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5 Dead, 21 Wounded in West Texas Shooting

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ODESSA, Texas (AP)—The Latest on a mass shooting in West Texas (all times local):

6:10 p.m.

Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke says at least 21 people have been injured by gunfire and five killed in a shooting in West Texas.

At a news conference Saturday, Gerke also says that at least three law enforcement officers were among those shot.

He spoke after a chaotic afternoon during which police reported that a suspect hijacked a U.S. Postal Service vehicle and began firing at random in the area of Odessa and Midland, hitting multiple people. Police initially reported that there could be more than one shooter, but Gerke says authorities now believe it was one shooter.

Gerke says he believes the threat is over but authorities remain vigilant.


5:30 p.m.

Police said there are “multiple gunshot victims” in West Texas after reports of two suspects opening fire on Saturday in the area of Midland and Odessa.

Midland police said at least one suspect was shot and killed near the Cinergy movie theater in Odessa.

One or possibly two suspects hijacked a U.S. Postal Service vehicle and were firing at random, hitting multiple people, Odessa police said.

“At this time there are multiple gunshot victims,” Odessa police said in a posting on Facebook.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has urged residents to avoid major highways in the area, including Interstate 20.

No other details were immediately available.

Odessa is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Midland. Both are more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) west of Dallas.

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Hong Kong Police Storm Subway With Batons as Protests Rage

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HONG KONG—Protesters in Hong Kong threw gasoline bombs at government headquarters and set fires in the streets on Saturday, while police stormed a subway car and hit passengers with batons and pepper spray in scenes that seem certain to inflame tensions further in a city riven by nearly three months of pro-democracy demonstrations.

Police had denied permission for a march to mark the fifth anniversary of a decision by China against fully democratic elections in Hong Kong, but protesters took to the streets anyway, as they have all summer. They provoked and obstructed the police repeatedly but generally retreated once riot officers moved in, avoiding some of the direct clashes that characterized earlier protests.

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Late at night, though, video from Hong Kong broadcaster TVB showed police using batons while on the platform of Prince Edward subway station and swinging batons at passengers who backed into one end of a train car behind umbrellas. The video also shows pepper spray being shot through an open door at a group seated on the floor while one man holds up his hands.

It wasn’t clear if all the passengers were protesters. Police said they entered the station to arrest offenders after protesters assaulted others and damaged property inside. The TVB video was widely shared on social media as another example of police brutality during the protests. Angry crowds gathered outside Prince Edward and nearby Mongkok station, where police said they made arrests after protesters vandalized the customer service center and damaged ticket machines.

Protests erupted in early June in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory of 7.4 million people. A now-shelved extradition bill brought to the fore simmering concerns about what many in the city see as an erosion of the rights and freedoms that residents are supposed to have under a “one country, two systems” framework.

The mostly young, black-shirted protesters took over roads and major intersections in shopping districts on Saturday as they rallied and marched with no obvious destination in mind.

Authorities closed streets and a subway stop near the Chinese government office and parked water cannon trucks and erected additional barriers nearby, fearing protesters might target the building. The office would have been the endpoint of the march that police did not allow.

Instead, a group of hard-line protesters decided to take on police guarding government headquarters from behind large barriers that ring the building to keep demonstrators at bay.

While others marched back and forth nearby, a large crowd wearing helmets and gas masks gathered outside. They pointed laser beams at the officers’ heads and threw objects over the barriers and at them. Police responded with tear gas, and protesters threw gasoline bombs into the compound.

Then came the blue water. A water cannon truck fired regular water, followed by repeated bursts of colored water, staining protesters and nearby journalists and leaving blue puddles in the street.

The standoff continued for some time, but protesters started moving back as word spread that police were headed in their direction. A few front-line protesters hurled gasoline bombs at the officers in formation, but there were no major clashes as police cleared the area.

Protesters regrouped and blocked a major commercial street by piling up barricades and setting a large fire. Smoke billowed into the air as hundreds of protesters waited on the other side of the makeshift barrier, many pointing laser beams that streaked the night sky above them.

Firefighters made their way into the congested area on foot to put out the fire. Police in riot gear removed the barricades and moved in quickly. They could be seen detaining a few protesters, but by then, most had already left.

As police advanced east down Hennessey Road, protesters made another stand in the Causeway Bay shopping district. They threw gasoline bombs at police, who fired tear gas and water cannons.

Protesters built another fire, a smaller one, in front of Sogo department store. Police waited behind their riot shields while firefighters put out the smoldering fire with extinguishers. When police moved in, the protesters had again retreated.

Other groups crossed Hong Kong’s harbor to the Tsim Sha Tsui district, where police said they set fires and threw gasoline bombs on Nathan Road.

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said Hong Kong citizens would keep fighting for their rights and freedoms despite the arrests of several prominent activists and lawmakers in the past two days, including activist Joshua Wong.

Protesters are demanding the full withdrawal of the extradition bill — which would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be sent to mainland China to stand trial — as well as democratic elections and an investigation into alleged police brutality in past battles with hard-line demonstrators.

“I do believe the government deliberately arrested several leaders of the democratic camp to try to threaten Hong Kong people not to come out to fight against the evil law,” Lam said at what was advertised as a Christian march earlier Saturday.

About 1,000 people marched to a Methodist church and police headquarters. They alternated between singing hymns and chanting slogans of the pro-democracy movement. An online flyer for the demonstration called it a “prayer for sinners” and featured images of a Christian cross and embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who had proposed the extradition bill.

The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of pro-democracy marches that have drawn upward of a million people this summer, canceled its march after failing to win police approval. Police said that while previous marches have started peacefully, they have increasingly degenerated into violence in the end.

The standing committee of China’s legislature ruled on Aug. 31, 2014, that Hong Kong residents could elect their leader directly, but that the candidates would have to be approved by a nominating committee.

The decision failed to satisfy democracy advocates in Hong Kong and led to the 79-day long Occupy Central protests that fall, in which demonstrators camped out on major streets in the financial district and other parts of the city.

The participants in the religious march Saturday were peaceful and mostly older than the younger protesters who have led this summer’s movement and, in some cases, blocked streets and battled police with bricks, sticks and gasoline bombs

Religious meetings do not require police approval, though authorities said late Friday that organizers of a procession with more than 30 people must notify police.


Associated Press videojournalists Alice Fung and Johnson Lai contributed to this report.

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Trump Administration Wants to Deport Gravely Ill Migrant Kids

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In what may be a new low on the inhumanity scale when it comes to the Trump administration’s fervent pursuit of anti-immigrant policies, it has quietly and unexpectedly informed families of kids with cancer and other grave conditions that they face deportation because it is ending the federal “medical deferred action” program.

The program has allowed undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. without threat of deportation for needed medical treatment that might not be offered in their home country. The administration’s actions were first revealed by Boston’s WBUR News and followed up in the Boston Globe, among others.

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According to WBUR News, some of the immigrants’ lawyers began receiving letters from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) denying their renewal requests and giving the ill immigrants 33 days to depart the U.S. or face “removal proceedings.” Advocates said they did not receive any formal announcement. Similar letters reportedly have been received by families in the San Francisco Bay Area and Miami, The New York Times reported.

For its part, USCIS, after some confusion, confirmed the program is ending, saying it is necessary as field offices “focus agency resources on faithfully administering our nation’s lawful immigration system.”

A Boston Globe editorial headline summed it up thusly: “Can the Trump administration sink any lower than threatening to deport sick kids?” It continued:

<blockquote>Step by malicious step, the Trump administration is turning the immigration system into an apparatus of appalling intentional cruelty.

The latest case in point is a relatively small program known as “medical deferred action” in which immigrants without legal status who are suffering from serious medical conditions are granted a reprieve from deportation so they can have access to much needed medical treatment in the United States.

Trump halted the program this month, threatening to deport these patients, including children with leukemia, children with muscular dystrophy, children with cystic fibrosis. The program`s termination means suspending or interrupting the children`s medical care, which in some cases is virtually a death sentence. </blockquote>

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and the Times have highlighted the case of 24-year-old Maria Isabel Bueso, who was recruited at age 7 to come to the United States from her home country of Guatemala to take part in a clinical trial for the treatment of her rare genetic disease, an enzyme disorder that inhibits cells from processing sugars. Her participation led to the approval of medication for the condition, which has increased survival rates by more than a decade. Bueso has won awards for her patient advocacy efforts and her parents pay for her treatment through private medical insurance, but she nonetheless received a letter threatening deportation.

“I have been feeling super scared and overwhelmed,” Bueso, whose lower body is paralyzed from the disease, told the Times. “The treatment that I receive keeps me alive.”

Since the beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump has cast undocumented immigrants as drug smugglers and rapists as well as “bad hombres,” and dismissed those seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border as “an invasion of our country.” These sentiments are reflected in the shocking number of anti-immigrant policies enacted over the last 30-plus months by the Trump administration, inflicting misery on undocumented families as children and law-abiding mothers and fathers have been separated, detained and/or deported.

However, this particular action is seen as particularly heinous. As Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, bluntly summed up, it’s an attempt to “terrorize sick kids with cancer who are literally fighting for their lives.”

WBUR News reports that on Friday, more than 100 members of Congress, led by Markey and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, sent a letter to the acting chiefs of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration and Customs Enforcement urging the Trump administration to reinstate the program.

The lawmakers state: “These summary denials have understandably caused anguish and fear for families whose children and other loved ones are in the United States receiving treatment for potentially fatal diseases, and who might not be able to receive life-saving treatment elsewhere. According to agency estimates, USCIS receives approximately 1,000 deferred action requests annually.” The letter gives the administration until Sept. 13 to provide details about the decision to end the program.

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To Cheers of 4,000, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Declares ‘I Am Alive’

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WASHINGTON—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Saturday she’s “alive” and on her way to being “very well” following radiation treatment for cancer.

Ginsburg, 86, made the comments at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington. The event came a little over a week after Ginsburg disclosed that she had completed three weeks of outpatient radiation therapy for a cancerous tumor on her pancreas and is now disease-free.

It is the fourth time over the past two decades that Ginsburg has been treated for cancer. She had colorectal cancer in 1999, pancreatic cancer in 2009 and lung cancer surgery in December. Both liberals and conservatives watch the health of the court’s oldest justice closely because it’s understood the Supreme Court would shift right for decades if Republican President Donald Trump were to get the ability to nominate someone to replace her.

On Saturday, Ginsburg, whose latest book “In My Own Words” came out in 2016, spoke to an audience of more than 4,000 at Washington’s convention center. Near the beginning of an hour-long talk, her interviewer, NPR reporter Nina Totenberg, said: “Let me ask you a question that everyone here wants to ask, which is: How are you feeling? Why are you here instead of resting up for the term? And are you planning on staying in your current job?”

“How am I feeling? Well, first, this audience can see that I am alive,” Ginsburg said to applause and cheers. The comment was a seeming reference to the fact that when she was recuperating from lung cancer surgery earlier this year, some doubters demanded photographic proof that she was still living.

Ginsburg went on to say that she was “on my way” to being “very well.” As for her work on the Supreme Court, which is on its summer break and begins hearing arguments again Oct. 7, Ginsburg said she will “be prepared when the time comes.”

Ginsburg, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993, did not directly answer how long she plans to stay on the court. Earlier this summer, however, she reported a conversation she had with former Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired from the court in 2010 at age 90. Ginsburg said she told Stevens: “My dream is to remain on the court as long as you did.” Stevens responded: “Stay longer.” He died in July at age 99.

Ginsburg said Saturday that she loves her job.

“It’s the best and the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she said. “It has kept me going through four cancer bouts. Instead of concentrating on my aches and pains, I just know that I have to read this set of briefs, go over the draft opinion. So I have to somehow surmount whatever is going on in my body and concentrate on the court’s work.”

Ginsburg’s appearance Saturday was not her first following her most recent cancer announcement. Earlier this week she spoke at an event at the University at Buffalo, where she also accepted an honorary degree. At the time she talked only briefly about her most recent cancer scare, saying she wanted to keep her promise to attend the event despite “three weeks of daily radiation.”

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Obama Disappointment

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Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 37th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, who retired recently as a major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 37 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11; Part 12; Part 13; Part 14; Part 15; Part 16; Part 17; Part 18; Part 19; Part 20; Part 21; Part 22; Part 23; Part 24; Part 25; Part 26; Part 27; Part 28; Part 29; Part 30; Part 31; Part 32; Part 33; Part 34; Part 35; Part 36.

* * *

Most serious historians, especially academics, believe that accounts of recent events—particularly within 10 years of the present—are more journalistic than historical. It is for good reason that journalism has been called the “first draft of history.” As the “American History for Truthdiggers” series nears an end, it looks at the administration of Barack Obama, who left the presidency less than 32 months ago. Because so little time has passed, the essay below is more a brief, analytical essay than a comprehensive reading based on established, long-scrutinized historical sources and discovery of new information. It should be viewed as this author’s first draft of rather recent history. —Danny Sjursen

* * *

Barack Hussein Obama. That a man with a black Kenyan father and a name derived from African and Islamic etymology was elected president of the United States seemed profound indeed. America’s legacy of chattel slavery and racial apartheid was such that only a decade and a half before the 2008 election Tupac Shakur would rap that Americans “ain’t ready to see a black president.” Nonetheless, Obama won—with authority—over his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. By carrying traditionally Republican states such as Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, Obama appeared to have forged a new Democratic coalition. Perhaps more important was the claim of some of his admirers that he inaugurated a new “post-racial” America. That would turn out to be only wishful thinking.

Without the utter, historical failure and (by then) unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration, due largely to the 2007-2008 financial collapse and the intractable, unwinnable Iraq War, a man with Obama’s name and skin color would never have been elected. Indeed, it might have taken many more decades to elect a black president. Such is the contingency of history. Seen in this light, Obama was as much anomaly as transformational. Never as progressive as his rhetoric, always the astute—and ultimately mainstream—politician first, and often fearful of appearing “weak” or providing ammunition for his intransigent Republican opposition, President Obama proved disappointing for liberals and tragic for the Greater Middle East.

Tribal America: Party Over Country and More of the Same

Obama entered the spotlight and rose to national celebrity almost overnight. A last-minute choice to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, the then-little-known Illinois state senator (running for the U.S. Senate at the time) delivered a thunderous and articulate address. This new, young face of color inspired the audience with his call for unity in a time of partisan division. Those who divide the nation into red states and blue states are incorrect, he said, declaring, “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.” The speech was indeed excellent. Yet, as Obama’s later tenure as president would illustrate, the young state senator himself was wrong: There were, and are, two Americas. The people, and especially their elected representatives, were and are tribal and divided. The result for the Obama presidency was often stalemate, infighting and rightward moderation of even Obama’s most modest “liberal” legislation. In other words, the 44th president’s domestic policy was fated to be more of what had come before.

Obama entered the presidency at the nadir of what was dubbed the “Great Recession,” America’s worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Decades of right-wing, hypercapitalist, free-market orthodoxy—combined with fiscal deregulation, much of it stemming from President Bill Clinton’s policies—had set the stage for that collapse. Nonetheless, it was Obama who was expected to pick up the pieces and who would have his legacy judged by his response to the fiscal free fall. As a relative newcomer and an ostensible outsider among the party’s “New Democrat” leaders, Obama had a profound opportunity to forever transform the American economy and stanch the growing economic inequality plaguing the nation. That this was not to be became clear when the new president appointed an economic team spearheaded by Wall Street-friendly Clinton administration veterans such as Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Rather than nationalize banks, “bust” monopolies and pass a true New Deal-style public works and massive stimulus program, Obama—partly due to partisan opposition, it must be admitted—settled on a modest stimulus, weak financial regulations, counterintuitive tax cuts and a taxpayer-financed bailout of the criminals atop the nation’s largest corporations. None of the company executives were punished, most received “golden parachute” bonuses and America’s flawed, radically rightist economy remained in place.

Next, though he had been warned by his staff that it was politically unpalatable, Obama decided to move for health care reform, a goal long sought by liberals. Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton had tried to achieve something approaching universal health care coverage for the citizenry but had failed in the face of fierce Republican opposition and the well-funded lobbying efforts of the lucrative private insurance industry. Obama meant to succeed where his predecessors had failed. Nonetheless, precisely because of his obsession with getting something passed in Congress, the president failed to seriously alter America’s broken health care system. Realizing that Republican opposition, and Americans’ fear of the boogeyman of “socialized medicine,” remained strong, Obama never seriously considered the single-payer, universal coverage system prevalent and successful in most of the Western World. Though European single-payer, government health care systems cost far less than the American employer-based system, and though health outcomes in the privatized U.S. system lagged behind those of its industrialized peers, Obama decided that only a hybrid compromise had any chance of passing Congress. Perhaps he was right, but the new president did seem to fold rather quickly, and utterly failed to sell the logic of single-payer, universal coverage directly to the American people as both cost-effective and inherently moral.

Republican opposition to Obama’s eventual plan, the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—rapidly, if pejoratively, dubbed “Obamacare”—was vehement and cynical. The ACA, after all, kept in place the employer-based system (almost unique to the United States) and was even based on Republican models and plans, such as the Massachusetts system under Mitt Romney (who in 2012 would run against Obama) and a 1989 recommendation of the conservative Heritage Foundation. In a staggering bit of political chicanery, Republicans—including former Gov. Romney—who had once championed such plans unapologetically flip-flopped into fierce opposition as soon as the ACA took on an Obama and Democratic flavor. Luckily for Obama and the Dems, the party had won slight House and Senate majorities in 2006 and 2008 as the electorate reacted to the failures of Bush. Thus, the chief executive and his party had enough votes to get the ACA compromise passed although nearly no congressional Republicans supported the legislation. In order to get the ACA through, however, Obama had to eliminate its most progressive aspects, including the “public option” to purchase insurance from the government and public funding for birth control and abortions. So it was that a watered-down health care bill—only modestly improving on what already existed—barely squeezed by in Congress. Ultimately, millions of Americans were left still uninsured.

If Obamacare was a tactical “success,” it seemed a strategic failure. The Republicans rallied in opposition to so-called socialized medicine and ran against the bill in 2010, 2012 and 2014, scoring major electoral victories in Congress. No doubt, the “old guard” Republican leadership in the House and Senate had been intransigent from the start. After all, the GOP leaders had put politics before country from the first, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell literally stating that his party’s top priority in 2009 was to ensure Obama would be “a one-term president.” Still, this was nothing compared with the racialized, populist furor of the grass-roots “tea party” movement that arose in opposition to the ACA and Obama’s modest economic stimulus plan (meant to save capitalism as it existed, mind you). Republicans swept to control of the House in 2010, took the Senate back soon afterward and ensured that Obama would achieve no further major legislative achievements. Stagnation, intransigence and filibuster would epitomize Obama’s second term.

Left without any real legislative options, Obama was forced—under questionable constitutional circumstances—to address the nation’s worst problems through a series of modest executive orders. As such, he provided minor protections to “illegal” immigrants who had spent most of their lives in the U.S., while at the same time deporting a record number of undocumented migrants, a practice that earned him the nickname “deporter in chief” among progressives. Worse still, even amid escalating gun violence and the uniquely American epidemic of mass shootings (notably the execution of first- and second-graders and others at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut), Obama could not pass a single piece of basic, common-sense gun control. As Republicans closed ranks, rejected any limitations on the widely misunderstood Second Amendment and cashed in on massive donations from the National Rifle Association lobby, the president could again only issue a few limited executive orders. Nothing, however, stopped the epidemic of mass shootings in a country with more guns per capita than any other place in the world. That lawless Yemen was a distant second ought to have been instructive.

The U.S. also suffered a racial implosion under the first black president, and the racial harmony that had been hoped for proved to be out of reach. Highly instrumental in the public unrest was the vastly increased use of cell phone cameras and YouTube and other branches of social media, allowing widespread and almost instantaneous dissemination of images that caused outrage. Depictions of brutality by militarized police, specifically police killings of a string of unarmed young black men, helped launch a new grass-roots civil rights movement named Black Lives Matter. BLM, often critical of the centrism of Obama, was a true grass-roots movement, rising as names such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray resonated. In response to the almost totally peaceful BLM-influenced nationwide protests, a newly empowered white supremacist backlash appeared. Blandly titling itself the “alt-right,” this extremist movement built upon a sense of white victimization. Epitomized by the massacre of Bible study worshippers in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., at the hands of a young white radical named Dylan Roof—who had consumed news from alt-right sources—newly powerful and overtly extreme groups of white supremacists seemed here to stay.

Far from inaugurating the post-racial America of popular fantasy, Obama’s presidency, and the backlash against it, ushered in a new age of reinvigorated racial combat sure to extend well past his second term. And, while the dog-whistle politics of the Republican Party no doubt fanned the flames of racist fire, the American people—especially hateful, insecure whites—bore equal responsibility for what followed.

Obama the Superficial: The Inertia and Expansion of the ‘Terror’ Wars

It is highly unlikely that Obama would have defeated the Democratic favorite, Hillary Clinton, in the primaries of 2008 or the veteran senator and war hero John McCain in the general election had it not been for the widespread opposition to Bush’s foolish, dishonest and illegal invasion of Iraq. By 2008, that country was fractured, unstable, violent, in the midst of stalemated civil war and a haven for Islamist jihadism. Whereas Clinton had taken the then (she thought) politically expedient decision to vote in favor of the Iraq invasion, Obama had, at the time, seemed to oppose the war.

Then again, it was easy for him to do so. As a lowly and obscure state senator in a safe Chicago district, he knew he would pay no political price for rowing against the prevailing nationalist tide. Thus he made a critical speech before the invasion that he later used to burnish his anti-war credentials and separate himself (successfully, it turned out) from Clinton. Still, Obama’s speech wasn’t, instructively, against all wars, but rather—as he termed it—against “dumb wars.” Furthermore, had Obama been a national figure, it’s likely he would have voted right along with the former first lady and her mainstream Democratic colleagues. That Obama, as president, proved to be a standard interventionist and even expanded the post-9/11 “forever wars” further bolstered this supposition.

It took him nearly three years, but Obama as president did pull nearly all American troops out of Iraq. Hiding behind the politically and militarily popular myth that George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus’ 2007-2010 “surge”—which Sen. Obama had rightly, if ironically, opposed—had been successful, the new president was able to do so despite (mostly) Republican opposition. In truth, the Iraqi civil war had taken only a temporary pause, and Sunni jihadism had hardly disappeared. On the contrary, Petraeus had simply shortsightedly bought their temporary allegiance. Once the Americans were gone and the cash stopped flowing, the al-Qaida franchise in Iraq rose again like the mythical phoenix and went back to war in both Iraq and the nearby, by then war-torn Syria under the banner of the newly christened Islamic State (ISIS). By 2016, as Obama prepared for an undoubtedly lucrative retirement, U.S. troops were back in Iraq battling the Frankenstein’s monster of Islamist jihadism that the American invasion had helped create.

In what he would absurdly referred to as the “good war” in Afghanistan, Obama sold out the tiny antiwar movement and tripled U.S. troop levels in his own Bush-like “surge.” American and Afghan casualties soared, but the Taliban was never defeated and the corrupt, U.S.-backed Kabul-based regime still lacked legitimacy. Though he had promised his surge would be temporary and that all troops would withdraw by the end of 2014, more than 10,000 remained in country in 2016. By that time, some 2,300 U.S. military deaths had not changed the prevailing facts on the ground in this most unwinnable of wars: The Taliban controlled more of the country than at any time since 2001, the Afghan central government was financially broke and politically ineffective, and casualties in the Afghan security forces were massive and unsustainable. The war was essentially lost, though Obama would never admit it. Indeed, by the end of his second term he preferred not to mention the “good war” at all.

In 2011, in opposition to a series of venal, authoritarian—usually U.S.-backed—regimes, a series of “Arab Spring” protests spread across the Mideast from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria. The movement seemed to spring from the grass roots but was complicated and multifaceted from the start. There were, indeed, early signs that though the dictatorships were abhorrent, Islamist jihadis were quickly infusing, and soon dominating, the armed rebel groups and protesters. Obama, for his part, was unsure how to respond. His humanitarian-interventionist conscience leaned toward moral and physical support for the varied oppositions, but his caution and practicality led him away from decisive action in either direction. In the end, Obama—cheered on by his militarist advisers such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—chose the worst of all roads: indecisiveness, inconsistency and (sometimes) ill-considered intervention.

The inconsistency was obvious from the start and increased the popular notion on the “Arab street” that U.S. policy was infused with hypocrisy. While Obama eventually called for the rulers of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria to step down, he turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s military suppression of Shiite majoritarianism in nearby Bahrain. Furthermore, in 2015, when a vaguely Shiite militia movement, the Houthis, overthrew the Saudi-backed transitional government in Yemen, Obama quietly provided vital diplomatic and military support for a U.S.-backed Saudi terror war on Yemen. Saudi planes, fueled by U.S. Air Force aircraft, unleashed a brutal bombing campaign that killed tens of thousands. Furthermore, the U.S. uttered not a peep as a Saudi starvation blockade led to the deaths of nearly 100,000 civilians, created millions of refugees and unleashed the world’s worst cholera epidemic on Yemeni civilians. Washington, it seemed, supported democracy so long as it did not upset its oil-rich Persian Gulf State “partners.” Clearly, there were limits to the “humanitarian” piece of Obama’s humanitarian-interventionist proclivities.

Obama’s worst move during the Arab Spring—a move that, to his credit, he later called a “shit show” and the “worst mistake” of his presidency—came in Libya. There, a brutal dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, had ruled for decades, suppressing free speech but also choking any hint of violent Islamism. He had even unilaterally given up on his feeble nuclear weapons program (probably out of fear of an Iraq-style regime-change invasion by Bush) and cooperated with the CIA to fight Libyan Islamists. When a rebellion broke out in 2011-2012, though Washington knew little about the country or the rebels’ dynamics, Clinton pressed Obama to intervene to “save” the rebellion from a supposed bloodbath. Soon enough, U.S., French and British planes were pummeling the Libyan army. The rebels rode to victory, committed many atrocities of their own, and eventually sodomized (with a bayonet) and executed the captured dictator. Gadhafi was gone, but what was to come next? Obama had no plan and few ideas. Within a year, varied militias and thousands of jihadis divided the country up into competing fiefdoms. Civil war resulted and raged on through the end of the Obama presidency. Worse still, the massive depots of the Libyan army’s arms were carried south and west by various ethnic and religious militiamen, fueling growing insurgencies in Mali, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria that would soon “require” the deployment of U.S. troops in restive West Africa. Libya had, indeed, been a debacle.

The most bloody, tragic and regionally dangerous rebellion and civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. There, too, an authoritarian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, had ruled, stifling free speech and democracy but protecting minority communities and suppressing jihadism. It was clear early on that the most numerous and effective rebels were Islamists, often allied with the al-Qaida franchise the Nusra Front, and even Islamic State. Though he hesitated, equivocated and wavered, Obama was eventually convinced to supply the mythical, phantom “moderate” rebels with arms and cash. Nearly all of it ended up in the hands of the very violent Islamists that the U.S. was purportedly fighting in the “war on terror.” In reality, the U.S.—pushed in this direction by Israel, the Persian Gulf States and U.S. neoconservatives—was more interested in checking Iran and Russia (which had long backed Assad) than in the defeat of transnational jihadism or the well-being of the Syrian people.

When Assad allegedly used chemical weapons on his own people, killing perhaps 1,000—and thereby crossing what Obama had foolishly said was a “red line”—it seemed Washington would be obliged to militarily strike the Syrian regime. Obama, tempered by the Libya “shit show,” balked. This probably was prudent, but rather than sell the downsides of intervention and expanded war to the American public in an honest way he took the political path and punted “authorization” for the strikes to a Congress he knew full well had no stomach for another war. As such, rather than insist that Congress reauthorize or declare war in the dozens of locales where the U.S. was involved in combat, Obama limited the supposed (and constitutionally mandated) need for congressional approval to the Syria case alone. Nonetheless, when Islamic State—which the U.S. had helped catalyze and indirectly supported in the Syrian civil war—suddenly conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq in 2014-2015, Obama felt obliged to go to war. U.S. troops, though in modest numbers, hit the ground in Syria and (once again) Iraq, and U.S. planes pummeled Islamic State and nearby civilians. Ultimately Obama would hand this mess over to his successor in 2017.

Obama, though he had lambasted Bush for his domestic civil liberties abuses and use of indefinite “terrorist” detention at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, turned out to be an equally oppressive “war president.” As the National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden would reveal, the U.S. had secretly and illegally imposed—and Obama had silently continued—a massive domestic surveillance program that violated the privacy of countless American citizens. Instead of starting a major policy shift and giving a medal to Snowden, Obama continued and expanded his veritable war on leakers and the press in general. In fact, Obama—the one-time constitutional law professor—used the archaic, controversial, World War I-vintage Espionage Act to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers more times than all his presidential predecessors combined. And, though his Justice Department (only just) decided not to indict any media outlets themselves for publishing leaked material, Obama’s overall press suppression policy opened the door for more hawkish successors to do just that, in a major threat to the First Amendment itself.

What’s more, Obama the “peacemaker,” who had ludicrously been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize almost entirely on the basis of conciliatory speeches he had given, proved to be the veritable “assassin in chief.” Indeed, partly as (what he saw as) an alternative to massive military occupations and counterinsurgencies, Obama violated foreign air space sovereignty across the region and conducted exponentially more drone-strike executions than even George W. Bush. The administration, and its military, then regularly undercounted the many thousands of civilians killed as “collateral damage” in these strikes. Allegedly holding “Terror Tuesday” meetings with his national security staff throughout his administration, Obama would choose people for assassination and order their executions. This was done, ostensibly, in secret, but it was (probably purposefully) the worst kept secret in the world. It was all so Orwellian. At one point, Obama publicly made an absurdly macabre joke when he threatened to unleash a Predator drone on the pop group the Jonas Brothers if any of its members dared to “make a move” on the president’s two young daughters (who were avid fans). That a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who had run on an antiwar platform would so boldly joke about a brutal assassination program (that he simultaneously claimed did not exist) was perhaps the ultimate symbol and manifestation of a morbid and ghoulish era.

In two related incidents, which registered only briefly in the U.S. media or public consciousness, Obama unilaterally used aerial drones to assassinate a man and his son in Yemen, both U.S. citizens. The targets were the Islamist firebrand cleric Anwar Awlaki—admittedly an al-Qaida sympathizer—and his teenage son. Though there was no independent judicial review of the case against the Awlakis, and absolutely zero constitutionally mandated due process (besides internal, classified legal “memos” within the Obama Justice Department), the drone-launched assassinations went forward. The incidents were distressing, even if the senior Awlaki was the terrorist mastermind he had been alleged to be; they were indicative of the logical extension and end state of drone warfare combined with the evaporation of domestic civil liberties. If, some progressive activists asked, notoriously cautious “no-drama” Obama was capable of assassinating American-born citizens, to what lengths would a more extreme, militarist-interventionist president go to in the future as the U.S. waged its “forever wars”? The prospect was indeed haunting.

If Obama was ultimately disappointing in his generally militaristic, inconsistent and interventionist foreign policy, he had some limited successes. Less overtly bombastic, and more informed, than Bush, Obama wisely—at least after the failure of his Afghanistan “surge”—lowered overall troop levels in the Greater Middle East. The upside was that U.S. casualties decreased and the overstretch of the Army and Marine Corps eased. The downside was related to the very decrease in casualties; by keeping to a modest level the number of flag-draped coffins shipped home, Obama managed to squelch dissent and war opposition while simultaneously escalating and expanding America’s never-ending wars throughout a broad swath of territory from West Africa to Central Asia.

One admirable decision was Obama’s willingness to engage with Iran, avoid military escalation (or the regime-change invasion of neoconservative fantasies) and negotiate a settlement that avoided war and halted, if only temporarily, Tehran’s nuclear program. In a multilateral agreement known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) the U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China and Iran had forged a deal to freeze Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for reducing international sanctions against Iran. It was, genuinely, a profound exercise in diplomacy and war avoidance. This was Obama at his (rare) very best. Nonetheless, congressional opposition—mainly, of course, from hawkish Republicans—ensured that the agreement was essentially framed as an executive order. Thus, when an Obama-hating successor, Donald Trump, took office in 2017, it was all too easy for the new president to unilaterally withdraw from the deal and ensure a new war-scare crisis with Iran. Such were the limitations and dangers of the tribally partisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C., and the reign of imperial presidents.

When Obama left office, the American warfare state, and the military-industrial-congressional-media complex that enabled it, remained firmly in place. Though he had tried in vain to close Guantanamo Bay’s purgatory-like detention center, it remained open. U.S. troops were bombing and occupying even more countries, at least two dozen from West Africa to Central Asia. The wars had escalated in Africa; significant numbers of troops remained on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and, now, Syria. Libya had been destroyed by U.S. intervention. Osama bin Laden (killed under secretive and questionable circumstances in Pakistan by Navy SEALs in May 2011) was dead, sure, but his ideology and its more radical outgrowth in Islamic State were more powerful and prevalent than ever. The American people were still under massive surveillance, and the war on leakers and the free press was in full force. The United States, in sum, remained an empire—it had expanded in its imperial fantasies, in fact—and had been led, it turned out, by just another emperor. That Obama, the coolheaded, handsome, articulate leader that he was, had seemed the polite emperor mattered rather little to the American troops and exponentially larger totals of foreign civilians that continued to be killed. By 2016, American empire was a way of life.

* * * 

Truly profound are the ironies and paradoxes of history. Elected while espousing a somewhat “liberal” agenda, President Obama proved mostly a centrist in the Clintonian “New Democrat” mold. He naively sought to work with Republicans, compromised and tacked rightward as a result and achieved little of substance for the progressive cause. What’s more, elected as an opponent of the Iraq War (though a cheerleader for the “good war” in Afghanistan), Obama may have altered the tenor of Bush’s wars but overall only escalated and maintained the forever wars, adding his own flavor but submitting to the inertia of interventionism. As such, he left North Africa, the Mideast and Central Asia in worse shape than he had found it.

Matters got only stranger. Though he had been a constitutional law professor, he flouted civil liberties, stretched the Constitution, spied on the citizenry and even executed an American citizen and his U.S.-citizen son via aerial drones, absent any transparency or legal due process. Furthermore, Obama knew about but chose to keep secret and maintain the Bush-era mass surveillance state that Edward Snowden eventually exposed. That Obama was so undoubtedly highly educated and informed on topics of constitutional law implies—disturbingly—that the man knew better but, in the interest of hoarding executive power and seeking political expediency, went forward anyway with this range of civil liberties violations. This was a strange legacy, indeed, for the man elected on a platform of “Hope and Change,” elected as the anti-Bush, as a “transformational” figure.

Such is the disappointment and tragedy of the Obama years. His own Beltway centrism, interventionism and political opportunism, combined with the combative obstructionism of the tribal conservative opposition, ensured that Obama’s presidency would be mostly a failure. One expected as much from the unapologetic, and buffoonish, neoconservatism and imperialism of the George W. Bush team. That Obama was hardly better was far more discomfiting, challenging one’s capacity to believe in meaningful progress at all.

Most striking and significant were the moral shortcomings and failures of the American populace, defects that became apparent as the Obama years ground to a close. That so many Americans fell for phony conspiracy theories about Obama’s supposed foreign birth, Muslim faith and even “Manchurian Candidate”-style treason, and joined a growing movement characterized most of all by white backlash, demonstrated clearly that the first black president was an anomaly. If the emotional reaction to the Bush years was for Americans to take a chance on Obama, the even more emotional riposte to a black presidency was the reinvigoration of white supremacy and the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Sick of the establishment style of Obama, the Clintons and the entire mainstream pool of both parties, voters chose to “blow up” the system and support a true outsider in the celebrity billionaire and reality TV star Donald Trump.

Perhaps that’s the final rub: If there could have been no Obama without Bush, there most certainly would never have been a President Trump without establishment, African-American Barack Obama as his predecessor. The shame and the consequences belong not only to a broken political system, but to the people. To us Americans.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
• Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974” (2019).
• Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018).

<em>Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a retired U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “<a href=”https://www.amazon.com/dp/1611687810/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20 “>Ghost Riders of Baghdad</a>: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at <a href=”https://twitter.com/SkepticalVet”>@SkepticalVet</a> and check out his podcast, “<a href=”https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/fortress-on-a-hill-podcast/id1330015680?mt=2″>Fortress on a Hill</a>,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.</em>

The post American History for Truthdiggers: The Obama Disappointment appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

RBG Says She’ll Be Back in Full Force by the Start of the Supreme Court Term

Mother Jones Magazine -

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. Having just completed a three-week radiation treatment for a cancerous tumor, the 86-year-old justice made her first public appearance promoting her memoir at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, DC, on Saturday.

“First, this audience can see I am alive,” she said with a slight laugh, to huge cheers. “And on my way to being very well”

"This audience can see I am alive. And I am on my way to being very well."

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at 2019 Library of Congress National Book Festival. pic.twitter.com/Q98rfpFnaO

— The Hill (@thehill) August 31, 2019

Ginsburg has been treated for various types of cancer since 1999, and was operated on for lung cancer last December. A recent press release from the Supreme Court noted “there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body.”

Ginsburg has sought to assure the public she can continue her duties on the court at the same time Democrats worry President Donald Trump may have a chance to nominate a third judge before the 2020 election.

The new Supreme Court term begins in early October. “I’ll be ready when the time comes,” Ginsburg said at the event.

Betsy DeVos Just Made It Harder For Defrauded Students to Get Their Debt Canceled

Mother Jones Magazine -

Just in time for the start of a new school year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday finalized a new suite of changes to an Obama-era policy that targeted fraud at for-profit colleges. The new DeVos rule significantly raises the bar students have to clear in order to qualify for debt forgiveness when their schools close while they’re enrolled.

After state and federal investigations into fraud at some of the country’s biggest for-profit college operators caused the schools to shutter, thousands of students found themselves deep in debt for incomplete degrees. As my colleague Eddie Rios reported last year:

The Century Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, found in May that more than 127,000 debt relief claims were filed to the Education Department by March 2018, up 29 percent from August 2017….More than 98 percent of those claims came from students who attended for-profit colleges. 

The Obama program has cleared $222 million in loans from nearly 20,000 borrowers since 2016, according to the New York Times. But as a result of the new DeVos rule, after July 2020, students filing for debt relief will have to prove their colleges intentionally deceived them, that it influenced their decision to enroll, and that it made them financially suffer. The change also sets a three-year deadline for filing a claim; the Obama rule had no deadline and automatically relieved their debts if they didn’t enroll elsewhere within three years. 

The Trump administration has repeatedly tried to delay rules for for-profit colleges and student loan forgiveness. Last year, a federal court called the delay “arbitrary and capricious,” ordering DeVos to implement the Obama-era rule. Student and consumer advocates plan to legally challenge DeVos’ latest replacement, as well. 

Student loans and Devos’ unpopular run as secretary of education have become a centerpiece of Democratic presidential politics. The 2020 field quickly condemned DeVos over the weekend.

I will nominate a Secretary of Education who has been a public school teacher—Betsy DeVos need not apply. pic.twitter.com/L5L9x6IrcN

— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 31, 2019

My AG office took on Corinthian Colleges and won $1 billion for defrauded veterans and students.

Betsy DeVos is now making it harder for defrauded students to have their debt canceled. Who is she working for? https://t.co/5aq2142xHb

— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) August 31, 2019


Betsy DeVos and for-profit charter schools are breaking our promise to students with disabilities. That will end when we are in the White House. pic.twitter.com/zQOL17oLzS

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 31, 2019


Here’s Why the Carolinas Are So Much More Vulnerable to a Hurricane Like Dorian Right Now

Mother Jones Magazine -

Puerto Rico has escaped the worst of Hurricane Dorian. And it looks like Florida might, too: On Saturday morning, the storm again shifted paths, and it appears likely to skirt Florida’s eastern coast instead of making a direct hit. That doesn’t mean the danger is over for Florida, and it does put the rest of the southeastern coast, especially Georgia and the Carolinas, in harm’s way sometime next week. South Carolina has already declared a state of emergency. Worse still is if the Category 4 storm makes landfall in vulnerable areas still recovering from last year’s Hurricane Florence. 

The stakes have grown much higher when a hurricane threatens to hit the coast. There are a lot of reasons for this. As I explained two years ago, “Some are psychological, others are practical, and many are self-inflicted.” Climate change is part of the problem, with warmer temperatures fueling deadlier, wetter storms. Rising sea levels increase the chances of coastal flooding. But it’s also the blind spots that North Carolina politicians have developed on climate change. While seas are rising, these lawmakers have encouraged building in low-lying areas, and in some cases discouraged state law from reflecting scientific realities. 

The Carolinas are flanked by low-lying narrow barrier islands that have seen housing and tourist development during the past few decades “in places where it probably should not have been,” according to the Associated Press. Much of that development has been subsidized by a federal flood insurance program that shelled out $1.5 billion to cover flood claims in two dozen coastal counties even before Hurricane Florence struck. Last year, when Florence made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, it dealt the region $24 billion in damages and 53 deaths. The floodwaters breached hog lagoons and coal ash pits and threatened Superfund sites

Unwise development isn’t the only problem. As in Florida, North Carolina politicians have also allowed climate change denial to dictate their decision-making.

In 2010, a panel of scientists advising the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission, which guides the state’s coastal development, issued a report projecting 39 inches of sea-level rise by the end of the century. The report triggered political backlash from developers and the Republican-controlled legislature, which preferred that the commission rely only on historical data. The state ended up passing a law requiring a broader range of projections to dilute findings that sea level rise would accelerate. Newer research has found that the sea level is rising even faster along the southeastern coast than global averages. Instead of considering the best science out there, the governor-appointed commission ultimately limited the science panel’s projections to 30 years into the future. 

North Carolina’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, elected in 2017, has begun to loosen these restrictions on how development plans incorporate the latest science. Last year, a month after Florence struck, Cooper issued an executive order to create an interagency climate change council. In late September, the Coastal Resources Commission will look at updating the 30-year limit placed on the science advisory panel as it prepares a five-year update to its 2015 report, according to The News and Observer.

Hurricane Dorian may end up reinforcing the hard lessons from Hurricane Florence in North Carolina—even if those lessons won’t reach President Donald Trump.

.@realDonaldTrump, who canceled a planned trip to Poland this weekend in order to monitor #HurricaneDorian, has just arrived at his golf course in Virginia, the White House says.

— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) August 31, 2019

Opportunity Zones Provide Big Opportunities For the Rich

Mother Jones Magazine -

The 2017 Republican tax bill was designed as a gift to corporations and the rich. However, it also contained a nod to the poor: a tax incentive to spur development in low-income “opportunity zones.” If this seem out of character for the modern GOP, don’t worry. The New York Times explains that there was, naturally, a gigantic loophole:

Some opportunity zones that were classified as low income based on census data from several years ago have since gentrified. Others that remain poor over all have large numbers of wealthy households. And nearly 200 of the 8,800 federally designated opportunity zones are adjacent to poor areas but are not themselves considered low income.

Under the law, up to 5 percent of the zones did not need to be poor. The idea was to enable governors to draw opportunity zones in ways that would include projects or businesses just outside poor census tracts, potentially creating jobs for low-income people. In addition, states could designate whole sections of cities or rural areas that would be targeted for investment, including some higher-income census tracts.

The result is predictable:

Billions of untaxed investment profits are beginning to pour into high-end apartment buildings and hotels, storage facilities that employ only a handful of workers, and student housing in bustling college towns, among other projects. Many of the projects that will enjoy special tax status were underway long before the opportunity-zone provision was enacted. Financial institutions are boasting about the tax savings that await those who invest in real estate in affluent neighborhoods.

….Even supporters of the initiative agree that the bulk of the opportunity-zone money is going to places that do not need the help, while many poorer communities are so far empty-handed.

But don’t worry:

“The early wave, that’s not what you judge,” said John Lettieri, president of the Economic Innovation Group, an organization that lobbied for the establishment of opportunity zones.

It will all trickle down eventually.

Pia Klemp Is the Badass Hero the World Desperately Needs Right Now

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It is rare nowadays to read about a person in the deluge of bad news flooding our screens 24/7 and immediately think: Now this is a true hero. But when it comes to Pia Klemp, the description is not only entirely appropriate but entirely necessary. Appropriate because the German ship captain and human rights activist, at the ripe age of 36, has personally saved thousands of migrants from drowning as they attempt the deadly journey across the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. Necessary because at this very moment, Klemp faces 20 years in prison in Italy for the trumped-up charge of “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.”

Klemp was with her colleagues from the nongovernmental organization-run ship Iuventa,  which was seized by Italian authorities in 2017 as it entered the port of Lampedusa with rescued migrants aboard. Prior to its seizure, the ship, previously used for fishing, is estimated to have saved about 14,000 people.

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The global refugee crisis has reached a frightening peak, with the highest number of displaced persons ever recorded in history. And yet Western nations, many of which have had a hand in destabilizing the Middle East and other regions where refugees hail from, often respond with fear and disdain for the lives of those desperate enough to risk everything and leave all they’ve known in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their loved ones.

Due to its geographic location, Italy is one of the places migrants initially head for in order to seek asylum in the European Union. But the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment there has propelled such racist leaders as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini into power. Salvini, whom the German journal Der Weisse describes as a nationalist who “has been instrumental in barring rescue ships from Italy,” has virulently attacked Klemp and her fellow activists, and this week barred ships carrying refugees from entering Italian ports. As a Quartz article explains, the Italian-led crackdown on rescue ships, including those working with the NGO Sea-Watch, has garnered support from EU officials.

<blockquote>The EU has recently ended search-and-rescue missions in the [Mediterranean], in part due to pressure from Italy. The EU operation [Sea-Watch], launched in 2015 at the peak of the migrant crisis, saved tens of thousands of migrants. The EU has outsourced its rescue work to the Libyan coast guard, which activists and researchers say is unprepared, and often unwilling, to save migrants.

[Recently] Italy intensified the pressure on NGOs, passing a decree that allows it to apply fines of up to €50,000 ($56,000) on humanitarian organizations caught operating in Italian waters or trying to reach Italian ports. Italy also threatened to use the new rule to fine Sea-Watch.</blockquote>

Klemp and the rest of the Iuventa 10, as she and her fellow shipmates are known, face an expensive, uphill legal battle, which she calls a “show trial.” An online petition started by a nurse aboard the Iuventa calling for Italian authorities to drop charges against the activists has received nearly 400,000 signatures as of Wednesday.

When asked by The Intercept how Klemp deals with the grief implicit in her work, her response highlighted her selflessness and impassioned adherence to her values.

<blockquote>It’s not very much on my mind. [Tragedies] happen, unfortunately, regardless of us being there and seeing it or not.

What I really wonder is how [the people we rescue] deal with their grief and the torture, the hardship, and the denial of any kindness and human decency from anyone else—how they deal with that. A lot of these people have been on the run for years and years and years. They’ve had to go through Africa, see a lot of their family members die in the desert, and they end up in these detention camps in Libya where the situation is absolutely horrendous. There’s almost no words for the situation, for the status of the people in these camps, when they’re at gunpoint forced onto these wrecked boats, which are completely unseaworthy. Like, the moment you set foot on them, they’re drifting around the Mediterranean Sea, no water, no navigation equipment. Not even enough fuel on board to get anywhere. They’re completely left alone, then they have to fear being intercepted by the Libyan militias, then they are denied a port of safety in Europe.

I think the much more interesting question is, how do all these people that have to endure real hardship deal with it? Because they’re so far away from any point of being able to rest and to breathe. Me, I can always go back to my perfect little privileged world in Germany if I choose to. And these people have nothing and nowhere to go. And we don’t want to give it to them.</blockquote>

In a recent TED talk titled “Why I fight for solidarity,” the rescue-ship captain, who admitted to feeling uncomfortable on land and on stage, gave a poignant speech about the urgency of the refugee crisis and the horrors so many people face, both on land and at sea, on their journeys.

In one of the most powerful parts of her 13-minute speech, Klemp points out that the legal charges she faces would never have been levied at her had she saved “EU passport-holders.” The racist implications of such a contradiction are crystal clear and all the more painful to think of as Klemp tells the story of the 2-year-old child who died aboard one of her rescue vessels as the ship was denied entry in port after port. Klemp also points to a previous time in recent history in which a lack of solidarity and inaction on the part of many of her ancestors led to one of the most horrific episodes in Western history.

<iframe width=”645″ height=”363″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/-7V1zNNfc_Q” frameborder=”0″ allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen></iframe>

“I’m part of a generation that grew up asking their grandparents, ‘What did you do against it?’” the Bonn-born activist says. “And I’ve come to realize that I’m part of a generation that will have to answer the very same question to their grandchildren.”

Making an impassioned call for solidarity with refugees and those who risk their lives and freedom to save their fellow humans from certain death, Klemp also makes a bold promise: “We will not be intimidated, and we will continue to fight for a world in which we want to live in, for a world in which everyone is given the chance to live in.”

Despite persecution, Klemp has not backed down one bit in her courageous mission. She has a new rescue ship, Sea Watch 3, which was also seized for some months by Maltese authorities in 2018. In August, Klemp made headlines for rejecting the city of Paris’ Grand Vermeil Medal for bravery, highlighting the rancid hypocrisy behind the French award. At the same time your police is stealing blankets from people that you force to live on the streets, while you raid protests and criminalize people that are standing up for rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Addressing Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Klemp writes, “You want to give me a medal for actions that you fight in your own ramparts. I am sure you won’t be surprised that I decline the medaille Grand Vermeil.” Her full scathing Facebook post can be read below:

<iframe src=”https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fpia.klemp%2Fposts%2F10156318059491611&width=500″ width=”500″ height=”590″ style=”border:none;overflow:hidden” scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″ allowTransparency=”true” allow=”encrypted-media”></iframe>

While Klemp rejects the term “hero” when used by duplicitous authorities, it is more important than ever to find meaningful ways to celebrate people like her who refuse to be intimidated by the rise of xenophobia across the Western world and the criminalization not just of solidarity, as she points out, but of the saving of lives. Perhaps it would be more appropriate, however, to honor Klemp for her bravery alongside the refugees who themselves face unimaginable obstacles with immense valor as our Truthdiggers of the Month. We hope she, her fellow activists and the refugees they help consider this designation a symbol of Truthdig’s solidarity with Klemp’s efforts to “cast all medals into spearheads of revolution” as she continues her fearless activism and sets an example for us all.

The post Pia Klemp Is the Badass Hero the World Desperately Needs Right Now appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Three Weird Health Care Mysteries

Mother Jones Magazine -

Would you like to hear about three weird ways that cancer has changed my health? Of course you would. These are all very peculiar changes that are seemingly unrelated to the multiple myeloma itself, though who knows? Maybe they resulted from it in some strange way; maybe they’re due to the chemo drugs; or maybe they’re just things that happened coincidentally. I have no idea. Here they are:

Breathing: All my life I’ve been a mouth breather because my nose is chronically too stuffed up to breathe through. I even had my deviated septum corrected a couple of decades ago (it didn’t help). But when I was in the hospital five years ago my nose cleared up. I figured maybe the hospital air was super filtered or something, but after I got home my nose stayed cleared up and it remains clear to this day.

Peeing: My bladder has gotten tougher. Or my prostate has gotten bigger. Or something. But I can slurp down a big ol’ Diet Coke with my popcorn at the movies and not have to get up halfway through. I sleep through the night almost all the time. For some reason, I’ve regressed to about my 40-year-old self. I just don’t have to pee as often as I used to.

Sweating: I am much more tolerant of cold weather and much less tolerant of hot weather. If I lived in Duluth this would be an unalloyed benefit. Unfortunately, I live in Southern California. This is a big change for me: I used to be a typical SoCal boy, playing tennis in 90-degree heat and barely sweating a drop. These days, all it takes is a walk around the block in 80-degree heat for me to start sweating like a pig. It’s very strange.

This is all very mysterious. But after five years I have to figure that these are permanent changes. I wonder what caused them?

Hausmann hypocrisy: Guaido coup official raked in dollars from dictators and banking behemoths while promoting ‘democracy’ for Venezuela

The GrayZone -

Ricardo Hausmann slammed banks for doing business with Venezuela’s elected government. But financial disclosure forms filed with Harvard show the…

The post Hausmann hypocrisy: Guaido coup official raked in dollars from dictators and banking behemoths while promoting ‘democracy’ for Venezuela appeared first on The Grayzone.

“The Amazon Stays, Bolsonaro Goes”: Protesters in Brazil Demand Action on Rainforest Fires

Mother Jones Magazine -

This story was originally published by National Observer and is shared here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

Last Friday, in the streets outside the government buildings in Brazil’s capital city, I walked with nearly a thousand people in desperate concern over the relentless and unprecedented burning of one of the most important ecosystems in the world.

A swarm of people took over Brasilia, protesting in Brazilian/carnival style, with more rhythm than any march I had been to before. People screamed, danced and sang, led by a giant banner that read “Amazônia fica, Bolsonaro sai” (“the Amazon stays, Bolsonaro goes”).

But it wasn’t a time to celebrate and the mood wasn’t entirely jovial. Protesters fired smoke bombs outside the Ministry of Environment, screaming “Sai Salles” (Get out Salles), referring to Ricardo Salles, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s environment minister.

The planet’s lungs are on fire, and the city was angry—angry that the great Amazon rainforest, one of the planet’s most biodiverse and ancient wildernesses, has been burning for weeks.

Young or old, the entire crowd shared the same concern: Bolsonaro doesn’t care about the environment, he doesn’t care about the Amazon, and he doesn’t care about Indigenous people’s inherent, constitutionally protected and internationally recognized rights.

The president campaigned on pledges to stop the demarcation of Indigenous lands, sell off large parts of the Amazon rainforest to mining and agribusiness, discredit scientific data pointing to a drastic increase in deforestation in recent years, and cut back on environmental protection and regulation measures. So far, he has kept those promises.

It’s not a new phenomenon for a Brazilian government to take a pro-industry stance—the country is, after all, the biggest exporter of beef in the world—but in recent memory, no other president has taken such bold measures against Indigenous rights and the environment.

‘Captain chainsaw’

The march in Brasilia was one of many pro-Amazon marches across Brazil and the world last week.

The world’s largest tropical rainforest, 10 times the size of Texas, the Amazon is vital to all living beings. It’s home to an incredibly diverse population of plants and trees, which convert carbon dioxide into 20 percent of the world’s oxygen supply, and is the primary determinant of weather systems in Brazil and of rainfall around the world.

So when word got out that there has been an unprecedented number of forest fires in the Amazon—more than 70,000 in the whole country and nearly 40,000 in the Amazon, which is a 77 percent increase from the same time period last year—the whole world turned its head toward Brazil.

When we looked, we saw that the majority of the fires had been started by farmers clearing land for agribusiness, emboldened by Bolsonaro’s ascent to power.

Immediately after his government took office, following a widely criticized anti-corruption crusade that sent the former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to prison, Bolsonaro filed an executive order to transfer the regulation and creation of Indigenous lands to the agriculture ministry, which many in the country see as in the pocket of the agribusiness lobby.

It was a clear conflict of interest, which is why the move was stopped by Congress and the Supreme Court, but it sent a message that Indigenous rights stood in the way of industrial development.

In a tweet from Jan. 2, Bolsonaro spoke of “integrating” Indigenous people and people living in quilombos, reserves for descendants of enslaved people.

“Less than a million people live in these places, isolated from true Brazil, exploited and manipulated by NGOs,” Bolsonaro wrote. “Together we will integrate these citizens.”

Brazil is home to approximately 900,000 Indigenous people from 305 tribes, most of whom live on reserves, according to Brazil’s Socio-Environmental Institute. More than 120 traditional territories claimed by Indigenous groups have not yet received government recognition.

The National Foundation of Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI) is the federal government body responsible for the demarcation of Indigenous lands in Brazil.

Once in power, Bolsonaro’s government deposed of FUNAI’s president and put a federal police deputy in his place, Marcelo Xavier da Silva, a man with strong ties to agribusiness who once worked on a controversial congressional inquiry that attacked the very organization he was now charged with running.

A cada dia o dito Jair se consolida como o pior governo de todos os tempos . Ele quer governar à revelia da lei, passando por cima do Parlamento e da Constituição Federal .O cara teima em querer governar por Decretos e Medidas Provisórias, é preciso dar um basta nessa balbúrdia!

— Sonia Guajajara (@GuajajaraSonia) June 20, 2019

In a June 20 tweet, Sônia Guajajara, Indigenous rights activist of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, called Bolsonaro’s government the “worst government ever.”

“He wants to rule by default, bypassing Parliament and the Federal Constitution,” Guajajara’s tweet said. “The guy wants to rule by decrees and provisional measures, we need to stop this mess!”

Another Bolsonaro appointee, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, suggested that there would be spending cuts in health care for Indigenous people.

“We have figures for the general public that are much below what is spent on health care for the Indigenous,” he said, in effect warning the Indigenous population that a dark future awaited them.

And then, this month, the fires seemed to fulfill that apocalyptic prophecy.

A thick blanket of black smoke descended on São Paulo—a city of more than 12 million people—last week, prompting people to share photos on Twitter. #PrayforAmazonia started to trend, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Cristiano Ronaldo and Madonna shared photos on social media, urging a conversation that Indigenous people in Brazil, environmental conservationists and scientists had long been crying out for.

Enquanto o mundo reza pela #Amazônia, os xinguanos se reúnem e lançam no ar uma flecha. O governo brasileiro deve proteger nossas florestas e respeitar os modos de vida dos povos indígenas e comunidades tradicionais.

Conheça a rede https://t.co/GUGv7Z2w8v.

Kamikia Kisedje pic.twitter.com/7OOzh5X4gR

— ISA (@socioambiental) August 24, 2019

In a video recorded by Indigenous filmmaker Kamikia Kisedje, a group of Xingu people from the Kubenkokre village in the Brazilian Amazon say they will continue to resist destructive production and protect their way of life for their children and grandchildren.

“We say no to mining in our lands, no to deforestation,” O-É Kaiapo Paiakan said, standing in front of the community of Amazonian peoples. “No more invasions and disrespect. No more pesticides in our rivers and foods. No more criminal fires in the forest. We are with you, standing for the Amazon.”

Discrediting data

On the ground, I’ve been hearing a lot of debate about what’s next for Brazil, the Amazon, and the planet. While most people want to see the fires put out and agree that the environment is in a dire state, no one seems sure about the best way forward.

Is it safe to have the armed forces trekking through Indigenous lands?

Will the illegal activity be stopped in remote parts of the rainforest with weakened environmental policies?

Will anyone care the day after tomorrow?

If nothing else, the fires have shed light on the country’s ongoing political emergency.

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has reported increased and concerning rates of deforestation in the Amazon, but the Bolsonaro administration has dismissed the findings. After INPE’s director, Ricardo Galvão, defended the data and provided more scientific evidence to back up the reports, he was dismissed from his role earlier this month.

In an interview with the BBC, Galvão said that previously, the INPE and the ministry formally collaborated to prevent deforestation in the Amazon from 2002 to 2014. But the current environment minister, Salles, has insisted that ideological biases guide scientific data and that deforestation statistics have been sensationalized. He has gone as far as to suggest hiring a foreign company to replace INPE, which Galvão said would amount to a conflict of interests.

On Monday, the G7 offered US$22 million in fire-fighting aid to Brazil. Bolsonaro called the move and further international criticism of his government an “echo of colonialism,” chastising countries with colonial histories and relationships for trying to play saviour to the Amazon, acting as if Brazil is a “no man’s land,” as Bolsonaro tweeted Monday.

While some may argue he has a point, many Brazilians heard only hypocrisy coming out of the mouth of a man bent on supporting industrial development at the risk of continuous violation of the rights of the country’s most exploited people and one of the planet’s most important ecosystems.

On the other hand, US President Donald Trump, whose journey to presidency isn’t unlike Bolsonaro’s, tweeted his support for the president and the 43,000 armed forces that have recently been sent to fight the fires, while precious lives and lands remain on the line.

Consumer Spending Is Kind of Meh

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The Wall Street Journal doubled down today on the notion that consumer spending is strong:

U.S. households ramped up their spending in July, providing reassurance that the economy’s decadelong expansion continued to roll despite slowing factory activity and global growth. Personal-consumption expenditures, a measure of household spending, increased a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in July from June, a pickup from the previous two months, the Commerce Department said Friday, continuing a solid performance by the economy’s main driving force.

First of all, this isn’t adjusted for inflation, even though real numbers are released at the same time as nominal numbers. Second, take a look at monthly growth in consumer spending over the past couple of decades:

It’s all noise. There’s no way to pull any useful information out of this. If, instead, you compare year-over-year growth—which makes more sense in the first place—you get this:

There’s still some noise, but there’s also a clear signal: consumer spending grew in July at about the rate as June and May and April and March. It’s actually a little below the average of the past couple of years.

I should note that this works in both directions. If you look at personal income, it didn’t increase at all between June and July. It was completely flat. Bad news! But if you look at year-over-year growth, things look a little different:

Income growth has been showing some decleration over the past year, but it’s still pretty positive.

I know this stuff seems kind of tedious, but it matters if you really want to know the state of the economy. The Journal summary of July is that consumer spending was strong but income growth was weak. In reality, they were both fairly average.

Valerie Harper, Taboo-Busting ‘Rhoda’ TV Star, Dies at 80

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LOS ANGELES—Valerie Harper, who scored guffaws, stole hearts and busted TV taboos as the brash, self-deprecating Rhoda Morgenstern on back-to-back hit sitcoms in the 1970s, has died.

Longtime family friend Dan Watt confirmed Harper died Friday, adding the family wasn’t immediately releasing any further details. She had been battling cancer for years, and her husband said recently he had been advised to put her in hospice care.

Harper was a breakout star on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” then the lead of her own series, “Rhoda.” She was 80.

She won three consecutive Emmys (1971-73) as supporting actress on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and another for outstanding lead actress for “Rhoda,” which ran from 1974-78. Beyond awards, she was immortalized — and typecast — for playing one of television’s most beloved characters, a best friend the equal of Ethel Mertz and Ed Norton in TV’s sidekick pantheon.

Fans had long feared the news of her passing. In 2013, she first revealed that she had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had been told by her doctors she had as little as three months to live. Some responded as if a family member were in peril.

But she refused to despair. “I’m not dying until I do,” Harper said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “I promise I won’t.” Harper did outlive her famous co-star: Mary Tyler Moore died in January 2017. Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman and Betty White are among the former cast members who survive her.

In recent years, Harper’s other appearances included “American Dad!” ”The Simpsons” and “Two Broke Girls.”

Harper was a chorus dancer on Broadway as a teen before moving into comedy and improv when, in 1970, she auditioned for the part of a Bronx-born Jewish girl who would be a neighbor and pal of Minneapolis news producer Mary Richards on a new sitcom for CBS.

It seemed a long shot for the young, unknown actress. As she recalled, “I’m not Jewish, not from New York, and I have a small shiksa nose.” And she had almost no TV experience.

But Harper, who arrived for her audition some 20 pounds overweight, may have clinched the role when she blurted out in admiration to the show’s tall, slender star: “Look at you in white pants without a long jacket to cover your behind!”

It was exactly the sort of thing Rhoda would say to “Mar,” as Harper recalled in her 2013 memoir, “I, Rhoda.” Harper was signed without a screen test.

Of course, if CBS had gotten its way, Rhoda might have been a very different character with a much different actress in place. As “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was being developed, its producers were battling a four-point decree from the network, which insisted that the nation’s TV viewers would not accept series characters who were (1) divorced, (2) from New York, (3) Jewish or (4) have mustaches.

The producers lost on having Mary Richards divorced (instead, she had been dumped by her long-time boyfriend). But with Rhoda they overrode the network on two other counts.

The show that resulted was a groundbreaking hit, with comically relatable Rhoda one big reason.

Item: “What am I? I’m not married, I’m not engaged. I’m not even pinned. I bet Hallmark doesn’t even have a card for me!”

Item: Eyeing a piece of candy, Rhoda wise-cracked: “I don’t know whether to eat this or apply it directly to my hips.”

“Women really identified with Rhoda because her problems and fears were theirs,” Harper theorized in her book. “Despite the fact that she was the butt of most of her own jokes, so to speak, … her confident swagger masked her insecurity. Rhoda never gave up.”

Neither did Harper, who confronted her own insecurities with similar moxie.

“I was always a little overweight,” she once told The Associated Press. “I’d say, ‘Hello, I’m Valerie Harper and I’m overweight.’ I’d say it quickly before they could. … I always got called chubby, my nose was too wide, my hair was too kinky.”

But as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” evolved, so did Rhoda. Rhoda trimmed down and glammed up, while never losing her comic step. The audience loved her more than ever.

A spinoff seemed inevitable. In 1974, Rhoda was dispatched from Minneapolis back home to New York City, where she was reunited with her parents and younger sister in a new sitcom that costarred Nancy Walker, Harold Gould and Julie Kavner.

She also met and fell in love with the hunky owner of a demolition firm.

The premiere of “Rhoda” that September was the week’s top-rated show, getting a 42 percent share of audience against competition including Monday Night Football on ABC. And a few weeks later, when Rhoda and her fiance, Joe, were wed in a one-hour special episode, more than 52 million people — half of the U.S. viewing audience — tuned in.

But “Rhoda” couldn’t maintain those comic or popular heights. A domesticated, lucky-in-love Rhoda wasn’t a funny Rhoda. By the end of the third season, the writers had taken a desperate step: Rhoda divorced Joe. Thus had Rhoda (and Harper) defied a third CBS taboo.

The series ended in 1978 with Harper having played Rhoda for a total of nine seasons.

She had captured the character by studying her Italian stepmother. But Harper’s own ethnicity — neither Jewish nor Italian — was summed up in a New York Times profile as “an exotic mixture of Spanish-English-Scotch-Irish-Welsh-French-Canadian.”

And she was not a Gothamite. Born in Suffern, New York, into a family headed by a peripatetic sales executive, she spent her early years in Oregon, Michigan and California before settling in Jersey City, New Jersey.


Frazier Moore, a long-time television writer for The Associated Press, was the principal writer of this obituary.

The post Valerie Harper, Taboo-Busting ‘Rhoda’ TV Star, Dies at 80 appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.

Protecting Accused Sexual Harassers on an Illinois Campus

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This article was originally published on ProPublica and was produced in partnership with NPR Illinois, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

By the time officials at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus in Urbana-Champaign found that an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine had engaged in sexual harassment, three women had come forward to raise concerns about his behavior.

All three said he had showed up at their homes uninvited.

Though the professor, Valarmathi Thiruvanamalai, denied doing anything wrong, the university office that investigates harassment and discrimination claims ruled against him. “When three different complainants, who have no prior relationship and no significant commonalities other than the lab in which they work, all assert the same type of interaction, one must question Respondent’s credibility and honesty in responding to the allegations,” a specialist in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access wrote in February 2015 following an investigation. She recommended that Thiruvanamalai face discipline and possibly termination.

Instead, the university took a series of steps that helped keep Thiruvanamalai’s reputation intact.

First, the head of the Department of Comparative Biosciences placed Thiruvanamalai on paid administrative leave for the remainder of his contract with the school and banned him from the lab and other university workspaces.

Then in November 2015, the university, known as UIUC, signed a separation agreement with the professor, extending his paid leave through August 2016, at which point his resignation would take effect. He continued to draw his annual salary of more than $98,000, according to salary records and the agreement between the school and Thiruvanamalai, obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica.

Finally, as part of that agreement, the university agreed to keep secret the terms of Thiruvanamalai’s departure, easing his path to get a university job in another state.

Thiruvanamalai’s case, which has never before been reported, highlights the covert way in which the university has dealt with accusations of sexual misconduct against professors.

An NPR Illinois-ProPublica investigation found that the university helped several professors keep seemingly unblemished records even though they were found to have violated its policies: letting them resign, paying them for periods they weren’t working, promising not to discuss the reasons for their departures and, in some cases, keeping them on the faculty.

Professors found to have violated policies at UIUC, including Thiruvanamalai, have moved on to teaching positions at other universities and, in at least one case, secured a prestigious Fulbright grant.

Since last year, allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct have surfaced against three UIUC professors and one administrator. In each instance, the public wasn’t told by the university until news organizations or others brought the allegations to light.

The problem, however, runs deeper, our investigation found. On top of the four cases already known, NPR Illinois and ProPublica uncovered three more in recent years that have received no attention.

In two of the cases, professors were allowed to resign and the university agreed to keep it confidential. A third professor remains on the payroll but has been removed from the classroom, campus records show.

We spoke with numerous staff members and students who raised concerns about the way substantiated cases are handled.

“The entire way that we engage with questions of perpetration on campuses is wrong and broken,” said Kathryn Clancy, a UIUC anthropology professor who is an expert on sexual harassment in academia. She worked on a report published last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found that 20% to 50% of students in STEM fields have experienced sexual harassment. “So we are just doing what everyone else is doing. And it’s the wrong way to be doing things.”

University leaders have said they are committed to change. For example, the UIUC provost and chancellor told NPR Illinois last week that the university has stopped using confidentiality clauses, which keep investigations and findings under wraps after professors leave. UIUC and the University of Illinois System have also created several task forces and committees to examine issues including faculty misconduct and relationships between students and professors.

“We want to be the best of the breed, in a way, on all of these issues, recognizing that it’s a very important topic,” University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen said after a board meeting this spring.

But, he added, “Nothing’s broken.”

A Grilling Over a Little-Known Case at a #MeToo Panel

Concerns about sexual harassment at UIUC spilled into the open during a panel on #MeToo and academia at the College of Law in the fall of 2018.

At the lunchtime discussion in the law school auditorium, an audience member asked the panelists, two of whom were UIUC law professors, why more was not being done to protect students from a professor who had been investigated by the university for sexual misconduct. She pressed the panel about allegations that professor Jay Kesan had made students and faculty uncomfortable with inappropriate touching and sexual conversations, singling him out by name.

The claims against Kesan had not been widely known, even though allegations of inappropriate behavior against him dated back to 2002, only months after he was granted tenure, documents show. The law school’s then-dean warned Kesan in writing that she had been told details about his conduct that “would constitute a serious breach of appropriate behavior by a faculty member” if true. Kesan denied those claims. The dean gave Kesan suggestions for avoiding further allegations, such as not commenting on others’ appearance.

At the #MeToo panel last year, the woman’s questions focused on an investigation into claims made against Kesan in 2015. The investigative report, finalized by the campus Office of Diversity, Equity and Access in 2017, found that school leaders were concerned enough about Kesan that, at one point, an administrator was directed to watch Kesan’s interactions with female guests at a public event and intervene if the situation warranted. Investigators even recommended considering employment action. (The Office of Diversity, Equity and Access is now called the Office for Access and Equity.)

Ultimately, the school found that Kesan violated the university’s code of conduct, and as a result he would not qualify for certain salary programs or lucrative endowment positions for a limited time. He is currently on voluntary unpaid leave until 2020.

Lesley Wexler, a professor and associate dean of UIUC’s College of Law, said efforts are underway to address the university’s handling of cases like the one involving Kesan, who was found to have violated the “spirit” of the sexual misconduct policy but not the policy itself.

“The definition of what might count as sexual harassment is up for debate,” said Wexler, who had told the audience at the #MeToo forum last year that she was not satisfied with the result of the Kesan investigation.

In a recent interview, Wexler said the current definition of sexual harassment under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination within federally funded educational programs, has “been interpreted over time in a very narrow way.”

The behavior must be severe or pervasive, she said, which “sets a very high bar.”

“So even touching breasts or buttocks, if it only happens once, some courts have said that didn’t meet the threshold.”

But Wexler said she’s unsure if universities are capable of adequately investigating their employees and holding them to account.

“The past does not provide a record that would make one particularly optimistic,” she said. “In speaking of my own university, I think the will is there. But like so many things relating to widespread social and institutional change, it’s hard to know at this sort of stage of things where it will end up.”

Kesan told university investigators that he may have touched people, but the intent was misconstrued. In a letter to the College of Law community last year, Kesan said the allegations laid out in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access report were described correctly.

In an interview with NPR Illinois, Kesan wouldn’t comment on whether he believes the university treated him fairly, but he credited the #MeToo movement with opening the door to conversations like the one that revealed the allegations against him. “I believe it’s a very good thing,” Kesan said, adding that he offered to disclose the investigation on his syllabus going forward.

Robin Kar, a professor in the UIUC College of Law, is chairman of a task force formed in the wake of the Kesan controversy to explore potential changes to the sexual misconduct policy as it relates to faculty. “I think we’re witnessing a growing awareness of a problem that has been festering for some time,” he said in an interview, noting that women are increasingly confident in talking about harassment.

“I think institutions around the nation are starting to take note of what the problem is,” he said. Meanwhile, solutions aren’t easy to come by. “We haven’t found there’s a simple gold standard outlook there.”

Leaving With Their Records Intact

UIUC doesn’t often fire tenured faculty members, even for serious offenses like sexual harassment. Instead, the university allows them to leave quietly — and continue their careers.

That’s what happened to Amita Sinha, a professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture, who was accused by a colleague of harassment, including stalking, for over a decade, according to a report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access summarizing its investigation.

University investigators concluded that Sinha, a woman, ignored directives about her conduct from her department head and had engaged in unwanted attention toward a male colleague “intermittently for fifteen years.”

Sinha agreed to “voluntarily retire” in October 2017, and the university gave her paid leave before her resignation took effect in August 2018. During that time, she was paid her nearly $102,000 annual salary, documents show. The agreement promised confidentiality and that both parties wouldn’t speak ill of each other. It also states she would not be disciplined. She now collects a pension from the university; her last reported monthly payment from May was nearly $5,000, documents obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica show.

In a letter to the then chancellor in June 2017, a lawyer for Sinha called the report’s findings “inaccurate.” The letter argued that the university had violated procedural guidelines and disputed its assertion that Sinha had caused a colleague “significant emotional distress.”

Through her current lawyer, Sinha maintained that most of her interactions with the colleague were professional.

Sinha was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year, during which she studied and lectured on the cultural landscape of an area of Bolpur, a city in India just north of Kolkata. On the Fulbright website, Sinha’s home institution is listed as UIUC, even though it did not offer her emeritus status upon her resignation. A spokesperson for UIUC “did not know” about the grant and Sinha’s listing the university as her host school.

An official with the Fulbright program told NPR Illinois and ProPublica in a statement that it has a “zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment” but declined to comment on what it knew or didn’t know about Sinha’s past before her selection.

Sinha’s lawyer said she applied for and received the Fulbright grant while still a faculty member at UIUC and that “she has complied with all its requirements.”

Lee Waldrep was an undergraduate student services administrator and instructor who also resigned in 2017 in the face of allegations — in his case, from eight female students. Their claims included that he had made inappropriate comments and “blocked their path on a stairwell, backed them into a railing or wall, pinned their legs between his … or stood uncomfortably close to them,” according to investigative documents.

Waldrep denied the allegations, according to an August 2017 report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, and declined to comment through a lawyer.

He went on to work as an academic adviser at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Last year, after the Kesan case made local and national headlines, reporters published details of Waldrep’s departure. The University of Tennessee subsequently fired him and acknowledged that its screening process had failed.

Worries About Litigation — From the Accused

In dealing with staffers found to have committed harassment, universities, like other employers, are often constrained by concerns about litigation.

UIUC spokeswoman Robin Kaler said confidentiality expectations are common. She said that they are frequently “included to protect the privacy interests of third parties who have been impacted by the situation that led to the separation,” such as the victim.

In a subsequent interview last week, Provost Andreas Cangellaris and Chancellor Robert Jones said that going forward, they have decided to eliminate such confidentiality provisions.

Nicole Gorovsky, an attorney who specializes in representing victims of sexual violence, said it’s common for institutions to fear lawsuits from accused employees, who can claim that terminations violate their due process rights or that sharing the details of an investigation is defamatory. Gorovsky said confidentiality and nondisclosure clauses in agreements are a way to limit the liability of an institution.

She said she has seen it happen in churches, elementary and high schools, colleges and businesses.

With the clauses, the parties agree to not speak about the reasons for resignation. They keep the university from proactively sharing the investigation with an employee’s future employer. (An exception is if someone files a public records request, which NPR Illinois did in these cases.)

Gorovsky said these agreements can be harmful to the victims.

“One of the classic things that I hear from survivors is ‘I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else,’” Gorovsky said.

Nondisclosure agreements aren’t just used to resolve allegations against professors. The Seattle Times reported how universities sometimes require them when resolving complaints filed by students. One woman told the newspaper that after complaining about her music professor sexually harassing her, and then being retaliated against, the university offered to cover her tuition for a year, so long as she agreed not to talk about the details of the settlement agreement. The student called it “literal hush money.”

Now, Washington state lawmakers are crafting legislation to make findings of sexual misconduct by university employees more transparent. Among the ideas: barring public colleges and universities from using nondisclosure provisions in the handling of sexual misconduct cases, and creating an interstate system to share findings of credible investigations among universities, Democratic state Rep. Gerry Pollet said.

Pollet, whose district includes parts of Seattle and who serves on the Legislature’s higher education committee said, “We shouldn’t have to have the Legislature step in, but we have to because it appears that the institutions and their legal advisers are simply very fearful of liability to the employee who’s been accused and found to have actually committed harassment or assault.”

Molly McLay recently left her position of assistant director at UIUC’s Women’s Resources Center to pursue a doctorate in social work with a focus on gender-based violence and prevention.

As an advocate for survivors, she said she struggles to see how allowing perpetrators to leave with their records intact gives them any reason to change their behavior.

“I understand that resignation versus termination is commonly used,” she said. But these cases are unique. “Other people are impacted. There is another person involved. There is a survivor.”

Cangellaris, the provost, said that terminations are rare because faculty have certain employment protections, which are in place to ensure professors’ freedom to pursue their research and speak their mind in the classroom without fear of censorship, discipline or termination.

“It is a process that is dictated by the bedrock of every university and that is academic freedom and shared governance,” he told NPR Illinois. “We process every case in a way that we protect academic freedom.”

After publication of this story, UIUC reached out to say it is seeking to change its policy going forward to prevent academic freedom from being used as a shield in sexual misconduct cases.

“Historically university disciplinary policies were created to protect the academic freedom of the faculty and be respectful of our shared governance processes,” Cangellaris said in an emailed statement. “We are working to revise our policies and practices in ways that appropriately separate issues such as sexual harassment or other egregious misconduct from those protections. Harassment of any kind undermines academic freedom.”

As for confidentiality agreements, Cangellaris and Jones, the chancellor, said they hope other universities join them in disclosing the reasons for professors’ departures.

“If others don’t follow suit, then it makes it more difficult for us,” Jones said. With the discussion around #MeToo, this is “critically important in this particular point in our history.”

Remaining on the Payroll

NPR Illinois and ProPublica found a case similar to Kesan’s in which a professor faced multiple allegations of harassment. The university found anthropology professor Mahir Saul in violation of its code of conduct but not its sexual misconduct policy, and he has remained on its payroll.

In January 2018, a research assistant claimed that Saul invited her back to the apartment where Saul was staying while they were both conducting field research in Turkey, according to an investigative summary obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica. They shared dinner and drinks. After hours of conversation, the assistant claimed Saul pressured her to stay the night.

A complaint was filed and an investigation ensued. In August 2018, the university concluded that Saul violated its code of conduct by “pressuring his employee, a vulnerable junior academic, to spend the night with him,” but that his actions did not violate the sexual misconduct policy. The official recommendation was that Saul no longer be allowed to meet one-on-one with female students or junior female employees.

But later that month, the head of the Department of Anthropology, Brenda Farnell, went further, opting to take Saul out of the classroom entirely. In a letter, Farnell wrote to Saul, “As you are aware, this is not the first complaint that has surfaced regarding your interaction with women.”

In 2016, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access opened a separate investigation into Saul after an international undergraduate student alleged that he had placed her in “situations where he could be alone with her, and sought to use his power and authority to encourage a romantic relationship with her.” Two other individuals also expressed their concerns about his behavior at the time, according to that report.

The office found that there was not enough evidence to support the claims of sexual harassment, but that the allegations “call into question Dr. Saul’s judgment and the perceptions that he is creating through his interactions with students outside of the classroom.” It recommended that Saul receive training on sexual harassment and Title IX. Saul was warned he could lose his job if the behavior continued.

As of this July, the university was still paying Saul as a professor, based on records obtained by NPR Illinois and ProPublica. His yearly salary is around $91,200, plus benefits, records show.

Saul told NPR Illinois that the allegations as conveyed by the investigative reports are false, and that he has been on medical leave, which he requested in January. He said he had dinners with the student who filed the 2016 complaint but there were no “romantic” topics of conversation. He said the 2018 allegations were the result of a labor dispute involving a disgruntled employee.

Clancy, the anthropology professor, had expressed concerns about Saul in an emailto her colleagues in the spring of 2018. She said the administration had a decision to make: protect students and accusers or protect the professor.

“Rather than abdicate responsibility of our students’ safety to the legal system, I think we can choose to set particular standards for appropriate conduct within our department regarding student interactions, safety, mentoring, and professional behavior,” she wrote.

A university spokesperson said the restrictions on Saul will remain in place, including a directive not to interact with students.

Seeking Change

After finding that he violated university policies, UIUC gave Thiruvanamalai time to pursue other employment and paid him during his search. In September 2017, he started a job teaching at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

His last month there was this June, a month after NPR Illinois and ProPublica asked for records about his employment, including background checks and any possible new complaints. The university would not comment on the reason he left.

One of the students he was accused of harassing back in Illinois spoke with NPR Illinois and ProPublica after hearing that he had gone on to teach at another school. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

By going forward with a complaint and asking the school for a full investigation, she said she knew she was making herself a target.

She had watched as another student who had spoken up before her was taken out of the program and put on a track toward a lesser degree while the professor stayed without facing an investigation, a maneuver the university labeled an “informal resolution.”

The second student, who insisted that her own complaint be considered a formal one, said most students in her position wouldn’t feel secure enough to speak out the same way. “For me, I’m an international student. I knew nobody in this country when I got here,” she said. “So it took me a while to figure out what to do about the situation.”

Without speaking up, she figured others might be “suffering in the same situation” — having their concerns lead to minor or no consequences. A lab tech joined her in the complaint, saying she too repeatedly faced harassment. One woman told investigators that the professor had “made their lives hell,” according to the report from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access.

The woman said she considers herself a strong person, which is why she was able to continue on with her education. This is even after moving apartments in hopes she could prevent Thiruvanamalai from finding her as he had back in December 2014. She said UIUC failed when it helped Thiruvanamalai leave the school with his reputation intact.

“I think that’s really bad. I think there should be a system that can track what he has done.”

Christine Herman from Illinois Public Media contributed to this report.

ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi S. Cohen contributed to this report.

The post Protecting Accused Sexual Harassers on an Illinois Campus appeared first on Truthdig: Expert Reporting, Current News, Provocative Columnists.


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