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Fugitive Moments
Flashpoints in global justice, democratic process, and the history of ideas

Visions of Sochi

Making sense of Russia’s Olympic resort.

Sochi seems like a weird place. With the Winter Olympics beginning at the Black Sea resort last week, Western correspondents have uncovered everything from murderous gangsters to toothpaste terrorists to the hundreds of stray dogs that call the city home. And I’m sure by now you’ve caught the Twitter storm over the less-than-ideal accommodations there. “Ok, so my hotel doesn't have a lobby yet,” tweeted Mark MacKinnon, an international correspondent with Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Missing drapes, dangerous water, dog extermination … welcome to Russia's problem Olympics,” lamented National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur, later adding, “We're all going to look silly when all of Sochi's stray dogs come back with little surveillance cameras strapped to their adorable heads.”

Is Sochi really that seedy? The Olympic infrastructure may have seen a rocky start, but the resort town has long been a popular tourist destination. Since the 1950s, Sochi has attracted some of the most powerful people in Russia, including Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin. But like much of Russia, Sochi also struggles with poverty and corruption. The average income in the area surrounding Sochi is just under 19,000 rubles a month—about $550. Less than half of residents have an active internet connection. The region has seen a half dozen major wars over the past two decades and is home to more than one active insurgency.

I guess that’s what makes coverage like this a little hard to stomach—it smacks of ruin porn, a kind of imperial gaze at the bizarreness of Russian poverty. And it’s not just “advenjournalist” hubs like VICE or Buzzfeed. In sources as serious and respected as the Washington Post and CNN we can read bemused correspondents live-tweet the “hilarious and gross” hotel rooms they were given in Sochi. “To appreciate the hotels in this area,” writes David Segal in the New York Times, “it is probably a good idea to think of them not as hotels but rather as a rare opportunity to experience life in a centrally planned, Soviet-style dystopia.”

Undoubtedly nationalism plays a part as well. From homophobic laws to the Pussy Riot controversy to crackdowns on free speech, Westerners certainly have every reason to distrust Putin’s Russia. Comparing this to places where marriage equality and free speech are better protected, it’s easy to feel smugly progressive. But focusing on Russian homophobia and authoritarianism seems odd when many Americans encounter similar laws everyday (is Putin’s crackdown any more nefarious than, say, being prosecuted as a terrorist for passing out leaflets?). Think about it like this: inviting openly gay activists to join the U.S. Olympic Delegation is a powerful statement for human rights and solidarity with oppressed people in Russia. But it also masks the very real homophobia and transphobia many Americans experience to this day. As David Zirin points out in a recent Democracy Now! interview, nine U.S. states continue to enforce laws that are remarkably similar to Putin’s “gay propaganda” law. 

And in a larger sense, a lot of this has to do with our preconceived notions of Russia, its culture, and our mistrust of its political intentions. For centuries Western Europe and the U.S. have tended to define their “Western” identity in opposition to anything they saw as “Eastern” or, in particular, Russian. So if the West could be defined by progress, innovation, and freedom, Russia was the opposite—reactionary, backward, and unfree. And if the East-West cultural divide seemed sturdy a century ago, after 70-odd years of Soviet Communism it was positively cemented. Even the fall of the Berlin Wall couldn’t help as two decades of economic chaos and increasing authoritarianism seemed only to reinforce old stereotypes. And it’s not just news media. Hollywood’s Russophobia may have reached its zenith during the Cold War, but to this day, its boilerplate villains hail from Mother Russia. Combine all that with flashy news reports of “flesh-eating zombie drugs” and internet sensations like dash cam videos, and Russia appears lawless, backward, and very quickly falling apart. Even Google thinks Russia is insane. Type in “Why is Russia so” and it gives you the standard suggestions: big, poor, homophobic, crazy. A lackluster Olympic Village plays into this narrative nicely.

But in terms of Olympic branding, this is all a bit strange. Traditionally, events like the Olympics accompany a highly organized PR campaign that whitewashes a whole host of human rights abuses, from forced displacement of locals to worker exploitation to “clean up” campaigns that target sex workers and the homeless. According to a 2007 report by the UN-funded Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), policies like this have been the rule rather than the exception for Olympic events over the past two decades. According to the report, more than 1,000 people were displaced from East London to make way for the 2012 Games; the ’96 Games displaced more than 30,000 in Atlanta, including 6,000 people kicked out of public housing projects, which were then demolished; in 2004, Athens evicted close to 3,000 Roma from the city to pave the way for their games, worsening, the report says, their second-class status in Greece.

These figures are surprising because they’re not supposed to be part of the story. And, for the most part, they’re not. Major media were mostly silent about crackdowns and displacements in Atlanta: a 1996 New York Times story was among the only mainstream pieces to shed light on an anti-homeless campaign there, but it didn’t mention displacement. Eight weeks before opening ceremonies, in fact, an AP story touted the millions of federal dollars that would go to “rehabilitate public housing” in the city. But neither AP nor the Times followed up when evicted low-income tenants found that among the small number of new units built to replace their homes, most now sold for skyrocketing market rates. Even in retrospect, when major media look back on the Atlanta Games, the controversies they do remember are more about local economic growth and the event’s effects on tourism. Same for other Olympic hosts, from Athens to East London to the upcoming games in Rio. Large-scale displacement, exploited migrant labor, and human rights abuses aren’t really part of the picture.

There are good reasons for this. One is that corporate sponsors go to great lengths to avoid a scandal during Olympic events. This was the case in Vancouver when Olympic sponsor Coca-Cola hired private spy firm Stratfor Global Intelligence to collect information on animal rights activists in Canada, particularly PETA, ahead of the 2010 Winter Games. Two years later, Stratfor found itself on Dow’s payroll (a sponsor of the 2012 Games), this time tracking groups concerned about Dow’s role in the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal, India. In both cases Stratfor spied on activists through social media and looked for signs of large-scale organizing at Olympic events. And amazingly, when WikiLeaks blew the whistle on Stratfor’s spy operation, Coke defended its actions and hinted that spying on activists wasn’t so uncommon: “We consider it prudent to monitor for protest activities at any major event we sponsor, as such activities may affect our partners, customers, consumers or employees.”

Olympic branding, after all, is serious business. Every two years corporations pay billions for sponsorships, exclusive monopoly rights, and sophisticated marketing strategies to associate their brands with the Games’ multicultural, humanitarian image. For athletes, who are barred from using their talents in any professional way outside the Games, the result is often a kind of indentured servitude to the media image of their sponsors. “I was not allowed near any camera without giving a visual and verbal statement of thanks to Verizon for making all of my dreams come true,” writes 2006 Olympic U.S. Luge Team member Samantha Retrosi in The Nation, adding,

I went through intensive media training each year to reinforce this allegiance—to learn how to be a better spokesperson for Verizon. During my Olympic year, I signed away my rights to use media time for just about anything other than gratitude to sponsors. It was a condition for entrance into the Olympic Village.

The Olympics may be a corporate PR bonanza but it’s also an airtight, elaborately rehearsed, and overwhelmingly privatized spectacle. With billions to be made, the world’s most powerful corporations aren’t interested in encountering surprises. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Olympic cities are also in the habit of banning protest before the Games begin.

All of which makes Sochi’s experience that much more extraordinary. At the most expensive Olympic Games ever, how did such an elaborate corporate whitewash get punctured? How did the loudest media message from the Games’ opening week become, “Ok, so my hotel doesn’t have a lobby yet”?

There are probably many reasons, a big one being Western media’s open distrust of anything at all Russian. But one thing’s for sure: it won’t be Western sponsors that pay the price of Sochi’s PR disaster. In fact, Putin’s authoritarian style may even be profitable. Take a look at AT&T. Last week they managed to earn some good press by publicly condemning Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. Left-leaning sources like Think Progress and Daily Kos wrote quickly and admiringly on the move, and already more than a dozen other sponsors have followed suit, from Visa to Coca-Cola to that darling of social responsibility, BP.

Of course, this is the essence of a PR whitewash: taking a risk-free, popular position on an issue that in no way affects profits (what stake does AT&T really have in Russia’s anti-gay law?). Critically, AT&T sponsors not the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but the U.S. Olympic Team, meaning there’s little the Russian government could do in retaliation (and can you imagine the PR nightmare if they tried?). And just like when it sponsored the ’96 Atlanta Games, AT&T will never shed light on the forced evictions or exploitation of workers that have already occurred in Sochi—that is, things that could actually affect the profitability of the event.

Which brings us back to Sochi itself. Behind the PR blitz and Olympic shimmer, and behind even the snarky advenjournalism, Sochi’s experience with the Winter Games is a familiar one. Over the past seven years Russian officials have evicted some 2,000 families to make way for new construction, sometimes paying little or no compensation. Construction has also destroyed local water wells, leaving whole villages without safe drinking water. Elsewhere in Sochi toxic dumps have destroyed otherwise healthy water sources.

And it’s not just locals paying the price. Since winning the rights to host the ’14 Games, Sochi has been home to tens of thousands of migrant workers, many coming from impoverished former Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, these workers have been regularly forced to work 80+ hour weeks, often for as little as $1.80 an hour. Lured by ads touting $1,500-a-month salaries, workers have been lucky to earn as much as half that—when, that is, they see a paycheck at all. Wage theft, reports HRW, has also been rampant, with employers withholding pay for months at a time and often failing to pay wages at all.

Even more egregious, employer-provided housing has bordered on the Dickensian, with more than 200 workers sharing a single family house in some cases, according to the report. On top of that, working conditions have ranged from unsafe to deadly. To date, 25 construction workers have died while building Sochi’s Olympic infrastructure. And don’t expect pushback from workers themselves: employers in Sochi have been in the habit of confiscating passports and work permits, cutting down on turnover and organizing. Those that do protest are often deported.

But shameful as these abuses may be, they’re not that unusual in Sochi’s history. Located in the North Caucasus, Russia’s poorest and most violent corner, Sochi is no stranger to exploitation or instability. Sochi’s unemployment rate is low for the region but within a hundred kilometers it tops 50 percent and human rights violations become much more common. Nearby places like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia, and Chechnya all have very recent memories of brutal war, conflicts that stir much older ethnic and imperial clashes. Rather than a “Soviet-style dystopia,” Sochi’s identity draws on centuries of upheaval, imperialism, and tradition.

But then, Sochi has long been a kind of manufactured place—a sleepy resort in one of the world’s bloodiest regions. In their exhaustive multimedia “Sochi Project,” journalists Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen write of Sochi as the meeting point of hundreds of contradictions: a winter resort where snow doesn’t fall in winter, a proletarian palace modeled on the exclusive spas of Germany, a destination remembered fondly by both Stalin and Tolstoy. In the Middle East, the surrounding Caucasus is known as the “mountain of languages,” while in Moscow it’s synonymous with corruption and criminality, a Russian Wild West. “Never before have the Olympic Games been held in a region that contrasts more strongly with the glamour of the Games than Sochi,” they write. It’s a place of unfathomable cultural richness and unspeakable tragedy. If the Olympics can’t make sense of Sochi, perhaps the feeling is mutual.

Image by John Morn, licensed under Creative Commons.

How to Win the War on Poverty



Welfare programs have long attacked the symptoms of poverty. What if we targeted the roots?

Last month, progressives celebrated the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty. In January 1964 Johnson laid out an ambitious set of programs that have helped countless low-income families afford housing, medical care, education, and basic nutrition. In policy terms, the programs were the clearest expression yet of what Franklin Roosevelt once called the Second Bill of Rights—the idea that the government had a responsibility to ensure economic well-being for everyone.

But even before neoliberal reforms gutted War on Poverty programs beginning in the 1970s, Johnson’s war never really succeeded. Even as his reforms went into effect, cities across the country exploded in riots as the violence of entrenched poverty became starkly visible. Half a century later, these programs continue to fight a losing battle. Within weeks of Johnson’s anniversary, in fact, Harvard economists released a landmark study on social mobility that includes a startling finding: children born into poverty today are no more likely to escape it than they were 50 years ago. There couldn’t be a more appropriate time to rethink this war.

One problem with Johnson’s approach has been that it mostly attacks the symptoms of poverty—hunger, lack of medical care, barriers to education. But what if we could attack poverty’s roots? What if a government program could simply eliminate it? That’s the thinking behind universal basic income (UBI), a proposal to give every American enough money to stay above the poverty line—unconditionally and for life.

OK—stay with me. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Alaska has had a similar, if smaller, system for decades and Swiss voters will soon decide whether to introduce a much larger basic income in their country. Proposals and pilot programs have, in fact, sprung up around the world. And people in unlikely places are starting to take notice.

One of them is Charles Murray, the libertarian author of The Bell Curve and Coming Apart. A longtime critic of welfare programs, Murray estimates that, compared to the current system, giving every American $10,000 a year would be far cheaper. Within two decades, the government could be saving around $1 trillion annually. Tim Harford, a more progressive economist at the Financial Times, more or less agrees. Although his basic income is closer to $6,000 a year, Harford says it’s perfectly affordable as long as most people use it to supplement income they’re already earning, meaning they’d still make enough to pay taxes. And under his plan, large parts of the welfare state, from housing subsidies to medical benefits, would remain intact.

Of course, there are about as many approaches as there are supporters, and plenty of questions remain unresolved. Should basic income replace welfare programs or supplement them? What happens to public education, or health care? How much money is enough to stay out of poverty?

Specifics aside, it’s worth considering what all a basic income could accomplish. For one thing, it would make workers less dependent on any single job, forcing employers to improve working conditions and wages to retain them. Basic income would also make it easier for workers to organize unions without the risk of losing everything. In the U.S., close to one-in-five union supporters is illegally fired for organizing, a number that’s jumped over the past decade. UBI could help cushion these blows, providing a safety net for workers and their families, and allowing more to organize.

It could also have huge cultural impact. As anthropologist David Graeber points out in a recent conversation on basic income, it’s impossible to know the real cultural effects of inequality. How many books, art pieces, or bands have never come into being because young people are working extra hours to pay off student debt or afford exorbitant rent? In other places and times, welfare benefits have been critical in the arts. Joe Strummer famously met Mick Jones on an unemployment line; J.K. Rowling spent years on the dole as a single mother while polishing her early manuscripts for Harry Potter. For generations after World War II, Britain’s expansive welfare state subsidized some of the most exciting and vital artistic expression in the nation’s history.

Welfare programs, of course, come with their own set of problems, from being too low to alleviate poverty to stigmatizing and humiliating those in need. But the biggest problem may be the latest trend toward “work first,” an idea pioneered when Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced welfare in the U.S. in the mid-‘90s. Here’s how it works: the single mothers who make up the bulk of TANF participants don’t see any benefits unless they seek unpaid “workfare” outside the home, often in retail or food service. And going to college doesn’t count. So instead of recognizing the critical and demanding work single mothers are already performing for their families, the attitude behind TANF is “any job is a good job.” As long as it comes with a paycheck (which recipients don’t actually get), any work is more important than raising children or getting an education.

(And by the way, that policy hasn’t made much of a dent: while TANF participation has dropped 60 percent since the program began—recipients are now kicked out of the program after 60 months—the number of families living in deep poverty has jumped 13 percent.)

It’s this work-obsessed ideology that basic income turns on its head. Rather than use work requirements and means tests to determine who deserves to get assistance, UBI applies the same standard to everyone. Whether someone should be kept out of poverty is not a question of their intentions or actions—with UBI, it’s something everyone could reasonably expect. At its core, it’s about trust—can we trust people to live outside of poverty, to escape their dependence on low-wage labor, to define success for themselves?

Of course, for most of us this is all still pretty utopian. Basic income may be making the rounds of activist and policy circles for the first time in decades, but it’s going to be a tough sell in Congress. For it to be possible, attitudes about inequality and the value of labor would have to change quite a bit in Washington, and Democrats would probably need to get over their aversion to new ideas. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen; it’ll just take a while.

But maybe that’s not important right now. Maybe for now the takeaway is in the conversation itself—about labor, about inequality, and about who deserves to live in poverty. The very idea of a universal basic income forces us to confront the fact that poverty is to a large degree a political problem rather than an economic one. Entrenched poverty is what happens when you shred the safety net, bust unions, and let corporations write public policy. It’s not natural and it’s not inevitable. There’s no real reason we can’t win this war; we just need a new strategy.

Image by the USDA, licensed under Creative Commons.

U.S. Officials Say


Something about Thursday’s New York Times top story stayed with me. You know, the one about the NSA searching Americans’ email and text messages to recipients overseas. I wasn’t thrown off by the story itself—after a summer of PRISM slides and XKeyscore leaks, it’s hard to be surprised that the government is reading the emails we send to other countries. What stayed with me was how it was reported.

Written by Charlie Savage, the article describes how even Americans “who cite information linked to” foreigners under suspicion can be targeted for surveillance. After describing the operation, Savage considers whether casting such a wide net is legal—and specifically whether it violates the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows the government to surveil cross-border communications between Americans and foreign nationals without a warrant. Toward the end of the article, an unnamed “senior intelligence official,”—all of Savage’s sources for the leak are anonymous—assures us that the program is legal and does not result in “bulk collection” of Americans’ private data.

Oddly, Savage doesn’t mention any NSA programs by name, but it’s clear he’s describing something close to PRISM, which allows NSA agents (and private contractors) to monitor electronic communications between Americans and foreigners. Even stranger, Savage doesn’t mention XKeyscore, the data-mining NSA program revealed last week by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. XKeyscore goes far beyond anything Savage describes, and would seem to contradict what the anonymous officials told him about NSA surveillance being so legal and precise.

But what really stuck out was the sourcing. Although there are some experts Savage quotes on the record from the ACLU and the Bush White House, all sources relating to the initial leak—that is, the backbone of the story—are anonymous. It reminded me of a column Robert Fisk wrote a few years ago about mainstream coverage of the Iraq War. Taking an LA Times profile of insurgency “mastermind” Abu Musab Zarqawi as an example, Fisk describes a pattern he sees in the paper’s sourcing:

Here are the sources—on pages one and 10 for the yarn spun by reporters Josh Meyer and Mark Mazzetti: "US officials said", "said one US Justice Department counter-terrorism official", "Officials ... said", "those officials said", "the officials confirmed", "American officials complained", "the US officials stressed", "US authorities believe", "said one senior US intelligence official", "US officials said", "Jordanian officials ... said"—here, at least is some light relief—"several US officials said", "the US officials said", "American officials said", "officials say", "say US officials", "US officials said", "one US counter-terrorism official said".

Of course, the LA Times is hardly alone in this, says Fisk. Open the international section of any major U.S. paper and you’ll find the same thing: reporters relying almost exclusively on anonymous, high-level government officials for tips, stories, quotes, and analysis. Leaks like this, adds State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren, ensure that official messages, perspectives, and stories get priority coverage. And the Obama administration has this down to a science, from the bizarrely laudatory “kill list” story in the Times to cyber-warfare against Iran to the details of the bin Laden raid. This is exactly how the Bush administration’s fantasies about Iraqi WMDs became reported fact, says Glenn Greenwald. “Reporters are trained that they will be selected as scoop-receivers only if they demonstrate fealty to the agenda of official sources,” he adds. “It converts journalists into dutiful messengers of official decrees.”

Contrast all of that with the treatment the papers dished out to actual whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Before contacting WikiLeaks, Manning famously attempted to get in touch with reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times. Neither got back to him. In retrospect, that may have been a good thing, says Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake—the Times has a history of checking with the White House before publishing top secret information, as they later did with the State Department cables.

Three years later, when Edward Snowden approached Barton Gellman at the Washington Post with his own groundbreaking leaks, he faced similar barriers. In exchange for the leaks, Snowden had asked Gellman for assurances that the paper would publish the full NSA PowerPoint presentation describing PRISM within 72 hours. Instead, the Post consulted with government officials who raised red flags about several of the 41 PRISM slides. When the story appeared two weeks later, the number of slides was down to four.

The most startling thing about this episode is that all of this information came directly from Gellman and the Washington Post. Gellman simply reports exactly what happened, without comment. Like the New York Times, the Post’s policy on national security leaks is apparently to check with senior officials before publishing—that way anything unflattering or embarrassing can be deleted. It’s as if—and this is hardly an exaggeration—Bob Woodward had contacted officials in the Nixon White House to approve the leaks he received from Deep Throat.   

Ultimately of course, it didn’t matter that the Times ignored Manning or how the Post edited the PRISM slides. Miraculously, both leaks found their way to readers, sparking rigorous debates about national security, privacy, and American imperialism. But that may not always be the case. The more reporters and papers rely on government officials to provide and approve their stories, the less we’re all likely to know.

Image by Thomas Roggero, licensed under Creative Commons.  

Who's Afraid of Equality?


Students in England bring feminism out of the history books and into the here and now.     

Do you remember having a serious conversation about feminism in high school? Neither do I. There were history lessons on the suffrage movement, sure, and English reading lists included the occasional Ibsen play. But if we did talk feminism or gender equality, the message was clear—feminism was something you study. It was something that mattered to other (mostly dead) people. Not something that had much to do with our lives now.

It’s that silence that students at Altrincham Grammar School outside Manchester, England, wanted to break. Witnessing and experiencing sexist harassment and abuse on a daily basis, the students decided their school could use a dose of equality.

So, back in March, they kicked off a campaign called We Need Feminism in which female students photographed themselves holding homemade signs, each beginning with “I need feminism because…” Inspired by a campaign begun last year at Duke University, the messages range from biting social critiques (“…because people still ask what the victim was wearing”) to deeply personal statements (“…because my cousin shouldn’t be ‘on the shelf’ at 24”). Taken together, they evoke a deeply chauvinistic social and institutional world that millions of young women face on a daily basis.

The campaign was only latest for Altrincham’s Feminist Society (FemSoc), a student group cofounded by 17-year-old Jinan Younis after experiencing particularly hurtful harassment on a school trip last year. “After returning from this school trip I started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the pressures associated with our gender,” she writes in the Guardian. “Many of the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are constantly told they are worthless.”

FemSoc suffered abuse from peers and reluctance from school administrators from the very beginning, but the opposition reached fever pitch after the group’s “We Need Feminism” posts appeared on Facebook this past March. Almost immediately, Younis’ male peers unleashed a torrent of sexist and racist abuse, much of it on Twitter. “I was called a ‘feminist bitch,’ accused of ‘feeding [girls] bullshit,’” Younis recounts. “The more girls started to voice their opinions about gender issues, the more vitriolic the boys' abuse became.”

But here’s where it gets really messed up. Instead of confronting the male students and using the incident to kick off a discussion about gender issues, administrators at Altrincham simply told FemSoc to take down the site. This left the girls isolated, says Younis, and more vulnerable than ever to abuse that was somehow going unpunished. “It is appalling that an institution responsible for preparing young women for adult life has actively opposed our feminist work,” she writes.

Thankfully, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Hearing what had happened at Altrincham, a group of students and teachers in London started a Tumblr page in solidarity called Feminism Belongs in Schools. Launched just last month, the page combines the personal and political in way akin to FemSoc, but also has ties to the worldwide Who Needs Feminism? project that emerged last year. These connections have helped lend the Altrincham story international attention.

The solidarity campaign’s worldwide scope underscores how big this problem is. American schools, for instance, are no better. “High schools overwhelmingly disregard the subject,” writes Anna Diamond for Ms. Magazine. After a high point in the 1970s, when public schools across the country began moving gender equality into the curriculum, progress stalled. “When my mother attended public high school in Santa Monica in the 1970s… she was lucky enough to take [a women’s studies course] at her school,” Diamond adds. “As a high school senior in a similar public school in 2011, I have not had access to any such classes, and women’s contributions still don’t get as much attention as those of men.”

Part of the problem is that topics like these are just not priorities in American education. Even finding data on how many women’s studies courses exist in U.S. high schools is a daunting task. The Department of Education has plenty of numbers on the gender gap in math and science performance, but nothing on how many female writers a 10th grader can expect to read in English lit, or how many schools teach their students about intersectionality.* By and large feminism is a similarly low priority in British schools. 

But that doesn’t mean people like Jinan Younis and her classmates are slowing down. With the We Need Feminism page still online (they never actually took it down), and supporting actions in London and worldwide, FemSoc continues to bring feminism into the 21st century—that is, into the here and now. “If you thought the fight for female equality was over,” Younis writes, “I'm sorry to tell you that a whole new round is only just beginning.”

*To be sure, there are inspiring exceptions. Check out Ileana Jimenez’s experiences of teaching intersectional feminism in a New York high school for an exciting alternative.  

Image above: Activists from Latin America, Europe, South Asia, and North America express solidarity with Altrincham’s Feminist Society (Feminism Belongs in Schools Tumblr page).   

Labor Gets Militant


Faced with widespread union busting and a feckless NLRB, a more aggressive labor movement is brewing.

The National Labor Relations Board has a long history of dysfunction, but its job just got a lot harder. In January, a federal appeals court ruled that Obama had illegally appointed three of the board’s members while the Senate was in recess early last year. Now, recess appointments are a touchy subject in Washington, but Obama had good reason. Republicans in the Senate had threatened to block any and all NLRB appointments, leaving the president with few options. (Oddly, there’s no law against deliberately obstructing a vital government agency.)

If the decision stands, the board is toast. With only one remaining member, the NLRB lacks a quorum, and legally loses all decision-making power. The bedrock of labor law enforcement would grind to a halt. What’s more, all decisions since the January 4 appointments last year could be nullified—that’s hundreds of rulings on everything from workers using social media, to who handles union dues on a day-to-day basis.

This is bad news for organized labor, but not as bad as you might think. While few doubt the board’s importance in protecting things the right to organize, the NLRB also has a long history of institutionalizing the bureaucracy and hierarchy that have plagued American labor for decades. The board was born during an era of historic labor militancy, and reforms that established basic workplace protections also went hand in hand with bans on more militant actions like sit-downs, sympathy strikes, and wildcats. In their place, the board set up channels like union elections and regulated negotiations. The new system was more predictable for everyone, but also more top-down, less democratic, and arguably much less effective for labor.

So, alienated by the rigidity and hierarchy of the NLRB system, many workers and organizers have begun learning to live without it, preferring to engage in struggles on their own terms. Indeed, with or without a functioning labor board, many of the movement’s brightest flashpoints are operating well outside the system.

One of the clearest of those flashpoints was certainly last year’s unprecedented organizing effort at Walmart, a grassroots campaign that united unions, labor groups, and activists across the country. The push began in September, when workers at a Walmart-controlled warehouse in Mira Loma, California, walked off the job and began a “Walmarch” to Los Angeles to demand safer working conditions. Earning well below a living wage, the Mira Loma workers had suffered 120-degree heat, inadequate ventilation, and broken equipment—conditions that lead more than 80 percent to experience on-the-job injuries. They were also mostly part-time workers, and often relied on a “buddy system” during slower workweeks.

The symbolism of the 50-mile march, inspired by the 1966 United Farm Workers march to Sacramento, was striking. Like the UFW, the warehouse workers found themselves excluded from the protection of the NLRB system—the UFW because the board explicitly excludes agricultural workers, the warehouse workers because of Walmart’s notorious (not to mention illegal) union-busting. But also like the UFW, where the warehouse workers lacked legal support, they found an outpouring of community reinforcement. During some of the march’s hottest days (with temps climbing above 100 degrees), volunteers set up impromptu clinics to provide health care to the mostly uninsured workers. A few days later, the warehouse workers were joined by more than 100 California farm workers as well as activists from Students Against Sweatshops, who marched alongside them in solidarity. By October 5, the marchers returned to work with a guarantee of better conditions.

That extraordinary victory soon galvanized Walmart workers in other states to more militant action. Within a couple of days of the Mira Loma strike, workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois, presented a petition for safer conditions, consistent schedules, and an end to forced overtime. When supervisors began firing those who had signed, workers walked out. On October 1, hundreds of community activists joined the striking workers, where riot police arrived and arrested 17 protesters for civil disobedience. But like the workers in California, the Elwood strikers quickly won victories on core demands. By October 15, increasingly under the umbrella of the labor group OUR Walmart, actions had spread to a dozen cities nationwide.

Such early success had a lot to do with strategy, writes historian Staughton Lynd in December’s Industrial Worker. Although they relied on support from recognized unions like the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), their grievances, demands, tactics, and victories were entirely their own. At every step of the way, including the climactic Black Friday actions throughout the country, Walmart workers operated decidedly outside the NLRB system of petition and arbitration. Instead of channeling time and energy into the tedious process of requesting recognition and electing representatives to negotiate, workers in Mira Loma and Elwood decided collectively to organize and take action themselves. This direct action approach had a big impact.  

For one thing, it meant a much quicker process. Workers in Illinois and California organized, went public, and won concrete victories within a matter of weeks—an unheard of timeline for unions sticking with official channels. Eschewing official recognition also meant sidestepping legal restrictions like no-strike clauses and bans on civil disobedience, sympathy actions, and boycotts. In California, Illinois, and across the country, much of the campaign would’ve been difficult under the NLRB umbrella—from the “Walmarch” in California to the civil disobedience in Elwood, not to mention the spontaneous way it all took off.

But most importantly, workers took the company by surprise. For decades, Walmart has remained union-free by exposing and undermining union campaigns in whatever way it could. A 2007 Human Rights Watch report found that the company routinely breaks US labor law to snuff out labor actions, from spying on workers, to banning discussions of unions on company property, to firing those who join. The report added that because labor law in the US is so toothless, Walmart’s illegal conduct usually results in little more than a “slap on the wrist.”  

And if workers can somehow make it over these barriers and go public with their demands, retaliation can be swift. When organizing workers at a Quebec Walmart went public in 2005, the company pulled up roots and left. When a handful of Walmart meat-cutters in Jacksonville voted to join the UFCW in 2000, Walmart announced it was terminating meat-cutting operations in 700 stores. And like many big-box companies, Walmart’s managers have long been trained to put a stop to organizing efforts before they get off the ground. One “Manager’s Toolbox” from 1997 urges supervisors to be “constantly alert for efforts by a union to organize your associates.” It also gives instructions on curbing unionization at every step of the process, from initial organizing to petitions to elections and bargaining. The handbook even provides a “Union Hotline” to alert upper management at the first sign of trouble. Bottom line: Walmart knows the NLRB process very well, and how to subvert it.

Which is what made last fall so exciting. If workers in Mira Loma had circulated a petition, signed cards, or went public with demands, management would’ve been all over it. But there’s nothing in the “Manager’s Toolbox” about a Walmarch. This is what gives unofficial actions their power: instead of working through a process stacked against them, workers in Mira Loma, Elwood, and across the country took up the fight on their own terms. In so doing, Staughton Lynd argues, Walmart workers revived the tactics and strategy of the labor movement’s zenith—the heady decades before the NLRB put a lid on labor militancy in during the Depression.  

But as groundbreaking as these victories have been, they’ve not been alone. Workers in Mina Loma and Elwood are part of a growing trend in organized labor, one that relies more and more on decentralized, grassroots action outside the NLRB system—what the American Prospect’s Josh Eidelson calls “alt-labor.” It’s a method more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World have been pushing for a long time, and lately, it’s been catching on. Especially in big cities like New York, workers in traditionally unorganized sectors have started to organize in a different kind of way, and it’s led to more than a few concrete victories. From broad-based movements like Coalition to Immokalee Workers to local restaurants like Hot and Crusty, workers, particularly in food service, are winning critical victories by taking a more militant and creative approach to demanding their rights.

One of the most interesting approaches has been that of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a radical labor group based in New York City. Like OUR Walmart, the ROC is not a formal union and has no desire to become one. Their strategy is a familiar one: direct action, unofficial strikes, and building community support for campaigns. Not only that, with a cadre of lawyers and worker advocates, the ROC helps educate workers on their rights, and when necessary, provides legal support against the industry’s worst offenders. It’s also adept at publicizing ongoing struggles. When food service workers win a victory on, say, overtime violations, like they did at Mario Batali’s Del Posto restaurant in Manhattan in 2012, the ROC labels them a “high road” establishment. To date, the ROC has won more than a dozen settlements against employers in New York City, along with millions of dollars in workers’ back-pay.

The ROC has been active in the New York area for more than a decade, but last year, they were joined by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of community groups and unions including the SEIU. Unlike OUR Walmart and the ROC, Fast Food Forward would eventually like to see their workers gain NLRB protection. But instead of petitioning for recognition and then entering into negotiations with employers, the group decided to take action in a more direct way. Less than a week after Black Friday, the group organized a mass walkout in New York to demand higher wages and greater labor protection. Workers pulled off the largest strike in fast food history before anyone even signed a union card.

Now, at first glance, the fast food strike doesn’t make a lot of sense. Historically, big unions like the SEIU have not been fans of acting outside the NRLB system. Even during the Depression, when wildcat actions and unofficial strikes broke out in hundreds of cities nationwide and labor’s power was at its height, large, established unions like the AFL and CIO urged moderation. The difference today, argues Labor Notes reporter Jenny Brown, is that the moderate strategy hasn’t worked. If labor was at its militant height in the 1930s, today it’s at an historic low. Faced with employers like Walmart that regularly violate the law to impede organization, and an NLRB system that offers few prospects for victory, some labor leaders have started to rethink and retool. The result has been a labor movement that is more grassroots, more democratic, and more about action.

And it seems to be working. The last few years have seen a wave of unprecedented achievements, often in industries long thought impossible to organize. Numbers are still small, but activists and strikers in New York, Mira Loma, and across the country have shown an energy and creativity that’s been hard to ignore. Whether supported by established unions or not, this new militant wing of organized labor has in many ways brought the movement back to its roots—rank and file workers, organizing themselves democratically to fight for their rights in direct and meaningful ways. If the campaigns spearheaded by OUR Walmart and the ROC can continue this trajectory, it will have much more to do with their unique vision and spirit than whatever ends up happening at the NLRB.

Above image, of a Fast Food Forward/Occupy/RiseUpNY day of action in July 2012, by Katie Moore. Used with permission.  

Apartheid, Palestine, and Human Rights

Barbed Wire West Bank 

The humanitarian crisis in Palestine is not something you hear much about these days. It didn’t come up in the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, though of course Obama and Romney spent a long time talking about Netanyahu’s “red line” with Iran. G8 nations were similarly silent on Palestine during the group’s conference back in May, although Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza was a major G8 talking point just two years ago, as was the peace process a year later.

When we do see Palestine in the news, it’s mostly about why and how the two-state solution is dead—a theme that’s been driven home repeatedly over the last year by the likes of Jimmy Carter, Atlantic senior editor Robert Wright, and Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy. Not that there’s much reason to believe otherwise. In fact, the crisis there only seems to be getting worse.

For one thing, Jews are now a minority in Israel and the Occupied Territories, raising serious questions about minority rule and apartheid. Last week, Israel officially declared that of the 12 million people living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, Israeli Jews represent about 5.9 million (a fact Israeli demography expert Sergio Della Pergola had already pointed out in 2010). “Apartheid is here,” says Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar. “The Jewish majority is history.”

And apartheid is not a subjective term, says UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine at Al-Jazeera. Since its formal implementation in 1948 in South Africa, a series of international treaties like International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1966 and the 2002 Rome Statute have defined apartheid in no uncertain terms. Despite cosmetic differences in how it’s implemented, Israel’s policies toward Palestine fit the international definition—as Rome calls it, an “institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination”—to a bill, says LeVine. Arabs in Israel may have some basic political rights like voting and holding office, he says, but it's hard to ignore the widespread economic discrimination they face, "as well as in access to land and most components of social citizenship (education, healthcare, language and access to upper echelons of political life)." Not to mention the entangling maze of checkpoints, settlements, and walls dotting and dominating Palestinian territory.

Of course, the charge has been raised before, most famously by Jimmy Carter in 2006. A year later, John Dugard, a South African international law professor and UN human rights envoy to the Occupied Territories, echoed the same concern. “It is difficult to resist the conclusion that many of Israel's laws and practices violate the 1966 Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination,” he wrote at the time. And late last year, Dugard reiterated his point, writing in Al-Jazeera that, “Most South Africans who visit the West Bank are struck by the similarities between apartheid and Israel's practices there.”

But whatever we choose to call it, human rights abuses in Palestine are only escalating, whether our political leaders discuss it or not. Last week, Israel released its “red lines” document, which spells out some of the tactical specifics of the Gaza blockade, and their intended impact on Palestinians living there. (The revelation was almost totally ignored in the U.S. media.) The idea, reports Amira Hass in Haaretz, was to allow Gazans access to only the minimum number of calories each day to avoid outright starvation. Despite the fact that the blockaded Gaza is almost entirely dependent on outside resources, Israeli government attorneys defended such “economic warfare” as entirely within Israel’s rights, while also attempting to prevent the document’s disclosure.

So what’s the minimum number? 2,279 calories each day for each person, or 131 truckloads entering Gaza, says Hass. (To put that in perspective, the average American has access to about 3,800 calories each day.) But, says Hass, UN data show the actual number entering the territory has been far less. And Israeli prohibitions on seeds and agricultural technology served to make food insecurity even more of a serious problem for Gaza’s 1.7 million residents.

Though the specific policies outlined in the “red lines” document officially ended in 2010, the blockade continues to enforce a real and growing hunger crisis in Gaza. A report by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, released in August of this year, finds that in a territory where a majority are under 18, three out of five families face, or are at risk of facing, food insecurity. The report went on: With unemployment now nearing 30 percent, and Palestinians there already facing a severe shortage of schools and medical care, Gaza’s future looks grim unless serious changes can be made. By 2020, it concluded, by which time Gaza will grow by half a million residents, the territory may be completely uninhabitable, unless serious steps are taken to reverse the humanitarian crisis.

This is a bleak portrait, but a more humane future for Palestine is certainly possible. The work the Middle East Children’s Alliance has been doing for 25 years gives us an inspiring vision of what that humane future could look like, as do the flotilla movement's ongoing efforts to break the Gaza siege. If a two-state solution is indeed finished, writes Gideon Levy, the real fight is for human rights. And that fight has much to do with us: because crimes like the blockade are so dependent on U.S. aid and support, Americans have enormous influence on the future of the crisis. Human rights in Palestine may not be a campaign issue this year, but neither was South African apartheid in 1984. It was only through popular struggle—here and in South Africa—that more humane alternatives became politically possible.


Image by Paolo Cuttitta, licensed under Creative Commons.  

The Inequality Debate We Should Be Having

Milwaukee Segregation 

One of the ironies of American political culture is that in such an overwhelmingly urban and increasingly nonwhite society, issues of poverty, segregation, and race rarely figure into presidential races in a meaningful way. Listening to campaign rhetoric, it’s hard to find evidence that America is becoming poorer, more divided, and less integrated than it was a generation ago.     

This was especially true of Tuesday’s town hall debate. Despite pointed questions about issues like crime and economic growth, both candidates chose not to connect them with the persistent poverty and racial division that increasingly define American cities. Instead, Obama got into a lengthy joust with Romney over who supported natural gas drilling more (and coal and fracking). Meanwhile, America’s racial and class makeup continues to change in profound ways.

For one thing, we’re becoming a more segregated society. A recent report by the Pew Research Center finds that income segregation in American cities has increased dramatically since 1980, especially in places like New York and Philadelphia. While middle-income neighborhoods have shrunk over the past 30 years, low-income and high-income areas are more concentrated than they have been in decades—problems only intensified by the recession. Racial segregation is no less prominent. On average, U.S. cities are more racially segregated now than they were in 1940, says the Economic Policy Institute.

Divisions like these are deeply felt in our public schools. A recent study by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project finds that race and income segregation have been rising quickly in American schools, especially since 1991. Today, most students of color attend schools that are overwhelmingly low-income and nonwhite, and one in seven attend what are called apartheid schools, where whites make up less than 2 percent of the student body. In some areas, like the Western U.S., a full 43 percent of Latino student attend such hyper-segregated schools.

And while the Obama administration has touted its support for underprivileged and underachieving schools and students, they haven’t seen much success. In particular, Obama’s support for charter schools, the UCLA report finds, has undermined modest desegregation efforts, as charters remain by far the most segregated branch of public schools. What’s more, issues like these don’t make it very far in the presidential race. “Though segregation is powerfully related to many dimensions of unequal education,” the report concludes, “neither candidate has discussed it in the current presidential race.”

That issues of urban segregation and unequal education are so absent from this year’s election cycle is more than a little ironic, says Richard Rothstein at the American Prospect. When racial segregation became a visible political issue in the late 1960s, even Republican leaders became active in fighting it. One Republican in particular, George Romney, the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Nixon, supported a broad-based policy of residential integration—of the kind unthinkable today.

Not content with approaches like busing that attacked school segregation at the student level, Romney saw integration as an expansive, holistic public issue, says Rothstein. A student’s success in the classroom, he believed, had as much to do with their access to health care, their parents’ employment situation, and the safety of their neighborhood as it did with the racial makeup of their class. Following advice from 1968’s Kerner Commission (which President Johnson flatly ignored), Romney’s plan was to invest heavily in low-income and subsidized housing mostly in white suburbs, and to force suburbanites to reverse racist zoning practices. But the plan, despite having (conservative) supporters in high places, did not see the light of day. Nixon, whose ideas on school and residential integration might today be considered liberal, believed that forcing communities to integrate was the wrong approach. As a result, the principled Romney, who as a presidential candidate had strongly spoken out against segregation in the tumultuous year of 1968, chose to resign.

Needless to say, Mitt hasn’t followed in his father’s footsteps—but then, Obama hasn’t made much noise on poverty or race either. In the first three debates this year, the GOP team has actually mentioned poverty far more than the Dems, says Seth Freed Wessler at Colorlines. At the same time, Obama has spoken “less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.

That’s a shame, because problems of inequality and segregation won’t go away without dialogue and serious action. An Obama presidency may be somewhat better overall than a Romney presidency in terms of race and poverty, but that assumes structural solutions are impossible. To really tackle segregation and inequality, we need a holistic approach—like the kind that might have worked in 1968.

Image of Milwaukee’s racial makeup from 2000 U.S. Census (public domain). Milwaukee is famously the most segregated city in the United States; blue dots represent black residents.  

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