Thursday, May 21, 2009

Teachers protest in Los Angeles as more budget cuts loom

Teachers protest in Los Angeles as more budget cuts loom

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On Friday, May 15, two days after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled against a one-day work stoppage planned by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), several hundred teachers, students and supporters held a protest rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) office near downtown Los Angeles.

UTLA president A.J. Duffy, along with the rest of the union bureaucrats, had previously touted the canceled work stoppage as a bold and dramatic show of union power, only to back down on even this limited tactic in the face of the ruling.

Earlier in the day, some union members and supporters staged a sit-in on the street in front of the district’s downtown office building. Forty-five protesters, including Duffy, were arrested for blocking traffic. They were booked and released shortly afterwards.

The judge’s ban notwithstanding, the number of teachers calling in sick exceeded the usual Friday amount by about 700. Teachers at some schools came early to pass out fliers protesting the board’s planned cuts. Around 1,000 students held sit-ins and walkouts at various high schools around the school district as well.

The protesters held signs proclaiming “LAUSD, shame on you!” and chanted slogans against job and budget cuts and the raising of class sizes.

Some of those who had been arrested earlier in the day in the union’s civil disobedience stunt spoke to the crowd. They all prefaced their remarks with expressions of gratitude to the LAPD officers for their politeness as they arrested and booked them. They then led the crowd in pro-UTLA chants.

The rally took place the day after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the defeat of budgetary ballot measures in the Special Election on May 19 would result in an ongoing shortfall of $21.3 billion. Up to 5,000 state workers will be laid off, and education and social services like hospitals and healthcare will suffer further cuts, including an additional $5 billion to be taken from public education alone. This would be on top of the more than $11.5 billion just gutted from the budget for public schools for 2008-2010.

The day after the May 15 protest outside of the LAUSD offices, a Los Angeles Times article revealed that district “Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said after the protests that Duffy and a top aide had met with him before to suggest a compromise: The district would spend more of its federal stimulus money than planned in the coming year, forestalling the need for any teacher layoffs, and the union would agree to concessions, such as a wage freeze or unpaid furloughs.

“Cortines said he was open to such a deal, and that he might be able to offer jobs as long-term substitutes to laid-off teachers.” The article further added, “Duffy had no comment on the negotiations.”

Duffy’s silence should not be treated lightly by workers. There is every reason to believe that the UTLA will enter into a rotten deal with the LAUSD in which they will not only agree to attacks on teachers’ living standards, but play a leading role in designing them.

A team of World Socialist Web Site reporters talked to some of the attendees of the May 15 protest. One of the students that came to the rally was an undocumented high school junior from Guatemala.

“I’ve been attending this school for about three years and I don’t like what’s going on, how the district is doing things,” he said. “Not only that, it’s very unfair. The classes that I go to are very packed already—we’re talking about 40 kids in one classroom. And they want to cut more teachers, teachers that just came to my school recently and they’re brand new, and they have already received pink slips.”

He was critical of the one-day strike: “I believe if they really wanted to send a message to LAUSD, it should be at least a week nonstop, because then they would show them the impact that teachers have in the schools. Because without the teachers, the district is nothing. Without the students the teachers are nothing. Basically we need each other, but the LAUSD doesn’t see that.

“The teachers have the power to get everything they want and more. They should connect with other working class people.”

The interviewer explained the necessity to break with the Democrats, to which he replied, “I totally agree with that. The Democrats, I call them the Republicrats.” As for Barack Obama, “Even a lot of people who consider themselves radical who are black, like some of my professors, were believing the Obama trend.” He added, “The way I see it, it’s manufactured, it’s not from the bottom, it’s not from the people. He’s not representative, I think, at all of the historical things that have happened to black people.

“We need a well-thought-out network of how we affect each other and our lack of coordinated action affects each other.”

Rafael Johnson teaches 11th and 12th graders at Roosevelt High School in LA. He spoke about the response of students to the budget cuts.

“It’s clearly evident how repressive the school board is. I had a long conversation with my students in my last class, and the students are very much aware that the administration is not engaged with the students collectively or interpersonally. They realize that they’re being moved around, the teachers are being cut that they love.

“You can see it from the demonstration here that there’s a great concern, a great anguish that’s being felt in the community. But the school board is very much opposed to student organizing in correlation with the teachers.”

Israeli police target young people for refusing military service

Israeli police target young people for refusing military service

By Jean Shaoul

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Last month, in scenes reminiscent of a coordinated sweep on dangerous organised criminals, Israeli police mounted a country-wide raid of people active in Target 21, a draft resistance group, and searched their homes citing “incitement to draft evasion”. They seized computers and documents, and detained seven people for interrogation. The police branded the refuseniks, as those who refuse to serve in Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are called, as “draft shirkers”.

Timing the raid on the day before Israel’s Memorial Day for those killed in military action, the police sought to exploit the emotions of families who had lost loved ones in Israel’s wars and military assaults on the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours to brand the young anti-military activists as beyond the Pale.

The seven, who included a 70-year-old artist, a retired nurse and a 20-year-old activist, are suspected of operating Web sites that they claim actively promote “incitement to draft dodging”, an offence punishable under Israeli law by up to five years in jail. They were released after questioning on the condition that they do not associate with blacklisted activist groups.

The police followed this up with early morning raids on the homes of 10 activists from New Profile, a feminist group that has for more than a decade opposed the militarisation of Israeli society, seizing computers and interrogating the activists. When New Profile supporters turned up to protest outside a police station in Tel Aviv, the police beat their way through the crowd and made a further eight arrests.

New Profile and Target 21 (21 refers to the IDF’s code for those deemed unfit to serve) are two of the draft resistance groups that are now proliferating in Israel. They post tips on their Web sites about how to evade military service via medical or other exemptions. They insist on their loyalty to Israel and commitment to Zionism, limiting themselves to a call to the pre-1967 borders and co-existence of two states, Israel and Palestine.

Israel requires young men to serve in the IDF for three years and then at least a month a year until the age of 40. It is the only state in the world to require compulsory military service for young women as well, although they are not required to serve in combat units. It provides no alternative to active service, nor does it recognise conscientious objection for pacifist reasons.

But despite conscription, many Israelis do not serve. Palestinian Israelis are not drafted although a few Bedu and Druze do serve voluntarily. Religious Jews are exempt if they can show that they are attending religious seminaries, while orthodox women are exempt. Recently, the military has begun to hire private investigators to check up on whether those pleading exemption on religious grounds are indeed orthodox Jews. According to a personnel officer, Lt. Colonel Gil Ben Shaul, they are trying to find out “what kind of [religious] life they are leading...whether they are out at a disco on Friday night or driving on the Sabbath”.

It is a reflection of the soaring inequality that pervades Israeli society today that an increasing number of poor and marginalised Israelis are deemed “unfit” or “unqualified” for mental or physical reasons. There are also a number of young people who refuse to serve for pacifist reasons or—and this is more prevalent—refuse to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

While the “partial” or “selective” refuseniks are largely made up of reservists, there are increasing numbers of high school graduates who have refused outright out of pacifism or because their opposition to the army’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinians.

The Israeli High Court ruled in 2002 that refusal to serve was legal if the objector was an “unqualified” pacifist but that “selective refusal,” which accepted some duties but not others, was not. It argued that to allow selective refusal would “weaken the ties that bind us as a nation” and ruled that refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza constituted “selective refusal,” not conscientious objection.

It is now estimated that 50 percent of young men and 56 percent of young women avoid military service for one reason or another, and this number is increasing. According to a recent military report, the number of women failing to enlist has increased from about one third 20 years ago to 44 percent last year.

In 2003, well over 1,200 Israelis of military age declared that they would refuse to take part in the IDF’s illegal actions against the Palestinians. Of these, more than half had already rejected orders to serve in the occupied territories and a further 600 had said that they would refuse when they were called up to do so. At least 300 reservists were known to have been imprisoned.

The IDF has generally sought to downplay the scale of dissent and avoided court-martialing refuseniks, preferring instead to try them by summary procedure where the unit commander acts as judge and jury, and sentences are limited to 35 days at the most. While a court martial would result in a more draconian punishment, more in line with the IDF’s ethos, it would give the defendant greater rights, including the services of a lawyer and the right to call witnesses. That in turn could lead to a defence based upon right to disobey orders, such as the invasion of Lebanon, the suppression of Palestinian resistance and the blockade of Gaza, that are illegal under both Israeli and international law, a situation that Israeli leaders have been desperate to avoid.

However, in 2003 the IDF was confronted with hundreds of twelfth grade high school students, or shministim, who had signed a letter saying that they would refuse to enlist in an army of occupation, and then lived up to their promise. When repeated jail sentences failed to quash the dissent, the IDF broke with tradition and court-martialed six of the group’s leaders. It also began to move against women refuseniks, imposing jail sentences on young women.

With a population of just 6 million, one fiftieth of the population of the US, one tenth of the population of Britain and one twentieth of Japan, the number of refuseniks is significant in numerical terms. It would be the equivalent of 50,000 US soldiers refusing to serve in Afghanistan or 10,000 British troops refusing to serve in Northern Ireland.

For a state as dependent as Israel is upon on its military forces, such a rate of attrition is nothing short of disastrous, particularly as the army has traditionally been seen as the very incarnation of nationhood. In the 1950s and 1960s, military service was regarded as an honour and a duty. Soldiers were treated with enormous respect. Officers could walk into the best civilian jobs, and those who went into politics were assured rapid promotion in local and national government. Until very recently, outright or even selective refusal was seen as an act of moral and political defiance against the state, a sacrilege, leading to a refusenik being ostracised by his or her family and friends.

It was only after the 1967 war that led to the capture of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai, and the transformation of Israel’s armed forces, formally constituted as the Israel Defence Force, into an army of occupation and the defender of illegal settlements that refusal to serve became more than an isolated phenomenon. The invasion of Lebanon 1982 led to the growth of the peace movement, a major part of which was the refusal to serve in Lebanon. The refusal movement has grown with every armed offensive by Israel.

Last year, hundreds of shministim signed a conscientious objector pledge, adding to the growing opposition to the compulsory draft. When a number of them were jailed, an international campaign was mounted to secure their release.

This growing opposition to conscription is significant, because such is the militarisation of Israeli society that the IDF wages a major recruitment drive aimed at teenagers, including mass advertising, youth training camps, and media, institutional and educational interventions. These are clearly no longer as effective as they used to be in grooming youth for conscription.

It was unclear how many soldiers refused to serve in Gaza during Israel’s onslaught earlier this year. According to Chris McGreal writing in the Irish Times, this was because the IDF was sending people home, quietly. Courage to Resist’s Web site said that of the seven who had been summoned to fight and refused, one had been imprisoned for 14 days and the rest were awaiting a military trial.

Nowadays, young men and women talk openly of their dislike of frisking, humiliating and turning away Palestinians at the more than 600 road blocks in the West Bank that have wrecked the Palestinian economy and made the normal activities of everyday life all but impossible. Others have called the IDF “the settlers’ army”. Finding loopholes in the rules governing enlistment has become common among Israeli youth.

It is for this reason that last September Attorney General Menachem Mazuz called for draft resister groups such as New Profile, which also campaigns against Israel’s brutal and humiliating treatment of the Palestinians and exposes the actions of the IDF, to be investigated. It followed the declaration of a “war on draft evasion” by Defence Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi last summer.

This crackdown on young people comes within weeks of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, pledged to an expansionist policy, coming to power. It appears, according to Ha’aretz, that a complaint against New Profile was made by the Israeli Forum for the Promotion of Equal Share in the Burden, which advocates universal and mandatory conscription. It signifies a turn to repress any opposition to the government’s expansionist and militarist policies.

Almost all the political parties in Israel have condemned the refusal to serve on political grounds, calling such action dangerous and undemocratic. The so-called parties of peace, Labour and most of Meretz, have opposed their actions, as have the right-wing and ultra-nationalist parties. Some of the far right parties have even accused the refuseniks of aiding and abetting Israel’s enemies and of treason during war time.

However, the raids appear to have backfired, with the dissent groups receiving increased interest, with more hits on their Web sites, and support. The, as yet, small but growing dissent testifies to the real state of public opinion in Israel, the ever widening gap between official politics in Israel today and the broad mass of the population, who want an end to the long running conflict, and the objective unity between Arab and Israeli youth and working people.

Biden in the Balkans: US asserts interests in shattered region

Biden in the Balkans: US asserts interests in shattered region

By Paul Mitchell

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This week, US Vice President Joseph Biden is visiting the Balkans. It is the first time a US vice president had been to the region since 1983. Starting on Tuesday and ending on Thursday, Biden will visit Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. US Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter said that his visit was evidence of a “deeper interest” on the part of the new US administration.

Biden is in the Balkans to halt a crisis that threatens US interests and prestige in the region. He will reaffirm support for Kosovan independence declared in February 2008 and press Serbia to stop undermining it by encouraging non-cooperation by the Serb minority. He will also address Bosnian leaders about the political impasse that has developed in the country.

Biden’s visit follows an outburst by Deputy Assistant to the US Secretary of State for European Affairs Stuart Jones directed at the European Union (EU) during a press conference in Brussels last week. Jones declared that, “Americans are not satisfied with the Brussels leadership in the Balkans” and criticized a number of European countries that are calling for a delay in the accession of more Balkan states to the EU and NATO.

Foreign Policy magazine reported, “Sadly, Biden’s visit to Serbia, Kosovo, and, most especially, Bosnia, is all too necessary. The reason is simple: Europe is still not up to resolving its own security problems. Brussels is indifferent at best, and divided at worst, when it comes to the pressing issues in the Balkans. Five EU states still do not recognize Kosovo. The European Union lacks a viable policy toward Bosnia, leaving Washington to lobby most consistently for the steps that would bring the country into the EU.”

On the same day that Jones made his statement, the US Congress passed a resolution on Bosnia, calling for resolution of the constitutional crisis in the country, which has been divided into the Serbian dominated Republika Srpska (RS) and the Muslim-Croat Federation since the 1995 US brokered Dayton peace agreement. It declared that “the full incorporation of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Euro-Atlantic community is in the national interest of the United States and important for the stabilisation of south-eastern Europe.”

Congress’ resolution also called for the appointment of a new US special envoy to the Balkans region, stating, “The United States should appoint a special envoy to the Balkans who can work in partnership with the EU and political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina to facilitate reforms at all levels of government and society, while also assisting the political development of other countries in the region.” The new appointment is said to have shocked EU officials, who pointed out that the only other places where such envoys exist are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US Congress also demanded the Office of the High Representative (OHR)—created by the Dayton peace agreement as a pro-consular official with ultimate authority in Bosnia—to be kept open and not closed as planned at the end of June. It also called on the EU to reconsider its plans to pull out the European peacekeeping force, EUFOR, which replaced the NATO-led one in December 2004.

In the weeks leading up to the resolution, Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton agreement and Paddy Ashdown, the high representative from 2002 to 2006, made direct appeals to the US Congress. Ashdown branded the country, “Divided, dysfunctional, a black hole, corruption heavily embedded, a space that we cannot afford to leave because it’s too destabilizing if we do, but we cannot push forward toward full statehood, either.” He called on the US to use its influence to “support and strengthen” the EU, which he said suffered from “a lack of purpose” in the Balkans.

The US moves are acutely embarrassing for the EU. The Balkans region was meant to be the arena in which the EU would flex its muscles for the first time following the launch of the Common Security and Defence Policy some 10 years ago. The EU’s main strategy in the region has been to offer the prospect of EU membership, but this approach has shattered.

Several EU member states are opposed to further enlargement of the bloc until fundamental “reforms” are carried out, in particular ratification and implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both “rule out enlargement without Lisbon.”

The global recession has intensified the economic disaster in the already impoverished region leading to increasing numbers of people questioning the advantages of EU membership. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that less than half of Bosnians are enthusiastic about joining the EU.

Finally, the EU confronts a region divided into ethnically based regimes dominated by nationalists for which it has a major responsibility. The major imperialist powers, particularly the US and Germany, deliberately engineered Yugoslavia’s break-up, with a complete indifference to the inevitable tragic consequences of their intervention. It was inevitable, given the history and politics of Yugoslavia, that the piecemeal break-up of the federation would lead to civil war and create new ethnically based states incapable of providing a progressive solution to the problems facing the Balkan people—entrenched poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption.

Recently, a report, Bosnia’s Incomplete Transition: Between Dayton and Europe, published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), which numbers former presidents, ministers and businessmen amongst its members warned that the Dayton agreement “is arguably under the greatest threat since the war ended in 1995.”

The ICG complained that “international credibility took a big hit” in 2007 when the EU went ahead and signed a stabilisation and association agreement with Bosnia—a major step towards the country’s EU membership—even though key criteria, such as reform of the police force, had not been met.

The organisation also criticised moves to shut down the OHR and transfer some of its powers to an EU special representative despite three of the seven criteria, such as full compliance with the Dayton agreement, remaining unfulfilled. Such a decision would end up “crippling the EU’s ability to apply firm policies toward Bosnia long after the protectorate itself has ended...weaken EU credibility throughout the region, notably in Kosovo” and signal “another international community retreat.”

The ICG ignores the responsibility of the Western powers for any role in the disaster and heaps the blames entirely on two of the country’s main nationalist leaders. One time “darling” of the West, because of his opposition to Milosevic’s Socialist Party, Milorad Dodik, the RS prime minister and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, calls for the OHR to close immediately and regularly demands the right to self-determination. After Kosovo declared its independence in February 2008, the RS National Assembly proclaimed, “it has the right to determine a position on its legal status through...a referendum” and following the recent US Congress resolution it demanded High Representative Valentin Inzko stop using his powers to impose laws and remove politicians and reverse decisions made by his predecessors.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Muslim member of the state presidency and head of the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, wants the OHR to continue and demands the abolition of Republika Srpska. Most Bosnian leaders want a centralised Bosnian state and see the current federal set-up as “a temporary system, hardly worthy of their attention.” Some warn of war if RS attempts to secede.

Even the leadership of Bosnia’s smallest ethnic group, the Croats, remains committed to autonomy and demands separate institutions, such as a Croatian television channel. Because the vast majority of Bosnian Croats have dual citizenship with Croatia and hold Croatian passports they are allowed visa-free travel to the EU unlike the Bosnians and Serbs. Many have settled in Croatia where the average income, about $10,500, is almost three times as high as in Bosnia. The Croat population is estimated to have fallen far below the 1991 level of just over 17 per cent.

According to the ICG, Bosnia “faces the global economic downturn with no demonstrated ability to respond effectively.” Reports suggest remittances from relatives working abroad are falling drastically, export markets are beginning to dry up, and the real estate market is on the verge of collapse. House prices fell by up to 40 percent by January 2009, and the number of transactions fell by half in the last quarter of 2008. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimates that Bosnia will be “the hardest hit” in the region, with growth declining from an annual 4.5 percent to 1.5 percent. Bosnia’s 40 percent unemployment rate is sure to rise as a result.

The failure of the Western powers and the nationalist politicians in Bosnia has led to a collapse in support for the country’s political institutions. A recent poll showed Bosnia “outperforms all other [World Values Survey] transformation countries” in showing “no interest at all” in politics. Most young people are “outside the political process,” and nearly 80 percent of all Bosnians feel that none of the political parties represent their interest. According to philosophy professor at Banja Luka University, Mirograd Zivanovic, “After each election the glue holding our state together is disappearing. I don’t think we are threatened with just collapse. Something much more grave is happening, the death [of the country].”

In neighbouring Kosovo, public protests and violent incidents broke out earlier this month, first by Serbs in Mitrovica against the rebuilding of Albanian houses destroyed in the Kosovo war, and then over the refusal by Serbs in northern Kosovo to pay for electricity provided by the Kosovo-run power company KEK. They are signs of continuing ethnic divisions that have split the newly independent country into a majority ethnic Albanian region and a Serb enclave in the north bordering Serbia. Oliver Ivanovic, state secretary of Serbia’s Ministry for Kosovo, responded to these developments saying that attempts by the Kosovo Albanian government or the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) to “establish full control over northern Kosovo would cause bloodshed,” adding that “large scale unrest would break out.”

The occurrence of such incidents is also being blamed on the EU’s handling of the issue of Kosovan independence from Serbia. Following its declaration in February 2008, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn boasted, “I’m proud that by pledging 500 million euros—that is, half a billion euros—the European Union today clearly demonstrates that this sentence, ‘Kosovo is a European matter, a profoundly European matter,’ is not only a diplomatic formula but most concrete, tangible proof of our commitment to Kosovo.”

But over one year later, five of the 27 EU member states, fearing that separatist movements in their own countries would be encouraged by the Kosovo example, have still to formally recognize the new country’s independence.

There has also been criticism of the EU’s stabilisation and association agreement with Serbia in April 2008, which opened up the prospect of EU membership even though Belgrade strongly opposed EU policies in Kosovo, especially the deployment of EULEX, and refused to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Serbia, supported by Russia, has refused to accept Kosovan independence referring the case to the International Court of Justice. Serb nationalists argue that Kosovan independence justifies Republika Srpska breaking away from Bosnia and the Serb dominated areas from Kosovo.

Behind the simmering ethnic tensions in Kosovo lie the economic problems. The country remains one of Europe’s poorest, with unemployment levels estimated as high as 70 percent. The EU has been seriously implicated in Kosovos’ endemic crime and corruption. Funds for “economic reconstruction” to help rebuild Kosovo after the war 10 years ago were involved in 12 cases of alleged criminal activity and 27 examples of alleged breaches of rules on the awarding of contracts. The EU and United Nations have abandoned investigations into serious fraud and corruption allegations involving €80 million worth of funding for Pristina airport and the KEK electricity company. The response of the EU to these scandals is to press for the privatisation of the airport, KEK and other key state-owned companies but this will only to further social inequality and domination by international capital.

The “re-engagement” of the US in the Balkans is a bitter indictment of the western powers’ record of intervention. Poverty, corruption and ethnic separation have become endemic in the Balkan region as a result of the attempt to dismantle the former Yugoslavia. That intervention was carried out under the cloak of humanitarianism, but signaled the legitimisation of the naked use of overwhelming military power against small countries in pursuit of strategic “Big Power” interests, the cynical violation of the principle of national sovereignty, the de facto reestablishment of colonialist forms of subjugation, and the revival of inter-imperialist antagonisms.

Detroit students demonstrate against school restructuring

Detroit students demonstrate against school restructuring

900 jobs to be eliminated, 50 schools closed

By Joe Kishore

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Hundreds of students demonstrated against the firing of their principals at two Detroit high schools this week, as the school district prepares mass firings and school closures.

The demonstrations took place at Western International High School on Monday and Kettering High School on Wednesday. Students and parents spoke out against the plans of Robert Bobb, the Detroit Public School District’s “emergency financial manager,” to close 50 schools (including 29 this year) and fire 33 principals.

Bobb said on Tuesday that he plans to eliminate 900 teacher and staff jobs as part of drastic cost-cutting measures. This is about 6 percent of the district’s employees.

According to a Detroit News report, Bobb (who is paid $260,000 a year), “said he plans to balance the budget by June, which requires eliminating a $306 million deficit sooner than he anticipated ... through vast cost-cutting measures, right down to examining the cost of binders used for budgetary books.”

The bulk of the cuts, however, will not come from cutting back on binders, but from layoffs and school closings. Bobb is also looking for major concessions from teachers and is counting on the union to force through cuts. “More tough decisions are to come, with some changes being sought within the Detroit Federation of Teachers union contract,” the News reported. “Bobb has said he is seeking an innovative contract, and negotiations are starting this month.”

The DFT and the American Federation of Teachers are planning a mass meeting Tuesday to prepare teachers for accepting major changes to their contract.

The Obama administration is spearheading the cuts. The president sees Detroit as a model for implementing education “reform.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Detroit last week to demand an “absolutely fundamental overhaul” to the education system, including closing schools, firing teachers and staff, expanding charter schools, increasing testing, and introducing merit pay for teachers.

Federal aid to the schools is being made conditional on implementing these changes.

The World Socialist Web Site spoke to students participating in the high school demonstrations on Monday and Wednesday. At the demonstration at Kettering, supporters of the Socialist Equality Party’s candidate for Detroit mayor, D’Artagnan Collier, distributed a statement denouncing the cuts. (See “Oppose school closures! Stop the shut down of Detroit!—A socialist response to the crisis in education”)

Western International High School

The protest at Western International High School on the west side of the city involved the entire school body of more than 1,000 students and lasted several hours on Monday. Students and staff members demonstrated against the planned layoff of the school’s principal, Rebecca Luna.

Davante, a freshman at Western, said, “I don’t like the way they treated the principal. I think it is wrong the way that they fired her.” Davante said he was told the principal was fired because of low test scores at the school.

Arthur said he thought they should keep the principal. “She’s always prepared to help you. She actually cares about the students. If you have a problem you can go and speak to her, like you are supposed to be able to do.”

School closures are being justified on the grounds that the number of students attending Detroit schools has declined. In fact, classrooms are overcrowded, making teaching that much more difficult.

Vanessa

Vanessa, a sophomore, said she understood that the district planned to close nearby Chadsey and Southwestern high schools. Many of the students would be coming to Western, making the classes even more overcrowded. “The classrooms need to be smaller. As it is we don’t have proper textbooks. The ones we have are old and worn out,” she said.

Vanessa added that the school attracts many Hispanic students who do not speak English as their first language. “It is very difficult to keep the test scores up here because we have a lot of students who do not speak English in the school. Principal Luna fights so hard to keep everybody coming to school, even if they have difficulties, and it shows.”

Antonio said he was opposed to the firing of the principal. “It’s wrong. Why don’t they do something about the classroom size? My smallest class has 25 students, but they average in the 30s.

“They always say there is no money,” Anthony said, “But I see they have money for everything else, like the banks.”

Larhonda

Larhonda, another student at Western, said that the school has a good reputation and attracts students from all over, including Macomb County. “It’s an international school with students from Cuba or even Mexico. People really want to come here because they know they can get a good education.”

Rhonda and Larhonda

Larhonda’s mother, Rhonda, also spoke to the WSWS. “I am absolutely opposed to the firing of Ms. Luna. She is a wonderful principal. In fact, I live close to Cody High School but I would rather my daughter take two buses and come here because I know she will get a good education.”

Asked why they were trying to get rid of the principal, Ronda replied, “I think it is because she cares for low-income students,” said Ms. Smith. “She really cares for them and that could be a problem.”

“I called Robb’s office and asked him to come down to the school, and I don’t get a response. I called and asked if he would have a meeting with the parents, and I didn’t get a response. We are going to have to fight this. I plan to get together with other parents and organize a fight against this.”

Kettering High School

Kettering is located on the east side of Detroit in a distressed neighborhood. After support for a walkout spread among students, school administrators decided to let the students out for about half an hour Wednesday morning to demonstrate against the planned firing of their principal, Ms. Willie Howard. The students marched along a service drive of the freeway, where cars and trucks honked their horns in support.

Kettering student Daniel told the WSWS, “They’re shutting schools and taking away our education. Our principal was an inspiration to us. We already have a tough environment to learn in. The district is cutting 10 percent from the budget each year. They want our school to be a poor school. The director of the school board is making $275,000 a year. They don’t spend that much money on our school in three years.”

Derrell, a sophomore, said he was opposed to the school cuts. “I think Ms. Howard is a good principal. She cares about the students. I also don’t think they should cut the teachers or close the schools. They should be able to find the money somewhere.”

Gloria Paton, the mother of a high school senior, said she was strongly opposed to changing the administration. “If they cut these schools the kids will be out in the street,” she said. “There are enough kids from Detroit in the juvenile justice system as it is. This will only make it worse. I believe if they make these cuts there will be kids either in juvenile or the graveyard because there is nothing out there for them without an education.”

Jonathan

She continued, “Although I live on the west side I brought my daughter here because it is a good school. She was at Martin Luther King High School before here and it was very bad. In one of the classrooms they had 60 students in class. Kids would rush to class to get a seat because otherwise you would be sitting on the floor.”

“I really think this school is wonderful. My daughter is an honor student and wants to become a doctor. Through the school she is in a program with the Detroit Allied Health Middle College and Wayne County Community College. When she graduates from here she will also have an associate’s degree. They have gone all-out for her.”

Jonathan took several of the flyers with the SEP statement and handed them out to other students. He said, “I am really disappointed. I think [Howard] is a nice lady. She is someone you can talk to. I was suspended and she had it revoked.”

US military denies atrocity in Afghanistan’s Farah province

US military denies atrocity in Afghanistan’s Farah province

By David Walsh

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On Wednesday, the same day another eight Afghan civilians were killed by a NATO-led air strike in Helmand province, the American military released the findings of its interim investigation into the mass killing of civilians in Afghanistan’s Farah province May 4.

The investigation concluded that US bombs killed “60 to 65 Taliban extremists” while “at least 20 to 30 civilians may have been killed during the fighting,” according to a US Forces Afghanistan news release.

This conclusion, unsubstantiated by any evidence, flies in the face of local accounts, International Red Cross reports and an official Afghan government inquiry that found 140 civilians, including 93 children, died in the US air attack. Only 22 of the victims were adult males. Other sources have put the total death toll higher.

The Afghan government delegation, according to a defense ministry statement, “visited the site of the incident, the graves, assessed intelligence authorities’ reports, met with the ulema [religious leaders], elders and locals to complete their investigations.”

The US military’s whitewash, however, determined that a review of the physical evidence was “inconclusive in determining the exact number of civilian and insurgent casualties.” This did not prevent the investigators from minimizing the number of civilian deaths and “strongly” condemning the anti-government forces “for their brutality in deliberately targeting and using civilians as human shields.”

This is standard operating procedure. The US military carries out an atrocity, and when initial news reports emerge, denies that it ever took place. When incontrovertible evidence of civilian casualties is presented, the military plays down the number of deaths and blames them, in any case, on the Taliban who “blend into” the population. All of this is done with the cooperation of the US media.

The death toll in Bala Boluk district in Farah province May 4 was the greatest in any single incident in the Afghan war and occupation. It has caused an uproar in Afghanistan, provoking numerous protests. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, a bought and paid for US instrument, was obliged to condemn the attack and declare, “Air strikes are not acceptable.”

Even before his government released its report May 16, Karzai dismissed the possibility that the Taliban had caused the civilian casualties. “I got definitive word from the government this morning,” he told the media May 9, “that there were more than 100 casualties—nearly 125 to 130 civilians lost. Deaths—children, women and men—and it was done by the [US military] bombings.”

A former top official in the Bala Boluk district, Mohammad Nieem Qadderdan, commented to the Associated Press May 5, “These houses were full of children and women and elders bombed by planes. People are digging through rubble with shovels and hands. It is very difficult to say how many were killed because nobody can count the number, it is too early.”

While certain details remain unclear, local residents’ comments to reporters have established clearly that the US bombed compounds in which civilians, mostly women and children, had gathered for protection from the fighting.

During the day May 4, a unit of insurgents engaged Afghan police and army units, accompanied by US special forces, in the village of Granai in Farah, a large and sparsely populated province on the Iranian border. The Afghan government troops were apparently getting the worst of it and the American forces called in air strikes on at least three targets in the village.

Villagers assert, contrary to the US military’s account, that the Taliban fighters had departed by the time the lethal bombings began.

The New York Times reports: “There was particular anger among the villagers that the bombing came after, they say, the Taliban had already left at dusk, and the fighting had subsided, so much so that men had gone to evening prayers at 7 p.m. and returned and were sitting down with their families for dinner. ...

“American planes bombed after 8 p.m. in several waves when most of the villagers thought the fighting was over; and whatever the actual number of casualties, it is clear from the villagers’ accounts that dozens of women and children were killed after taking cover.”

A 12-year-old girl, from her hospital bed where she was recovering from burn wounds, explained to the Times reporters that she, her mother and sister, along with other women and children, had taken refuge in a large compound, “which was then hit.”

“The bombs were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies. Several villagers said that they could not distinguish all of the dead and that they never found some of their relatives. ...

“The enormous explosions left such devastation that villagers struggled to describe it. ‘There was someone’s legs, someone’s shoulders, someone’s hands,’ said Said Jamal, an old white-bearded man with rheumy eyes, who lost two sons and a daughter. ‘The dead were so many.’”

At a May 11 press conference in Kabul one man described how he had lost 20 members of his family in the American attack.

Jessica Barry of the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose aid team provided the first international confirmation of the incident in Farah province, told the media that when the team reached the area, “there were women and there were children killed, it seemed they were trying to shelter in houses when they were hit.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that Barry told journalists May 6 “that there was little doubt that dozens of those killed in two locations were noncombatants. Many of the bodies seen being pulled from the rubble were those of women, children and elderly men, she said.”

Barry stated on the Democracy Now! radio program, also on May 6: “When our team from the ICRC went in on Tuesday afternoon [May 5], they came to two villages, which have clusters of houses around them. They did indeed see dozens of bodies, they saw graves, and they saw burials going on.” A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, insisted that all the dead were civilians.

The US disinformation campaign to cover up the dimensions of the Farah atrocity began almost immediately. Although they undoubtedly knew what had taken place, American military officials pleaded ignorance, claimed an investigation was under way and explained they would know more “once we get eyes on the ground.”

The lack of “eyes on the ground” didn’t prevent the military from issuing a press release May 6 that cast doubt on the civilian death toll. The claims of massive loss of life, “don’t initially appear to add up,” the statement declared.

It went on: “Casualty numbers being reported by the media ‘fluctuate wildly,’ [Army Gen. David D.] McKiernan said, and he raised suspicion that the Taliban are generating negative U.S. publicity to their gain.

“‘It is certainly a technique of the Taliban and other insurgent groups to claim civilian casualties at every event,’ he said. ‘So we just have to do the right investigation on this.’”

A spokeswoman for US forces in Afghanistan May 6 attempted to place the responsibility for whatever had taken place on the Afghan units. “This was not coalition forces. This was Afghan national security forces who called in close air support, a decision that was vetted by the Afghan leadership,” said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias.

On May 7 Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained: “While there have been civilian casualties caused by American and NATO troops, they have been accidental. When the Taliban cause casualties, they are on purpose.”

A day later Colonel Greg Julian, another spokesman for US Forces Afghanistan, called a death toll estimate of 130 put out by the Afghan police “grossly exaggerated,” although he went on to say that “the conclusion from the investigation has not been reached, and it’s inappropriate to indicate one way or another how [the deaths] were caused.”

The following day, the Pentagon floated another story to the effect that the Taliban had forcibly confined villagers in the compounds on which US planes dropped bombs. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the US Central Command, asserted on Fox News that “The Taliban moved into these villages seeking to extort money from them ... It appears the Taliban forced the civilians to stay in the houses from which they were engaging our forces.”

US Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, the top marine officer, had yet another story. He told reporters May 15, that an inquiry would show it was the Taliban who were directly to blame for the civilian deaths in Farah province, not a US air strike. “We believe that there were families who were killed by the Taliban with grenades and rifle fire that were then paraded about and shown as casualties from the air strike. ... Casualty after casualty has said that, in the hospitals, in terms of what they saw and what really took place.”

That same day the Afghan investigative team handed in its official findings, based on interviews with “casualties” and others, revealing that the US air strikes had killed at least 140 civilians. American officials claimed that, “some of the names on the list may be fake” (Washington Post).

In the wake of the Farah massacre, various Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and newly-appointed ambassador to Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, along with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, expressed hypocritical regrets and promised to cut down on the number of Afghan civilian deaths.

Such atrocities, however, are in the very nature of a colonial war, in which the entire population is seen as suspect and has to be suppressed. There will be other and far worse crimes to come in Afghanistan.

Observers agree, in the words of the New York Times, that, “bombings like this one ... have turned many Afghans against the American-backed government and the foreign military presence.” A member of Farah’s provincial council, Belquis Roshan, told a TimeTime reported, “a mob of several hundred protesters chanted anti-American slogans and threw rocks at the provincial governor’s office” in Farah province. magazine reporter, “If the situation goes on like this, the whole country will one day become Taliban.” Two days after the incident,

One of the larger protests was staged by 1,000 students in Kabul May 10. The students, who protested outside Kabul University, blamed the US for the Farah killings and demanded that those who ordered the air raids be placed on trial. A student leader, according to Al Jazeera, read out a statement declaring: “Our people are fed up with Taliban beheadings and suicide bombings. On the other hand, the massacre of civilians by the American forces is a crime that our people will never forget.” The resolution dismissed Washington’s apologies, “You cannot wash [away] the blood of Bala Boluk district martyrs with bizarre words of excuse and sorrow.”

The protesters called the US “the world’s biggest terrorist,” chanting, “Death to America.” A banner read, “The blood of the Farah martyrs will never dry.”

One demonstrator told AFP, “We ask the Afghan government to force the American forces to leave Afghanistan. They kill more civilians than the Taliban.” Haji Nangyalai told the wire service he was demonstrating to “show our anger at the crimes committed by the American forces.”

Netanyahu At The White House: Not Yet Change We Can Believe In

Netanyahu At The White House: Not Yet Change We Can Believe In

By Phyllis Bennis

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Overall, yesterday's White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has to be seen as a draw. As former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Obama adviser Daniel Kurtzer noted before the meeting, "for different but complementary reasons, both Obama and Netanyahu do not want this meeting to fail." And it didn't. There was no public acknowledgement of strategic differences between them, the tone was friendly and upbeat, the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship" re-emerged unchanged and intact.

At a broader level, the meeting provides an indication that the Obama administration real policy towards Israel - including the existence and amount of any U.S. pressure on Israel to meet any U.S. political demands or even implementation of existing Israeli commitments - is, at least for now, going to remain behind-the-scenes. The reality that the U.S. is still the financial, military, diplomatic and political superpower patron on which Israel depends was not reflected in the press conference that followed the meeting.

Certainly, this creates challenges for all those - in the U.S., in the region, and internationally - who are trying to bring about real change in U.S. policy. The reality is there will not likely be an easier time for Obama in the future if he intends to bring any real pressure to bear on Israel towards his stated goal of a two-state solution.

Palestinian parliamentarian and pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti wrote in the Los Angeles Times just before the meeting, "It's now or almost certainly never. If Obama lacks the political will to stand up to Netanyahu now, he will lack the capacity later. And by the time Obama leaves office, it will be too late to salvage anything more than an archipelago of Palestinian bantustans. We Palestinians seek freedom, not apartheid, and not the sort of Potemkin villages on the West Bank that Netanyahu is trying to package to the West as visionary economic boomtowns for desperate Palestinians."

It's only going to get harder from here, but so far we still don't really know where "here" is. Obama's public posture didn't challenge Netanyahu's fundamental claims - but he did not accept them either, and made clear his own position.

Special Relationships

Obama began the post-meeting press encounter with an effusive reaffirmation of "the extraordinary relationship, the special relationship between the United States and Israel. It is a stalwart ally of the United States. We have historical ties, emotional ties. As the only true democracy of the Middle East it is a source of admiration and inspiration for the American people." He went on to promise "that when it comes to my policies towards Israel and the Middle East that Israel's security is paramount, and I repeated that to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained."

That last reference is a profoundly dangerous position (though consistent with Bush administration policy), since it endorses the legal discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel, as well as the existence of things like separate legal systems for Jews and non-Jews (Palestinians) in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem. It is those systems of discrimination that provide the basis for legal scholars' and human rights advocates' assessment that Israel is in violation of the UN's 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

Iran First

Obama spoke first during the press encounter following their meeting, beginning with Iran, Israel's top concern. He quickly "reassured" the Israeli leader that even though the U.S. is now engaging diplomatically rather than threatening Iran, that "we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions."

Obama reasserted the U.S. policy of persuasion vis-à-vis Iran, and challenged Netanyahu's claim that Iran's alleged (though nonexistent, according to international and U.S. intelligence sources) nuclear weapons program had to be ended or destroyed before Israel could be expected to deal with the Palestinian issue. Obama openly disagreed, saying that any such linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process "actually runs the other way." He softened his own position somewhat by prefacing his description with "I personally believe," thereby taking the position out of the realm of policy and into the realm of interesting-but-strategically-irrelevant personal belief, but never accepted Netanyahu's approach.

The president first rejected Netanyahu's insistence on a short timetable for any U.S. diplomatic initiative towards Iran, stating unequivocally "I don't want to set an artificial deadline" in negotiations with Iran. But that clarity was again undermined by his follow-up assurance to Israel that "we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they [the Iranians] are moving in the right direction." Small wonder that many analysts, Israeli and others, agreed with David Makovsky, of the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, who said on the The PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, "I thought that was the news of the day, in many ways, because for the first time I had heard President Obama talking about a clear timetable for negotiations with Iran."

The president stated that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon "could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East." That of course denies the reality that a Middle East nuclear arms race has unfortunately been underway for years in response to Israel's well-known but officially unacknowledged nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu asserted at least three times that he and Obama are on the same page, especially on Iran. "We share the same goals, and we face the same threats," he said. A few minutes later: "that's what I hear the president saying, and that's what I'm saying, too." And then: "we don't see closely on it; we see exactly eye to eye on this." Obama never agreed with, repeated or asserted those claims, but did not publicly challenge them either.

So the public gap between stated U.S. and Israeli positions remains. Obama reassured Israel of a reassessment of Iran policy at the end of the year, but made no commitments to or even hints regarding support for military force against Iran, and left plenty of room to continue diplomatic engagement even without harsher sanctions - an option, presumably, to be chosen only if his administration faces enough serious pressure to maintain diplomacy and not to escalate.

Then Palestine

Only after his reassurances on Iran did the question of Israel's occupation of Palestine (though of course those words were not used) come up in Obama's presentation.

As Barghouti cautioned, "the false Iran-Palestine linkage troubles me because its Israeli boosters think that Iran is an immediate concern, and Palestinian freedom can once again be kicked down the road. Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister and a representative of Lieberman's extremist Yisrael Beiteinu party, said in April that 'the Iranian clock should be measured in months,' but the Palestinian timetable 'is open-ended.'"

Obama referred again to his support for a two-state solution, and noted that all parties "have to take seriously obligations that they've previously agreed to." He called for moving forward in a way that would "also allow Palestinians to govern themselves as an independent state." That was significant, given Netanyahu's position that while he wants the Palestinians to "govern" themselves, he calls only for "a substantive solution that allows the two people to live side by side in security and peace and I add prosperity, because I'm a great believer in this." Netanyahu is not, however, a believer in independence, statehood, self-determination, an end to occupation (even of the narrowly-defined and truncated U.S. version). He has no intention of allowing Palestinians the actual powers and rights of real statehood - such as signing treaties, control of borders, making independent defense and military decisions, etc. Whether Obama's version of statehood includes such sovereignty remains unclear.

Obama stated his position that "under the roadmap and under Annapolis that there's a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That's a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it's an important one and it has to be addressed." It was an important reference point, but the president didn't publicly mention any enforcement that might bring real results from Israel, such as announcing or even hinting that some of the promised $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel over the next ten years would be made conditional on Israel actually implementing - not just "addressing" - a complete settlement freeze.

As expected, Obama also didn't refer directly to Netanyahu's public rejection of a two-state solution. In fact, official reversal of that policy would have mattered little; earlier Israeli leaders have been effusive in their rhetorical support for it while continuing settlement expansion, land seizures, and apartheid policies on the ground. More disappointing - though hardly unexpected - was the lack of any public U.S. insistence on Israeli action on the ground, perhaps a settlement freeze, as Israel officially agreed to under the "road map." The Israeli leader can now brag to his constituents that publicly, at least, there wasn't even a hint of serious public pressure from Obama to implement any of Israel's obligations.

Obama did refer to the need for humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Gaza, specifically mentioning the border closures, but again there was no hint of pressure for implementation; Netanyahu refused to acknowledge the point.

So publicly, there is no indication yet that this initial meeting, at least, will lead to anything different from the last 18 years of "serious" Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Unfortunately, whether this reflects actual policy or the extraordinary caution and discipline of a still-new White House, it's probably still too early to tell.

Looking to the Future

In my pre-meeting analysis, I posed the following scenarios:

If President Obama, meeting with Netanyahu, demands a real settlement freeze - meaning an end to construction, expansion and building in all settlements, not only outposts - it could signify a real change in U.S. policy towards Israel. But only if it is backed up by specific enforcement mechanisms - like conditioning all (or even part) of the annual $3 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel until there is tangible, internationally-confirmed action on the ground.

So far, that "real change" remains elusive; this first Obama-Netanyahu meeting included no public acknowledgement of any U.S. pressure brought to bear to insure real implementation of Israel's existing treaties or other international (or U.S.) law obligations. Netanyahu responded with silence to Obama's reference to "settlements have to be stopped."

Obama's acceptance of mere words from Netanyahu, on the other hand, whether he "accepts" a settlement freeze or "agrees" to a new round of talks about talks with the Palestinians, and not imposing any conditions to make sure it happens, will indicate that so far, at least, U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid remain intact.

So far, Obama seems willing - at least in public - to accept as sufficient Netanyahu's call "to resume negotiations as rapidly as possible." Those "negotiations," according to Netanyahu, would first require that "the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state." This may be the most direct indication of a dangerous concession Obama is willing to make - acquiescence to the demand that the Palestinians accept the legitimacy of second-class citizenship for Palestinian citizens inside Israel, and the legitimacy of an apartheid system both inside Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory that privileges Jews and discriminates against non-Jews.

And any "deal" that offers Israel any promise of U.S. support for or involvement in a military strike against Iran, will undermine whatever small move towards justice might be possible from a settlement freeze or removal of roadblocks.

So far, Obama offered no deals on Iran. Despite his disappointing shift towards a deadline in U.S.-Iran diplomacy, there was no hint of acceptance of Netanyahu's call for a U.S. (or approval of an Israeli) military strike against Iran. While Obama spoke of the very dangerous possibility of harsher sanctions against Iran if diplomacy didn't "work" fast enough, it was left to Netanyahu to "thank" Obama for his alleged "statement that you're leaving all options on the table" - something Obama had not said during the press encounter. Obama did not rebut the claim - but he didn't reaffirm it either.

Opening Gambits

This was a first meeting; at least in public, both politicians were playing primarily to their home audiences. The indicators so far were disappointing. But this was only round one. What happens next, privately and publicly, will be determined largely by the level of pressure that is brought to bear on Obama.

We know the capacity of Israel's U.S. supporters to raise that pressure. The question for us is how to challenge it, for diplomacy instead of threats towards Iran, and an end to U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid and for a U.S. policy based on equality for all. We have to raise our own claims - regarding Iran and Palestine - based on holding Obama to his own promises - for a changed foreign policy, for an end to the mindset that leads to war.

There's a lot of work ahead.

Kucinich Demands Chrysler Explain Plant- Closing Confusion

Dennis Kucinich demands that Chrysler explain plant-closing confusion

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Kucinich wants Chrysler to explain itself.

UPDATE:

Dennis Kucinich's office says it is not ruling out seeking additional information from the White House, and notes that its letter to Chrysler is worded broadly. But since the decision to shutter the plants apparently was Chrysler's, Kucinich is starting with Chrysler in his demand for answers.

WASHINGTON — Congressman Dennis Kucinich says he wants to know why lawmakers were misled when they were told on April 30 that Chrysler's just-announced Chapter 11 bankruptcy would not result in permanent plant closings or job losses.

Congress members including Kucinich, a Cleveland Democrat, and Steve LaTourette, a Bainbridge Township Republican, were surprised to learn the next day that Chrysler in fact planned to permanantly close five plants, including the 1,250-worker Twinsburg Stamping Plant.

Now Kucinich, chairman of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House government affairs committee, wants Chrysler to explain itself.

In a letter today to CEO Robert Nardelli, Kucinich wrote to request "all external communications, including transcripts of conference calls, that conveyed information relating to the future status of Chrysler company plants in Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Ohio between December 2008 and the present."

His letter mentions "a conference call on April 30, 2009" in which "members of Congress were assured that there would be no permanent Chrysler plant closings or job losses under the terms of Chrysler's pending bankruptcy. When the terms of the bankruptcy were released on May 1, 2009, plants in Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Ohio were targeted for closure."

Kucinich's letter does not specify which conference call he means. There were two on April 30 -- one with officials from President Barack Obama's automotive task force, and one with Nardelli. Both calls gave a rosy outlook for all Chrysler communities, according to a number of participants including members of Congress. Local and congressional officials were so pleased by those calls that they issued statements or held news conferences to proclaim the fine outcome for their communities.

Chrysler has since apologized, and it and the White House say that the company had privately had the plant closings under consideration months before the bankruptcy announcement. Chrysler has said it did not publicly disclose that fact because it would have been presumptuous, considering that it and the United Autoworkers Union were in negotiations for new contracts that might have played a role.

A number of UAW and local officials don't buy that. Well before the April 30 announcement that all was well -- and the sudden realization from the bankruptcy filing that things were not so good in Twinsburg -- the UAW had already agreed to concessions to keep the Twinsburg plant open.

So why didn't officials just come clean on April 30? Was it because they didn't want to temper the good news with bad? Were they merely trying to look forward -- way forward -- and not dwell on issues that Chrysler had already decided privately? Surely they didn't want to make public officials -- including not only Republicans but Democrats as well -- look completely foolish or feel sucker-punched, did they?

Kucinich hopes to find out. He wants Chrysler to turn over any call transcripts by 5 p.m., Friday, May 29.

Are Wall Street speculators driving up gasoline prices?

Are Wall Street speculators driving up gasoline prices?

Kevin G. Hall

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Oil and gasoline prices are rising fast as Memorial Day weekend approaches, but not because supplies are tight or demand is high.

U.S. crude-oil inventories are at their highest levels in almost two decades, and demand has fallen to a 10-year low, but crude oil prices have climbed more than 70 percent since mid-January to a six-month high of $62.04 on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, although refiners are operating at less than 85 percent of capacity, which leaves them plenty of room to churn out more gasoline if demand rises during the summer driving season, the price of gasoline at the pump has climbed 28 cents a gallon from a month earlier to $2.33.

This time, Wall Street speculators — some of them recipients of billions of dollars in taxpayers' bailout money — may be to blame.

Big Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs & Co., Morgan Stanley and others are able to sidestep the regulations that limit investments in commodities such as oil, and they're investing on behalf of pension funds, endowments, hedge funds and other big institutional investors, in part as a hedge against rising inflation.

These investors now far outnumber big fuel consumers such as airlines and trucking companies, which try to protect themselves against price swings, and they're betting that the economy eventually will rebound, that the Obama administration's spending policies and Federal Reserve actions will trigger inflation — or both — and that oil prices will rise.

"They're buying because they think it will diversify their portfolio, and they think it will diversify their portfolio against inflation, and maybe they think the economy will turn around," said Michael Masters, a hedge-fund manager who testified before Congress last year about the consequences of what are called exchange-traded funds.

Oil contracts are traded mostly in U.S. dollars, and inflation would erode the value of oil earnings, stocks or any other asset denominated in U.S. currency. Many investors are pouring money into oil futures — contracts for future deliveries of oil at specified prices — in the belief that oil prices will rise as inflation erodes the dollar's value.

This turns oil futures contracts into a way for investors to hedge against inflation at the expense of American consumers, who have to pay more to fill their gas tanks as oil and gasoline prices rise.

Masters and other critics say this speculative flow of money into commodities markets is a self-fulfilling prophecy that's distorting the usual process by which buyers and sellers set prices and is driving up the prices of oil, gasoline, grains and other essentials.

"There is definitely an inflation premium at work here," said John Kilduff, a senior vice president of MF Global in New York, a brokerage house that helps large investors trade in energy markets.

In a report May 6, CNBC television senior energy correspondent Sharon Epperson said that traders told her that prices were disconnected from supply and demand.

"Nymex traders tell me they're seeing new money coming in from passive funds that are reallocating assets away from precious metals and into energy holdings. It's this money flow — rather than the fundamental supply-demand data — that's driving oil prices higher," she reported.

Morgan Stanley didn't respond to requests for comment via e-mail and telephone.

"Goldman Sachs declines to comment for your story," spokesman Michael DuVally said.

In a report April 16 on last year's spike in natural gas prices, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that similar investment flows drove up the price that consumers paid to heat their homes with natural gas.

"This increase in commodity prices occurred as large pools of capital flowed into various financial instruments that essentially turn commodities like natural gas into investment vehicles," the report says. "Ultimately, we believe that financial fundamentals . . . explains natural gas prices during the year."

During a visit to McClatchy's Washington Bureau, hedge-fund manager Masters also said that big institutional investors were sucking the air out of the fragile economic recovery, in part because their Wall Street partners were exempt from federal limits on how much they could bet on commodity prices.

"What they don't realize is because we don't have position limits, the money they put in is driving up the price" for oil and other commodities, he said.

Contracts for future deliveries of oil and other commodities are traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange, and the futures market for oil has position limits that restrict how much of the market big speculators can control.

However, big Wall Street banks are exempt from these restrictions, and there also are no such limits in derivatives markets. These vast unregulated markets involve private contracts between swaps dealers — usually big Wall Street banks — and large investors. These dark markets, also called over-the-counter markets, are thought to be 10 times larger than the futures market, and they have no position limits and no regulation.

"We were in essence operating with a blindfold on for those over-the-counter markets that we couldn't see," Michael Dunn, the acting chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, acknowledged last week during a news conference to announce proposed new regulation of derivatives markets.

A stream of financial deregulation under the Clinton administration, culminating in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, led to a global race away from regulation.

"The Modernization Act specifically said we were not going to look at those; we weren't going to regulate them. Times have changed, and now we think it is time for us to look at them," Dunn said.

Does Dunn think that Wall Street is partly to blame for the current $27-a-barrel run-up in oil prices or for the 12-month run-up from $70 to last July's record $147, followed by the four-month collapse in prices to $56?

"Everybody has an opinion of what drove the market in the energy crisis. Do I think it was part of the problem? I do," he said. "Do I think it was all of the problem? No.

"I think monetary policies — a weak dollar — had an impact on it. I think speculation by the herd, people saying prices of fuel are going to go up and I want to get in on that" also played a part.

The International Swaps and Derivatives Association, which represents the big players in these markets, said in a statement to McClatchy that fundamentals, not speculation, were driving up prices.

"Oil prices are fundamentally driven by macroeconomic factors affecting supply and demand," the group said. "Energy derivatives are a key tool for helping companies manage the resulting fluctuations in prices."

ON THE WEB

The FERC report

Michael Masters' report "The 2008 Commodities Bubble"

Masters PowerPoint presentation

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

To ask a question about this story or any economic question, go to McClatchy's economy Q&A

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Judge says US can hold prisoners indefinitely

Judge says US can hold detainees indefinitely

By NEDRA PICKLER

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A federal judge says the United States can continue to hold some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without any charges.

U.S. District Judge John Bates' opinion issued Tuesday night limited the Obama administration's definition of who can be held. But he said Congress in the days after Sept. 11, 2001 gave the president the authority to hold anyone involved in planning, aiding or carrying out the terrorist attacks.

Bates' opinion comes amid increasing debate over whether President Barack Obama is going to release anyone from Guantanamo. Obama has promised to close the prison by January, but Senate Democrats say they will block the move until he comes up with a plan for the detainees.

Bates' opinion came in the case of several Guantanamo prisoners who are challenging their detention. ACLU attorney Jonathan Hafetz said the opinion "flouts the Constitution's prohibition against indefinite detention without charge."

"The decision wrongly concludes that terrorism suspects at Guantanamo may continue to languish in military detention rather than being prosecuted in our civilian courts," Hafetz said. "Like the president's recent decision to revive military commissions, this ruling perpetuates rather than ends the failed experiment in lawlessness that is Guantanamo."

Earlier this year, Bates ordered the Obama administration to give its definition of whom the United States can continue to hold at Guantanamo. The administration responded with a definition that was largely similar to the Bush administration's, drawing criticism from human rights advocates.

In his opinion, Bates said he agreed with the Obama administration that "the president has the authority to detain persons that the president determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks.

"The president also has the authority to detain persons who are or were part of Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed (i.e., directly participated in) a belligerent act in aid of such enemy armed forces," Bates wrote.

But he said the Obama administration went beyond the law of war by including in its definition those who "supported" enemy forces.

"The court can find no authority in domestic law or the law of war, nor can the government point to any, to justify the concept of 'support' as a valid ground for detention," Bates wrote.

Last month, Bates ruled that prisoners at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan can challenge their detention, for the first time extending rights given to Guantanamo Bay detainees elsewhere in the world.