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ONE QUESTION FOR 2016

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Image by Tak Toyoshima

December 29, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

As the new year approaches, it’s the tradition for journalists who have the honor of writing a regular column for the general public to prognosticate about the year to come.

Well I am a journalist. I have a regular column. But I’m not going to make any predictions this year.

I’m just going to ask a single question: Do you want to live in a democracy?

I want you to take some time by yourself, then I want you to sit down and really think about my question. Do you want to live in a country where you have a say about what happens in your daily life? A say about what happens where you live, where you work, and where you hang out. Do you want to live in a country where everyone has that say? Regardless of their race, sex, or sexual identity. Regardless of where they were born. Regardless of whether they are poor or rich. Regardless of whether they believe in a god or gods or none at all.

Do you want to live in a country where everyone has freedom of speech? Freedom of expression? Freedom to participate in politics? Freedom to hold and act on any of a broad spectrum of political views?

Really think about it. Because I’m concerned that too many people don’t think about democracy much lately.

And with a Presidential election looming in which most of the candidates are awful, and with some of the candidates clearly interested in moving away from even the modestly (and highly flawed) democratic form of government we have toward outright fascism—an authoritarian system specifically organized against democracy and equality—I think my question is worth some consideration.

Think about every institution in this society with the tradition of voting. Government at all levels, sure, but also political parties, neighborhood associations, benefit societies, community service organizations, clubs, co-operatives, labor unions, and some significant religious groups. Democratic organization is built into the fibre of this nation. Yet the core democratic impulse to participate in collective decision-making is withering away in many ways—replaced by a sort of dispirited individualism. The internet, ostensibly built to enhance democracy, may actually be harming it by increasing the power of unelected technocrats to determine the direction of key institutions.

Important decisions increasingly get made over our heads by corporate leaders in tandem with government staffers and politicians that are absolutely convinced they know how to “fix” societal problems without meaningful public input. All while allowing a small number of people to make tremendous profits at the expense of the rest of populace. Without genuine discussion, debate, or voting. They are enabled by technology that allows them a degree of social control undreamed of by history’s worst dictators to date.

These developments point to the very real danger that this layer of new oligarchs will use their money, power, and connections to simply drop the pretense of democracy sometime in the near future and start ruling by fiat. Unless Americans—and immigrants and refugees who wish to join us, and allied institutions and nations the world over—decide to revive our democratic traditions and stop the descent into an autocratic abyss. From which humanity may never emerge in this age of ecological crisis.

So after you’ve thought about my question, and talked it over with friends and family, if you decide that you do want to live in a democracy I’d like you to look for people and organizations that share that belief. And to start working to expand democracy in every part of your lives. In 2016, and in every New Year’s Day to come. My simple admonition to you all.

And don’t forget to party, too.

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH (THE YEAR IN KRAMPUS)

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Image by Tak Toyoshima

December 21, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Popular culture always tells us a lot about the spirit of the time in which it was created. So when three movies get released featuring the same little-known supernatural character in the same year, it’s safe to say that something new is running through America’s collective unconsciousness.

And this holiday season, that something is stern. It’s righteous. It’s Krampus.

Yes, St. Nick’s goatlike pal himself. For the uninitiated, in parts of Europe—especially in alpine villages in Austria—Santa Claus is the jolly guy Americans are already familiar with. He gives toys and treats to all the good little girls and boys. But when it comes to naughty kids, it’s all about Santa’s demonic companion Krampus—who hunts them down, whips them with a bundle of sticks, chains up the really bad apples, and drags them off to hell.

Unless you’re from Austria, the first time that you might have heard of Krampus was probably by watching a December 2013 “American Dad!” episode. Still, shortly after the show aired, US awareness of the pugnacious personality seemingly returned to its usual level of zero.

This year, out of nowhere, Krampus is suddenly on America’s radar in a big way (see: “Krampus,” “KRAMPUS: The Reckoning,” and “A Christmas Horror Story”). So I’m thinking all the sudden exposure for an archaic European folk monster could have something to do with the fact that Americans are feeling like there are a bunch of naughty people and institutions in serious need of some festive correction hereabouts.

And why not? Nationally, making a 2015 naughty list is no challenge at all. Just look at most of the Presidential candidates. From open fascists like Trump 2.0 to neoliberals like Clinton—all backed by Wall Street and a bunch of supremely naughty billionaires—it’s like: naughty, naughtier, naughtiest. So Krampus should pretty much drag off the whole lot—and maybe let Sanders off with a light switching for his militarist foreign policy, and keep him here on Earth to do a better job of running the country than anyone else who conceivably has a shot at the Oval Office next year.

Here in Massachusetts, deciding who to turn in actually takes thought. So I checked with friends on social media and quickly drew up a short list of our baddest local apples. And I’m happy to pass it on to the K man right now. In hopes that he’ll appear and apply cloven hooves to backsides later this week.

For starters, anyone who had anything to do with pushing a Boston 2024 Olympics—from John Fish to Shirley Leung—is naughty. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, already naughty for his role in the Summer Games debacle, is also naughty for not acting faster to fully replace the Long Island homeless shelter and affiliated treatment centers that his administration shuttered last year in the midst of a growing homelessness crisis. And for a number of other infractions.

The Boston Police Department is naughty for engaging in racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices that have disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities for years. Then trying to brush off a damning ACLU report on the matter this summer. And basically succeeding with the help of a very naughty Boston mainstream press. Who just can’t write enough glowing fluff about the BPD to satisfy their naughty (and largely white suburban) audiences.

The Democrat-dominated Mass legislature is naughty for joining Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and paving the way for privatizing the MBTA. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food giants are naughty for paying their Bay State workers sweatshop wages—and fighting tooth-and-nail to stop them from unionizing. Retail outlets like Primark and Walmart are naughty on the same grounds.

Hardly an exhaustive list. Plus right-wingers won’t find much to agree with. Because there’s good reason to think that the horned one leans left. Both the fascists who ruled Austria between 1934 and 1938, and the Nazis who followed them until 1945, banned Krampus. And they wouldn’t have done that if they thought witches and socialists and free-thinkers were first in line for some magical non-consensual bondage every winter solstice.

But hey, this is fun for the whole family! Make your own naughty list. Have a Krampus party and read it out loud. Then wait for all the sweet holiday retribution to start. And look forward to a much more compassionate (and chastened) Commonwealth in the new year.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. He has a bundle of sticks and is willing to use it.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GO BIG OR GO HOME: TOWARDS A MASS CLIMATE JUSTICE MOVEMENT

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Image by Kent Buckley

December 16, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

On Saturday, one important global process ended and another began. The process that ended manifested in the form of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The process that began—or more correctly, accelerated—manifested in cities all over the world. Here in Boston, it took the form of Jobs, Justice and Climate—a rally and march to “defend New England’s future.”

Over 2,000 people attended the action last Saturday. A fine turnout by current standards, and the largest regional climate justice rally in recent memory. The organizers—representing a coalition of nearly 150 labor, social justice and environmental organizations —are to be commended. As are their 600,000-plus colleagues across the globe. Including the Paris climate activists who have been harassed and detained by the French security state in the aftermath of the tragic November 13 attacks by supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As if people exercising their democratic rights to take to the street to stop capitalism from destroying the planet have anything in common with people who slaughtered dozens to push Western states into precisely that sort of undemocratic reaction.

The UN-brokered climate justice process launched at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ended in failure. The so-called Paris Agreement that 195 participating countries negotiated this month at best still leaves the door open to the possibility of a real climate pact in the future, and at worst is just an empty PR move by powerful nations and multinational corporations intent on continuing their carbon-burning business as usual at any cost. Built, as it is, on non-binding voluntary commitments without real enforcement mechanisms.

If there is ever to be a real pact to stop global warming, it will only come about if the grassroots democratic process—which started years before the 1992 Earth Summit—makes it happen. That process must take center stage now, and should only finish when its activists come home “with their shields or on them”—to paraphrase an old saying attributed to ancient Spartan women by Plutarch.

That is a tall order to be sure.

Here in New England, in addition to the work by a growing number of climate justice organizations and institutions that goes on day-to-day—collecting solid climate research, conducting popular education, training new activists, reaching out through the media, pressuring climate criminals and lobbying the government at all levels—there must be a constant and ever-larger series of public political actions to demand the swift transition to a carbon-free economy before it’s too late.

It’s important to keep the scale of the task in mind. There were over 14,000,000 people in New England in 2010. There are more now. There will be more still every year until at least mid-century—assuming food supplies remain stable, which we cannot assume as the impact of global warming worsens. A significant percentage of those people need to be mobilized and kept mobilized for years if there is to be a climate justice movement strong enough to overcome the vast panoply of money and political power arrayed against it. Those growing numbers must then be deployed to push through binding local, state, and regional climate agreements that pave the way for binding national and global climate agreements.  

So, a rally of 2,000 is great. But let’s put that in perspective. One can see 2,000 people at the average high school football game. Or at a large religious service. Or at a large nightclub. It’s just not a very large gathering by the standards of our era. Even if each of those 2,000 people directly influenced 10 people to become (or remain) activists—no mean feat—that’s only 20,000 people. Not an unreasonable figure considering the many organizations endorsing the Boston rally. But not enough to fill Fenway Park either. Let alone Gillette Stadium.

It’s true that those 2,000 rally attendees influenced many more through the press coverage they got for the rally. And that 20,000 people can influence many many more with available digital media. But spreading ideas does not automatically impel people to act with the necessary speed, frequency and force to forestall the climate disaster that even now—in this hottest year on record—is starting to take hold as science predicted.

Political organizing is tough work … until it isn’t. Until a movement that dwarfs anything ever seen in human history rises and sweeps through the entire population. Getting to the point where organizing isn’t tough is very difficult indeed. And it’s impossible to predict the arrival of such a mass movement. It will either happen or it won’t. There’s no telling when. Making it all the more important that today’s environmental activists think really really big going forward.

New England is only one small region of the United States with less than 5 percent of its population. And the US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But much of its political and economic power. Therefore, the work that climate activists do in this region and nation today is potentially more effective than work their counterparts do outside such centers of power. That is cause for hope. And it should encourage activists in Boston and around our region to redouble their efforts towards a future where New England—and the world—will no longer have to be defended against global warming. Because global warming will have been stopped by human action. As it was started by human action.

Maybe then humanity will be able to survive to the next stage of our evolution … a global civilization built on principles of democracy, equality, social justice, peace, and ecology. Ad astra per aspera. Through hardship to the stars.

It is that vision that has kept me politically active since the 1980s. Perhaps it will inspire some of you, too. If fellow climate justice activists would like to talk in more depth about the issues I’m raising here, I can be reached—as ever—at jason@binjonline.org.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. He is a longtime climate justice activist.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GROUNDED MONKEYS: MILLIONAIRES UNLIKELY TO FLEE COMMONWEALTH IF RAISE UP MASS WINS TAX ON 1 PERCENT

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Image by Kent Buckley

December 8, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Boston Business Journal’s Craig Douglas made an interesting criticism of Raise Up Massachusetts last week (“Excited about the proposed millionaires tax? Cut off your nose while you’re at it,” Dec. 4). For those who missed it, RUM is a progressive labor-community coalition that just collected over 155,000 signatures to field a constitutional amendment referendum in 2018 that will create an additional 4 percent income tax for residents who make more than $1 million a year.

RUM initially estimated that the new tax would generate $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion of new revenue a year if enacted in 2019. Then the state Department of Revenue recently did their own analysis, and projected that the additional revenue will be significantly higher—$1.6 billion to $2.2 billion a year.

This led BBJ’s Douglas to call foul on both the RUM numbers and the DoR numbers. The problem? BBJanalysis shows that projections by amendment advocates and the DoR aren’t taking into account that the number of Mass millionaires fell in 2013 and 2014—leading him to point out that the amount of tax money the amendment will raise could be far lower than expected.

Certainly food for thought. And if Douglas had stopped there he would probably have landed on solid ground. But then he overplayed his hand, arguing that if the amendment passes we can “expect more millionaires—and their earnings—to flee the state like a bunch of flying monkeys.”

That’s just a truism. The kind of spectre that anti-tax jihadis are fond of raising whenever there’s the slightest danger of tax equity in America. And Douglas offered no citation to back up the claim.

Turns out the Commonwealth’s very own UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute did a study called “Raising Revenue from High-Income Households: Should States Continue to Place the Lowest Tax Rates on Those with the Highest Incomes?” in 2012 that states “… the research reviewed in this study suggests that modest tax increases on affluent households are unlikely to make substantial changes in their work effort or entrepreneurship or make them any more likely to leave the state.”

Also, Douglas seems to have forgotten his own article from Oct. 22, “The BBJ Wealth Report: The towns and cities with the most millionaires,” in which he stated that the falling numbers of millionaires in the state were the result of rich people accelerating “income-related activities in 2011 and 2012 in anticipation of the pending rate hikes on high-income earners” and “deferred asset sales and related income-triggering events to avoid the higher rates, hoping instead for a more-favorable tax climate following the 2016 national elections.”

In other words, they played games to make sure that they could report as little income as possible after 2012. Nowhere did he say they left the state, however. Or even that they really lost money.

And that’s basically what I would expect rich people to do if the amendment passes. They’ll play games that allow them to report as little income as possible. Some will drop off the millionaire rolls for a time. But the state will gain a good chunk of desperately needed extra income we’re not getting from any of the various neoliberal shell games that legislators have been playing to avoid taxing the rich. The flying monkeys, meanwhile, will remain safely in their roosts.

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BARGAINING AGAINST OURSELVES: MEANS TESTING MBTA FARES WILL DECREASE PUBLIC SUPPORT FOR MASS TRANSIT

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Image by Kent Buckley

November 30, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

As the latest round of the ongoing neoliberal campaign to shift the cost of mass transit in Massachusetts from state government to individual riders gets in gear—a necessary step along the road to privatizing the MBTA—regular readers will be unsurprised to find that I am in agreement with progressive transportation advocates like Alternatives for Community and Environment that are against T fare hikesof any kind next year.

However, there is a related fare reform proposal being floated that also needs to be vigorously opposed early in the game: The idea of means testing T riders and giving poor people lower fares.

Supporters of the proposal include Monica Tibbits-Nutt and Brian Lang—two members of the powerful new MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board that is tasked with bringing public transit costs to heel in the Bay State at a time when the T’s annual operating deficit is expected to rise from a projected $170 million this year to $240 million next year to $427 million by 2020. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has also voiced support for the idea.

I don’t doubt that Lang (president of Boston’s hotel and food service union UNITE HERE Local 26), Tibbits-Nutt (executive director of the 128 Business Council), and Pollack (former associate director for research at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University and onetime Conservation Law Foundation staffer) are well-meaning in their concern for low-income riders in the face of constant pressure for regular fare hikes.

But I think their push will create a two-tier system that undercuts the core principle of public services: universality. As the tremendous success of the Social Security program informs us, society as a whole does better when public services like mass transit contribute to the common good. If we start giving a better deal to one relatively powerless group like poor riders, then other more entitled groups like middle class riders will stop seeing support for the T as being in their best interest. Driving another nail in the coffin of the idea of public transportation as a human right and a critical public service when the governor’s seat is held by a Pioneer Institute privatizer like Charlie Baker and when a Democratic legislature has just suspended the anti-privatization Pacheco law for the T for the next three years.

Also, such a weak policy initiative can be undone as easily as it is enacted. Poor riders can have their discount taken away in a political heartbeat. And that’s the danger of mass transit advocates inside and outside government trying to forestall a necessary battle in the public interest with piecemeal reform. That’s the danger of hewing solely to politics of the “possible”—the politics of least resistance—and of buying into Maggie Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal capitalist ideology. To forgetting about democracy. To absolving corporations and the rich of their responsibility to pay taxes, and privatizing government. Thus killing off public services while guaranteeing ever greater profits for the one percent.

Last spring, the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung predictably tried to put a positive spin on the means tested fare discount plan by inferring that it is somehow akin to progressive taxation—the opposite of Thatcher’s vision—where the poor pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes and the wealthy pay a higher percentage. But while declaring that the single fare system is a regressive tax on the poor, she tripped lightly past the fact that if we had a genuinely progressive income tax in Massachusetts we’d not only have plenty of money to properly fund the T without regular fare hikes, but would also be able to significantly expand the system. And get all those suburban SUV cowboys and cowgirls on a public bus or train once in awhile—which would be good for both the environment and for reminding conservative suburbanites that they live in a democratic society. Not a Randian individualist dystopia.

The constitutional amendment campaign by the labor-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition would go part way towards that goal if enacted by raising state income tax on just the rich and by dedicating some of the funds to mass transit. Which is helpful. But, absent a public groundswell an order of magnitude larger than the Occupy movement, we’ll apparently have to wait for a progressive coalition with the political will to fight for a full progressive taxation amendment that will really solve the problem of properly funding public services like the MBTA.

Meanwhile, former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi (a sometimes controversial figure himself) amply demonstrates what could be done to save the T without major tax reforms in a recent article in Commonwealth—starting with forcing state government to take back the billions in “legacy” and Big Dig debt it dumped on the T years back, shifting up to 10 percent of highway dollars to mass transit each year for five years, and committing the billions in freed-up revenue toward desperately needed system maintenance.

Aloisi points out that the highest possible fare hikes under the law passed in 2013 that limits T fare hikes to 5 percent every two years would only result in an additional $20-23 million in new annual revenue when its operating deficit is rising and the bill for deferred maintenance—that will allow the system to reach a “state of good repair”—is $7 billion (and rising). And that even the 10 percent fare hike that some legislators insist the 2013 law allows would only bring in around $40 million in new annual revenue. So fare hikes are only going to alienate more people from the T in an era when it needs strong public support more than ever.

There’s lots more political drama to come over the next few months before anything is set in stone, but my general admonition to transportation activists would be to echo what a mentor of mine, longtime labor activist Tim Costello, told me over and over again in situations like this years before he passed away: “Don’t bargain against yourselves!”

In other words, mass transit advocates should not start the current fight with a weak political proposal like trying to give low-income T riders lower fares and exposing a lot of other better off—but still economically vulnerable—riders to a stiff hike. They should fight to defend and expand public transportation on democratic principle.

If it becomes necessary to make political accommodations along the way during the hard grassroots fight it will take to make that goal a political reality, then at least public transit advocates will be bargaining from a position of strength … and will end up winning more than they started with.

Rather than less.

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

REMEMBRANCE AND PROTEST: THANKSGIVING THEN & NOW

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November 23, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The following passage is excerpted from a piece I wrote in 2005. It recounts the story of King Philip’s War—which was fought across southern New England 340 years ago, and started not far from where I attended a Thanksgiving dinner that year at my cousin’s place in North Attleborough. Read it. Think about it. Discuss it with friends and family. And, if you can make it, join the United American Indians of New England and allies for a day of remembrance and protest at the 46th National Day of Mourning on November 26 at noon at Coles Hill in Plymouth. Get all the information, and a more accurate version of the history of  “Thanksgiving” at the UAINE website.

In 1675, a Wampanoag sachem named Metacomet (or King Philip to the English) launched—somewhat reluctantly—a war against English colonists in what is now Massachusetts that came closer than any other war launched by America’s native peoples to ending European domination in at least one corner of the “New World.” It was the last colonial war in which the two sides had relatively equal numbers, and used basically equivalent technology.

Had not disease already decimated the native population of the area decades before, the English never could have won.

The grievances of the faction of the Wampanoags that began the war—and the other nations that joined them including the Narragansetts, Pocumtucks, and Nipmucks—were fairly straightforward. The English unceasingly attempted by foul means and fair to convert the native nations to Christianity. And they continually overstepped the bounds of various treaties and contracts with native peoples in taking land that wasn’t theirs for their own exclusive use.

Two years later, roughly 800 colonists and 6000 Native Americans were dead. Dozens of towns and settlements on both sides were wholly or substantially destroyed. Atrocities were committed by all parties to the conflict—though the English outdid their opposition in that respect, unsurprisingly.

Most of the fighting took place in what are now Plymouth and Bristol Counties in southeastern Massachusetts, in much of Rhode Island, and in the Connecticut River Valley in both western Massachusetts and Connecticut—but it raged throughout modern day New England, and smouldered on for over 100 years with no official end date marked. No treaty, broken or otherwise, was ever signed by either side.

A number of Native American nations were for all intents and purposes destroyed—at least as political entities. The rest were assimilated or marginalized.

The war forever cast Native Americans into the role of “savages”—a subhuman status fit only for subjugation or extermination. For 300 years after the war, most American historians gave short shrift to native justifications for the conflict, and exulted in the glory of a holy war won against the forces of darkness.

After you absorb that Native American history, I recommend you delve into some local Black history that activists at Harvard Law School have unearthed. It seems the school was founded with money from a vile family of slavers by the name of Royall. Making matters worse, Harvard Law then adopted the Royall family coat of arms as its crest. The protesters are calling for the decolonization of their campus, the symbols, the curriculum and the history of Harvard Law School. Readers can find out more by following #RoyallMustFall on Twitter and Facebook.

And a big shout out to the #ConcernedStudents2015 student activists at Brandeis University occupying their administration building for racial justice on their campus as we go to press. Stay strong!

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

LEFT BEHIND: THE PARIS ATTACKS AND THE NEED TO FUND A MASS INDEPENDENT AMERICAN NEWS MEDIA

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Image by Kent Buckley

November 17, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Shortly after the Paris attacks on Friday, I flipped on the TV and saw that Fox 25 was feeding Fox News live during its normal evening entertainment slot. I was not surprised to find that News Corp HQ was taking full advantage of Americans’ understandable outrage about the tragic slaughter of more than 100 innocent people to foment hysteria against immigrants, refugees, Muslims and any other convenient target in the service of a raft of hard-right policy agendas. From calls to shut all European and American borders against people fleeing the horrific Syrian civil war, to demands that government increase surveillance and expand military and police budgets.

All par for the course. Fox will be Fox after all.

But that’s not what bugged me in this case. What bugged me was that the rest of the major American news media was not much better than Fox in its early reportage of the Paris crisis, and that we do not have a mass independent news media representing the positions of the broad left (and much of the populace) in this country: democracy, equality, peace, human rights, and social justice.

There are many interesting “humane and sane” independent news projects around the US—like theBoston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that I’m helping organize. They’re just not large enough to reach masses of people during periods when global politics is fast-moving and when—as with this latest crisis—reactionary demagogues are given days of constant exposure to rehearse their racist colonialist Islamophobic fantasies unchallenged to audiences of millions on Fox and allied outlets. Which means that News Corp succeeds in pulling public discourse far to the right in the absence of major outlets willing to confront them when it matters most. The comedian journalists of The Daily Show excepted.

The politics of major American news organizations—conservative protestations to the contrary—now generally run from right to center. With editorial lines that are beholden to the rich and powerful. There are a few large outlets like the Boston Globe that lean left in select political economic and cultural debates, but they are slow to challenge powerful government officials and corporate leaders in dangerous moments like this (and the run-up to various recent imperial wars, the railroading of numerous anti-democratic “trade” treaties like NAFTA since the early 1990s, the defeat of several landmark global warming treaties in the same period, etc., etc.).

In many other countries, however, the media spectrum is much broader. There are mass news media of the left, right, and center. The left press is fairly large, influential, and far more likely to be critical of elite responses to political crises like the Daesh (ISIS) orchestrated killings in Paris. And to inspire their audiences to act politically to prevent such crises from being used by the hard right as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties or rush headlong into armed hostilities. Especially, as with the Syrian civil war, when a multinational conflict and related refugee crisis is already ongoing.

This independent progressive news media has often been funded by donations from trade unions, non-governmental organizations, protest movements and—significantly—by subscribers who are sometimes organized into consumer co-operatives. Employees may also hold a stake in such publications through employee co-operatives. Examples of this kind of progressive mass independent news outlet include Die Tageszeitung in Germany and WOZ Die Wochenzeitung in Switzerland. There are others like Dagbladet Information in Denmark that have more traditional ownership arrangements.

But there has been nothing like these major news publications of the left in the US since the weeklyAppeal to Reason folded in 1922 and the NYC daily PM folded in 1948. Even the smaller city-based alternative weeklies that were founded in the 1960s and 1970s—like the Boston Phoenix—have been in rolling collapse for some time.

Working on BINJ, and having run the left-wing metro news weekly Open Media Boston for seven years before that, I have no doubt that there is more than enough talent in cities like Boston to build the kind of professional mass progressive news operations that this country desperately needs if we are going to remain a democracy in the coming decades.

The question is: Will the remaining progressive institutions with deep enough pockets to bankroll such major news operations step forward while there’s still time? The labor unions, the major nonprofit community organizations, the progressive businesses, religious denominations, foundations and wealthy donors. And will you—the audience that agrees we need such a left news media complex—step forward and donate to projects like BINJ, and to consortia of such projects?

I hope so. At BINJ, we’d like to work with any institution or organization that is forward-thinking enough to see the need for a mass progressive news media. And that is willing to put their money where their aspirations are. Email me at jason@binjonline.org to start that conversation today.

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

MASS BAIL REFORM NOW

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November 9, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Lots of innocent people are spending time in jail in Massachusetts. And unsurprisingly many of those people are poor and a disproportionate number are people of color. But they are not convicted criminals. They are people who are charged with a crime—often a minor infraction—and can’t afford to pay the cash bail they’ve been assigned. So judges consign them to what to amounts to debtors’ prison while they await trial.

The number of people in the Commonwealth’s pretrial holding has grown nearly 13 percent since 2008, according to a recent study by MassINC, Exploring the Potential for Pretrial Innovation in Massachusetts, while “arrests have declined by 10 percent and the number of commitments annually to state prisons and county houses of correction has fallen by 22 percent.”

Although bail data are woefully scarce statewide, numbers released by the sheriffs in three Massachusetts counties are telling. The study shows that “Black residents are overrepresented in the pretrial population by a factor of 10 in Barnstable County. As a share of Franklin County’s jail population, the proportion of Black detainees is nine times higher than the share of Black residents in the general population; in Norfolk County, the disparity is a multiple of five.”

Furthermore, defendants of color face much higher bail. “In Barnstable County, the median bail amount for African-American defendants is four times higher than for white defendants. Median bail amounts for African-Americans in Berkshire County are five times higher than for white defendants.”

Clearly, the Commonwealth’s mostly white judges have some explaining to do.

Regardless, immediate reform is needed. Advocates are proposing a number of approaches to improve the system, but the one that will likely have the fastest effect is to significantly reduce the use of cash bail. Judges already have the ability to release people charged with a crime on their own recognizance until trial. And it would be good if they did that more often—especially for Black defendants that are currently being slammed with cash bail at a higher rate and for a larger amount than white defendants charged with the same crimes in the same jurisdictions. An even better option would be for Mass. courts to use unsecured bonds that only require a cash payment if a defendant fails to appear for court and abide by conditions of release.

Readers interested in getting involved in the campaign for bail and other pretrial reforms should check out the Pretrial Working Group and the Massachusetts Bail Fund. Those organizations are working on “An Act reforming pretrial process” (H.1584/S.802) that will introduce a raft of solid improvements to the Bay State’s bail system if enacted.

If you want to help affected folks right away, go to the Mass. Bail Fund website and donate whatever you can afford. They help defendants who owe $500 bail or less stay out of jail prior to trial by directly paying their bill. It’s a stopgap solution, but a necessary one until real bail reform gets passed.

The idea that defendants are innocent until proven guilty is enshrined in common law, in the US Constitution, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We cannot allow such a core democratic principle to be nullified for anyone in our society. Especially here in Massachusetts. So join the fight for bail reform now.

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

BOSTON ARTISTS UNITE

Untitled drawing (1)

Kenmore image by Henry Han via Wikimedia Commons

November 2, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

If you work in one of the creative professions, then you know how tough it has become to make a living in the Boston area in recent years. But there are a couple of upcoming events that are aiming to improve the political economic situation for local artists, writers, musicians, dancers, designers, filmmakers, journalists, and other creative workers, and both are definitely worth attending.

First, the annual Artists Under the Dome event is happening at the Massachusetts State House this Wednesday (Nov. 4) from 9:30 am to 2 pm. It’s hosted by the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition (MALC) together with the State Treasury, the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

MALC’s mandate is “to make Massachusetts one of, if not the best, State in the Nation for artists of all disciplines to live and work in,” and “to empower artists of all disciplines to become part of public policy dialog on the issues that impact their livelihoods.” As such, Artists Under the Dome is essentially a grassroots lobby day when creative workers are encouraged to connect with their state representatives and senators, and to speak with them about key legislation affecting the creative professions. According to MALC, legislators and other state government officials will assemble to “thank and talk directly with the artists community regarding issues, legislation, and regulations that directly impact working artists of all disciplines.”

There are a number of important arts-related bills coming up this legislative cycle—including An Act Establishing a Public Art Commission (HB 3667)—that will stand a much better chance of getting passed if lots of creatives show up to bend their legislators’ ears on Wednesday.

Second, on Nov. 19, creative professionals are invited to join my Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism colleagues and I for a panel discussion we’re organizing called “The Crisis in the Creative Professions: How Can We Make a Living in Boston Again?” The free public forum at the Community Church of Boston will take a look at how creative workers might organize more effectively to improve our situation. Speakers will include professionals from the affected fields and advocates from relevant advocacy organizations. The event is co-sponsored by Getting by in Boston, Mass. Creative Workers, and Community Church of Boston.

If you’re a creative worker and wondering how you can makes ends meet while doing what you love, plan to attend … and spread the word. For starters, go to Facebook and click “Like” on The Crisis in the Creative Professions event page to get plugged in.

Hope to see Apparent Horizon readers at both events.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ network director, a member of the MALC steering committee and active with Mass. Creative Workers and Getting by in Boston. He is a visual artist and journalist.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

SHUT PILGRIM NOW … AND SAVE MASS FROM NUCLEAR DISASTER

Image by Kent Buckley

October 26, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

About 50 people—most from the South Shore and Cape Cod—held a protest rally last Thursday at the Grand Staircase in the Massachusetts State House to demand the immediate closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station on a long list of public safety grounds. This in the wake of the facility’s owner, Entergy Corp., announcing it will shutter the plant by 2019 because it’s become too expensive to run.

The demonstrators, led by the several grassroots groups that comprise the Pilgrim Coalition, say that’s an improvement from the 2012 decision, by the industry-friendly Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to allow the plant to remain open until 2032. But every minute that Pilgrim remains open increases the possibility that some calamity could render large swaths of the Bay State radioactive for thousands of years.

It was the kind of event that left me thinking, “We need 50,000 people here, and another 50,000 people surrounding Pilgrim until Entergy shuts it down.” So great is the existential crisis of such a dangerous and aging nuclear reactor being allowed to continue operating far closer to Boston than the now-infamous Fukushima Daiichi nukes are to Tokyo.

Photo by Jason Pramas

Photo by Jason Pramas

Seriously, the Fukushima plant is 141 miles from Tokyo. Pilgrim is only 38 miles from the State House—well within the 50-plus mile distance of the furthest communities that ended up being contaminated by the radioactive plume from Fukushima.

In early 2014, Gov. Deval Patrick confirmed what area activists had been saying for years: there is no viable evacuation plan in the event of a disaster at Pilgrim. Many people living in areas affected by releases of radiation would essentially be told to “shelter in place” by Entergy and the Mass. Emergency Management Association. At the time, Patrick asked the NRC to step in and to close the plant if it failed to comply with regulations. Later that year, the NRC kicked the responsibility for developing real plans back to Patrick. In short: there is still no evacuation plan for communities near the plant, let alone for Boston.

As the protesters pointed out last week, following the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima, the NRC told Americans who were living and working within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate. Given that there are no evacuation plans for the less densely populated communities near Pilgrim, what exactly would we do in Boston if Pilgrim were to suffer a similar disaster? No responsible party has an answer to that very obvious question.

To make matters worse, the Pilgrim nuke is a General Electric Mark I type. Exactly the same type as five of the six reactors at Fukushima Daiichi—including all four of the reactors that suffered catastrophic failures in 2011. Like Fukushima, Pilgrim is situated right on the ocean, and is therefore susceptible to damage from the kinds of super-hurricanes and massive winter Nor’easters that are expected to hit the Massachusetts coast with increasing frequency in the coming decades due to global warming—much like how Fukushima was hit by a tsunami caused by a powerful earthquake.

Pilgrim has already had numerous safety violations over the years—some of which, as with Fukushima, were not properly reported until recently. Nevertheless, the NRC has repeatedly downgraded the safety rating of the plant due to such problems, making it one of the lowest rated plants in the country.

Given these facts, the only sensible thing to do is to shut the plant down immediately. So I join the protestors in calling for Gov. Charlie Baker and the legislature to take all appropriate actions necessary to make that happen now, and for Entergy to think about more than just its bottom line. Rally speakers Sen. Dan Wolf and Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives can be looked to for legislative leadership in this fight, though it won’t be their last. Seabrook is only 39 miles from the State House and has similar problems, but that’s a column for another day.

Readers interested in getting involved in this critical campaign can check out the Pilgrim Coalition website.

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

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.