Archives for category: Civil Rights

A progressive website in Greene County, NY is bound to spend a lot of time focusing on negatives and seeking prospects for improvement, just by the nature of things (and the nature of upstate politics). So it is a pleasure to briefly report on two feel-good events in our state last week, both from New York City.

The first and most important was the visit of Pope Francis to three East Coast cities, including New York. This Pope has inspired people from all faiths around the world, and his message resonates with secular citizens, too. His focus on fundamental fairness and the Golden Rule appeals to everyone in possession of any empathy at all, and his insistence that we—humanity—address the major issues of our day, such as income inequality, climate change and massive immigration, provides much-needed hope for many.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis in NYC. Photo:

The Pope concludes his American journey in Philadelphia today.

Our second bit of happy news stems from the New York Mets, who are once again amazin’. Yesterday the Mets clinched the Eastern Division title, albeit on the road in Cincinnati. (A large contingent of New Yorkers had driven out to Ohio for the event.) It’s been 9 years since the Mets’ last division title, a long drought that includes two late-season collapses, so this year’s triumph is especially sweet.

Matt Harvey with Mets fans
Matt Harvey celebrates with fans. Photo: Aaron Doster, Associated Press.

The Mets will take on the L.A. Dodgers, another team with strong pitching, in the first round of playoffs. It should be a lot of fun.

Guns and racism, twin exemplars of the hatreds that are devouring America from the inside. Held high on their odious perches by today’s around-the-bend Republican Party, which will do or say anything to retain power. If you think the political gridlock in Washington and the seething venom many white voters employ against their black president have no consequences on the street, South Carolina is here to remind you, for the umpteenth time, that they do.

Racism and guns. They align geographically and politically, and the twisted little turd who killed nine churchgoers in Charleston is just an offshoot of a deep-seated malignancy in the body politic. Geographically, Google has recently demonstrated that the Deep South and much of the rural Northeast (including rural NY) are the most racist sections of the country. Not coincidentally, these regions are also teeming with pro-gun fanatics. And they are ruled, almost without exception, by Republicans.

The Confederate flag in South Carolina
Flying high in South Carolina. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

For all of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s crocodile tears, the Confederate flag still flies over her statehouse.

What does all this have to do with the isolated citizens of little Greene County, New York, you might ask? Plenty. The Civil War is celebrated every summer in Windham. Excuse me, I meant to say “commemorated.” You see “Repeal the S.A.F.E. Act” signs everywhere on the Mountaintop. What you do not see are many black faces.

Republicans, largely of the dumb-ass variety, rule. Greene County is, in its own small way, aligned with places like South Carolina and Texas in its desire to resist change and progress. And you could in fact argue that the county has been more successful than most in resisting progress.

The little fuck who killed nine people in a church committed a political act and even seemed dimly aware of doing so, saying he wanted “to start a civil war.” Every cop who kills a black person and walks away free also makes a political statement. And if you have semiautomatic weapons in your house, or multiple guns of any kind, you too are making a political statement.

Our last civil war never really ended. Racism won’t go away, and apparently neither will our craven policy of allowing uncontrolled gun ownership.

I personally would like to see every Republican and Red State yahoo take their guns and move to Texas, and then have Texas go off on its own somewhere far away. But it’s far more likely I’ll be the one to move, to somewhere bluer. Not everyone has the resources to do that, though. For many people who are just trying to live their lives, things don’t look so good. For citizens of color, things look far worse.

America’s current political system is not just divided, it’s broken.

Since not much else seems to work, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has decided to try a new approach: humor.

There is a website, CrimAdvisor, which purports to show criminals where their best options are (and the facts are all too real). And there is the video below:

Those of you with your hearts in the right place will laugh, and hope this campaign has some sort of impact. The rest of you here in upstate New York may laugh at the notion that this state is one of the "unfriendliest" for would-be gun purchasers. There’s certainly no lack of buying opportunities here in Greene County.

Less than two weeks after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo. declined to bring charges against a cop in the shooting of Michael Brown, a Staten Island grand jury has voted not to bring criminal charges in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer.

Garner’s crime? Suspicion of selling unlicensed cigarettes near the Staten Island Ferry landing.

The decision not to bring criminal charges comes despite the fact that an autopsy by the city’s medical examiner found that Mr. Garner’s death was a homicide resulting from the chokehold and the compression of his chest by police officers. Chokeholds are banned by the NYPD’s own guidelines.

Another Cop Gets Away with Murder
Another cop gets way with murder. Photo:

Blacks have always been subject to discriminatory and disproportionate violence at the hands of the police, but the situation has grown wildly out of control. The militarization of police departments across the country is only accelerating this murderous trend. And President Obama and Attorney General Holder, both black, have so far provided only a tepid collective response.

The police occupy a position of substantial respect in this country, which goes a long way—along with America’s continuing and pervasive racism—toward explaining why grand juries defy evidence and logic to exonerate murderous actions.

Cops collectively no longer deserve the respect America has given them. Too many citizens are killed each year, in too many questionable circumstances, to warrant it.

It’s time someone had the guts to stand up to today’s murderous police criminality and also to America’s massive, corrupt and profitable prison industry (a major source of employment here in upstate New York). Law enforcement in America has become a sick joke and a national disgrace.

The mass shooting near UC Santa Barbara last Friday evening was but the latest in an seemingly endless stream of mediagenic gun tragedies. (Most gun-related deaths, murders and suicides alike, go unnoticed.) Once again we had a disturbed young perpetrator attacking his own frustrations by taking the lives of others, and then his own. Once again, we had candlelight vigils and pious expressions of sympathy. Once again, pundits attributed the latest slaughter to inadequate mental health procedures … to the culture at large, particularly misogyny … and to lax gun “controls,” even in a state with more “controls” than most.

But this time, we also had something different: we had a father of one of the victims putting the blame for this latest outrage where it belongs, with “craven, irresponsible politicians and the N.R.A.” Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher was among Friday’s victims, spoke with courage and spoke the truth. Watch him here.

Richard Martinez Calls Out Craven Politicians and the N.R.A.
Richard Martinez Calls Out Craven Politicians and the N.R.A. Photo: You Tube.

Martinez calls on everyone to tell their elected officials “Not One More”. It’s a heartfelt and media-savvy slogan, but of course without legislative and/or judicial action it will go nowhere. The United States is so in thrall to the gun lobby that it can’t even produce minimal, common sense gun “controls,” such as universal background checks. And even if we could, it wouldn’t be enough. As gun fanatics love to point out, there are already some 300 million guns in private hands out there.

The heart of the matter lies with the Second Amendment, and the Second Amendment, as presently interpeted, lies. For more than 200 years, federal courts interpreted the Second Amendment quite narrowly—the phrase “well regulated Militia” limited the scope of the amendment, it was felt. It was not a freestanding right to own guns, as interpreted today.

The National Rifle Association, more than any other group, helped to change this historical interpretation—Mr. Martinez is right on target there. In response to their efforts to change the Second Amendment’s historical meaning, former Chief Justice Warren Burger (a conservative appointed by President Nixon) said this represented “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud’, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”*

Nevertheless, the N.R.A. succeeded. In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, a majority of the Supreme Court accepted the view that Burger regarded as fraudulent.

Now another former member of the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, has issued a call to reverse this flagrant misjudgment and its tragic consequences. In his book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (Little, Brown, 177 pp.), Stevens proposes the Second Amendment be modified to specify that it applies only to those who keep and bear arms “when serving in the Militia”.

Now that would be gun control. And that is what it would take to end or, at a minimum, strikingly reduce the number of mass shootings America contends with today. New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik points out that similarly tough restrictions have proved effective in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and other countries. And he too salutes the honesty and courage of Richard Martinez.

Do I believe the Second Amendment is likely to be modified anytime soon? No, I do not—not when assholes like those belonging to the “Brunswick Sportsmans Club” hold events like this one a scant four days after the killings in California. BTW, our own Congressman Chris Gibson of the 19th District is listed as a keynote speaker. Talk about craven, irresponsible politicians. Gibson deserves to be voted out of office in November for this alone.

No matter how high the odds against change, if the truth remains unspoken then the situation is truly hopeless. Richard Martinez’s courage counts for a lot. Those of us who acknowledge he speaks the truth must join him in speaking out. It’s the only way we can begin to counter the N.R.A. and its distortion of the Second Amendment.

* See The New York Review, June 5, 2014, page 8.

This blog normally publishes comments. However, today’s post is likely to bring out the usual frothing N.R.A. apologists and trolls—those comments will not be published or acknowledged. Genuinely thoughtful responses will be posted, however.

Today, February 11, is The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance. I’ll leave it to you to visit the link and contact your elected officials (Congressman Gibson will likely be receptive). Many people and organizations are behind this first drive to pass the USA Freedom Act and implement other reforms to reign in NSA spying.

What I’d like to do in this post is give you a brief outline of how to do a better job of protecting your privacy online.

First, a word of warning: there is currently no foolproof way to guarantee your privacy, online or anywhere else. But a lot of talented people are working to change that, and I think we can look forward to better privacy safeguards down the road. I hope we can, anyway.

The Fundamentals

It makes a difference which operating system you use. Windows is far and away the most vulnerable, but both Microsoft and Apple have likely cooperated with the NSA despite their official denials. I’d trust OS X over Windows, but the open source Linux is safer than either.

I’m sure most of you aren’t going to switch to Linux to gain increased privacy online—there are a fair number of technical hurdles involved for ordinary users. That being the case, you need to pay attention to the software you use.

Open source software is safer than proprietary software. This is true for the simple reason that anyone can view the code. Therefore, you should use open source apps whenever possible.

Internet Browsing Software

Firefox is the only major open source browser. It is safer than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome or Apple’s Safari. It is safer still if you use the HTTPS Everywhere extension, which encrypts connections to many sites. Still, even with Firefox, your browsing isn’t truly safe.

For genuinely safe browsing, use the Tor Browser Bundle. Tor software hides your location and prevents anyone from seeing your web travels or logging your web searches. The browser itself is based on an enhanced version of Firefox. The Tor Browser Bundle is easy to install, easy to use and available for all platforms. Even today, it should protect your browsing from the NSA.

Email Software

Currently, email—like chat or any social network—is pretty much a lost cause. It’s not safe, period. If you want to have minimal protection, then use the open source Thunderbird (from Mozilla, like Firefox) in conjunction with GnuPG encryption (Thunderbird has a plugin to enable this). But real security is down the road a ways, in the form of projects like Dark Mail.

The Cloud

Like Dropbox? So do I—but it and every other cloud storage provider has been targeted by the NSA. A safer alternative may be BitTorrent Sync, currently in beta. Because this service doesn’t store your files on a company-controlled server (or any server, for that matter), your data should theoretically be safer.

Bear in mind, though, that the NSA has succeeded in shipping computers from name-brand manufacturers with secret radio transmitters inside. These machines are compromised even if they never connect to the Internet. And if the NSA should decide to target you through a back door built into Windows or OS X to install a keylogger on your machine, there’s absolutely nothing that can help you. That’s how bad the situation currently is, and why we need serious reforms.

Last night, at an organizational meeting of the Greene County Democratic Committee in Cairo, Sean Eldridge received the party’s endorsement for this year’s 19th Congressional District race against incumbent Chris Gibson.

The endorsement was a foregone conclusion but interesting nonetheless—Eldridge addressed the assembled group (it was the second time I’ve heard him speak), and he’s good. He does represent a convincing alternative to the Republican Gibson, and in the recently reconfigured 19th District, he stands a fighting chance.

Sean Eldridge
Sean Eldridge. Photo:

Eldridge and his husband Chris Hughes represent something of a new wave in American politics: gay progressive power brokers. Both are young, bright and accomplished, and they enjoy substantial financial resources to support the goals they believe in.

Hughes co-founded Facebook while at Harvard and is the source of the couple’s fortune. He purchased and now publishes and edits the venerable journal, The New Republic. Hughes was also the coordinator of online organizing for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, an effort that was hugely successful and has influenced political campaigns ever since.

Eldridge runs Hudson River Ventures, based in Kingston, which has funded many area businesses, as well as the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz, which is working to bring cutting-edge manufacturing technology—including 3D printing—to the region. Eldridge was also instrumental in getting marriage equality passed in New York, and he is involved in efforts to increase environmental protections and reform campaign finance laws.

He is sharp and quick on his feet, in contrast to his sometimes plodding Congressional opponent. In fielding questions from the audience last night, Eldridge gave succinct but compelling answers which underscored his progressive views on a wide range of subjects, including economic inequality, NSA spying and gun control. (I do wish progressive politicans didn’t feel the need to preface their remarks on gun control with lines like “I myself am a gun owner,” but that’s another story.)

In short, Sean Eldridge is an exciting new candidate who has a solid chance of unseating Chris Gibson this fall.

Yesterday’s long-awaited speech by President Obama on government spying and citizens’ privacy rights was largely anticlimactic. Most observers expected superficial, cosmetic “fixes”, and that is precisely what the president delivered. The NSA will basically continue to scoop up whatever it wants, whenever it wants, with very little oversight.

Don’t give up hope, though—Obama’s compromised stance on national security vs. privacy rights is unlikely to be the last word.

As Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, put it: “Now it’s up to the courts, Congress, and the public to ensure that real reform happens, including stopping all bulk surveillance—not just telephone records collection.”

NSA: Eyes and Ears Everywhere. Graphic: Wikipedia.

Some groups were more critical still. Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International, said Obama’s remarks would be remembered as “music on the Titanic”. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, added that the government “is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the constitution”.

There’s already action in the works to go further toward genuine reform. The USA Freedom Act sounds uncomfortably like the Patriot Act, and in fact it was co-launched by one of the Patriot Act’s authors, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, together with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Sensenbrenner has had grave second thoughts about the way the Patriot Act turned out, and the USA Freedom Act is intended to counter some of the earlier bill’s worst effects. 120 congressmen have already signed on, including our local Congressman Chris Gibson.

There are other powerful forces lined up against NSA overreach as well. One is the Reform Government Surveillance group founded by some of technology’s biggest companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft. They want to undue the damage that NSA spying revelations have done to American business interests abroad, which has been substantial.

The NSA also has powerful allies, though, and true reform will not be easy. But I believe we can go much further than the president suggested yesterday. I work in the technology sector, and I’ll outline some personal steps you can take to protect your individual privacy in a future post.

The new year is nearly upon us—what to expect is anyone’s guess, but what we should strive for is increasingly clear. Broadly, we need more equality, greater justice and a more peaceful, sustainable world. Here is an excellent outline of some of the specifics, courtesy of Senator Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont.

Dear Thomas,

I want to take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very happy new year. I also want to express my gratitude to you for the political support that you have given to me, and for all of your efforts in trying to move our country and the world in the direction of peace, justice and environmental sanity.

As we survey our country at the end of 2013 I don’t have to tell you that the problems facing us are monumental, that the Congress is dysfunctional and that more and more people (especially the young) are, understandably, giving up on the political process. The people are hurting. They look to Washington for help. Nothing is happening.

  • The middle class continues to decline with median family income some $5,000 less than it was in 1999.
  • More Americans, 46.5 million, are now living in poverty than at any time in our nation’s history. Child poverty, at 21.8 percent, is the highest of any major country.
  • Real unemployment is not 7 percent. If one includes those who have given up looking for work and those who want full-time work but are employed part-time, real unemployment is 13.2 percent — and youth unemployment is much higher than that.
  • Most of the new jobs that are being created are part-time work at low wages, but the minimum wage remains at the starvation level of $7.25 per hour.
  • Millions of college students are leaving school deeply in debt, while many others have given up on their dream of a higher education because of the cost.
  • Meanwhile, as tens of millions of Americans struggle to survive economically, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well and corporate profits are at an all-time high. In fact, wealth and income inequality today is greater than at any time since just before the Great Depression. One family, the Walton family with its Wal-Mart fortune, now owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. In recent years, 95 percent of all new income has gone to the top 1 percent.
  • The scientific community has been very clear: Global warming is real, it is already causing massive problems and, if we don’t significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet we leave to our kids and grandchildren will be less and less habitable.

Clearly, if we are going to save the middle class and protect our planet, we need to change the political dynamics of the nation. We can no longer allow the billionaires and their think tanks or the corporate media to set the agenda. We need to educate, organize and mobilize the working families of our country to stand up for their rights. We need to make government work for all the people, not just the 1 percent.

Before we talk about 2014, let me ask you a favor. Do you know of friends, family or co-workers who might be interested in receiving our email newsletters and updates? If you do, please forward this email and encourage them to sign-up for occasional updates. They can sign-up for our emails by clicking here.

When Congress reconvenes for the 2014 session, here are a few of the issues that I will be focusing on.

WEALTH AND INCOME INEQUALITY: A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much while so many have so little. It is simply not acceptable that the top 1 percent owns 38 percent of the financial wealth of the nation, while the bottom 60 percent owns all of 2.3 percent. We need to establish a progressive tax system which asks the wealthy to start paying their fair share of taxes, and which ends the outrageous loopholes that enable one out of four corporations to pay nothing in federal income taxes.

JOBS: We need to make significant investments in our crumbling infrastructure, in energy efficiency and sustainable energy, in early childhood education and in affordable housing. When we do that, we not only improve the quality of life in our country and combat global warming, we also create millions of decent paying new jobs.

WAGES: We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. We should pass the legislation which will soon be on the Senate floor which increases the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, but we must raise that minimum wage even higher in the coming years. We also need to expand our efforts at worker-ownership. Employees will not be sending their jobs to China or Vietnam when they own the places in which they work.

RETIREMENT SECURITY: At a time when only one in five workers in the private sector has a defined benefit pension plan; half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings; and two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for more than half of their income we must expand Social Security and make sure that every American can retire with dignity.

WALL STREET: During the financial crisis, huge Wall Street banks received more than $700 billion in financial aid from the Treasury Department and more than $16 trillion from the Federal Reserve because they were “too big to fail.” Yet today, the largest banks in this country are much bigger than they were before taxpayers bailed them out. It is time to break up these behemoths before they cause another global economic collapse.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: We are not living in a real democracy when large corporations and a handful of billionaire families can spend unlimited sums of money to elect or defeat candidates. We must expand our efforts to overturn the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision and move this country to public funding of elections.

SOCIAL JUSTICE: While we have made progress in recent years in expanding the rights of minorities, women and gays, these advances are under constant attack from the right wing. If the United States is to become the non-discriminatory society we want it to be, we must fight to protect the rights of all Americans.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: Frankly, the National Security Agency (NSA) and some of the other intelligence agencies are out of control. We cannot talk about America as a “free country” when the government is collecting information on virtually every phone call we make, when they are intercepting our emails and monitoring the websites we visit. Clearly, we need to protect this country from terrorism, but we must do it in a way that does not undermine our constitutional rights.

WAR AND PEACE: With a large deficit and an enormous amount of unmet needs, it is absurd that the United States continues to spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. The U.S. must be a leader in the world in nuclear disarmament and efforts toward peace, not in the sale of weapons of destruction.

Let me conclude by once again wishing you a happy and healthy new year — and by asking you to share this email with friends, family and co-workers. They can sign-up for our occasional emails by clicking here.

This is a tough and historical moment in American history. Despair is not an option. Let us stand together as brothers and sisters and fight for the America our people deserve.

Thank you for your continued support.


Senator Bernie Sanders

To the Senator’s worthy agenda, I would only add this:

GUN VIOLENCE: It’s time we treated gun violence as the public health menace it is. That means real legislative reform and much tougher regulation. This is one of the most, if not the most, politically difficult fights that rational Americans face today, but it is increasingly urgent.

Here’s to a better world in 2014. Happy New Year, everyone.

Tonight the House of Representatives votes on a measure to block the NSA from gathering the phone records of innocent Americans. This could be an important step forward for restoring citizens’ protections under the Fourth Amendment, and would be an important landmark in privacy rights. Our U.S. Representative, Chris Gibson, has indicated he is against the NSA’s indiscriminate gathering of phone records. Please call his office—the number is 202-225-5614—and urge him to follow through by voting against the NSA’s blanket phone surveillance.


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