The use of force against the mentally ill incarcerated in America

Human Rights Watch: Jail and prison staff throughout the United States have used unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force against prisoners with mental disabilities, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today.

The 127-page report, “Callous and Cruel: Use of Force against Inmates with Mental Disabilities in US Jails and Prisons,” details incidents in which correctional staff have deluged prisoners with painful chemical sprays, shocked them with powerful electric stun weapons, and strapped them for days in restraining chairs or beds. Staff have broken prisoners’ jaws, noses, ribs; left them with lacerations requiring stitches, second-degree burns, deep bruises, and damaged internal organs. In some cases, the force used has led to their death.

“Jails and prisons can be dangerous, damaging, and even deadly places for men and women with mental health problems,” said Jamie Fellner, US program senior adviser at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “Force is used against prisoners even when, because of their illness, they cannot understand or comply with staff orders.”

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Offshore wind has the potential to power America

Climate Central: Offshore wind power, a source of renewable energy that Europeans have been investing in for decades, has not yet materialized in the U.S. as debates have swirled about the viability of wind farms off the country’s coastlines.

That, however, may be about to change.

The Block Island Wind Farm is set to break ground in July off the coast of Rhode Island, and with it, the future of offshore wind in the U.S. seems very real. If completed, it will be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S., and if it is successful, it could prove that wind power generated by turbines off the coast is a viable enterprise similar to onshore wind farms, which generate about 4 percent of America’s electricity.

That could set the stage for other offshore wind projects all along the East Coast as the federal government expands the waters available for new offshore wind farm development. President Obama’s Climate Action Plan calls for offshore wind to be part of the administration’s goal to generate 20,000 megawatts of renewable power on federally controlled public lands and waters by 2020, a major part of America’s efforts to tackle climate change with low-carbon energy.

The offshore wind power potential in the U.S. is huge, totalling more than 4,000 gigawatts if fully developed — about four times today’s total U.S. electric power generating capacity and enough electricity to power about 800 million homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s something that could benefit the many dense cities lining the East Coast, not far from where new wind farms could be built.

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Big drop in share of Americans calling themselves Christian

The New York Times reports: The Christian share of adults in the United States has declined sharply since 2007, affecting nearly all major Christian traditions and denominations, and crossing age, race and region, according to an extensive survey by the Pew Research Center.

Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.

The Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country’s most significant demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups where one might expect it, either.

“The decline is taking place in every region of the country, including the Bible Belt,” said Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center and the lead editor of the report. [Continue reading…]

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How the California drought is increasing the potential for devastating wildfires

Time reports: California’s four-year drought has already cost the state billions of dollars and placed thousands of jobs at risk. Now scientists say it has the potential to strengthen wildfires that could destroy homes, affect watersheds and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish during the warm summer months.

“We are seeing wildfires in the United States grow to sizes that were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told lawmakers this week. “We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity.”

In part because of the increased risk caused by drought, the Forest Service anticipates spending as much as $1.7 billion and mobilizing more than 10,000 people to fight wildfires this year. More than 120 wildfires have occurred on National Forest land in California already this year, according to a Forest Service spokesperson.

Climate change, at least in part, lies at the heart of growth in both the frequency and severity of wildfires in recent decades. Higher temperatures have left forests throughout California dry and flammable, according to Wally Covington, a forest ecology professor at Northern Arizona University. Tree death, another product of the drought, has also increased the chance of wildfire. More than 12 million trees in California forests have died and more are expected to do so soon, according to a Forest Service report. [Continue reading…]

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Michael Gould-Wartofsky: The new age of counterinsurgency policing

In the part of Baltimore hardest hit by the recent riots and arson, more than a third of families live in poverty, median income is $24,000, the unemployment rate is over 50%, some areas burnt out in the riots of 1968 have never been rebuilt, incarceration rates are sky high, 33% of the homes are vacant (thanks to an ongoing foreclosure crisis), and water service is being shut off for people who can’t afford to pay rising water rates.  Residents, mainly black, live in what is really an unofficially segregated, hollowed-out Rust Belt city that just happens to be located on the East Coast.

As Max Blumenthal pointed out when the city’s mayor started denouncing “outside agitators,” more than 70% of Baltimore’s police force lives beyond the city limits, at least 10% of them out-of-state.  The Baltimore PD is also notorious for its brutality, for the numbers of (black) residents it seems to gun down, and for its give-not-an-inch “broken windows” policing policies.  In a city that is 62% black and 28% white, police officers are still 46% white and 80% outsiders heading into neighborhoods that are almost totally black.  Unlike the residents of such neighborhoods, Baltimore’s police lack for little.  Thanks in part to Pentagon and other government programs, the force is armed to the teeth in the increasingly military fashion that has become the post-9/11 state of things (and that TomDispatch has been covering since 2004.)  It acts as if it were, that is, an occupying army, not a neighborhood protector.  In this sense, “community policing” is now a joke in the U.S.

When the CVS stores go up in flames and local stores are looted, politicians denounce what’s happened and demand an instant return to law and order, while calling on police departments to wear body cameras and rethink their attitudes.  But there’s another reality that has to be faced.  Give some credit to Hillary Clinton.  In her recent speech on the police killings of black men from Ferguson to Baltimore, she included this single on-the-mark sentence: “We can start [building on what works] by making sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.”  Put another way, you can’t arm and militarize the police, as both the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have been doing since 9/11, and send them into impoverished communities as if for war, sporting a mind-set from the global war on terror, without getting what you’ve functionally wished for.  In a sense, in the arms race that is America today, you might say that you are what you “carry.”

Among the illusions of our age, there’s this: the idea that the U.S. can fight wars in whatever fashion it pleases, year after year, in distant lands without changing our society as well.  In fact, those wars have been coming home for a long time in myriad ways, and never more obviously than with American police forces and their practices.  It’s not just that the police (and SWAT units) are now filled with vets from the war on terror, or that they are armed with weaponry directly off its battlefields, but that the mentality that has made those wars such disasters has come home with the troops and weaponry.

As Michael Gould-Wartofsky, author of the new book The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, suggests, thoroughly militarized, surveillance-heavy forces are bringing counterinsurgency thinking from Iraq and Afghanistan back to this country.  The record of such thinking abroad brings to mind a question first raised by State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren about Washington’s new war in Iraq: What could possibly go wrong? Tom Engelhardt

The wars come home
A five-step guide to the police repression of protest from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond
By Michael Gould-Wartofsky

Last week, as Baltimore braced for renewed protests over the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) prepared for battle. With state-of-the-art surveillance of local teenagers’ Twitter feeds, law enforcement had learned that a group of high school students was planning to march on the Mondawmin Mall. In response, the BPD did what any self-respecting police department in post-9/11 America would do: it declared war on the protesters.

[Read more…]

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Corruption is legal in America

Paul Blumenthal writes: The issue of big money in politics is receiving increased attention as the country barrels toward a presidential election cycle where all spending records are expected to be smashed. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken out on tackling the problem, as have a handful of Republican candidates.

What is this problem, exactly? Represent.Us, a group that supports campaign finance reforms and is advocating for them at the city, municipal and state levels, presents an answer in a new video.

Pulling from a study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, the video explains how legislative actions taken by politicians in Washington do not reflect the priorities of the broader population, but instead are moved by the opinions of the wealthy elite.

These elite have the means to influence government through lobbyists, campaign donations and public relations campaigns. And studies by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics have shown that wealthy elites dominate political spending. A study released Thursday by these two groups found the percentage of donations made by the .01 percent rose to nearly 30 percent in the 2014 elections, up from 25 percent in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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Black lives matter: Premature deaths skew U.S. election results

New Scientist reports: Dead men cast no votes. A new study has found that the premature death of millions of black voters in the US has affected the outcome of several elections.

“We are talking here about deeply entrenched biases and prejudices in the operation of the economic, political and socio-cultural system which place blacks at a severe and systematic disadvantage,” says Chik Collins of the University of the West of Scotland in Paisley, UK. “It is a very well-founded challenge to the claims of America to be a ‘decent’ – let alone a ‘democratic’ – society.”

This week saw protests in Baltimore and across the US touched off by the death of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died of a spinal cord injury sustained in police custody. His death has now been ruled a homicide and six police officers involved will face criminal charges.

Overall, in the US, the mortality rate for blacks, across age and gender, is almost 18 per cent higher than the rate for whites. [Continue reading…]

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How Western media would cover Baltimore if it happened elsewhere

Karen Attiah writes: If what is happening in Baltimore happened in a foreign country, here is how Western media would cover it:

International leaders expressed concern over the rising tide of racism and state violence in America, especially concerning the treatment of ethnic minorities in the country and the corruption in state security forces around the country when handling cases of police brutality. The latest crisis is taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, a once-bustling city on the country’s Eastern Seaboard, where an unarmed man named Freddie Gray died from a severed spine while in police custody.

Black Americans, a minority ethnic group, are killed by state security forces at a rate higher than the white majority population. Young, black American males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white American males.

The United Kingdom expressed concern over the troubling turn of events in America in the last several months. The country’s foreign ministry released a statement: “We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America’s ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy.” Britain has always maintained a keen interest in America, a former colony. [Continue reading…]

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Suicide crisis: The intergenerational trauma of Native Americans

Jason Coppola reports: Suicide arrives in waves on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

On Christmas Day, a 15-year-old Lakota girl took her own life. Soon afterward, a boy, just 14, took his.

Since then, a young man and six more girls, one as young as 12, have followed as this current wave continues to swell. There have been numerous additional attempts in the last few months on this South Dakota reservation of about 28,000 people.

The rate of suicide among Native youth in the United States is more than three times the national average. Very often that rate climbs even higher.

In March 2010, then president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Theresa Two Bulls declared a suicide state of emergency after a rise in the number of suicides. Current President John Yellow Bird Steele has now declared one yet again.

There are many difficult issues facing the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge. Stories about alcohol and drug abuse, poverty and depression attract much attention. But to some, these are just parts of a much larger picture.

“I think of suicide in Native communities as an extension of the genocide that occurred against Indigenous peoples starting back in 1492,” said Ruth Hopkins, a chief tribal judge for the Spirit Lake Nation, and tribal judge for the Yankton Sioux and Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. “And I think there’s evidence to show that it’s still continuing to this day.” [Continue reading…]

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I am a cook in the U.S. Senate but I still need food stamps to feed my children

Bertrand Olotara writes: Every day, I serve food to some of the most powerful people on earth – including many of the senators who are running for president: I’m a cook for the federal contractor that runs the US Senate cafeteria. But today, they’ll have to get their meals from someone else’s hands, because I’m on strike.

I am walking off my job because I want the presidential hopefuls to know that I live in poverty. Many senators canvas the country giving speeches about creating “opportunity” for workers and helping our kids achieve the “American dream” – most don’t seem to notice or care that workers in their own building are struggling to survive.

I’m a single father and I only make $12 an hour; I had to take a second job at a grocery store to make ends meet. But even though I work seven days a week – putting in 70 hours between my two jobs – I can’t manage to pay the rent, buy school supplies for my kids or even put food on the table. I hate to admit it, but I have to use food stamps so that my kids don’t go to bed hungry.

I’ve done everything that politicians say you need to do to get ahead and stay ahead: I work hard and play by the rules; I even graduated from college and worked as a substitute teacher for 5 years. But I got laid-off and I now I’m stuck trying to make ends meet with dead-end service jobs.

American voters should ask themselves: if presidential candidates won’t help the workers who serve them every day, will they really help the millions of low-wage American workers who they don’t know or see? [Continue reading…]

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Louisiana five years after BP oil spill: ‘It’s not going back to normal no time soon’

The Guardian reports: To hear BP tell it, the environmental disaster that struck the Gulf of Mexico five years ago is nearly over – the beaches have been cleared of oil, and the water in the Gulf is as clear as it ever was. But how do you spot a continued disaster if its main indicator is the absence of something?

On this strip of land in south-eastern Louisiana, the restaurants are still empty, FOR SALE signs are increasing in store windows, people are still moving away, and this marina on Pointe a la Hache – once packed most afternoons with oystermen bringing in their catch on their small boats, high school kids earning a few bucks unloading the sacks, and 18-wheelers backed up by the dozen to carry them away – is completely devoid of life, save one man, 69-year-old Clarence Duplessis, who cleans his boat to pass the time.

“At this time of day, at this marina, it used to be packed,” Duplessis said. “And now there’s nothing.”

It’s been nearly five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 workers and spilling nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and residents, fisherman, activists and scientists say the cleanup and restoration is far from over. While some phenomena in the Gulf – people getting sick, fishing nets coming back empty – are hard to definitively pin on BP – experts say the signs of ecological and economic loss that followed the spill are deeply concerning for the future of the Gulf. Meanwhile, BP has pushed back hard on the notion that the effects of its disaster are much to worry about, spending millions on PR and commercials to convince Gulf residents everything will be OK. [Continue reading…]

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CEO sets minimum wage of $70,000 for all his employees

The New York Times reports: The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.

His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

“Is anyone else freaking out right now?” Mr. Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. “I’m kind of freaking out.”

If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one. Mr. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year. [Continue reading…]

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The Civil War’s dirty secret: It was always about slavery

Christopher Dickey writes: Seven score and ten years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, and the great American Civil War ended, or so we’ve read in high school textbooks and on Wikipedia.

The chivalrous Lee, in countless hues of grey on his white horse, and the magnanimous Grant in muddy boots were icons that the reunited-by-force United States needed desperately a century and a half ago, and that we’ve cherished ever since.

But the war did not really end at Appomattox, just as it did not really begin four years before when South Carolina militias opened fire on the tiny Union garrison in the massive, unfinished fort called Sumter that dominated Charleston Harbor.

And if we want to stop and think today about what that war was about — what made it happen — then cannons, shot and shells, minié balls, muskets and swords do not, in the end, tell us very much. Brave men were called on to fight for their homes and their ideals, or because they didn’t have better sense, and, as in every war, they kept on fighting for their brothers in arms.

In the South, the spirit of camaraderie and defiance ran so hot and so deep that for generations afterwards, and to this day in some corners of the air-conditioned Sunbelt that was once the Confederacy, people will tell you about “The Lost Cause.”

But, let’s be clear. The cause of the South was not the cause of chivalry, nor was it about the revolutionary ideals of the Boston Tea Party, as many claimed at the time. “The tea has been thrown overboard; the revolution of 1860 has been initiated,” declared Charleston’s Robert Barnwell Rhett as the Carolinians prepared to secede from the Union and precipitate the war.

Rhett was one of the coterie of radicals in the South who came to be known as “fire-eaters,” and their cause was not the cause of freedom that the founding fathers fought for in the American Revolution. Their cause was slavery: holding slaves, working slaves, buying and selling slaves — black chattel considered less than human beings by custom, by the courts, and even by the Constitution, whose authors never mentioned slavery but weasel-worded it into the founding document of the Union. [Continue reading…]

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White guilt won’t fix America’s race problem. Only justice and equality will

Gary Younge writes: On 26 November 2007 Brandon Moore, an unarmed 16-year-old, was shot in the back while running away from a security guard in Detroit. The guard made it look like sport. “[He] put one arm on top of the other arm and started aiming at us,” Brandon’s brother John Henry, who was with him at the time, told me.

“Brandon wasn’t involved in anything. He was the last one to take off running, I guess.” The shooter was an off-duty policeman with a history of brutality. Sacked from the force after he was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident while drunk-driving, he was reinstated a few years later on appeal. He went on to shoot dead an armed man in a neighbourhood dispute, and shot and injured his wife in a domestic fracas.
Walter Scott shooting: police dashcam video shows him running from car
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The story got a paragraph in Detroit’s two daily newspapers. Neither even bothered to print Brandon Moore’s name. The policeman was reassigned to a traffic unit until he was cleared by an “invesigation”.

The cold-blooded killing of Walter Scott, who was shot eight times in the back as he ran away from a policeman in North Charleston, South Carolina, is not news in the conventional sense. Such shootings are neither rare nor, to those who have been paying attention, suprising. Sadly, they are all too common. It is news because, thanks to the video footage, we have incontrovertible evidence at a moment when public consciousness has been heightened and focused on this very issue. While in this case the policeman involved has been fired and charged, such a degree of proof is no guarantee of justice. There was video evidence of police choking Eric Garner to death in Staten Island while he protested “I can’t breathe”, and his killers were acquitted; there was video of evidence of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles, and his assailants walked free. But in an era of 24-hour news and social media, video guarantees attention.

Black people have been dying for this kind of attention for years.

Michael Brown died for it; Kajieme Powell died for it; Tamir Rice died for it; Justus Howell died for it. The roll call could go on – and until something fundamental changes, not just with American policing but in the American psyche, it will get longer. [Continue reading…]

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Self-segregation by affluent whites in contemporary America

The Atlantic reports: Last summer, the Michigan town of Grosse Pointe Park erected a farmer’s market in the middle of one of the few remaining streets that allowed cars to pass between the tony suburb and the urban Detroit neighborhoods at its border. It was the latest of many attempts by Grosse Pointe Park residents to close off roads and block traffic between what has become a predominantly white, affluent suburb, and its poorer, urban neighbor.

There were protests about the border, and Grosse Pointe Park later said it would tear down the farmer’s market and re-open the road, but the incident speaks volumes to the segregation that exists in Detroit, and the tensions that can grow as a result.

The fact that these two areas are so close is unique — the border between Grosse Pointe Park and the city of Detroit is the only place in any of America’s biggest cities where a very wealthy, predominantly-white area abuts a very poor, black one, according to research from a new working paper from the University of Minnesota. But the existence of self-segregated wealthy white areas close by low-income minority ones isn’t unique, according to the Minnesota researchers. They have sorted census tracts in 15 of America’s 20 biggest cities into “racially concentrated areas of affluence” and “racially concentrated areas of poverty,” and find that many cities have more areas of segregated affluence than they do poverty.

Racially concentrated areas of affluence, by the researchers’ definition, are census tracts where 90 percent or more of the population is white and the median income is at least four times the federal poverty level, adjusted for the cost of living in each city. Racially concentrated areas of poverty, by contrast, are census tracts where more than 50 percent of the population is non-white, and more than 40 percent live in poverty.

Detroit has 55 racially concentrated areas of affluence and 147 racially concentrated areas of poverty, according to the research, done by Ed Goetz, Tony Damiano, and Jason Hicks. Detroit’s racially concentrated areas of affluence are just 1.1 percent black. It’s racially concentrated areas of poverty, by contrast, are 76 percent black. [Continue reading…]

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Navajo Nation dying of thirst

Indian Country reports: For centuries, the Diné people have raised their families and livestock on the high desert lands of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. They have survived even the most difficult of conditions. But as drought has dragged on, more or less for two decades — and the climate continues to warm — some are saying the tribal government needs to better protect its water resources and undertake more long-term planning.

“When you’re living in the desert, you don’t expect it to get even worse,” said Russell Begaye, a Navajo Nation Tribal Council Delegate from Shiprock, NM. He pointed out that reservoir levels are dropping, farming plots are becoming sandier, and the rain- and snowfall have declined.

“Some of our leaders, and some of our people concerned about environmental issues are trying to make people aware,” he said. “It’s going to get progressively worse, we know that. But as a nation, the government, we are simply not ready.”

According to the most recent national climate change assessment, southwestern tribes—such as the Navajo—are among the most vulnerable to impacts from climate change. Published two years ago, that study notes that Navajo elders have noticed declines in snowfall, surface water and water supplies. Certain sacred springs, medicinal plants, and animals have disappeared or declined and dust storms have increased. And while scientists can’t say for sure at this point that extreme weather is tied to climate change, there’s no doubt that the past two years have been challenging—and expensive. [Continue reading…]

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Poll finds strong majority of Americans support an international climate agreement

Huffington Post reports: A new poll finds an overwhelming majority of Americans support an international agreement to cut planet-warming emissions.

The poll found 72 percent of likely 2016 voters said they support the United States signing on to an international agreement on climate change.

The Benenson Strategy Group conducted the polling for the environmental organizations Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists, and surveyed 1,000 expected voters.

Sixty-five percent of respondents said they thought the United States “should take the lead and make meaningful reductions in its carbon emissions and other gases that may cause global warming.” Even a majority of Republican respondents — 52 percent –- expressed support for the U.S. joining an international agreement on climate change. A much stronger percentage of Democrats, at 88 percent, supported it, as did 73 percent of independents.

John Coequyt, director of Sierra Club’s federal and international climate campaign, argues that the findings support the Obama administration’s pursuit of an international agreement at the United Nations meeting in Paris at the end of this year. [Continue reading…]

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How climate change has amplified California’s drought

Jason Samenow writes: California’s astonishingly low snowpack, a pathetic 5 percent of normal, and the severity of the drought afflicting the state isn’t some fluke. It’s a likely consequence of climate change, specifically the rising temperatures which are intensifying many of the processes causing the state to lose water at an alarming rate.

To begin, let’s make clear climate change is best characterized as a drought amplifier rather than the cause of the drought itself. The climate system has enormous natural variability and several studies and analyses have linked the drought to a randomly occurring configuration of Pacific Ocean temperatures that encourages atmospheric winds to steer weather systems away from the Golden State.

For three years strong, the atmosphere steering flow has hit a road block along the West Coast (dubbed the “ridiculously resilient ridge”), but connecting that to climate change has proven difficult.

But even as climate change probably isn’t driving the weather pattern behind the drought, it is directing the background temperatures: up. Atmospheric levels of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide, due to the burning of fossil fuels, have risen about 25 percent since 1958. [Continue reading…]

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