Notes From America: November

Louis Further rounds up news from the USA for the months of October and November.

 

Racism

Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old high school student from the Bronx when he was accused of stealing a Rucksack by a mistaken witness driving around in the back of a New York Police Department police patrol car. Although Browder did not take the Rucksack, indeed proved to the police at the time that he had none of the belongings of his accuser (who then changed his accusation to suggest the alleged theft was ‘attempted’), he spent nearly three years in solitary confinement at the notorious Rikers jail complex in New York City. Yes, Three years in solitary confinement! He was never convicted and maintained his innocence requesting a trial rather than accept a plea bargain for release, which would have given him a criminal record. Only at the end of September were matters successfully brought to the attention of a judge, who dismissed the case against Browder.

At the very end of September a little-noticed agreement was made between Afghanistan and the United States. It ensures at least another ten years of US military involvement. Specifically the ‘Bilateral Security Agreement’ allows for US training, funding, and arming of the Afghan military and keeps thousands of US terrorists beyond what President Obama has repeatedly called the ‘end of the war’ (December 2014). Significantly, immunity to US troops under Afghan law is also extended.

In another action which passed almost without notice, the White House confirmed in early October that it has relaxed the necessary standards to prevent civilian deaths from the US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The criteria of ‘near certainty’ that a target contains no civilians will not apply to the current bombing.

Anita Sarkeesian is a prominent feminist critic of video games, who exposes the objectification of woman and the use of body imagery to titillate and lure customers into buying and playing such games. In late October she was due to address an audience at Utah State University. But it had to be cancelled when – after receiving email threats of “the deadliest shooting in American history” – Sarkeesian was told that under Utah law, campus police could not prevent people from bringing guns. Nor could local police screen, or search the belongings of, those attending… they have the right to carry concealed weapons.

 

Environment

In late October the two oil industry organisations, The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis with Oil Change International published a report. It is entitled, ‘Material Risks: How Public Accountability Is Slowing Tar Sands Development’ (http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2014/10/IEEFA.OCI_.Material-Risks-FINweb2-1.pdf). It states quite clearly that the income from tar sands fell between 2010 and 2013 by about US$30.9 (£19.3) billion. The report also says that more than half of that lost revenue is to be attributed to the opposition, protest and grass roots actions in the United States and Canada over that period. Good to know.

 

Health

Freedom has reported before on action by the bankrupt city of Detroit to shut off water to residents. Advocacy groups including the National Action Network, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Moratorium Now and the People’s Water Board previously filed for a temporary restraining order against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to stop the shutoffs until a a new plan can be made to guarantee Detroit residents access to clean water. In late September Judge Steven W. Rhodes at the US Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that citizens have no implicit right to water; and so he couldn’t issue a restraining order to stop the shutoffs. Now the people of Detroit are affirming that their resistance will continue – and be increased.

Walmart, the largest retailer in the world and the biggest private employer in the United States, announced in early October that it is to scrap health insurance for 30,000 of its workers; and to increase premiums for many of those who retain coverage.

As the Ebola threat spreads, Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health – a government official – said in mid-October, “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine.”

In Texas, abortion providers are reporting a massive spike in phone calls and waiting times for abortion after a court ruling shuttered all but eight abortion clinics in the state. A spokesperson at the Planned Parenthood facility in Austin told the ‘Houston Chronicle’ that it received seven times as many calls as normal in the previous week, many of them from cities such as Midland and McAllen, where abortion access evaporated overnight following the ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling allowed hospital-style building requirements passed as part of a sweeping anti-choice law to come into effect overnight. Later, the appeals court declined to revisit its decision.

 

Surveillance

In mid October a new chief in Washington DC with no experience of health matters, Ron Klain, was appointed to head the American response to Ebola. His work will undoubtedly be hampered by the absence of a Surgeon General. This is because the NRA (National Rifle Association) is blocking nominations to that post.

At the same time, FBI director James Comey was claiming that ‘national security and public safety’ justify more permissive government surveillance policies. Comey didn’t mention a recent statistic that more people die in their baths in North America each year than from terrorism.

There were many distressing aspects of the mid-term elections in early November (the most expensive in US history). A medical marijuana initiative failed in Florida; an anti-choice amendment in Tennessee passed; voters rejected GMO labelling in Colorado after the agribusiness giant Monsanto spent US$4.7 (£2.6) million to defeat the initiative. Just as disturbing is the fact that the now Republican-controlled Federal legislatures are both likely to place climate change deniers in key positions on environmental committees. Specifically, the probable new Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell, will place the approval of the disastrous KeyStone XL pipeline and TPP ‘trade’ agreement high on his pro-corporate agenda almost from day one; and probably try to frustrate the very modest emissions targets announced by Obama a week after the elections, in China.

Yet ballot measures (state referenda) in four states (Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas) approved an increase in the minimum wage; in Massachusetts the strongest paid sick leave requirements in the country were approved; as was legislation to legalise marijuana in Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC; pro-choice measures passed in Colorado and North Dakota; Washington state took a small step on gun control.

Perhaps most significantly, in the County of Maui on Hawaii, agribusiness outspent opponents of GMO ‘farming’ by 87 to 1. Yet the health and environmentalists’ food safety measure passed. When in force, those who knowingly cultivate Genetically Modified Organisms could be penalised with a fine of US$50,000 (£31,438) a day. Voters in Denton Texas (the place where fracking began) passed an ordinance prohibiting fracking within the city limits by nearly 60%.

In California a public safety measure to reclassify low-level crimes, including drug possession, passed by a similar margin.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, fully two thirds of eligible voters in the elections chose not to vote.

 

Louis Further

References

Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis: www.ieefa.org

Michigan Welfare Rights Organization: http://mwro.org

Moratorium Now: http://moratorium-mi.org

National Action Network: http://nationalactionnetwork.net

National Institutes of Health: http://www.nih.gov

Oil Change International: http://priceofoil.org/

People’s Water Board: peopleswaterboard.blogspot.com