President Obama delivered a fiery State of the Union earlier this week, immediately making headlines (and exploding the Twittersphere) for a now-famous ad-libbed line about winning both elections. Chatter about the unplanned quip, however, threatened to overshadow the more substantive parts of the President’s speech, in which he promised to tackle inequalities in income, education, and immigration as well as offering concrete measures for slowing climate change, benefiting veterans, closing tax loopholes, and the like. It was also, notably, the first time a President has used the word transgender during a State of the Union address.
For those looking for deeper insight into some of the issues Obama spoke about, we’ve created a State of the Union reading list, and highlighted a few specific titles below:
As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back to some of our most popular posts of 2014, as well as some gems you might have overlooked. Consider it a countdown of a different sort, a look back at a year that was both volatile and filled with possibility, with posts that reflected both the intensity and diversity of our readers. And consider it a promise, as well, that our 2015 posts will be filled with the same inquisitive spirit and intellectual curiosity. Happy New Year!
In our book The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food, we discuss the de facto moratorium on unconventional oil and gas extraction in New York State and the NYS Department of Health review of the process. On December 17, 2014, the NYS Department of Health announced that the public health review had been completed and the recommendation was made that New York State should not permit high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF). The acting commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said, “I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered. I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.” The commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Joe Martens, added:
“For the past six years, DEC has examined the significant environmental impacts that could result from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. DEC’s own review identified dozens of potential significant adverse impacts of HVHF. Further, with the exclusion of sensitive natural, cultural and historic resources and the increasing number of towns that have enacted bans and moratoria, the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits of HVHF. Considering the research, public comments, relevant studies, Dr. Zucker’s report and the enormous record DEC has amassed on this issue, I have directed my staff to complete the final SGEIS [Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement]. Once that is complete, I will prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State at this time.”
With those statements, months of speculation ended. This was a considerable victory for the grassroots environmental movement that grew up in response to this issue and indeed for citizens of New York State.
There’s an article making the rounds on the internet that’s become quite popular among a certain sort of feminist. “Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?” by Marie De Santis, executive director of the Women’s Justice Center in Santa Rosa, California, claims that within a span of five years, Sweden has reduced street prostitution by 65% and that “sex-trafficking” of immigrant women has ceased.
Swedish feminists accomplished this “miraculous” abolition of “male violence … [and] the exploitation of women and children” by convincing legislators to look at prostitution from a “female” point of view (47.3% of the Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament, are women). The female POV holds that no woman wants to be a sex worker and that every woman working in the sex industry is coerced into it. By this logic, men are the criminals: they are sexually violent and should be punished for paying for sex; women are victims who need re-education and opportunities to hold safe and respectable jobs. According to De Santis, this is an idea “so firmly anchored in common sense” that it’s a wonder not every country has similar laws.
BERKELEY, CA - DECEMBER 08: Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protetors during a demonstration.
In the past few weeks, the justice system’s inability to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Mike Brown, and the 43-year-old father of five Eric Garner, has led to protests and increasingly loud calls for reform, investigation, and review of police practices in the use of force. Such calls are not just coming from the young people, progressives, anarchists, and activists who have taken to the streets all across America to voice their outrage and close down freeways, tunnels, bridges, and commerce while decreeing #BlackLivesMatter, but also from white mainstream politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, John Boehner, and even former President George W, Bush.
In response, President Obama has recently announced the formation of a police reform commission headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law, and society. He has given them three months to report on best practices in policing and to suggest steps that the executive branch might take to turn back the clock on police use of military grade weapons. When announcing the new commission, the President noted, “There have been task forces before, commissions before, and nothing happens. This time will be different. The president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” Obama said also noting that he is planning to pledge $260 million over a three-year period to pay for equipment, as well as training for the police.
I certainly hope this time will be different but I have to say that I am already skeptical given the disconnect between the calls on the part of protestors for federal oversight and the creation of federal policy and guidelines to aid in the prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed citizens, and the President’s response of forming a commission to look into ways to lessen the use of military style weapons that are not generally used to commit such murders. Nonetheless, the President is right that previous commissions have taken up these same issues. He is also right that we as a nation have previously failed to follow their recommendations. So here’s a thought, instead of forming a new commission, why don’t we take a second look at the rejected recommendations of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) from 1968? Sadly, the analysis and conclusions are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago.
TEHRAN, IRAN - 01 June 2004: An Iranian couple walk past mural paintings depicting scenes from the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, on a major highway in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Ten years ago, a series of horrific images started streaming across the internet, showing Iraqi internees at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in “various poses of shame and degradation,” as writer and former soldier Aidan Delgado put it, while US soldiers leered in the background. Delgado was stationed at Abu Ghraib when the scandal broke. “I am amazed to see the depravity and variety of the abuse but I am not surprised at all that it happened,” he writes in The Sutras of Abu Ghraib, which tells the story of Delgado’s transformation from a young enlistee to conscientious objector after witnessing firsthand the brutality of the Iraq occupation and the abuse of unarmed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib:
Some dark and obscene atmosphere had built inside the prison camp, so much so that it had turned ordinary, decent men into ghoulish caricatures. Sergeant Toro’s prisoner-transport story had reinforced my impressions of the harsh and repressive environment. It was common knowledge that guards would threaten and manhandle the prisoners—such conduct was almost a badge of manhood. Being tough with the detainees was just part of being a “good soldier” and a team player. The way the younger MPs referred to the prisoners and to the Iraqis in general made this no secret. I had heard about the sexual nature of the photographs: the forcible nudity, the simulated homosexual acts, the videotaped sex between guards and prisoners, but I was taken aback by the particular intensity and sadism of the photographs. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the hardship, the mortars and attacks, we had become oppressors. We had become sadists. We had become torturers.
Fifty-nine years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which, led by the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a renewed urgency to the civil rights struggle. In an excerpt from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis traces the aftermath of Parks’s arrest and the lead-up to the bus boycott, and shows exactly what was at stake for Parks as she made the decision to let her arrest be used as the rallying point for a new movement.
After being escorted into city hall, Parks laughed to herself. “Who would have thought that little Rosa McCauley—whose friends teased her for being such a goody Two-shoes in her dainty white gloves—would ever become a convicted criminal, much less a subversive worthy of police apprehension, in the eyes of the state of Alabama?” Upon getting to the jail, she requested her phone call. Thirsty, she asked for water but was refused; the water was “for whites only.” “Can you imagine how it feels to want a drink of water and be in hand’s reach of water and not be permitted to drink?” Parks wrote later. Finally, a policeman brought her some water.
They asked her if she was drunk. She was not. She recalled not being “happy at all” or particularly frightened but found the arrest “very much annoying to me” as she thought of all the NAACP work she had to do.That evening she didn’t feel like history was being made but felt profoundly irritated by her arrest, which seemed a detour from the week’s more pressing political tasks.
She repeatedly asked for a phone call. Finally, she was allowed to telephone her family. Her mother answered and upon hearing that Rosa had been arrested, worriedly inquired, “Did they beat you?” Both her mother and Raymond were horrified to learn she was in jail, but Rosa assured her mother she had not been beaten. She then asked to talk to Raymond who promised to “‘be there in a few minutes.’ He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer.”Home making dinner, Raymond was angry that no one had informed him of Rosa’s arrest.According to Rosa, “There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he’d wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him.”
The Obama administration has finally responded to the grassroots movement of marches, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and hunger strikes organized by communities around the country. For six years this movement has demanded an end to the administration's policy of mass deportations.
Relief from deportation for four to five million of the eleven million people who lack legal immigration status is a step in the right direction. But it is only a step. Deportation relief is a stopgap measure. We need permanent solutions so that those receiving deferred status are not vulnerable to a possible Republican administration and Congress that can easily reverse it, putting in danger those people who have come forward.
Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday of many US Americans; unlike the rather boring or divisive holidays that honor Columbus, Presidents, Martin Luther King, Jr., Independence, veterans and war, the birth of a religion, and a new year, Thanksgiving is centered on sharing food with family and friends. Individuals and families travel long distances at great expense to be with one another. It might be surprising to learn that the cherished tradition of Thanksgiving is, in fact, the most nationalist of all holidays because it narrates the national origin myth. The traditional meal, as we know, consists of the foods cultivated by Indigenous farmers—corn, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and turkey.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a plan that begins with: “First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.”
Obama then claims that “Amnesty is the immigration system we have today. Millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.” Surely the president knows that it’s simply false to say that people who are undocumented do not pay taxes. Everyone who makes purchases, pays rent, or drives a car pays taxes. It’s true that many undocumented people are relegated to work in the informal economy, where they do not have payroll taxes deducted. But this is also true of many citizens and permanent residents. And it means that their employers are also evading paying taxes. And informal workers receive none of the workplace protections that workers in the formal economy enjoy. So it’s not exactly like these workers are getting something for nothing.
We were shocked and saddened by the news that Leslie Feinberg, author and pioneering advocate for trans liberation, died this weekend from “complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections.” Feinberg was the author of two books from Beacon—Trans Liberation and Transgender Warriors—and is best known for the underground classic Stone Butch Blues. A tireless and impassioned activist for all human rights, Feinberg campaigned extensively for AIDS awareness, racial and social equality, and pro-labor causes, as well as for “trans liberation,” a term s/he coined to align the struggle for transgender rights in the continuum of other human rights struggles. As Feinberg said in a speech given at the 1997 True Spirit Conference in Laurel, Maryland, “None of us can ever be free while others are still in chains.... Trans liberation is inextricably linked to other movements for equality and justice.”
That speech is collected in Feinberg’s 1999 book, Trans Liberation, which is the last book Feinberg published with Beacon Press. We wanted to remember the remarkable energy, intellect, and spirit of Leslie Feinberg—whose last words reportedly were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist”—by reprinting an excerpt from a different speech, also collected in that volume. It was given at the 9th Annual Texas “T” (Transgender) Party in Richardson, Texas, but Feinberg could have been talking to all of us. As one local bookstore appropriately put it, “Rest in power, Leslie Feinberg.”
After months of silence, the White House is bringing US immigration policy back into the spotlight with President Obama supposedly “nearing a final decision” on issuing an executive order. Back in June, politicians and media outlets declared that the arrival of approximately 350 immigrant children daily was a humanitarian crisis. The typical hand-wringing and calls for action seemed to explode into public discourse. Two months later all mention of the immigration crisis evaporated. For months Congress and the federal government chose to do nothing to change immigration policy, and nearly 1,000 undocumented immigrants a day are denied refugee status and deported—to say nothing of the thousands currently being held in detention facilities.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: Pro-choice activists hold signs as marchers of the annual March for Life arrive in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You walk into our surgery center and it’s so cold and scary. There’s no art. The lights are bright, the recovery rooms smell like bleach. All the staff are wearing gowns and head and foot covers and the patients have to wear the same thing … and there’s nothing comforting about it. The warmth is gone.”
As recent events in Texas have made clear, when it comes to abortion care, the worst outcome of the current onslaught of state-imposed targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP laws) is the forced closing of clinics. But even clinics in affected states that manage to stay open suffer costs. The words above were spoken to me by an administrator of an abortion clinic in Pennsylvania, one of 23 states that have passed legislation stipulating that abortion clinics must conform to the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center (ASC). ASC legislation, in essence, demands that clinics conform to the physical standards of hospitals, with regulations about such matters as hallway widths, heating and ventilation equipment, and janitor storage space. Moreover, as part of the ASC regime, clinics must adopt certain hospital-like policies, such as sterile environments, that are more stringent than those pertaining to other outpatient facilities. Although the Supreme Court temporarily blocked Texas from enforcing these ASC provisions, many of the state’s clinics have been facing the prospect of shuttering under the extreme financial burden of physically enacting the required changes.
SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 13: People cheer during Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. Earlier that afternoon, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution designating the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day.
Last week after Native American activists successfully lobbied the city of Seattle to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote an open letter to President Obama urging him to put an end to the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus—a man linked to the enslavement, mutilation, and genocide of the Indigenous people he encountered on his exploration and subsequent conquest of the “New World.” A corresponding WhiteHouse.gov petition has generated tremendous response, confirming that support for the idea of honoring Indigenous people over Columbus Day’s “metaphor and painful symbol of [a] traumatic past,” as Dunbar-Ortiz describes in the letter, has spread throughout the general public. Dunbar-Ortiz, whose An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Stateswas published last month, spoke with us recently about the book and about how Indigenous people remain a dynamic, diverse, and necessary force in the world today.
Beacon Broadside: What are a couple the most enduring myths about Indigenous history?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I think the myth of disappearance—the myth of not being here now, of being people of the past. That’s a kind of unspoken, unconscious genocide that takes place over and over and over again, not just in the past. But of course, genocide doesn’t mean the total elimination of a people. It can mean that but in world history it’s not meant that. There are still Jews in the world. There are still Armenians. There are still Cambodians. Even though we call each of those cases genocide. But with Native peoples it’s different. So I think that’s the main myth, this idea of eliminationism, to do away with the Indians. And it’s sort of confusing and painful for people who don’t know US history, or know only a version of it—that is the settler colonial narrative—don’t know what to do with the fact that there are still Indians because the narrative really does away with Native people.
Historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote a letterto President Obama requesting that the US end its celebration of Christopher Columbus, a symbol of colonization and genocide for Native American nations and communities. Tell the world that we should honor the many contributions of Indigenous People instead of the conquest of one man. Sign the petitionon WhiteHouse.gov to add your voice!
Protesters at the People’s Climate March, photo by Tom Hallock
Climate change is happening, and faster than scientists expected. Polar ice caps are melting faster, island nations are going underwater, the ocean is acidifying and warming. In the US, we are suffering catastrophic droughts from California to Texas, along with severe flooding in the East. The answer is to stop burning fossil fuels, but the World Meteorological Organization says that, in 2013, CO2 rates in the atmosphere were rising faster than ever. So what can we do? On Sunday, September 21st, hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe converged in Manhattan to show the world exactly how critical the issue of climate change is to them, and to demand action. Beacon’s Senior Editor Alexis Rizzuto and Associate Publisher Tom Hallock were there to bear witness. We recently spoke with them about their experiences at the march and why climate change is fast becoming one of the most important issues of our time.
Senator Maria Cantwell’s proposed bill to strip the NFL of their nonprofit status is the latest strike in the ongoing effort to pressure the Washington Redskins to change their mascot. Canwtell joins a growingchorus of opponents to the disparaging name. Back in January, the National Congress of American Indians created a powerful PSA that outlined the issue in just a few words: “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t...” The ad ends with a close-up image of the Washington Redskins logo. The implication is clear.
During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began the routine practice of scalp hunting and what military historian John Grenier identifies as “ranging”—the use of settler-ranger forces. By that time, the non-Indigenous population of the English colony in North America had increased sixfold, to more than 150,000, which meant that settlers were intruding on more of the Indigenous homelands.
This piece originally appeared in David Bacon’s The Right to Stay Home, which combines incisive reporting on the resistance of Mexican communities to the economic policies that drive migration with the voices of activists themselves as they reflect on their experiences, analyze the complexities of their realities, and affirm their vision for a better world. The Right to Stay Home is now available in paperback.
In Guelatao, the town in the Sierra Juarez where I live, our main crop is corn. It’s a very healthy life. We get up early and have coffee to get ready to work. Your machete has to be sharpened, and then you walk to your field. It can be twenty minutes or two hours away. There’s no machinery for our farms, and the hillsides are very steep. When we need help, we ask for it from our neighbors, and when they need it, we give it to them. When we finish work in the field, we gather wood on the way home for cooking.
Our main problem is that the prices of agricultural products have fallen dramatically. The price for corn doesn’t cover the costs of growing it anymore, so many people have chosen to leave to get the money they need to buy food. The prices for coffee have also fallen, and people have migrated for that reason too. [In May of 2011 coffee sold for about $2.90 per pound, and a year later, in June 2012, it had dropped to $1.55 per pound—almost in half.]
NOGALES, AZ: Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the US Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center.
Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the US-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news. The media stories have been legion, the words expended many. And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned. It couldn’t be stranger—or sadder.
Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news. Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high. And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either. In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children—and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried. Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants. The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues. As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.
SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR: A gang graffiti (“Devil's horns”) painted on the wall in the Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador.
While the country turns its attention to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the crisis of undocumented Central American children fleeing gang violence in their home countries has continued to grow. What many Americans don’t understand is that these gangs—18th Street, Florencia-13, and MS-13, to name a few—first got their start here in the United States. Fueled by a cycle of arrest, deportation, recruitment, and reentry, gangs who were once local to the streets of East Los Angeles have now gone international. In the following excerpt adapted from Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption, sociologist Jorja Leap explores the real origins of these Central American gangs, and reveals in the process how our current border crisis is actually the result of a history of broken immigration policies.
I want to understand the truth about gang members and the reality of their lives. I do not devise formal questionnaires. Instead, I depend on people in the streets. This includes law enforcement officers, priests, politicians, poets, and gang members—active and former. This is why, two days after meeting with the sheriff, I am in South LA talking to Kenny Green. Kenny is a former gang member who rarely speaks of his street associations. He is no longer active and works as an interventionist and case manager. I settle in for the long haul. Any discussion with a gang member or a former gang member is always a long-term commitment; whenever I sit down with Kenny, I budget a minimum of two hours. I will not leave his office until the sun has gone down. An account of any event even the smallest street altercation—becomes an occasion for a history lesson and a recitation of gang genealogy.
I ask Kenny to explain the gangs of Los Angeles to me as simply as possible. He thinks carefully, then says, “To understand gangs in LA you gotta remember it’s the blacks and the browns. And the neighborhoods are different, really different. You can ask anyone.”