The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Thursday, February 24, 2011, plus five bonus stories on America’s protests, are:
Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and now Tennessee
Teachers Take Rally From State Capitol To Franklin
Hundreds of teachers in Williamson County rallied for change Wednesday evening.
The rally started at the Embassy Suites in Franklin around 4:30 p.m. They are protesting a bill proposed in the state legislature that would take away their collective bargaining rights. In essence, the teachers’ union would no longer be able to negotiate their contracts.
“They’ve taken this opportunity to see how much they can pull us apart, but I don’t think they realize how united we really are,” said Kawanda Braxton, president of the Williamson County Education Association.
Earlier in the day, teachers packed the Senate Education Committee at the State Capitol. This week, there’s a new fight against a push to take the Tennessee Education Association off the board of the state retirement system.
- It looks like Florida may be next, according to the Tampa Bay’s WTSP10 News story, “Governor Rick Scott gets an earful from state workers”:
State workers across Florida are scared about losing their jobs with all the budget-cutting proposals in Tallahassee. That concern dominated a question and answer session between state employees and Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday.
Scott toured the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and met with employees. They peppered him with questions about their job security, wages and pension.
Scott is pushing a plan that would cut health benefits and make state workers contribute five percent of their salary toward their pension.
One employee told the governor the proposal was grossly unfair.
Scott responded that the whole country is starting a debate on the wages and benefits of public employees.
- The New York Times reports on the growing number of American uprisings in, “Thousands March on State Capitols as Union Fight Spreads”:
Several thousand pro-union protesters filled a main hall of the statehouse in Columbus and gathered in a large crowd outside, chanting “Kill the bill,” waving signs and playing drums and bagpipes. There were no official estimates, but the numbers appeared to be smaller than those in Madison last week. One Democratic state legislator put the figure at 15,000; local papers reported crowds of about 5,000.
In Indiana, nearly all of the Democratic members of the state’s House of Representatives stayed away from a legislative session on Tuesday in an effort to stymie a bill that they say would weaken collective bargaining. By late Tuesday, they seemed to have succeeded in running down a clock on the bill, which was to expire at midnight. Representative Brian Bosma, the speaker of the Indiana House, said the bill would die when the deadline passed …
For the working class in Ohio, government jobs are highly desirable, with the median salary about 20 percent more than in the private sector, according to 2009 data from the Census Bureau. This is partly because employees tend to be more skilled: more than half of state and local workers have college degrees, far more than in the private sector. But among college graduates, public workers make less than those in the private sector.
Public employees say they have sacrificed. The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association said they had taken five pay cuts in nine years with a savings to the most recent budget of about $250 million.
Monty Blanton, 50, who worked for 31 years as a food service worker and an electrician in a state facility for mentally retarded people, made a gross salary of $44,000 before retirement. His pension, he said, stands at $19,500, barely enough to live on.
“We’re barely making a living wage,” he said. “I don’t think they understand how hard it is in southeastern Ohio.”
- The Agence France Presse article, “In US state houses, Tea Party bills spark outrage,” outlines some of the most reactionary Tea Party ideas now being considered around the US:
Politicians from the arch-conservative Tea Party have been making waves in the US Congress in recent weeks, but these actions appear pale in comparison to campaigners from the party who have been active in state legislatures across the country.
Some of the bills pending in local legislatures include one which might effectively legalize gay discrimination in Iowa; proclaiming climate change to be “beneficial” in Montana; and in one strange move, a push in Georgia to pay state debts exclusively with pre-1963 gold and silver coins.
In South Dakota, a bill sponsored by state representative Phil Jensen held that “homicide is justifiable” when the murder victim is a medical professional who carries out abortions.
- Another Tea Party governor, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, has sacred away jobs from the state, according to the Detroit Free Press story, “‘The Avengers’ pulls out of Michigan, other films might follow after incentive change”:
Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget proposal on Michigan film incentives is sending immediate aftershocks.
“The Avengers” — a big-budget Marvel superhero film featuring Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and others that was to be partially shot here this summer — has already decided it won’t be filming in the state, several people with connections to the film told the Free Press.
The “Avengers” story echoes the buzz spreading through the local film industry that projects wanting to come here are either holding off on their plans or changing their locations to another state …
“The Avengers” decision is an early – and high-profile – example of incentive supporters’ fears becoming reality.
“They were all set to come here,” said Chris Baum of Film Detroit, a division of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. When producers couldn’t get confirmation that they would still qualify for the incentives, they decided to pull out of the state, Baum said.
- Then there’s TheIndyChannel.com story, “‘Live Ammunition’ Tweet Sinks Deputy AG”:
A deputy in the Indiana Attorney General’s Office is no longer employed by the state following online comments he made concerning protesters at the Wisconsin Legislature.
Mother Jones, a political website, tweeted Saturday, “Sources in Madison say riot police have been ordered to clear protesters from capitol at 2 am,” to which Deputy Attorney General Jeff Cox responded using his personal account, “Use live ammunition.”
In an article published Wednesday on Mother Jones, author Adam Weinstein said Cox continued to advocate the use of deadly force on protesters.
Cox tweeted, “You’re damn right I advocate deadly force,” in response to a query from Weinstein.
The Indiana Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday morning that Cox’s comments were under review. A later statement said Cox was “no longer employed by this agency.”
Madison cops want to talk with governor about planting troublemakers
Madison Police Chief Angered Over Governor’s Comments
Madison Police Chief Noble Wray said he wants some answers from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
This comes after a prank phone call was released online on Wednesday, during which the caller, posing as conservative businessman and Walker supporter David Koch, asked Walker if he had thought about the possibility of planting people in the crowd to cause trouble during peaceful protests at the state Capitol during the past two weeks.
In response to prankster’s question, Walker said: “You know, well the — the only problem — because we thought about that … My only fear would be is that if there was a ruckus caused is that would scare the public into thinking the governor’s got to settle to avoid all these problems. Where I’ve said, ‘We can handle this. This is Madison, full of the ’60s liberals. Let ‘em protest.’”
Walker’s office confirmed on Wednesday he was one of the two voices on the phone call.
In a statement released on Thursday, Wray expressed concern over the governor’s remarks during the call.
“I spent a good deal of time overnight thinking about Governor Walker’s response, during his news conference yesterday, to the suggestion that his administration ‘thought about’ planting troublemakers among those who are peacefully protesting his bill. I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers. Our department works hard dialoging with those who are exercising their First Amendment right, those from both sides of the issue, to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure they can demonstrate safely. I am concerned that anyone would try to undermine these relationships. I have a responsibility to the community, and to the men and women of this department – who are working long hours protecting and serving this community – to find out more about what was being considered by state leaders,” Wray said in a statement.
States cutting budgets by expanding prison labor
The New York Times
Inmates Help States Fill Budget Gaps
Prison labor — making license plates, picking up litter — is nothing new, and nearly all states have such programs. But these days, officials are expanding the practice to combat cuts in federal financing and dwindling tax revenue, using prisoners to paint vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by private contractors or government employees.
In New Jersey, inmates on roadkill patrol clean deer carcasses from highways. Georgia inmates tend municipal graveyards. In Ohio, they paint their own cells. In California, prison officials hope to expand existing programs, including one in which wet-suit-clad inmates repair leaky public water tanks. There are no figures on how many prisoners have been enrolled in new or expanded programs nationwide, but experts in criminal justice have taken note of the increase.
“There’s special urgency in prisons these days,” said Martin F. Horn, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction. “As state budgets get constricted, the public is looking for ways to offset the cost of imprisonment” …
“The days of just breaking rocks with sledgehammers” are over, said Michael P. Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a research group in New York. “At the grossest financial level, it’s just savings. You can cut the government worker, save the salary and still maintain the service, and you’re providing a skill for when they leave.”
There are, of course, concerns about public safety and competition with government or private workers. Professor Horn estimates that only 20 percent of inmates present a low enough security threat to work in public. And in some places, even financially struggling governments are not willing to take the risk of employing prisoners.
In Ocala, Fla., after a long debate, the City Council last summer decided to have a private company mow grass, even though using inmates would have saved $1.1 million. “Our area has been really hard hit by unemployment,” said Suzy Heinbockel, a Council member. “There was a belief that the private company would bring local jobs, rather than giving those jobs to prisoners.”
In other areas that have used prison labor to reduce costs, there have been embarrassing results. In Ohio, there was public outcry last year after state investigations found inmates drinking on the job at the governor’s mansion and smuggling tobacco back into jail. And in Maryland, a proposal to have prisoners pick blue crabs for a private company was dropped amid concern about food safety.
US Army illegally manipulated lawmakers to support war funding
Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators
The U.S. Army illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in “psychological operations” to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war, Rolling Stone has learned – and when an officer tried to stop the operation, he was railroaded by military investigators.
The orders came from the command of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, a three-star general in charge of training Afghan troops – the linchpin of U.S. strategy in the war. Over a four-month period last year, a military cell devoted to what is known as “information operations” at Camp Eggers in Kabul was repeatedly pressured to target visiting senators and other VIPs who met with Caldwell. When the unit resisted the order, arguing that it violated U.S. laws prohibiting the use of propaganda against American citizens, it was subjected to a campaign of retaliation.
“My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders. “I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”
The list of targeted visitors was long, according to interviews with members of the IO team and internal documents obtained by Rolling Stone. Those singled out in the campaign included senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Jack Reed, Al Franken and Carl Levin; Rep. Steve Israel of the House Appropriations Committee; Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Czech ambassador to Afghanistan; the German interior minister, and a host of influential think-tank analysts.
The incident offers an indication of just how desperate the U.S. command in Afghanistan is to spin American civilian leaders into supporting an increasingly unpopular war. According to the Defense Department’s own definition, psy-ops – the use of propaganda and psychological tactics to influence emotions and behaviors – are supposed to be used exclusively on “hostile foreign groups.” Federal law forbids the military from practicing psy-ops on Americans, and each defense authorization bill comes with a “propaganda rider” that also prohibits such manipulation. “Everyone in the psy-ops, intel, and IO community knows you’re not supposed to target Americans,” says a veteran member of another psy-ops team who has run operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s what you learn on day one.”
Palestinians region-wide call for unity actions on March 15
Young Palestinians call for protests on 15 March
Their movement has no name and no leaders. Just a goal, and a tool.
The goal is to force an end to the political divisions among Palestinians by stirring the youth of Gaza and the West Bank to emulate their brothers and sisters in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Their tool – as elsewhere – is the internet, specifically Facebook. “End The Division”, a page in both Arabic and English, calls for protests across the Palestinian territories and refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon on 15 March. It has already got thousands of supporters, and is growing by the day.
The Gaza students behind the Facebook page refuse to give their real names for fear of arrest. They arrange meetings through trusted intermediaries on neutral ground and send emissaries to sound out public figures and politicians.
“This will become a reality,” says one of them, who calls himself Abu Yazan. “It’s going to happen. We are spreading the word. The first day will be hard, the next day will be better. It will grow.”
Another, Abu Ghassan, says: “For the past month, Palestinians have been spectators. We’ve watched as youth take the initiative and risk their lives. What happened in Egypt needs to happen here.”
They are not demanding the overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza nor the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. What they want is the parties to overcome their bitter rivalries and unite to fight their common enemy: Israel.
“We call on all the Palestinian factions to unite under the banner of Palestine, in order to reform the political system … based on the interests and aspirations of the Palestinian people in the homeland and the diaspora,” says the mission statement on Facebook.
They are asking for a “complete rebuilding of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to include within it all the colours of the Palestinian political spectrum, including Hamas”.
Palestinian family lives caged in an Israeli settlement
The Associated Press
Palestinian house inside cage in Jewish settlement
The al-Ghirayib family lives in one of the stranger manifestations of Israel’s 43-year occupation of the West Bank: a Palestinian house inside a metal cage inside an Israeli settlement.
The family’s 10 members, four of them children, can only reach the house via a 40-yard (meter) passageway connecting them to the Arab village of Beit Ijza farther down a hill. The passageway passes over a road used by Israeli army jeeps and is lined on both sides with a 24-foot-high (8-meter) heavy-duty metal fence.
The same fence rings the simple one-story house, separating it from the surrounding settlement houses. Some of those dwellings are so close that the family can hear the insults shouted by a nearby Jewish neighbor.
While al-Ghirayibs’ situation is unusual, Palestinians say it reflects the pressures put on their communities by Israel’s more than 120 West Bank settlements.
Arab world protests put Saudi king “in a state of shock”
Agence France Presse
Saudi king shocked into popular measures
King Abdullah, monarch of the Gulf’s most powerful Arab country, has resumed power in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, returning to a Middle East transformed during his three-month absence.
As he flew in yesterday, the king boosted social benefits for his people, in a region where a young population, unemployment and demands for reform have created a cocktail for upheaval. He also ordered a 15 per cent pay rise for state employees and an increase in funds for Saudi housing loans.
He granted a pardon to prisoners indicted for financial crimes and announced plans to combat unemployment. He is expected to reshuffle his cabinet.
Middle East analyst Neil Patrick said King Abdullah must “be in a state of shock”.
“The assumption a coalition of different elites could keep systems stable has proven not to be correct anymore,” he said.
Mustafa Alani, director of the Dubai-based private think tank Gulf Research Centre, said: “Immunity no longer exists. There is only one way to stay in power, and that is by meeting the demands of your people.”
West considering sanctions, military intervention in Libya
World leaders weigh Libya response
International pressure is mounting on Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, to stop the violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, which has killed hundreds of people.
On Thursday, Britain urged the world to exert greater pressure on Gaddafi, while the European Union said it was considering sending a humanitarian intervention force to the country.
William Hague, the UK foreign minister, called for an international investigation into Libyan state violence, while
Gaddafi’s forces stepped up their struggle to crush protesters who have been calling for an end to his 41-year rule for the past 10 days.
“We will be looking for ways to hold to account the people who are responsible for these things and they should bear that in mind,” Hague said. “We will want some kind of international investigation.”
David Cameron, the British prime minister, warned that Gaddhafi’s continued violence against protesters was “completely unacceptable’.’
“It must stop and, as I am absolutely clear, if it does not stop there will be consequences,” Cameron said, speaking in Qatar on a tour of the Middle East and Gulf …
After a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, the bloc did not announce sanctions against Libya, but Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, said the EU stood “ready to take further measures’.’
The US state department said freezing Libyan assets, including those belonging to Gaddafi, were among the options being considered, and some US legislators urged direct action such as imposing no-fly zones.
Leftwing and centrist opposition parties in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, meanwhile, made a joint statement on Wednesday on the government crackdown, calling on their nations to intervene.
“It is a genuine industry of extermination that has been unleashed. We must stand up to it, as any conscious individual would, and do everything to stop this massacre,” read the statement.
India’s corruption turning off foreign investors
The New York Times
Foreign Investment Ebbs in India
India’s rise has captured the world’s imagination, as the economy grows at nearly 9 percent a year and a growing consumer class buys cellphones, cars and homes. Yet foreign businesses and investors, once increasingly eager to tap that stunning growth, have started looking elsewhere.
Foreign direct investment in India fell more than 31 percent, to $24 billion, in 2010 even as investors flocked to developing nations as a group.
And in the last two months, foreign investors took $1.4 billion out of the Indian stock market, helping drive the country’s Nifty 50 stock index down 17 percent from the record high it set in early November.
The decline in foreign investment highlights the challenges outsiders still face in India, two decades after policy makers started opening up the country to the world. For Indian leaders, the drop in outside money could make it harder to achieve the faster and broader economic growth that they need to create jobs and pull hundreds of millions of India’s 1.1 billion people out of poverty.
While inefficiency and bureaucracy are nothing new in India, analysts and executives say foreign investors have lately been spooked by a highly publicized government corruption scandal over the awarding of wireless communications licenses. Another reason for thinking twice is a corporate tax battle between Indian officials and the British company Vodafone now before India’s Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the inflation rate — 8.2 percent and rising — seems beyond the control of India’s central bank and has done nothing to reassure foreign investors.
And multinationals initially lured by India’s growth narrative may find that the realities of the Indian marketplace tell a more vexing story. Some companies, including the insurer MetLife and the retailing giant Wal-Mart, for example, are eager to invest and expand here but have been waiting years for policy makers to let them.
Jahangir X. Aziz, an economist with JPMorgan in Mumbai, said that while Indian policy makers have been seemingly ambivalent toward foreigners, some other emerging economies have laid out red carpets. Lately, foreign direct investment to countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil has surged. Direct investment into Brazil, for instance, jumped 16 percent, to $30.2 billion last year, according to the United Nations. “In a world awash with liquidity, there are many other places to fish,” Mr. Aziz said.