IPS Blog

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,


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.

Estate Tax Wars: Pinocchio on Viagra

Businessman with Pinocchio maskThis week, the Washington Post published two pieces on the federal estate tax, each drawing very different conclusions about what’s driving the repeal effort. An estate tax vote is expected Thursday in the House of Representatives, a move that will only benefit the nation’s billionaires and multi-millionaires. Yet only one of the two Post writers is able to see the facts for what they are.

On one side is Dana Milbank, longtime syndicated columnist and meticulous centrist, who titles his new piece, “Republicans push for a permanent aristocracy.” He states in no uncertain terms what the impact of estate tax repeal would be: “Never in the history of plutocracy has so much been given away to so few who need it so little.”

Milbank supports his argument with cold hard facts, which he cites to debunk the misleading and often absurd claims made by estate tax opponents. Estate tax repeal will not help low and moderate-income families, just the 5,500 wealthiest families who pay it each year. The $5.4 million exemption ($10.8 for married couples) prevents 99.8 percent of Americans from ever paying any estate tax.

The estate tax is not about protecting farms or small business. Notes Milbank: “In the entire country, only 120 small businesses and farms (100 of them large farms) were hit by the estate tax in 2013.” Plenty of protections exist for those few small businesses and farms impacted and, it’s worth noting, no farm has ever been lost as a result of the estate tax.

Repealing the estate tax really is just about helping the rich at the expense of everyone else. Milbank cites the $269 billion hole created by estate tax repeal and points out that “the 318 wealthiest estates each year — those worth $50 million or more — would see an average windfall of $20 million each.”

On the other side is Glenn Kessler, head of the popular Fact Checker blog at the Washington Post, who titled his piece, “Is the estate tax killing small farms and businesses?”

The answer to Kessler’s question, clear to anyone who takes even a cursory look at the facts, is decidedly no. But despite citing the same facts as Milbank, Kessler is unable to draw that conclusion. He writes instead: “The raw facts may not entirely support the case against the estate tax, but increasingly this does not seem to matter.”

Kessler declines to give a “Pinocchio rating” to the GOP’s claims because, in his words, “the issue of the estate tax has become so unmoored from the facts that it has moved into the realm of opinion.”

How can a column that calls itself “Fact Checker” claim the facts apparently don’t matter? Anti-tax zealots in the GOP have spent decades distorting the facts. Now a fact checker gives them a pass because their deception has reached new heights? As the kids say, SMDH (Shake My Damn Head for non-texters).

The lies from estate tax opponents, that Kessler himself quotes, are proven blatantly false in his article. But instead of giving them the ranking they deserve, “Pinocchio on Viagra,” as fact checkers at the Associated Press and Factcheck.org did (using slightly different language), Kessler gives them a pass. For that matter, he gives fact telling a pass.


Tribute to Human Rights Lawyer Sam Buffone

Sam Buffone

Sam Buffone, who passed away on April 3, 2015, pursued justice for the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship throughout his career.

I am deeply saddened by the news that lawyer Sam Buffone, a pathbreaker in the field of international human rights, has died. IPS collaborated with Sam for several decades in the pursuit of justice for two IPS colleagues, Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who were assassinated in 1976 by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

In 1978, Buffone and law partner Michael Tigarfiled filed a historic civil suit on behalf of family members of Letelier and Moffitt against the assassins and the Republic of Chile. It was the first wrongful-death suit filed in the United States against a foreign nation. After the 1990 transition to democracy, the Chilean government settled the suit. In 1992, the Institute awarded our annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award to Buffone and Tigar for this pathbreaking work.

As this obituary notes, Sam continued to pursue justice for Pinochet’s victims throughout his career. In 1998, Pinochet was arrested on an order from the Spanish courts. The Spanish case had been filed by Spanish lawyer Juan Garcés, a former IPS Associate Fellow, on behalf of victims. Sam helped support the effort to extradite Pinochet to Spain to stand trial. That effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but in 2005, Sam and Garcés teamed up again to successfully sue Riggs Bank for concealing and spiriting Pinochet’s money out of Great Britain in 1999. The bank wound up paying $9 million to victims of Pinochet. And when Pinochet died in 2006, there were about 300 criminal charges pending against him in Chile for numerous human rights violations, tax evasion, and embezzlement.

In 2001, IPS and the Washington College of Law (WCL) at American University co-sponsored a conference entitled “The Pinochet Precedent: Individual Accountability for International Crimes.” The conference addressed various legal obstacles encountered in the struggle to bring former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet to justice and suggested new approaches for lawyers and human rights defenders in ongoing and future proceedings against individuals accused of violations of international criminal law.

At the conference, Buffone explained how, 25 years previously, the prevalent belief was that Pinochet was beyond the reach of the law because — as a former head of state — he had sovereign immunity for acts committed during his regime.

The concept of universal jurisdiction — the legal principle by which any country can prosecute certain international crimes, regardless of the nationality of the parties or the locus of the crime — was neither sufficiently developed nor commonly understood. In the wake of Spain’s request to extradite Pinochet from Britain, universal jurisdiction had gained increased recognition.

In his typical humble style, Sam Buffone downplayed his own critical role in this historic development in international human rights law. We will deeply miss his quiet, yet forceful passion for justice. Below is the speech Sam gave at the 2001 conference on the impacts of the Letelier-Moffitt case:

Before I begin to address what I’d like to principally address in my remarks—the role of legal proceedings, court actions, and international cooperation among lawyers in human rights cases—I would like to focus on what I think we should be addressing in this conference. One of the unfortunate outgrowths of the kind of analysis that we’re doing today is it emphasizes the extraterritorial reach of the Pinochet regime in cases like Letelier-Moffitt, in cases like Prats, in cases like Leighton, and it deflects attention from the overwhelming vast majority of the terrible heinous crimes that occurred in Chile. The murders, the tortures, the systematic erosion of democratic government, the political genocide that were the hallmarks of the Pinochet regime are the crimes that he must be held responsible for. Cases like Letelier-Moffitt, as important as the quest for justice is, are but a vehicle. There cannot be a calculus that can compute which of the crimes is somehow worse than the others. I apologize for my remarks in advance to the extent that they attempt to emphasize this part of it.

You’ve already heard from two speakers about the terrible events here in Washington, D.C. in September of 1976. One of the outgrowths of the bombings in Sheridan Circle was that it framed for many in Washington, DC—policy makers, those in government, those in NGOs, students and everyday citizens—the fact that these types of terrorist acts could in fact be brought to visit on individuals much like themselves here in Washington, DC. And this explains why for over 25 years, there has been a well of strength here in the Capital: individuals who’ve been willing to come forward and speak out and act in ways to ensure justice here.

Fortunately, much of that action was channeled through legal proceedings that were successful. Because I must say the at the beginning of each and every one of these proceedings, culminating in the extraordinary work that Juan Garcés did in Spain and in London, both the legal community and most of the public said that they were doomed to failure. And the legacy of the Letelier-Moffitt case is that these vehicles which originally started out as a laughing stock of international lawyers have turned to accepted principles of international law in a relatively short period of time.

So let’s go back to what happened in 1976. When Michael Tigar first began representing the estates for Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, the thought was that there would not be a full and vigorous investigation by the United States government. And the only way to ensure that investigation would go forward was to have a vehicle by which the families could institute their own legal action.

And the then-newly passed Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act was utilized in the complaint that Michael and I drafted against the Republic of Chile and the responsible individuals to sue them for monetary damages for planning and carrying out the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations. This began the 25 year immunity wars. It’s important to recall that the litigation began with fights over soveriegn immunity. And those same battles over immunity would extend into the House of Lords and eventually the decision of the House of Lords stripping Augusto Pinochet of his immunity. But the first step was an act of the United States Congress and a Judge in the Federal District Court here in Washington, DC who was willing to recognize that the Chilean state, by engaging in acts of international terrorism in the United States, had stripped itself of sovereign immunity. The Chilean state refused to appear in that civil proceeding. They appeared through a Washington, DC law firm in diplomatic notes authored through the Chilean embassy.

An in-abstencia proceeding was conducted where the Federal District Court here entered a monetary judgement against the Republic of Chile. Once that award was entered, we were then left with the task of enforcing it. This was stage two of the immunity battle. We went to New York and attached all of the Lan Chile aircraft and ticketing accounts owned by Lan Chile using US Marshalls. And for approximately 48 hours, Michael Moffitt was the receiver of Lan Chile.

At that point, the Chilean Government chose to bond out of the proceedings so that the planes would be released. They posted a multi-million dollar bond. Eventually the US Courts held that while Chile was not immune from liability, they were immune from attachment of any of their assets. So we were left without a remedy.

We then began to lobby Congress to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act to provide a remedy. And that bill was passed through the United States House of Representatives, and it appeared that we had the political force to pass it through the United States Senate. At that point, the State Department negotiated a compromise with us. They were violently opposed to the legislation. If we would withdraw our legislative effort, they would invoke a 1914 treaty negotiated by William Jennings Bryan with the Chilean government—a bilateral arbitration treaty—that had only been used once since 1914. It had been invoked by then Interior Minister Orlando Letelier over the seizure of the copper mines in Chile.

The United States dusted off a procedure that hadn’t been used since the civil war and took over the claims of U.S. citizens—in this case, Orlando’s children who were born here, and the estate of Ronni Moffitt—and brought the claim sovereign to sovereign. A special international court was formed, and they litigated the civil liability of the Republic of Chile in front of that court. And about this time, the democratization in Chile was proceeding, and the election of the Alwyn government occurred. Through a series of then off the record meetings, we negotiated a second arrangement, this one with the Chilean government, where they agreed that they would publicly recognize the Chilean government’s responsibility for the assassinations. They would submit to the international tribunal and pay any judgment that resulted and would continue with their prosecutions of Contreras and Espinoza. They held true to all three of those.

The next major event was the effort of the US Government to support the Chilean government in its prosecution of Contreras in Espinoza and ultimately their imprisonment. A political event that maybe many of us forget how politically charged it was in Chile and what a significant event it was for the emergence of an independent judiciary, civilian control over the military and the redemocratization in Chile.

At about this point, I think most of the lawyers in the United States certainly myself were packing up the files and deciding that this matter was over because we believed that General Pinochet was beyond the reach of justice as it was available at that point. I was at that point visited by Dr. Garcés in my office in Washington who educated me about the reach of Spanish civil and criminal law, about the possibilities of universal jurisdiction.

I began working with Dr. Garcés at that point. Our first effort was to obtain documents from the United States government through letters rogatory that would be of assistance in the Spanish proceeding. That eventually led to an agreement with the United States government to declassify, a systematic declassification, of Chilean human rights documents. Much of what you’ve seen processed by the National Security Archives. The documents that have been released have proven so valuable in any number of cases, that was all motivated and brought to pass because of the Spanish proceeding in an effort to mesh the legal proceedings in the US with those that were going on in Spain.

At the point where the arrest of General Pinochet occurred in London, I think that attempt to marry those two efforts came to full fruition and the lawyers in this country began working closely with their colleagues in London and Spain to make sure that now that there actually was a real proceeding against General Pinochet where there was a court with physical jurisdiction over him, that everything possible was done.

I won’t dwell on the lengthy legal proceedings in London other than to say that the precedents that were established there on immunity from prosecution by former heads of state I think are perhaps the greatest victory and the most lasting legacy, I would hope, of the entire Pinochet matter.

A word about current status and lessons that I hope we can all draw from what has occurred so far. First, I remain optimistic that the United States Government will continue with its efforts to domestically prosecute General Pinochet. The United States has jurisdiction over General Pinochet for an act of murder that occurred here, the Chilean government has recognized the territorial jurisdiction of the United States over the assassination in the Letelier-Moffitt cases. The Justice Department, as you heard from Dr. Garcés, sent investigators to Chile, has been involved in an active investigation of Gen. Pinochet’s responsibility for quite some time. And we’re very hopeful that the new administration, once the head of the Criminal Division takes office, will reinvigorate that investigation and bring it to a quick indictment.

The release of documents by the National Security Agencies in this country, by the State Department and to a lesser extent by the Justice Department, was a watershed event in the Letelier-Moffitt case, although not inconsistent with a growing trend of the United States government to both request that foreign governments declassify and publicly produce their documents related to human rights abuses and at least a modest willingness on behalf of the United States to do the same. I think we need to recognize that whatever strength there are to judicial proceedings to prosecute human rights cases, they are no greater than the political willingness of the governments to stand behind those prosecutions, to support an independent judiciary, and to come clean with their involvement in these very acts. I would hope that the release of documents in the Letelier-Moffitt case and the Chile Declassification Project will become a first step in an evolving model, not only for release of documents here, but for the release of documents on an international basis. That every government that was involved in Cold War excesses, that every government that has documentary or physical evidence about those excesses, should come forward and provide an archive and a basis for ongoing proceedings so that everyone will understand exactly what happened and who was responsible.

I support a much broader effort by the United States government to adopt the proceedings of the Rettig Commission in Chile, its own truth and reconciliation model, which the South Africans so brilliantly built upon and for us to undertake in the United States a truth and reconciliation process where we look in depth and objectively at not only our involvement in the destabilization and terrible events that occurred in Chile but elsewhere in the world during the cold war. With that kind of an informational basis, with that kind of a political commitment that can only come from full disclosure and the kind of introspective process that truth and reconciliation brings can judicial proceedings be possible or appropriate.

Reflections from India

This March, I was granted the opportunity to exchange ideas with civil society organizations in India who are working on the issue of human trafficking and forced labor. I shared my work as a social worker, organizer, and advocate here in the U.S., and learned about the challenges and innovations these groups were exploring in India.

I started in Mumbai, where I met with gender rights advocates and staff of a drop-in program for children of sex workers, offering meals, tutoring, and safety. In Hyderabad, I met with a group of domestic worker leaders who shared their struggles for inclusion, which profoundly mirror the struggles domestic workers are facing here at home.

TiffanyIndiaMy next stop, Bhubaneshwar, put me in the room with an energetic cohort of gender studies students who asked key questions about wage disparities, political advocacy by survivors, and how we could unpack the divide between sex and labor in the anti-trafficking movement. In Chennai, the highlight was Isabel Richardson, who runs a shelter home and invited me to help inaugurate a brand new retail outlet that would provide training and income to young survivors.

I presented at a conference of academics and activists in Ranchi which was focused largely on the in-country migration for household work of young girls, and visited the soul-warming open space of Kolkata Sanved, a unique program that uses dance movement therapy to help unlock the potential of survivors of gender-based violence.

In total I visited six cities, all different from each other, yet all coming up against the same challenges: good ideas and not enough resources. Many of them have moved beyond rescue mentality and toward the idea that governments should be responsible for the safety, health, and well-being of the people. Activists there are turning to the prevention side of human trafficking and forced labor, asking for policies and programs from government that address safety nets, unemployment, global inequality, and even climate change. As is true in the U.S., we need organizing and activism to demand such accountability.

The trip was a perfect transition point for my work; this month I step back from more than a decade of work on labor rights and trafficking and begin my tenure as the new Associate Director here at IPS.

At IPS, our analysis about global justice is that the world’s wealth derives in large part from resources that belong to all of us, and we are working to reverse global and national policies that accelerate inequality, and, for example, accelerate forced labor and trafficking.

It’s an honor to step into a role at IPS that will allow me to create a supportive and generative space for our staff, fellows, and interns to bring these kinds of ideas into action.

McDonald’s Workers Aren’t Lovin’ It

In a press release this week, McDonald’s announced it would raise workers’ wages to at least $1 above the local minimum and will aim for an average pay of $10 by the end of 2016.

Unfortunately, the wage hike applies only to restaurants owned and operated by McDonald’s itself but not franchised restaurants, which make up nearly 90 percent of McDonald’s stores (although some are speculating that franchisees will likely feel pressure to follow suit).

McDonald’s also announced that it will start letting workers accrue paid vacation time once they have been with the company for at least a year.

Alongside similar decisions by Walmart, Target, and others, McDonald’s announcement reflects just how much the public conversation about income inequality has shifted. These companies are feeling the pressure from worker protests which are fueling wider public discontent over income inequality.

And make no mistake: this is about income inequality, not just poverty-level wages. Nearly two-thirds of low-wage employers in America are large, wealthy corporations like Walmart, Target, and McDonald’s.

With soaring profits and extravagantly-paid executives, it’s no wonder these companies are the ones feeling the most pressure to raise workers’ wages. According to the National Employment Law Project, the 50 largest employers of low-wage workers are highly profitable, large corporations with executive compensation averaging $9.4 million.

That’s one of the reasons McDonald’s workers aren’t lovin’ this wage hike. As one worker affiliated with the Fight for $15 put it, this is a “weak move for a company that made $5.6 billion in profits last year.”

A weak move, indeed. This decision raises wages by just a fraction for a very small portion of McDonald’s workers. Mostly it allowed the fast food giant – which has been under increasing scrutiny for labor practices – to grab some positive headlines. It will boost wages for a few, but not significantly.

The Fight for $15 group has made clear that McDonald’s announcement won’t slow them down. “Hey McDonald’s: we said $15 and a union for everybody. See you on April 15,” they tweeted in response. Another worker tweeted, “We are not a value menu. We’re worth more than a $1 raise.”

If McDonald’s thought this move would cause worker protests to get quieter, they miscalculated. Those demands are about to get super-sized.

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