Thursday, October 9, 2014

Days Of Darkness, Sparks of Hope

Currently in the United States we live in an extremely polarized political sphere. People not only seek out news and op-eds that reinforce their own viewpoints but also associate mainly with others who also align with them politically and viciously demonize ‘the other side.’ The situation has gotten to the point where people view the policies of the opposing party as a threat to the nation.

Globally, it seems that the situation is even worse as problems arise in the Ukraine, the West is once again embroiled in a war in the Middle East, and the knowledge that we’ve already seen irreversible damage due to climate change and we are getting ever-closer to the 2017 deadline where climate change will truly be permanent. These are dark days; however there is room for optimism. Around the world we have seen unlikely political alliances that are working to fight for a better future.

The Cowboy-Indian Alliance

The Cowboy-Indian Alliance made waves back in April 2014 when they led a five day ‘Reject and Protect’ campaign in Washington D.C. against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The action was quite prominent, although the origins of the alliance haven’t fully been bought to light, nor the historical importance of such an alliance.

Art Tanderup, a Nebraska farmer who has actively protested against Keystone XL, stated in an April 2014 interview that the alliance formed years ago due to the “common interests between farmers, ranchers and Native Americans in northern Nebraska and southern South Dakota. We’ve come together as brothers and sisters to fight this Keystone XL pipeline, because of the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer, to the land, to the health of the people.”

The pipeline is a common threat to both communities, as the Ogallala Aquifer, a water tablet located beneath the Great Plains, not only provides water for 2.3 million people, but also “threatens the Missouri River, which provides drinking water for probably a couple 'nother million,” bringing the grand total to about five million people whose clean water supply is under threat due to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In addition, the aquifer also provides water for animals, livestock, and irrigation. All of this means that the pipeline threatens the health and economic stability of the Midwest.

For the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Great Sioux Nation, there is also a historical significance as well. Tanderup stated in the interview that part of the pipeline’s route as well as part of his farm “is on the Ponca Trail of Tears from back in the 1870s, when Chief Standing Bear and his people were driven from the Niobrara area to Oklahoma.”

The extraction processes, such as tar sands mining and the refining and dilution processes, used to obtain the oil are extremely dangerous. Gary Dorr noted in the same interview that before the oil extraction started, Fort Chip in Canada had “a negligible cancer rate” and now they “[have] a cancer rate 400 times the national Canadian per capita average” and that “every single family [in Fort Chip] has cancer in their families.”

Yet, while this is significant due to the serious environmental and economic consequences, there is also a historical importance to this as well. The alliance actually isn’t new, but is rather “a later incarnation of an alliance that was first formed in 1987 to prevent a Honeywell weapons testing range in the Black Hills, one of the most sacred sites in Lakota cosmology – where, in the 1970s, alliances successfully fended off coal and uranium mining.” This current movement is the continuation of a fight for the environment that protects people rather than profits.

This is also effecting Native American-White relations. Take the story of Mekasi Horine, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma who is a Native rights and environmental activist.

When first hearing of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, he was rather skeptical, saying “I’ve always been a little bit bitter toward white society” and “I’ve experienced a lot of racism—growing up on the res, living on the res. When I went to town I was always treated differently than others.” However, he eventually joined due to his mother convincing him that the alliance was of importance that the cowboys “have that love and respect for the land the same that we do.” Cooperation is due having a shared love for and reverence of the land.

This alliance is having far-reaching effects as it is not just an environmental alliance, but it “is beginning the dialogue not just about broken treaties, but about the long history of colonization, the effects of which are ongoing among some of the United States’ poorest populations.” This can be shown by the fact that both sides “hope that the pipeline, which has caused them both much distress, will be a catalyst for reconciliation” and that they “sense that the reconciliation their work is a part of has a historic importance, something healing for both settlers and natives—and both feel that it is, in some way, destined to happen.”

Does this mean that everything will be smooth sailing between Native Americans and settlers from here on out? Not in the slightest, however it does offer some hope a sort of reconciliation and reckoning will take place and change the views of many so that they will aid the Native Americans in their fight not just for equal rights, but to undo the damage done by over a century of mistreatment and cultural destruction.

Fighting For Peace In Palestine

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on since 1948, with both groups claiming the same land and there is currently no end in sight. While the media may have some thinking that both Palestinians and Israelis hate each other, there has been a large amount of support for the Palestinian cause as of late from Israelis and Jews.

The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network took an ad out in the New York Times, which was “signed by 40 Holocaust survivors and 287 descendants and other relatives” and “[called] for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted and Israel to be boycotted.” More specifically, the ad stated that they were “alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch. In Israel, politicians and pundits in The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post have called openly for genocide of Palestinians and right-wing Israelis are adopting Neo-Nazi insignia.” The ad ended arguing for collective action, reading: “We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people.”

Actions such as these are greatly important as they prove that not all Jewish people support the Israeli war machine and the wanton slaughter of innocent Palestinians.

There were also solidarity actions in Israel itself. However, it seems that it is increasingly dangerous to be anti-war in Israel as there have not only been attacks by right-wing nationalists, but the Israeli government itself cracked down on anti-war demonstrations. It even went so far as to attempt to use the IDF to ban anti-war protests, as the police must obey IDF Home Front Command orders. These orders “[do] not permit large gatherings in public during times of conflict,” which results of in people being unable to protest.

There is also increasing support for an end to the conflict in Palestine as well. In June it was noted that most Palestinians wanted a unity government and a narrow majority favored “peace talks and peaceful coexistence with Israel.” An August 2014 poll in Gaza revealed that supported a long-term truce with Israel, even as they opposed the disarmament of the strip.

While the fight for an end to the conflict and the creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state will continue to be a long and arduous one, it is still good to know that people support peace.

Solidarity of the Suppressed

Around the world, minority communities are subject to unjust persecution in many societies, persecution which can range from discrimination and a lack or nonexistence of a political voice to outright brutalization and murder by security forces and intense repression. While oppressed groups have fought for their rights individually, rarely have we seen such groups show solidarity with one another and support one another. Fortunately, many have been voicing and demonstrating their solidarity from Ferguson to Palestine.

Black-Palestinian Solidarity

Both Black people in the US and Palestinians have shown solidarity with one another in their struggles.

To make the situation much more relatable for African-Americans, in May 2014 Kristian Davis Bailey penned the article Why Black People Must Stand With Palestine in which he noted that the police brutality faced by blacks and other minorities is directly related to the violence in Palestine as “Since 2001, thousands of top police officials from cities across the US have gone to Israel for training alongside its military or have participated in joint exercises here.”

Both communities experienced systemic mass incarceration as well: “Forty percent of Palestinian men have been arrested and detained by Israel at some point in their lives. (To put this in perspective, the 2008 figure for Blacks was 1 in 11.) Israel maintains policies of detaining and interrogating Palestinian children that bear resemblance to the stop and frisk policy and disproportionate raids and arrests many of our youth face.”

The problems of black people in the US and Palestinian people are greatly related as the security forces of both countries work together to develop tactics to oppress and brutalize our communities.

In 2012, Jemima Pierre of Black Agenda Report took a historical look of the situation that is still relevant today, noting that many black leaders spoke out in support of the Palestinian cause. Specifically she made mention that

Palestine was an important issue during the Black Power years as radicals identified with and embraced the anticolonial struggle against Israel. Huey Newton, even under allegations of anti-Semitism, stated, “…we are not against the Jewish people. We are against that government that will persecute the Palestinian people…The Palestinian people are living in hovels, they don’t have any land, they’ve been stripped and murdered; and we cannot support that for any reason.”


[Alice Walker] made the direct connection [of the Palestinian plight] to the Black experience: “Going through Israeli checkpoints is like going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle.”

By supporting the Palestinian people, Black people today are only continuing the pro-human rights legacy that has been set by many black leaders before them.

Palestinians have returned the support and solidarity of Black people in the form of supporting the people of Ferguson in their protests against the police. Al Jazeera reported that “Local authorities in Ferguson have begun responding to nightly protests with tear gas and rubber bullets. Palestinians on Twitter could relate, and shared words and images of support with the US protesters.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine issued a statement of support with black people, saying that the organization “salutes and stands firmly with the ongoing struggle of Black people and all oppressed communities in the United States” and quoted Khaled Barakat, a Palestinian writer and activist, as saying the fight against US brutality around the world is linked and that “When we see the images today in Ferguson, we see another emerging Intifada in the long line of Intifada and struggle that has been carried out by Black people in the U.S. and internationally.”

Solidarity between Palestinians and Blacks is important and noteworthy as it shows international solidarity against oppressive social structures and governments as well as forms a space where the two groups can discuss and interact with one another, from promoting awareness about each other’s plights to exchanging resistance tactics.

Yet, there was also solidarity with Black people from the Asian community as well, with many offering critical insight on the connection between the Black and Asian struggles in the United States.

Black-Asian Solidarity

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans issued a statement of solidarity with Ferguson, saying, in part that, “our own communities’ histories in the United States include violence and targeting, often by law enforcement.” While a statement may not seem like much, it is rather important as it notes the history of white supremacy and how that ideology is an enemy of all non-whites, no matter their actual skin color.

Soya Jung argued that what is going on in Ferguson mattered to Asian Americans as while Asians “do not move through the world in the crosshairs of a policing system that has its roots in slave patrols, or in a nation that has used me as an ‘object of fear’ to justify state repression and public disinvestment from the infrastructure on which my community relies,” the situation is still important to them due, firstly, to han.

Jung explains han as a word in Korean culture that “loosely means ‘the sorrow and anger that grow from the accumulated experiences of oppression” that has been “expressed in protests against Japanese colonial rule in 1919, in the struggle for self-determination as the Korean war broke out in 1950, during student protests against the oppressive U.S.-backed South Korean government in 1960, and again during the democratic uprising in Kwangju in 1980.” This anger against a racist system of oppression and its importance to Jung’s identity is partly what connects the events of Black and Asian America as both are victims of this system.

She then notes that Black rage “serves as a beacon when faced with the racial quandary that Asian Americans must navigate” with regards to “the invisibility of Asian death and the denial of any form of Asian American identity that doesn’t play by the model minority rulebook.”

Jaya Sundaresh took a broader view of the subject, in part discussing anti-blackness in the Asian community, writing that South Asian Americans must “work towards change in our own communities so that we do not inadvertently work to reinforce antiblack racism in this country, which is at the root of the police brutality which murdered Michael Brown.” At the end of the article, she urged others to talk with their “South Asian friends and families about Ferguson, why it is important that we stop perpetuating or staying silent on racist views in our communities, why we should vocally support those in the African-American community who are working towards change, and why we should stop keeping silent when our white friends and colleagues find ways to justify Darren Wilson’s murder of Michael Brown.”

The solidarity between Blacks and Asians is important not only to having a discussion about the problems and tensions that exist between the communities, but to eliminating those tensions and working together to strike back against a racist society.


Do all of these solidarity actions and statements mean that things are now okay? That Native Americans and settlers will get along, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end anytime soon, or that institutionalized and internalized racism will be dismantled? Unfortunately not, however, what these alliances do represent are sparks of hope that we can radically change the situation that we currently find ourselves in.

These alliances, whether they are in the form of solidarity statements or marches, articles or tweets, should give people courage and nourishment to continue the fight for freedom and equality.
The world constantly seems like it is going to hell and many feel that that they may give up at any moment, but, to quote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “do not go gentle into that good night” instead one must “rage, rage against the dying light.”

The light is almost dead and the clock has nearly struck midnight, but this is the chance for everyone to give it their very best. If we are going to go down, let’s go down swinging. Let’s give ‘em hell!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Talking Social Justice with Son of Baldwin

This is the transcript of a recent interview I had with the admin of the Facebook page Son of Baldwin. In it, we discuss the origins of the Facebook page, online social justice activism, and problems in the LGBT community.

Why have you named the page Son of Baldwin? What kind of impact has James Baldwin had on you personally?

James Baldwin was the first black gay male intellectual I had ever encountered. His work was really the first time I had seen myself, my identity (as a black gay male), and my point of view represented in art and public discourse in a way that was not meant to be mocked, dismissed, minimized, or dehumanized. His was the first work that started me on the path to thinking critically about myself, the world around me, and my place in it. In tribute to that consciousness raising (which may have come much later, if at all, had it not been for him) and in an effort to answer his final call to dig through the wreckage and use what he left behind to continue the work of trying to make the world a more just, livable, peaceful place, I named the blog “Son of Baldwin.” I have been told by friends of Baldwin’s family that the family is quite pleased by the work being done and they believe that I am indeed honoring his legacy. That is overwhelming and I am overjoyed.

What made you want to make a Facebook page in the first place?

Son of Baldwin originally started out as a blog via blogspot. But that space wasn’t really conducive to conversation. Facebook allows for a kind of direct and extended interaction and dialogue that many other sites, including other social media, don’t. And for me, the conversation is the most important part. Despite how I may sometimes come across, this isn’t about me. This isn’t about being able to proselytize from on high and have everyone applaud the pronouncement. This is about starting conversations and engaging other people in various communities about these causes and concerns in the effort of finding solutions to some of our most pressing social justice issues.

You talk about a number of topics, from LGBTQ rights to racism, through a critical progressive lens. How did you come to this political awakening of sorts?

I think this awakening started in my childhood. I grew up during the 70s, 80s, and 90s—a child of both Black Southern Baptist and Nation of Islam traditions—in a section of Brooklyn called Bensonhurst (infamous for the racist attack against and murder of Yousef Hawkins in 1989).
Bensonhurst, at least at that time I grew up there, was a neighborhood of primarily Italian and Irish first- and second-generation immigrants. In this neighborhood, I lived in a housing project of mostly black and Latin@ peoples right in the middle of things. We were thus surrounded, if you will, in hostile enemy territory. This made everything tenuous.

As a child and a teen, I had to plot routes home from school that would help me avoid running into the mobs of white children, teens, and adults who--with bats in hand, violence in heart, and death in mind--made a regular ritual of chasing kids of color back to the projects.

What was different for me when I got back to the projects, having often but not always escaped the battering from racists, is that the battle didn’t end there. I had to then contend with the other black and Latin@ peoples who wanted to pound on my head because they perceived me as gay.

When you are not safe in any of the worlds you inhabit, you sort of don’t have a choice but to become politicized. You kind of don’t have a choice but to "wake up" because if you don’t, you’ll be murdered. Reading the works of authors like Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, and others helped to direct these concerns and grievances, and made me feel less alone and more empowered to do something about my circumstances.

Something that I have noticed about you is that you actively allow yourself to be called out by others and acknowledge when you messed up and allow yourself to be corrected. Why do you think that this does not exist in larger political circles, especially liberal or progressive spheres?

My opinion is that this willingness to be wrong and be corrected doesn’t happen in larger political circles and spheres because many of the people working within those areas actually think this work is about them. They believe that in order to be trusted and effective, they have to feign perfection and position themselves as above reproach. Can you imagine?

Many people doing this work think that in order to be trusted they have to lie. The truly sad thing about this contradiction of a strategy is how often it works, and how often complicit audiences are willing to believe the lie if it confirms their system of reality. I guess what I’m saying is that many people doing this work are politicians in the most cynical sense of the word, and that occupation is not something I have any interest in whatsoever. I’m a writer by purpose, training, and profession, and I’ve never pretended to be anything other than that.

In short, I think ego is at the center of this unwillingness to be incorrect.

You recently made it a requirement that people who post photos on the page to provide a written description. What prompted this?  

This comes from a desire to ensure that as many people as possible are able to participate, as fully as they can, in the conversations and discourses happening in the space. Blind and Deaf/Hard of Hearing people are active members of the Son of Baldwin community and this policy makes it possible for them to be even more vibrant participants in discussions. This is one of the ways I’m trying to address my own collusion in institutionalized ableism/disableism.

What are your thoughts on online social justice work? Do you think that it can make a serious difference in people's lives and on a larger scale? (I often hear people saying that tweeting or writing doesn't really do anything.)

For starters, I think online social justice work has been a blessing in the sense that it has given a voice to many peoples and communities whose voices were often missing, excluded, or silenced in sociopolitical discussions. Additionally, the Internet has made it possible for many more people to have access to these debates and discussions, such as disabled people/people with disabilities who are often unable to access on-the-ground events because many organizers are unwilling to make accommodations, or poor peoples who simply cannot afford to travel to these events.

There are many absolutely amazing and brilliant online social justice activists doing work that honestly, truly matters, and are, despite narratives to the contrary, affecting the discourse and changing minds.

But like everything else, there is a deeply disturbing dark side to online social justice work.
One of the things I deeply dislike about much of the social justice activism and social justice spaces I've encountered is how intentionally vicious they are. And I'm not talking about viciousness between social justice activists and trolls. I'm talking about the viciousness between peoples with the same goals, but who might have different strategies for obtaining those goals.

I've seen some really hateful, ugly, deeply dishonest and self-serving stuff happening in conversations in these spaces—including my own. I'm not talking about disagreements or even heated disagreements. I'm talking about full-on attempts at destroying each other—from credibility to personhood. I'm talking about people who truly get off on making others feel as small as possible so they can feel big.

I'm talking about intentionally committing violence against and silencing other people. I'm talking about people lying and slandering others with the intent of spiritually murdering them as though they were opposing a concept rather than a person. The Internet often helps with the depersonalization of people.

When you think you’re arguing with, and trying to obliterate, digitized images and typed words instead of a living being, it’s easier to be joyfully inhumane, spiritually toxic, and intellectually genocidal, then reward yourself by calling it “social justice.” It’s easy to be gleeful about shitting on an opponent (an opponent that you, yourself, manufactured for your own dubious purposes, by the way) and high-five each other about the havoc you wreaked when you can treat the carnage as a concept rather than reality.

I'm talking about people who wear the cloak of victimhood like a Trojan horse in order to sneak into the village, get close to you and- surprise- become the victimizers you never expected. There are people who use their marginalized identities and communities not for the purposes of liberation, but as a hustle, as masturbation, as a way to elevate themselves to a place where they are above reproach. I'm talking about the people who have the audacity to use “trigger” not as a real expression and sign post of lived trauma, but as a strategic pretense to silence any opinions they don’t like.

It's like they play this game where the more marginalized identity boxes they can check off, the more they can't be criticized for any behavior they engage in, no matter how abusive and counterrevolutionary. Therefore, the goal is to check off as many marginalized identity boxes as they can—even if they have to invent them or pretend to belong to them. Whoever has the most, wins.

To me, that's the original pimp strategy and I guess what I'm saying is that I don't like pimps. But I have discovered that there are so many of them in this arena. Some folks are out here big pimpin’ and calling it “radical” of all things.

I don't know why, but that shocked me. I did some research to determine whether this was a new phenomenon brought on by the anonymity of the Internet. What I discovered is this behavior pre-dates the Internet. Shirley Chisholm, for example, was the target of disgusting attacks by people who should have been in solidarity with her. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison said such despicable things about James Baldwin that it would make your skin crawl. Much to my dismay, I learned this in-fighting and hostility isn’t novel in any respect.

Sometimes, I've been accused of being egotistical, which, okay, fine if that’s your opinion. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not trying to be a pimp at this stuff. Part of why I don't do public speaking gigs, etc. is because I'm not trying to become some kind of object of celebrity or fame. I'm not trying to become some kind of some kind of commercial figure or commodity.

I’m not trying to be that person who maneuvers themselves closer to the president in group photo opportunities because they are trying to climb some political ladder. Those people want to be “The One.” Not me, though. I'm not trying to be the “go-to” expert. I'm not trying to be in the spotlight. I'm not trying to be anyone’s leader. I'm not trying to make money off of this work. I'm not trying to play like I'm perfect and have all the answers. I'm learning right alongside everyone else. I'm not here to be worshiped like some god-thing, but regarded as a human being who is growing and evolving, falling down and getting back up again with increased knowledge. I'm a participant in this conversation.

But increasingly, these aren’t conversations anymore. Increasingly, these are encounters with people with not-always-legit agendas trying to push those agendas as liberation strategies.  These people are about switching places with the oppressor and will use whichever of the“master’s tools” (as Audre Lorde called them) is necessary to do so. However, I’m not interested in being chained and I’m not interested in chaining anyone else. That, for me, is the politics of inertia and I’m interested in progress. I want everyone to be liberated.

Part of the genius of this violence-strategy that some people who call themselves marginalized employ is that it's difficult for the victim of the violence to discern whether the violence is legitimate or illegitimate. Because many of the people in this work are so committed to justice, they err on the side of it being legitimate even when it isn't. So they endure the emotional, psychic, psychological, spiritual, and sometimes even physical abuse because they're afraid if they don't, they will be labeled as a part of the problem. Speaking for myself,  I've allowed people to abuse me, even flat-out lie about me on an ongoing basis, just so I wouldn't be perceived as an oppressor and anti-justice (because of the ways in which my identities intersect, in and out, with privilege and oppression and marginalization). To save my "reputation" among the social justice crowd, I've been a masochist. It’s so incredibly complicated. And I do not have the answers for it. But I do have the bruises.

So, I'm no longer engaging the brutality. I'm moving away, not from the difficult and needed conversations, but from the egotistical violence. If your concept of social justice is about amassing power at the expense of other victims of hegemonic abuse, I cannot be down for your cause. And if that makes me “bad” at doing this social justice stuff, then so be it.  If you need me to be the villain so you can feel like the hero in your own story, play on playa. But you'll be playing sans me. I won’t give you the attention you’re seeking. I will absolutely refuse to see you no matter what tricks you employ. I've got other work to do.

You are quite critical of the race and class politics of the mainstream LGBT community. Due to this split on multiple levels, from racism to ignoring transgender people, would you say that there is even a real LGBT community? How can people work towards having more inclusive spaces for marginalized LGBT members?

I would say, currently, that there may be LGTBQIA communities, plural. But the singular community that is commonly addressed in media and conversations is one that is actually serving the needs of one particular subset of the communities—namely, white, middle-to-upper class, cisgender, non-disabled, gender conforming men.

James Baldwin said back in 1984 that the gay movement was really about white people who lost their white privilege struggling and petitioning to get it back. I see no lies in that statement if the national platforms and conversations, if the faces of the movement are any indication.

I witness tons of conversations about why “black people are so homophobic” (which we can actually trace, ironically, to white colonial intervention) but relatively few to none about “why white gay people are so racist.” The answer, as Baldwin surmised, was because white gay people are still, at heart, white and Whiteness, which is inextricably linked to the idea of racial superiority, is at the root of most of our problems.

To get to a more inclusive space, people (of all races and creeds) have to give up their addiction to Whiteness and white supremacy. People (or all genders and sexualities) have to give up their addiction to patriarchy and narrow-minded views of masculinity, femininity, gender identity, and sexuality. People of all physical realities have to give up capitalism and incessant materialism, which are commodifications of humanity, and stop treating human bodies as machines that are valuable only for what they can produce for the State—a deeply ableist point of view.

The problem is convincing people to give up the things that define their current comforts. We have to get people to be willing to be uncomfortable, at least for a while, until we can figure all of this out. This may be a continuous journey, rather than a destination.

At the end of the day, what do you want people to get out of your Facebook page?

 My dream for Son of Baldwin is that it serves as a place where we can have uncomfortable conversations about social justice issues without dehumanizing one another. We might occasionally yell at one another. We might occasionally have to be corrected for our errors and apologize for them. But I hope out of the consternation come viable solutions and a greater respect for each other’s humanity.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Raking In On Rents: The Housing Crisis Begins Anew

This was originally published on

Wall Street wrecked the economy in 2007 due to dealing in shady mortgage securities that were given dubious triple-A ratings and put the entire global economy on the brink.  Do you think those big banksters learned their lesson and decided not to dabble in overly complex financial instruments and to stop deceiving people? The answer is of course, a resounding no. Not only have the bankers not received virtually any punishments for nearly destroying the economy, they are now involving themselves in the rental arena and may create another financial crisis in the process.

The situation began when the Federal Housing Finance Agency Real-Estate Owned (REO) initiative program launched in late February 2012. The purpose of the program was to allow “qualified investors to purchase pools of foreclosed properties with the requirement to rent the purchased properties for a specified number of years.” The thinking behind the program was that it “could provide relief for local housing markets that continue to be depressed by the volume of foreclosed properties, and provide additional rental options to certain markets.” The initial phase involved allowing companies to purchase large amounts of foreclosed properties from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, given that in a couple of years the properties would be converted into rental housing.

It must be noted, however, that in a August 10, 2011 information request regarding the then-upcoming REO Program, it was stated that a specific goal was to “solicit ideas from market participants that would maximize the economic value that may arise from pooling the single-family REO properties in specified geographic areas.” Now, this makes sense in that you need information from corporations who can deal in the REO business on a large scale, but it also allows for these very same corporations to have influence in what occurs and to potentially steer the program in a direction that would be to their benefit.

Once this program was open, companies began snapping up properties quickly and then securitizing them, called REO-to-rental securitization. The first company to do this was Blackstone which “[packaged] rental income from single-family homes it owns into a pass-through security, similar to a mortgaged-backed security.” While some economists argued that this could aid the hardest hit areas of the housing crash, others worried that “these new investors could face big challenges managing large portfolios of dispersed rental houses.”

Investor companies such as Blackstone wanted to get into this new business as it had the potential to net returns that were much higher than either investing in Treasury securities or stock dividends. For example, “While a 10-year Treasury note yields little more than 2%, economists at Goldman Sachs calculate that rental property investments yield more than 6% on average, nationwide.”

From the very beginning of this new venture, there were already alarms raised about the situation. While Moody’s was allegedly giving such securitizations a triple-A rating, Fitch Ratings saw a major problem with this, namely that there was “limited performance data for the sector and individual property management firms.” This meant that people didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into as this was a new market and thus the situation was quite risky. Earlier this year, Standard & Poor’s warned that rental security bonds didn’t deserve triple-A status due to their “operational infancy,” disagreeing with other rating agencies such as Moody’s, Krolls, and Morningstar.

Rent securitization has the potential to have some serious effects. Daniel Indiviglio, a columnist at Reuters, argued that the lack of data on securitization presents a number of challenges. The securities “may require an entirely new infrastructure for appraising how rentable a home is and at what price. And the faults that the crisis exposed in securitization reinforce how crucial a good crop of historical information is on rental trends.” Without having any long-term historical data, investors and rating agencies will be forced “to make assumptions on new stats like vacancy rates, tenant turnover costs and property management fees.”

Another factor is that potential bond purchasers will want to demand serious compensation for ponying up the money to buy these vacant houses as one cannot assume that the property is stable unless tenants have lived there for quite some time or signed a medium or long-term lease, which is quite rare for renters who are just moving in. “And with foreclosures focused in a few key regions and resulting rentals appealing to specific segments of the population, concentration risk is likely to be magnified.” This all raises the possibility that rental securitization may cost more than it is actually worth.

In addition to the actual financial risk for investors, there is also the possibility that rental bonds could possibly be increasing rents. In January 2014 it was reported that Congressional Representative Mark Takano (D-Calif.) “sent a letter to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., asking for an investigation into rental-backed securities deals” as he was saw that rental prices were increasing and that “a surplus of investors in rentals -- along with new rental-backed securities deals -- could have the effect of artificially raising rental prices, making housing even more costly in parts of California.”

To back up his case, Takano cited a 2013 Federal Reserve report which stated, with regards to companies buying up houses and renting them out, that without proper oversight “investor activity may pose risks to local housing markets if investors have difficulties managing such large stocks of rental properties or fail to adequately maintain their homes” and that “Such behavior could lower the quality of the neighborhoods in which investors own rental properties.”

But, we can safely assume that Congress already has laws to oversee rent securitization…right? It isn’t as if they would just go and let a situation similar to what just occurred go without being properly regulated….right? Well, it seems that there is no legislation overseeing rent securitization whatsoever. Representative Takano for Congressional hearings in January 2014 to look into the issue and so far it seems that nothing has happened.

While the situation is bad in Congress, it is even worse for people who live in houses that are owned by these corporations. Mindy Culpepper lived on the outskirts of Atlanta in a home which was consistently inundated with the stench of raw sewage and while she and her husband paid $1,225 a month to live in the three-bedroom house, her landlord in the form of Colony American Homes completely ignored her complaints. This isn’t a recent problem either; the Culpeppers have had to live with that stench from the first day they moved in.

Speaking of Atlanta, on April 15, 2014 the organization Occupy Our Homes Atlanta released a report entitled Blackstone: Atlanta’s Newest Landlord in which it was found that: (1) Tenants wishing to stay in their homes can face automatic rent increases as much as 20% annually. (2) Survey participants living in Invitation Homes pay nearly $300 more in rent than the Metro Atlanta median. (3) 45% of survey participants pay more than 30% of their income on rent, by definition making the rent unaffordable. (4) Tenants face high fees, including a $200 late fee for rental payments. (5) 78% of the surveyed tenants do not have consistent or reliable access to the landlord or property manager.

Furthermore, it was reported in July 2014 that while the company Invitation Homes “claims to have spent $25,000 per home to bring them up to standards, 46 percent of respondents reported plumbing problems, 39 percent found roaches or other insects, and around one in five had issues with air conditioning or mold or leaky roofs.” Thus, we can see that these corporations only care about making money rather than taking care of tenants.

All of this has a major impact on the working-class as they already spend more than half of their income on rent but with rent securitization, the economic problems begin even before people have entered the door. The organization Homes For All, released a report focusing on the Los Angeles rent securitization scene and found that “A major barrier to rental accessibility, especially for low-income renters, is the required deposit amount. In Los Angeles, the average deposit amount equated to 157 percent of respondents’ monthly rent amount. The highest deposit required as a percentage of monthly rent was 281 percent, and the lowest was 53 percent.” With regards to amount spent on rent, the report found that “67 percent of [the] respondents had unaffordable housing, and 47 percent were severely cost-burdened.”

There are other problems as well. In New York City, where private equity firms are buying up apartment buildings which are rent-controlled, companies are pushing long-term residents out of their apartments in order to redo the dwellings and sell them at market prices. These firms are often engaging in illegal tactics such as “mailing fake eviction notices, cutting off the heat or water, and allowing vermin infestations to take hold.” Serious money is on the table for these companies. For example, in 2005, Rockpoint Group “bought a complex of apartment buildings in Harlem known as the Riverton Houses. To justify the whopping $225 million mortgage, the company projected that it would be able to more than triple the rental income from $5.2 million to $23.6 million by forcing out half of the rent-regulated tenants within five years.”

Rent securitization is a major problem, not only because it mirrors the mortgage crisis that just occurred, but also because of the human impact it has. People who are already in difficult conditions, living in rent-controlled apartments are being forced out and those who are purchasing these corporate-owned apartments are living in wretched conditions and rarely to get any service whatsoever. We need to say no to this new scheme because if not, it may allow for the mortgage crisis to become a rent crisis.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Power of the People: Battle In Kingsbridge

The following is the transcript of a recent interview I had with Álvaro Franco, a member of the People’s Power Movement which is working with residents of Kingsbridge Heights in the Bronx to battle against gentrification and rent hikes.

1. How did the situation in Kingsbridge start? What was the context for the gentrification and increase in rent? What is the make-up of the Kingsbridge community?

The City and a nonprofit called NWBCC created a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory into the world's biggest ice skating center; in return, the majority of the workforce for this new center would come from Kingsbridge. Since then, many property owners hoping to capitalize on the redevelopment have started raising rent for merchants and tenants.

I forgot to mention KARA: the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. KARA is/was a coalition of 27 community groups and business owners that, for 15+ years, heard proposals from various developers about the future of the Armory. I'm not too sure about the exact year, but I would say about 3-4 years ago the majority of KARA voted on a CBA that allowed an ice skating center w/ 8 rinks inside, as long as Kingsbridge residents constitute the majority of the workforce. However, after that CBA was made, the KARA meetings became private, and the community groups that had voted against the Ice Center were shut out of the conversation.

Working-class Dominican and black residents make up the majority of Kingsbridge; it is a primarily low-income neighborhood, and a great many of the business owners live there instead of elsewhere.

2. What was the tipping point(s) for many in the community? When did you all start to get together and organize?

For the tenants, the tipping point was when the landlord applied for an MCI rent increase on the basis of external repairs, when the cost of repairs should come out of his pocket; for the merchants, it was when the new landlord neglected to renew their leases and instead doubled their rent.

3. What activities are people in Kingsbridge engaging in to resist gentrification and rent increases?

The tenants in one particular building on University Ave created their first tenants' association in 10 years, and together they are organizing to block the rent hikes. The members of the Merchants Association on Kingsbridge Road are meeting separately w/ the landlord to negotiate terms for staying a little longer; others are willing to fight harder and raise more public awareness about the economic injustice.

4. In what manner are the tenants organized?

The Tenants' Association of 2800 University Ave elected a President, Vice President, and Secretary during their first meeting in July; no backlash from the landlord so far. The body of leadership is primarily working-class women of color, and they are deciding whether to elect captains for each side of the building: North, South, and Center.

Right now PPM is revising its list of demands for the tenants, so we can't really publish that information right now, but the goal is for the list to match one of the immediate demands from our group: "Institute a massive program of quality, affordable public housing for all, under tenant management.  Roll back rents. End gentrification. The New York City Rent Control Board to be popularly elected."

5. Are you all looking at the situation from a perspective of reform or something more? Is the situation being examined as a short-term goal or are you going for the long haul? 

We are looking at it from the perspective of fundamental social change, in for the long haul. We are currently working on our list of demands for tenants.

6. How much and what kind of support have the movement achieved? 

Part of the support the tenants received was news coverage by the Riverdale Press and Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN); the merchants' story was covered on News 12, the Bronx.

7. Are there future plans to link up with other communities that are facing the same problems?

For now, future plans involve reaching out to other buildings within University Ave and Kingsbridge Road to see if they also received an MCI rent increase; when our capacity increases, then we can link up with other neighborhoods in the Bronx, or even Crown Heights in Brooklyn.

8. How can people get in touch with and support the movement?

They can email us at

Follow us on Facebook at 

On Tumblr at 

On Twitter at

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Exploring The Graveyard (Part 2)

Image Courtesy of A State Anthem 20th Century Russian History Blog

Exploring The Graveyard

Part 2: Bloodshed

See Part 1 here

After Daoud Khan ascended to power, the situation in Afghanistan seemed rather stable, however on the ground; problems had begun to brew in past years, problems which would ultimately play a major role in shaping not only Afghanistan, but ultimately the larger geopolitics of the region.

The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan

Before Daoud Khan’s coup, there were talks of forming a new constitution and due to this the number of political groups became increasingly active after 1963. The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (aka the Afghan Communist Party) formed in 1965. It was during this decade that the country “underwent political polarization in the mid-1960s, with factions on the extreme left and right gaining strength.”[1]  The Parcham faction was led by Babrak Karmal, the “son of a well-connected army general, Karmal became involved in Marxist political activities while a student at Kabul University in the 1950s and was imprisoned for five years as a result.”[2]  After being released from prison, he served in the army and attained a law degree. The Khalq faction was led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, a man with a rural background who had clawed his way up to being an appointed attaché at the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C. and continued to be involved in politics.

The Parcham were “drawn mainly from the non-Pushtun, Dari-speaking elite centered in the capital”[3]  and “enlisted followers mainly among Dari-speaking Kabuli intellectuals”[4]  as well as pro-Soviet moderates, whereas the Khalq were “a nationalistic, grassroots party dominated by the Pushtuns”[5]  and popular in rural areas. The Communists split into two factions, the Parcham and Khalq in 1967, due to disputes over policy.

Yet, there was more than just the PDPA that was politically active; there were also a student movements and Islamist groups.

Political Movement and the Saur Revolution

Student movements were a fairly recent occurrence in Afghanistan, such as in 1950, when a student union attempted to form but ultimately failed due to differences between pro- and anti-government factions.

In the 1960s, students were actively exposed to politics as many in high school would read leftist literature that had been snuck in from Iran and India. College students were in environments that “favored political debates, which soon resulted in the formation of discussion groups that later coagulated into political parties” and they “were actively involved in the campaign for both parliamentary elections in the 1960s.”[6]  This large-scale involvement helped to change Afghan political parties as some of them had their roots in the university.

However, there were also Islamists in the university as well, many of them were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and “comprised mainly of university professors who had studied at al-Azhar in Cairo,”[7]  with the student wing of Islamist movement eventually evolving into a full-fledged organization.

So what we see is that there was a large amount of political organizing going on, among a variety of sectors in society. However, the landscape would soon change.

Quickly after July 1973, when Daoud Khan came back to power in a coup, he began a war against not only the splinter parties of the PDPA, but more broadly against groups that opposed him. Khan removed PDPA members from positions of importance, “closed down the independent press, which led to the publication of underground, antigovernment leaflets by the left and the religious right” and initiated “a crackdown on fundamentalist Muslim groups in 1974” and “sent a small number of fundamentalists into exile in Pakistan.”[8]  Yet, this only caused political instability, with a number of assassinations taking place in late 1977 and early 1978.

The attack caused the Parcham and Khalq factions to put aside their differences in favor of fighting their common enemy in Daoud Khan. The arrest of leftist leader in April 1978 was the final nail in the coffin. On April 27th, with the aid of Marxist-influenced military officers, the PDPA took power and immediately began to attack members of the former regime.

Afghan Communist Rule

The new regime has led by Nur Mohammad Taraki of the Khalq faction of the PDPA. He moved quickly to transform the country, embarking on a campaign that “challenged not only traditional Afghan political sentiments, but also the new Islamist movement.”[9]  Taraki “introduced a series of radical reforms, beginning with the replacement of the traditional Islamic green flag of Afghanistan with a red one, [which] collectively amounted to a declaration of war on traditional Afghan society.”[10]  Instability soon began to show, with an army unit revolting in March 1979, but even before then, in October of 1978, large armed rebellions occurred in eastern Afghanistan and began to spread.

Yet, the new Communist regime did not take these rebellions sitting down. They responded to the rebellion with extremely brutality, strafing rural villages and setting fire to crops in rebel areas.[11]  This only increased anti-Communist sentiment and by 1979, the new regime was being seriously threatened.

The Afghan Communist government had contacted the Soviets in March 1979 to ask for assistance, but was rebuffed. Yet in December of that year, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up their fledgling Communist government.

However, there were a number of countries interested in the new Afghan government.


The Pakistani’s had always been interested in Afghanistan, however, with Russia’s invasion of their neighbor, the politics of the situation drastically changed. Now the country was faced with Soviet troops everywhere among the Afghan-Pakistani border and on top of that, Afghan refugees were regularly flooding over the border. In addition to this, Soviet aircraft would “periodically [violate] Pakistani airspace, occasionally "buzzing" refugee camps well within its borders.”[12]

The question of Baluchistan also came up. Some saw the Soviet invasion as a plan to “penetrate Baluchistan and advance to the Arabian Sea.” Many were concerned about ethnic tensions in Pakistan and thus “were wary of Soviet and Afghan efforts to organize Baluch dissidents, resentful that Baluchistan was not being given its due recognition as a full-fledged province of Pakistan."[13]

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, too, had interests in what was going on in Afghanistan as they saw the country “as a buffer state that helped prevent Soviet expansion toward the Gulf.”[14] 

They were glad to join the US in an effort to take out the Soviet Union, but war in Afghanistan also served as “an outlet as radical as that of the Iranian revolution, though distinct from it, for all the Sunni Islamist militants who dreamed of striking a blow at the impious” and let the Saudi government “[shield] their American ally- which supported the holy war- against the wrath of Sunni activists,”[15]  as the Islamists distrusted both the US and the USSR and had no qualms about attacking either country. Saudi Arabia actively supported the Sunni Islamists as a way to thwart Iran’s influence that was moving increasingly westward.

In Afghanistan, the Saudis teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Pakistani Jam’at-i-Islami (Islamic Party) to “promote the more radical Islamist parties among the Afghan fighters, check Iranian influence, and prevent Western cultural influences from spreading among refugees and the mujahideen,” with “the first two objectives [having] the full support of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and the CIA.”[16]

The US also had interests in Afghanistan and would go quite far to ensure those interests were met.

The United States

During the Saur Revolution, while the US was concerned that the country had gone Communist, they still maintained diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. That quickly changed when, on February 14, 1979, “the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by terrorists and later died under circumstances that have never been completely explained.”[17]  After this incident, the US did not assign an ambassador.

The US would have its revenge though, as President Carter quickly signed a presidential finding, initiating Operation Cyclone, which would supply anti-Communist Afghan fighters with lethal aid via Pakistan. It must be noted that this finding was signed in July 1979 and the Soviet invasion took place in December 1979.  Carter’s administration knew that arming Afghan fighters would encourage the Soviets to militarily intervene. “In fact, Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, informed the president that 'this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention'. He told a French reporter: 'We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would. The secret operation ... had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap."[18]  (emphasis added) The US did this in order to weaken the USSR, but also to get revenge for the Soviets aiding the North Vietnamese just several years earlier.

The US soon aided the Afghan fighters with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; however the situation did not go over as smoothly as portrayed. In 1983, US Ambassador to Pakistan, Ronald Spiers, say the value of the Stinger missile and the impact it could make on the Afghan war theater. Due to the missiles being in short supply, he contacted undersecretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger and “[urged] that ‘serious consideration’ be given to supplying the rebels via Pakistan with Stingers, ‘when they're available.’"[19] 

However, most of the Reagan administration was opposed to arming the rebels, with Reagan not wanting them to get their hands on hi-tech weaponry and there was a large amount of opposition in the CIA. Many at the CIA “claimed the unsophisticated rebels could not handle a weapon like the Stinger, citing the rebels' past failure to shoot down planes with the Soviet SA-7 missile.”[20] 

Then-Director of Intelligence, Robert Gates, joined the fray as well, arguing that “’the Soviets would have to consider more seriously more dramatic action,’ if the U.S. were to increase aid significantly.”[21]  The State Department stood against further arming the rebels, worried that doing so could potentially disrupt issues where the US and USSR formerly cooperated and where Soviet cooperation was needed, such as with arms control.

The situation shifted when Senator Michael Pillsbury was assigned to covert programs in Sept. 1984. He was forced into supporting giving Stinger missiles as other weapons were inadequate for fulfilling the task of downing Soviet aircraft. People’s attitudes also began to change when attacks against the rebels and their Pakistani weapons pipeline sharply increased, which put all of Operation Cyclone at risk, and when Congress began publicly pushing for increased aid to the Afghan rebels. In January 1985, “a Congressional Task Force on Afghanistan was established and began holding hearings to showcase the purportedly desperate plight of the Mujahedin.”[22]  With the signing of National Security Decision Directive 166 by Reagan in March 1985 which stated that the US would “improve the military effectiveness of the Afghan resistance,”[23]  it assured that the aid would get to the Afghans.

By next year, the rebels were getting Stingers.

There is still one country, not often talked about, that was also heavily involved in Afghanistan during this time period: China.


Before delving into China’s involvement in Afghanistan during this time period, it would first be pertinent to include a brief overview of China’s interaction with Afghanistan overall.

China shares about a 60 mile border with Afghanistan. From the very start, China didn’t regard Afghanistan as a threat to its geopolitical interests and generally didn’t see themselves as having a strategically important border with Afghanistan.

That changed once the Soviets invaded. Due to the Sino-Soviet split in which China and the USSR called it quits on their relationship, the Chinese became “were concerned about the military activity near the Badakhshan (including Wakhan) province of Afghanistan, which was connected to the China border.”[24]  The Chinese thought that this was a serious security threat, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sending a message to the Soviet ambassador on the last day of 1979, stating that “‘Afghanistan is China’s neighbor … and therefore the Soviet armed invasion of that country poses a threat to China’s security. This cannot but arouse the grave concern of the Chinese people.’”[25]

China quickly moved to establish contacts with Pakistan and Iran on a deeper level and began to give financial and military aid to Afghan rebel fighters. Aid was given to Pakistan as well in order to counter the Soviet encirclement of China and avoid a direct military confrontation with the superpower.

Finally, there were massive shifts in Chinese policy as China “also stepped up its diplomatic and political offensives against the hegemony of the Soviet social imperialism by cultivating better relations with the USA.”[26]  Thus a series of de-facto alliances formed against the Soviet Union, which resulted in the failure of their military campaign and the war fully ending on February 15, 1989.

While Afghanistan had survived the Soviet Union, there will still a number of problems and concerns. In the next decade radical Islamists, allied with a even more radical group, would take over the country. But we must first pause and ask ourselves three questions:

1.    What is the Taliban?

2.    What is Al Qaeda?

3.    Who exactly is Osama bin Laden?


1: Michael W. Reisman and James Silk, "Which Law Applies to the Afghan Conflict?" (1988). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 752., pg 467

2: Encyclopedia Brittanica, Babrak Karmal,

3: Selig S. Harrison, “A Breakthrough in Afghanistan?” Foreign Policy, Summer 1983, pg 9

4: K. Wafadar, “Afghanistan in 1980: The Struggle Continues,” Asian Survey 21:2 (1981), pg 173

5: Harrison, pg 9

6: Antonio Giustozzi, Between Patronage and Rebellion: Student Politics in Afghanistan, Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, (February 2010), pg 2

7: Thomas Ruttig, Islamists, Leftists and A Void in the Center. Afghanistan's Political Parties and Where They Come From (1902-2006), Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung,

8: Reisman, Silk, pg 468

9: Charles C. Cogan, “Partners In Time: The CIA and Afghanistan Since 1979,” World Policy Journal, Summer 1993, pg 75

10: Alexander Alexiev, The United States and the War in Afghanistan, Defense Technical Information Center,  (January 1988)

11: David Gibbs, “Does the USSR Have a 'Grand Strategy'? Reinterpreting the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Journal of Peace Research 24:365 (1987), pg 372

12: W. Howard Wiggins, “Pakistan's Search for a Foreign Policy After the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Pacific Affairs 57:2 (1984), pg 285

13: Wiggins, pg 287

14: William B. Quandt, Saudi Arabia In the 1980s: Foreign Policy, Security, and Oil (Washington D.C., Maryland: Brookings Institution Press, 1981), pg 41

15: Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2006), pg 137

16: Rachel Bronson, Thicker than Oil: American’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), pg 170

17: Cogan, pg 75

18: Andrew Hartman, “The Red Template: US Policy in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan,” Third World Quarterly 23:3 (2002), pg 470

19: Alan J. Kuperman, “The Stinger Missile and US Intervention in Afghanistan,” Political Science Quarterly 114:2 (1999), pg 222

20: Hartman, pg 223

21: Ibid

22: Hartman, pg 228

23: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, National Security Decision Directive 166,

24: A.Z. Hilali, “China’s Response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan,” Central Asian Survey 20:3 (2001), pg 327

25: Ibid

26: Hilali, pg 323

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Quiet War On Students

Image Courtesy of

College students and graduates around the nation are buried in debt and trying to succeed in an extremely difficult and competitive economic environment. Many people are graduating only to find out that they are unable to get the jobs they want, whether it be due to the small amount of available jobs or (more usually) the problem of ‘experience,’ and thus are reduced to having to work menial jobs while paying back exorbitant loans. So far very little legislation has been passed to aid students in paying back their loans and many are blaming politicians for this. However, the situation goes deeper and in part lies at the feet of a little known institution called the American Bankers Association.

The American Bankers Association, according to their website, is “the voice of the nation’s $14 trillion banking industry, which is composed of small, regional and large banks that together employ more than 2 million people, safeguard $11 trillion in deposits and extend nearly $8 trillion in loans” and believes that “Laws and regulations should be tailored to correspond to a bank’s charter, business model, geography and risk profile.” While it is quite obvious that the ABA is an organization that works in the interest of the bankers, they have an interesting history with regards to student loans and how they have actively fought against the interest of students.

The ABA’s war against students started in the mid-1960s with the rise of the Johnson administration. Johnson ordered the formation of a task force to examine the role of the federal government in higher education, specifically student aid, to be headed by John W. Gardener. In its report, the task forced noted that “Of the students who did not attend college and who had families who could contribute only $300 or less to their education, about 75 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women indicated that they would have attended college if they had had more money available.” Johnson saw this as a loss of human capital and wanted to remedy this, ultimately signing the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 1965 into law. The law included many suggestions from the Gardner taskforce, such as that the government should aid students monetarily via grants and loans, as well as creating special programs for college-aspiring low-income students.

However, this was a major problem for the ABA. The organization was worried about government encroachment on their business, specifically loans and argued that “the federal government could not replicate the working relationships that locally-owned financial institutions had with state and private non-profit guarantee programs” and “the federal government would end up taking over the industry because there would be little incentive for the state and private non-profit agencies to establish their own programs.” In order to placate the bankers, the Johnson administration told them that the government would be the ultimate loan guarantor if no one else was available.

Yet, in the present-day, the ABA is without a doubt waging a quiet war on students by actively combating virtually any legislation that would ease their debt burden. With regards to being able to get rid of student loans in bankruptcy, the ABA stated in 2012 that, if allowed to go into effect, it “would tempt students to rack up big debt that they won't repay [and that] ‘The bankruptcy system would be opened to abuse.’” This is rather ironic, accusing that students will engage in irresponsible lending, even though the banks themselves engaged in massive amounts of the exact same activity by giving mortgage loans to people they knew couldn’t repay the amount. 

The assumption that students would just borrow money and they declare bankruptcy is rather ridiculous as filing for bankruptcy has severe negative effects such as “negatively affect your credit and future ability to use money” and can “prevent you from obtaining new lines of credit and may even cause problems when you apply for jobs.” Yet, due to the bankers and other groups fighting against being able to get rid of student loans in bankruptcy, the only other option is default, which works quite well for the banks. When a person defaults on their student loans, a number of effects:
  1. Your entire loan balance will be due in full, immediately. 
  2. Collection fees can be added to your outstanding balance. 
  3. Up to 15% of your paychecks can be taken. 
  4. Your Social Security, disability income, and state and federal tax refunds can be seized.
  5. You will lose eligibility for federal aid, including Pell grants. 
  6. You will lose deferment or forbearance options. 
  7. Outstanding fees and unpaid interest can be capitalized (added) onto your principal balance. (emphasis added)

While numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 7 are horrible for the borrower, they work quite well for the banks as it allows them to get their money back no matter the cost to you in the immediate aftermath or the future. So your entire economic future has pretty much been destroyed? Well, that’s just the cost of doing business.

The ABA has recently fought against efforts to not have the interest rate on student loans double from 3.4% to 6.8%. The bill in question was Senate Bill 2343, also known as the “Stop The Student Loan Interest Rate Hike of 2012.” 

Democrats wanted to finance the bill by closing a tax loophole in which “wealthy individuals and large corporations [would] often file using ‘subchapter S’ companies to dodge paying employment taxes.” The ABA and other business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce financing of the bill on the grounds that it “would make tax collection ‘less enforceable than current law and will do little to increase compliance.’” Republicans with some Democratic support effectively shut down the bill and thus student loan rates have now doubled.

While many have accused the ABA of having a major sway with Republicans, a report from the organization Campaign For America’s future entitled Moneychangers In The Senate noted that “six Democratic senators—Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Tom Carper, D-Del.; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Jim Webb, D-Va.—sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make him ‘aware of our concern’ about reform efforts [to aid students] and urging consideration of ‘potential alternative legislative proposals.’” 

Essentially Democrats who had been bought and paid for by lending companies were urging that Harry Reid abandon legislation that could aid students and instead look for supposed alternatives which would not harm the banks. Yet, what is interesting is that student loan companies all have close ties to each of these senators, such as Blanche Lincoln’s former chief of staff working as a lobbyist for the student loan industry and Ben Nelson’s former legislative director being a lobbyist for Nelnet, a major student lender.

It must be noted that this campaign against student loan reform has massive amounts of money on the line. From the previously cited report, it was stated that in 2009 Nelnet posted profits of $139 million and that in “In May 2008, the student lenders were bailed out by the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act (ECASLA), which gave the banks further federal subsidies. The bill allowed lenders like Sallie Mae to sell loans back to the Department o Education through a number of loan-purchase programs.” This allows lenders to make even more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the government would save over $68 billion over ten years if they switched over to direct lending, however, now that $68 billion will “subsidize private lenders like Sallie Mae to pay their executives exorbitant salaries and bonuses,” such as Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord who raked in over $225 million during his tenure at Sallie Mae which ended in 2013.

The situation does not end there, however. The Senate has proposed the “Protecting Aid for Students Act for 2014” and its House counterpart is entitled the “Curbing Abusive Marketing Practices with University Student Debit Cards Act,” or the CAMPUS Debit Cards Act. Each of these bills is meant to “protect students from unfair banking practices involving campus-sponsored financial products, including debit cards.” More specifically, the bills would “remove conflicts of interest and end kickbacks between financial institutions and schools, give students control of their financial aid and banking products, and provide transparency over campus-sponsored financial product.” 

Yet, this is a problem for the Ken Clayton, Chief Counsel of the ABA. He stated that this legislation “would limit financial choices for students and parents, and raise costs for everybody” and that “Attempts to vilify financial institutions and require free services will limit consumer choice, increase costs for students and universities, and stifle innovation that has helped modernize higher education financing.” Apparently eliminating conflicts of interests and kickbacks between colleges and banks as well as giving students control of their finances, is a problem.

While we cannot get rid of the American Bankers Association as an institution, we can actively fight against them by organizing ourselves and demanding that we be treated as human beings, not just an investment. Politicians and colleges will not have our backs, we must do this on our own, we must fight ourselves. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Talking Palestine with Dana Busgang

Talking Palestine with Dana Busgang 

By Devon Douglas-Bowers 

This is a transcript of a recent interview I had with Dana Busgang, who is currently working in Palestine.

1. Tell us about yourself.

My name is Dana Busgang, I am 21 years old, and originally from South Orange, NJ. I am going into my senior year at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD, where I major in Political Science with an International Relations minor.

2. What made you want to go to Palestine? 

There are a number of factors that influenced my decision to spend my summer in Palestine. Perhaps the largest and most salient reason is that I grew up in a very pro-Israel area and was raised to believe that I should defend Israel and support it no matter what. I was raised to believe that Israel could do no wrong.

Somewhere along the way, I started questioning whether the so called Israeli Defense Forces are really for defense. As I started learning more and more about the atrocities committed against Palestinians daily, continuing my studies as a Political Science student, one sentence repeated itself over and over in my head; not in my name.

I consider it my duty to make sure that the Palestinians receive justice for the injustices that the state of Israel has committed against them in the name of Jews everywhere. The other reason stems from American perceptions of Arabs in general. The way that the Middle East is treated in the mainstream media, the portrayal of Arabs in pop culture, media and in general as "terrorists," "animals," or "uncivilized," always struck me as wrong. A whole civilization of people could not possible be the demonized version we hear of in America.

After spending a semester in Jordan, I knew I had to come back as soon as possible. I want to be able to go home, and tell people what it’s really like in Palestine, that not all Arabs, not all Palestinians are terrorists who value death and blood, that these are wonderful people, living in terrible conditions.

3. What were your views on the Israel-Palestine conflict before traveling? How have your views changed since? 

 I have definitely been pushed way farther to the left than I ever imagined due to my stay here and used to consider myself very neutral, very central, but I've definitely begun to start thinking far more along pro-Palestinian lines.

 It’s hard to keep a level head when surrounded by oppression, death, and pain. I never really believed in a two state solution, and I still don't. While I think it’s important for Palestinians to have self determination, I also have come to learn of rampant corruption inside the Palestinian Authority, and the distrust that the Palestinian people have in their "government." Therefore, i believe a new Palestinian state would be ripe for takeover by even more radical parties (such as ISIS), or would fall into a violent struggle for power and control.

As far as how my views have changed, I understand now just how powerless the Palestinians are in the current situation. I understand why they resort to violence to resist, I understand that there are many different ways of resistance, and I understand the necessity of resistance. I also didn't realize until coming here how important and salient the idea of the right of return still is.

4. Many people would argue that one should have a neutral stance on this issue. Do you think that such a stance is acceptable in anyway, especially given the Desmond Tutu quote, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor?"

I have struggled a lot with the question of what my role and the role of the international community in general is in this conflict. One the one hand, the posts and arguments I witness over Facebook are disgusting, disturbing and ridiculous considering most of them occur between people who are not here on the ground experiencing what is happening.

 Even then, the dissemination of trustworthy, non-biased information here is nearly non-existent, with both sides spreading lies and propaganda. I have given up trying to urge people not to make judgments about a situation that they know nothing about, and do my best to inform my friends and family based on the reality that I witness on the ground.

While I do believe it is important, especially for Americans as our government supplies most of the weapons and arms being used against the Palestinians, to have not take a neutral stance, I think that the role of ordinary Americans is to pressure our own government to recognize the injustice occurring in Palestine and stop supporting Israel militarily. In this globalized and hyper connected world, its nearly impossible not to take a stance on an issue like this, and it also makes the international community that much more important.

However, posting on Facebook, sharing articles with like minded friends, or getting into pointless arguments on FB posts is not helping anything. If you want to change something—go to a protest, call your representative, or even sit down and have a face to face, rational discussion with someone without resorting to name calling or shouting.

5. Tell us about your first couple of days in Palestine.

Oh goodness, that was a while ago. Lately, I have been feeling and thinking so much, that I cannot find the words to summarize what I have been experiencing. So it may be a little difficult to summarize, but I'll try.

The most shocking thing for me originally upon coming to Palestine was the physical travel itself. In order to get to Nablus from Tel Aviv, I hitched a ride to Jerusalem with my cousin, snagged down a bus to Ramallah and then from there took a private taxi to Nablus instead of dealing with a another bus and my giant suitcase. The road from Ramallah to Nablus has a US state department warning placed on it, due to the amount of settlements and Palestinian villages.

If you drive in a Palestinian taxi, you risk settler attacks. If you go by Israeli car or bus, you risk Palestinian stone throwers-- there's no winning. This road, unlike many others in the West Bank, was nicely paved and had many signs pointing out nearby towns-- but wait; they weren't for towns, just for settlements. The signs that pointed to Palestinian villages were red and angry, warning that they were about to enter a "dangerous" Palestinian village. I laughed to myself, thinking-- what danger do I face from Palestinians? Getting overfed? Too much tea and coffee? After driving through this stretch of settlements, we hit the village of Huwara, which is about 10 minutes away from Nablus.

There were army jeeps and soldiers milling about, dressed like they were at war while just standing near groups of Palestinian youths. Finally we arrived to the Balata refugee camp, where we would be working for the rest of the summer and staying in for a week. Two foreign girls, with giant suitcases looking slightly lost and confused in a refugee camp was definitely not a sight that people are used to. Eventually we found our accommodation, and got settled. Later, we went into the city to meet our co-worker/boss/friend Omar (name has been changed) to have dinner and drink tea in a nice park.

The next day we were taken on a tour of the old city, where we got to see the only Nablusi soap factory still in working order, eat some delicious Knafeh (a traditional Arab sweet that Nablus is famous for), and see Omar's grandparents home that has a beautiful view of the old city. Even until this day, when walking around this city, I hear "Welcome to Palestine," (Ahla wa sahla in Arabic) and it always warms my heart.

The next few days were spent meeting with the kids that we would be working with for the summer, and getting to know the city better. Nablus is unique, in my perspective, because it’s very isolated. The Palestinian authority has a visible presence here, and you could spend months staying within the borders of the city and not seeing Israeli soldiers or settlers.

This gives you the feel that you are in Palestine, the country, not Palestine, the occupied territory. The most visible reminder is the Israeli military base that sits atop Mount Gerzim, with its radio towers casting an eerie red glow into the night.

6. What has been the most uplifting experience you've had while in the area?

My time here has been marred by violence, and death. When trying to think of one specific moment that helps me see some light in this situation is difficult. Things like seeing the kids I work with get excited and passionate about creating a summer camp program for their friends in the camp, seeing the city come alive at night during the last few days of Ramadan and for Eid al- Fitr (the holiday right after Ramadan), being invited into so many people's homes for tea, coffee, or a meal, being told "Welcome to Palestine," by a group of slightly threatening looking young men whom I was suspicious of beforehand, being able to communicate with a taxi driver or a young child with my broken Arabic-- these are the moments that lift my spirits.

Living in this place is hard, but the people here are so tough and resilient. They find ways to smile, joke and laugh every day, and are generally some of the most well humored people I have ever met. It’s truly incredible and inspiring.