Indypendent

The True History of the Origins of Police: Protecting and Serving the Masters of Society

In most of the liberal discussions of the recent police killings of unarmed black men, there is an underlying assumption that the police are supposed to protect and serve the population. That is, after all, what they were created to do. Maybe there are a few bad apples, but if only the police weren’t so racist, or didn’t carry out policies like stop-and-frisk, or weren’t so afraid of black people, or shot fewer unarmed men, they could function as a useful service that we all need.

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NYC's Labor Movement Fragments Over Race for Mayor

Most of the Democratic candidates for New York City mayor can brag without deceit about having the backing of labor. Comptroller John Liu has District Council 37, the large public-sector confederation, on his side, along with several building trades groups, even though he noted that public unions shouldn’t expect full retroactive pay on new contracts settled under his administration. The United Federation of Teachers and Teamsters Local 237 soon undermined Liu’s public-sector support by backing his predecessor Bill Thompson, who vows not to seek higher taxes on the wealthy. He also has the backing of several cop unions, which is no surprise, considering he has the most of NYPD-friendly platform of the bunch.

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New Pressures on Egyptian Government to Assist in Easing Gaza Blockade

The popular revolution that ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak has focused renewed attention on Egypt’s role in the blockade of the Gaza Strip. For nearly four years Egypt has aided Israel and the United States in strangling Gaza’s economy, but there are small signs that the siege may be easing.

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Why Right-Wing Demagogues Are Trying to Peddle Ludicrous Conspiracy Theories

Even before Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the internet was seething with lurid conspiracy theories exposing his alleged subversion and treachery.

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The Other Wiretapping Scandal

When the editorial staff of Semana, a feisty Bogotá-based weekly news magazine, was closing out their Feb. 21 edition, they couldn't help but notice an unmarked car parked for several hours in front of their building. This came as no surprise to editor- in-chief Alfonso Cuéllar, who supervised a six-month long investigation of illegal wiretapping by Colombia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Administrative Department of Security, known in Colombia as the DAS.

"We knew that both the good guys and the bad guys were aware that we were working on the story," said Cuéllar in a recent interview from Bogotá. "That’s partly why the DAS was shredding all of the evidence a month before it broke." Backed up by numerous sources and documents, Semana exposed how members of the DAS were illegally spying on Supreme Court judges, former Colombian president César Gaviria, opposition politicians, prominent journalists and even high-ranking members of the ruling party.

Amongst a roster of Machiavellian allegations -- from KGB-like tactics used to create "vice files" on prominent politicians, to the selling of sensitive intelligence to narcotraffickers and those with links to illegal paramilitary organizations and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas -- is one charge that will be of particular interest to the United States, especially as the country contemplates the fallout from its own domestic surveillance scandal. The U.S. government, according to the Semana report, supplied the sophisticated interception devices used by the spies in Colombia.

Not Everybody is So Agnostic

"It will be interesting to see if the rumors that are circulating in Bogotá, that the U.S. Embassy had a role in the wiretapping operation, turn out to be true," said Joseph Fitsanakis, senior editor of IntelNews and a longtime intelligence analyst. "It won’t be the first time."

According to sources in Bogotá, the DAS used a system called Phantom 3000, marketed by a company called TraceSpan Communications, a private U.S. company with a development center in Israel. "In this age of high security threats, when foreign terrorists and local criminals use the Internet for communication, TraceSpan is proud to provide Law Enforcement Authorities a new means to fight back," said Hanan Herzberg, TraceSpan founder and CEO, in a press release for the product. "The system’s small footprint makes it an ideal solution for any law enforcement agency as well as the perfect solution for the Central Office."

This wouldn’t be the first time that U.S.- supplied intelligence gear was used by the Colombian government. In 2006, the U.S. State Department awarded a $5 million contract to California-based Oakley Networks to provide "Internet surveillance software" to a specialized unit of Colombia’s National Police. The details of that deal emerged when the National Police were accused of spying on a variety of Colombian human-rights groups, as well as U.S.-based interfaith organization, Fellowship of Reconciliation. Oakley Networks, now a subsidiary of the U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Co., bills itself as a "leader in insider threat monitoring and investigations," that offers "sophisticated monitoring and discovery technologies."

The Oakley Networks contract came as part of the more than $5 billion the United States has sent to Colombia since 2000 to fund Plan Colombia, ostensibly an effort to eradicate production of the coca leaf. The funding has continued despite the Colombian military's ties to right-wing paramilitary groups and to the killing of union leaders, human rights activists and indigenous people.

U.S. Remains a Key Friend

In Bogotá, the ramifications of the Semana investigation were immediate. The offices of the DAS were raided by the Colombian prosecutor general’s office, the day following Semana's original story, and the agency’s director general, Capt. Jorge Alberto Lagos, resigned the following week. The entire high command of the agency submitted letters of resignation and Colombia's attorney general recently declared that 22 DAS detectives had been fired and would face "judicial and administrative investigations," while also intimating that more dismissals are coming down the pike. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, for years the Bush administration’s staunchest ally in Latin America, quickly denied any role in the imbroglio and declared that wiretapping would be immediately reassigned to the National Police. As this was the third such scandal in the DAS under Uribe’s watch, not everybody is taking the denial at face value.

The scandal broke just four months after the former head of the DAS resigned after admitting it spied on a prominent leftist politician who had exposed ties between Uribe and rightwing death squads.

"I don't think it's a very plausible argument that these were just low-level characters in the DAS, who were setting up these illegal wiretaps on their own initiative," said Lorenzo Morales, online editor at Semana. "The DAS receives its orders directly from the [Colombian] president and his inner circle."

The spy scandal does not appear to have dampened U.S.-Colombian relations. Semana broke the story just before Colombia sent a high-level delegation to meet with Obama administration officials. On Feb. 25, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez Merizalde by saying, "It's a real pleasure to have the representative of a country that has made so many strides and so much progress, and we have a lot to talk about because there is so much we have in common to work on." Less than two months later, at the Summit of the Americas, President Barack Obama sat next to Uribe and discussed the possibility of a U.S.-Colombian "free trade" agreement -- a deal Obama opposed on the campaign trail.

In Bogotá, U.S. embassy officials have not denied playing a role in the Colombian spy operation.

"We have worked with the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) in joint and regional counter-narcotics efforts in a positive and straightforward manner, including providing equipment," states a diplomatic official at the embassy. "We have no knowledge that any equipment has been misused."

Semana’s Alfonso Cuéllar says he hopes the paper’s report will put an end to illegal spying.

"I think that one thing we found in our investigation, at least amongst the DAS officials, was that some of these guys don't think there's anything wrong with this, they think it’s normal," he said. "They say, what's wrong with checking out people that could be potential enemies of the state, or adversaries of the president? Hopefully, one of the things these revelations will get people thinking about is that no, this is not normal."

Pakistan Is Not in Any Way on the Verge of a Theocratic Coup

Times are bleak for the state of Pakistan, if the international media is to be believed. Since April, the world’s newspapers have charted the apparently unstoppable march of the Taliban toward Islamabad — with daily reminders that their forces are “only 100 miles” and then “only 80 miles” and then “only 60 miles” from the capital. That Pakistan is a “failed state” or “on the brink” no longer even requires elaboration: it is the universal consensus among pundits and “area experts” alike.

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Mexican Government Covers Up Murder of Journalist

On October 27, 2006, Brad Will stood on Juarez Avenue in the municipality of Santa Lucia del Camino, Oaxaca, Mexico. He was filming a violent clash between armed, civilian-clad municipal police and officials and members of the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly, or APPO.

Brad traveled to Oaxaca in early October 2006 to report on the protest movement led by the state teachers union that sought to oust governor Ulises Ruiz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, after his failed attempt to beat and arrest striking teachers during a June 14 pre-dawn raid.

Brad stood amongst the APPO protesters and other journalists, filming down the length of Juarez Avenue where the armed officials were firing at the protesters. Brad was shot and fell to the ground, his camera still running and having recorded the sound of the shot that hit him. Brad was shot from straight on, just below the chest, and yet his killer does not appear in the camera frame at the moment of the gunshot. Brad died on the way to the hospital. He had been shot twice.

Two years later, on October 16, 2008, the Mexican federal government arrested two members of the APPO, and charged Juan Manuel Martinez as the gunman and Octavio Perez with helping to cover up Brad's murder. Federal police were still looking for other suspected accomplices, all members of the APPO who had tried to carry Brad to safety and save his life.

The arrests came after a series of human rights reports criticized the government's investigation for failing to follow leads pointing to local officials who were widely photographed by the press shooting at APPO protesters on October 27, 2006.

"It is such a cover up," said Kathy Will, Brad's mother, in a telephone interview upon learning of the arrests. "It is an insult to us and to all of the groups that have tried to help with a meaningful investigation."

Long-range Shot

Whether or not Brad Will was shot at close or long range lies at the heart of the controversy over the government's investigation and the recent arrests. Civilian-clad local police and municipal officials in Santa Lucia del Camino were filmed and photographed firing on the APPO protesters amongst whom Brad Will was standing when he was shot. The federal government however, has not investigated the involvement of the local officials.

More than a dozen protesters and press photographers surrounded Brad when he was shot. All those interviewed said that the bullets came from down the street. Moments before Brad was killed, photographer Oswaldo Ramirez was shot in the leg. The PGR however has not interviewed Mr. Ramirez nor investigated the shooting.

"All the shots were coming from down the street, where the paramilitaries had gathered," said Mexican journalist Diego Osorno who covered the battle that day and later wrote about it in his book Oaxaca Under Siege.

"As journalists, we were all focusing on the paramilitaries as the source of the gunfire," he said.

Raul Estrella, a photographer for El Universal who won an international photojournalism award for his coverage of the Oaxaca conflict, said that Pedro Carmona, a municipal official, shot at him when he noticed Estrella taking his picture shortly before Brad Will was killed.

"I heard the bullet whiz by my head and that's when I left," Estrella, who took a now-famous photograph of Pedro Carmona and other Santa Lucia del Camino officials shooting at the protesters, said in an interview in 2007.

The PGR has not charged Pedro Carmona with attempted murder, nor did they interview him in Brad's case.

The Mexican authorities claim that Brad's killers shot him at close range, at a distance of 2 meters, implicating the APPO protesters themselves, rather than the gunmen located down the street.

Witnesses, independent experts, and the Mexican governmental human rights group all challenge the PGR's short-range hypothesis.

An independent investigative team from Physicians for Human Rights traveled to Mexico earlier this year and issued a report on May 23 calling on the Mexican Office of the Federal Attorney General, or PGR to investigate paramilitary involvement.

On September 26, the Mexican governmental National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH, released a highly critical report charging that state and federal authorities violated the victim and his family's human rights through their systematic failures to properly investigate the murder.

The recent arrests came a day before the PGR's deadline to respond to the CNDH report.

"Take a look at Brad's last frame; there is nobody in that frame," said Kathy Will, "Two meters away? Come on! They are defying all logic and it just goes to show how corrupt they are. It wasn't a short range shot and everybody knows that."

The Will family and the Physicians for Human Rights investigators both pointed out the federal government's failure to investigate 17 other murder cases during the 2006 Oaxaca conflict where witness testimony and photographic and video evidence indicate police participation in the killings.

"The involvement of civilian-clad police officers in death squads has been well documented," said Mexican journalist Diego Osorno.

The federal government colluded to cover up Ulises Ruiz's crimes, Osorno said, to secure the PRI's support of National Action Party president Felipe Calderon's weak mandate and proposed energy reforms that include the controversial privatization of sectors of Mexico's state oil company.

"Calderon has no other option," he said, "he came to power very weak and that has made him beholden to more powerful groups such as the PRI."

The PGR Theory

The PGR's case against Juan Manuel Martinez and the other members of the APPO is built around a single witness's testimony. That witness, Adolfo Feria, says that he saw Juan Manuel Martinez fire the fatal shot. It turns out, however, that Adolfo Feria is the cousin of the local mayor of Santa Lucia del Camino, Manuel Martinez Feria, whose police and local city officials led the armed attack on the APPO protesters.

The PGR also shared a slide show with the press on Friday, October 17. Although very brief, the slide show contains several contradictions.

One slide says that the gunman fired the first shot from a distance of 2 meters. The visual to support that slide is a still from Brad's camera showing a cluster of protesters in front of Brad. The protester that the PGR signals as the shooter stands about 5 meters away. The still was taken only milliseconds before Brad was shot. The supposed shooter is not pointing a gun at Brad.

Another slide says that the shooter fired a second shot into Brad's side, standing between 2 and 8 meters away, while others carried him behind a van. The visual slide to support this statement is a computer illustration that shows the shooter standing less than half a meter away from Brad while firing.

The PGR's own visual representations do not correspond to their statements.

Blaming the Victims

Mexican state and federal officials have insisted from day one on an impossible scenario: that one of the APPO members standing near Brad shouted at him to stop filming and then killed him when he did not obey -- shooting him close range in front of scores of witnesses without anyone seeing him, without leaving gun powder burns near the wound or on Brad's shirt, and without appearing in Brad's camera frame.

During this same time, neither state nor federal investigators have issued a single charge against anyone for the more than 17 murders of APPO protesters during the 2006 conflict.

Brad's family retained a lawyer in Mexico and has since traveled there twice to meet with state and federal officials. Their singular demand has been this: the investigation must consider and exhaust all possibilities. The Mexican government has refused, focusing solely on the hypothesis that the APPO killed Brad.

The troubled defense of the government's "the APPO did it" theory began with then Oaxaca State Attorney General, Lisbeth Caña. On November 15, 2006, Caña called a press conference in Oaxaca City, flipping through a Power Point presentation with elaborate -- though nonsensical -- charts and graphs all pointing to the conclusion of the disgruntled APPO shooter.

Caña's theory was that one of the APPO protesters told Brad to "stop taking pictures," while he cocked a nine-millimeter pistol. As soon as he finished his sentence, the masked protester shot Brad. The bystanders who tried to take Brad to the hospital, the theory says, were in fact co-conspirators who drove him away from the crowd only to fire a second shot into his side.

Even at first glance, this theory is absurd. Brad was not "taking pictures." He was filming; and yes the APPO protesters know the difference. The killer could not have shot Brad straight on without appearing in the camera frame. Also, the day after Brad was killed, the national Mexican daily Milenio published on the front page a photograph of bystanders carrying Brad to a car. Both gunshot wounds are clearly visible in the photograph. The work of other Mexican photojournalists, such as Javier Otaola of the national daily Excélsior, also clearly show that the two gunshot wounds were both present before Brad was driven off to the hospital.

And, jumping ahead, we now know that Brad was not shot with a nine-millimeter pistol, but with a 38 revolver -- a gun that does not make any cocking sound such as that supposedly heard on Brad's tape.

Brad's parents, Kathy and Hardy, and brother Craig traveled to Oaxaca on March 21, 2007 to meet with the state government investigators. At the beginning of the meeting, one of Caña's assistants loaded a Power Point presentation dated November 15, 2006. Hardy noticed the date and asked: "Does this mean that you haven't done anything in the past four months?"

Caña said that they had the wrong Power Point, apologized, and dispatched her assistant to bring the correct one. A few tense moments later the assistant returned and loaded the same Power Point presentation, this time dated March 21, 2007.

When Brad's family realized that they were being led through the exact same presentation that had been paraded before the press the previous November, they asked Caña to stop the Power Point and to share what new information she had gathered. She had none. Had she interrogated the municipal officials photographed shooting at protesters on October 27, the family asked. She had not. Had she interrogated witnesses? She had not. Had she gathered ballistics information on the guns fired that day? She had not.

Infuriated, the family asked to view the case file -- a right granted under Mexican law to the family members of murder victims. Caña said that they could not view the case file. Why? Because they had just that moment finished boxing it up to ship it to the federal government. Caña was asking that the Mexican federal attorney general (known as the PGR for its Spanish initials) take over the case. With that the meeting was over.

The Feds Take the Case

The following day, Thursday March 22, Kathy, Hardy, Craig and their lawyer Miguel Angel de los Santos met for over 12 hours with officials at the PGR office in Oaxaca. They were able to review the case file (just unpacked), ask questions, and submit evidence collected by their lawyer such as the published photographs showing the presence of both gunshot wounds before Brad was driven from the scene.

While the PGR officials swore to their professionalism and impartiality -- in contrast, they said, to the Oaxaca state investigators -- they already showed their bias. They did not want to accept the photographic evidence. The photographs could have been tampered with, they argued.

Still, after the incompetence and insensitivity of the Oaxaca state investigators, the PGR officials' ardent assurances of their academic pedigrees and distance from local politics led the family to feel somewhat better. Perhaps now, with the PGR taking over the case, they told me at the time, the government will conduct a serious and unbiased investigation.

That was March 2007. When Kathy and Hardy returned to Mexico almost a year later, in late February 2008, they were eager to learn of the PGR's progress.

They were appalled to learn that there still had been no progress.

The federal special prosecution team investigating Brad's murder still proceeded under the assumption that Brad was shot at close range and that he received the two shots in different locations -- the two assumptions first presented as evidence by Lisbeth Caña.

The PGR said that they would be concluding their investigation and seeking arrest warrants in a matter of weeks.

Through the efforts of Kathy and Hardy, a team from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) volunteered to travel to Mexico to review the investigation. The Will's lawyer, Miguel Angel de los Santos, then obtained formal approval from the PGR for the Physicians for Human Rights to conduct their studies.

In addition, an expert video forensics analyst studied Brad's last tape. (The video analysis has not been released yet. However, preliminary findings show a bullet streak descending across the camera frame milliseconds after the shot is heard and milliseconds before Brad cries out. The forensic video expert has told the family that a close range shot is categorically impossible.)

In the months after the February meeting, while the Physicians for Human Rights experts were reviewing the evidence the federal officials remained silent.

Physicians for Human Rights concluded their review and sent a full report to the family and the Mexican government in late May.

Physicians for Human Rights wrote in a May 23, 2008 press release that the Mexican federal investigation has "shortcomings in efforts to locate all firearms in the possession of police, paramilitaries, and others who were present at the scene; a singular focus by Mexican authorities on a working hypothesis that the gunshots originated from Will's immediate surroundings; and a failure to investigate other instances of injuries or deaths in Oaxaca that might reveal a pattern of violence leading to the perpetrator(s)."

The Mexican authorities did not respond to the Physicians for Human Rights report, but instead leaked a story into the Mexican press claiming that the federal investigation had concluded that the APPO killed Brad.

On May 26, 2008 Misael Sánchez published an article in the Oaxaca-based pro-government newspaper El Tiempo an article headlined: "The PGR concludes: The APPO killed Brad."

Also on May 26, Ricardo Alemán published an article in the national newspaper El Universal headlined: "Bradley Will's killer, from the APPO?"

Both articles cite only unnamed sources within the PGR who claim to have concluded their investigation, having gathered irrefutable evidence that Brad was shot close range. Both articles repeat the impossible claim that Brad was shot a second time while en route to the hospital.

Later in August, the PGR sought arrest warrant for several members of the APPO, but a federal court turned them down.

Then on September 25, the day before the National Human Rights Commission published their own investigation, the PGR leaked yet another article, this time to the national, left-leaning newspaper La Jornada: "PGR investigation points to APPO as journalist's killers."

Human Rights Commission Attacks Investigation

The CNDH released their report the next day, concluding that the state and federal authorities involved in investigating Brad Will's murder all "violated the fundamental rights to legality, to legal certainty, to access to justice, as well as to access to information."

The report details the blunders, omissions, and acts of speculation that state and federal investigators engaged in from the day of Brad's murder up to the present. A short list of the state investigators' blunders includes: not preserving the scene of the crime; not inspecting the crime scene until October 31, four days after the murder; not inspecting the firearms used that day nor interrogating the men witnessed and photographed firing on the APPO, nor even opening a preliminary investigation to determine the degree to which, if at all, they may have been involved in the events under primary investigation; not interrogating the two men originally held for the murder; not conducting or ordering an investigation to identify all those photographed carrying or firing guns that day; misidentifying the bullets pulled from Brad's body and thus claiming that the murder weapon was a nine-millimeter pistol when in fact it was a 38 revolver.

This last blunder is of particular importance. Lisbeth Caña claimed that Brad was killed with a nine-millimeter pistol. For this reason she released the two municipal officials who had been detained. They did not carry nine-millimeter pistols, Caña said, but rather 38 revolvers.

But the CNDH analysis concludes that Brad was in fact killed with a 38 revolver (Physicians for Human Rights also confirmed that the lethal a 38 caliber handgun). The two men -- Abel Santiago Zarate and Orlando Manuel Aguilar Coello -- however, have not been detained. Aguilar Coello, moreover, has apparently gone into hiding.

The CNDH report also concludes that: the fatal shot occurred at a distance of between 35 and 50 meters and that the two wounds that caused Brad's death occurred successively, separated by thousandths of a second, one after the other, both at the crime scene on Juarez Avenue. The CNDH categorically rejects both the close range and the separate shot theories put forth by the Oaxaca state investigators and defended for nearly two years by the PGR.

The Merida Initiative

On July 1, George W. Bush signed legislation approving $400 million in aid to Mexico's military, police and judicial systems. That legislation, often referred to as Plan Mexico, included a paragraph calling for justice in Brad Will's case.

"The state and Federal investigations into the October 27, 2006, killing in Oaxaca of American citizen Bradley Will have been flawed," the law states, "and the Secretary of State is directed, not later than 45 days after enactment of this Act and 120 days thereafter, to submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing progress in conducting a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation to identify the perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice."

On September 23, Congressman Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., sent an angry letter to the Committee on Appropriations and George W. Bush, calling to suspend funding for the Merida Initiative until the Mexican government carries out a serious investigation.

Renata Rendon, Advocacy Director for the Americas with Amnesty International USA, said that the PGR investigation should cause alarm for the U.S. government which has become a major financial supporter of the PGR.

"This should be a real red flag for the U.S. federal government which is sending hundreds of millions of dollars to the Mexican government some of which will go to the PGR," she said in a telephone interview.

Kathy Will said that their family is pressuring Congress to withhold the Merida Initiative funds from the Mexican government.

"I don't call that a democracy," she said, "a place where they don't hold somebody accountable, at any level of government, when they are guilty. The impunity in Mexico is unreal!"

The Art of Impunity

In Mexico, the art of impunity most often takes the form of a kind of ritual incompetence -- incompetence so pervasive and implacable that it can only be the result of decisive action, the result of tradition and practice, a truly exquisite craft.

Brad's case is one of a now deep and horrid tradition of political murder plagued with an incompetence whose function is simply to cement impunity into the cultural fabric of the law: from the massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City on forty years ago on October 2, 1968 to the ambush and murder of Triqui radio journalists Felícitas Sánchez and Teresa Merino earlier this year on April 7, 2008.

The experience of the Will family in their trips to Mexico and the documentation provided in the CNDH report present a level of incompetence in the investigations of both the state and federal officials too thorough to be accidental.

"Look at the hard evidence," said Hardy Will, Brad's father, in a telephone interview, "Brad was shot straight on. He had a high-quality camera with a wide-angle lens that would have picked up any shooter within 35 meters. There were twelve witnesses including journalists, none of whom saw a shooter near Brad. Our video analyst detected bullet streaks on the last two frames before Brad was hit. The Attorney General Medina Mora and Doctor Wiarco [the special prosecutor in charge of the case] have all this information, but they have chosen to ignore it."

"Doctor Wiarco and Attorney General Medina Mora are either incompetent or corrupt. Well, Dr. Wiarco might be both," Hardy Will said. "Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade: they are covering up and obviously getting some direction from above."

Financial Meltdown 101


AlterNet is resurfacing some of the best and most popular articles published in 2008 as the year comes to a close. In this piece published this fall, Arun Gupta helps makes sense of these confusing economic times. 

From 1982 to 2000, the U.S. stock market went on the longest bull run ever, as share prices rose to dizzying heights. In the late 1990s, a combination of factors, which included the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates, created a huge price bubble in Internet stocks. A speculative bubble occurs when price far outstrips the fundamental worth of the asset. Bubbles have occurred in everything from real estate, stocks and railroads to tulips, beanie babies and comic books. As with all bubbles, it took more and more money to make a return*. This led to the Internet bubble popping in March 2000.

During this time of market mania, the Fed guts the Glass-Steagall Act, which was enacted during the Great Depression to prevent the type of banking activity that led to the 1929 stock market crash. In 1996, the Fed allows regular banks to become heavily involved in investment banking, which opens the door to conflicts of interest in banks pushing sketchy financial products on customers who poorly understood the risks. In 1999, under intense pressure from financial firms, Congress overturns Glass-Steagall, allowing banks to engage in any sort of activity from underwriting insurance to investment banking to commercial banking (such as holding deposits).

*For instance, if you purchased 100 shares of Apple at $10 a share and it rose to $20, it cost $1,000 to make $1,000 profit (a 100 percent return), but if the shares were $100 each and rose to $110, it would cost $10,000 to make $1,000 profit (a 10 percent return -- and the loss potential would be much greater, too.

Many Americans joined the stock mania literally in the last days and lost considerable wealth, and some, such as Enron employees, lost their life savings. When the stock market bubble erupted, turbulence rippled through the larger economy, causing investment and corporate spending to sink and unemployment to rise. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, generating a shock wave of fear and a drop in consumer spending. Burned by the stock market, many people shifted to home purchases as a more secure way to build wealth.

By 2002, with the economy already limping along, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and the Fed slashed interest rates to historic lows of near 1 percent to avoid a severe economic downturn. Low interest rates make borrowed money cheap for everyone from homebuyers to banks. This ocean of credit was one factor that led to a major shift in the home-lending industry -- from originate to own to originate to distribute. Low interest rates also meant that homebuyers could take on larger mortgages, which supported rising prices.

In the originate-to-own model, the mortgage lender -- which can be a private mortgage company, bank, thrift or credit union -- holds the mortgage for its term, usually 30 years. Every month the bank* originating the mortgage receives a payment made of principal and interest from the homeowner. If the buyer defaults on the mortgage, that is, stops making monthly payments, then the bank can seize and sell a valuable asset: the house. Given strict borrowing standards and the long life of the loan, it's like the homebuyer is getting married to the bank.

*Shorthand for any mortgage originator.

In the originate-to-distribute model, the banks sell the mortgage to third parties, turning the loans into a commodity like widgets on a conveyor belt. By selling the loan, the bank frees up its capital so it can turn around and finance a new mortgage. Thus, the banks have an incentive to sell (or distribute) mortgages fast so they can recoup the funds to sell more mortgages. By selling the loan, the bank also distributes the risk of default to others.

The banks made money off mortgage fees, perhaps only a few thousand dollars per loan. Because they sold the loan, sometimes in just a few days, they had no concern that the homebuyer might default. Banks began using call centers and high-pressure tactics to mass-produce mortgages because the profit was in volume--how many loans could be approved how fast. This was complemented by fraud throughout the realestate industry, in which appraisers over-valued homes and mortgage brokers approved anyone with a pulse, not verifying assets, job status or income. And the mushrooming housing industry distorted the whole economy. Of all net job growth from 2002 to 2007, up to 40 percent was housing-sector related: mortgage brokers, appraisers, real-estate agents, call-center employees, loan officers, construction and home-improvement store workers, etc.

To make the loans easier to sell, the banks go to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac and get assurance for conforming (or prime mortgages*). Assurance means one of the agencies certifies that the loans are creditworthy; they also insure part of the loan in case the homeowner defaults. Before their recent nationalization, Fannie and Freddie were government-sponsored entities (GSEs). While anyone could buy shares in the two companies, they were also subject to federal regulation and congressional oversight. This federal role was seen as an implicit guarantee: While there was no explicit guarantee, all parties believed loans backed by Fannie and Freddie were absolutely safe because the government would not let the two agencies fail. This allowed them to borrow huge sums of money at extremely low rates.

*Prime refers to the credit score of the borrower.

Banks then sold their newly acquired assured prime mortgage loans to bundlers, ranging from Fannie and Freddie to private labels, such as investment banks, hedge funds and money banks (ones that hold deposits like savings and checking accounts. Bundlers pooled many mortgages with the intention of selling the payment rights to others, that is, someone else pays to receive your monthly mortgage payments.

The next step was to securitize the bundle (a security is a tradable asset. Much of the financial wizardry of Wall Street involves turning debts into assets. Say you're Bank of America and you sell 200 mortgages in a day. Lehman Brothers buys the loans after they are assured and bundles them by depositing the mortgages in a bank account -- that's where the monthly payments from the 200 homeowners go. Then, a mortgage-backed security (MBS) is created from this bundle. An MBS is a financial product that pays a yield to the purchaser, such as a hedge fund, pension fund, investment bank, money bank, central bank and especially Fannie and Freddie. The yield, essentially an interest payment, comes from the mortgage payments.

How does it work? The homeowner keeps making monthly mortgage payments to Bank of America, which makes money from the fees from the original mortgage and gets a cut for servicing the mortgage payments, passing them on to Lehman Brothers. Lehman makes money as a bundler of the mortgages and underwriter of the mortgage-backed security. The purchaser of the mortgage-backed security, say, Fannie Mae, then gets paid from the bank account holding the mortgage payments.

At first, this process covered only prime mortgages because Fannie and Freddie could not assure subprime loans. To address low rates of home ownership among low-income populations and communities of color, around 2004 Congress began encouraging Fannie and Freddie to start assuring subprime mortgages on a wide scale. And easy credit fed investors' appetite for more and more mortgage-backed securities, which provided funding for new mortgages.

One definition of subprime loans is any loan at an interest rate that is at least 3 percentage points more than a prime loan. Many of these loans were adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) with teaser rates. The rate was low for the first few years, but then it would reset, causing monthly payments to leap dramatically, sometimes to two or three times the original amount. Subprime borrowers are considered riskier to lend to because of low credit scores. Subprime borrowers are concentrated among people of color and immigrant and low-income communities, partly because racial and class disparities result in less access to banking services such as credit cards, online billing and checking and saving accounts. Bill paying becomes a labor-intensive process, making it much more likely that payments will be late or missed, driving down credit scores. With mortgage brokers and lenders pushing loans on anyone and everyone, those with less financial acumen -- disproportionately low-income people, immigrants, the elderly and communities of color -- often found themselves with mortgages that became unaffordable.

With the surge in mortgage loans, around 2004, banks started extensively using financial products called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The banks would either combine mortgage-backed securities they already owned or bundle large pools of high-interest subprime mortgages. CDOs were sliced into tranches -- think of them as cuts of meat -- that paid a yield according to risk of default: The best cuts, the filet mignon, had the lowest risk and hence paid the lowest yield. The riskiest tranches, the mystery-meat hotdogs that paid the highest yield, would default first if homebuyers stopped making payments. This was seen as a way to distribute risk across the markets. The notion of distributing risk means all the market players take a little risk, so if something goes bad, everyone suffers but no one dies.

Tranches were given ratings by services like Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch. The highest rating, AAA, meant there was virtually no risk of default. The perceived safety of AAA meant a broad variety of financial institutions could buy them. And because tranches were marketed as a tool to fine-tune risk and return, this spurred a big demand. There was a conflict of interest, however, because the rating services earned huge fees from the investment banks. Moody's earned nearly $850 million from such structured finance products in 2006 alone. The investment bank also bundled lower-rated mortgage backed securities, like BBB -rated ones, and then sliced them to create new tranches rated from AAA to junk. This was like turning the hotdogs into steaks.

Furthermore, the banks would hedge the tranches, another way of distributing risk, by purchasing credit default swaps (CDSs) sold by companies like AIG and MBIA. The swaps were a form of insurance. This was seen as a way to make tranches more secure and hence higher rated. For instance, say you're Goldman Sachs and you have $10 million in AAA tranches. You go to AIG to insure it, and the company determines that the risk of default is extremely low so the premium is 1 percent. So you pay AIG $100,000 a year and if the tranche defaults, the company pays you $10 million. But CDSs started getting brought and sold all over the world based on perceived risk. The market grew so large that the underlying debt being insured was $45 trillion -- nearly the same size as the annual global economy!

Also around 2004, things began to get even trickier when investment banks set up entities known as structured investment vehicles (SIVs). The SIVs would purchase subprime MBSs from their sponsoring banks. But to purchase these MBSs, the structured investment vehicles needed funds of their own. So the SIVs created products called asset-backed commercial paper (short-term debt of 1 to 90 days). Asset-backed means it is backed by credit from the sponsoring bank. The SIVs then sold the paper, mainly to money market funds. In this way, the SIVs generated money to purchase the mortgage-backed securities from their bank. The SIVs made money by getting high yields from the subprime MBSs they brought, while paying out low yields to the money markets that purchased the commercial paper (profiting from a spread like this is known as arbitrage).

Wall Street's goal was to conjure up ways to make money while not encountering any liability. It was moving everything off-book to the SIVs to get around rules about leveraging. Banks, hedge funds and others leverage by taking their capital reserves -- actual cash or assets that can be easily turned into cash -- and borrowing many times against it. For instance, Merrill Lynch had a leverage ratio of 45.8 on Sept. 26. That means that if Merrill had $10 billion in the bank, it was playing around with $458 billion. The Federal Reserve is supposed to regulate reserves to limit the growth of credit, but the SIVs were one method to get around this rule. More leverage also meant more risk for the bank, however, because funds could disappear quickly if a few bets went bad. This is all part of what's called the Shadow Banking System, meaning it gets around existing regulations.

It was deregulation that led to the huge growth of the shadow banking system. In 2004 Wall Street successfully lobbied the Securities and Exchange Commission to loosen regulations on how much they could leverage against their capital reserves. This allowed the companies "to invest in the fast-growing but opaque world of mortgage-backed securities; credit derivatives, a form of insurance for bond holders; and other exotic instruments," according to the New York Times. The only real oversight left in place was self-policing by the investment banks themselves to determine if they were putting investors at risk.

 

 

The whole process worked as long as everyone believed housing prices would go up endlessly. This is a form of perceptual economics, one principle of which is that any widely held belief in the market tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the case of housing, homeowners took on ever-larger mortgages in the belief that prices would keep rising rapidly. Mortgage lenders believed the loans were safe because even if the homeowner defaulted, the mortgage holder would be left with a house that was increasing in price. Confidence in rising prices led the creators and purchasers of mortgage-backed securities to think these investments were virtually risk-free. This also applied to over-leveraging -- as long as there was easy credit and quick returns to be made, investors clamored for more mortgage-backed securities. And this applied to the money market funds that brought the paper from structured investment vehicles. As long as the money market funds had confidence in the system, they didn't cash out the commercial paper when it came due, but rolled it over at the same interest rates. This allowed the SIVs to mint money without posing any liabilities for their sponsoring banks.

This system kept the U.S. economy chugging along for years. For some 35 years, real wages have been stagnant for most Americans, but as house values skyrocketed over the last decade, many homeowners refinanced and cashed out the equity -- turning their homes into ATMs. For example, if you owed $200,000 on a mortgage but the house value rose to $300,000, you could potentially turn the $100,000 difference into cash by refinancing. By 2004, Americans were using home equity to finance as much $310 billion a year in personal consumption. This debt-driven consumption was the engine of growth.

U.S. over-consumption was balanced by over-production in many Asian countries. Countries like China, India, Taiwan and South Korea run large trade surpluses with the United States, which speeds their economic development. They invest excess cash in U.S. credit instruments ranging from corporate debt and MBSs to government bonds and bills. It's what economists call a virtuous cycle: we buy their goods, helping them develop, while they use the profits to buy our credit, allowing us to purchase more of their goods. But it's also unsustainable. A country cannot over-consume forever.

In the final stage of the housing bubble, fewer first-time buyers could afford traditional mortgages. Rising house prices required ever-larger down payments so subprime mortgages multiplied, as they often required little or no money down. From 2004 to 2006, nearly 20 percent of all mortgage loans were subprime loans. As the vast majority were adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), this created a time bomb. The minute interest rates went up, the rates reset, and homeowners with ARMs were saddled with larger monthly payments.

Various factors combined to slow real-estate prices and deflate the bubble. Rising prices led to a building boom and oversupply of houses, everaccelerating prices meant more money brought smaller returns and, once again, the Fed played a role by raising interest rates. It was trying to stave off inflation, but given the proliferation of adjustablerate mortgages, it led to higher mortgage payments, pushing hundreds of thousands of homeowners into foreclosure.

Once the bubble started to leak, the process accelerated, turning the mania into a panic. First, the default spread to the structured debt instruments like collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities. The system of distributing risk failed. Securitization had spread across the entire financial system -- investment and money banks, pension funds, central banks, insurance companies -- putting everyone at risk. Because the finance sector had lobbied aggressively for decades to slash regulation, the lack of oversight amplified risk. As mortgage holders defaulted, mortgage-backed securities also began to default. The subprime funding conduit from Wall Street froze up, which led big mortgage lenders like Countrywide, New Century Financial and American Home Mortgage to go belly-up.

As panic set in, money market funds began to stop rolling over the commercial paper -- they wanted to cash it out. So SIVs now had to either call on their credit line from their sponsoring banks or sell assets such as the mortgage-backed securities to raise money. Mortgage defaults and forced sales of the MBSs began to push prices down even further. This forced banks to book losses, requiring some to sell more assets to cover the losses, further lowering prices, forcing them to book more losses, creating a vicious cycle. This is known as a liquidation trap. Since no one was sure about the size of the losses, banks began to hoard funds, which caused the credit markets to dry up.

Over the last year, the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury have taken increasingly drastic measures -- lowering interest rates, pumping cash into the banking sector, allowing investment banks to borrow funds while putting up low-valued securities as collateral. This then proceeded to financing takeovers, such as the Fed providing a $29 billion credit line for JP Morgan to take over Bear Stearns in March. Then it nationalized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; this was followed by the federal takeover of AIG, which was done in by its gambling with credit default swaps. In the end, the legendary Wall Street banks disappeared in a fortnight -- bankrupt, acquired or converted into bank holding companies like Citigroup.

But the contagion has not been contained. Whether the bailout plan can succeed is highly questionable. Many are skeptical as to whether the bailout will even restore confidence -- and credit -- to the banking system. As Reuters stated recently, "Doubts remain as to how it [the bailout plan] could immediately thaw the frozen money and credit market." Even if the bailout revives the banking sector, few economists think it will jumpstart the consumer credit machine. For one, over-leveraged, money-strapped banks will eagerly dump nearworthless securities on taxpayers in exchange for cash to bulk up their reserves. Plus, with working hours and wages declining and unemployment, home foreclosures and inflation surging, banks are in no mood to give consumers more credit, so consumption -- and hence the economy -- will continue to contract.

 

There are many other, better options that were proposed: avoiding the poisonous mortgage-backed securities and buying equity stakes directly in troubled banks, re-regulating the industry, sending in teams of government auditors to decide the real worth of financial companies and which should live and die, creating a Home Owners' Loan Corporation to allow the government to buy troubled mortgages directly, allowing local governments to seize foreclosed homes and turn them into subsidized housing to minimize abandonment (which creates ghost neighborhoods, driving down the price of still-occupied homes), public works program, alternative energy investments, a Green New Deal. But these are political questions that depend on organizing and political power to propose, legislate, fund and enact. That's what will determine if there is a 21st-century New Deal or if Wall Street will get away with the biggest financial crime in world history.

Max Fraad Wolff consulted on and Michelle Fawcett contributed to this article. Illustrations By Frank Reynoso and color by Irina Ivanova. This article relied on many sources, including "The Subprime Debacle" by Karl Beitel, Monthly Review, May 2008. This essay was printed in the Oct. 3, 2008, issue of The Indypendent, and the November 2008 issue of Z Magazine.

 

Standoff with Police as Iraq Vets Demand to Meet with Obama Campaign

DENVER -- A little more than an hour before Sen. Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at Pepsi Center to conclude the evening at the Democratic National Convention, his campaign had an exchange with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).

Approximately 100 IVAW members were determined to push Obama on his stance on troop withdrawal. Leading a grueling three-hour-plus long march of an estimated 7,000 demonstrators towards the Pepsi Center late in the afternoon, IVAW hoped to deliver a folded flag and a letter calling on Obama to endorse the three main goals of unity: immediate withdrawal of American troops, full veterans benefits, and reparations for the Iraqi people.

The march was met with a line of more than 100 Denver Police Department officers clad in riot gear and armed with batons and pepper ball guns at the intersection of Market and 17th Streets. The police refused to let IVAW or the thousands of antiwar demonstrators closer to the convention. After long moments of contention between the demonstration and the police, finally one IVAW representative, former U.S. Marine Liam Madden, was allowed to cross police lines to meet with representatives of the Obama campaign.

As Madden left on his mission, it seemed as if more than 50 IVAW members were prepared to engage in non-violent civil disobedience and likely arrest. Less than 10 minutes later, at approximately 7:40pm (CT), an announcement was made by IVAW to the crowd, indicating that Obama had endorsed their three points of unity, causing the crowd to uproar in applause.

Some veterans were visibly emotional by the end of the march. In a highly stirring and symbolic moment, members of IVAW gave a peace salute towards the direction of the Pepsi Center. There was then a moment of silence for casualties of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Sen. Obama, we won't forget this," said Jeff Engelhart, IVAW member who served in Baquba, Iraq, with the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division, to the crowd via microphone and loud speakers. He went on to indicate that if Sen. Obama did not make good on his endorsement, more antiwar protests would come.

But there seemed to be some disconnect between the protesters and Madden's conversation with the Obama campaign.

IVAW's statement that the Obama campaign endorsed their points of unity could not be confirmed. The endorsement seems to be at odds with the Obama campaign's stated positions on troop withdrawal, which involve a gradual and phased withdrawal of combat troops, with a residual force to stay in Iraq for the time being.

Local news stations have not confirmed the claim that Obama endorsed the three points of unity. Instead, both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post are reporting that a meeting has been planned between IVAW and Obama's liaison for veterans' affairs.

Members of IVAW expressed pessimism of the Democrats as an antiwar party, noting that although they were elected in 2006 with an antiwar message, they have continually funded the wars.

"I really don't feel [Obama] is the antiwar candidate," said U.S. Army Specialist Sean Valdez, a new member of IVAW who served two tours of duty in Iraq. "It's so hard. You hear what he says and you want to believe it, but how many times have we been disappointed before this?"

"We're here as veterans, as soldiers, as marines, here to demand that the Democratic Party uphold to the front that they have as an antiwar party, and actually make a stand, and bring our soldiers home now," said 31-year-old Adrienne Kinnie, a member of IVAW who served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves from 1994 to 2004.

In a juxtaposition that is becoming familiar in Denver, two worlds seemly unconnected are living side-by-side, only streets apart -- the polished Democratic showcase and the simultaneous protests in the parks and streets where the voices of ordinary people remain unheard by the Democratic dynasty.

While Sen. John Kerry addressed delegates about the Iraq War and veteran issues, outside the convention thousands of demonstrators were demanding that the Democrats take a firmer stance on ending the war and providing better treatment to U.S. military personnel and veterans. There was no mention of the large demonstration or the concerns of IVAW during the convention presentation inside Pepsi Center, although most of the speeches given throughout the night touched on the Iraq War and the military.

The Denver Police Department riot officers, looking as menacing as ever with their fingers on the triggers of their pepper ball guns, failed to corral the demonstrators into the so-called designed "free speech zone," located near 7th Street and Walnut Street, earlier in the afternoon when it left the Denver Coliseum after a Rage Against the Machine concert.

Drought Is Spurring Resource Wars

DUBLUCK, Ethiopia -- On a warm January afternoon in southern Ethiopia, thousands of ill-tempered livestock stand in groups with the pastoralists who have guided them for dozens of miles to drink. The animals dot an expansive field of Acacia trees, severed bits and pieces of dead grass and dust.

Earlier in the day thousands of young goats, sheep and calves took turns to have their fill of water. And the show will not end with the cattle; camels are still waiting in line. For being the best able to resist drought, now they will be last.

As the sun beats down, a human chain of water fetchers forms a line down the gullies and sings work songs to help keep rhythm during the backbreaking work of drawing water from the wells and delivering it to the troughs on the surface -- sometimes from a depth of about 160 feet. This cluster of "singing wells," along with a mechanical well built by the Ethiopian government, are the only things standing between the thousands of animals here and death. Still, this is only the wind before the storm as the animals have to endure three more months of unprecedented drought before the rainy season begins.

"They [the animals] are starting to die in many places. We have nothing to feed them on," says Galgalo Dida, a deputy chief in the area. "We are in critical fear now. We have a big problem," he adds, as he shifts his glance, slowly regarding the other men around him and the kids who hang on to their clothes.

For the pastoralists here, animals are their only livelihood, as they have been for countless generations. A Borena man in this area will own anywhere between 20 and 1,000 animals.

Concerns are also growing further south in the Somali region of Ethiopia where Mohammed Hassan, the sultan of Gare, says the situation is equally dire. Hassan, a tall, middle-aged man sporting an orange-colored beard, speaks calmly and with little emotion about his region's shifting weather patterns.

"Now the annual rainfall is decreasing," Hassan says. "Due to this situation, a number of water points are drying, even springs are drying out."

Digging Deeper

The declining water resources mean more work for the community, which has to pursue the water further into the ground." We are experiencing drying wells and reduction in water volume of big rivers like Dawa. Now we have to dig more to get water," he says, scooping into the air with his hands.

As the traditional leader for more than 476,000 Gare people, a clan that spreads across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, Hassan is knowledgeable about issues affecting his people and knows better than to place all the blame on outside forces.

The increase in the number of people and their livestock and the accompanying deforestation that his area has seen in recent decades could have contributed to the worsening drought, Hassan says.

Hassan, however, does not have answers to some of the changes, like the rise in temperatures experienced here in the last few years.

At Leh, one of the villages under Hassan's command, the story is similar. Drawing water from their traditional wells, young men sing to their livestock: "Have it, this is the water. If you refuse, it is up to you."

The wells at Leh, says Ibrahim Ganamo, the chief of the area, were dug by their ancestors 300 to 400 years ago. Now they are disappearing at alarming rates. In just a few years, nine have been covered by sand due to erosion. The village has no means of reclaiming them, he says.

While Ganamo can explain some of the locally inflicted environmental calamities such as soil erosion, there are other trends that seem beyond explanation to him. Rains have dwindled and temperatures have gone up in the recent past.

"Last year it rained for only two days," he declares, lifting two fingers in the air and shaking his head in despair.

Statistics are hard to come by here, but Ganamo says. "Last year alone people here lost 80 of every 100 animals they had."

It is a dangerous phenomenon that can wipe out a community.

"If the animals die," he says as his eyes follow the galloping cattle, "people will also die."

Africa Pays the Price

The plight of Ethiopia's pastoralists reflects concerns raised in the landmark 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which forecasts that Africa would be the continent placed at greatest risk by global warming.

"Although Africa, of all the major world regions, has contributed the least to potential climate change because of its low per capita fossil energy use and hence low greenhouse gas emissions, it is the most vulnerable continent to climate change because widespread poverty limits capabilities to adapt," the report noted.

Negusu Aklilu, director of the Forum for the Environment in Ethiopia, cautions against blaming the victims of global warming.

"Is it because we Africans are irresponsible? Is it because we are careless? No. It is because people are poor. We are dependent on natural resources."

The difference, Aklilu says, is that the poor misappropriate resources for survival, the rich misappropriate resources for luxury.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, half of the 314 million Africans who live on less than $1 a day in Africa are highly dependent upon livestock for their livelihoods, and 80 percent of those people live in pastoral areas.

"In Ethiopia and larger parts of Africa we are going to be the most vulnerable, the hardest hit," Aklilu says.

Resource Wars

And strained natural resources inevitably lead to strained relations between communities that are competing for the same dwindling supply of water and pasture land.

In June 2006, open conflict erupted in the Borena zone in southern Ethiopia between the Borena and the Guji when the Guji laid claim to land that had long belonged to the Borena. Hundreds were killed and 23,000 people were forced to flee. Intermittent fighting has continued since then.

For Habiba Guto, 32, the conflict has been disastrous. A mother of seven, she had managed to save enough money to open a small store selling basic provisions to the Guji and the Borena in the town of Dawa.

But when conflict broke out between the two groups, Habiba lost everything she had but her children. She counted 26 bodies of her dead fellow Borenas including her brother-in-law.

She moved to the town of Negele to stay with her extended family and has never looked back. She lives a day at a time, begging for food to keep herself and her children alive.

According to a February 2008 report on conflict analysis by Nega Emiru, a program officer for Care International in Ethiopia, the rising conflict in the region is part of the intensifying conflicts involving the pastoralists' communities in the Horn of Africa.

"Recurrent droughts and worsening climatic conditions are fueling resource-based conflicts between the pastoralists," Nega notes.

These conflicts in turn are made worse by the widespread availability of automatic weapons.

Abdulqadir Abdii, the chief government administrator for the Borena zone, says the people of the region acquired large numbers of automatic weapons after they were smuggled out of government armories following the downfall of the socialist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Weapons have also been obtained from on-going regional conflicts in Somalia and Sudan.

Looking for Solutions

As conflicts soar, nongovernmental organizations and the elders of various communities are looking to proactively solve problems.

Hassan says that his leadership is organizing ways for people to try helping themselves by educating them to combine the traditional ways of livestock farming with some modern farming systems.

Also, Hassan and his council have worked to sensitize the community to deforestation. Through better management of resources, conflict can be reduced, Hassan says.

In the same vein, councils have formed to help resolve conflict.

"The council wants to return to the traditional ways of conflict resolution," Hassan says.

Such traditional ways of conflict resolution involve elders from groups in conflict holding meetings to determine what punishment should be meted out to or what fines should be paid by people who start or instigate conflict, Hassan says. The leaders also discuss ways of preventing future conflicts, he adds.

While the pastoral communities try to adapt to the changes forced on them, they can only wait and see if the wealthy nations that largely created the climate crisis will take actions to reverse the situation.

But the rich world should read the writing on the wall: what is transpiring here may befall them in a few years, Aklilu says.

"What is happening in Africa today is a warning to the world. We do not have to ask whether climate change is happening," Aklilu says. "Climate change is real."

Funding for this reporting was provided by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, pulitzercenter.org.

The Great Biofuel Hoax

For an alternative viewpoint on corn-based ethanol, read "David Morris's Give Ethanol a Chance: The Case for Corn-Based Fuel."

Biofuels invoke an image of renewable abundance that allows industry, politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to present fuel from corn, sugarcane, soy and other crops as a replacement for oil that will bring about a smooth transition to a renewablefuel economy.

Myths of abundance divert attention from powerful economic interests that benefit from this biofuels transition, avoiding discussion of the growing price that citizens of the global South are beginning to pay to maintain the consumptive oil-based lifestyle of the North. Biofuel mania obscures the profound consequences of the industrial transformation of our food and fuel systems -- the agro-fuels transition.

The Agro-fuels Boom

Industrialized countries have unleashed an "agro-fuels boom" by mandating ambitious renewable fuel targets. Renewable fuels are to provide 5.75 percent of Europe's transport fuel by 2010, and 10 percent by 2020. The U.S. goal is 35 billion gallons a year. These targets far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to use 70 percent of its farmland for fuel.

The United States' entire corn and soy harvest would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel. Northern countries expect the global South to meet their fuel needs, and southern governments appear eager to oblige. Indonesia and Malaysia are rapidly cutting down forests to expand oil-palm plantations targeted to supply up to 20 percent of the European Union biodiesel market. In Brazil -- where fuel crops already occupy an area the size of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Great Britain combined -- the government is planning a fivefold increase in sugar cane acreage with a goal of replacing 10 percent of the world's gasoline by 2025.

The rapid capitalization and concentration of power within the agro-fuels industry is breathtaking. From 2004 to 2007, venture capital investment in agro-fuels increased eightfold. Private investment is swamping public research institutions, as evidenced by BP's recent award of half a billion dollars to the University of California. In open defiance of national anti-trust laws, giant oil, grain, auto and genetic engineering corporations are forming powerful partnerships: ADM with Monsanto, Chevron and Volkswagen, BP with DuPont and Toyota. These corporations are consolidating research, production, processing and distribution chains of our food and fuel system under one colossal, industrial roof.

Agro-fuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are environmentally friendly and can reduce global warming, fostering rural development. But the tremendous market power of agro-fuel corporations, coupled with weak political will of governments to regulate their activities, is a recipe for environmental disaster and increasing hunger in the global South. It's time to examine the myths fueling this biofuel boom -- before it's too late.

Myth #1: Agro-fuels are clean and green

Because photosynthesis from fuel crops removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and can reduce fossil fuel consumption, we are told fuel crops are green. But when the full "life cycle" of agro-fuels is considered -- from land clearing to automotive consumption -- the moderate emission savings are undone by far greater emissions from deforestation, burning, peat drainage, cultivation and soil carbon losses. Every ton of palm oil produced results in 33 tons of carbon dioxide emissions -- 10 times more than petroleum. Clearing tropical forests for sugarcane ethanol emits 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the production and use of the same amount of gasoline.

There are other environmental problems as well. Industrial agro-fuels require large applications of petroleum-based fertilizers, whose global use has more than doubled the biologically available nitrogen in the world, contributing heavily to the emission of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

To produce a liter of ethanol takes three to five liters of irrigation water and produces up to 13 liters of waste water. It takes the energy equivalent of 113 liters of natural gas to treat this waste, increasing the likelihood that it will simply be released into the environment. Intensive cultivation of fuel crops also leads to high rates of erosion.

Myth #2: Agro-fuels will not result in deforestation

Proponents of agro-fuels argue that fuel crops planted on ecologically degraded lands will improve, rather than destroy, the environment. Perhaps the government of Brazil had this in mind when it re-classified some 200 million hectares of dry tropical forests, grassland and marshes as "degraded" and apt for cultivation. In reality, these are the bio-diverse ecosystems of the Mata Atlantica, the Cerrado and the Pantanal, occupied by indigenous people, subsistence farmers and extensive cattle ranches.

The introduction of agro-fuel plantations will simply push these communities to the "agricultural frontier" of the Amazon where deforestation will intensify. Soybeans supply 40 percent of Brazil's biodiesel. NASA has positively correlated their market price with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest -- currently at nearly 325,000 hectares a year.

Myth #3: Agro-fuels will bring rural development

In the tropics, 100 hectares dedicated to family farming generates 35 jobs. Oil palm and sugarcane provide 10 jobs, eucalyptus two and soybeans just one half-job per 100 hectares, all poorly paid. Until this boom, agro-fuels primarily supplied local markets, and even in the United States, most ethanol plants were small and farmer-owned. Big Oil, Big Grain and Big Genetic Engineering are rapidly consolidating control over the entire agro-fuel value chain.

The market power of these corporations is staggering: Cargill and ADM control 65 percent of the global grain trade, Monsanto and Syngenta a quarter of the $60 billion gene-tech industry. This market power allows these companies to extract profits from the most lucrative and low-risk segments of the value chain -- hundreds of thousands of small farmers have already been displaced by soybean plantations in South America.

Myth #4: Agro-fuels will not cause hunger

Hunger, said Amartya Sen, results not from scarcity, but poverty. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food in the world to supply everyone with a daily 3,500-calorie diet of grains, fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables, dairy and meat.

Nonetheless, because they are poor, 824 million people continue to go hungry. If current trends continue, some 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 -- 600 million more than previously predicted. World food aid will not likely come to the rescue because surpluses will go into our gas tanks. What is urgently needed is massive transfers of food-producing resources to the rural poor, not converting land to fuel production.

Myth #5: Better "second-generation" agrofuels are just around the corner

Proponents of agro-fuels argue that current agro-fuels made from food crops will soon be replaced with environmentally friendly crops like fast-growing trees and switchgrass. This myth, wryly referred to as the "bait and switchgrass" shell game, makes food-based fuels socially acceptable.

The agro-fuel transition transforms land use on a massive scale, pitting food production against fuel production for land, water and resources. The issue of which crops are converted to fuel is irrelevant. Wild plants cultivated as fuel crops won't have a smaller "environmental footprint." They will rapidly migrate from hedgerows and woodlots onto arable lands to be intensively cultivated like any other industrial crop, with all the associated environmental externalities.

Agro-fuel: a new industrial revolution?

The International Energy Agency estimates that over the next 23 years, the world could produce as much as 147 million tons of agro-fuel. This will be accompanied by a lot of carbon, nitrous oxide, erosion and more than two billion tons of waste water. Remarkably, this fuel will barely offset the yearly increase in global oil demand, now standing at 136 million tons a year -- not offsetting any of the existing demand.

The agro-fuel transition is based on a 200-year relation between agriculture and industry that began with the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the steam engine promised an end to drudgery. As governments privatized common lands, dispossessed peasants supplied cheap farm and factory labor. Cheap oil and petroleum- based fertilizers opened up agriculture itself to industrial capital.

Mechanization intensified production, keeping food prices low and industry booming. The last 100 years have seen a threefold global shift to urban living with as many people now living in cities as in the countryside. The massive transfer of wealth from agriculture to industry, the industrialization of agriculture, and the rural-urban shift are all part of the "agrarian transition," transforming most of the world's fuel and food systems and establishing non-renewable petroleum as the foundation of today's multi-trilliondollar agri-foods industry.

The pillars of this agri-foods industry are the great grain corporations, including ADM, Cargill and Bunge. They are surrounded by an equally formidable consolidation of agro-chemical, seed and machinery companies on the one hand and food processors, distributors and supermarket chains on the other.

Like the original agrarian transition, the present agro-fuels transition will "enclose the commons" by industrializing the remaining forests and prairies of the world. It will drive the planet's remaining smallholders, family farmers and indigenous peoples to the cities. This government-industry collusion has the potential to funnel rural resources to urban centers in the form of fuel, concentrating industrial wealth. But this time, there is no cheap fuel to drive industrial expansion and there will be no jobs for the masses of people displaced from the countryside. Millions of people may be pushed farther into poverty.

Building Food and Fuel Sovereignty

The agro-fuels transition is not inevitable. There is no inherent reason to sacrifice sustainable, equitable food and fuel systems to industry. Many successful, locally focused, energyefficient and people-centered alternatives are presently producing food and fuel in ways that do not threaten food systems, the environment or livelihoods.

The question is not whether ethanol and biodiesel have a place in our future, but whether or not we allow a handful of global corporations to impoverish the planet and the majority of its people. To avoid this trap we must promote a steady-state agrarian transition built on re-distributive land reform that re-populates and stabilizes the world's struggling rural communities. This includes rebuilding and strengthening our local food systems and creating conditions for the local re-investment of rural wealth. Putting people and environment -- instead of corporate megaprofits -- at the center of rural development requires food sovereignty: the right of people to determine their own food systems.

The Rising Tide of Climate Activism

Near the town of Carbo in western Virginia on July 10, 2006, 75 people stood on a bridge between massive coal trucks and the Clinch River power plant. Owned by American Electric Power, the plant is responsible for emitting 4.25 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air annually. As the coal trucks stopped, two people locked themselves to the trucks' frame. They flattened the tires of the coal trucks and prevented them from moving forward. The demonstration resulted in closing the only access to the power plant for most of the day.

Meet the group Rising Tide.

Rising Tide is a grassroots network that encourages nonviolent action to confront the root causes of climate change by promoting local, community-based solutions.

The movement was born in the Netherlands in 2000 in order to bring a radical voice to U.N. climate talks, that failed to salvage what was left of the Kyoto Protocol. Employing popular education and with a focus on climate justice, Rising Tide now spans three continents - North America, Europe and Australia.

In North America, Rising Tide's strategy is "a no-compromise approach of stopping the extraction of more fossil fuels and preventing the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure." The group adds, "we must phase out our current fossil fuel use and make a just transition to sustainable ways of living."

"Changes will be made by people, not institutions," said Abigail Singer, with Asheville Rising Tide. "The goal is to take a bottom-up approach to connecting the dots between oil, war, capitalism, coal and the destabilization of the global climate."

Singer was arrested Feb. 7, 2007, after she hung a banner across an Asheville billboard with a message against a proposed oil-fired power plant in Woodfin, North Carolina. Rising Tide worked with other local environmental groups in convincing the local planning board to block the construction of the Progress Energy's 130 megawatt power plant.

"When we begin to build a culture of mutual aid and community autonomy, we demonstrate that we don't need the government, and certainly not giant corporations, to survive," Singer said.

Six weeks after the action in Virginia, more than 600 people participated in a week-long "Camp for Climate Action" sponsored by Rising Tide in "Megawatt Valley," in North Yorkshire, England.

Skill sharing and workshops took place at the makeshift camp just outside the fence of Drax Power Station, the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide in England.

On Aug. 31, activists cut through the fence and marched towards Drax. It was reported that at least 3,000 police officers responded, and 38 people were arrested. The railroad was also blocked, preventing coal from entering the facility.

In Australia, Rising Tide is leading the effort to oppose new coal mines and port expansion that would increase the country's coal exports by 70 percent.

On June 5, 2006, more than 70 people in a fleet of canoes, kayaks, dinghies, surf skies and body boards occupied the world's largest coal port in Newcastle, Australia.

A defining principle of Rising Tide is climate justice. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with communities in Africa facing severe drought, Arctic peoples facing thawing ice and permafrost and villages flooding on islands in Oceania, Rising Tide activists argue that the people most affected by climate change are the same people who have been exploited and oppressed throughout the history of civilization.

"The people hardest hit by climate- induced natural disasters have been and will continue to be those most disenfranchised by our society and least responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases. ... The 'natural' disasters caused by climate change amplify the injustices inherent in a capitalist, racist, and patriarchal society." notes the group.

Rising Tide called for an International Day Against Climate Change June 8 as the eight most powerful countries (G8) met in Germany.

"The G8 leaders meeting in Germany behind their fences and soldiers are leading us further towards catastrophic and irreversible climate disaster," noted a press release issued June 4. The group says that they don't believe that "the dominant, businessfriendly means of addressing climate change will have any significant impact preventing catastrophic global warming ... and only serve to reinforce the same unsustainable system that got us into this mess."

Grassroots efforts to combat global warming will intensify in August when the Convergence for Climate Action is set to take place in regional camps in the United States. In England, Camp for Climate Action will set up outside Heathrow International Airport in London, protesting the proposed expansion of the airport and bringing attention to air traffic's contribution to greenhouse gas pollution.

Invisible Soldier

Four nights before Christmas, former Army specialist Herold Noel huddled for warmth in front of a fire he built for himself in Brooklyn's Prospect Park as temperatures slid toward the single digits. Plagued by nightmares and unable to hold a steady job or get the assistance he needed, he was on the verge of losing his wife and three young children. It wasn't the homecoming he'd expected after serving in Iraq last year.

"There was one time," he recalled, "when me and my battle buddies made a fire and we were sittin' out there in Iraq and talking about when we get home we're gonna be looked at as heroes. We're gonna be in the history books. Man, half the guys I came back with are going through the same thing I'm going through."

According to the Pentagon, 955,000 U.S. troops have already served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The experiences of Noel and others like him have many observers worried that the country will be inundated by a wave of returning veterans with no place to go and reeling from psychological trauma, as happened toward the end of the Vietnam War. According to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, up to 17 percent of troops returning from Iraq "met the screening criteria for major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]."

"The Bush administration didn't plan going into the war," says Paul Reickhoff, Executive Director of Operation Truth, a growing online organization of Iraq veterans. "And they haven't planned for the back end of the war and the social services that will be needed. It's an extension of a flawed plan." Ricky Singh, of the Brooklyn-based Black Veterans for Social Justice, is also alarmed. His group was helping three Iraq vets a year ago. Now, he says it's assisting 30 Iraq vets, 18 of whom are homeless, including Noel and his family and a pregnant woman who is expected to give birth this month.

"We know this is the tip of the iceberg, because vets tend to be a group that doesn't seek out help," Singh told The Indypendent. The New England Journal study found that of the veterans who met the criteria for a mental disorder, less than 40 percent reported receiving professional help in the past year.

Nationally, there are signs of the same problem. In Cincinnati, Ohio, Charles Blythe, director of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, says his group is already assisting three homeless Iraq and Afghanistan vets, and he expects many more to come. "Once they start bringing them home, we're going to be flooded with them, just like with Vietnam," says Blythe, a Vietnam-era veteran.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, nearly 300,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and almost half of those are Vietnam vets.

A Soldier's Story

Noel, 25, was born and raised in Flatbush. He was attending New York City Technical College and working as a medical-claims processor when he enlisted in the Army in September 2000. He was attracted by both the promised benefits and the chance to "see some new scenery." Noel served in the 3rd Infantry Division 7th Cavalry as part of the original invasion force, working in fuel resupply. He witnessed the human carnage wreaked by U.S. bombs soon after he crossed into southern Iraq. He also watched friends lose life and limb as his unit was repeatedly ambushed by rebels near Falluja. He left Iraq in August 2003.

Combat experiences such as Noel's have a strong bearing on whether a veteran develops PTSD. The New England Journal study found that among troops who engaged in more than five firefights while deployed in Iraq, the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder was more than 19 percent. In contrast, the rate of PTSD among Vietnam veterans is currently 15 percent. "It was about that oil that was spilling from the streets. If you saw the way we slaughtered those people, it was disgusting," Noel said of the war's beginning. "There would be little kids laying down on the floor. Two- or three-year-olds caught in the crossfire. It was sickening."

While Noel was trapped in a war zone, the army mistakenly listed him as AWOL and cut off his pay, causing him to lose his home in Fort Stewart, Georgia. Upon returning, he moved into a trailer off-base with his wife, Tamara, and their three young children. When their car died and he was no longer able to get to work, they decided to move back to New York.

However, Noel was a changed man and found it difficult to keep a steady job, and his family slipped through an almost nonexistent safety net. Tamara started to notice changes in her husband about a month after they were reunited. "He'd get upset easily. We were arguing all the time. One time we got in an argument and he put me in the car and drove me to some bushes and he said he would kill me if I kept arguing with him. I was really scared. He was never like that before."

Noel still struggles with his rage, but now he disappears when he feels like he is going to explode. "I don't know where he goes," Tamara says. "He tells me sometimes he has to get away from it all." "I have an anger problem. I still got that war mentality," Noel says. "You got that anger in you being around all that death. I still have nightmares. I'm still paranoid sometimes to walk the street, thinking something is going to happen... It's hard to be in a working situation. You're always on your guard."

While Herold sleeps outside and crisscrosses the city looking for assistance, Tamara is temping as a clerk at a hospital and staying at her sister's home with the kids. Both Tamara and Herold are uncertain of what to do next or even if their marriage will survive. Both refuse to have their children stay in the city's squalid shelter system. "We're willing to work," Tamara says. "We just need something temporary so we can get on our feet."

"They are in a very fragile situation," says Singh, who is trying to fast-track their case so they can get an apartment. "My wife can't take it anymore," says Noel. "This whole ordeal is breaking up my family. She's like she needs to move on with her life. I don't know what to do.

"I walk around crying every day. I feel lost in my own land. The land I fought for I feel lost in. I don't know what to do no more. Sometime I just feel like picking up a gun and calling it quits – know what I'm saying? But, something's got to get better. I didn't just risk my life for nothing." Noel paused, unsure if he still believed what he was going to say next. "There's a God out there – somewhere."

Whither Pennsylvania?

A few miles southeast of the wooded ridges of Valley Forge, where George Washington's army spent the bitter winter of 1777-1778, lies the King of Prussia Mall, the largest shopping complex in the world. The Philadelphia suburbs that surround its halls of Eddie Bauer, Foot Locker, and smooth-jazz Muzak are one of the places that may decide the 2004 presidential election.

Pennsylvania voted for Reagan and Bush I in the 1980s, but went for Clinton in the 1990s. Al Gore won it by 220,000 votes in 2000, a margin of 50-46 percent. The conventional wisdom is that the state consists of "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh surrounded by Kentucky"; two big cities balanced by isolated, mountainous rural counties.

Democrats, says state party director Don Morabito, rely on a "four corners strategy": Philadelphia, which Gore carried by better than 4-1 in 2000, piling up a 340,000-vote margin, along with Pittsburgh and the industrial small towns in the southwest, Erie in the northwest, and the old coal-and-steel areas of Allentown/Bethlehem and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the northeast, which Gore won narrowly in 2000. Meanwhile, Republicans try to maximize turnout in the rural areas and the Pennsylvania Dutch country around York and Lancaster, the most solidly Republican part of the Northeast, where George Bush won by a 2-1 margin in 2000.

The key to the state may be in the Philadelphia suburbs: Bucks, Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery counties. They cast about one million votes in 2000, more than a fifth of the state's total, and gave Gore a 53,000-vote margin.

In the Mall: the Undecided

"I'm still swinging," says Mark Wensel, 45, a shipping-industry salesman from Media at the King of Prussia mall. He's a registered Republican who turned against the Iraq war when no weapons of mass destruction were found, but dislikes Kerry, saying he "tells people what they want to hear." His ultimate choice may be personal – "who would you rather have a beer with?"

Another undecided voter, Barbara Nichter, 56, of Drexel Hill, repeatedly describes the campaign as "frustrating. You don't know what is true and what is not true." She voted for Bush in 2000 and is leaning towards him again. Though she works for a healthcare consultant and likes Kerry's healthcare position, she feels that Bush is "a better commander in chief. We need to be aggressive."

Nancy Perkins, 44, of King of Prussia, is also frustrated with the "accusations and innuendo." She's divided between supporting Bush's "handling the terrorism situation" and disagreeing with him on social issues; she's "definitely for abortion rights" and says "if two people love each other, why shouldn't they be able to get married?" She gently remonstrates with her 17-year-old daughter, who calls Bush "a moron." "I can't understand these undecideds. Make a frickin' decision!" exclaims Denise Watkins, 44, of Philadelphia, at the mall with her 18-year-old daughter. She endorsed Kerry months ago, she says, because Bush is using faith-based initiatives "to get out of helping inner cities," because "I will never vote for a pro-life politician," and because in Iraq, "if you're making the wrong damn decision, how is it admirable to stick with it?"

"Just not Bush," says Ken Moore, 23, of Havertown, who says in the debates, Bush "seemed to have no clue." "Not Bush. The other one," echoes Helen Smith, 80, of Conshohocken, who says she has to spend more than $200 a month on medicine.

Two firm Bush supporters are Ryan and Jessica Swailes, a pharmaceutical-salesperson couple from the rural town of Williamsport. Bush "takes a strong stance on what he thinks," explains Ryan, 28, while Kerry "is a chameleon." Even if there was no link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, adds Jessica, 25, "you can't say Iraq is not better off without Saddam. His sons killed people for no reason." The two believe that "the media need to cover the good things more, not just the negative," says Ryan. "That's why we started watching Fox News. They give both sides." Another registered Republican, 21-year-old Penn State student Dan Iannucci, says he will vote against Bush, even though his friends call him "a bleeding heart." Bush's huge budget deficit is not "real Republican" economics, he explains, and the president went into Iraq "without a plan to win the peace. If it was you or me and you planned that poorly for something that important, you'd be fired."

Cleophis Hyman, 67, a retired truckdriver from Philadelphia, is a black man who complains that Bush "can spend billions in Iraq, but they can't put medicine on Medicare" – but says he'll probably vote for Bush. The reason: Kerry "believes people have the right to kill your children," he opines. "They use fancy words. They call it 'abortion.' They call it 'choice.' But it's murder."

West Philly: Kerry, Nader, or Nobody

The spectrum of views is very different at Baltimore Avenue and South 49th Street in West Philadelphia. The neighborhood, composed of aging, richly detailed three-story wood and brick houses, is mostly African American – storefronts advertise Caribbean cuisine, fried fish, and collard greens – but more multiracial and somewhat more middle class than the blocks to the north, which are pockmarked with abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots. It's also home to Philadelphia's anarchist space and was the site of the now-defunct Radio Mutiny pirate station.

"We don't want no Bush. I know that much," says Tee Johnson, 69, a Grenada-born retired longshoreman in an electric-blue baseball cap. "Bush is a downright liar," says Sarah Crocker, 40, a workers' compensation claims adjuster. "The economy's a mess, the senior citizens are catching hell with the prescription drugs. And the one who did 9/11 is bin Laden. Why are you going after Saddam Hussein?" Bush says the healthcare system is getting better, she adds, but when she tried to get medical care – "for me, my kids have CHIP" – after her unemployment compensation ran out last year, "They told me the government ran out of money. I said, 'You're taking my tax dollars to Iraq and I can't get healthcare here in the United States? That's ridiculous.'"

Her main hope, she says, is that "it doesn't happen like in Florida. They stole the election. I don't care what anybody says."

James Seldon, a 45-year-old father of three, says he was "kind of undecided" until the last debate, when "Bush would put the same answer to everything. 'Education is great.' School is great for kids, but people my age need jobs. We've got bills. And he wants kids to pay for their own Social Security."

Among the neighborhood's anticapitalist, countercultural types, Marissa Valenzuela, 26, a social worker with several rings in her lower lip, says she'll vote for Kerry as "damage control." A lot of her friends aren't voting, she says; after Florida, "Who knows if it gets counted?" Her friend Vincenzo Gentile, 21, a socialist bicycle messenger, would like to see "an extremely pervy queer president," but will vote for Kerry as "less scary than Bush." He was impressed that Kerry brought up reproductive rights in the debates without being asked.

"I don't know anyone who's not voting," he adds. "I've been to parties where people won't let you in the door unless you're registered." Joe, a 51-year-old construction supplies salesman who doesn't give his last name, says he's voting for Ralph Nader, based on his opposition to the Iraq war and his work on environmental issues. Asked the obvious question, he replies, "I'd rather have Bush. Kerry's a quiche-eating, insipid phony. He's for the war, then against it."

Kerry has "taken the inner city vote for granted," says Jim Kurtz, a 48-year-old nurse with two young children. He'd like to see the issue of drugs addressed, by legalizing some to take the profit out of the trade, providing treatment for addicts, and creating jobs to discourage the young from turning to dealing. "I don't have a lot of hope that Kerry will do anything about that," he says, but he'll vote for the Democrat anyway.

"I'm biased. Whatever Bush says is bull," says Bilal Bell, 29, sitting in front of Sugar Hill, his small bakery shop, with his baby daughter. "I hope people will see through all the propaganda and the bad commercials." For Bell, the main issues are healthcare ("they told us it was $1,400 for a family of four"); creating economic opportunities beyond the military or drug-dealing; and the Iraq war. "Who's the bigger terrorist?" he asks. "9/11 was horrible, but it doesn't justify going in and bombing a country that had nothing to do with it."

AIDS Activists Negative on Bush

Two Pennsylvanians who definitely aren't going to vote for President Bush are Philadelphia ACT UP activists Waheedah Shabazz-El, 51, and Jose DeMarco, 49.

"Mr. Bush has no compassion for people with AIDS," says Shabazz-El. "He's not signing bills that would fund AIDS drug assistance. He wants to push abstinence-only into our communities. Abstinence hasn't worked in 5,000 years."

Federal AIDS services "are worse than they've ever been," adds DeMarco. Several states have stopped accepting new patients for the AIDS Drugs Assistance Program, and more than 1,600 people are on the waiting list for it. "They have to wait for someone to die to get drugs," says Shabazz-El. "I think their theory is let the people who have [AIDS] die and push abstinence-only for the rest," says DeMarco.

Getting Out the Vote

"I ain't voting. I ain't registered. Been too busy being unemployed," says a man with faded skin and broken teeth, wearing a red Rocawear sweatsuit. He is proving the point expressed by ACORN team leader Kia James a few minutes earlier and a few blocks away, when she says, "A lot of people are so disenfranchised they don't realize their vote counts. They don't see how anything will change their lives."

While officially nonpartisan, the community group is actively registering voters in Philadelphia's poorer neighborhoods, on the grounds that getting people involved in the political process will increase their chances of improving their housing and schools. "You get one neighborhood with 100 percent turnout and one with 20 percent turnout, which one's getting the funds?" James asks.

With far fewer undecided voters than usual, says Don Morabito, the Democrats' state party director, the election is "going to be about turning out the vote." The party has 20,000 volunteers, making more than 100,000 phone calls a week, he adds. He's been involved in politics since 1960, and says, "I've never experienced this level of activity in a campaign."

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