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Can Los Angeles Break Its Car Addiction?


There’s a story familiar to many Angelenos about the nefarious corporate conspiracy that killed the Red Car, Los Angeles’ glorious but short-lived early twentieth century public transportation system. It’s a dramatic fable, which also happens to be profoundly untrue.

The tale begins in 1901, when railroad magnate Henry Huntington broke ground on what would soon become the largest electric trolley system in the world, connecting myriad villages and housing developments (many built by Huntington’s real estate interests) throughout the Los Angeles basin, cohering them into a single urban megalopolis. It was an efficient, extensive, and affordable mass transit system for the people.

But then, soon after the founder’s death, General Motors bought up the whole system in order to destroy it. Greedy GM executives tore the rail out of the roads to make way for freeways, securing the future for the sale of millions of GM-produced private automobiles in Southern California. The rest is smog-choked history.

The real story is far less theatrical. The demise of the Red Car did not in fact require a devious capitalist plot; it was brought on by factors that were as natural to Los Angeles as the sunshine. Unlike older American cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, which all emerged as centers of trade and finance, Los Angeles’ economy was never based on a single dominant industry with a geographical metropolitan hub. Instead, film production, airplane manufacturing, agriculture, and other staple industries were dispersed widely throughout the massive region. The centripetal force that, in other cities, drew hundreds of thousands of laborers to a single square on a map in the morning and then back out again in the evening, necessitating the development of a mass regional transit system, has never existed in LA. Once the private automobile came into wide use beginning in the 1920s, high-speed roads and freeways simply made more sense than streetcars or subways. Accordingly, LA at mid-century set its sights on an automobile infrastructure whose development set the city on a singular course to a future dominated by cars, just as New York’s earlier investment in the construction of a subway system ushered in a century of urban life dominated by public transit.

Like most nostalgic yarns, the perseverance of the myth of the plot to destroy the Red Car says more about its tellers’ present hopes and dreams than about the actual historical past. And here in LA, while trapped in our steel boxes on a four-lane freeway that’s moving a little bit faster than we can walk, our dreams are about transit. We fantasize about more and better subways, streetcars, bus rapid transit, car shares, bike lanes, and bike sharing. We dream of being liberated from our seats behind the steering wheel.

It’s the job of Los Angeles’ new chief of transportation, Seleta Reynolds, to turn those dreams into physical infrastructure.

Before being hired by Mayor Eric Garcetti this summer, Reynolds helped lead San Francisco’s Livable Streets office in the city’s transportation agency. She sees a bit of LA’s future in San Francisco’s present.

“In San Francisco, people are truly multimodal,” she told me. “They take taxis, they take Uber and Lyft. They ride their bikes, they take bike share. They take the ferry, they ride the bus, they take the Muni Metro. Sometimes they drive, they take car share. There’s this huge web of choices available to people that they’re able to use whenever they want. That’s the direction we need to be moving in Los Angeles.”

Reynolds imagines a future in which an Angeleno can open an app that tells her not just the route to her chosen destination, but the best combination of modes to get there — bike to light rail to a bus to another bike, for instance — as well as the combined cost of the entire trip, and a one-click payment for all of the separate fares. In her view, the lifestyle habits of the digital age are already pushing us in that direction.

“You see it when you look at millennials,” she said in her West Coast-inflected Mississippi drawl. “If you give them a choice between a smart phone and a car, they want a smart phone. They consider driving a distraction to texting. They do not want to drive, and they want to live in cities where they don’t have to have a car.”

That city is not Los Angeles, at least not yet. LA is a city in which it’s not uncommon to take the freeway to get from one side to the other of the same neighborhood. While LA actually beats New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and almost the entire rest of the country in access to bus lines, those buses crawl at an average of ten miles an hour when not on the freeway, in a city of more than 500 square miles. LA also has a robust light rail system, but its ridership barely edges out San Francisco, a much smaller city, and still falls short of Boston, an even smaller city. LA is a city with a stubbornly car-centric infrastructure in a country that may be moving away from cars.

Or at least that’s what Reynolds believes. “It’s probably too early to say,” she suggested, “but we may have passed peak driving. There’s a societal shift away from driving. That is happening regardless of what [the city is] doing. We just need to be able to catch up and enable it and make it stick.”


One of the keys to making it stick, she believes, is bike sharing, an innovation that has gotten off the ground in New YorkChicago and the Bay Area, but, despite concerted efforts, has so far eluded LA.

“That’s really the barrier for bikes to fit into that truly multimodal trip choice scenario. If I ride my bike downtown, and I don’t want to ride it back home for whatever reason, I can put it on the bus, but that’s about my only choice. Whereas if I had bike share in my neighborhood, I could pick up a bike in my neighborhood, ride it to downtown, drop it off down here, and then I don’t have to worry about it.”

But while it’s easy enough to imagine a thriving bike-share program in neighborhoods like Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Venice, where bicycles are already ubiquitous, in poorer areas, the picture may be more complicated. Bikes can carry a whole different set of associations in poor communities than they do in more affluent ones. In a low-income neighborhood, a person on a bicycle might be presumed to be a drug dealer, or someone who lost his driver’s license on a DUI charge. That negative image is a disincentive to cycling.

And even aside from the social stigmas, it’s just unsafe to ride bikes in some parts of town. Sahra Sulaiman, who works with at-risk youth in Watts and Boyle Heights and reports for StreetsBlog LA, told me that “in lower-income communities where the public space is contested because of gang activity, crime, and/or intense policing by law enforcement, youth and men of color who choose to walk or bike alone are most at risk for being recruited for gangs, being jumped — and having their bike stolen — or being subjected to constant stops and searches by police.”

In the late 90s, when Reynolds worked for the city of Oakland, she became accustomed to the challenges of pitching increased investment in bike infrastructure to marginalized neighborhoods. When she went to community meetings in places that had been habitually neglected by the city, she was presented with long lists of urgent needs that had gone unaddressed for years. The last thing people wanted to hear about was bike lanes.

“Bike lanes can be associated with gentrification,” Reynolds noted. “When we talk about the power of street transformations to strengthen local economies, to some people, what that means is the arrival of $4 toast. Like, you’re going to make this a street for hipsters, and I’m not going to have a place in this community.”

Jamaal Green, an Urban Studies and Planning doctoral student at Portland State University and the blogger behind Surly Urbanism, remarked “semi-jokingly” in a post last year that “the forces that destroyed black and poor neighborhoods with highway construction from the 40s to the 60s are the same ones now pushing bike lanes.”

Elaborating on that thought today, Green told me, “I think we should be wary of calls for bike infrastructure placement when framed primarily as an amenity or attractor for some preferred demographic because that often means folks aren’t at all thinking about people who actually live in these neighborhoods.”

A few months ago, a local real estate developer handed out flyers in the Arts District, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown with a Blue Bottle, a Stumptown and a Handsome coffee, a vintage video game arcade bar, and a brand new mega-development that leases 363 square foot studios for close to $1,500 a month. The flyer invited Arts District renters to a bike tour of Boyle Heights, a nearby neighborhood that has been home to low-income immigrant communities for generations. “Why Rent Downtown When You Could Own in Boyle Heights?” the flyer read, describing the area as a “charming, historical, walkable and bikable neighborhood.” The bike tour would be followed by a discussion over “artisanal treats.”

When Boyle Heights residents got a hold of the flyer, a backlash ensued, which included some threats of violence. The developer canceled the tour and apologized for the flyer.

Gentrification tours are not the same as livable streets initiatives. But when the language of the latter is appropriated to sell the former, long-time residents of newly “up-and-coming” neighborhoods can be forgiven for failing to draw the distinction.

Adrian Lipscombe manages the bike share program for the city of Austin. She is currently working on her dissertation at the University of Texas, studying the perception of bicycle transportation in minority communities. “In Austin, we have 100 people moving here a day. Seventy of them bring cars with them,” she explained. “So we have lots of issues with gentrification, as well as with traffic and congestion. Bike facilities do not lead to gentrification, but there can be some bias from communities that don’t see them as something they use. There can be a lot of, ‘who is this really for?’ So it’s a matter of getting into the neighborhoods, talking about their needs, understanding their main mode of transportation, understanding the history of all the things that never got fixed, and then figuring out how to fit bicycle facilities into that context.”

Those are guidelines Reynolds will need to follow as she implements the Mayor’s new Great Streets initiative, a program to transform selected traffic corridors into beautified, bike-and-pedestrian-friendly districts that boost the neighborhood economies and, one hopes, keep people out of their cars.

“I’m interested in finding partners and champions in these communities, and make the Great Streets initiative a project for people who already live in them today,” Reynolds said. “It’s not just about how clean the streets are, or that the signals work. It’s about those things, but it’s also about making sure the streets are a reflection of the people who live there now.”

Gentrification notwithstanding, if you’ve spent even a single afternoon wasting your life away in LA commuter traffic, it’s hard to imagine any major change to the city’s car-centric transportation regime being anything but an improvement, for rich and poor neighborhoods alike. When “the West’s first freeway,” the Arroyo Seco Parkway between downtown and Pasadena, was built in 1940, there were one million cars on the road in Los Angeles. Today there are nearly six million. Just as the Red Car system found itself overtaken and rendered obsolete by the changing mass transportation demands of an earlier Los Angeles economy, LA’s septuagenarian freeway system looks increasingly like an antiquated solution to a set of transit needs that belong to a different century.

On the other hand, once upon a time, more than four decades before the West’s first freeway was laid down, Los Angeles went through another feverish bicycle craze. Bicycle clubs sprang up all over the city at the turn of the century, and a wooden elevated freeway for bikes was erected near the current route of the Arroyo Seco Parkway.

The fever came and went. It was killed off by the rise of the private automobile, and by the development of a new mass transit innovation that was easier, faster and more efficient than the bicycle: The Red Car electric trolley system.

This story originally appeared on Medium. A shortened version appeared in Huffington Post and Capital & Main.

Featured photo by Andy Castro.

Child Refugees Are Pleading For Asylum in Downtown LA

Immigration march

Courtroom X, on the 17th floor of a nondescript office building in downtown Los Angeles, is a cramped and bland-looking space about the size of a classroom. It seems like an appropriate place to adjudicate traffic citations. Instead, it’s a place where veritable death sentences are handed down to children.

Just two months ago, before the Ferguson protests, the Islamic State beheadings of two American journalists, and the celebrity-nude-picture hack, the Central American child refugee crisis briefly dominated the headlines and sent Congress into conniptions. Republican lawmakers, with support from the Obama administration, called for changes to existing law to allow the government to deport tens of thousands of children with asylum claims much more rapidly. Democrats balked, and in what has become a ritual in Washington, Congress deadlocked, went on recess, and the status quo prevailed.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the legal process hasn’t changed for the refugees themselves. In the absence of congressional action, the Obama administration quietly accelerated the pace of deportation hearings for unaccompanied minors, aiming to cut the wait time for an initial hearing down to 21 days, a process referred to informally by civil rights advocates as the “rocket docket.” Every day, in cities all over the country, teenagers, children, and even infants appear in rooms like Courtroom X, without an attorney, ostensibly to argue their case for asylum against a government prosecutor trained and practiced in one of the most complex bodies of law in existence.

The look of the proceedings is exactly how you would imagine it: part parody of due process, part bureaucratic stage acting, and part struggle to provide real justice under extremely harsh conditions.

It was 9:50 AM in Courtroom X. About a dozen people, mostly unaccompanied minors and members of their families who reside in the United States (refugees who come to the US typically do so to join family members here), crowded several rows of benches on one side of the courtroom. Immigration Judge Ashley Tabaddor presided over the hearings. Her demeanor plainly showed that she had administered this drill hundreds of times before; she was polite, but firm. She explained the legal circumstances to the audience before her, and asked for confirmation that they understood. It was obvious that it mattered to her that the defendants before her were given every opportunity to exercise their full legal rights, within the extremely narrow parameters that the courtroom allowed.

She asked the first defendant on the docket a series of basic biographical questions. The girl was 17 years old. She came from Honduras, where her father still lived. On this day, she was staying with her aunt and her mother in Bakersfield, about two hours from downtown Los Angeles.

This hearing, however, was for minors who did not have parents currently residing in the United States, and so the judge reset the girl’s case for the second week of September. It was now 9:52 AM.

The judge went down the list of the other children in the room, asking the same questions each time. Armando* was 16 years old. He was in court with his uncle. He came from Guatemala, where both his mother and father still lived. He was currently staying in the Westlake neighborhood of LA.

Raul was also 16. He was with his aunt; his mother lived in Guatemala. He didn’t know where his dad lived. He was staying in South LA.

Sandra was 13. She was seated with her sister, Jessica, who was 9. They both came from El Salvador. So did Oscar, 16 years old. He was staying in North Hollywood.

It was now 9:56 AM.

Judge Tabaddor explained to the defendants the legal facts of their situation: In the government’s view, all of the defendants were in the country illegally and should be removed. She asked them to confirm that the court had the proper addresses for where they were currently residing in the US so that removal notices could be delivered if—or in most cases, when—they were issued by the court.

She explained that they had a right to acquire representation by an attorney, but at no expense to the government. These were not criminal proceedings, so she could not appoint an attorney for them, but she did provide them with a list of legal aid groups that may be willing to offer them free counsel. It was the defendants’ responsibility to find an attorney. Did the defendants wish to find an attorney? Yes, they said, nodding.

Judge Tabaddor held up two thick books. These, she explained, were books on immigration law and procedure. The attorneys the defendants obtained should be thoroughly versed in the contents of these books, she said, since immigration law is extremely complex and attorneys who are not experts in it would not serve the defendants’ interests.

The judge also warned them to stay away from “notarios.” In some Latin American countries, the word “notario” refers to full-fledged lawyers. In the US, it refers to notaries public, who notarize legal documents. Some notarios will use this unfortunate discrepancy to pose as qualified attorneys. They will sound like they know what they are talking about, but they do not. Stay away from them, Judge Tabaddor inveighed. They would not be able to help in these asylum claims.

If this group of defendants reflected national trends, most of them would not find free or affordable lawyers to argue their asylum claims. With their lives potentially on the line, they would be forced to represent themselves. Without legally mandated government-appointed counsel, there are simply too many refugees, too much haste in deportation proceedings, and too few pro bono attorneys to provide real due process.

The judge reset their cases for November and dismissed the room. It had only been about 15 minutes since the first defendant on the docket was questioned and a little over an hour since the courtroom opened that morning.

In the hallway, Sandra’s aunt explained to me why her niece fled El Salvador. The region they came from, La Paz, has a heavy gang presence. Some of Sandra’s family members had already been recruited into the gang, which, she said, made the rest of the family visible to the gang and therefore a target. Gang members had threatened to kidnap Sandra. They knew that Sandra’s aunt lived in the US and demanded that she start sending the gang money.

Sandra’s entire school was threatened with violence by gang members from La Mara Salvatrucha, her aunt explained. The school principal sent out a letter to all of the students’ families informing them of the danger.

The risks to her safety in El Salvador were great, and Sandra fled the country. She made it to Texas before being detained and then spent a month in a detention center there. The room was cold and she claims that she was given no clothes to keep warm. According to her aunt, she was treated poorly by the staff.

She was transferred to a second detention center in McAllen, Texas. Circumstances there were much better. They had better rooms and even a school.

Now, she was in California with her aunt, but the threat of deportation looms. Altogether, she had been in the US four months.

What would happen to Sandra if the judge ruled against her, as most immigration judges do to most asylum claimants?

Her aunt began to explain while Sandra listened and her nine-year-old sister began fidgeting, as nine-year-olds tend to do. If Sandra was forced to return to El Salvador, her aunt explained, she would face the risk of injury, and maybe death. Several children who had been sent back to the homes they fled had been killed, she told me. (Press reports bear out her assertion.)

Sandra was ready to leave this conversation—to leave the building behind and get back to her new home, however temporary that home might prove to be. It was written on her face and in her nervous fidgeting.

I thanked them for their time and their openness and let them go.

In a few months, Sandra will return to Courtroom X, likely without an attorney, to find out whether the immigration judge will allow her temporary respite to be her permanent salvation, or whether she will be sent back to the miserable and potentially lethal circumstances she risked her life to escape.

This article originally appeared in VICE.

We Asked a War Correspondent About the Origins of ISIS


Anand Gopal’s job is to report from the front lines of conflict. He spent years as the Wall Street Journal’s reporter in Afghanistan, and in a few months he will be heading to Iraq to take stock of the chaos enveloping the region.

In the wake of the Islamic State’s murder of photojournalist James Foley, VICE checked in with Gopal to find out what he thinks of the situation unfolding in Iraq and the risks inherent in reporting from a war zone.

VICE: You spent years living in and reporting from Afghanistan, first for the Christian Science Monitor and then for the Wall Street Journal. The last reporter the Journal had covering Afghanistan before you was Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by Pakistani militants in much the same way James Foley was by the Islamic State. Later this year, you’ll be traveling to Iraq to cover the turmoil there. Your job obviously requires you to take significant risks with potentially lethal consequences. Do you think of your work this way? Or do you become inured to the dangers it entails?

Anand Gopal: I have not become inured to the dangers, because the moment you do that, that’s when you’re the most vulnerable. Although I work in war zones, and I work in places that are considered dangerous, I actually take quite a bit of precautions when reporting. I make sure I know an area very well; I make sure I have a very trusted network of contacts. I tend not to take particular risks that some other types of journalists take—particularly photojournalists, I think, tend to take way more risks than print reporters do, because they need to be in the middle of the firefight to take the photos. I’m always more interested in the background to the fighting, the political underpinnings of the fighting, so I tend not to be the one to run to the scene of an explosion, whereas photojournalists tend to do that.

So, of course there are risks, but I try to mitigate those risks through preparation and through the types of stories that I pursue.

You’ve interviewed both foot soldiers and leaders in the Taliban, and Afghan warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These were, obviously, dangerous men steeped in brutal violence and war. From a Western vantage point, however, the Islamic State seems as if it belongs to a different category altogether. The IS bloodlust seems to go even further than that of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the other radical Islamic groups that the US has been at war with for the past 13 years. Is that an accurate description in your view, or is there a hype factor at work here?

To some extent it is accurate to say that ISIS, or the Islamic State, is quite different from the Taliban. Different from al Qaeda as well, but especially different from the Taliban, for a couple of reasons—one of which is that the Taliban’s goals have always been nationalistic, in the sense that they claim to be fighting on behalf of Afghans against a foreign occupier. They claim to have the extent of their political ambitions being the return of Afghanistan to the status quo before the 2001 American invasion. And so in that sense they’re very much sort of focused on Afghanistan, and also—something I’ve learned from talking to Talib fighters—is that the things that propel them to fight are very local, very parochial. It’s about some valley that you live in. There happens to be a warlord there who’s predatory or who causes human-rights violations, and you’re reacting against this warlord. And that’s really the extent of it, and you go and join the Taliban. So it’s a very locally oriented movement, whereas ISIS is not.

What’s very interesting about ISIS is that they seem to reject the international order altogether, and I think that’s very unique and different. Even when the Taliban were in power, they sought international approval to an extent. I don’t think ISIS is necessarily more bloodthirsty than the Assad regime, or the Taliban, or al Qaeda, but what’s different about ISIS is that they are very happy to show their atrocities. They post it on Twitter. They put it on YouTube. And it’s because they have basically rejected the international order, and they’re rejecting working with the international order, and claiming their own order, an Islamic order harking back to the caliphate days, and because of that it seems like they’re much more bloodthirsty than any other group. But groups that are in power, including the Syrian regime, and groups that are in opposition, including elements of al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban, can be just as bloodthirsty, except that they try to minimize their atrocities; they don’t want the world to know about them. They hide their atrocities, whereas ISIS, because they reject the international order, they have a completely different strategic logic. So they promote their atrocities, and because of that we tend to think that ISIS is somehow uniquely bloodthirsty, more bloodthirsty than any other group out there, but I don’t think that’s actually the case.

Journalist Anand Gopal. Photo via Brave New Films

On the surface, last week’s gruesome murder of James Foley seemed to be either a warning to the US to stay out of Iraq or a provocation to join the fight. But was the intended audience really the West, or could it have been aimed at a domestic Iraqi audience for recruitment purposes?

Well, it’s possible that it was both simultaneously. I think there’s less sympathy for the killing of an American in parts of Iraq, given Iraq’s recent history with the United States, than there would be for the killing of Iraqis or Syrians, which is also happening on a daily basis via ISIS. So it’s very plausible that on the one hand it was something that was intended for a local audience in terms of recruitment, but at the same time I do think it’s hard to deny that in some way it was intended for the West as well.

There’s a line of thought out there, which I think is plausible, which says that ISIS and its previous incarnation, going back to 2004, 2005, 2006, that what they were very good at was operating in a state of war—at sowing chaos, and using that chaos to draw recruits and function as a group. And you could see this as part of that strategy. They’re still operating in a state of war. Their efforts to actually build a state, even in places like Rakkah in Syria, aren’t as extensive as you may see in in other places, like if you compare it with Hezbollah, and the mini-state that Hezbollah has in Lebanon, or some other Islamist groups.

As monstrous as the Islamic State may be, its success is fueled by legitimate grievances on the part of a Sunni population that has been relegated to second-class status by the Maliki government, a government that came into power as a result of the United States’ recklessly short-sighted invasion and occupation of the country. Now we’re essentially being dared by IS to intervene again in what has become a three-way civil war. Is there any kind of constructive role the US can play in this nightmare scenario, military or otherwise, or should the Obama administration stay as far away from the situation as possible?

I don’t think there’s a constructive role that the US can play. It’s important to keep in mind that the US is indirectly responsible for the very existence of ISIS because of its invasion, because of the chaos that was sowed by the invasion and because of the civil war that was ultimately caused by the United States’ invasion. So number one, given that, and number two, given the fact that it was US partners that laid the groundwork for Sunni disillusionment that ISIS was able to take advantage of, I don’t think the US has a very good track record in Iraq, and so I would be very wary of US involvement.

But beyond that, also, there’s really a dearth of good options. It’s not like a foreign power, a major power like the US can come in there and somehow defeat ISIS without causing unintended consequences or second- and third-order effects of the sort that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. I think if the Syrian Revolution were to change course, which unfortunately seems like it’s not very likely right now, but if it were to, if the less radical Islamists and the non-Islamist forces were able to become stronger, that might change the dynamic, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot that can be done. It seems like there would be a lot of bloodshed for many years to come.

What we’re seeing, more broadly speaking, is the fact that we’ve had 30, 40, 50 years of dictatorship, secular dictatorship across the Arab world, in which you’ve had very weak left forces that can articulate a vision of social justice that’s also secular. Those forces have been extraordinarily weak, in large part because of these dictatorships, because of Arab nationalism and Baathism and a lot of these ideologies that garb themselves in left-wing rhetoric but actually, in practice, are very oppressive. And so I think that robs a lot of genuine social justice and left-wing political movements of their legitimacy. And instead what you have is left-wing dictatorships or Islamism as the alternative.

And so after the Arab Spring, the secular dictatorships have been overthrown for the most part, or they’ve been attempted to be overthrown, and there’s nobody else to fill that vacuum except for the Islamists, and so that’s what’s playing out across the Arab world.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to that. It’s a generational thing. It’s going to take rebuilding, rediscovering these forms of politics and resistance that don’t have to do with Islamism and don’t have to do with Baathism and these other ruinous ideologies. It’s going to take a lot of time, and unfortunately, it’s going to be very bloody.

Portraits of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in Damascus. Photo by James Gordon

You’ve written, of Syria, that there is “a powerful pull in the West to order a messy reality into a simple and self-serving narrative.” Do you see that process unfolding in media accounts of what’s happening in Iraq today?

Certainly. I think for one thing, people have forgotten the history. The debate right now, sadly, is whether Obama pulling out in 2010–2011 is what caused ISIS to grow and become strong, or whether not arming the Syrian rebels is what allowed ISIS to grow and become strong. But these are very selective and simplistic views because we have to take the longer view, which is the fact that this is all taking place within the context of the radical upheaval that the US caused by its intervention and occupation of Iraq. And that has to be the starting point to begin to understand this.

And secondly, people tend to think of ISIS as purely evil. I see that word a lot. And obviously they’re heinous and barbaric and I abhor them. But we don’t get very far by thinking of them as purely evil. We need to really think about what are the social origins, what are the political roots of ISIS. What are the conditions in Iraq, particularly after 2008 and 2009, that led to the feelings of disillusionment and disenfranchisement on behalf of Sunni populations and the anger toward the Maliki government that allowed a group like ISIS to become strong in the first place?

This interview originally appeared in VICE.

Seattle’s Former Police Chief Speaks Out Against Police Brutality

Seattle Police

In recent weeks, incidents of lethal police violence against unarmed young black men have occurred in cities across the country, not just Ferguson. But in Ferguson more than anywhere, police doubled down on their role as a hostile occupying force in the community, showing off theirmassive collection of military-grade equipment and weaponry in a crude (and so far unsuccessful) attempt to intimidate the local population it purports to serve.

This isn’t the first time a local police force has turned an American city into something resembling a war zone in the name of civilian crowd control. In 1999, during the “Battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization, national headlines were accompanied by images like what we’re seeing out of Ferguson today: prrotesters being tear gassed and beaten by men in uniform. The Seattle chief of police was forced to resign in the wake of that debacle.

Since that time, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has made an astonishing political transformation, not only owning up to his own mistakes at the WTO protests, but becoming a staunch advocate of reforming the police and legalizing and regulating drugs. I got in touch with Stamper to get his take on modern police culture and the militarization of law enforcement in Ferguson and across the country.

The images we’ve seen coming out of Ferguson over the last week are reminiscent of the ones we saw 15 years ago at the WTO protests in Seattle, when you were the police chief there. At that time, you almost immediately regretted your decision to use tear gas, flash bang grenades, and other military-grade hardware against the protesters, and resigned the day after the ministerial ended. What comes to mind as you watch the Ferguson police make essentially the same mistakes that you made?

A whole lot of heartbreak, and I have to admit to some irritation, and some righteous anger. It seems like the rest of the country is hell-bent—I think back to the Occupy movement, for example, and the May Day demonstration—that so many police departments seem to outdo themselves in not paying attention to the lessons of WTO. I made, personally, the biggest mistake of my career that week. If you’re looking for a prescription of what to do wrong, you need look no further.

I think with the advent of the drug war, which certainly preceded WTO in 1999, and, for that matter, 9/11, we still see something that is extremely troubling to me, and that is that in the name of the drug war, we continue to uniform, equip, and arm police officers as soldiers, and then commit them to early morning, sometimes pre-dawn drug raids, in which the target is somebody alleged to have a half a baggie of marijuana in the family home. And of course we’ve seen tragedy after tragedy result from that kind of mentality.

And then we get 9/11. I was retired roughly two years when 9/11 struck, and one of the things that was most unsettling to me was while we had a president who was saying “Bring ‘em on,” and talking tough and so forth, we were very slowly but surely sending a message to local law enforcement that this can happen in your community. Well, of course it can, but it hasn’t, nor is it likely to. That’s no reason, obviously, not to be prepared; it’s no reason not to do training exercises; it’s no reason not to have proper equipment on hand.

 But what are the chances that it’s going to happen in Morven, Georgia, for example, which, as I understand it, is a department of about three people, who have acquired millions of dollars of federal military surplus? There’s a small town in Texas with one officer. He’s the chief, he’s the patrol officer, he’s the traffic officer, he’s the homicide investigator, assuming that jurisdiction ever gets a homicide. He’s it. And yet that small town has been given somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 to $4 million. Billions of dollars overall are portioned out to small departments with no provision for training, no provision for maintenance. And that’s a recipe for disaster. I’ve heard the expression that this is a situation very much akin to “boys with toys.” You give them this military equipment and they want to play with it.

You’ve written that, “simply put, white cops are afraid of black men.” You depict that phenomenon as not solely one of officers coming into the department as bigots, but also as a process in which the cops are learning prejudice and discrimination on the job. Can you explain what this looks like up close from your experience?

Let’s assume for a moment that a department wants to create diversity, sets out to do it. It has to make its organizational climate inviting. It has to make it hospitable to people of all races and ethnicities, to both genders and all sexual orientations. Whatever screening can be accomplished to help block those with racial or other prejudices is essential. And I think, all in all, law enforcement has done a fairly good job at the entry level.

But what happens to, let’s say, the average police candidate once he or she becomes a police recruit, and is going through the academy, is that they get exposed to the culture. And as professional as many police academies are, there are cops on the streets. And the cops on the streets are fond of saying things like, “Well, kid, forget what they taught you in the academy; you’re in the real world now.” And that’s really problematic. What’s being said in the real world and what’s being said in the academy ought to be the same, and it ought to be reinforcing non-discriminatory policing.

Let’s assume for the moment that you’re white, you’ve grown up in an all or predominantly white community, you’ve had little interaction with African-Americans, and you are now a police officer. And you’ve been told either in the academy or upon graduation from the academy, sea story after sea story of tales from the streets. You’ve heard about dangerous people. You’ve heard about individuals who have threatened or attacked police officers, pulled a gun on a police officer. Almost always, in police departments that are not thoughtful, those stories are situated in the black community. So what’s happening at a very subtle level—you don’t have to even express a racist point of view, you’re just simply telling a story from your point of view, as factually as you’re inclined to relate it. But what you’re doing, the meta-communication of all of that is: If you’re going to get hurt as a cop, it’s going to be at the hands of a black person. It’s going to be a male.

Nobody wants to get hurt, everybody wants to get home from their job everyday without suffering great bodily injury or worse, so it’s important for outsiders and insiders to recognize that officer safety is a legitimate and very important responsibility of executive leadership, and middle management, and first-line supervisors; indeed, it’s a responsibility of peers. So that if, for example, I’m scared of young black men that I meet on my beat, but with fear being a socially unacceptable emotion in police work, I can’t really express it, then I’m going to sublimate the fear, and I’m going to compensate in my behavior. In other words, because I’m scared, I’m going to act tough. I’m going to become the bully. Officers don’t say that, not even to themselves, but it is in fact, I’m convinced, what happens when fear is operating among white cops in black neighborhoods.

These recent events would seem to suggest that this culture of institutional police racism has not changed much since you began your career. Would it be a mistake to assume that?

It has changed a lot. That doesn’t mean it’s changed necessarily for the better. If it has become a sub-rosa problem, if it has become a hidden problem, in some respects, that’s even worse. Because if you get serious about improving race relations, one of the things you need to say to your cops is, “If you use racial or ethnic slurs, if you are trigger-happy, if you are heavy-handed in working in the African-American community and we document that case, you’re history. You’re out of here.” So one of the things that happens is, the tougher the talk gets, the smarter those forces within the ranks—not everybody, but those forces within the ranks who are for whatever their personal reasons, committed to a campaign of racism—will become more subtle and discreet. But if the phenomenon is still operating, it is going to affect the way cops behave toward the community.

This post originally appeared in Vice. Photo by Jade Getz.

Former State Department Official Matthew Hoh Makes the Case For Non-Intervention in Iraq


Matthew Hoh is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq before being stationed in Afghanistan as a high-ranking foreign service officer. In 2009, Hoh resigned in protest from the State Department over the U.S.’ misguided occupation of Afghanistan. Leighton Woodhouse, who interviewed Hoh, writes for Capital & Main.

Note: This interview was conducted before the Obama administration announced that it would not send in ground troops to evacuate refugees on Mount Sinjar.

You’ve written that sending U.S. troops back into Iraq, bombing the Islamic State, or otherwise engaging militarily in Iraq’s civil war may serve to salve guilty American consciences, but will only exacerbate the country’s violent divisions in the long run. With that said, there remain thousands of Yazidi and other non-Sunni refugees stranded and besieged on a mountain, with no access to food and water other than by airlift, dying of starvation, dehydration and sunstroke. Should it prove to be the case that the deployment of U.S. ground troops is the only means available to carry out an evacuation, is there a valid distinction to be made between that kind of an emergency, humanitarian rescue mission and out-and-out U.S. military intervention in Iraq? Could this be a situation in which some limited use of U.S. military force in the area is justified, and if not, what is the humanitarian alternative?

I think that distinction can be made in theory or in debate, but in practice I don’t believe it is possible to put American troops into the middle of the Iraq Civil War without supporting one side against another in the conflict. If our troops go into Iraq they will be picking winners and losers in a society they do not understand and in a war that is amazingly complex. This was the genesis of this conflict in 2003. The United States has quite a history of U.S. forces being utilized by one side against another in foreign civil wars, and that utilization only widens and deepens the conflict. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and, of course, our nearly nine-year-long occupation of Iraq are all examples. Further, putting foreign troops into Iraq will only help serve the interests of ISIS by lending credence to their propaganda and recruiting narratives.

The plight of the Yazidis should not be seen either as a singular tragic event, but rather as the most recent of a vicious cycle of violence that has been ongoing in Iraq. Estimates are of half a million dead, millions injured or maimed, and upwards of four million people, out of a population of 32 million, or 1 in 8, have been forcibly driven from their homes since 2003. So, without some political solution that will stop the cycle of violence, the Yazidis will soon be replaced in the archives of Iraqi horrors by another ethnicity or demographic. A long-term solution is what is needed, not something that is short-term and designed to score domestic political points or adhere to some form of foreign policy ideology or doctrine.

Finally, it is very important to separate and not conflate our humanitarian mission with the military mission. The United States is the wealthiest nation on Earth and we should help in a humanitarian manner whenever we can. However, in this case our military assets were not used to protect the Yazidis, but to protect territory that the Kurds have taken control of over the last two months. Since June the Kurds have increased their territory by 40 percent, including capturing the major oil city of Kirkuk. Northern Iraq is rich with oil and natural gas and what is playing out is a battle for these resources by the Kurds and Sunnis in the wake of the departure of Baghdad’s control and army. In effect we have become the Kurdish Air Force in protecting the gains the Kurds have made since this crisis began in June. Additionally, we have a very large CIA base near Erbil, which was reported by the Miami Herald last month, and protection of that, because of our concerns with Iran, is a priority for the Administration.

The same was said, however, by Clinton administration officials about Rwanda — that the U.S. cannot risk American lives, treasure and prestige intervening in a “tribal” conflict that could embroil the U.S. in the region for years or decades. The result of that calculation was genocide. Is the situation different in this case? What should be the guidelines for when foreign troops should intervene to prevent genocide or a level of mass atrocity that approaches it?

I’ll turn this around and say that I think the situation is different because of the oil and natural gas in northern Iraq. If Rwanda had such resources I think you would have seen intervention by the U.S. in the 90s.

Additionally this situation is different, because it has been caused by U.S./Western occupation in Iraq and the resultant destabilization of the region. ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was created in the wake of our invasion of Iraq in 2003. What needs to be done is to reverse the cycle of instability caused by U.S. intervention and meddling, one of the results of which is the atrocity committed against the Yazidis.

Consistency in our policy is a needed start to diminish the chances of future genocide. Remember a year ago, many of the same advocates in the U.S. of our re-entry into the Iraqi Civil War to fight ISIS, were advocating the U.S. become involved militarily in Syria, which, in effect, would have put the U.S. in support of ISIS and its goals in Syria. So, consistency in policy, and some thinking other than military-only approaches, needs to be applied to the region.

As far as what guidelines should be for U.S. troop intervention, I must say I do not know. I have not seen any evidence of successful U.S. intervention to stop such violence in our modern history. So, while I think it is a noble idea, I don’t think it is practically possible. Prevention of genocide by addressing conditions of political instability and lack of political order is what is needed and what is attainable.

Certainly the U.S. invasion unleashed the chaos we’re witnessing and set in motion the events that led to the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq/ISIS/the Islamic State. However, it was during the period of U.S. drawdown that Nouri Al-Maliki consolidated Shiite political rule and excluded the Sunnis from power, fueling the disenchantment that has led to this resurgence of militant Sunni nationalism. While the U.S. was exiting its military role in Iraq, are there diplomatic levers the Obama administration could have used to prevent the current outcome we’re seeing? Are there diplomatic levers it could still use today? Or should the U.S. simply extricate itself from the conflict on every level, both military and non-military?

I think we need to remain engaged with the world and the Middle East non-militarily while steadily reducing our military engagement, and thereby drawing down tensions in the Middle East, cooling off the arms race amongst Middle Eastern nations, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, and diminishing the rationale and narrative of terror groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, that rely, in simple terms, on keeping the motif of the Crusades alive. We have had a heavy military involvement, indeed a military-first foreign policy, in the Middle East since the end of World War II and most especially over the last four decades. The result has been a steadily decreasing level of stability in the region.

With Iraq we should have limited our arms sales to the Maliki government and limited its oil exports unless the government had remained politically inclusive. We have also fostered incredible confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, aggravating an existing Sunni Arab and Shia Persian tension that has played out in both nations supporting proxies in the civil war in Iraq. Of course, this may not have been possible; we may not have had such leverage in Iraq following our occupation. Both Shia and Sunni Iraqi communities were devastated as a result of the American occupation, so it is debatable what influence we could have had at all in Iraq over the last three years.

I feel, sadly, the violence in Iraq may need to play out, that external involvement will cause unintended consequences in Iraq and the region. The United States’ focus needs to be on repairing, actually completely rebuilding, any moral authority it once possessed and trying to become a truly independent outside power that seeks stability, balance of power and prosperity for the people of the Middle East. This isn’t fanciful idealism, but rather realistic policy necessary to prevent further atrocity and collapse throughout the Middle East. If the U.S. continues to try and pick winners and losers in the Middle East then the U.S., and the Middle East, will continue to fail.

Do you believe that the most stable eventual outcome for Iraqis may be the partition of Iraq into three countries, for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, respectively, if it’s even possible to do so without foreign intervention?

Yes, I do. I think that is the solution. There must be an equitable sharing of resources, but I believe that is the path most conducive to stability. Over time, when political order is restored, I think you will see a return to the multi-ethnicity that did characterize large parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, but for now I think only segregation and equitable sharing of resources will provide a solution to stop the cycle of violence.

At this particular moment, do you hold out much hope for the long-term future of Iraq?

No. I think political order in Iraq has been so overturned and upset, that we are going to see a lot more bloodshed until a natural and legitimate political order exists again. Again, to reiterate, the cause of this chaos and death has been outside intervention and occupation by foreign forces. It is mind-boggling that people advocate that as the solution.

This interview appeared in Salon. Photo: U.S. Army, Creative Commons

Fear for the First: Is Activist Speech Terrorism?


On Monday, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a request to the U.S. Supreme Court for judicial review of Blum v. Holdera lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.The request, and the history that led up to it, provides a glimpse into the ways in which the free speech rights of political activists continue to be eroded as a result of the defining legal and constitutional framework of our era, the “War on Terror.”

The brainchild of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the AETA was crafted as a direct response to the extraordinary success of an animal rights campaign called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). SHAC had effectively employed what its members believed to be legal, constitutionally protected activity to disrupt the business practices of a notorious animal testing corporation accused of engaging routinely in horrific abuses of animals, such as dissection of a live and conscious monkey.

In March of 2006, at the height of the Bush administration’s War on Terror, six SHAC activists were charged, convicted as “terrorists” and sentenced to a combined 23 years under the AETA’s predecessor law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Their crime: posting information on a website about illegal underground actions carried out by activists not directly connected to SHAC. The AETA was passed in the aftermath of the convictions after biomedical and agricultural industry lobbyists and the FBI argued for the need for “more effective tools” with which to yet more vigorously pursue and prosecute activists engaged in “criminal ‘direct action.’”

The AETA criminalizes protest activity aimed at “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” specifically citing activism that results in “the loss of profits.” It brands violators of the law “terrorists,” making them eligible for special sentencing enhancements and incarceration in super-maximum security prisons or, worse, Communications Management Units.

Though the law was written to single out animal rights campaigners, there is nothing in its wording to stop it from being used to prosecute other activists, such as labor organizers at slaughterhouses and university research facilities. Moreover, critics charge, in spite of a “savings clause” in the act that purports to put constitutionally protected speech outside of its reach, the broad language of the law casts a shadow over all manner of First Amendment activity whose express purpose is to cause “economic damage” and “the loss of profits” to corporations connected to an “animal enterprise” in order to force them to change their business practices. That activity could include picketing, boycotting, leafleting, occupying, civil disobedience, or undercover investigations. (For its part, in a statement provided to me for a 2012 article in The Huffington Post, an FBI spokesperson asserted, “The FBI does not investigate individuals based on their beliefs or other first amendment protected activity like free speech. It is when the individual exhibits intent to or crosses the line to commit a crime that we have an obligation to act.”)

The result of this ominous lack of clarity, argue the plaintiffs in Blum v. Holder, is a chilling effect on free speech.

The rationale used by the First Circuit Court of Appeals in its decision in March 2014 to uphold a district court’s dismissal of Blum has only compounded concerns over the law’s implications for the right to free speech. Citing last year’s Supreme Court decision in Clapper v. Amnesty International, a case that contested the constitutional basis of the Obama administration’s infamous NSA surveillance regime, the appellate judges declared that the nation’s highest court, in rejecting the plaintiffs’ standing to challenge the FISA Amendments Act, had imposed upon the judiciary a new and “more stringent injury standard” by which to measure complainants’ standing in pre-enforcement First Amendment-based constitutional lawsuits.

In other words, the court argued that in the wake of Clapper, the AETA’s chilling effect upon free speech, no matter how evident, no longer suffices in itself to justify a challenge to the law’s constitutionality. Instead, there must be an immediate threat of injury to a potential litigant under the law, such as a criminal prosecution. Someone who seeks to muster a challenge must therefore ignore the very risks that the “chilling effect” implies, and engage in speech activities that may court prosecution as a terrorist, and then sue only when actual charges are filed. Under those conditions, of course, the cost to the plaintiff of his or her suit’s failure is, potentially, imprisonment.

With that interpretation of Clapper, the court may have raised the legal threshold for mounting challenges to laws that inhibit political speech, potentially including statutes that have yet to be written.

Should the appellate court’s novel extrapolation of Clapper stand, the plaintiffs fear, then in addition to the AETA’s explicit strictures on political expression, activists will be faced with yet another legal hindrance to their freedom of speech, this one not even authorized by an act of Congress. To the growing list of abridgements to civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror — which already includes massive electronic surveillance and draconian criminal penalties for political activism under statutes like the AETA — may be added the innovative notion that laws that serve to chill free speech are immune from constitutional challenge unless and until criminal charges are brought under them.

This judicial theory arguably sidesteps the fact that laws that chill free speech inflict damage on constitutional rights simply by existing, inertly, on the books. They do their worst work, that is, when they do not result in prosecutions, but instead inhibit the very activity that they threaten to punish.

“What the Court of Appeals said is that, despite the plain language of the AETA statute, despite my objective reading of it, despite having limited my speech and activism because of it, and despite my fears that if my speech hurts the profits of animal-use industries I could be prosecuted, I cannot even get my foot in the courtroom door unless or until I am facing years in prison—again,” says Lauren Gazzola, who served 40 months in prison as a founding member of SHAC and who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “This hardly makes me feel safe from prosecution when speaking up about violence against animals. That’s why we’re asking the Supreme Court to look at our case: so we can go back into court and actually challenge the AETA’s constitutionality.”

This post originally appeared in Capital & Main and The Huffington Post.

Refugee Children Seek Representation in Courts


The clock is ticking for six refugee children from El Salvador and Guatemala who are plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that seeks to compel the Obama administration to ensure access to legal representation for tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors facing deportation proceedings.

The plaintiffs are among the more than 50,000 Central American children who have illegally crossed the border into the Southwestern United States in recent months, fleeing threats of violence by transnational street gangs that arguably exert more effective control over the daily lives of residents in large swathes of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras than those countries’ national governments.

Over a period extending from this month to early next year, the six plaintiffs are scheduled to appear for their own deportation hearings. As with thousands of other unaccompanied minors facing similar circumstances, the decisions of the immigration judges in their cases could mean the difference between life and death.

Three of the children are siblings from El Salvador whose parents operated a ministry that helped people exit the gangs and transition into civilian life. Gang members retaliated against their family by killing the siblings’ cousin and murdering their father in front of them, then threatening the children with violence unless they joined the gang themselves.

Early next month, the three siblings are scheduled to appear in immigration court to argue their case for asylum against a government prosecutor, without any legal representation. They are 10, 13 and 15 years old. Should the judge favor the government’s case and rule that the siblings be deported back to El Salvador, their chances of survival will be questionable and their chances of avoiding conscription into the gangs, even more so.

Last Thursday, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations, the six plaintiffs filed a motion to prevent the Obama administration from deporting them until they are able to secure legal representation or have counsel appointed to them by the government.

The motion was filed against the backdrop of an ongoing effort by Congressional Republicans and parallel steps by the White House to expedite the deportation of unaccompanied minors from the three countries. The Justice Department has extended operations of immigration courts in order to speed up deportation hearings with the goal of reducing the wait time for an initial hearing to 21 days, a process some critics refer to as a “rocket docket.” (Last year, the average immigration case took more than a year and a half to reach a verdict.) And the White House and Republicans in Congress share a goal of neutralizing a Bush-era human trafficking law that guarantees asylum seekers from countries other than Mexico and Canada the right to a day in court to present their asylum claims before any deportation order is handed down.

“These children fled horrific violence in their home countries,” says Ahilan Arulanantham, Deputy Legal Director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “The government will pay a trained prosecutor to advocate for their deportation in court. All we ask is that the government give them time to find a lawyer or provide one for them. We owe it to ourselves — as a nation that respects due process and the rights of refugees — to give these children a fair day in court.”

This post originally appeared in Capital & Main.

Alone and Afraid: Refugee Children Face Deportation Without Legal Representation

Isabel Mejia was 17 years old when she arrived in the United States from El Salvador, having fled her home country for reasons even the most hardened immigration opponent might have trouble dismissing. Some local gang members had decided to conscript her as the “gang’s girlfriend” — to force her into a life of sexual slavery. At home, the situation was no better: She had been a victim of domestic sexual violence. Faced with rape, death or flight, she chose to flee.

Today, Isabel (not her real name), now 18, lives in a small apartment in Southern California with her aunt. Her respite is only temporary. After crossing over the Mexican border into Texas, she had been captured by Border Patrol agents and held in a Houston detention facility before being released into her aunt’s care. Some time in the next few months, she will go before an immigration judge and, with the assistance of a pro bono attorney, present her case for asylum. If her argument is rejected and her appeals fail, she will be deported and sent right back into the impossible bind she risked her life to escape.

In one important respect, Isabel is fortunate: She has a lawyer. Most of the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America currently being processed through the immigration court system do so without legal representation. In deportation proceedings, the United States government does not provide free, court-appointed attorneys to refugees who have no other access to counsel, as it is obligated to do for American citizens facing criminal prosecution. Defendants in the immigration courts, regardless of their age or education level, are forced to represent themselves within a body of law that is frequently compared to the Internal Revenue Code in its degree of complexity.

“I’ve seen infants going into court,” says Lindsay Toczylowski, Directing Attorney for the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit law office affiliated with Catholic Charities. “I’ve seen a five-year-old girl questioned by a judge while she’s sitting in a chair big enough for an adult so her feet don’t even touch the floor. I have not seen a case in which a minor is successfully able to navigate the asylum process and successfully obtain asylum without an attorney’s assistance.”

On July 9, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with Public Counsel, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the American Immigration Council and the law firm K&L Gates LLP, filed suit against Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and six other Obama administration officials in federal court in Seattle. The suit seeks to compel the government to “ensure that no child faces the life-altering prospect of deportation without legal representation.”

“Our view is not that every child that comes here should have a legal right to stay here,” Ahilan Arulanantham, Deputy Legal Director for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, explains. “Really it’s just that many of them, in this one UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] survey, about 58 percent of them, have serious claims to protection under the refugee laws or other humanitarian relief that exists in the immigration law. And the question is just, are we going to give them a fair day in court? Are we going to give them the opportunity to present that claim?”

If the UNHCR figure is accurate, then as many as 33,000 of the 57,000 Central American children who have been picked up by Border Patrol since October 1 may have valid claims to refuge under U.S. law. This massive humanitarian emergency is the result of deteriorating social conditions in three countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — that have led to the dominance of transnational gangs over extensive territories within them.

Those gangs were, in part, imported into the region from the United States during the 1980s and ’90s, when thousands of youths who had fled U.S.-financed civil wars in the three countries and emigrated to Los Angeles were imprisoned during the “War on Drugs” crackdown, exposed to California street gang culture and then deported en masse back to their countries of origin. Some of the gangs still bear the names of the L.A. streets that birthed them: The Normandie Locos clique of La Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang.

Now those gangs are terrorizing entire nations with something close to impunity.

Sonia Menendez (not her real name) is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Now 14 years old, Sonia fled El Salvador out of fear of being targeted by gang members because her uncle, a police officer, refused to agree to look the other way when it came to gang activity. The gang members retaliated against her uncle by threatening Sonia’s elder sister.

“When they target one sister, and that sister runs, then they target another,” Arulantham says. “And so all the sisters fled.”

Sonia is temporarily staying with her father, Juan Pablo, in the Los Angeles area.

Juan Pablo, who was a police officer in El Salvador for nine years, describes life in his home country this way:

“After the peace accords [following the civil war], people generally lived well . . . Then, from 1995 on, this problem started. No one thought it would get this big. Many people say that it was better to live in the civil war than what is happening now. The reason why they think that is that ‘they’ live among us. You go out of your house and you don’t know if you will come back alive because just around the corner they are waiting for you.”

“If you don’t let them do what they want, they will kidnap and rape you, even kill you,” Isabel says.

In the coming months, Sonia, like Isabel, will have her fate determined by an immigration judge interpreting laws she cannot understand in a legal process that is stacked against her. If the judge’s decision is not in her favor, Sonia’s options for escaping the gangs will be exhausted.

The chances for future refugees may be slimmer still. The Obama administration has indicated its intention to expedite future deportations of Central American children by working with Congress to gut a law passed under the Bush administration that offers a modicum of due process to asylum seekers from the region. A bill called “The HUMANE Act” would repeal the law’s requirement that unaccompanied minors from countries that do not share a border with the U.S. have an opportunity to plead their case before an immigration judge prior to a deportation order.

“My guess,” speculated  Texas Senator John Cornyn upon introducing the bill, “is that once the word gets back to Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere that, ‘Look, it’s not a free pass. This permiso doesn’t work. They actually will send you back,’ that people will not start the journey.”

But there is reason to question whether the more callous legal regime that President Obama and Congressional Republicans seek will have any impact on the number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran refugees seeking to enter the United States. According to the UNHCR, the U.S. is far from alone in seeing a dramatic uptick in asylum applications. Combined, the countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize have seen a 432 percent increase in refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum. These figures suggest that refugees from the three countries are not seeking to come to the United States based on a perception of the country’s uniquely hospitable immigration laws; they are simply going anywhere they can get to, including the U.S., to escape the nightmare of their circumstances at home.

“Many of these minors are looking at certain death if they remain in their communities, or face the treacherous journey to the United States and an uncertain legal future once they get here,” Toczylowski contends.

“It would be a mistake to think that this is entirely a product or even mostly a product of the change in our immigration policies in the recent past or anything other than a massive humanitarian refugee crisis,” argues Arulanantham.

Even without the further reduction in the legal rights of asylum seekers that the Obama administration is pursuing, what presently passes for due process for tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras has, at best, a dubious claim on justice.

“It has been true for over 100 years under American law that non-citizens do have certain critical Constitutional rights, most importantly the due process clause does not protect ‘citizens,’ it protects ‘persons,’” Arulanantham argues. “That’s what the framers of the Constitution wrote in a very deliberate way. Similarly the 14th Amendment … It has been true for over 100 years that one of those basic protections is the right to a fair hearing before you are to be deported from this country.”

“Proceedings against a 10-year-old child,” Arulanantham continues, “with a lawyer on one side for the government but no lawyer for a child — they’re a joke.”

This post originally appeared in Capital & Main.

Boycott Angora


It would be dishonest of me to say that I recommend watching PETA Asia’s video exposing the barbaric methods employed by Chinese laborers in the manufacture of angora fabrics. Even by the standards of animal cruelty investigative videos, PETA Asia’s footage is hard to watch. If you’re not prepared to see it for yourself, allow this description to suffice: bunny rabbits are shown strapped to boards, having their fur torn out at the roots by hand until they’re bald, screaming throughout the entire agonizing process. Then they’re thrown into solitary cages where they live out their short, miserable lives, going through the same torture every two months until their throats are finally slit.

The good news is that if you want to take a step toward ending these horrific practices, watching the video isn’t the most important thing you can do. The important thing is to do is this: boycott angora.

I live with two pet bunny rabbits, so my sympathy for the species is personal. Here’s what I know from my experience: Rabbits are highly social creatures, with much more distinct and idiosyncratic personalities than most people would expect. They crave affection, from each other and from their human companions. They experience pain and fear. And under normal circumstances, they never, ever scream.

It’s easy enough to blame China, from which 90 percent of the world’s angora fur is sourced, for the horrors visited upon angora rabbits and other domesticated animals at their end of the industrial supply chain (and even easier to ignore what takes place at ours). As in the United States at the turn of the 20th century and England in the late 1800s, the breakneck pace of Chinese industrialization has generated both enormous wealth and massive poverty and desperation. It’s a society in a stage of anarchic capitalism. Just as there are few labor protections in China for capitalism’s human victims, there are no animal welfare rules whatsoever.

But pointing the finger solely at China elides the fact that it’s Americans whose purchasing habits are being served by this cruelty. Angora sweaters may end up on store shelves in a few high-end retail outlets in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but for the most part, they’re headed to your local J. Crew store. Angora fabrics are being made for the luxury tastes of American consumers and the profits of American retailers.

That doesn’t just put the moral responsibility back on us – it also puts us in a position to demand change.

We can no more write new Chinese laws to curtail these abuses than we can enter Chinese factories and release suffering rabbits from their cages. But we can do one thing to make a difference, right this minute: Boycott angora.

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post and Alternet.

Steve King’s Farm Bill Amendment Hurts Animals — and California Farmers

Steve King

This article was first published as an op-ed in The Hill.

Iowa Congressman Steve King is an interesting kind of conservative.

Last year, when a seemingly non-controversial amendment was attached to the 2012 Farm Bill making it a federal crime to attend or to bring a minor to an organized animal fighting event, King strenuously objected, lashing out at those who seek to “elevate animals above humans.” Later, in the face of criticism for his apparent support of criminal dogfighting and cockfighting rings, he tried to explain himself by arguing that enactment and enforcement of laws against such activities should be left to the states, not the federal government.

King’s backpedalled explanation may just sound like good old-fashioned conservative common sense. But this year, the congressman has a curiously different attitude about the federal government intruding on state prerogatives — specifically, the state of California’s prerogatives. When it comes to Congress trampling on the decision of California voters to reduce the suffering of animals instead of upon the attempts of criminals to profit from it, King, it would seem, is all about Big Government.

In May, King introduced an amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill that specifically seeks to neutralize California’s Proposition 2, which was passed by voters in 2008 by 63 percent to 37 percent. In case you’re unfamiliar with Prop 2, it’s the measure that “(r)equires that calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”

Two years after Prop 2′s passage, Governor Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law requiring that as of January 1, 2015, all eggs sold in California be produced under Prop 2′s standards, no matter where they originate. Such a law was necessary, the governor reasoned, to prevent out-of-state farmers — who, after Prop 2′s rule change goes into effect a year and a half from now, will be subject to lower legal standards of animal welfare and, consequently, enjoy lower production costs — from taking advantage of the compassion of California voters by undercutting California egg farmers with a flood of cheap, battery cage eggs.

The new rule was about basic fairness for California farmers: voters had chosen to establish minimal animal welfare standards for farmers operating within the state, and California lawmakers were helping to level the playing field to prevent egg farmers from being driven out of business by complying with the new law. “This bill is good for both California egg producers and animal welfare,” Schwarzenegger wrote in a statement accompanying his signature.

But where Californians see common sense and compassion, King claims to see constitutional peril — and constitutional redemption by way of his amendment. The “Protect Interstate Commerce Act,” which survived passage of the overall bill in the House this summer, makes it illegal for a state (such as California) to prohibit or restrict the sale of an agricultural product (such as eggs) produced in another state (such as Iowa) based upon its method of production (such as highly constrictive battery cages).

“Current California law and referendum unconstitutionally regulates dramatically impacts (sic) producers from all over the nation,” King wrote to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association after his amendment was passed by the House Agriculture Committee. “…(PICA) will ensure the federal government is able to put a halt to this unconstitutional activity by states and other political subdivisions.”

Important-sounding words. But lurking behind King’s lofty rhetoric about government jurisdictions is a crass and self-serving interest. By overriding the 2010 law prohibiting the sale in California of out-of-state eggs produced under conditions that fall short of Prop 2′s standards, his amendment would create exactly the situation that state lawmakers and Governor Schwarzenegger sought to prevent: a flooding of the state’s consumer market with cheap, inhumanely produced eggs that put California producers at a major competitive disadvantage to out-of-state agribusiness operations, many of them based in King’s home state of Iowa.

In other words, the King Amendment is all about profits for Iowa Big Ag, at the tragic expense of hens, veal calves, sows, and California farmers. With huge corporate profits on the table, it appears that a politician like King isn’t going to let conservative principles about defending state autonomy from federal overreach stand in the way.

Photo: isafmedia, Creative Commons License