Archive for January, 2023

The DeSantis Advanced Placement Stunt – posted 1/29/2023

January 29, 2023 6 comments

One of the more blatant publicity-seeking stunts pulled by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been his effort to kill an Advanced Placement course in African-American studies. Following DeSantis’s lead, the Florida Department of Education rejected the AP African-American studies course as “woke indoctrination” and not “historically accurate”.

Florida’s Department of Education cited the inclusion of readings from many African-American scholars, activists and writers who discuss reparations, Black feminism, Black queer theory and intersectionality (how racism, sexism and other forms of oppression work together and build on one another). They singled out Angela Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw and bell hooks as unacceptable. They stated the AP studies class “lacks educational value”.

I have some familiarity with advanced placement courses. Back in 1967-1968, I was in an AP class in American history in high school. A benefit of AP courses is that they allow high school students to obtain college credit. For me it meant not having to take required college courses I otherwise would have had to take.

My high school had no minority students. The American history we learned was entirely devoid of the African-American experience. I do recall a racist take on the lessons in Reconstruction but mostly the history featured exclusion of any Black voices, including the most prominent.

It is peculiar to be banning this AP course in a context where the norm is still minimal offerings in any African-American history. The assumption that teaching AP African American history is “woke indoctrination” is pure speculation and something made up by DeSantis. It is a right wing talking point and it has no reality.

Likely equally pernicious is the chilling effect on teachers. All Florida teachers must make a calculation about what is allowable to teach. What will cross the line and get them reported? Safety would dictate a sanitized history.

In looking at what Florida is doing now, I see a continuation of the erasure of historical memory. Our national deeper problem is a white blind spot where we refuse to look at the real history. Black experience in America has never been given its due and that is true not only in Florida.

Florida has a particularly rancid history though that can match Mississippi and Alabama history. Business leaders have evoked the image of the sunshine state to cover a virulently racist past. Certainly it is not the whole history but there is a nasty underbelly that is typically overlooked.

In the 1830’s, the Florida territory passed a law that stated that a free black person who left the territory could not return and that any white person could detain any Negro, slave or free, for any reason. In 1832, the Florida territory enacted another law prohibiting “Negroes to congregate for any purpose except to work or attend divine worship”.

Between 1880 and 1930, Florida had the highest number of lynchings per capita of all former Confederate and border states. 282 black people were lynched in Florida during these years. White supremacy was about keeping black people in their place through extra-legal violence and intimidation.

The largest known mass lynching in Florida happened in Newberry, near Gainesville, in 1916. At least six black people were murdered for alleged hog-stealing. They were dragged from the local jail by an uncontrollable mob and hung from a large oak tree. Hordes came to view the dangling, lynched bodies. No arrests were ever made for the six murders even though the lynchings were viewed by deputy sheriffs and a state senator.

One hundred years ago in 1923, a racist mob destroyed the black Florida town of Rosewood. Possibly readers saw the John Singleton film Rosewood which was inspired by that event. The massacre happened after a white woman claimed she was assaulted by a Rosewood resident. Six were murdered and black residents had to run for their lives, hiding in swamps and woods. No law enforcement agency ever investigated or charged crimes for these events.

I would note two other lynchings. In 1934, a black man, 23 year old Claude Neal, was arrested for allegedly raping and killing a white woman. News media advertised the lynching in advance. A huge crowd gathered for the spectacle. A small group in the mob tortured, mutilated and murdered Neal in secret. They then tied his body to the back of a truck and dragged him to another location where a white crowd estimated at 2000 attacked the corpse with sticks and knives.

The mob then again hung Neal’s body from a tree. The sheriff cut his body down. The next day another mob formed demanding that the body be hanged again so they could view it. When the sheriff refused, the mob rioted, injuring 200 and attempting to drive black people from the county. The Neal lynching was legendary for its brutality. It demonstrated the failure of local, state and federal authorities to curtail the practice of lynching and it propelled federal anti-lynching legislation.

Then there is the story of Willie Howard, a 15 year old who lived in Live Oaks. He was lynched for giving a Christmas card to a white girl. Two white men took Willie and his father to the Suwannee River at gunpoint.They bound Willie’s hands and feet and gave him a choice between getting shot and being drowned in the river. Willie was drowned. No murder charges were ever filed in the case. The case is often compared to Emmett Till’s but it has been lesser known.

Up until the civil rights movement, Florida maintained segregation. Separate water fountains, bathrooms, public accommodations, beaches, and segregated schools and universities were the norm defended by legal authorities. Until the 1950’s blacks were not allowed on juries. In his books, The Beast in Florida and Florida Through Black Eyes, the African-American Professor Marvin Dunn lays it all out and it’s not pretty.

This is a history white supremacists will never acknowledge so they bury it.

As DeSantis prepares for a 2024 presidential run, banning the AP course is just another performative stunt designed to outflank Trump on the far right. It is part of his effort to win over the MAGA base. The damage is in how much his anti-woke law will intimidate teachers.

Should DeSantis win the nomination and get elected in 2024, we can expect a nation-wide rollout of a plan like this. You have to ask: what makes DeSantis an authority to decide what is acceptable for America’s students about black history?

As they should, three Florida high school students are challenging the DeSantis action in court and it will be litigated. The AP stunt is a serious threat to academic freedom.

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The Supreme Court stands poised to undermine the right to strike – posted 1/22/2023

January 23, 2023 1 comment

After stripping women of their reproductive rights, the far right majority of the U.S. Supreme Court is now on the verge of weakening workers’ rights and the whole labor union movement. The Court just heard oral arguments in the case of Glacier Northwest Inc. v International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local Union No. 174, a case that threatens workers’ right to strike.

Back in 2017, the drivers of cement-mixing trucks went on strike after they were frustrated by the failure of collective bargaining negotiations with their employer. Glacier Northwest, a Seattle-based ready-mix concrete company. Eighty five truck drivers walked off the job and went on strike. Sixteen of the drivers had trucks filled with concrete that had not yet been delivered. These workers drove their trucks back to company headquarters and left the trucks running.

The workers took the precaution of leaving their trucks running with their drums rotating so the cement would not harden and spoil. However, Glacier lacked the personnel to deliver all the concrete. The wet cement hardened and the company had to dispose of it. There was no damage to any truck. The strike settled a week later.

Afterward, Glacier sued the union in Washington state court for the intentional destruction of company property even though the ruined concrete was incidental to the strike and the workers took steps to avoid damage. The case made its way through Washington state courts. Ultimately, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously dismissed Glacier’s case on the grounds it lacked jurisdiction.

The Washington Supreme Court said the case had to be heard by the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB. State court tort claims like Glacier’s are usually superseded by federal law. For a long time, the NLRB has had almost exclusive jurisdiction of strikes. The NLRB has a wealth of background, expertise and experience in labor disputes like Glacier’s.

The NLRB is a federal agency set up during the New Deal after huge strike waves in the 1930’s. The right to strike is federally protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The statute was s response to violent suppression of workers’ organizing by employers and the government. The NLRB was intended to equalize the power imbalance where workers were outgunned by corporate power.

The history of strikes in America has been an untold story and it is largely forgotten. In his classic book, Strike!, Jeremy Brecher writes:

“This book is the story of repeated, massive and often violent revolts by ordinary working people in America…The story includes virtual nation-wide general strikes, the seizure of vast industrial establishments, guerrilla warfare and armed battles with artillery and aircraft.”

To appreciate the reasons for the NLRB, it is essential to understand our labor history with its many violent episodes. In the Glacier situation, the Teamsters filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company and the NLRB issued a complaint charging the company with that unfair labor practice. Rather than accepting the NLRB’s jurisdiction, the company did an end run and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There has been a narrow exception to NLRB’s jurisdiction if a union intended to damage or vandalize property. In this instance, Glacier is saying the union intended to destroy property and they intentionally sabotaged company operations. The Court appears eager to use the case to further its anti-union agenda.

I believe the Court has two goals in taking the case. First, it wants to narrow the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Second, it wants to expose the Teamsters (and all unions) to the possibility of having to pay damages for engaging in strikes. To quote Cathy Creighton:

“Who’s going to go on strike when you know that if your strike is successful, you’ll be sued.”

The threat of being sued and sustaining damages could be a significant disincentive for any strike option. It would certainly add to any calculation. It is no accident that this is happening at a time of increased worker organizing and union resurgence. There were 316 strikes in America in 2022, up from 257 in 2021. 240 Starbucks locations unionized in the past year as well as the large Amazon warehouse in New York.

Faced with a newly invigorated labor movement, the Supreme Court is out to hobble workers’ right to strike. Withholding labor by going on strike is labor’s most powerful tool. Based on the track record of the far right Supreme Court majority, clipping labor’s wings is part of their agenda. Any Supreme Court observer can look back over the last 50 years and have a hard time finding even a single case where the justices ruled on the side of workers and against corporations.

It is a plutocrats’ court. By always siding with the rich and corporations against working people, the Court has discredited itself. Law and justice have often had a tenuous relationship but this Court is an outlier devoted to worsening economic inequality.

Back in 1971, not-yet-Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, then a corporate attorney, wrote a very influential secret memo for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce titled “Attack on America’s Free Enterprise System”. It embodied the long-range conservative political and legal vision. The present Court is the realization of Powell’s plan to reassert corporate power in the policy arena.

The goal of the far right conservative legal movement remains the destruction of New Deal programs created under the Franklin Roosevelt administration including a federal right to unionize. Far right conservatives have never believed the government had the legal authority to create the administrative state that has been with us for almost 100 years. They long to return to a pre-1937 view of the Constitution.

The Glacier case looks to be a step in that direction. A decision is expected later this spring or early summer.

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Defunding the IRS is a bonanza for rich tax cheats – posted 1/15/2023

January 15, 2023 2 comments

One of the first acts of the new Congress was a House Republican effort to rescind Internal Revenue Service funding. Under President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats directed almost $80 billion to the IRS over ten years. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that this investment would net $200 billion additional revenue through the decade.

Republicans have demagogued the tax issue by making entirely false claims about the IRS funding. To quote House Speaker Kevin McCarthy: “Do you make $75,000 or less? Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you”. The message has been endlessly repeated by the FOX echo chamber.

All I can say is that as with so much in life, it depends what you look at. The charge that there will be 87,000 IRS agents running amok is entirely wrong. Over the last decade, the IRS lost 17,000 workers, The agency is desperately in need of IT technicians and improved technology. It also needs more taxpayer services support staff just to answer questions from the public as well as experienced auditors for corporate and high income tax evaders.

With the new funding, the great majority of IRS hires won’t be IRS agents. The unleashed 87,000 IRS agents scare is false framing. Former IRS Commissioner, Charles Rettig, a Trump appointee, has said that our country is losing a trillion dollars a year because the IRS has lacked needed resources. By far the most unpaid taxes are a result of tax evasion by the super-wealthy and large corporations.

Natasha Sarin of the Treasury Department, describing the new IRS funding, told Time Magazine:

“It is wholly inaccurate to describe any of these resources as being about increasing audit scrutiny of the middle class or small business.”

The image of an out-of-control federal agency menacing everyday Americans is another fake conspiracy theory that has long been peddled by the far right. The Republicans adopted it.

In truth, the IRS over the last decade has been reduced to a toothless tiger. Propublica has described a gutted IRS. Understaffed and working with outdated equipment, the IRS has not even gone after many wealthy tax cheaters who failed to file returns or who consciously or unintentionally misreport. The process of IRS weakening has been a death by thousand cuts rather than one dramatic layoff.

Particularly worrisome is the likely retirement of a significant percentage of experienced IRS workers in the next five years. Contrary to any image Republicans have tried to create is the reality of a demoralized and understaffed federal agency. The real danger we face is an epidemic of tax cheating and a further collapse in tax compliance that would result in tens of billions in lost government revenue.

Between 2010-2018, audits of corporations with assets over $20 billion fell from 98% to 49.3%. During the same period, audits of people with annual income over $10 million fell from 18.4% to 6.7%. The super wealthy have almost entirely escaped scrutiny.

Part of the problem has been an IRS focus on lower wage earners allegedly cheating on the Earned Income Tax Credit. The other part is the reality the IRS has lacked and still lacks the resources to handle sophisticated and complex returns of high wealth filers and businesses. The IRS may be simply outgunned by the most expensive lawyers and tax experts the rich can buy to shelter their income. That makes it easier to focus on poor earners where you can seemingly show success.

In 2019, not more than 500 of the 25,000 households reporting income over $10 million were audited. That is 2%. Talk about a scandal. As David Cay Johnston has written people can cheat like crazy with no fear of consequence. The IRS crazily spent far more money auditing the working poor than the super-rich.

The American judiciary has a soft spot for white collar crime. Tax cheating by the super-rich is almost a national pastime and tax fraud prosecutions are rare. Take the example of Donald Trump . As the New York Times reported, Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. He paid zero income taxes in 10 of the 15 years from 2000- 2015 as well as in 2020.

According to the U.S. Bureau on Labor Statistics, the average American household paid $9,302 in federal income tax in 2018, on an average earnings figure of $78,635.

Does anyone smell a rat? How is it possible that self-described billionaire Trump pays far less taxes than the average American household ? Even if entirely fabricated, Trump said he is worth $10 billion. He has intimated that the fact he pays so little in taxes makes him a smart guy but as a former president, he sets a horrible example. If he were a mafia boss living by an ethic of plausible deniability his behavior would be understandable but his example only encourages more people to cheat on their taxes.

David Cay Johnston says that the IRS rarely audits someone like Trump because the audit won’t raise revenue immediately and that looks bad on IRS performance reports. Johnston notes until 1924 all income tax returns were public. Whether or not that is a good idea now, just that fact highlights the current lack of transparency.

The new GOP effort to defund the IRS is about throwing a bone to their super-rich donor class. Professor Jennifer Mercieca says Republican messaging is meant to obscure their taxation objectives. Mercieca says:

“Since they can’t come out and say that they want low taxes for the wealthy and corporations – or, relatedly they don’t want to fund the IRS – they instead claim that average Americans’ rights are in danger.”

Although the system was supposed to tax the rich at a higher rate that is not the way it has worked out. The highest earners, on average, pay far lower tax rates than everyday earners. The tax system worsens the gross economic inequality that screws the working class. The Republican ploy to defund the IRS serves only their super-rich masters.

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Leonard Peltier’s back story – posted 1/8/2023

January 8, 2023 2 comments

Leonard Peltier remains in federal prison in Florida. He is now in his 47th year of confinement. So far, all efforts for clemency have failed. Very disappointingly, President Biden has not yet granted clemency.

I previously wrote about Peltier’s situation in 2016 and 2021. A leader in the American Indian Movement, Peltier is the foremost (and longest-serving) political prisoner in America. Among others, Amnesty International, Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the National Congress of American Indians, James Reynolds ( a former federal prosecutor on his case) and 7 current U.S. senators have called for clemency for Peltier.

The facts in Peltier’s case are egregious. Those who are unfamiliar might assume that with such a long sentence Peltier is in prison for murder. That is not the case. Peltier was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of two FBI agents. The government has acknowledged that they don’t know who shot the agents. Peltier was one of 40 armed Native Americans at the scene and the rap was pinned on him. Two other Native American men were also tried separately for the crime and found not guilty.

Peltier is now 78 years old and he has grossly over-served any sentence. As Native American artist Ricardo Cate has said, “It doesn’t take a prisoner swap to free Leonard Peltier”.

Most articles about the case focus on things like fabricated evidence, perjured testimony, threatened witnesses, a biased juror, the hidden exculpatory ballistics test and an array of constitutional violations. I want to tell a different part of Peltier’s history. Last June, he wrote an article about his early life. It adds an important background dimension.

When Leonard was 9 years old, he was forcibly taken to an Indian boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. This didn’t happen in the bad old days. It was in 1952. Many Native Americans, including other leaders of the American Indian Movement like Dennis Banks, had the same experience.

Leonard was a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe in North Dakota. His grandfather played a very important role in raising him. Leonard described his grandfather as a mentor and as a person who taught him how to live off the land. Tragically, from the foot of his bed, Leonard witnessed his grandfather die from pneumonia. This led to a family crisis.

His grandmother was left in a financially desperate situation. It was so desperate she asked for help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and that turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of providing assistance, government agents came to take Leonard, his sister, and cousin away. Leonard’s grandmother cried and pleaded with the agents not to take the children. Leonard writes:

“She cried out, but he told her she would be jailed if she tried to interfere. That was it. I said nothing. I was 9 years old but I was afraid if I said anything or tried to run, the government man would take my grandmother and put her in jail.”

Leonard’s grandmother only had time to pack the few clothes they had. She asked Leonard to protect his sister and cousin. Leonard described a picture of helplessness and trauma. He went on:

“Maybe that day was my introduction to this destiny I did not choose. Little did I know that those school years would condition me well. I was treated very badly by the people in that school, but it made me stronger. I found out in boarding school I had no rights. So I guess I am not surprised that at 77 and still locked up it is the same for me now.”

Leonard describes how they were taken to a parking lot where many Native children were also being forcibly removed from their families. Leonard presents a stark picture of cultural genocide. When they got to Wahpeton, the authorities separated boys and girls and lined them up in military formation, smallest to tallest. To Leonard, it was very scary.

The children were marched to a basement where their hair was buzz-cut off. Then they had to strip and take scalding hot showers. When they left the showers, their custodians put DDT (the insecticide used in agriculture) all over their bodies. The children were told it was to kill lice. The custodians then lined the children up naked close together and spread Vaseline all over them. Then they used a towel to rub the Vaseline off. If any dead skin came off a child, that child was hit hard with a fat ruler. Leonard writes:

“They made it clear we were hated. With every look, with every cruel word, they continued a war our ancestors had fought since their ancestors landed here back in 1492.”

Leonard recalled crying and whimpering in his dorm every night. The sound of a ruler smacking boys is a traumatic memory still affecting him. Leonard wrote that the Native children at Wahpeton secretly spoke their language, sang their Native songs and prayed. Some of the kids called themselves “the Resisters”, after the French Resistance.

After three years at Wahpeton, Leonard was able to leave but he wrote that the violent and harsh memories remain. He had heard about children who committed suicide and were buried on the boarding school grounds. Some children claimed to hear phantom crying in the night. Leonard wrote “we survived with our hearts intact”. He concluded:

“You don’t treat people badly like that. I rise only when I help you rise. Despite all the beatings, I still believe it. It’s a law, like physics, and it’s true. You get nowhere being mean and disrespecting the feelings of others, especially the most vulnerable. I have seen both kinds of people and more than my share of evil ones, and I know I’m right. I rise only when I help you rise.”

In considering why President Biden has failed to grant clemency to Peltier, I am struck by the political cowardice. This is no longer the days of J. Edgar Hoover. All the FBI agents involved with the case are long gone. There is no good excuse. With Trump, you would expect he would grant clemency to the worst people, his criminal loyalists and cronies. We have a right to expect far better from Biden.

The experience of Brittney Griner shows there is no substitute for popular force President Biden to grant clemency. Leonard Peltier should not be paying the price for the still broken relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government.

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