Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Review of the Practice of Keeping Captive Cetaceans in Stanley Park

PARK BOARD MOTION ON NOTICE: "A Review of the Practice of Keeping Captive Cetaceans in Stanley Park"


Vancouver, B.C. - NO WHALES IN CAPTIVITY together with 16 other local animal advocacy groups (listed below) have sent today a joint letter to the Park Board commissioners (see attached) stating that, "As the Park Board and the Aquarium embark on renegotiating the terms of the Aquarium's lease in 2015, holding a plebiscite on the issue of whale and dolphin captivity in Stanley Park during the November 2014 municipal elections to gauge public opinion, would be a logical first step."

Volunteers for these groups are planning to attend Monday's Park Board meeting - where commissioners are scheduled to discuss the Motion on Notice "A Review of the Practice of Keeping Captive Cetaceans in Stanley Park".

"A Review of the Practice of Keeping Captive Cetaceans in Stanley Park"
Park Board Meeting starts @ 7PM
2099 Beach Avenue / brown building @ entrance to Stanley Park

As well, volunteers are planning to attend the Tuesday morning City Hall meeting where City Councilors plan to discuss the Motion on Notice "Plebiscite on Phasing Out Cetaceans in Captivity in the Vancouver

"Plebiscite on Phasing Out Cetaceans in Captivity in the Vancouver
Aquarium" TUESDAY APRIL 29
City Hall Council Meeting starts at 9:30AM
12th Avenue and Cambie Street
Council Chamber Third Floor, City Hall


No Whales In Captivity
Vancouver Humane Society
Whale Friends
Vancouver Animal Defense League
Animal Voices
Animal Advocates Society of BC
Stop UBC Animal Research
Campaigns Against the Cruelty to Animals
Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Food Animals
Rabbit Advocacy Group of BC
Liberation BC
Langley Herbivores
Earthsave Canada
UBC Activists for Animals
Heal Our Planet Earth
Global Anti-Hunting Coalition

For Immediate Release: April 25, 2014

Media Contact:
Annelise Sorg | No Whales In Captivity | 604-313-1597 |

No Whales In Captivity
Box 461 - 1755 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC V6G 3B7 CANADA
Tel: 604-736-9514
HASTAGS: #EmptyTheTanks

Coalition For No Whales In Captivity - No Whales In Captivity is a registered non-profit society founded in 1992.  our mission is to make whale-captivity history through peaceful protests, public awareness campaigns and government lobbying. We successfully worked to close the orca whale tank at the Vancouver Aquarium in 2001. Now we are working to close the beluga whale and the dolphin tanks, too.

Friday, April 25, 2014

BEYOND the VEIL of SAND: Saharawi people in exile and under occupation

BEYOND the VEIL of SAND: Saharawi people in exile and under occupation

by Victoria Central America Support Committee

An illustrated talk by Theresa Wolfwood, recently returned from Western Sahara refugee camps in Algeria. BEYOND the VEIL of SAND: Saharawi people in exile and under occupation

Followed by discussion of Canadian connection and action suggestions

Presented by Victoria Central America Support Committee and co-sponsored by the Barnard-Boecker Centre Foundation and Victoria Friends of Western Sahara By donation… refreshments… Fair Trade coffee


Venezuela: National Endownment for Democracy's Dirty Dealings in Caracas

The Dirty Hand of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in Venezuela

by Eva Golinger - Postcards from the Revolution

Anti-government protests in Venezuela that seek regime change have been led by several individuals and organizations with close ties to the US government. Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado - two of the public leaders behind the violent protests that started in February - have long histories as collaborators, grantees and agents of Washington. The National Endowment for Democracy “NED” and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have channeled multi-million dollar funding to Lopez’s political parties Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, and Machado’s NGO Sumate and her electoral campaigns.

These Washington agencies have also filtered more than $14 million to opposition groups in Venezuela between 2013 and 2014, including funding for their political campaigns in 2013 and for the current anti-government protests in 2014. This continues the pattern of financing from the US government to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela since 2001, when millions of dollars were given to organizations from so-called “civil society” to execute a coup d’etat against President Chavez in April 2002. After their failure days later, USAID opened an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas to, together with the NED, inject more than $100 million in efforts to undermine the Chavez government and reinforce the opposition during the following 8 years.

At the beginning of 2011, after being publically exposed for its grave violations of Venezuelan law and sovereignty, the OTI closed its doors inVenezuela and USAID operations were transferred to its offices in the US. The flow of money to anti-government groups didn’t stop, despite the enactment by Venezuela’s National Assembly of the Law of Political Sovereignty and NationalSelf-Determination at the end of 2010, which outright prohibits foreign funding of political groups in the country. US agencies and the Venezuelan groups that receive their money continue to violate the law with impunity. In the Obama Administration’s Foreign Operations Budgets, between $5-6 million have been included to fund opposition groups in Venezuela through USAID since 2012.

The NED, a “foundation” created by Congress in 1983 to essentially do the CIA’s work overtly, has been one of the principal financiers of destabilization in Venezuela throughout the Chavez administration and now against President Maduro. According to NED’s 2013 annual report, the agency channeled more than $2.3 million to Venezuelan opposition groups and projects. Within that figure, $1,787,300 went directly to anti-government groups within Venezuela, while another $590,000 was distributed to regional organizations that work with and fund the Venezuelan opposition. More than $300,000 was directed towards efforts to develop a new generation of youth leaders to oppose Maduro’s government politically.

One of the groups funded by NED to specifically work with youth is FORMA (, an organization led by Cesar Briceño and tied to Venezuelan banker Oscar Garcia Mendoza. Garcia Mendoza runs the Banco Venezolano de Credito, a Venezuelan bank that has served as the filter for the flow of dollars from NED and USAID to opposition groups in Venezuela, including Sumate, CEDICE, Sin Mordaza, Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones and FORMA, amongst others.

Another significant part of NED funds in Venezuela from 2013-2014 was given to groups and initiatives that work in media and run the campaign to discredit the government of President Maduro. Some of the more active media organizations outwardly opposed to Maduro and receiving NED funds include Espacio Publico, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), Sin Mordaza and GALI. Throughout the past year, an unprecedented media war has been waged against the Venezuelan government and President Maduro directly, which has intensified during the past few months of protests.

In direct violation of Venezuelan law, NED also funded the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Table (MUD), via the US International Republican Institute (IRI), with $100,000 to “share lessons learned with [anti-government groups] in Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia...and allow for the adaption of the Venezuelan experience in these countries”. Regarding this initiative, the NED 2013 annual report specifically states its aim: “To develop the ability of political and civil society actors from Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia to work on national, issue-based agendas for their respective countries using lessons learned and best practices from successful Venezuelan counterparts. The Institute will facilitate an exchange of experiences between the Venezuelan Democratic Unity Roundtable and counterparts in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Argentina. IRI will bring these actors together through a series of tailored activities that will allow for the adaptation of the Venezuelan experience in these countries.”

IRI has helped to build right-wing opposition parties Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular, and has worked with the anti-government coaltion in Venezuela since before the 2002 coup d’etat against Chavez. In fact, IRI’s president at that time, George Folsom, outwardly applauded the coup and celebrated IRI’s role in a pressrelease claiming, “The Institute has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups to help Venezuelans forge a new democratic future…”

Detailed in a report published by the Spanish institute FRIDE in 2010, international agencies that fund the Venezuelan opposition violate currency control laws in order to get their dollars to the recipients. Also confirmed in the FRIDE report was the fact that the majority of international agencies, with the exception of the European Commission, are bringing in foreign money and changing it on the black market, in clear violation of Venezuelan law. In some cases, as the FRIDE analysis reports, the agencies open bank accounts abroad for the Venezuelan groups or they bring them the money in hard cash. The US Embassy in Caracas could also use the diplomatic pouch to bring large quantities of unaccounted dollars and euros into the country that are later handed over illegally to anti-government groups in Venezuela.

What is clear is that the US government continues to feed efforts to destabilize Venezuela in clear violation of law. Stronger legal measures and enforcement may be necessary to ensure the sovereignty and defense of Venezuela’s democracy.

(aquí en español)

Damage Done: Texas Family Wins First Fracking Trial

Texas Family Awarded $3 Million in America's First Fracking Trial


Plaintiff Lisa Parr describes how her family suffered mentally and physically after her home became surrounded with fracking wells.

Fracking for natural gas has come under a lot of scrutiny lately. The U.S. is in the middle of a fracking boom, with natural gas being touted by the Obama administration as the ideal bridge energy source in order to transition to greener energy. But study after study has linked fracking to air and groundwater pollution, and part of the process has been linked to earthquakes. Now a court case in Texas is adding to this ongoing saga. Bob and Lisa Parr were awarded $3 million against Aruba Petroleum. The jury found the energy company liable for pain and suffering, both mental and physical, as well as the loss of property value.

Revenge of the Oligarchy

Oligarchs R' US: That "Iron Law" of Oligarchy Is Back to haunts Us

by Danny Schechter - Global Research

For years, it was a term only used in connection with those big bad and sleazy Mafioso-type businessmen in Russia.

Russia had Oligarchs; we didn’t.

That became a big difference between the official narrative of what separated our land of the free and the home of the brave from THEM, the snakes in the shades and private planes, in the post-Soviet period.

Actually, I first heard the term oligarchy when I was studying labor history at Cornell a half a lifetime ago. We were taught about something called the “Iron Law of Oligarchy.”

It was a concept coined by Robert Michels, a friend of sociology guru, Max Weber, way back in 1911. Here’s how it was defined in that relic of another age: The Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Michels came to the conclusion that the formal organization of bureaucracies inevitably leads to oligarchy, under which organizations originally idealistic and democratic eventually come to be dominated by a small, self-serving group of people who achieved positions of power and responsibility. This can occur in large organizations because it becomes physically impossible for everyone to get together every time a decision has to be made.”

So, oligarchies have been with us seemingly forever—it’s an “iron law,” says he– but in current usage the term references the small elite—the 1% of the 1% that dominates economic and political decision making.

Every body on the liberal left is now discovering information spelled out in a number of studies that caught the attention of Bill Moyers and his writing colleague Michael Winship. They discuss the way governments become partial to oligarchs and insure that the rich rule:

“Inequality is what has turned Washington into a protection racket for the one percent. It buys all those goodies from government: Tax breaks. Tax havens (which allow corporations and the rich to park their money in a no-tax zone). Loopholes. Favors like carried interest. And so on. As Paul Krugman writes in his New York Review of Books essay on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, “We now know both that the United States has a much more unequal distribution of income than other advanced countries and that much of this difference in outcomes can be attributed directly to government action.”

According to the AFL-CIO,” CEOs of major companies earn an average of 331 times more than their employees!” The NY Times reports America’s middle class is “no longer the world’s richest.”

Asking if democracy can “tame” plutocracy, Bob Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future, cites another study:

“A recent exhaustive study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that elites got their way not often, but virtually all of the time (emphasis mine!) I guess the answer to his question re the possibility of “taming” plutocrats is, in the current moment, is a thundering NO.”

Even the barons of business news admit that wealth is concentrated as almost never before, Here’s Bloomberg:

”Just today, the world’s 200 richest people made $13.9 billion. In one single day, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index… This is the Fed’s “wealth effect,” … It’s a construct that the Greenspan Fed conjured up out of thin air and presented to the incredulous American people as a valid economic theory. Bernanke then promoted it to the Fed’s stated raison d’être. His theory: if we immensely enrich during years of bailouts, money-printing, and interest rate repression the richest few thousand people in the world, everyone would be happy somehow.”

Adding critical fire power to this perspective, Eric Zuesse, cites the study to appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, that finds that “the U.S. is no democracy, but instead an oligarchy, meaning profoundly corrupt, so that the answer to the study’s opening question, “Who governs? Who really rules?” in this country, is:

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts…

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

To put it short: The United States is no democracy, but actually an oligarchy.”

The underlying research for this study drew on “a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.”

Much of this involves what economist Simon Johnston calls the “capture” of the state by corporate interests. He explains in a recent post:

“Before 1939, wages and profits in the financial sector in the United States amounted to less than 1% of GDP; now they stand at 7-8% of GDP. In recent decades, financial assets have expanded dramatically relative to any measure of economic activity, as life expectancy increased and the post-WWII baby boomers began to think about saving for retirement. Compared to the size of the US economy, individual banks are now much bigger than they were in the early 1990’s.”

Sounds pretty frightening—and depressing.

None of us should be shocked by these findings. Last year I did a TV documentary series,Who Rules America based, in part, on the writings of C. Wight Mills on The Power Elite years ago and the detailed research by sociologist William Domhoff who forecast these trends.

As the economy changes, so does internal politics, as Tom Lodge observes in the case of South Africa:

“the degenerative changes that are observed within the ANC … appear to reflect a global trend in which mass parties are being replaced by electoral machines that depend less and less upon militant activism” and more on transactional exchanges between the electorate and the political elite. Amid these electoral limitations, what becomes the source of agency for ordinary people to instruct change in governance?”

What indeed? It behooves us to lobby our media to start reporting on the world as it is, not what it was,when today’s senior editors grew up, believing in the myths of American pluralism. And, now, disregarding who really has, and wields, power.

Knock, Knock!

News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at, and edits His latest book is “When South Africa Called, We Answered, How Solidarity Helped Topple Apartheid. (2014). Comments to

Is It War Washington Wants with Russia?

Does Washington want war with Russia?

by Bill Van Auken  - WSWS

Does Washington want a war with Russia? A review of recent US actions surrounding the crisis in Ukraine clearly poses what would have once seemed an unthinkable question. The Obama administration is playing a very dangerous game of Russian Roulette.

In the last 48 hours, the Pentagon has announced the deployment of US paratrooper units to Poland and the three former Baltic republics of the Soviet Union—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—bringing US troops to Russia’s very border. Another American warship has been dispatched to the Black Sea and more US forces are slated to deploy to Ukraine itself this summer under an exercise known as Operation Rapid Trident.

These military moves by Washington are unfolding in the context of an acute crisis within Ukraine that, thanks to the machinations of Washington and its puppets, threatens to erupt into full-blown civil war.

Less than one week after signing a joint statement with Russia, the US and the European Union in Geneva pledging to end all violence in Ukraine and disarm illegal groups, the US puppet regime in Kiev has ordered its military to carry out an “anti-terrorist” crackdown against the restive Russian-speaking population in the country’s industrial southeast. To that end it has dispatched not only troops, tanks and warplanes, but also armed thugs from the neo-fascist Right Sector.

The Putin government in Moscow, which has desperately searched for an accommodation with Washington, appears to be waking up to the deadly seriousness of the situation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned in an English-language interview with the state-run RT television channel Wednesday that his government would treat an attack on Russian citizens in Ukraine as an attack on Russia itself. He raised as a precedent the August 2008 offensive launched by the government of Georgia on Russians in South Ossetia, to which Russia responded by intervening militarily to repel Georgian forces.

The implication that the Russian government would carry out a similar intervention to stop Ukrainian troops from slaughtering Russian-speaking civilians in the Donbas region should be treated with the utmost seriousness.

In the interview, Lavrov also observed, referring to the actions of the government in Kiev, that “the Americans are running the show in a very close way.” This is indisputable. The regime itself is the product of a protracted American intervention in the country’s internal affairs, with some $5 billion in so-called “democracy promotion” funding pumped into Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

These efforts culminated in the fomenting of a right-wing opposition movement to destabilize the Russian-aligned government of President Viktor Yanukovych by means of street violence. When a deal was brokered between the opposition and Yanukovych, Washington ensured that it was scuttled and the elected president overthrown by fascist paramilitary forces.

The prime minister of the regime brought to power by the February 22 fascist-led coup, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was handpicked by US officials, who affectionately referred to him as “Yats.”

The point person for this operation has been US Undersecretary of State for Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, a former chief security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and the wife of Robert Kagan, the founding chairman of the Project for a New American Century. She has brought to Ukraine and to Russia itself the same policy of aggressive war that was implemented in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The way in which Washington calls the shots has been demonstrated in an even more sinister fashion with the launching of the first abortive “counterterrorist” operation in the Donbas in the immediate aftermath of a covert trip to Kiev by CIA Director John Brennan, and then its resumption in the immediate aftermath of this week’s visit by Vice President Joseph Biden.

From start to finish, the Ukraine crisis has been instigated by US imperialism. Every action Washington has taken has been directed at exacerbating and intensifying this crisis. The longer this crisis goes on, the clearer it becomes that US policy is directed not so much at Ukraine as at Russia itself. Ukraine, it would seem, is meant merely to provide the pretext for a war with Russia.

Short of that, it would be used to force a humiliating capitulation by Moscow that would only set the stage for redoubled aggression aimed at Russia’s dismemberment and transformation into a powerless semi-colony.

Presumably, those in the White House and the Pentagon believe that such a conflict would stop short of a nuclear war, but who knows?

The threat of a US war on Russia is also apparent in the flood of war propaganda being unleashed upon the public. Vladimir Putin is being subjected to the same kind of demonization previously reserved for Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, while the State Department and its faithful scribes at the New York Times serve up “photographic evidence” of Russian troops in Ukraine that has all the authenticity of similar “proofs” of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.”

What underlies the US war drive? In the run-up to the Ukraine crisis, Washington had grown increasingly incensed by Moscow’s role in blocking US war plans against both Syria and Iran, not to mention Putin’s granting of asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Earlier, there was the fiasco that Moscow dealt Washington in the US-backed 2008 war launched by Georgia against South Ossetia. The events in Ukraine suggest that US imperialism has embarked on a strategy to eliminate Russia as an obstacle to its drive to assert hegemony over the Middle East and, more broadly, the landmass of Eurasia.

There are also internal factors driving Washington to war. Social contradictions within the United States have reached a dangerous intensity. Masses of working people continue to bear the brunt of the capitalist economic crisis, even as Wall Street recoups its losses from the 2008 collapse and grows richer than ever. More and more fingers are pointing at the super-rich as the party responsible for unprecedented social inequality and misery in America.

As so often in the past, war provides an external outlet for internal social pressures and the danger of domestic unrest. Under conditions of overwhelming popular hostility to military intervention, one thing is certain: a war with Russia would rapidly lead to the shredding of the Constitution, the abrogation of democratic rights, the outlawing of political opposition and a massive escalation of police state measures.

The greatest danger would be to underestimate the threat of war. Even if it is averted or postponed in the immediate instance, the profound contradictions of the imperialist system make the catastrophe of a nuclear Third World War not just a danger, but an inevitability, outside of the working class mobilizing its strength internationally in a unified movement to put an end to capitalism.

It is to prepare such a struggle that the International Committee of the Fourth International and the World Socialist Web Site are holding an International May Day Online Rally on May 4. We urge workers and youth from every country to join in this common forum and discussion on forging the international revolutionary socialist movement that is so urgently needed. Register today at

Bill Van Auken

The Internet Murderers: FCC and Media Lords Killing Net

FCC Plots Murder of Blogs on Behalf of Billionaire Media Lords

by Juan Cole - Informed Comment

If you thought corporations played a big role in your life already, just wait until tomorrow, when the FCC gives up the ghost on net neutrality.

Image: By Matt Wuerker for (which, interestingly, has been suspended).

What does this mean?

It means that the companies with more money and more bankrolling (and a better way to bribe services like Comcast) will have more broadband, while other, smaller companies that haven’t curried favor with their corporate overlords are going to be left with the table scraps. 

ISPs cannot legally slow traffic on purpose, but when you have a two tier system and the corporate approach to ethics (that is, “catch me doing something wrong, I dare you”), how do you tell the difference between slow and “slow?”

If you thought corporations played a big role in your life already, 
just wait until tomorrow when the FCC gives up on trying to find a way to 
enforce equal access to broadband and finally kills net neutrality

According to the Wall Street Journal:

"The Federal Communications Commission plans to propose new open Internet rules on Thursday that would allow content companies to pay Internet service providers for special access to consumers, according to a person familiar with the proposal.

"The proposed rules would prevent the service providers from blocking or discriminating against specific websites, but would allow broadband providers to give some traffic preferential treatment, so long as such arrangements are available on “commercially reasonable” terms for all interested content companies. Whether the terms are commercially reasonable would be decided by the FCC on a case-by-case basis.

"….The FCC’s proposal would allow some forms of discrimination while preventing companies from slowing down or blocking specific websites, which likely won’t satisfy all proponents of net neutrality, the concept that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. The Commission has also decided for now against reclassifying broadband as a public utility, which would subject ISPs to much greater regulation. However, the Commission has left the reclassification option on the table at present."

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner adds an extra layer, making this read like the back story of a Cyberpunk novel. As Senator Al Franken said during a 2010 speech on the issue of net neutrality, if you allow these companies to merge, how long is it before there are only two or three mega-companies that are controlling everything you read on the internet, favoring the other corporations that lavish them with gifts and money while heaping scorn and slow access on those that don’t?

This is more than the death of net neutrality. Net Neutrality was the free speech issue of our time; with it gone, what remains of Freedom of Speech won’t be far behind. Soon, the only right we’ll have left is the Second Amendment — which failed, hideously, to save all of the other nine rights because it was too busy hanging out with deadbeat ranchers in Nevada.

You can watch a video of Senator Al Franken’s 2010 speech regarding net neutrality below:

h/t Mother Jones


Letters to Live By: Me and Daniel Berrigan

A Letter from Daniel Berrigan

by Mike Palecek - The New American Dream

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.”
— Daniel Berrigan

I owe my life to Dan Berrigan.

For good or for bad. I think for good.

I drove from a smallish, conservative town in northeast Nebraska in January 1979 to begin seminary at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In February or March, Berrigan was speaking at Macalaster College, up Summit Avenue a few blocks at a Vietnam Symposium, whatever that means, along with Eugene McCarthy and a journalist named Gloria Emerson.

Anyway, I went, and I heard, and I walked up to him afterward to introduce myself and ask a stupid question.

A couple of us ended up driving Dan around town that night, to a church to hear John Trudell speak about the FBI burning his family in their home, then over to a TV station where Daniel Schorr was hosting a discussion between Berrigan and some guy from the Kennedy administration. I think it was Ted Sorenson.

They let me into this one room and pointed at a table full of food. I could graze as long as we were there. Have at it church boy.

Berrigan also came over to the seminary and spoke to us, about Vietnam, prison, the United States, the Catholic Church.

I was enthralled. I had never heard this stuff before, and likely would not have ever heard it in my seminary instruction.

Well, on a home visit I asked the parish priest who had hooked me up with the seminary, Fr. Walter Nabity.

I asked him about Berrigan and protesting and nuclear weapons and war and all that.

Fr. Nabity told me to forget about the protests, stick to my studies, stay away from the likes of Berrigan.

Well, I was confused.

I told Berrigan what Nabity had said. Dan wrote back to me. [Below]

Over Easter vacation, on Berrigan’s invitation, two of us took a train to Washington, D.C. for a Holy Week retreat and protest. We stayed at the Church of St. Stephen in northwest D.C.

There were lots of “famous” folks from the peace movement there that week, that I only found out were famous, within the peace movement, over the following years: Richard McSorley, Sr. Anne Montgomery, Art Laffin, Elizabeth McAlister, Fr. Carl Kabat.

And of course, Phil Berrigan. I remember going up to Phil and asking him a stupid question. He was wearing this army coat. He took me to the middle of the church and sat with me. He listened to my questions.

“What’s a nuke?”

And we talked about the Catholic Church, celibacy, marriage, prison, the United States, the military, Thou Shall Not Kill. Lots of stuff. And he took the time to talk to me.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

It was pretty cool. We planned these protests at the White House — Jimmy Carter’s administration — and the Pentagon, and some people went to the Department of Energy, too.

We boarded the bus in small groups so that it would not appear to be a suspicious big group.

We went through the White House visitor tour line in those small groups and inside we looked at tables and tablecloths and silverware, and I tried to not look like someone who needed to be apprehended and returned to Nebraska.

The tour exited out onto a porch. And then those who were doing the protest took out banners from their purses or coats and held them out.

Fr. Carl Kabat poured blood on the pillars and was put into a headlock and hauled away. I got a good picture of that.

And then we went over to the Pentagon and held signs, slept on the floor of the church, ate vegetarian vegetables, then got on the train and went back to Minnesota, never to be the same again.

I think for the better.

I ended up leaving the seminary. On my way out the door I posted a manifesto on the bulletin board by the front door and the elevators, something about how I couldn’t stay at a rich Catholic school, that I had to go be with the poor, now.

A friend who went on to be ordained for the Omaha archdiocese later told me my bulletin board manifesto was weird. It probably was.

I know for one thing, that I really liked the idea of hanging out with these famous guys who had been on the front pages of all the big newspapers in the 1960s. It made me feel important.

But I don’t think the Berrigans and others felt that way. Not at all. I think they did it because they feel it in their guts.

And I think I take away the best part of all that today, the part about the importance of standing with the poor and against war.

In the end, there is no glitter that sticks to that. It’s your lonely self in a prison cell and it’s a family on a hot hillside outside of Pine Ridge trying to live.

That is what you feel in your heart when you hear this message and you want to be a part of it. And you walk that way. Sometimes you run. Sometimes you try to run too fast and maybe you fall. But that doesn’t matter. You get up and try to keep going.

I ended up going to New York City to work at the Catholic Worker on the Bowery for a while, then Ruth and I got married.

I went to prison myself. I remember being in the hole in Chicago MCC, the federal prison downtown. I was having a rough, rough time.

The guard comes up to my window with this quizzical look on his face. He has this letter asking for my release, signed by Fr. Daniel Berrigan and one million other Jesuits. The guard looked at me like, who are you?

Well, I am nobody, but I know somebody. How about another slice of that shitty bread?

Well, for me, I went to prison, went crazy, went home.

I thank Dan Berrigan for taking the time to talk to me, for one thing, when so many people were clamoring for his attention, and for having the heart and soul and wisdom to know what the truth is, and passing it along.

Back in Norfolk I only had “Choice A” as to how to look at life.

After going to St. Paul, I had “Choice B” as well, and that really makes all the difference.

— Mike


Letter from Daniel Berrigan

Sept. 21, 1979


I was happy to hear from you. I’m sorry, though, that things have become so unclear in your thoughts since we met and you came East for the protests.

I think your parish priest is full of baloney. Please don’t hesitate to tell him so, if you want to.

He reminds me of all the cutout-clerics I’ve met over the years who went on to get their degrees while innocent children died in Vietnam and many of us went to prison.

I don’t envy him his degrees from Harvard and Columbia. I’ve lectured on both places and find them rich centers of moral retardation.

As for people getting paid to protest, it’s here that the baloney goes rancid. Our payment was years in prison to protest the killing; his payment was something else again.

I hope someday he picks up the New Testament and gets some light on the life, imprisonment and death of Jesus. Also on some texts like, “love one another, as I have loved you.”

Well, enough of that. If I am angry, it’s at his defamation of those I love. He sounds as though any outrage in the world would find him indifferent among his books and degrees. I just wonder what sort of advice someone like him is capable of giving someone like you.

As far as the cult talk goes, I think your seminary is closer to the cult reality than Jonah House. There, you and other young people seem to be being brainwashed — cleansed of all traces of the gospel and of Christ, in order to prepare for a safe and pallid clerical future, in which you can go on to advise other young folks against becoming Christians and witnesses. How’s that for turning things around?

Any place (like Harvard, Columbia, or St. Thomas) that is neglecting to give young people a vision of life, faith, a human future, doesn’t deserve to go on. I hope you leave there. I hope you find a community that is not lost in fantasy and immaturity with its mutterings of Communism and cults.

That’s all so much useless bullshit. It has absolutely nothing to do with Christ or our Church. In fact, it’s like a so-called religious branch of the State Department or the Pentagon, peddling the kind of religion that will allow murder to be legitimized, nukes to be created, the innocent and poor to be wiped out.

I thought, when I came to your seminary, Mike, something better might be in the air. (Usually I avoid such places like the plague.) Evidently I was wrong. But for Christ’s sake, don’t condemn yourself to such a future.

Come back and see us when you want. You’ll always be welcome. Meantime, we go on with the work of non-violence, responsibility, hope.

— Daniel

From "Moonbeam" to "Big Oil" - The Eclipse of Jerry Brown's Once Glittering Political Potential

Jerry Brown's Service to the Gilded State

by Norman Solomon - Al Jazeera

Forty months after returning to the governor’s office that he left in 1983, Jerry Brown is a media favorite and a hero to much of the California establishment. The present-day governor wins accolades as a highly skilled politician who has put the Golden State’s fiscal house in order while reviving its can-do spirit.

Brown deserves the gratitude of powerful economic elites. But for others, especially the powerless and vulnerable, it’s a very different story.

The governor insists on frugality in spending for social programs, while many millions of Californians continue to live in economic distress worsened by cutbacks in social services. Now instead of boosting aid, Brown wants to sock money away. Years of rising tax revenues have turned the state’s huge budget deficit into a surplus, and this week the legislature is in special session to answer Brown’s call for expansion of the state’s rainy-day fund.

While Brown has shown a notable lack of urgency about repairing the state’s badly frayed social safety net, he remains anxious to please Big Business. For instance, he has rebuffed proposals for new taxation of energy conglomerates. He continues to oppose a long-overdue oil severance tax, which could raise $1.5 billion per year for the state.

Among Brown’s other good turns for the oil and gas industry is his support for its explosive practice of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. In March, when he delivered a speech to fellow Democrats at the state party’s annual convention, many delegates chanted, “Ban fracking!” The California Democratic Party platform calls for a fracking moratorium, but the governor — who has earned the nickname “Big Oil” Brown — shows no sign of budging from his pro-fracking stance.

On some issues, Brown has cleared a low bar set by his Republican predecessors. For instance, he quickly improved policies on gay rights. At times he took risks to push better policies. An important achievement came when he promoted a temporary tax hike that voters approved in 2012.

But he has repeatedly disappointed — and increasingly angered — his party’s progressive base, while helping pro-corporate Democrats in the legislature to move state politics rightward. Brown has effectively been reshaping the state’s Democratic Party from the top down, turning some key aspects of its platform into little more than a wistful wish list.

A case in point is single-payer health care, also known as “Medicare for all” — long a plank in the state party platform. A decade ago, California was at the cutting edge of efforts to enact single-payer. Twice, under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a single-payer plan. Both times Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Soon after replacing him as governor, Brown conveyed to Democrats in the legislature that he didn’t want to see a single-payer bill on his desk. Dutifully, the Democratic leadership made sure that no such legislation came to a floor vote.

When it comes to frugality, Brown has 
turned out to be rather selective. 

His pro-worker rhetoric aside, Brown has also often shafted labor supporters. In 2012 he vetoed a bill to require decent working conditions for home health aides and other domestic workers, citing “consequences both unknown and unintended.”

Such action is an unwelcome change from his previous tenure. As a young governor in the 1970s, Brown was a strong ally of downtrodden farmworkers. But these days, he is much more aligned with the downtrodders. In June 2011 he vetoed a bill that would have lowered the barriers faced by farmworkers trying to unionize. Thousands of United Farm Workers members and supporters protested by marching to the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento.

Since then, Brown has continued to side with growers against workers. In September 2012 he vetoed the Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act, which aimed to ensure that agricultural workers would have access to minimum amounts of shade and water. The United Farm Workers pointed out that Brown’s decision “continues the policy of giving animals more protections than those currently offered to farm workers.”

The governor is pushing to build a pair of gigantic tunnels under the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta to move vast amounts of fresh water south for the benefit of big agricultural firms and real estate developers. Environmentalists warn of enormous damage to wild and scenic rivers. Estimates now put the project’s ultimate cost at $51 billion to $67 billion. When it comes to frugality, Brown has turned out to be rather selective.

Given his record, few eyebrows are raised now as Brown caters to rich elites. So it seemed par for his course when he recently appointed and reappointed regents to the University of California system with no academic experience but with extensive wealth and power.

Nor are observers surprised anymore when he makes yet another move to resist efforts by federal judges to ease inhumane conditions in California’s severely overcrowded prison system. Irked by documentation of seriously inadequate health care behind bars, Brown complained last year, “We’ve got hundreds of lawyers wandering around the prisons looking for problems.”

In retrospect, Brown’s current performance as governor was foreshadowed in 1999, shortly after he re-entered electoral politics and began an eight-year stint as mayor of Oakland. There he sided with landlords against renters, cut deals with big real estate developers and fought for charter public schools that included a military high school. As if to underscore that he had left his ’70s-era nickname “Moonbeam” behind and been replaced by far sterner stuff, soon after becoming mayor, he invited the Marines to use Oakland’s harbor for urban warfare maneuvers that involved several days of intensive military exercises. He seemed determined to shed his progressive persona as he set his sights on the governor’s chair.

Now, from his lofty perch as governor of the nation’s most populous state, Brown is launching a re-election campaign that seems almost certain to succeed. He continues to operate with a high-octane blend of pragmatism and cynicism. The gist is a bottom-line assumption that principles should be malleable — and power from the grass roots must defer to power imposed from the top.

Brown is California’s leading prodigal son. He has returned to power redeemed by his worth to corporate forces dominating the state. The less fortunate will have to endure the grim consequences.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.”

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Eaten by the Oligarchs: American Democracy Down to the Tubes

American Democracy Now An Oligarchy

by Joel S. Hirschhorn

History has been made. But few Americans are aware of it or angry about it. I say: Wake up Americans. A war has been waged against US democracy, from the inside. Time to pick a side and fight back.

If you are not totally brain dead, distracted by pain or pleasure, or consumed by narcissistic obsessions, face the ugly, painful truth.

Republicans with political power in Congress and the states and, even more appallingly, on the Supreme Court have succeeded in turning their beloved republic into a-money-buys-power oligarchy. One person, one vote was the enemy and it is being defeated. One dollar, one vote is the new Republican political value. American democracy is more delusional than ever. To think otherwise is even more delusional.

I present three arguments supporting the conclusion that there has been a conversion of US democracy into something worse than a plutocracy. Political power is more dependent on money than ever before.

First, Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and many controlling state governments, together with their rich supporters, have steadily and successfully eroded voting and election laws. Their goal has been simple: Fight the demographic advantages of Democrats that give them more voters by making it more difficult for those citizens to actually vote. This has been documented in a New York Times top story and many other places. Republicans see the obvious. Namely that their older,-largely rural, white male shrinking proportion of the population is insufficient to win many elections and, even more significant, that many of their policy positions will never prevail with many demographic groups.

As Damon Linker observed about this statistical reality, this is a “tacit acknowledgement by the Republican Party that it's in dire demographic straits — and that one of the key pillars of its ideology over the last half-century is crumbling right before our eyes.” Their solution, besides vicious gerrymandering of House districts, is to make it ever more difficult for groups likely to favor Democrats to vote in all elections. This direct assault on electoral democracy depends considerably on money coming from the wealthiest people to finance the actions to change election laws.

Second, the Supreme Court is now controlled by a Republican majority that has been successfully producing decisions to remove limits to money dumped into the political system by the richest Americans. For example, recently the McCutcheon decision continued the Roberts Court program of gutting campaign-finance laws. Hard to believe, but this decision came to the aid of just 1,219 people in the US—that's four in every 1,000,000 of our population, who ran up against a contribution limit. But this is consistent with the insanity that money is the same as free speech, which the Supreme Court has made the law of the land.

As Robert Reich correctly noted: “The court said such spending doesn't corrupt democracy. That's utter baloney, as anyone who has the faintest familiarity with contemporary American politics well knows.” Political money is used to greatly impact lawmaking and elections. Political power obtained through political spending is, of course, essential for the richest Americans to maintain and perhaps intensify the economic inequality that now distinguishes American society. It is how an oligarchy is obtained and sustained.

I hope that Brent Budowsky is correct. Namely that “Roberts and his four conservative Republican brethren will ultimately be impeached by historians who will condemn, and future courts that will reverse, politically illegitimate and constitutionally deformed rulings that would turn America into a constitutional oligarchy.” But change “would turn” into “have turned.”

Third, as still more proof of the profound historic change in the US, a recent study from Princeton University that analyzed considerable data concluded that the US has become an oligarchy. Here is what this important study said: 
“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”

Furthermore, “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” In other words, it is time for Americans to stop believing delusional truths and recognize that US democracy has become a myth, especially if there are ever to be serious actions by the majority to fix and restore democracy.

Americans, especially younger ones, need to understand the historical path from democracy to plutocracy to oligarchy. Most Americans are suffering because of economic inequality and they need to understand that the economic system is under the control of the perverted political system. Anyone who is not in the Upper Class or proverbial top one percent who votes for Republicans is living in some fantasy world. Such voters have been brainwashed and manipulated by, for example, FOX News and blowhards like Limbaugh.

Republicans want even more power. And if they get it, what would you expect from those working so hard to make US democracy a joke and replace millions of voters with one percent oligarchs? What Republicans have been doing is nothing less than domestic political terrorism. If Republicans and Tea Party loyalists were true patriots, they would rebel against the oligarchy created by Republicans.

Finally, make no mistake and think this condemnation of Republicans equates to advocacy for Democrats. The ultimate solution if a better, more democratic US system is to be obtained is not to rely on putting Democrats in control who also have some billionaires on their side. No, what is required is a number of constitutional amendments obtained through an Article V convention that are necessary to structurally reform the political system, especially getting rid of the power of political money. In recent months there has been a historic increase in support from important people for constitutional amendments and greater public support is desperately needed to finally use the constitutional option given by the Founders to the nation.

Contact Joel S. Hirschhorn through

FBI Fingerprints on 2012 Anomymous Hacks in China and Beyond

Yes, It Looks Like the US Government Coordinated the 2012 Anonymous China Hacks

by  Peter Lee - China Matters

On April 23, Mark Mazzetti reported in the New York Times that the FBI had used Hector Xavier Monsegur, a hacker it had in its clutches, to coordinate hacks in 2012 against Iran, Syria, Brazil, and Pakistan, and other targets. The actual hacks were carried about by an associate of Monsegur, Jeremy Hammond, who was a dupe in that he did not know that Monsegur was turning over the information and access he gleaned to the US government.

Jeremy Hammond is serving a ten-year jail sentence for other hacks. I’m not clear if Monsegur is currently incarcerated; last reference I saw was to the cancellation of a 2013 court date that was expected to give him a suspended sentence for a previous guilty plea. In addition to running the foreign hacks for the US government, Monsegur also rolled up his own Lulzsec hacking network, which carried out s series of US hacks in a spectacular 50-day campaign, and his months if not years of cooperation with the US government may have netted him some favorable treatment.

Mazzetti’s article does not mention China; but I did! Back in 2012!

Back on 2012 I wrote for Asia Times Online about “Hardcore Charlie”, who identified himself as an associate of Monsegur and the hacks he had inflicted on various Chinese government websites.

At the time, it seemed fishy to me that “Hardcore Charlie”—whose profanity-laced anti-imperialist Spanglish rants sounded a lot like Monsegur’s persona—had suddenly decided that the cause of liberty and lulz was best served by hacking into Chinese language websites like the Taoyuan Land Reclamation Bureau.

Concluding my piece, I wrote:

"My speculation is that the campaign of cyber-attacks against Chinese targets was seeded by the US government, but has gathered its own momentum and is drawing in freelance foreign and some Chinese hackers searching for lulz - the hacker term for giggles or detached/callous amusement.

"Lulzsec closed shop at the end of June 2011, when an asset in England was arrested. It appears that was not enough to elude the bloodhounds of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or forestall Monsegur's betrayal of his associates.

"Pattern-oriented readers might consider whether the sudden eruption of Lulzsec resembles the cyber flashmob that is currently swarming Chinese sites.

"Contrarian readers might find it interesting that the focus of hacking seems to have done a 180-degree turn away from American government, security and corporate targets to tormenting their Chinese equivalents (despite the limited lulz obtainable when hacking a site whose language one does not understand).

"Curious readers might also wonder if information from Monsegur has helped the authorities get "Hardcore Charlie" in their sights and he is hacking into Chinese websites either at their behest to help get the Anonymous China ball rolling or is pre-emptively demonstrating his utility and eagerness to please."

Compare w/ Mr. Mazzetti’s account:

"Over several weeks in early 2012, according to the chat logs, Mr. Monsegur gave Mr. Hammond new foreign sites to penetrate. During a Jan. 23 conversation, Mr. Monsegur told Mr. Hammond he was in search of “new juicy targets,” the chat logs show. Once the websites were penetrated, according to Mr. Hammond, emails and databases were extracted and uploaded to a computer server controlled by Mr. Monsegur.

"The sentencing statement also said that Mr. Monsegur directed other hackers to give him extensive amounts of data from Syrian government websites, including banks and ministries of the government of President Bashar al-Assad. “The F.B.I. took advantage of hackers who wanted to help support the Syrian people against the Assad regime, who instead unwittingly provided the U.S. government access to Syrian systems,” the statement said.

"The court documents also refer to Mr. Monsegur’s giving targets to a Brazilian hacker. The hacker, who uses the alias Havittaja, has posted online some of his chats with Mr. Monsegur in which he was asked to attack Brazilian government websites.

"One expert said that the court documents in the Hammond case were striking because they offered the most evidence to date that the F.B.I. might have been using hackers to feed information to other American intelligence agencies. “It’s not only hypocritical but troubling if indeed the F.B.I. is loaning its sting operations out to other three-letter agencies,” said Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill University and author of a forthcoming book about Anonymous."

It certainly looks like the China operation was cut from the same cloth. The interesting question is if Monsegur eschewed a cutout and ran the China operation himself as “Hardcore Charlie”.

In the era of Snowden, it is difficult to remember, but in 2012 the United States was pre-emptively (and, in light of the already revealed Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz, quite hypocritically) claiming the moral and legal high ground against Chinese hacking. In fact, Chinese cyber misbehavior was teed up as the next existential threat to the world order.

Revelation of any US government involvement in Hardcore Charlie's antics would be somewhat embarrassing for the Obama administration, since they involved website defacement, disabling, and public compromise of administrator account information, in other words "cyberwarfare" and not just covert information gathering. The additional fact that the United States outsourced its cyberattack to a known criminal, who in turn may have established an independent network of hackers beyond US control, is not likely to be regarded as an extenuating circumstance.

In this context, a decision to unleash a wild hacking campaign against Chinese websites would look like a piece of questionable judgment.

Teen-Killing Toronto Police Officer Returns to Work

Friends, family and supporters of Sammy Yatim respond to Constable James Forcillo returning to work

by SammysFightBackForJustice

TorontoFriends, family and supporters of Sammy Yatim are issuing a statement in response to Constable James Forcillo’s return to active police duty at Toronto Crimestoppers.

“We are extremely disappointed that a police officer charged with second degree murder of which there is ample video evidence is being allowed to return to duty. Forcillo is charged with a crime, how can he possibly work for Toronto CrimeStoppers?”
“Police officers must bear more responsibility for murder, not awarded with a paid vacation for seven months, followed by a desk job.”

Sammy’s Fightback for Justice is calling for a rally and march on Sunday, April 27th, at 1230pm, starting at Toronto Police Headquarters.

Further details will be updated at:

Unfit to Print: New York Times' "Shoddy Journalism" Forces Ukraine "Scoop" Retraction

Evidence for Russian Involvement in East Ukraine Based on Shoddy Journalism


Robert Parry: The Obama administration and Kiev government claimed that Russian soldiers were present at the building occupations, yet it turns out that this assertion was based on photos the U.S. government provided to NYTimes and that the newspaper since has had to retract.

Robert Parry is an American investigative journalist. He was awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting in 1984 for his work with the Associated Press. In 1995, he established Consortium News as an online ezine dedicated to investigative journalism. From 2000 to 2004, he worked for the financial wire service Bloomberg. Major subjects of Parry's articles and reports on Consortium News include the presidency of George W. Bush, the career of Army general and Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell (with Norman Solomon), the October Surprise controversy of the 1980 election, the Nicaraguan contra-cocaine investigation, the efforts to impeach President Clinton, right-wing terrorism in Latin America, the political influence of Sun Myung Moon, mainstream American media imbalance, United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as international stories . Parry has written several books, including Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & "Project Truth." (1999) and Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq (2004).

American Minimum: Our Monetary Apartheid

An Apartheid of Dollars: Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy

by Peter Van Buren  - TomDispatch

There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don't know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here's a part of my own story I've not talked about much before.

At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State.

As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I'd earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I'd worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging?

I was worried. That pension was the thing I’d counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.

My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way -- toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.

And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn’t just the money. There’s this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.  
Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, I'm a Whistleblower: Want Fries with That?

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thanks so much to those of you who chose to support this site by giving $100 for a personalized, signed copy of Todd Miller’s new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security, as per the Tuesday offer at this site. Any of you who meant to do so, but haven’t yet, check out our donation page for the details. You only have a couple of days left! In the meantime, let me bring another book to your attention. Today, TomDispatch regular and State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren gives us a unique look at his own unexpected experiences in the minimum wage economy. That year-long odyssey inspired him to write quite a remarkable “novel,” Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, about how that minimum-wage economy helped gut the Ohio town he grew up in. While it’s fiction -- and grippingly written fiction at that -- it’s also a powerful portrait of the new American world of un-, under-, and just plain miserable employment in the Rust Belt (which these days could be just about anywhere). Tom]

Before November 2012, fast-food workers in America had never gone on strike. There was a good reason for that. Many burger-flippers were teenagers in need of a few extra bucks, and thanks to high turnover in the industry, most workers didn't have to stay long in those poverty-wage jobs.

After the economic meltdown of 2007-2008 and the Great Recession, things changed. A disproportionate share of job gains during the “recovery” turned up in the low-wage service sector of the workforce. The result: a growing contingent of adult fast-food workers who can't find other work. And fast-food wages, which average $8.69 an hour, have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010. More than half of the families of fast-food workers are forced to rely on public programs like food stamps and Medicaid to get by.

In November 2012, fed-up workers at franchises like McDonald's, Wendy's, and KFC went on strike for the first time, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to join unions without retaliation. In the months that followed, these worker protests spread across the country faster than organizers expected. As Naquasia LeGrand, a KFC employee, told me late last year, she joined the first strike in New York City because workers hadn't seen a dime of the record profits fast food chains are reaping. "We don't get enough respect" was the way she put it.

Low-wage workers face terrible odds. The other NRA, the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies on behalf of the $600 billion industry, has been fighting minimum wage hikes for decades. In recent years, the group, whose members include KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has more than doubled its lobbying heft on Capitol Hill. Between 2008 and 2013, NRA lobbyists pushing the industry's interests in Washington shot up from 15 to 37. And don’t forget the 127 lobbyists who represented nine of the association's biggest members in 2013, up from 56 in 1998. The NRA alone has spent $2.2 million on lobbying since November 2012, and handed out more than $400,000 in campaign contributions as well.

President Obama can call on Congress to increase the minimum wage till hell freezes over, but don’t expect even the modest hike he backs to happen any time soon given the opposition of congressional Republicans, who just happen to have gotten the lion's share of the NRA's campaign contributions over the years. In the meantime, folks will keep working three jobs to not get by.

State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren took an unlikely fall into the minimum-wage world when he lost his job in 2012. Today, he gives us a first-hand look at what it's like to subsist in poverty-wage America (as he does in his vivid new novel about the hollowing out of the American workforce, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent). Erika Eichelberger 


An Apartheid of Dollars: Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy

by Peter Van Buren


Old World/New World

The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.

At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we'll call “Bullseye.” I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I'd show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, “well qualified.”

Before I could start, however, I had to pass a background and credit check, along with a drug test. Any of the anonymous agencies processing the checks could have vetoed my employment and I would never have known why. You don't have any idea what might be in the reports the store receives, or what to feel about the fact that some stranger at a local store now knows your financial and criminal history, all for the chance to earn seven bucks an hour.

You also don't know whether the drug tests were conducted properly or, as an older guy, if your high blood pressure medicine could trigger a positive response. As I learned from my co-workers later, everybody always worries about “pissing hot.” Most places that don't pay much seem especially concerned that their workers are drug-free. I'm not sure why this is, since you can trade bonds and get through the day higher than a bird on a cloud. Nonetheless, I did what I had to in front of another person, handing him the cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognize, a we're-all-in-it, what're-ya-gonna-do look, just a little upward flick of his eyes.

Now a valued member of the Bullseye team, I was told to follow another employee who had been on the job for a few weeks, do what he did, and then start doing it by myself by the end of my first shift. The work was dull but not pointless: put stuff on shelves; tell customers where stuff was; sweep up spilled stuff; repeat.

Basic Training

It turned out that doing the work was easy compared to dealing with the job. I still had to be trained for that.

You had to pay attention, but not too much. Believe it or not, that turns out to be an acquired skill, even for a former pasty government bureaucrat like me. Spend enough time in the retail minimum-wage economy and it’ll be trained into you for life, but for a newcomer, it proved a remarkably slow process. Take the initiative, get slapped down. Break a rule, be told you're paid to follow the rules. Don't forget who's the boss. (It's never you.) It all becomes who you are.

Diving straight from a salaried career back into the kiddie pool was tough. I still wanted to do a good job today, and maybe be a little better tomorrow. At first, I tried to think about how to do the simple tasks more efficiently, maybe just in a different order to save some walking back and forth. I knew I wasn't going to be paid more, but that work ethic was still inside of me. The problem was that none of us were supposed to be trying to be good, just good enough. If you didn't know that, you learned it fast. In the process, you felt yourself getting more and more tired each day.

Patient Zero in the New Economy

One co-worker got fired for stealing employee lunches out of the break room fridge. He apologized to us as security marched him out, saying he was just hungry and couldn't always afford three meals. I heard that when he missed his rent payments he'd been sleeping in his car in the store parking lot. He didn't shower much and now I knew why. Another guy, whose only task was to rodeo up stray carts in the parking lot, would entertain us after work by putting his cigarette out on his naked heel. The guys who came in to clean up the toilets got up each morning knowing that was what they would do with another of the days in their lives.

Other workers were amazingly educated. One painted in oils. One was a recent college grad who couldn’t find work and liked to argue with me about the deeper meanings in the modern fiction we’d both read.

At age 53, I was the third-oldest minimum-wage worker in the store. A number of the others were single moms. (Sixty-four percent of minimum-wage employees are women. About half of all single-parent families live in poverty.) There was at least one veteran. ("The Army taught me to drive a Humvee, which turns out not to be a marketable skill.") There were a couple of students who were alternating semesters at work with semesters at community college, and a small handful of recent immigrants. One guy said that because another big box store had driven his small shop out of business, he had to take a minimum-wage job. He was Patient Zero in our New Economy.

State law only required a company to give you a break if you worked six hours or more under certain conditions. Even then, it was only 30 minutes -- and unpaid. You won’t be surprised to discover that, at Bullseye, most non-holiday shifts were five-and-a-half hours or less. Somebody said it might be illegal not to give us more breaks, but what can you do? Call 911 like it was a real crime?

Some good news, though. It turned out that I had another marketable skill in addition to speaking decent English: being old. One day as a customer was bawling out a younger worker over some imagined slight, I happened to wander by. The customer assumed I was the manager, given my age, and began directing her complaints at me. I played along, even steepling my fingers to show my sincere concern just as I had seen actual managers do. The younger worker didn't get in trouble, and for a while I was quite popular among the kids whenever I pulled the manager routine to cover them.

Hours were our currency. You could trade them with other employees if they needed a day off to visit their kid's school. You could grab a few extra on holidays. If you could afford it, you could swap five bad-shift hours for three good-shift hours. The store really didn't care who showed up as long as someone showed up. Most minimum-wage places cap workers at under 40 hours a week to avoid letting them become "full time" and so possibly qualify for any kind of benefits. In my case, as work expanded and contracted, I was scheduled for as few as seven hours a week and I never got notice until the last moment if my hours were going to be cut.

Living on a small paycheck was hard enough. Trying to budget around wildly varying hours, and so paychecks, from week to week was next to impossible. Seven hours a week at minimum wage was less than fifty bucks. A good week around the Christmas rush was 39 hours, or more than $270. At the end of 2013, after I had stopped working at Bullseye, the minimum wage did go up from a little more than $7 to $8 an hour, which was next to no improvement at all. Doesn't every little bit help? Maybe, but what are a few more crumbs of bread worth when you need a whole loaf not to be hungry?

Working to Be Poor

So how do you live on $50 a week, or for that matter, $270 a week? Cut back? Recycle cans?

One answer is: you don't live on those wages alone. You can't. Luckily I had some savings, no kids left in the house to feed, and my wife was still at her “good” job. Many of my co-workers, however, dealt with the situation by holding down two or three minimum-wage jobs. Six hours on your feet is tough, but what about 12 or 14? And remember, there are no weekends or holidays in most minimum-wage jobs. Bullseye had even begun opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas afternoons.

The smart workers found their other jobs in the same strip mall as our Bullseye, so they could run from one to the next, cram in as many hours as they could, and save the bus fare. It mattered: at seven bucks an hour, that round trip fare meant you worked your first 45 minutes not for Bullseye but for the bus company. (The next 45 minutes you worked to pay taxes.)

Poverty as a Profit Center

Many low-wage workers have to take some form of public assistance. Food stamps -- now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- were a regular topic of conversation among my colleagues. Despite holding two or three jobs, there were still never enough hours to earn enough to eat enough. SNAP was on a lot of other American's minds as well -- the number of people using food stamps increased by 13% a year from 2008 to 2012. About 1 in 7 Americans get some of their food through SNAP. About 45% of food stamp benefits go to children.

Enjoying that Big Mac? Here’s one reason it’s pretty cheap and that the junk sold at “Bullseye” and the other big box stores is, too: those businesses get away with paying below a living wage and instead you, the taxpayer, help subsidize those lousy wages with SNAP. (And of course since minimum-wage workers have taxes deducted, too, they are -- imagine the irony -- essentially forced to subsidize themselves.)

That subsidy does not come cheap, either. The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry alone is nearly $7 billion per year. McDonald’s workers alone account for $1.2 billion in federal assistance annually.

All that SNAP money is needed to bridge the gap between what the majority of employed people earn through the minimum wage, and what they need to live a minimum life. Nearly three-quarters of enrollments in America's major public benefits programs involve working families stuck in jobs like I had. There are a lot of those jobs, too. The positions that account for the most workers in the U.S. right now are retail salespeople, cashiers, restaurant workers, and janitors. All of those positions pay minimum wage or nearly so. Employers are actually allowed to pay below minimum wage to food workers who might receive tips.

And by the way, if somehow at this point you're feeling bad for Walmart, don't. In addition to having it's workforce partially paid for by the government, Walmart also makes a significant portion of its profits by selling to people receiving federal food assistance. Though the Walton family is a little too shy to release absolute numbers, a researcher found that in one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts together received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars. One Walmart Supercenter in Tulsa, Oklahoma, received $15.2 million, while another (also in Tulsa) took in close to $9 million in SNAP spending.

You could say that taxpayers are basically moneylenders to a government that is far more interested in subsidizing business than in caring for their workers, but would anyone believe you?

Back in the Crosshairs

Some employees at Bullseye had been yelled at too many times or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were not only broke, but broken. People -- like dogs -- don't get that way quickly, only by a process of erosion eating away at whatever self-esteem they may still possess. Then one day, if a supervisor tells them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they'll be too afraid of contradicting the boss not to do it.

I'd see employees rushing in early, terrified, to stand by the time clock so as not to be late. One of my fellow workers broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she'd be fired on the spot. And what a lousy way to live that is, your only incentive for doing good work being the desperate need to hang onto a job guaranteed to make you hate yourself for another day. Nobody cared about the work, only keeping the job. That was how management set things up.

About 30 million Americans work this way, live this way, at McJobs. These situations are not unique to any one place or region. After all, Walmart has more than two million employees. If that company were an army, it would be the second largest military on the planet, just behind China. It is, in fact, the largest overall employer in the country and the biggest employer in 25 states. When Walmart won’t pay more than minimum, it hurts. When it rains like that, we all get wet. This is who we are now.

I Was Minimum

It’s time to forget the up-by-the-bootstraps fantasies of conservative economists bleating on Fox. If any of it was ever true, it's certainly not true anymore. There is no ladder up, no promotion path in the minimum-wage world. You can’t work “harder” because your hours are capped, and all the jobs are broken into little pieces anyone could do anyway. Minimum wage is what you get; there are no real raises. I don't know where all the assistant managers came from, but not from among us.

I worked in retail for minimum wage at age 16 and again at 53. In that span, the minimum wage itself rose only by a few bucks. What changed, however, is the cast of characters. Once upon a time, minimum-wage jobs were filled with high school kids earning pocket money. In 2014, it’s mainly adults struggling to get by. Something is obviously wrong.

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama urged that the federal minimum wage be raised to $9 an hour. He also said that a person holding down a full-time job should not have to live in poverty in a country like America.

To the president I say, yes, please, do raise the minimum wage. But how far is nine bucks an hour going to go? Are so many of us destined to do five hours of labor for the cell phone bill, another 12 for the groceries each week, and 20 or 30 for a car payment? How many hours are we going to work? How many can we work?

Nobody can make a real living doing these jobs. You can't raise a family on minimum wage, not in the way Americans once defined raising a family when our country emerged from World War II so fat and happy. And you can't build a nation on vast armies of working poor with nowhere to go. The president is right that it’s time for a change, but what’s needed is far more than a minimalist nudge to the minimum wage. Maybe what we need is to spend more on education and less on war, even out the tax laws and rules just a bit, require a standard living wage instead of a minimum one. Some sort of rebalancing. Those aren't answers to everything, but they might be a start.

People who work deserve to be paid, but McDonald’s CEO Donald Thompson last year took home $13.7 million in salary, with perks to go. If one of his fry cooks put in 30 hours a week, she'd take in a bit more than $10,000 a year -- before taxes of course. There is indeed a redistribution of wealth taking place in America, and it’s all moving upstream.

I got lucky. I won my pension fight with my “career” employer, the State Department, and was able to crawl out of the minimum-wage economy after less than a year and properly retire. I quit Bullseye because I could, one gray day when a customer about half my age cursed me out for something unimportant she didn’t like, ending with “I guess there’s a reason why people like you work at places like this.” I agreed with her: there is a reason. We just wouldn’t agree on what it was.

I’m different now for the experience. I think more about where I shop, and try to avoid big places that pay low wages if I can. I treat minimum-wage workers a little better, too. If I have to complain about something in a store, I keep the worker out of it and focus on solving the problem. I take a bit more care in the restroom not to leave a mess. I don't get angry anymore when a worker says to me, “I really can't do anything about it.” Now I know from personal experience that, in most cases, they really can't.

Above all, I carry with me the knowledge that economics isn’t about numbers, it’s about people. I know now that it’s up to us to decide whether the way we pay people, the work we offer them, and how we treat them on the job is just about money or if it’s about society, about how we live, who we are, the nature of America. The real target now should be to look deeply into the apartheid of dollars our country has created and decide it needs to change. We -- the 99% anyway -- can't afford not to.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. His new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has just been published.

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Copyright 2014 Peter Van Buren