Mojo - February 2013

"It Seems Like Yesterday That Trayvon Was Here"

| Wed Feb. 27, 2013 1:18 AM EST
Trayvon's mother Sybrina Fulton
From left: Trayvon Martin's father, Tracy Martin; his mother, Sybrina Fulton; and Benjamin Crump, the family's lawyer. James West

A few hundred demonstrators chanted "Hoodies up! Hoodies up!" in New York City's Union Square earlier tonight to mark the exact minute that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman one year ago. Zimmerman was ultimately charged with second-degree murder in the case, which sparked a national debate over racial profiling.

Dark hoodies drawn over their heads in remembrance of what their son was wearing that night, Trayvon's parents stood with their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, and Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx to lead a candlelight vigil that doubled as a call to action against profiling, gun violence, and the proliferation of so-called Stand Your Ground laws.

"This is a somber day for us," said Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, with the help of a bullhorn. "This is a day that won't be forgotten. It seems like yesterday that Trayvon was here."

Foxx spoke briefly and quietly: "We had a moment together," he said of his meeting with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother. "I want you to know this is a personal thing." He promised to use his fame to help push for justice in Trayvon's case. Crump told demonstrators that Foxx had flown in from Los Angeles especially to meet with the family on the one-year anniversary. Foxx sang a short tune, "No weapon formed against you shall prosper," before concluding, "We love you." He hugged the pair.

As the hour approached, Crump prepared the audience: "People in Sanford get ready…People in Tucson, Arizona, get ready. People in Aurora, Colorado, get ready. People all over the world get ready," he said. "Let Tracy and Sybrina know that even though Trayvon may have been alone last year at 7:17, he is not alone this year at 7:17."

Tracy Martin
Martin thanks the crowd in Manhattan's Union Square. James West

Trayvon's parents led the crowd in a minute of silence. People bowed their heads and closed their eyes. It was the only moment Fulton looked unruffled by the horde of reporters, leaning close to Crump.

As the clock struck 7:17, the moment the killing took place, Fulton and Martin spoke a short prayer in unison over the bullhorn: "We remember Trayvon Martin. Gone but never forgotten." The words were repeated several times by the crowd, a mix of activists. protesters, and New Yorkers on their way home from work.

Fulton then began to count, "One… two…" As the minute came to a close, and rain began to fall, she said, "three," and everyone blew out their candles and cheered.

A candle is lit
A participant holds a candle at the Trayvon Martin vigil. James West

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4 Meetings With Obama? That'll Cost You Half a Million

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 1:36 PM EST

Common Cause, the good-government group founded in 1970, has a loud-and-clear message for President Obama: He should tell his former campaign aides to shut down Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group created to promote Obama's second-term legislative agenda.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, Organizing for Action hopes to raise $50 million, and its leaders—including former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina—are courting wealthy givers to fill the group's war chest. An elite group of donors giving or raising $500,000 or more is expected to cough up at least half of OFA's budget. Those top-tier donors, whose names OFA says it will voluntarily disclose quarterly (which goes beyond what most nonprofits disclose), will earn a spot on OFA's "national advisory board" and, more importantly, get to meet with Obama four times a year, according to the Times.

Bob Edgar, the president of Common Cause, said in a statement blasted out to reporters on Tuesday that Obama should push to have OFA shut down and should "disavow any plan" to meet with OFA's bankrollers. "With its reported promise of quarterly presidential meetings for donors and 'bundlers' who raise $500,000, Organizing for Action apparently intends to extend and deepen the pay-to-play Washington culture that Barack Obama came to prominence pledging to end," Edgar said. "Access to the president should never be for sale."

Organizing for Action is a reincarnation of Obama's reelection campaign, the most technologically sophisticated in history. OFA will have access to the databases and massive supporter network—2 million volunteers, 17 million email subscribers, and 22 million Twitter followers—built up by Team Obama in the run-up to last year's presidential election. Although it is now running ads hitting lawmakers on the issue of gun control, OFA says it will not get involved in elections, focusing solely on building support for Obama's legislative priorities, which include immigration reform, gun control, and revamping the tax code. OFA is allowed to coordinate its efforts with the Obama White House, which it wouldn't have been able to do as a super-PAC.

But by organizing as a nonprofit, and agreeing to accept unlimited funds from corporations, unions, and individuals, OFA has been pilloried by Republicans and Democrats. They see OFA as a direct contradiction to Obama's opposition to big-money politics and his pledge to clean up Washington's cash-driven political culture. "It's the right vehicle from a legal perspective, but it is breathtakingly hypocritical," Charles Spies, a Republican lawyer who ran the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future, told me last month.

Common Cause's Edgar doesn't begrudge the president for wanting outside help in his second term, but he says it should not come from an access-peddling outfit like OFA. "President Obama's backers should go back to the drawing board. The president may feel that he needs help from an advocacy organization outside the White House and the Democratic Party, but any group he creates should be fundamentally different from what we now see in Organizing for Action."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 26, 2013

Tue Feb. 26, 2013 11:59 AM EST

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Chester Thomson, 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, runs up an embankment during a security patrol in a remote village of Khowst Province, Afghanistan, Jan. 31, 2013. U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Zach Holden, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

 

Ashley Judd Is Not the Next Todd Akin

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 11:26 AM EST
Possible Kentucky Senate candidate Ashley Judd with Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu

Actress and public health activist Ashley Judd is seriously considering running for Senate as a Democrat next year against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader. On Tuesday, the Daily Caller's Alex Pappas waded through Judd's essays and speeches to make the case that she just might be the Democratic Todd Akin—someone whose "comments are so outrageous and extreme that people can't bring themselves to vote for her."

This is a sentiment that is shared by, among others, Ashley Judd. "I am asked a lot if I will someday run for office, often enough, in fact, that if I had a nickel for each time I've been asked, I could fund a campaign," she said in a 2006 speech at the University of Kentucky. "But a speech like this, such an unguarded chunk of my truth is very likely to completely disqualify me."

The subject of that particular speech, and one she's returned to quite often since, was feminism—what she considered to be the animating ideal behind her political life. "I'd like to propose that the society in which we live is, in fact, extremist and radical," she said. "It is so skewed, massively out of balance; the result of one sex ruling and objectifying another for at least the last millennia." The world's religions were filled with "stunning misogyny," Christianity included.

Among other incriminating quotes Pappas flags, Judd compared mountaintop-removal coal mining to the Rwandan genocide. (She added, "Naturally, I accept that I set myself up for ridicule for using such strong terms, or perhaps outrage from human victims of slaughter, but I do believe in the profound interconnectedness of all life, and, I agree with Einstein's assertion that 'you cannot pick a flower that you do not disturb a star.'")

I've spent only a few days in Kentucky, so I'll accept the premise that most of the state's eligible voters don't spend much time quoting Gloria Steinem and railing against the patriarchy. I'll also accept Pappas'—and Judd's—premise that she is substantially more liberal than the median Kentucky voter, given that the median Kentucky voter recently voted for Rand Paul. It's not clear whether she's running; it's certainly not clear that she'd be a favorite to win.

But the Akin comparison seems to miss the whole point of Todd Akin—and Ashley Judd, too. The Missouri Senate candidate's demise hinged almost entirely on his flip suggestion that some kinds of rape (i.e. non-"legitimate" rape) really weren't so bad, as well as a basic ignorance of science; Judd's most incriminating statements stem in no small part from the fact that, yes, actually, women have been held down for a while and still face serious obstacles today. (Case in point: Todd Akin.) In Kentucky, that might be a losing proposition, but there's nothing "bizarre" about feminism.

"It is my pleasure to make you slightly uncomfortable," Judd told her audience at UK, halfway through her feminist manifesto. For Judd, that's a feature, not a bug.

C. Everett Koop, the Only US Surgeon General Frank Zappa Sang About, Dead at 96

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 10:52 AM EST
1916-2013.

C. Everett Koop, the most famous Surgeon General the United States ever had, passed away Monday at his New Hampshire residence. He was 96.

Koop, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 and served until 1989, was famous for the aggressive anti-smoking campaign he launched in 1984. A former smoker, Koop challenged the country to become "smoke-free" by the year 2000, and railed against cigarettes as "the most important individual health risk in this country." His unprecedented action on AIDS awareness drove Reagan administration policy and kick-started a national conversation on sex education and safe sex. His initial report on the disease drew heated controversy for its frank discussion of sodomy, condoms, and his advocacy of teaching sex ed to kids as early as the third grade. (The government printed 20 million copies.) And although he staunchly opposed abortion on religious grounds, he declined to use his position to campaign against legal and safe abortion in America.

For these and other high-profile efforts, Koop became a household name (a level of fame unusual for a public health administrator), with some admirers referring to him as a "scientific Bruce Springsteen" and a "rock-star." He is also the only US Surgeon General to, a) have had his own reality TV show, and b) have a Frank Zappa song written about him.

In 1991, Koop hosted a five-part documentary series on NBC called C. Everett Koop, M.D. The show, over which Koop exercised a good deal of creative control, focused on the future of health and medicine, as well as the shortcomings of the United States health care system. C. Everett Koop, M.D. also made Koop the first and only Surgeon General to win an Emmy Award. Critic Walter Goodman of the New York Times dubbed it a "painfully timely series," and Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly wrote that "Koop has the presence of a natural TV star."

Obviously not everyone was a gentle admirer of Koop's: During a 1988 world tour, experimental rock artist Frank Zappa performed a hip-hop-tinged funk song titled "Promiscuous" that was harshly critical of Koop's and other Republicans' approach to the AIDS crisis. (You can hear part of the song here.) The lyrics are not quite safe for work; but here's a verse:

Is Doctor Koop a man to trust?

It seems at least that Reagan must

(And Ron's a trusting sort of guy -

He trusts Ed Meese

I wonder why?)

I WONDER WHY

WONDER WHY

Zappa's opinion was evidently not the prevailing one: In 1990, Koop was presented with the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. And in 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

This Supreme Court Case Could Give Corporations Even More Power to Screw Consumers

| Tue Feb. 26, 2013 7:56 AM EST

On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court will hear a case that has the potential to give big corporations free rein to write contracts that prevent consumers from ever holding them accountable for fraud, antitrust violations, or any other abuses of consumer and worker protection laws now on the books. It's a case that hasn't gotten much attention, but should.

The case, Italian Color v. American Express, was brought by a California Italian restaurant and a group of other small businesses that tried to sue the credit card behemoth for antitrust violations. They allege Amex used its monopoly power to force them to accept its bank-issued knock-off credit cards as a condition of taking regular, more elite American Express cards—and then charging them 30 percent higher fees for the privilege.

The small businesses claims were pretty small individually, not more than around $5,000 per shop. So, to make their case worth enough for a lawyer to take it, they banded together to file a class action on behalf of all small businesses affected by the practice. In response, Amex invoked the small print in its contract with them: a clause that not only banned the companies from suing individually but also prevented them from bringing a class action. Instead, Amex insisted the contract required each little businesses to submit to the decision of a private arbitrator paid by Amex, and individually press their claims. (Arbitration is heavily stacked in favor of the big companies, as you can read more about here and here.)

The restaurants estimated, with good evidence, that because of the market research required to press an antitrust case, arbitration would cost each of them almost $1 million to collect a possible maximum of $38,000, making it impossible to bring their claims at all. After a lot of litigation, the little guys prevailed in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the arbitration clause was unconscionable because it prevented the plaintiffs from having their claims heard in any forum. The court said the arbitration contract should be invalidated and that the class action should go forward in a regular courtroom. (Sonia Sotomayor sat on one of the appeals before heading to the high court and is recusing herself from the case as a result.) Now Amex is appealing and arguing that some of the high court's recent decisions in favor of big companies mean it has every right to use contracts to deprive the little guys of access to the legal system.

Consumer advocates are worried about how the court's going to decide this case. Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has been especially amenable to the sorts of arguments Amex is making, and the results have been pretty damaging to consumers. The Alliance for Justice has a list here of some of the types of cases that were thrown out after the court's last pro-business decision about mandatory arbitration, which allowed companies to use arbitration clauses to trump state consumer and worker protection laws. It's not pretty.

If the court rules in favor of Amex, big companies will essentially be able to immunize themselves from any legal accountability, simply by forcing customers and employees to sign a contract to get a job or a cellphone or a bank account. Civil and consumer rights laws will stay on the books, but big companies will be able to ignore them.

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Rights Groups to GOP: Stop Watering Down the Violence Against Women Act

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 1:52 PM EST
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the Values Voters Summit in 2011

When House Republicans released their version of the Violence Against Women Act late on Friday, advocacy groups for victims of domestic violence were unanimous: They hate the Republicans' plan.

"There are over 20 House Republicans who have made public statements in support of a bipartisan VAWA that protects all victims. This is not that bill," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence said in a statement to reporters Friday evening. Monday, Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the House GOP's version of the bill "nothing less than shameful."

For more than a year, Republicans have been blocking the reauthorization of the once bipartisan Violence Against Women Act, which was first passed in 1994. House Republicans had three main objections to the new VAWA drafted in the Democratic-controlled Senate: It increased the number of visas available to undocumented victims of domestic violence, it denied grant money to organizations that discriminate against LGBT victims of domestic violence, and it allowed Native American tribal courts to prosecute non-tribe members who are accused of abusing their Indian partners. 

In order to address House Republicans' concerns, Senate Democrats removed the section of the draft VAWA that would have granted more visas to undocumented victims of domestic violence who cooperate with police against their abusers. Although law enforcement determines whether an individual has been helpful in an investigation and is therefore eligible for such a visa, Republicans charged that increasing the number of visas available would lead to fraud. This compromise version of the bill passed the Senate last week with 78 votes. 

That wasn't good enough for House Republicans, however. As the Huffington Post's Jennifer Bendery reported Friday, the House GOP's version of the bill lacks the Senate language related to LGBT protections:

Specifically, the bill removes "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" from the list of underserved populations who face barriers to accessing victim services, thereby disqualifying LGBT victims from a related grant program. The bill also eliminates a requirement in the Senate bill that programs that receive funding under VAWA provide services regardless of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. Finally, the bill excludes the LGBT community from the STOP program, the largest VAWA grant program, which gives funds to care providers who work with law enforcement officials to address domestic violence.

Sharon Stapel, executive director the New York Anti-Violence Project, released a statement saying that "Leaving LGBT survivors of violence behind is an unacceptable response to the real violence that LGBT people face every day." The Centers for Disease Control has found that same-sex couples experience domestic violence at the same rates as heterosexual couples.

As for allowing tribal courts to prosecute non-tribe members accused of abusing their Indian partners, Republicans altered—but did not remove—those sections of the bill. The changes the House GOP made to the law, however, make it harder to prosecute non-tribe members and harder to protect victims, according to the National Congress of American Indians. The Senate version of the bill requires that tribal courts meet the due process standards of the US Constitution. But under the Republican version of the bill, the tribal courts would also have to get the permission of the US attorney general before prosecuting a non-member. That's a heavy burden.

That's not the only change the GOP made that will affect American Indian victims of domestic violence. Tribal courts have long dealt with an epidemic of domestic violence by issuing civil protection orders (similar to a restraining order) against non-tribe members. Derrick Beetso, a staff attorney at NCAI, called these protection orders "the only recourse that Native women have against non-Indian abusers." The House GOP's version of VAWA makes it harder for tribal courts to issue these sorts of orders. Under the GOP's plan, even a restraining order-like ruling would now require tribal courts to get permission from the US attorney general. That's the same standard Republicans want tribal courts to meet in order to prosecute non-tribe members. "Now to exercise civil authority, they have to meet a criminal threshold," Beetso explains. NCAI opposes this new certification requirement.

The House is expected to consider the bill later this week.

The Supreme Court Won't Hear "Citizens United on Steroids" Case

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 12:18 PM EST
The United States Supreme Court.

That whooshing sound you just heard was campaign finance reformers breathing a deep sigh of relief. On Monday morning, the Supreme Court declined to take up a lawsuit named Danielczyk v. United States, a challenge to one of the oldest laws in campaign politics: the ban on direct corporate contributions to candidates.

The case stems from donations that two Virginia businessmen, William Danielczyk and Eugene Biagi, made to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. Danielczyk and Biagi gave to Clinton's campaign under the impression that they would be reimbursed by the private equity firm that employed them. Instead Danielczyk and Biagi were prosecuted by the Department of Justice for violating the century-old ban on corporate contributions. They responded by fighting to dismiss the charges. Their attorneys argued that the Supreme Court's logic in the Citizens United case—that independent expenditures do not corrupt or create the appearance of corruption—applied to donations directly to candidates. Thus the ban on corporate donations, they argued, was unconstitutional. In 2011, a federal district court agreed with Danielczyk's lawyers and dismissed the charges, but the case was later reversed on appeal.

When Danielczyk reached the Supreme Court, supporters of tougher campaign finance laws feared that the court might go even further than Citizens United by demolishing the ban on direct corporate donations, one of the last remaining pillars of campaign finance law in US. They had reason to worry: Last week, the high court agreed to the hear the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, another troublesome case in the eyes of the reformers. McCutcheon challenges the overall cap on what donors can give to candidates, parties, and political action committees, currently set at $46,200 to federal candidates and $70,800 to parties and PACs over a two-year election cycle. That limit is nearly 40 years old, dating back to the post-Watergate era, and if it falls, the reformers fear that future challenges to, say, the limit on donating to a candidate (now at $2,600 a year) could fall, too.

The Supreme Court could, sometime down the road, reconsider the corporate donation ban. But for now, the reformers have received a small bit of good news at an otherwise bleak point in the political money wars.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 25, 2013

Mon Feb. 25, 2013 11:08 AM EST

Pfc. Dylan Redecker, a rifleman with Company B., Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, provides security during a bilateral boat raid as a part of exercise Cobra Gold 2013 here, Feb. 15. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Katelyn Hunter.

 

12 Ways the Sequester Will Screw the Poor

| Mon Feb. 25, 2013 7:12 AM EST

Men waiting in a bread line, New York City, 1910

When Congress agreed on automatic slash-and-burn spending cuts in 2011—if no big bipartisan deficit reduction package could be achieved—the cuts were designed to be so unpalatable that Republicans and Democrats would feel compelled to concoct a better deal to replace them. President Barack Obama says avoiding the deep cuts, called sequestration in DC-speak, should be a "no-brainer." But Republicans are increasingly saying the sequester won't be so bad. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said Thursday that the $85 billion in cuts "would really help a long way and get us on a sustainable fiscal path."

One problem is that many poor Americans rely on services the government provides. The White House released a report Sunday emphasizing the ways in which the cuts will hurt the middle class, but although important entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps are exempt from sequestration, many programs for low-income families are on the chopping block. Here are 12 of them:  

Public housing subsidies: $1.9 billion in cuts would affect 125,000 low-income people who would lose access to vouchers to help them with their rent.

Foreclosure prevention: 75,000 fewer people would receive foreclosure prevention, rental, and homeless counseling services.

Emergency housing: 100,000 formerly homeless people could be removed from their current emergency shelters.

Educational programs: Learning programs for poor kids would see a total of $2.7 billion in cuts. The $400 million slashed from Head Start, the preschool program for poor children, would result in reduced services for some 70,000 kids.

Title I Funding: The Department of Education's Title I program, the biggest federal education program in the country, subsidizes schools that serve more than a million disadvantaged students. It would see $725 million in cuts.

Rural rental assistance: Cuts to the Department of Agriculture would result in the elimination of rental assistance for 10,000 very low-income rural people, most of whom are single women, elderly, or disabled.

Social Security: Although Social Security payments themselves won't be scaled back, cuts to the program would result in a massive backlogging of disability claims.

Unemployment benefits: More than 3.8 million people getting long-term unemployment benefits would see their monthly payments reduced by as much as 9.4 percent, and would lose an average of $400 in benefits over their period of joblessness.

Veterans services: The Transition Assistance Program would be forced to cut back some of the job search and career transition services it provides to 150,000 vets a year.

Nutritional Assistance for Women & Children: The government's main food stamp program is exempt from cuts, but other food programs would take a hit. Some 600,000 women and children would be cut from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides nutrition assistance and education.

Special education: $978 million* in cuts would affect 30.7 million children. For example, the scaling back of federal grants to states for students with disabilities would mean that cash-strapped states and districts would have to come up with the salaries for thousands of teachers, aides, and staff that serve special needs kids.

Job training programs: $37 million would be slashed from a job retraining and placement program called Employment Services, and $83 million would be cut from Job Corps, which provides low-income kids with jobs and education.


*Correction: This originally read "$978 billion"; "million" is correct.