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The Nationwide Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight

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Some investigative reports reveal such extreme levels of greed, immorality and abuse that they can seem inconceivable. Such is the case of the bombshell series by the Center for Investigative Reporting on the egregious exploitation of residential care home workers. Jennifer Gollan, the Emmy Award-winning journalist in this investigation published by Reveal, joins Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer to discuss her work on this week’s episode of his podcast “Scheer Intelligence.”

Below is an excerpt from the multimedia report by Gollan:

[The] burgeoning multibillion-dollar elder care industry … is enabling operators to become wealthy by treating workers as indentured servants. Across the country, legions of these caregivers earn a pittance to tend to the elderly in residential houses refurbished as care facilities, according to an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

The profit margins can be huge and, for violators of labor laws, hinge on the widespread exploitation of thousands of caretakers, many of them poor immigrants effectively earning $2 to $3.50 an hour to work around the clock. The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25.

Reveal interviewed more than 80 workers, care-home operators and government regulators and reviewed hundreds of wage theft cases handled by California and federal labor regulators, workers and local district attorneys. The investigation found rampant wage theft has pushed a vast majority of these caregivers into poverty.

While the investigation mostly focused on California care homes, what Gollan discovered is a nationwide problem hiding in plain sight, “blend[ing] in to neighborhoods. What’s worse is that the proliferation of these homes, made possible through lax regulations is leading people to join what many see as a get-rich-quick scheme by opening and operating an elderly care facility.

“[Operators] know they can suppress workers’ wages, and then take in $4,000 a month from seniors and make up the difference,” the journalist tells Scheer on the latest installment of his podcast. “There are many, many entrepreneurs on YouTube promoting this business in particular as a money-making machine, and a place where you can get into the business, the real estate end of the business, flip a house, make a few adjustments, and care for a bunch of seniors, open a care home and make a lot of money.”

The mistreatment and underpayment of workers, some of whom are undocumented and therefore unable or afraid to report the labor abuses to the authorities, don’t just affect their lives, however. It also leads to conditions where the health and safety of the senior citizens placed in the care of these facilities are neglected. As Scheer points out, this scandal may be indicative of a larger moral issue at play in wider American society.

“This has been going on for a long time,” Scheer tells Gollan. “And where are the other journalists? And where are the legislators? Why aren’t they more proactive? Why haven’t they been looking into it?”

According to Gollan, policymakers are at the very least beginning to wake up to the issue. This is in large part due to her valiant journalist efforts.

“We’ve heard from some state lawmakers that they’re mobilizing for the next session to write some legislation to clean up the industry and protect workers,” the Reveal reporter explains. “And we’re hearing from some federal lawmakers that they are taking a close look at this.”

Listen to the full discussion between Scheer and Gollan as they talk about the operators, exploited workers and regulators who have had a role to play in the rampant abuse of workers taking care of the most vulnerable members of American society.

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s Jennifer Gollan, a reporter, prize-winning reporter, for Reveal, the radio product of the Center for Investigative Reporting based in Emeryville, California. And this is a series about the shabby treatment of seniors in need, medically infirm; sometimes they pay a lot of money for this shabby treatment. But it is a mark of the moral insensitivity of current American society that we rely so heavily on the most exploited and insecure sector of our workforce to provide the primary care for the most vulnerable sectors in the population. I’m speaking of childcare, which often comes from undocumented workers who are very vulnerable, exhausted, and poorly paid. And a less-noticed area is the treatment of seniors, very often in advanced stages of illness or with signs of dementia and what have you. And a series that Jennifer Gollan did devoted to the treatment of the elderly, basically in makeshift homes or care centers where up to six people are cared for by basically vulnerable, undocumented workers; in the cases we’re going to be discussing, often from the Philippines. And there’s a fairly Wild West kind of scene where there isn’t regulation, and people are exhausted, and the care is not delivered of the sort that one would expect in a decent society. And we’re talking largely about California; I forget, there was a statistic in your story that–I mean, a lot of the–here’s a progressive state, deep blue and all that. And yet basically, people working in caretaking of others–just to set the stage, these are basically, were private residences; they have about eight people, seniors; a family is paying for this, or some program. And poorly paid people are washing, bathing, diapering, doing everything to keep them alive and secure. And they’re ripped off, generally, and a lot of them are Filipino immigrants. Do I recall that correctly?

Jennifer Gollan: That’s correct. So in states where there are large Filipino populations, including New York and California, many of these workers are taking these jobs basically in the shadows. And this is an underregulated industry, where they’re non-medical and they’re referred to as assisted living facilities, or board and care homes, or elder care facilities. And they provide this around-the-clock service for seniors, and help with daily living tasks. And they’re cheaper alternatives to nursing homes, so they’re really attractive. But the thing is, this industry is so diffuse, these homes blend into your neighborhood and mine, and you would never know that these care homes are actually employing many immigrant workers. And oftentimes, we found, are paying them just two to three dollars an hour to work around the clock for years on end.

RS: So wait a minute. Are these documented immigrants, or are they here without documentation, or–?

JG: It’s a mix. Some are undocumented, and some do have their papers, but it’s really difficult, you know, if you’re trying to support a family back home and you don’t have medical training to say go work in a nursing home or a hospital setting. These care homes provide, you know, a steady paycheck for so many workers. And for undocumented workers, what we’ve found is it really puts them in a very vulnerable position where they’re often underpaid, and they’re afraid to speak out, because they don’t want to lose their jobs. Their bosses often harass or threaten to fire them, or worse, report them to immigration authorities.

RS: You know, you’ve had so much experience with this that I just want to stretch the argument, if I can, or the discussion. Because we talk a lot about immigration, and Trump is obviously, you know, cracking down in very bad ways at the border. But of course he’s not the first; Barack Obama deported a lot of people. And the argument used to be an argument that even democratic politicians accepted, is that if you have people coming in without documentation, you undermine the wage structure. And you seem to have an example of that. If people are working for two, three bucks an hour, that’s what we’re paying–or the Chinese are being paid by Apple in China, right?–to assemble iPhones and so forth. And so we’re really talking about–for certain services which we can’t export, obviously, if you’re going to take care of the elderly, or a lot of the service industry, people cleaning houses and so forth. We have relied very heavily on an easily exploited workforce that does not even get paid the legally mandated minimum wage, whether it’s federal or state. And in California, it’s quite a bit better now than the federal. And if they complain, they can be turned over to authorities. So you really just reported on the, you know, the pre-Trump drama. It wasn’t so great in the old days. We had a lot of people working here who were being ripped off. No?

JG: That’s right. And we still do. And today, it’s even worse. And we notice this–I mean, it’s especially acute when you’re trying to report on a story like this, and you’re asking people to go on the record and recount how they were exploited. People are so afraid these days, and they’re–it’s just so much more unpredictable for workers in this industry. Because they know that if they put their name to their story, they could very well be putting themselves and their families at risk, and they’re afraid of immigration authorities. So it made it very difficult to report the story to begin with. And, ah–yeah.

RS: But let me ask you–I don’t mean to interrupt you. But I mean, I just want to get sort of a handle on the bigger picture. Because this is a story that your organization, Reveal, at the Center for Investigative [Reporting] seems to repeat. This happens in the high-tech industry, it happens–in your case, you examined shipbuilding and, you know, traditional activity. And there’s a lot of the two-class system. We have an elite class; in a place like California, people getting the higher-end jobs at Google and other places like that. And then you have this mass service and–economy, and then some exploited industrialization, and some farm-working, where people are basically living in a Third World environment. And you could even extend that into the gig economy that you have reported on, where suddenly we have forgotten about all the gains of the labor movement, and operational safety, worker safety, and everything else. And we have, basically, a Third World workforce. And in reading and viewing, listening to your audio reports on it, you basically were describing an exploited Third World labor force. Was that not the takeaway?

JG: It’s true. A lot of these senior care homes just fly under the radar, because there are so many, they blend into neighborhoods. And you know, many lawyers and elder advocates will tell you that it’s just that the regulations are so lax. And it’s because the regulatory oversight regime is complaint-driven here; that is, state and federal regulators are really only responding to, for the large part, to complaints from workers or advocates. So the oversight here is the problem, is lax; and then driving this as well is operators. They know they can suppress workers’ wages, and then take in $4,000 a month from seniors and, you know, make up the difference. And there are many, many entrepreneurs on YouTube promoting this business in particular as a money-making machine. And a place where you can get into the business, the real estate end of the business, flip a house, make a few adjustments, and care for a bunch of seniors, open a care home and make a lot of money.

RS: Yeah. I mean, give us a sense of the reporting you did. Because I found it quite compelling. You had some, a woman in, I think she was in Beverly Hills, who runs a number of these things. And you tried to reach her, and she–and then you had some motivational speaker who told people how to rip off and how to do it. And it all basically had to do with, at the end of this food chain are people who are not getting the healthcare or the care they deserve, right? They’re not, they’re being abandoned, they’re being tended to by workers who are working very long shifts, and then they get resentful. So it’s not a successful system by any standard. And yet other people are willingly putting their grandparents in these places, or their parents, and then what, walking away from it? I mean, why did it take you, and the group that you work with on this story, to care? Why haven’t I heard about this before?

JG: Well, it’s a good question. I think a lot of these workers are, again, working in the shadows. And part of the issue is lax enforcement, and another part of the issue is greed. And I don’t think this industry has gotten the attention it really deserves. The data that we looked at goes back at least a decade, and we can see that there’s been rampant exploitation, record-keeping, overtime, minimum wage violations going back 10 years across the U.S., in nearly every state. And so the problem here is, you know, should there be–there are many questions that come up. Does it require stronger enforcement or oversight? Should maybe state attorneys general get involved, and crack down on the industry to clean it up? Or is it more legislation, to tighten up oversight of the industry? I should point out that to open up one of these care homes, you have to have more training to be a manicurist than you do to open up one of these senior facilities. And these facilities, because regulations have been relaxed over the last 15 years, are taking on increasingly ill patients. So we’re talking about hospice and dementia patients, which require 24-hour care and attention. And that’s what these senior facilities are promising, but it’s at the expense of these workers.

RS: Well, first of all, you mentioned the figure $4,000 a month. That–where does that come from? Is it a Social Security check? Is it, is there government money going into this, or–?

JG: Well, so that’s the median cost per resident to stay in one of these care homes per month. So these care homes can often make, from six residents, about $250,000 a year. And so you can see why it would be quite lucrative. And they’re basically promising to provide all of the care that many, you know, working parents cannot provide to their parents, because they’re caring for their children, for example. So they’re filling a need, and the industry has grown incredibly over the last decade, and they’re taking on these increasingly ill patients.

RS: It’s interesting, when you say lax regulations–so let’s take a place like California, which has been run during this period, I guess you said the last 15 years or so, by people who consider themselves progressive, right? I mean, Jerry Brown was a fairly enlightened governor in his third and fourth term; he’d run the state for another eight years. As I said before, a deep blue state. And why does this situation continue? First of all, why do the children of these parents put up with it? Do they know what’s going on? Why isn’t there more regulation? Kamala Harris, who’s running for president now, was the Attorney General during much of that period in California. Why didn’t they act on it?

JG: Yeah, there have been actually some quite serious cases. One, in fact, is a case that the California Department of Justice is currently prosecuting. It involves a chain of care homes and childcare facilities in South San Francisco where prosecutors allege that workers were working around the clock for just two dollars an hour. And in some cases, they had their passports withheld. And this is a human trafficking case. These workers were not allowed to leave these facilities. And so going back to the question of enforcement, there are laws on the books that would hold some of these operators accountable. For example, there’s the Fair Day’s Pay Act, which became effective in 2016. And it basically said the Department of Social Services, which oversees licensing of these senior care facilities, that it empowers them to revoke the licenses of operators that have outstanding wage theft judgments. But what we found is that there are at least 20 companies that are still operating despite outstanding wage theft judgments, and that means they’re operating illegally. But the Department of Social Services, when we took these findings to them, told us that their hands are tied. That they cannot do anything unless it’s a health and safety issue that poses a risk to a resident, let alone the workers. So this is an area where, you know, there are laws on the books, but regulators aren’t enforcing them.

RS: And the people don’t complain because of questionable status, immigration status?

JG: That’s often the case. And they can’t afford lawyers to hire, you know, to go after these operators that have basically stolen their wages. And these companies are still in business, often under the same names. And they still owe these workers tens of thousands of dollars in back wages.

RS: So you’re describing a Dickinsonian world. You’re–this is, two dollars an hour–you’re going to sink deeper into debt in California even if you work all the 24 hours. And in your reporting, you describe people just working around the clock, which is not good for their patients; they’re going to be irritable and not functioning well. But we, you know, we’re very critical of, say, the wage rate in a place like China, but what is two dollars an hour? That’s their wage rate, and our course of living is a lot higher. How do these people get by?

JG: I mean, in many cases, these, some of these workers are grateful to have a job. They’re grateful to be able to send a paycheck back home to support their children. But the way that this, that these operators conduct themselves and treat their workers is abysmal. These workers are often sleeping in garages, or on the living room floor, or next to their patients. And we spoke with at least two workers who had miscarriages because they had asked for time off, but they said their bosses refused. And they believe that they lost their fetuses because they were being overworked. And these are–this is just, you know, a small–these are but small examples of the kind of treatment these workers endure. And–

RS: Yeah, go ahead.

JG: And, you know, in many cases, they don’t feel like they can speak out.

RS: Because, what, they just lose the job, or they would get deported, or–?

JG: Exactly. They’re afraid of losing their jobs, and they’ve told us that their bosses have threatened to fire them. And in some cases, you know, when workers filed a wage theft claim, in one case we found the operator actually installed surveillance video cameras to keep an eye on the workers. And it’s not just the workers who are at the receiving end of some of this treatment; it’s labor investigators as well. In one case, we found labor investigators went in and, you know, the operator got on the telephone with the investigator and shouted at him to leave, and called the police.

RS: Against the state labor investigator?

JG: This was a federal labor regulator that had gone in to investigate. And the operator basically, you know, was incredibly confrontational.

RS: We’re going to take a break now for a minute, but I don’t want to lose the sort of moral tension here. You can’t live on two dollars an hour and still send money back to the Philippines, and still not go crazy, and take care of yourself and have medical–I mean, you just can’t do it. You couldn’t do it in Dickens’ England, and you can’t do it now in Southern California or anywhere else. And so the idea that this continues–it’s not covered, I guess, by television. Until you came along to do your series–right?–I had never heard of this. Has there been much response to it, is there a cry for new legislation, are there hearings?

JG: There has been. We’ve heard from some state lawmakers that they’re mobilizing for the next session to write some legislation to clean up the industry and protect workers. And we’re hearing from some federal lawmakers that they are taking a close look at this. So we’re just waiting to hear some details on what that’ll mean for workers.

RS: OK, well, let’s take a break now just for a minute, for stations that want to run this. And we’ll be right back with Jennifer Gollan, who’s done–who’s an Emmy Award-winning reporter, and now works with Reveal, and did an incredible–or was part of a team that she led doing an incredible job on something that’s just so far below our radar that we don’t even notice it, and maybe we don’t notice it even if our own grandparents are being victimized in this process. [omission for station break] We’re talking about the care of elderly people by exploited workers who seem to have no other choice. And I want to cut to the chase here, because we’re very self-righteous these days about immigration. And yet we’ve had this problem of people getting into the country without status, not having reasonable quotas of what workers we need, and giving them full legal rights, and until recently most people didn’t think about it much. Yet they got their cars washed at places where people were making miserable wages; they had people raising their children who, because they didn’t have documentation, had to put up with terrible working conditions. And in the case of this series that you’ve done on care of the elderly in these care homes, you know, it’s another example of that. And that’s not a problem that’s just post-Trump. That’s a problem that’s, I suspect, been–it’s been growing, but it’s been going on for what, 50 years, right?

JG: It’s true. It’s not just car washes or nannies; it’s restaurants, it’s so many low-wage industries. And these workers are basically relying on regulators, but the problem is when it comes to labor violations the oversight is really driven, and enforcement is really driven, by complaints. And so many of these workers, because they’re undocumented, don’t feel empowered to come forward. They’re afraid of being fired or reported to immigration authorities by their bosses. And so it’s a system of silence, and they’ve essentially, this industry in particular has worked out very creative ways of exploiting loopholes. And in the case of the senior care home industry and these smaller operators, we attended two workshops where we saw this in action. And they were essentially encouraging operators to get into the business, and basically walk up to the line of what’s legal. They told them they can use one caregiver for six residents, for example, and if you use one caregiver, then they’re not allowed to leave the facilities for breaks or rest times. And that essentially gives them full coverage for the 24 hours for their residents. And things like that, that they’re allowed to have them sleep in the garage, and you know, basically how to save money on payroll.

RS: OK, but what I’m asking is, where were the adults watching the store? I mean, you know, fortunately we have Jennifer Gollan, and we have Reveal, and we have people. And you do a great job, multimedia, you did a terrific radio report on this. It was picked up, right, by the AP, and they did a good job of getting it out. And but my question is, first of all, sadly, is anything going to happen as a result? But more, even more basic, this has been going on for a long time. And where are the other journalists? And where are the legislators? Why aren’t they more proactive, you know? Why haven’t they been looking into it? Did you challenge any of them about it?

JG: This is a really good question, Bob. I mean, these workers in this particular industry are not unionized. So they’re relying on worker advocacy groups to represent their interests. And these worker advocacy groups are so overburdened with cases where they’re representing workers who have been underpaid and overworked. And you know, it may be that those advocacy groups aren’t as powerful as lobbyists for industry. And the industry has very powerful, well-paid lobbyists and lawyers who are in Sacramento, and it’s just, it may be a case where they’re outgunned. Labor regulators tell us that they rely on complaints to go after exploitation, for the most part. And when we took our findings here to, say, the U.S. Department of Labor, there was no, at least public expression of plans to tackle this issue, even though this has persisted for at least a decade. So these are questions that we’re now posing to state and federal lawmakers, is you know, if the main front-line regulator isn’t taking on this issue, then who’s going to take charge of this?

RS: You know, I was working at the LA Times before you started there. And I covered some of these issues, and I agree there’s always a different twist to it. You know, in this case, you’ve got these sort of independent caregivers, and pick up a residence and put six people in or more, and can skirt around the law. But the basic issue is that many people who are more affluent are happy to have cheap labor, including when they park their parents or grandparents in some home–oh, it’s probably wonderful, they got dementia, who cares anyway, or something like that. There’s a heck of a lot of cynicism in all this. And what I loved about your reporting is you challenged it. You know, you knocked on the door of a woman who claimed she was doing something wonderful for ill, older people. Right? And then you attended a convention or a meeting where this motivational speaker talked about the proper way to frame this, and push it, and so forth. And I guess I’m asking a question–you know, because journalism is about searching for truth and accuracy. Do we have whole industries of PR people, and other people around, who are basically out to conceal immoral situations and exploitation, and get away with it? And politicians who take their funding and look the other way? Isn’t that really the big story here?

JG: I think one could draw those conclusions. I think for me as a journalist, it was difficult to square, you know, the operator’s expression of compassion for older people while their workers were not earning minimum wage and sleeping on the floor, for example. Or who were afraid to speak out–in some cases, afraid for their lives. And it was shocking to encounter conditions like this in America. And it just–it goes to this other, larger issue, which is, how are we going to care for the growing population of seniors that will soon outnumber children in this country? It’s something that we haven’t grappled with like many other countries have, as far as providing sound, basic care for our loved ones. I mean, when you speak with the industry, they said that maybe it’s just a few bad apples, and that they’re trying to do these workshops to educate care homeowners. But when we attended the workshops, they were encouraging them to exploit loopholes.

RS: Yeah, and you got that on tape. But I’m just–I want to cut to these legislators, because we’re letting, we tend to let them off the hook, and they always talk a good game. But if it requires more of a background check and testing to deal with someone’s nails, and a much lower level of expertise and knowledge to take care of people around the clock who have serious, you know, illness and aging, and you know, can’t control their bodily functions, and are maybe losing their sense of who they are and where they are. You know, so it’s not only the people who are taking care of them, and who get exhausted and angry or can’t deal with it, or are not equipped to deal with it. It’s the patients, it’s these people who are supposedly being given care. So regulation of such an industry would seem to be vital not just for the workers, but for the people that they’re taking care of. And there doesn’t seem to be any of that. Or am I exaggerating?

JG: It’s true. As you say, you know, when you speak with workers and worker advocates, one of the first things they say–and also senior advocacy groups–one of the first things they say is that if you have workers who are working around the clock, for a pittance, it will affect patient care. And there is some more reporting that we’re going to come out with where that is certainly the case. And it’s up to these lawmakers to sort out, how can we better protect both of these vulnerable populations–workers and seniors–to make this industry accountable to both its clients, but this whole cohort of workers who are propping up the industry. I mean, in many cases, when operators were questioned why they’re paying their workers two dollars an hour, they said that that’s the going rate, so that’s why they were, you know, violating minimum wage laws. And this is something that can be fixed by lawmakers.

RS: Well, it can! I mean, it should be a serious felony to pay someone two dollars an hour. What are we talking about? We have–we have minimum wage requirements. Obviously we don’t enforce it; obviously, there’s no punishment for it. And this has been going on a long time, but the idea that someone in, you know, a prosperous area of California is paid two dollars an hour–and that legislators don’t talk about it, do anything about it, there’s no pressure. I want to end this, because I’m always looking for role models, and I have such respect for the work that you did on this story and on others. And I’m talking to Jennifer Gollan, who is–I shouldn’t have to say it, Emmy Award-winning reporter for Reveal, Center for Investigative Reporting. But you know, there’s passion in this reporting. You meet these people, you care about them, you hear their voices. And so I’m here at the school where you got your master’s, at the University of Southern California. And I look around at what we teach and what we do, and we teach lots of things. We teach public relations; we teach writing, making apps; we teach all sorts of things. Are you the odd one out, or are you representative of a new generation of journalists who are going to care about what happens to the most vulnerable? Somebody once said the purpose of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Did you get that at school? Where did you get your moral conscience from in journalism?

JG: For me, I grew up with Australian parents in the U.S., and I always felt like I was, we were a little bit outside the norm. Because there was always, you know, my parents’ sort of traditions and cultural norms, and they were different. We came, my dad came over on an H-1B. So I think also, you know, because my folks were interested in news from abroad–from back home, from England where, you know, we had lived for a time as well–they’d discuss the news, and they cared passionately about how people who really came from very little, how they were being treated. And I think USC only accentuated that sort of experience for me; I really was so inspired by the professors there, and as far as, you know, chasing down revelatory information, informing the world and making the world a better place by exposing the truth. And I think it’s just those fundamentals that I have sort of held dear. And you know, it’s at the Center for Investigative Reporting that I’m so privileged to do this kind of work. And it’s something that, I think it is part of–you know, there’s a–it’s more important now than ever, because of, you know, our polarized society, our politics, the mass of information that’s available, not all of it truthful. And I think it’s our duty to expose the truth, to keep a level playing field, and for people to be informed about how the world works.

RS: Well, you’ve just made me feel a lot better about the place where I work for my day job. But I’m going to end on an editorial note. First of all, let’s tell people how to get your series. It’s at revealnews.org, right? Any more specific information?

JG: That’s right.

RS: And what I love is the–I just want to end on sort of a high-tech thing here. You guys have mastered, or you’re particularly good at radio, and you actually do video and so forth. But I thought, wow–for the first time I really believed in something we do teach here at USC, the whole multimedia approach, and using social networking, and getting the word out. And your series got that kind of attention, because you do have that skill set, right? This is a new kind of journalism, in a way.

JG: It’s true. It’s true, I feel like, you know, in today’s media landscape so many print reporters, or traditionally print reporters–I’m using quotes–or web reporters, are doing radio work, and also television. And there are so many different ways that those platforms can inform the reporting for the other one. And I think it’s just, it’s a great reflection on USC’s program, but also the changing landscape of journalism today. Just so many more reporters are multi-platform reporters who also do data. And it’s just a, it’s an incredible time to be a reporter.

RS: Yeah, and I hope you can make a living at it. [Laughs] Because I think the–

JG: I do, too.

RS: –the business model is in a bit of trouble. But I do want to end this with that quote, and it’s been attributed to many different people. But the role of the journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I don’t want to lose that second point. And your series does both. It tells us that there are people, both the workers in these care homes and the seniors that are being supposedly cared for–they’re the afflicted. And good journalism will bring comfort, will bring exposure, will bring assistance to them. But you also have to afflict the comfortable. And frankly, I felt considerable rage after reading and following your series. I couldn’t believe it, that people are making two, three bucks an hour, legally–or not legally, but they get away with it, being paid that–in California, you know. I don’t even know how they go to McDonald’s after, they probably can’t even pay for [it with] what they just earned. And it’s amazing to me that in a state–and I keep harping on this because it’s important–a state that prides itself on being progressive, enlightened, which has incredible wealth, incredible wealth, that we’re paying people and getting away with it, two dollars an hour to work around the clock, sleep on the floor, diaper these seniors, care about them, treat their skin wounds, surface wounds, all of which you described in this thing. And when they object that they’re not getting their pay that they’re entitled to, they get turned over to immigration, they get threatened. I mean, you know, in this discussion I think–people have got to check it out, because I think we’ve lost a little bit of the power of your series. And why don’t we close by you telling me what was most disturbing or moving that you encountered reporting this story?

JG: Well, there are two things. One just sparks shock, and that is when these operators are caught underpaying their workers or not paying the back wages, they just abandon the company name and start a new one. And it’s a matter of filing a quick form with the California Secretary of State’s Office, and they’re off to the races; they’re still in business, and the workers are just expendable. And I think the other shocking thing, and inspiring thing, is how compassionate these caregivers are. Even though they are way underpaid and overworked and mistreated, they care for the residents in such a deep, profound way. And it literally, I am guessing, extends the life of these residents, to have someone who cares for you like family. And in some cases, instead of their family members coming to visit them. These caregivers are so fond, and have such a deep bond, with their residents despite their terrible conditions, and I found that just incredibly moving.

RS: You know, that has been the story of racial exploitation, immigrant, exploiting immigrants, throughout American history. There was always, yes, in the Deep South, the nanny who raised the children, and you could count on her to do the right thing by those children even though she was a slave, or she was held in a Jim Crow society, and exploited in every which way. And you hear that a lot about our immigrant workforce, you know? Oh, good people, and they show up, and they work hard, and they raise children, and they take care of the old, and so forth. In this case, you feature mostly Filipino workers–oh, they’re legendary, they come from a culture where they really care about other people, and so forth. And then what happens is these cynical SOBs rip off all those good intentions, those good feelings, those good concerns, right? And they buy off politicians, and they turn this into a greed industry, and they get away with it. And it didn’t start with Donald Trump; we’ve been ripping off the good intentions and hard work of immigrants and others in our society for the longest time. And two bucks an hour–anybody listening to this, think about it. In America, you’re paying people two, three dollars an hour to sleep on the floor and go around the clock taking care of seniors that have to be diapered. Think about that and what that says about our culture at this time. I want to thank you, Jennifer Gollan, for doing the hard work and breaking through to get this story for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. And our engineers on our end at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And here at USC–where I teach, and where Jennifer Gollan got her master’s, and I’m very proud of the fact that we had something to do with your education–it’s Sebastian Grubaugh who has been our engineer once again from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. And now I can say that with greater pride than I did coming in to do this show. So thank you again, Jennifer Gollan.

JG: Thank you very much, Bob. It’s been a great privilege.

The post The Nationwide Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

“The US Got Scared” Voices of the Resistance in Post-Coup Honduras

Mint Press News -

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — MintPress News went to Honduras and spoke with a number of leaders of the Honduran resistance amid a 66-day uprising over a neoliberal austerity deal reached between the government as the country marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup d’etat.

Last Thursday, the Honduran government passed a privatization law, the run-up to which had triggered uprisings challenging the mandate of President Juan Orlando Hernandez and protesting the implementation of a privatization deal reached with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — a deal kept secret until this week. The battle against it was fought tooth and nail, with average Hondurans following the lead of healthcare and education activists.

MintPress has obtained a copy of the law. The document details the government’s plan to sever 6 billion lempiras ($242 million USD), and includes instituting a maximum wage on public sector contract “technical and professional” workers amounting to $2,426 a month, but promises not to cut healthcare and education. An agreement with the IM F over the state-run electrical company remains in question.

What is known is that the deal consists of more of the same neoliberal remedies that have already devastated Honduran civil society. One person interviewed by MintPress called the approach “neoliberalism on steroids.” And she would know: her husband is a political prisoner sitting in a U.S.-designed maximum security facility. The prison was paid for under the Honduran Security Tax, a program backed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that bankrolls the military and police while the rest of the government is gutted.

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

Adrienne Pine, a Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington and expert on Honduras, told MintPress:

The fact that education and healthcare were left out is a pretty big win for the movement because that is what they were planning to cut, and the healthcare and education workers who have led this struggle against this have prevented those cuts even though there has been this very radical reduction in public spending.”

On May 6, the IMF announced it had reached a “staff level agreement” that was believed to be targeted towards healthcare, education and more. That same day, protests started breaking out. 

But as news emerged on Tuesday of the deal becoming law, the IMF also announced its approval of a plan to restructure the public electric company and said it would give the Honduran government $311 million in loans over the next two years. Around the same time, a fresh corruption scandal was unfolding at the electric company. Professor Pine explained to MintPress:

ENEE [the Honduran public electric company] has already been subject to privatization measures over the past few years that have significantly weakened it. Problems in the ENEE have to do, at their root, with the privatization itself, but right now it looks like the IMF and the U.S. are justifying the privatization by using examples of corruption at the agency rather than addressing the underlying structural issues.” 

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

The resistance in Honduras fought off further privatization of health care and education in a struggle that left piles of students shot and scores of people killed, as well as resulting in the political imprisonment of a young man who is accused of fueling a fire at the U.S. Embassy in the capital. Romel Valdemar Herrera Portillo, 23, sits in a military-run prison, designed by the United States, called La Tova alongside political prisoners Edwin Espinal and Raúl Álvarez. 

In this article, MintPress will feature exclusive interviews not just with leaders of the Honduran resistance but also with people who have been directly affected by the coup and all that it has brought.


Ten years of resistance

The history of the past decade in Honduras is among the most telling examples of U.S.-backed regime change in the Western Hemisphere. A powder keg for the migrant crisis that popped up under Barack Obama and worsened under Donald Trump, the military operation that deposed leftist reformer Manuel Zelaya from the presidency informs Honduran life at every level today.

MintPress News traveled to Honduras around the 10-year anniversary of the coup d’etat, speaking to a range of leaders of the resistance against the National Party, which has dominated politics in the country since the coup. The National Party is led by President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH), a widely reviled neoliberal leader believed to be involved in drug trafficking, electoral fraud and death squads. 

The post-coup neoliberal policies ramped up under JOH’s reign have rendered Honduras a playground for the business elite and drug cartels and brought the poverty rate to levels unrivaled in the region. Disappearances and lethal violence from police, private mercenaries and drug cartels have also skyrocketed.

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

Revelations that JOH has been under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) since 2013, according to U.S. federal court documents released this year, came as little surprise to many in the resistance; JOH’s brother is himself in prison in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. But it did pour salt on fresh wounds, as the United States backed JOH’s re-election in 2017, even though the Honduran constitution explicitly forbids second terms. 

While in Honduras, MintPress examined the effects of the coup from multiple angles, including: cuts to education; repression against students and teachers; cuts to the healthcare sector; the political development of Hondurans; electoral fraud; death squads linked to big business; the conditions of political prisoners and the plight of human rights workers; and the effects of neoliberalism on the healthcare sector. MintPress also looked at the role of creative culture in the resistance.

As MintPress previously reported, staff journalist Alex Rubinstein was detained immediately upon landing in the capital, Tegucigalpa. It was “a testament to the government’s unease” around the anniversary of the coup and in the face of more than 50 days of active uprising.

I was just let out of detainment at the airport in the capital of Honduras. They didn't explain why the detained me, just asked a bunch of questions.

Stay tuned to @MintPressNews as we approach the 10yr anniversary of the US-backed coup in this country. Much more to come pic.twitter.com/vuIanSQzXc

— Alex Rubinstein (@RealAlexRubi) June 26, 2019

MintPress spent nearly a week in the capital, Tegucigalpa, a city that is both militarized and yet ruled by crime at night, a dynamic that makes the often cozy relationship between the state and organized crime palpable throughout much of the city. The prevalence of anti-JOH and anti-National Party graffiti appears as a glimmering of an uprising in a city otherwise divided into quarters of poverty and opulence: from poor, Libre strongholds like El Carrizal to areas where Burger King and Little Caesar’s are second and third only to Juan Orlando. United States colonialism is, basically, omnipresent. American fast-food restaurants, mostly a luxury for the country’s tiny middle class, operate tax-free in the country, while those who can’t afford a Big Mac get squeezed on their electricity, for example.

The streets of Tegucigalpa tell the story of the resistance, to a degree. One tag in the city refers to the use of graffiti as a means of communicating a message: “When justice is silenced, the walls speak.” 

Photos | Alexander Rubinstein

What follows are excerpts of MintPress News interviews from a range of leaders of the resistance against JOH.


Pledged to a political prisoner 

Karen Spring, a Canadian citizen and member of the Honduran Solidarity Network, is imminently familiar with repression by the government. Her husband is veteran human rights defender Edwin Espinal, who was arrested during protests against Juan Orlando Hernandez’ unconstitutional re-election. The circumstances around Raúl Álvarez and Espinal’s arrests are startlingly suspicious — as were those of Romel Valdemar Herrera Portillo. Professor Adrienne Pine has characterized the incidents as potential false flags.

Edwin Espinal, a veteran human rights defender held by the Hernandez government

MintPress spoke at length with Spring about the situation of her husband and other political prisoners. She described Espinal’s past work as an activist: being close with Berta Caceres; having witnessing a murder with his previous partner, who herself was later killed during a protest; being tortured by police; and eventually being held at a military-run prison designed by the United States, without trial and without a date set for it.

“Edwin and Romel share a cell in the third cell block inside La Tova, a U.S. style maximum security facility,” Spring told MintPress News.

Spring has seen what she described as “neoliberalism on steroids” in her 10 years in the country. One measure that she highlighted was the “security tax” that was implemented with backing from Hillary Clinton. It’s a tax on transactions and businesses and funds JOH’s “security model.” 

It’s “a semi-private security tax that is controlled by the government but can receive international funding from the development banks. All the remittances that are sent from the United States to Honduras, there is a percentage that is taken out of that.”

In other words, migrants who come to the United States to send money to their families in Honduras even pay a price through the security tax, which has fueled the “militarization of Honduras and the construction of the prison where Edwin is being held,” Spring said.

Spring described La Tova, where she said medication is hard to come by and food is scarce. Sunlight can be allowed for one hour every two weeks. No books, no pens; one television for maybe 200 people. 

The prison, Spring says, is designed to provoke conflict. And “because Edwin and Raul and Romel [are] associated with the opposition,” prisoners are “blaming them” for the protests, increased prices and roadblocks over the course of the current uprising, Spring says. While the government has taken away privileges and “basic rights” of prisoners during the uprising, Spring thinks that attacks against the three are being encouraged:

They are facing serious death threats. They’re in a prison that was built to hold and imprison the most dangerous people in Honduras, so people linked to organized crime… in the harshest conditions that you can place anyone in pre-trial detention… We believe that the fact that they’re in there and the authorities won’t move them even though they are aware of the death threats is because the orders to keep them there are coming from the highest level of the government — Juan Orlando Hernandez.”

Spring also told the story of another prisoner by the name of Gustavo Caceres. He sits in what Spring described as a “normal Honduran jail.”

His case is probably the best example of the cruel nature of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. He has a developmental disability and he can’t read, he can’t write and he can’t speak.

He’s not able to learn how to talk because of his developmental issue. He can say words here or there. He can say ‘comida’ [food]. But he can’t form a sentence, let alone defend himself. When he was arrested, they picked him up in a police patrol car and they took him to the station and they laid out a police shield and bags of marijuana and put it in front of him, and accused him of having police gear and having drugs when he was arrested even though they planted it on him.”

When Caceres was arrested, he “was selling bags of water to support his family,” around a protest taking place on a bridge, Spring said, adding: 

They were just arresting people in massive numbers as part of a fear and terror campaign… Because he couldn’t defend himself properly, he has been in jail. He’s the longest imprisoned political prisoner.”

Today, Gustavo “washes clothes” for other prisoners for a small amount of money, which is sent to his family to help pay for food.


First Lady of the Resistance

MintPress News first covered a conference held by the Liberty and Refoundation Party, popularly known as Libre, on June 27, just one day prior to the anniversary of the coup. The party emerged in the wake of the coup, with Manuel Zelaya as its figurehead. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the First Lady of Manuel Zelaya, is herself a force in Honduran politics: she was neck-and-neck with JOH in polls leading up to his first election in 2013, an election also mired in fraud allegations. She told MintPress at the conference:

At the exact moment when we were beginning a process… of reforming and transforming our people and our countries, giving citizens a real opportunity to participate, to feel they’re a part of the process and not just a tool — that’s when the U.S. got scared.”

She continued, on the topic of the U.S.-backed coup:

Today the Honduran people are stronger. Today we understand — along with many sectors that were indifferent to the coup but are now with us in this fight — that on that June 28 when they perpetrated the coup d’état, taking their president out of the country, along with everything else we’ve lost, the people understand that the coup d’état wasn’t done so everything would remain the same. They did it to harm the vast majority of the people.”

Xiomara Zelaya spoke at length with MintPress about the significance of Libre in the struggle in Honduras, and about the debt she personally owes to the people of her country.

Libre comes from the streets. Libre comes from a fight. Libre comes from men and women who — many of us had never really had the chance to come together and truly see each other. 

Libre comes from the blood of martyrs; from the men and women that died by our side, who we saw fall, who were assassinated. Libre comes from a popular demand, it comes from the need for a political space that makes possible an electoral fight that can bring us to power. Libre stands for the hope of Honduran people. Libre stands for the unity that will allow us to reach a better future for ourselves. As a member of Libre, there is a huge commitment — and it’s a commitment that we can’t put aside, because we feel the pain of our people as if it were our own. The support that we’ve received — and the blood that’s been spilled — what that tells us is that we have a duty to repay the people for everything they’ve done.

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

In particular, I say this as Xiomara Castro, as someone whose husband was forced into exile, whose husband was forced out by a coup d’état, and has confronted military forces. But, right alongside me, there were people I’d never met. Men with no shoes, housewives who came out to show solidarity with us, who came out to feed my family, who came out to protect us as we slept, in those few moments we could rest. You can’t put a price on that. There is no way to give back to the people all that they’ve done for us, and that’s why we’re here. And that’s why we keep fighting. 

Because we know we have a commitment, and we won’t give up until we achieve the real change that our society and our people are demanding.”


Berta Cáceres’ daughter calls for international solidarity

At the Libre conference, MintPress News spoke to the eldest daughter of Berta Caceres, Oliva Caceres. As MintPress has previously reported:

Over 120 Honduran activists have been killed since 2010, making the small nation the world’s deadliest place to protect the environment. Berta Cáceres, one of the slain activists, was the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.”

Leaked court documents prove three of the eight men arrested for the murder of Berta Cáceres are linked to the School of the Americas (now rebranded as WHINSEC), a U.S.-run military training academy and breeding ground for human-rights abusers throughout Latin America. One of the graduates accused of murdering Caceres was the head of security from 2013 to 2015 for the company behind the dam she was opposing. An international conspiracy “to control, neutralize and eliminate any opposition” was uncovered in connection to her murder. Olivia Caceres told MintPress:

The men who killed her were gunmen, former army captains, guards from DESA, and high-ranking soldiers like Major Mariano Díaz Chavez. Soldiers, like the ones who shot her, are hitmen that are linked to organized crime in our country.”

Olivia Cáceres continued:

My mother was murdered by state-backed killers who were protecting the energy company DESA. The company directly ordered Berta Cáceres’s murder. Its board of directors — we all know it’s made up of members of the Atala Zablah family, whom we can mention by name. It’s a very powerful family, both politically and economically powerful here. It’s among the 17 Most Powerful Families in Latin America according to a survey by Forbes magazine. And that was who gave the order to murder Berta Cáceres.

They used soldiers and national police who persecuted, harassed and finally murdered Berta Cáceres in a major operation that was carried out on January 1st and February 22nd. However both attempts failed. And on the third try they managed to kill her on March 2nd at 11:45 at night. They entered her room while she was sleeping.”

Olivia Caceres was careful not to isolate her mother’s murder from the political context in the country, telling MintPress

We believe there won’t be justice for Berta until the criminal structure that assassinated her is dismantled…She was murdered by a whole criminal structure that we…have decided to expose for criminal conspiracy.”

She went on to call for international solidarity with the struggle in Honduras:

We’ve been knocking on every door in this country for more than three and half years and we still haven’t gotten justice. We believe that what the Honduran people need, and what Berta’s cause needs, now more than ever, is international solidarity.

We’re calling out a murder that reflects the whole situation — the social injustice and inequality, the violence, repression, the targeted assassinations by a dictatorial regime that’s involved in drug trafficking. Berta’s murder reflects the whole catastrophe: the poverty, the impunity.”


Washington’s other armies

The National Party of Juan Orlando Hernandez has been in power since the coup d’etat. Carlos Eduardo Reina, Secretary of Popular Power in the Libre party, talked to MintPress News about how the coup reshaped the government.

The coup first took out the president, but then installed a coup regime that makes electoral fraud, that takes away the votes, the energy, different things from the government and the people; they privatized it. A huge oligarchy wants to own the country and take the country’s riches from the people.”

“The thing is that in Honduras — it’s a very little country — and the only thing that supports the government is the army. And the army receives orders from the north.”

Eduardo Reina argued that if Honduras was given the opportunity of free and fair elections, it would also give them “the opportunity to take away the dictatorship.”


Menders of the Movement 

Dr. Marco Girón, a member of the “movement for the defense of health and education,” explained the neoliberal process in depth:

In Honduras, when neoliberalism was introduced no one believed that water would be privatized, that our electricity would be privatized, Or our healthcare, or education. But all of that changed… They’ve privatized and diminished state institutions. They also got rid of the Honduran Institute for Families and Children, IHNFA, which was in charge of child welfare, including providing homeless children with food, and a roof over their heads. This is how neoliberalism has progressed, steadily shrinking the state, although we still need all the things it provided.

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

First went the custodial staff at hospitals — which, before, were state-run — but since they were custodians, no one cared. Then they started privatizing different sectors. They started privatizing the medication; then came fake orders, empty boxes that never made it to the hospital. The Anti-Corruption Council states that the health budget is approximately $14b lempiras [$572m USD]. It’s one of the lowest in the world. And 50 percent of it is stolen. These are preventable deaths to our population. It’s the same with the education system.”

Dr. Girón argued that the pro-public healthcare and education marches will continue until “these executive and legislative decrees are rescinded:”

That’s where the genesis of the problem is: the privatization laws. That’s the neoliberalism they’re imposing on us. It’s all there, that’s why the struggle continues, and that’s why the education and healthcare workers stay in the streets. And they’ll stay until the repeal of these awful privatization laws — which are imported from abroad, and which will only bring us more poverty, illiteracy, diseases, and even death.”


Raising a resistance

Andrea Chavarría, an 82-year-old former teacher, is known popularly as the “Grandmother of the Resistance” in Honduras. She spoke to MintPress News about what the presidency of Manuel Zelaya meant for organized educators.

When Commander Manuel Zelaya Rosales took power, teachers got our first victory — after it was taken from us. Here in Honduras, struggles are won in the streets. When teachers started taking to the streets, our president Mel Zelaya — who has been one of the best presidents who we’ve ever had — he received us in the Presidential Palace. He let us right in through the front door. And we were going to take it by force, right? He received us, he opened the gates. And we formed a commission, then he hopped on a truck and said, ‘It’s approved.’”

Chavarría continued: 

We were demanding a permanent contract, health insurance, vacations, a bonus… They approved them, we finally had benefits.

They’ve taken all that from us. Now the students are sitting on gravel, the parents have to pay for cleaning services, for security, for learning materials, because the government doesn’t provide anything…The teachers, as we say here in Honduras, are cornered. We have no privileges. The privileges we had earned in the streets were taken from us. Same goes for the doctors.

Since I was a young woman, I’ve always defended my rights because I thought of myself in the present, not the past or the future. Today’s youth are the present of Honduras. Despite my age and health problems, I stand with them and support them because they tell me ‘grandma, you give us strength. If you can do it, why not us?’ I applaud those youth, those college students from MEU (University Student Movement) because they’re valiant, and to me the youth is the present.”


Students stand for their rights

On June 24, some 40 military police invaded the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), which is supposed to have “autonomy” from the military since 1957, meaning it can’t be raided. Police had claimed that students had kidnapped a soldier, but activists say the students were just planning protests. Five students were shot with live rounds and eight students were injured in total. One professor also had a cardiac episode because of the tear gas, activists said.

In front of a defaced entrance sign at the university, MintPress spoke to Dorian Alvarez Reyes, a sociology student who witnessed the chaos. He explained that the sign — covered in bullet holes painted in red, and with the word “autonomous” crossed out and replaced with “military,” so that it reads “National Military University of Honduras” — was a symbol of the blood spilt by students and a protest against the infringement on the university’s autonomy.

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

Moments before, protesters set fire to a paper mache casket with the word “autonomy” written on it.


Teaching through tear gas

Luisa Cruz, a teacher at UNAH, spoke to MintPress at a concert held on the night of the coup anniversary. She said it made her feel “terrible” that her students were unsafe: 

Even as a mother of university-aged kids. It’s really a terrible issue about human rights…

It also has happened at public high schools and public universities as well. We are a country that is living a really bad time in regard to the human rights issue. The United States is supporting a corrupt narco-dictatorship in Honduras. Why? Because they need a government that says ‘yes’ to anything the U.S. government says because they are interested in having us as a military platform so they can invade whoever they want — Venezuela and Nicaragua.”

Cruz continued to explain the raid on her university:

There was a protest by the students out on the street, and with a very ridiculous excuse…that the students got ahold of a policeman or soldier…they shot bullets and of course tear gas all over; there was about eight students wounded and I guess two of them were very badly wounded.”

Cruz said it wasn’t the first illegal invasion by police, while the university “has hired people to go in and kick students asses inside the university campus.” That’s why, she said, the university authorities “are really a shame.” Cruz went on to discuss why the government cracked down so harshly on students:

The government knows that the student movement is really hard; they’re really tough and they’re really numerous — there’s a whole bunch of them. And these guys have lived a coup d’etat and they know what it is to be living under dictatorship. 

That’s why they really are afraid of these students and it’s the only thing that has dignity at the university. Not even the professors are dignified. I really feel ashamed of where I’ve been working for so many years.”

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

The rising costs of education, which are correlated with the increased influence of gangs and cocaine trafficking since the coup, have led many students to eschew education and turn to drug use and dealing. In order to improve the situation of the youth in Honduras, Cruz told MintPress it would require “hands off by the U.S.” as a first step:

They have us like this. We are on our knees in this country. I don’t know if you know about all those migrants heading off to Mexico and the U.S. border. Well, it’s no wonder. I mean there’s a whole bunch of people here that don’t have anything to eat or that live on a dollar a day. What are you going to eat with a dollar a day? Not even in this country can we eat with a dollar. So there’s a lot of people leaving the country because they have no hope.”


Dancing as resistance

Walking through the crowd at a resistance concert on the 10-year anniversary of the coup, a man went from trash barrel to trash barrel picking through them for food. After Univision (a news station deeply distrusted by the Honduran resistance) broadcast footage of Venezuelans picking through garbage earlier this year, it sparked an international incident. Yet establishment media has almost entirely ignored the plight in Honduras, which has become the poorest country in the continental Americas since the U.S.-backed coup.

And on the night of the anniversary of the military operation that changed everything, the Honduran resistance was celebrating with a concert at the center of town. The band Café Guancasco played their anti-JOH anthem, which translates roughly to “The place you’re going is out, JOH!”

In an effort to understand how Hondurans could find joy despite the neoliberalization of their economy and incredible repression, I asked a translator recommended by an expert to MintPress News how it was possible:

This band is called Café Guancasco. Café Guancasco is a word that means gathering — to celebrate something. And we’re celebrating that we’re still alive…We are celebrating that we are doing a resistance against JOH and we’re celebrating that he is going to get the hell out of here.”


Defending human rights in Honduras

Pedro Joaquin Amador, a human-rights worker in Honduras, talked to MintPress News about what it’s like for human-rights workers in this country. “It’s very difficult,” he said:

You have a lot of obstruction of justice in Honduras, and the military and police. We have a lot of difficulties getting information about all the victims of this country — when it happened, the coup, to right now in 2019 with the protest against Juan Orlando Hernandez.”

Amador went on to discuss the repression tactics used by the government during the current uprisings. He decried the use of tear gas and chemicals. “They shoot us with military weapons and there’s a lot of people killed,” he said, adding that international bodies should focus not only on Venezuela and Nicaragua but also Honduras.


Poetry and resistance

Edgardo Florián, a poet and author of seven books, told MintPress that he doesn’t really get involved with politics anymore because of how much it has taken from him, and was driven to tears remembering those killed by the Honduran government in the 10 years since the U.S.-backed coup.

“I’ve been beaten, hit by the gases. But basically the economy of the country is not the same,” Florián said, telling MintPress that it has made it hard for him to get by. JOH “must leave power. People don’t want him,” Florián said. “The only people that want him are the people who receive a bag of food, or maybe some bread, 50 lampiras just to go out with a flag [and wave it.]”

JOH has been so desperate for support that the National Party has been caught handing out 50 lempiras ($2 USD) to desperate citizens to protest on his behalf. “We are people who don’t sell out their ideas just for 50 lempiras,” Florián said. Ironically, the JOH supporters participating in what was billed as a pro-peace march wound up viciously beating a student journalist.

Florián said that JOH promises good things but “inside he’s another kind of person. He’s something cold, a dark soul.” He went on to talk about the first person killed in protests against the coup — “our first victim,” as he describes it. “And now it’s a lot of people. Some, we know them. Others we don’t even know.”

Photo | Alexander Rubinstein

The ramifications of the coup and the neoliberal policies that upheaved Honduran society are felt in each and every sector of it. The business class and organized crime are flourishing, and will soon reap the benefits of yet another law that will come into effect in November, which further criminalizes activists and media while lessening penalties for drug trafficking.

The middle class, the creative class, the working class and poor; the women and LGBTQ citizens; the elderly and the human rights workers; the left-leaning political class and the families of environmental protectors: all of these groups have had their livelihoods devastated by the coup, and the politically savvy blame Washington. 

Ten years after the coup changed everything, the Trump administration is cutting funds from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) — a U.S. soft-power institution that helped foment the coup in the first place and spark the migrant crisis. 

In response to the crisis that was designed to stoke Trump’s base and assert a cold-hearted foreign policy, the White House diverted funds earmarked for Central American countries to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido. Presumably, the United States wants to back a successful coup d’etat there and begin an even larger-scale privatization process, following in Obama’s footsteps in Honduras.

Feature photo | Alexander Rubenstein | MintPress News

Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News.

The post “The US Got Scared” Voices of the Resistance in Post-Coup Honduras appeared first on MintPress News.

Brenda Choresi Carter on the Electability Myth, Lawrence Glickman on Racism & Euphemism

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

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This week on CounterSpin: There’s a vigorous public argument right now—mainly among Democrats, along with some IRBF’s, the Inexplicable Republican Best Friends to whom elite media offer op-ed space to offer assuredly good-faith counsel to Democrats — about “electability.” The upshot for many seems to be that to beat Trump, Democrats should run someone as much like him as possible, and must on no account run a “nontraditional” candidate, no matter how excited people are about them. It’s very “Fears Not Hopes” — and is it even true? A new data-driven study says no, actually; white men are not inherently more “electable” than women or people of color. We’ll talk about the Electability Myth with Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign.

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(image: Boston Review)

Also on the show: As Trump amps up his racist attacks on congresswomen of color, some corporate media are still fairly contorting themselves to describe such attacks as racism-adjacent. Denaturing the word “racism” has a particular history in this country, worth knowing as you hear pundits talk about racially-charged this and -tinged that—as is the fact that, when it comes to media, the people who decide whether “racism” is the right word are the least likely to have experienced it. We’ll talk about the power of language and the language of power with Lawrence Glickman, American Studies professor at Cornell University and author of the recent Boston Review article, “The Racist Politics of the English Language.”

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Plus Janine Jackson takes a quick look at the upcoming Democratic presidential debates.

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Roger Stone Planned to Headline a Fundraiser Hosted by a Convicted Fraudster

Mother Jones Magazine -

Roger Stone, the former adviser to Donald Trump, has appeared at strip clubs, sold signed rocks, developed a catch phrase, and publicly pleaded poverty to raise money to cover his mounting legal fees, as he awaits trial on obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and perjury charges tied to the Trump-Russia scandal. Stone’s all-out effort to drum up cash for his legal defense fund was scheduled to take him to Michigan later this month, where he planned to headline a fundraiser hosted by an unusual ally: a convicted fraudster who is currently under investigation by his local sheriff’s office for writing bad checks. 

Stone is required to seek the court’s permission to travel and on Tuesday US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson granted his request to visit Washington, Michigan, for the July 27 event. An invitation to the fundraiser, slated to be held at the home of Jeff D’Angelo, the CEO of a company called Debt Bolt Inc., promised a speech and book-signing by the indicted Republican operative. But on Wednesday, D’Angelo said in a text message to Mother Jones that the fundraiser had been cancelled. “I will let you know about rescheduling,” he wrote. He did not respond to follow-up questions. As of Friday, the fundraiser’s Eventbrite page made no mention that the event had been cancelled, and it was still possible to buy tickets ($150, “no refunds”). 

D’Angelo is currently under investigation in Macomb County, Michigan, where he lives, for “presenting himself as a multitude of legitimate businesses and issuing checks from accounts that do not have sufficient funds to cover the checks written.” 

In an interview last week, D’Angelo said he knows Stone through a mutual acquaintance and planned the fundraiser because he is “a huge Trump fan” and believes Stone is being unfairly prosecuted. The proceeds would go to Stone, but, D’Angelo noted, “I’m promoting my company as well.”

That firm, which D’Angelo described as “the Uber of debt collection,” claims to allow people owed money to use an app to sell unpaid debts to collection agencies. Debt Bolt’s website is currently down while “undergoing maintenance,” the site says.

D’Angelo, whose given name is Jeffery Skodak, has considerable personal experience with debt. He has declared bankruptcy three times, most recently earlier this year. He also has a criminal record that includes convictions for credit card fraud and writing bad checks.  

D’Angelo is currently under investigation in Macomb County, Michigan, where he lives, for “presenting himself as a multitude of legitimate businesses and issuing checks from accounts that do not have sufficient funds to cover the checks written,” Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said in a statement. The investigation involves bounced checks to a local lumber company for around $8,000 from Debt Bolt and another D’Angelo company, according to police reports obtained by Mother Jones through a public records request.

The bounced checks are among several allegations of fraud by D’Angelo that have been reported to the sheriff’s office over the last 20 years, records show. In 2014, for instance, a man complained that he had been “defrauded” of $15,000 by D’Angelo and an associate. The man said D’Angelo and the colleague had promised but failed to deliver help modifying a mortgage. This accusation does not appear to have resulted in criminal charges. 

D’Angelo has also been both a defendant and plaintiff in a multitude of civil lawsuits. In 2004, he sued Accor North American, the owner of a Motel 6 where he had worked, claiming two female colleagues had sexually harassed him. His ex-girlfriend later said in a sworn statement that he had confided to her that he fabricated some of the accusations he made in the lawsuit. (Her allegations came after the defendants had agreed to a $30,000 settlement and a judge ruled the settlement should stand.) D’Angelo denied concocting his allegations, but he did admit under questioning by Accor’s lawyers that he had falsely claimed to hold a college degree.

“I know this all may not look good for me, but I think telling the truth is the way to go,” D’Angelo said. “I have nothing to hide.”

In February, Detroit’s Fox 2 ran an investigative segment on D’Angelo, complete with a camera crew chasing him through a parking lot. Under the headline “’Skodak Moment’—serial entrepreneur kills reputations,” the story quoted seven people who claimed D’Angelo had ripped them off through Debt Bolt and a series of other businesses he launched. He attempted to legally change his surname last year to D’Angelo, but Wickersham said the change was not completed because “he did not show up to court and he issued a 175 dollar check to court that couldn’t be cashed.”

“He’s a professional con artist is what he is,” a woman identified as Jenny told Fox 2. She alleged that D’Angelo, through Debt Bolt, promised she’d make $15,000 if she paid $750 for a list of names and personal information for debtors but offered no help with collections and refused to refund her money.

In an interview, D’Angelo broadly denied the allegations against him. He called the Fox 2 report “attempted character assassination.” He claimed that many of the allegations cited in the report were caused by former employees stealing $300,000 from him, a matter he said his lawyers are pursuing. He also blamed his recent bankruptcy filing on this conflict. D’Angelo attributed earlier criminal convictions to a conflict with his former girlfriend, the same one who accused him of making false allegations, and his inability to afford effective lawyers at the time.

“I know this all may not look good for me, but I think telling the truth is the way to go,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.”

D’Angelo noted that he hoped that 150 people would attend his fundraiser for Stone. Perhaps an optimistic estimate, a crowd that size would net Stone up to $22,500. In previous efforts raise money, Stone judged an exotic dancing contest in Memphis and  spoke at an adult club in Richmond. He has also held more traditional fundraisers.

Stone has publicly and consistently complained about his escalating legal expenses and his loss of income due to his prosecution. In April, he said that he and his wife were forced to move out of their Fort Lauderdale home and into a one-room apartment to cut costs. He has set up a family defense fund, separate from his legal defense fund, to seek donations to cover living expenses for him and his wife. He has also benefited from outside fundraising efforts. Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who is friendly with Stone, said in a text message that he raised $120,000 for Stone’s defense through a GoFundMe campaign earlier this year and plans to resume fundraising for Stone after Labor Day. Caputo said Stone needs to raise more than $2 million to cover his legal bills. It’s not clear how far Stone has gotten toward that goal. He and his attorneys did not respond to questions about how much he has raised overall or the fundraiser that was organized by a convicted felon with a history of fraud. 

Trump Attacks Omar Even as He Claims to Disapprove of “Send Her Back” Chants

Mother Jones Magazine -

Less than a day after attempting to disavow the “send her back” chants that erupted at his North Carolina rally, President Donald Trump on Friday returned to targeting Rep. Ilhan Omar, once again accusing the Minnesota congresswomen of hating the United States.

The newest attack made it clear that despite claiming to distance himself from the racist refrain, Trump is set to continue smearing the four Democratic congresswomen of color—Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—he has repeatedly demanded “go back” to their “crime-infested” countries this week.

The president’s commitment to pummeling the congresswomen had been immediately apparent even in Trump’s so-called disavowal on Thursday when he claimed that he “was not happy” with the chant and that he had stopped his supporters from chanting it “very quickly.” (Videos of the rally show Trump embracing the chant and waiting more than ten seconds to continue with his prepared remarks.)

Trump on Friday also hit back at Democrats who have condemned his ongoing racist attacks, framing their outrage as both unhinged and unfair.

It is amazing how the Fake News Media became “crazed” over the chant “send her back” by a packed Arena (a record) crowd in the Great State of North Carolina, but is totally calm & accepting of the most vile and disgusting statements made by the three Radical Left Congresswomen…

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2019

….Mainstream Media, which has lost all credibility, has either officially or unofficially become a part of the Radical Left Democrat Party. It is a sick partnership, so pathetic to watch! They even covered a tiny staged crowd as they greeted Foul Mouthed Omar in Minnesota, a…

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2019

In lashing out at Omar, Trump also felt compelled to compare the crowd size of Wednesday’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina to the size of the group of supporters that welcomed Omar as she returned to Minnesota Thursday night. “Welcome home, Ilhan!” the crowd cheered as she arrived at the airport.

….State which I will win in #2020 because they can’t stand her and her hatred of our Country, and they appreciate all that I have done for them (opening up mining and MUCH more) which has led to the best employment & economic year in Minnesota’s long and beautiful history!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2019

Home sweet home!! https://t.co/OQvh52aw2Q

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) July 18, 2019

In 2003, This U.K. Whistleblower Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion. A New Film Tells Her Story

Democracy Now! -

In 2003, Katharine Gun, a young specialist working for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, exposed a highly confidential memo that revealed the United States’ collaboration with Britain in collecting sensitive information on United Nations Security Council members in order to pressure them into supporting the Iraq invasion. Gun leaked the memo to the press, setting off a chain of events that jeopardized her freedom and safety, but also opened the door to putting the entire legality of the Iraq invasion on trial. 

Acclaimed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg described Gun’s action as “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.” Gun’s incredible story is depicted in the new film “Official Secrets,” which premieres in the U.S. August 30. We speak with Katharine Gun; the British journalists who reported on Gun’s revelations in The Observer newspaper, Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy; and Gavin Hood, director of “Official Secrets.”

Anti-Racist Historian: Attacks on Rep. Omar Rooted in Belief "America Is for White People"

Democracy Now! -

On Thursday, President Trump attempted to distance himself from the racist chant of “send her back” about Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar at a Trump campaign rally Wednesday in North Carolina. The chants rang across the rally in response to Trump’s own verbal attack against the congresswoman. He did nothing to intervene. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a resolution condemning Trump’s racist remarks against Congressmembers Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We speak with Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.

Headlines for July 19, 2019

Democracy Now! -

On the Road With Dylan LeBlanc

Mother Jones Magazine -

Over the course of four albums, Louisiana-born singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc’s style has evolved through roots-Americana, understated soul rock into satisfying, cathartic rock ’n’ roll.

On his new album, Renegade, released last month on ATO Records, LeBlanc takes a big step forward, channeling his doubt and angst into a more forceful, volatile rock setting with help from the Pollies, an adventurous rock band from the Muscle Shoals area, and the practiced touch of in-demand Nashville producer Dave Cobb.

The reverbed guitars, compressed drums, and eerie keyboards on Renegade recall the darker rock that hovered around the edges of Top 40 radio in the ’80s and ’90s. LeBlanc’s striking voice glides and soars inside the big lonely spaces of his songs.

At Rough Trade in Brooklyn last month, LeBlanc was self-conscious and thoughtful offstage, but with the Pollies backing him and propelling the songs relentlessly forward, he tore through his set with an urgent vigor. His tour continues through the United States and Europe into the fall.

Pollies bassist Spencer Duncan unloads an instrument from the trailer on a rainy evening.

Pollies drummer Jon Davis sets up his kit for sound check.

Pollies guitarist Jay Burgess sound-checks his instrument.

Erin Rae, the opening performer, and LeBlanc rehearse a duet.

With the backing of the Pollies, LeBlanc’s sound has become larger and more visceral.

The band reimagined his song “Beyond the Veil” from his previous album, Cautionary Tale, into a long, heavy jam.

Jon Davis and Spencer Duncan take a moment before the encore.

Dylan and Erin Rae perform together during the encore.

A final smoke break before getting back on the road

This photo essay is part of On the Road, a series of visual essays that explores the creative lives of notable musicians, onstage and off.

Congress Helped Thousands of People Get Out of Prison Early. But Many of Them Will Probably Be Deported Right Away.

Mother Jones Magazine -

After months of anticipation, about 3,000 people will be released early from federal prisons on Friday as part of the First Step Act, a bipartisan law that reformed federal sentencing and prison conditions. It’s the biggest release yet since the law was signed in December. President Donald Trump has applauded it as an example of his commitment to second chances for the incarcerated. 

But not everyone in this group will get to go home. Roughly a quarter of them are not United States citizens, and many will instead be sent straight to immigration detention to face deportation proceedings, which could take years.

“Folks sadly may be thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be released, I’m going to go home and be with my family again,’ and many of them will probably be surprised to learn that that’s not actually the case,” says Iliana Holguin, a Texas-based attorney who is a board member with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

The people looking forward to early release are getting out because they earned credit for good behavior while behind bars. The Bureau of Prisons was previously giving people 47 days off their sentence per year of good behavior, but the First Step Act stipulated that people can shave off 54 days per year instead. That change applied retroactively but was not implemented until this week, a delay that frustrated prisoner advocacy organizations, as I’ve previously reported. In addition to the people released this week, at least 1,023 others have already gone home because the law retroactively reduced a disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

The roughly 750 noncitizens who will be released Friday will likely include both undocumented people and permanent residents with green cards, some of whom may have lived in the country for years with family members who are US citizens. Following standard procedure, many will be immediately transferred to an immigrant detention facility, at which point they can attempt to request bond, though it is typically denied to people who have been convicted of crimes.

Roughly a quarter of them are not US citizens, and many will be sent straight to immigration detention to face deportation proceedings.

According to immigration attorneys, some of these people, including green card holders, will be eligible for an immigration hearing, where they can try to build a case for why they should remain in the United States. But many of them, especially undocumented people convicted of certain felonies, will be fast-tracked through the system and prepared for immediate deportation. Others who received removal orders during their incarceration can also be deported right away.

The large number of noncitizens in the group is not unusual. As the Marshall Project points out, about a fifth of all federal prisoners were born in another country. Of these, nearly half are incarcerated for drug trafficking or related offenses, and more than a quarter are incarcerated for immigration offenses. In fact, the majority of all federal prosecutions are for immigration-related crimes, especially for illegal entry or reentry. That was true under the Obama administration, too, but it’s been amplified by the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, which results in immediate federal prosecution for people crossing the border without documentation. 

The fact that so many people will be funneled straight from prison to yet another form of detention is a reminder that the First Step Act, the first major criminal justice reform bill to pass Congress in a generation, was limited in scope and largely left immigrants behind. “This was a bipartisan effort,” says Rose Cahn, an attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and both sides agreed “to essentially throw noncitizens under the bus.”

The First Step Act was opposed by some immigrant rights groups, including the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The law encourages prisoners to participate in rehabilitative programs like drug counseling and job training by allowing them to earn extra time in halfway houses or home confinement if they do. But immigrants who committed certain offenses like illegal reentry are among a list of prisoners who are barred from earning this benefit. Some immigrants convicted of different crimes can ask to be included, but only if they first agree to begin immigration court proceedings and make it through without a deportation order, according to Alisa Wellek, executive director of the Immigrant Defense Project. Their odds aren’t great, given the difficulty of getting an attorney in these Institutional Hearing Program courts, which are housed within the prison system. In the last fiscal year, only 4 percent of people who went through these courts had attorneys, according to Justice Department data. Of those who didn’t, 97 percent were deported.

“If you’re not a US citizen, then you’re excluded from this notion of second chances.”

Even before the law passed, federal prisons barred undocumented immigrants from spending any of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement, and blocked them from most prison rehabilitative programs. Immigrant rights groups had hoped lawmakers would reform these rules as part of the First Step Act, but Republicans were opposed, says Cahn, and Democrats, trying to compromise, agreed not to press for these changes. Now the rules, which were once just internal policies of the federal prison system, are codified into law.

“Allegedly the First Step Act is based on this notion that people should be defined by more than the biggest mistake they ever committed, that people should be entitled to redemption, but there’s this caveat,” Cahn says. “If you’re not a US citizen, then you’re excluded from this notion of second chances.”

Would a Climate Debate Make Good TV? We Asked the Creator of Emmy-Winning Sensation “UnREAL.”

Mother Jones Magazine -

For as long as I’ve reported on climate change, the conventional wisdom has been that my beat makes boring TV. A year ago MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes called it a “palpable ratings killer” as he attempted to explain why networks weren’t doing more.

That conventional wisdom has always been amplified during campaign season, when the networks would pass on any questions during primetime debates because, as Grist reported in 2016, they always thought the audience wasn’t interested. Or the politics were too complex to be compelling. Democrats might agree climate change is a problem, even if they have different ways of highlighting what the problem means for the country and what to do about it. But during the recent debates, less than 10 minutes were spent discussing it. There just isn’t enough potential for conflict.

So what would someone who has nothing to do with covering climate but who makes her living creating hugely successful shows do to turn a climate debate into good television? Who better to talk to than Marti Noxon, who has spent more than two decades as a producer and writer for television hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, UnREAL, and Sharp Objects.

Writing fictional TV characters isn’t exactly like politics or reporting. But I think the reason we say climate makes bad TV is how abstract and unemotional the discussion around it is. Noxon agreed and explained strategies for tugging at those heartstrings, and how she’d redo political television if she were suddenly given the power to be, as she calls it, a “benevolent dictator.” 

Mother Jones: To kick off, what do you think about how these debates are formatted, the way the dialogue is structured? What could be done differently?

Noxon: First of all, all of it reminds me of the last two seasons of Veep. The last two seasons of Veep are like a documentary-slash-nightmare version of the real world. My daughter and I just binged the whole series, and when we got to the end I thought this is almost too hard to watch. It’s almost exactly what it’s like. The debate is all so obvious in its manipulations. As an entertainment person it makes me cringe because it all looks like what we do for a living.

MJ: Could you tell me a bit more about that, what are the similarities between real politicians and characters on television? 

MN: They have to kind of cast themselves in a role, and they have to play that role to perfection.

“They have to kind of cast themselves in a role, and they have to play that role to perfection.”

MJ: How do you make something interesting that might on the surface seem boring to some people? Like I cover climate change, and have heard people call it boring, or abstract, or that there’s nothing to debate.

MN: That just means they have bad writers! A good writer can make anything interesting. If you take a micro issue and do sort of what Trump does—take a micro issue, come up with the most bombastic statement about it and just keep repeating it—I think that would penetrate.

MJ: When you say bombastic, is it—

MN: I was listening to a podcast the other day where the scientists said if everyone in the world switched to a milk substitute, we would make a huge dent in what we did for climate change. To me it’s not boring to talk about how much money people can make producing oats and oat milk instead of cow [milk]. There’s got to be a way to talk about that to make it interesting—if farmers invest in oats, they are not only going to make a zillion dollars, they’re also going to save the world. Our American farmers are going to save the world. We have the very best farmers and they’re going to be billionaires.

MJ: That sounds a little more like Trump.

MN: Doesn’t that sound exciting though? Farmers can save the world, be billionaires, and be the best farmers everywhere. 

MJ: You say these debates need better writers, who does that mean?

MN: The reason that for so many of us comedy like John Oliver is becoming the news is because they’re just better communicators. But the problem is, I’ve been to Washington in groups of writers trying to help impress upon candidates how much they need the help of seasoned writers, actual seasoned working writers. And then they don’t test it.

The Democrats are terrible at it because they parse everything. I went with a group in Washington to talk about the simple declarative statements that are effective and are emotional. And you know they were like, “We’re coming out with a great thing that’s just like that.” And then they revealed “A Better Deal” or something like that. It was none of the things they thought it was. It was a bad slogan, and it was an incomprehensible plan. It got no traction. And we kind of told them that. They focus group everything and they have to stop. 

MJ: It sounds like you’re saying fewer talking points and be more natural and off-the-cuff?

MN: You can’t do that in a debate with 20 people. You need a strong hand. You know, they need a showrunner, they really fucking need a showrunner, a really good one. 

MJ: So they have a showrunner, or a lead producer who makes all the creative calls. What would you change if you were in charge?

MN: I would politely tell all but five of the candidates that we were going fivesies, that the rest of them are done. And they could get mad, but they couldn’t talk to me about it, the decision would be made. I would make them stay on message. That’s what creating a show is: Why are we telling this story? What’s the message of this story? What’s the tone of this story? Then day after day after day you keep people on message. It’s hard. It’s exhausting but everyone has to agree it’s a benevolent dictatorship. Can you imagine a bunch of politicians agreeing? 

“I would politely tell all but five of the candidates that we were going fivesies, that the rest of them are done. And they could get mad, but they couldn’t talk to me about it, the decision would be made.”

MJ: The challenge is getting everyone to agree. It sounds like a theme is pushing a message here. How does that work for a climate debate?

MN: Say you hired me to be a showrunner, and my number one priority is climate change, I would look at four or our top five candidates. I say rule of five: Five top talking points, no more than five. After that people get confused and they get bored. 

MJ: Five? 

MN: You can only retain so much nowadays, so give us five simple statements. Of those five, I try to make three of them covertly about climate change. One would be the impact of global warming on labor. And I would figure out a really snazzy way to say, you’re going to be working harder and longer because of climate change. I would just be sneaky.

MJ: You are in the work of storytelling, what is the role personal stories can play?

MN: I would talk about the fact that I was just down at Imperial Beach for the weekend with my kids. We entered a sandcastle-building contest, and the beaches eroded so much they had to bring in sand. The locals told me that when they were little, you had to walk about a half mile to get to the water. I think stories like that tell you so much. Do you relate it to childhood, people’s memories, to their own summer vacations? And how those are going to go away.

MJ: A lot of the goal in debates is also to get some conflict or fireworks going. 

MN:  It’s really important to TV, but in politics you have to be really careful when you’re talking about a female candidate. It makes me really sad that female candidates have to work so hard not to come across as “unlikable.” In TV we’ve reached a new era where the unlikable female character is being celebrated. So I can write Camille in Sharp Objects as a really, really flawed character and people love her. Or Quinn King on UnREAL. If Constance Zimmer’s Quinn ran for president she’d probably win. People like conflict in women when they’re fictional, not if they’re real. So it’s tricky, tricky, tricky. 

MJ: It sounds like some of the advice here is to cut down on the amount of noise and number of people on stage and to get people off their script and talking points to be more natural. And to take bigger risks, like what you said about being bombastic. 

MN: There’s two different strategies, and I think you have to alternate between the two. The one strategy is to make it really simple and appealing to do things that will help the climate, and that’s the kind of bombastic approach—best farmers ever. The second is find the story through your own child or your own family life. You find those really emotional stories from your actual childhood, you don’t say, “I know a woman,” you say “me” “I”. And the second part is to alternate between those stories about the effects of climate change and bombastic statements. You know, alternate between love and tough love. 

MJ: Sounds like there’s a level of emotional manipulation here.

MN: Yeah, totally.

“Alternate between those stories about the effects of climate change and bombastic statements. You know, alternate between love and tough love.” 

MJ: There’s a lot of debate over how to balance emotions. You know, making people hopeful for change or scared? How do you do both?

MNIn television, I write my first draft without thinking about it at all. I just write it, and whatever comes out comes out. I take that first draft, and I work from there, and I get a lot of notes from a lot of different people. Then I sit back and go, what’s the feeling of this?  How does it feel? Is it giving me the feeling of hopefulness? Is it enough hope to make you watch it again? 

But first I write it without thinking about it at all. You know, Joe Biden gut level. You keep fighting for the version that’s going to resonate with people and make them want to do something, not just sink in a pile of ennui.

MJ: Any other advice?

MN: It’s the same rule I talk about with what I think my job is. You’re trying to build something that makes empathy. That makes people actually care about something outside of their own concerns. And there are tricks to doing that and it might feel like you’re being manipulative. But the goal is to make people walk away from the thing they watched and go, “Wow that’s a lot harder than I thought it was, maybe I can help.” So that’s what my job is. And I feel like that’s what politicians, if they’re actually in it to help people should be doing. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Deadly Delays in Jail Construction Cost Lives and Dollars Across California

Mother Jones Magazine -

This story was originally published by ProPublica and was produced in partnership with The Sacramento Bee.

Last June, Fabian Cardoza headed to the shower in the dilapidated Merced County Main Jail. The 20-year-old had spent a month there awaiting trial on a robbery charge. Two cellmates boxed him in. One pinned Cardoza to the floor. The other slipped a braided bedsheet around his neck and tightened it.

It was just past noon, but no correctional officers took notice. No one was monitoring the video camera that watched the area and, because the facility was so outdated, officers would have had to stand directly in front of the cell to see anything inside.

The jail was built in 1968, before most of the prisoners were even born. Inmates live behind rusted bars in the aging cellblocks, where eight people share a space the size of a two-bedroom apartment. The sleeping area has stacked beds bolted to the walls, opening into a dayroom that serves as a bathing and communal eating space. On that Sunday afternoon, it was a killing ground.

County officials knew the jail needed to be scrapped, its conditions branded “deplorable” in a scathing 2008 review. The outside reviewers said it was difficult to find the right parts to repair the decades-old sliding cell doors and other fixtures. Gang members mingled in blind spots where staff members were unable to keep track, and design flaws made segregating inmates exceptionally challenging.

Merced County’s corrections consultants agreed. “The Sheriff’s Department has determined that the antiquated Main Jail needs to be shut down, the infrastructure is post-salvageable, and the dysfunction of the jail layout creates problems in creating a manageable and safe environment for the staff and in-custody,” their written assessment states.

Over the years, Merced County officials hoped to fix the jail’s flaws by tapping into $2.1 billion in state construction money, a critical piece of California’s ambitious criminal justice reforms known as “realignment.” Designed to relieve unconstitutional overcrowding in state prisons, the program, which began in 2011, reclassified hundreds of crimes and diverted thousands of offenders to county jails. Sheriffs and corrections officials accepted the changes, in part, because counties received a cash incentive to rebuild or update local facilities.

So in 2013, the Merced County sheriff’s office requested funds to build a new facility for maximum-security inmates, a proposal that would have allowed it to close the Main Jail. But county officials failed to meet the state’s basic requirements, including properly documenting the jail’s defects. Their application fell to the bottom of the state’s rankings, and their $40 million request was rejected.

Meanwhile, conditions deteriorated in the cellblocks, and inmate-on-inmate murders began. After a decade without any homicides, one man was killed in a gang assassination in 2015. Then another, in 2017.

Cardoza would be the third.

The county’s chief executive did not respond to interview requests, but, in his proposed budget last month, said the county is taking steps to improve security in its correctional facilities and intends to eventually expand its other jail to hold all inmates. The sheriff’s office declined to answer questions about inmate homicides.

A security camera recorded Cardoza’s attackers choking him to death, according to court and autopsy records. They carried him back to his jail bed and placed his lifeless body on the single bunk.

Twenty-four hours passed.

A correctional officer only discovered the corpse when he came in shortly before an afternoon court hearing for Cardoza’s robbery case. The inmate’s throat was covered in purple markings, his limbs rigid. The officer called for help, but it was too late. Cardoza had been decomposing for a full day.

Deadly Delays

New and improved facilities are a critical pillar of California’s corrections transformation. But bureaucratic roadblocks, indifference from county sheriffs and critical errors in planning by local officials have meant dozens of California jails remain broken and dangerous, unable to adequately serve an influx of inmates, while hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the aging facilities go unspent, a McClatchy and ProPublica investigation has found.

Statewide, officials have awarded money for 65 jail construction projects since realignment began eight years ago, according to state project status reports. Only 11 have opened.

Another 11 gave up funds after winning them, hindered by a tangle of state processes, shifting political priorities and too little local tax revenue to operate the jails after they’re built.

Most of the rest of the projects are several years behind schedule, records show. State and county officials have encountered a variety of delays, from securing land to passing inspections. Three jails from the earliest financing effort in 2011 have still not started construction.

Officials have awarded money for 65 jail construction projects since realignment began eight years ago…Only 11 have opened.

Tehama County won $20 million in 2013 to build a new 64-bed jail adjacent to the existing facility in Red Bluff, state documents show. The project, between Chico and Redding in Northern California, has been mired in delays and debate, largely over how to move a main road in town. County officials say the jail won’t open until at least late 2021.

Sacramento County initially won $56.4 million in that same round of funding to build a 26-bed medical and mental health treatment facility, kitchen and three educational program buildings at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove.

Planners expected it to open by October of this year, but the project changed — and stalled — when the county received more state money because a smaller county gave up on its project and returned the award. Sacramento officials in April gave the green light to choose construction firms, with a new goal to open in 2021.

Former state officials who helped craft the realignment law said California’s worst county lockups were, for the most part, supposed to have been overhauled or replaced by now.

“I just don’t know that we’ve seen the real benefit as of yet,” said Matt Cate, the former state corrections secretary who helped oversee realignment, referring to new jails. “A lot of these are just coming online, so who knows what the benefit will be long term.”

The state agency that awards projects and oversees their construction, the Board of State and Community Corrections, said it tries to work with counties, but the agency has little power over local governments. Aaron Maguire, legal counsel for the board, noted that there are no penalties when jail construction is delayed or projects grow more costly.

The community corrections board does not believe it has the power to be the counties’ taskmaster.

“We could take the money away, but we can’t force them to build anything,” Maguire said.

Steve Meinrath, who worked for nearly a decade as legal counsel for the California Legislature and helped draft jail construction legislation, said the goal was always to award projects that would open on time.

“When one piece of this falls down,” Meinrath said, “the whole project can become very dangerous.”

With dozens of county projects moving glacially, the state’s criminal justice overhaul is now faltering as inmates and corrections staff face more and more risk.

Santa Barbara County, for instance, won funds in 2012 to build a 376-bed jail it said would quell fights and improve medical and mental health care. But construction might not finish until 2020 — three years behind schedule. Meanwhile, design flaws in the aging jail are contributing to in-custody deaths.

In a report last month, a citizen panel called attention to a suicide in one of the facility’s many blind spots. Guards put a man with a history of mental illness in a holding cell, where he turned his shirt into a noose and hanged himself from the cell bars, which most modern jails don’t use. Hinged metal doors are considered safer.

The man’s body was out of the camera’s view. The staff found him 25 minutes later.

A Flawed Application, Then Murder in Merced

Located in California’s less-affluent but agriculturally rich Central Valley, Merced County is now home to a quarter-million residents. Farming drives the local economy. Almond trees line the highways and dirt roads frame the city of Merced, whose motto is “gateway to Yosemite.”

That bucolic image contrasts sharply with the gang-fueled violence that drives the local crime rate. The Merced Sun-Star’s editorial board once labeled the county the “murder capital of California.”

Over the past two decades, the county’s grand juries — groups of volunteers that inspect parts of local government — described the Main Jail as “run-down” and unsafe for those working and incarcerated inside. They highlighted failing ventilation systems, cracked glass windows and crumbling paint. One group of inspectors said the county needed to “actively pursue” construction of a new facility.

“The overall condition of the cell blocks is deplorable!” jurors wrote in 2008. “In sum, Merced County needs a new jail! If these deficiencies are not addressed quickly, the potential for inmate disturbances, possible escapes and further, more expensive facility repairs will only grow to unmanageable proportions.”

In 2013, Merced County joined the line of 36 applicants vying for funding from the community corrections board, the group that holds the purse strings for state jail funding. It applied for $40 million.

“The overall condition of the cell blocks is deplorable!”

The county had plans to build a new maximum-security facility to help stem violence and safety threats in what officials that year described as a “dysfunctional” jail.

Cement walls and security bars block views of everything except what’s directly in front of those walking through the Main Jail. It’s even hard to pray there, said Emanuel Cudder, Merced County jail chaplain. There are no inmate gathering spaces, so volunteer ministers stop at every individual cell to pray with defendants and provide biblical readings, requiring five hours or more per visit.

Merced County can’t afford to fix the jail buildings itself.

“As a county that has experienced some of the worst financial impacts from the real estate bubble and ‘Great Recession,’” officials wrote in their application, “Merced County is making a significant commitment of its already meager resources” to upgrade its jail facilities.

Mark Pazin, who was Merced County’s sheriff in 2013 and head of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, was among a small but powerful group of sheriffs who supported realignment, an idea that had divided the Legislature. Seeing an opportunity for jail improvements in his own county and across the state, he sided with the architect of the controversial proposal, then-Gov. Jerry Brown. And he and other county officials were moving ahead with their plan to shut down the expensive, deteriorating Main Jail and make other improvements.

But then came what Pazin deemed the “disappointing day in December of 2013.”

A rejection letter from the state informed Merced County that its proposal ranked next-to-last among the 11 “medium”-sized counties vying for funds. Evaluators at the state said their 58-page proposal lacked necessary documents showing the county had designated local matching funds, as required by the law.

County officials failed to conduct a professional assessment showing why a new jail was necessary. They also did not get the board of supervisors’ official project approval — a critical formality.

The county received a failing grade, earning just 68% of points possible during the review.

“I thought we were shovel-ready for the project but evidently found out the hard way we were not,” Pazin said in a May interview. “To say I was stunned by the rejection would be an understatement.”

The funding denial meant the Main Jail would remain open for the foreseeable future. Pazin left his role as sheriff a month later, in January 2014, for a job in the Brown administration overseeing law enforcement for the state’s office of emergency services.

On their second try for state money in 2015, Merced County officials included the proper paperwork. They documented the matching funds. And they completed a detailed needs assessment explaining where the problems were — once again, the Main Jail.

Except the county didn’t apply to fix any of that.

Instead, it requested and was awarded $40 million to upgrade the John Latorraca Correctional Facility, a much newer jail complex 20 minutes outside of town. The project will add 30 new medical and mental health treatment beds, space for programs and services, and an intake and release area.

“The project does not fully meet the needs identified,” county officials wrote in their application, “but will allow the county to make substantial headway in programming and treatment.”

Merced County supervisors explained that they chose a more modest project after “a careful fiscal evaluation of what size jail facility the county could maintain and operate on a yearly basis.”

A month after Merced County’s board chairman signed the application in 2015, Alejandro Vega, 29, was stabbed and beaten inside a cell at the Main Jail. He died the next day. It was the first inmate-on-inmate killing in the county jail in more than a decade.

In pitching the upgrades to the newer facility, the county said building on its own land would speed construction and cut down on costs. But six years since it first applied for funding to improve its jails and four years since it was awarded money, Merced County is still “working through the details” of how exactly to spend it, said Mike North, a county spokesman. The project hasn’t broken ground.

Construction on the medical facility might begin next year, officials said. In its proposed budget, Merced County said it was “in the process of exploring financing options” for a second project phase that would consolidate the Main Jail into the other facility grounds.

“There is no projected start date and no projected close date for the Main Jail,” North said.

The community corrections board said that there are often competing needs within a county. Its selection process is not entirely based on where the most severe needs are, but whether a county has justified its proposal. Local elected officials are responsible for deciding how to fix their problems.

In Merced County, the perils remain. Gang conflicts played a role in Cardoza’s shower strangulation last year, the sheriff’s office announced.

Cardoza was a low-level member, at worst, said Allyson Prak, Cardoza’s wife and mother of his 3-year-old son, Fabian Jr. It remains unclear, according to court documents, why he was targeted by two other gang members. Their criminal cases are ongoing.

McClatchy and ProPublica filed a public records request seeking documents, including video files, used in the sheriff’s examination of Cardoza’s murder. The Merced County Counsel declined to release records as the review remains ongoing, making it difficult to know why correctional officers did not notice the victim’s body.

Prak said the sheriff’s office provided no specifics about the murder to her, either. She’s relied on secondhand accounts from Cardoza’s friends.

“You always hear about people, five years later they turn their life around,” Prak said of Cardoza’s “dumb” mistakes. “He didn’t get to have that.”

“I Just Can’t Afford This”

Since realignment, just 17% of jail projects awarded funding have opened. Counties that win money for new or upgraded facilities can face a lengthy effort that ends up costing them — and their taxpayers.

In Santa Barbara, for example, inclement weather, as well as design changes to comply with regulations, caused significant delays. And as projects fall years behind schedule, counties eat the increasing costs that come with paying planners, developers and workers who end up in project limbo. A partly state-funded jail facility in Riverside County might be the next to open — possibly in August — but only after lengthy delays and local officials agreed to spend an extra $10.2 million.

John Prince, who oversees jail construction at the state’s community corrections board, said the long waits were predictable given the hurdles counties have to clear before they turn dirt. Local officials have been outbid for land and struggled to sort out old claims to mineral rights on construction sites.

Some just give up their awards. A shriveling tax base in less-populated places still reeling from the economic downturn means governments are on the hook for millions of dollars needed to complete a project beyond what the state will cover. Then, there’s the added cost of operating the new facilities.

“If I know in year two, in year five and year 10 I just can’t afford this, I have to make a decision to walk away each time it’s offered to me,” said Paul A. Smith, a lobbyist at the Rural County Representatives of California. “It’s better to stay in the game, reapply, you never know, than completely walk away.”

Years after winning realignment money, supervisors in several counties argued their local tax revenues were insufficient to hire the additional employees needed to secure modern jails, budget records show. In Shasta County, for example, officials dropped projects in 2012 and 2017 because they lacked operational funding.

Prince acknowledged the problem, saying the state board does not require counties to provide a detailed accounting for the costs of running the larger facilities after construction. But it has not changed its application process or instituted a penalty for lengthy delays.

“We try to reach out with the counties,” Prince said. “We try to make sure that they’re moving forward.”

“Their Job Was to Make Sure That He Was Safe”

A year before Cardoza’s murder in the shower, Aaron Bonilla was in the same bank of group cells at the Merced County Main Jail. He allegedly stole a car three days earlier, according to prosecutors and Bonilla’s autopsy report.

Bonilla struggled through a turbulent childhood, punctuated by the murder of his father and addiction, his sister, Tamara, said. That morphed into low-level crimes, couch surfing and stints at Merced County jails.

He first entered the criminal justice system at age 26 when, in 2012, he was arrested in Nevada County for stealing copper wire from a generator station, according to court records. He often visited Tamara Bonilla’s home in Los Banos and would always remind his family that he loved them. He was going to change his life for the better, he promised. But Tamara was “more of the tough-love type,” she said.

“I’m not going to reward you for being in jail, but that’s the safest place for you,” she told him. “That backfired on me.”

On June 11, 2017, someone in a neighboring cell passed a note to one of Bonilla’s cellmates. Inmates waited for a guard to finish rounds before executing the “hit,” attacking the 31-year-old as a group. Bonilla reportedly failed to smuggle drugs into the lockup. With an inmate on lookout for staff, Bonilla’s cellmates beat him for about 11 minutes, according to the autopsy report.

There are no watch stations for correctional officers in Main Jail’s rows of group cells, the facility’s floor plan shows. Staff can only track what’s happening inside cells from a control room, located on the opposite end of the jail, where dozens of security camera feeds play on monitors.

Indeed, local investigators have documented delays in the hourly rounds and raised concerns about the ability to pass notes and contraband between cells.

Tamara Bonilla watched video of the attack in a court hearing for one of her brother’s killers.

“They literally took breaths in between. They walked around,” she said, describing how Bonilla’s killers paused to rest. “Then they went back, started stomping him again. Punching him. They dragged him to get a better grip on his body. Somehow in there, they sliced his neck.”

The sheriff’s office has not fulfilled a records request from McClatchy and ProPublica seeking footage of the attack and details about law enforcement’s handling of it.

Correctional officers eventually learned of Bonilla’s injuries, moved down the narrow hall and evacuated him. “It seemed like forever,” his sister said.

He was airlifted to a hospital in Modesto with severe head and neck trauma, respiratory failure and a bleeding brain. He never regained consciousness and died in hospice two weeks after the attack. The county has denied any wrongdoing.

“I felt like they didn’t do their job. Their job is to serve and protect and just because my brother was on drugs, he wasn’t your ideal person, his life still matters,” she said, adding, “No matter who he is or what he did, their job was to make sure that he was safe.”

“I felt like they didn’t do their job. Their job is to serve and protect and just because my brother was on drugs…his life still matters.”

Last month, a 25-year-old man was sentenced to 50 years to life for Bonilla’s murder after a Merced County jury found him guilty. But he was only transferred to a state prison recently, after prosecutors charged him with another assault in the Main Jail. In that case, the man allegedly cut a fellow inmate more than 12 times. “Our local jail is not equipped to handle this kind of conduct,” Merced County Deputy District Attorney Tyson McCoy told the judge, who agreed and approved the transfer, the Merced Sun-Star reported.

The 2018 grand jury report renewed calls for the county to quickly begin long-planned construction because Main Jail’s design “does not provide a safe environment for inmates or correctional officers.”

Jurors had to be evacuated during a recent tour because of an inmate fight.

Merced County’s top officials campaign on public safety but do not follow through to ensure people in the jail are actually safe, said Deidre Kelsey, who served 20 years on the Merced County Board of Supervisors before leaving office in 2016.

Kelsey said she was surprised to hear about the lengthy delays and escalating violence inside the Main Jail, in part because she thought the state funding was already being spent and the improvements already made.

Politicians and the public only pay attention to the number of officers on staff. “They look at the force, the law enforcement people,” Kelsey said. “They look at the people, they don’t look at the building.”

In a three-sentence news release the day correctional officers found Cardoza in his bed, jail officials announced the death. They said only that staff had “discovered a deceased male inmate” and were investigating it as a homicide. “Additional details are not available at this time,” the sheriff’s office wrote, “but will be released as the investigation proceeds.”

More than a year later, the sheriff’s office still has not acknowledged that the jail staff overlooked a corpse in a cell bed for more than a day. Merced County Sheriff Verne Warnke declined to answer reporters’ questions for this story, but he has blamed low staffing levels for jail violence.

“Our staffing levels are low, and don’t think for a minute those inmates don’t know it,” Warnke told the Sun-Star in 2017, after Bonilla’s murder. “We’re very sorry an inmate had to die.”

Warnke’s recent law-and-order initiatives have not focused on the jail, but instead on expanding gang enforcement throughout the county.

Last August, two months after Cardoza’s murder, Warnke re-established the Sheriff’s Tactical and Reconnaissance Team to combat gang crimes. Flanked by men wearing tactical vests, the sheriff vowed in a public meeting that his team would be “going after our nemesis on the streets.”

The jail would do its part, Warnke said. “We will make room at the inn for whoever needs it.”


The Blob Fought the Squad, and the Squad Won

Counterpunch Articles -

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

For students of political history, a cottage industry has grown in recent years around identifying the historical circumstances and intellectual origins of neoliberalism. While the initial conditions have been identified in the post-WWII effort to cleave German fascism from its American roots, what hasn’t been explained is the hold it has over a broad range of Western political ideology.

This background has bearing on the current effort by the American political establishment to crush ‘the squad’ of left House Democrats whose apparent trespass was to mean what they said about representing the interests of the American public. Establishment incredulity centers on the question: why enact policies when signaling shared beliefs (‘virtue’) has maintained the social order for this long?

The problem that AOC and company created was to put forward popular programs like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a Job Guarantee in concert with plausible explanations of how to pay for them. Each of these represent well-considered responses to profound market failures. What their establishment colleagues have yet to come to terms with is that neoliberalism has left a plurality of Americans living in a ‘shithole country.’

Party leaders joining forces to charge ‘the squad’ and their supporters with being un-American is to assert an imagined community. In legal, institutional and historical terms, ‘the squad’ is as American as any of their establishment accusers. What is meant by the charge is that the American ‘community’ is defined by a set of beliefs, not citizenship, geography or institutional affiliations.

Who it is who gets to define this set of beliefs is the point of contention. Given that ‘the squad’ and their supporters are factually Americans, the onus could in theory be reversed to ask: why don’t the establishment politicians and their supporters leave? The answer gets to the self-legitimating nature of representative democracy. The establishment was elected to represent the people, which gives it legitimacy of place, goes the theory.

But the same could be claimed for ‘the squad.’ Its members were elected to represent their respective constituencies. This gets to the deeper question of legitimacy that establishment interests don’t want raised. Understood by the establishment is that ‘the squad’ must get around both party leaderships to get its programs enacted. In this sense, opposition to ‘the squad’ appears as it is: opposition to the public interest.

Lest this be less than evident, if this is played well it is a political gift to the left. As circumstances stand, there is zero likelihood of getting these and like policies past the establishment gatekeepers in both parties. The establishment’s move to join forces to ‘other’ left opposition relies on the Democrats’ conceit that in the eyes of the public they, and the establishment they claim to defend, are worth keeping. Maybe, maybe not.

This same Democratic party establishment has facilitated Donald Trump’s presidency every step of the way. The Russia! scam was a competition for strategic assets. The dirty industries were Mr. Trump’s from the get-go. If he brought over Goldman Sachs and tech to his side, the Democrats would be screwed. This ‘insider-ball’ works only so long as material conditions remain conducive to political somnambulance. The ‘love it or leave it’ gambit suggests rising insecurity within the establishment.

In 2018 establishment Democrats used the #resistance to ‘sheepdog’ the left back into the fold going into the mid-term elections. ‘The squad’ was elected and the House Democrats, who lack the power to enact legislation, set about virtue signaling by passing policies they have no intention of pursuing if returned to power. ‘The squad’ was useful in this regard up to the point it continued pushing an actual agenda.

To support this assertion, soon after being returned to power House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a lieutenant to assure health insurance executives that House Democrats had no intention of enacting Medicare for All. This follows Barack Obama’s move to assure Canadian legislators that his promise to renegotiate NAFTA was just campaign rhetoric. Establishment Democrats quickly tired of ‘the squad’ once it became evident that they are serious.

Much as it was intended when it was used to attack anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s and 1970s, the ‘America, love it or leave it’ slogan is a call-to-arms for an imagined community in the same way that Mr. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ refers to an imagined past. The ‘othering’ it embodies goes beyond racism to imply that supporters of social democratic policies are anti-American.

Lost on the left is that this gimmick is intended to stir mutual fear and hatred between rural and suburban flag-wavers and urban democratic socialists. ‘The squad’ understands this tactic— this is what makes them a threat. Bernie Sanders went on Fox News to sell Medicare for All as a universal benefit. AOC offered to speak with coal miners in Kentucky who feared being left unemployed and penniless if a Green New Deal were passed.

While public opinion has it that Donald Trump has been more effective at rallying nationalistic rage, establishment Democrats used Russiagate to precisely this same end. Americans were either with the Democrats or they were with Putin, went the chide. With Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump joining forces to construct a nationalist wedge against the left, the political use-value of ‘identity’ politics is on the side of the political establishment— exactly where it has always been.

Another way of framing this is through the question: are Democrats ignorant of their history, or does faith guide their interpretation of the party’s policies? Arch segregationist Joe Biden is converted to a ‘friend of segregationists’ by Democrats who use his words to interpret his acts. The man built a political career advocating for the racial segregation of public schools. He went on to demonize poor blacks as he played a key role in building the racialized gulag system of mass incarceration.

The issue of identity gets to the heart of the neoliberal basis of Democratic politics. Grant for the moment that racism, patriarchy, xenophobia and gender bias describe real social phenomena. (I believe they do). The question then becomes: what, if anything, should be done about them? Each of these describes an aspect of social power. ‘The squad’s’ programs are intended to redistribute power democratically in the dimensions of healthcare, environmental justice and guaranteed employment that pays a living wage.

Given the existing distribution of power, those with the least stand to gain the most from these programs. To the extent that racism, patriarchy and gender bias have determined the existing distribution of power, correcting these would be accomplished via the size of the benefit matching the degree of the disparity. This is the nature of universal benefits. And it is what makes ‘the squad’s’ programs so politically potent.

Asked reverse-wise, why wouldn’t establishment Republicans be overcome with joy at an internecine squabble that threatens to tear the Democrats apart? Donald Trump ran and won as an opposition candidate. The establishment Democrats are running as the viable political alternative to Mr. Trump. Faux opposition between the parties is the mechanism by which establishment interests have long been perpetuated.

Should the left prevail, Mr. Trump would be stripped of his insurgent status. Establishment Democrats have proclaimed themselves guardians of the status quo. It is in their joint interest to ‘other’ the left, which is what they are doing. Otherwise, the Democrats have spent four decades demonstrating that they are fine with racism, xenophobia, patriarchy and gender bias if it serves their political ends. But where is the public interest to be found in any of this?

The faith versus acts divide that Democrats have relied on politically is a carryover from Christian theology. The rationale of the party faithful is that Democrats use racial appeals like the 1994 Crime Bill, opposing school busing and ‘ending welfare as we know it’ to win elections. In contrast, Republicans hold racist opinions, which makes them racists. However, committing racist acts makes people racists, regardless of their beliefs about race.

The subtext of these establishment machinations is that the American political system exists to provide cover for rule by capital. The posture of the political center as the locus of reason is belied by the willingness of establishment forces to risk killing everyone on the planet with nuclear weapons, environmental decline, genocidal wars and dysfunctional economics. It is this political center that is extreme, willing to risk everything to maintain control.

While it may be simplistic to posit a singularity of capitalist interests, is it also true that the manufacture of nuclear weapons is a business, that environmental decline is a by-product of capitalist production, that wars are undertaken both to control resources and to use up military inventory and that the level of economic dysfunction is proportional to the concentration of income and wealth amongst the oligarchs.

One could grant— improbably, that the collective ‘we’ were brought to this place in history honestly, that the world is complicated and that through genocide, slavery and wars too numerous to count, we did the best we could. But this wouldn’t have one iota of relevance to where we take it from here. In this sense, ‘the squad’ exists amongst the potential heroes of this moment.

Possibly of value here is Noam Chomsky’s functional definition of class as who it is that gets to decide. Capitalism has always been ‘authoritarian,’ with owners and bosses doing the deciding. Ironically, from the bourgeois perspective, politics finds these same authoritarians determining public policy through their surrogates in the political realm. Donald Trump’s existence is an argument against concentrated power, not who wields it.

An argument could be made that ‘the squad’ was elected on precisely this point. Policies that promote economic democracy are the best way to achieve political democracy. Conversely, the greatest threat to political democracy is concentrated economic power. The Federal government spent at least a few trillion dollars on gratuitous wars in recent years, and several trillion more on bailing out financial interests. The money has always been there to meet social needs.

From the lips of my Democratic congressman in a recent town hall meeting, ‘prosperity’ is the first order of business for serious Democrats. Through this prism Medicare for All is Obamacare with higher payouts to insurance company executives and the Green New Deal is a public / private partnership to restore Central Park views to apartments along Fifth Avenue. The official lack of urgency surrounding climate change and species loss is profound, even heroic.

The disconnect between believing and acting is just as profound. Given his connections to the Democratic party establishment, it is certain that these views come straight from the top. Democrats ‘believe’ (have faith in) the science regarding climate change just as they believe that ‘prosperity’ has bearing on the lives of the little people who elect them. What more is there to be done after one believes the science? What matters is believing, having faith.

The progressive commentariat has knives out for Nancy Pelosi, much as it has long had for Donald Trump. The question is need of an answer: is the goal better representation for the oligarchs or some semblance of democratic control? The American political establishment exists to serve monied interests. The way to restore democratic control is to de-concentrate wealth. The insistence that ‘the problem’ is a personnel issue only serves to perpetuate concentrated power.

The ‘love it or leave it’ chide suggests that political tensions are rising. This is the time for the left to press on. The public supports programs that make their lives better. AOC can bring in people to credibly explain how we can afford these programs, and how we can’t afford not to implement them. Class, the 0.1%., 9.9% and 90% in income and wealth terms, is a good proxy for the distribution of political power. Universal benefits like ‘the squad’ is proposing would go far toward restoring the power people have over their own lives. The ultimate goal is economic democracy.



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