The U.S. Betrayal of the Kurds Is Five Years in the Making

On October 9, Turkish forces opened a new front in the Syrian civil war with a cross-border offensive into northern Syria. The UN is reporting that more than 100,000 people have already fled their homes and Amnesty International is predicting a “humanitarian disaster” if the Turkish invasion continues.

World leaders have been right to condemn Turkey’s aggression. Particularly worrying was a pledge by  Turkish president Erdogan before the UN General Assembly to forcibly relocate millions of Syrians refugees currently residing in Turkey to the areas “liberated” from Kurdish control. Local journalists have already detailed dozens of civilian deaths and injuries by Turkish shelling and airstrikes. And over the weekend, as Kurdish people and their allies took to the streets in an international day of solidarity for the people of Northern Syria, jihadist fighters attached to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army advanced south to the M4 highway, the primary east-west route through Northern Syria. After setting up a checkpoint, they began stopping civilian cars and executing civilians they suspected of links to Kurdish political parties. One such victim was Hevrin Khalaf, the general secretary of the Future Syria Party—a small, new party advocating pluralistic democracy and cooperation between Kurds and Arabs—who was dragged from her car and shot dead along with her driver.

In the United States, many politicians and media figures are blaming President Trump for the crisis, pointing to his role in allegedly “greenlighting” the Turkish operation, pulling U.S. soldiers from northern Syria. For its part, the Trump administration claims it did not approve the Turkish attacks, and that it strongly opposes them. But, administration officials contend, they were forced to pull back once Turkey made clear it wouldn’t be deterred from its attack; otherwise they would have been risking U.S soldiers’ lives.

There are many in Syria and Kurdistan, as well as in U.S. policy circles, who have found this argument unconvincing. Is it really possible, they ask, that Turkey would have risked direct military confrontation with the United States if the administration had stood firm? When pushed on their reasoning, some defenders of the administration have resorted to old clichés about ancient ethnic animosities, portraying the conflict as inevitable.

However, the conflict is not an issue of two peoples who cannot get along or have been “fighting for centuries.” Rather, it is the product of 100 years of state violence and colonialism. Turkey is home to roughly 15 million Kurds—the largest Kurdish population of any country—who were denied basic rights and freedoms, including the freedom to speak their own language, for most of the history of the Turkish Republic. Many of the Kurdish communities living along the Turkish border in Syria are descended from communities that fled Turkish state violence a century ago.

The United States, in recent years, had an opportunity to contribute to the resolution of this conflict. Instead, it has only fanned the flames. There is no question that Trump’s Syria policy, like his presidency more generally, has been feckless, clueless and cruel. But it also true that responsibility for the current crisis in Syria goes beyond Trump, and also lies with a wider failure on the part of the U.S. political establishment. Though it was ultimately Trump who struck the match, the smoldering powder-keg in northern Syria that could soon explode is a product of U.S. policy half-a-decade in the making.

Early Support for the Kurds in Syria

The current crisis comes five years to the month that the United States began military cooperation with the Kurdish YPG as a “partner” in its campaign against ISIS in Syria. Initially this partnership was an ad hoc arrangement that came together at another moment of crisis for U.S. credibility in the Middle East. Over the course of 2014, ISIS seized Raqqa (January); captured Mosul (June) and launched a genocidal attack against Sinjar (August). By early October 2014, ISIS forces had advanced even further, overrunning most of the Kobani canton—at the time a predominantly Kurdish enclave on the Turkish border—forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee into Turkey and leaving its remaining, poorly-armed defenders pinned between the border and advancing ISIS fighters.

The Obama administration had already approved a limited U.S. air campaign against ISIS over Syria earlier that summer, but its response during the first weeks of the ISIS advance against Kobane had been tepid. At the time many commentators suggested this was out of deference to Turkey, whose political and military leaders saw the Kurdish enclaves that emerged along its border since 2012 as an imminent threat, and preferred (Kurdish leaders alleged) to see them destroyed.

But in early October, just as ISIS was expanding into Kobane, a series of urban uprisings shook Turkish Kurdistan, leaving dozens dead. Thousands of Kurds in Turkey also mobilized along the border with Kobani, while Kurdish diaspora communities launched nightly demonstrations on the streets of European cities. Ultimately, Turkey was pressured to open a corridor to allow Kurdish fighters and weapons to reach the city from Iraq.

Meanwhile, public opinion in the West, moved by the protests and already deeply alarmed by the rapid expansion of ISIS’s self-declared caliphate, quickly solidified around the need to defend Kobani. Only weeks before the 2014 midterm elections, and in plain view of the global news media, U.S. jets stepped up their attacks on ISIS targets in and around Kobani. By the end of October, the United States was coordinating its air strikes with the YPG and dropping weapons and ammunition directly to the city’s Kurdish and Arab defenders. In total, the battle for Kobani would last several months.

Soon, U.S., UK and French special forces were also working directly with YPG fighters, and by autumn 2015, YPG fighters had liberated most of the Kurdish-populated area of northern Syria from ISIS control, capturing the entire border region with Turkey east of the Euphrates.

A Two-Faced Strategy

For the YPG, these successes brought increased military aid and more public declarations of confidence from U.S. leaders, as well as a growing public admiration in the West more generally. However, these successes also further alarmed the Turkish state and strained its relationship with the United States and Europe.

U.S leaders could have sought to mediate between their new Kurdish partners and old NATO ally—but instead, they pursued a double game. Despite continued military support, they downplayed their relationship with Kurdish fighters, stressing that it was temporary and based on the necessity of combating ISIS (“our partners in the ongoing fight against ISIS” as they became known in Pentagon-speak). In a further attempt to placate Turkey, U.S. diplomats and top military officials publicly recommitted to a decades-old U.S. policy of military and diplomatic support for the Turkish state’s efforts to crush the PKK-led (and popularly supported) Kurdish movement in Turkey, despite the PKK’s historically close ties to America’s new Kurdish partners in Syria.

However, this approach did little to assuage Turkish concerns, and had immediate, severe and predictable consequences for the millions of Kurds living on both sides of the border. The first was that the YPG’s gains, coupled with the sinking popularity of the ruling government, fed existing tensions and mistrust within Turkey that precipitated the collapse of a two-year old peace process between Turkish state and the PKK in 2015. This in turn led to destructive fighting in urban centers of Turkish Kurdistan that left hundreds dead and displaced thousands more. The second was to draw Turkish soldiers directly into Syria. In 2016, After U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters successfully captured Manbij from ISIS, near the Turkish border, the Turkish army launched its first cross-border offensive that August. Ostensibly the target was the ISIS-controlled cities of Jarabulus and Al-Bab, but it was widely acknowledged that the real objective was to prevent further advances by Kurdish fighters. Turkey soldiers continue to occupy the region.

In May 2017, as Kurdish fighters encircled the ISIS capital of Raqqa, Turkish fighters bombed Kurdish positions near U.S. soldiers and publicly threatened an invasion to thwart the growing US-Kurdish partnership. The following January, Turkish forces again crossed the border into Syria in an operation euphemistically named “Olive Branch.” This time they targeted Kurdish autonomy in Syria directly, attacking a relatively peaceful enclave called Afrin following the withdrawal of Russian soldiers. Over a period of about a month, Turkish soldiers and their jihadist allies overran the enclave, driving tens of thousands from their homes and resettling the region with jihadist fighters and their families. At the time U.S. officials expressed concern about Turkish actions and called for restraint, but stressed that they did not operate in northwestern Syria (and therefore were not responsible). Today, Afrin also remains under Turkish occupation.

Over the past half-decade Kurdish and Arab fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a larger coalition of opposition fighters that has formed around the YPG—backed by U.S. air power liberated all of eastern Syria from ISIS. More than 10,000 SDF fighters were killed in these campaigns. Yet at no point did the United States or any of its Western military allies in Syria (U.K., France, Canada) taken any steps to recognize the legitimacy of their “partners” beyond their role as “boots on the ground.” Nor did they grant any official status or direct aid to the autonomous councils that now administer these liberated territories. In fact, both U.S. military and State Department officials publicly stated U.S. opposition to any form of federalism in Syria—in effect, meaning the U.S. government would not recognize any autonomous structure set up by the Kurds within Syria. Given the United States’ simultaneous hostility toward and grudging acceptance of the Assad regime in Damascus, this raises the question of exactly what their plan for a post-conflict Syria looked like. Perhaps now we know; or, more likely, perhaps they never had one.

Absent any form of political recognition for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) by the United States and its Western allies in political consultation with Turkey, it was always difficult to imagine how a serious peace process could move forward. Looking at the situation today, it appears that the United States, having abandoned its only local “partners” and any real stake in the conflict, is unlikely to play a major role in any future settlement. So far, Turkey’s leaders have publicly dismissed calls by the U.S. and its European allies to halt its offensive, threatening to limit cooperation with the European Union and even deliberately targeted a U.S. special forces base on Friday with artillery fire, according to Pentagon officials (although Turkey has denied this).

Meanwhile, the SDF has openly called for support from the Assad regime to defend itself from Turkey—something it had long said it would do if it was left to fight Turkey by itself. By Sunday evening, Kurdish officials claimed to have reached a memorandum of understanding with the Assad regime and Russia to allow Syrian soldiers to move toward border regions with Turkey currently under SDF control. “We know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them,” the commander of the SDF wrote in a letter published Sunday in Foreign Policy, “but if we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.” Soon after the agreement was made public, U.S. troops were reported preventing Syrian troops from entering territory under SDF control. Almost simultaneously, the administration announced it was pulling all U.S. troops from Northern Syria.

Fighting between Turkey, its allies and the SDF could quickly escalate into a larger conflict between Turkey and the Syrian regime. As of Monday evening regime fighters and Turkish-backed forces were already exchanging fire around the cities of Manbij and Ayn Isa. If rapid de-escalation is not achieved, such clashes are likely to grow in number over the coming days and weeks.

To prevent catastrophe in Northern Syria requires an all-out diplomatic effort coupled with sustained international pressure to convince Turkey to halt its offensive in Syria and to establish a ceasefire  encompassing all parties. France and Germany have already called for limiting arms exports to Turkey. The response by the Trump administration so far has been less forceful. As of Monday evening, the administration line remained that all U.S. troops will be coming out of Syria. But already a bipartisan effort in congress is moving to block the withdrawal. Right now it appears that U.S. soldiers are still at bases as far Northeast as Kobane and as far South as Deiz ez-Zor, even as the Syrian regime released an agreement with the SDF to move their own forces into these regions.

On Monday, Vice President Pence called for direct negotiations between the Kurdish SDF and the Turkish government about political settlement for Syria and he announced that he would personally lead a delegation to Turkey “as soon as possible” to oversee the process. Absent from Pence’s statement was an explanation of why no such initiative was undertaken sooner. The U.S. had a half-decade to bring Turkey and Kurdish political actors in Turkey, Syria and Iraq to a common bargaining table and it failed. Such a process would no doubt have been difficult, especially given the Turkish state’s entrenched anti-Kurdish phobia, but was it inconceivable? And if such a process is necessary now, why wasn’t it attempted two, three or five years ago, when the U.S. was in a much stronger position to mediate? It seems that a just solution was simply never a priority.

The Trump’s administration’s disastrous handling of events over the past week has certainly made the situation in Syria more dangerous. But looking beyond the incompetence and hubris of the Trump administration, we see that this crisis is the also the predictable consequence of a half-decade of cynical establishment foreign policy, and its disregard for the rights and lives of the people over whom Washington’s power is exercised.

Why the Argument that Medicare for All Will Curtail “Freedom” Is So, So Wrong

Debate over the future of American healthcare has led off every Democratic presidential debate so far this year. While Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have defended a Medicare for All system that would guarantee healthcare as a right, other more centrist candidates have sought to undercut such a plan—and they’ve been led by Joe Biden.

Ahead of Tuesday’s debate, Bloomberg reports, the Biden campaign has been “testing messages designed to undercut support among Democrats for Medicare for All.” The survey, commissioned by Wall Street-funded Democratic think tank Third Way, road-tested fear-mongering rhetoric that was crafted by the for-profit health insurance industry—and sounded a lot like Republican talking points.

Biden isn’t alone. In the last debate on September 12, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Beto O'Rourke all joined him in falsely suggesting that people would lose choice and freedom under a Medicare for All system.

O’Rourke called Medicare for All “an all-or-nothing gambit, forcing tens of millions off of insurance that they like, that works for them, to force them onto Medicare.”

Amy Klobuchar echoed, “149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance.”

Harris, meanwhile, said candidates should be “offering people choice, not taking that from them,” while Buttigieg claimed, “I trust the American people to make the right choice for them,” asking Sanders: “Why don’t you?”

This portrayal of private insurance plans as bastions of choice and freedom isn’t just misguided, it serves to defend profit-hungry companies at the expense of the millions upon millions of Americans who would benefit from guaranteed health care and financial security provided by a single-payer, Medicare for All system.

Biden and his ilk make the critical mistake of conflating coverage with care. They assume that people “covered” by subsidized private insurance plans can actually get care, and can do so without going broke—but that’s simply not true. 

From 2005 to 2018, some 60 million Americans per year—including one half of the insured population—chose to skip or delay medical care. In 2016, a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in partnership with the New York Times found that 85 million Americans were in medical debt. Of those, roughly 6 in 10 were insured.

The government can help extend private coverage to more people, but insurance companies will keep pushing costs onto us, keep dropping treatments, medicines, and doctors from their plans, and keep denying our claims. The only real solution is universal, guaranteed healthcare.

The attacks on Medicare for All also betray an impoverished understanding of freedom as a choice between insurance products. But people don't want a choice between Aetna and Cigna. They want the freedom of guaranteed healthcare; the freedom to choose their doctor, hospitals and treatments; and financial freedom from insurance, hospital and drug bills.

The flip side of freedom is coercion, and while centrist Democratic candidates may raise alarms about government coercion, they ignore the countless ways that insurance companies coerce people every day. They force people to pay ever-higher premiums, deductibles, out-of-network fees and copays. They force people to forego dental, reproductive and mental healthcare, as well as prescriptions. They force people to stop seeing the doctors they want to see by narrowing networks. And they force people into poverty by denying insurance claims and refusing to pay medical bills.

While claiming to recognize healthcare as an inviolable human right, Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Harris and O'Rourke also ignore the deep inequities produced by the multi-payer insurance system they defend. The plans put forward by Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar would leave millions of people uninsured, and though Harris and O’Rourke’s would get everyone coverage, none of these plans would guarantee all medically necessary care.

The current fractured insurance system carves people into categories according to their economic and family characteristics, favoring some while denying care to others. By selectively imposing coverage restrictions and cost sharing, the system grants different people different access to different plans that cover different doctors, different hospitals, different medical conditions, different body parts, different treatments and different medicines.

Such a system favors people who live in areas with high employment over those where there’s low employment, workers in big firms over workers in small firms, workers in full-time jobs over those in part-time jobs, and workers in formal employment over workers who are self-employed or do informal work. It favors people older than 65 or younger than 26 over those in the middle, people with high incomes over people with middle-and-low incomes, people with family wealth over people who don’t have savings, and people who are married over those who are single.

Rationing care on the basis of these non-medical economic indicators is incompatible with guaranteeing healthcare as a right, and also reproduces racial and gender inequities. Because the most robust coverage is reserved for those with formal full-time employment in lucrative economic sectors, comprehensive care is disproportionately denied to Black, brown and Native communities facing high unemployment, immigrants working in low-wage industries, and women working in part-time jobs and unpaid domestic labor.

Separate-and-unequal coverage doesn’t just hurt those at the bottom. By accepting and institutionalizing the notion that some people are more deserving than others, tiered coverage is precisely what makes U.S. healthcare both precarious and vulnerable. This vulnerability breeds fear of losing one’s coverage, which for decades has been exploited to stifle reforms and feed relentless attacks on public programs and social solidarity.

Medicare for All, in contrast, would guarantee a single standard of care to everyone. The plan introduced by Sanders in the Senate would provide all medically necessary care, comprehensive long-term care, mental health, reproductive, dental, vision and all other care people need. Everyone in the United States would be guaranteed seamless care from cradle to grave, freeing us up to move in and out of jobs and relationships without worrying about medical care, and we’d never have to deal with an insurance company or medical bill again. Healthcare would be provided to all of society as a public good like fire protection rather than as an individually rationed commodity. What’s more, Medicare for All would do all this for less than it would cost to keep propping up the private insurance system.

While Biden and Third Way may be polling language to attack such a Medicare for All system, the case is clear: the “freedom” to “choose” for-profit insurance is a false choice. Medicare for All is wildly popular because it would finally provide comprehensive healthcare to everyone. Democratic leaders should stop using insurance industry talking points and Republican fear-mongering to tell people otherwise.

On Indigenous People’s Day, Anishinaabeg Leaders March Against Enbridge’s $7.5 Billion Oil Pipeline

CLEARBROOK, MINN.—On October 14, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, more than 200 Indigenous leaders and allies marched down a highway to Enbridge Inc.’s U.S. pipeline terminal in Northern Minnesota, to protest the proposed Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project.  

Braving cold temperatures and a foul stench in the air from the oil terminal, supporters from across the state and region held up signs with messages such as “Water is Life,” “Protect the Sacred” and “Honor the Treaties,” and chanted “Stop Line 3!” As they marched toward the terminal, a large, loud tractor with a “Minnesota for Line 3” sign drove ahead of the group, trying—unsuccessfully—to drown out the chants. 

Protesters arranged themselves in a circle outside of the terminal entry gates as Anishinaabeg speakers demanded treaty rights be respected, water sources protected and climate disaster averted. Behind them, large white cylinders, holding tanks containing tar sands oil jutted from the cornfields. 

The proposed Line 3 pipeline’s route would carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta tar sands to the western edge of Lake Superior, crossing several sensitive ecosystems, 15 watersheds affecting 215 lakes, and several critical cultural resources, and violating 1854 and 1855 Ojibwe treaty rights along the way. These treaties entitle Ojibwe tribal members to “make a modest living from the land,” even on ceded territory (off-reservation). These rights to hunt, fish, gather medicinal plants, harvest and cultivate wild rice, and preserve sacred or culturally significant sites, would all be threatened by the pipeline. White Earth, Fond du Lac, Red Lake, Leech Lake and Mille Lacs tribes have all engaged in legal processes in an attempt to stop the pipeline.

“Something like Line 3 has the potential to wipe out the culture of my people, the Anishinaabeg people,” says Tara Houska, founder of Ginew Collective, one of the main groups involved in organizing the march on Enbridge.

Houska also notes the potential for an oil spill that could devastate the area. Enbridge has built several oil pipelines in the Great Lakes region, nearly all of which have leaked. Southeast Michigan is still recovering from a one-million-gallon oil spill into the Kalamazoo river in 2010, and the aging Line 5 pipeline, feared to leak into the sensitive Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, has faced mounting opposition as its infrastructure continues to deteriorate.

“A potential spill … could impact millions of people,” Houska says. “It’s also the overall global climate that’s at stake.”

Costing $7.5 billion, Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline would be one of the largest crude oil pipelines on the continent. Tar sands oil is the dirtiest form of fuel, 20% more carbon intensive than conventional crude oil. The project’s 2017 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), written by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, estimated that the emissions associated with a new Line 3 pipeline would have a “social cost” amounting to $287 billion over the first 30 years of the pipeline’s life.

Pipeline construction also poses dangerous risks to Indigenous women and children. Research has documented an increase in drug and sex trafficking and violent crime corresponding to the influx of temporary housing facilities built to accommodate the predominantly male construction workers, known as “man camps.” These camps, which often exacerbate substance abuse problems in stressful working conditions, are one of the many causes contributing to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women. One 2008 report by researchers at the University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina, Wilmington found that rates of murder against American Indian and Alaska Native women on tribal lands can be up to 10 times higher than the national average.

With so much at stake, Indigenous groups and allies are fighting the project on multiple fronts. Enbridge had originally planned to start operation by the end of this year, but the project faces multiple lawsuits, and will need to secure several key permits from both state and federal agencies. Although the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously voted to approve the project in 2018, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the project’s environmental review (EIS) this year in response to a lawsuit by project opponents, saying it did not address the risks of a spill in the Lake Superior watershed.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently denied a key water permit on September 27, noting the invalid EIS. Enbridge will need to provide more information about how negative effects can be mitigated before it can reapply again.

Enbridge began “pre-construction” activities, including surveying, land acquisition, engineering and design in 2014, and the company intends to see the pipeline in full operation in the second half of 2020. Even if Enbridge moves ahead with construction activities that violate their current permits, it may only receive a fine, Houska says.

Still, supporters are confident the resistance will grow.

“The future depends on us winning,” says Mysti Babineau, an Anishinaabe woman with the climate group MN350, who helped organize the march in Clearbrook. “And we will, together.”

The coming Chicago teachers strike could be felt across the country

This week, 35,000 teachers and support staff in Chicago are set to walk off the job in a dramatic citywide strike.

The strike—which is expected to begin on Thursday—comes on the heels of other mass walkouts by teachers in states from West Virginia to Arizona and California. And rather than simply bargaining around issues of pay and benefits, Chicago teachers are demanding investments to uplift public education in the face of austerity and privatization.

Today, Rebecca Burns reported for In These Times on the strategy being employed by the Chicago Teachers Union of “bargaining for the common good” and the promise it holds for unions across the country that are seeking to win gains for not just their members, but the entire working class.  

Throughout the lead up to the strike—and during it, should it take place—In These Times will be providing an inside, on-the-ground perspective with analysis and reporting from the viewpoint of rank-and-file teachers, organizers and working-class Chicagoans.

For background on the issues at play in the strike and its national implications, check out our earlier reporting on why presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is standing with Chicago teachers, as well as Kari Lydersen on the tensions between teachers and the newly elected Chicago mayor who ran on a progressive agenda.

Check back in to throughout the week for further coverage of this developing labor action, and what it means for organizers and union members across the country who are fighting for the rights of workers everywhere.

In solidarity,

Miles Kampf-Lassin

Web Editor

Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is Terrible, But the Answer Is Not Endless War

The biggest problem with the U.S. withdrawal of forces from the Syrian border with Turkey is that they were there in the first place.

Trump’s decision hands over the Kurdish-run region of northern Syria to Turkey, a NATO ally with whom the U.S. has been conducting joint operations at the border. The move gave Turkey the green light to attack Kurdish communities in the region, which is currently held by the Kurdish YPG militia. The bombing has already begun, killing dozens and driving tens of thousands to flee the advancing Turkish assault. Meanwhile, the U.S. has ordered an additional 1,800 troops to Saudi Arabia, putting lie to Trump's claims that the withdrawal from northern Syria had anything at all to do with ending "endless wars" or troop deployments.

The Turkish government has long been awaiting an opportunity to attack this region of Kurdish autonomy, while some inside Turkey support the Kurdish struggle. The issue is also linked to the region’s burgeoning refugee crisis: Turkey is preparing mass deportations of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey to the Syrian side of the border. 

Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds, U.S. allies who have fought ISIS at tremendous cost, has sparked bipartisan outrage — from Hillary Clinton to Trump’s own former UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who wrote on Twitter: “We must always have the backs of our allies, if we expect them to have our back. The Kurds were instrumental in our successful fight against ISIS in Syria. Leaving them to die is a big mistake.” Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, usually strong Trump supporters, also broke ranks with the president.

Yet the U.S. betrayal of the Kurds did not begin with Trump’s announcement. Trump is only writing the latest chapter in a shameful history. 

Haley finished her tweet with the hashtag “#TurkeyIsNotOurFriend.” But the fact is that Turkey, a NATO ally that has long provided airspace and collaborated in various ways with the U.S. military, has been an important ally of the United States for years. Turkey's violence toward the Kurdish people inside and outside its borders, and its government’s escalating repression at home, has not complicated this.

According to the Security Assistance Monitor, from 2002 to this year, the U.S. has given Turkey more than $300 million in military aid. Through the ups and downs of the U.S.-Turkey relationship, the aid keeps flowing and joint operations between the countries’ two militaries have continued. As Turkey begins its offensive in northern Syria, it is likely doing so with American weapons.

The Kurds are stateless people who have faced violence and discrimination in countries throughout the Middle East — not just Turkey. The U.S. has signaled support for Kurdish freedom before, only to turn its back on their struggles.

In 1991, after the U.S. defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq, President George H.W. Bush encouraged Kurds and others oppressed by the Iraqi government to rise up and topple it — only for U.S. forces to give a green light for Hussein to crush the rebellion and stand by while his forces mercilessly slaughtered tens of thousands, preferring to negotiate a separate U.S. ceasefire instead. 

That 1991 catastrophe came after Hussein’s forces used chemical weapons against the Kurdish city of Halabja in 1988 as part of the genocidal Anfal campaign, which was also a response to Kurdish resistance. Then too, thousands were killed. At the time, Hussein was an ally of the United States.

These atrocities should be seen in the context of broader U.S. violence in the region.

It is sickening that the U.S. would knowingly deliver the Kurds to Turkish violence again today. But our outrage should not lead us to embrace the U.S. presence in Syria. As in Iraq and beyond, that military presence — aimed at both defeating ISIS and jockeying for a seat at the table in determining Syria’s future alongside other regional powers — has been disastrous. 

Amnesty International has investigated, for example, the Pentagon’s 2017 aerial siege of the city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State was headquartered. Amnesty concluded that U.S. forces acted with utter disregard for civilian life, killing and wounding thousands, and slaughtering whole families. Journalists Lama Al-Arian and Ruth Sherlock have documented the grim life for Raqqa residents since. The U.S. also abandoned these residents, freezing reconstruction funds after leaving 70 to 80 percent of the city’s buildings destroyed.

Trump may be especially brutish in the nakedness of his power calculations, and shortsighted in his outlook on U.S. strategy and relationships. But the U.S. has always been guided by what will advance its power on the world stage — and to the extent that there is a debate in Washington’s halls of power about foreign policy at all, it is usually about that. 

If the U.S. wants to help the Kurds today, the answer is not more permanent war — that’s part of what’s made life so miserable for Kurds and so many others across the Middle East to begin with. Instead, it could suspend its military aid to Turkey, and end its racist exclusion of refugees. 

Reversals and betrayals of allies are as common as long-term alliances. Patently uncommon are genuine commitments to democracy and human rights.

This article was produced in partnership with Foreign Policy In Focus.

Hundreds of Thousands Are Without Power Thanks to PG&E. This Shows Why We Need Public Ownership.

Starting October 9, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), California’s largest power utility, has been inflicting rolling shutoffs of service to an estimated 800,000 customer accounts, in ongoing blackouts that could leave 2 million people without electricity in Northern and Central California. The investor-owned utility said that the shutoff was intended to prevent wildfires during high-wind conditions and could last several days. As food rots in fridges and residents are unsure of how to charge their electric wheelchairs, the blackouts have intensified calls for a public takeover of the for-profit utility.

Public anger is exacerbated by the utility giant’s admitted role in helping unleash the largest wildfires in state history. For years, PG&E repeatedly spent funds earmarked for safety upgrades on its high-voltage transmission line on hefty raises and bonuses for executives instead, leaving dangerously deteriorated power lines throughout the state. The fact that PG&E deferred critical infrastructure maintenance, combined with increasing climate-related drought and diseased forests, helped cause California’s deadliest wildfire in history, the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 86 people. In February, PG&E stated, “the company believes it is probable that its equipment will be determined to be an ignition point of the 2018 Camp fire.”

PG&E is facing $30 billion in liability for its alleged role in that and other recent wildfires. Despite all this, PG&E still hasn’t done the necessary line maintenance to prevent another wildfire. The utility has only completed one third of the tree-trimming work it committed to do this year. Instead, it’s shutting off essential services.

Though PG&E had projected for almost a year that it would need to shut off power during high wind events in order to prevent fires that have resulted from downed power lines, the utility giant had done shockingly little planning. The only source of information, PG&E’s own website, went down almost immediately. Only one emergency resource center with charging stations was established per county, and closes at night. PG&E waited until the last minute—just a day before the shutdown—to publicly announce its plan to keep open one of the area’s largest highways, the Caldecott Tunnel.

Class cleavages

As residents navigate the “new normal” of increasingly powerful wildfires and preemptive power outages, sharp class divides are exposed. When this week’s power shutoff was announced, some residents stocked up on expensive personal generators while others anguished over losing a week’s worth of precious food if refrigerators failed. Leading up to the shutoff, many people with disabilities feared they would be unable to power their breathing machines, recharge electric wheelchairs, refrigerate insulin, or even leave their apartments without elevator service, and were organizing mutual aid networks to provide resources and support. 

As the shutoff unfolds, it’s becoming increasingly evident that not all communities have equal access to the resources necessary to care for themselves and their families through the blackout. “As people see the impending apocalypse around us, it becomes clearer that if we can’t readily access the resources for our safety and survival, then we have turned the corner to eco-apartheid,” Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, a collective member of Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, a social movement organization. (Disclosure: This author consults for Movement Generation.) “That’s what eco-apartheid is: shutting down access to resource for some, while others have free reign over those resources.”

“The wildfires and power outages are shocks that change the public discourse from, ‘This is just how it is’ to, ‘Wait, why I am putting my safety in their hands?’” continued Mascarenhas-Swan. “Those questions open up the possibility for more radical shifts. It isn’t tinkering around the edges of the current system, but transforming it.” 

Calls for public ownership

Faced with lawsuits for damages of upwards of $30 billion related to their role in the wildfires and other accidents, PG&E filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. California legislators have been considering various bills that could put ratepayers on the hook for PG&E’s past and future wildfire liability, prompting many in the state to ask “What if we just owned PG&E?”

As bailout conversations swirled in Sacramento earlier this year, a "No PG&E Bailout" Coalition emerged, demanding a “public takeover of the monopoly utility’s electricity grid infrastructure.” The formation is calling for joint public-worker ownership, a transition to “a public, democratized clean energy model that supports local Community Choice energy programs,” and a transition for existing workers’ jobs and pensions. 

Models for public utility ownership already exist in California. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District are both publicly owned. 

Mari Rose Taruc is the coordinator of the Utility Justice Campaign at the Local Clean Energy Alliance (LCEA), which is a member of the No PG&E Bailout Coalition. For her, the crisis is personal. Her dad, which lives in the PG&E shutoff zone, uses dialysis, and she worries for his health if the electricity is shut off.  

“Our utility system has to be more nimble as the climate crisis unfolds,” Taruc tells In These Times. “The conversation shouldn’t just be about making the transmission lines work better. What if we imagined a decentralized energy system where we don’t need transmission lines that catch fire?”

Taruc’s point is not just that PG&E needs to be publicly owned, but also decentralized and based on distributed local power generation. PG&E’s system of massive central coal and gas plants that rely on power lines to move energy across vast swaths of land is both expensive to maintain and dangerous during fire season. Instead, we need to move toward locally-generated solar, wind, and other renewable energy. 

While Taruc has been focused on utility justice at the statewide level, the LCEA of which she is part has spent years building models for exactly that kind of decentralized energy generation through community choice energy. Such programs allow cities and counties to choose where their energy will come from, either by purchasing renewable energy on the market or developing their own local renewable energy energy resources. Under the model, incumbent utility companies such as PG&E continue to deliver the energy and service customers. As a result of LCEA’s advocacy, East Bay Community Energy, a local clean energy supplier, was established in 2017 and is moving on a groundbreaking plan for solar, wind, and energy efficiency development in the East Bay. 

Public ownership puts the decisions about what kind of energy we use, how it is distributed, in the hands of communities—not corporations. This shift allows communities to prioritize social and ecological wellbeing over pollution and profit—and can be a means of addressing the climate crisis.

The post-disaster effort to pivot from corporate-owned, vulnerable, centralized energy systems to disaster-resilient and locally governed renewable energy is not unique to California. In Puerto Rico, thousands of people were without power for months when the import and distribution of fossil fuels on the island was halted by damage from Hurricane María, and transmission lines and the power grid were damaged. Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, became a “solar oasis” during the hurricane, distributing 14,000 solar lanterns and is now building energy sovereignty at the local level by creating the island’s first community-controlled solar microgrid. 

“We’re calling for an energy insurrection,” said Arturo Massol-Deyá when I visited Casa Pueblo in June. “We’re not going to wait for the government. We’re going to unplug ourselves.” 

As municipalities around the world navigate accelerating ecological collapse, the question is not just how do we transition from fossil fuel extraction to renewable energy, but rather: Who owns and governs collective resources—like water and energy—that we need to survive? Will it be large corporations like PG&E, bent on maximizing profit, or local communities with democratic control?

Treated Like Meat: Women in Meatpacking Say #MeToo

Smithfield Foods’ 2,000-employee bacon and sausage packaging plant in Smithfield, Va., sits a mile down the road from the company’s stately corporate headquarters and flagship restaurant, Taste of Smithfield, a tourist-friendly establishment known for its smoked pork brioche sandwich, Virginia craft beer and “piglets” menu for kids under 12.

Near the meatpacking plant on Church Street, the stench of bacon and hog excrement hangs in the air. Jenny (not her real name), a 37-year-old single mother with two young daughters, is lighting up a Marlboro before a 10-hour shift. “Everybody here is miserable as shit, unless you’re one of the higher-ups,” she tells me later over the phone.

Jenny describes the plant floor as having a “male-dominated atmosphere.” Her male coworkers joke that she needs “to get laid.” And behind closed doors, supervisors regularly make crude sexual jokes about her coworkers, says Jenny, who was a crew leader. Despite her urge to “raise hell,” she rarely reports the mistreatment she sees from supervisors.

“I’m not willing to put myself in a position to lose my job,” she says. Like many low-wage workers, Jenny lives paycheck to paycheck. She had to take out a personal loan to replace her car battery just so she could get to work. (Jenny quit her job at Smithfield in May, after we spoke, because her pay dropped from $17 to $15.20 an hour.)

“No one ever feels comfortable reporting stuff because it usually backfires,” Jenny wrote to In These Times. Workers are frequently disciplined and fired by supervisors who hold “grudges,” she says.

In late May 2018, nine other women at the plant where Jenny works sued Smithfield Foods, the largest pork processor in the world. Several of the lawsuits charged that plant supervisors had engaged in “the most extreme acts of sexual harassment.”

The women worked in the retail bacon division, the microwave bacon department and the kill floor. They alleged that, for years, supervisors brushed their genitals against them and grabbed their breasts and buttocks; promised a promotion and even a “cheap car” in exchange for sexual liaisons; and prodded the women for sexual favors such as fellatio and a lap dance.

One worker, Marquesses Foreman, alleged she was harassed on a weekly basis for more than a year, between 2014 and 2016, and that her supervisor showed her a photo of his penis, hit her with rolled-up paper and touched her breasts. He allegedly told Foreman, who is black, that he should fire all of the black workers and replace them with Mexicans who “could get the job done for less pay.” Because of her supervisor, Foreman suffered “significant mental anguish, pain, suffering, emotional distress, loss of sleep [and] humiliation,” according to lawsuits.

Another worker, Tamika Day, alleged that her supervisor called her a “whore,” “bitch” and “slut,” and told her “you slept your way to where you are,” and “you fucked in order to get your promotion.” Day said that after she complained to Smithfield’s human resources department in 2015, the slurs and insults multiplied, and human resources cut her hours.

In fact, four of the women claimed HR reduced their hours after they reported harassment. Foreman allegedly lost 20 percent of her income from the reduced schedule.

Three of the women were allegedly fired after reporting harassment. In four of the complaints, HR allegedly took no action to address the harassment, while in one case, it took months.

Like most other sexual harassment lawsuits filed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, these lawsuits never came before a jury. Five months after filing, in late October, the nine women resolved their complaints with Smithfield outside of court—a route often pursued by large corporations to avoid negative publicity. No settlement amount was disclosed.

The women and their lawyers did not respond to In These Times’ interview requests, but 12 current and former Smithfield workers from two of the largest plants in the Southeast agreed to talk. The workers—women and men—ranged in age from 25 to 67. All but one requested pseudonyms for fear of retaliation by Smithfield or future employers.

A few of the workers at the Virginia plant said Smithfield initiated mandatory training about sexual harassment in the wake of the lawsuits. Jenny said her class was about 15 minutes and included a slideshow on how to report harassment. “It was really just so generic,” she said. “It was honestly so we could just get in there and sign a paper verifying we were at the training.”

Ten of the 12 said they had either experienced, witnessed or were aware of line supervisors perpetuating a toxic culture of harassment, including sexual comments, unwanted touching, coercion, retaliation or favoritism. Many workers interviewed believed complaining to the company would be useless. Management, they said, valued supervisors who could meet high production quotas, regardless of how they treated workers.

The Smithfield plant in Virginia is not the only one that has faced sexual harassment complaints. In the past decade, workers have filed at least 11 lawsuits against Smithfield alleging sexual harassment in both union and nonunion work sites in Virginia, California, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas. Four of the cases were dismissed, six were settled and one is ongoing.

At Smithfield’s 4,400-worker plant in Tar Heel, N.C., the single largest pork plant in the world, a supervisor named Lisa Cooper alleged in a 2013 lawsuit that her boss sexually harassed her for four years and “threatened to kill” her if “she continued to report him to upper management.”

Cooper nonetheless reported him to HR, then quit shortly after in fear of more harassment. In 2018, a federal appeals court dismissed her suit on the grounds that, in quitting, she failed to give Smithfield time to respond.

Sala Naambwe, a 46-year-old Congolese refugee working at a Smithfield subsidiary in Sioux Falls, S.D., alleged in a 2017 suit that management mocked her, isolated her and increased her workload after she told them that her coworkers called her a “monkey” and a “bitch,” and sexually harassed her. The case is ongoing.


Asked about allegations of sexual harassment at its plants, Smithfield’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and compliance, Keira Lombardo, pointed to Smithfield’s code of business ethics, which promises “the right to work free from harassment” including sexual advances and slurs.

“Each and every employee has pledged to uphold these standards upon joining the company, and violations of these standards are unacceptable and immediately dealt with,” wrote Lombardo. “We also provide employees with methods to report ethics concerns or violations, which are reviewed, investigated and responded to accordingly.” Lombardo described trainings on “legally protected rights” as “regular” and “substantive,” lasting longer than 15 minutes.

Of the lawsuits, she said, “Companies of our size do get sued. None of the litigation that you list has been determined to have merit. ... We took the [May 2018] allegations very seriously and carefully investigated each of them. We did not find any of the allegations to be substantiated.”

It’s true that Smithfield Foods is not alone in facing sexual harassment suits. A survey of public records shows a number of suits against other industry giants like Tyson Foods, National Beef and Cargill Meat Solutions. The Koch Foods poultry plants in Morton, Miss., where about 680 workers were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in early August, settled a $3.75 million sexual and racial harassment lawsuit in 2018. The complaint alleged that supervisors “touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments to female Hispanic employees, hit Hispanic employees,” and then fired workers who complained.

But experts say that sexual harassment is typically underreported, not overreported. Across all industries, workers tend to stay silent because the risks of reporting often outweigh the benefits. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that three out of four women who speak out about sexual harassment at work face punishment. According to Bernice Yeung, author of In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, workers like those in the meatpacking industry, who are disproportionately immigrants and tend to work for subsistence wages, are especially unlikely to report.

Undocumented workers are also especially likely to be harassed, Yeung says, and studies have found that workplaces with a high ratio of men to women have higher rates of harassment. Four in 10 U.S. meatpacking workers are women.

To date, there has been only one study of sexual harassment in the U.S. meatpacking industry, which employs 180,000 workers. In an informal 2009 survey of women in Iowa’s meatpacking plants by ASISTA Immigration Assistance and Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, 85 percent said they had experienced or witnessed sexual violence at work.


If you've ever purchased pork from a major super market, chances are good that it came from Smithfield. Smithfield owns 12 brands of bacon, ham, sausage, salami, chorizo, bologna, prosciutto, ribs, pepperoni and meatballs, which come labeled or whitelabeled (overlaid with the supermarket’s brand) at grocery stores in all 50 states, including Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target. Smithfield also supplies the pork for the McDonald’s McRib sandwich and Nathan’s hot dogs. With 40,000 workers in the United States, and more than 40 pork-packing plants across 20 states, Smithfield controls 26 percent of the U.S. porkprocessing market.

Founded in Virginia in 1936, Smithfield came to dominate the pork industry in the 1990s by mimicking what Tyson Foods did to the chicken industry in the 1980s. Smithfield bought up competitors and streamlined its production lines, driving small hog farmers out of business, writes journalist Christopher Leonard in The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. Smithfield similarly devastated small hog farms in Mexico, according to Chad Broughton’s Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas and a Tale of Two Cities. Between 1990 and 2005, Smithfield grew by 1,200 percent.

By the 1990s, the face of pork-packing in the United States had already shifted from the northern union strongholds of Milwaukee and Chicago (famously depicted in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) to the Southeast, where wages remained low and anti-union sentiment ran deep among conservative lawmakers. (North Carolina and South Carolina are tied for the lowest unionization rate in the country, at 2.7 percent.) In the mid-1990s, meatpacking companies actively recruited peasants in Veracruz, Mexico, driven off their land following the passage of NAFTA, to work without visas in North Carolina. Hundreds of migrants from Veracruz found work in Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant, according to a 2012 report in The Nation.

In 1993, Tar Heel workers launched a union campaign often described as one of the bitterest in modern U.S. history. Police in riot gear lined the entrance of the plant during a failed 1997 union election. Smithfield made “conscious efforts to pit African-American workers against Latinos and undocumented workers against those with legal status” to derail the drive, according to a Tufts University policy brief. (Smithfield’s Lombardo says that the company does not knowingly employ undocumented workers and “would never ‘pit’ any of our workers against one another.”) In 2008—after 15 years and two failed attempts—Smithfield workers in Tar Heel voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

By 2005, one in four meat-processing workers were undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and the Tar Heel plant was no longer majority African American and Native American, but predominantly Latinx. Following a series of ICE raids in the late 2000s, African Americans came to outnumber Latinxs once again in Tar Heel. Despite the industry’s reputation for grueling, male-dominated work, women make up nearly half the workers in departments at certain Smithfield plants, including bacon slice, cut floor and loin boning. 


If Smithfield has failed to protect women from sexual harassment on its meatpacking lines, the reasons are closely linked to the demands of mass production. Plants that slaughter and process up to 35,000 hogs a day, like the Tar Heel plant, require a sophisticated level of coordination and worker control. Smithfield supervisors—typically men—face intense pressure and scrutiny from plant managers and superintendents (higher-level supervisors) to meet production quotas. One worker, Anna (who is a union steward and was comfortable using her real first name), says she is expected to cut a sirloin about every seven seconds on the loin-boning line.

Keith Ludlum, the former union president of the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, tells me at his father’s chicken farm several miles down the highway that, “If a supervisor doesn’t meet their quota or they’re having issues, the superintendent takes them behind closed doors and reams them.”

Given the mediocre pay—roughly $56,000 a year, according to Glassdoor—and high pressure of supervisor jobs, Ludlum says, it’s difficult to retain people willing and capable of supervising production at Smithfield plants. (A college degree is preferred but not required for supervisors.) Because of this, he says, Smithfield’s human resources department often looks the other way when supervisors and superintendents harass or abuse workers on their lines. “The management is all about production—numbers,” he says. “They understand that they can’t have supervisors doing certain things, but if it’s something they can overlook because it’s a good superintendent who gets everything done, then they will do it.”

Monica (a pseudonym) is 47 and has worked at Smithfield since the late 1990s. Talking to HR “is like talking to that door,” she says, gesturing at the front door of an Arby’s and shaking her head as she sips a strawberry milkshake.

Monica measures out 12- and 16-ounce stacks of bacon moving down the assembly line for $16 an hour, and takes a daily cocktail of medications to ease the physical and emotional toll.

Monica says HR has repeatedly ignored complaints from her and her coworkers about their supervisor in the retail bacon department—one of the departments named in the 2018 lawsuits against the Virginia plant. The supervisor harasses new hires, especially young women, she says, asking them for their numbers and to go on dates, and telling them if they report it to upper management, he will deny it. He also gives “women he wants to sleep with” special perks like more approved absences, Monica says. Since our initial interview, Monica says this supervisor has been moved out of her department. Things have gotten better, she says.

Bathroom breaks are a point of tension between workers and supervisors. In October 2018, a video of a Smithfield worker unzipping his pants and peeing on the production line in Virginia went viral, sending the internet into brief outrage over Smithfield’s health standards. Anna, the shop steward, says Smithfield asks line workers at the Tar Heel plant to request bathroom breaks 30 minutes in advance. “Since we’re in production, time is money,” she says. “It’s ridiculous. How am I supposed to know if I need to go to the bathroom in 30 minutes?”

As for absences, meatpackers at the Virginia plant are only allowed six each year. Workers are fired for missing work due to unavoidable circumstances such as extreme weather conditions or illness, even if documented with a doctor’s note, according to testimony from several workers.

“I’m so sick of that place; I don’t know what to do,” says Monica. Her friend, who also works at Smithfield, nods along. Smithfield denies all of the workers’ allegations of harassment and unfair bathroom break and leave policies, saying the company complies with OSHA and FMLA regulations.

A few workers said they are happy with their jobs at Smithfield. For those who were not, such as Monica, the thing keeping them there was, of course, money. The union plants pay line workers between $14 and $18 an hour with benefits, an improvement from the $7.25 minimum wage offered at many of the fast-food restaurants and dollar stores prevalent in the rural Southeast that hire workers out of high school. 


Beyond sexual harassment and strict break and leave policies, the demands of meeting production quotas and keeping up the line speed have physical implications.

Several of the women interviewed by In These Times had undergone hand surgeries. Anna began working at a Smithfield plant two-and-a-half years ago, after divorcing her husband on the West Coast, where she worked on an Army base. Anna cuts pork sirloins on the loin-boning line and has had her hands operated on twice for carpal tunnel and once for trigger finger, surgeries that were covered by workers’ compensation. She soaked her hands in Epsom salts at night to ease the pain. Before the surgeries, “my pain was excruciating,” she told me, running her fingers over a long scar on the palm of her hand at her apartment on the edge of a sprawling city in North Carolina.

Some Smithfield injuries have been fatal.

On Oct. 9, 2018, Michael Jessup, a 55-year-old mechanic at the Tar Heel plant, was repairing a conveyor belt when he died from “a puncture wound to the sternum area,” according to a report from the local sheriff’s office. Smithfield’s Lombardo called this description “inaccurate” (but was unable to provide further detail) and stressed that Smithfield has “consistently outperformed our industry peers” on safety.

“One thing I have learned in dealing with all of this is no one actually gives a fuck, and no matter how hard we work, no matter the blood, sweat and tears, no one cares,” Jenny wrote to In These Times. “The buck will always be passed and the poor person will always lose.”

Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory and a feminist scholar who has written extensively on the meat industry, sees the devaluation of lives at Smithfield—both those of hogs and those of workers—as closely linked forms of capitalist exploitation. “There’s a numbing effect in meatpacking work that benefits the producer,” Adams says. “The entire plant is about not caring. It’s the industrial model of alienation from yourself and your coworkers, so you can do that work.”

Ludlum, the former union president at the Tar Heel plant, agrees: “When you’re used to seeing dead animals, animals killed, animals coming in mutilated, crippled, blood, guts, meat—when you see this every day, you become somewhat numb, even to your coworkers. It amazes me what the human mind will accept.”


To get around unresponsive HR departments, workers can file complaints with the EEOC, the federal agency tasked with enforcing sexual harassment laws in the workplace, as the nine women at the Smithfield, Va., plant did.

But workers in low-wage industries often decide that the emotional and logistical costs of filing a complaint with the EEOC outweigh the potential gains.

“It’s a big commitment of time,” says Anna Park, the lead EEOC lawyer in the Los Angeles area who represents low-wage workers in sexual harassment cases. “If you’re worried about your next paycheck and feeding your family, this is not your priority. Low-skilled workers are less likely to come forward. They feel like they won’t be believed, or that they’ll be retaliated against.”

“Bureaucracy is the key word with the EEOC,” says Bernice Yeung. “The EEOC is really dedicated to working with low-wage workers. They’ve done lots of training with employers who hire low-wage workers, but attorneys and workers have been frustrated with how long the legal process takes.”

Since 2016, sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC have increased by 12 percent, largely in response to the #MeToo movement. But more than half of these cases are dismissed by the EEOC for lacking “reasonable cause”—sufficient evidence for the agency to take on a case. That determination can take months. The EEOC requires evidence that harassment occurred, which can include formal complaints or testimony from witnesses. The agency also assesses the credibility of the accuser and the witnesses. At the same time, it investigates whether an employer properly handled a case— whether it kept records and interviewed the alleged abuser and other witnesses. Of cases the EEOC does take, most settle without going to trial.

Critics complain that the EEOC deters victims of sexual harassment from filing lawsuits and puts pressure on workers to settle out of court—which nearly always involves nondisclosure agreements that some argue protect employers and silence victims.

Yeung says that some women in low-wage industries initially felt left out of the #MeToo movement despite their own decades of struggle against sexual harassment. “When #MeToo started, it was women in glamorous professions, and there was a sense of frustration especially among [lowwage workers],” she says.

Over time, #MeToo has become more inclusive and picked up traction among unions and worker centers representing low-wage workers, Yeung says. “We’re seeing an expansion of the conversation. We’re seeing hotel workers, domestic workers, janitors and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers taking the initiative to demand change.”


Unions can provide an important mechanism for defending workers who are sexually harassed by their supervisors. Contracts can include language protecting workers from sexual harassment, allow workers to file grievances, mandate sexual harassment training for supervisors and require that employers create antiharassment policies. Union stewards can then be selected and trained to handle sexual harassment grievances and encourage workers to speak out.

But whether sexual harassment policies and protections are effective in protecting workers varies by union local and is largely determined by the local’s culture.

“The biggest challenge is in traditionally male industries,” says KC Wagner, director of workplace issues at Cornell University’s labor school, who leads sexual harassment trainings around the country. “Unions are just a microcosm of our culture, and even if women are in leadership positions, the cultural norm is such that these traditions of harassment are not being taken seriously.”

Ludlum says that, when he was president of his local in Tar Heel, he would receive complaints about supervisors inappropriately touching women and bring them before management, at least once resulting in a supervisor being moved out of the department. (Ludlum, a leader of the initial union drive, was removed from the presidency in 2015 after a UFCW audit found that he had embezzled $216,344 from the union. Ludlum disputes the charges and has sued UFCW for defamation.)

Leadership at the UFCW and Teamsters locals representing Smithfield workers in North Carolina and Virginia, respectively, did not return calls to speak about sexual harassment at their plants. A press spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters said only that the Smithfield local “works closely with our members ... to ensure a safe, harassment-free work environment.” The current UFCW contract at the Tar Heel plant does not have a clause about sexual harassment; In These Times was unable to obtain a copy of the Teamsters contract.

But Anna, the UFCW steward at the Tar Heel plant, did tell In These Times that women stewards at the plant have begun monthly meetings to discuss sexual harassment prevention. She also says she recently assisted in a sexual harassment complaint. Smithfield Foods’ Lombardo says that it has received no “recent or pending” sexual harassment grievances from unions at any of its plants.

Some of the Tar Heel workers interviewed were grateful for UFCW’s work fighting for fired workers. Thanks to the union, one worker said, she was rehired with 3.5 months back pay after a wrongful termination.

Several workers interviewed at the Virginia plant, however, complained that their Teamsters union only served to drain their paychecks. Monica doubts the union leadership’s willingness to fight for workers on sexual harassment issues, or any other concerns. “They don’t pick up the phone, and half the time they don’t call you back,” she says. Monica and another worker interviewed had opted out of the union entirely, which was possible because of Virginia’s right-to-work law.

The union “don’t do too much of nothing,” says Michelle (a pseudonym), a 47-year-old with chronic health issues. She says she was fired from the Virginia plant in November 2018 after leaving early during a vertigo spell. She cites her frustration over the six-day absence policy, saying she had been written up for arriving late to work after her nephew’s funeral. She says the union did not help her get her job back. Getting written up for an absence is “at the discretion of the supervisor,” she says. “If you’re not chummy with the supervisor, you really don’t have a job. ... But life happens. ... People get sick.”

KC Wagner says that many unions across the country are making enormous strides to educate workers about sexual harassment, beginning to treat it as a “breadand-butter issue” alongside wages, benefits and job security. In the wake of #MeToo, the AFL-CIO led the way with a wealth of resources, workshops and campaigns for members to implement at the local level.

“In an anti-union climate, it’s incredibly important for unions to seize this [#MeToo] moment,” Wagner says.

Esther Lopez, a former secretary treasurer of UFCW International, says the union offers sexual harassment trainings to locals across the country, including workshops for union stewards on how to handle sexual harassment grievances. But they remain optional for locals, which have autonomy over their membership policies. Lopez says that bringing women into leadership roles is critical to shifting union culture around sexual harassment. She also stresses that making workers aware of their rights and writing stronger sexual harassment clauses into contracts can protect workers.

“There’s no question some local unions do it better than others,” says Lopez. “But frankly, we applaud exposing sexual harassment in the workplace. We are very clear that the contract should be used to the fullest extent to prevent against sexual harassment.”

Michelle, who worked on a bacon slicer, checking for stray pieces of bone, says, “The union gets your money and they don’t help you out. It’s a load of hogwash.”

She says that, due to health issues, she hasn’t been able to find a job since she was fired. “It’s a ‘good old boys’ system in there,” she says of Smithfield. “If you’re not young and cute and shapely and you don’t grin in their face, then they don’t like you.

“You got Harvey Weinstein up there, but you also got Smithfield, and that’s a billion-dollar industry,” she said during a conversation with In These Times in early 2019. “They kept a supervisor there who’s a harasser because he was turning out the numbers. Come on now. That’s a shame.”

How the DCCC’s “Blacklist” Could Blow Up in the Democratic Establishment’s Face

In April, two weeks after announcing her primary campaign rematch against Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), Marie Newman was blindsided. The leadership of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) had issued a directive that effectively put vendors who work with candidates challenging incumbents on a blacklist. Any consultant, polling firm, communications strategist or field operative that helped insurgent challengers would be ineligible for future work with the DCCC—practically forcing them to steer clear of Newman if they ever wanted a congressional campaign job again.

“It was onerous,” Newman recalled at her campaign office in Countryside, a Southwest Chicago suburb known for its strip malls and fast-food franchises. “It was very expensive and we lost a lot of work. We had to throw out a lot of it and start over.” Four campaign service providers were elbowed out, leaving Newman scrambling to replace them. “We’re up and over and beyond it, largely out of sheer grit.” (The $45,000 her campaign reportedly raised from angry small donors off the incident couldn’t have hurt, either. In the most recent fundraising period, her campaign reports raising a staggering $350,000.)

Complicating matters was the fact that Lipinski is one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, with Newman running a progressive challenge from the left. If battles between establishment Democrats and lefty upstarts have grown familiar in the wake of the 2016 Democratic primary contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, this race doesn’t exactly fit that mold. While Newman is endorsed by Sanders and is running on a platform of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a $15-dollar minimum wage, in other ways she’s more closely aligned with the so-called establishment than her opponent. Lipinski’s staunch opposition to abortion rights—he’s been a featured speaker at the March for Life and has a 75% pro-life rating from National Right to Life—as well as his lack of support for LGBTQ issues,  put him out of step with the mainstream of his party. Newman, meanwhile, boasts the support of groups such as “establishment” pillars EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood.

After losing to Lipinski in 2018 by just over 2%, Newman could be poised for an upset: Lipinski’s conservative stances on abortion and immigration have received considerable negative attention, and Newman has spent the past year campaigning with local officials throughout her district. As the Chicago Sun-Times noted, Newman is also out-fundraising Lipinski and could well benefit from higher turnout of infrequent voters in a presidential election year.

Now that Newman has replaced her staff, she’s months into a high-stakes fight against an eight-term incumbent whose last name is practically synonymous with the Chicago machine. Whether or not she pulls out a victory will serve as a barometer not only for the momentum behind the Democratic Party’s ascendant left flank, but for just how much the party establishment will stand in its way.

Lipinski: Machine Democrat

Lipinski’s right-leaning positions are also out of step with his constituents. [The 3rd District, which includes Southwest Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, picked Clinton over Trump by 15% in 2016, and went for Sanders over Clinton by nine points in the primary. The district is such a blue stronghold that the Republican Party traditionally doesn’t even bother to run a candidate, which left an opening in 2018 for outspoken neo-Nazi Arthur Jones to glide through an uncontested primary and clinch the GOP’s ballot line, before losing to Lipinski in the general election by over 50%.

So why would voters in such a diehard Democratic district choose a candidate like Lipinski to begin with? The answer is simple: they didn’t. In 1975, William “Bill” Lipinski, Dan’s father, was appointed Committeeman for the Democratic Party of his ward, a position he retained even after being elected to Congress in 1982. After serving 11 terms, the elder Lipinski won his primary in 2004 before abruptly announcing his retirement, leaving the appointment of a successor up to himself, in his capacity as the Democratic Committeeman. Dan was handed the seat by his father, which led him to move back to Illinois from Tennessee.

It was a classic machine coronation, or as Newman put it, “as slimy as it comes.” Krista Grimm, a LaGrange Park PTA mom and League of Women Voters member, was so infuriated by Dan Lipinski sneaking into his father’s seat that she launched a last-minute write-in campaign against him. “I felt very passionately that our democracy is being usurped,” Grimm said at the time. “The voters are not getting a chance to select their candidate. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work.” She amassed an impressive 5,066 write-in votes, but Lipinski came out on top.

Newman announced her challenge nearly a decade later, as part of a wave of women running for the first time across the country. Newman boasted of her support for reproductive and LGBTQ rights, while Lipinski’s conservative leanings on social issues appeared ill-suited to the moment. As her polling numbers rose, Lipinski’s campaign received a boost from No Labels—a PAC dedicated to supporting centrists, as well as the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that backs pro-lifers. There’s also reason to believe his campaign stooped to personal attacks: many voters reportedly received texts from No Labels volunteers before the primary suggesting that Newman was a Holocaust denier (she’s not), and her name was even allegedly missing from the ballot in several precincts, one source confirmed to Vox. On March 20, 2018, Newman lost by a hair, with 49% of the vote.

Since announcing in April that she would run again, Newman’s platform and messaging have shifted slightly from 2018. While LGBTQ, immigration and reproductive rights issues are still central to her campaign, she’s also placing more emphasis on her progressive economic stances, such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and public transportation development. [(In one recent interview with The Nation, Newman imposed a strict limit of one question about abortion, insisting she didn’t want it to dominate her campaign at the expense of her agenda’s other planks.) She’s received endorsements from national progressive figures including Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Lipinski, meanwhile, still holds the job he just barely kept last year, owing largely to his deep dynastic ties with local politics. The fabled “Chicago machine” traces its origins back to 1871, when politicians struck a deal with business owners and saloon keepers to protect their interests in exchange for money and turning out their networks to vote, explained Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. For much of the 20th Century, as WBEZ reports, that amounted to a well-oiled patronage system: ward committeemen like Lipinski’s father doled out civil service jobs to grease up “Get Out the Vote” operations, which incentivized aspirants to round up their neighbors, fellow churchgoers and union members to pick their slate of candidates. It was a system designed to engineer political loyalty in sometimes nefarious ways, including notorious schemes involving long-dead or paid-off voters.

Since Bill Lipinski got his start under Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1970s, the machine has been significantly weakened by court cases and federal oversight. But according to Simpson, it still isn’t dead—while there were some 20-35,000 machine-tied civil servants doubling as precinct workers in the 1970s, he estimated there are probably closer to 5,000 today. It was in those city wards with strong machine roots that Lipinski outperformed Newman by the highest margins.

But Simpson noted that there are crucial differences between Lipinskis Sr. and Jr. While Bill maintained an active role in the local Democratic Party infrastructure during his time in Congress by continuing to work as his ward’s committeeman, Dan has not—which means that a third generation won’t inherit a family congressional seat. As a result, should Newman win, she could step in and use her role to support down-ballot allies. “If Lipinski loses, that would give a base in local politics for more progressive candidates to win at the local level,” Simpson said. “Newman could actively support other candidates running who are similar to her. A lot of Marie Newmans winning across the country could shift the entire Democratic Party.”

A new kind of party?

Such an outcome depends on just how willing the Democratic Party is to change. There’s certainly historical precedent: if the two major U.S. parties have held firm since the mid-19th Century, their composition and political orientation has repeatedly shifted. Since the 1980s, as Republicans lurched ever further to the right, the Democratic Party increasingly pivoted toward the concerns of the educated professional class, embracing corporate money while distancing itself from labor and championing deregulation and trade deals at odds with the interests of the working class.

Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, however, a tide of progressive energy has helped push the Democratic Party to embrace more progressive stances on issues ranging from healthcare to immigration and the climate. Moving that energy into the halls of power, however, has largely depended on competitive primaries. While progressive freshman Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) ran in open seats, Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) both unseated incumbent Democrats in 2018. Marie Newman and several other candidates are hoping to do the same next cycle. Like the others, Newman has been endorsed by Justice Democrats, an organization founded by several Sanders organizers in 2016 that embraces the strategy of primarying Democrats already serving in safely blue districts. This confrontational approach puts Justice Democrats, and the candidates it endorses, in an adversarial position relative to the Democratic establishment, a tension escalated by the DCCC “blacklist.”

“We offer a lot of the same services the DCCC provides their candidates—communications support, field support, texting, phone-banking, activating a small donor network and all that kind of stuff that’s traditional for more establishment candidates,” said Waleed Shahid, Communications Director at Justice Democrats, which has also cultivated a database of vendors willing to work on primaries despite the DCCC’s ban.

“They kind of shot themselves in the foot. You had new, compelling candidates getting more people involved who want primary challenges like AOC and Ayanna, and then they come out with a policy that’s basically like ‘No more AOCs or Ayannas.’ It really galvanized progressives,” he said. Case in point: Cheri Bustos, the chair of the DCCC, headlined a fundraiser for Dan Lipinski just as the GOP was passing near-total abortion bans in several states. Bustos canceled additional events in the face of intense blowback. Young Democrats of America at over 70 colleges even called for a boycott in donations over the “blacklist” policy. While Young Democrats chapters have not endorsed any specific candidates, Hank Sparks, the chairperson of Harvard’s chapter, recognizes the broader political role that primarying incumbents has played. “We think that primary challengers have brought to bear issues like climate change in a really important way,” Sparks said. “We want the Democratic Party to succeed, and our efforts with the DCCC come from that point of view…we definitely think primaries are a healthy part of the Party.”

Newman appears to agree. While she’s frustrated with the DCCC and Lipinski, she doesn’t share Justice Democrats’ analysis that the Party needs a complete overhaul. “There are probably ten wings of the Democratic Party,” she said. “We are a mosaic of independent thinkers, and that’s what I like…I don’t think there's a left wing and a right wing.” Ironically, that opinion suggests that one of the highest-profile insurgent challengers in the country sees the role of primaries more narrowly than some of her backers. “I think it’s always good to have new blood in the system, but I don’t think everyone should be primaried just to be primaried,” she said.

Critics of the strategy point to the expenditure of limited resources on seats that are already held by Democrats, which could be better spent on flipping seats. This is essentially the DCCC position, as well as that of Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, who earlier this year became the lead co-sponsor of Medicare for All legislation in the House—a top demand of many left challengers. “If there are progressive candidates who emerge in districts, a sitting Congress member who’s doing a good job shouldn’t be worried,” Jayapal told Politico. “I am expending zero energy in trying to recruit other candidates to run against Democrats.” For his part, Lipinski himself seems to regard the forces against him as part of an overarching political project, telling the Chicago Tribune he’d like “to bring the party back to the center, because if both sides keep going the way they’re going, we won’t have a country.”

However one regards primaries as a broader strategy, there’s evidence that the looming specter of them is already shaping the Democratic Party: “I was told by a number of people on the hill that the reason so many people signed onto the Green New Deal is that they were afraid of getting primaried over it,” Shahid told me.

As Alexandra Rojas, Executive Director of Justice Democrats tells it, remaking the Democratic Party isn’t an end in itself—it’s a mechanism for building power to implement broad political change. “We’re not just in this to unseat bad folks like Dan Lipinski, we want to replace them with champions of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and get there by refusing corporate PAC and lobbyist money.”

The problem, of course, is that’s easier said than done. If the heyday of old-style machine politics is mostly behind us, the impulse toward self-preservation inherent to political parties is not. That’s often what people mean when they talk about “the establishment”—the professional networks, campaigning and financing infrastructure that reproduce political outcomes that best facilitate their own survival. The campaign “blacklist” was an attempt to keep those circuits closed. It’s no fluke either—the DCCC’s Senate counterpart has reportedly enacted an even stronger blacklist of its own, working on behalf of not only incumbents, but establishment favorites. It’s easy to conclude that breaking this feedback loop demands confrontational primaries by definition. It’s also easy to imagine that makes it tougher to work within the Party—two former Justice Democrats staffers, Saikat Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent, recently left Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional staff after rumors of serious pressure to oust them. In other words, the same structural forces that protect incumbents remain challenging for outsiders to navigate even after they’ve won. “We are focused on doing what needs to be done in this moment,” Rojas said. “We have ten years to radically transform our economy and society, and center racial and economic justice to stop climate catastrophe and save the planet. [We need to be solving] these deep structural problems with our democracy and our society, and it isn't going to be this same leadership that gets us out of it.”

For Simpson, the outcome of the IL-3 race will shed light on just how viable this project is. “We’re going to see if there really is a broad movement, like the Progressives of the early 20th Century,” he said. “There are broad trends at work, having to do not only with what party faction is dominant, but about whether democracy itself can be saved. All of the interweave in a complex quilt-like pattern that we’re not going to understand fully at least until the 2020 election is over.”

That means Newman must do the same thing the once-mighty Chicago machine was designed to: turn people out. Just after I met her, Newman set off for her 137th meet and greet in a kitchy Palos Park ranch house. By her campaign’s count, she has recruited some 2,000 volunteers so far, compared to 800 in 2018. “It’s like an army,” she told me. “If we bring an army out, where is he going to go? Who will he get to be with him?”

When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We Should Be Talking About Power

The word “appropriation” gets a bad rap. Centuries old, it denotes an act of transport—some item or motif or a bit of property changing hands. An artist might appropriate an ancient symbol in a painting or a government might appropriate monies through taxes to fund public education. Taking only the root of the word, the meaning seems clear. To make something appropriate for another context. In some circles, the word is still used this way. But colloquially? Not so much.

The debate over cultural appropriation rages on. It was not too many years ago that former Disney star Miley Cyrus, suited in unicorn pajamas, rattled her waist in an online video that went viral, prompting America to find language and meaning for what exactly was happening, the language with which to encounter this white girl who so loved black dance.

I recall a similar anxiety emanating from the pop music takeover of Eminem. At the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), the rapper, sporting close-cut bleached-blond hair, entered the theater in a white “wifebeater” (offensive, if not inaccurate) and loose gray sweatpants, trailed by dozens of white close-cut bleached-blond lookalikes. At the time, Eminem appeared to be the portent of hip-hop’s future—artists, critics and other protectors of the genre worried about the next coming of Elvis, worried that Eminem might catalyze a transformation of rap similar to what long ago happened to rock ‘n’ roll, and to jazz before that. They weren’t so wrong. Thirteen years later, the VMA for Best Hip-Hop Video was awarded to a white anti-hip-hop rap duo from Seattle named Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Those same 2013 VMAs invited Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus to jerk and jive to the riff of a song that would later incur payment of court-ordered royalties to Marvin Gaye’s estate for borrowing without permission.

From Halloween costumes to Cinco de Mayo parties to the Washington Redskins to decorative bindis and other music festival fashion, an avowedly more conscious generation of people is tasked with taking seriously all kinds of cultural masquerade. Yet the more popular—and accusatory—the word “appropriation” has become, the fewer people seem willing to understand the meaning behind it. Where it briefly seemed obvious that dressing up as a person of another race to the point of stereotype is not okay, as I write this, the country is in the midst of forgiving and actively forgetting the surfaced photograph of a state governor costumed in either blackface or Klan robes. (The governor refuses to disclose which partygoer in the photo he is.) After years of being chastised for wearing sombreros and Native-like headdresses, white people feel indignant. They are paranoid that people of color see appropriation in everything.

Appropriation is everywhere, and is also inevitable. So long as peoples interact with other peoples, by choice or by force, cultures will intersect and mingle and graft onto each other. We call hip-hop a black thing and it is, indeed, a black thing, that also emerged in neighborhoods where black and brown people homegrown and from the South, from the islands, melded together to produce the music of their experiences in shared poverty and community. Early rap was itself an appropriation of another generation’s sound— funk, soul, disco—repurposed for something different and new. The idea that any artistic or cultural practice is closed off to outsiders at any point in time is ridiculous, especially in the age of the internet.

Most everyday acts of appropriation, done unconsciously, escape our notice: the word that works itself into your speech because your best friend sprinkles every other phrase with it and where they got it from they don’t even know; the yoga pose you sink into after a workout; the way you shimmy when your favorite song comes on. Said the eminent cultural theorist Homi K. Bhabha, “We can never quite control these acts and their signification. They exceed intention.”

So, if appropriation is everywhere and everyone appropriates all the time, why does any of this matter?

The answer, in a word: power.

Leading discussions about appropriation have been limited to debates about freedom and choice, when everyone should be talking about power. The act of cultural transport is not in itself an ethical dilemma. Appropriation can often be a means of social and political repair. Examples include cakewalking on the old plantation, poetic verse mastered and improved upon by the descendants of those beaten or worse for the crime of literacy. Ask any book of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar or Gwendolyn Brooks or Terrance Hayes how insurgently wonderful literature can be when black poets experiment with the forms at their disposal, even the ones that come from Europe. When the oppressed appropriate from the powerful, it can be very special indeed.

And yet.

When the powerful appropriate from the oppressed, society’s imbalances are exacerbated and inequalities prolonged. In America, white people hoard power like Hungry Hungry Hippos. In the history of problematic appropriation in America, we could start with the land and crops commandeered from Native peoples along with the mass expropriation of the labor of the enslaved. The tradition lives on. The things black people make with their hands and minds, for pay and for the hell of it, are exploited by companies and individuals who offer next to nothing in return. White people are not penalized for flaunting black culture—they are rewarded for doing so, financially, artistically, socially and intellectually. For a white person, seeing, citing and compensating black people, however, has no such reward.

Take, for example, the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Since 1932, the exalted Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan has hosted exhibitions boasting whom it considers the most cutting-edge artists on offer. The Biennial is a shortcut to the heart of the art world and therefore to the art world’s race problem. In 2014, the museum promised a show that would “suggest the profoundly diverse and hybrid cultural identity of America today.” What its curators, Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner— all white—failed to mention was the scarcity of artists of color with work on display.

The exhibition included paintings by a so-called Donelle Woolford. Donelle Woolford is not the name of an artist, nor even of a real person, but the comic avatar of artist Joe Scanlan. Scanlan, a professor of visual arts at Princeton, is a white man. Donelle Woolford is a black woman—sort of. She is a deceit. Her black womanhood relies on how much credence one lends to a name that denotes a concept. Her name was “appropriated,” in his own words, “from a professional football player I admired” (a former Chicago Bears cornerback, Donnelle—two n’s—Woolford).

Included this way, Donelle was one of nine black artists out of 103 artists in total, or 11% of the black artists chosen for the Biennial. “Joe was the very first artist I asked to visit when I started on my studio-visit process for the W.B.,” Grabner told Observer in advance of the show. “I invited both Joe and Donelle. Joe turned my invitation down, but Donelle agreed to participate.”

Out of all the identities in the world, Scanlan chose a black woman, a person who, if real, would be as discounted by the world as he himself is overvalued. Head and shoulders above artists who happen to be black women, who struggle for a fraction of recognition from sentinels of the art world who look like him, Scanlan crouched down and plucked from them what he sees as their only worthwhile feature. Not their history, not their culture, not their community. Scanlan played identity politics and won.

The disparity in power between white and black in America is severe. According to a 2018 report by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, “A white household living near the poverty line typically has about $18,000 in wealth, while black households in similar economic straits typically have a median wealth near zero. This means that many black families have a negative net worth” (emphasis in original). Contrary to myths that say if only black folks did right—saved money, went to college, got married, started a business—nothing is as predictive of success in America as being born white. In fact, as the report concludes, “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the racial wealth gap.”

The enormity of this wealth gap is exacerbated by the gap between who is allowed to thrive off intellectual property and who is prevented from doing so by this nation’s hysterical, driving compulsion to own and regulate all things black. When it’s time to pay the piper, however—that is, give credit where it’s due—somehow the accolades land in the lap of somebody white, or at least someone who is not black. The contradiction is what’s meant by the adage made famous by Paul Mooney: “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but don’t nobody wanna be a nigga,” an ambivalent turn of phrase. Everybody wants the insurgence of blackness with the wealth of whiteness. Everybody wants to be cool without fearing for their lives. They want blackness only as a suggestion, want to remain nonblack, keep centuries of subjection and violence at bay. When culture is embraced and its people discarded, it’s too easy to trick the country into believing somebody white started it all.

To those who been knew, may you revel in the wonder of what people like us have made out of this dull, dull world.


White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue… And Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

The Labour Left Is Poised to Take Power If It Can Move Past One Roadblock: Brexit

BRIGHTON, UNITED KINGDOM—On September 22, the Grand Brighton was invaded by socialists. On the ground floor of the four-star Victorian seafront hotel, hundreds of Labour Party supporters packed a conference room for a rally organized by Tribune magazine that boasted a retro yet earnest title: “For Victory and Socialism.”

Beneath a sea of red union banners hanging from the ceiling, the crowd erupted into applause, roused by the fiery speeches and free drinks. The event stood as a much livelier scene than the one prevailing inside the Labour Party’s official annual conference at the nearby Hilton Hotel.

“Socialism is not a pipe dream, but an urgent political necessity,” boomed Laura Pidcock, an MP from North West Durham, the heart of England’s former coal country, who concluded her speech at the Tribune rally to a standing ovation. It was one of many throughout the evening.

The giddiness flowed from a simple fact. It’s not just that general elections are likely on the horizon in the United Kingdom, and that the Labour Party has a chance to win them. But much to the delight of the party’s left flank, this time, it would actually be calling the shots—with socialist Jeremy Corbyn serving as prime minister. In office, Corbyn would be expected to carry out a platform including sweeping proposals like transferring 10% of shares in large companies to workers, hiking taxes on the ultra-rich, expanding tenant rights and boosting state investment to tackle climate change.

If only it were so easy. While the next few months offer arguably the opportunity of a lifetime for the Labour Left, they’re also riddled with complexity—in large part, because of Brexit.

The UK’s divorce from the European Union (EU) is currently slated to take effect October 31, but is widely expected to be delayed further, assuming the EU agrees to a future request for an extension. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost his majority in Parliament over the issue, which means that general elections are expected to be imminent.

Unfortunately for Labour—whether the party likes to talk about it or not—Brexit threatens to fracture its electorate: Recent polls show the Tories with a comfortable lead. A large chunk of voters are drawn to parties promising to keep the UK inside the EU—namely, the Liberal Democrats. Labour, which has seen its support plummet, has committed to a second referendum with voters choosing between Remain and a new exit accord, but not until after general elections.

The issue continues to trigger debate within Labour ranks: Should the party do more to target such voters and adopt a stronger position in favor of remaining within the European Union? Or should it stick to a more middle-ground stance, keeping Brexit on the table as an option to be addressed after the party hypothetically takes power? The answer could be pivotal to Labour’s prospects of both winning elections and governing.

The Brexit dilemma, explained

Many Brits are sick of Brexit—of the debate, the delays and the relentless bickering it’s provoked across seemingly all levels of government. Still, the topic remains unavoidable. A march in Brighton organized on Sept. 21 by the People’s Vote campaign—a group calling for a second Brexit referendum—was a reminder of just that. A handful of Labour Ministers of Parliament joined thousands of protesters in a demonstration that concluded in front of the party’s conference.

Sue, a primary schoolteacher from Bexhill in attendance, told In These Times that she voted for Labour in 2017, but was frustrated by the party’s waffling over Brexit, which she opposes. She wants another referendum—immediately. “I’m a member of the Labour Party and I love his social policies but he annoys me so much on Brexit,” Sue said of Corbyn. “I want another referendum, and then a general election… because at the moment, if you have the general election before the EU referendum, Brexit will take it over and there’s so many other issues: education, social services, austerity. If we had an election after a referendum, then all of the parties could concentrate on those other issues.”

Mention of People’s Vote—which tends to attract a decidedly white, middle-class crowd—often provokes eye-rolling among the Labour Left. Nevertheless, the campaign’s line is shared by a non-negligible share of the British electorate. For now, those voters are being wooed by the centrist Liberal Democrats: A recent YouGov poll placed the Tories at 33%, Labour at 22% and Lib Dems at 21%, with the hard-right Brexit party at 13%. Another recent study even put the Lib Dems just ahead of Labour, by one point.

“Politics is changing—it’s no longer about left or right,” Beatrice Bass, a Lib Dem candidate for Parliament hoping to capture the constituency of Hove and Portslade from Labour, told In These Times. “Either you are pro-remain, pro-immigration, pro-diversity, pro-equality and an internationalist—these core liberal values that represent the Lib Dems—or you’re populist, for Brexit, nationalistic, anti-immigration, anti-equality. These are the two polar options. Labour is [floundering] somewhere at the moment in undefined grounds.”

While few Labour supporters would agree with Bass that the left-right divide no longer matters—a notion that’s increasingly popular across continental Europe—some believe the party can’t shy away from tackling the culture war. The left-wing writer Paul Mason has argued that Labour needs to rethink its base of support. Instead of trying to appease its minority of Leavers, who tend to be low-income and concentrated in the north of England, Mason argues the party needs to pivot toward the sort of middle-class professionals and the vast majority of youth who, having grown up in the EU, are attached to their European identity and the freedom of movement it entails. (A paltry 9% of British youth who have come of voting age since the 2016 Brexit referendum support leaving Europe.)

“For the many, not the few”

Others within Labour caution against reading too much into the polls and insist the party ought to stick with its bread-and-butter: a platform aimed at the working class that transcends the Brexit divide. After all, in 2017, the party defied the odds—and the polls—by picking up its greatest gains in an election since 1945, finishing just shy of a majority. In 2019, the thinking goes, the party needs to double down on its ambitious manifesto, entitled “For the many, not the few.” Over the weekend, party conference attendees appeared to do just that. Labour’s platform now includes the elimination of private schools, the creation of a four-day work week within a decade and a Green New Deal plan to reach zero net emissions by 2030.

At a panel organized by The World Transformed, a four-day festival that runs alongside the official party conference, Labour left-wingers defended their approach. Ali Milani, a 25-year-old Muslim immigrant running against Boris Johnson in the suburban London constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, argued that the party needs to stay focused on its platform and its broader narrative. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s too radical,” Milani said. “I have this running belief that elections and the campaigns that we fight are actually quite simply stories—who can tell their story the best?”

“I think people have had enough of being asked to vote to stop something or to vote for something not to happen,” Milani continued. “It is a far more powerful story and message to say ‘vote for a transformative Green New Deal that’s going to tackle climate change, vote for a free and accessible education from cradle to grave, vote for workers to have a stake in the business they put their labor in, vote for [more social housing].’”

A tricky road ahead

Still, even if Labour manages an excellent election score, another uncomfortable fact looms: It’s unlikely the party can govern alone—something that risks cutting the knees out of its bold reform program.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system greatly advantages the Conservative Party (in 2017, the Tories won 49% of seats in Parliament with just 42% of the vote), meaning Labour must significantly outperform the Tories to win an outright majority. If it fails to do so, the party would be all but forced to consider the possibility of a coalition government. In that case, the most preferred partner would be the left-leaning, pro-EU Scottish National Party (SNP), which is committed to a fresh referendum on Scottish independence. That’s a tricky sell for a couple of reasons: In the short term, a coalition with the SNP would risk upsetting the Scottish Labour Party, which in 2015 lost 40 of its 41 seats in the Scottish parliament to the SNP. In the long-term, Scottish independence is likely to deprive the UK of a progressive majority for years to come.

If Labour still needs more votes to construct a majority, it would then have to consider the Liberal Democrats. For some on the Labour Left, such a coalition is impossible. In a ruling coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, the Lib Dems infamously broke a campaign promise not to raise tuition fees for university students and embarked on painful austerity economics that the UK is still reeling from today. In reference to the party’s color, they’re known in some left-leaning circles as “Yellow Tories.” Even setting aside the question of Brexit, it’s difficult to imagine the Lib Dems backing much of Labour’s economic agenda. (The party already opposes putting Corbyn at the head of a temporary “caretaker” government if Parliament were to cast a vote of no confidence against Boris Johnson.)

It all makes for a tricky road ahead. And it also explains why much of Labour’s left flank sees little choice but to go all-in on the campaign trail if it wants any shot of implementing its platform in office. In other words, forget the talk of a coalition or of Brexit, just focus on the ideas. As Ali Milani put it, “There is no middle ground, no suburban area, no Tory area that we can’t win.”