Political MoJo

These Women Are Tired of Being Nice. Read Their Badass Letter About Sexism in Tech.

| Thu May 22, 2014 5:15 PM EDT

It's no secret that the tech industry can be a brutal place for women trying to work there. The parade of offenses continues: the social coding giant GitHub came under a firestorm of criticism earlier this year after one of the company's few female developers quit, alleging a pattern of sexual and gender-based harassment. And a website called "CodeBabes" launched, offering to teach bros how to code under the tutelage of virtual strippers. It seems there's no end to this type of news; in fact, there's a whole site devoted to tracking these flareups.

On Thursday, a fed-up group of women technologists and leaders published an open letter about how women are treated in tech, and ways to do better. It was published it in Model View Culture, a startup media site that covers issues of culture and inclusion in tech. The cosigners include Divya Manian, a product manager at Adobe, Sabrina Majeed, iOS designer at Buzzfeed, Angelina Fabbro, who is on the developers tools team at Mozilla, and Jessica Dillon, a software engineer at Bugsnag, a San Francisco-based startup.

As the women put it, "We are tired of pretending this stuff doesn't happen." The whole letter is absolutely worth a read, but here's an excerpt:

Our experiences? They’re just like the stories you hear about. But maybe you thought because we weren’t as loud, that this stuff doesn’t happen to us. We've been harassed on mailing lists and called ‘whore’/‘cunt’ without any action being taken against aggressors. We get asked about our relationships at interviews, and we each have tales of being groped at public events. We’ve been put in the uncomfortable situation of having men attempt to turn business meetings into dates.

We regularly receive creepy, rapey e-mails where men describe what a perfect wife we would be and exactly how we should expect to be subjugated. Sometimes there are angry e-mails that threaten us to leave the industry, because ‘it doesn’t need anymore c**ts ruining it’...

We’d rather be writing blog posts about best practices for development, design, and tech management instead of the one we’re writing now. We are tired of pretending this stuff doesn’t happen, but continuing to keep having these experiences again and again. We keep our heads down, working at our jobs, hoping that if we just work hard at what we do, maybe somehow the problem will go away...

Imagine if you were the only person like you on your team and when you left your computer and came back there was very graphic porn on your screen (a specific example that we have experienced)...

Read the full letter here.

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50 Senators Call on Washington Football Team to Change Name

| Thu May 22, 2014 2:00 PM EDT

Fifty senators have called out NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, urging the league to change the racist name of Washington's football team. Referencing the NBA's strong response to racist Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, they wrote in a letter to Goodell, "Now is the time for the NFL to act. The Washington, DC football team is on the wrong side of history. What message does it send to punish slurs against African Americans while endorsing slurs about Native Americans?"

The main letter, first given to the New York Times, was circulated by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and signed by 46 other Democrats and two independents. (Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ever the lone wolf, decided to send his own letter also calling for a name change.) Virginia's pair of senators were among the five Dems who didn't sign; the letter was not circulated among Republicans.

The NFL released a statement in response that defended the name, but continued the softening of the league's tone toward critics: "The intent of the team's name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image. The name is not used by the team or the NFL in any other context, though we respect those that view it differently." The team itself declined to comment, though owner Dan Snyder can rest easy knowing he was absolved of racism months ago.

Read the full letter below:


We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 22, 2014

Thu May 22, 2014 9:55 AM EDT

CAMP NOVO SELO, Kosovo (May 12, 2014) -- Paratroopers with 2nd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, conduct pre-jump training exercises prior to conducting their airborne operation, May 12, in western Kosovo. The squadron’s Soldiers used the Army’s MC-6 maneuverable parachute system to descend 1,000 feet and land at the Dakovica Airfield in Dakovica, Kosovo. The operation was the first airborne operation with a U.S. Air Force C-130 in Kosovo in over 10 years. (Photo by Pfc. An Nguyen, 2-38 Cavalry Squadron)

Do Background Checks Work to Keep Disturbed People From Getting Guns?

| Thu May 22, 2014 9:00 AM EDT
More Mother Jones reporting on guns in America.

It's a question at the heart of the gun debate. Most Americans think the answer is yes (an overwhelming majority continues to support comprehensive background checks for gun buyers), while the National Rifle Association emphatically believes the opposite (its leadership opposes new firearm regulations of virtually any kind). Now, a new report from the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety crunches  some actual data: Citing figures from the FBI, the gun-reform group reports that the number of mental health records collected from states in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (known as "NICS") has tripled to nearly three and a half million since 2011—and that as a result, a growing number of mentally ill people have been stopped from purchasing firearms through licensed dealers.

The change owes to increased federal funding for the system and a wave of more stringent state laws put in place. As we documented at the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, 2013 saw a barrage of new state laws from coast to coast, both easing and tightening gun restrictions. Among them were laws in 15 states intended to keep firearms away from the seriously mentally ill.

mental health guns laws

After a ghastly run of mass shootings from Tucson to Aurora to Newtown to Fort Hood (again), this particular issue no longer seems such a partisan one. The states passing bills in 2013 included gun-rights strongholds such as Texas and Florida, and this spring Republican-led Arizona and Oklahoma joined the list. At least 18 states have moved on this issue since late 2011, according to Everytown.

The result? In 2013 nearly 3,000 people were blocked from purchasing guns because of NICS—more than 600 more than in 2012, continuing an upward trend that goes back to 2009.

Granted, that's but a tiny fraction of the 300 million guns in circulation nationwide. And it remains remarkably easy for people to get firearms from somewhere other than a federally licensed dealer. But it only takes one gun in the wrong hands to wreak havoc. As our in-depth investigation showed, a majority of mass shootings are carried out by people with serious mental health problems, using weapons they obtained legally.

Also notable in Everytown's report are the states still failing on the mental health front with respect to firearms. This interactive map shows them, including a couple that may seem surprising—liberal Massachusetts?—and others that have fresh reason to consider the issue, such as Georgia. It was less than a month ago that a young man went on a rampage at a FedEx facility in suburban Atlanta, wounding six people before killing himself. Police investigators declined to say where he bought the gun he used, but his state of mind was clear enough: He described his "mental instability" in a suicide note that he left behind. "I am a sociopath," he wrote. "I want to hurt people."

Armed Groups in Ukraine Target Gays, Journalists, Minorities, and Anyone Who Speaks Up

| Wed May 21, 2014 11:28 AM EDT
Crimean Tatars call for freedom of speech during a protest in Crimea in March.

Human rights violations, including killings, beatings, harassment of minorities, and abductions of journalists and activists, are escalating in Ukraine, according to a report released this weekend by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The growing tension, the report says, is fueled primarily by the DIY armed groups and self defense units that have sprung up around the country.

The expansive report is based on information gathered by the UN's Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), and concludes that "the continuation of the rhetoric of hatred and propaganda fuels the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, with a potential of spiraling out of control." The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the UN's report for a "complete lack of objectivity, glaring disparities and double standards."

We've gone through the full report and pulled out some of its noteworthy findings:

Deaths and injuries:

  • Following violent clashes in early December, January, and mid-February, more than 120 activists were killed and hundreds injured.
  • During clashes in Odessa earlier this month that led to a fire in the city's trade union building, 46 people were killed and 230 injured.  
  • In the initial aftermath of this winter's Maidan protests, 314 people were registered as missing. Most have since been found alive, but some were found dead while the fate of some others is still unknown.

Discrimination against minority groups: The UN's special rapporteur on minority issues visited Ukraine in April. On the issue of minority treatment, she warned that "in some localities the level of tension had reached dangerous levels." Namely:

  • There have been ongoing reports of hate crimes, threats, and harassment against LGBT people by both pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces. Several Ukrainian political parties, including the right-wing Svoboda and Right Sector, state that combating homosexuality is one of their goals. Meanwhile, though, Ukraine's version of a ban on "gay propaganda" was withdrawn from parliament consideration in mid-April, though another law that would have similar effects is still  under consideration. (The bill, draft law 0945, would prohibit the production of media, TV, radio, or other products promoting homosexuality.)
  • The report notes several anti-Semitic episodes in Odessa, Donetsk, and Crimea including one where swastikas were painted onto Jewish tombs, a Holocaust memorial, and houses near the local synagogue.
  • Opioid substitution therapy, an important element of HIV/AIDS treatment for patients in Ukraine, has been cut in Crimea, leaving approximately 800 patients who are OST users in the region in deteriorating health.
  • The UN documented ongoing harassment of Crimean Tatars, including vandalism of a memorial and an episode where a self-defense unit stormed the building of the Parliament of the Crimean Tatars, a governing body representing this population in Ukraine. The armed men physically and verbally harassed female employees and tore down the Ukrainian flag. The report also lists numerous instances where Crimean Tatars' ability to move to and from Crimea has been obstructed.
  • Roma families have also suffered harassment, including attacks on at least seven Roma households in Slovyansk by armed men demanding money and valuables. Many Roma families, the report says, have fled the region altogether.

Problems for Crimeans refusing Russian citizenship:

  • People in Crimea who chose not to apply for Russian citizenship, the report says, have been facing harassment and intimidation. According to rules agreed upon following the March 18 referendum that brought Crimea under Russian control, the region's residents had until April 18 to apply for an exemption from Russian citizenship, but the process has been made increasingly difficult by authorities.

Detentions of journalists and activists

  • In April, two student activists and one city councilor were killed by unknown assailants. All three of their bodies were found dumped in the river in Slovaynsk bearing signs of torture.
  • The Ukraine monitoring mission documented at least 23 abductions of reporters and photographers by armed groups. As of early May, 18 of those journalists have been released, but "the exact number of the journalists still unlawfully detained remains unknown."
  • Activists, members of law enforcement, and international monitors have been detained and  beaten by "self-defense units." The recently detained include at least two members of the anti-Russian Svoboda party, two police officers, a group of foreign military observers, and six residents of a town in the Donetsk region, including town councilors or trade union leaders.

Freedom of the press is faltering:

  • At least three Crimean media outlets have moved their editorial offices out of the region and to mainland Ukraine, citing concerns around personal safety and the ability to do their jobs.
  • Broadcasting of Ukrainian TV channels has been disconnected in Crimea since March.
  • In early April, 11 Ukrainian radio stations had to halt their operations in Crimea due to new legal and technical specifications for FM broadcasting in the region.
  • In late April, the press secretary of the Parliament of the Crimean Tatar people announced that state TV and radio would stop permitting broadcasting about Mustafa Jemilev and Refat Chubarov, two leaders of the Crimean Tatar community.

Internally displaced people:

  • The UNHCR reports that as of late April there are 7,207 internally displaced people in Ukraine, the majority of them women and children who identify as Crimean Tatars. There is no systematic registration process for internally displaced people in Ukraine, which means this figure may not be accurate. Registration with a local authority is also necessary to access basic services like housing and healthcare. The report notes that a number of organizational issues around registering and providing services to IDPs still need to be addressed.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 21, 2014

Wed May 21, 2014 10:13 AM EDT

Marines with Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting (ARFF), Headquarters & Headquarters Squadron, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, conduct monthly fuel burn training aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, May 16, 2014. ARFF conducts monthly fuel burns to ensure all Marines are competent in their occupational specialty and able to be called upon at a moments notice. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Aneshea S. Yee/Released)

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Obama Administration Sued for Refusing to Disclose Data on Student Loan Debt Collectors

| Tue May 20, 2014 2:27 PM EDT

President Barack Obama has taken several steps over the past few years to address the $1 trillion problem of student loan debt. He's pushed loan forgiveness programs and efforts to help borrowers reduce payments. One thing that apparently isn't factoring into his plans, though, is reining in abusive debt collectors that the Department of Education hires to collect student loans debt when people can't pay.

More than $94 billion of the nation's student loan debt was in default as of September 2013, according to a March report from the Government Accountability Office. And the percentage of people defaulting on school loans has increased steadily for six years in a row. In 2011, the Department of Education paid private debt collectors $1 billion to try to collect on that debt—a number that is expected to double by 2016. The tactics used by those debt collectors range from harassing to downright abusive. In March 2012, Bloomberg reported that three of the companies working for the Department of Education had settled federal or state charges that they'd engaged in abusive debt collection.

Consumer advocates have found that the debt collectors routinely violate consumer protection laws when trying to collect on student loan debt, which is especially problematic given that some of those firms are supposed to be helping borrowers "rehabilitate" their loans to reduce their debt burden. The student loan collectors have vast power, including the ability to garnish wages and seize tax refunds—tools not normally available to companies collecting ordinary consumer debt.

In March 2012, the Department of Education said it was reviewing the commissions it paid debt collectors in the wake of complaints that the contractors were abusing borrowers. But so far, there's not much evidence that anything has changed. The GAO report found that the Education Department still does little to oversee student-loan debt collectors, and has done little more than provide "feedback" when alerted to abuses.

The National Consumer Law Center has been highlighting the problems with student-loan debt collectors for a few years now, and watchdogging the Department of Education's work in this area. Or at least it's been trying to. Since 2012, the non-profit advocacy group has filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for information about the government's relationships with student-loan debt collectors. But so far, the Obama administration has stonewalled the requests. On Monday, after more than year attempting to peel back the secrecy around the debt collection contracts, NCLC filed a lawsuit demanding that the Department of Education comply with the Freedom of Information Act and release the data.

“Collection agencies routinely violate consumer protection laws and prioritize profits over borrower rights,” says Persis Yu, an attorney with NCLC. “Abuses by these debt collection agencies cause significant hardship to the millions of students struggling to pay off their federal student loans. Taxpayers and student loan borrowers have a right to information about the impact of the Education Department’s policy of paying outside debt collectors on the rights of borrowers. The Education Department should not insulate itself from public scrutiny.”

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 20, 2014

Tue May 20, 2014 9:48 AM EDT

A Soldier from the U.S. Army 20th Special Forces Group tries to squeeze through a hole in a building during Emerald Warrior 2014, Camp Shelby, Miss., May 5, 2014. Emerald Warrior is the Department of Defense's only irregular warfare exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jodi Martinez)

Georgia Supreme Court: Lethal-Injection Secrecy Helps Keep Executions "Timely and Orderly"

| Mon May 19, 2014 7:12 PM EDT

On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court issued a remarkable ruling in a case challenging a Georgia law that designates the source and composition of its lethal-injection drugs as a state secret—one that can be kept hidden from everyone: the condemned, the public, and, most notably, the courts themselves.

That the state's high court would rule against a death-row inmate is hardly surprising. Georgia courts have rarely voted to spare anyone from execution. But that it would keep the courts ignorant of what goes on in the state's death chamber seems like an unusual abdication of judicial power.

Before passing its secrecy law, Georgia illegally imported expired drugs from a London company called "Dream Pharma," and used them in two executions.

Georgia passed its secrecy law in March 2013 after its supply of pentobarbital, its primary execution drug, expired. Officials were having trouble getting more, thanks to an export ban by the EU and the refusal of international pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs for the use in executions. The new law was challenged on behalf of a prisoner named Warren Hill, sentenced to death after killing another inmate while serving a life sentence for murdering his girlfriend. His execution was put on hold last summer, pending the outcome of the challenge.

Under the law Georgia just upheld, the public has no right to obtain the name of any person or company, even under seal in a legal proceeding, who manufactures or sells an execution drug. It also lets state authorities hide the identities of doctors who participate in executions—a professional ethical breach. The secrecy requirements may also be an effort to protect state officials from embarrassment; in 2010 and 2011, the state was shamed by news that it had been illegally importing expired drugs with limited potency from "Dream Pharma," a London company operating out of the back of a run-down driving school.

Georgia actually used those drugs in two executions before the Food and Drug Administration stepped in and confiscated the supply. But what happened during those executions is one reason Hill wanted more information on the source of the drugs that would be used to kill him. In the first case, the condemned man, Brandon Rhodes, kept his eyes open through the entire process, an indication that the painful paralyzing drugs were administered while he was conscious. During the other state-sanctioned killing, inmate Emmanuel Hammond kept his eyes open, grimaced, and seemed to be attempting to talk. 

The high court dismissed these concerns, and insisted that the confidentiality law "plays a positive role in the in the functioning of the capital punishment process." The court admitted that releasing more information might help satisfy concerns that executions are humane, but found that it was more important that the secrecy made the process "more timely and orderly."

Really, the court said that.

Dissenting judges argued that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation, which prevents constitutional scrutiny of the execution process.

Two justices dissented loudly, arguing that the ruling creates a "star chamber" situation the courts have long fought to avoid—one that prevents the courts from scrutinizing the execution procedures to ensure they don't violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The dissent also points out that the majority ruled against Hill on the grounds that his concerns about potentially contaminated or illegally procured execution drugs were solely "speculative." But Hill's claims are speculative, the dissenters wrote, precisely because the court is refusing him the right to information that might make them more concrete. In short, they wrote, there was no way Hill could win, and the majority decision clearly violated his rights to due process.

The decision paves the way for the state to continue making itself a a poster child for why the death penalty is on its way out. In 2002, the US Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally disabled people, and Hill, with an IQ of 70, falls into that category. But Georgia doesn't like being told what to do. So while its lawyers continue to haggle over Hill's mental state, Georgia may move on to another inmate first: Robert Wayne Holsey, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1997, even though his court-appointed lawyer, a severe alcoholic, consumed a quart of vodka every night during his trial.

Cases like these suggest that there's a lot about its capital punishment system that Georgia might prefer to keep secret—not just the drugs it's using.


The Dick Cheney/Rand Paul Feud Continues—And They're Both Wrong

| Mon May 19, 2014 1:40 PM EDT

This past weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney made yet another media appearance to denounce President Barack Obama. But Cheney also used the opportunity to continue his feud with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.), who is mulling a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. On the friendly turf of Fox News Sunday, Cheney was asked about Paul's 2009 damning accusation—reported last month by Mother Jones—that Cheney used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse for the Iraq war so that Halliburton, the military contractor Cheney once led, would reap a large profit.

Cheney replied,

Well, before I ever took the job as vice president, I totally severed all my ties with Halliburton, at considerable financial cost. I had no relationship at all with the company throughout the time I was vice president. I didn't even talk to them. We kept a totally arm's length relationship. So he obviously is not familiar with the facts.

Paul's statement was harsh; he essentially had claimed that Cheney had betrayed the nation, exploiting a national horror and causing widespread death and destruction (including the deaths of thousands of Americans) to enrich his corporate cronies. When questioned by ABC News' Jon Karl about his Cheney comment, Paul insisted, "I'm not questioning Dick Cheney's motives." But that's precisely what Paul had done. And Paul had accomplished what not many could do: he evoked sympathy for the former vice president, who had led the Bush administration's campaign to rally public support for the Iraq war with false claims about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaeda.

It's been easy for Cheney and his defenders to dismiss Paul's over-the-top, conspiracy-theory-like assertion. But on Fox News, the ex-veep, too, went too far. He maintained that he had no financial ties with Halliburton while he was George W. Bush's number-two and made a personal sacrifice by trading his CEO badge for a White House job. But that's not entirely accurate.

As Politifact.com noted a few years ago, when Cheney became vice president, he pocketed a $34 million payout from Halliburton. In fact, because he probably sold stock options at an opportune time, he profited enormously because the stock price was at a high:

It's not clear when Cheney sold his stock options, but it likely was within weeks of his being named to the ticket -- a period when Halliburton shares hit their 2000 peak, in the low-to-mid $50 range. By November 30, 2000, the stock had fallen to $33 a share. If he'd waited until then to sell, his payday would have been one-third lower, or roughly $14 million rather than $22 million.

Moreover, when Cheney was veep, he continued to receive deferred payments from Halliburton. In 2004, the New York Times reported, "Mr. Cheney’s financial disclosure statements from 2001, 2002 and 2003 show that since becoming vice president-elect, he has received $1,997,525 from the company: $1,451,398 in a bonus deferred from 1999, the rest in deferred salary." And at that time, Cheney still held some stock options in the company.

As vice president, Cheney repeatedly contended he had no continuing relationship with Halliburton. In 2003, he declared, "I've severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years." But a report issued that year by the Congressional Research Service undermined Cheney's claim. It found that if a public official retained unexercised stock options and collected deferred salary—as Cheney did then—the official had "retained ties" to the company.

So when Cheney now says that he had nothing to do with Halliburton while he was vice-president, he is contradicted by the Congressional Research Service. Maybe he wasn't in contact with his old pals at the firm, but he continued to bank millions of dollars from the company as it obtained Iraq-related contracts from the US government.

In this ongoing scuffle pitting a GOP establishment heavy (who's a hawk) against a possible insurgent Republican presidential candidate (who's an intervention skeptic), both are wrong. When Paul assailed Cheney, he went too far and joined the ranks of the tin-foil-hats crowd—and then he tried to claim he had not said what he said. In defending himself, Cheney misrepresented his financial relationship with Halliburton. This mud-wrestling match has yet to produce a winner, but it is showing that each participant has a problem with accuracy.