Wall Street took your house, now it wants your rent check.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
You can hardly turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about the nation’s impressive, much celebrated housing recovery. Home prices are rising! New construction has started! The crisis is over! Yet beneath the fanfare, a whole new get-rich-quick scheme is brewing.
Over the last year and a half, Wall Street hedge funds and private equity firms have quietly amassed an unprecedented rental empire, snapping up Queen Anne Victorians in Atlanta, brick-faced bungalows in Chicago, Spanish revivals in Phoenix. In total, these deep-pocketed investors have bought more than 200,000 cheap, mostly foreclosed houses in cities hardest hit by the economic meltdown.
Wall Street’s foreclosure crisis, which began in late 2007 and forced more than 10 million people from their homes, has created a paradoxical problem. Millions of evicted Americans need a safe place to live, even as millions of vacant, bank-owned houses are blighting neighborhoods and spurring a rise in crime. Lucky for us, Wall Street has devised a solution: It’s going to rent these foreclosed houses back to us. In the process, it’s devised a new form of securitization that could cause this whole plan to blow up -- again.
Since the buying frenzy began, no company has picked up more houses than the Blackstone Group, the largest private equity firm in the world. Using a subsidiary company, Invitation Homes, Blackstone has grabbed houses at foreclosure auctions, through local brokers, and in bulk purchases directly from banks the same way a regular person might stock up on toilet paper from Costco.
In one move, it bought 1,400 houses in Atlanta in a single day. As of November, Blackstone had spent $7.5 billion to buy 40,000 mostly foreclosed houses across the country. That’s a spending rate of $100 million a week since October 2012. It recently announced plans to take the business international, beginning in foreclosure-ravaged Spain.
Few outside the finance industry have heard of Blackstone. Yet today, it’s the largest owner of single-family rental homes in the nation -- and of a whole lot of other things, too. It owns part or all of the Hilton Hotel chain, Southern Cross Healthcare, Houghton Mifflin publishing house, the Weather Channel, Sea World, the arts and crafts chain Michael’s, Orangina, and dozens of other companies.
Blackstone manages more than $210 billion in assets, according to its 2012 Securities and Exchange Commission annual filing. It’s also a public company with a list of institutional owners that reads like a who’s who of companies recently implicated in lawsuits over the mortgage crisis, including Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and of course JP Morgan Chase, which just settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over its risky and often illegal mortgage practices, agreeing to pay an unprecedented $13 billion fine.
In other words, if Blackstone makes money by capitalizing on the housing crisis, all these other Wall Street banks -- generally regarded as the main culprits in creating the conditions that led to the foreclosure crisis in the first place -- make money too.
An All-Cash Goliath
In neighborhoods across the country, many residents didn’t have to know what Blackstone was to realize that things were going seriously wrong.
Last year, Mark Alston, a real estate broker in Los Angeles, began noticing something strange happening. Home prices were rising. And they were rising fast -- up 20% between October 2012 and the same month this year. In a normal market, rising home prices would mean increased demand from homebuyers. But here was the unnerving thing: the homeownership rate was dropping, the first sign for Alston that the market was somehow out of whack.
The second sign was the buyers themselves.
About 5% of Blackstone's properties, approximately 2,000 houses, are located in the Charlotte metro area. Of those, just under 1,000 (pictured above) are in Mecklenberg County, the city's center. (Map by Anthony Giancatarino, research by Symone New.)
“I went two years without selling to a black family, and that wasn’t for lack of trying,” says Alston, whose business is concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods where the majority of residents are African American and Hispanic. Instead, all his buyers -- every last one of them -- were besuited businessmen. And weirder yet, they were all paying in cash.
Between 2005 and 2009, the mortgage crisis, fueled by racially discriminatory lending practices, destroyed 53% of African American wealth and 66% of Hispanic wealth, figures that stagger the imagination. As a result, it’s safe to say that few blacks or Hispanics today are buying homes outright, in cash. Blackstone, on the other hand, doesn’t have a problem fronting the money, given its $3.6 billion credit line arranged by Deutsche Bank. This money has allowed it to outbid families who have to secure traditional financing. It’s also paved the way for the company to purchase a lot of homes very quickly, shocking local markets and driving prices up in a way that pushes even more families out of the game.
“You can’t compete with a company that’s betting on speculative future value when they’re playing with cash,” says Alston. “It’s almost like they planned this.”
In hindsight, it’s clear that the Great Recession fueled a terrific wealth and asset transfer away from ordinary Americans and to financial institutions. During that crisis, Americans lost trillions of dollars of household wealth when housing prices crashed, while banks seized about five million homes. But what’s just beginning to emerge is how, as in the recession years, the recovery itself continues to drive the process of transferring wealth and power from the bottom to the top.
From 2009-2012, the top 1% of Americans captured 95% of income gains. Now, as the housing market rebounds, billions of dollars in recovered housing wealth are flowing straight to Wall Street instead of to families and communities. Since spring 2012, just at the time when Blackstone began buying foreclosed homes in bulk, an estimated $88 billion of housing wealth accumulation has gone straight to banks or institutional investors as a result of their residential property holdings, according to an analysis by TomDispatch. And it’s a number that’s likely to just keep growing.
“Institutional investors are siphoning the wealth and the ability for wealth accumulation out of underserved communities,” says Henry Wade, founder of the Arizona Association of Real Estate Brokers.
But buying homes cheap and then waiting for them to appreciate in value isn’t the only way Blackstone is making money on this deal. It wants your rental payment, too.
Wall Street’s rental empire is entirely new. The single-family rental industry used to be the bailiwick of small-time mom-and-pop operations. But what makes this moment unprecedented is the financial alchemy that Blackstone added. In November, after many months of hype, Blackstone released history’s first rated bond backed by securitized rental payments. And once investors tripped over themselves in a rush to get it, Blackstone’s competitors announced that they, too, would develop similar securities as soon as possible.
Depending on whom you ask, the idea of bundling rental payments and selling them off to investors is either a natural evolution of the finance industry or a fire-breathing chimera.
“This is a new frontier,” comments Ted Weinstein, a consultant in the real-estate-owned homes industry for 30 years. “It’s something I never really would have dreamt of.”
However, to anyone who went through the 2008 mortgage-backed-security crisis, this new territory will sound strangely familiar.
"It's just like a residential mortgage-backed security," said one hedge-fund investor whose company does business with Blackstone. When asked why the public should expect these securities to be safe, given the fact that risky mortgage-backed securities caused the 2008 collapse, he responded, “Trust me.”
For Blackstone, at least, the logic is simple. The company wants money upfront to purchase more cheap, foreclosed homes before prices rise. So it’s joined forces with JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, and Deutsche Bank to bundle the rental payments of 3,207 single-family houses and sell this bond to investors with mortgages on the underlying houses offered as collateral. This is, of course, just a test case for what could become a whole new industry of rental-backed securities.
Many major Wall Street banks are involved in the deal, according to a copy of the private pitch documents Blackstone sent to potential investors on October 31st, which was reviewed by TomDispatch. Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, and Credit Suisse are helping market the bond. Wells Fargo is the certificate administrator. Midland Loan Services, a subsidiary of PNC Bank, is the loan servicer. (By the way, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and PNC Bank are all members of another clique: the list of banks foreclosing on the most families in 2013.)
According to interviews with economists, industry insiders, and housing activists, people are more or less holding their collective breath, hoping that what looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck won’t crash the economy the same way the last flock of ducks did.
“You kind of just hope they know what they’re doing,” says Dean Baker, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “That they have provisions for turnover and vacancies. But have they done that? Have they taken the appropriate care? I certainly wouldn’t count on it.” The cash flow analysis in the documents sent to investors assumes that 95% of these homes will be rented at all times, at an average monthly rent of $1,312. It’s an occupancy rate that real estate professionals describe as ambitious.
There’s one significant way, however, in which this kind of security differs from its mortgage-backed counterpart. When banks repossess mortgaged homes as collateral, there is at least the assumption (often incorrect due to botched or falsified paperwork from the banks) that the homeowner has, indeed, defaulted on her mortgage. In this case, however, if a single home-rental bond blows up, thousands of families could be evicted, whether or not they ever missed a single rental payment.
“We could well end up in that situation where you get a lot of people getting evicted... not because the tenants have fallen behind but because the landlords have fallen behind,” says Baker.
Bugs in Blackstone’s Housing Dreams
Whether these new securities are safe may boil down to the simple question of whether Blackstone proves to be a good property manager. Decent management practices will ensure high occupancy rates, predictable turnover, and increased investor confidence. Bad management will create complaints, investigations, and vacancies, all of which will increase the likelihood that Blackstone won’t have the cash flow to pay investors back.
If you ask CaDonna Porter, a tenant in one of Blackstone's Invitation Homes properties in a suburb outside Atlanta, property management is exactly the skill that Blackstone lacks. “If I could shorten my lease -- I signed a two-year lease -- I definitely would,” says Porter.
The cockroaches and fat water bugs were the first problem in the Invitation Homes rental that she and her children moved into in September. Porter repeatedly filed online maintenance requests that were canceled without anyone coming to investigate the infestation. She called the company’s repairs hotline. No one answered.
The second problem arrived in an email with the subject line marked “URGENT.” Invitation Homes had failed to withdraw part of Porter’s November payment from her bank account, prompting the company to demand that she deliver the remaining payment in person, via certified funds, by five p.m. the following day or incur “the additional legal fee of $200 and dispossessory,” according to email correspondences reviewed by TomDispatch.
Porter took off from work to deliver the money order in person, only to receive an email saying that the payment had been rejected because it didn’t include the $200 late fee and an additional $75 insufficient funds fee. What followed were a maddening string of emails that recall the fraught and often fraudulent interactions between homeowners and mortgage-servicing companies. Invitation Homes repeatedly threatened to file for eviction unless Porter paid various penalty fees. She repeatedly asked the company to simply accept her month’s payment and leave her alone.
“I felt really harassed. I felt it was very unjust,” says Porter. She ultimately wrote that she would seek legal counsel, which caused Invitation Homes to immediately agree to accept the payment as “a one-time courtesy.”
Porter is still frustrated by the experience -- and by the continued presence of the cockroaches. (“I put in another request today about the bugs, which will probably be canceled again.”)
A recent Huffington Post investigation and dozens of online reviews written by Invitation Homes tenants echo Porter’s frustrations. Many said maintenance requests went unanswered, while others complained that their spiffed-up houses actually had underlying structural issues.
There’s also at least one documented case of Blackstone moving into murkier legal territory. This fall, the Orlando, Florida, branch of Invitation Homes appeared to mail forged eviction notices to a homeowner named Francisco Molina, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Delivered in letter-sized manila envelopes, the fake notices claimed that an eviction had been filed against Molina in court, although the city confirmed otherwise. The kicker is that Invitation Homes didn’t even have the right to evict Molina, legally or otherwise. Blackstone’s purchase of the house had been reversed months earlier, but the company had lost track of that information.
The Great Recession of 2016?
These anecdotal stories about Invitation Homes being quick to evict tenants may prove to be the trend rather than the exception, given Blackstone’s underlying business model. Securitizing rental payments creates an intense pressure on the company to ensure that the monthly checks keep flowing. For renters, that may mean you either pay on the first of the month every month, or you’re out.
Although Blackstone has issued only one rental-payment security so far, it already seems to be putting this strict protocol into place. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the company has filed eviction proceedings against a full 10% of its renters, according to a report by the Charlotte Observer.
About 9% of Blackstone’s properties, approximately 3,600 houses, are located in the Phoenix metro area. Most are in low- to middle-income neighborhoods. (Map by Anthony Giancatarino, research by Jose Taveras.)
Forty thousand homes add up to only a small percentage of the total national housing stock. Yet in the cities Blackstone has targeted most aggressively, the concentration of its properties is staggering. In Phoenix, Arizona, some neighborhoods have at least one, if not two or three, Blackstone-owned homes on just about every block.
This inundation has some concerned that the private equity giant, perhaps in conjunction with other institutional investors, will exercise undue influence over regional markets, pushing up rental prices because of a lack of competition. The biggest concern among many ordinary Americans, however, should be that, not too many years from now, this whole rental empire and its hot new class of securities might fail, sending the economy into an all-too-familiar tailspin.
“You’re allowing Wall Street to control a significant sector of single-family housing,” said Michael Donley, a resident of Chicago who has been investigating Blackstone’s rapidly expanding presence in his neighborhood. “But is it sustainable?” he wondered. “It could all collapse in 2016, and you’ll be worse off than in 2008.”
Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist and the author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, published in August by Zuccotti Park Press. She is an editor for Waging Nonviolence and has written for Rolling Stone, Ms., Playboy, the Huffington Post, and other publications. She lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park. This is her second TomDispatch piece.
[Note: Special thanks to Symone New and Jose Taveras for conducting the difficult research to locate Blackstone-owned properties. Special thanks also to Anthony Giancatarino for turning this data into beautiful maps.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars -- The Untold Story.
Copyright 2013 Laura Gottesdiener
Image by Emmanuel Huybrechts, licensed under Creative Commons.
With Homeland Security training border guards and patrolling checkpoints in more than 100 countries, the edges of empire are getting harder to find.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
It isn’t exactly the towering 20-foot wall that runs like a scar through significant parts of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. Imagine instead the sort of metal police barricades you see at protests. These are unevenly lined up like so many crooked teeth on the Dominican Republic’s side of the river that acts as its border with Haiti. Like dazed versions of U.S. Border Patrol agents, the armed Dominican border guards sit at their assigned posts, staring at the opposite shore. There, on Haitian territory, children splash in the water and women wash clothes on rocks.
One of those CESFRONT (Specialized Border Security Corps) guards, carrying an assault rifle, is walking six young Haitian men back to the main base in Dajabon, which is painted desert camouflage as if it were in a Middle Eastern war zone.
If the scene looks like a five-and-dime version of what happens on the U.S. southern border, that’s because it is. The enforcement model the Dominican Republic uses to police its boundary with Haiti is an import from the United States.
CESFRONT itself is, in fact, an outgrowth of a U.S. effort to promote “strong borders” abroad as part of its Global War on Terror. So U.S. Consul-General Michael Schimmel told a group from the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic in the Dominican Republic back in 2008, according to an internal report written by the law students along with the Dominican immigrant solidarity organization Solidaridad Fronteriza. The U.S. military, he added, was training the Dominican border patrol in “professionalism.”
Schimmel was explaining an overlooked manifestation of U.S. imperial policy in the post-9/11 era. Militarized borders are becoming ever more common throughout the world, especially in areas of U.S. influence.
CESFRONT’s Dajabon commander is Colonel Juan de Jesus Cruz, a stout, Napoleonic figure with a booming voice. Watching the colonel interact with those detained Haitian teenagers was my first brush with how Washington’s “strong borders” abroad policy plays out on the ground. The CESFRONT base in Dajabon is located near the Massacre River that divides the two countries. Its name is a grim reminder of a time in 1937 when Dominican forces slaughtered an estimated 20,000 Haitians in what has been called the “twentieth century’s least-remembered act of genocide.” That act ensured the imposition of a 227-mile boundary between the two countries that share the same island.
As rain falls and the sky growls, Cruz points to the drenched young Haitians and says a single word, “ilegales,” his index finger hovering in the air. The word “illegals” doesn’t settle well with one of the teenagers, who glares at the colonel and replies defiantly, “We have come because of hunger.”
His claim is corroborated by every report about conditions in Haiti, but the colonel responds, “You have resources there,” with the spirit of a man who relishes a debate.
The teenager, who will undoubtedly soon be expelled from the Dominican Republic like so many other Haitians (including, these days, people of Haitian descent born in the country), gives the colonel a withering look. He’s clearly boiling inside. “There’s hunger in Haiti. There’s poverty in Haiti. There is no way the colonel could not see that,” he tells Cruz. “You are right on the border.”
This tense, uneasy, and commonplace interaction is one of countless numbers of similar moments spanning continents from Latin America and Africa to the Middle East and Asia. On one side, a man in a uniform with a gun and the authority to detain, deport, or sometimes even kill; on the other, people with the most fundamental of unmet needs and without the proper documentation to cross an international boundary. Such people, uprooted, in flight, in pain, in desperate straits, are today ever more commonly dismissed, if they’re lucky, as the equivalent of criminals, or if they aren’t so lucky, labeled “terrorists” and treated accordingly.
In a seminal article “Where’s the U.S. Border?,” Michael Flynn, founder of the Global Detention Project, described the expansion of U.S. “border enforcement” to the planet in the context of the Global War on Terror as essentially a new way of defining national sovereignty. “U.S. border control efforts,” he argued, “have undergone a dramatic metamorphosis in recent years as the United States has attempted to implement practices aimed at stopping migrants long before they reach U.S. shores.”
In this way, borders are, in a sense, being both built up and torn down. Just as with the drones that, from Pakistan to Somalia, the White House sends across national boundaries to execute those it has identified as our enemies, so with border patrolling: definitions of U.S. national “sovereignty,” including where our own borders end and where our version of “national” defense stretches are becoming ever more malleable. As Flynn wrote, although “the U.S. border has been hardened in a number of ways -- most dramatically by building actual walls -- it is misleading to think that the country’s efforts stop there. Rather the U.S. border in an age dominated by a global war on terrorism and the effects of economic globalization has become a flexible point of contention.”
In other words, “hard” as actual U.S. borders are becoming, what might be called our global, or perhaps even virtual, borders are growing ever more pliable and ever more expansive -- extending not only to places like the Dominican Republic, but to the edges of our vast military-surveillance grid, into cyberspace, and via spinning satellites and other spying systems, into space itself.
Back in 2004, a single sentence in the 9/11 commission report caught this changing mood succinctly: “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against Americans ‘over here.’ In this same sense the American homeland is the planet.”
New World Border
Washington’s response to the 2010 Haitian earthquake provides one example of how quickly a mobile U.S. border and associated fears of massive immigration or unrest can be brought into play.
In the first days after that disaster, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane circled parts of the island for five hours repeatedly broadcasting in Creole the prerecorded voice of Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.
“Listen, don’t rush [to the United States] on boats to leave the country,” he said. “If you do that, we’ll all have even worse problems. Because I’ll be honest with you: if you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”
That disembodied voice from the heavens was addressing Haitians still stunned in the wake of an earthquake that had killed up to 316,000 people and left an additional one million homeless. State Department Deputy Spokesman Gordon Duguid explained the daily flights to CNN this way: “We are sending public service messages… to save lives.” Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quickly dispatched 16 Coast Guard cutters to patrol Haitian waters, blocking people from leaving their devastated island. DHS authorities also cleared space in a 600-bed immigration detention center in Miami, and at the for-profit Guantanamo Bay Migrations Operation Center (run by the GEO Group) at the infamous U.S. base in Cuba.
In other words, the U.S. border is no longer static and “homeland security” no longer stays in the homeland: it’s mobile, it’s rapid, and it's international.
Maybe this is why, last March, when I asked the young salesmen from L-3 Communications, a surveillance technology company, at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix if they were worried about the sequester -- Congress’s across-the-board budget cuts that have taken dollars away from the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security -- one of them simply shrugged. “There’s the international market,” he said as if this were almost too obvious to mention.
He was standing in front of a black globular glass eye of a camera they were peddling to security types. It was draped with desert camouflage, as if we were out in the Arizona borderlands, while all around us you could feel the energy, the synergy, of an emerging border-industrial complex. Everywhere you looked government officials, Border Patrol types, and the representatives of private industry were meeting and dealing in front of hundreds of booths under the high ceilings of the convention center.
On the internationalization of border security, he wasn’t exaggerating. At least 14 other countries ranging from Israel to Russia were present, their representatives browsing products ranging from miniature drones to Glock handguns. And behind the bustle of that event lay estimates that the global market for homeland security and emergency management will reach $544 billion annually by 2018. “The threat of cross-border terrorism, cyber-crime, piracy, drug trade, human trafficking, internal dissent, separatist movements has been a driving factor for the homeland security market,” the market research company MarketsandMarkets reported, based on a study of high-profit security markets in North America, Europe, and Asia.
This booming business thrives off the creation of new border patrols globally. The Dominican Republic’s CESFRONT, for instance, did not exist before 2006. That year, according to Dominican Today, a group of “U.S. experts” reported that there were “a series of weaknesses that will lead to all kinds of illicit activities” on the Haitian-Dominican border. The U.S. team recommended that “there should be helicopters deployed in the region and [that] there be a creation of a Border Guard.” A month after their report appeared, that country, by Dominican presidential decree, had its own border patrol.
By 2009, the new force had already received training, funding, and resources from a number of U.S. agencies, including the Border Patrol itself. Somehow, it seems that what the U.S. consulate calls “strong borders” between the Dominican Republic and the hemisphere’s poorest country has become an integral part of a terror-obsessed world.
When I met with Colonel Orlando Jerez, a CESFRONT commander, in the border guard agency’s headquarters in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, I noticed that on his desk he had a U.S. Border Patrol model car, a replica of the one that agency sponsored on the NASCAR circuit from 2006 to 2008 in an attempt to recruit new agents. Along the side of the shiny box that held it was this mission statement: “We are the guardians of the nation’s borders, we are America’s frontlines.”
When I asked Jerez whether CESFRONT had a relationship with our Border Patrol, he replied without a second’s hesitation, “Of course, they have an office in the U.S. embassy.”
Jerez is not alone. Washington’s global boundary-building, its promotion of those strong borders, and its urge to preempt “terrorism against American interests ‘over there,’” as the 9/11 commission report put it, are spreading fast. For example, the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a $496 million U.S. counter-drug plan launched in 2008, identifies “border security deficiencies” among Central American countries as a key problem to be dealt with ASAP. So the U.S. Border Patrol has gone to Guatemala and Honduras to help train new units of border guards.
As in Central America, border patrolling’s most vibrant markets are in places that Washington sees as far too chaotic, yet where its economic and political interests reside. For six years now, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has sent its agents, clad in brown jumpsuits, to Iraq’s borderlands to assist that government in the creation of a force to police its “porous” borders (where chaos has indeed been endemic since the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of the country). U.S. boundary-building efforts began there in 2004 with an operation labeled “Phantom Linebacker” in which 15,000 border guards were trained to patrol in -- as the name of the operation indicates -- the spirit of American football.
In 2012, agent Adrian Long told Frontline, the CBP's in-house magazine, that his agency trains Iraqis “in Border Patrol techniques like cutting sign, doing drags, setting up checkpoints and patrols.” Long was repeating the same lingo so often heard on the U.S.-Mexican border, where agents “cut sign” to track people by their trail marks and do “drags” to smooth out dirt roads so they can more easily see the footprints of any “border intruders.” In Afghanistan, Border Patrol agents are similarly training forces to police that country’s 3,436 miles of frontiers. In 2012, during one training session, an Afghan policeman even turned his gun on two CBP agents in an “insider attack,” killing them and seriously injuring a third.
Around soccer’s World Cup, which South Africa hosted in 2010, CBP assisted that government in creating a Customs and Border Control Unit tasked with “securing South Africa’s borders while facilitating the movement of goods and people,” according to CBP’s Africa and Middle East branch country manager for South Africa Tasha Reid Hippolyte. South Africa has even brought its military special forces into the border patrolling process. Near the Zimbabwean border, its militarized guards were using a triple barrier of razor wire and electric fencing that can be set to offer shocks ranging from mild to deadly in their efforts to stop border crossers. Such equipment had not been used in that country since the apartheid-era.
In many cases, the U.S. is also training border forces in the use of sophisticated surveillance systems, drones, and the construction of fences and barriers of various kinds, largely in attempts to clamp down on the movement of people between poorer and richer countries. More than 15,000 foreign participants in more than 100 countries have taken part in CBP training sessions since October 2002. It is little wonder, then, that an L-3 Communications sales rep would shrug off the constraints of a shrinking domestic national security budget.
Meanwhile, U.S. borders are functionally being stretched in all sorts of complex ways, even across the waters. As Michael Schmidt wrote in the New York Times in 2012, for example, “An ocean away from the United States, travelers flying out of the international airport here on the west coast of Ireland are confronting one of the newest lines of defense in the war on terrorism: the United States border.” There, at Shannon International Airport, Department of Homeland Security officials set up the equivalent of a prescreening border checkpoint for air travelers.
Whether it is in your airports or, as in Haiti’s case, in the international waters around your country, the U.S. border is on its way to scrutinize you, to make sure that you are not a threat to the “homeland.” If you don’t meet Washington’s criteria for whatever reason, you will be stopped, forcibly if necessary, from entering the United States, or even in many cases from travelling anywhere at all.
CBP attachés are now detailed to U.S. embassies in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, and Canada, among many other countries. According to an agency publication, Customs and Border Protection Today, they have been tasked with the mission of keeping “terrorists and their weapons from our shores,” as well as providing technical assistance, “fostering secure trade practices, and strengthening border authority principles.” The anonymous writer then typically, if floridly, describes “our country’s border” as “the armor of the body politic; it protects the systems and infrastructures that function within. Knives pierce armor and can jeopardize the body -- so we sheath them; keep them at bay; and demand accountability from those who use them.”
As CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner put it in 2004, the U.S. is “extending our zone of security, where we can do so, beyond our physical borders -- so that American borders are the last line of defense, not the first line of defense.”
Perhaps this is why few here batted an eye when, in 2012, Assistant Secretary of International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer for the Department of Homeland Security Alan Bersin flatly declared, "The Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border."
On the Edge of Empire
As dusk falls and the rainstorm ends, I walk along the river’s edge where those Dominican border patrol agents are still sitting, staring into Haiti. Considering that U.S. forces occupied the Dominican Republic and Haiti numerous times in the previous century, it’s easy to imagine why Washington’s border chieftains consider this sad, impoverished spot part of our “backyard.” Not far from where I’m walking is the Codevi industrial free trade zone that straddles the border. There, Haitian workers churn out jeans mainly for Levi Strauss and the North American market, earning less than three dollars a day.
I approach one of the CESFRONT guards in his desert camouflage uniform. He’s sitting with his assault rifle between his legs. He looks beyond bored -- no surprise since being suspicious of people who happen to be on the other side of a border can be deadly tedious work.
Diaz, as his name patch identifies him, tells me that his shift, which runs from 6 p.m. to midnight, is normally eventless because Haitians rarely cross here. When I explain where I’m from, he wants to know what the U.S.-Mexico border looks like. I tell him about the fencing, the sensors, the cameras, and the agents everywhere you look. I ask if he has ever met agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.
“Of course!” he says in Spanish, “there have been training sessions.”
Then I ask if terrorists are crossing this border, which is the reason the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo gives for supporting the creation of CESFRONT.
Diaz looks at me as if I’m nuts before offering an emphatic “No!”
No surprise there either. CESFRONT, like similar outfits proliferating globally, isn’t really about terrorism. It’s all about Haiti, one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is a response to fears of the mass movement of desperate, often hungry, people in the U.S. sphere of dominance. It is the manifestation of a new vision of global geopolitics in which human beings in need are to be corralled, their free movement criminalized, and their labor exploited.
With this in mind, the experimental border control technologies being tested along the U.S.-Mexican boundary line and the border-industrial complex that has grown up around it are heading abroad in a major way. If Congress finally passes a new multi-billion dollar border-policing package, its effects will be felt not only along U.S. borders, but also at the edges of its empire.
Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog “Border Wars,” among other places. His first book, Border Patrol Nation, will be published in spring 2014 for the Open Media Series of City Lights Books.
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Copyright 2013 Todd Miller
Image by Edmund Meinfelder, licensed under Creative Commons.
Four years after the recession official ended, hunger in America is reaching a new level of crisis. With millions of Americans stuck in poverty and Congress shredding every bit of the safety net they can find, the hunger cliff threatens bring food insecurity to its highest level in generations.
The hunger cliff has a few parts to it. To begin with, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps, is set to lose $5 billion from its annual budget beginning today. The cut comes as the last of Obama’s 2009 stimulus expires and SNAP begins to return to pre-recession capacity. The problem is hunger in America is nowhere near what it was before the crisis. Food stamp recipients have been increasing every year since 2007, and have nearly doubled since the recession began.
And $5 billion is a big deal for a program that’s been struggling with skyrocketing need. Today’s cutback is equal to the amount of food private charities and food banks distribute nationwide over the course of a year, says Joel Berg, executive director of the New York Coalition Against Hunger. In an interview with Chris Hayes, Berg says it’s as if all private charity didn’t exist for an entire year.
Even before the cuts took effect, SNAP was woefully underfunded. The average recipient gets $133 per month, or about $1.50 for each meal. According to Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks, 90 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed by the third week of each month, and more than half of recipients rely on food banks to supplement benefits for at least six months out of the year.
As bad as all this is, today’s cuts are not the first part of the hunger cliff to take effect. As more and more Americans are turning to food pantries and hunger programs, these initiatives have already been hit hard this year by the sequester. Automatic cuts this past March kicked more than half a million women and children out of the WIC nutrition program while Meals on Wheels was forced to make 19 million fewer deliveries. Meanwhile, the sequester slashed $2.4 million in federal subsidies to food banks, a source more than 30 million Americans rely on.
And it gets worse. Also this week, a conference committee met for the first time to try to reconcile House and Senate versions of this year’s Farm Bill—an umbrella of food and agriculture policy that includes food stamps. Neither version appears to take America’s hunger crisis very seriously: while Democrats propose to cut food stamps by $4.1 billion over the next decade—remember, that’s not so far from the sum total of annual private donations nationwide—Republicans in the House demand nearly $40 billion in cuts, effectively kicking millions of Americans out of the program. It’s hard to say how much this year’s bill will slash food stamps, but it’ll probably be pretty big. This is potentially the most devastating part of the hunger cliff, threatening to throw millions of Americans into food insecurity.
And the timing couldn’t be worse, NYC Food Bank President Margarette Purvis told Hayes: “You know, the fourth week of the month that they’ve decided to do this, it is for Thanksgiving. It is for Hanukkah. It makes absolutely no sense.”
None of this is good news but there are plenty of things you can do about it. Food Bank NYC recommends contacting Congress and provides some critical talking points. And for the more action-oriented, there are plenty of other ways to combat hunger in your community, from starting a food rescue program to serving free community meals to volunteering at your local food bank.
For more details on the hunger cliff, check out Food Bank NYC’s online guide and this report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Image by the USDA, licensed under Creative Commons.
For the Obama administration, perpetual war is its own justification.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
[This epilogue to Scahill’s bestselling book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, is posted with the kind permission of its publisher, Nation Books.]
On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Much of the media focus that day was on the new hairstyle of First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared on the dais sporting freshly trimmed bangs, and on the celebrities in attendance, including hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, who performed the national anthem. But the day Obama was sworn in, a U.S. drone strike hit Yemen. It was the third such attack in that country in as many days. Despite the rhetoric from the president on the Capitol steps, there was abundant evidence that he would continue to preside over a country that is in a state of perpetual war.
In the year leading up to the inauguration, more people had been killed in U.S. drone strikes across the globe than were imprisoned at Guantánamo. As Obama was sworn in for his second term, his counterterrorism team was finishing up the task of systematizing the kill list, including developing rules for when U.S. citizens could be targeted. Admiral William McRaven had been promoted to the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and his Special Ops forces were operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.
After General David Petraeus’s career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the Agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill program. After four years as Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the “assassination czar” for his role in U.S. drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.
When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan’s role in the Bush-era detainee program. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a “playbook” for crossing names off the kill list. “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it,” noted the Washington Post.
Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by “seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced,” the paper added. “The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president.”
Obama’s counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the “Disposition Matrix,” a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing program would persist for “at least another decade.” During his first term in office, the Washington Post concluded, “Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.”
Redefining “Imminent Threat”
In early 2013, a Department of Justice “white paper” surfaced that laid out the “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen.” The government lawyers who wrote the 16-page document asserted that the government need not possess specific intelligence indicating that an American citizen is actively engaged in a particular or active terror plot in order to be cleared for targeted killing.
Instead, the paper argued that a determination from a “well-informed high level administration official” that a target represents an “imminent threat” to the United States is a sufficient basis to order the killing of an American citizen. But the Justice Department’s lawyers sought to alter the definition of “imminent,” advocating what they called a “broader concept of imminence.”
They wrote, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future.” The government lawyers argued that waiting for a targeted killing of a suspect “until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself.” They asserted that such an operation constitutes “a lawful killing in self-defense” and is “not an assassination.”
Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU called the white paper a “chilling document,” saying that “it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.” Jaffer added, “This power is going to be available to the next administration and the one after that, and it’s going to be available in every future conflict, not just the conflict against al-Qaeda. And according to the [Obama] administration, the power is available all over the world, not just on geographically cabined battlefields. So it really is a sweeping proposition.”
In October 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Barack Obama gave the first major speech of his national political career. The then-state senator came out forcefully against going to war in Iraq, but he began his speech with a clarification. “Although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances… I don’t oppose all wars.” Obama declared, “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” During his first campaign for president, Obama had blasted the Bush administration for fighting the wrong war -- Iraq -- and repeatedly criticized his opponent, Senator John McCain, for not articulating how he would take the fight to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
As his first term in office wound down, the overwhelming majority of U.S. military forces had been withdrawn from Iraq and plans for a similar drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014 were being openly discussed. The administration had succeeded in convincing the American public that Obama was waging a smarter war than his predecessor. As he ran for reelection, Obama was asked about charges from his Republican opponents that his foreign policy was based on appeasement. “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement,” Obama replied. “Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.”
As the war on terror entered a second decade, the fantasy of a clean war took hold. It was a myth fostered by the Obama administration, and it found a ready audience. All polls indicated that Americans were tired of large military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mounting U.S. troop casualties that came with them. A 2012 poll found that 83% of Americans supported Obama’s drone program, with 77% of self-identified liberal Democrats supporting such strikes. The Washington Post–ABC News poll determined that support for drone strikes declined “only somewhat” in cases where a U.S. citizen was the target.
President Obama and his advisers seldom mentioned the drone program publicly. In fact, the first known confirmation of the use of armed drones by the president came several years into Obama’s first term. It was not in the form of a legal brief or a press conference, but rather on a Google+ “Hangout” as the president took questions from the public. Obama was asked about his use of drones. “I want to make sure that people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama said. “For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”
He rejected what he called the “perception” that “we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly” and asserted that “this is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on.” Obama added: “It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It’s not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions. And it is also part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al-Qaeda. It is not something that’s being used beyond that.”
Michael Boyle, a former adviser in the Obama campaign’s counterterrorism experts group and a professor at LaSalle University, said that one of the reasons the administration was “so successful in spinning the number of civilian casualties” was the use of signature strikes and other systems for categorizing military-aged males as legitimate targets, even if their specific identities were unknown. “The result of the ‘guilt by association’ approach has been a gradual loosening of the standards by which the U.S. selects targets for drone strikes,” Boyle charged. “The consequences can be seen in the targeting of mosques or funeral processions that kill non-combatants and tear at the social fabric of the regions where they occur.” No one, he added, “really knows the number of deaths caused by drones in these distant, sometimes ungoverned, lands.”
Using drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory. The war on terror, launched under a Republican administration, was ultimately legitimized and expanded by a popular Democratic president. Although Barack Obama’s ascent to the most powerful office on Earth was the result of myriad factors, it was largely due to the desire of millions of Americans to shift course from the excesses of the Bush era.
Had John McCain won the election, it is difficult to imagine such widespread support, particularly among liberal Democrats, for some of the very counterterrorism policies that Obama implemented. As individuals, we must all ask whether we would support the same policies -- the expansion of drone strikes, the empowerment of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the use of the State Secrets Privilege, the use of indefinite detention, the denial of habeas corpus rights, the targeting of U.S. citizens without charge or trial -- if the commander in chief was not our candidate of choice.
But beyond the partisan lens, the policies implemented by the Obama administration will have far-reaching consequences. Future U.S. presidents -- Republican or Democratic -- will inherit a streamlined process for assassinating enemies of America, perceived or real. They will inherit an executive branch with sweeping powers, rationalized under the banner of national security.
In 2012, a former constitutional law professor was asked about the U.S. drone and targeted killing program. “It’s very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?’” he responded, warning that it was important for the United States to “avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we’re not being true to who we are.”
That former law professor was Barack Obama.
The creation of the kill list and the expansion of drone strikes “represents a betrayal of President Obama’s promise to make counterterrorism policies consistent with the U.S. constitution,” charged Boyle. Obama, he added, “has routinized and normalized extrajudicial killing from the Oval Office, taking advantage of America’s temporary advantage in drone technology to wage a series of shadow wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Without the scrutiny of the legislature and the courts, and outside the public eye, Obama is authorizing murder on a weekly basis, with a discussion of the guilt or innocence of candidates for the ‘kill list’ being resolved in secret.” Boyle warned:
“Once Obama leaves office, there is nothing stopping the next president from launching his own drone strikes, perhaps against a different and more controversial array of targets. The infrastructure and processes of vetting the ‘kill list’ will remain in place for the next president, who may be less mindful of moral and legal implications of this action than Obama supposedly is.”
In late 2012, the ACLU and the New York Times sought information on the legal rationale for the kill program, specifically the strikes that had killed three U.S. citizens -- among them 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. In January 2013, a federal judge ruled on the request. In her decision, Judge Colleen McMahon appeared frustrated with the White House’s lack of transparency, writing that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests raised “serious issues about the limits on the power of the Executive Branch under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and about whether we are indeed a nation of laws, not of men.”
She charged that the Obama administration “has engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens, but in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing to any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.” She added, “More fulsome disclosure of the legal reasoning on which the administration relies to justify the targeted killing of individuals, including United States citizens, far from any recognizable ‘hot’ field of battle, would allow for intelligent discussion and assessment of a tactic that (like torture before it) remains hotly debated. It might also help the public understand the scope of the ill-defined yet vast and seemingly ever-growing exercise.”
Ultimately, Judge McMahon blocked the release of the documents. Citing her legal concerns about the state of transparency with regard to the kill program, she wrote:
“This Court is constrained by law, and under the law, I can only conclude that the Government has not violated FOIA by refusing to turn over the documents sought in the FOIA requests, and so cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and laws of the United States. The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me; but after careful and extensive consideration, I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules -- a veritable Catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
How to Make Enemies and Not Influence People
It is not just the precedents set during the Obama era that will reverberate into the future, but also the lethal operations themselves. No one can scientifically predict the future consequences of drone strikes, cruise missile attacks, and night raids. But from my experience in several undeclared war zones across the globe, it seems clear that the United States is helping to breed a new generation of enemies in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and throughout the Muslim world.
Those whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or cruise missile attacks or night raids will have a legitimate score to settle. In an October 2003 memo, written less than a year into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld framed the issue of whether the United States was “winning or losing the global war on terror” through one question: “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?”
More than a decade after 9/11, that question should be updated. At the end of the day, U.S. policymakers and the general public must all confront a more uncomfortable question: Are our own actions, carried out in the name of national security, making us less safe or more safe? Are they eliminating more enemies than they are inspiring? Boyle put it mildly when he observed that the kill program’s “adverse strategic effects… have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists.”
In November 2012, President Obama remarked that “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” He made the statement in defense of Israel’s attack on Gaza, which was launched in the name of protecting itself from Hamas missile attacks. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians,” Obama continued. “And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.” How would people living in areas of Yemen, Somalia, or Pakistan that have been regularly targeted by U.S. drones or missile strikes view that statement?
Toward the end of President Obama’s first term in office, the Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, gave a major lecture at the Oxford Union in England. “If I had to summarize my job in one sentence: it is to ensure that everything our military and our Defense Department do is consistent with U.S. and international law,” Johnson said. “This includes the prior legal review of every military operation that the Secretary of Defense and the President must approve.”
As Johnson spoke, the British government was facing serious questions about its involvement in U.S. drone strikes. A legal case brought in the United Kingdom by the British son of a tribal leader killed in Pakistan alleged that British officials had served as “secondary parties to murder” by providing intelligence to the United States that allegedly led to the 2011 strike. A U.N. commission was preparing to launch an investigation into the expanding kill program, and new legal challenges were making their way through the U.S. court system. In his speech, Johnson presented the U.S. defense of its controversial counterterror policies:
“Some legal scholars and commentators in our country brand the detention by the military of members of al-Qaeda as ‘indefinite detention without charges.’ Some refer to targeted lethal force against known, identified individual members of al-Qaeda as ‘extrajudicial killing.’
“Viewed within the context of law enforcement or criminal justice, where no person is sentenced to death or prison without an indictment, an arraignment, and a trial before an impartial judge or jury, these characterizations might be understandable.
“Viewed within the context of conventional armed conflict—as they should be—capture, detention, and lethal force are traditional practices as old as armies.”
The Era of the Dirty War on Terror
In the end, the Obama administration’s defense of its expanding global wars boiled down to the assertion that it was in fact at war; that the authorities granted by the Congress to the Bush administration after 9/11 to pursue those responsible for the attacks justified the Obama administration’s ongoing strikes against “suspected militants” across the globe—some of whom were toddlers when the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground—more than a decade later.
The end result of the policies initiated under President Bush and continued and expanded under his Democratic successor was to bring the world to the dawn of a new age, the era of the Dirty War on Terror. As Boyle, the former Obama campaign counterterrorism adviser, asserted in early 2013, the U.S. drone program was “encouraging a new arms race for drones that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent.”
Today, decisions on who should live or die in the name of protecting America’s national security are made in secret, laws are interpreted by the president and his advisers behind closed doors, and no target is off-limits, including U.S. citizens. But the decisions made in Washington have implications far beyond their impact on the democratic system of checks and balances in the United States.
In January 2013, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, announced his investigation into drone strikes and targeted killing by the United States. In a statement launching the probe, he characterized the U.S. defense of its use of drones and targeted killings in other countries as “Western democracies… engaged in a global [war] against a stateless enemy, without geographical boundaries to the theatre of conflict, and without limit of time.” This position, he concluded, “is heavily disputed by most States, and by the majority of international lawyers outside the United States of America.”
At his inauguration in January 2013, Obama employed the rhetoric of internationalism. “We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully -- not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” the president declared. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”
Yet, as Obama embarked on his second term in office, the United States was once again at odds with the rest of the world on one of the central components of its foreign policy. The drone strike in Yemen the day Obama was sworn in served as a potent symbol of a reality that had been clearly established during his first four years in office: U.S. unilateralism and exceptionalism were not only bipartisan principles in Washington, but a permanent American institution. As large-scale military deployments wound down, the United States had simultaneously escalated its use of drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids in an unprecedented number of countries. The war on terror had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The question all Americans must ask themselves lingers painfully: How does a war like this ever end?
Jeremy Scahill is national security correspondent for the Nation magazine and author of the New York Times bestsellers Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and most recently Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (both published by Nation Books). He is also the subject, producer, and writer of the film Dirty Wars, an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the US documentary cinematography prize, now available on DVD. This essay is the epilogue to his book Dirty Wars.
(c) 2013 Jeremy Scahill. Excerpted from Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield (Nation Books). Used by permission of the author and publisher.
Image by U.S. Air Force is in public domain.
What forward-looking cities are learning about race, equity and building better bike lanes
This post originally appeared at People for Bikes.
Rev. Kenneth Gunn’s ministry at Chicago’s Bread of Life Church covers both the Bible and bicycles. He organized a bike club that regularly rides from the South Side church to Lake Michigan and along the Lakefront Trail. In his spare time, Gunn repairs donated bikes that he gives to kids in the predominantly African-American neighborhood.
Rev. Gunn believes biking offers great benefits to the community. “Besides good recreation, biking is economical,” the 70-year-old minister explains, especially in a city where many people don’t own cars and transit fares are rising. “But health is the number one reason to ride a bike. It’s good for your coronary, your respiratory and your blood pressure. And I find it’s good for my arthritis.”
Gunn welcomes the new protected bike lanes popping up across Chicago’s South Side as a way to encourage more African Americans to bike. “The city is becoming more and more bike friendly. The new lanes on 55th Street are super-safe and I love it.”
While African Americans comprise the fastest growing demographic of bicyclists, doubling from 2001 and 2009, bike lanes proposed for African-American neighborhoods in several cities have drawn controversy. And black churches like Rev. Gunn’s, which are highly influential among African-Americans, find themselves in the middle of the debate.
A few miles from the Bread of Life Church, a protected bike lane was planned for Martin Luther King Drive, which would pass six African-American churches. This raised serious concerns from some church leaders about the availability of parking for events, as well as aesthetic concerns on this historic street.
This controversy, and ones like it in other cities, highlights the importance of community engagement in planning new and innovative bike projects. “The city was doing a lot of bike projects fast, and talking with the community was not always a priority,” said Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell, who represents residents in the historically African-American neighborhoods around King Drive.
Dowell pointed to that experience as one reason some African-Americans are skeptical about bike lanes in a presentation at the Summit on Bike Lanes & Equity, a diverse gathering of transportation leaders convened last May in Austin by the Green Lane Project. (A program of People for Bikes, the Green Lane Project helps cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.)
Dialogue between the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) and church and community leaders led to modifications in the plan. The protected bike lanes were shifted to a nearby street, and buffered bike lanes (which use wide swaths of paint rather than physical dividers to organize bikes and cars) were added to King Drive.
“The churches still have access to parking for church events.” Dowell said. “I think it marks a shift in how the city approaches neighbors.” Community discussions around the project also led to the creation of the Bronzeville Bikes group to encourage more people to bike in the neighborhood.
Dowell counts herself as a bike advocate and sponsors a number of community rides in her Ward, but notes that many of her constituents raise concerns about spending money on bike lanes when their neighborhoods are plagued by poverty and crime.
Some residents even associate highly visible street changes, like bike lanes, with the displacement of long-time black residents in favor of younger, often white newcomers. “You hear that bike lanes are white lanes,” says Cynthia Bell, an African-American organizer with Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance. “But there are a lot more youth on bikes in my neighborhood these days, so you hear it less.”
In Memphis, Tennessee a community development corporation founded by the St. Thomas African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church was a key player in building bike lanes in the South Memphis neighborhood. More than a thousand community members were involved in the planning process, which was part of a broader revitalization effort. St. Thomas’ pastor Rev. Kenneth Robinson, a medical doctor who formerly was Tennessee’s Health Commissioner, is a strong advocate of creating more opportunities for physical activity in low-income neighborhoods.
Yet there are still widespread feelings in some African-American communities that bike lanes are the opening act of gentrification, says Adrian Lipscomb, a bicycle project coordinator for the city of Austin, Texas who is writing a Ph.D dissertation on African-Americans and biking. One woman in the historically African-American neighborhood of East Austin told Lipscomb, “When the bikes came in, the blacks went out.” However, Census data shows the white population in the neighborhood increased only one percentage point between 2000 and 2009, while the Latino population climbed eight.
(The numbers of Latinos biking in the United States rose 50 percent between 2000 and 2009, compared to 22 percent for whites. Whites and Latinos now bike at the same level on overall trips but slightly more Latinos commute to work by bike, according to Census figures. Native Americans bike the most of all racial groups.)
The racial dynamics of bike lanes also flared up in a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, that is seeing an influx of younger white people. Long-time residents raised the issue of bike lanes fueling gentrification two years ago at a public meeting about a protected bike lane project for North Williams Street. “The bike community was surprised at the reaction to the project,” recalls Michelle DePass, an avid bicyclist and African-American leader, who notes that there was little attention paid to improving traffic safety in the neighborhood when it was predominantly African-American. (Nationally, African Americans suffer a bike fatality rate 30 percent higher than for whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; for Latinos it is 23 percent higher.)
The controversy is not really about bike lanes, reported the Portland Mercury. “The public process on Williams is a hot vent for a community that’s been grieving city-imposed change and loss for 60 years,” referring to a freeway project and hospital expansion in the 1950s and ‘60s that ripped apart the community.
Planning for the North Williams project was put on hold for several months as further research and community forums were conducted and more people of color added to the project’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee. Though the conversations were sometimes painful and emotionally charged, a new plan was enacted 18 months later with full community support. The plan included improvements for people on bikes as well as public art that recognizes the neighborhood’s history as Portland’s African-American hub.
Gerik Kransky, advocacy director of Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance, says, “This is where we learned to cool our jets and listen. It will inform how we work in the future. We need engagement, not just outreach.”
After decades of population decline, many cities are now seeing a boom fueled by entrepreneurial industries and young well-educated workers seeking a compact urban lifestyle, says Martha Roskowski, Director of People For Bikes’ Green Lane Project. And that includes safe places to bike. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared, “You cannot be for a start-up, high-tech economy and not be pro-bike.”
“Bike lanes are not driving the wave of gentrification,” Roskowski observed at the Equity Summit. “It’s a much broader economic and social trend. But much of the process of change is behind the scenes, as properties are bought and sold and new businesses open and new people move into an area. Then, when there’s a public meeting about bike lanes, people feel they finally have a chance to say something about the many changes in their neighborhood.”
Six Ways to Broaden Support of Better Bike Lanes
At the Bike Lanes & Equity Summit in Austin, participants from a number of cities identified a number of common themes to create better bike lanes and better neighborhoods, especially in low-income and minority communities:
1) It’s important to involve local community leaders and residents early and often in the process, listening carefully and responding appropriately. As Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell emphasized, “The majority of the work with bike lanes is community engagement.”
2) Project planners need to understand and be respectful of an area’s history, especially if there is a history of underinvestment or injustice. Outreach efforts should be tailored to the particular conditions of an area, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. You need to go to the people and speak their language.
3) Everybody wants safer streets and better neighborhoods. Figuring out how to further those goals is an essential part of any bike project. As much as possible, link bike infrastructure to other community improvements such as safe sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic calming, street lighting, waste removal, crime prevention and economic development. As Dowell noted, “If you can tie bike lanes to a community seeking more economic opportunity—that’s powerful.”
4) Recognize the pivotal role that churches and other social institutions play in neighborhoods, especially in communities of color. “In all six cities, we’ve found black churches are hubs of their communities and are very central to these issues,” said Roskowski.
5) Community-led education campaigns help overcome some people of color’s unease and unfamiliarity about biking. Veronica Davis from Washington, D.C., told the story of how she was biking to meet a friend for a movie when an African-American child proclaimed, “Mommy, mommy there’s a black woman on a bike!” That was the genesis of Black Women Bike, an organization that conducts workshops on the ABCs of getting around on two wheels—how to buy a bike, how to ride at night and in the winter, how to find the best routes on D.C.’s busy streets. “Our mission is to get women of color more comfortable with biking, to identify their fears and help alleviate them.”
6) It’s crucial to address the status issues associated with biking. Eboni Hawkins, co-founder of Chicago's chapter of the national advocacy organization Red, Bike & Green that sponsors community rides and other events to promote biking, noted, “The automobile has long been marketed as a symbol of independence and wealth. For a group of people that has been systematically disenfranchised, this is an important socio-cultural marker. So we’ve distilled the idea of riding stylishly into one phrase: ‘Ride Fly’. When we post photos on social media of people like Alicia Keys, Beyonce Knowles, LeBron James, Al Sharpton and Serena Williams on bikes, our comments, shares and likes go through the roof.”
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults frequently about biking and other ways to improve our communities. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com
Image by Paul Krueger, licensed under Creative Commons.
Until the president stops deportations, say #Not1More activists, we will stop them ourselves.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
Monday morning I woke at dawn and drove an hour from Phoenix to the small town of Eloy, Arizona. It was pretty warm already and I knew the Arizona sun would only grow hotter. I grabbed my bandana and prepared to chain myself to the entrance of one of the largest detention centers with the worst reputation in the United States. There were six of us in all — two men and four women. One was 16-year-old girl named Sandy Estrada. Her brother was detained inside.
“I am doing this so he and everybody else in there knows that we support them,” she said. “Obama has the power to keep families like mine together. He hasn’t done a thing.”
Eloy has enough beds for 1,600 people and has already had two men commit suicide inside this year. The prison was responsible for the placing of six of the Dream 9 — student activist who attempted reentry into the United States as protest July — in solitary confinement. The prison is run by Corrections Corporation of America, whose reported revenue has doubled throughout the 2000s as the federal government has contracted it to hold an increasing number of undocumented immigrants.
Another one of our group was a father of two children. As hours passed, he chanted “undocumented and unafraid!” and “nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo,” which means, “they are scared of us because we aren’t scared.” Our bodies were locked together tightly, and if one of us moved too quickly we would all feel the pain of the heavy chains. The cops push us aggressively from time to time, but they said that with all the cameras around they wouldn’t dare arrest us. We remained wrapped in chains under the Arizona sun until we learned that Eloy Detention Center had shut down for the day. We returned to Phoenix after promising the guards we would be back until Eloy was closed forever.
My journey to Eloy began four days earlier when I made my way to Arizona from Utah upon hearing very publicly about the shutdown of an immigration detention center. What intrigued me was the fact that there was absolutely nothing secretive or hidden about the upcoming action. People advertised the shut down in posters on Facebook and videos on YouTube. They put it out everywhere.
I had to get to Arizona in order to find out what kind of organizers would dare to be so transparent about direct action.
The planned events were part of the #not1more campaign pressuring President Obama to take administrative relief and put a stop to the deportations. Obama, who has been called Deporter in Chief by various migrant rights organizations, has deported nearly 2 million people during his time in office. With immigration reform stalled and no sign the deportation rate would slow down, #not1more decided to put together a conference for people around the country to share information and ideas on how to stop deportations themselves.
I was confused when I arrived at the immigration center in Phoenix and saw tons of children running around and grandparents lounging in the shade. When La Migra is mentioned in migrant communities, what comes to mind isn’t children playing and relaxation, and the atmosphere was jarring given the location. The center is where immigrants are brought and processed after a raid and are then transferred by bus to nearby for-profit detention prisons like Eloy.
The sunbathing grandparents didn’t match my conception of who normally orchestrates direct actions. Was this really the group that had declared it was going to “shut down ICE”?
The two-day conference featured breakout groups on topics such as cop watch and fighting deportations. All the discussions included an overwhelming number of parents and grandparents. During the last day of the conference Amelia Castianos stood up during a break out group and explained, “Immigration reform occurs each time we challenge the unjust laws. Immigration reform occurs each time we do an action.”
At one o’clock on Monday, 500 people gathered and marched to the ICE office. An impromptu fiesta broke out with flores de papel and music. It felt like a neighborhood block party. Anticipating the publicly advertised shutdown, the office had already shuttered for the day. In celebration, we hung a big banner in front of the offices declaring: “SORRY, WE ARE CLOSED BY THE PEOPLE.” Parents and children began to dance in a conga line. People placed colorful posters around the fence as police squads watched.
Across the country, protest and unity has been growing among immigrants and allies, making it harder for the politicians in Washington to ignore the issue. A week ago, 12 activists locked themselves to the wheels of an immigration bus, stopping operation streamline deportations for a day. One week before that, an estimated 100,000 people marched in every major city in the United States.
“Every day we are standing up to fight, organize and mobilize our people,” Castianos said. “The people in detention centers know they are not alone. They know that there are people outside that love them and are fighting for them.”
I didn’t bring any personal identification for the Eloy action because I knew that the other five were undocumented and didn’t have U.S.-issued IDs. While I was born in the United States, my indigenous parents migrated to Utah from Bolivia when my older siblings were young children. I was taught to assimilate and to never speak Spanish. God forbid I have any brown friends. I was told to try my best to be white. (I don’t begrudge my parents this upbringing. After realizing how hard it would be for them to move up in U.S. society, they wanted at least someone in the family to have a chance at their American Dream.) Fortunately, no matter how hard I was pressured to blend in with the overwhelmingly Caucasian state, the color of my skin made me find comfort in others that looked like me. Befriending other children of immigrations, who also had parents that worked multiple jobs and got paid very little, became my connection to my family’s past. I resolved to stand in solidarity with them — in any way possible.
Before traveling to Arizona, I had been organizing for migrant rights for years. But the Arizona trip felt more invigorating, more reenergizing than usual actions and protests. I struggled to identify why until finally, it hit me.
Those days weren’t about theory; they were about everyday life. From the Phoenix processing center to the Eloy prison, people weren’t challenging the legitimacy of the border based on a theoretical analysis or political ideology. Instead, these actions are what these communities simply call survival.
“Undocumented people can get picked up by border patrol in Tuscan just by asking for work on the corner,” said Tania Unzueta from National Day Labor Organizing Network. “So a lot of people view it as, ‘If I am going to get picked up by police [anyway], this is on my own terms and part of a larger movement struggle.’”
Throughout my time in Arizona, I could feel that the resistance is alive — alive in the hearts of the frontline communities. It is alive when a Dominican grandfather tells me that direct action is the “only way to continue la lucha.” It is alive in the building of communities through dinners and parties. It is alive each time we dance bachata y cumbia on ICE property. It is alive each time we speak our languages. The resistance is so alive that the more people try and stifle the voices the stronger the voice gets. It is alive every time we don’t wait for Washington and instead do the work ourselves. As we continue to move forward with the campaign, the motto has become, “Until the President stops deportations, we will continue to stop them ourselves.”
Image above: Six people chained themselves together and shut down the Eloy immigrant detention center Monday. (Immigrant Youth Justice League/Isaac Steiner)
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
From the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seamlessly blended frightening details of Iranian evildoing with images of defenseless Jews “bludgeoned” and “left for dead” by anti-Semites in nineteenth century Europe. Aimed at U.S. and Iranian moves towards diplomacy and a war-weary American public, Netanyahu’s gloomy tirade threatened to cast him as a desperate, diminished figure. Though it was poorly received in the U.S., alienating even a few of his stalwart pro-Israel allies, his jeremiad served a greater purpose, deflecting attention from his country's policies towards the group he scarcely mentioned: the Palestinians.
Back in November 1989, while serving as a junior minister in the Likud-led governing coalition of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a younger Netanyahu told an audience at Bar Ilan University, “Israel should have taken advantage of the suppression of demonstrations [at China’s Tiananmen Square], when the world’s attention was focused on what was happening in that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the Territories. However, to my regret, they did not support that policy that I proposed, and which I still propose should be implemented.”
Now the country’s top official, Netanyahu has updated the smokescreen strategy. While the prime minister ranted against Iran in New York City and in a meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office, his government was preparing to implement the Prawer Plan, a blueprint for the expulsion of 40,000 indigenous Bedouin citizens of Israel from their ancestral Negev Desert communities that promised to “concentrate” them in state-run, reservation-style townships. Authored by Netanyahu's planning policy chief, Ehud Prawer, and passed by a majority of the members of the mainstream Israeli political parties in the Knesset, the Prawer Plan is only one element of the government’s emerging program to dominate all space and the lives of all people between the river (the Jordan) and the sea (the Mediterranean).
Expulsions in the Desert
On September 9th, I visited Umm al-Hiran, a village that the state of Israel plans to wipe off the map. Located in the northern Negev Desert, well behind the Green Line (the 1949 armistice lines that are considered the starting point for any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) and inside the part of Israel that will be legitimized under a U.S.-brokered two-state solution, the residents of Umm al-Hiran are mobilizing to resist their forced removal.
In the living room of a dusty but impeccably tidy cinderblock home on the outskirts of the village, Hajj al-Ahmed, an aging sheikh, described to a group of colleagues from the website Mondoweiss and me the experience of the 80,000 Bedouin living in what are classified as “unrecognized” villages. The products of continuous dispossession, many of these communities are surrounded by petrochemical waste dumps and have been transformed into cancer clusters, while state campaigns of aerial crop destruction and livestock eradication have decimated their sources of subsistence.
Although residents like al-Ahmed carry Israeli citizenship, they are unable to benefit from the public services that Jews in neighboring communities receive. The roads to unrecognized villages like Umm al-Hiran are lined with electric wires, but the Bedouins are barred from connecting to the public grid. Their homes and mosques have been designated “illegal” constructions and are routinely marked for demolition. And now, their very presence on their own land has been placed in jeopardy.
Under the Prawer Plan, the people of Umm al-Hiran will be among the 40,000 Bedouins forcibly relocated to American-Indian-reservation-style towns constructed by the Israeli government. As the fastest growing group among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Bedouins have been designated as an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. “It is not in Israel’s interest to have more Palestinians in the Negev,” said Shai Hermesh, a former member of the Knesset and director of the government’s effort to engineer a “Zionist majority” in the southern desert.
According to the website of the Or Movement, a government-linked organization overseeing Jewish settlement in the Negev, residents of the unrecognized villages will be moved to towns constructed “to concentrate the Bedouin population.” In turn, small Jews-only communities will be constructed on the remnants of the evicted Bedouin communities. They will be guaranteed handsome benefits from the Israeli government and lavish funding from private pro-Israel donors like the billionaire cosmetics fortune heir Ron Lauder. “The United States had its Manifest Destiny in the West,” Lauder has declared. “For Israel, that land is the Negev.”
When I met al-Ahmed, he described a group of 150 strangers who had suddenly appeared at the periphery of his village the previous day. From a hilltop, he said, they had surveyed the land and debated which parcels each of them would receive after the Prawer Plan was complete. Al-Ahmed called them “the Jews in the woods.”
Several hundred meters east of Umm al-Hiran lies the Yattir Forest, a vast grove in the heart of the desert planted by the para-governmental Jewish National Fund (JNF) in 1964. The JNF’s director at the time, Yosef Weitz, had headed the governmental Transfer Committee that orchestrated the final stages of Palestinian removal in 1948. For Weitz, planting forests served a dual strategic purpose: those like Yattir near the Green Line were to provide a demographic buffer between Jews and Arabs, while those planted atop destroyed Palestinian villages like Yalu, Beit Nuba, and Imwas would prevent the expelled inhabitants from returning. As he wrote in 1949, once Israel’s Jewish majority had been established through mass expulsion, “The abandoned lands will never return to their absentee [Palestinian Arab] owners."
As darkness came to the desert, I set out with my colleagues into the piney woods of Yattir. In a small car, we wound along its unlit roads until we reached a gate bristling with barbed wire. This was the settlement-style village of Hiran -- “the Jews in the woods,” as al-Ahmed had put it. We called out into the night until the gate was opened. Then we parked in the middle of a compound of trailer homes. Like a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, the hard-bitten Imperial Russian territory once reserved for Jewish residency, the place exuded a sense of suspicion and siege.
A bearded religious nationalist stepped out of an aluminum-sided synagogue and met us at a group of picnic benches. His name was Af-Shalom and he was in his thirties. He was not, he said, permitted to speak until a representative from the Or Movement arrived. After a few uncomfortable minutes and half a cigarette, however, he began to hold forth. He sent his children, he told us, to school over the Green Line in the settlement of Susiya, just eight minutes away on an Israelis-only access road. He then added that the Bedouins were “illegals” occupying his God-given land and would continue to take it over unless they were forcibly removed. Just as Af-Shalom was hitting his stride, Moshe, a curt Or Movement representative who refused to give his last name, arrived to escort us out without a comment.
“The World’s Biggest Detention Center”
Only a few kilometers from Umm al-Hiran, in the southern Negev Desert and inside the Green Line, the state of Israel has initiated another ambitious project to “concentrate” an unwanted population. It is the Saharonim detention facility, a vast matrix of watchtowers, concrete blast walls, razor wire, and surveillance cameras that now comprise what the British Independent has described as “the world’s biggest detention center.”
Originally constructed as a prison for Palestinians during the First Intifada, Saharonim was expanded to hold 8,000 Africans who had fled genocide and persecution. Currently, it is home to at least 1,800 African refugees, including women and children, who live in what the Israeli architectural group Bikrom has called “a huge concentration camp with harsh conditions.”
Like the Bedouins of the Negev’s unrecognized villages, the 60,000 African migrants and asylum seekers who live in Israel have been identified as a demographic threat that must be purged from the body of the Jewish state. In a meeting with his cabinet ministers in May 2012, Netanyahu warned that their numbers could multiply tenfold “and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” It was imperative “to physically remove the infiltrators,” the prime minister declared. “We must crack down and mete out tougher punishments.”
In short order, the Knesset amended the Infiltration Prevention Act it had passed in 1954 to prevent Palestinian refugees from ever reuniting with the families and property they were forced to leave behind in Israel. Under the new bill, non-Jewish Africans can be arrested and held without trial for as long as three years. (Israel’s Supreme Court has invalidated the amendment, but the government has made no moves to enforce the ruling, and may not do so.) The bill earmarked funding for the construction of Saharonim and a massive wall along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Arnon Sofer, a longtime Netanyahu advisor, also urged the construction of “sea walls” to guard against future “climate change refugees.”
“We don’t belong to this region,” Sofer explained.
In that single sentence, he distilled the logic of Israel’s system of ethnocracy. The maintenance of the Jewish state demands the engineering of a demographic majority of nonindigenous Jews and their dispersal across historic Palestine through methods of colonial settlement. State planners like Sofer refer to the process as “Judaization.” Because indigenous Palestinians and foreign migrants are not Jews, the state of Israel has legally defined most of them as “infiltrators,” mandating their removal and permanent relocation to various zones of exclusion -- from refugee camps across the Arab world to walled-off West Bank Bantustans to the besieged Gaza Strip to state-constructed Bedouin reservations to the desert camp of Saharonim.
As long as the state of Israel holds fast to its demographic imperatives, the non-Jewish outclass must be “concentrated” to make room for exclusively Jewish settlement and economic development. This is not a particularly humane system, to be sure, but it is one that all within the spectrum of Zionist opinion, from the Kahanist right to the J Street left, necessarily support. Indeed, if there is any substantial disagreement between the two seemingly divergent camps, it is over the style of rhetoric they deploy in defense of Israel's ethnocracy. As the revisionist Zionist ideologue Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote in his famous 1923 “Iron Wall” essay outlining the logic of what would become Israel’s deterrence strategy, “there are no meaningful differences between our ‘militarists’ and our ‘vegetarians.’”
During the Oslo era, the time of hope that prevailed in mid-1990’s Israel, it was the “dovish” Labor Party of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak that began surrounding the Gaza Strip with barricades and electrified fencing while drawing up plans for a wall separating the West Bank from “Israel proper.” (That blueprint was implemented under the prime ministership of Ariel Sharon.)
“Us over here, them over there” was the slogan of Barak’s campaign for reelection in 1999, and of the Peace Now camp supporting a two-state solution at the time. Through the fulfillment of the Labor Party’s separationist policies, the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank have gradually disappeared from Israel’s prosperous coastal center, consolidating cities like Tel Aviv as meccas of European cosmopolitanism -- “a villa in the jungle,” as Barak said.
With the post-Oslo political transition that shattered Israel’s “peace camp,” ascendant right-wing parties set out to finish the job that Labor had started. By 2009, when Israel elected the most hawkish government in its history, the country was still full of “infiltrators,” the most visible of whom were those African migrants, deprived of work permits and increasingly forced to sleep in parks in south Tel Aviv. According to a report by the newspaper Haaretz on a brand new Israel Democracy Institute poll on Israeli attitudes, “Arabs no longer top the list of neighbors Israeli Jews would consider undesirable, replaced now by foreign workers. Almost 57% of Jewish respondents said that having foreign workers as neighbors would bother them.”
Unrestricted by the center-left’s pretensions to tolerance, rightist members of the government launched a festival of unprecedented racist incitement. Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Shas Party (replaced after the 2013 election), for example, falsely described African asylum seekers as infected with “a range of diseases” and lamented that they “think the country doesn’t belong to us, the white man.”
“Until I can deport them,” he promised, “I'll lock them up to make their lives miserable.”
At a May 2012 anti-African rally in Tel Aviv, on a stage before more than 1,000 riled up demonstrators, Knesset member and former Israeli army spokesperson Miri Regev proclaimed, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body!” Incited into a violent frenzy, hundreds of protesters then rampaged through south Tel Aviv, smashing the windows of African businesses and attacking any migrant they could find. “The people want the Africans to be burned!” they chanted.
As during other dark moments in history, eliminationist cries booming from an urban mob against a class of outcasts signaled a coming campaign of ethnic purification. And following the night of shattered glass, the cells of Saharonim continued to fill up.
Just as Western media consumers will find details about the Prawer Plan and the Saharonim camp hard to come by, casual visitors to the Negev Desert will find little evidence of the state’s more disturbing endeavors. Instead, highway signs will direct them to a little museum at Sde Boker, the humble kibbutz that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, called home.
In Ben Gurion’s memoirs, he fantasized about evacuating Tel Aviv and settling five million Jews in small outposts across the Negev, where they would be weaned off the rootless cosmopolitanism they inherited from diaspora life. Just as he resented the worldly attitude of Jews from Tel Aviv and New York City, Ben Gurion was repelled by the sight of the open desert, describing it as a “criminal waste” and “occupied territory.” Indeed, from his standpoint, the Arabs were the occupiers. As early as 1937, he had plans for their removal, writing in a letter to his son Amos, “We must expel Arabs and take their places.”
Ben Gurion’s house is an austere-looking, single-story structure, sparsely furnished and poorly lit. The separate, spartan bedrooms he and his wife slept in are impeccably preserved, as though they might return home at any time. Nearby is a compact, somewhat shabby museum commemorating his legacy in a series of exhibits that do not appear to have been updated for at least a decade.
The site is a crumbling remnant of a bygone era that the country has left in the dust. The enlightened public of Israel’s coastal center has turned its back on the desert, preferring instead to face toward the urbane capitals of Europe, while the rest of the country draws increasing energy from the religious nationalist fervor emanating from the hilltops of the occupied West Bank. In the Negev, perhaps all that endures of Ben Gurion's legacy is the continuous expulsion of the Bedouins.
On a gravelly path leading towards his home, a series of plaques highlight tidbits of wisdom from that Israeli founding father. One quote stands out from the others. Engraved on a narrow slab of granite, it reads, “The State of Israel, to exist, must go south.”
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, the Nation, the Huffington Post, the Independent Film Channel, Salon.com, Al Jazeera English, and other publications. He is the author of the bestselling book Republican Gomorrah. His new book, just published, is Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books)
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Image by Paolo Cuttitta Palestine, licensed under Creative Commons.