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Monthly Archives: January 2017


Photo by Scott Murry

January 24, 2017


The Boston Women’s March for America was a tremendous success by any metric. Likely the largest political demonstration in the city’s history, its estimated 175,000 attendees made it big enough to dwarf even many national demonstrations of the last many years. Which shows two important things. First, there are a great many Massachusetts residents ready to fight to bring down the Trump administration. Second, the state’s population is strongly in favor of women’s rights—and a number of other positions mentioned in the event’s mission statement, including: racial justice, economic justice, human rights, climate justice, and religious freedom. So, credit where credit is due, march organizers did a wonderful job of reading the political moment, and turning out the broad left against a clear and present threat to democracy … in the form of a triumphalist hard right wing of the Republican Party.

However, the local march and hundreds of related actions across the US last weekend—up to and including the main Washington, DC march—all had an inherent political flaw that’s going to be hard to overcome. That is, their organizers appear to have no follow-up plan beyond mobilizing voters to get the Democrats back in power.

This is because the progressive nonprofits and labor unions behind the marches themselves have no high-level strategy beyond that same goal. Which is why many of them could not even support Bernie Sanders, their party’s credible left alternative in last year’s election. And why the Dems are not much better than the Repubs on a host of key issues—and in some cases, as with the Trans Pacific Partnership that President Trump just shot down as a first order of business, they are worse. Because the organizations that comprise the progressive wing of the Democrats, and provide most of its grassroots muscle, continue to refuse to challenge the still-dominant pro-corporate Clintonite wing of the party for control of its platform.

Given that problematic background, it’s easy to understand why the marches were essentially transformed into giant launchpads for the candidacies of key Democratic politicians for the 2018 and 2020 elections. In Boston, for example, the main speaker was Sen. Elizabeth Warren—a clear contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, having stood down in the recent election and consolidated her power base. Other rising Democratic politicians like Mass Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and Boston City Councilor and City Council President Michelle Wu also mounted the podium—and none could ask for a better campaign kickoff for their next races. Whatever those races may be.

But electing more Democrats to office is not going to solve the problems this nation is facing. Especially if the party continues to be led elitist technocrats who fake left, but break right on all the issues that matter to its populist wing.

An otherwise decent progressive like Warren will keep pulling her punches on effective policy prescriptions like single-payer national healthcare, and continue to defend Obamacare when she herself has written in favor of single-payer as the “most obvious solution” to our health crisis. Because she doesn’t have the support of party leadership to take on corporate power.

A union-backed mayor like Walsh will continue to base his economic policies on the simple conceit of attracting as many major corporations to Boston as possible—as he did by supporting the GE Boston Deal—in the likely vain hope that doing so will somehow result in more decent jobs for his working and middle-class constituents. Instead of creating public jobs programs and building large amounts of public housing like big city Democratic pols from the 1930s to the 1960s. Pushed by an ascendant and militant labor movement for much of that period. Because, again, he doesn’t have the support of party leadership for such policies. And because today’s union and nonprofit leaders have been unwilling to push Democrats to back the democratic socialist policies that many of them privately believe in.

So that’s the strategic quandary that progressive Democrats of the type who just pulled off huge and successful mass mobilizations find themselves in. They know perfectly well that a society run by and for the rich is incompatible with the fairness and justice they seek. They know that we cannot solve all the dire problems facing America by handing the reins of power to the CEOs—as both major parties have been doing for decades—and hoping for the best. And they know that the best organizing isn’t top-down, but is instead horizontal and, well, democratic.

Yet even when they pull millions into a great event like the marches against President Trump, they remain afraid to let the grassroots they just inspired to action run the political movement they hope to build. And as long as that cycle continues, the Democratic Party might indeed return to power by 2020. But all the marches in the world won’t bring true democracy to the United States.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:
iTunes, Google Play Music, BlubrryStitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube


January 10, 2017


The opioid crisis is dire enough without adding insult to injury. With almost 12,000 deaths from overdoses in Massachusetts since the year 2000—increasing sharply in recent years with fentanyl-laced heroin hitting the streets—the human cost to users, their families, and our communities is already tremendous. But thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related criminal offenses that cost is far higher than it needs to be.

A bit of history is in order. Decades back, sentencing decisions for such offenses were generally made by individual judges—who could then lower or remove jail time, or order an alternative sentence to a drug treatment facility, for non-violent offenders convicted of simple possession and the like.  

The passage of the Controlled Substances Penalties Amendments Act by Congress in 1984—followed by a number of related laws on the federal and state level—took that power away from the courts and set mandatory minimum sentences that could not be modified by judges. Prisons around the country began to fill with drug offenders. And many nonviolent offenders ended up doing more time than violent offenders like members of major drug cartels.

Worse still, racism was baked into the new system, with drugs like the crack form of cocaine sold in poorer communities of color drawing far longer sentences than drugs like the powder cocaine sold in wealthier white communities. The arrest rate for people of color has remained consistently higher as well. According to the state Sentencing Commission, Massachusetts imprisons Black defendants eight times more than white defendants. Latino defendants are sent up almost five times more.

Then, in 1996, OxyContin—a synthetic opiate pain medication—came on the market in 80 mg pill form. It was developed by a small Connecticut pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma—an early pioneer … not in synthesizing oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin which had originally been developed in Germany in 1916, but in something more insidious: the direct marketing of drugs to doctors. According to Pacific Standard, Purdue doubled its sales staff in the first four years of the OxyContin rollout. That staff developed a database that identified doctors who prescribed pain medication more heavily than others. They focused their sales effort on those doctors—encouraging them to overprescribe the medication for a wide variety of conditions. In 2000, the company released a 160 mg pill specifically aimed at users that had developed tolerance to opioids—which became the wildly popular street drug we know today. Crushed and sniffed by tens of thousands of users in the Bay State alone. And so, by 2010, OxyContin accounted for over one-third of American painkiller sales.

Most of you know the rest of the story. The legions of newly addicted Oxy users eventually ran out of prescriptions, and turned to whatever they could get to replace it—inevitably leading many of them to heroin. A sane government would’ve stepped in early on in this process, shut a company like Purdue down, and significantly expanded public funding for solid treatment and recovery facilities for the drug’s many casualties. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Purdue was making over $3 billion a year on OxyContin by 2010, and had a lock on legal sales of the drug until its patent expired in 2013. Even as public funding for treatment got cut.

Meanwhile, street sales of Oxy and the resulting spike in heroin sales led to a whole new wave of nonviolent offenders sent to prison for years with mandatory minimum sentences.

Unfortunately, action to reform such strict sentencing laws has been slow to come at the federal level and here in the Commonwealth. With a new session of the state legislature just beginning, there are no new reform bills to recommend. But it’s reasonable to expect the main reform bill of the last session, An Act to Repeal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws for Drug Offenses, will be reintroduced this time around. The bill would repeal all mandatory minimums for drug offenses and let courts impose sentences that fit the crimes.

It’s ironic that, according to WBUR, “several other states, including conservative states, have overhauled their sentencing laws” while ostensibly progressive Massachusetts lags behind. But thanks to the work of grassroots organizations like Jobs Not Jails and the Mass Organization for Addiction Recovery, high level officials like Mass Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Mass Supreme Judicial Court have recently gone on record in support of mandatory minimum reform.

That’s great, but without voters across Mass putting pressure on state legislators it could still be years before the needed reform passes. So, the best thing that readers can do to help stop this devastating outgrowth of the already tragic opioid crisis is to watch for the new mandatory minimum reform bill and join advocates to demand that your state reps and senators do the right thing and pass it.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest showco-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube



January 4, 2017


As another calendar year begins, it is my custom to prognosticate about what I think is most important for my audience to consider in the months to come. Last year at this time, I asked readers if they wanted to live in a democracy—and I encouraged those who did to join organizations willing to defend and expand the democratic lifeways our society has left.

But how one thinks about democracy depends on where one stands politically. So this year, now that the 2016 election drama has played out, I think it’s worth reflecting on how to unite everyone who believes in American democracy around the cause of saving it. Given that people with very different politics still share a common vision of democracy at a gut level. Though they agree on very little else.

For example, most people who voted for President-elect Donald Trump—outright fascists, theocrats, and incipient monarchs excepted—believe that they did so to defend and expand democracy. Most people who voted for also-ran Hillary Clinton—including former Bernie Sanders supporters who held their noses and took one for the team—believe the same thing. Same goes for Libertarians, Greens, smaller left and right third parties, and a vast array of independents. Most everyone believes that people should have some say over political and economic decisions that affect their daily lives.

However, there is one significant group that doesn’t seem particularly interested in democracy (although they often say otherwise). The “good and the great.” The rich and powerful. The corporate leaders, major investors, and top politicians who comprise the oligarchy that controls the commanding heights of American politics and economics. Trump and Clinton represent different factions of it. And until popular movements reign in that oligarchy, nothing significant will change for the better.

Doing so will have to be a broad effort. Because neither the left nor the right can win this one alone. And removing an oligarchy is no easy task. As such, here’s what I think each political crew should do toward that goal.

Democrats: I wrote my basic prescription for you all a few weeks back … reform your party. Do us all a favor, take it away from Wall Street operatives like Clinton and let the grassroots membership run the show (read up on the midterm 1978 Democratic National Conference for some ideas). Give working Americans someone decent to vote for and there won’t be another repeat of the recent debacle anytime soon.

Republicans: If you’re serious about the small government thing, let’s see some grassroots action against the military-industrial complex, corporate welfare, and the national security state. Also, fight to keep government funding for science and medicine in place. [Evangelical Republicans, keep Matthew 19:24 in mind.]

Greens: Get more of your members elected to local and state offices. The better to develop a core of experienced public servants, and eventually field national candidates who have some hope of striking hard bargains with the major parties to win significant reforms like national health care. Or even some Congressional seats.

Libertarians: Same as the Greens (understanding that you will generally oppose big federal programs). But unseating some of the current crop of racist and nativist Repub elected officials would be super helpful.

Smaller parties, “fusion” parties, and proto-parties: Get larger. We really need to muddle our way to a multiparty parliamentary system.

Non-voters of various political stripes: Even if you don’t believe in electoral politics, or just don’t see a point in voting, there’s still plenty you can do. Help rebuild local and regional democratic institutions like neighborhood associations, benefit societies, community service organizations, clubs, co-operatives, labor unions, and forward-thinking religious groups.

That said, everyone should work in concert to create a more democratic culture. A culture where people don’t just accept decisions handed down to them from on high in any sphere of life, but question them. And demand to be part of making them.

We will debate over every conceivable policy while we build that culture. And that’s OK. In a democratic society, the most important thing is that we’ll be able to have those debates. But without such basic human solidarity—such commitment to “hang together” rather than “hang separately,” as Benjamin Franklin probably quipped—democracy in America is finished.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube