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Missourians Fight ALEC Over Big Agriculture’s “Right to Farm”

3:36 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Grassroots efforts will likely push a recount on an amendment to Missouri’s bill of rights that favors the interests of corporate agriculture.

Artwork of a young boy dressed as an ear of corn, carrying a Monsanto flag.

Did Missouri voters just grant constitutional rights to Monsanto & friends?

On Aug. 5, Missouri residents voted on the state’s Right-to-Farm, Amendment 1, a new addition to the state’s bill of rights. The results were extremely close: 498,751 voted in favor of the new amendment, while 496,223 opposed it. With a difference of less than half a percent, a recount is almost certain.

Though the Humane Society of the United States donated $375,000 in opposition, the amendment had the financial backing of Big Agriculture and its deep pockets as well as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the secretive organization which writes legislation on behalf of major corporations.

That the bill came so close to defeat is a testament to the efforts of grassroots Missouri activists like the members of People’s Visioning, a coalition of diverse progressive organizations led by Columbia, Missouri, resident Monta Welch. MintPress News spoke with Welch and other members of her coalition as they rested from what they described as an exhausting campaign and considered what their next steps might be if the recount fails.

Welch explained that the conflict was essentially between large agricultural factories and consumers increasingly concerned with the sustainability and ethics behind the food they eat.

“This amendment was really designed to preempt giving consumers what they want and preempt any possibility of addressing an unsustainable system whether it be factory farming — a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO — or genetically modified food. There’s been a trend of customers and consumers saying they don’t want these kinds of products, but this is the ‘get bigger or get out’ style of factory farm’s response,” Welch said.

ALEC’s corporate “extremism”

For over 40 years ALEC members — corporations and wealthy backers like the Koch Brothers — have crafted model legislation which is then sponsored by the council’s specially selected legislators who are required to swear a loyalty oath to the organization. ALECexposed.org, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, features hundreds of model bills as well as lists of its corporate members, including agricultural giants Archer Daniels Midland and St. Louis-based Monsanto. Monsanto, along with Cargill — which has disputed its ALEC membership — were members of the Farmers Care PAC that formed to promote the bill.

Though all 50 states have existing legislation designed to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits, ALEC has been working to rewrite those laws to its specifications since at least 1995, when the importance of the Right to Farm Act model is mentioned in the council’s Source Book of American Legislation. That same language was incorporated into a longer model bill first voted on in 1996 and updated and re-approved by members as recently as 2013 (where it’s now openly posted on ALEC’s website).

It restricts farms from being found to be a nuisance as long as they conform to “generally accepted agriculture and management practices” as determined by state agricultural agencies. It also prevents farms from being found to be a nuisance if they adopt new technology, begin producing new products, or expand. Other clauses further complicate lawsuits by, for example, potentially forcing anyone making complaints to pay the defendant’s legal fees.

The Right to Farm model legislation is just part of ALEC’s overall support of industrial agriculture. In a memo released by Common Cause, ALEC reveals its “Agriculture Principles” and pledges to “remove barriers for agricultural production, trade, and consumption.” Further, the organization objects to “extremist attempts to establish animal rights as a public policy objective,” stating:

There are significant human costs to the animal rights movement’s attempt to destroy human exceptionalism and along with it our system of animal husbandry and tradition of pet ownership. Similar to ALEC efforts related to animal and ecological terrorism and environmentally corrupt organizations, ALEC’s principles include a commitment to transparency and honesty among these groups and their allies.

A commitment to transparency may seem surprising from an organization which shields its actions with secrecy and police violence. It might be a reference to the group’s support of so-called “Ag gag” laws that restrict the free speech of animal cruelty activists, including one which passed in Missouri in 2012 that forces activists to inform police of their efforts to gather evidence of animal cruelty.

A newer approach to the same goal is to amend state constitutions. Bloomberg Businessweek reported in January that in 2012 North Dakota became the first to amend its constitution to include the Right to Farm, and similar proposed amendments have appeared in Indiana, which will vote on it in November, and in Oklahoma, where legislators tabled the amendment until next session. In Missouri, the amendment included two sponsors who are ALEC membersTim Jones and Jason T. Smith.

Another sponsor, Bill Reiboldt, the Agriculture Policy Chair in the most recent Missouri legislative session, is known for taking donations from businesses like Smithfield Foods. Smithfield Foods is one of the nation’s largest producers of pork products, and Missouri is ranked sixth nationally in pork production.

North Dakota’s amendment specifically mentions the right to engage in “modern farming practices,” but that language was dropped due to what Businessweek calls “concerns that it appeared too narrowly aimed at benefiting industrial farms.” Despite that change, the amendment’s supporters seemed to deliberately court voter confusion about its true goals with even the amendment’s very phrasing.

Deliberately confusing voters

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Exposing ALEC’s Corporate Sausage Factory in Dallas

6:39 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

 

A cowboy hands out bottled water to protesters.

Protesting in the Texas summer is thirsty work.

DALLAS — We’d gathered at Eddie Deen’s Ranch to interrupt the American Legislative Exchange Council at dinner. I was wearing a pink cowboy hat, temporarily inducted into the CODEPINK Posse, an effort organized by the local branch of the well-known national rabble rousers for peace. About 30 of us stood along the sidewalk outside the Ranch, watched by a half-dozen police officers looking bored, a chatty police detective and a pair of startled horses held by two men dressed as cowboys. Overhead, an airplane circled, towing a warning about corporate corruption.

Powerful people in suits laughed at us and snapped smartphone photos as they disembarked from the chartered buses they rode to the Western-themed restaurant. It was July 31 and ALEC was in town for its 41st meeting. After the first of several days of corporate backroom deals at the Hilton Anatole, ALEC’s members wanted to pretend they were cowboys while they ate.

The buses kept coming and out poured some of the world’s most powerful: corporate executives, rich investors, state legislators and their families. Though they’d normally disdain public transportation — when they aren’t orchestrating cuts against it in the name of austerity — I imagined the atmosphere on the bus was jovial, as if the “1%” was on a field trip.

CODEPINK are no strangers to using humor to fight evil. Duded up in pink Western-wear, with faux handcuffs and a “RUN ALEC OUT OF TEXAS” banner, they were aiming for laughter. As the suits’ humor peaked, CODEPINK Dallas — mostly older women — began chanting, “WE MAY BE FUNNY, BUT YOU ARE CORRUPT!”

Speaking out is thirsty, thankless work in the Texas heat. After two hours, a Ranch worker dressed as a cowboy brought us all bottled water.

ALEC: Where the corporate sausage is made

For over 40 years, ALEC has had a corrupting influence on state politics. Its corporate sponsors and rich private investors write legislation, then their hand-picked, loyal legislators introduce those bills into law. The mainstream media rarely connects the dots, even when covering ALEC-related laws. And while many have heard of Stand Your Ground and its contribution to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, few are aware of ALEC’s sponsorship of that law in multiple states.

In the summer of 2011, the Center for Media and Democracy unveiled ALECexposed.org, bringing ALEC widespread negative attention for the first time in its four-decade-long history. The site features over 800 model bills and dozens of corporate sponsors. The agenda revealed was startling in its breadth: to name just a few of its policies, ALEC seeks privatization of education and policing, aides the Koch brothers in undermining laws that support renewable energy, and attacks the rights of unions and the retired.

 

On July 30, Jim Hightower, a former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture and publisher of the popular newsletter The Hightower Lowdown, was on hand at the Community Brewery after a noon rally at the Hilton Anatole was attended by hundreds of activists, retirees and union members in honor of ALEC’s 41st national conference. After a rousing speech to encourage the crowd, he told this reporter, “The only way we’re going to take power back for ordinary working people to become a self-governing people again is to confront the corporate interests and to expose them.”

As much as protesters wanted to reach ALEC with their objections, another purpose of the week’s events was to expose the Dallas public to ALEC’s existence among them.

“Most people never heard of ALEC,” he continued. “This big rally we had at the Anatole hotel today, that showed to a lot of people maybe just driving by that there’s something out there called ALEC. [...] If people see it, they will be disgusted by what’s happened. This is the most visible, the most ostentatious merger of corporate power with right-wing legislative power and they meet in secret. [...] If you want to see where the sausage is made, we were at that factory today.”

I spoke with Connor Gibson, a Greenpeace researcher who studies ALEC and similar groups, about how a newcomer to the movement can begin to unravel this complex network of corporate corruption. “The most important thing to do is learn about ALEC [. ...] It’s actually a really complicated organization. It’s state politicians, it’s corporate lawyers and lobbyists and it’s ALEC’s staff. They convene and have a weird governance and the more people understand that, the more people know what to look out for.”

He continued:

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Exposing Breitbart’s Lies at ALEC 41

11:16 am in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Banner: ALEC Parasitic Corporate Mafia

CODEPINK Dallas confronted ALEC at their dinner party — and Breitbart.com lied about what happened.

DALLAS — In his recent article “Code Pink Stages Mini Protest at ALEC National Conference,” Breitbart.com’s California correspondent Jon Fleischman fabricates an encounter with an activist, erases a full day of anti-corporate protest, and makes a major source of corporate corruption in American state politics seem like a benign force for social good — all in just 250 words.

ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has helped corporations and rich private investors pass conservative legislation for over 40 years. The legislation is written by the corporations, then passed by conservative state legislators selected and groomed by the group. The group has faced increasing criticism and protest in recent years, especially since the 2011 publication of the Center for Media and Democracy’s ALECexposed.org, a site with hundreds of these model bills and a partial membership list of the organization. Several corporate members have dropped out of the group under this pressure.

Among other policies, ALEC lobbies for the privatization of education and police and undermines laws that encourage the use of renewable energy. It also crafted the Stand Your Ground legislation that may have contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman.

Fleischman describes seeing a small group of protesters led by CODEPINK Dallas outside the cowboy-themed restaurant Eddie Deen’s Ranch, where ALEC held a kick-off dinner on the first night of its 41st national conference. Since the article features a photo of the group from inside the restaurant’s property, it’s clear that Fleischman was present on the night of July 30, 2014. But the rest departs significantly from reality.

“Big surprise!”

“This article is full of errors. Big surprise!” CODEPINK Dallas’ Danna Miller Pyke said when MintPress News first brought the article to her attention — a sentiment shared by many news consumers in reference to the accuracy of Breitbart’s many published works. Many people first became aware of the site’s late founder, Andrew Breitbart, from his distribution of the dishonestly edited undercover videos that destroyed the community advocacy network ACORN in 2009. Others may remember Breitbart’s infamous rape-themed Occupy rants from the days before his death in 2012. His site’s reputation for honesty hasn’t improved since then.

But digging deeper into how and why the site carries these lies can instruct us how the right-wing spin machine works to minimize those who oppose it. Though Fleischman once told the Los Angeles Times that reporting on his homepage, Flash Report, was “fair and biased,” his handling of the CODEPINK protesters has been both biased and unfair.

In his article on the ALEC protest at Eddie Deen’s Ranch, Fleischman recounts an encounter he allegedly had with an anonymous protester:

While elected officials dined on tri-tip and chicken, some taking photos on a cow brought in for the occasion, the protesters were screaming “corporate whores” and holding up signs that said, ‘Democracy not Corporatocracy’ and ‘Round Up Alec and Run ‘Em Out Of Town.’

When I approached one of the Code Pink members to see if they had a comment for Breitbart News Network, the response was screamed at me, ‘Breitbart is part of the corporate machine! You suck!’ She then went back to screaming at the top of her lungs towards the steady stream of conference attendees headed into the BBQ joint.

This encounter never happened. A MintPress reporter was present for the entire protest at Eddie Deen’s Ranch. Organized by CODEPINK Dallas, they called it “The Showdown at the Ranch.” Dressed in pink Western wear and carrying banners and toy handcuffs, the idea was to show ALEC members that they were a criminal influence corrupting American politics — and to show the people of Dallas, too. An airplane circled downtown that evening, trailing a banner warning residents against the presence of ALEC in their midst.

While MintPress remembers a man matching Fleischman’s description taking photographs of the group on a smartphone, at no point did he or any other individual approach the group and identify themselves as a representative of Breitbart.com or any other conservative news outlet. To verify our recollections, MintPress spoke with two additional members of CODEPINK Dallas — Kit Jones and Leslie Harris — as well as Roy “Train Wreck” Sudduth, an independent videographer who recorded the entire protest.

After checking his footage, Sudduth confirmed, “My review didn’t show a conversation. I remember the photos being taken.”

Pyke added, “I don’t believe that happened, either. We would have noticed.”

Pyke reinforced the notion that while Fleischman spoke only with an ALEC member and not a member of CODEPINK Dallas, “He purports to know our complaints without talking with us about them.”

Further, the group was approachable — CODEPINK Dallas members held conversations of varying lengths with members of the ALEC delegation. Fleischman’s own photo shows a man in a dark suit conversing with the group — a man who identified himself as a Republican state lawmaker. He had a conversation lasting about 15 minutes with a member of CODEPINK before exchanging contact information with her.

Fleischman also erases a busy day of active free speech when he describes the Showdown group as “thus far … the only protester presence.” Protests had actually kicked off earlier that day when hundreds of activists, including many union members, rallied at the Hilton Anatole (ALEC’s home for the week) in an event called “Don’t Mess With Texas, ALEC.” After the rally, a similar sized group listened to the “Stand Up to ALEC” panel discussion at the nearby Community Brewery, featuring guests such as Jim Hightower, Connor Gibson of Greenpeace and Shahid Buttar from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Even though he’d missed these events, a social media search or some old-fashioned journalistic fact-checking would have set him straight.

More spinning than grousing

At Deen's Ranch, men in suits grin as they photograph CODEPINK with their smartphones.

Many ALEC members stopped to photograph the group, but few tried to communicate.

Worse than lying about his attempt to speak with activists is how Fleischman turns ALEC into a benign, even beneficial influence on American politics. The spin begins from the very first sentence:

This week the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a national organization made up of conservative state legislators from around the country, is holding its annual convention in Dallas, Texas.

To hear Fleischman describe it, ALEC is the same as any other political caucus where legislators meet to discuss the future of public policy. But a key difference is that ALEC’s legislators are picked by the organization’s other members — corporations and private investors — for their willingness to introduce ALEC’s selected legislation.

Some of these conferences have drawn massive protest crowds from the ideological left, grousing about ALEC’s pro-market bent, and objecting to active participation in the group by large corporate sponsors.

Now Fleischman tries to mention corporate involvement in passing, as if it were only peripheral. In fact, late last year the Guardian revealed that these legislators are expected to swear a loyalty oath to the organization, which includes the Koch brothers among its sponsors. ALEC’s lack of transparency has also been criticized; reporters like Truthout’s Candice Bernd are routinely refused access to the conferences despite meeting the group’s stated media guidelines. And far from “grousing” about a “pro-market bent,” diverse groups from constitutional rights pundits to the Alliance for Retired Americans have made specific and clear objections to the way its policy of profits-over-people is written into law nationwide.

State Senator Joel Anderson, who is Chairman for ALEC in California, reacted to the protesters by saying, ‘Hey, this is a free country. We’re here to discuss policies to foster economic prosperity for everyone in America, even those folks yelling at us.’

Kit Jones from CODEPINK Dallas calls Anderson’s statement “total bullshit.”

“They’re not working for us, they’re not working for economic prosperity for everyone. They’re working for economic prosperity for themselves: the corporations and their lackeys, their hired guns, which would be the legislators,” Jones explained.

As an example, Jones highlighted Missouri’s ALEC-inspired “Right to Farm” amendment that pits large-scale corporate agriculture against small farmers and the environment. As of this writing, the hotly contested bill passed by less than half a percent of voters and may be subject to recount.

A nonpartisan movement

Fleischman’s article attempts to place ALEC and the protests against it within the traditional partisan political narrative. He depicts sensible, logical conservatives enjoying a bit of R&R while a pocket of the activist left loudly and senselessly rails against them.

MintPress asked Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, about whether fighting ALEC’s influence was about the right versus the left or a larger issue of democracy. Buttar stressed the threat to democracy was larger than that posed by ALEC alone, but went on to say, “My real interest is in building a voice for ‘We The People’ to force the institutions to respect our rights. And you’re absolutely right, anyone should care about these issues.”

On some issues, like surveillance, he said the Libertarian and Tea Party Republicans are “more activated.”

“The anti-ALEC crowd was all Democrats,” he said, “but quite frankly, that crowd can’t get anything done. It never has. The best they can do is get into office elected officials that then betray them at every opportunity.”

“Without a movement to ensure the accountability of the electoral gains, without a movement to force the conversation about the needs of ‘We The People’ beyond what the policy sphere is currently addressing, without the movement to force change, there won’t be any,” Buttar concluded.

Originally posted on MintPress News

5,000 Texans March for Gaza

9:39 am in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

 

Originally published at MintPress News

But we do not have much time. The revolutionary spirit is already worldwide. If the anger of the peoples of the world at the injustice of things is to be channeled into a revolution of love and creativity, we must begin now to work, urgently, with all people, to shape a new world.

On Aug. 2, Sheikh Islam Mossaad ended his speech at the Texas Stands With Gaza rally by quoting these words of Martin Luther King, Jr. The quotation was preceded by a passionate speech invoking the spirit of dead Palestinian children and calling on the living youth of the world to take up their struggle.

It set the tone for a historic moment — the largest rally for Gaza in the Lone Star State since the beginning of Israel’s military offensive dubbed Operation Protective Edge, and likely the largest pro-Palestine rally ever in the state. A crowd of thousands grew through the speeches and swelled further as it turned from a rally on the state capitol grounds to a march down Congress, the central artery running through downtown Austin, to City Hall. People came off the sidewalks to stand against Israel’s war crimes, to stand with an oppressed people, until the peaceful march stretched to five blocks long and included at least 5,000 Gaza supporters.

After smaller rallies in their respective cities, Texas Stands With Gaza brought together activists and organizations from Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, under a diverse umbrella ranging from interfaith groups to Iraq Veterans Against the War. Chartered buses brought hundreds from around the state. Unseasonably mild weather kept temperatures only in the 80s, a boon since the many pallets of water provided by organizers ran out under the thirst of unexpected throngs.

A woman in a hijab, carrying a Palestinian flag, approaches the Texas Capitol on a partly cloudy day.

Unseasonably mild weather greeted throngs of Gaza supporters on August 2.

A revolutionary spirit was apparent in almost every moment of the event that followed Mossaad’s opening speech. This crowd stood not just against the human rights’ violations of the current Israeli offensive, which has left about 2,000 civilians dead, destroyed over 10,000 civilian homes, and injured over 6,000, but for the rights of Palestinians to live peacefully and not under terror or siege. Before he spoke, Dr. Snehal Shingavi, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a perennial activist for social justice, led the crowd of thousands in a chant of “Resistance is justified when Gaza is occupied!

“‘Never again’ means never again for anyone”

In her speech, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb related the plight of Gaza to other social justice struggles:

I grew up in the civil rights movement and my rabbis, the rabbis of my youth, they were getting arrested, they were going to jail because they could not stand segregation in the United States. An evil institution which is still so much the reason we cannot see what is happening in Gaza, because we are still such a racist society [...] so how can we see what is happening in Gaza without struggling for justice here at home?

Gottlieb told the crowd that the first word she learned in Arabic as a young woman in Israel was “nakba.” “Nakba,” which means disaster, is not limited to a single day, she explained, it is an ongoing destruction of Palestinian life and Palestinian culture through ethnic cleansing since Israel colonized historic Palestine in 1948.

According to Gottlieb, the Jewish Federation of Greater Austin told their members not to counter-protest for fear of drawing too much attention to the rally. But like Gottlieb, other Jews had followed their sense of outrage to Israel’s brutal assault and injustice throughout the march.

A revolutionary spirit had led Naomi (she asked that MintPress News use only her first name) to push her own boundaries by attending her first rally for Palestine. When we found her, she wore a look of deep and almost overwhelming emotion. Naomi, who describes herself as openly queer, laughed as she told MintPress she’d been out of the closet to her Jewish friends about everything except her support for Gaza.

She’d been inspired to come by the example of Ernest Rosenthal, a 95-year-old Holocaust survivor who demonstrated for Gaza in Los Angeles.

“I felt ashamed that he’s 95 and being active and all I was doing was sitting around, talking about it on Facebook,” Naomi said.

Anonymous masked actvists, a man with a Palestinian flag, and others stand for Gaza.

A crowd of thousands grew as religious leaders spoke out against human rights violations in Gaza.

After deciding to attend the rally, “I made the sign ‘I am Jewish and I stand with Gaza’ because I think it’s important to say that publicly — to show that it’s not about Jews versus Palestinians. It’s not a tribal conflict, it’s a political one.”

What she hadn’t expected was how much attention her simple poster board sign would draw:

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