Archive | May 3rd, 2014

Left-Right Alliances

Making Changes for People


This week, my new book is coming out with a daring goal. It is to break through the corporate imposed gridlock that prevents those on the left and right from realizing they actually agree on and can activate new directions for our country. The book’s title – Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State – reflects the direction of this desired action-driven dialogue.

Appearing on C-SPAN last Sunday, a widely syndicated columnist for the Chicago-Tribune – Clarence Page — said that he’s “writing a lot these days about left/right coalitions.” He was referring to such coalitions for prison reform, a review of the war on drugs and the passage of legislation in numerous states regarding juvenile justice reforms


But there are many more long-overdue redirections of our nation that receive left/right convergence at various stages from the verbal to parallel activities to outright coordinated action. In defiance of their respective political leaders, Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a large combination of Republicans and Democrats came stunningly close (217 to 205) on July 24, 2013, to passing through the House of Representatives a ban on NSA dragnet snooping on the American people.

A comprehensive whistle-blowing bill protecting federal employees who want to speak out on waste, fraud and corruption overcame corporate opposition with an overwhelming congressional vote in 2013. The formidable lobby of corporate contractors delayed the bill’s passage but, in the end, left/right convergence made this reform possible.

Public opinion polls regularly reflect left/right concurrence. From 70 to 80 percent of the people support a restoration of the minimum wage to reflect the erosions of inflation. Higher percentages want the “too big to fail” big banks to be broken up. Even higher numbers object to the non-prosecution of corporate crooks, especially those responsible for the Wall Street crash of 2008-2009 that drove the economy into a severe recession, cost savers trillions of dollars and led to a huge taxpayer bailout.

Called crony capitalism by the right and corporate welfare by the left, there is a rising tide of revulsion against the rich and powerful freeloading on the backs of ordinary taxpayers.

A left-right majority consensus has emerged in the past decade directed against Empire and unconstitutional wars. Conservative members of Congress such as Rep. Walter Jones, former Congressman Ron Paul and libertarian Cato Institute leader Ed Crane are strong in opposing this imperial overreach and the corporate interests profiting from such costly aggressions.

There are latent majorities on numerous issues that do not see the light of day because the corporatists’ toadies — the political leaders in Congress — make sure there are no hearings, no floor debates or votes. Predictably, pollsters do not poll questions that are not on the table, such as long-time majority support for full Medicare for everybody, so the public is kept from having its voice reflected. By the same token, politicians, marinated in commercial campaign money, do not campaign on these convergences between the left and right.

It is a neglected responsibility of the mainstream media to expand reporting on left/right concurrences, especially where they move into action around the country. It is our responsibility as citizens to more visibly surface these agreements into a new wave of political reform. Guess what? It starts with left/right conversations where we live and work. Not even corporatists can stop you from getting that train moving.

For signed copies of Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, visit

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Ukraine and Georgia: Different Approaches

Disputed Territories

In October, 2009, less than one year after becoming President, the affable Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people” and for citing a “new climate in international politics.”

At the time, it was problematic exactly what the new President had achieved to deserve the esteemed Prize and most commentators overlooked the premature nature of the award suggesting, that the President offered hope for the future as the Nobel declaration stated “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”

Since it is now embarrassingly obvious that the Nobel Committee misjudged the new President, the Committee, in the future, might consider basing the Peace Prize on actual accomplishments regarding the pursuit of peace rather than specious possibilities.

Two months later, the President offered a hint of what was to come when he accepted the award in Oslo delivering one of his customary rhetorical speeches entitledA Just and Lasting Peace.”   In retrospect, that speech is even more alarming today than it was five years ago as we now know what the President meant when he referred to ‘future interventions’ and went on to defend the notion of a ‘just war’ characterized when “certain conditions were met”: if it is “waged as a last resort or in self-defense”; if the “force used is proportional”; and if, whenever possible, “civilians are spared from violence.”

One inescapable irony is that Peace Prize winner Obama has instigated, continued and encouraged more war and militarism around the planet (including a Tuesday morning ‘kill list’ review,  combat troops in Africa, a “pivot to Asia,’ “absolute’ support for Japan in its conflict with China over an insignificant, uninhabited pile of rocks, Marines in northern Australia, combat troops in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, drone attacks on civilians, extra-judicial assassinations, proxy wars in Libya and Syria, increased constitutional violations and surveillance while continuing Bush’s war on terrorism in the Middle East and  in Guantanamo) than the notoriously pro-war George W. Bush accomplished even in his most hawkish moments.

During his recent trip to Asia, the President warned North KoreaChina and Russia, all in one 48 hour period to follow US dictates or else –  not bad for a day’s work, if you want to be to known as the world’s greatest purveyor-of-war and violence.

Despite striking similarities, the 2008 five day war between Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia offers an insight into how the belligerent Bush Administration pursued a different approach in Georgia as compared to Obama’s US-generated conflict in Ukraine causing the ultimate secession of Crimea.   One obvious parallel is that Bush, already weakened by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was an unpopular lame duck at home during the Georgia conflict while Obama, with a steady disapproval rating, is no longer viewed as a skilled leader to be trusted with keeping the peace.

One distinct dissimilarity is that Russia did not attempt a coup to oust Georgia’s democratically elected Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008 as the US did in Ukraine – nor did the Bush Administration overreact with a military response or economic sanctions against Moscow.

While Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, all considered ‘autonomous’ regions with historic and cultural connections to Russia, yet located within the borders of Ukraine and Georgia, respectively; the Bush and Obama Administrations, both dominated by a neo-con foreign policy, chose substantially different responses for the urge to secede.  Despite their rationale, one might almost be tempted to applaud the Bushies, no heroes in my book, for having better recognized the political realities of another grand war.

From the time of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Ossetians were on the side of the Bolsheviks and later South Ossetia, a thumb-print of a country surrounded mostly by Georgia with North Ossetia on its western border, became an autonomous region within the Soviet Republic of Georgia.  By the early 1990’s, as the USSR was unraveling, South Ossetia’s demand to formally secede as an autonomous, independent state was declared illegal by Georgia.  By 1992, tensions with Abkhazia, Georgia’s neighbor along the Black Sea and already an autonomous region with Russian roots, escalated as both regions wen to war with Georgia.  Both regions, like Crimea, so small, so insignificant yet so strategically vital to Russia as NATO buffers.

By 1992, a Russian-brokered ceasefire was in effect in South Ossetia with a peacekeeping force in place as a Constitution was adopted forming the Republic of South Ossetia.  Abkhazia declared its formal independence from Georgia and adopted its Constitution in 1994.

At the April, 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, NATO enlargement was a significant agenda item including US-proposed admission of Georgia and Ukraine with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister warning that membership would be a ‘huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived to oppose the US deployment of missile defense shields in Poland and Czechoslovakia and the entry of Georgia and Ukraine and while Russia observed the process, the depth of its long-term apprehensions and also its legitimate right to equal security fell on deaf ears.  While the US had sponsored Georgia and Ukraine for membership, France and Germany, with continued energy supply issues from Gazprom, resisted US pressure and opposed affiliation for the time being. Both Georgia and Ukraine were short-listed to receive a NATO Membership Action Plan in preparation for eventual membership.

The appeal of a better life under the IMF and NATO did little to convince South Ossetia and Abkhazia which still objected to Georgia’s push for reunification.   By August 7, 2008, after a July visit by US State Department Secretary Condoleeza Rice and a series of clashes with south Ossetia forces, there is little dispute in the historical record that Georgian President Saakashvili, well-known as a combustible personality and hot-head, initiated an invasion into South Ossetia. Russian troops responded by advancing into South Ossetia to defend its peacekeepers.

In A Little War that Shook the World,” (not to be confused with Ten Days that Shook the World” by John Reed) former State Department NATO Enlargement official Ron Asmus confirmed that on multiple occasions, Saaskashvili was warned by US officials to not precipitate a crisis or initiate any confrontation with Russia.   Asmus relates that on a 2005 visit to Georgia, President Bush personally told Saaskashvili ‘don’t do it.”

Whether Saaskashvili misread the signals or there was a green light from the US in support of military action, the fact is that the Bush Administration did not respond militarily; presumably with an awareness that the region was not significant enough to be worth a potential war with Russia and that the NATO pledge of ‘all for one, and one for all’ did not apply to  non-NATO nations.

On September 4, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Georgia announcing a one billion dollar aid package to assist in “work to overcome an invasion of your sovereign territory” as Russia signed a pact with both countries to maintain a 3,800 military force in each country.    On August 26, 2008, Russian President Medvedev signed a decree recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after which Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia.

The author of the EU’s Tagliavini Report (Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini) on the origins of the war determined that Georgia did not to have the right of self-defence in regard to attacks by Ossetian secessionist forces and that Georgia’s ‘excessive use of force” violated the UN Charter.  And further, although Russian forces did not penetrate into what it considers to be sovereign Georgian territory and since South Ossetia and Abkhazia are considered regions within Georgia, Tagliaviniconcluded that Russia did not have the right to invade Georgia to protect its members of the international peacekeeping force.

Today, Abkhazia remains a ‘disputed’ territory and neither Abkhazia or South Ossetia are recognized as independent states but as sovereign territory belonging to Georgia.  Currently, NATO and Georgian officials have met to discuss membership as early as September, 2014 – sure to trigger additional international turmoil.  Delegations of South Ossetia and Georgia are meeting currently for another round of Russia-EU-OSC Emediated talks with the South Ossetians due to raise ‘demonstrative and provocative border violations on the part of Georgia.”

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Kerry declines to say I$raHell gives “equal rights for all citizens

Submitted by Ali Abunimah


John Kerry explains.

Last night US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a craven statement climbing down fromhis comments in a private meeting last Friday that Israel would become an “apartheid state” without a “two-state solution.”

Faced with howls of outrage from extreme anti-Palestinian groups, objections from Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (California) and an outright call for his resignation from Republican Senator Ted Cruz (Texas), the hapless Kerry may have felt he had no choice.


Interesting difference

Kerry acknowledged that Israeli leaders have frequently used the term “apartheid” to describe Israeli rule over Palestinians, but asserted that “it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”

Yet with all Kerry’s abject willingness to appease, there is an interesting difference between his final published statement and the comments made on his behalf by State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki earlier in the day.

At the usual morning briefing, Psaki said “the Secretary [Kerry] does not believe and did not state publicly or privately that Israel is an apartheid state, and there’s an important difference there. Israel is obviously a vibrant democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens.”

The press statement Kerry issued later in the day contains similar language: “First, Israel is a vibrant democracy and I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one.”

But note that while Kerry repeated the claim that Israel is a “vibrant democracy,” he pointedly did not repeat Psaki’s assertion from earlier in the day that Israel provides “equal rights for all of its citizens.”

“Most significant” problem

The fact is that Israel discriminates systematically against its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens.

Indeed the claim Israel gives equal rights to all citizens contradicts even the State Department’s own reporting.

In its 2013 human rights report on Israel, the US government lists “institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens, including the Bedouin, in particular in access to equal education and employment opportunities” as among Israel’s “most significant human rights problems.”

Currently, Israel and the US are in a tussle over Israel’s wish to be included in the US Visa Waiver Program which would allow Israeli passport holders to enter the US without advance visas. The main obstacle is Israel’s systematic discrimination against US citizens of Palestinian and Arab descent.

It would appear that claiming Israel gives “equal rights for all citizens” was a stretch too far even for the pliant Kerry.

So what about Israel as a “vibrant democracy”? That’s just pandering too of course – unless one abides by Knesset member Ahmed Tibi’s famous quip that Israel is democratic for Jews but Jewish for Arabs.”

There’s also a lesson for Palestinians in Kerry’s latest cave-in. As Yousef Munayyer has observed: “When US officials can’t even criticize Israel the way Israeli officials do, is there anyone who can still argue [that the] US should ‘mediate?’”

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Starbucks warned it could face boycott if it invests in I$raHell’s SodaStream

Submitted by Ali Abunimah

SodaStream spoof ad from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

The Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) has issued a stern warning to US-based coffee-shop chain Starbucks that it could face a backlash if media reports that it is about to buy a stake in SodaStream are true.

Starbucks “would be deemed complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and would, therefore, face the prospects of popular boycotts and the possibility of legal action,” the BNC statement says.

SodaStream is an Israeli company that manufactures home drink-carbonation machines in Maaleh Adumim, an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, built on land from which Palestinians have been ethnically cleansed.

It has been looking for buyers amid a mounting global activist campaign against its occupation profiteering.

In February, its spokesmodel, Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson, broke ties with the international charity Oxfam which had criticized her endorsement of SodaStream as incompatible her role as the charity’s humanitarian ambassador.

The BNC statement warns that boycott, divestment and sanctions “campaign against Starbucks is expected to drastically affect its market share in the Arab world and many countries across the world.”

It notes that “Veolia, a French company involved in several illegal Israeli projects in the [occupied Palestinian territories], has lost or was compelled to withdraw from contracts worth billions of dollars in Sweden, the UK, Ireland, the US and elsewhere. Similarly, G4S, a British-Danish security conglomerate, lost lucrative contracts in Europe and South Africa.”

But isn’t Starbucks already a boycott target?

Starbucks would be a particularly vulnerable target to boycott actions not only because it does a lot of business in Arab countries and Europe, where solidarity for Palestinians is strong, but also because so many people believe that the company is already complicit in Israeli occupation.

For years, rumors have swirled that Starbucks donates part of its profits to Israel and its army. However, this is false. The rumor is based on a 2006 debunked spoof letter supposedly written by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

While Schultz himself is an avowed supporter of Israel in his personal capacity, Starbucks has carried a statement on its website for years disavowing any connection to Israel.

The statement says that “allegations that Starbucks provides financial support to the Israeli government and/or the Israeli Army in any way are unequivocally false. Unfortunately, these rumors persist despite our best efforts to refute them.”

Also, Starbucks has had no stores in Israel since 2003, when it withdrew from the country due to what it called “on-going operational challenges that we experienced in that market.”

Starbucks operates across the Arab world. Through its partner, Kuwait-based Alshaya Group, it operates Starbucks stores in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.

So while at present Starbucks as a company is not complicit in Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, if it buys a stake in SodaStream, many will feel that the already considerable suspicion the company faces was justified all along.

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Mourning the loss of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter


Symbol of resistance to racist injustice

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Annandale Reformatory in NJ where Carter was held, now called Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility
Photo: John McDevitt

Carter quickly became known as a fierce haymaker—with a powerful left hook—earning him the professional name “Hurricane.”

Here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For something that he never done

Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.

–Lyrics from “Hurricane,” (Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy, 1975)

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter—the only professional boxer to be awarded a world championship title belt outside of the ring—died of prostate cancer on April 20 at the age of 76 in Toronto, Canada. Carter and his friend John Artis were framed and convicted for the murder of three whites at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, NJ, first in 1967 and again, in a second trial, in 1976. Due to prosecutorial misconduct, he was released by habeas corpus after spending nearly 20 years in prison.

Carter’s life exemplifies both a struggle against the extreme racism of the cops and the courts as well as a courageous fighter spirit inside and out of the ring.

Carter was born in Clifton, NJ, the fourth of seven children and learned early on of the racist system. By adulthood, he had already spent nearly half of his life incarcerated for defending himself against a pedophile. He escaped from the notorious Jamesburg Home for Boys (a prison for children) and joined the U.S. Army. While stationed in Germany, Carter began to box for the U.S. Army. In the Army his record was an amazing 51 wins—31 by KO—out of 56 fights.

After being honorably discharged in 1957, he returned to Paterson where he was arrested and imprisoned for 10 months at Annandale Reformatory for his earlier escape.

Carter began boxing professionally in 1961. Although only 5’8”, Carter was an intimidatingly muscled presence at 155-160 lbs—a presence that only became more prevalent later in the boxing world. Carter quickly became known as a fierce haymaker—with a powerful left hook—earning him the professional name “Hurricane.”

In 1966, Carter was the top rated contender for the world middleweight belt after knocking out other middleweights Ernie Burford, Florentino Fernandez and Emile Griffith in early rounds and also defeating Holly Mims, Gomeo Brennan, George Benton and Jimmy Ellis. He narrowly lost against Joey Giardello for the middleweight belt by judges’ decision in Giardello’s hometown of Philadelphia in 1964.

His professional career’s record was 27 wins—19 by KO—12 losses and one draw.

However, systemic racism prevented Carter from ever using his talent and drive to achieve a title belt.

In 1966, Carter and Artis were arrested and dragged to the scene of the murders at the Lafayette Bar and Grill. Even with the lynch-mob hysteria created by the police, none of the witnesses nor the one survivor of the shootings identified Carter or Artis as the suspects. Carter was interrogated for 17 hours and passed a lie detector test. In 1967 the men were convicted of the murders by an all white jury, judge and prosecutor—with the testimony of two white ex-convicts. Carter and Artis received three lifetime sentences.

The white ex-convict witnesses against Carter and Artis, Afred Bello and Arthur Bradley, recanted their testimony and described how they were offered reward money and leniency for charges they were facing. As a result, Carter was freed on a bail and tried a second time. However, racist prosecution that disregarded the facts again resulted in Carter’s conviction for a crime he hadn’t committed.

In 1975, World Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, inspired by Rubin Carter’s struggle, shocked the media when he announced that he was dedicating his bout with Ron Lyle to the incarcerated Carter. Ali became the co-chair of the Hurricane Fund.

That same year, Bob Dylan released the song “Hurricane” detailing the racist framing of Carter and his friend Artis.

Carter was finally released from prison in 1985, due to prosecutorial misconduct, and the charges against him formally dropped in 1988.

Carter wrote two autobiographies and was the subject of a movie staring Denzel Washington, becoming a rallying call for fighters against racial injustice. Carter’s strength in struggling against the racist system with its cornerstone of mass incarceration was unyielding in prison and after his release. “They can incarcerate my body but never my mind,” Carter once said.

After his release, Carter founded a nonprofit organization, Innocence International, which worked to free the wrongly convicted.

The history of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter will long be remembered. His legacy lives on in the demand to tear down the prison walls. From the rubble, champions of all kinds will emerge to build a new society free of racism and mass incarceration.

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Gabriel García Márquez: Presente!


Remembering one of the greatest writers of the 20th century

Gabriel García Márquez with his friend, Fidel Castro

The Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, who died in his Mexico City home on April 17, has been mourned around the world as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  His breakthrough novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude,had a revolutionary impact on world literature when it was published in 1967.  In the years since its publication, it has been translated into more than 35 languages, and has sold over 30 million copies.

García Márquez had worked as a journalist before achieving worldwide acclaim as a novelist, and his writing reflects a deep understanding of history, class struggle, and the devastating impact U.S. imperialism has had on the working class in South America.  He was a staunch supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. His political insight should come as no surprise.

He was born on March 6, 1927 near the Caribbean coast, in the Colombian town of Aracataca. The U.S.-based United Fruit Company, which had a long, exploitive and violent history in several Latin American countries, owned banana farms in the region.  In 1928 the Colombian army massacred more than 1,000 striking workers.  This was just one of many acts of violence that shaped his world view, exposing the links between repressive regimes and U.S. imperialist interests.

The impact of this violence is reflected in his fiction. The narrative of One Hundred Years of Solitudeincludes a massacre of banana workers. Macondo, the fictional town immortalized in his novel, was the name of a United Fruit Company plantation.

Some of his other highly acclaimed novels include Love in the Time of Cholera, The General in His Labyrinth, a historical novel about Simón Bolívar, and The Autumn of the Patriarch.

Although García Márquez could have enjoyed a life of leisure as a celebrity author, he stopped writing fiction in 1973 after the fascist coup against the democratically elected government led by Salvador Allende in Chile. He returned to journalism, writing about the coup, and U.S. involvement, inAlternativa, a political magazine he co-founded in his native Colombia. The magazine was bombed the following year, and eventually closed after years of government pressure.

García Márquez is closely associated with magical realism, a literature which blends realistic depictions with elements that are clearly not of this world. In one famous example, the blood of a man who has been shot dead runs through a village, finally reaching the home of his mother. Although he was sometimes credited for creating magical realism, he gave credit to earlier writers who had influenced him, including Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, and Miguel Ángel Asturias.

By weaving hard political truths about Latin American history with elements of folklore, myth and fantasy, he found a new way to explore, and draw attention, to the region.  In doing so, he inspired a wave of writers and increased awareness of the richness of world literatures beyond the confines of North America and Europe.

Perhaps it is best to close a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez by quoting the words of a renowned communist, the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who described One Hundred Years of Solitude as “the greatest revelation in the Spanish language since the Don Quixote of Cervantes.”

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Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!


Supporters celebrate Mumia’s 60th birthday

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal turned 60 on April 24. Although he remains imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, the fact that Mumia is still alive is a testament to the determination of the millions of people around the world who joined the movement to free him.

Mumia, from Philadelphia, became a revolutionary at a young age. At just 15, he helped found the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, and led a struggle to change the name of his high school from Benjamin Franklin to Malcolm X. Later, he became a prominent journalist who shed light on the Philadelphia Police Department’s brutal repression of the MOVE organization.

The notoriously racist and corrupt Philadelphia cops were determined to silence this important leader. In 1981, while Mumia was working his night job as a taxi driver, he noticed that his younger brother was being harassed by the police. He got out of his cab to investigate the situation, and in the ensuing confusion both Mumia and the police officer were shot.

The officer, Daniel Faulkner, died, and Mumia was framed for his murder. The story promoted by the police is contradicted by a mountain of forensic evidence that proves that Mumia could not have shot Faulkner. It has also been proven that police officers manipulated the crime scene to implicate Mumia. His trial was presided over by well-known racist Judge Albert Sabo, who did everything in his power to deny Mumia a fair hearing.

Mumia was sentenced to death after this mockery of justice, but a powerful movement rose around the world to save his life. His death warrant was signed twice by the governor of Pennsylvania, but each time the people’s struggle made them back down. His sentence was finally commuted to life imprisonment in 2011 after the government was forced to acknowledge that the jury was given flawed instructions.

However, Mumia remains on, as he calls it, “slow death row.” It is more important now than ever to fight for the freedom of this world-renowned political prisoner.

On April 26, a Celebration of Life is being held at the historic Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. Prominent activists and artists, including Cornell West and Dead Prez, will be in attendance. This will be an important way to build the newly-launched Campaign to Bring Mumia Home, and finally overturn this long-standing injustice.

The Party for Socialism and Liberation send its revolutionary greetings and solidarity to Mumia Abu-Jamal on the occasion of his 60th birthday, and remains committed to the struggle for his freedom.

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My trip to North Korea: 13 misconceptions corrected


Western media is full of false reporting

Photo: Marcel Cartier

Photo: Marcel Cartier

Photo: Marcel Cartier

I had the unique opportunity to spend several days in three different parts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly just referred to as “North” Korea. This was an exceptionally life-changing experience that challenged many of the pre-conceptions that myself and fellow western visitors who accompanied me from Beijing had going in. Here are some things about North Korea that may surprise you, as many of them surprised me, as well.

1. Americans Are Not Hated, But Welcomed

The Koreans have a very high level of class consciousness, and do not equate the American people with our government. They make no secret of their contempt for U.S. imperialism, but if you say you’re an American, the conversation will usually revolve around culture or sports more than politics. At the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang (think your local library on steorids, with over 30 million books), the most popular CD is The Beatles’ “Greatest Hits”, although Linkin Park is also requested a lot among local youth. The young men seem fascinated with the NBA, and know a lot more about the league than just Dennis Rodman.

2. Customs and Border Patrol Were A Smooth, Easy Experience

Many of the westerners who traveled to Pyongyang from Beijing with me were concerned that the immigration procedure would be a long and intense one. Everyone seemed quite surprised that passports were stamped with no questions asked, and that only a handful of passengers had a few items in their bags looked at. Prior to traveling, it is strongly advised by tour companies that people not bring any kind of books on the Korean War or items that have American flags on them. This may be solid advice, but immigration didn’t really seem too concerned about what was brought into the country.

3. Pyongyang Is Beautiful, Clean and Colourful

Probably the most gorgeous city in the world, Pyongyang is incredibly well kept. Considering that the entire city was carpet bombed by U.S. forces in the Korean War (what they call the Fatherland Liberation War) and that only two buildings remained in 1953, it is an impressive accomplishment. The statues and grand buildings are awe-inspiring, as are the large green spaces where you can see people relaxing. There are many new apartment buildings sprouting up across the city, but even the ones that are evidently older are maintained well. It is often said that Pyongyang at night is dark, and although it may be compared to a western city, it does have beautiful lights that illuminate much of the downtown area.

4. Kim Jong Un Haircuts Are Practically Non-Existent

There was one man who sported the Kim cut who I saw while en route from the airport to the city center, and it wasn’t a good look on him at all! The haircut was rumoured by BBC and TIME who picked up on a South Korean tabloid story to now be mandatory for all North Korean men of university age. Not only is this story not true, so is the allegation that the men in the DPRK only have a select few styles to choose from at the barber shop that are “state sanctioned.” It really works just as it would in the west – there are flyers at barbershops where styles are pictured, making it easier for customers to say, “I want a number seven cut.” But, just as in a New York barber shop, that doesn’t mean that you are restricted to that particular look.

5. North Koreans Laugh, Smile and Joke – A Lot

The question you’re asking is probably, “but isn’t that for show?” It would be a mighty accomplishment indeed if with all of the genuine laughs I shared with Koreans, they were putting on an act. Not only that, but for vehicles speeding by on the streets, those Koreans do an impressive job of making sure they’re aware when there are foreigners passing so they can pretend to laugh! Koreans have jokes for just about everything, from Canadians and ice hockey (“why did the Canadians have sex from the back? So they can watch the hockey game”) to Americans at the DMZ (“an American passes a DPRK soldier a cigarette across the demarcation line. The solider smokes it, but the American asks why if he hates Americans he is smoking something from the U.S. The solider replies, I am not smoking it but rather burning it.”)

6. Monolithic Ideology Does Not Mean Monolithic Personality

This is a good reminder that individualism and individuality are not one in the same. In fact, observing people interact with one another in North Korea provided the impression that a diversity of personality types was just as strong there as it is in the “open” west. People have a divergence of interests, from sports to culture, and are free to pick what they enjoy and dislike.

7. People are incredibly well dressed across the country

Even in the countryside, Koreans dress in a very dignified manner. There was not one place I traveled to where people appeared in the least bit sloppy, or wearing clothes that appeared to be old. Men and women also don’t all wear the same style of clothing, as we are often conditioned to think. It is common to see women wearing very bright clothes, including pink business suits as well as more traditional Korean dresses. Men may often wear ties, collared shirts and suit coats, but it is also not uncommon to see them in more casual wear such as tracksuits depending on the occasion.

8. Children Begin To Learn English At the Age of 7

The people’s command of English, particularly among the younger generation, is very impressive. While in previous decades, high school was the time when English began to be learnt, this has been changed to the third grade. Although many children are shy (they don’t see that many foreigners, after all), I was able to get many of them to shake my hand and even exchange a few words in English. Popular languages that are studied in high school include Chinese and German.

9. Tourism Will Be Boosted In The Near Future

One of the aspects of the economy that will be prioritized in the future appears to be tourism. The entire Pyongyang Airport is under construction at the moment and in the midst of major expansion. The Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they are also certain to do it in a very different way than the Chinese (after being in Beijing, the omnipotence of some of the worst aspects of western culture their gives them every reason to be cautious in this regard). Air Koryo, which was given the only 1-star rating by the company SkyTrax, was in reality much better in terms of service and comfort than at least a dozen other airlines I had previously flown on. They have a new fleet of Russian planes that fly between Pyongyang and Beijing, provide in flight entertainment throughout the journey (the children’s cartoon Clever Raccoon Dog is hilarious), and serve a “hamburger” (not so good, but edible) and an assortment of drinks (coffee, tea, beer, juice). The whole experience was at least worthly of three-stars if we had to go the rating route!

10. Koreans Are Keen To Talk About The Country Candidly

People are very open about the problems facing the country, and don’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult aspects of life. For instance, they would speak about the “Arduous March” (think the “Special Period” in Cuba) where drought, famine and floods coupled with the loss of the majority of the country’s trading partners brought big setbacks to a country that until the 1980s had a higher standard of living than the South. They will also discuss the narratives regarding the Korean War and are keen for a betterment of relations with South Korea in the eventual hope of reunification. However, they are also very firm on the fact that they will never renounce their socialist principles in order to facilitate this reunification.

11. Beer Is Considered A Soft Drink, Micro Breweries Are Popular

Almost every district in the country now has a local brewery that provides beer to the local area. There are a variety of different kinds that are enjoyed around the country, and most meals are served with a small quantity of beer. At Kim Il Sung Stadium where the Pyongyang Marathon started and ended, it was not uncommon to see locals having a drink as they watched the exhibition matches between DPRK football teams. Think Yankee Stadium, just without the aggressiveness of the crowd. 

12. Most of the Tabloid Stories About the DPRK Are Utterly False

There were probably at least one hundred Americans in Pyongyang at the same time as me, due in large part to foreign amateur runners being allowed to compete for the first time in the marathon. One couple testified how this was their second visit after having traveled to DPRK the year before. They mentioned how they were a bit scared to come the previous time, because it was right after a story had hit the news about Kim Jong Un having had his ex-girlfriend and others killed for making a porn tape. The couple talked about how they walked into an Opera in Pyongyang, and as they sat down noticed that the very women who were supposed to be dead were sitting directly across from them. Walking dead, indeed! Other recent stories to hit the western press via South Korean tabloids regarding mass executions in stadiums or Kim Jong Un’s uncle being fed to a pack of hungry dogs are also said to be non-sense by westerners who travel there frequently and know the country’s situation well. This isn’t to say anything about the existence of political re-education camps or prisons, but an all-out demonization campaign against the country that completely distorts it is of no service to the Korean people.

13. Koreans Will Not Hesitate To Make You Join In Their Fun

There were a number of events organized in Pyongyang on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which is a national holiday where people have two days off of work. Some of these were publically organized, like the “mass dances” where hundreds of people dance in large squares to popular Korean songs. Others involved people in the park having family lunches while the kids bought ice cream from vendors and drunk grannies danced hilariously because they had far too much home-made soju. But, just like in any authoritarian state, you must participate! Being shy is not an option, as they will pull you by the arm and teach you every dance move even if they themselves are not quite doing it correctly.

In short, I found the Korean people in the north to be some of the warmest, most authentic human beings I’ve ever had the chance to interact with. It would be silly to refer to the country as a “workers’ paradise” due to the depth of problems it faces. As in all societies, there are positive aspects and negative ones. However, considering that they have overcome centuries of imperial domination, the loss of about a quarter of their population in the Korean War, and continue to maintain their social system in the face of a continued state of war, they have done tremendously well. The accomplishments in free education through university, the non-existence of homelessness, and a proud and dignified people should be presented in order to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of the country.

I must say that the way that the DPRK is portrayed in the western bourgeois media actually says a great deal more about the effectiveness of our propaganda apparatuses and brainwashing techniques than it does about theirs. The fact that I even have to write about the surprising things I witnessed in DPRK is evidence of the serious lack of understanding we have about the country. The problems facing Korea are never contexualized as they should be – as an oppressed nation aiming to free itself from servitude to big powers intent on gobbling up every remaining state free from a dying unipolarity.

Oh, and I almost forgot about nuclear weapons! Well, let’s consider if the North Korean military was holding military drills annually off the coast of New York that simulated the carpet bombing of Manhattan and the occupation of the entirety of the country, of which they already controlled the western half. Would it not be sensible given that context for Americans to develop a nuclear deterrent? The Koreans are not war hungry or even “obsessed” with the army or military. However, given the way that the situation in Libya played out, they are all the more convinced – rightfully so – that the only reason their independent state continues to stand is due to the Songun (“military first” policy) and the existence of nuclear capabilities. To be sure, they have no intention of using it unless put in that position to have to do so.

It is my sincere desire that there will be continued cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the near future between people from the DPRK and the western countries. Pretty much all of the people who traveled with me back to Beijing were in awe of just how different their experience was compared to what they had expected. They – like myself – gained a great deal from the humanizing experience of interacting with Koreans. Although westerners are relatively free to travel much more so than DPRK citizens, it’s ironic how the Koreans seemingly know a great deal more about us than we know about them. That will need to change in the years to come.

Posted in North Korea1 Comment

Losing Russia

The West’s Hypocrisy in Ukraine


When it comes to Ukraine the US and the EU are adopting a holier than thou attitude which, unfortunately, leads them not to worship at the alter of truth.

Take the issue of the fuss made over alleged soldiers wearing Russian uniforms. They are not dressed in the smart fatigues of the unmarked Russian soldiers in Crimea, about which President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged he misled us.

What these soldiers, leading the Russian-speaking revolt, are wearing can be bought in any army surplus store. As for the photos Western intelligence has persuaded much of the media to use as evidence, they are hazy and would not be admissible in a court of law.

The Ukranian Security Agency announced that it captured 20 of its Russian counterparts. But then it reduced the number to 10 and then to 3.  But the last figure received much less highlighting from Western governments and media than the first.

The West isn’t innocent in this crisis

How all this “Russian interference” compares with the post Cold War expansion by Nato forces up to Russia’s borders, senior Western politicians’ (including the US ambassador) provocative support for a revolutionary movement that included a healthy contingent of neo-fascists who now have seats in the Ukrainian cabinet, and the funding of opposition forces and NGOs, is to be wondered at.

I’ve long been surprised at the tolerance for Western NGOs based in Russia and China. Imagine the reverse.

The West has no moral or legal capital

As for international law the US, the UK and France ignore it when convenient.

When in 1980 Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran the US and the UK supplied him with weapons and military intelligence. When the US feared the World Court would find against it for mining the harbours of revolutionary Nicaragua it withdrew from the Court.

When Nato was intent on bombing Serbia and later Kosovo it bi-passed the UN Security Council although, according to the Charter, it is the only body that can legalise offensive military activity.

When the Security Council voted against the US, UK and France launching a second Iraq war they ignored its majority vote against.

When the West won a resolution, with Russian support, to protect civilians in the Libya of Muammar al-Gaddafi, it bent Security Council authority and did not stop air attacks until he was overthrown.

Kosovo and Crimea – the latter at least wasn’t bombed

The Russians were furious. Ironically, when most Western nations decided to recognise Kosovo as a state independent of Serbia against the wishes of Russia and even some EU members such as Spain, they gave a hostage to fortune. Russia is now able to say over Crimea we are only doing what you did over Kosovo.

The trouble with behaving like this is that international law and the Security Council don’t, like an elastic band, return to their original shape when stretched. So when it came to Crimea, where Russia was arguably in the wrong, many influential countries in the world, such as India, China, South Africa, Brazil and Israel kept silent and did not vote to back the Western condemnation. (Neither did they support Russia.)

Self-defeating to lose Russia

Losing Russia through mismanagement of a crisis is not a very clever thing to do.

It means that there will be no more nuclear disarmament for as far into the future as one can see. Trade and financial exchange with Russia’s big and growing market will be hit by sanctions.

Nationalism in Russia, even among the intelligentsia, is rising fast. (Remember how, after 9/11, 80% of Russians supported the US.) Russia and China will become closer.

The US and the EU are shooting themselves in the foot. Former president, Richard Nixon, the author of detente, is presumably turning in his grave. He tried to persuade President Bill Clinton, gung-ho on expanding Nato to Russia’s borders, despite an American promise not to, to go easy.

President Barack Obama, after steering well clear of Clinton-type policy, now is in danger of being dragged down by a similar one. Is he downplaying the many ways Russia cooperates with the West?

Russia provides transport on its rockets to the International Space Station, which no other nation is capable of doing at the moment. It supplies engines to US space rockets. It cooperates with the West in combating Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It has granted permission for US war materials en route to Afghanistan to use Russian trains. It has given its permission for overflying to Afghanistan. (Russia shares an interest with Nato in Afghanistan since it lost a million men in its own foolish war there.) Russian support is now needed in the next delicate stage of Nato withdrawal.

With Syria it persuaded Bashar Al-Assad to give up its chemical weapons and now has moderated its arms shipments.

Not least, it is a positive diplomatic force in pushing Iran to prove to the world community that it has no program to build nuclear weapons.

Does the West really want to lose Russia?

Posted in RussiaComments Off on Losing Russia

Why is Putin in Washington’s Crosshairs?

Ukraine, Russia and China


“Washington wants to weaken Moscow economically by slashing its gas revenues and, thus, eroding its ability to defend itself or its interests. The US does not want an economically-integrated Europe and Asia. The de facto EU-Russian alliance is a direct threat to US global hegemony.”

US provocations in Ukraine cannot be understood apart from Washington’s “Pivot to Asia”, which is the broader strategic plan to shift attention from the Middle East to Asia. The so called “re-balancing” is actually a blueprint for controlling China’s growth in a way that is compatible with US hegemonic ambitions. There are different schools of thought about how this can be achieved, but loosely speaking they fall into two categories, “dragon slayers” and “panda huggers”. Dragon slayers favor a strategy of containment while panda huggers favor engagement. As yet, the final shape of the policy has not been decided, but it’s clear from hostilities in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands, that the plan will depend heavily on military force.

So what does controlling China have to do with the dust up in Ukraine?

Everything. Washington sees Russia as a growing threat to its plans for regional dominance.   The problem is, Moscow has only gotten stronger as it has expanded its network of oil and gas pipelines across Central Asia into Europe. That’s why Washington has decided to use Ukraine is a staging ground for an attack on Russia, because a strong Russia that’s economically integrated with Europe is a threat to US hegemony.  Washington wants a weak Russia that won’t challenge US presence in Central Asia or its plan to control vital energy resources.

Currently, Russia provides about 30 percent of Western and Central Europe’s natural gas, 60 percent of which transits Ukraine.  People and businesses in Europe depend on Russian gas to heat their homes and run their machinery. The trading relationship between the EU and Russia is mutually-beneficial strengthening both buyer and seller alike. The US gains nothing from the EU-Russia partnership, which is why Washington wants to block Moscow’s access to critical markets. This form of commercial sabotage is an act of war.

At one time, the representatives of big oil, thought they could compete with Moscow by building alternate (pipeline) systems that would meet the EU’s prodigious demand for natural gas. But the plan failed, so Washington has moved on to Plan B; cutting off the flow of gas from Russia to the EU. By interposing itself between the two trading partners, the US hopes to oversee the future distribution of energy supplies and  control economic growth on two continents.

The problem Obama and Co. are going to have, is trying to convince people in the EU that their interests are  actually being served by paying twice as much to heat their homes in 2015 as they did in 2014, which is the way things are going to shake out if the US plan succeeds. In order to accomplish that feat, the US is making every effort to lure Putin into a confrontation so the media can denounce him as a vicious aggressor and a threat to European security.  Demonizing Putin will provide the necessary justification for stopping the flow of gas from Russia to the EU, which will further weaken the Russian economy while providing new opportunities for NATO to establish forward-operating bases on Russia’s Western perimeter.

It makes no difference to Obama whether people are gouged on gas prices or simply freeze to death in the cold. What matters is the “pivot” to the world’s most promising and prosperous markets of the next century.  What matters is crushing Moscow by slashing gas revenues thus eroding its ability to defend itself or its interests.  What matters is global hegemony and world domination. That’s what really counts. Everyone knows this. To follow the daily incidents in Ukraine as though they could be separated from the big picture is ridiculous. They’re all part of the same sick strategy.  Here’s a clip from former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in Foreign Affairs explaining how–as far as Washington is concerned–it makes no sense to have separate policies for Europe and Asia:

 “With Eurasia now serving as the decisive geopolitical chessboard, it no longer suffices to fashion one policy for Europe and another for Asia. What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy.” (The danger of war in Asia“, World Socialist Web Site)

It’s all about the pivot to Asia and the future of the empire. This is why the CIA and the US State Department engineered a coup to oust Ukrainian president Viktor Yonuchovych and replace him with a US-stooge who would do Obama’s bidding.   This is why the imposter prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has ordered two “anti-terror: crackdowns on unarmed activists in East Ukraine who oppose the Kiev junta.  This is why the Obama administration has avoided engaging Putin in constructive dialog aimed at finding on a peaceful solution to the present crisis. It’s because Obama wants to draw the Kremlin into a protracted civil war that will weaken Russia, discredit Putin, and shift public opinion to the side of the US and NATO. Why would Washington veer from a policy that clearly achieves what it’s supposed to achieve?  It won’t. Here’s an excerpt from an article on

“Reports out of Moscow say that President Putin has “shut down” all talks with President Obama, and say they are “not interested” in speaking to the US again under the current environment of threats and hostility.

Putin and Obama had been speaking regularly on the phone about Ukraine in March and early April, but Putin has not directly spoken to him since April 14, and the Kremlin says that they see no need to do any more talking.” (“Putin Halts Talks With White House Amid Sanctions Threats”,

There’s nothing to be gained by talking to Obama. Putin already knows what Obama wants. He wants war. That’s why the State Department and CIA toppled the government. That’s why CIA Director John Brennan appeared in Kiev just one day before coup president Yatsenyuk ordered the first crackdown on pro Russian protestors in the East. That’s why Vice President Joe Biden appeared in Kiev just hours before Yatsenyuk launched his second crackdown on pro Russian protestors in the East. That’s why Yatsenyuk has surrounded the eastern city of Slavyansk where he is preparing an attack on pro-Russian activists. It’s because Washington believes that a violent conflagration serves its greater interests. It’s pointless to talk to people like that, which is why Putin has stopped trying.

At present, the Obama administration is pushing for another round of sanctions on Russia, but members in the EU are dragging their feet. According to RT:

 “At the moment there is no consensus among the EU members on which economic measures against Russia would be acceptable, or even if they are needed at all,” a European diplomatic source told Itar-Tass.

The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said only an open military invasion of Ukraine or irrefutable proof of Russian clandestine military presence in Ukraine would tip EU’s stance toward economic sanctions. So far every piece of evidence that Kiev and Washington made public of alleged involvement of Russian agents in Ukraine was either inconclusive or simply false.” (“US failing to push economic sanctions against Russia through EU allies”, RT)

Once again, it appears that Washington needs to draw Russian troops into the conflict to achieve its objectives.

On Sunday, RIA Novosti published satellite images showing a large buildup of troops outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. According to a report in Russia Today:

“160 tanks, 230 APCs and BMDs, and at least 150 artillery and rocket systems, including “Grad” and “Smerch” multiple rocket launchers, have been deployed to the area. A total of 15,000 troops are positioned near Slavyansk, he said….

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the large buildup of Ukraine troops, as well as war games and additional deployments of armed forces to the NATO states in the region have “forced” Russia to respond with military drills of its own…..If Kiev choses to escalate the crackdown on the protesters by using heavy arms against them Russia says it reserves the right to use its own military to stop bloodshed.” (“Tanks, APCs, 15,000 troops’: Satellite images show Kiev forces build-up near Slavyansk”, RT)

Putin has stated repeatedly that he will respond if ethnic Russians are killed in Ukraine.  That’s the red line. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated the same message in an interview last week with RT’s Sophie Shevardnadze. The usually soft-spoken Lavrov, condemned  Yatsenyuk’s  attack on Ukrainian civilians as “criminal” and warned that “an attack on Russian citizens  is an attack on the Russian Federation.”

The statement was followed by ominous reports of  Russian troop movements near Ukraine’s border indicating that Moscow may be preparing to intervene to stem the violence against civilians. According to Russian Russia’s Itar Tass “Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, “As of today exercises of battalion tactical groups has begun in the border areas with Ukraine.” Also aviation will conduct flights to simulate the actions near the state border.”

So there you have it: It looks like Obama’s provocations WILL draw Putin into the fray after all. But will things turn out the way that Obama thinks they will?  Will Putin follow Washington’s script and leave his troops in the east where they’ll be picked off by US-funded paramilitary guerillas and neo Nazis or does he have something else up his sleeve, like a quick blitz to Kiev to remove the junta government, call for international peacekeepers to quell the violence, and slip back over the border to safety?

Whatever the strategy may be, we won’t have to wait long to see it implemented.   If Yatsenyuk’s army attacks Slavyansk, then Putin’s going to send in the tanks and it’ll be a whole new ballgame.

Posted in USA, Russia, UkraineComments Off on Why is Putin in Washington’s Crosshairs?

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