“I’ve Never Seen Anything Like This”

A CNN journalist and his entire camera crew were arrested by Minnesota state police Friday morning on live television while covering riots in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd. The lead reporter, Omar Berman, carefully asked where he should be, what he should do, and deferred obsequiously to the state police who, nevertheless, arrested him.

When he asked what was going on, he was told by a nearby state trooper, “I’m just doing my job, man.” (That last phrase, of course, has interesting historical echoes, but we’ll leave that thread for another day)

Attorney Midwin Charles noted the rich irony of arresting a CNN reporter for reporting the news “but not Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd on camera.”

As Omar Jimenez and others were led away, CNN anchor John Berman—back in the studio watching the arrests happen live—gasped, more than once, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Maybe Berman hasn’t seen anything like it, personally, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time reporters have been ‘blocked’ from reporting sensitive topics. Especially when it comes to America’s seemingly ubiquitous cops (usually white, usually unapologetic) who kill minorities that cause subsequent riots (usually non-white, usually furious).

You might recall one of the first riots in Alabama was really a ‘police riot’ featuring the relatively infamous officer, James Clark, who liked to wear a ‘never integrate’ button on duty (not too dissimilar from Derek Chauvin, I would imagine.)

Clark stood among his fellow state troopers in February 1965 outside the Zion’s Chapel Methodist church, waiting for 500 or so civil rights activists to file out. When the doors to the church opened, police shot out the streetlights, sprayed black paint on the lenses of reporters’ cameras and charged into the crowd. The New York Times reported “loud whacks rang through the square”… The police chased some of the protesters into a place called Mack’s cafe, overturned tables, lunged at patrons.

Jimmie Lee Jackson rushed to defend his mother from a beating. State Trooper James Fowler pumped two bullets into Jackson’s stomach. He died eight days later. This sparked the Selma march and subsequent violence and riots. “He [Jimmie Jackson] was murdered” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “by the irresponsibility of every politician from governors on down who have fed constituents the stale bread of hatred, the spoiled meat of racism.”

The detail that strikes me in this account, among many, is spray painting the camera lenses with black paint and shooting out the street lights. Is this different, really, from arresting a CNN reporter? Doesn’t it serve the same end?

Much has changed since that day in 1965, of course, but apparently in none of the regards mentioned above.

We need something like the 1965 Voting Rights Act to control our police force—the CNN reporter should never have been arrested, of course. George Floyd should never have been murdered, as so many others have been murdered for years and years now. Much like the rotten core of Alabama’s state police, circa 1965, our contemporary police force needs cleaned up; needs to be ‘demilitarized’, and needs retraining. If you can only control a populace with rifles, teargas and billy clubs; you’re not a peace officer, you’re an occupying force. I’ll add, that you only need an occupying force when you also have a disastrously unfair and inequitable system.

The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson led to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As I write, protestors and activists are not only marching in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd, they are also marching all across the country, even here in Richmond, Virginia. One can only hope something equally positive, like a law that addresses the gross inequities in our legal system,  redefines down the limits of police power and the use of force, and readdresses the penalties when those limits are breached, will come out of this monstrous injustice.

We might begin with two simple, conjoined tasks:

1) Disarm/ demilitarize the police force and limit the police use of force. The police are still receiving surplus military supplies from our overseas adventures. Personally, I’d love a country with no police force, but if we must have one, than I want one that operates with very limited firepower. No one needs Rambo in their hood. Maybe a bobby with a silly hat, if we must have police at all.

2) Establish a public citizen’s board to oversee police and their use of force completely separate from the police hierarchy or the attorney general’s office. A large part of the current problem is an implicit prosecutorial bias baked into the structure of our justice system. An attorney general has no real motivation to out bad behavior if their success on prosecutions rest on the very police who may be acting badly. Take police oversight out of their hands entirely and let a separate, publically formed citizens board review police behavior–and penalize appropriately.

An equitable legal system; a non-militarized, non-racist and defanged police force–maybe a state in which a police force is hardly noticed at all. That’s something we’d like to see for the first time.




April 9th, Covid-19 News Round Up

John Prine died two nights ago. Ellis Marsalis died a few days earlier.  Thus far, an additional 95,000 other individuals have also died, some under exceedingly awful conditions.  Despite this, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to postpone or even allow for mail in ballots in Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Here is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent on the Wisconsin decision that forced these voters to the polls in the middle of a pandemic:

“…the court’s order, I fear, will result in massive disenfranchisement.” “The majority of this Court declares that this case presents a “narrow, technical question”
“The Court’s suggestion that the current situation is not ‘substantially different’ from ‘an ordinary election’ boggles the mind…” “The question here is whether tens of thousands of Wisconsin citizens can vote safely in the midst of a pandemic. Under the District Court’s order, they would be able to do so. Even if they receive their absentee ballot in the days immediately following election day, they could return it. With the majority’s stay in place, that will not be possible. Either they will have to brave the polls, endangering their own and others’ safety, or they will lose their right to vote, through no fault of their own. That is a matter of utmost importance—to the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s citizens, the integrity of the State’s election process, and in this most extraordinary time, the health of the Nation.”

Additionally, as if they couldn’t reach any lower, ethically, the Supreme Court of the United States voted for this decision, remotely.  They voted from the comfort of their homes  to force poor people in Wisconsin to vote in person in the middle of a pandemic.


So there’s that. But in addition to the GOP, and the Supreme Court, we have the President—Trump– waging an all-out war on independent oversight.

First, he fired the intelligence community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson on Friday night in clear retribution for Atkinson’s handling of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint. Then, he went after Health and Human Services Inspector General Christi Grimm for her office’s report detailing pervasive testing delays and supply shortages at hospitals across the country. The report revealed the extent to which hospitals were struggling to meet the health care demands associated with treating COVID-19 patients. The thorough review included interviews from 323 hospitals across 46 states and stood in stark contrast with the rhetoric coming from the president. Naturally, Trump labeled the report a “Fake Dossier” and suggested “politics” influenced it, and that it was “just wrong”.

And today, he removed Glenn Fine, the inspector general who was tapped by his peers to lead the panel of federal watchdogs tasked with overseeing the execution of the coronavirus relief package.

As Robert Reich has said, “If this isn’t abuse of power, I don’t know what is. Independent oversight is critical for every administration; for an administration as thoroughly corrupt and amoral as this one, it’s absolutely paramount.”

But wait, there’s more.

FEMA is apparently rounding up medical supplies but no one knows where they are going (https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-04-07/hospitals-washington-seize-coronavirus-supplies).

The Trump administration is also using federal dollars to buy supplies from China, off loading them to private companies and having states bid against each other for these supplies. (https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/2020/03/27/coronavirus-states-battle-each-other-world-ppe-medical-gear/2907297001/)

Talking Points Memo is reporting that “a pattern is coming into view: the White House seizes goods from public officials and hospitals across the country while doling them out as favors to political allies and favorites, often to great fanfare to boost the popularity of those allies. The Denver Post today editorialized about one of the most egregious examples. Last week, as we reported, a shipment of 500 ventilators to the state of Colorado was intercepted and rerouted by the federal government. Gov. Jared Polis (D) sent a letter pleading for the return of the equipment. Then yesterday President Trump went on Twitter to announce that he was awarding 100 ventilators to Colorado at the behest of Republican Senator Cory Gardner, one of the most endangered Republicans on the ballot this year. As the Post put it, “President Donald Trump is treating life-saving medical equipment as emoluments he can dole out as favors to loyalists. It’s the worst imaginable form of corruption — playing political games with lives.”

Not only is this ripping off the states when they are being crushed economically,  people probably died for this incandescent bit of political favoritism– and may still be dying.

“It’s hard to know whether President Trump even knew in this case that his pandemic task force had swiped away five times as many ventilators just days before. Indeed, we still don’t whether this is all a central part of the White House’s crisis strategy – grabbing supplies from blue states to hand out to endangered Republicans or red state allies – or simply a layering of corruption over the general chaos.”

Here’s more from Talking Points:

“For all the confusion, what is clear is that the federal government is demanding that states, localities and hospital systems find their own supplies while systematically interdicting those they do purchase and rerouting them in other directions while providing no explanation of what standards are being used to distribute them. At the same time, Republican officeholders keep turning up announcing windfalls of medical supplies courtesy of the President. In many cases, like Gardner, they’re Republicans within blue or purple states.”

Ladies and gentleman, I believe we are in the middle of a pandemic, and also, apparently, a slow motion coup.



March 22, Covid-19 News Round Up

Today, Rand Paul announced that he tested positive for Covid-19, the first U.S. Senator to be diagnosed with the ailment.

Sen. Paul will get the best care that our society can engineer. Unlike millions of other Americans, he will not need to be concerned with a shortage of ventilators and a lack of health insurance coverage. As a member of congress, all those details will be handled by doctors concerned for him and attentive to his needs. He will be treated to the finest health service our country has to offer.

Despite his good fortune, his father seems not to care. Last Monday, Ron Paul,said, “People should ask themselves whether this coronavirus ‘pandemic’ could be a big hoax, with the actual danger of the disease massively exaggerated.”

Neither of them have said anything during this crisis to indicate they’ve changed their perspectives in the face of an international health crisis. Their libertarian ideology — a decidedly selfish view of the world and of humankind, in general, seems firmly in control. Even as Rand Paul was awaiting test results for Covid-19, he availed himself of the Senate gym, essentially contaminating it for all the other Senators. Nor did he practice any reasonable form of self-quarantine, meeting with multiple colleagues on the very day he was taking the test. But beyond his personal venality in the matter, there is also his callous political obstruction. Senate leaders were scrambling Tuesday to pass coronavirus legislation as quickly as possible, but Sen. Rand Paul put a damper on those plans, forcing a vote on an amendment he authored, which would “require a social security number for purposes of the child tax credit, and to provide the President the authority to transfer funds as necessary, and to terminate United States military operations and reconstruction activities in Afghanistan.”

The amendment was a purely political play, with no hope of passage. Even so it delayed effective legislative response for two days. Ultimately, Paul was also a sole “no” vote on the $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill. Paul was seeking an equal amount of cuts in unspent foreign aid money to pay for the medical aid, because, apparently, spending extra money to prevent millions of people from dying just isn’t good enough.

His ideology, which weighs everything on the scales of a ‘free market’, could not even relent in the middle of a pandemic. As Maya Angelo has noted, “when people show you who they are, believe them.”

As tendentious as Paul’s record and attitude in this crisis has been, it’s not as vile as Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina who chairs the Senate Intelligence committee.

He sold off about 1.72 million dollars worth of stock soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus. The country was nowhere near ready, of course, and the fact that he sold off his stock as the result of insider information makes him a serious candidate for worst person of the week, if not the decade.

According to an NPR report, Burr had confided to attendees of a wealthy luncheon held at the Capitol Hill Club: “There’s one thing that I can tell you about this: It is much more aggressive in its transmission than anything that we have seen in recent history … It is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic.”

He warned that companies might have to curtail their employees’ travel, that schools could close and that the military might be mobilized to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals. All true and useful information, but none of it was publically available at that time. Only his wealthiest constituents got this advance notice.

The luncheon was organized by the Tar Heel Circle, a club for businesses and organizations in North Carolina that are charged up to $10,000 for membership and are promised “interaction with top leaders and staff from Congress, the administration, and the private sector.”

So what his wealthy constituents got to hear in a private luncheon was the truth as Burr understood it at that time. What everyone else got to hear was another matter entirely.

In a Feb. 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, Burr assured the public that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” He wrote, “No matter the outbreak or threat, Congress and the federal government have been vigilant in identifying gaps in its readiness efforts and improving its response capabilities.”

This was a lie, of course. But he sold his stocks and let the wealthiest individuals in his social bracket know the truth of the matter—so they could prepare themselves and their businesses, as well.

In 2012, Congress passed a new law making it illegal for members of Congress to use inside information they gain through their official positions to buy and sell stock. Only three senators voted against the 2012 bill. Burr was one of them.

Meanwhile, our President has made such an inarticulate buffoon of himself that people are begging for him NOT to do anymore press conferences and let someone with a semblance of intelligence and compassion, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, take care of all public communications. The strong sense of disgust toward our erstwhile leader hasn’t prevented William Barr our sycophantic and deeply power mad Attorney General from floating a request to ‘suspend constitutional rights’ during the pandemic. Because how else will they maintain order when everything they do and don’t do brings us closer to eminent death?

If our legislative and Presidential leadership expresses itself with utter moral turpitude and an ethical perversity that makes Nixon’s excesses childishly quaint; the less powerful members of our society appear to be doing what needs to be done. In short, portions of our country are actually rising to the occasion, even as our executive leadership wallows in their incompetence. Local and state governments are mostly doing well (with a handful of exceptions— Florida, I’m looking at you- https://www.newsweek.com/lake-worth-beach-omari-hardy-covid-19-1493607) and local community efforts are also blooming like Aster flowers in the Spring.

A group that has been on the front lines of climate change, Extinction Rebellion, has formed a Mutual Aid Society and are calling for donations in Richmond, Virginia to help those less fortunate. (https://www.facebook.com/ShutItDownRVA/photos/gm.1385830658472779/2511566835610484/?type=3&theater)

A relief fund for restaurant workers has also been started in the local community.



Internationally, Cuba has sent doctors to Italy, which says more about the values their society holds dear than anything our own country has said about them in the last 50 years.


And Chef José Andrés has even repurposed his restaurants in the Washington, DC area as community kitchens. He told MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, “We cannot leave the communities alone … The idea is that when people are in the neighborhood, they may need food.” Adrés mentions that Congressional help for the restaurant industry will be needed “because America needs to be fed.”

Excellent sentiment, though, as they saying goes, I would hope for the best, but plan for the worst.  The House may come through with help, and, paradoxically, with Rand Paul’s absence thanks to his Covid-19 diagnosis and reckless behavior–that has helped to quarantine five Republican senators–we might actually get some decent legislation pushed through the Senate. Sometimes, it seems, Karma can be a good thing.


Remember to wash your hands!

Below is a continously updated list of Covid-19 resources specific to Richmond, Virginia.


Penny Lane gofundme page


Patrick Henry gofundme page



Laura Lees gofundme page


PennyLane gofundme page


Cross Roads gofundme page




Social Democracy and FDR’s Second Bill of Rights

Image result for fdr second bill of rights

In 1944, just as World War II was coming to a close, and victory in Europe was in the offing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined what he called the 2nd Bill of Rights.  In his 1994, State of the Union Address, he argued that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and original Bill of Rights were insufficient, or in his words, had proved “inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

From that premise, he pivoted to a Second Bill of Rights that he carefully enumerated in his speech. The main points were:

FDR explained that a “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” he argued,

“People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

So the purpose of the Second Bill of Rights or Economic Bill of Rights was really both economic and political. By guaranteeing a reasonable environment to ‘pursue’ happiness, he hoped to stabilize our democracy and banish the attraction of dictators and authoritarian strongmen who used economic distress to bolster their popularity.

“All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.”

“America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

Even though FDR urged Congress to consider vesting citizens with these eight new rights, a Second Bill of Rights was never formally introduced in Congress and never was interpreted by the Supreme Court. Promises of basic human dignities—such as guaranteeing the right to housing or to be free from monopoly power, for example—historically have not blended well with raw capitalist economies.

As Jill Priluck writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “Elite American political culture traditionally has favored a form of Adam Smith individualism in which the pursuit of self-interest, the sanctity of private property, and the right to be left alone are paramount.” These folks would be the market-fetish neoliberals of today.

I suspect our less elite political culture suffers a kind of Stockholm syndrome in this regard. Not only are they deprived of decent living standards and healthcare and retirement, they are told it’s their own fault. Sadly, too many believe this cruel tripe.

Despite our gross negligence in this matter, other countries across the world took FDR’s words seriously—and have benefitted as a result. These countries are largely what we now call Social Democracies: Nordic countries, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark. To lesser degrees, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Most of the western industrial world, in fact.

As Cass Sunstein notes in The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever, countries developing constitutions coming out of World War II were also quick to embrace FDR’s concept. The South African and Iraqi constitutions guarantee a right to education, health care, social security, and housing. Finland’s establishes that everyone has “the right to basic sustenance.” Norway’s requires the state “to create conditions enabling every person capable of work to earn a living by his work.” In Spain’s constitution, ratified thirteen years before Roosevelt’s speech, the nation “shall assure to every worker the conditions necessary for a fitting existence,” including “economic sufficiency through adequate and periodically updated pensions” to citizens in old age.

Constitutions in Portugal, Brazil, Poland, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Peru, and Egypt all recognize some form of Roosevelt’s economic rights. Mexico’s 1917 constitution included social-welfare provisions years before the Second Bill of Rights was proposed. U.S. state constitutions recognize aspects of the bill, such as the right to education.”

After Roosevelt’s death in 1945, his ideas informed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In Article 25, for example, you can find many of FDR’s tenants summarized:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

It was the foundation for two covenants adopted by the UN General Assembly: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which, along with the declaration, are known as the International Bill of Rights. The two covenants are binding in countries that have ratified them. The treaty protects the right to work; the right to organize; the right to bargain collectively; the right to social security; the right to social and medical assistance; the right to social, legal, and economic protection of the family; and the right to protection and assistance for migrant workers and their families. Ultimately, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights was ratified by 167 countries—but not by the United States.

Social Democracies like Sweden, Finland or Norway that have implemented FDR’s Second Bill of Rights have built amazing economies and wonderfully sustainable systems for their citizens. Maybe it’s time we learned from our own history, and did the same for our own people?  In the end, maybe we, too, deserve what FDR promised for us nearly a century ago.

Below is a link to archived footage of FDR’s speech on the Second Bill of Rights:

By Jack Johnson



A Brief History of the Second Amendment

Gun activists often claim that the original intent of the Second Amendment was to give them an absolute right to own any weapon they might choose. Historically, they couldn’t be further from the truth. A contextual reading of the Second Amendment suggests that its main purpose—if not sole purpose– was to protect the rights of states to maintain and arm militias. It’s pretty obvious if you read the plain English: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Chief Justice Scalia’s 2008 Heller decision is a departure from nearly 200 years of jurisprudence which suggested that the Second Amendment was written to allow states to build militias for themselves separate from Federal interference. Since state militias of the time were made up of individual citizens who often kept their weapons home with them, the language made perfect sense. Here’s another way to word the Second Amendment: “The State has the right to provide for its security, and therefore, you can’t disarm individuals who will make up the State’s militia.” It conveys exactly the same meaning, but the difference in emphasis is important. Frankly, the stretch that Scalia and other ‘gun rights’ activists have to make when arguing for an individuals’ right is surreal by comparison.

But let’s talk context a little bit. Remember that prior to the Constitution with its attendant Bill of Rights where we find our tiny, one sentence, Second Amendment, our country was organized around something called the Articles of Confederation. In the Articles, states were required to maintain their own “well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered” with “a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.”

The echoes of the language of the Second Amendment “well regulated” are not by accident. The implication is that this is not a pack of hooligans, out for a Saturday night Trump rally, or a thousand white supremacists descending on a university town, but a serious, disciplined militia, trained, drilled and so forth.

Under the Articles, the states would appoint all officers under the rank of colonel. The confederation Congress was permitted to “requisition” these militias for the “common defence,” but only “in proportion to the number of white inhabitants in such State.” Note the color designation, “white”: this will become important later on.

The Articles were short lived. In the subsequent Constitution of 1787 the federalists made their move and asserted for themselves powers once allocated to the states. The newly designed Federal Congress could declare war, raise an army, or both, by a bare majority and without consulting the states; Congress was in charge of training and arming the state militias, and could call the militia into service without state permission or even state consultation.

Whoa! As you might imagine, there was some push back on this matter. Especially from the ever sensitive Southern states with their peculiar institution of slavery that needed the expertise of state militias to keep potential insurrections in check. There was also the small matter of arming the white “paddy rollers” or slave patrols, generally semi-deputized poor whites paid some meager amount to round up individuals fleeing the depravity of enforced slave labor. So language was inserted to appease the Virginia Governor. His name was Patrick Henry; that same ‘give me liberty or give me death’ Patrick Henry who, at the time of his death owned 67 slaves. The freedom he defended so eloquently was about his white money, not, apparently, his black slaves.

To be succinct, Patrick Henry feared that without some checks written into the Constitution, the Federal Congress could undermine the ability of militias in Virginia and elsewhere in the South to suppress slave uprisings and pursue runaway slaves. The militia issue was important enough for Patrick Henry to see it as grounds for opposing ratification of the Constitution. The power Congress had over militias, Henry reasoned, could easily be turned into restrictive power. “By this sir, you see that their control over our best defence is unlimited,” Henry warned his fellow Virginians.

Patrick Henry even argued that southerners’ “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be a disaster for them: “In this situation,” Henry said to Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”

I suspect James Madison thought Patrick Henry was a bit paranoid, but, as Thom Hartmann noted, Madison did go on to alter the Second Amendment’s final form to satisfy the slave holding states.

Madison’s  first draft for what became the Second Amendment read: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country [emphasis mine]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

But Henry, Mason, and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State [emphasis mine], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

So Madison’s careful wording of the Second Amendment was deliberate. He drew a connection between militias and the right to bear arms rather than simply defending the individual right to bear arms. James Madison, it should also be noted, was a slave holder himself and, of course, was speaking for his state’s ruling powers. He also knew, as anyone did at that time, that, as Nicholaus Mills has noted, “only white men in the Virginia militia had the right to bear arms.”

Libertarians who so acerbically defend individual gun rights ought to take note of why that amendment was written as it was, and justified—to dispossess an entire class of people of their life, their liberty, and their labor. You don’t necessarily need guns to be free, but you absolutely do need them to prevent others from being free. That’s a bit of the historical rationale behind the Second Amendment we all should understand; and then, perhaps, we can begin an honest discussion about its modern practicality.

by Jack Johnson

Rooted in Reality


Recently, President Obama, who has tactfully remained silent as the Democratic primaries have progressed, decided to voice a note of caution. On Friday of last week, he said he felt compelled to weigh in because he didn’t think some of the loudest and most strident voices, particularly on social media, were “representative” of most folks in the party.

He said, “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”

“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” he said, indicating that some independents and moderate Republicans may be put off by certain “left-leaning twitter feeds.”

This may come as a shock, but, for the record, I agree with President Obama. I, too, want to be “rooted in reality.”

But what exactly does that phrase mean? Whose reality was he talking about?

Maybe he was talking about the millions of millennials currently drowning in student debt—those poor suckers who must pay $60,000 to $150,000 for an education that you used to be able to shuck out a few thousand bucks a semester at a decent state school to cover? Of course, most Western countries are far more generous with higher education funding and enrollment costs. The list of developed nations that offer free or heavily subsidized university enrollment should stand as an embarrassment to our untaxed wealth hoarders and an indictment from our struggling middle class. But since no ‘moderate’ Democrat or Republican has thought to offer a plan to adjust the cost or help out these students, I suspect that’s not the ‘reality’ he’s indicating.

Perhaps he was referring to the people who somehow manage to fall through the cracks of Obamacare and must suffer silently without healthcare and dental care for months and years at a time—or bankrupt themselves to pay for healthcare that every other developed nation on earth funds as a matter of right? That’s unlikely as well, since, conventional wisdom among our donor class suggests that only a far left candidate would be interested in a plan that would duplicate what every other industrialized nation on earth offers: comprehensive coverage to everyone, young or old, healthy or infirm, regardless of their ability to pay insurance premiums. In fact, most other national plans rightfully exclude the insurance middle man whose sole purpose seems to be to extract profit from human suffering.

Possibly he was talking about our current ‘Hoovervilles’ of homeless individuals near Oakland, San Francisco or Los Angeles—tent cities whose populations dwarf many rural municipalities? But with no federal legal framework for rent control, housing ridiculously priced, and minimum wage hikes politically unacceptable to ‘moderates,’ those ‘Hoovervilles’ are just the cost of living in America, I guess.

Speaking of the West Coast, could he possibly be talking about those individuals whose electricity was turned off by PG&E recently to avoid sparking fires because their corporate board thought it was wiser to pursue profit over decent maintenance plans for the utility? I don’t think that’s likely since forcing a private utility to actually maintain the public works for which they are getting paid would smack of Socialism. Definitely that’s not our moderate Obama’s reality.

Then again, he might be talking to the hundreds of home owners whose property has been confiscated to make way for pipelines whose existence threatens our survival as a species? Unless, of course, you belong to those sage individuals who still deny climate change. Is that what he means by ‘rooted in reality?’ Perhaps, since so many moderate Democrats and independents enjoy campaign contributions from energy behemoths like Dominion Power, who hope to profit from those very pipelines –like our own blue Virginia Governor, our Virginia Attorney General, and our Virginia House Speaker Elect.

In fact, I find it difficult to understand what ‘reality’ Obama is describing. Unless, he, too, is only thinking narrowly, and speaking to a precious audience of wealthy individuals and donors that might not understand the risible reality so many of his ‘base’ are now suffering? Is that the case? Is he warning us against things like taxing the rich, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, which is wildly popular among ALL Democrats, and reasonably popular across all parties (with majority positive ratings) because he doesn’t understand or care about what everyone I know experiences every single day? He’s made it clear from his speech that Lefties should not mention the continuing daily deaths from lack of healthcare, the ongoing bankruptcies, suicides and the lost opportunities for education and the extermination of our environment because of ill-conceived plans like fracking natural gas pipelines. Does he suppose that talking about these problems, and advocating viable solutions means ‘tearing down the system’? If so, is the alternative, a stoic, and frankly dumbed down silence?

Apparently, to call such individuals out, to reject those who scheme to rip off underprivileged people or poison our environment with incredibly dysfunctional ideas is, at best, in poor taste. At worst, a radical call to ‘tear down a system.’ Yet, each ‘Lefty’ candidate is working well within the parameters of the existing system. In fact, I suspect the reason Obama decided to put his thumb on the primary scales is precisely because they are doing this so well. So here comes our ‘hope’ hero cautioning respectful silence from the left, please. Maybe he’s got a clever plan? But I don’t think so. His message appears simple: let the wealthy donor class maintain their dark blinders. Don’t bother them with your problems—they’re really not interested. His words are like a seductive whisper….speak no evil to them and you will possibly beat Trump, the wicked one … don’t make the bankers nervous, keep the cash flowing…and allow me to explain your reality to you.

I must say, it is refreshing to hear complete sentences from a President again, but I think I’d rather allow one of those ‘Lefties’ the last word. In the end, they use their language with more discernment, and to a much greater effect.

“When I talk about health care being a human right and ending the embarrassment of America being the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for every man, woman and child, that’s not tearing down the system,” Bernie Sanders said, “That’s doing what we should have done 30 years ago.”

To my ears, that sounds remarkably real.

By Jack Johnson

Pipelines Agonistes


This is the way the world ends….

Not with a bang but a whimper       –The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot


The maddening thing about the pipeline discussion, of course, is that it shouldn’t be happening at all.  People who understand the science do not entertain the idea that even a little pipeline would somehow benefit Virginians, much less the dual monster pipelines – the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline– that are daily discussed with the feckless calm of oblivious passengers sipping martinis on the Titanic.

Late in the evening, I try to work up metaphors that can adequately capture the insanity of this moment. I keep coming back to an old New Yorker cartoon: man in disheveled suit, sitting beside a group of other survivors around a campfire in some obviously post-apocalyptic landscape.

“But for a brief, shining moment,” says the man in the suit, “we managed to create enormous value for our shareholders.”

I suspect this sums up the position of Dominion Power, EQT and other investors in the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipeline projects, and apparently our own state government from the Governor on down to the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board. Heedless of the demonstrable long term and short term damage such pipelines will cause to the environment, and ultimately, human civilization, these corporate and state entities use every possible legal and political weapon to advance the pipelines’ construction. It’s as if they live on a different planet from the activists I know who are increasingly alarmed by the obfuscation and outright lies being handed to them by state government at almost every level.

I had an opportunity to talk with some of these activists over the weekend and they were justly infuriated at the latest dodge by the State Water Control Board. Especially, the most recent move not to revoke MVP’s permit. Here’s a little background.

Before construction started for the Mountain Valley Pipeline in 2017, the State Water Control Board, under Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, (which ostensibly has authority over the project), voted 5-2 in December 2017 to certify the project’s path through Southwest Virginia, finding a “reasonable assurance” that digging trenches for the massive buried pipe along steep slopes would not contaminate nearby streams and rivers.

But, according to the Roanoke Times, in August, the Department of Environmental Quality found multiple failures of erosion and sediment control measures. By December 2018, the board decided to take the unprecedented move of convening a hearing to consider revoking MVP’s certification, one of several permits that allowed construction of the 303-mile pipeline through Virginia.

Rather than carry through with the revocation, based on over 300 violations that the Mountain Valley Pipeline had rung up in the previous year, the State Water Control board decided to undo that process last Friday, March 1st.

On a unanimous vote, the State Water Control Board withdrew its earlier decision to hold a hearing to consider revoking the water quality certification it issued for the pipeline in December 2017. Coming after a four-hour closed session, the vote shocked and angered activists.

“Shame on you!” One pipeline opponent shouted at the board members as others joined in. “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Several people were escorted out of the room.

One board member claimed they did not have the authority to revoke federal permitting for the MVP. Another was concerned about what they saw erosion-wise while visiting the pipeline right of way, but wasn’t concerned enough, apparently, while yet another board member promised “vigorous enforcement” of the requirements MVP agreed to for controlling soil erosion and runoff.

According to one activist, officials from the Mountain Valley Pipeline told DEQ that they would continue with construction regardless of whether their permit was or was not revoked, and the State Water Control Board decided that they would leave the permit in place. It remains to be seen whether the State Water Control Board and DEQ will enforce any of the permit conditions, or whether the suit brought in early December against MVP by Attorney General Mark Herring will have any effect on a corporation that says it will continue to do whatever it wants.

Those are the public stories, presented for the average reader, skimming lines of newsprint, not aware that this decision, along with hundreds of others like it, are sealing their children’s fate, such that, within the next 100 years or so, life on earth, as we currently understand it, will be a remote, idyllic dream.

The backstory, if you are interested in how civilizations are destroyed by the callous and the powerful, comes from a sweet little political maneuver by Governor Ralph Northam.

The terms of two members — one who voted for the pipeline and the other against it — expired, and their replacements accounted for the flip in the panel’s position.

Roberta Kellam was the member who was deeply concerned about the pipeline’s violations.  She was subsequently replaced.

In an op-ed to the Roanoke Times, she wrote:

“Based on what I observed along 30 miles of MVP construction, it continues to be unclear to me why the DEQ has not instructed MVP to stop work in accordance with its authority.

“My tour of the MVP corridor traversed areas of very steep slopes, floodplains and freshwater wetlands. I observed situations that were clearly a threat to water quality, such as unprotected steep slopes, pipeline segments floating in water and erosion and sediment control measures in disrepair.

“But what struck me even more than the environmental impacts was meeting the people dealing with the pipeline construction and its failed erosion control measures on their own properties — farmers and other land owners who graciously invited me to visit their properties and see for myself.

“It was clear that many people felt that DEQ was not protecting their water quality to the extent promised during the water quality certification hearings and that they had lost faith in the DEQ.

“From time to time during 2018, I saw photographs taken by local residents of situations on the ground that appeared to threaten water quality.

“In response to my inquiries about site conditions, I was repeatedly told by DEQ Director David Paylor that the local residents are “untruthful” and their photographs were “misleading.” In the week before Hurricane Florence, when weather forecasts indicated potential catastrophic rainfall in the region, Director Paylor told me that work had stopped even though video and photographs provided by local residents showed otherwise.

“When I further questioned Director Paylor about apparent water quality impacts, he accused me of “working for the opposition” with such ferocity that I felt compelled to defend myself in writing, referring to our responsibilities to protect water quality.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roberta Kellam’s replacement, James Loften made the motion to hold the hearing that ended up affirming MVP’s permit. The motion was supported by Paula Hill Jasinski, a newbie appointee as well, who was attending her first formal board meeting.

In lieu of revoking the permit, some pipeline opponents called for immediate stop- work action. Said Lara Mack, Virginia field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, “We now call on the DEQ to do what’s necessary — and has been necessary for months — and issue a stop-work order for the Mountain Valley Pipeline.”

According to Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s water permitting director, there is no need for such a stop work order, because many of the 300 violations have already been mitigated or don’t rise to the level that would require work to stop. But that’s not what Roberta Kellam or any of the activists on site are saying. Quite the opposite. Each new day of construction brings new environmental damage, new runoff, new water pollution.

All this happens within the small bubble of state law, state environmental experts and an enormously influential and powerful state utility. Yet, the stakes in Virginia pale by comparison to the larger stakes at play, of which Virginia is just a microcosm. In other words, Virginia is just one more nail in the global climate coffin we are building for ourselves. That it is a coffin is indisputable. The most recent IPCC report makes it eminently clear that to build anything like a pipeline to carry natural gas is a bad idea. Building massive infrastructure to produce slightly less carbon and slightly more methane (another greenhouse gas) is, at minimum, a dysfunctional tradeoff.  It’s not nearly as effective as building a true carbon free infrastructure (solar, wind and other renewables) posited by something like the Green New Deal. What’s worse, environmentalists are concerned that continued pipeline approvals will lock in U.S. dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come.

“Building pipelines that are not needed will lead to billions of dollars of stranded assets and slow down our process to building cleaner energy solutions,” Gillian Giannetti, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.

With the rapid decline in the cost of renewables, the economics of building gas pipelines that are meant to last 40 to 60 years no longer adds up, Jonathan Peress of the Environmental Defense Fund said. “In 15 or 20 years, it is clear that alternatives to gas are going to be more economic than building pipelines, but yet these pipelines will still be under contract, people will still be paying for them,” he said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by former FERC chair Norman Bay, who warned of overbuilding the pipeline system and burdening future ratepayers before he stepped down from the commission in 2017.

Since 1999, FERC has approved approximately 400 natural gas pipeline projects while rejecting only two. Under current Republican control, FERC is, in the words of many activists, a rubber stamp agency. When the Governor defers to FERC authority over DEQ, he is simply rubber stamping the pipeline’s approval, while trying to avoid political heat. All of which adds up to more carbon, more methane and more global warming.

According to the IPCC’s most recent report, the future disasters predicted for ten years down the road, are already here. We are already “experiencing the impacts of rapid and unequivocal global warming: coral reef decline, sea level rise, Arctic sea ice loss, biodiversity loss, declining crop yields, more frequent heat waves and heavy rainfall.” It will get much, much worse,  not within a hundred years, but within 5, 10 or 20 years, such that, if you have young children, the politic decisions made now, behind closed doors, for the advantage of a handful of short sighted and powerful individuals, will likely seal your children’s lives and the lives of their children for generations to come. History will judge these politicians and corporate chiefs harshly, as well they should.

Dominion Power CEO, Tom Farrell; Virginia Governor, Ralph Northam;  DEQ  Director, David Paylor. Just a few names that will ring in infamy as future generations learn of their grotesque behavior. I’m sure there will be more added to the list, but for now, this will suffice. They should all be ashamed.


~Jack R. Johnson

Black Face State, Black Face Nation


Susan Sontag’s book length essay, “On the Pain of Others” opens with a description of Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas” in which Woolf asks a male pacifist who wishes to enlist her aide in preventing future wars to look at photographs of war. The idea is by studying images of war, they will be so thoroughly repulsed that war will no longer be a viable alternative. “For a long time,” notes Sontag, “some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war.” Fundamentally, there was a belief that it was merely a failure of imagination that caused war to occur; and given the certainty of such images, if we were to see it clearly, we would never make war again.

Although Sontag is less than sanguine about its efficacy, there can be no doubt that when horrific images are finally brought to the public’s attention—especially the American public—things that were previously acceptable become forbidden. It wasn’t the sworn testimony about Abu Ghraib that caused that horror show to be shut down, but images of American soldiers taking delight in the pain and humiliation—in some cases quite explicit sexual humiliation— of their prisoners. To suggest that the constant replay of bloody images from Vietnam made the war effort almost impossible has become conventional wisdom; and indeed the paucity of photographic evidence of our seventeen-year-old war in Afghanistan speaks directly to that truth. The Pentagon has learned from its past failure, and part of getting over the so called ‘Vietnam syndrome’ is erasing the act of war itself; its pain and horror and monstrous cycles of dehumanization.

Except for those directly involved, Americans are typically shielded from the realities of these wars. If they hear about a bombing or other event, details may be discussed, but dead or wounded American bodies are carefully screened from view. This ‘cleansing’ of the American vision is carefully followed in domestic situations as well, so that we never really see the gore left behind by one of our many mass shootings, but only the tearful anguish of survivors.  It is all quite antiseptic. Presumably, this is in the interest of presenting a dignified and civilized front for what is, in fact, a relatively barbaric reality. At some level, there’s a decorum to this which is understandable. ‘Not too direct’ as Joyce Carol Oates warns. We all presume we know what’s happening in Afghanistan, or at a school shooting, and don’t want to offend hurt family members with violent photographs, whose consumption feels almost pornographic. And yet, we don’t really understand or thoroughly imagine what is happening, and it’s allowed barbarities both new and old to continue apace.

One of the turning points for the American Civil Rights movement happened well before Martin Luther King Jr. took to the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. An Afro American boy named Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955. He was accused of making lewd advances to a white woman, Carol Byrant, at a local store. Byrant’s husband heard of this and he and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam forced Emmett into their car. They took him away and beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Three days later, his corpse was recovered but was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify it by an initialed ring. Authorities wanted to bury the body quickly, but Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested it be sent back to Chicago. She decided to have an open-casket funeral so that all the world could see what racist murderers had done to her only son. Jet, an African American weekly magazine, published a photo of Emmett’s corpse, and soon the mainstream media picked up on the story. Her decision focused attention on U.S. racism and the barbarism of lynching and Till’s murder was ultimately seen as a catalyst for the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. In December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott began in Alabama and lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

What Till’s mother did was refuse to erase her son or the barbarity that a white supremacist society had inflicted. In a word, she bore witness and wanted the world to bear witness. Did the photographs of the tortured son help bring home the point? Undoubtedly. Just as photographs of U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in the thick mud of Khe Sanh turned public opinion against that war. It allows the unimaginable to be imagined. To be image-ed-in.

But if you take a moment and scan the publicly available photos from Khe Sahn (link here), they are instructive, showing the suffering of our troops, and in some instances the suffering of the Vietnamese, yet they are not the whole picture. There were many images that are too scurrilous for public consumption—images of genitalia butchered from the enemy’s body and shoved into the enemy’s mouth. Images that will never be made public of enemy combatants tossed from helicopters while still alive, or tortured with car batteries and jumper cables attached to bare nipples. These images are rarely made public because they are so horrific or pornographic in their obvious intent to shock and dehumanize. Yet, they tell a different kind of story about war and the way images are used. They tell you what we all understand at bottom, that war is about dehumanizing. In some cases, about mocking the enemy as a form of dehumanization, mocking them before death with torture, or after death with butchering.

There’s a kind of cultural mockery that we all understand as well, yet rarely talk about. This, too, has photographic evidence. Mockery is a stand in for physical intimidation, which itself is a stand in for direct violence, and finally murder. They are all levels of erasure; of denying humanity.

Imagine for a moment that someone has taken an image of an American soldier, let’s say one of those wounded American soldiers from Khe Sahn, and superimposed on that image, a clown’s nose and mop of red hair, like a later day Ronald McDonald. This is mockery, no doubt, something that you might expect an enemy to carry out; an enemy that in earlier times or even contemporaneously might want to kill you.

Imagine for a moment that someone has taken an image of a holocaust survivor, one of those horribly ghostlike, yet sentient, starved images from Auschwitz and presented them in some mocking manner, smiling in a foolish way, big ears, extra big nose, of course. We’d understand immediately the cruelty of the image, its obvious anti-Semitic intent; the lurking death wish underneath such derision.

The photograph at the beginning of this article was taken during the Jim Crow era. The Jim Crow era was named for the eponymous minstrel show performer whose real name was Thomas Dartmouth (“Daddy”) Rice, an itinerant white actor. Rice first introduced the character who would become known as Jim Crow between acts of a play called The Kentucky Rifle, in which he performed a ludicrous off-balance dance in black face while singing “Jump Jim Crow,” which described his actions (“Weel about and turn about and do jis so/Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow”). He portrayed the character principally as a dim-witted buffoon.

The intentional cruelty of the photograph above is self-evident; what’s not self-evident perhaps is the contemptuous cruelty of those who dress in ‘black face’, mimicking the mockery of Thomas Rice, aka Jim Crow that suggests it’s okay to deride and dehumanize blacks because they are merely caricatures; not humans who have suffered enormous historical wrongs, in many cases as horrific as Auschwitz survivors.

For our institutions and our leaders, educated individuals, people who have gone to the best schools our nation has to offer, none of this should have been necessary to write or explain. But they have not bothered to learn their own history or care. With such people, who lack both imagination and empathy, it’s obvious such photographs are helpful; their history, our history, must be re-explained, again and again.


~ Jack R. Johnson


Notes on Venezuela


A question comes to mind as we watch the slow motion coup in Venezuela: is this really about the legitimacy of Venezuelan president Maduro’s re-election bid, or levels of press freedom in Venezuela? Or is this about something else entirely?

A few facts to consider while we ponder.

Fact one: Saudi Arabia doesn’t even hold elections, and has recently murdered a Washington Post reporter in their embassy in Turkey in a very public fashion, with apparently no deleterious effects on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, diplomatically or otherwise.

Fact two: Venezuela is the largest oil exporter in the Western Hemisphere.

Fact three: Venezuela has the second largest oil reserves of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

Fact four: Venezuela has nationalized its oil industry and used profits from that trade to help poor Venezuelans, a state of affairs often referred to as socialism.

Fact five: The United States has a long and sordid history of intervening in Latin American countries that claim to be practicing socialism; especially if there are particularly attractive resources that might draw our interest (see facts two, three and four above).

The table (note 1) at the end of this article offers a quick ‘greatest hits’ list for our more notable interventions in the region.

You might note, way down on that list, is our intervention in Venezuelan in 2002. In that year, 2002, the U.S. gave its tacit approval of a coup attempt against Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez who had the temerity to further nationalize Venezuela’s oil reserves and use the proceeds to benefit the poor in his country. Declassified CIA intelligence briefings show that the George W. Bush Administration had prior knowledge of the opposition’s plans and probably encouraged those plans. But Chavez was deposed for less than 48 hours until overwhelming popular support and loyalists in the military helped return him to power.

Multiple observers over saw those ‘come back’ elections, by the way; elections that have been closely watched since Chavez came into power over two decades ago. These observers confirmed the validity of the result.

President Jimmy Carter, among others, has testified that Venezuela’s voting system is one of the most secure and transparent in the world. (See note 2 at the end of this article for more details on the system) Carter is the founder of the Carter Center, an institution that monitors electoral processes in many regions of the world.

After Chavez’s death in 2013, Presidential elections were held again in Venezuela for Chavez’ hand picked replacement Nicolás Maduro. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda.

Although not nearly as popular as Chavez, in May 20, of 2018, Maduro once again managed to squeak out a win, and hung on to the title of President. There were elections, and despite the boycott by the opposition parties (or perhaps because of them) Maduro won a definitive victory. Many on the right and center have claimed that this election was illegitimate, but more than 300 international representatives from organizations such as the African Union, the Caribbean Community and the Electoral Experts Council of Latin America, as well as former heads of states, parliamentarians, trade unionists and solidarity activists, were present for Venezuela’s vote and said it was valid.

In the end, Nicolas Maduro was re-elected for the presidential term of 2019-25 with more than 6.2 million votes (67.8%).

Regarding the elections, the Western press has been overrun with cries of ‘vote rigging’ and ‘illegitimate’ because two of the main opposition parties boycotted the elections. They did this because two of its more popular candidates were banned from the election due to charges of inciting violence and ‘administrative irregularities.’

Are these charges legitimate? It’s hard to say. Charges of violence are assayed from both sides of the political spectrum, and, needless to say, both sides are probably culpable in lesser or greater degrees. Violence in Venezuela has escalated dramatically in the last decade. This is related to the economic crisis that has ravaged the country since 2013, that has grown worse in the last 18 months.

Severe shortages of food, medicine, and basic goods, alongside punishing hyperinflation, have driven an estimated three million Venezuelans to leave the country in recent years. Part of the economic crisis is of course due to plummeting oil prices, coupled with Venezuela’s propensity to print its own money, leading to hyperinflation.

But Venezuela’s crisis is not solely Maduro’s doing. The US government and opposition also share responsibility.

On May 6th, even as oil prices were flat-lining, Washington increased its sanctions on the country; sanctions Western media claimed are “unlikely to create major economic hardship” an assertion that is flatly rejected by the United Nations.

According to the United Kingdom’s The Independent newspaper, the General Assembly’s Human Rights council has condemned the US for its illegal actions that “disproportionately affect the poor and the most vulnerable classes.” It has also called on all member states not to recognize nor apply them, and has even begun discussing potential reparations.

Little of this was reported in the U.S. press.

The U.S., on the other hand, with the help of local business, is doing its best to create the economic conditions for regime change, a replay of the Chilean coup in which Nixon told Kissinger to make the ‘economy scream.’

According to The Independent, “The first UN rapporteur to visit Venezuela for 21 years has told The Independent the US sanctions on the country are illegal and could amount to “crimes against humanity” under international law.

Former special rapporteur Alfred de Zayas, who finished his term at the UN in March, has criticized the U.S. for engaging in “economic warfare” against Venezuela which he said is hurting the economy and killing Venezuelans.

“On his fact-finding mission to the country in late 2017, he found internal overdependence on oil, poor governance and corruption had hit the Venezuelan economy hard, but said “economic warfare” practiced by the US, EU and Canada are significant factors in the economic crisis.

“When I come and I say the emigration is partly attributable to the economic war waged against Venezuela and is partly attributable to the sanctions, people don’t like to hear that. They just want the simple narrative that socialism failed and it failed the Venezuelan people,” Mr de Zayas told The Independent.

“What’s at stake is the enormous, enormous natural resources of Venezuela. And I sense that if Venezuela had no natural resources no one would give a damn about Chavez or Maduro or anybody else there,” Mr de Zayas added.

The opposition in Venezuela is also actively making the country’s deep economic crisis worse. Its head of the National Assembly went on a tour of international banks demanding they not lend to his country, while the Trump administration is threatening Venezuelan bondholders not to negotiate the debt. As economist Mark Weisbrot stated, “It is an attempt to topple the government by further destroying the economy and preventing its recovery…There is no other way to describe it.”

The opposition also bears a large share of responsibility for the direct and indirect damage wrought by episodes of violent protest, such as occurred in 2014 and 2017, with full-throated encouragement by the U.S. In addition to property damaged and lives lost, many at the hands of opposition forces, opposition violence fed a climate of fear and polarization, inhibiting the prospects for economic reform and government-opposition dialogue. Right-wing operatives wearing the traditional black balaclava of right-wing death squads have been reported firing ball bearings into the chests of young men, passing pedestrians, drivers.

Professor Gonzalez of the University of Glasgow argues that “their actions go beyond protest; these thugs almost certainly draw a paycheck from the far right. They are likely paramilitaries who work for the drug traffickers whose influence is growing.

“They do not narrowly support the right: they aim to make the country ungovernable, to deepen the despair and the fear that affects growing numbers of Venezuelans.”

In short, they are ripening the conditions for a coup.

That brings us to the announcement this week of a ‘dual’ presidency.

By declaring himself Venezuela’s president on Wednesday, while Maduro legitimately holds that office, Juan Guaidó has brought Venezuela to the edge. Within hours of his declaration, the U.S. recognized the largely unknown politician as the President. Was there a back channel? Of course there was a back channel.

A number of Latin American nations, most with conservative governments backed by the US, have also done so. The growing list includes Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Canada and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó.

The European Union has reportedly considered such a step, but for now has instead issued a call for new elections.

Meanwhile, Juan Guaidó has promised to privatize Venezuelan’s oil reserves (second largest in the Western Hemisphere, you might recall) and within 48 hours of the U.S, recognition of his ‘presidency’, the oil reporting agency S&P Global Platts reported that the opposition leader already drafted “plans to introduce a new national hydrocarbons law that establishes flexible fiscal and contractual terms for projects adapted to oil prices and the oil investment cycle.”

This plan would involve the creation of a “new hydrocarbons agency” that would “offer bidding rounds for projects in natural gas and conventional, heavy and extra-heavy crude.”

In other words, there are rapid moves to privatize Venezuela’s oil and open the door for multinational corporations.

That’s bad, and perhaps signals the end of the Chavez revolution; but worse news is what followed that announcement.

On Friday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s appointed Elliot Abrams new special envoy for Venezuela. For those who know Abrams’ history, this is a proverbial gallon of gasoline on an already raging fire.

Of all the defunct functionaries you could choose from the Washington establishment, the worst, by far, to oversee a Latin American country on the verge of a catastrophic civil war is Elliot Abrams.

Why? Because we know that his actions, his capacity with regard to any form of legitimate humanitarian oversight will fail miserably. We know this because he has a career littered with episodes in which he did exactly nothing while bishops were murdered (El Salvador), nuns were raped and murdered (El Salvador), drugs were exchanged for money and weapons of war (Nicaragua, Iran/Contra). And hundreds if not thousands of massacred civilians went unmarked for decades (El Mozote massacre, El Salvador), thanks to his duplicity. (Despite physical evidence, Abrams told a Senate committee that the reports of hundreds of deaths at El Mozote “were not credible.”)

He has lied to the American public. He has lied to congress. In 1991, he was convicted of withholding information from congress and went to jail for his lies, only to be pardoned by George H. W. Bush.

And this, my friends, is where we are. A felon convicted of lying in his capacity as assistant secretary of state, will now oversee one of the most tense and delicate dramas to unfold in our Southern Hemisphere.

The Chavez revolution may be faltering, indeed Maduro may be corrupt to the core, but any chance of correcting the problems by appointing a neoliberal upstart that would immediately seek to privatize core elements of the Venezuelan economy will be a disaster, and will likely lead to civil war.

That civil war, in turn, will be over shadowed by the presence of the ghoulish Elliot Abrams, about whom, the best we can say is ‘go back to jail.’

Venezuela may indeed need change, and the revolution begun by Chavez in an earnest effort to help the impoverished of his nation may well need retooling, and a purging of corrupt elements. A revitalization of economic sectors outside of petrol desperately needs to begin. But there is nothing on offer from either Guaido or the Washington establishment that will bring anything more than further deprivation and misery to a badly suffering country.

On the issue of economic viability and political legitimacy, Voltaire had some sage advice offered at the end of Candide, that Trump and the Washington establishment most certainly should heed: ‘Hoe your own garden.’


1. Table of Latin American interventions by the U.S.

1846: The United States invades Mexico and captures Mexico City in 1847. A peace treaty the following year gives the U.S. more than half of Mexico’s territory — what is now most of the western United States.
1903: The United States engineers Panamanian independence from Colombia and gains sovereign rights over the zone where the Panama Canal would connect Atlantic and Pacific shipping routes.
1903: Cuba and the U.S. sign a treaty allowing near-total U.S. control of Cuban affairs. U.S. establishes a naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
First quarter of the 20th century: U.S. Marines repeatedly intervene in Central America and the Caribbean, often to protect U.S. business interests in moments of political instability.
1914: U.S. troops occupy the Mexican port of Veracruz for seven months in an attempt to sway developments in the Mexican Revolution.
1954: Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz is overthrown in a CIA-backed coup.
1961: The U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion fails to overthrow Soviet-backed Cuban leader Fidel Castro but Washington continues to launch attempts to assassinate Castro and dislodge his government.
1964: Leftist President Joao Goulart of Brazil is overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup that installs a military government lasting until the 1980s.
1965: U.S. forces land in the Dominican Republic to intervene in a civil war.
1970s: Argentina, Chile and allied South American nations launch a brutal campaign of repression and assassination aimed at perceived leftist threats, known as Operation Condor, often with U.S. support.
1980s: The administration of President Ronald Reagan backs anti-communist Contra forces against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and backs the Salvadoran government against leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels.
1983: U.S. forces invade the Caribbean island of Grenada after accusing the government of allying itself with communist Cuba.
1989: U.S. invades Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega, who once was a valued CIA intelligence source, as well as one of the primary conduits for illicit weapons, military equipment and cash for U.S.-backed counterinsurgency forces in Latin America.
2002: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is ousted for two days before retaking power. He and his allies accuse the U.S. of tacit support for the coup attempt.
2009: Honduran President Manuel Zelaya overthrown by military. U.S. accused of worsening situation by insufficient condemnation of the coup.

2. Venezuela’s election system:

Since 1998 elections in Venezuela have been highly automated, and administered by a non-partisan National Electoral Council, with poll workers drafted via a lottery of registered voters. Polling places are equipped with multiple high-tech touch-screen DRE voting machines, one to a “mesa electoral”, or voting “table”. After the vote is cast, each machine prints out a paper ballot, or VVPAT, which is inspected by the voter and deposited in a ballot box belonging to the machine’s table. The voting machines perform in a stand-alone fashion, disconnected from any network until the polls close.

As part of the election administration the National Electoral Council planned a post-election audit of 54% of polling places, comparing the electronic records with the paper trail.

by Jack Johnson

Open Letter on Richmond School Funding from APV

For Public Release:


The Alliance for a Progressive Virginia supports a strong commitment to public education in general and especially as it pertains to the Virginia public schools.

Since the 2008-9 financial crisis we have watched as the Commonwealth’s public schools have taken blow after blow as priorities were shifted and funding cut.

With this recent past in mind, we are deeply concerned about proposed, substantive redevelopment in the downtown area of the city of Richmond and its possible impact on our troubled local school system. While a majority of Richmond voters have repeatedly demanded fundamental improvements in Richmond schools, they have been answered, not with plans to recruit qualified teachers, repair substandard buildings and cut wasteful top-heavy administration, but instead with aggressive development schemes initiated in the business sector and supported by Richmond City officials who seem to view education in our city as an afterthought to the chimeric pursuit of “growth”.

It is time for our city to realize that we need working services here, now! The long-term dream of enticing low service/high tax base, young professionals to the city with the targeted development of one and two-bedroom luxury apartments and gimmicks like easy (arguably unnecessary), transportation from city-sponsored breweries to a single west end shopping center are not sufficient. If anything, this attempt to cater to a single demographic has led to “growth” in ways that have transformed our city into a place that often seems barely recognizable, and one that does not support vulnerable communities, affordable housing or local business.

Richmond already attracts young, educated professionals with lavish support for our local universities, a thriving food and art scene and a long tradition of gracious living in a welcoming community. The question is how will we retain them when they want to start families? Young families should be an anchor and base for the city but instead we continue to see them migrate to surrounding counties where the school systems are alive and well, taking their tax dollars with them.

It is time for Richmond to stop entertaining tax-funded mega-projects that enrich the business community while leaving the majority of Richmond citizens with little in the way of tangible, positive outcomes. We have seen this movie and all of its remakes time and again, and we know the ending. We keep asking our citizens to pay for boondoggles like for instance, the Redskins training camp complex while essential services are left to atrophy. It’s time to say enough is enough.

The Alliance for a Progressive Virginia supports a thorough and transparent vetting of the proposed Navy Hill/Coliseum project in terms that the general public can understand and respond to at every phase of its potential development. While APV supports Councilperson Kim Gray’s proposal for an independent research team to investigate the particulars of the project on behalf of City residents and would encourage all Council members to support her proposal, we are dismayed and disappointed that once again tax dollars must be spent in order rein in a project we never asked for. Citizens need to have access to meetings at times and at places that accommodate working people, during which they are able to ask questions and receive honest answers, rather than a glossy sales pitch.

We need a lot more information and oversite than we’ve gotten and we need to keep our eye on the ball: Schools and public services must be our top priority!

Rhonda Hening,
President, Alliance for a Progressive Virginia.