Category Archives: News

Hunger Strike in San Francisco Puts a Spotlight on Police Brutality

from April 27, 2016 at 04:33PM http://bit.ly/26w8d1b

At the corner of 17th and Valencia Streets in San Francisco late Tuesday afternoon, a group of about 20 protesters remained camped outside the Mission Police Station, fueled by coconut water, vitamin supplements, and car honking in solidarity. Several were in the sixth day of a hunger strike. Their goal: The ouster of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and his boss, Mayor Ed Lee, over a string of police violence and alleged misconduct.

A stash of rations sat near the entrance of the station, where last week five people began the protest: Maria Cristina Gutierrez, Ilyich Sato, Sellassie Blackwell, Ike Peterson and Edwin Lindo. The demonstrators also set up three tents on a nearby corner. Gutierrez, a short, soft-spoken woman who runs a neighborhood preschool, has also at times escaped the cold evenings in her van parked across the street.

The group had pondered the decision to stop eating for several months, the organizers told me. What compelled them to go forward with the plan was the latest police shooting in San Francisco: In early April, a homeless man, Luis Gongora, allegedly brandished a knife at officers, who responded with fatal gunfire.

Ilyich Sato, who performs locally as a rapper, sat in a blue camping chair, musing about the mothers of two other recent victims of police shootings. "It’s the inspiration of the families," he said. "Alex Nieto’s mother. Gwendolyn Woods—Mario Woods’ mother. I think of them every day I’m out here."

Clad in a striped beanie and brown jacket, Edwin Lindo, an education consultant and community advocate who is currently running for the city supervisor seat covering the Mission district, said he hasn’t eaten since April 20. "My body is fragile," he said. "My mind and spirit is at a level I’ve never experienced in all my life."

The demonstrators’ sense of resolve flows from a series of police-involved shootings of black and Latino men. A recent investigation that uncovered alleged racist and homophobic texting by several SFPD officers has only added to the feelings of outrage and frustration. The ongoing texting scandal has forced George Gascon, the city’s district attorney and former police chief, to reassess 3,000 criminal cases for potential bias.

The group of demonstrators at Mission Police Station pointed to four recent cases:

Alejandro "Alex" Nieto: In March 2014, the 27-year-old was eating a burrito in Bernal Heights Park, when officers confronted him after receiving reports of a man with a gun who acted erratically. Gascon said that Nieto pointed a Taser gun at officers and refused to comply with their orders to show his hands. Multiple officers shot Nieto, killing him. Gascon declined to bring charges against the four officers involved. In a lawsuit brought by Nieto’s family, a federal civil jury found in favor of the officers.

Amilcar Perez-Lopez: In February 2015, the 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant was shot and killed in a confrontation with two SFPD officers in the city’s Mission District. Police Chief Suhr told reporters at a press conference that Perez-Lopez had lunged at officers with a knife before he was shot. Witnesses later told the Guardian that police had tried to grab Perez-Lopez from behind, and after he struggled free and ran, they shot him in the back. An autopsy concluded that Perez-Lopez had indeed been shot six times from behind.

Mario Woods: In December 2015, multiple SFPD officers unleashed a hail of bullets on the 26-year-old Woods, who was a suspect in a stabbing case. Police had claimed that Woods threatened officers with a large kitchen knife, but a video released by the Woods family’s attorney raised doubts about that account. The footage, released on the same day the family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the San Francisco police department, shows Woods pacing alongside a wall with his arms to his side before he was shot 20 times. Numerous shots struck him from behind, according to an autopsy report released in February. Police said Woods refused to comply with officers’ orders. At the time of his death, Woods had methamphetamine, marijuana, cough medicine, antidepressants, caffeine and nicotine in his system, according to the autopsy report. The city’s attorney argued that the cops had acted lawfully. The case is under investigation and prompted a federal probe of SFPD’s use-of-force policies.

Luis Gongora: On April 7, San Francisco police responded to a report of a man waving a large knife at a homeless encampment. Within 30 seconds of leaving their patrol vehicles, officers shouted "Get on the ground!" and "put that down," according to surveillance footage obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle. The officers then fired four beanbags and seven bullets at the 45-year-old Gongora. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died. Officials told reporters at a news conference that Gongora had lunged at officers with a knife, though witnesses at the scene disputed that, according to the Chronicle.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mayor Lee told reporters at a press conference that he respected the demonstrators’ right to protest, and that he stood by his police chief. Suhr said he had no plans to resign.

By Tuesday evening, the group on hunger strike was joined by a much larger crowd: Roughly 200 packed on the street outside the Mission Police Station, trying to get into the monthly community meeting inside in which residents can raise issues with Captain Daniel Parea, who oversees the station.

As Parea began to speak, Lindo stood up and called for the meeting to be held outside, to accommodate the crowd. Parea refused, and people inside started chanting "Fire Greg Suhr!" Parea declared the meeting canceled and walked out.

Outside, the crowd circled several of the core demonstrators. Gutierrez offered some quiet pleas for justice. Selassie led chants of the names of Nieto, Woods, and others who were killed. Lindo said that if he were to be elected supervisor, any police misconduct that results in a settlement by the city would come out of the police department’s retirement fund. (Most such settlements ultimately fall on taxpayers.) "When they are not held accountable, you do things with impunity," Lindo said.

Now the block was cordoned off by police. A crowd of demonstrators spilled into the middle of the intersection at 17th and Valencia. Patrol cars and groups of officers stood at the ready nearby, although the situation remained peaceful.

"The police are going to be here regardless," Sato said. "It’s systemic police problems that have to stop, and we have to do what we can to prevent it."

Read more at: Politics | Mother Jones http://bit.ly/1tZ6E7y


Hunger Strike in San Francisco Puts a Spotlight on Police Brutality

from April 27, 2016 at 04:33PM http://bit.ly/26w8d1b

At the corner of 17th and Valencia Streets in San Francisco late Tuesday afternoon, a group of about 20 protesters remained camped outside the Mission Police Station, fueled by coconut water, vitamin supplements, and car honking in solidarity. Several were in the sixth day of a hunger strike. Their goal: The ouster of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and his boss, Mayor Ed Lee, over a string of police violence and alleged misconduct.

A stash of rations sat near the entrance of the station, where last week five people began the protest: Maria Cristina Gutierrez, Ilyich Sato, Sellassie Blackwell, Ike Peterson and Edwin Lindo. The demonstrators also set up three tents on a nearby corner. Gutierrez, a short, soft-spoken woman who runs a neighborhood preschool, has also at times escaped the cold evenings in her van parked across the street.

The group had pondered the decision to stop eating for several months, the organizers told me. What compelled them to go forward with the plan was the latest police shooting in San Francisco: In early April, a homeless man, Luis Gongora, allegedly brandished a knife at officers, who responded with fatal gunfire.

Ilyich Sato, who performs locally as a rapper, sat in a blue camping chair, musing about the mothers of two other recent victims of police shootings. "It’s the inspiration of the families," he said. "Alex Nieto’s mother. Gwendolyn Woods—Mario Woods’ mother. I think of them every day I’m out here."

Clad in a striped beanie and brown jacket, Edwin Lindo, an education consultant and community advocate who is currently running for the city supervisor seat covering the Mission district, said he hasn’t eaten since April 20. "My body is fragile," he said. "My mind and spirit is at a level I’ve never experienced in all my life."

The demonstrators’ sense of resolve flows from a series of police-involved shootings of black and Latino men. A recent investigation that uncovered alleged racist and homophobic texting by several SFPD officers has only added to the feelings of outrage and frustration. The ongoing texting scandal has forced George Gascon, the city’s district attorney and former police chief, to reassess 3,000 criminal cases for potential bias.

The group of demonstrators at Mission Police Station pointed to four recent cases:

Alejandro "Alex" Nieto: In March 2014, the 27-year-old was eating a burrito in Bernal Heights Park, when officers confronted him after receiving reports of a man with a gun who acted erratically. Gascon said that Nieto pointed a Taser gun at officers and refused to comply with their orders to show his hands. Multiple officers shot Nieto, killing him. Gascon declined to bring charges against the four officers involved. In a lawsuit brought by Nieto’s family, a federal civil jury found in favor of the officers.

Amilcar Perez-Lopez: In February 2015, the 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant was shot and killed in a confrontation with two SFPD officers in the city’s Mission District. Police Chief Suhr told reporters at a press conference that Perez-Lopez had lunged at officers with a knife before he was shot. Witnesses later told the Guardian that police had tried to grab Perez-Lopez from behind, and after he struggled free and ran, they shot him in the back. An autopsy concluded that Perez-Lopez had indeed been shot six times from behind.

Mario Woods: In December 2015, multiple SFPD officers unleashed a hail of bullets on the 26-year-old Woods, who was a suspect in a stabbing case. Police had claimed that Woods threatened officers with a large kitchen knife, but a video released by the Woods family’s attorney raised doubts about that account. The footage, released on the same day the family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the San Francisco police department, shows Woods pacing alongside a wall with his arms to his side before he was shot 20 times. Numerous shots struck him from behind, according to an autopsy report released in February. Police said Woods refused to comply with officers’ orders. At the time of his death, Woods had methamphetamine, marijuana, cough medicine, antidepressants, caffeine and nicotine in his system, according to the autopsy report. The city’s attorney argued that the cops had acted lawfully. The case is under investigation and prompted a federal probe of SFPD’s use-of-force policies.

Luis Gongora: On April 7, San Francisco police responded to a report of a man waving a large knife at a homeless encampment. Within 30 seconds of leaving their patrol vehicles, officers shouted "Get on the ground!" and "put that down," according to surveillance footage obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle. The officers then fired four beanbags and seven bullets at the 45-year-old Gongora. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died. Officials told reporters at a news conference that Gongora had lunged at officers with a knife, though witnesses at the scene disputed that, according to the Chronicle.

Earlier on Tuesday, Mayor Lee told reporters at a press conference that he respected the demonstrators’ right to protest, and that he stood by his police chief. Suhr said he had no plans to resign.

By Tuesday evening, the group on hunger strike was joined by a much larger crowd: Roughly 200 packed on the street outside the Mission Police Station, trying to get into the monthly community meeting inside in which residents can raise issues with Captain Daniel Parea, who oversees the station.

As Parea began to speak, Lindo stood up and called for the meeting to be held outside, to accommodate the crowd. Parea refused, and people inside started chanting "Fire Greg Suhr!" Parea declared the meeting canceled and walked out.

Outside, the crowd circled several of the core demonstrators. Gutierrez offered some quiet pleas for justice. Selassie led chants of the names of Nieto, Woods, and others who were killed. Lindo said that if he were to be elected supervisor, any police misconduct that results in a settlement by the city would come out of the police department’s retirement fund. (Most such settlements ultimately fall on taxpayers.) "When they are not held accountable, you do things with impunity," Lindo said.

Now the block was cordoned off by police. A crowd of demonstrators spilled into the middle of the intersection at 17th and Valencia. Patrol cars and groups of officers stood at the ready nearby, although the situation remained peaceful.

"The police are going to be here regardless," Sato said. "It’s systemic police problems that have to stop, and we have to do what we can to prevent it."

Read more at: Politics | Mother Jones http://bit.ly/1tZ6E7y


New Fire Legislation Would Require More Communication from Landlords

from April 26, 2016 at 10:00PM http://bit.ly/1qWhcbe
http://Roberto%20Hernandez%20discusses%20fires.%20Photo%20by%20Lola%20M.%20Chavez
San Francisco Supervisors David Campos and Jane Kim on Tuesday introduced legislation intended to protect tenants in the event of a fire by requiring that landlords keep the city informed of safety standards within their buildings. The legislation would also require that all buildings be outfitted with smoke detectors and loud alarms. It would mandate that landlords file reports with the Department of Building Inspection to keep tenants informed of…

Read more at: MissionLocal http://bit.ly/1vD0Twd


Police Briefly Cut Power and Close Bathrooms to SF Mission Hunger Strikers

from April 25, 2016 at 10:37PM http://bit.ly/1qWha35
http://Photo%20by%20Lola%20M.%20Chavez
Protesters and police engaged in two confrontations on Monday night over the use of bathrooms and public space in and around Mission Police Station where 10 people are staging a hunger strike to unseat the Chief of Police Greg Suhr. Hunger strikers told Mission Local that around 8 p.m. on Monday, officers from Mission Station – unsolicited by any request from protesters –  offered the strikers an ambulance.  At the same time, they told strikers they would risk…

Read more at: MissionLocal http://bit.ly/1vD0Twd


SF Police Captain Cuts Off Community Meeting, Rally Goes On

from April 27, 2016 at 06:00AM http://bit.ly/1qWha2U
http://Photo%20by%20Lola%20M.%20Chavez
A monthly community meeting Tuesday night at the Mission Police Station, highly anticipated by a group of nine hunger strikers and their supporters demanding the police chief’s resignation, was abruptly called off after only a few minutes as strikers and police disagreed as to where the meeting should be held. Upon arrival, Mission Station Captain Daniel Perea began to discuss neighborhood events and said he would leave time for questions…

Read more at: MissionLocal http://bit.ly/1vD0Twd


City College Students, Faculty Demand Fair Wages in Day-Long Strike

from April 27, 2016 at 09:03PM http://bit.ly/26w6jNV
http://Protesters%20demanding%20fair%20wages%20gather%20at%20San%20Francisco%20City%20College's...
Some 25 teachers and students gathered on Wednesday morning at the Mission District Campus of City College to denounce unfair labor practices at the community college stemming from low wages paid to teachers. The chants of students and faculty members could be heard down the block from the Valencia Street campus, as protesters attempted to enter the campus but found that the school had been locked. “They shut down the…

Read more at: MissionLocal http://bit.ly/1vD0Twd


Legendary Abolitionist Harriet Tubman to Replace Andrew Jackson on the Front of the New $20 Bill

from April 20, 2016 at 01:52PM http://bit.ly/1XQhKdy
In an incredibly wonderful karmic twist, the U.S. Treasury Department officially announced that the legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who dedicated her life to freeing thousands of slaves through the Underground Railroad network will be replacing the current portrait of Andrew Jackson, who was a slave-owner while he held office as President, on the obverse (front) […]

Read more at: Laughing Squid http://bit.ly/1mU3Sh6


Mexican Human Rights Defenders Say They Are Target of Smear Campaign

from April 22, 2016 at 11:28AM http://bit.ly/1XQhHyt

by Ginger Thompson

Last Saturday, I was surprised and somewhat alarmed when an email came in from one of Mexico’s most prominent human rights defenders. “Can we talk?” read the subject line. “It’s urgent.”

I immediately wrote back. Mariclaire Acosta is someone I’d known for years. She’s been in the trenches a long time, and doesn’t alarm easily. In her response, she explained that the government she once represented as a senior diplomat had turned against her. “Things are not looking good for the human rights community in Mexico,” she wrote. “We are all under serious attack.”

Attached to her email were copies of newspaper columns that smeared Acosta and her colleagues, characterizing the human rights community as a “mafia embedded in power” who had defrauded the government out of millions of dollars while advocating on behalf of traffickers and kidnappers. “How much of this money ended up in the pockets of these impassioned human rights defenders,” one column asked without citing any proof. Meanwhile, real crime victims barely receive enough government support to cover funeral costs, another column asserted.

I have reported from and about Mexico for decades. But these columns didn’t make sense to me. Acosta had been one of the earliest pioneers of human rights work in Mexico. I asked her who she thought was behind the campaign, and why she thought it had been launched now? “I’m told that it comes from the highest levels of the government, but I don’t have proof,” she said. As for why now, Acosta and others I’ve spoken to in recent days say they believe the media assault was triggered by the increasing international pressure on Mexico to address accusations that its military and police are responsible for gross human rights abuses.

This Sunday, an independent group of experts is expected to release the findings of its investigation into a 2014 attack on a caravan of buses loaded with students from a teacher’s college in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero that left three students dead and 43 others missing. The violence at Ayotzinapa shattered Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to convince the world that government corruption and impunity were problems of the past. It emboldened the relatives of the tens of thousands of other people who have gone missing to come forward and file complaints — some against the country’s vaunted armed forces. And it has spawned massive protests across the country, led by the students’ families and friends.

When the group issued its initial report on Ayotzinapa last September, it hit the country like a bombshell. The report said that science and other evidence did not substantiate the government’s version of the incident, which blamed municipal police and drug traffickers for killing the students and incinerating their bodies in a trash dump. The experts said they had found evidence that federal police and military officers may have played a role. And they said that the gunmen may have targeted the caravan because the students unknowingly had boarded a bus loaded with heroin that belonged to a criminal gang known as “Guerreros Unidos.”

It’s unclear how much new light the widely awaited follow-up report will shed on the incident. Authorities close to the investigation said that the Mexican attorney general and the defense secretary blocked soldiers from being interviewed and refused to share any information that may have come from American authorities. (Though one human rights investigator let slip that more than half of the 113 or so suspects arrested in the case — whose testimony serve as the foundation for the government’s news reports out from Europe indicated that account — were found to have injuries consistent with torture). But the lack of cooperation alone could serve as a reminder of how badly Pena’s government has handled this case, raising more questions about how much the military has to hide and triggering more protests and international condemnations.

On the day I received Acosta’s email, Mexico’s defense secretary had been forced to issue a rare apology over a videotape which showed soldiers interrogating a female trafficking suspect by wrapping a plastic bag around her head until she nearly suffocated. Earlier this month, news reports out of Europe said President Peña was hounded by questions about Ayotzinapa during visits to Germany and Denmark, where one protester even tore off her shirt and shouted that he was a “dictator” and an “assassin.” Also earlier this month, in its annual report on human rights, the U.S. State Department described abuses by Mexico’s police and military as being among the country’s “most significant human rights-related problems,” saying that soldiers had committed crimes including “unlawful killings, torture, and disappearances.” Thus the release of the final report by the group of experts couldn’t come at a worse time. Which is why, according to human rights advocates I began calling in Mexico City and Washington, there’s a systematic effort underway to discredit the report before its release.

Maureen Meyer, an expert on Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) called it a classic attempt to “kill the messenger.” In Mexico, the threat can be more than figurative. I recently spoke with a former Mexican official who said he didn’t think the smear campaign was being directed from the Mexican president’s office (a spokesperson there sent me a written statement pointing out that it was the Mexican government’s decision to invite the panel). But he said even a lesser authority ordering a minion to make life difficult for a critic — journalists are the most pressing example — can get out of hand.

The former official said, “Usually the order is something like, ‘Da les una calentadita,’” which literally translates as, “heat them up a little.” Then, he looked me in the eye. “You lived in Mexico a long time. You know what that means.”

The report’s five authors, whose previous work has led to widely acclaimed cases against the Colombian military, a former Guatemalan dictator and American oil companies, had been selected as part of an agreement between the Mexican government, the parents of the missing students and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. Mexico’s foreign minister at the time said during a press conference when the panel began its work last year that it’s “support and suggestions will be welcome.” Since then, however, the experts have seen the Mexican media, conservative activists, and leftist politicians drag their backgrounds through the mud, making vague and totally unsubstantiated claims that they are not only unqualified for the task that brought them to Mexico, but also lacking the objectivity and moral standing to question Mexico’s police and military.

An article in the Mexican daily La Razon, for instance, accused Chilean lawyer and group member Francisco Cox of inappropriately charging Mexico thousands of dollars a month for his work on the Ayotzinapa case, while simultaneously defending victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda for free. Numerous stories accused Colombia’s former attorney general, Angela Buitrago, of fabricating evidence against a Colombian colonel in support of group linked to the late Medellin cartel kingpin, Pablo Escobar. Another La Razon article said that Claudia Paz y Paz, who made history when she successfully brought genocide charges against Guatemala’s former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, had been an agent of the guerilla insurgency during the country’s long and bloody civil war. By and large the articles I reviewed did not offer evidence to support the charges. A spokesperson for the group said that’s because the charges are “complete lies.”

In an interview, Paz y Paz told me that the group had asked the government to denounce the smear campaign. “They tried to minimize it, by saying that the attacks were coming from newspapers and journalists that no one reads, so it wasn’t worth a response.” Jose Miguel Vivanco, at Human Rights Watch, said the government’s silence is “glaring” and “sends a message that they condone” the attacks. “If this was some random thing that wasn’t worth worrying about, it would be easy for the government to refute it in categorical terms, and express full confidence in the investigation,” he said.

Vivanco pointed out that the work being done by the group marks the first time that Mexico has opened its justice system to the scrutiny of an international panel. Guatemala has recently gone even farther by allowing the United Nations to work alongside their own prosecutors on high profile corruption cases. One of its probes led ultimately to the arrest last September of the country’s sitting president, Otto Perez Molina. Joy Olson, WOLA’s executive director, said the Guatemala arrests, “scared the shit out of politicians all over the place.” And in Mexico, she said, the politicians are pushing back because the group of experts have demonstrated to a country where some 98 percent of all crimes go unresolved that “if you bring in an outside authority you might actually be able to get something done.”

I spoke to Ricardo Alemán, a columnist for the Mexican daily Milenio, who has written critically about the group and other human rights defenders, including Mariclaire Acosta. “I don’t campaign for anyone or anything,” he told me. “I do journalism.” However, just as the human rights community suspects that his work is part of a political smear campaign, he too thinks there is a political campaign at work, but to tarnish the reputations of the federal police and the military. The experts, he said, “came here to trick us and make us feel that they know better than we do how to conduct our affairs.” As an example, he pointed to the release of the videotaped torture of the trafficking suspect. “Do you think that release happened by coincidence? Things like that don’t happen by coincidence.”

Read more at: ProPublica: Articles and Investigations http://bit.ly/1lISYtS


Landlords Are Using Extreme Measures to Push Out Low-Income Tenants

from April 21, 2016 at 07:00AM http://bit.ly/1VMyzZC

Residents of 94 Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood came home one day in 2014 to news that they would have to remove their personal belongings from the yard behind their building. In the months following, construction crews and large machinery occupied the area, blocking the back door and erecting a wall right up against it.

That wasn’t merely an inconvenience. It was a violation of New York’s housing code. By July 2015, the residents of 94 Franklin were evicted.

Landlords have long resorted to extreme measures in order to clear out low-income tenants and raise rents in gentrifying neighborhoods—from turning off the heat to demolishing interior walls—but the owner of 94 Franklin may have set a new standard for forcing people from their homes with impunity. It’s part of a trend of increasingly aggressive actions taken by landlords in up-and-coming parts of New York, Washington, San Francisco, and other fast-developing cities across the country.

The structure behind 94 Franklin began as a tall slab, according to Jean Stevens, an attorney with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A who is currently representing the tenants in a lawsuit against the landlord, but it soon became an entire building, with a roof and windows. Residential buildings need to have rear egress. As first reported by Gothamist, when 94 Franklin lost its back door access, it was in violation of city housing law, and the city evicted the tenants.

According to Stevens, this is unprecedented. "I have never seen anything like this before," she says. "I haven’t been practicing for a million years in New York, but one of my supervisors, who is in his seventies, said he has only seen this once before, and it wasn’t exactly the same. This is very unusual, and very creative."

Stevens and the residents filed a case under the city statute that protects tenants from conditions "dangerous to life, health or safety" and "conduct by the owner or the owner’s agents of harassment, illegal eviction, continued deprivation of services or other acts dangerous to life, healthy or safety."

Stevens isn’t sure why the city has not stepped in to demolish or alter the new building, given that it is illegal, she says. "That’s part of our question," Stevens explains. "Why did the city keep letting this go? Why not demolish it, or move it back into the lot? We don’t know. So we’re asking for an administrator to step in and address these issues."

If successful, the tenants would be granted an impartial administrator to take over the building from the current landlord. The administrator would face an even larger project, given that the building has fallen into disarray since the tenants were evicted last summer, according to tenants who managed to take pictures. Pipes have burst, ceilings have caved in, and extensive water damage has inflicted several units.

The landlord’s legal representative, Steve Rubinshteyn, did not respond to a request for comment. In a court filing, Rubinshteyn dismissed the tenants’ allegations, writing, "Clearly in their zeal to attack, tarnish, and demonize the owner and owner’s reputation and to impugn the owner’s motives, tenants have put the cart before the horse."

Stevens is not clear on the function of the new building, but she says its erection is fully responsible for the tenants’ eviction. "If not for the landlord’s actions, none of this would have happened," Stevens said. "That provoked the city to come in and say this is too unsafe and issue the vacate order. And now the landlord can sit tight and do nothing and the issues can exacerbate."

Read more at: Politics | Mother Jones http://bit.ly/1tZ6E7y


Whistleblowers Step Forward To Decry President Obama’s Drone Program

from April 21, 2016 at 09:33AM http://bit.ly/1VMyipE

This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.

Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East—not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage.  In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.

Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 drone strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears in National Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake. In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.

“I Was Under the Impression That America Was Saving the World”

“When we are in our darkest places and we have a lot to worry about and we feel guilty about our past actions, it’s really tough to describe what that feeling is like,” says Daniel, a whistleblower who took part in drone operations and whose last name is not revealed in National Bird. Speaking of the suicidal feelings that sometimes plagued him while he was involved in killing halfway across the planet, he adds, “Having the image in your head of taking your own life is not a good feeling.”

National Bird is not the first muckraking documentary on Washington’s drone wars. Robert Greenwald’s Unmanned, Tonje Schei’s Drone and Madiha Tahrir’s Wounds of Waziristan have already shone much-needed light on how drone warfare really works. But as Kennebeck told me, when she set out to make a film about the wages of the newest form of war known to humanity, she wanted those doing the targeting, as well as those they were targeting, to speak for themselves.  She wanted them to reveal the psychological impact of sending robot assassins, often operated by “pilots” halfway around the world, into the Greater Middle East to fight Washington’s war on terror. In her film, there’s no narrator, nor experts in suits working for think tanks in Washington, nor retired generals debating the value of drone strikes when it comes to defeating terrorism.

Instead, what you see is far less commonplace: low-level recruits in President Obama’s never-ending drone wars, those Air Force personnel who remotely direct the robotic vehicles to their targets, analyze the information they send back, and relay that information to the pilots who unleash Hellfire missiles that will devastate distant villages. If recent history is any guide, these drones do not just kill terrorists; in their target areas, they also create anxiety, upset and a desire for revenge in a larger population and so have proven a powerful weapon in spreading terror movements across the Greater Middle East. 

These previously faceless but distinctly non-robotic Air Force recruits are the cannon fodder of America’s drone wars. You meet two twenty-somethings: Daniel, a self-described down-and-out homeless kid, every male member of whose family has been in jail on petty charges of one kind or another, and Heather, a small town high school graduate trying to escape rural Pennsylvania. You also meet Lisa, a former Army nurse from California, who initially saw the military as a path to a more meaningful life.

The three of them worked on Air Force bases scattered around the country from California to Virginia. The equipment they handled hovered above war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Pakistan and Yemen (where the U.S. Air Force was supporting assassination missions on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency).

“That is so cool, unmanned aircraft. That’s really bad-ass.” So Heather thought when she first saw recruitment posters for the drone program. “I was under the impression,” she told Kennebeck, “that America was saving the world, like that we were Big Brother and we were helping everyone out.”

Initially, Lisa felt similarly: “When I first got into the military, I mean I was thinking it was a win-win. It was a force for good in the world. I thought I was going to be on the right side of history.”

And that was hardly surprising. After all, you’re talking about the “perfect weapon,” the totally high-tech, “precise” and “surgical,” no-(American)-casualties, sci-fi version of war that Washington has been promoting for years as its answer to al-Qaeda and other terror outfits. President Obama who has personally overseen the drone campaigns—with a “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House—vividly described his version of such a modern war in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University:

“This is a just war—a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. We were attacked on 9/11. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their associated forces… America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.”

That distinctly Hollywood vision of America’s drone wars (with a Terminator edge) was the one that had filtered down to the level of Kennebeck’s three drone-team interviewees when they signed on. It looked to them then like a war worth fighting and a life worth leading.  Today, as they speak out, their version of such warfare looks nothing like what either Hollywood or Washington might imagine.

“Excuse Me, Sir, Can I Have Your Driver’s License?”

National Bird does more than look at the devastation caused by drones in far away lands and the overwhelming anxiety it produces among those who live under the distant buzzing and constant threat of those robotic aircraft on an almost daily basis. Kennebeck also turns her camera on the men and women who helped make the strikes possible, trying to assess what the impact of their war has been on them. Their raw and unfiltered responses should deeply trouble us all.

Kennebeck’s interviewees are among at least a dozen whistleblowers who have stepped forward, or are preparing to do so, in order to denounce Washington’s drone wars as morally unjustified, as in fact nightmares both for those who fight them and those living in the lands that are on the receiving end. The realities of the day-in, day-out war they fought for years were, as they tell it, deeply destructive and filled with collateral damage of every sort. Worse yet, drone operators turn out to have little real idea about, and almost no confirmation of, whom exactly they’ve blown away.

“It’s so primitive, raw, stripped-down death. This is real. It’s not a joke,” says Heather, an imagery analyst whose job was to look at the streaming video coming in from drones over war zones and interpret the grainy images for senior commanders in the kill chain. “You see someone die because you said it was okay to kill them. I was always shaking. Sometimes I would just go to the bathroom and just sit on the toilet. I mean just sit there in my uniform and just cry.”

Advocates of drone war believe, as do many of its critics, that it minimizes casualties. These Air Force veterans have, however, stepped forward to tell us that such claims simply aren’t true. In a study of what can be known about drone killings, the human rights group Reprieve has confirmed this reality vividly, finding that, in Pakistan, in attempts to take out 41 men, American drones actually killed an estimated 1,147 people (while not all of the 41 targeted figures even died). In other words, this hasn’t proved to be a war on terror, but a war of terror, a reality the drone whistleblowers confirm.

Heather is blunt in her criticism. “Hearing politicians speak about drones being precision weapons [makes it seem like they’re] able to make surgical strikes. To me it’s completely ridiculous, completely ludicrous to make these statements.”

The three whistleblowers point, for instance, to the complete absence of any post-strike verification of who exactly has died. “There’s a bomb. They drop it. It explodes,” Lisa says. “Then what? Does somebody go down and ask for somebody’s driver’s license? Excuse me, sir, can I have your driver’s license, see who you are? Does that happen? I mean, how do we know? How is it possible to know who ends up living or dying?”

After three years as an imagery analyst, after regularly watching unknown people die thousands of miles away on a grainy screen, Heather was diagnosed as suicidal. She estimates—and the experiences of other drone whistleblowers back her up—that alcoholics accounted for a significant percentage of her unit, and that many of her co-workers had similarly suicidal thoughts. Two actually did kill themselves.

As Heather’s grandfather points out, “She had trouble getting the treatment she needed. She had trouble finding a doctor because they didn’t have the right security clearance [and] she could be in violation of the law and could even go to prison for even talking to the wrong therapist about what was bothering her.”

In desperation Heather turned to her mother. "She’d call me up and she’d cry and she’d be upset, but then she couldn’t talk about it," her mother says. "When you hear your daughter talking to you on the phone, you can that tell she is in trouble just by the emotion and inflection and the stress that you can hear in her voice. When you ask her, did you talk to anyone else about it? She’d say no, we’re not allowed to talk to anybody. I have a feeling that if someone wasn’t there for her, she wouldn’t be here right now."

Like Heather, Daniel has so far survived his own drone-war-induced mental health issues, but in his post-drone life he’s run into a formidable enemy: the U.S. government. On August 8, 2014, he estimates that as many as 50 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided his house, seizing documents and his electronics.

“The government suspects that he is a source of information about the [drone] program that the government doesn’t want out there,” says Jesselyn Radack, his lawyer and herself a former Department of Justice whistleblower. “To me, that’s simply an attempt to silence whistleblowers, and it doesn’t surprise me that that happens to the very few people who have been brave enough to speak out against the drone program.”

If that was the intention, however, the raid—and the threat it carries for other whistleblowers—seems not to have had the desired effect. Instead, the number of what might be thought of as defectors from the drone program only seems to be growing. The first to come out was Brandon Bryant, a former camera operator in October 2013. He was followed by Cian Westmoreland, a former radio technician, in November 2014. Last November, Michael Haas and Stephen Lewis, two imagery analysts, joined Westmoreland and Bryant by speaking out at the launch of Tonje Schei’s film Drone. All four of them also published an open letter to President Obama warning him that the drone war was escalating terrorism, not containing it.

And just last month, Chris Aaron, a former counterterrorism analyst for the CIA’s drone program, spoke out on a panel at the University of Nevada Law School. In the relatively near future, Radack recently told Rolling Stone, four more individuals involved in America’s drone wars are planning to offer their insights into how the program works.

Like Heather and Daniel, many of the former drone operators who have gone public are struggling with mental health problems. Some of them are also dealing with substance abuse issues that began as a way to counteract or dull the horrors of the war they were wagomg and witnessing. "We used to call alcohol drone fuel because it kept the program going. Everyone drank. There was a lot of coke, speed and that sort of thing," imagery analyst Haas told Rolling Stone. "If the higher ups knew, then they didn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure they must have known. It was everywhere.”

“Imagine If This Was Happening to Us”

In recent months, something has changed for the whistleblowers. There is a new sense of camaraderie among them, as well as with the lawyers defending them and a growing group of activist supporters. Most unexpectedly, they are hearing from the families of victims of drone strikes, thanks to the work of groups like Reprieve in Great Britain.

In mid-April, for instance, Cian Westmoreland traveled to London and met Malik Jalal, a Pakistani tribal leader who claims that he has been targeted by U.S. drones on multiple occasions. Clive Lewis, a member of Parliament and military veteran, released a photo on Facebook of the historic meeting. “It’s possible that one of the two men I’m [standing] between in this picture, Cian Westmoreland, was trying to kill the man on my right, Malik Jalal—at some stage in the past seven years,” Lewis wrote. “Their story is both amazing and terrifying. At once it shows the growing menace and destructive capability of unchecked political and military power juxtaposed with the power of the human spirit and human solidarity."

As that sense of solidarity strengthens and as the distance between the former hunters and the hunted begins to narrow, the whistleblowers are beginning to confront some distinctly uncomfortable questions. “We often hear that drones can see everything by day and by night,” a different drone victim of the February 2010 strike in Uruzgan told filmmaker Kennebeck. “You can see the difference between a needle and an ant but not people? We were sitting in the pickup truck, some even on the bed. Did you not see that there were travelers, women and children?”

When the president and his key officials look at the drone program, they undoubtedly don’t “see” women and children. Instead, they are caught up in a Hollywood-style vision of imminent danger from terrorists and of the kind of salvation that a missile launched from thousands of miles away provides. It is undoubtedly thanks to just this thought process, already deeply embedded in the American way of war, that not a single candidate for president in 2016 has rejected the drone program.

That is exactly what the whistleblowers feel needs to change. “I just want people to know that not everybody is a freaking terrorist and we need to just get out of that mindset. And we just need to see these people as people—families, communities, brothers, mothers and sisters, because that’s who they are,” says Lisa. “Imagine if this was happening to us. Imagine if our children were walking outside of the door and it was a sunny day and they were afraid because they didn’t know if today was the day that something would fall out of the sky and kill someone close to them. How would we feel?”

Read more at: In These Times http://bit.ly/1uc5dD1