Fresh from a visit to Occupy Wall Street’s Zucotti Park, Swarthmore student, writer, activist, and guest author Sam Sussman discusses his findings.Â
Something remarkable is happening in American politics. Three years after a financial crisis that delegitimized the parochial right-wing ideology of deregulation and â€˜let the rich ruleâ€™ economics, Americans are voicing outrage at the chronic infection of money in our political system. By putting its finger on this unspoken fact of American politics, Occupy Wall Street has suddenly changed our political discourse. Cries of Social Security and Medicareâ€™s â€˜unsustainabilityâ€™ have been replaced by outrage over Wall Streetâ€™s greed. Goodbye deficits, hello income inequality!
Walking through Zuccotti Park on a recent Friday afternoon, it was clear that the understanding tying the movement together was this: the federal government has bailed out the largest banks, yet the unemployed and foreclosed upon have received insufficient relief. What Americans are realizing is that this is the logical outcome of a political system in which the largest economic sectors â€” finance, insurance, oil and gas â€” fund our political parties, candidates, advertisements and think tanks. It is a spirit summed up by David, a high school student holding cardboard that read, â€œI canâ€™t afford a lobbyist so I made this sign.â€ He explained, â€œNobody is lobbying for me to go to college, for me to have a job when I graduate. I canâ€™t influence politicians.â€ Then he pointed upwards, to the financial institutions that contributed $155 million to both parties in 2008. â€œBut they can.â€
The movementâ€™s emphasis on this structural defect in American politics manifests in its treatment of President Obama, the leftâ€™s would-be, but unwilling, FDR 2.0. Those in Zuccotti Park know that without taking the corrosive influence of money out of politics, no politician can play savior. Samoa, a middle-aged computer technician from Brooklyn, held the famous â€˜Hopeâ€™ poster, with â€˜Your Face Hereâ€™ written where Obamaâ€™s profile once was. â€œNo matter who the people are,â€ he said, â€œtheyâ€™re constrained by the power of money.
The right has hastily characterized the demonstrators as illiterate opponents of capitalism itself. This is untrue. Many demonstrators with whom I spoke had an intricate understanding of public campaign financing, environmental policy, prison reform and trade. The words â€˜Glass-Steagallâ€™ were on many lips.
And yes, there were anarchists who made my proper liberal cheeks blush. But behind each radical was personal desperation wrought by recession. One young woman painfully described trying to work enough hours to pay rent despite a debilitating medical condition. She would go to college, she said, but the certainty of student loans outweighed the less-than-certain probability of employment after graduation. Her politics arenâ€™t constructive, but they reflect legitimate grievances worthy of redress. The radicalâ€™s presence should encourage moderate factions â€” those who see money in politics, not capitalism itself, as the root problem â€” to participate in and take ownership of the movement.
Whatever one thinks of the radicals, it would be a grave mistake to fall for the right-wing trap of focusing on the few extremists in Zuccotti Park at the expense of the truly radical things the Right itself has done. The invasion of Iraq, a sovereign nation that posed no national security threat, was radical. The income trends of the past decade â€” in which 65 percent of income growth went to the top one percent as middle-class income fell â€” was radical. The $700 billion Wall Street bailout was radical. The bipartisan push to slash Social Security and Medicare is radical. The very fact that money can purchase public policy in a democracy is radical.
Occupy Wall Street understands this: it is gaining attention â€” the latest polls show 54 percent of the public approves of the movement â€” because it speaks to the issues for which it has been too convenient and conventional for Republicans and Democrats, Fox News and CNN, to ignore. Occupy Wall Street has its finger on the pulse of a shrinking middle class, and the disenfranchised poor for whom the tattered rungs of opportunity have been steadily eroded.
Yes, it is true that Occupy Wall Street doesnâ€™t have media-ready index cards with specific policy demands. But thatâ€™s the downside of spontaneous democracy, as opposed to astro-turf activism in which corporations manipulate popular grievances for their own benefit (hello, Tea Party!). For those willing to listen, Occupy Wall Streetâ€™s demands are quite clear. First, institute public campaign financing. Second, help those affected by the recession through mortgage relief and a New Deal-style public jobs program. Third, restore regulations in finance and energy so that our market economy works for everybody, not just the one percent. Finally, expand opportunity through increased access to health care, education and job training.
These ideas are supported by the â€œ99%.â€ Huge majorities want a millionaireâ€™s tax (81 percent), to cut defense spending (76 percent), increase education funding (67 percent), and preserve Medicare (76 percent) and Social Security (81 percent). Yet, time and again, public preference has been overruled by the one percent â€” those who are CEOs of health insurance companies, hedge fund managers, defense contractors, or oil tycoons. Occupy Wall Street understands that the one percent can only be confronted by going outside the political system they control. This is the historic logic of progressive change: the New Deal was as much due to sit-ins and strikes as it was to FDR. Now, in the depth of the Great Recession, more and more Americans are heading to Zuccotti Park.
Perhaps, after all, these protesters are onto something radical. Itâ€™s called Democracy.
SamÂ SussmanÂ is an undergraduateÂ inÂ political science, philosophy and literature at Swarthmore College who has organized around economic justice, clean energy, LGBT civil rights and ending the Afghanistan War. His political commentary appears weekly in Swarthmore’sÂ The Daily Gazette and The Phoenix, and has previously been published in TheÂ Oxford Left Review,Â Binghamton University’sÂ Prospect Magazine,Â Journal of Philosophy, Politics and Law, andÂ Amnesty International Magazine. A former intern for both Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand and State Senator Thomas K. Duane, he is the Secretary of the Orange County, NY chapter of Young Democrats.
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On World AIDS Day, DOJ Says Tennessee Law Discriminates Against Those With HIV
The Department of Justice celebrated World AIDS Day by calling out a Tennessee law that discriminates against people with HIV.
The DOJ released a report Friday that the state’s aggravated prostitution law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. A person arrested under the aggravated prostitution law is normally changed with a misdemeanor, and faces up to six months in prison and a $500 fine. However, if the person arrested has HIV, the crime becomes a felony, and if they’re convicted, they would face between three and 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
“Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status. The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination.”
The law was originally passed in 1991. It classifies HIV-positive sex workers as violent sex offenders, according to WKRN-TV. This means that in addition to the sentence, those convicted are put on the Tennessee Sex Offender Registry, usually for the rest of their lives.
The DOJ advised the state—and particularly, the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, which enforces the statute most frequently, the department says—to stop enforcing the law. It also calls on the state to repeal the law and remove anyone from the registry when aggravated prostitution is the only offense. If this doesn’t happen, Tennessee could face a lawsuit.
Tennessee isn’t the only state to have laws applying to only those living with HIV. In 1988, Michigan passed a law requiring those with HIV to disclose their status before sex, according to WLNS-TV. The law is still on the books, but was updated in 2019 to lift the requirement if the HIV-positive person has an undetectable viral load. The law now also requires proof that the person set out to transmit HIV.
Laws like these can work against public health efforts, according to the National Institutes of Health. The NIH says these types of laws can make people less likely to be tested for HIV, as people cannot be punished if they didn’t know their status. In addition, critics say, the laws can be used to further discriminate. A Canadian study found a disproportionate number of Black men had been charged under HIV exposure laws.
World AIDS Day was first launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization and the United Nations to highlight awareness of the then-relatively new disease. The theme of the 2023 World AIDS Day is “Let Communities Lead,” calling on community leaders to end the AIDS epidemic.
Featured image by UNIS Vienna/Flickr via Creative Commons License.
John Fetterman Says Bob Menendez ‘Senator for Egypt,’ Should Be Expelled Next
Senator John Fetterman (D-PA) called Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) a “senator for Egypt,” and said he needed to be expelled from Congress, much like the now-former Representative George Santos.
Fetterman appeared on The View on Friday. The live broadcast aired as Santos had been kicked out of the House. When host Joy Behar asked what he thought of the vote, Fetterman immediately replied, “I’m not surprised.”
“If you are going to expel Santos, how can you allow somebody like Menendez to remain in the Senate? And, you know, Santos’ kind of lies were almost, you know, funny,” Fetterman said. “Menendez, I think is really a senator for Egypt, you know, not New Jersey. So I really think he needs to go.”
Host Sunny Hostin then asked if Fetterman was uncomfortable with expelling Menendez, as, like with Santos, he had only been indicted, not convicted.
“He has the right for his day in court and all of it, but he doesn’t have the right to to have those kinds of votes and things. That’s not a right,” he said. “I think we need to make that kind of decision to send him out.”
This September, Menendez was indicted on corruption charges. He is accused of accepting bribes of cash, gold and a car, as well as giving “highly sensitive” information about U.S. Embassy staffers in Cairo to the Egyptian government, according to USA Today. Menendez was forced to step down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was replaced by Ben Cardin, Maryland’s Democratic senator.
Menendez denied wrongdoing, and has refused to resign, despite many calls to do so from both Democrats and Republicans.
“For years, forces behind the scenes have repeatedly attempted to silence my voice and dig my political grave,” Menendez said in a statement following his indictment. “Since this investigation was leaked nearly a year ago, there has been an active smear campaign of anonymous sources and innuendos to create an air of impropriety where none exists.”
This is not Menendez’s first brush with the law. Menendez was indicted in 2015 on federal corruption charges. He was accused of helping Salomon Melgen, one of Menendez’s campaign contributors, by intervening in a dispute with federal regulators and helping Melgen get a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
In 2017, Menendez’s trial ended with a hung jury, and the Department of Justice declined to retry the case, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Menendez denied all wrongdoing.
House Votes to Boot George Santos 311-114
Representative George Santos (R-NY) has been expelled from Congress following a 311-114 vote; two House members voted “present.”
The expulsion of Santos follows a debate on his fate on Thursday. The vote required a two-thirds majority, or 290 of the 435-seat chamber. This is Santos’ third vote of expulsion; last month, a vote failed with 31 Democrats voting against, according to The Hill.
While the vote was decisive, some notable Republicans voted to save Santos, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-MN).
“We’ve not whipped the vote and we wouldn’t,” Johnson told CNN Wednesday. “I trust that people will make that decision thoughtfully and in good faith. I personally have real reservations about doing this, I’m concerned about a precedent that may be set for that.”
Santos himself had harsh words for the House following the vote. Leaving the capitol building, he briefly spoke with reporters.
“The House spoke that’s their vote. They just set new dangerous precedent for themselves,” he told CNN. “Why would I want to stay here? To hell with this place.”
He then cut his time short, telling reporters, “You know what? As unofficially no longer a member of Congress, I no longer have to answer your questions.”
Santos also faces 23 federal charges, which include fraud, money laundering and misuse of campaign funds, according to CNN. He has pleaded not guilty. An Ethics Committee report found evidence that Santos used campaign funds for Botox and even an OnlyFans account.
On Thursday, Santos said he refused to resign because otherwise, “they win.”
“If I leave the bullies take place. This is bullying,” Santos said. “The reality of it is it’s all theater, theater for the cameras and theater for the microphones. Theater for the American people at the expense of the American people because no real work’s getting done.”
Santos also threatened to file a resolution to expel Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Bowman pulled a fire alarm in September. Bowman pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge, and said it was an accident. He said he thought the fire alarm would open a locked door as he rushed to a vote. Bowman paid a $1,000 fine.
There have only been six total expulsions from the House, including Santos. Santos is the only Republican to ever be expelled from the House.
The previous expulsion was in 2002, when Representative James Traficant (D-OH) was expelled after a 420-1 vote. Traficant had been convicted on 10 counts of corruption-related crimes.
Before Traficant, Representative Michael “Ozzie” Myers (D-PA) was the first representative of the modern era to be expelled. Myers got the boot following his conviction for accepting bribes. Myers couldn’t keep out of trouble; in 2022, he was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison on charges of election fraud.
Prior to Myers, the only expulsions from the House were in 1861, at the start of the Civil War. Henry Cornelius Burnett (D-KY), John William Reid (D-MO) and John Bullock Clark (Whig-MO) were all expelled for joining the Confederacy.
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