Victory for Farmworkers: Walmart Joins Fair Food Program

CIW Walmart
Walmart and CIW representatives sign an agreement bringing Walmart into the Fair Food Program. Photo: CIW.

Florida farmworkers have won a major victory.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has signed an agreement with Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program, which has brought higher wages and better working conditions to workers in Florida’s $650 million tomato industry. As part of the agreement, Walmart committed to helping spread the Fair Food Program beyond the state of Florida and beyond the tomato industry.

The CIW has worked since 2001 to improve wages and working conditions for Florida farmworkers. In addition to Walmart, the organization has succeeded in persuading McDonald’s, Burger King, Trader Joe’s Whole Foods Market and others to join the Fair Food Program. Now that Walmart is on board, attention turns to Publix, the popular Florida-based grocer that has refused for more than four years to sign an agreement with the CIW.

U.S. Special Forces Deployed in 134 Countries

Special Forces
U.S. Army Special Forces in Afghanistan, 2008. Photo: U.S. Army.

U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 134 countries in 2013, more than twice as many as during the George W. Bush administration. This is a dramatic increase in the global projection of U.S. military power. Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com reported on the increase in The Nation.

Funding for Special Operations Command was at least $6.9 billion in 2013, up from $2.3 billion in 2001. The number of Special Operations personnel is expected to reach 72,000 in 2014, an increase from 33,000 in 2001.

The increase has mirrored the steady climb in U.S. military spending since 2001. According to the  the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in 2012 the U.S. approved $645.7 billion in military spending, more than the next 15 biggest-spending countries combined.

California Police Officers Acquitted in Fatal Beating of Mentally Ill Homeless Man

Two former Fullerton, California police officers were acquitted January 13 in the fatal beating of a mentally ill homeless man in 2011.

The former officers, Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos, were charged over the death of Kelly Thomas. Surveillance video, embedded above, shows police officers beating and tasing the man, minutes after Ramos says, “See these fists? … They’re getting ready to fuck you up.” Thomas died of his injuries five days later.

The Orange County jury found Ramos not guilty of second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter, and Cicinelli not guilty of involuntary manslaughter or excessive use of force. After the verdict, the FBI announced that it would examine evidence in the case to determine whether further investigation is warranted.

Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father, told the Associated Press, “Police officers everywhere can beat us, kill us, whatever they want, but it has been proven right here today they’ll get away with it.”

Secret “Free Trade” Agreement Threatens Workers, Consumers

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) before it, is a “free trade” agreement in name only. The secret pact currently being negotiated between the U.S., Canada, Japan and other nations would increase the power of corporations and investors at the expense of protections for workers, consumers and the environment. An interview with Noam Chomsky about the TPP is embedded above.

While more than 600 corporate “trade advisors” help set the terms of the agreement, the public and even Congress are not allowed to know what is in it. What little we do know about the agreement is the result of leaks, including a draft chapter on intellectual property published in November by Wikileaks. Analysts have said that chapter indicated that the pact would increase corporate power by, among other things, making it more difficult for generic drugs to make it to market.

A first step in taking action on the TPP is fighting for our right to know what is in the agreement. Public Citizen is petitioning U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to do just that.

Mass Incarceration: Why Marijuana Laws Matter

Incarcerated Americans
Chart: Wikimedia Commons

Recreational marijuana use became legal in Colorado on January 1, which activists hailed as a landmark event in the movement to end the drug war. Most media stories on the change have either made light of it or taken a mildly disapproving tone. Few have focused on the issue looming behind the drug policy debate: mass incarceration.

As the Drug Policy Alliance points out in “A Brief History of the Drug War,” in the 1970s, there was recognition on the part of the public and the government that pot is not a particularly dangerous drug, even as President Nixon had had it classified as a Schedule I substance. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the drug war intensified, with the primary result being an astronomical increase in the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent crimes.  Between 1970 and 2005, the U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent during a time when violent crime was stable or declining. Today there are more than 2 million Americans behind bars, and about 3 percent of the population is under correctional supervision. In 2011, nearly half of federal prisoners were serving time for drug offenses, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

Politicians knew 40 years ago that marijuana was not very dangerous: Nixon’s own commission recommended decriminalization. Treatment is known to be a more effective approach to drug abuse than incarceration. But the drug war was never about protecting the population from danger.

“Look, we understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we were making them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue for the Nixon White House that we couldn’t resist it.”

-John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House counsel

“[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”
-H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, on the war on drugs

Four Decades Before Edward Snowden, Activist Burglars Exposed FBI’s Cointelpro Program

Retroreport.org has produced an excellent short video, embedded above, telling the story of the March 8, 1971 burglary of FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania that exposed the agency’s Cointelpro program. The identity of the activists was unknown until this week, when some of them stepped forward ahead of the release of a book about the burglaries.

Just as Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of classified information about NSA surveillance contributed to the public debate about overreach by government spies, the Media burglars exposed an illegal surveillance program. Cointelpro, short for Counter Intelligence Program, was created to spy on civil rights leaders and other activists, but it went further. Among the revelations from the burglary was evidence that the FBI attempted to anonymously blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. into committing suicide.

Then as now, the government attacked the whistleblowers, saying that they should have used legal methods to expose injustice. The problem with that argument is that in both the case of Cointelpro and the case of NSA mass surveillance, until activists took action, the public did not know it was happening.

Occupy Movement Set the Stage for a Minimum Wage Increase

Occupy Tampa
An Occupy Tampa protester in October 2011. Photo: Brendan Conley.

At the height of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and subsequent worldwide Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, the protesters were often criticized for not having clear demands or goals. However, the movement made income inequality a central part of the political conversation, and that has had lasting effects.

As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out in a U.S. News & World Report article, the movement forced politicians to take a stand on income inequality and helped create a political atmosphere in which the current push to raise the minimum wage has a good chance of success. A minimum wage hike is long overdue and would be a crucial step in addressing income disparity in the United States.

Too often, street protests are dismissed because they do not have immediate effects, and later political changes are seen as the initiative of benevolent politicians. However, throughout history, demonstrations have been a vital part of the democratic process, changing the political conversation and putting the powerful on notice.

Florida Law Requiring Drug Testing of Public Assistance Recipients Ruled Unconstitutional

Daily Show

A federal District Court has issued a final judgment declaring that Florida’s law requiring beneficiaries of the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to take a drug test, violates constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Judge Mary Scriven of U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that the “warrantless, suspicionless drug testing” at issue could not be constitutional under any circumstances.

The plaintiff in the case was Luis Lebron, a U.S. Navy veteran who was also a full-time student and caretaker for his young son and disabled mother when he applied for assistance. Lebron refused to submit to a drug test and the ACLU of Florida took on his case. The court’s decision follows a preliminary injunction that halted enforcement of the 2011 law months after it went into effect.

The court’s decision makes it worth revisiting the excellent Daily Show segment about the law. Correspondent Aasif Mandvi took the law to its logical conclusion, asking Governor Rick Scott, who campaigned for the law, to submit to urinalysis himself.

Exonerated After 20 Years in Prison: One of the Most Compelling False Confession Stories of 2013

Daniel Taylor
Daniel Taylor, exonerated after two decades in prison. Photo: Center on Wrongful Convictions.

Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions has written a summary of important events in 2013 regarding false confessions.

Many innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit, because they are coerced or tricked during interrogation, or because they tell police what they believe they want to hear.

One of the most compelling stories of 2013 is that of Daniel Taylor, who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Illinois in 1992 and spent more than two decades in prison before he was exonerated and freed last year. Continue reading Exonerated After 20 Years in Prison: One of the Most Compelling False Confession Stories of 2013

New Hampshire Rebellion Fights Money in Politics

Citizens are uniting to get money out of politics.

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Rootstrikers, is leading a march across New Hampshire beginning on January 11, 2014, to ensure that the issue of political corruption is addressed in the 2016 Presidential election.

According to Rootstrikers, because of the high cost of elections, politicians are beholden to funders. The organization calls this political corruption, not in the criminal sense of outright bribery, but in the sense that politicians are more likely to represent funders’ interests rather than citizens’ interests.

This is an issue that affects people from across the political spectrum. Money in politics is a barrier to effective representative democracy. Rootstrikers is calling for citizen-funded elections and for Presidential candidates in 2016 to answer one question: “How are you going to end corruption in Washington?”