We Have To Finance A Global Green New Deal — Or Face The Consequences

Originally published in The Intercept on June 24, 2019.
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AS POLITICIANS TALK more about ramping up their commitments to reducing carbon emissions — over the weekend, even Vice President Mike Pence squirmed when pressed on his climate denialism and said the U.S. is making progress on that front — one key aspect of the crisis remains conspicuously absent from most U.S discussions: so-called climate finance. The question of how much money the U.S. and other wealthy, industrialized nations will transfer to poor, developing countries so that they can effectively reduce their own carbon emissions has gone largely unaddressed, even as it grows in importance. Developing countries already account for more than 60 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and are expected to contribute nearly 90 percent of emissions growth over the next two decades.

The amount of money needed for “climate finance” is one of the most hotly debated issues between countries and represented one of the most contentious aspects of the Paris Agreement in 2015. Poorer countries have repeatedly said they could make steeper emissions cuts if they were adequately supported by wealthier nations in the process.

new report from the People’s Policy Project, a socialist think tank, argues that industrialized countries should contribute $2 trillion annually to help developing nations stave off the effects of climate change. An investment of that size would be 20 times larger than existing global commitments, which developed countries are already struggling to meet.

There is also an ideological debate behind the purpose of climate finance. Proponents of environmental justice argue that the U.S. has a moral and ethical responsibility to help less prosperous countries deal with the threat of climate change because so much of the U.S.’s own development and economic growth has contributed to suffering around the globe. Politically speaking, though, the issue is largely framed in terms of national security: The United States will be safer and better off if climate disasters don’t go unmitigated in other parts of the world.

The needle on climate finance has moved slowly since 2009, when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced at international climate negotiations in Copenhagen that by 2020 the U.S and other developed nations would “mobilize” $100 billion per year from public and private sources. The figure was selected to convey political will and was not based on any scientific analysis. As part of that $100 billion commitment, the U.N. established the Green Climate Fund, designed to finance climate mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries like securing the water supply in South Tarawa, Kiribati, and restoring degraded ecosystemsin El Salvador.

The fund’s governing board includes equal representation between developing and developed nations, and its first round of funding began in 2013, when 43 countries pledged to raise $10.3 billion for projects. Of that amount, the U.S. pledged to contribute $3 billion over four years.

As countries and experts debate how much climate aid is needed to raise over the long term, the amount of money raised and spent so far is also a matter of great dispute. One reason for that, according to Kevin Adams, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, is that countries generally self-report what they’re providing, and so what developing countries say they receive can differ from what developed countries say they have contributed. “This can be due to factors like exchange rates and currency fluctuations, fees paid to consultants or other service providers, as well as the financial instrument used, such as grants versus loans,” he explained.

In 2015, for example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report stating that wealthy countries had already mobilized $57 billion in climate aid, but leaders from developing nations argued that those figures were dramatically inflated. Indian officials called the OECD’s estimates “deeply flawed” and just “partially correct at best.” A 2018 Oxfam report also argued that climate-specific assistance to developing countries was likely overstated by a “huge margin.”

There’s also disagreement over what formally constitutes climate finance, an umbrella term that generally refers to climate mitigation, adaptation, and reparations. The “climate finance” term, according to Adams, is supposed to signify new and additional funding that goes above what countries are already spending (or supposed to be spending) on international development.

Adams said the rhetorical separation between “developmental aid” and “climate aid” is important so countries don’t just “relabel existing funds” they were already contributing. Though in practice, he explained, the distinction between the two can be much more tenuous, “particularly in the case of adaptation [funding] where climate vulnerability is so closely tied to poverty, access to services, and institutional capacity.”

Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, the global director of World Resources Institute’s Sustainable Finance Center, agrees the gap between development finance and climate finance is fairly porous. “There was always an overlap, and the reality is, the distinction is starting to break down,” he said. “These days, people recognize you can’t really do proper development without thinking about climate change and that we need to be talking about it as climate-informed development.”

Despite the growing consensus over the overlap between the categories, the Paris Agreement and other climate conventions have been designed using various methodologies and accounting systems that do not include development finance. “In some ways, we’re kind of stuck in this system we’ve created, where for a while we’ll have to move forward on these parallel tracks,” said Martinez-Diaz. “On the one hand, we’ll have a system to measure climate finance for [the] Paris [Agreement] and the $100 billion pledge, and on the other hand, we need to try and incorporate climate change into our water programming and our food security programming and our health programming. Even though some of that money cannot be counted as climate finance under the current rules, it still matters.”

THE CONVERSATION AROUND climate finance has been more robust outside the United States, yet President Donald Trump’s reneging on prior U.S. commitments has raised serious questions about how international targets can be met. Late last month at the R20 Austrian World Summit, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized how important climate financing was for tackling the crisis, stressing the need to meet the $100 billion goal by 2020 and “a full replenishment and an effective functioning” of the Green Climate Fund.

International climate talks are taking place this month in Bonn, Germany, and in July, the Green Climate Fund will hold its next board meeting. The next round of fundraising for the Green Climate Fund is provisionally planned for the fall, but right now leaders don’t know how much they’ll be able to raise without the help of the United States. In 2017, Trump announced that he was ending U.S support for the Green Climate Fund, even though the U.S. had yet to pay $2 billion of the $3 billion it had previously pledged. (The U.S. had transferred $1 billion to the fund under President Barack Obama.) Last fall, under its newly elected far-right prime minister, Australia said that it too would no longer be honoring its pledge to the Green Climate Fund.

Advocates see the challenge of mobilizing more money in this next round of funding as critical for establishing legitimacy and trust in the climate financing project and the Paris Agreement more broadly. If poor countries can’t rely on wealthy nations to help them industrialize in sustainable ways, then they may conclude they have little choice but to develop their economies along the same carbon-heavy trajectories that North America, East Asia, and Europe already took.

Encouragingly, both Germany and Norway have already announced their plans to double their previous commitments to the Green Climate Fund in the upcoming round of resource mobilization. Martinez-Diaz said WRI estimates that an ambitious replenishment goal should be about $14 billion if the U.S. does not participate, and about $22 billion if the U.S. does.

IN THE PEOPLE’S Policy Project report, published earlier this month, author Jacob Fawcett lays out a plan for what he calls a “Global Green New Deal,” under which developed countries would contribute $2 trillion annually, with the U.S. raising $680 billion of that, which amounts to 3.5 percent of the U.S.’s GDP.

The report suggests three ways for the U.S. to raise that money. One possibility would be a one-time issuance of open market treasury bonds, like selling $10.8 trillion worth of bonds into the open market and giving the earned cash to an investment fund managed by the U.N.; it would be difficult for a future president to repeal something like that, but it could spike interest rates. Another option is a one-time issuance of special treasury bonds, which could alleviate the interest rate risk but would be a little easier for a future administration to default on. The last proposed option is for Congress to pass a law authorizing annual mandatory spending, which would avoid the sticker shock of a one-time government debt issuance but also be the most vulnerable to political repeal.

The premise of Fawcett’s argument is that estimates for climate finance thrown around by world leaders are not actually based on what is necessary to confront the climate crisis. He notes that there are reputable climate finance models that project a cost of hundreds of billions and trillions annually; those figures fluctuate depending on what’s included and how they weigh various public and private financing methods.

“I want to see more attention paid to just how big this funding issue is, and I think it’s really a big fight,” he said, “with the amount of funding needed just several orders of magnitude beyond what people have been discussing.”

IN 2015, the England-based Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy issued a report calling for up to $2 trillion in annual climate financing. Another estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for $2.38 trillion in annual funding for energy sector development alone. Another 2015 report, produced by the World Bank and consultancy firm Ecofys, said financial transfers “could reach up to US$100–400 billion annually by 2030, possibly increasing to over $2 trillion dollars by 2050.” A 2011 U.N. estimate put the “annual financing demand to green the global economy” in the range of $1.05-$2.59 trillion. The World Economic Forum estimated in 2013 that there needs to be at least $700 billion in green infrastructure spending per year by 2020, separate from the $5 trillion annual investment in traditional industries.

While there are several multilateral funds aimed at climate finance, the People’s Policy Project recommends that the U.S. contribute the entirety of the $680 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which is the one most deeply rooted in the principles of the Paris Agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The paper assumes that it’s the global institution with the most capacity to handle that much money responsibly, and that it’s more secure once it’s in the hands of the U.N.

The Green Climate Fund’s ability to handle that level of investment is another question. “The Green Climate is good at upscaling ideas, and it’s crucial that the approaches it is developing are closely linked to the principles of the Convention, but you’d have some practical issues to it handling that much funding,” said Adams of the Stockholm Environment Institute. “While the replenishment is currently ongoing, scaling it up 200 times to $2 trillion would be an enormous institutional challenge.” Indeed, the Green Climate Fund’s capacity to review projects is limited, and it can only distribute money to countries that apply with a robust project to pursue — not a quick or easy task.

Adams said industrialized countries should “do more and contribute more” toward the effort of climate finance, which is more important than a focus on the exact figures needed. “While $2 trillion might be in line with the scale of the climate challenge, it is so far beyond the $100 billion goal currently enshrined in the Paris Agreement and which contributor countries are struggling to meet, it’s hard to see that figure gaining much political traction,” he said.

Oscar Reyes, an Institute for Policy Studies fellow focused on climate and energy finance, said the $2 trillion figure is in line with the costs of retooling large swaths of infrastructure and creating new infrastructure, which can escalate quickly, especially in economically disadvantaged nations where energy systems with proper access to electricity are being developed for the first time. Still, he said, aiming to raise $2 trillion — especially considering corruption in the international development space — is not necessarily the way to go.

“What probably makes more sense to me at the moment is, let’s get the Green Climate Fund to $20 billion, or $30 billion, and build the organization up in a sustainable way,” he said. “If you throw out a lot of money, it’s really difficult to see how that’s done, though maybe that’s my lack of imagination.”

The U.N., meanwhile, is working to develop a better sense of what’s needed. The UNFCCC’s Adaptation Committee is seeking proposals to better determine what is needed to address adaptation funding gaps. The committee aims to compile results in late 2020 or early 2021.

THERE IS ALSO a debate over the role of public versus private climate funding. The People’s Policy Project operates from an assumption that the public sector should cover the entire cost and not rely on businesses or philanthropists to shoulder the responsibility. Most other climate financing plans rely on a mix of public and private sources, though typically with public funding acting as a sweetener for hefty private investment. The 2015 Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy paper Fawcett cites in his report argues that “private finance is potentially the most important source of funds for climate mitigation investment.”

Fawcett said he isn’t wholly opposed to private investment, citing carbon-capture technology as one example that he’d feel more comfortable with. He cautioned, though, against the potentially more exploitative situations, like companies that rent out solar panels to poor villages. He thinks predatory situations could be more easily mitigated if the U.N. had control over the aid.

Advocates and world leaders face the challenge of striking the balance between a wealthy, developed country’s moral obligation to helping poorer, developing countries and framing the climate finance conversation in terms of national self-interest.

When Trump announced he would no longer contribute the rest of the United States’ pledge to the Green Climate Fund, he wrongly claimed it was “costing the United States a vast fortune.” Matthew Kotchen, an Obama administration official, responded in the Washington Post that U.S officials had “vigorously advocated for a fund that served the interests of the United States.” Kotchen also noted that encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions helps create a more stable and secure world, and reduces economic costs for many sectors of the U.S. economy. He made no mention of environmental justice or the nation’s ethical obligation.

Even as he calls for greater climate finance flows, Adams acknowledged “there is a tension between trying to help contributor countries recognize their own vulnerability to climate change in a globalizing world, and,Feliza at the same time, recognizing that contributing to climate finance should not only be about individual interest.”

THE GREEN NEW Deal, considered among the boldest proposals to tackle climate change in the United States, is rooted in the principles of economic justice. The resolution commits to promoting a “just transition” for all communities and workers, and prioritizes job creation and social benefits for “frontline and vulnerable communities.” Still, it is very domestic in focus, and some commentators have urged legislators to think more deeply about climate finance.

Last month, Ben Adler, an editor at City & State, argued in the Washington Post that while many conservatives claim the Green New Deal is too big, its sparse focus on the United States’ international obligations suggests that the plan might not be nearly big enough. The Green New Deal resolution contains one sentence that gestures at climate finance, endorsing the “international exchange of technology, expertise, products, funding and services, with the aim of making the United States the international leader on climate action, and to help other countries achieve a Green New Deal.” Earlier this month Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said she expects her Green New Deal climate plan to cost at least $10 trillion, though she did not specify how much of that she envisioned for international funding, if any. Her office declined to comment on specifics about climate finance. Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, the original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also did not return requests for comment.

Looking toward 2021, which is the soonest a Green New Deal plan could feasibly be passed, Democratic presidential candidates have so far steered clear of very large climate financing figures. Joe Biden promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement and use “America’s economic leverage and power of example” to get other countries to increase their emission reduction goals. His plan doesn’t say anything specific about climate aid. Jay Inslee, the candidate who has centered climate change most prominently in his campaign, did pledge to double the United States’ investment in the Green Climate Fund. And Elizabeth Warren proposed a $100 billion “Green Marshall Plan” to fund projects in poor, developing nations — though the projects would require countries to purchase American-made energy technology for the work. Projects funded out of the Green Climate Fund do not come with similar restrictions.

Ultimately, with Green Climate Fund replenishment talks coming up soon, the political will for tackling the climate crisis on the rise, and Green New Deal details yet to be formalized, it’s in many ways a ripe time for the U.S. to begin thinking more seriously about its role and responsibility to other nations grappling with the climate crisis.

“I think there is an international dimension of the Green New Deal that’s missing,” said Adams. “But at the same time, I think it’s a helpful policy approach because it moves the conversation to a space where climate change is inextricable from our economies and the way our societies are structured, as opposed to treating it like a one-off externality.”

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How Unions and Climate Organizers Learned To Work Together in New York

Originally published in In These Times on June 10, 2019.
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Several years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) elevated the climate, jobs and justice framework to the national level, a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups joined together to push for a pioneering climate bill in New York.

The idea for the legislation came in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 People’s Climate March, when organizers decided to build on the momentum of the historic demonstration. In 2016 the Climate and Community Protection Act(CCPA) was born, an expansive bill that would require New York to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The bill would also mandate that 40 percent of New York’s climate funding go towards projects in low-income, vulnerable communities, and require all green projects to have high labor standards, including the requirement for a prevailing wage.

“It’s among the most aggressive decarbonization proposals in the nation,” said Arielle Swernoff, the communications coordinator for New York Renews, a coalition of over 170 state groups backing the legislation. “The only state that has really done something comparable is Hawaii.”

New York Renews offers an encouraging example of how labor and environmental groups can work together to act on climate change. The coalition has the backing of unions like 32BJ Service Employees International Union—a property service workers union, the New York State Nurses Association, the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. It also has the support of a vast number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates of New York and GreenFaith.

The bill’s strong language around labor—such as requiring that government contracts include mechanisms for resolving disputes and ensuring labor harmony—has helped quell opposition from building trade unions that typically fight robust climate proposals. The New York AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing 3,000 state affiliates, has notably stayed quiet on the bill.

Nella Pineda-Marcon, the chair of the Climate Justice and Disaster Relief committee with the New York State Nurses Association, told In These Times that it was an easy decision for her union to back the CCPA. Her union, which represents 43,000 nurses statewide, got very involved with the climate crisis following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The following year, Pineda-Marcon traveled to the Philippines as a first-responder to Typhoon Haiyan. “We are on the front lines of this crisis, we see first-hand the destruction it has,” she explained. “And the massive amounts of pollutants in our air are driving up rates of chronic asthma in our most vulnerable communities… We need to lead now and the rest of the world can follow us.”

The politics of the CCPA are coming to a head as the deadline for passage ends June 19. The bill passed the state Assembly in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and last year a majority of state senators signed on in support. But the Senate Leader never allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. After the 2018 midterms, however, when progressive Democrats ousted a group of centrists who often caucused with Republicans, advocates felt the stars were aligning more favorably for the CCPA’s passage this year.

Indeed, in January the new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins released a statement calling the CCPA “the main vehicle through which we will address climate change.” The state senate held its first-ever hearing on climate change in February, led by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D), the new Environmental Conservation Committee chairman.

Various scientists testified, including Mathias Vuille, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of Albany and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Vuille explained that the most significant impact resulting from a changing climate in New York so far has been the rise of intense storms, which have increased in frequency in the Northeast more than any other region in the United States. Sea levels along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts have also risen much higher than the global average, he said, pointing to a rise in New York sea levels by 280 millimeters over the 20th century, compared to a global average increase of 170 millimeters.

While Vuille cautioned that he’s neither a renewable energy specialist nor an economist, he said “we owe it to future generations” to continue leading the transition off fossil fuels, and emphasized a need to reduce emissions in the transportation sector in particular. “I think this can be done if we really have the will,” he said.

Some labor advocates, like Mike Gendron, the executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1108, also testified in support of the CCPA. “As we transition from fossil fuel based energy to renewable energy, we must make sure that the jobs created, are good paying union jobs with proper training, for both new workers and transitioning workers,” he said. “The New York State Climate and Community Protection Act will help make that happen.”

Other unions offered more qualified support, endorsing specific sections of the legislation. Ellen Redmond, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), testified that her union does in fact believe the CCPA contains commendable language around workers’ rights. “We do believe the labor protections are strong,” she said, though suggested it could be even better if there were more teeth and real dollars behind it. IBEW represents about 50,000 members in New York, many of whom work in the utilities industry.

Mark Brueggenjohann, a spokesperson for the IBEW, told In These Times that his union didn’t have anything new to add to Redmond’s February testimony and doesn’t “anticipate any further statements” this month.

State senators also heard from industry groups that raised concerns, like Mitch Paley, testifying on behalf of the New York State Builders Association. Paley said while his colleagues support some aspects of the CCPA, they object to the prevailing wage requirements which would, by their own estimate, increase residential projects by 35 to 45%. The mandated solar requirements for new homes, he added, could increase the cost of each project by $10,000. This would “dramatically affect the ability to promote affordable homes in our region,” he argued.

Darren Suarez, the senior director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State testified against the bill, arguing that the proposed legislation would “increase energy costs, operational costs, and create uncertainty, compromising the global competitiveness of energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries.” He insisted the bill’s goals are not practical, and that the manufacturing sector should be included in developing the state’s climate policies.

A study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst found that New York transitioning to a 100 percent renewable economy could support 160,000 direct and indirect jobs initially and an average of about 150,000 in each year over the first decade. The institute also estimates that New York’s fossil fuel workforce is relatively small, comprised of roughly 13,000 individuals, out of a statewide workforce of around 9 million.

A threatening factor for CCPA supporters is that the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has introduced his own more moderate climate bill—the Climate Leadership Act. His legislation calls for the electricity sector to be carbon-free by 2040, but does not lay out a concrete plan for other sectors that emit greenhouse gas, like transportation. The two bills are dividing Democrats in Albany. Advocates for CCPA say Cuomo’s bill does not go far enough, and it’s imperative to legislate specific climate goals, so they are not “at the whim of the executive” anymore.

Swernoff of New York Renews says the governor’s office has expressed discomfort specifically with the prevailing wage standard for all green projects, the 40% investment into vulnerable and low-income communities, and setting a timeline for the whole economy, as opposed to just for electricity.

New York federal legislators are ramping up pressure on state lawmakers to pass the CCPA. On June 4, eleven Congressional representatives from New York, including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, sent a letter in support of the bill. “We believe the people-led Climate and Community Protection Act before you in Albany presents…an opportunity for New York,” they wrote. “An opportunity to cure the injustices of the past and to secure, with intent, a just transition into the future.” On June 5, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent her own letter in support of the bill.

Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a steering committee member of New York Renews and the New York affiliate of Jobs with Justice, said she knows lawmakers are taking the CCPA very seriously right now, and she’s “hopeful this year its passage will become a reality.”

When it comes to the governor signing the bill, Silva-Farrell says she is less sure. “You never know where he’s going to be on an issue,” she said. “But one thing that is very clear is that if he wants to leave a strong legacy for his family, for his kids, and his grandkids, he should get behind this.”

The Radical Teachers’ Movement Comes to Baltimore

Originally published in The Nation on June 7, 2019.
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In mid-May, 37-year-old Diamonte Brown won her bid to lead the Baltimore Teachers Union, defeating Marietta English, who has led the nearly 7,000-member union for most of the last two decades. The shakeup in Charm City school politics marks a victory not just for Brown, a middle-school English teacher, but the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (BMORE), a social-justice caucus that has been organizing since 2015.

Yet English, who was seeking her ninth term in office, says she cannot “in good faith concede” and has demanded a re-vote—alleging Brown and the slate of candidates she ran with committed a series of election violations, like illegally campaigning on school grounds. Critics say the incumbents have their own campaign missteps to account for, including writing rules that discourage challengers and trying to suppress the vote.

The American Federation of Teachers, the national parent union for the BTU, is stepping in, and plans to hold a formal hearing to adjudicate the complaints next week. The election drama reflects a stark departure from what are typically sleepy Baltimore affairs.

Still, with roughly 500 more ballots cast this cycle compared to last, observers say the increased interest in the election should not go ignored, regardless of what happens when the AFT concludes its investigation.

BMORE says that no matter the outcome they’re here to stay, joining a national movement dedicated to using teacher unions as a vehicle for broad social change. This movement first caught fire with the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, an eight-day protest of educators, parents, students, and community members who called for increased funding for public services. Similar radical caucuses have since emerged in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Paul and now they’re banding together to help those in Baltimore.

BMORE’s story begins with Natalia Bacchus, an ESOL teacher who moved to Baltimore in 2013 after teaching in suburban Maryland for nine years. Bacchus was bewildered by the bureaucratic hurdles she encountered at nearly every turn.

“When I worked in Montgomery County, I didn’t know anything about our union, I was just like, I’m a public-school teacher, I’m a public servant, I have a unionized job, that’s cool,” she said. “Then I came to Baltimore, and I was like, wow—everything is a hassle every step of the way. And what do you mean kids can’t drink from the water fountain? And kids have to go to bathroom in groups? All these restrictions that would never fly in Montgomery County.”

Bacchus didn’t know many other Baltimore educators, and didn’t know if she was alone in feeling this way. Eventually she met Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers’ Democracy Project, a local education advocacy group. In 2014 Atkinson invited Bacchus to become a TPD fellow, where she would research progressive teacher unions around the country.

The next year Bacchus and Atkinson started traveling to different cities to learn from activist teachers. In August 2015, they went to Newark, New Jersey, for the annual United Caucus of Rank and File Educators conference, and began asking more practical questions about what launching a union caucus might look like.

“I was like this could be big, and Chicago’s social-justice caucus was called CORE and New York’s was MORE—we should call ours BMORE!” Bacchus said.

That fall, Atkinson introduced Bacchus to two other radical educators she knew in Baltimore—Cristina Duncan Evans and Corey Gaber. Bacchus was then working at a traditional public elementary school, Gaber was a charter middle-school teacher, and Duncan Evans was teaching at a specialized high school for the arts. Their diverse experiences struck them as a powerful opportunity.

Together they started a book club, reading texts like How to Jump-Start Your Unionabout the Chicago Teachers Union, and The Future of Our Schools, by education scholar Lois Weiner. Later that year they traveled to Chicago, to meet the CORE educators in person. That summer Samantha Winslow from Labor Notes, a media and union activism organization, came out to Baltimore to lead an organizing workshop, and five Baltimore educators went to Raleigh, North Carolina, in August for UCORE’s next conference. Leaders describe BMORE’s beginnings as “a lot of slow, but really deep” organizing.

In the fall of 2016 the newly formed BMORE steering committee decided to launch their first campaign—a petition drive to allow absentee voting in BTU elections. That winter they held their official BMORE launch party at a local barbecue restaurant, and wondered if anyone would even show up. Nearly 70 people did. “We knew then that this type of connection and work was resonating with people,” said Gaber.

Amplifying black leadership and centering racial equity, they stressed, would be at the core of their efforts. They created a closed Facebook group for members, and began holding regular meetings at different schools. By April 2017 they formally met with their union’s leadership, receiving guidance from Philly’s social-justice caucus on how to approach that conversation. The BTU, they said, was surprisingly receptive to their group.

“Marietta even offered to come to our meetings, but we said no that’s not how we operate,” said Bacchus. “We’re from the rank-and-file.”

BMORE’s organizing got an unexpected jolt the following winter, when local and national media on Baltimore students trapped in freezing classrooms with broken heaters. Some schools never even opened due to malfunctioning boilers, while others sent children home early. BMORE quickly organized and sent a list of demands to the school board and school district CEO, signed by more than 1,500 supporters. The school CEO, Sonja Santelises, wrote BMORE back with gratitude for “fiercely advocating for solutions,” and the school district largely adopted their recommendations. The next month BMORE joined 20 other cities in hosting a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, demanding things like more culturally competent curriculum and the hiring of more black educators.

Last summer BMORE leaders started discussing running their own candidates in the next union election—something that happens every three years. They decided to team up with another young social-justice group, the Caucus of Educators for Democracy and Equity (CEDE), and run jointly under the banner of The Union We Deserve. Diamonte Brown would run for president, and they’d run additional candidates—including Gaber and Duncan Evans—for the executive board. The Union We Deserve slate would compete against the Progressive Caucus, a slate that included Marietta English and which has held power in the union for years.

The insurgent candidates admit there are some things the BTU already does well. Baltimore teachers have some of the highest salaries in both Maryland and the nation, and their health-care benefits are notably strong. “At a time when people are going on strike over low wages and poor health care, the Progressive Caucus has pushed for even more salary increases and our good health care to get even better,” said Corey Debnam, the Progressive Caucus chair and a Baltimore educator for the last 19 years.

Still, the teachers with The Union We Deserve say they want more than an effective service union, and to prioritize more than just good pay, benefits, and professional development. They want to mobilize teachers into a political force for students and communities—through the ballot box, at the bargaining table, and through direct action.

“I taught American government for nine years, and 6,000 organized voters can really have a big impact on electoral politics when you look at the turnout in some of our races,” said Duncan Evans. Baltimore is a deep blue city, and in the last Democratic primary for mayor, the winner emerged with less than 2,500 votes.

Whether the new social-justice educators maintain control of the Baltimore Teachers Union will likely be resolved later this month.

Marietta English did not respond to a request for an interview, but sent a statement saying she is glad the American Federation of Teachers is coming to oversee an investigation. “As I have said numerous times, there were egregious violations throughout this campaign process,” she said. “I am confident that this investigation will allow all members to have their voices heard and restore the integrity of our elections.”

Sandra Davis, the chair of the union’s chapter for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs), and a member of the Progressive Caucus, told The Nation that this election is extremely unusual, and that in her 30 years as a Baltimore educator she’s “never seen anything like this.” If Brown’s presidency is upheld, Brown would serve over a joint-executive board—with the teacher chapter chaired by Duncan Evans, and the PRSP chapter chaired by Davis. “At this point, no one is including us,” said Davis. “We don’t have a clue what’s going on—we’re just in limbo.”

Davis and Debnam said union members contacted them to object to BMORE/CEDE supporters canvassing at their homes this past spring. The union’s election guidelines prohibit the BTU from sharing members’ personal contact information, leading some to view the canvassing as a violation of their privacy, even if BMORE/CEDE didn’t get the home addresses from the union itself.

“We have people who are really offended that someone late at night—at 6 or 7 PM, is coming to their home to campaign about an internal election,” Debnam said. “That’s just something we would never do.”

The Progressive Caucus is not just accusing BMORE/CEDE of wrongly canvassing at people’s homes. They also accuse them of illegally campaigning on school grounds. With additional election rules like prohibitions against teachers leaving campaign literature in educators’ mailboxes and sending campaign literature on work email accounts, candidates are left with few ways to actually reach prospective voters. Critics say that’s by design, to protect those already in power. Bacchus, who resigned in 2018 and now works with the Teachers’ Democracy Project full-time, said The Union We Deserve’s main goal throughout the campaign was to spread awareness about the upcoming election. “Most teachers don’t even know that every three years there’s an election for BTU leadership,” she said.

BMORE/CEDE, for their part, say the BTU leadership tried to suppress the vote before and during the election, in part by limiting voting hours, removing a voting location, and denying a bulk of absentee ballots. On Election Day, local media also covered complaints from educators who said the ballots on their voting machines were designed in a confusing way, formatted as if to encourage re-electing the incumbents. Debnam of the Progressive Caucus said all candidates had the opportunity to meet with the elections vendor beforehand to see how the ballot would be formatted. “We have no say in how the machine looks, that’s Elections USA, and now there’s this really disturbing narrative that it’s we who have done wrong when in reality we ran a fair and honest campaign,” he said.

Duncan Evans says she isn’t entirely surprised their caucus’s victory is being contested.  “The BTU has challenged elections in the past,” she said. “So I certainly knew this was in the realm of possibility.”

BMORE leaders say if the election results are upheld, then they hope to begin meeting with individual members, to revamp their union website, and to bring full-time organizers on staff.

“I’m looking forward to people understanding more about how a union works, but I think a large part of transparency means us listening,” said Duncan Evans. “This is all long overdue.

Conservatives Pushed a Strategy to Weaken Home Healthcare Unions. The Trump Administration Bit.

Originally published in The Intercept on May 31, 2019.
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EARLIER THIS MONTH, the Trump administration announced a new rule barring home health care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded wages. The new Department of Health and Human Services rule, which will impact more than 800,000 workers and was immediately met with a legal challenge, followed years of planning by anti-union activists to promote such measures in states across the country, and, more recently, on the federal level.

In anticipation of a crushing blow to public-sector unions by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer, conservative groups ramped up their efforts to bring the federal government’s attention to the issue of Medicaid-funded union dues, according to an audio recording obtained by The Intercept and Documented.

On an invitation-only call with donors last June, leaders with the State Policy Network — a corporate-backed umbrella group of right-wing think tanks across the country — raised the issue of directly deducting union dues from Medicaid-funded paychecks, what they call “dues-skimming.” Vinnie Vernuccio, a labor policy adviser to the State Policy Network told donors that its plan was to end this practice by getting “an administrative rule passed at Health and Human Services” and passing federal legislation with the assistance of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The legislation has not yet come — despite a promise from McMorris Rodgers announced at the start of 2018 that she would introduce a bill to this effect. The Department of Health and Human Services, however, announced less than two months after the call that it would consider amending its Obama-era rule, which it ultimately did this May. On the call, Vernuccio touted that the State Policy Network “is the only group that’s driving this effort at a national level.” A spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers did not respond to requests for comment.

Others on the call were Rebecca Painter, the vice president of development for SPN; Tracie Sharp, the president and CEO; Todd Davidson, the senior director of strategic development for the network; and Jennifer Butler, an SPN senior policy adviser. None of the five call leaders returned The Intercept’s requests for comment. Instead, SPN spokesperson Carrie Conko reached out and said she would address any inquiries. She wrote in an email that her coalition plans to keep fighting in Washington “on behalf of those who would rather not see their hard earned money siphoned from their paychecks and into big union’s political and lobbying activities.”

The 45-minute call came about two weeks before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, which struck down public-sector unions’ ability to charge fees to nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining. SPN leaders voiced optimism that the case would bring them positive results.

“I want you to know that later this month, or any day now, the chances are good that we may actually have this unprecedented opportunity with the Janus Supreme Court case decision,” Sharp told her donors. “If it comes down on our side, of course, it makes every state a ‘right-to-work’ state. And so we have the opportunity to change the way the left funds everything that you and I disagree with.” At a different point on the call, she said, “Once this ruling comes down — and we do expect it to come down in our favor — everything will change. The door to pass a dream list of free-market reforms is going to swing open for us.” Vernuccio agreed. “Once the government union barrier is removed, everything else that matters to everyone on this call so much is that much closer within reach,” he said.

With a Janus victory in sight, an emboldened State Policy Network looked ahead to next steps, particularly taking the dues-skim fight from the states to Washington, D.C. SPN could “devolve power back to the states, communities, and most importantly, back to individuals,” Butler explained to the donors. “By harnessing all our expertise and all the resources at the federal level, we can stop this nationwide,” Vernuccio added. “So nothing really illustrates the power of SPN and the network better than what[‘s] gonna soon be a victory on the dues-skim.”

THE STATE POLICY Network’s first win on the dues-skim came in early 2013, just as Michigan became a “right-to-work” state. The SPN organization in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, convinced state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to eliminate the ability of child care providers and home health care workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks.

The financial result has been devastating for unions: In the past seven years, SEIU Healthcare Michigan has seen an 84 percent drop membership and a 74 percent drop in revenue. Its political spending has also seen a major decline, from $3.5 million on lobbying and politics in 2012, to just $290,000 in 2016.

SEIU Healthcare Michigan spokesperson Adam Bingman told The Intercept that the rollback of protections for home health care workers has exacerbated the care crisis in his state. He’d recently gotten “two different calls from independent providers” who said they’re struggling to find qualified home health care workers. “The lack of union membership and the assault on home care workers, and those who rely on those services, has really hurt the ability to attract dedicated qualified home care professionals,” he said. According to Bingman, many home care workers have left to go work in nursing homes or find alternative employment.

While Michigan provided conservative activists a proof point of what’s possible with regards to weakening home health care unions, Republicans soon realized that passing similar measures in other states would not be as easy. “In Michigan, the Mackinac Center hit it out of the park; they stopped it,” said Vernuccio on the donor call. “But in a lot of other states, the political winds just simply didn’t align.”

Facing state-level opposition, the same conservative activists known for railing against federal intervention decided the time was necessary for federal intervention. Vernuccio explained how SPN “saw an opportunity to … harness everything that we learned” in Michigan and other states around stopping the so-called dues-skim and to bring that knowledge to D.C. “This means that states like California, Washington, Illinois that would need a huge political sea change to stop the skim at the state level will now have it stopped in D.C.,” he told the donors. “It also means that we’re focusing the firepower of the donations of people on the call and across the country — that instead of fighting an uphill battle in these states, we can win more quickly and more easily in Washington, D.C.”

Butler then shared that she had been taking caregivers to Congress to tell lawmakers how they’ve been affected by the dues-skim and unions. She cited a nearly half-hourlong meeting they had with Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a few months prior. Federal disclosures show that Butler, on behalf of SPN, has lobbied the Senate, the House of Representatives, and Health and Human Services with the stated goal of ending the Medicaid dues-skim.

In April 2018, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc, chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, sent a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma requesting that she look into the dues-skimming situation. His letter said that unions in 11 states were able to skim an estimated $200,000 in Medicaid payments each year, a statistic he attributed to a 2017 Mackinac Center policy brief. By August, Verma had announced that her agency was reconsidering the rule, and both Johnson and McMorris Rodgers submitted comments in favor of changing it.

The Mackinac Center cheered the Trump administration’s new rule, finally announced on May 2. “Ever since the Mackinac Center learned a decade ago of unions skimming funds from those caring for society’s most vulnerable — and in many cases, their own ailing family members — we began to actively seek to end this abhorrent practice,” said Joseph Lehman, the center’s president, in a statement. “This illegitimate action, negotiated between government and big unions, cost Michigan caregivers tens of millions of dollars. We were proud to litigate and bring an end to this practice for Michigan residents providing care to the disabled. Now, we celebrate with caregivers across the country who are finally afforded the same relief.”

A POWERPOINT PRESENTATION prepared by Heart+Mind Strategies for the State Policy Network in October 2017, and obtained by The Intercept and Documented, details carefully tested message research to help Republicans craft their talking points on this issue for lawmakers and the public. The research was conducted through a 25-minute online national survey between October 5 and 13, 2017, with over-samples in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

A “key messaging takeaway,” the consultants advised, was to be sure to not attack unions directly, as “they are seen positively by Americans” and most respondents “describe unions as fighting for higher wages and better benefits.” Only a minority of respondents, the consultants found, associate unions with “negative descriptors like corrupt, harmful, and dangerous.”

While the consultants acknowledged that “government labor unions” was the most effective way to negatively describe unions, even then they admitted that support for “government labor unions” was more positive than not. Still, the consultants said, “there are large groups of neutral Americans who can be moved on the issue.”

When it came to the dues-skimming issue, the consultants reported encouraging results for the Republican activists, saying that more than half of Americans oppose direct dues payments for government-funded home care workers and child care providers, and just half had existing knowledge of the policies. They found that most Americans have negative associations with the phrase “dues-skimming” — even before learning what it means.

To successfully fight direct union payments from child care workers and home care workers, the consultants advised activists to use messaging that included phrases like “as a condition of employment” or “forced to pay.” They also recommended focusing on language about taking money dedicated to people with disabilities and to avoid language around “growing the union’s treasure chest.” Coincidentally or not, the Department of Health and Human Services issued its new rule on similar lines, denying that it would interfere with voluntary union dues and insisting that it “in no way prevents” health care workers from paying dues to a union.

The Heart+Mind Strategies consultants also polled support for going through Health and Human Services to end the practice of union workers directly deducting their dues, and respondents supported the idea of the department sending a letter to states demanding that they end the practice by a 12-to-1 margin. This resembles the course of action the federal government ultimately pursued.

Conko, the SPN spokesperson, told The Intercept that the research from the PowerPoint presentation shows “that the general public agrees with us” about “right-to-work” laws and the Obama-era rule that allowed health home care workers to deduct union dues from their paychecks. Conko said the research was shared with state think tanks across the country and on SPN’s website, along with stories of workers “who wanted policymakers and others to know how the union’s practices were unfair and not always transparent.”

The messaging tips were consistent with SPN’s practices that The Intercept has previously reported on. The network has advised its member groups to avoid lodging direct attacks on unions because unions remain highly popular. Instead, SPN urged its state affiliates to stress that their efforts are about protecting workers’ “First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association.”

Bingman of SEIU Healthcare Michigan said the dramatic attacks on workers’ rights have “ultimately underlined that elections have consequences.” He pointed to the election of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November and said that his union, “along with organized labor, are really looking forward to changing things both here in Michigan and on the federal level.”

Credder Hopes To Crowdsource Away Fake News

Originally published in Columbia Journalism Review on May 31, 2019.
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AS FACEBOOK AND TWITTER grapple with misinformation and conspiracies on their platforms, a new crop of startups have emerged to try and use Yelp-like ratings to identify and amplify trusted stories.

These user-powered sites include Our.News andTrustedNews. Last year, even Elon Musk pitched the idea of creating a site he called “Pravda”—a media credibility site for ranking journalists and outlets.

Credder (they “dish out credibility”)—which launched its public-facing beta on Monday—is perhaps the most developed. “We were the first ones here,” co-founder Chase Palmieri says. And they did start thinking about this idea before the 2016 election, when fake news became more of an issue. “Pravda was an idea on Twitter, that’s all it’s been. Elon is a pretty busy guy.”

The Credder team wants to provide readers a solution to clickbait and sensationalism that “doesn’t involve outsourcing their critical thinking” to an algorithm or another person—like a Facebook moderator. They say that having news outlets and social media platforms censor untrustworthy content on readers’ behalf strikes them as fairly draconian.

When Palmieri and his two co-founders Austin Walter and Jared Fesler graduated from California State University, Chico, they knew they wanted to start a business, but didn’t know what kind. They kept in touch, pitched each other on ideas, and worked other jobs.

Palmieri moved to Italy, but also continued to own a restaurant back in Petaluma, where he managed its Yelp page from abroad. He liked the way the reviews got him to change his business’s behavior. At the end of 2015, alarmed by the “rising amount of clickbait,” they set about making a product to evaluate the “trustworthiness” of news articles in a similar way. They want news producers to “compete for trust, not clicks”—and aspire to help drive traffic and revenue “to the people who are winning that game.” Their first adviser was Patrick Lee, the co-founder and former CEO of Rotten Tomatoes. Instead of a tomato icon, Credder uses a picture of cheddar cheese.  (Golden cheese for most trustworthy, moldy cheese for least.)

Users assess individual articles by ranking them between one star, for least trustworthy, and five stars for most. The next step is to decide whether an article was “credible”, “illogical”, “biased”, a “mistake” or “not credible.” Each of those five then has additional options. “Biased” prompts new choices like “Hit Piece,” “Religious Bias,” or “Financial Incentive.” Users then can explain their review in a text box before submitting.

The co-founders wanted it to be more nuanced than a five-star rating system, but still convenient enough that people would actually use it. Like Rotten Tomatoes, you can read reviews both by the general public and by professional journalists.

Unlike Yelp, where restaurants are reviewed, but not individual dishes, Credder users rate articles, not the outlet as a whole. But outlets and journalists are then also given their own composite scores.

Credder’s founders hope journalists will use the reviews to inform their writing, and be motivated to increase their trust score. If a journalist gets feedback that their headlines are too sensational, and their editor won’t change their practice, well, Palmieri says, “maybe the journalist might think about working for a different outlet.” He also hopes Credder will “protect, empower and connect news consumers on the go” by providing a way to warn each other about stories they should avoid or approach cautiously. Right now, they say, news consumers have little recourse to hold an outlet or reporter accountable for low-quality content.

As of last Friday, 2,619 users had created accounts on Credder, and 41 journalists. The co-founders expect distribution to be their biggest challenge.

But even if the idea takes off, it remains to be seen whether journalists will care about the feedback they get. As a writer often in progressive outlets, how would I know that people who rank my articles as untrustworthy aren’t just right-wing diehards looking to professionally damage journalists they blame for left-wing politics? After all, much of the erosion of trust in the media is rooted in partisanship; Democrats see most news as unbiased, while Republicans believe the opposite. And while trust in media is still down from earlier decades, it’s been making a comeback since it hit an all-time low in 2016.

Credder hopes to have a solution for this, too. It wants to hold reviewers accountable, allowing people to up-vote or down-vote reviews based on how helpful they found them, like comments on Reddit. And you can see when a user joined the site, how many reviews they’ve left in total, and how many of their reviews were up-voted as helpful.

Credder hopes to entice journalists to spend their time reviewing fellow journalists, too, by offering additional exposure and new audiences. More intriguing, however, Credder is planning to add a tipping feature, so readers could reward trustworthy writers, either one-time or on a recurring basis.

Another issue, as the editor of Monday Note, Frederic Filloux, pointed out, is that the number of movies and TV shows released last year in the United States is dwarfed by the number of news articles, making the comparison to Rotten Tomatoes somewhat distorted. The sheer number of reviews required to comprehensively evaluate the news is just a considerable challenge. Credder estimates they’ll need about 10,000 people to review an article every day, in order to get enough feedback to accurately rate most of the news produced from the world’s top 70 outlets.

The co-founders argue that journalists don’t really have meaningful ways to learn how individual articles were received. Reporters can look at the number of clicks, shares, time spent reading an article, and monthly site visits as a way to quantify success — but these are admittedly imperfect measures. And of course, people who respond to an article directly are disproportionately people who loved or hated it.

Still, as comforting as it is to think that a new tech tool may be just what readers need to navigate a confusing and deliberately misleading news environment, I can’t help but think of the doctored video of Nancy Pelosi slurring her words that Donald Trump circulated last week and Facebook refused to take down. As a top Facebook official put it, they wanted to empower users “to make their own informed choice about what to believe.”

There are no articles on Credder about that incident, and given the site’s infancy, it’s hard to know how that would have been assessed. But as New York Times tech columnist Charlie Warzel recently noted, “whether repeating the lie or attempting to knock it down, the dominant political narrative” for days after focused squarely on Pelosi’s health. No amount of fact checkers, negative Credder ratings, or “dislikes” can really counteract that millions of people have now seen the viral Pelosi hoax, and consciously or not, embedded those images in their brains.  

Which is to say, welcome Credder, it’ll be interesting to see where you go and how you grow. But to combat the powerful lies flooding the internet and shaping our discourse, titans like Facebook should still take responsibility.

Connecticut’s Democratic Governor is Stonewalling A Bill That Would Make Phone Calls From Prison Free

Originally published in The Intercept on May 23, 2019.
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CONNECTICUT GOV. NED LAMONT, a Democrat who grew his personal fortune through the telecommunications industry, is stonewalling a bill that would establish Connecticut as the first state in the nation to make phone calls from prison free for incarcerated people and their families.

Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation that Connecticut has contracted with since 2012, has been quietly lobbying against the legislation for weeks, though it reversed course on Wednesday. Under pressure from Platinum Equity LLC — the private equity firm that owns the company — Securus announced in a letter that it was formally withdrawing its opposition to the bill.

But Securus’s reversal leaves the bill’s supporters with little time: With just two weeks left in the legislative session, they see Friday as the last day to advance the bill out of the House if it is to stand a shot of passing the Senate before the summer recess. Lamont, meanwhile, has yet to express support for the bill — which would require his signature — with his office citing vague objections over potential cost. Without his blessing, the bill’s backers say, it stands little shot of moving forward.

The legislation, which would protect in-person visiting rights, make phone calls and video conferencing free, and bar the state from taking any commission from those calls, advanced out the Connecticut House Judiciary Committee in early April. Around the same time, Securus hired two lobbyists on a $40,000 retainer to lobby Lamont’s office and the state Department of Correction between April 1 and September 30, according to a state ethics disclosure. The first hearing for the bill was on March 25.

Platinum Equity, which acquired Securus in 2017, has been under pressure for months from activists who say that it should end its relationship with Securus and other companies that profit from incarceration and detention. In February, Randi Weingarten, president of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, urged pension leaders to avoid private equity firms that benefit from mass incarceration.

In March, Platinum Equity told some of its investors that it would review the business practices of Securus and work to reform the company.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system, drafted the Connecticut bill. She reached out to the private equity firm after learning of Securus’s lobbying last week to voice her concern. “I wanted to see if they would actually act in accordance with their claims that they are trying to get this company to act better,” she told The Intercept.

On Wednesday, Robert E. Pickens, the CEO of Securus, sent a letter to state Rep. Josh Elliott, the bill’s sponsor, saying that while they “previously opposed HB 6714, out of concern that it did not clearly indicate who would cover the cost of services once charges to consumers were waived,” they are now standing down “in the interest of good faith discussions with state officials regarding these issues.”

Securus also pledged to work with the state to ensure a “seamless and orderly transition” if the legislation were to pass, and acknowledged that its experience in New York City should allay concerns about a similar transition in Connecticut. (New York City, which also contracts with Securus, recently became the first city to make prison calls free, meaning that the city will assume the costs of paying for the phone services and will cede the $5 million it had annually collected in commission fees.) In its letter, Securus also said it was committed to working with Connecticut to “provide the most affordable services possible” and “downwardly adjusting call rates” in the event that the state eliminates its commission structure.

ACCORDING TO A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut charges more for in-prison phone calls than any other state in the nation except for Arkansas. Advocates say the high rates are a function of state policymakers poorly negotiating telecommunications contract with Securus.

As a result of the proposed legislation, Securus and Connecticut officials recently met to discuss alternative ways to lower the costs of prison phone calls. The state’s current contract with Securus will continue through 2021, but the company said it would be willing to review and lower its rates before then. A 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, nearly five times more than calls from prisons in neighboring states.

Mark Barnhill, a partner at Platinum Equity, told The Intercept that his firm asked Securus management to reach out to Elliot, the bill’s sponsor, and “clarify” that it is neither opposed to his bill nor concerned that it would cause any disruption in service. “We think it’s important for Securus to be neutral in the legislative discussion over who should pay for inmate telecommunications,” he said. “The company is able to fully support provision of services in either a customer-paid or state-paid model.”

Barnhill said Platinum Equity intervened because “we feel it’s important to help management transform the company and operate it as a responsible market leader.” He said they had not received pressure or questions from individual investors on this matter, though “in general, our investors are aware of the Securus investors and are relying on us to manage it properly.”

Tylek of Worth Rises told The Intercept that while she is glad that Securus pulled out its lobbyists and made its position on the bill neutral, she said, “They in no way deserve applause for this.” She added, “Thanks to their seven weeks of lobbying, we now have just two weeks to undo all the damage.”

Joanna Acocella, the vice president of corporate affairs for Securus, told The Intercept that “it is not accurate” to say that Securus has been lobbying against the bill for seven weeks, even while acknowledging that the company had been opposed to it. “Securus has been engaging in conversations with state officials about the impact of the legislation,” she said. “We have worked with a local firm to facilitate those conversations, requiring them to file lobbying registration under state law. Once we determined that calls could still be administered safely and effectively under the proposed legislation, we withdrew any previous opposition to the bill.”

DESPITE GETTING SECURUS to drop its formal opposition, Lamont has not yet endorsed the bill, with deputies citing vague objections over potential costs.

“With two weeks remaining until the end of the legislative session, offsetting the $13 million cost is an incredible challenge,” Maribel La Luz, a spokesperson for the governor, told The Intercept.

La Luz pointed to the state’s recent meeting with Securus in which they discussed renegotiating its contract. “With the combination of ongoing contract negotiations with the prison telephone services vendor, a rollout of tablets for people in prison over the next year, and longer-term budget planning [in] our legislature we’re working to reduce the cost of communication between people in prison and their families,” she said in an email.

State data shows that Connecticut residents currently pay about $15 million every year for prison phone calls, with $7.7 million given back to the state through commission fees. Some state officials have expressed concerns about losing those kickbacks, warning that they may have to cut vital positions and services — revealing how Connecticut relies on revenue extracted from incarcerated people and their families.

To ameliorate concerns over costs, Elliott refiled the legislation this week so that the two components of the bill that would have a fiscal impact would not take effect until October 1, 2021. “Yes, there’s a cost to the bill, but the cost is deferred,” said Tylek. “Pass the bill, and then you have two years to figure out how to pay for it.”

The estimated $13 million in cost, she added, represents just 1 percent of the $1.2 billion annual budget for the three impacted state agencies: the Department of Correction, the Department of Administrative Services, and the Judicial Department. Tylek predicts the total cost could be closer to $11.7 million if Connecticut adopts a similar pay structure to New York City.

A representative from the Connecticut Office of Fiscal Analysis confirmed that the amended bill would have “no cost or revenue loss” for the biennium period, according to an email sent on Monday to Elliott and reviewed by The Intercept.

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction, which is under Lamont’s control, told The Intercept that while the department is supportive of efforts to increase communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones, “these measures, however, do have budgetary implications which must be considered.”

State Rep. Steve Stafstrom, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told The Intercept, “We are working with the proponents of the bill and the Department of Correction to refine the language in order to move the bill forward.”

Elliott said he worries that Securus’s lobbying, which he also didn’t learn of until last week, has already caused insurmountable damage.

“I kept hearing concerns from the DOC about what some of these costs would be and threats that Securus would pull its service if the legislation were to pass and the arguments just seemed totally bogus,” he told The Intercept. “I didn’t understand how the DOC could make those claims and now it makes sense. Securus was just poisoning the well and trying to get the governor’s staff to essentially kill the bill.”

Elliott said he will continue to fight for the legislation this session and reintroduce it again next year if he has to.

“It doesn’t take much to kill an idea — all you have to do is put a little seed of fear in people’s minds,” he said. “Then if there is any concern over a bill, that usually dwarfs all the tangible benefits, and that’s really unfortunate.”

GOP-Led Efforts to Crush Unions Have a New Target: Home Health Care Workers

Originally published in The Intercept on May 16, 2019.
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Five states are pushing back against the latest Republican-led assault to weaken unions across the country, which targets in-home caregivers who work with Medicaid beneficiaries.

On Monday, attorneys general representing California, Connecticut, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging a new rule, announced earlier this month, that impedes home care workers from paying union dues through their Medicaid-funded paychecks. The rule, which goes into effect in July, will impact more than half a million workers in California alone, and several hundred thousand more in 10 other states.

The case was brought against the Department of Health and Human Services and its secretary, Alex Azar, and filed in San Francisco federal court. The plaintiffs argue that the defendants have illegally reinterpreted federal law “in service of anti-union objectives.” The new rule, they say, disrupts long-settled arrangements that allow seniors and individuals with disabilities — who work with state governments to set wages, benefits, and terms of service for their providers — to direct their own health care. More than 700,000 individuals across the five plaintiff states currently use consumer-directed Medicaid programs.

The lawsuit against the Trump administration rule, which was finalized by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, comes the same week as two major developments for home care workers in the United States. In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the nation’s first publicly funded long-term care benefit, a hard-fought victory by advocates including SEIU 775, which represents 45,000 home care workers in Washington and Montana. National advocates say they will use Washington’s policy as a model to push for in other states.

Also this week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition to review a case led by a group of Minnesota home care workers who argued that a state law that made Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, their bargaining agent violated their First Amendment rights. The plaintiffs pointed to Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; the 2018 case struck down public sector unions charging fees to non-dues paying workers. The same conservative legal groups that supported Janus also helped the Minnesota home care providers, though this time their efforts failed.

While the high court’s ruling marks a setback to conservatives seeking to leverage free speech laws against union power, there are still dozensof other Janus-inspired lawsuits winding their way through federal courts, with two more lawsuits filedin the last month. This week’s lawsuit against HHS is the opposite of that — a proactive effort to get the courts to defend the rights of unionized workers.

The plaintiffs argue that HHS and Azar have violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the law governing how federal agencies can propose and implement regulation. Their complaint says the new rule “abruptly and without any sound rationale or conversations with affected states” overturns an Obama-era rule that confirmed the practice of taking direct deductions from home care workers’ paychecks. The Trump administration has been repeatedly accused of violating the APA, issuing new rules and mandates, and repealing old ones, often outside the bounds of established protocol.

“With this rule, the Trump administration is not only harming Medicaid skilled home care workers who have joined unions, but the millions of seniors and people with disabilities who depend on these indispensable workers,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement.

SEIU, which represents most home care workers, released a statement calling the rule “racist” — noting that 90 percent of home care workers are women, more than half are women of color, and a quarter are immigrants. “The administration’s attempt to silence home care workers reflects a long history in the United States of double-standard policies that deny working people of color like home care workers and domestic workers basic legal protections and rights, including protections for minimum wage and overtime pay, and the right to organize and form strong unions,” the union said. Without a union, SEIU added, independent home care workers earn a median wage of just $10.49 an hour, with no paid sick time or health care benefits.

The federal Bureau for Labor Statistics projects that demand for home care workers will increase by 41 percent between 2016 and 2026, as the baby-boom generation continues to get older. Union membership gives home care workers an incentive to stay on the job, according to a 2017 survey by the National Employment Law Project of more than 3,000 home care workers, of which one-third were union members. The researchers found that unionized respondents were more likely to expect to be a home care worker a year from now, less likely to be looking for other jobs outside of home care, more likely to receive benefits, and had higher wages on average.

The Trump administration announced last August that it was considering scrapping the Obama-era rule that affirmed home care workers could deduct union dues from their Medicaid-funded paychecks. This practice has been criticized by conservatives who argue that in-home caregivers shouldn’t be able to “skim” government funds away to union coffers and that doing so “damages the integrity” of the Medicaid program.

Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which files lawsuits in favor of banning unionized workplaces from requiring dues for bargaining representation, praised the Trump administration’s new rule in a statement, calling it a “long-overdue rule [that] closes the illegal loophole created by the Obama Administration that has provided union officials with legal cover to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds into union political and lobbying activities.”

In 2014, thanks to a lawsuit backed by Mix’s group, the U.S Supreme Court ruled in Harris v. Quinn that Illinois home care workers could not be required to pay union agency fees. Mix said the Trump administration’s new rule represents “another important step forward in protecting the rights of home care worker from rapacious union officials” and pointed to the 2014 Supreme Court decision, describing it as a situation where “[National Right to Work] Foundation attorneys freed homecare workers” from making payments.

CMS Administrator Seema Verma has denied their new rule is about making it harder for workers to be in unions; she said it’s simply to ensure that any diversion of Medicaid payments is truly lawful.

Last April, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs — which is tasked with investigating “the efficiency, economy, and effectiveness” of all government agencies — wrote to Verma requesting that she look into this alleged “dues skimming” and cited rising Medicaid costs. The letter, authored by committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said allowing unions to take dues from home health care providers saps $200 million annually from Medicaid recipient care. Johnson asked CMS to review the practice “and determine whether changes to law or regulation are necessary to ensure Medicaid funds are provided to the program’s intended beneficiaries.”

“The effect of this final rule is the elimination of one method of getting payment from A to B,” the final rule states. “It in no way prevents healthcare workers from purchasing health insurance, enrolling in trainings, or paying dues to a union or other association.”

Critics say the Trump administration’s rationale makes no sense, pointing out that eliminating the ability to directly deduct union dues does nothing to curb Medicaid spending.

Caitlin Connolly, the director of social insurance at the National Employment Law Project, a union-backed legal advocacy group, told The Intercept the argument put forward by the Trump administration and its Republican allies is misleading because the money spent on dues is taken from workers’ wages, who get to decide how to spend the money that they earn.

“When I look at my paycheck, I get my wages and I decide, thanks to the convenience of my right as an employee, to allocate some of that money to a retirement account, some to a health savings account, and some to my union dues,” she said. ‘It’s my money, and I get to choose how to spend it. Just because the source of these workers’ wages is Medicaid dollars doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to choose how to spend it.”

And since workers are still able to take their wages and spend it on union dues, just without the convenience of direct paycheck deduction, Connolly said this shows the point is to create more hurdles for workers to jump through to exercise their union rights.

“I think there are locals working with members to see how they can handle dues payments in a way that would reduce the burden if direct deposit were restricted, and I think workers are sharing with them ideas on what would be helpful, but there’s nothing easier than saying, ‘I don’t have to think about this, I agree to this, and please take care of it,’” Connolly said.

Sunrise Movement Calls for Mass Climate Demonstration Outside Democratic Debate in Detroit

Originally published in The Intercept on May 13,  2019.
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On Monday night, at the final stop on the Sunrise Movement’s “Road to a Green New Deal” tour across the United States, the group called for a mass youth-led mobilization to pressure Democratic candidates to make the 2020 election a referendum on climate change. On July 30, the scheduled date for the the second Democratic presidential debate, Sunrise hopes to bring tens of thousands of young people to Detroit to present all the Democratic contenders with three demands:

  • Sign the no fossil fuel money pledge.
  • Commit to making the Green New Deal a day one priority if elected president.
  • Pledge support for a presidential debate on climate change so voters can hear where candidates stand on the issues.

Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash called it the “largest action our movement has organized to date for the Green New Deal.” Monday night’s event came exactly six months since Sunrise activists staged a protest in the office of soon-to-be-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had yet to be sworn in to Congress.

Some 1,500 people turned up for the sold-out event in the Cramton Auditorium at Howard University to hear Ocasio-Cortez, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey, policy writer Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and Intercept columnist Naomi Klein, among others. The event came just one week after a landmark UN report concluded that at least a million species are at risk of extinction due to human activity, and just days after carbon dioxide levels were recorded at the highest levels ever in human history.

“I wish as a public servant I could tell you everything is going to be alright,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who served as the final speaker of the evening. “But I can’t tell you that today, because I’m not interested in lying to you…frankly there is no reason for us to be comfortable right now.”

Activists at Monday night’s event were nonetheless hopeful and spoke unapologetically about the need to center frontline and vulnerable communities in the policymaking process. While none said his name outright, multiple speakers blasted taking a “middle ground” approach to climate change, a reference to Joe Biden, who reportedly told Reuters last week that he sought a “middle ground” approach on global warming.

Ocasio-Cortez ripped “conservatives on both sides of the aisle,” drawing laughs and applause from the crowd skeptical of Democratic intransigence on the Green New Deal. “No middle ground!” a man shouted, drawing agreement from Ocasio-Cortez.

“I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try and come back today and say we need a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That is too much for me.”

At a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday Biden defended his record on climate and said he’d be releasing a detailed climate plan by the end of the month.

Activists say they’re ready to mobilize voters to show politicians there’s strong demand for taking bold action on climate. Recent surveys have shown that climate change is a top voter priority for Democrats, and other recent surveys have revealed increased climate change alarm among voters. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University reported that nearly three quarters of Americans said they grasped that global warming was happening, a jump of more than 10 percentage points from 2015.

While activists are now calling for a full presidential debate dedicated to climate change, in 2016, there were no questions dedicated to climate during the general election presidential debates at all, and in the primary the discussion was limited to fracking policy.

“I think we have talked about climate change more in the first two months of 2019 than in the last two presidential races combined,” said Prakash at the end.

Another speaker Monday night was Jeremiah Lowery, a D.C. native, the chair of DC for Democracy, and a board member for the DC chapter of the Sierra Club. He told The Intercept that the energy from the national Green New Deal “did trickle down and inspire [local] DC organizations and advocates” to push for a 100 percent clean energy bill, landmark legislation which the DC City Council passed in December.

Some D.C. advocates are also now in discussions about pushing for the establishment of “an expansive green jobs program for unemployed residents,” Lowery said, adding that the Green New Deal has also “done wonders”  to mobilize local youth into the climate fight. “I’ve seen so many youth,” he said, “who are organizing, locally and nationally for the first time.”

What People in Kentucky Coal Country Really Think About a Green New Deal

Originally published in In These Times on May 9, 2019.
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In late March, Republican Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky—a member of the Congressional Coal Caucus—invited Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to come to his state to talk with coal miners about what her proposed Green New Deal  “would mean for their families, their paychecks.” The invitation came after Ocasio-Cortez spoke passionately in Congress against the idea that aggressively tackling climate change is something that matters only to rich, coastal elites.

Ocasio-Cortez readily embraced Barr’s invitation to visit Appalachia, but a couple weeks later, when she criticized another Republican congressman, Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw from Texas, for his condemnation of Rep. Ilhan Omar—Barr demanded Ocasio-Cortez apologize to his colleague before visiting. The public drama continued to escalate, with Ocasio-Cortez saying the GOP is clearly “getting scared” of her coming to Kentucky, where constituents “will realize I’m fighting harder for their healthcare than their own Reps.

While some in Kentucky chuckled over the fact that Barr’s legislative district doesn’t actually have any coal mines, activists nonetheless say they understand that any successful Green New Deal will require engaging those most directly affected by the energy transition, like those living in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Forty-four-year-old Scott Shoupe offers a model of what’s possible. Shoupe spent 22 years working as an underground coal miner in eastern Kentucky, and finally left the industry last April. He has black lung, two ruptured vertebrae and other health problems. Feeling generally burnt out, Shoupe said he knew the coal industry was headed for an irreversible decline, yet he didn’t know what he could do instead. (The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects coal production will decline through 2040 in Central Appalachia.)

Shoupe eventually enrolled in a six-month job retraining internship, sponsored by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a local nonprofit. Interns are paid hourly wages and health benefits while earning credentials for a wide range of energy efficiency skills, like solar paneling and weatherization. After graduating from the internship program, Shoupe started his own consulting business, where he now works on energy efficiency and renewables for commercial and residential clients. He says that while he took a pay cut to participate in the internship, he thinks by the end of his first year of business he’ll be earning more money than he did when he worked as a miner.

One challenge, Shoupe said, is convincing other members of his community that coal—long understood as a boom-and-bust industry—is really not coming back. The political influence of the coal industry remains strong, and “you’ve got a lot of people in this area who really truly think President Donald Trump is going to bring coal jobs back,” he said. Since Trump took office, Kentucky has lost more coal jobs.

While Shoupe feels optimistic that other coal miners could go through the type of retraining program he did, he warns that a major challenge will be persuading miners to sacrifice their high earning potential. Ocasio-Cortez has said it’s her priority to make sure that miners’ pensions remain fully-funded, and she has co-sponsored a bill to prevent miners’ healthcare and pension benefits from being lost as a result of company bankruptcy. But Shoupe says workers could still expect to see a cut in wages in their new jobs.

“It’s really tough because with coal, an 18 year old out of high school could earn $60,000 or $70,000 their first year on the job,” he said. “That’s one thing people overlook when they talk about a just transition, and I don’t know the answer to it. Many people with college degrees can’t even find that type of work.”

Another challenge is convincing non-coal miners who rely on the coal industry to support bold climate legislation. While advocates for the Green New Deal support a “job guarantee” as a path for economic prosperity, details on what that would mean in practice remain scant. John Quintrell, a general manager of JRL Coal in Harlan County, told the local CBS-affiliated television station that without coal in the region, other local businesses might disappear. “Everything from the biscuits the guys buy in the morning, to the groceries, to the local hardware stores, the car dealerships, everything is based around coal,” he said.

While focusing on the future employment of miners makes sense and carries clear political logic, others say that prioritizing those who already earn decent livings risks missing the fact that most of the state has long been shut out of good economic opportunity.

Tom Sexton, a 33-year-old Sierra Club organizer and co-host of the leftist Kentucky podcast, Trillbilly Worker’s Party, reflects on how politicians and the media characterize coal miners in his state. “I grew up in a single-parent household. My mom never made more than $13 an hour and she retired last year,” he said. “We always looked at coal miners’ kids as the rich kids, and now the indigent miner has become an archetype and it’s so weird to contextualize that with how I grew up, and just the working poor in Kentucky in general.”

Sexton expects a Green New Deal to be a bigger political undertaking than its supporters have suggested. “I’m not saying that to be a stick in the mud,” he explained. “I just think we need to know what we’re getting into.”

Kentucky has been trending right in recent years, and Republicans have had full control over the state’s government since 2016. In 2017, state lawmakers approvedright-to-work legislation, and as of last year, for the first time since the Civil War, Democrats no longer make up the majority of registered Kentucky voters. There are also no active union-run coal mines left the state.

But Sexton notes support for ambitious federal initiatives like the New Deal has precedent in his state. “FDR was just a peg or two under Jesus Christ here,” he jokes. “You still hear that from people in their 80s who are still very much tied to the Democratic Party of yesterday, including my family.” And the GOP’s dominance in Frankfurt is still a relatively new phenomenon. Before Republicans seized control of the state House in 2016, Democrats had controlled the chamber for the preceding 95 years.

“I guess what I don’t want to see happen in the Green New Deal is we just get a greener capitalism,” Sexton said. “And I understand that you build bridges to get to the ideal world that you want to live in, but there are so many things we need to restructure and it just doesn’t seem like politicians are thinking about this in a very revolutionary sense.”

While Republican legislators in Kentucky remain skeptical about the Green New Deal, and aggressively tackling climate change in general, other residents across the state have said they will not wait around for their sluggish politicians to act.

In 2017, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a statewide community organization, released its “Empower Kentucky” plan for transitioning to a clean energy economy and implementing a just transition by 2032. The plan was developed over two years of concerted grassroots outreach, where leaders engaged over 1,200 residents to help determine the plan’s 15-year goals. Among other things, the plan calls for reducing electricity demand by 17 percent, generating a quarter of Kentucky’s electricity from renewable sources, distributing 18 percent of energy-saving benefits to low-income households, and implementing a $1 carbon tax that would then help coal mining communities and residents transition to new jobs.

“In the absence of responsible public leadership or any effort to develop a state plan,” the report states, “Kentuckians For The Commonwealth stepped up to take on the task.”

On Saturday, as part of their “Road to a Green New Deal Tour,” the youth-led Sunrise movement is sponsoring an event in Frankfurt, with the backing of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth and SEIU 32BJ. Scott Shoupe will be telling his story at the event, too.

“I think a lot of people can do what I did,” Shoupe says of his career shift. “I think anyone [who] truly wants to can do it, it just takes a little initiative and drive. Everything in life isn’t easy, but—yeah man—anyone could do it.”

 

After a Black Cop Was Convicted Of Killing a White Woman, Minnesota Activists Say Focus Should Be Police Reform

Originally published in The Intercept on May 2, 2019.
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ON WEDNESDAY EVENING, outside the Hennepin County government building in downtown Minneapolis, a few dozen community activists gathered in the cold to process the rare and polarizing conviction of Mohamed Noor, a Somali American and former police officer. A day earlier, a Hennepin County jury found 33-year-old Noor guilty of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who had called the police to report a possible sexual assault in her neighborhood in the summer of 2017. Noor shot and killed her, and at trial, he claimed self-defense.

The case has galvanized local activists, some of whom embraced the verdict and others who say that, in a criminal justice system where cops are rarely held accountable for on-duty killings, Noor was unfairly targeted because he is a black man who killed a white woman.

At the rally, Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, said the case was a “scapegoat” against a man of color to fool residents into thinking “the police force is in tact.” Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and local racial justice leader, said Noor’s conviction reveals how the court system treats white people differently compared to everyone else.

Family members of other police shooting victims gave speeches, including Kimberly Handy-Jones, a mother who lost her 29-year-old son to St. Paul police in 2017, and Don Amorosi who lost his 16-year-old son to Carver County deputies last summer. Activists held up signs for other local victims of police shootings, like Tycel Nelson, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Minneapolis in 1990, and Philip Quinn, a 30-year-old shot and killed by a St. Paul police officer in 2015.

Noor’s conviction marks the first guilty verdict for a fatal shooting by an on-duty cop in Minnesota in decades — something that brings both relief to advocates who seek greater accountability for police shootings but also anguish, as residents wrestle with the racial realities of the conviction. Meanwhile, in recent police killings of unarmed black men in the Twin Cities, white cops involved were either not charged at all or acquitted of charges. According to data compiled by the Star Tribune, Noor’s case marks the first conviction out of 179 police-involved deaths in Minnesota since 2000.

“There would have been no trial if Noor’s victim was African American or Native American, and I think the vast majority of people in our movement believe that,” said Jess Sundin, an activist with the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar; the group is named after 24-year-old Jamar Clark, a black man shot to death by Minneapolis police in 2015 and whose killers faced no criminal charges. “There also would have also been no conviction if it was a white police officer.”

The July 2017 killing led to a number of shuffles within the police department. Following Damond’s death, then-Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges requested the city’s police chief step down, leading to the appointment of Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first African American police chief. Noor was fired shortly after being charged in March 2018.

In the wake of the verdict, a broad swath of activists are seeking to build on their multi-year efforts to reform the police and use Damond’s case as a way to highlight racial disparities in the criminal justice system. There has been global interest in the case because Damond was Australian, and the activists are leveraging that attention to make their concerns and demands known to a wider audience.

A GROUP OF Damond’s neighbors, who started organizing under the banner of Justice4Justine shortly after her death, planned the rally with the backing of local groups, including the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar, Black Lives Matter Minnesota, and Communities United Against Police Brutality.

Todd Schuman, an activist with Justice4Justine, told The Intercept they planned the rally because “we’re not afraid to say that in the dozens of other examples where white officers shot black victims, there wasn’t anything close to the level of investigative rigor, anywhere close to the level of media coverage, or a result in a conviction.” Schuman emphasized that his group is “not afraid to name that disparity, and we want to create a space where families of police violence victims who did not receive justice have their opportunity to share their perspective.”

Noor’s guilty verdict has had reverberations throughout Minnesota, galvanizing not only the activists who held the Wednesday rally, but also prompting reactions from elected officials and the local Somali community.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose legislative district includes Minneapolis, released a statement on Wednesday morning calling Noor’s guilty verdict “an important step towards justice and a victory for all who oppose police brutality.” Omar also said it cannot be lost that Noor’s verdict comes in the wake of other acquittals for officers who took the lives of people of color, and called for “the same level of accountability and justice” for all officer-involved killings. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said in a statement that the city must come together, and that Minneapolis stands with both the Somali community and the local police. “Wherever a person’s beliefs may part ways with today’s decision, we should find comfort in knowing that not one person in Minneapolis hoped for what transpired that July night,” he said.

Other members of the local Somali community said Noor was wrongfully convicted. Community leader Omar Jamal told local news outlet WCCO that many Somali people had called him to say they feel Noor was innocent. Noor’s cousin, Goth Ali, told the Star Tribune that the decision was “shocking” and that he thought Noor “didn’t get a fair trial.”

The Somali American Police Association, or SAPA, released a statement saying it “believes the institutional prejudices against people of color, including officers of color, have heavily influenced the verdict of this case.” The “aggressive manner” taken by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, the group said, “reveals that there were other motives at play other than serving justice.” SAPA, which expressed condolences to Damond’s family, said it fears the “differential treatment” given to minority officers will “have a devastating effect on police morale and make the recruitment of minority officers all the more difficult.”

The incident is reminiscent in some respects to the 2014 killing of 28-year-old Akai Gurley, a black man shot by a Chinese American police officer while in a Brooklyn public housing complex. Gurley’s death came just four months after Eric Garner, another black New Yorker, was killed after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer. In Gurley’s case, NYPD cop Peter Liang was indicted in 2015, a rarity for police-involved killings, and in 2016, a jury found him guilty of manslaughter — another extremely rare outcome. The charges sparked some of the largest Asian American protests in decades, as Liang’s supporters accused prosecutors of scapegoating Liang due to his race. (Two months after Liang’s conviction, a judge reduced the charges, sentencing him to just five years of probation and 800 hours of community service.)

Reached for comment, Minneapolis Police Union President Lt. Bob Kroll said his union “respects the legal process and the findings of the jury.” He said this has been an “extremely unfortunate situation for all involved” and that his union sends condolences to Ruszczyk’s family, and that “our thoughts are with former Officer Noor.” At the rally on Wednesday evening, activists said Kroll threw Noor under the bus by firing him and only nominally speaking up in support of him; they argued the union would have more vigorously defended a white officer. Justice4Justine criticized the police union’s statement on the verdict as “empty and vapid.”

The Minneapolis Police Department did not return request for comment, but Arradondo, the chief of police, released a statement on Tuesday to say he “respect[s] the verdict rendered” and will “ensure that the MPD learns from this case and we will be in spaces to listen, learn and do all we can to help our communities in healing.” Through collaboration and partnerships, he added, “I am hopeful that we will strengthen our community wellness and safety.”

WHEN JUSTICE4JUSTINE FIRST formed, neighbors focused primarily on supporting Justine’s grieving fiancé, Don Damond, and the Ruszczyk family, who are based in Australia. Over time, according to Schuman, the group began shifting their energies toward police reform and police violence more broadly.

“We have a lot of mixed feelings,” Schuman said of the verdict. “We said from almost day one that for us, this is more than just one trial and one verdict, and while we wanted a conviction, in this case, the real justice that we’re looking for is a comprehensive reform of the police. Our commitment is to a justice system where what Justine got is what everyone gets.”

One of the concrete policy changes racial justice organizations in the Twin Cities have pushed for is ending so-called “warrior-style” police trainings, which activists describe as a fear-based approach that encourages cops to believe they are always under threat. Last May, about four dozen people staged a protest outside the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, to call for the mall to stop sponsoring the trainings and for local police departments to stop using them.

Last month, in a victory for activists, Frey, the Minneapolis mayor, announced that the city’s police officers will no longer be allowed to use the warrior-style training. “Chief Medaria Arradondo’s police department rests on trust, accountability, and professional service,” the mayor said in his recent State of the City address. “Whereas fear-based, warrior-style trainings like ‘killology’ are in direct conflict with everything that our chief and I stand for in our police department. Fear-based trainings violate the values at the very heart of community policing.”

Sundin of the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice4Jamar told The Intercept that her group remains focused on prosecution for Jamar’s killers, hoping to see the case reopened. Sundin said her group is also focused on getting community control over the police through an elected board of community representatives. “Our experience has been that the mayor and the city council—both those presently in office and those before—have been unwilling to fire abusive police officers, and we want that to change,” she said. “We think the community has every right to decide who policies our communities and how.” Community control would go beyond just disciplining officers when something goes wrong, Sundin explained, and would also include “writing the rule book” for police officers and negotiating contracts.

When asked to reflect on how things have evolved since 2015, Sundin said she thinks there is a greater recognition of police brutality among residents of the Twin Cities and a deeper understanding from the media to not “parrot the police’s story without looking into it first.”

Sundin also says the Minneapolis police chief being asked to resign following Damond’s death marked a significant development, because a police chief “had never before been held accountable for the police killings that happen under their watch.” Arradondo replaced Janeé Harteau, who stepped down in July 2017.

The last difference, Sundin said, is that she thinks there’s a much greater awareness surrounding the “shoddy investigation work” conducted by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state agency that helps law enforcement agencies prevent and solve crimes. In December 2017, a video surfaced of Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman telling a group of union members that the BCA was doing a poor job of collecting evidence that could lead to charges against Noor. While Freeman later apologized for his remarks and said he didn’t know he was being recorded, he also extended the time for the BCA investigation, something Sundin says has never happened before.

“Every family we’ve ever talked to has had the experience of the BCA botching investigations, but in Justine’s case, it came to light because Mr. Freeman was caught on tape criticizing the BCA for its bad investigatory work,” Sundin said. During the trial, which was held in April, prosecutors also criticized the BCA for its initial handling of the investigation, citing things like waiting three days to interview the only witness and refusing to investigate the source of the screaming that prompted Damond to call the police in the first place. On Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that his office was looking into the allegations surrounding the BCA’s investigation.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesperson for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, told The Intercept his office is not taking individual interviews on the case until Noor is sentenced on June 7. At a press conference after the trial, though, when Freeman was asked about the allegations that he worked harder to charge a black officer who killed a white woman, Freeman denied that he would have behaved differently in the case of a black person shot by a white cop. “Race has never been a factor in making any decision and never will be,” Freeman said. “We have charged white cops with crimes, and we will again.”