at the expense of long-term corporate health. Government policies can encourage more reasonable compensation levels without micromanaging pay levels at individual firms.

Does the reform bolster accountability to shareholders?

On paper, the corporate boards that determine executive pay must answer to shareholders. In practice, shareholders have little impact on corporate behavior. The “Say on Pay” provision in Dodd-Frank only gives shareholders a nonbinding vote on executive pay packages.

Does the reform extend accountability to broader stakeholder groups?

Executive pay practices, as the 2008 financial crisis vividly demonstrated, impact far more people than shareholders. Effective pay reforms need to encourage management decisions that take into account the interests of all corporate stakeholders, including the consumers, employees, and communities where corporations operate.

What reforms get high marks when we apply these criteria? All these below now happen to be in play in Washington.

CEO-worker pay ratio disclosure: Nearly five years after President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank legislation, the SEC still has not implemented this commonsense transparency measure. The reform would discourage both large pay disparities that can lower employee morale and productivity and excessive executive pay that can encourage excessively risky behavior.

Ending taxpayer subsidies for executive bonuses: In 1993 Congress set a $1 million cap on the individual executive pay corporations could deduct from their income taxes. But that cap did not apply to “performance-based” pay, including stock options and other “incentive” pay. Several bills have been introduced to address this problem, the most recent version by Senators Reed and Blumenthal and Congressman Doggett. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that eliminating this loophole would generate $50 billion in revenue over 10 years.

Ending the preferential capital gains treatment of carried interest: Under current law, hedge and private equity fund managers pay taxes at a 15 percent capital gains rate on the profit share — “carried interest” — they get paid to manage investment funds, rather than the 35 percent rate they would pay under normal tax schedules. Last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers raked in a combined $11.6 billion. Seems they could afford to pay their fair share of taxes.

Pay restrictions on executives of large financial institutions: Within nine months of the enactment of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, regulators were supposed to have issued guidelines that prohibit large financial institutions from granting incentive-based compensation that “encourages inappropriate risks.” Regulators are still dragging their feet on this modest reform.

Many other creative CEO pay reforms are gaining support at the state level in this country and in nations around the world. A shortage of solutions is not the problem. A lack of political —and regulator—will is.

Letter to Loretto

John Kiriakou headshot

(Image: Truthout.org / Flickr)

John Kiriakou is a former CIA officer. Back in 2007, he became the first U.S. government official to confirm — and condemn — the practice of torture by CIA interrogators.

After a drawn-out legal battle, federal authorities convicted Kiriakou of leaking classified information and handed down a prison sentence. He remains the only U.S. official to serve time following the revelation of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” practices.

In February, after serving two years in a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, Kiriakou was permitted to serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest at his home in Northern Virginia. Under the terms of his release from prison, he was required to check in daily at a local halfway house in Washington, DC until May 1 of this year. He’s now on federal probation.

Kiriakou documented his experiences in prison in a series of hand-written “Letters from Loretto” published at FireDogLake. In this, his final entry in the series, he recounts the depredations of house arrest and announces his associate fellowship at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Starting now, he’ll write regularly for Foreign Policy In Focus and OtherWords, two IPS-based media outlets.

Hello from Arlington, Virginia! I thought I’d write a letter to Loretto to tell you about my experience since going home.

I completed my house arrest on May 1 and began three years of probation, or what Ronald Reagan called “supervised release.” (Technically, there is no such thing as “probation” anymore, although the person to whom I report is called a “United States Probation Officer.”)

I left Loretto on February 3 of this year. My last hour there was a little stressful — not because I was anxious to get out (although I was), but because of one final attempt by a trollish prison employee to set me up just as I was leaving.

She taunted me and threatened to put me in solitary because I asked to go to the release office at a time other than a formal “move.” And when I just repeated, “I’m not going to let you set me up. I’m going home and you can’t stop me,” she blew me a cynical kiss. (This secretary, the sister and daughter of corrections officers, has a reputation for sending prisoners to solitary for “leering” at her.)

I was met in the parking lot by my wife Heather, my three youngest children, and my friend Joe, who took the day off to drive me to the halfway house where I was supposed to check in before being sent home. We stopped at the nearest McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin. (I know, I know. But it just goes to show you how sickening the food is in prison when you can’t get to a McDonald’s fast enough upon release.)

Making our way down from Pennsylvania, I got to the halfway house with only 45 minutes to spare after crawling through heavy Washington traffic.

The place is called Hope Village. Many residents refer to it as “Hopeless Village,” And I’ve even heard people call it “Abandon All Hope Village.” Located in a former housing project and tucked deep within Washington’s low-income Anacostia neighborhood, it’s nowhere near a Metro station. Transportation by bus is inconvenient, to say the least.

I’d done a little research on Hope Village before my arrival. The Washington Post found the facility’s “job training services lacking and access to mental health services anemic.” There is no money for “residents” to use public transportation to job interviews, and cell phones and Internet access are forbidden.

In addition, according to Prison Legal News, a 2013 report by the District of Columbia’s Corrections Information Council found that Hope Village “lacked the ability to help residents find housing and employment, and hindered them from accessing mental health services. Residents said they felt unsafe and the halfway house did not have an effective system to handle grievances.” The report continued, “The CIC heard on multiple occasions that incarcerated DC residents would prefer to stay at secure [prison] facilities than to reenter DC through Hope Village.”

In a bit of an understatement, the chairman added, “I would say that there are some things that are obviously dysfunctional.”

So I was prepared for the worst.

The Nine-Hour Check-In

I arrived at Hope Village at around 11:45 a.m. and went to the office to check in. I was told that I had to speak to several different people before being sent home, so I settled into apartment 301 and waited until somebody came to get me. I told Heather and Joe to go home.

Several things came immediately to my attention. First, everybody was friendly. And I mean everybody. The staff greeted me with, “Hello, Mr. Kiriakou. Welcome to Hope Village.” The apartment was sparsely furnished, but had everything important: two bunk beds, a couch, two chairs, and a color TV with broadcast channels.

There was a schedule waiting for me. I was to see a case manager, an employment counselor, a drug counselor, and a social worker. That also meant that I couldn’t just check in, check out, and go home.

Instead, check-in took nine hours.

(That said, the food in the cafeteria, which everybody complained about, was absolutely delicious to me: white bread with a slice of turkey and a slice of cheese. I never tasted anything so wonderful. And I guess that says a lot about the fare federal prisons serve.)

The case manager finally gave me a list of 14 mandatory classes that I had to complete in the coming weeks, and then sent me home. I was told that I had to go to the halfway house every day to check in, go to class, and get drug tested.

That sounded fine, but became a colossal pain in the ass.

Life Skills

First, I wasn’t allowed to drive, so I had to take public transportation.

I had to leave my house in Arlington, walk to the nearest Metro station, take the train to Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, catch a bus for Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, get off on Alabama Avenue, then walk the rest of the way to Hope Village. This takes at least two hours each way. I’d spend an hour or two at Hope Village, and then make the two-hour trip home.

This was killing six hours every day in the middle of the workday. The problem here is that I was supposed to be finding a job and working every day. Remaining unemployed at a certain point would make me “violated.” Having broken the rules of my probation, I’d be heading back to Loretto and spending more time in prison. I saw these daily visits to the halfway house as an utter waste of time.

Perhaps out of laziness or maybe as a form of rebellion, I didn’t sign up for any of the classes the first two weeks of my house arrest. These classes included Life Skills, Kicking Your Drug Addiction, Suicide Prevention, Prison Rape Prevention, How to Write a Resume, and others.

By way of background, I have a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a master’s degree in legislative affairs, both from George Washington University. I spent 15 years at the CIA, four years as the deputy director of competitive intelligence in a “Big Four” accounting firm, and more than two years as the senior investigator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I have five children, the eldest of whom is graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in economics.

So frankly, I didn’t need any of those classes. I’ve never done a drug in my life, and my life skills are just fine. And really, I told the case manager, prison rape prevention class should be given before the person goes to prison, not after release.

At the end of the second week, I got a call from my case manager. “Come to Hope Village right away. We need to do a team meeting.” I had no idea what this meant, but I embarked on another long trek to Anacostia. When I got there, I was ushered into a dilapidated conference room. Sitting around the table were the director and deputy director of Hope Village, the case manager, the employment counselor, the social worker, and a representative of the Bureau of Prisons. The case manager angrily said, “You haven’t signed up for a single class since you got out. Unless you want to be violated you better start taking the life skills classes!”

I paused for a moment, looked at her, and said, “Have you ever seen the episode of The Simpsons where Homer has to take a life skills class? He walks into the classroom and the instructor is saying ‘put a garbage can lid on the garbage can, people. I can’t stress that enough.’ Is that what you’re going to teach me in your life skills class? To put a garbage can lid on the garbage can?” There was silence for a moment, then the director asked me to step outside for a moment.

I stood in the hall for about half an hour, and then I was called back in to the conference room. “OK,” the director said. “We’re waiving all the classes. You don’t have to take any of them.” I thanked him, and continued: “There’s another thing. I want permission to drive. I kill four hours in travel time, plus however much time I spend being here every time I come up. I can drive here from my house in 15 minutes. I can use the rest of that time to work. And isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing?” There was another period of silence. Then the director said, “OK. You can drive. Give the employment counselor a copy of your license, insurance, and title. I’ll approve it.”

I later made one more minor complaint to my case manager. I told her that our meetings, which by then had tapered to three times a week yet were still scheduled in the middle of the day, interfered with my ability to work. She moved them to Tuesday and Thursday nights at 7:00 p.m.

To their credit, Hope Village’s employees showed flexibility, pragmatism, and respect. I wish I could say the same for my experience with the Bureau of Prisons.

The Daily Gauntlet

So for 87 days, from my release from Loretto on February 3 until the end of my house arrest on May 1, this was the deal: I couldn’t leave my house except to go to Hope Village, seek or do work, or visit the doctor. What I couldn’t do was go to PTA meetings, my children’s school events, their sporting events, or enter a private home.

The halfway house’s “officer in charge of quarters” called me every morning between 7:10 and 8:00 a.m. to make sure I was home. There was a second call every night between 9:15 and 10:15 p.m. Sometimes they even called after 11:00 at night.

The “employment counselor” stopped by the house randomly, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday, to make sure I was home. If I left the house for any reason whatsoever, I had to call Hope Village and say, “John Kiriakou leaving the house,” even if it was to go to Hope Village. I also had to call when I got home to say, “John Kiriakou. I arrived home.”

On Saturdays and Sundays, at least, I was allowed to leave the house for five hours. Then, if I returned home for an hour, I could go back out for up to four more hours, for the purpose of “family reintegration.” I could go to a movie, a restaurant, the park, or do whatever I needed to with my wife and kids.

Every Tuesday, I had to meet with my case manager and give her a copy of my proposed movement for the week — a list of doctor’s appointments, visits to Hope Village, meetings with my attorneys and prospective employers, and plans for the weekend. I also had to give her receipts from the weekend to prove that I did what I said I would do, and a copy of my monthly phone bill.

I also had to pay “rent” to Hope Village for the bed I didn’t use. That rent is 25 percent of my gross pay. You see, like all halfway houses, Hope Village is a for-profit enterprise. Lip service to job training, mental health, and reintegration are fine, but the truth is that the goal of Hope Village and every other halfway house is to get released prisoners in and out as quickly as possible.

Every resident has to pay rent, and the only way the halfway house can make any money is to rent out the bed to three, four, or more people at the same time. The goal, then, is to get people into home confinement like mine quickly. That way, they don’t cost the halfway house anything in the way of food or other resources, but they still pay rent.

You would think that would be an incentive for Hope Village to help people find a job, but it’s not. Aside from a bulletin board in the office listing job openings at fast food restaurants, car washes, and motels, there’s no program to get anybody a job. Just get a job — any job — on your own, and go home and pay your rent.

Ideas into Action

Fortunately, I had a temporary job lined up before I even left prison. I set out immediately to find something permanent.

I was finally offered a position as an associate fellow with Washington’s preeminent progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies.

Founded in 1963, IPS is one of the most highly respected independent policy institutions in the city. Its experts appear on network news programs all the time, they publish countless books, magazine articles, and syndicated columns, and they speak around the world on issues as varied as the Middle East peace process, climate change, gender equality, human rights, civil rights, and the environment. My job would be to write articles, papers, and op-eds on prison reform, intelligence reform, torture, terrorism, and the Middle East.

I’ve always admired IPS and the work it does, and I was excited at the prospect of working there. But more bureaucracy lay ahead.

I filled out the relevant paperwork for the halfway house. The employment counselor visited the IPS office to make sure there was such a place and that they knew I was a felon. No problems there.

But two weeks later, my case manager showed me a note from the Bureau of Prisons regional office in Baltimore. It said, “We feel it is inappropriate for Inmate Kiriakou to work in a job that would allow him to comment on foreign affairs and prison reform, given the nature of his crime.”

That, of course, is nonsensical.

First, there’s that pesky issue of “freedom of speech.” Second, it’s not up to the Bureau of Prisons to decide where I can and can’t work. I could have gone to court to file a motion overturning the BOP’s decision. But that would have taken months, so I decided to wait them out.

With my house arrest over, the BOP no longer controls me. So on May 4 I started my job with IPS.

Making Contact

Of course, I’ve had other problems with the BOP along the way.

When I got home on February 3, I tweeted a photo of myself sitting on the couch with my three youngest kids and the caption, “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last. MLK, Jr. (And John Kiriakou.)” That tweet was picked up by major alternative news websites, as well as television networks like Russia Today and Al Jazeera. Consequently, I received dozens of interview requests over the next couple of weeks.

Before I accepted any of them, I looked at the BOP’s regulations related to press interviews at www.bop.gov. The regulations were clear: I needed to get BOP approval for interviews while incarcerated. I then checked the halfway house’s website. It said thatresidents of Hope Village had to get the director’s permission before speaking to the press. I was neither incarcerated nor a resident of the halfway house.

So I accepted a number of interview requests, including with Democracy Now, RT, and several print outlets. Within days, I received a call from a BOP official in Baltimore. He said that he was “very concerned” that I’d had unauthorized contact with the press. I told him that, on the contrary, I had read the regulations and didn’t need BOP approval. Furthermore, I had read the Hope Village regulations, and I didn’t need their authorization either.

The BOP guy nonetheless insisted that if I continued to grant interviews without his approval, he’d violate me and send me back to prison. Again, a motion before the court would’ve taken months to get a hearing. And I likely would’ve had to argue it from prison.

I know when to make a strategic retreat, so I made one.

Instead of continuing to freely speak with the media, I decided to bury him in paper. I sent him as many as a dozen forms per week. I put him in touch with every blogger, podcaster, reporter, and photojournalist I came into contact with. There were reporters from most major American news outlets and a dozen foreign countries. There were radio hosts from the far left, the far right, and everything in between. I even did an entire one-hour radio program on how folk singer Pete Seeger influenced the course of my life.

This turned out to be too much for the BOP guy. He just ignored many requests when he was too busy. I resubmitted them. And when he told one freelance reporter that he couldn’t speak to me because he wasn’t a “real” journalist, I countered that I shouldn’t need to ask permission to speak with him. After all, it would be a conversation between two private citizens. The BOP guy backed down.

Again, if I needed to, I could just outwait him. He only controlled me until May 1.

The Future

So now I’m home and, generally, free.

The future looks promising. I intend to make a living writing, speaking, and teaching. I will write op-eds for the Institute’s OtherWords editorial service and its Foreign Policy In Focuswebsite. I’ll speak at colleges, universities, non-profits, and to other groups, and I’ll teach a course I’ve developed on ethics in intelligence operations.

Additionally, after what I’ve been through, my voice will be heard on prison reform — no matter how much of a pest I have to make of myself.

Our country’s prison system is broken. It’s racist. And it needs to be torn down and rebuilt. Overcrowding is unconstitutional and out of control. Sentences are draconian, especially for people of color. And the poor quality of medical care is criminal. The Bureau of Prisons’ neglect of sick prisoners is tantamount to abuse and, in some cases, manslaughter. I hope to help put an end to that.

In the meantime, I want to say thanks again to the more than 700 people who wrote to me in prison. Thank you for remembering me. Thank you for your support. Please also remember those still inside.

Please stay in touch by signing up for my occasional newsletter at www.johnkiriakou.com.

Best regards,

John

Baltimore and the Human Right to Resistance

Baltimore police car in street

(Image: Flickr / bantam10)

Anti-Black racism, always just beneath the surface of polite racial discourse in the U.S., has exploded in reaction to the resistance of black youth to another brutal murder by the agents of this racist, settler-colonialist state. With the resistance, the focus shifted from the brutal murder of Freddie Gray and the systematic state violence that historically has been deployed to control and contain the black population in the colonized urban zones of North America, to the forms of resistance by African Americans to the trauma of ongoing state violence.

The narrative being advanced by corporate media spokespeople gives the impression that the resistance has no rational basis. The impression being established is that this is just another manifestation of the irrationality of non-European people – in particular, Black people – and how they are prone to violence. This is the classic colonial projection employed by all white supremacist settler states, from the U.S., to South Africa and Israel.

The accompanying narrative is that any kind of resistance that does not fit the narrow definition of “non-violent” resistance is illegitimate violence and, therefore, counter-productive because – “violence doesn’t accomplish anything.” Not only does this position falsely equates resistance to oppression as being morally equivalent to the violence of the oppressor, it also attempts to erase the role of violence as being fundamental to the U.S. colonial project.

The history of colonial conquest saw the U.S. settler state shoot and murdered its’ way across the land mass of what became the U.S. in the process of stealing indigenous land to expand the racist White republic from “sea to shining sea.” And the marginalization of the role of violence certainly does not reflect the values of the Obama administration that dutifully implements the bi-partisan dictates of the U.S. strategy of full spectrum dominance that privileges military power and oppressive violence to protect and advance U.S. global supremacy. The destruction of Libya; the reinvasion of Iraq; the civil war in Syria; Obama’s continued war in Afghanistan; the pathological assault by Israel on Palestinians in Gaza and the U.S. supported attack on Yemen by the Saudi dictatorship, are just a few of the horrific consequences of this criminal doctrine.

Race and oppressive violence has always been at the center of the racist colonial project that is the U.S. It is only when the oppressed resist — when we decide, like Malcolm X said, that we must fight for our human rights — that we are counseled to be like Dr. King, including by war mongers like Barack Obama. However, resistance to oppression is a right that the oppressed claim for themselves. It does not matter if it is sanctioned by the oppressor state, because that state has no legitimacy.

No rational person exalts violence and the loss of life. But violence is structured into the everyday institutional practices of all oppressive societies. It is the deliberate de-humanization of the person in order to turn them into a ‘thing’ — a process Dr. King called “thing-afication.” It is a necessary process for the oppressor in order to more effectively control and exploit. Resistance, informed by the conscious understanding of the equal humanity of all people, reverses this process of de-humanization. Struggle and resistance are the highest expressions of the collective demand for people-centered human rights – human rights defined and in the service of the people and not governments and middle-class lawyers.

That resistance may look chaotic at this point – spontaneous resistance almost always looks like that. But since the internal logic of neoliberal capital is incapable of resolving the contradiction that it created, expect more repression and more resistance that will eventually take a higher form of organization and permanence. In the meantime, we are watching to see who aligns with us or the racist state.

The contradictions of the colonial/capitalist system in its current expression of neoliberalism have obstructed the creation of decent, humane societies in which all people are valued and have democratic and human rights. What we are witnessing in the U.S. is a confirmation that neoliberal capitalism has created what Chris Hedges called “sacrificial zones” in which large numbers of black and Latino people have been confined and written off as disposable by the system. It is in those zones that we find the escalation of repressive violence by the militarized police forces. And it is in those zones where the people are deciding to fight back and take control of their communities and lives.

These are defining times for all those who give verbal support to anti-racist struggles and transformative politics. For many of our young white comrades, people of color and even some black ones who were too young to have lived through the last period of intensified struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s and have not understood the centrality of African American resistance to the historical social struggles in the U.S., it may be a little disconcerting to see the emergence of resistance that is not dependent on and validated by white folks or anyone else.”

The repression will continue, and so will the resistance. The fact that the resistance emerged in a so-called black city provides some complications, but those are rich and welcoming because they provide an opportunity to highlight one of the defining elements that will serve as a line of demarcation in the African American community – the issue of class. We are going to see a vicious ideological assault by the black middle class, probably led by their champion – Barack Obama – over the next few days. Yet the events over the last year are making it more difficult for these middle-class forces to distort and confuse the issue of their class collaboration with the white supremacist capitalist/colonialist patriarchy. The battle lines are being drawn; the only question that people must ask themselves is which side they’ll be on.

Fight for $15 Reaches New Heights

This past Wednesday, tens of thousands of low-wage workers in more than 200 cities across the U.S. demonstrated for a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union.

Protesters said they chose to demonstrate on 4/15 because the date sounds like “for $15.”

Who joined the protests this week? Everyone from fast food and full service restaurant workers to child and home care workers to Walmart employees, airport workers, and adjunct professors.

Known as the “Fight for 15″ campaign, the highly visible protests on Wednesday were one of the largest organized demonstrations of low-wage workers in U.S. history.

The campaign began in November of 2012 when a couple hundred fast food workers in New York City walked off the job and demanded $15 an hour, which is close to the average cost of living in America.

Since then, Fight for 15 has blossomed into a broad-based movement of low-wage workers from multiple industries alongside community organizations, faith groups, and other social justice advocates demanding social, economic, and racial justice.

In Wednesday’s protests in Manhattan, for example, activists from the Black Lives Matter movement joined the Fight for 15 chanting, “We can’t breathe on $7.25.” On college campuses, students concerned about rising student loan debt joined in solidarity with adjunct faculty and other low-wage workers. And this year,child care workers joined the Fight for 15 for the first time.

The solidarity expressed this week in the Fight for 15 has reached new heights and is well timed with a presidential race on the horizon.

Despite overwhelming support for raising the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, Congress has stalled on the issue. And the public is poised to continue pushing for an increase as several new widely publicized reports reveal that the ordinary taxpayers are subsidizing the low-wage model of employment.

For instance, a study issued by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that 56 percent of all state and federal public assistance goes to working Americans. Another report issued this week by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that nearly half of restaurant workers rely on public assistance to meet their family’s basic needs.

How much does all that add up to? According to the Berkeley study, ordinary American taxpayers are dishing out $152.8 billion each year in public support for working families.

In many ways the Fight for 15 is at the heart of the national debate about inequality. The movement has changed the conversation and prompted major corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s, and Target to announce wage increases. The Fight for 15 has also called attention to the concentration of wealth at the top of the economic ladder while ordinary workers struggle to get by.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, candidates on both sides of the aisle should pay attention. If Wednesday’s protests are any indication, the Fight for 15 is a movement that no candidate can afford to ignore.

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