This segment originally aired Feb. 17, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Sanctuary cities are jurisdictions that choose not to enforce federal immigration policies. And while some proposed initiatives of the Trump administration are not likely to happen, the increased enforcement of the executive order to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities is.
In Michigan, the state legislature is considering passing a similar bill that would cut sanctuary cities out of tax sharing plans. Despite the funding threat, the liberal state capital of Lansing is still considering declaring themselves a sanctuary city.
VICE News correspondent Evan McMorris-Santoro reports from Lansing, where there is widespread support for a resolution but the severity of that resolution is dividing the liberal capital. Protocols already in place already qualify them as a sanctuary city, but some want it in writing to affirm their commitment.
This segment originally aired Feb. 16, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
During the ISIS occupation of Mosul over the last two years, many schools in Mosul had remained open, but taught a curriculum designed by ISIS. As the city is gradually liberated: schools and teachers are now able to teach freely again, and their students are ready to catch up.
VICE News meets with Mosul’s returning teachers to discuss the rehabilitation of education after life under ISIS.
Congressional Republicans have faced angry protests during their first Trump-era town halls. At meeting after meeting across the country over the past few weeks, constituents have turned out in droves to grill their representatives about immigration, Obamacare, climate change, education, jobs and Russia.
By packing auditoriums and preparing tip sheets for audience members, liberals are adopting Tea Party tactics from eight years ago. In response, most congressional Republicans aren’t scheduling in-person town halls this recess.
Here are some highlights from these town hall showdowns.
Hear from the VICE crew behind “Inside Assad’s Syria” about one scene the cameras didn’t catch: a car crash on the road out of Aleppo, just kilometers from ISIS positions.
The season premiere of VICE on HBO, including Isobel Yeung’s full report from Syria, is available now.
Photojournalist Peter van Agtmael considers his third book, Buzzing at the Sill, the latest chapter of what he calls "one greater book"—a sweeping exploration of the September 11th attacks and the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on soldiers and their families. His project began with his 2009 book, 2nd Tour, Hope I Don't Die, and continued with Disco Night Sept. 11, which appeared in 2014. In Buzzing at the Sill, published by Kehrer Verlag, he shifts his attention to unexplored corners the United States, after he realized "how little I know about my country."
The Magnum photographer first went to Iraq in 2006 when he was 24, and he covered the conflicts there and in Afghanistan for several years before returning to the States. With 72 images pulled from his journalism assignments and others he shot while traveling throughout the country, Buzzing at the Sill examines the reverberations of 9/11 through glimpses of daily American life that often have the intimate feel of a snapshot. The photos in Buzzing at the Sill depict vulnerable, grieving, celebrating, and sometimes threatening Americans, collectively offering a cohesive and sharp reading of the country, with a powerful undercurrent of alienation. "In America, we somehow feel immune," he writes in Buzzing at the Sill, "but in any country at war, the first thing they'll tell you is that they didn't think it could happen there."
I talked with van Agtmael about making this book and what it might say about the political climate in the United States today.Kentucky Derby aftermath. (Louisville, KY. 2015)
Mother Jones: Can you tell me about the title, Buzzing at the Sill?
Peter van Agtmael: Buzzing at the Sill is from a Theodore Roethke poem called "In a Dark Time." I'd heard a small part of it in a play, a sort of sci-fi play about morality in a virtual reality universe. Nothing to do with the book precisely, but it was a great play. I read the poem afterwards because I was intrigued and had one of those strange senses: "This poem is kind of important to me. I don't know why, but I'm going to just keep it in the back of my mind." I just kept coming back to it. As I started putting the book together and writing the stories for it, this idea of buzzing as a word kept popping up in my brain.
I started the book with [the story] of a vulture that flapped up to this window sill outside of a burn ward at a military hospital in Texas. I guess it could smell the rotting flesh through the walls and was just trying to desperately and aggressively get in through that window, I don't know, to try and feast on the flesh. It was really a troubling moment. But apparently it happens all the time, because the soldiers in recovery and the nurses were totally accustomed to the presence of those vultures.
When I started thinking of the decisions that led me down the road first—which was part of Disco Night Sept. 11 and then the buzzing being— I somehow couldn't ignore the urge to do things that kind of defy logic. And I liked the poem, I liked the ring of it. I was sitting with David Allan Harvey one day when he pointed out how appropriate the title was for the things I was talking about.
MJ: In what way do you see that Buzzing at the Sill continues the narrative you built with Disco Night?
PVA: I went out to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fundamentally because I was interested in war as a notion and in experiencing it. I was interested in history and how societies form. I was interested in the recent history of what had provoked these wars. So when I finally got out there, I was really seeing the wars through the American perspective, much more than through being embedded with American soldiers and Marines. I realized in that process how little I knew about my own country. I had grown up in the suburbs and, after college, I moved out of the country, so I didn't really know the place well. When I started following soldiers and their families back home, it provoked a lot of the questions about who we are as a nation, questions I realized couldn't be explored through the more limited framework of looking at the military at war and at home. So that inspired these trips [in which] I began to explore America in more general terms. I really started this work in 2009. I got the bulk of it done as I was easing out of Disco Night. I started them as almost concurrent projects.A woman attending the annual Iowa GOP Ronald Reagan dinner, where Sarah Palin gave the keynote speech. (Des Moines, Iowa, 2010) The Fourth of July. (Brooklyn, New York, 2010) The KKK had boasted that dozens from their Klan chapter would attend the rally and cross burning, but there were only a few people when we showed up, including a British TV crew and a freelance photographer. (Maryland, 2015) Outside Lyniece Nelson's house. Nelson's 19-year-old daughter, Shelly Hilliard (known as "Treasure"), was strangled, dismembered, and set on fire in 2011. Treasure was a transgender teen born Henry Hilliard Jr. The family is with Treasure's urn. (Detroit, Michigan, 2012)
MJ: What was your thinking as you approached putting together this body of work? The photos feel like they're pieced together from assignments or from different stories.
PVA: At first it wasn't meant to be a book, although I'm always thinking about that in the back of my mind. It started off as a series of exploratory road trips that I was doing with Christian Hansen, who I dedicated the book to. Then I started getting some assignments to go shoot in America because I think editors liked the pictures I was taking. What I was doing for those assignments wasn't always directly tied to what I was doing for myself, but it gave me the space to photograph. I started getting assignments that dealt with my own interests and made some pictures in that direction. A lot of it was just photographed through general exploration. It was sometimes provoked by assignments, then I'd go back on my own dime if I really clicked with a place. And sometimes it was just hanging out with my family or friends.
MJ: How did you approach the editing? How were you going to tie the pictures together?
PVA: I'm a constant editor. Every few months or so I make a ton of 4x6 prints. I put them on a magnetic board and I live with them for a while to see what bubbles to the surface. A lot of this was part of Disco Night originally, and I suddenly started realizing, "If I keep working on this because I'm not done and I put all that in Disco Night, how can this be one book? Is it going to be too long and bloated and crazy?" Then I started thinking, "Okay, I have so many other questions about America, when do I stop?" I started thinking about each book being a chapter in one bigger book and that gave me the space to cut it off at a certain point. I needed to have some kind of thematic focus to the work.
I was taking all these prints and I brought them to the Magnum meetings, trying the old Josef Koudelka trick: Give them to photographers, who are getting bored during the talks about the economics of the agency, to look through with a pen. They'll separate them in two piles—what they like and what they don't like—and put their initials on the back. I started to find the core pictures that people seem to relate to. I'd ask myself why? And did I relate to them? Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't. But it gave me an idea of how other people were seeing the work. From there, I kept shooting but started making drafts of the work, essentially spending a few days a month sequencing and editing, hanging things up on the board, showing them to trusted confidantes from in and outside the photo world. It started to take its shape naturally over time until I kind of ran out of ideas. At that point I was like, "Okay, I guess it's a book."After dinner at Lyniece Nelson's house. One of Nelson's children was murdered, one committed suicide shortly after his 16th birthday. Her house burned down not long after the death of her son, destroying the urns of both her deceased children. (Detroit, Michigan, 2012) Hunting rabbits with BB guns. (The outskirts of New Orleans, Louisiana, 2009) Iraqi refugees in a low-income housing community in Portland. The area is home to several thousand Iraqi refugees. (Portland, Oregon, 2015)
MJ: When you're out on these road trips, do you still see reverberations from 9/11 in the country?
PVA: Constantly. You find them in them most unexpected places, like graffiti on a wall. Sometimes it's a faded picture; sometimes it's a newspaper tacked to a wall. Sometimes it's weird paraphernalia related to it, home constructed paraphernalia. It resonates through society and continues to resonate today. The travel ban that was imposed by the administration is a very direct reverberation of 9/11. Even though most people were disconnected from it, the moment amplified a fairly massive and somewhat irrational fear that exists in the populace at large. And I think a lot of the work I've done and a lot of the work I'm going to do in the future still ties to 9/11 and the fallout from it.
MJ: In the text you've written for both Disco Night September 11 and Buzzing at the Sill, you are introspective about covering war. Do you still cover conflict?
PVA: I am still covering conflict to some degree. I was back in Iraq last year for the next book I'm working on. I've covered quite a bit of the Israel and Palestine conflict in the last five years for another book I'm working on. But I'm not doing it with the kind of intensity I was before and I'm not seeking out the front line and the kind danger that comes with being at the edge of the war the way I used to. It just kind of ran its course for me. For a long time I could justify doing it to myself, no matter how irrational it was. It was important to me and my work. And I just don't feel it in the same way any more. When it comes up and it's important to me, I'll do it, but more out of sense of duty than desire—which used to be a big part of it.
MJ: When we started talking, you mentioned that Buzzing at the Sill reflects the times, the current situation in America. Can you explain what you meant?
PVA: It deals with the margins of America, a lot of parts unseen. Well, parts that are seen and familiar to a lot of the populace, but unseen when it comes to the parameters of what mainstream news and popular culture and Hollywood reflects. That kind of unease, that melancholy, is of course partly my interpretation, but partly, I think, it's something that's really there as well. It resonates with this moment and the sort of alienation from the power structure a lot of people feel, as well as a certain amount of desperation, in the hope of disrupting the power structure so they can live better lives. I think in those ways, it's intimately connected to today.The youngest children tending the horses. (Pine Ridge, South Dakota, 2011) A "second line parade" is a local African American tradition where brass bands–known as the first line-march in the streets and are joined by members of the public, the "second liners." (New Orleans, Louisiana, 2012)
All photos by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos, from his book Buzzing at the Sill.
Jackie Chan flicks are no longer the only place where you've seen an Asian or Asian American actor play a meaty role onscreen in the US: On TV, they've appeared in trail-blazing shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, and The Mindy Project. Director Jon M. Chu wants to assemble an all-Asian cast for a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians, making it one of the first films from an American studio to do so in years.
But the demographic still remains one of the most invisible groups in the media. In 2014, more than half of films and TV shows had no speaking or named roles for Asian characters, according to a recent study by the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. Controversies over the whitewashing of Asian characters took center stage last year, with several prominent actors and producers speaking out. For instance, the creators of Ghost in the Shell, a film adapted from a Japanese manga and anime film, faced backlash after casting Scarlett Johansson, a white actress, as the lead Japanese character.
Melissa Powers and Matthew Eng, both 23 year-old NYU graduates, decided they'd had enough of the whitewashing. Last year, they began producing Asian Oscar Bait, a podcast entirely devoted to Asian stories that, they argue, deserve to be on everyone's television. The podcast has gotten a few nods from indie publications and it caught my eye for the specificity of its approach: In each episode, Powers and Eng take a story about Asians or Asian Americans and pitch it as a film, suggesting actors, directors, and even writers who could possibly take on the work.
The podcast retells lesser known stories in history, such as Fred Korematsu vs. United States, a Supreme Court case in which a Japanese man, Fred Korematsu refused to go to an internment camp in 1942. Another episode, "The Donut King," digs into the story of Bun Tek "Ted" Ngoy, a Cambodian refugee who made a fortune selling donuts in California, until he lost everything—a "Wolf of Wall Street meets Krispy Kreme" kind of tale, says Powers. The podcast is a response to the notion that there aren't enough Asian directors or actors in Hollywood, she says. "Our tagline is: There are no excuses."
I spoke with the Eng and Powers to get their take on Asian representation at the 2017 Academy Awards.
Mother Jones: What got you interested in Asian representation and diversity?
Melissa Powers: I am Singaporean American, but I grew up in China. I never realized there was a lack of Asian representation in media until I came to the US for university. One moment in particular stuck out me: I was watching Tomb Raider 2, which is a very mediocre film, but there's a scene where Gerard Butler interrogates a family of Chinese fishermen and speaks to them in Chinese. Obviously his accent is terrible, but I just replayed that scene over and over because I was like, "Oh my God, someone is speaking Chinese in a big Hollywood film." I just watched it for hours. That really showed me how starved I was for Asian representation, without actually realizing it at the time.
Matthew Eng: I'm half-Chinese—my dad grew up in America and is Chinese—and I don't look Chinese at all, but it's a part of my background, undeniably so. While I was in a screenwriting course and producing my own screenplays for class, I began to notice this inclination to create characters who were always white. That's not an accurate representation of the world I grew up in or the types of stories I think should be told, but it was something I tended to do anyway.
Going off of that, I became more attuned to the film industry and the entertainment world. I began to notice that whenever an Asian actor would appear in a film, they would only be playing roles that could only be played by Asian actors, and those roles weren't necessarily the meatiest parts of the films or TV show.
MJ: You tackle the Oscars in one of your episodes. How was representation this year when it comes to Asians?
MP: Atrocious! Ai-Ling Lee is the first Asian woman to be nominated for sound editing for La La Land, which is cool, but at the same time, Dev Patel is one of the very few Asian people ever to be nominated for an acting role in Lion. It's very distressing. But hopefully it won't be worse than last year's Oscars with Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen making fun of those poor Chinese kids.
If you consider Iranian people to be Asian, which I do, though not everyone does, Asghar Farhadi is nominated for best foreign language film for The Salesman. He won't come into the US because of the Muslim ban, and I think he says he plans not to. I think his absence will be felt and I hope people will acknowledge that.
ME: Dev Patel is fairly good in Lion, but I think there's a lot of other Asian actors who I would have liked to see get nominated. It really fucking boggles me that Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden was not nominated in any technical categories, when that film could not be any more pristine a piece of filmmaking. The actress, Kim Min-Hee, is totally phenomenal. In an ideal world, her performance would be an Oscar contender.
I also talk about Andrew Ahn's independent film Spa Night a lot, which is a story about an Asian man's queer sexuality. It's something I've never seen portrayed before with that remarkable detail and attention. But it's not going to be on the radar of Oscar voters.Melissa and Matthew with their producer, Caroline Pinto. Asian Oscar Bait
MJ: So what Asian films should have been at the Oscars this year?
MP: We're both in agreement that The Handmaiden should have been there. But in the future, I'd like to see the Academy's be more generous towards genre films like sci-fi and horror, because I think those genres tend to be places where people of color get to do more in the role.
ME: The Handmaiden is my number one egregious absence from the Academy. But there's another film that came out last year called Dheepan by Jacques Audiard. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes but completely disappeared when it came to the States. It's about a Sri Lankan couple who are refugees, and find this young French girl and pose as a family to get into France. It really reflects the times, and the performance by this first-time actress, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, is just beyond words for me. If an American director made this story, it would have received a modicum of attention. There's amazing cinematic craftsmanship that's going on in all corners of the world, and you just have to look beyond your backyard.
MJ: If you could make one of your episodes into a film, which episode would that be, and why? And how likely would that story get an Oscar nomination?
MP: I think the Fred Korematsu story would be a shoo-in for an Oscar nom. However, the one I'd be more interested in seeing is the Mazher Mahmood story. His name is going to be familiar to most Brits—he was a tabloid journalist involved in a ton of scandalous stories for News of the World, and is currently in jail for tampering with evidence.
He's the kind of anti-hero that enthralls Hollywood critics and audiences. Think of Wolf of Wall Street—you have drugs, celebrities, and this razor sharp focus with being number one. At the same time, his story has more than a traditional rise and fall narrative. Mahmood has a strange relationship with his own background (British Pakistani) that no one seems to address. Even though he grew up amongst South Asians, he consistently used his minority status to put other people of color at ease and weasel stories from them, usually putting them in jail in the process. There was an incident where he collected buses of illegal immigrants under the guise of giving them jobs, and instead drove them straight to a detention center. As an Asian person, it really amazes me that he could betray "us" like that.
We don't really see this kind of betrayal onscreen. In fact, we rarely see Asian antiheroes onscreen. This would easily score Best Actor, Best Screenplay (Mahmood has a book so possibly Best Adapted Screenplay), and potentially Best Director. This would require a minority screenwriter and director, to navigate how Mahmood used and abused the fact that he was an Asian man. And I'm just saying, Riz Ahmed needs that Oscar vehicle.
ME: I would definitely love to see Merle Oberon's story, chronicled in our second episode, as the basis of a film. It's such a fascinating, eye-opening, and totally dramatic story of lifelong deception, but it also intersects with the golden age of Hollywood history, making it the type of film the Academy loves to honor any chance it gets. Oberon concealed her half-Indian origins in order to attain cinematic stardom in the 1930s, concocting an entire back story that involved a false upbringing in Tasmania and forcing her Indian mother to pose as her live-in maid in order to ward off any suspicions from her famous friends and consorts. Insane, right?
That being said, I'm not sure it would score any nominations beyond Best Actress for whoever plays Oberon (and, I don't know, possibly a costume nomination) because the Academy has an annoying tendency of under-rewarding films that could traditionally be described as a "women's picture," meaning any movie that puts a woman at its forefront.
Even so, I would love to see this movie made and, preferably, with an actual Indian actress playing Oberon. If this actress were nominated, she would become only the second Asian performer to ever receive a Best Actress nomination. The only other Asian nominee in this category happens to be Oberon herself, for 1935's Dark Angel, which means that yes, the only Asian woman ever nominated for Best Actress in Oscars' nearly ninety year history didn't even want people to know she was Asian! You truly can't make this stuff up.
Politico has gotten its hands on a leaked copy of a Republican health care plan. It's a discussion draft of a bill that's a couple of weeks old, but it still provides a good idea of what Republicans are thinking these days. Here's my summary of Sarah Kliff's summary:
- Good news: Compared to previous plans, it's better on pre-existing conditions; more generous in its funding of high-risk pools; generally cheaper for young people; and includes bigger tax credits than earlier Republican plans.
- Neutral news: Loosens the list of "essential" benefits for all plans. This is generally better for healthy people and worse for sick people.
- Bad news: Eliminates Medicaid expansion; cuts Medicaid funding; is terrible for the poor; and is far more expensive for older workers.
There's other stuff (all Obamacare taxes are repealed, for example, which is great news for the rich), but I submit to you that these are pesky details. There's really only one big thing that matters: how much the program costs.
Obamacare spends roughly $100 billion per year on subsidies to make health coverage affordable for the poor, and even at that premiums are too high for many people and deductibles are too high for almost everyone. Handwaving aside, there's no way to produce a plan that's even remotely useful with any less funding than Obamacare. That's just reality.
If the funding is sufficient, we can all have a good time arguing over continuous coverage penalties, age ratios, essential benefits, and all that. If the funding is insufficient, it's all just whistling in the wind.
Rumor has it that an outline of this plan was already submitted to the Congressional Budget Office, and the score they returned was so horrific that it never saw the light of day. So when Republicans do finally release a bill and a CBO score, just turn immediately to the section that estimates the ten-year cost. If it's substantially less than a trillion dollars, you can skip the rest.
Remember those seven countries that President Trump singled out for a travel ban? He asked the Department of Homeland Security to check them out and explain why they deserved to be on a no-entry list. Here's what he got:
Oops. "Rarely implicated" means a grand total of six people out of 82. That's one per year since 2011. And not one terrorist plot per year, either. One "terrorism related offense" per year. In many of these cases, it's probably a material support charge for sending a hundred bucks to some warlord back home.
This comes via the AP, which got this comment:
Homeland Security spokeswoman Gillian Christensen on Friday did not dispute the report's authenticity, but said it was not a final comprehensive review of the government's intelligence.
"While DHS was asked to draft a comprehensive report on this issue, the document you're referencing was commentary from a single intelligence source versus an official, robust document with thorough interagency sourcing," Christensen said. "The ... report does not include data from other intelligence community sources. It is incomplete."
I have a feeling that once the "interagency sourcing" is finished, there might be a different spin on these numbers. This is very definitely not what the boss wants to hear.
NPR’s institutional compulsion to find “both sides” of every topic ill-equips them to deal with the unique challenge of the Trump administration, as FAIR has noted previously—with NPR’s refusal to describe lies as “lies” (1/26/17) and its reliance on increasingly far-right think tanks to defend the far-right president (2/7/17). This problem is again on display in a piece by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre (2/18/17) that dubiously describes Trump’s foreign policy approach as “restrained”:
US Rivals Test Trump, and So Far the Response Is Restrained
Myre began by framing weapon tests and military exercises—of the sort that would be considered utterly unremarkable if carried out by US armed forces—as deliberate and overt acts of aggression aimed at testing Trump, because they were performed by official enemy states:
Iran tested a ballistic missile barely a week into Donald Trump’s presidency. North Korea then shot off a missile of its own. A Russian warship has been hanging out about 30 miles off the US East Coast, and Moscow’s fighter jets recently buzzed a US warship in the Black Sea.
That these acts were both unusual and provocative was never questioned; it’s simply asserted, so that the US, per usual, can be positioned as the party responding to threats rather than the one making them:
President Trump has been in office less than a month, and US adversaries have already tested him on several fronts. So far, Trump’s responses have been out of the traditional foreign policy playbook, and he’s largely refrained from the bluster of his campaign, when he threatened radical action against a host of rivals—and even some allies….
Yet in his first few weeks, Trump has opted for limited, moderate responses to events that had the potential to escalate.
Here NPR uses “traditional foreign policy playbook” interchangeably with “moderate,” the implication being that the baseline aggressiveness of US foreign policy seen under Barack Obama, George W. Bush and earlier presidents was not blustering or extreme.
“What gives the US the right to determine the missile capacity of other countries?” is not a question NPR would ever busy itself with. But even granting the US’s inalienable right to involve itself in the affairs of these countries, the piece veers into outright spin for the Trump White House:
After the ballistic missile test by Iran, the Trump administration added additional sanctions to 25 individuals and companies, which was seen as a modest response. Trump tweeted that “Iran was playing with fire.”
But since taking office, the president has not yet given any indication that he will tear up the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as he promised to do during the campaign.
Left unmentioned is the fact that, according to NPR’s own reporting, Iran did not violate the Iran nuclear deal. Also left unmentioned was then–National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s blustering press conference where he put Iran “on notice.” Myre asserts that Trump’s response was “seen as a modest response,” but doesn’t say by whom. Certainly not by the Iranians, who called Trump “an extremist” and responded with further military drills. Or by the Washington Post (2/2/17), for that matter, which described Trump’s first week of US/Iran relations as marked by “taunts and threats.”
Nor is there discussion of Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority nations, which Iran also saw as an act of aggression, so much so that it—along with Iraq, the US’s supposed partner against ISIS—banned Americans from traveling to their countries in return. This, according to Myre, is all very “restrained.”
The NPR story mentions the US-backed Yemen catastrophe, but only in the context of the botched January 29 raid, which it euphemistically says had “mixed and disputed results,” without mentioning that those results included the death of an eight-year-old girl—a US citizen—and dozens of other civilians (though the linked article does, ten paragraphs down).
NPR glosses over the January raid by insisting it was “planned during Barack Obama’s final days” (again, that which is bipartisan must therefore be normal and moderate and good) but even this is misleading. Lots of things are “planned” by the military; whether a president greenlights them depends upon their disposition and, yes, restraint. Members of Obama’s inner circle have denied “planning” such a raid at all.
The piece continues:
The US military campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have remained on the same trajectory that Trump inherited from Obama, though the new president has ordered a revamped plan for the battle against the Islamic State.
Again, the wisdom of the CIA’s billion-dollar-a-year fueling of the Syrian conflict is never examined, nor is the decade-and-a-half-long occupation of Afghanistan. These are all routine, normal, moderate—out of the “foreign policy playbook.”
This recap of Trump’s foreign policy “restraint” likewise excludes Trump’s greenlight for Israel to ramp up of settlements in the West Bank, and his abandonment of decades of US support for a two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict—radical departures from the “traditional foreign policy playbook” that are ignored by Myre.
Other actions not typically associated with “restraint” that are missing from this piece: Trump hanging up on the president of Australia and threatening to invade Mexico.
Never mind; NPR’s main focus appears to be reassuring the listener that on the topic of Russia and the broader operation of American empire, things are mostly back to normal. If Trump’s foreign policy involves support for the total colonization of Palestine, increased tensions with Iran, further bombing and starving of Yemeni civilians and veiled threats to Mexico—well, those are the sort of things that happen on the margins of empire, and don’t really register on NPR’s “restraint” radar.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.
The New York Times (2/23/17) cited FAIR in its obituary of longtime Fox News host Alan Colmes:
The media watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting harrumphed, “If the Harlem Globetrotters have the Washington Generals as their nightly fall guys, Sean Hannity has Alan Colmes.”
The piece that “harrumphed” about Colmes was Steve Rendall’s “An Aggressive Conservative vs. a ‘Liberal to Be Determined'” (Extra!, 11–12/03).
The Department of Homeland Security announced Friday that it will soon begin soliciting bids "for the design and build of several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico." Bidding begins March 6. The official posting says the administration will select the companies to potentially build the new structure sometime in April.
The solicitation appears to correspond to President Trump's highly publicized pledge to build a new border wall along the US-Mexico border. "We're going to build a wall, don't worry about it," Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. "We're building the wall. We're building the wall. In fact, it's going to start soon. Way ahead of schedule, way ahead of schedule."
The official post soliciting bids for the border wall is available online here.February 24, 2017
Donald Trump’s recent comments lamenting a nonexistent terrorist attack in Sweden have put the Scandinavian country’s crime rate into the global spotlight. But while the terrorist incident might not have happened and the crime rate in Sweden has only been rising modestly, one city there does have a real problem with gang violence.
Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, has seen a spike in shootings this year already; and given Sweden’s reputation as a refugee-friendly nation, many commentators have been quick to point a finger. And now, hysteria from both the Left and the Right is overshadowing the facts.
VICE News went to speak to some of those caught up in the violence in Malmö.
The weather has been lovely this week, and Hilbert is spending lots of quality time up on the patio cover. He's gotten pretty adept at scooting up and down the access tree, but he still whines a lot when he wants to come down, hoping that someone will come out and lift him off. I used to fall for this until the third or fourth time that he came over to me and then scampered off as soon as I put up my hands. Ha ha ha. Fooled the human again.
Hilbert is also anxious for everyone to know that he has a college named after him too. Also a local art museum. Plus a summer camp, a village in Wisconsin and its accompanying high school, a lake, and a theater. So there.
CNN and other news organizations were blocked Friday from a White House press briefing....The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Politico were also excluded from the meeting, which is known as a gaggle and is less formal than the televised Q-and-A session in the White House briefing room.
The Associated Press and Time magazine boycotted the briefing because of how it was handled. The White House Correspondents Association is protesting.
The conservative media organizations Breitbart News, The Washington Times and One America News Network were allowed in.
A few days ago, there was some talk about whether Trump would slow-walk federal disaster relief for the Oroville Dam area. As it turned out, he didn't, but the possibility was taken seriously for a while.
This is what makes the Trump presidency so unpredictable. No modern president would even think of taking revenge on a state that voted against him by refusing disaster aid. No modern president would dream of evicting news outlets from a press briefing because they had criticized him. No modern president would lie about easily checkable facts on a routine basis. No modern president would loudly cite every positive bit of economic news as a personal triumph. No modern president since Nixon would casually ask the FBI to take its side in an ongoing investigation.
It's not that modern presidents couldn't do these things. They just didn't. And we all came to assume that none of them would. The technical machinery of government—collecting data, hiring staffers, working by the rules—would be left alone to operate in a professional and impartial way. But that's no longer something we can assume.
Trump is going to find lots of things like this. Things that nobody ever thought of before, but aren't illegal. Or maybe just slightly illegal. And he's going to use them to demagogue his enemies and take revenge on people who badmouth him. Fasten your seat belts.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has made it crystal-clear that Americans should expect an anti-marijuana crackdown under the Trump administration, sending Canadian weed stocks into a brief tailspin early Friday.
Responding to a question regarding the state-federal conflict of marijuana regulation at Thursday’s daily news briefing, Spicer said there would be “greater enforcement” of federal laws when it comes to the recreational use of marijuana, a sharp pivot from the Obama administration’s approach to dealing with the illegal consumption of marijuana.
Canadian weed stocks then went into a tizzy, despite their relative strength in the last few months in anticipation of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to legalize recreational weed altogether.
Spicer said there would be “greater enforcement” of federal laws when it comes to the recreational use of marijuana.
Canopy Growth Corp., North America’s biggest medical marijuana producer, saw its stock lose 80 cents a share— a 6 percent decline — in the early trading hours of Friday morning, while Aphria Inc., another Ontario-based medical marijuana grower, saw its stock price decline by 2 percent as of 2 p.m. Friday. Canna Royalty, one of North America’s biggest investors in the weed sector also saw its stock decline by about 3 percent.
So why are Canadian weed companies reacting to an American crackdown of the weed sector?
There are currently eight American states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized recreational marijuana — 20 more have legalized weed for medical use. In fact, analysts estimate that the U.S. market for recreational marijuana could potentially be more than twice the size of Canada’s. Any kind of regulation that might reduce the long-term potential of Canadian weed producers to capitalize on the recreational U.S. market has a negative impact on weed stocks.
“Recreational weed dreams of many investors are up in smoke.”
Canadian weed companies also have investments in the U.S. Last October, for instance, Aphria entered into an intellectual property agreement with Arizona-based Copperstate Farms, a high-tech Dutch-style greenhouse facility in Snowflake, Arizona — one of the largest marijuana growing facilities in the West Coast.
CannaRoyalty also has big plays in the U.S. — it owns a portfolio of 18 marijuana companies, 15 of which are south of the border. Right now, CannaRoyalty remains the sole option for Canadian weed investors to have access to the U.S. recreational marijuana market.
“Recreational weed dreams of many investors are up in smoke, in my view. Sessions AG will probably enforce federal prohibition against cannabis,” wrote Chris Damas, of BCMI Research, in a note this morning.
His advice when it comes to investing in weed stocks in the short run? “Stand aside.”
Week 5, in one sentence: Donald Trump held a rally in Florida, where he declared the press his enemy— again; alluded to a terror attack in Sweden that never happened, based on a Fox News segment; appointed a new national security adviser after Michael Flynn resigned last week; saw his EPA chief under fire after newly released emails detailed his more-than-cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry; finally condemned a growing surge of anti-Semitism in the U.S.; tweeted that “so-called angry crowds” at Republican town halls were “planned by liberal activists”; revoked Obama-era guidance on protections for transgender students; delayed a new immigration ban until next week; and defended his First Amendment right to bash the press at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC).Behind enemy lies
Day 30 — Feb. 18: Trump kicked off his bid for reelection in 2020 with a rally in Melbourne, Florida, where he called the crowd his “friends” and framed the press as his enemy.
“They’re part of the corrupt system,” Trump said. “When the media lies to the people, I will never ever let them get away with it.”
During the same rally, Trump vaguely alluded to a terror attack in Sweden that didn’t happen. “We’ve got to keep our country safe,” Trump said. “You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.”
Trump’s time in Florida also marked the third trip since inauguration to his luxury resort Mar-a-Lago, where he exposed national security secrets to diners at the private club just last week. Trump’s favoring of Mar-a-Lago over Camp David for government business — in addition to his family’s travel habits, often for business related to the Trump Organization — is costing taxpayers a fortune.That time when nothing happened in Sweden
Day 31 — Feb. 19: The president tried to clarify his comments about Sweden by tweeting that they were a reference to a Fox News story he’d seen — most likely one featuring a clip from a documentary about alleged violence committed by refugees in the country.
The Department of Homeland Security drafted two new memos that signal increased deportation efforts against undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Fringe conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told the New York Times that he sometimes speaks to Trump on the phone. Jones repeatedly pushes bizarre theories proven to be false, such as calling the 2014 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which killed 26 people, a “false flag” that didn’t happen.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus also doubled down on Trump’s statement that the news media are the enemy of the American people.National security adviser: Round 2
Day 32 — Feb. 20: Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his next national security adviser. Michael Flynn resigned from the job last week after admitting he misled Vice President Mike Pence and discussed sanctions with Russia before Trump took office.*** VICE News’ Coverage
Day 33 — Feb. 21: The Oklahoma attorney general’s office released more than 7,500 emails and other records that detailed a close relationship between Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt, the state’s former attorney general, and the fossil fuel industry. Pruitt routinely collaborated with oil and gas companies, even allowing one of them to edit his emails. The Senate confirmed Pruitt as the EPA chief last week despite efforts by Democrats to stall the approval until the emails were released.
Trump finally addressed a growing wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. Eleven Jewish community centers received bomb threats the day before, and a historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was desecrated the previous weekend. Trump called the events “a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”
The New York Times also reported Tuesday that the Trump administration’s move to reduce two key advisers’ role on the National Security Council was essentially the result of an editing mistake.Trump rescinds transgender protections
Day 34 — Feb. 22: Trump’s administration rescinded Obama’s guidance to schools that transgender students’ bathroom choices were protected under Title IX. The decision was immediately met by harsh criticism from lawmakers, educators, and LGBTQ advocates. Trump had pledged to protect American LGBTQ citizens during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July.
The White House said it would briefly postpone issuing a new immigration order meant to replace Trump’s controversial executive order that has been blocked by federal courts. The new executive order is scheduled to drop sometime next week.
Voter anger boiled over at yet another Republican town hall. Constituents booed and interrupted Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, chanting “Do your job!” and “Tax returns!” Many Republicans are skipping town halls this month to avoid made-for-TV confrontations in the Trump era. In a tweet addressing the recent conflicts at Republican town halls, Trump said the “so-called angry crowds” are “planned out by liberal activists.”Making private prisons great again
Day 35 — Feb. 23: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he intends to undo an Obama-era decision to phase out federal use of private prisons, helping prison stocks continue their meteoric rise since Trump’s election.
A number of top Trump administration officials, including Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, Kellyanne Conway, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon, appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.
Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and one of the president’s most controversial appointees, made a rare public speaking appearance. At CPAC, he railed against media coverage of Trump.
“It’s going to get worse every day for the media,” Bannon said.The intelligence war continues
Day 36 — Feb. 24: The president woke up Friday and took a shot at the FBI, tweeting that the intelligence agency is “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government.”
As with many of Trump’s early-morning tweets, it came on the heels of a CNN report he probably didn’t like. The report claimed the FBI had knocked back a White House request to publicly refute reports in the media that the agency was investigating communications that took place between Trump’s associates and Russia during the 2016 election campaign.
Trump also gave a vigorous defense of his First Amendment right to bash the “fake news media” in a speech at to CPAC.The week in POTUS tweets:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2017
Very much enjoyed my tour of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture…A great job done by amazing people!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2017
Seven people shot and killed yesterday in Chicago. What is going on there – totally out of control. Chicago needs help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2017
‘Ajit Pai Wants to Shut Down the Way We Communicate and Organize’ - CounterSpin interview with Jessica Gonzalez on Trump's FCC
Janine Jackson interviewed Jessica Gonzalez about new FCC chair Ajit Pai for the February 17, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Regulators who don’t much believe in regulation are looking like a hallmark of the Trump administration. What does that mean for the access to communication and information that’s critical to our daily lives? The newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, doesn’t want to actually eliminate the agency, as far as we know, but what does his record suggest for his term leading what’s meant to be the public’s advocate in the communications realm? Jessica Gonzalez is deputy director and senior counsel at the group Free Press. She joins us now by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jessica Gonzalez.
Jessica Gonzalez: Thank you.
JJ: Like the new administration overall, Ajit Pai has come out of the box with a flurry of things. A number of them came out on a Friday, and sort of went under the radar. I would like to start, though, with the digital divide, which is not a thing of the past, as many people may think. There are still many who, for reasons of locality or of affordability, cannot get reliable internet access. Now, Ajit Pai, I understand, has said that the digital divide is a “top priority” for him. Is that convincing?
JG: I think with Ajit Pai, much like his boss at the White House, we need to really watch what he does and not what he says. He’s talking a really good game on digital divide, but when you look at his history, and also his plans for the future, it tells a very different story. If you look just going back into his past, because he has been on the Commission for many years now, we know that he voted against Lifeline Modernization, and that proceeding is set to bring broadband to millions of poor Americans. He also voted against E-Rate Modernization, to help bring faster internet speeds and internet connections to schools and libraries in poor neighborhoods.
And when you look at what he’s done since he’s been the chairman, he’s spelled out a comprehensive plan that he says will bridge the digital divide, but in fact what it is is tax breaks for wealthy companies to build and to overbuild high-speed internet across the country. And this does not address the main barrier to broadband adoption for poor Americans, which is the high cost of the services. And so he’s worked to undermine Lifeline, which is the only federal program that helps make home broadband access more affordable, and he’s voted against arming schools and libraries with affordable broadband.
Not only that, in the sweeping order that you mentioned in the intro—the Friday news dump, if you will—he actually took a specific action to undercut the efforts of nine companies that were preparing to provide Lifeline broadband services for poor folks. So his actions tell a very different story, and I don’t believe that he has a sincere commitment to bridging the affordability gap.
JJ: Let me just ask you about Lifeline. That is a federal program that basically just offers—it’s like ten bucks or something. Can you explain just a little bit for folks who don’t know what Lifeline is?
JG: Sure. Lifeline has been around since 1985. Actually, a few years back, I was personally on the Lifeline program, and it helped me connect to job opportunities, and helped me to actually communicate with the financial aid office at my law school. And so it really is, like it was for me, it has been a pathway already for millions of Americans. And what happened in 2016 is that the FCC modernized the program for the digital age, and made the $10 subsidy available for broadband services.
And this is incredibly important. Our schoolchildren across the country are being asked to learn online, of course. There are tons of services and job applications; something like 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies accept job applications online only. And so being without the internet puts folks at an incredible disadvantage. And this is something people who are already on the internet understand, but it’s also something studies show that people who are offline understand as well. And so we really need to close this divide at once.
JJ: I want to direct folks to a report that Free Press has done called Digital Denied.
Well, 16 years ago, I wrote about the then new FCC chair Michael Powell, and he had infamously said of the digital divide: “I think there’s a Mercedes divide. I’d like to have one; I can’t afford one.” He always claims he was taken out of context. He was actually perfectly clear in expressing his sentiment. And the idea is that it isn’t the government’s job to ensure equitable access to communications technology; you just let the market work its wonders.
Now, Ajit Pai I think is maybe too savvy to make that sort of joke, but the approach seems very similar. He’s talked about how the government shouldn’t intervene and muck up the internet. And there, of course, he’s talking about net neutrality, and that’s the largely democratic nature of internet access that’s absolutely crucial to, among other things, organizing. So let’s talk about net neutrality and what the concerns are on that front with Ajit Pai.
JG: Ajit Pai voted against net neutrality in 2015. He’s been very clear that he does not support the legal pathway that the FCC took to get there, and that he doesn’t think that the FCC needs to be involved in keeping the internet open and free. And I think pretty much any cable or broadband consumer understands that the free market is not working in this instance. Many of us have only one choice for how we get access to the internet. And we feel ripped off by our internet providers. We know that they have leverage in the relationship and it’s unfair, and that the government in this instance does have a role to play.
And wonderful things have happened on the internet under net neutrality. People of color who have not traditionally had a voice in mainstream media have been able to tell their own stories. We’ve been able to organize. We’ve been able to make a living. And it’s not just people of color; it’s democratizing the entire way that people share and get access to information.
So it’s incredibly crucial, especially as we resist this administration, that we have access to the tools that we need to communicate and organize. And I’m really concerned, frankly; there’s a pretty clear theme emerging from the Trump administration. We have his spokespeople telling the media to shut up, to not cover issues. We have them covering up facts. And then we have Ajit Pai at the FCC, who wants to undo net neutrality and shut down the way that we can communicate and organize. And so it’s a very troubling pattern, and I think we need to speak up and speak up loudly.
JJ: As the internet became so key to organizing, and as media became more understood as a political issue, the FCC kind of came into the spotlight. And the victory on net neutrality, of having the internet declared a public utility—and a federal court has upheld that—was seen as absolutely critical. And yet I also feel that it’s kind of under people’s radar; they don’t necessarily see it as an issue that will affect their ability to organize around healthcare, their ability to organize around policing. You know, media policy has often been a kind of difficult sell in terms of its activist meaning. If Ajit Pai now sort of says, well, Congress has to do everything; the FCC can’t actually do very much, what does that mean for organizing around media policy issues?
JG: Well, luckily, I do think that we’re reaching a critical mass on these issues. I mean, after the John Oliver piece that called out Tom Wheeler and urged him to reclassify the internet as a utility, like you said, we saw 4 million people sending comments to the FCC on a wonky, technical media policy issue. And that was amazing. That was the most comments that the FCC had seen since we saw Janet Jackson’s nipple at the Super Bowl.
So I do think there is a rising awareness about these issues. I think activists from all kinds of different movements—Black Lives Matter, this is part of their policy platform. We see these movements that are mobilizing largely online, and we see amazing organizations, like Color of Change and Presente.org and 18 Million Rising, that are using the internet to organize for immigration reform and for racial justice and so many other things. We see this rising awareness among activists and their followers that this is an issue that is important, and I’ve been really encouraged by the rising tide of activism. And I do believe—we need to continue talking about this, of course, but this is more, I think, in the public eye than it was a few years back, even.
JJ: Let me ask you about one activist victory that I know Free Press was involved in, and the Center for Media Justice and other folks. And that was to cut into the racket, essentially, that phone companies have with prisons. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what happened there, because people may not know. But then, also, is that victory also in danger?
JG: I’m sorry to say that the victory is in danger. So what happened was in 2013 and 2015, the FCC visited the issue of the exorbitant rates of prison phone calls, and the fact that some families were paying as much as $17 for a 15-minute call with their inmate or detainee relative. And not only that, that prisons were actually receiving kickbacks from some of these phone companies to exploit the prisoners and detainees. And so it was a really horrendous and despicable practice, and the FCC voted to cap fees that the prisons and the prison phone companies were charging.
And it was a huge victory that was challenged in court. Ajit Pai voted against Prison Phone Justice on two different instances, despite the fact that he acknowledged that this was an unjust system, and that the interests of prisons and prison phone companies may not necessarily align with the prisoners and the detainees. Yet he went ahead and filed a 20-page defense, and parroted the talking points of the prison phone companies. And so right now, the 2015 order is in litigation, and Ajit Pai has refused to defend it.
And so we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. He did allow an attorney on behalf of the activists a few minutes of oral argument, but it’s really up to the courts. And it’s very discouraging and disheartening, and I think it really goes back to the question of whether or not he is a legitimate advocate for poor and for people of color, who are disproportionately represented in the prison population.
JJ: I think that’s one of the areas that folks might not realize that the FCC could actually play a role in. They actually are involved in many things that folks may not know about, and one issue is that they’ve never been a terribly transparent agency. There are public comment periods when the FCC makes rules, but you kind of have to know about them. And another thing that Ajit Pai talked about was increasing the transparency of the work that the FCC does, but then, there again, there seems to be a gap between what he’s saying and what he’s doing. I mean, the pushing out of these orders on a Friday afternoon doesn’t seem to bode very well for the openness of the agency.
JG: I think you’ve put your finger right on the problem. It was just incredible to me, the doublespeak that happened in his first couple of weeks in office. He came out with a splash, saying that the agency needed to be more transparent, and then a few days later, basically taking a note from the Trump playbook, he had several of the bureaus underneath him issue executive-type orders on what’s called delegated authority.
And I have a list here, there’s actually nine different things that he did, but he closed an inquiry on zero rating, which is tied to net neutrality, and this was really just a fact-gathering initiative. He stopped nine companies from providing Lifeline service to their consumers. He killed some guidance on how the agency should look at media ownership limits. He killed an inquiry into flexible use of the electromagnetic spectrum. He rescinded a report on how to improve digital infrastructure. He rescinded an e-rate progress report. And so it’s incredible, he is getting rid of facts that may be inconvenient to his political agenda down the line. And these reports have absolutely no legal or political bearing, it’s just really facts that the agency can use to make reasoned decision-making.
The list goes on and on; I won’t go down, I guess, the laundry list. But it’s really disconcerting; this person is talking about transparency, and in the next breath he’s trying to dump a bunch of stuff that undermines consumer protection—all on a Friday afternoon.
JJ: Absolutely. And in fact, you mentioned that he did it on what’s called delegated authority, which means he didn’t have to bring it to the vote. And in fact, the Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she had hoped to review some of these things and she didn’t have an opportunity to, they were just kind of rushed out the door before even other commissioners could look at them, which is disheartening indeed.
JG: Yeah. I would really—she wrote a great dissent, and she’s written a number of great pieces, and I would really look to Commissioner Clyburn, moving forward, to tell the truth of what’s going on at the Commission. She’s always stood on the moral high ground and been a fierce champion for consumers, and particularly for consumers of color. And she is the one that I look to at this time to really hold the agency accountable, and she did say she asked for more time and was rebuffed.
JJ: Well, do public interest advocates change their tactics at all when you have a kind of, I won’t say a hostile FCC—do you move to the courts more? Is there anything in your approach that needs to change when you’re faced with an FCC like this?
JG: Well, I think our vision of what we want to see for the future remains unchanged. We want everyone in this country to be able to connect and communicate no matter their income level, no matter who they are. Our tactics? We’ll continue to be at the forefront filing comments, filing appeals when necessary. I do think the court system comes into play sometimes a little bit more when there’s a hostile administration, as you put it. But I think really the advocacy, having people, real people, stand up from outside the Beltway and give these industry insiders a reality check. And when I say industry insiders, I mean the lobbyists, but I also mean Ajit Pai, who’s a former Verizon lobbyist.
We really need to stand up and let our voices be heard, both to our representatives in Congress but also the FCC directly. We can’t let this become an invisible agency that sinks under the radar.
And the activism works. It’s incredible. But that’s what we saw in net neutrality, and that’s even what we’re seeing now, that our voices are making a difference, and making it more difficult for them and the administration to undo all of the important consumer protections that we fought so hard for.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jessica Gonzalez, deputy director and senior counsel at the group Free Press. You can find them online at FreePress.net. Jessica Gonzalez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
JG: Thank you, Janine. Great to be here.
Sister Marguerite Rivard has spent the last 25 years volunteering in Quebec’s notorious prison system, gaining rare access to some of the province’s most secretive establishments.
“If you came in, what would you see? Misery, suffering, people who are at the mercy of the legal system,” she says.
Rivard describes a place where solitary confinement is increasingly relied upon as punishment — and protection — where overcrowding remains a chronic problem and healthcare services are either lacking or mismanaged.
“There is a complete lack of comprehension of human lives.”
“The conditions are only getting worse,” Rivard told VICE. “There is a complete lack of comprehension of human lives.”
Opposition politicians have also been decrying the situation. In November, the Parti québécois’s public security critic Pascal Bérubé delivered a lengthy speech on the province’s detention system, which he described as “bursting at the seams.”
“There’s overcrowding, shortage of staff, maintenance deficits, drone flights, riots and other problems that are only getting worse,” he told the National Assembly.
We wanted to see for ourselves: when the Quebec government announced it would be touring its provincial detention centres last fall, VICE asked to tag along. We were turned down, “for our safety.” Efforts to interview Jean Rousselle, the politician in charge of the file, were also unsuccessful.
But testimony gathered from inmates, staff and volunteers shed light on the dehumanizing conditions inside, an environment many said is more akin to a school of crime than a place of rehabilitation.
Dispatches from Quebec’s prison system.
Rats, pills and suicides
Charles Samson* spent the better part of a year at the overcrowded Rivière-des-Prairies jail, in Montreal. Recently released after being incarcerated for weed trafficking, he recounted how his stint began on the floor of a gym, a makeshift overflow cell he shared with 30 other detainees.
“When we’d wake up in the morning, it was like we’d spent the night smoking cigarettes.”
Samson was later placed in a single cell with another inmate, which he says was “better,” though a bedbug infestation and poor air quality made it hard to sleep. He says the rumour was the air filters hadn’t been changed since the nineties. “When we’d wake up in the morning, it was like we’d spent the night smoking cigarettes.”
Inmate François Delorme* —who spent more than a year at the Bordeaux detention centre for drug-related offences— says he is still haunted by the sound of large rats stirring around the trash cans at night. “At night, I had to stuff magazines in the crack below the door, the rodent problem was so bad,” he describes. “Mice would even rain down from the third floor.”
Delorme says the conditions, especially in the scorching summer heat, brought out the worst in people. He recalls moments of violent tensions between inmates or with staff. “Sometimes we’d all be on deadlock, stuck inside for three to five days because of a fight.”
The menu wasn’t much to look forward to either. “I ate chicken tendons and cartilage,” he says. “It was really just for survival.”
“Mice would even rain down from the third floor.”
The most strident concern, however, was the lack of access to health care.
“If you have a toothache or a cavity, they just pull out your tooth. And if anything hurts, it takes forever to see a doctor,” says Samson. “Some people’s conditions deteriorate so much during that waiting period that they end up in hospital,” adds Delorme.
More than 60 percent of inmates suffer from some form of mental health issue, and according to Samson, this aspect is grossly mismanaged. “I’ve never seen so many people popping (prescription) pills,” he says, adding the medication is often given without proper follow-up. “Whatever you want, the doctors will just give it to you.”
For Fanny Gingras*, who suffers from anxiety and borderline personality disorder, proper care was hard to come by during her sentence in a provincial prison for sexual assault and sexual exploitation. “I was on medication and needed follow-ups, but I often found myself going for days without my prescription,” she describes. “I’d spend entire nights crying, unable to sleep.” Gingras, who was part of one of the last cohort of inmates at the now-shuttered Tanguay Institute, spent most of her time sleeping on the floor underneath her pregnant cell mate’s bed.
I’ve never seen so many people popping (prescription) pills.”
Then there are the suicides: two inmates killed themselves during Gingras’s stay, and those who attempted to do the same were punished rather than treated. “Their way of protecting you is to send you in isolation,” she says. Though she’d personally never been to what is commonly known as “The Hole,” she says cellmates’ anecdotes were alarming. ”There is no toilet paper in there, and you can’t get sanitary napkins. I knew a girl who had her period and just had to bleed on the ground.”
“You want to die so they send you to the worst place possible? I don’t get it.”
According to a 2009 study, an average of 9.4 suicides occur in Quebec’s prisons every year along with about 16 attempts. Comparative figures from other provinces are hard to obtain, but in federal institutions, more than 40 percent of the country’s inmate suicides happen in Quebec penitentiaries.
Also worth noting: the number of Quebec inmates sent into isolation went up 33 percent between 2010 and 2015 and the total number of times isolation was used as a punishment saw a 93 percent increase (meaning some inmates made several trips to “The Hole”).
“You’re not allowed to speak to the guards.”
Gingras says the biggest challenge of her prison experience was being separated from her child. While there are programs that allow parents to spend time with their children, she wasn’t informed of their existence until several months into her sentence. “You’re not allowed to speak to the guards,” she said. “The door is closed and they just watch us through a window.”
“Dehumanizing” is a word that came up in nearly every interview conducted by VICE.
Away from prying eyes
Though all the inmates’ stories paint a similar picture, VICE News was not able to independently verify the allegations. The office of the Ministry of Public Security declined our interview requests and turned down our application to get a tour of any one of the establishments, citing “safety reasons” and to “protect the confidentiality of inmates.”
However, many details are confirmed in publicly available reports. According to the Société québécoise des infrastructures’ annual report, 33 percent of the province’s jails have received a rating of E, a failing grade which qualifies the buildings as being in “very bad” shape. Research obtained by VICE News also shows that one third of the centres is either full and/or well over capacity.
In her 2015-2016 annual report, Quebec Ombudswoman Raymonde Saint-Germain wrote that offenders were often “crammed into the same room where the air quality leaves much to be desired and the heating is inadequate” or bunked so close together in common areas “that it is difficult to navigate the mattresses on the floor.” She was also critical of the available medical care, citing a 2011 report in which she’d found that “health services and social services for detainees with mental disorders were in sorry disarray” and deploring the fact that much had improved since.
In the northern Quebec region of Nunavik, the absence of an official correctional facility has resulted in up to seven people being crammed together in police station holding cells intended for one person. After her 2015 tour of these facilities, Saint-Germain found the conditions so dire she published a standalone special report calling for urgent action.
“Cells are generally unsanitary and equipment is obsolete, defective or insufficient.”
“Cells are generally unsanitary and equipment is obsolete, defective or insufficient,” she wrote. “Often unusable, sanitation facilities do not offer any privacy, and access to water is limited.”
The consequences of these deep-seated problems are regularly reflected in the news. In the past few years, Quebec’s correctional system has made headlines for some high-profile suicides, deadly riots and murders. It has also been the scene of some the country’s most outrageous prison breaks: the spectacular helicopter escape of two inmates at Saint-Jérôme back in 2013, a copycat incident at Orsainville jail in 2014, and the time Francis Boucher, the son of Mom Boucher, Quebec’s most notorious biker, managed to very casually walk out by assuming another inmate’s identity.
Mathieu Lavoie, the president of the prison guards’ union, told VICE News many of these situations could have been avoided had the jails been properly funded and staffed.
His workers have now been without a contract for more than a year and a half, and Lavoie says the stalled negotiations are making their jobs unsafe. According to a number of studies partially funded by the union, the detention system’s subpar conditions takes a heavy toll on the men and women who work there, who demonstrate higher than normal rates of absenteeism and burnout.
“When the general environment is toxic, the interactions are toxic, the workplace is toxic,” Lavoie says. He adds there aren’t enough guards to properly cater to the population and that staff is often inadequately trained to respond to or cope with the very complex issues the prisoners present.
“When the general environment is toxic, the interactions are toxic, the workplace is toxic.”
The lack of resources has a heavy impact on inmates, who don’t receive adequate rehabilitation plans. The 2016 Auditor’s report of Quebec’s correctional services highlighted that more than 45 per cent of inmate evaluations were not conducted within the required timeframe and that most did not have access to necessary treatment programs.
The auditor called the minister’s efforts to track inmates’ progress “insufficient,” adding that the government didn’t even keep unique files on each individual inmate.
“We don’t like talking about detention centres, it’s a hard sell.” Lavoie says. “Discussing and investing in this system is essentially admitting that we have a societal problem, and we don’t want the population to know that so we sweep these matters under the rug.”
Fixing what’s broken
For Eric Belisle, president of prisoner’s rights group Alter Justice, the province’s current approach of building new jails is just a band-aid solution.
Instead of providing additional space, new jails just end up replacing crumbling buildings, he explains. The real solution to overcrowding, Belisle says, is to send fewer people to prison. But that is an overhaul that needs to come from federal legislators.
“We have to ask why this overpopulation exists, see if there are other solutions in terms of alternative justice.”
A 2014 report by Quebec’s minister of public security found that the province’s prison population grew 31.6 percent between 2004 and 2014. The biggest jump occurred in 2012. Part of the reason behind this increase, the analysts theorize, is the Conservatives’ Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was passed in March 2012 and imposed mandatory minimum sentences on small offenses. “When you tally up these sentences, 70 percent ended up being falling within the jurisdiction of provincial establishments,” says Belisle.
“Everyone needs to talk, we need to consider alternative sentences for small offences, sanctions outside of the criminal justice system,” Belisle says.
Nearly half of the province’s inmates are still awaiting their trial and/or sentence. Many wait years before their cause ends up in court, and one judge warned these delays would soon cause the existing system to “blow up.”
Recent focus on this summer’s landmark Jordan decision — which ruled that people accused of crimes have the right to a “speedy trial” (that’s 18 to 30 months, depending on the type of charge) — seems to have put the wheels in motion. To ease the pressure of these deadlines, Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée recently proposed a new bill that would inject $175 million into the court system for additional judges and lawyers.
“Especially youth, this is not a good place for them.”
Belisle says this solution is short-sighted.
“It’s one thing to put money in this, I’m not saying it’s not a good thing, but I just think it’s a shame we’re not going further with a broader reflection,” he says. “We have to ask why this overpopulation exists, see if there are other solutions in terms of alternative justice.”
*all former and current inmates asked that their names be changed for fear of retaliation or further stigmatization
U.S. immigration law — and U.S. immigration statistics — makes a big distinction between full-blown deportations ("Removals") and "voluntarily" returning home under the threat of full-blown deportation ("Returns").
The distinction is not entirely cosmetic. If you re-enter after Removal, you face a serious risk of federal jail time if you're caught. If you re-enter after a mere Return, you generally don't. But Return is still almost as bad as Removal, since both exile you from the country where you prefer to reside. Since I've previously suggested that we should count each Return as 85% of a Removal, I've constructed a "Deportation Index" equal to Removals + .85*Returns to capture the substance of U.S. immigration policy. Check out the numbers:
No, no, no. I love ideas like this, but it demands a visual presentation. Here it is:
Under Obama, removals were much higher than any other president. However, there were far fewer returns. Thus, "deportations" were higher than any other president, but the total number of people who were actually sent home was lower than any other president.
The next step is to calculate this as a percentage of the number of illegal immigrants in the country each year. Here it is:
This is approximate, since the total population of illegal immigrants is a little fuzzy before 2000. But it's close enough. Obama still has a higher removal rate and a lower index rate than any other president, but the winner for the title of Deporter-in-Chief is...Ronald Reagan. Every president since then has been successively more tolerant of a large undocumented population.
A very pregnant woman let out a sigh and slumped down on a chair in the registration area of the Vive refugee shelter in Buffalo, New York. Someone set her two young daughters up at a table and they giggled while folding paper airplanes they sent flying around the room.
“I wish to get to Canada and have this baby there,” the mother tells the shelter worker while rubbing her stomach. Entering the ninth month of pregnancy, even small movements make her exhausted and uncomfortable. She tugged on the leopard print headscarf under her beret while the shelter’s legal assistant reviewed her passport and medical records.
Not wanting to have many details or her name publicized, she explained that she came to the U.S. from Nigeria with her children last summer fleeing violence and threats against her husband, who’s now living as a refugee in Canada. The family got separated because it was easier for him to travel to Canada alone, and she and her children had difficulty getting visitor permits.
“I wish to get to Canada and have this baby there.”
So they eventually ended up at Vive with hopes that its staff would help her family reunite, like they have with nearly 100,000 other asylum seekers they say have quietly flowed through their doors over the last 30 years and into Canada just a short drive north. Ever since the election of President Donald Trump, the shelter has been operating beyond its 150-person capacity non-stop, full of people urgently trying to get out of the country over fears of deportation and discrimination in the U.S.
“I need to be there, if only to get some assistance and a better life than this,” said the mother. The legal assistant finished up her paperwork to register them to stay at the shelter until an appointment opens up in a couple weeks with officials at the nearby Canadian border. There, she and her husband will face intense questioning by the border agents who will determine whether they can enter in Canada and begin the refugee claim process. “We’re going to pray,” the woman said before the legal assistant guided her and the girls toward the shelter’s living quarters.
Vive — Spanish for ‘live’ — was opened in 1985 by nuns who wanted to help the influx of refugees from South America resettle in Canada or the U.S. Now, employees at the building that used to be a Catholic elementary school work with refugees from all over the world with the sole purpose of getting them to Canada through one of the loopholes in a 2004 pact that forces asylum seekers to make their refugee claim in either the U.S. or Canada, whichever one they arrive in first. Prior to that agreement, it was easier for asylum seekers to get over the border.
The deal, called the Safe Third Country Agreement, makes it so that if someone arrives on U.S. soil first, for whatever reason, they cannot then travel to Canada to file a refugee claim, and vice versa. This is because both Canada and the U.S. consider each other to be safe enough for refugees, and want to curb the flow of migrants. But because of the agreement, countless refugee claimants get turned away and critics say it pushes people to pursue illegal and dangerous means to get over border.
This has become glaringly obvious in recent months. Provinces such as Quebec and Manitoba have seen huge spikes in the number of people, hundreds including young families, risking their lives in the freezing cold to make it across the border from the U.S., which many believe has become all the more precarious under Trump for undocumented migrants
“I can’t stay here and need to be there, if only to get some assistance and a better life than this.”
The Vive shelter houses those living in the U.S. who are the exceptions to Safe Third Country Agreement. Most are eligible because they have immediate family members in Canada. The three other exceptions are unaccompanied minors crossing the border, people with valid Canadian immigration or travel status, and refugee claimants who have been charged or found guilty of a criminal offence that could result in the death penalty.
Dozens of people fill Vive’s reception area. On a bookshelf in the backroom sits a Time magazine with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon on the cover. It’s chaos as toddlers run in and out while mothers pace back and forth with babies swinging on their backs. There’s free wifi and most people are texting or whispering into their phones. Down the hall, kids gather in a playroom and residents help prepare lunch in the basement. Most people stay here only for a couple weeks, but others with more complicated cases can end up staying much longer. One Ethiopian woman has lived here for three years with three children, hoping to join her husband in Montreal one day.
Another woman, who wished only to be identified as Rose, said she was a police chief in San Salvador but had to flee because of the vicious death threats she was getting from gangsters she helped put in jail. Her children and now ex-husband left for Canada as refugees 10 years ago due to other threats he received, and she hasn’t seen them since. She’s tried to get a visitor visa to Canada, to no avail. After hearing about Vive and fearing for her life more than ever, she decided it would be her last chance to be with her family and start over.
Like everyone else, she waits for the staff to post the daily list of people who have been granted appointments with the Canada Border Services Agency for the following morning. The receptionist prints out the list and pins it to the cork board with a blue sign that states “NO COUSINS,” a reminder that the Safe Third Country Agreement exception only applies to refugee claimants who have immediate family members in Canada, such as a parent, sibling, or spouse.
On this day, there are only eight names on the list for appointments the next day: couples and families from Sri Lanka, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Nigeria — Rose hasn’t made it on, yet. Another man checks the list and says he didn’t make it and jokes he’s going to write his name on it himself if he has to.
“I cannot go back home and I can’t stay here.”
“If this doesn’t work, I will be finished,” Rose said. “I cannot go back home and I can’t stay here.”
Canada’s immigration department is not forthcoming with data on how many people have come to Canada through the exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement. Spokespeople for the department did not provide numbers requested by VICE News by deadline, and couldn’t clarify whether they even keep such data.
One researcher at York University had to purchase numbers from Statistics Canada that showed there were 2,253 refugee claims processed at the border under one of the exceptions to the agreement in 2013. Nearly all of those cases were for people with family members in Canada. No data is readily available for the other years.
In 2016, Vive alone reports they helped more than 1,540 appointments for people with CBSA, more than 90 percent of whom successfully made it into the country. How many of those people eventually were granted refugee status in Canada in the end is unknown.
Mariah Walker, Vive’s Canadian service manager, said she expects that number to rise to more than 2,000 this year in great part because of the climate of fear created by President Trump and his policies that are hostile toward immigrants and refugees. There’s also only one or two other shelters like Vive in the U.S., but they help only a small number of claimants.
Those 2,000 people this year will likely be made up of people who might have wanted to stay in the U.S. before the election, but have changed their mind with the shift in immigration policies.
Throughout the week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had stepped up mass raids across America and arrested hundreds of undocumented people for deportation proceedings. Walker has more than 300 new voicemails to get to, likely all from those wanting her services.
“Now everyone is saying please help me I can’t stay in the U.S., they are going to deport me,” she explained. “Everyone is so desperate, they are begging for us to find a way to get them to Canada.”
While many refugee lawyers and experts in Canada have been pressuring the government to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement because of these circumstances, Walker said she’s hesitant to go that far, and knows first hand how the four exceptions to the agreement have allowed thousands of refugees to come to Canada.
“Everyone is so desperate, they are begging for us to find a way to get them to Canada.”
“It is scary and the Trump administration is taking actions that if I was an immigrant, I would be extremely terrified of. But at the same time, I wouldn’t say that it’s not necessarily a safe country as a whole anymore,” she said, pointing to the city of Buffalo and the state of New York as examples of places in the country that have been welcoming to newcomers. The mayor flies a flag in front of city hall that reads: “refugees welcome” and has repeatedly vowed to assist anyone affected by Trump’s immigration orders. And it’s because of refugees and immigrants opening businesses, for example, that many parts of the city have seen revitalization in recent years, she explained.
“But I would also like Canada to revisit the agreement because although it’s hard to hear people say that my country is no longer safe, it would be an extreme wakeup call to a lot of Americans that things need to get better,” she said. “It’s a highly political move, and I think it would be totally awesome if they did it.”
As for asylum seekers who don’t qualify for any of the exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement, Walker said she understands they might be more motivated than ever to make the illegal trek into Canada. But the staff there discourages anyone to pursue anything besides the legal immigration channels.
“We don’t usually hear about it until after they get over, and it won’t happen around here in Buffalo because of the geography,” she said. “Once in awhile though, we hear about people who try to cross here, and they get caught and thrown into the detention centre.”
Later that afternoon Walker meets with Sam in the registration room. He’s a 58-year-old Syrian citizen who escaped his hometown of Homs in 2012 to Texas to live with his elderly father who held American citizenship. Sam wanted to be referred to by his nickname over concerns that his wife and her family would be killed by government or rebel forces if his location was revealed. Sam was granted a temporary protection visa valid until 2018 to care for his father before he eventually died last fall.
“Once in awhile though, we hear about people who try to cross here, and they get caught and thrown into the detention centre.”
His two adult children left Syria around the same time as him, but took boats from Turkey to Europe and are currently living as refugees in Sweden — but they aren’t allowed to bring their parents there because they are both adults. Once his temporary U.S. status expires, he will have nowhere to go.
“I have no home, I lost my job as a civil engineer, I have no car here, and my family is far away,” he said. “So I looked at the map and saw that Buffalo was close to Niagara Falls and the border with Canada. I took a loan from a friend and caught a plane here. Once I got off, the taxi driver recommended I come to Vive.”
Sam tells Walker that he has no family in Canada, but still wants her to arrange an appointment with him at the border.
“They will send you home, they’ll return you and they’ll detain you,” Walker explained. “You’re already protected in the U.S. for at least another year. I wouldn’t advise you go to Canada. You will also be barred from entering Canada for one year if you’re denied.”
But Sam was adamant. “They welcome Syrians like me,” he said. “I want you to please book the appointment.”
Walker agrees and walks away. “We won’t deny people who ask us to send their names to the border, but we tell them the reality,” she said.