Category Archives: Social Justice

The war comes home

Protestors outside One Police Plaza, 5/7/08

It’s easy to forget about how many Iraqis and Afghans are killed by the U.S. military each day – they’re halfway around the world and we can always change the channel if some nasty images pop up on TV.

Doing so is a bit harder when the chaos occurs in your own backyard, and is caused by the very people sworn to uphold the law and protect you. To add injury to insult, these same people can and do get away with murder.

On April 25, the three New York Police Department detectives whose 50 shots killed Sean Bell and wounded two of his friends were acquitted of all charges by a judge, having waived their right to trial. Although there was ample evidence to convict these detectives, the Queens District Attorney gave a sterling example of the courts’ complicity in police misconduct, subjecting dubious witnesses to cross-examination by the defense while refusing to call the three detectives to the stand for the same treatment.

There have been large, vociferous, and peaceful protests across the city following the verdict, and more are expected throughout a long, hot summer. There is a movement to press Albany to appoint an independent prosecutor for cases of police misconduct, and the Justice Department is deliberating a civil rights suit against the NYPD.

Some have argued it will be hard to prove the police intentionally set out to violate Sean Bell’s rights. Last time I checked, racial profiling was a violation of said rights, and the record number of stop-and-frisks conducted by the NYPD in the first quarter of 2008 back that record up.

Of course, Sean Bell’s murder does not exist in a vacuum. The increased militarization of American law enforcement, begun during the Reagan era as part of our failed War on Drugs (anyone who debates this point, please watch The Wire), has exacerbated this country’s long history of racism and placed minority communities in the firing line.

Take, for example, the beating of three unarmed black men by Philadelphia cop last week. Though not as close up as the Rodney King footage,  the events are no less savage. Police say they were suspects fleeing the scene of a drug-related shooting. No gun was found in the car and the men have yet to be charged with any crime, though officers claim a “fourth man” bailed out of the vehicle prior to their arrival (anyone remember the NYPD pulling the same stunt in court this winter?)

We get this sort of profiling and hair-trigger response coast-to-coast as well. Last Sunday, LAPD officers shot two unarmed 19-year-old black men in Inglewood whom they suspected of being involved in a nearby shooting. One, Michael Byoune, died. As it turns out, neither Byoune nor his wounded friend were involved in any such incident, nor was a gun found.

This is the end result when you combine America’s draconian attitude towards drug policy and the plight of its post-industrial working class with the post-9/11 decimation of our civil liberties. When the LAPD’s abuse of Rodney King aired in 1992, there were riots. If anyone tried the same thing today, the Air Force would drop cluster bombs on Queens or South Central. Something has got to give.

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Taxi to the Dark Side

An in-depth look at the torture practices of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, focusing on an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed in 2002 – Get Informed.

Taxi to the Dark Side received an Oscar for Best Documentary/Features in  2008.

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Corn Subsidies: How Congress is shortchanging our health

At dinner Sunday night, I asked my friend Prasad if he knew about the new farm bill and what it means for average Americans. He didn’t.

I wasn’t surprised. With the election, the war, and rising prices to fret about, not many people are pondering legislation about farms. But they should, because it has huge implications for the country’s nutrition, environment, and health. Here are three reasons why we all should pay closer attention to the 2007 farm bill: food, fuel, and fat.

First, some background.

The farm bill, which is renewed every five or six years, is a vast set of laws and policies that governs how our food is produced and priced. Recently, it has included conservation programs aimed at setting aside land to aid ecosystem recovery and improve water quality, but historically it has provided huge payments to just a handful of crops including wheat, soybeans, cotton, and corn.

The first farm bill, passed during the Depression, established price supports to protect farmers and rural communities. The Agricultural Act of 1938 mandated price supports for corn, cotton, and wheat; the Agricultural Act of 1949 established supports for other commodities including wool, mohair, honey, and milk. These two laws form the backbone of today’s farm bill, and this is part of the problem. A system established in an agricultural landscape vastly different from today’s is still in place, and the effects are profound.

Let’s look at how one particular crop has helped change American life and how retooling government supports for it could be a boon for all Americans.

The problem with corn: How the fat of the land is helping make us fatter

Corn is so prevalent in American food that you’re likely to be eating it even if you don’t know it. Chug a Coke, chomp on a chicken nugget, bite into a burger, and most likely you’re ingesting processed corn.

Why is corn everywhere? Part of the reason is a subsidy system that has helped glut the marketplace with corn and left the government to find ways to use it. Nowadays, ranchers feed corn to their cows and chickens, and food companies sweeten their foodstuffs with it. This not only affects the price of strawberries and broccoli at your local farmers market; thanks to recent government mandates for ethanol, corn affects what you pay at the pump.

Some nutritionists and researchers are even starting to trace a link between the high prevalence of corn in our diet and our weight problems — and, by extension, a host of health issues stemming from being overweight.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 64.5 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. That’s up from just 25-45 percent of Americans in 1992, according to the International Journal of Obesity. A number of conditions of our modern lifestyle contribute to our weight problem: sedentary jobs make us less physically active, we eat out more than in, and portion size has ballooned. But corn may also play a role.

Government subsidies make sweet food very cheap, says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, pointing to one of the most prevalent sweeteners: high fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most soda pop while upping the calories. (Read a PBS interview with Nestle.)

In a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives, Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Carolina Population Center of the University of North Carolina, argued that an artificial price gap created by subsidies makes nutritionally valuable foods more expensive than nutritionally poor food and thus more attractive to penny-pinched consumers.

Writer Michael Pollan is blunt about the problem: “We’re subsidizing obesity,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.

How corn is skewing the marketplace and abetting environmental problems

One might conclude that corn growers and other beneficiaries of government subsidies have been playing on an uneven playing field for more than five decades. What happened to free markets?

Because government subsidies have kept corn prices low, farmers need to plant more of it to make money. In his compelling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan tells the history of how America made the move from rich, diverse farmlands to a monoculture of corn, and how this has perverted the marketplace. Pollan writes:

Government farm programs, once designed to limit production and support prices (and therefore farmers), were quietly rejiggered to increase production and drive down prices. Put another way, instead of supporting farmers, during the Nixon administration the government began supporting corn at the expense of farmers. Corn, already the recipient of a biological subsidy in the form of synthetic nitrogen, would now receive an economic subsidy too, ensuring its final triumph over the land and the food system.

The farm bill, like other New Deal public-support systems, grew out of needs tied to difficult conditions, but as farming and economic circumstances have changed, the law has not kept pace with evolving needs of lands and the people who work them.

Meanwhile, lobbying around the crops getting the subsidies has strengthened. Those on the receiving ends of the monies don’t want to give them up. The system stays largely stuck in the past.

Some major changes did occur in the 1980s, though. As scientists and politicians saw increasing environmental degradation of agricultural lands, conservation programs were designed to protect natural resources and to reward farmers. The 2002 farm bill ramped up conservation payments.

But corn threatens to throw a wrench into this progress. With farmers growing more and more corn, land formerly cultivated in soybeans or set aside as conservation reserves is now being cultivated for corn.

Why? In part because after years of slumping prices, the price of corn is now growing by leaps and bounds. You see, our representatives in Washington, D.C. have mandated a huge increase in the amount of ethanol in our gasoline. They have also made it all but impossible to import sugarcane-based ethanol from countries like Brazil. So our only viable source is corn. Demand for corn as food and corn as energy has helped its price skyrocket. (Some believe this is contributing to a world food shortage that threatens political stability throughout the developing world — but that is another story.)

Less corn means more conservation and better health

The rush to corn is exacting a serious environmental toll. One of the country’s most resource-intensive crops, corn requires huge amounts of fertilizers and water. As Pollan put it, “Hybrid corn is the greediest of plants, consuming more fertilizer than any other crop.” Nitrogen from fertilizers applied to cornfields eventually finds its way to our waterways, degrading water quality and choking out fish.

Eventually that nitrogen finds its way to the ocean where it can cause huge dead zones — large patches of the ocean depleted of oxygen and virtually all life.

[The “Dead Zone” at the mouth of the MIssissippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. The area’s aquatic life has been unable to survive due to rising fertilizer run off from farms in the Midwest. Source: NASA]

The need for irrigation is also of concern. While most crops need irrigation, corn is particularly thirsty. Consider the Ogallala Aquifer, the huge underground reservoir underlying eight states from Texas to South Dakota. According to the USGS, the Ogallala supplies about 30 percent of all our water used for irrigation. Corn-based biofuels draw even more — anywhere from three to six gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, according to Environmental Defense Fund.

The aquifer was formed millions of years ago, and the water there today has been around for thousands of years. However, we are pumping water out of so fast that we are in danger of pumping it dry. By some estimates, the Ogallala could be used up in as little as 25 years. From a water point of view alone, our rush to corn does not seem sustainable.

Now, eating and growing corn are not bad in and of themselves, but producing too much corn has wide-ranging negative effects. So we should take note of how our tax dollars are helping flood and pervert the marketplace with easy corn, because we’re paying a really high price in terms of nutrition and environmental problems. This is where the farm bill comes in.

As farmers naturally look to boost profits, Congress should take the long view of our country’s health. Rather than supporting subsidies that create a kind of gold rush for corn, perhaps the government should consider diversifying its support for a whole range of crops that not only need help but would also provide across-the-board benefits for Americans.

Boosting conservation programs and evening the playing field among growers of different crops — like broccoli, carrots, apples, almonds, and spinach — could lead to trimmer, healthier bodies and an environment that provides good water quality and promotes affordable food. Next time you sit down to dinner with friends, ask them what they think they’re eating. Whatever it is, the chances are, it contains corn. Maybe we should think about changing that.

- Originally posted by Bill Chameides, a guest contributor on Grist.org

 

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To Ill, Is Not Human

anxiety

(Courtesy of www.Howard-Gallery.com)

A year ago I was prescribed what I perceived as the holy grail of birth control pills: Yasmin. Looked upon as a luxury contraceptive that saved its followers from bloat and weight gain, I thought I had the good life. The first few months went by like a breeze and I could finally refrain from taking literally thousands of milligrams of ibuprofen at a time when my cramps kicked in. It didn’t make everything go away, it just made all of my symptoms more moderate. I thought I had found THE pill. What I had actually found was my gateway to hell.

January proved to be the toughest month for me as apprehension kept my thought on staying home. My digestive system was haywire and my thoughts hovered over the slightest gurgle from my intestines. But the climax hit me on January 18th. I was home alone at the apartment and back from watching a movie about the destruction of NYC (Cloverfield) that featured the exact subway stop off of the 4-5-6 that I took to meet my friend that nite. I started pacing around the apartment. I called my boyfriend, and he didn’t pick up his phone. That freaked me out even more. So I decided to pop in a movie . . . but I couldn’t even concentrate. Before I knew it, I couldn’t breathe and told myself “Shit, I’m having a panic attack.” although it felt more like I was going crazy, straight up schizophrenic.

cloverfield

(Courtesy of www.freemac.net)

I found it ironic as I dashed into a hot shower to practice yoga breathing exercises that I was going through this. I usually made fun of people who panicked and wondered how they could freak out in the first place. By the time my boyfriend finally came home hours later, I was still wide-eyed rocking back and forth on the couch with radiohead on repeat. But that wasn’t the end of my escapades. Following this episode, I started to experience:

Nausea, vomiting, shaking, lightheadedness, dizziness, breathing difficulties, constant nervousness, heart palpitations, chest pains. . .

There were times where my heart was beating so fast and so vigorous that it just plain hurt. I administered myself into the E.R. one day with a standing heart rate of 142. They asked if I was on any medication, I told them I was on Yasmin. They never heard of Yasmin. They sent me back home that night referring me to their outpatient psychiatric clinic.

I told myself I would not deal with this, that this is unacceptable, so I did some research, stayed hydrated, took my Omega-3′s and a daily 5-htp supplement. Things were getting better slowly but surely, until I started to wake up in the middle of the night with my heart pounding, my lungs gasping for air and my thoughts racing.

“Ahh, what time is it—What kind of car is that?–tomorrow I have to–no, wait, did I wash my t-shirt–there was a dog in that movie . . .”

This had all crept up on me throughout the year so quietly that I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t myself. I didn’t laugh as much, I didn’t smile as much, I didn’t enjoy life as much as I used to. I was always described as laid back. I never freaked out. I never worried. My favorite past time was going to Diana’s Pool, the local swimming hole and lying on the sun-soaked rocks. When I had gone through a pretty ugly car crash, I didn’t even cry. I spoke to the police officer calm as ever. I loved chatting with police. When I hit a deer one night, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. Nothing bothered me, not even the thought of graduation.

(Diana’s Pool, Chaplin CT)

The morning after the second late-nite cuckoo affair, I decided to find out what was up. I finally decided to google “Yasmin, side effects” and I came across some answers that no test or doctor could have told me. There were literally hundreds upon hundreds of posts of women experiencing the same symptoms as I had, many of these women had it much worse than I had it. Some had daily panic attacks, some had shooting pains, others described their breathing problems:

“I thought I was having an asthma attack. So did the ER – at first. After I did not respond to the breathing treatments, and I became completely out of breath and exhausted after walking across the hall to the restroom, the ER doc checked my D-Dimer level to see if I was at risk for blood clots. He said if it came back over 500, he would have to do further testing for clots. It came back 4500!! . . .”

“Here were my symptoms during this period: Panic Attacks, nausea, shaking, de-realization and so much more. There was a point where I was scared to live and scared to die. I didn’t even want to leave my house. . . ”’

“I started a new box and pack 3 weeks ago and 72 hours later had what I thought was a “panic attack”. I had never suffered panic or anxiety before and I am 32. Then, the chest pain and anxious feeling wouldn’t go away (not normal with panic I hear). I went to the Dr and my bloodwork was all “great”. I went to a cardiologist and they tested my heart. It was indeed beating “extra” so I had to be one a monitor. Still, the entire time I was miserable and wondering what the heck had happened to me. How could I go from being a normal, well adjusted women to a crazy lady in one day. . . “‘

That night, I stopped taking the pill, and that night I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night.

Armed with this new information, I headed to a doctor for an annual check up ready to tell my story. I gave her the history of what I was dealing with. She just looked at me without even considering the notion of taking me seriously. “Well, birth control can have some of those side effects . . .” was her only reply. She then prescribed me 1) an asthma inhaler, 2) a nasal spray for allergies (and I was breathing fine) 3) Prescription-strength Ibuprofen 4) Nexium to counteract the adverse effects from the prescription strength ibuprofen. She also ordered another EKG, more bloodwork and a pulmonary test. I didn’t fill out any of the prescriptions and never scheduled the tests. I knew they would all come back clear.

So when the Dr. from the outpatient psych clinic (Oh, sorry, Mental Hygiene Clinic) finally called me in late March for an appointment, I was thrilled to see him and tell him my findings. I printed out 14 pages of women’s side effects and highlighted the symptoms that matched up with mine. At that point, I had been off of Yasmin for 2 1/2 weeks and feeling 80 percent better. I was back on my razor scooter and smiling and laughing at the little things I saw. My boyfriend told me “you got that spark back in your eye.” I felt like a queen again, as every woman should.

“It was the Yasmin!” I told him (the Dr.) “I’ve been off of it for almost three weeks and every week is just better and better.”

“Did your symptoms start right when you began taking Yasmin?”

“No, and I can’t quite pinpoint them because it all crept up on me . . . but I feel great. I just want to get drunk again with all my friends.”

“So, the symptoms didn’t begin when you began taking Yasmin?”

“No, they didn’t, but you see, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not related. My sister’s an RN who explained to me how drugs interact with your body and they can take a while to have an adverse effect.”

He just took a few notes and told me he would like to see me again. I stared at the print-out I gave to him and wondered if he would read it or if he would disregard this. Meanwhile, he listed off the different medications that were a possibility and told me to make another appointment. He was useless. And now I was curious as to how Yasmin caused these side effects, so I surfed through one of the websites I found an explanation from a fellow ex-Yasmin user who happened to be an RN.

“With low testosterone comes all the symptoms you and all the people on this website have been complaining about, and I think the longer your on it the more symptoms develop, because your body is not getting this incredibly important hormone, the hormone responsible pretty much for anti-aging, muscle repair, sleep, sex drive, overall sense of well being. so I think symptoms start to appear one by one as the testosterone is decreased by the yasmin, and the thing I have noticed is that when testosterone starts to go down, anxiety goes way way up!!! I felt this myself, and friends who have been diagnosed with low testosterone have felt it as well, and everyone has said they felt like they were going crazy! Depression sets in. And then when yasmin is stopped its up to your body to replace all the hormones it was getting synthetically with hormones it now has to make. Again I feel this is harder with yasmin because it so severely depresses the androgens (testosterone)” ~ Bitter RN

I don’t know what would have happened if I had not come across that site. I would probably be misdiagnosed and numbed up on whatever medications the Dr’s try to pour into my body. But from now on, I’m staying medication free. It’s been exactly three weeks to this day that I’ve been Yasmin free and it’s like the dark cloud over my head just dissipated. I now know the many weaknesses of our health care system and its tendency to over-prescribe and medicate. Sometimes, you just have to be your own doctor, my RN sister told me. As for my next psych appointment . . . yeah, I’m going to go ahead and cancel that. After all, what does HE know??

Written by Elena Gaudino

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The World According to Monsanto

On March 11, this documentary was aired on French television (ARTE – French-German cultural tv channel) by French journalist and film maker Marie-Monique Robin. The in-depth film depicts how Monsanto, a gigantic biotech/agriculture corporation based in St. Louis, is destroying plant biodiversity around the world with genetically engineered seeds and, basically, endangering our future as a human race … I know that statement may seem a bit dramatic and paranoid, but the amount of control this corporation has gained over global food production should be illegal – oh, I forgot, why would the government make laws against itself? Monsanto is the government:

Former Monsanto employees currently hold positions in US government agencies such as the Food and Drug Adminstration and Environmental Protection Agency and even the Supreme Court. These include Clarence Thomas, Michael Taylor, Ann Veneman and Linda Fisher. Fisher has been back and forth between positions at Monsanto and the EPA.

Also note that Donald Rumsfeld earned $12 million from increased stock value when G.D. Searle & Company was sold to Monsanto in 1985.

If you feel as disgusted as I did after watching this movie do not hesitate to take action:

http://www.organicconsumers.org/monlink.cfm

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Truckers Protest, The Resistance Begins

Until the beginning of this month, Americans seemed to have nothing to say about their ongoing economic ruin except, “Hit me! Please, hit me again!” You can take my house, but let me mow the lawn for you one more time before you repossess. Take my job and I’ll just slink off somewhere out of sight. Oh, and take my health insurance too; I can always fall back on Advil.

Then, on April 1, in a wave of defiance, truck drivers began taking the strongest form of action they can take – inaction. Faced with $4/gallon diesel fuel, they slowed down, shut down and started honking. On the New Jersey Turnpike, a convoy of trucks stretching “as far as the eye can see,” according to a turnpike spokesman, drove at a glacial 20 mph. Outside of Chicago, they slowed and drove three abreast, blocking traffic and taking arrests. They jammed into Harrisburg PA; they slowed down the Port of Tampa where 50 rigs sat idle in protest. Near Buffalo, one driver told the press he was taking the week off “to pray for the economy.”

The truckers who organized the protests – by CB radio and internet – have a specific goal: reducing the price of diesel fuel. They are owner-operators, meaning they are also businesspeople, and they can’t break even with current fuel costs. They want the government to release its fuel reserves. They want an investigation into oil company profits and government subsidies of the oil companies. Of the drivers I talked to, all were acutely aware that the government had found, in the course of a weekend, $30 billion to bail out Bear Stearns, while their own businesses are in a tailspin.

But the truckers’ protests have ramifications far beyond the owner-operators’ plight –first, because trucking is hardly a marginal business. You may imagine, here in the blogosphere, that everything important travels at the speed of pixels bouncing off of satellites, but 70 percent of the nation’s goods – from Cheerios to Chapstick –travel by truck. We were able to survive a writers’ strike, but a trucking strike would affect a lot more than your viewing options. As Donald Hayden, a Maine trucker put it to me: “If all the truckers decide to shut this country down, there’s going to be nothing they can do about it.”

Image courtesy of The Beaver County Times

More importantly, the activist truckers understand their protest to be part of a larger effort to “take back America,” as one put it to me. “We continue to maintain this is not just about us,” “JB”– which is his CB handle and stands for the “Jake Brake” on large rigs– told me from a rest stop in Virginia on his way to Florida. “It’s about everybody – the homeowners, the construction workers, the elderly people who can’t afford their heating bills… This is not the action of the truck drivers, but of the people.” Hayden mentions his parents, ages and 81 and 76, who’ve fought the Maine winter on a fixed income. Missouri-based driver Dan Little sees stores shutting down in his little town of Carrollton. “We’re Americans,” he tells me, “We built this country, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to lie down and take this.”

At least one of the truckers’ tactics may be translatable to the foreclosure crisis. On March 29, Hayden surrendered three rigs to be repossessed by Daimler-Chrysler – only he did it publicly, with flair, right in front of the statehouse in Augusta. “Repossession is something people don’t usually see,” he says, and he wanted the state legislature to take notice. As he took the keys, the representative of Daimler-Chrysler said, according to Hayden, “I don’t see why you couldn’t make the payments.” To which Hayden responded, “See, I have to pay for fuel and food, and I’ve eaten too many meals in my life to give that up.”

Suppose homeowners were to start making their foreclosures into public events– inviting the neighbors and the press, at least getting someone to camcord the children sitting disconsolately on the steps and the furniture spread out on the lawn. Maybe, for a nice dramatic touch, have the neighbors shower the bankers, when they arrive, with dollar bills and loose change, since those bankers never can seem to get enough.

But the larger message of the truckers’ protest is about pride or, more humbly put, self-respect, which these men channel from their roots. Dan Little tells me, “My granddad said, and he was the smartest man I ever knew, ‘If you don’t stand up for yourself ain’t nobody gonna stand up for you.’” Go to theamericandriver.com, run by JB and his brother in Texas, where you’re greeted by a giant American flag, and you’ll find – among the driving tips, weather info, and drivers’ favorite photos –the entire Constitution and Declaration of Independence. “The last time we faced something as impacting on us,” JB tells me, “There was a revolution.”

The actions of the first week in April were just the beginning. There’s talk of a protest in Indiana on the 18th, another in New York City, and a giant convergence of trucks on DC on the 28th. Who knows what it will all add up to? Already, according to JB, some of the big trucking companies are threatening to fire any of their employees who join the owner-operators’ protests.

But at least we have one shining example of defiance of the face of economic assault. There comes a point, sooner or later, when you stop scrambling around on all fours and, like JB and his fellow drivers all over the country, you finally stand up.

If you would like to help support the truckers in any way, go to http://www.theamericandriver.com/files/TruckersAndCitizensUnited.html

- written by Barbara Ehrenreich

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A Better Interpretation of the Housing Crisis

A performance by “Some Woman” during an open mic reading in February 2008 hosted by Art House Productions in Jersey City, New Jersey.

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