For more than 100 years, public library systems throughout the U.S. have charged late fees for books and other materials returned past their due dates. This policy primarily impacts the disenfranchised, low-income communities that the modern public library system is intended to serve in the first place—and most often affects people of color, according to an article published by the Urban Libraries Council. The article, written by Katherine Carter and Denise Belser of the National League of Cities, notes:
“Research shows that communities of color are more likely to be impacted by unpaid library fees and are grappling with a higher percentage of suspended library cards.”
In response to the inequalities created by the late fee policy, a Fine Free movement has been gaining traction, and libraries across the U.S. have been eliminating the late fee policy over the last few years, as detailed by Deborah Fallows in the Atlantic in 2020.
Now, the largest public library system in the country has followed suit. As of October 5, all three public library systems in New York City—Brooklyn Public Library, New York Public Library and Queens Public Library—eliminated “late fines on books and other circulating materials.” The New York libraries’ decision comes in the wake of other major cities that have gone fine-free, including San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Seattle and Dallas. “New York City’s [library] systems represent the largest municipality to eliminate fines,” according to a press release by the Brooklyn Public Library.
Under the new system, a replacement fee will still apply to lost items. According to the press release, an item will be considered “lost after being overdue for about one month. If materials are returned, however, no fees will apply.” Under the former system, any library-goer with more than $15 in late fines would have their library card blocked. This is no longer the case.
As of October 5 (the date of the NYC libraries’ joint announcement), the library systems estimated 400,000 New Yorkers had blocked library cards—and more than half of those with blocked cards live in high-need communities, according to statistics gathered by the libraries and shared in the press release.
Nick Higgins, the chief librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library system, says the decision to end late fines was a long time coming. He says the conversation was brewing for several years before the three large and complex library systems in New York City were able to come together in unison around the decision.
“The conversation around [being a] fine-free [city] has been bubbling up for a long time, always couched in this idea of equity and access for people,” Higgins says. “It just took a little while to build the case. It’s a really complex system [and] one library system couldn’t really go out on their own. We wanted it to be a fine-free city for people who were accessing libraries across the five boroughs.”
The revenue brought in by late fees is not insignificant. The Brooklyn Public Library alone has typically accrued anywhere between $600,000 and $800,000 annually in late fees, Higgins says.
“It’s a form of revenue that a lot of public libraries have depended on since their beginnings, but it isn’t a great [form of revenue],” he says. “That’s why we changed it. We shouldn’t be getting revenue from folks who need our resources just by virtue of their lives being complicated or difficult… we shouldn’t be deriving revenue from them. But there is a tangible loss, so it has to be made up somewhere.”
Higgins says that for the Brooklyn Public Library, the challenge now is to adjust fundraising efforts so that it is focused on maintaining or expanding their collections of books and other materials.
“The revenue that we get from late fines was going right back into supporting the collections, so if our collection budget is, say, $10 million a year, and we are losing $600,00 to $800,000 of that because of canceling fines, we’re going to take a hit. Our eyes are wide open on this… but we’ll just get creative in figuring out ways to generate some fundraising around it to make up for that loss.”
Higgins notes that in 2020, during the onset of the ongoing pandemic, the library systems in New York already temporarily canceled late fines, “because obviously it was just the right thing to do. People were losing their homes and dealing with all sorts of things, and the library fines should be the last thing on their minds.”
He says in some way the emergency of the pandemic, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement—and all that rose to the surface throughout 2020 in society—brought to light underlying and preexisting realities and challenges many library-goers (and people in general) have long faced.
“I think we came to the decision to eliminate late fines possibly faster because of [the pandemic and the events of 2020], although we did have people who have been building the case for a few years now,” Higgins says. “Perhaps the pandemic—and more and more people waking up to the systemic racism that has been around for a long time (and that a lot of people already knew about and lived with, but [which] many people just woke up to)—maybe that all accelerated the process for us going fine-free, and helped some of the stakeholders understand that the equity argument for going fine-free was a good one.”
He notes that the libraries were able to gather statistics about who was most impacted by late fines, based on addresses collected with library registration information. Based on the collection of this data, libraries were able to calculate that most of the people who were shouldering late fines throughout New York City, lived in neighborhoods that have historically had double-digit unemployment rates, and also were people who belonged to communities where primarily people of color live.
These statistics based on address information reveal some stark inequities. They show that branches of the New York Public Library in high-needs communities with a median household income below $50,000 “accounted for six times the number of blocked patrons as others,” said the press release from the Brooklyn Public Library.
The press release further noted that “[t]he 10 branches with the highest percentage of blocked cards are all in high needs communities, and each have one in five cardholders blocked. In the Queens Public Library system, the communities with the highest number of blocked cards—Corona, Jamaica, Far Rockaway, and Elmhurst—all have median incomes well below the borough average.”
Similar statistics were reported for the Brooklyn Public Library, where library branches “with the highest percentage of blocked cards [were] in neighborhoods where more than 20 percent of households live below the poverty level.”
Across the board, the trend was exaggerated for youth. Children and teens 17 and under made up 30 percent of blocked library accounts in Brooklyn, and in Queens, 65 percent of blocked accounts belonged to kids of the same age group.
A citywide assessment of blocked cards completed in 2017 found that 80 percent of blocked youth cards were located in low-income communities, as reported in the press release.
“I’m hopeful that us going fine-free fundamentally changes our relationships with the public, in a way that I hope signals that we’re here for everyone, and that people don’t have to be afraid to come into the library and belong to the library community because of that 50 cent charge on the Stephen King book that they took out when they were in fourth grade,” Higgins says.
Higgins says going fine-free is aligned with the kinds of institutions libraries set out to be in the first place.
“We talk about ourselves as the most democratic, accessible, inclusive institutions in the city or anywhere, and we pride ourselves on being an anchor of community problem-solving, community engagement, places where people can come in from all different backgrounds and experiences and build relationships, and just access all of these shared resources for free,” he says. “Having a penalty system folded into that experience is antithetical to our values and our principles—for both access and inclusion—and being free and accessible to everyone in our communities.”
By April M. Short
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.
Environmental Racism Is Poisoning America’s Waters
Thousands of people in U.S. cities have been left without access to clean water. Communities say institutional racism is to blame.
The United Nations General Assembly recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” on July 28, 2010. Yet, 12 years later, this human right is still out of reach for millions across the globe, particularly in the Global South. Even in the United States, which has the largest gross domestic product globally, poor and working-class people, and in particular Black and Brown people, are denied this fundamental right. In several cities across the United States, residents struggle with system-wide neglect of water systems and the failure of the government to provide access to what is arguably the most essential resource.
The Struggle for Water Is a Struggle Against Racism
Dennis Diaz, a resident of the public housing project Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, New York City, said that after he experienced nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, and migraine headaches around late August and early September, he took preliminary tests that revealed he had been exposed to arsenic.
As early as August 4, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was alerted about cloudy water conditions at the Jacob Riis public housing complex. After apparently testing the water for E. coli and chlorine more than a week later, on August 16, NYCHA announced that the water was safe to drink. But after 11 p.m. on September 2, NYCHA revealed that there was arsenic in the water supply. According to an article in City and State, the city said that officials had known about the arsenic two weeks prior.
Diaz called New York “the greatest city in the world” and explained his frustration with the double standard that he feels local politicians allow to persist when it comes to quality-of-life issues between majority-minority neighborhoods like his own and wealthier, predominantly white residential areas. “Imagine if,” he said, arsenic was found in the water by residents in Manhattan’s “Fifth Avenue or Soho, or Williamsburg,” Brooklyn. “Maybe the outcomes would have been different for them. But for minorities in my community, we’re next to nothing to the politicians.” According to the 2016 data provided by NYCHA, 40 percent of the heads of the households living in public housing under the Housing Choice Voucher Program were Black, while 48 percent had Latin American ancestry.
The city of New York is now denying that there ever was arsenic in the water at Jacob Riis, claiming that the testing method “introduced trace levels of arsenic” to the sample they collected. But Dennis Diaz, who recently received his bloodwork results showing low levels of arsenic, is not convinced. “They’re lying,” he said while referring to the latest statement by the city officials. “They did it in Flint, Michigan, where they lied to them [the residents] for years. You can’t believe these people.”
Since NYCHA’s inception in 1934, New York City’s public housing has fallen into disrepair as the federal government drastically reduced funding for public housing in the 2000s. In 2018, 400,000 tenants sued NYCHA for squalid conditions. Also in 2018, then-U.S. Federal Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman sued NYCHA for health and safety violations, exposing children to lead paint, and training NYCHA workers to “deceive” federal inspectors.
In Baltimore, water in the western part of the city tested positive for E. coli on September 5. Affected neighborhoods included the area of Harlem Park/Sandtown-Winchester. Authorities advised residents in these areas to boil water before use due to the contamination.
By September 6, the “boil water advisory” stretched across West Baltimore and into the surrounding southwestern Baltimore County. The neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park is 96.7 percent Black, within the 62.8 percent Black city of Baltimore. This neighborhood also has a history of police brutality. In 2015, Freddie Gray died due to injuries sustained while in police custody after he was arrested in the area. A medical examiner ruled that his death was a homicide “because officers failed to follow safety guidelines.” In 2017, Harlem Park was locked down by police for nearly a week after a detective was murdered before testifying at a trial against other police officers. Some organizations questioned whether this action by the police was lawful.
Baltimore resident Rachel Viqueira was located in the boil water advisory zone. “While facing decades of underinvestment and neglect, these neighborhoods have simultaneously faced increasing racist police violence and surveillance,” she said. In 2020, Baltimore responded to the massive public protests surrounding George Floyd’s death by defunding the police budget by $22 million. But in 2021, Baltimore City increased police funding by $28 million. This not only canceled out the 2020 decrease but also tacked on an additional $8 million to the police budget.
“In Baltimore, and many other cities, the police budgets have ballooned at the expense of public investment in infrastructure, health, jobs, housing, and education,” Viqueira said.
Jackson, Mississippi, was under a boil water notice from July 29 to September 15. And from August 30 to September 5, the water stopped running for many of Jackson’s more than 150,000 residents, leaving public spaces like schools without running sinks or working toilets. Although water pressure has now been restored, the water remains contaminated.
Derykah Watts, who distributed water to Jackson residents as part of her student group Jackson Water Crisis Advocacy Team, said, “This is a reality that Jackson has faced for a very long time. I know growing up, I remember always hearing my mother say, ‘Oh, we’re on boil water notice this week, don’t use the water [straight from the tap].'”
Jackson is 82.5 percent Black, and this water crisis is only the latest in a chain of failures in the city’s underfunded water system. The roots of the water crisis originate in the era immediately following the racial desegregation of schools in Jackson in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following desegregation, white residents left the city en masse. From 1960 to 1990, the white population residing in Jackson shrunk by 6,000. White departure meant that white residents, historically more well-off than descendants of Black people who were enslaved, would no longer constitute a large portion of the tax base for city funding.
Instead of finding concrete solutions to address the water crisis resulting from systemic racism, both the city of Jackson and the state of Mississippi have been considering privatizing the city’s water supply following the crisis. “We’ve already seen how privatization of Texas’ electrical grid meant massive shut-offs of heat in the middle of a winter storm,” said local activist Bezal Jupiter. “People lost their power, people froze, and some people even died [as many as 246]. Do we want the same future for Jackson’s water system?”
A Water Crisis That Never Ended
The majority-Black city of Flint, Michigan, made headlines in 2016 when it was revealed that for two years, the state government had been covering up the fact that residents were actively being poisoned by lead in their water supply. Six years later, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said that the amount of lead in the water complies with state and federal standards, yet scientists insist that no amount of lead in water is safe. And as of April of 2022, the government was yet to replace 1,800 lead pipes.
“[Governments] will fund rich white communities for infrastructure upgrades, but they absolutely won’t do it for cities like Flint, Baltimore, and Jackson,” said Mitchell Bonga, a law clerk at Goodman, Hurwitz and James, a law firm that filed a class action lawsuit against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his role in the Flint crisis.
‘They Could Have Done It All Along’
In the neighboring city of Detroit, which also has a majority-Black, low-income population, residents who cannot pay their water bills have been struggling against water shut-offs. “People can’t afford the water bill [in Detroit],” said local activist and Detroit resident Tharron Combs. “People sometimes owe hundreds of dollars in debt to the city for their water bill and when it gets shut off, obviously it’s a public health crisis.”
The city imposed a moratorium on water shut-offs for the pandemic, extending it through 2022. But although the mayor announced his intention to end water shutoffs “once and for all,” the moratorium will expire at the end of the year. “They actually put [shut-offs] on pause for the pandemic, which kind of exposed one of the contradictions of capitalism,” said Combs. “They could have done it all along, and just let people have access to clean water.
“[People] can’t afford their water, or their water is unclean when they can afford it. They don’t have access to food. And this is not a condition that’s really unique to Detroit. This is the case in really any major Black city in the country… Clearly, it’s environmental racism all the way down,” said Combs.
Natalia Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organizer, and a graphic designer based in New York City.
The Roar of a U.S. Warplane Over a Civilian Irish Airport
“This is not a regular airport,” Margaretta D’Arcy said to me as we heard a C-130T Hercules prepare to take off from Shannon Airport in Ireland after 3 p.m. on September 11, 2022. That enormous U.S. Navy aircraft (registration number 16-4762) had flown in from Sigonella, a U.S. Naval Air Station in Italy. A few minutes earlier, a U.S. Navy C-40A (registration number 16-6696) left Shannon for the U.S. military base at Stuttgart, Germany, after flying in from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia. Shannon is not a regular airport, D’Arcy said, because while it is merely a civilian airport, it allows frequent U.S. military planes to fly in and out of it, with Gate 42 of the airport functioning as its “forward operating base.”
At the age of 88, D’Arcy, who is a legendary Irish actress and documentary filmmaker, is a regular member of Shannonwatch, comprising a group of activists who have—since 2008—held monthly vigils at a roundabout near the airport. Shannonwatch’s objectives are to “end U.S. military use of Shannon Airport, to stop rendition flights through the airport, and to obtain accountability for both from the relevant Irish authorities and political leaders.” Edward Horgan, a veteran of the Irish military who had been on peacekeeping missions to Cyprus and Palestine, told me that this vigil is vital. “It’s important that we come here every month,” he said, “because without this there is no visible opposition” to the footprint of the U.S. military in Ireland.
According to a report from Shannonwatch titled “Shannon Airport and 21st Century War,” the use of the airport as a U.S. forward operating base began in 2002-2003, and this transformation “was, and still is, deeply offensive to the majority of Irish people.”
Article 29 of the Irish Constitution of 1937 sets in place the framework for the country’s neutrality. Allowing a foreign military to use Irish soil violates Article 2 of the Hague Convention of 1907, to which Ireland is a signatory. Nonetheless, said John Lannon of Shannonwatch, the Irish government has allowed almost 3 million U.S. troops to pass through Shannon Airport since 2002 and has even assigned a permanent staff officer to the airport. “Irish airspace and Shannon Airport became the virtual property of the U.S. war machine,” said Niall Farrell of Galway Alliance Against War. “Irish neutrality was truly dead.”
Pitstop of Death
Margaretta D’Arcy’s eyes gleam as she recounts her time at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, located in Berkshire, England, and involving activists from Wales, who set up to prevent the storage and passage of U.S. cruise missiles at this British military base. That camp began in 1981 and lasted until 2000. D’Arcy went to jail three times during this struggle (out of a total of at least 20 times she was in prison for her antiwar activism). “It was good,” she told me, “because we got rid of the weapons and the land was restored to the people. It took 19 years. Women consistently fought until we got what we wanted.” When D’Arcy was arrested, the prison authorities stripped her to search her. She refused to put her clothes back on and went on both a hunger strike and a naked protest. In doing so, she forced the prison authorities to stop the practice of performing strip searches. “If you act with dignity, then you force them to treat you with dignity,” she said.
Part of this act of dignity includes refusing to allow her country’s airport to be used as part of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2002, several brave people have entered the airport and have attempted to deface U.S. aircraft. On September 5, 2002, Eoin Dubsky painted “No way” on a U.S. warplane (for which he was fined); and then on January 29, 2003, Mary Kelly took an axe onto the runway and hit a military plane, causing $1.5 million in damage; she was also fined. A few weeks later, on February 3, 2003, the Pitstop Ploughshares (a group of five activists who belonged to the Catholic Worker Movement) attacked a U.S. Navy C-40 aircraft—the same one that Mary Kelly had previously damaged—with hammers and a pickaxe (a story recounted vividly by Harry Browne in Hammered by the Irish, 2008). They also spray-painted “Pitstop of Death” on a hangar.
In 2012, Margaretta D’Arcy and Niall Farrell marched onto the runway to protest the airport being used by U.S. planes. Arrested and convicted, they nonetheless returned to the runway the next year in orange jumpsuits. During the court proceedings in June 2014, D’Arcy grilled the airport authorities about why they had not arrested the pilot of an armed U.S. Hercules plane that had arrived at Shannon Airport four days after their arrest on the runway. She asked, “Are there two sets of rules—one for people like us trying to stop the bombing and one for the bombers?” Shannon Airport’s inspector Pat O’Neill replied, “I don’t understand the question.”
“This is a civilian airport,” D’Arcy told me as she gestured toward the runway. “How does a government allow the military to use a civilian airport?”
The U.S. government began illegally transporting prisoners from Afghanistan and other places to its prison in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp and to other “black sites” in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia. This act of transporting the prisoners came to be known as “extraordinary rendition.” In 2005, when Dermot Ahern, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, was asked about the “extraordinary rendition” flights into Shannon Airport, he said, “If anyone has any evidence of any of these flights, please give me a call and I will have it immediately investigated.” Amnesty International replied that it had direct evidence that up to six CIA chartered planes had used Shannon Airport approximately 50 times. Four years later, Amnesty International produced a thorough report that showed that their earlier number was deflated and that likely hundreds of such U.S. military flights had flown in and out of the airport.
While the Irish government over the years has said that it opposes this practice, the Irish police (the Garda Síochána) have not boarded these flights to inspect them. As a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights (signed in 1953) and the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (adopted in 1984 and ratified in 1987), Ireland is duty-bound to prevent collaboration with “extraordinary rendition,” a position taken by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. In 2014, Irish parliamentarians Mick Wallace and Clare Daly were arrested at Shannon Airport for trying to search two U.S. aircraft that they believed were carrying “troops and armaments.” They were frustrated by the Irish government’s false assurances. “How do they know? Did they search the planes? Of course not,” Wallace and Daly said.
Meanwhile, according to the Shannonwatch report, “Rather than take measures to identify past involvement in rendition or to prevent further complicity, successive Irish [g]overnments have simply denied any possibility that Irish airports or airspace were used by U.S. rendition planes.”
In 2006, Conor Cregan rode his bicycle near Shannon Airport. Airport police inspector Lillian O’Shea, who recognized him from protests, confronted him, but Cregan rode off. He was eventually arrested. At Cregan’s trial, O’Shea admitted that the police had been told to stop and harass the activists at the airport. Zoe Lawlor of Shannonwatch told me this story and then said, “harassment such as this reinforces the importance of our protest.”
In 2003 and 2015, Sinn Féin—the largest opposition party in the Northern Ireland Assembly—put forward a Neutrality Bill to enshrine the concept of neutrality into the Irish Constitution. The government, said Seán Crowe of Sinn Féin, has “sold Irish neutrality piece by piece against the wishes of the people.” If the idea of neutrality is adopted by the Irish people, it will be because of the sacrifices of people such as Margaretta D’Arcy, Niall Farrell, and Mary Kelly.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.
Is the U.S. Legal System at War With Its People?
The very laws and government agencies created to protect the people in the United States are increasingly being weaponized against those who are often marginalized in society: people of color, the poor, and the working class. In just the last few months, there have been many incidents of this kind of violent abuse of power.
On July 28, the state of Alabama performed a “botched” execution on Joe Nathan James Jr., who journalists believe may have suffered medical malpractice akin to “torture” for hours before his death. On August 12, around midnight, a police officer threatened to kill a Black pregnant woman during a traffic stop in Florida. On August 18, far-right-wing Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis announced that 20 formerly incarcerated people would be arrested for the crime of voting, as the U.S. severely restricts the right to vote for the tens of millions of former prisoners. Within the same week, three police officers were captured on video brutally beating a homeless man in Arkansas on August 21.
“We’re in a state of genocidal war,” said former political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim to Peoples Dispatch. Muntaqim was and still is a fighter for Black liberation who spent 49 years in prison, which activists claim was due to his political work as a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Alongside the label of political prisoner, Muntaqim also identifies himself as a prisoner of war.
The belief shared by many that the U.S. is at war with a subset of its own people is not a fringe idea. “End the War on Black People” is a policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives, a major organization within the Black Lives Matter movement. “Stop the War on Black America” was a popular slogan in several uprisings against police brutality, from the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 to Amir Locke’s murder in 2022.
In recent months alone, there has been enough evidence to support this belief that the U.S. is waging a war against its people.
Who Polices the Police?
According to the data project Mapping Police Violence, police killed at least 1,144 people in the U.S. in 2021, which is approximately three people per day. Every few weeks there is a police murder that triggers mass outrage, such as the killing of Jayland Walker who was found with more than 60 bullet wounds on his body, or Amir Locke who was killed seconds after waking up, or 15-year-old Brett Rosenau who was burned alive during a botched SWAT-team raid.
Two cases of police brutality have generated outrage most recently. In Florida on August 12, police officer Jason DeSue was driving in his car when he told Ebony Washington, a Black mother who was four months pregnant and driving with her three children, to pull over for speeding. Instead of following instructions immediately, Washington waited until reaching a well-lit area to pull over. “It was dark [and I was] with my kids. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be able to not have anyone else around,” she said afterward in an interview.
DeSue reacted drastically to Washington’s decision. Body camera footage shows DeSue telling her over loudspeakers, “Pull the vehicle over, or I’ll put you into the ground.” Once Washington did finally pull over, DeSue pulled out his gun. He then handcuffed her roughly despite her pregnancy. DeSue eventually released Washington after giving her a ticket for speeding.
Nino Brown, a longtime activist against police brutality and a fighter for the freedom of political prisoners, said, “That this police officer came at her [Washington] ‘guns blazing’ with his weapon already drawn tells us everything you need to know about how the police treat African Americans in this country: the police operate as a Gestapo force in our communities—they shoot first and ask questions never.”
A video of three Arkansas police officers brutally beating Randall Worcester, taken on August 21, went viral. Despite being the victim of a brutal assault, Worcester was the one charged with “second-degree battery, resisting arrest, refusal to submit, possessing an instrument of crime, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, terroristic threatening and second-degree assault,” according to KARK.
DeSue resigned after drawing scorn for pulling a gun on Washington, and the three officers in Arkansas—Thell Riddle, Levi White, and Zack King—have now been suspended. This is the extent of their accountability thus far, even though some people are demanding criminal charges against the three police officers.
The fact that these officers are facing any punishment at all may be related to the existence of video evidence, which in past cases of police violence, such as in George Floyd’s murder, generated enough outrage to result in police accountability. Without video evidence, police often take charge of the narrative, labeling brutality with insidious neutral terms such as “officer-involved shooting” rather than “police killing.” Before the video of Floyd’s murder was released to the world, the Minneapolis Police Department press release of May 26, 2020 read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”
Persecution of Prisoners Follows Them to the Grave
There is an untenable double standard of justice for police officers who act with legalized impunity and those they ostensibly protect and serve. Although police rarely face criminal charges for brutality, people who are convicted of a crime, many of whom are racially marginalized and are in deep poverty, are punished mercilessly by the state.
Such is the case for prisoners who face the death penalty, which in the U.S. is most commonly carried out by administering a lethal injection. Although this method appears to be humane, death by lethal injection has been increasingly proven to be a torturous process. As the death penalty comes under more scrutiny, major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer are banning the use of their drugs in lethal injections. As a result, states such as Alabama are turning to lower-quality medications, like midazolam, which according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, “is not an inappropriate drug to be used for execution purposes.” As Dunham told the Independent, “Studies now show this three-drug process [of lethal injection] is the equivalent to waterboarding, suffocation and being chemically burned at the stake.”
Even beyond the pain and suffering caused by the contents of the lethal injection, corrections departments have botched executions. Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in the Atlantic about how after prisoner Joe Nathan James Jr. was executed using lethal injection, an autopsy revealed that the Alabama Department of Corrections took hours to find an entry point for the injection, torturing James in the process. “My initial impression of James was of someone whose hands and wrists had been burst by needles, in every place one can bend or flex,” Bruenig wrote.
Meanwhile, many of those who were incarcerated at one point may find that their state-sanctioned punishments are not over yet. This was the case for the 20 people, all formerly incarcerated, who were recently arrested in Florida for so-called voter fraud. As NPR reported, however, “According to court documents, though, some of the 20 individuals told law enforcement officials that they thought they were able to vote when they cast ballots.” (In Florida, voting rights were recently restored to felons except those convicted of murder or a sexual offense cannot vote—the latter point cited by Governor DeSantis in response to criticism of the recent disenfranchisement crackdown.) Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told Democracy Now that Floridians “are now being dragged from their homes in handcuffs because all they ever wanted to do was participate in democracy.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis bragged about the arrests, stating, “Today’s [August 18] actions send a clear signal to those who are thinking about ballot harvesting or fraudulently voting. If you commit an elections crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
A Cruel Double Standard
DeSantis’ words are telling. The so-called “elections crimes” will be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” and yet there is still no word about criminal charges against officers Jason DeSue, Thell Riddle, Levi White and Zack King for the violent crimes of assault and battery they committed. Meanwhile, despite “cruel and unusual punishment” being prohibited as per the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prisoners are enduring torturous executions.
Some argue that torture, execution, imprisonment, and brutality against racially marginalized, poor, and working-class people amounts to war. Some, like Muntaqim, have worked to hold the entire U.S. state accountable for genocide, and have sought to question the legitimacy of the laws and agencies governing the people in the United States. Muntaqim said, “It’s important for us to recognize that we, Black people in this country, must seek out other means of survival. Other means of prosperity. Other means from which we can govern ourselves.”
Peoples Dispatch and Globetrotter________________
Natalia Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organizer, and a graphic designer based in New York City.
US Wants to Reset Relations With Africa. Is It Too Late?
The relationship between the US and Africa hasn’t been great in recent years. Under former President Donald Trump, US-African relations suffered terribly. Trump was openly hostile to several African nations, calling some “shithole countries” and canceling US commitments to vital climate change funds targeting Africa. On a multi-nation visit to sub-Saharan Africa this month, US secretary of state Antony Blinken announced a reboot in US engagement on the continent but is it too late to reestablish flourishing ties? Perhaps.
Driving this shift is the undeniable fact that the US has lost geopolitical influence to Russia and China over the past decade. But other economic factors could transform the US-Africa relationship while dramatically improving the continent’s green energy supply.
The damage done by the Trump administration left deep scars on the psyche of several African leaders, especially in South Africa. Moreover, the Chinese and Russians have invested handsomely in the continent to fill the US leadership vacuum. The strategy has paid off. China is one of the major funders of infrastructure projects across the continent through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing has also invested handsomely in Africa’s growing technology sector. Russia’s deep links on the continent were on display in the geopolitical uproar over the Ukraine conflict. Countries like South Africa have largely kept silent on Ukraine and refused to take sides in the Ukraine conflict, which has been viewed as an implicitly pro-Russian position.
While the road to reestablishing robust relations will be difficult, there is a clear path that the US can follow, and it seems as though the leadership understands it. That path runs through South Africa’s rapidly changing energy needs. The country, which has the most industrialized economy on the continent, is in the middle of a prolonged energy crisis. The national electric utility, Eskom, operates a fleet of aging coal-powered plants in desperate need of repairs. Under former President Jacob Zuma, widespread corruption and government mismanagement of funds hit Eskom particularly hard, making the repairs challenging to complete. The result has been a record number of power cuts in the first half of 2022 that have crippled the South African economy in its post-pandemic recovery efforts.
President Cyril Ramaphosa recently lifted all caps on the amount of power that private renewable energy providers were allowed to sell. Previously the government capped energy from private producers at 100MW. With the caps removed, a green energy gold rush is taking place because South Africa’s climate is perfect for wind and solar energy creation. Chinese companies are leading efforts to supply solar energy infrastructure. Yet, there is a real opening for American green energy companies to establish a stake in South Africa’s green revolution.
Coinciding with secretary Blinken’s tour of the region, a group of US green energy investors with more than $1 trillion in assets under management visited the country in a trip organized by USAID and Prosper Africa, the US government’s initiative to increase trade and investment between African nations and America. When these companies make their first investments in the energy transition, they will follow in the footsteps of Amazon, which opened a solar farm in early 2022 to power its growing operations in South Africa.
“There are not enough public resources in donor budgets and in local budgets, for example, in South Africa, to solve the climate crisis,” Cameron Khosrowshahi, a senior investment adviser for Prosper Africa, said in an interview with Business Tech during the visit. “There will need to be a scaling up of private capital alongside public capital to meet the challenge. And that’s part of the reason why we’re here.”
The US acknowledges that China’s approach to the continent was the best by encouraging investment in green energy projects. China established itself as a cheaper lender to fund critical infrastructure projects needed to grow African cities as the continent’s population continues to expand. Under Trump, there was no interest in following the same road, but President Joe Biden has acknowledged Africa’s vital importance to US strategic interests and is now following China’s playbook. For this strategy to deliver results, the US must tap regional partners to aid in Africa’s shift to green energy.
Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and the UAE have already established themselves as critical partners in Africa’s energy transformation. During the 2018 water crisis in Cape Town, for example, Emirati and Israeli companies worked with local officials on desalination projects to ease the water shortage. Turkish companies have also been working with South African electric providers to find innovative solutions to the blackout problems (including a floating power station off the coast of Cape Town).
The US might have the capital and knowledge to invest in Africa. Still, it will need to lean on regional partners to ensure that its investments bring about a real green energy revolution on the continent. While there is a long way to go in rebuilding relations, there has been a clear shift in approach at just the right time for Africa’s energy future.
Joseph Dana is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Twitter: @ibnezra.
Washington Wants a New Cold War, But That’s a Bad Idea
As China unleashed live-fire military exercises off the coast of Taiwan, simulating a real “reunification by force” operation in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ceremonial visit to the island last week, the bipartisan fervor for a new Cold War with China and Russia took greater hold in Washington.
“Leaders in both parties,” Post columnist Josh Rogin reports, “understand that the United States has a duty and an interest in … pushing back against America’s adversaries in both Europe and Asia.” The United States showed that it could take on both China and Russia at the same time, he adds. The Senate voted 95-1 to add Sweden and Finland to NATO. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act enjoys bipartisan support. And politicians in both parties scrambled to give the Pentagon even more money than it asked for.
Cold War is America’s comfort zone. We won the last one. We wear the white hats. It’s democracy against authoritarianism. And we’ve got the biggest and best military. Who could object?
But haunting questions remain. Does a new Cold War—taking on Russia and China at once—serve the real security of Americans? Does it further President Biden’s promised “foreign policy for the middle class?” Might most Americans prefer that this country curb our enthusiasm for foreign adventure while focusing on getting our own house in order?
The existential threat to our security now is the extreme weather caused by climate change, which is already costing lives and billions of dollars in destruction from wildfires, floods, plagues and drought. Monkeypox reminds us that the deadliest attacks have come from global pandemics. Throwing money at the Pentagon doesn’t help. Wouldn’t it be better if Special Presidential Envoy John F. Kerry’s journeys got as much attention as Pelosi’s Taiwan performance? Addressing climate change and pandemics can’t be done without Chinese and Russian cooperation, yet the Chinese officially terminated talks on these issues in the wake of Pelosi’s visit.
Biden’s foreign policy team has focused on lining up bases and allies to surround and contain Russia and China. But the Ukraine war has revealed Russia’s military weakness. Meanwhile, sanctions have cut off access to Russian food, fertilizers and minerals vital to countries worldwide and might contribute to a global recession.
China is a true “peer competitor,” as the Pentagon calls it. But its strength is its economy, not its military. It’s the leading trading partner for countries across the globe, from Latin America to Africa to Asia. When Pelosi stopped in South Korea after her visit to Taiwan, South Korea’s president did not receive her. President Yoon Suk-yeol, we learned, was on a “staycation,” attending a play. The snub by a loyal ally, home to nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, is surely a reflection of the fact that China is South Korea’s leading trading partner. The United States would be well advised to focus—as China does—on developing the new technologies that will define the markets of the future, rather than spending more than $1 trillion on items such as a new generation of nuclear weapons that can never be used.
The revived Cold Warriors assert that the U.S. deployment of forces around China and Russia is defensive. But as Stephen Walt notes in Foreign Policy, this ignores the “security dilemma”: What one country considers innocent measures to increase its security, another might see as threatening. U.S. administrations kept asserting Ukraine’s “right” to join NATO as security against the threat posed by Russia. Russia saw the possible basing of NATO forces and U.S. missiles in Ukraine as a threat. Biden’s comment that Putin “cannot remain in power,” echoed by U.S. politicians, and the history of U.S. support for regime change around the world, weren’t exactly reassuring.
Though Washington formally accepts that Taiwan is a province of China, it arms the island and deploys more forces to the Pacific. Pelosi described her visit as an “unequivocal statement that America stands with Taiwan, our democratic partner, as it defends itself and its freedom.” Beijing views this as an attack on its national sovereignty, a violation of our official position, and as a provocation designed to spur independence movements in Taiwan.
The Cold Warriors assume that most of the world stands with us. True, our NATO allies rallied against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, but two-thirds of the world’s population, according to the Economist, lives in countries that refuse to sanction Russia. Much of the developing world is skeptical or worse about U.S. claims regarding democracy or the rules-based order. This makes sanctions less effective—China’s purchases of Russian oil and gas, for example, have increased by 72 percent since the Ukraine invasion. It also reflects the growing strength of Chinese “soft power” and the declining currency of the U.S. military force.
Great powers decline largely because of internal weakness and the failure to adjust to new realities. In an era of dangerous partisan enmity, the reflexive bipartisan embrace of a new Cold War is a striking contrast. But the old habits don’t address the new challenges. This is hardly the way to build a vibrant American democracy.
Globetrotter & The Nation_______________________
Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation.
Why the U.S. Postal Service Offers a Great Model for Other Government Services
Progressives, take note: a newly passed bipartisan reform bill strengthens the U.S. Postal Service—a federal agency that serves as a hopeful model for government-run services in other arenas.
In case you missed it—because it got so little news attention—there’s a bit of good news regarding the United States Postal Service (USPS). In what was a very rare moment of bipartisan unity on a domestic issue, the U.S. Senate on March 8 passed the Postal Service Reform Act with a robust vote of 79 to 19. The House of Representatives passed the same bill in February with similarly high levels of support from both parties in a 342-92 vote. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.
While such broad support would ordinarily be cause for skepticism about how progressive a bill could be if Republicans in particular backed it, it turns out that an improbable alignment of factors helped the cause of reforming the USPS. In fact, progressives would do well to seize this chance to build on the model of success and efficiency, which a trusted and well-loved government agency is offering Americans.
Monique Morrissey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) who has closely studied the USPS for years, shared with me in a recent interview that she too was initially suspicious of the reform bill. Usually broad support “signals something that’s weak or ineffectual, or even bad,” she said. “Not in this case.”
The centerpiece of the reform act is that it undoes an onerous requirement that a 2006 law placed on the USPS to pre-fund employee benefits for 75 years into the future. For years, critics pointed out that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act was financially crippling the agency.
No other government or private entity is required to fund benefits for such an extraordinarily long period. It’s no wonder that the agency so many Americans rely on was constantly facing cuts, threats of price hikes, and reduced services. Morrissey described the 2006 law as “basically crushing the Postal Service for the past 15 years,” and imposing on it an “unearned reputation for being always in the red, or bankrupt, or inefficient.”
This served right-wing purposes well. Embodying President Ronald Reagan’s infamous inaugural speech claiming that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” conservatives for decades sought to stymie agencies like the USPS that provide crucial low-cost services to Americans.
But, according to Morrissey, “the Postal Service is hyper-efficient,” and it “delivers to more addresses with fewer… employees” than its private competitors. Unlike businesses like UPS or FedEx, which simply cut services to areas that are too expensive to serve, the USPS is mandated to ensure delivery services to all parts of the nation. This is a critical aspect of government-run agencies: to ensure everyone’s needs are met without regard to costs, revenues, or profits, and it’s one of many reasons why the USPS is superior to private delivery companies. “Rural areas depend on the Postal Service more than urban areas,” said Morrissey.
Even more impressive, the USPS is a self-funded agency, receiving no direct government funding, and sustaining itself from its own revenues. And, since there is no requirement to siphon off profits in order to ensure dividends to shareholders, the USPS can do more for less.
During the pandemic, the USPS’s value to the public became more apparent than ever. Nearly overnight, Americans sharply increased their reliance on delivered groceries, medications, and other consumer goods, and postal workers heroically stepped in to meet their needs.
Most recently, the Biden administration used the USPS as a very efficient and successful distribution system for free at-home COVID tests to all Americans who wanted them, via a USPS-run website, COVIDtests.gov. The Postal Service delivered more than 270 million tests to Americans in the span of just a few weeks.
A RAND survey of how the agency performed during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the public gave it high marks. Large majorities of respondents trusted the service more than its private counterparts, and the RAND researchers specifically cited its “universal obligation to provide service to every delivery point in the United States, regardless of whether it is profitable.”
Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Republicans heavily politicized the Postal Service over its role in helping Americans to cast ballots. A staggeringly large percentage of Americans who voted in the election—nearly half—mailed in ballots using the Postal Service. The ease and efficiency of voting by mail were seen as a problem by a party that has increasingly relied on restricting voting as a pathway to power.
Now, apparently seeing the light, both Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the Postal Service Reform Act, doing away with the pre-funding of benefits that had for years provided fodder for anti-USPS criticism. One possible reason why the GOP may not have fought against the bill is that the vote did not take place close enough to an election to prompt complaints of voting by mail. And, it may also be that the party realizes that its voters, who skew disproportionately older, rely heavily on voting by mail.
Another reason why the GOP did not fight against the bill is that the current Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a Trump appointee whom Morrissey admitted she is not a fan of, “seems to really want to keep the job, and so he has not always been on the wrong side of things.” DeJoy, who had come under fire for removing hundreds of bulk mail sorting machines in 2020 in what many feared was a deliberate ploy to hobble the agency, actually lobbied hard for the Postal Service Reform Act, ensuring Republican support.
Still, it’s not as if the postmaster general has suddenly decided to dedicate himself to the public interest. Morrissey cited a problematic $11.3 billion contract that DeJoy recently signed to upgrade the Postal Service’s fleet of vehicles. Disturbingly, 90 percent of the new vehicles, as per the contract, would be gas-guzzling cars and trucks rather than electric ones. USPS vehicles “should be the first, not the last, vehicles to be electric,” said Morrissey. The timing of such a contract, considering recent sharp increases in gas prices, couldn’t be worse, and Democratic lawmakers are now threatening to launch an investigation.
Still, the potential to expand on the USPS’s successful model is great, and more lawmakers are taking note. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, a veteran of the USPS herself, has floated an idea to make post offices the sites of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. There is a dire need to build such charging infrastructure on a national level in order to transition to renewable, fuel-efficient cars. With post offices spread evenly all across the country, expanding them into hubs for EV charging would go hand in hand with transitioning all Postal Service vehicles to electric. The USPS could charge its vehicles overnight, while customers could charge their cars during the day.
Notwithstanding the negative actions of those seeking to sabotage the Postal Service, the example that this successful agency offers us on other fronts is also critically important. If a government-run provider can deliver a critical service to the public with a high level of trust and efficiency, and at a low cost, we can and should see it as a valid model for other desperately needed government services—such as health care, banking, guaranteed basic income, and more.
Naysayers will point out that mail delivery is hardly comparable to such complex needs as health care or banking. But the privately run businesses that dominate those industries have proven they are incapable of providing services adequate to meeting the needs of the American people. Compared with other nations, most of which have publicly funded health care systems, the United States performs terribly on providing care. And, areas with poorer access to health care resulted in disproportionately more COVID-19 related deaths, as per one study.
There are similar problems in the banking industry. Private banks are notorious for taking advantage of the poor, in particular using debt as leverage to squeeze more money from vulnerable Americans. Now, a movement to build a public banking system is gaining steam in states like California. Even more exciting, the Postal Service is starting to offer limited banking services in some areas.
Reagan was wrong. Government is not the problem. Government can be the solution.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
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