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Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

 

“The system is rigged!” is now an angry, bipartisan cry, intensifying as Trump bows to big-donor interests and deepens distrust of government.

But here’s the worst part. Not only has big-donor influence blocked lifesaving public actions from worker safety to climate change, but in recent decades political donors have gotten savvier. They’ve been able not only to bend policy for their own benefit, but increasingly, to remake the rules of democracy itself to serve their interests.

Here’s a taste of what we mean.

Since 2010, when a big-money-empowered Tea Party swept Republicans into Congress and statehouses, 23 states have enacted laws making it harder to vote. To solidify gains, they’ve gerrymandered state and congressional districts so thoroughly that in many state and congressional races, competition for office—the heart of democracy—is effectively dead. Democracy shrinks further as those elected by relying on huge sums from the top 1 percent form a political class with little need to respond to the real concerns of most Americans.

Citizens, however, are not sitting idly watching our democracy go under. A citizens movement, what we call the Democracy Movement, is pursuing all angles to fight back and to take our democracy forward.

In Wisconsin, teacher-turned-lawyer Wendy Sue Johnson and 11 other Wisconsin citizens became plaintiffs in a case now before the Supreme Court that could spell the end of partisan gerrymandering. The practice, said Johnson, allows “elected officials to choose their voters instead of the other way around.” Legal challenges in other states are targeting voter identification laws, proven to lower voter participation in vulnerable communities.

Increasingly, it’s dawning on Americans that issues they once thought of as wonky or dry touch the heart of it all: whose voice can be heard on the biggest questions of our time.

The Democracy Movement is realizing real success—success that may have been missed by those shaken after Election Day 2016. On that day, unknown to most Americans, 14 of 17 state and local pro-democracy ballot initiatives passed, from public financing in South Dakota to ranked-choice voting in Maine. True, some face legal and legislative challenges, but they prove that citizens are stepping up for democracy with new vigor.

One of the most significant of the Democracy Movement’s legislative advances is automatic voter registration. Sound wonky? AVR just means that any time citizens interact with specific governmental agencies, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, they get registered. It’s simple, less error-prone, and saves a lot of money.

And if you think it is just small-potatoes reform, think again. In 2015, Oregon became the first state to adopt automatic voter registration, and in 2016, almost 272,000 Oregonians registered for the first time, two-thirds through the new automatic process. And of the newly registered, 33 percent voted—an incredible success. In all, between 2012 and 2016, turnout in Oregon grew more than in any other state.

Now 10 states plus the District of Columbia have jumped on board. Moreover, in Nevada, an AVR ballot initiative is underway and in Massachusetts a legislative campaign is gaining momentum.

The successes of a rising Democracy Movement are happening because more and more Americans get it: No matter what our specific issue passion, we now see that we can’t move it forward without fixing the rules of our democracy itself.

On this point, Josh Silver, founder of Represent.Us, an organization working to get big money out of politics, once chided us: “You don’t have to abandon your issue in order to work for democracy. You can, you know, love two children at once.” In other words, we can stay loyal to the issue closest to our heart—whether advancing racial justice, defending the environment, or ensuring a livable wage—while also acting on the underlying crisis weakening our democracy.

With this liberating insight, Silver, along with millions of Americans, is part of a bipartisan, multi-generational, and culturally diverse groundswell—the first such broad yet focused citizen movement in living memory.

The Democracy Movement broke new ground in 2013, when some of the biggest social-cause players in America, from the NAACP, Common Cause, and Sierra Club to the Communications Workers of America and Greenpeace, had their own “two-child” aha-moment. Together, they joined hands and took the leap, forming a unique organization-coalition blend, the Democracy Initiative, committed to a common democracy-reform agenda.

In uniting such diverse groups, Sierra Club president Mike Brune told us he saw the chance to “create a really powerful coalition and counter-balance all these billions of dollars coming from the Koch brothers and other oil and coal executives.”

Four short years later, the Democracy Initiative is now a full-blown organization-coalition of more than 60 organizations devoted to a vast array of causes, all pledging to engage also in democracy-reform campaigns. Led by former labor leader Wendy Fields, it now represents 30 million Americans.

Democracy Initiative creates a network of relationships so that groups know they’ve got each other’s back; confident they can count on each other to rally together in critical moments, regardless of each member’s central focus.

Two of its newest members highlight Democracy Initiative’s breadth. They are New York’s Working Families Party and Corporate Accountability International, a leading watchdog organization that has challenged corporate power for decades. A “lasting victory on issue areas like reining in corporate power, tackling climate change, and advancing racial justice depends on a thriving democracy,” Executive director Patti Lynn explained. “The cross-movement unity that the Democracy Initiative is building has the power to transform politics as we know it, restore the promise of democracy, and help us all win more, faster.”

Recently, our own Small Planet Institute joined the Democracy Initiative as well.

Another significant shift in this growing movement is that veterans in the democracy-reform trenches and newcomers alike are taking solidarity on democracy reforms to a deeper level. Some groups specialize in restoring and protecting voting rights, while others tackle money in politics. But both now increasingly see their unity: that getting big money out of politics means little if the right to vote is not guaranteed, and vice versa.

In all this ferment, we see the Democracy Movement becoming a true “movement of movements.” Under a common canopy of hope, groups are simultaneously tackling voting rights, money in politics, gerrymandering reform, ballot access, and election security.

From the April 2016 Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilizations in which an historic 1,300 were arrested on the Capitol steps to the March on Harrisburg‘s valiant fight for a simple gift ban for Pennsylvania legislators, to countless new organizations such as the Franchise Project and Access Democracy—the momentum builds.

So in this moment of unprecedented threat to our democracy, a rising Democracy Movement embodies hope in action, rewarding all those jumping in with the thrill of knowing their action is upholding the most noble of American values, democracy itself.

Frances Moore Lappé is the co-founder of Food First and the author of the three-million copy Diet For a Small Planet. Her latest book is EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want (Nation Books, 2013).

Adam Eichen is a member of the Democracy Matters Board of Directors and a Maguire Fellow at the French research institute Sciences Po, doing research on comparative campaign finance policy. He is also a Democracy Fellow at the Small Planet Institute

 

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Think of it as a war system that's been coming home for years. The murder of George Floyd has finally shone a spotlight on the need to defund local police departments and find alternatives that provide more genuine safety and security. The same sort of spotlight needs soon to be shone on the American military machine and the wildly well-funded damage it's been doing for almost 19 years across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

Distorted funding priorities aren't the only driving force behind police violence against communities of color, but shifting such resources away from policing and to areas like jobs, education, housing, and restorative justice could be an important part of the solution. And any effort to boost spending on social programs should include massive cuts to the Pentagon's bloated budget. In short, it's time to defund our wars, both at home and abroad.


In most states and localities, spending on police and prisons outweighs what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as "programs of social uplift." The numbers are staggering. In some jurisdictions, police alone can account for up to 40 percent of local budgets, leaving little room for other priorities. In New York City, for instance, funding the police department's operations and compensation costs more than $10 billion yearly -- more, that is, than the federal government spends on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, more than $100 billion annually goes into policing.

Now, add to that another figure: what it costs to hold roughly two million (yes 2,000,000!) Americans in prisons and jails -- roughly $120 billion a year. Like policing, in other words, incarceration is big business in this country in 2020. After all, prison populations have grown by nearly 700 percent since 1972, driven in significant part by the "war on drugs," a so-called war that has disproportionately targeted people of color.

The Elephant in the Room: Pentagon Spending
In addition to the police and prisons, the other major source of American militarized spending is, of course, the Pentagon. That department, along with related activities like nuclear weapons funding at the Department of Energy, now gobbles up at least $750 billion per year. That's more than the military budgets of the next 10 countries combined.

Just as prisons and policing consume a startling proportion of state and local budgets, the Pentagon accounts for more than half of the federal government's discretionary budget and that includes most government functions other than Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As Ashik Siddique of the National Priorities Project has noted, the Trump administration's latest budget proposal "prioritizes brute force and militarization over diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to pressing societal crises" in a particularly striking way. "Just about every non-militarized department funded by the discretionary budget," he adds, "is on the chopping block, including all those that focus on reducing poverty and meeting human needs like education, housing, labor, health, energy, and transportation."

Spending on the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the deportation of immigrants through agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Customs and Border Protection totals another $24 billion annually. That puts U.S. spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon at nearly $1 trillion per year and that doesn't even include the soaring budgets of other parts of the American national security state like the Department of Homeland Security ($92 billion) and the Veterans Administration ($243 billion -- a cost of past wars). Back in May 2019, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and I had already estimated that the full national security budget, including the Pentagon, was approximately $1.25 trillion a year and that estimate, of course, didn't even include the police and the prison system!

Another way of looking at the problem is to focus on just how much of the federal budget goes to the Pentagon and other militarized activities, including federal prisons, immigration enforcement, and veterans benefits. An analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies puts this figure at $887 billion, or more than 64 percent of the federal discretionary budget including public health, education, environmental protection, job training, energy development, housing, transportation, scientific research, and more.

Making the Connection: The 1033 Program
Ever since images of the police deploying armored vehicles against peaceful demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, hit the national airwaves in 2014, the Pentagon's program for supplying "surplus" military equipment to local police departments has been a news item. It's also gotten intermittent attention in Congress and the Executive Branch.

Since 1997, the Pentagon's 1033 Program, as it's called, has channeled to 8,000 separate law enforcement agencies more than $7.4 billion in surplus equipment, including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles of the kind used on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with rifles, ammunition, grenade launchers, and night-vision devices. As Brian Barrett has pointed out at Wired, "Local law enforcement responding to even nonviolent protests has often looked more like the U.S. Armed Forces." Political scientist Ryan Welch co-authored a 2017 study suggesting, when it came to police departments equipped in such a fashion, "that officers with military hardware and mindsets will resort to violence more often and more quickly."

Under the circumstances and given who's providing the equipment, you won't be surprised to learn that the 1033 program also suffers from lax oversight. In 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) created a fake law enforcement agency and was able to acquire $1.2 million worth of equipment through the program, including night-vision goggles and simulated M-16A2 rifles. The request was approved within a week of the GAO's application.

The Obama administration finally implemented some reforms in the wake of Ferguson, banning the transfer of tracked vehicles, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft, among other things, while requiring police departments to supply more detailed rationales describing their need for specific equipment. But such modest efforts -- and they proved modest indeed – were promptly chucked out when Donald Trump took office. And the Trump administration changes quickly had a discernible effect. In 2019, the 1033 program had one of its biggest years ever, with about 15,750 military items transferred to law enforcement, a figure exceeded only in 2012, in the Obama years, when 17,000 such items were distributed.

As noted, the mere possession of military equipment has been shown to stoke the ever stronger "warrior culture" that now characterizes so many police departments, as evidenced by the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams armed with military weaponry for routine drug enforcement activities. It's hardly just SWAT teams, though. The weaponry and related items provided under the 1033 program are widely employed by ordinary police forces. NBC News, for instance, reported that armored vehicles were used at least 29 times in response to Black Lives Matter protests organized since the murder of George Floyd, including in major urban areas like Philadelphia and Cincinnati. NBC has also determined that more than 1,100 Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have been distributed to local law enforcement agencies under the MRAP program, going to communities large and small, including Sanford, Maine, population 20,000, and Moundsville, West Virginia, population 8,400.

A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has similarly documented the use of Pentagon-supplied equipment in no-knock home invasions, including driving up to people's houses in just such armored vehicles to launch the raids. The ACLU concluded that "the militarization of American policing is evident in the training that police officers receive, which encourages them to adopt a 'warrior' mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies, as well as in the equipment they use, such as battering rams, flashbang grenades, and APCs [Armored Personnel Carriers]."

Who Benefits?
Companies in the military-industrial complex earn billions of dollars selling weapons, as well as building and operating prisons and detention facilities, and supplying the police, while theoretically dealing with problems with deep social and economic roots. Generally speaking, by the time they're done, those problems have only become deeper and more rooted. Take, for example, giant weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon that profit so splendidly from the sales of weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, weaponry that, in turn, has been used to kill tens of thousands of civilians in Yemen, destroy civilian infrastructure there, and block the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance. The result: more than 100,000 deaths in that country and millions more on the brink of famine and disease, including Covid-19.

Such major weapons firms have also been at the front of the line when it comes to benefiting from America's endless post-9/11 wars. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent over $6.4 trillion on just some of those overseas conflicts since 2001. Hundreds of billions of those dollars ended up in the pockets of defense contractors, while problems in the U.S., left far less well funded, only grew.

And by the way, the Pentagon's regular budget, combined with direct spending on wars, also manages to provide huge benefits to such weapons makers. Almost half of the department's $750 billion budget goes to them. According to the Federal Procurement Data System's latest report on the top recipients of government contracts, the five largest U.S. arms makers alone -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics -- split well over $100 billion in Pentagon awards among them in 2019. Meanwhile, those same five firms pay their CEOs a total of approximately $100 million per year, with hundreds of millions more going to other top executives and board members.

Meanwhile, in the Trump years, the militarization of the border has become a particularly lucrative business opportunity, with General Atomics, for instance, supplying ever more surveillance drones and General Dynamics supplying an ever more intricate and expensive remote sensor surveillance system. There are also millions to be made running privatized prisons and immigrant detention centers, filling the coffers of firms like CoreCivic and the GEO Group, which have secured record profits in recent years while garnering about half their revenues from those two sources.

Last but not least is the market for even more police equipment. Local forces benefit from grants from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a wide range of items to supplement the Pentagon's 1033 program.

The True Bottom Line
Much has been written about America's failed post-9/11 wars, which have cost trillions of dollars in taxpayer treasure, hundreds of thousands of lives (American and otherwise), and physical and psychological injuries to hundreds of thousands more. They have also propped up sectarian and corrupt regimes that have actually made it easier for terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS to form and spread. Think of it as the ultimate boomerang effect, in which violence begets more violence, while allowing overseas terrorist organizations to thrive. As journalist Nick Turse has noted with respect to the militarization of U.S. Africa policy, the growth in American military operations on that continent has proceeded rather strikingly in conjunction with a proliferation of new terrorist groups. Put the best light on them and U.S. counterterror operations there have been ineffective. More likely, they have simply helped spawn further increases in terrorist activities in the region.

All of this has, in turn, been an ongoing disaster for underfunded domestic programs that would actually help ordinary Americans rather than squander their tax dollars on what passes for, but obviously isn't, "national defense." In the era of Covid-19, climate change, and an increased focus on longstanding structural racism and anti-black violence, a new approach to "security" is desperately needed, one that privileges not yet more bombs, guns, militarized police forces, and aircraft carriers but public health, environmental protection, and much-needed programs for quality jobs and education in underserved communities.

On the domestic front, particularly in communities of color, police are more often seen as an occupying force than a source of protection (and ever since the 1033 program was initiated, they've looked ever more like such a force as well). This has led to calls for defunding the police and seeking other means of providing public safety, including, minimally, not sending police to deal with petty drug offenses, domestic disputes, and problems caused by individuals with mental-health issues. Organizations like the Minneapolis-based Reclaim the Block have put forward proposals for crisis response by institutions other than the police and for community-based programs for resolving disputes and promoting restorative justice.

Shifting Priorities
Sharp reductions in spending on police, prisons, and the Pentagon could free up hundreds of billions of dollars for programs that might begin to fill the gap in spending on public investments in communities of color and elsewhere.

Organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People's Campaign are already demanding these kinds of changes. In its moral budget, a comprehensive proposal for redirecting America's resources toward addressing poverty and away from war, racism, and ecological destruction, the Poor People's Campaign calls for a $350 billion annual cut in Pentagon spending -- almost half of current levels. Likewise, the platform of the Movement for Black Lives suggested a 50 percent reduction in Pentagon outlays. And a new youth anti-militarist movement, Dissenters, has called for defunding the armed forces as well as the police.

Ultimately, safety for all Americans will depend on more than just a shift of funding or a reduction in police armaments. After all, George Floyd and Eric Garner -- just two of the long list of black Americans to die at the hands of the police -- were killed not with high-tech weapons, but with a knee to the throat and a fatal chokehold. Shifting funds from the police to social services, dismantling police forces as they now exist, and creating new institutions to protect communities should be an essential part of any solution in the aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency. Similarly, investments in diplomacy, economic assistance, and cultural exchange would be needed in order to help rein in the American war machine which, of course, has been attended to in ways nothing else, from health care to schooling to infrastructure, has been in this century. When it comes to both the police and the Pentagon, the sooner change arrives the better off we'll all be. It's long past time to defund America's wars, both abroad and at home.


William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Copyright 2020 William D. Hartung