IPS Blog

Want to Stop Gentrification? Start a Union.

hampden-baltimore-gentrification

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Historical communities around the nation are being threatened by gentrification. Neighborhoods that have served as spaces for social advancement and vibrant local cultures for generations are under threat as they become targets for gold-digging investors and developers.

I live in Hampden, one of many communities in Baltimore being threatened by gentrification.

Forbes ranked Hampden as America’s 15th most hipster neighborhood. Known for its walkability, coffee shops, local food trucks, and an assortment of local restaurants and bars, Hampden has a thriving local economy. These small shops and local businesses have been around for decades and helped establish the culture and generate wealth within the neighborhood.

David Korten, a political activist and former professor at the Harvard Business School, talks about the virtues of neighborhoods like Hampden in his book Agenda for a New Economy. Korten advocates a Main Street economy based on locally owned, community-oriented “living enterprises” whose success is measured as much by their positive impact on people and the environment as by their positive balance sheets.

Hampden itself has about 7,000 residents and well over 100 small locally owned businesses, many of which are located on “The Avenue.” These businesses are a part of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, which strives to keep the local economy of Greater Hampden safe, unique, and beautiful.

Along with sustaining community-based businesses, Hampden hosts a variety of events that brings together people from all over Baltimore. One of the more notable events is the Hon Fest, which is held every year to honor the historic working women of Baltimore.

But we all know what will happen if gentrification strikes Hampden, right? Hon Fest will disappear, and the Hampden Village Merchants Association will be rendered meaningless. People will be displaced and culture will be lost. As more affluent residents drive up rents, working-class folks and the poor will be forced out.

This has already occurred in other parts of Baltimore.

Developing sections in East Baltimore near the Johns Hopkins Medical Complex, for example, have already faced the tremendous challenges of rising housing costs. According to City Observatory, some 13 percent of Middle East Baltimore residents now live in poverty, compared to 43 percent in 1970 . And that’s not because poverty has gone down — it’s because of large-scale displacement of people near the Hopkins campus. The Middle East neighborhood is hardly recognizable to many who grew up there — its people gone, its old locally owned businesses forced out.

How can neighborhoods like Hampden avoid this fate?

One idea is to form neighborhood unions. Like labor unions, which were created to help workers combat low pay, unsafe working conditions, and long hours, neighborhood unions would help citizens bargain collectively for affordable housing, housing security, protections for local businesses, and community reconciliation. Rather than serving as fronts for gentrification, as many neighborhood associations have, these unions must link with — and build with — the neighborhoods mostly affected by social inequalities.

These neighborhood unions would represent locals and practice internal democracy. People within the neighborhoods would hold elections to vote for representatives who reside in their local area. Locals can use collective bargaining to negotiate with local legislators to oppose commercial development that doesn’t serve the greater good of the community.

We must learn from neighborhoods all around the nation affected by gentrification and share those lessons with other communities at risk of suffering the same fate. It’s time to give the people most directly affected by the crisis the tools to protect their communities and preserve the value that enriches all of our neighborhoods.

When Will We Admit the War in Afghanistan isn’t Working?

Afghanistan: Avoiding Default

Last Wednesday, President Obama once again delayed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Approximately 8,400 troops will remain in the country through the end of his presidency, he announced, rather than the 5,500 he committed to back in October 2015. Meanwhile, casualties continue to mount: Thousands of Afghan civilians were killed in 2015 alone.

It’s time to end the longest war in U.S. history. Begun less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, the war aimed to destroy the al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden and take out the Taliban government that had provided them with safe haven. President Bush’s focus, however, was anything but narrow: “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he said shortly before the invasion. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

Nearly 15 years and over $740 billion dollars later, there are few genuine successes the United States can claim as validation for its efforts. While an American withdrawal won’t remedy the problems of Afghanistan entirely, there’s good evidence to suggest our continued presence is making things worse.

Failed Military Strategies

This unending, costly war came in response to blowback from American policies in the region. According to the conventional history, we began aiding the mujahideen, a loose-knit assortment of Afghan Islamist guerrilla militants, in 1980, in response to the December 1979 Soviet invasion. (While Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in 1979 and was affiliated with a predominantly non-native mujahideen group at that time, the CIA maintains it only funded and armed indigenous Afghan rebels.)

The conventional history is wrong, at least according to a 1998 interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski told a French weekly that we decided to aid the mujahideen six months before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in July 1979, knowing this could help push the Soviets into a Vietnam-style conflict. When pressed about whether he felt any regret having provided aid and arms to Islamic fundamentalists, Brzezinski, three years before the 9/11 attacks, responded brusquely: “What is more important in world history? … Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

Read the full article on In These Times’s website.

They’re Killing Us. Help Us Stop Them.

dc-orlando-vigil

(Photo: Flickr / Ted Eytan)

The weekend of June 12 sent me on a rollercoaster of emotions I never thought possible.

The previous Friday, I was an invited participant in the first-ever White House Summit for African American LGBTQ Youth. I felt amazingly supported, empowered, and valued — by my school, by my family and friends, by President Obama, and by my LGBTQ community.

I was inspired.

On Saturday, I marched in the Pride Parade in our nation’s capital. I sang and danced with neighbors from every race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. We celebrated ourselves, each other, our allies, and our bright futures.

We were so beautiful and full of promise. I was so proud to be an Afro-Latina-Anglo transgender teen.

Then came Sunday.

I woke up to find that a hatred-filled assassin in Orlando had brutally murdered 49 members of our young, innocent, beautiful, and beloved community, and injured over 50 more.

They say the murderer was a U.S.-born Islamic terrorist. But Omar Mateen’s hatred for my community echoes the headlines I see about right-wing fundamentalists of other faiths who call for discrimination against people like me — and for the erasure of my rights as a human being.

His hatred echoes the oppression, arrests, and killings of my black and Latino brothers and sisters on the streets, in schools, and in our prisons. It reflects the cruelty of those who want to keep Muslims and Latinos away from our country — by force — and who still want to keep LGBTQ people from marrying each other.

They’ll even deny us the right to pee in peace, if that’s what it takes to dehumanize and humiliate us.

I’m not trying to be partisan. But it’s hard not to notice that President Obama held a summit to tell us how valued we are, while Donald Trump and many conservative lawmakers want to erase us.

Many Republicans invoked fears of international terrorism, but most said nothing about the members of our LGBTQ communities, who were the very targets and victims. They vow more Islamophobia, but make no mention of the ease with which the killers get and use assault weapons.

I’m only 15 years old, but I know what it’s like to have deep love and support, and I’ve witnessed and been the object of deep hatred and ignorance. I feel angry and heartbroken by this massacre.

A culture of fear and bigotry is again taking hold of this country. But my generation demands our equality and our human rights. We want to lead, and to determine our own future. We want you not just to love us, but to support us and to listen to us.

So if you don’t understand who we are and what we need, ask us.

To start, you can fight back against laws aimed at hurting us or erasing us, like thosebigoted and ridiculous bathroom bills. Punish politicians who block sensible gun control. Stop supporting lawmakers who want to exploit and exclude immigrants. Stop the people who are expelling and suspending and arresting and incarcerating us.

They’re killing us. Help us stop them.

We’re stronger than you think. We’re Generation Z, and we come of age in 2018. Our future is majority black and brown, and more openly queer than any before us.

We know that many of you are allies. We need you, and you need us. Together we can stop the rollercoaster of fear and terror and start the climb to the mountaintop of love and liberation.

The Civil War Didn’t End Slavery After All

(Photo: popularresistance.org)

(Photo: popularresistance.org)

Slavery has been abolished in the United States since 1865, when the 13th Amendment was passed in the ashes of the Civil War.

Well, almost abolished. Actually, the amendment included a caveat: “except as punishment for a crime.” Since then, prison and forced labor have always gone together.

In fact, with over 2 million people behind bars in this country, the American prison system is a massive — albeit largely invisible — part of our economy and social fabric.

Recent years have seen a rise in both private prisons and the use of prison labor by private, for-profit corporations. This has created perverse incentives to imprison people and exploit them for cheap labor — often at 50 cents an hour or less.

Corporations such as Microsoft, Target, Revlon, and Boeing have all made products with prison labor. With over a third of home appliances and 30 percent of speakers and headphones made using prison labor, it’s likely most American households own inmate-made products.

Even Whole Foods, a famed destination for ethical consumers, was forced to stop selling certain artisanal cheeses last year when those “artisans” were revealed to be prisoners who made a base wage of 60 cents a day.

We won’t even get into what Whole Foods — sometimes called “Whole Paycheck” — was charging consumers for prisoner-made products, which also included organic milk and tilapia.

The problem is making its way into popular culture as well. A season three episode of the Netflix prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, for example, illustrated a similar scam.

In the episode, a thrilling new job opportunity is marketed to the inmates. Most are beside themselves at the idea of working for $1 an hour — well above the compensation offered for any other job in the prison. A scheme is hatched to trick the women into clamoring for the job in a fake competition.

The episode closes with a scene showing the chosen women as their new job is revealed to them. They walk into a warehouse. The lights click on, and the viewer first sees the shock and disappointment on their faces. Then the camera turns to show rows and rows of sewing machines and a corporate logo overhead.

They’d competed to work in a sweatshop.

Real-life prisoners are starting to organize against this kind of abuse. This April, prisoners in Texas held a coordinated work stoppage with the help of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee — an arm of the global IWW union.

The striking inmates refused to do work assigned to them by Texas Correctional Industries, an arm of the state Department of Justice that uses inmate labor to make everything from personal care items to toilets. Incarcerated workers there are paid as little as 17 cents an hour, even as phone calls can cost $1 a minute and medical care requiresa $100 copay.

Another union-coordinated strike is underway at several Alabama prisons, where inmates labor in deplorable conditions even as they generate profits for private industries. Unions and rights groups are gearing up for a national strike this September to derail this exploitative system.

Those most directly and negatively affected, the prisoners and their families, need and deserve our support. But the rest of us need to finish the work of the Civil War and end forced labor in our country for good.

Five Reforms Every Police Department Should Make

(Photo: Mike Dunford / Flickr)

(Photo: Mike Dunford / Flickr)

It was only a little over a year ago that Baltimore went up in flames.

In April 2015, thousands of protestors took to the streets after Freddie Gray — a 25-year-old African American man who hadn’t been accused of any crime — died in police custody. Six officers were implicated in his death, which was caused by severe injuries to his neck and spine.

Just this May, Edward Nero — the second officer to face trial over Gray’s death — was cleared of all charges.

The episode marks another chapter in a long story of mistrust between police officers and black people in the United States. Polling data has consistently shown that black Americans have significantly less confidence in the police than their white counterparts. The disparity is even more pronounced in urban communities.

In many places, the mistrust is well deserved.

For instance, in the few short years before the Baltimore uprising, the Baltimore Sun reported, over 100 people in the majority-black city had “won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations.”

The U.S. Department of Justice is now probing the Baltimore Police Department for systemic abuse and racial discrimination. Similar probes have discovered abuses from Ferguson to Cleveland and Albuquerque to Chicago. More recently, protests against police shootings led to the ouster of San Francisco’s police chief as well.

It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage, but smart reforms that minimize police violence and racial bias — and improve accountability and transparency — can help put us on a path to better policing and safer communities. Here are a few of them.

  1. Institute Community Policing

Community policing is built on finding ways to optimize positive contact between police officers and community members. It was a key plank of the president’s task force on policing.

In part, it means taking police officers out of their offices and patrol cars and placing them on foot patrols throughout the community. That enables them to build a presence and personable connections with local community members before a crime or shooting happens.

Camden, New Jersey is a great example of a police culture shifting from one of intimidation to one that intentionally builds community ties.

In 2012, Camden reached its peak murder rate. That year, the city dissolved its police department and created a new one governed by the county. And, most importantly, it took a new approach to policing neighborhoods haunted by crime. “We’re not going to do this by militarizing streets,” said police chief J. Scott Thomas.

After two years of instituting community policing reforms — including hiring more officers, eliminating squad car patrols, knocking on doors to ask residents their concerns, and hosting neighborhood events like push-up contests with youth — violent crime had decreased by over 20 percent, and shootings by over 40 percent.

  1. Demilitarize

In uprisings from Baltimore to Ferguson, a major point of contention was the highly militarized response by the police, who greeted nonviolent protesters with military-grade weapons and vehicles.

But shooting tear gas from the top of armored trucks doesn’t exactly suggest that the local police are there to serve and protect. Those tactics, noted President Obama, “can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.”

Many of these weapons are surplus equipment granted to local departments by the federal government. In the wake of the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings, President Obama announced a limited ban on transferring some types of military equipment to local police departments. That ban should be expanded to include heavy-duty MRAV trucks and armored vehicles like Humvees, as well as M-16 rifles, drones, flash bangs, and other non-lethal explosives and teargas.

  1. Appoint Independent Prosecutors

One way that police officers can begin to be held more accountable for their actions is by ending the grand jury process for officers involved in shootings.

In most jurisdictions, prosecutors ask grand juries to consider whether charges should be brought against a defendant. But the process is completely secret, and the evidence presented is completely at the discretion of the prosecutor — who may be sympathetic to police. As one Slate writer explains, this amounts to “using grand jurors as pawns for political cover” to exonerate officers who may have shot unarmed suspects.

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans the use of grand juries to decide whether police officers should face criminal charges when they kill people in the line of duty. The high level of secrecy involved in grand jury proceedings, the state argued, often leads to non-indictments.

Instead, these cases should be tried by independent prosecutors who don’t have any connection to the local police force. That would send a strong message to the communities most impacted by disproportionate police violence that police officers will be held accountable for any wrongful death on their hands.

  1. Set Up Civilian Complaint Review Boards

Community oversight of police is crucial to establishing greater accountability, and this is especially true in communities of color.

In Newark, New Jersey, a scathing Department of Justice report found that local police often used excessive force and violated the constitutional rights of Newark residents. In response, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board with the power to investigate and subpoena police officers. Civilian oversight boards are a great way to empower members of the community to seek their own evidence in cases of police violence — and ultimately create a more transparent process.

  1. Provide Racial Bias Training

The fact of the matter is that black and Latino people face discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice system. Police officers should be required to explore how their implicit biases, unconscious prejudices, and stereotypes may cause them use violence against people of color disproportionately.

There’s no way that racial bias training alone can get rid of racial discrimination in policing, but the only way to work against implicit bias is to raise awareness about it. And police chiefs should lead the way on this by offering racial bias training to their officers.

Calls to implement these reforms have reverberated from grassroots activists all the way up to the presidential race. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for example, have made policing and criminal justice reform top priorities. But trust can only be rebuilt community by community. Local departments need take the initiative in healing the broken relations between police and the communities they serve.

Reclaiming Curtis Bay From Lethal Polluting Industries

(Photo: Flickr / United Workers)

(Photo: Flickr / United Workers)

On an unseasonably warm afternoon last fall, I parked my car atop a hill in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Curtis Bay. I started sketching the modest homes that line the sloping streets, dwarfed by the massive coal pier at the edge of the neighborhood.

After a while, a man walked out of his home across the street, curious about this stranger in his neighborhood. When I explained that I was drawing the coal pier, he invited me in for tea to chat.

Once I’d settled in with some Earl Grey, the friendly neighbor began telling me about himself. He was a musician, it turned out, and he brought his guitar into the kitchen where we were sitting. At first I thought he was going to share some of his music, but instead he placed the guitar in front of me and pointed to the powdery black dust beneath the strings.

It was coal dust.

He plays that guitar every day, he explained, yet every morning there’s a new dusting of coal. On my way out, he ran his hand along the top of the microwave, revealing another layer of coal dust.

Read the full article on the Baltimore Sun’s website.

Honoring Two IPS Giants

Marc Raskin (pictured) co-founded IPS with Richard Barnet in 1963.

Marc Raskin (pictured) co-founded IPS with Richard Barnet in 1963.

As a newcomer to IPS, it’s always a bit of a shock to hear the names of progressive heroes spoken around the water cooler with such familiarity.

On May 20, IPS dedicated our new conference room to two of those heroes, Richard Barnet and Marc Raskin, who co-founded IPS in 1963.

“The Barnet-Raskin Conference Room was designed to be a place for us to deepen our relationships with our friends and allies,” Associate Director Tiffany Williams said.

There was a lot of laughter among old friends at the dedication as IPS staff and members of the Barnet and Raskin families recalled moments of the two. Like the story of the first time they met, for instance.

They were both at a State Department meeting during the height of the Cold War and the room was filled with the elites of the military-industrial complex. One especially pompous official stated that if this group couldn’t bring about disarmament, no one could. There was silence. Until two men on opposite sides of the room laughed. A few years later, the story goes, they started IPS where they could more freely laugh at power.

Others recalled memories of the co-founders chasing after a folder of vital institutional documents that got swept up by the wind, and asking strangers in elevators about their tattoos.

Ann Barnet and Jamie Raskin share memories of Dick Barnet and Marc Raskin.

Ann Barnet and Jamie Raskin share memories of Dick Barnet and Marc Raskin.

“In a city that was all about power and ego,” said Sarah Anderson, who was hired by Dick Barnet in 1992, “Dick put niceness above everything else, never put himself above anything, and relished humor. Those are the things that helped us thrive.”

Ann Barnet, Dick Barnet’s wife, remembered countless people telling Dick that his book changed their life, that their life’s work came out of an internship at IPS, or that they found their calling at IPS.

“We need communities like IPS to keep going and make things happen,” Ann said. “It’s so much of an honor for me and my family to be a part of this vision that Dick believed in with all his heart and he’d be overjoyed to see it flourishing here and now.”

Karen Dolan, who was hired by Marc Raskin in 1996, shared a poem she wrote that began:

Ben and Anna in ’34
Gave birth to a baby and opened a door
To music and justice and the intellectual spark
Which would burn so brightly in a public scholar named Marc

IPS Director John Cavanagh toasts to the audacity of the men with "giant ideas that seemed impossible until they made a few of them possible."

IPS Director John Cavanagh toasts to the audacity of the men with “giant ideas that seemed impossible until they made a few of them possible.”

Maryland senator and Marc Raskin’s son, Jamie Raskin, joked that all of the Raskin kids could probably be described as projects of IPS. He said the thing his father taught him about politics was to never give up on anybody, and to talk to everybody.

Cellist David Rabin, who used to perform alongside Dick Barnet, helped honor the co-founders with a Bach piece.

To close, IPS Director John Cavanagh toasted to the audacity of Dick and Marc, and to the “giant ideas that seemed impossible until they made a few of them possible.”

As I toasted the creation of this institute that has been a home for thousands of progressives plotting together on how to make the world a better place, surrounded by IPSers past and present, I felt grateful and inspired to be a part of this continued history in the making.

Terrorists Who Struck Washington in 1976 Face More Murder Charges

(Photo: Flickr / Annais Ferreira)

The extradition is a reflection of the perseverance of many of the key lawyers who’ve been doggedly pursuing justice for Letelier and Moffitt and many other victims of the Pinochet dictatorship for four decades. (Photo: Flickr / Annais Ferreira)

Forty years ago, agents of the Chilean dictatorship assassinated two colleagues at my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, less than a mile from our office in downtown Washington, DC.

The murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt was a devastating blow to their families, friends, colleagues, and human rights supporters around the world. But over the decades, this brutal act has also led to important legal precedents— and some measures of justice.

Now comes news of another possible measure of justice. On May 17, Chile’s Supreme Court asked the U.S. government to extradite three former Chilean secret police agents. The request is in connection with the murder of United Nations diplomat Carmelo Soria in Chile in July 1976.

All three of these men were also involved in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination. And this current trial could help make up for the fact that none of them served lengthy sentences for a crime that, until 9/11, was the most notorious act of international terrorism in U.S. history.

Michael Townley, a hired American hitman for the Chilean secret police, pled guilty in 1978 to organizing the Letelier-Moffitt assassination. In the book Assassination on Embassy Row, John Dinges and Saul Landau explain how Townley crawled under Letelier’s car outside his suburban Washington home in the early morning hours of September 19, 1976 and attached a bomb with electrical tape.

Two days later, two right-wing Cubans detonated that bomb, killing the two IPS colleagues as they drove to work down Massachusetts Avenue. One of these Cubans was Virgilio Paz, also a target of the current extradition order.

The third man the Chileans are seeking to put on trial in the Soria case is former Chilean Army captain Armando Fernandez Larios, who also pled guilty for his role in murdering Letelier and Moffitt.

After testifying against other culprits, Townley was paroled after five years and then entered federal witness protection, as did Fernandez Larios after less than two years in jail. Paz spent a decade in U.S. prison before being set free in 2001.

The extradition request could lead to more prison time for this trio of Letelier-Moffitt assassins. And it is a reflection of the perseverance of many of the key lawyers who’ve been doggedly pursuing justice for Letelier and Moffitt and many other victims of the Pinochet dictatorship for four decades.

Spanish lawyer and former IPS associate Joan Garces has worked with Soria’s widow, Laura Gonzalez Vera, to pursue criminal cases against her husband’s killers in Spain and Chile for many years. Garces is the same lawyer who filed the Spanish case that led to the arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998. UK authorities eventually released the former dictator on humanitarian grounds and despite efforts to prosecute him in Chile, he died in 2006 without facing trial.

American lawyer Michael Tigar, who, along with Sam Buffone, represented the Letelier and Moffitt families in a successful and precedent-setting civil suit against the Chilean dictatorship, has worked in recent years to help lay the foundation for the Chilean court’s current extradition order.

Together with his wife, Jane Tigar, he founded a student clinic at the American University’s Washington College of Law that filed a lawsuit against Townley in connection with the Soria murder. This suit formed a sufficient factual basis for the Chilean court to begin formal proceedings in that country.

“The precedent of the Letelier-Moffitt case, and the ongoing struggle by IPS and others to keep these memories fresh, has once again yielded some results,” Michael Tigar told me in response to the news of the extradition order.

He cautions, however, that it is not at all certain whether the U.S. Department of Justice will comply with the order.

And yet this latest development is a clear reminder of the power of persistence. This year, IPS and others will mark the 40th anniversary of the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations with a series of events to honor these fallen colleagues while also recognizing the important legal achievements sparked by this tragedy —and the continuing work to champion human rights for all.

Gender Explained: How the Obama Administration Is Getting It Right on Gender Identity

gender-identity-trans-bathroomThe U.S. government is officially suing the state of North Carolina over its controversial, discriminatory “bathroom bill,” which bars transgender residents from using public restrooms appropriate to their gender identity.

In announcing the lawsuit, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave a powerful speech invoking the state’s segregationist past. “It was not so very long ago that states, including North Carolina, had signs above restrooms, water fountains, and on public accommodations keeping people out based upon a distinction without a difference,” she said of the South’s Jim Crow laws. “We have moved beyond those dark days, but not without pain and suffering and an ongoing fight to keep moving forward. Let us write a different story this time.”

Then, in a surprising tag-team move, the Department of Education announced an additional decree calling on public schools across the United States to allow transgender students to access restrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identities. The guidelines also advocate other ways to ensure civil rights for transgender students, such as using their chosen name and preferred pronoun and allowing them on the sports teams that match their self-identified gender. Together, these moves put public school administrators nationwide on notice: Discrimination against transgender students violates federal civil rights law.

Denying transgender students equal treatment isn’t simply discriminatory. It’s also just plain ignorant of human biology.

Those who oppose equal rights for transgender people, for instance, often insist on enforcing a linkage between gender and “biological sex.” Biology, it turns out, does indeed shape gender — just not in the way they think.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there’s no convincing evidence that gender identity is either formed independently of hormonal influences or influenced by social environment after birth. On the contrary, there’s overwhelming evidence that the behavioral expressions we identify as “gender” are formed inside the brain, in utero, as a result of the presence or lack of androgens.

This process occurs quite separately, and later in pregnancy, than the development of genitalia. Genitalia develop in the first half of pregnancy and begin producing sex hormones. In the second half of pregnancy, the brain is influenced by the varying types and amounts of hormones produced and absorbed. Thus gender variation occurs along a spectrum, to greater and lesser degrees matching the sexual organs.

It’s also distinct from sexual orientation. Someone who identifies as transgender has the same likelihood of being straight, gay or bisexual as any other person.

In short, reproductive organs themselves don’t define gender. The hormonal influence on brain structure does.

Further, Science magazine reports, more recent studies show us that most brains are “a mosaic of male and female structures.” Indeed, very few brains — researchers estimate between 0 and 8 percent — are what we’d call “all female” or “all male.” In other words, virtually none of us has a fully male or fully female brain.

Instead, we all have brains that have some degree of mismatch with the social and behavioral expectations we assign to our reproductive organs. Mismatch is the norm, not the exception.

For many of us who don’t identify as transgender, the “mismatch” may be small. For other people, it may be sufficient to warrant a change in their gender markers. Still others may feel comfortable in many gender expressions, or none at all. Many people in this category call themselves genderqueer, or trans* with an asterisk, and may include intersex people. Some may need or desire medical intervention. All need affirmative legal policies to ensure their civil and human rights.

Ultimately what’s between people’s legs tells us little about their gender. Instead, we can only know gender according to how people self-identify.

Gender, like sexuality, doesn’t exist as a binary — it exists as an arc. It’s that simple, that beautiful, and that natural. And while society catches up with science, we need legal protections to stop discrimination and violence against people who identify or present as transgender, trans*, and genderqueer. Much of this violence is perpetrated most brutally against black, as well as poor, transgender girls and women.

Bathroom bills like North Carolina’s, or laws requiring a transgender girl to be a boy in school, aren’t just ignorant of biology — they’re in opposition to what it means to be human. So rather than tell an old story of exclusion and oppression based on fictional understandings of biology — a “distinction without a difference,” as the attorney general put it — let’s stand up and tell the truth: Our gender identities belong inextricably to us.

And we all have the right to self-determination, the right to pee in peace, and the right to live free from discrimination and violence.

Remembering Michael Ratner: Radical Lawyer, Global Activist, Loyal Friend

Michael Ratner with Vanessa Redgrave

Michael Ratner with Vanessa Redgrave

One of our movement’s champions, Michael Ratner, died yesterday. He was one of the greats among radical lawyers. With his colleagues at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild and beyond, he linked brilliant, innovative legal approaches with creative strategies for advocacy, activism, and mobilization.

Michael sued in U.S. courts to implement the decision of the International Court of Justice holding the Unite States liable for bombing Nicaragua. He defended inmates charged in the Attica prison uprising. He worked to get protesters out of jail, among them Central American activists and Palestinian human rights defenders. And he was among the first to say that detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, held without charge or trial in the so-called “global war on terror,” deserved lawyers, legal rights, and a challenge to their illegal detention.

 Michael was a consummate internationalist, committed to international law as well as global activism on Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Palestine, and further.  He helped create Palestine Legal, a team of lawyers and legal workers he mentored to defend Palestinian rights activists in the U.S.  He worked with CCR founder and longtime IPS board member Peter Weiss along with CCR’s Rhonda Copelon to figure out ways to use U.S. law to go after military dictators around the world.

 In 2006 Michael, along with his CCR colleague Maria LaHood and their client Maher Arar, a Canadian whom the U.S. had sent off to Syria to be tortured in 2002, accepted IPS’s annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. It was presented by acclaimed actor-activist Vanessa Redgrave.

 Michael was an extraordinary human being. The last time I saw him was at the flag-raising of the just-reopening Cuban Embassy in Washington in July 2015. He was, he said, more excited than at any moment other than the birth of his children.

Beyond his passion for justice and his powerful insistence on standing up to oppression and oppressors, Michael was a funny and incredibly loyal friend. I still remember an unexpected phone call years ago from Michael, who had just heard I had been diagnosed with cancer. He just wanted to tell me, “If you need any help, any money, if there’s anything, anything that you need – another doctor, a new drug, anything – you call me. I’m here.”  And he always was.

 His death is a huge loss for all of us. But what a gift that we had Michael with us for so long. Now it’s our turn to be inspired by his commitment to justice and challenged by his fierce courage in fighting for it. As his CCR comrades wrote yesterday, “Today we mourn. Tomorrow we continue his work.”

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