Leonard C. Goodman

Obama wants his private center on public land — and the mainstream media is looking the other way

Chicagoans mostly support the Obamas' decision to build the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on the south side of Chicago. But few of us are aware of the controversy over the Obamas' decision to site their private center on historic public parkland on the shores of Lake Michigan, as these important issues have not been widely covered in the mainstream press, including in any of Chicago's major newspapers.

Initially the Obama Foundation considered several potential sites for the OPC. These sites were evaluated based on certain factors, including accessibility, enhancements to the physical environment, and potential for economic development. The site receiving the highest score was a site near Washington Park, just west of the University of Chicago campus, which the university described in its literature as pairing "the greatest need with the greatest opportunity."

Nevertheless, in 2016, the foundation decided to build on 19.3 acres of wooded public parkland in the heart of historic Jackson Park, east of the U of C campus and about a half-mile from the shores of Lake Michigan. The city of Chicago quickly approved the transfer of public parkland to the private foundation, sparking the current controversy. The city gave the Obama Foundation a 99-year lease on the parkland, tax-free, for $10. The OPC is permitted to charge fees for entry, parking, and third-party use, with the profits to go to the Obama Foundation.

The plan for the OPC can be viewed on the Obama Foundation website. It includes the construction of a 235-foot-high "museum tower," which will rise above all neighboring structures, including the Museum of Science and Industry.

More than a dozen neighborhood groups throughout the south side expressed concerns about the taking of lakefront parkland. Originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1871, and later redeveloped by Olmsted and Daniel Burnham, Jackson Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the most important urban parks in the nation.

In 2018, a nonprofit park advocacy organization called Protect Our Parks (POP) went to federal court to try and stop the "partial destruction of Jackson Park," which it called a violation of public trust. A group of longtime residents of Hyde Park and South Shore later joined in a new suit with POP, which does not seek to thwart the center from being built, but wants to see it built a mile and a half to the west, on vacant land adjacent to Washington Park. The plaintiffs have pointed to an alternate site plan for the OPC authored by Chicago architect (and Bronzeville resident) Grahm Balkany that can be previewed at the POP website.

A comparison of the two proposed plans shows that the Washington Park site has distinct advantages over the Jackson Park site.

First, while the Jackson Park plan requires the privatization of about 20 acres of public parkland, the Washington Park plan requires no private taking of public green space. Rather, the latter plan proposes building the center on vacant land available for purchase on the west side of Washington Park. In Balkany's plan, public parkland for south-siders to enjoy would be enlarged rather than reduced.

As Jamie Kalven, award-winning journalist and plaintiff in the POP lawsuit, expressed in a recent Tribune editorial, the privatization of public parkland sets a dangerous precedent. "In view of Chicago's history of rapacious real estate exploitation, it's nothing short of miraculous that the glorious archipelago of Frederick Law Olmsted parks—Washington and Jackson parks, linked by the Midway Plaisance—has been preserved. At least until now."

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit is Dr. W.J.T. Mitchell, U of C professor, author, and landscape historian. He explains that Olmsted's vision was for these public parks to be democratic spaces, without gates, open to all visitors. Mitchell believes the taking of parkland for private use is contrary to Olmsted's plan.

Another plaintiff, Bren Sheriff, who has lived for nearly 50 years in the South Shore neighborhood near Jackson Park, told me that the center was initially marketed as a presidential library. But after obtaining the lease to build in Jackson Park, the foundation changed course and decided to build a private entity with no official connection to the National Archives. According to Sheriff, many south-siders have been misled into believing that the POP lawsuit is an attempt by white people to stop President Obama from building his presidential library.

Second, construction of the OPC in the wooded parkland of Jackson Park will require the destruction of hundreds of mature, carbon-sequestering trees, contributing to the existential problem of global climate change. Mitchell believes more than a thousand trees will ultimately be destroyed in and around the park, many of which are more than 100 years old. The alternative plan near Washington Park does not require destruction of any mature trees, according to Balkany. Another environmental concern is that the placement of a 20-story tower so close to the lake will endanger migratory birds that fly north and south close to the western edge of Lake Michigan. The Washington Park site is farther west and is believed to pose less risk to migrating birds.

Third, the Jackson Park site is not easily accessed by public transportation, meaning that visitors would mostly come by vehicle. In contrast, the Washington Park site is situated right on the CTA Green Line. Further, the Jackson Park plan calls for the closing of two major roads—Cornell Drive and the southern half of the historic Midway Plaisance—necessitating a rerouting of traffic and the widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue. The Washington Park plan does not call for any major road closures or traffic disruptions.

Fourth, the Obama Foundation has promised to bring economic development to the south side. Sheriff believes this is a pipe dream if the center is built in Jackson Park. The park is surrounded by the university, the Museum of Science and Industry, two high schools, and private homes. "Where is the economic development going to come from?" On the other hand, the Washington Park site is adjacent to many commercial businesses—especially along Garfield Boulevard—that stand to benefit from the OPC.

None of these factors favoring the Washington Park site seem to be seriously disputed. Rather, as Kalven wrote in his Tribune editorial: "The Obama Foundation has declined every invitation to engage the issue of 'feasible and prudent alternatives' and has instead mounted a marketing campaign, the central theme of which is that the Jackson Park site is a fait accompli."

I reached out to the Obama Foundation for comment and was invited to email my questions, which I did, inquiring why the Jackson Park site was selected over the alternative site west of Washington Park; and whether the community has been allowed to weigh in on the controversy over the sites. The Foundation responded that it was "unable to accommodate [my] request at this time."

Mitchell told me that he attended a town hall meeting in 2017 at Hyde Park Academy High School where residents were invited to come to the microphone and ask questions about the OPC. But when residents started raising objections to the plan to build in Jackson Park, the open portion of the meeting was ended, and residents were directed to voice their concerns in small breakout groups. The city never again allowed open-mike questions at meetings regarding the OPC.

Mitchell explained his motivation for joining the lawsuit against locating the OPC in Jackson Park: "I want to save the Obamas from their own bad decision." Besides being a historic landmark, Jackson Park offers a precarious footing to support a 235-foot tower. The plan is to build the tower on the edge of the West Lagoon that is directly connected to the rising waters of Lake Michigan, which pose serious logistical issues in construction and future usage. "I am afraid it will be a disaster for the Obamas and for the city."

Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the newly independent Reader.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Democratic Party sold out working people long before Donald Trump

I have written many columns at the Reader and other alternative publications warning that corporate control of the federal government will bring catastrophe for our children and for the planet. I receive a lot of pushback, especially from liberals who argue that Trump is/was such a unique menace that the Democrats had no choice but to join with corporate America to assure victory.

The Democratic Party sold out working people long before Donald Trump. It was President Bill Clinton who pivoted to Wall Street. Clinton then ended the main federal antipoverty program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), passed NAFTA, escalated the drug war, and ended the New Deal restraints on big banks, leading directly to the housing meltdown and the Great Recession of 2008.

Later, Barack Obama took in record amounts of Wall Street cash for his 2008 presidential campaign. Then, as emails obtained by WikiLeaks later revealed, he allowed Citigroup to select nearly his entire Cabinet, which helped funnel trillions of bailout dollars to the banks, declined to prosecute a single Wall Street executive for mortgage fraud, and blocked legislation capping executive pay at bailed-out firms.

The Democratic Party now uses this same fear-based argument every four years: support our corporate-backed candidates or else you will get someone more horrible. By allowing the party to control us by fear, we invite further betrayals.

Nor should we accept the premise that Democrats have to sell out to win. Bernie Sanders relied on small donors rather than corporate bundlers and PACs, and he raised plenty of money to compete. Indeed, Sanders likely would have won the nomination had not the corporate-backed candidates joined together, at Obama's urging, to support Joe Biden before Super Tuesday.

Moreover, candidates who take policy positions favoring the 95 percent rather than the five percent are much cheaper to sell and thus don't need to raise huge sums of money. For one thing, they can call out their opponents for being tools of corporate interests, a devastatingly powerful argument that is unavailable to most Democrats and Republicans. Yes, it's true, voters prefer representatives who are not in the pocket of big business.

To illustrate this point, in the November elections, voters approved dozens of ballot initiatives brought by public interest groups that relied on grassroots organizing rather than expensive media campaigns. Arizona voters said yes to a tax surcharge on incomes above $250,000 a year specifically to raise teacher pay and recruit more teachers. Oregon voters approved a populist proposition to put strict controls on the corrupting power of big-money corporate donations in elections. Floridians voted to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour, a working-class advancement vehemently opposed by corporate giants. Colorado voted yes to require corporations to let employees earn paid time off for medical and family needs. Voters in six states—including in such supposedly conservative bastions as Arizona, Montana, Mississippi, and South Dakota—approved initiatives legalizing marijuana and other drug use.

The groups sponsoring these voter initiatives did not have corporate backing. They won because ordinary people liked what they were offering.

Contrary to what you hear in corporate media, the policies pushed by progressives are not radical or scary to ordinary people. Recent polls show that three in five Americans favor Medicare for All, two in three support a wealth tax, and even higher numbers support free college tuition. The Green New Deal is likewise broadly popular, even when respondents are informed that it will cost trillions of dollars.

In other words, the story propagated by corporate media that Americans are afraid of change is a lie. A recent New York Times article illustrates how the deceptive game is played. The piece tries to make the point that Americans don't want real change by quoting South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, who cautioned that if Democrats pursued policies like Medicare for All, "we're not going to win." What the article didn't mention was that Clyburn has taken more money from the pharmaceutical industry in the past decade than any other member of the House or Senate.

Some readers accuse me of unfairly painting all corporate leaders as evil. This is untrue. I come from a family of corporate leaders who have high integrity. The reality is that publicly traded companies have no morality. They are profit-seeking engines. The personal views or morality of corporate directors is immaterial. They are under fiduciary obligation to seek maximum profits for the shareholders. Thus, if greater profits can be made by offshoring production to a country with lower wages and fewer environmental restrictions, this will be done even if it means screwing American workers and destroying the environment.

Allowing these profit-seeking engines to direct public policy—the current practice of D.C. Democrats and Republicans—will bring destruction to our country and planet. This is not hyperbole.

Consider the example of foreign policy. The American people don't want forever wars or the bloated Pentagon budget that currently consumes well over half of our discretionary funds, and is greater than the military spending of the next nine countries combined. Meanwhile, one in eight Americans don't have enough food to eat and 30 million Americans will soon be at risk of losing their homes.

But the American people have no say in the matter. Tragically, America's foreign policy is controlled by the military-industrial complex and by the resource extraction industries. Bomb makers like Raytheon demand zones of active conflict to keep their assembly lines moving. Under Trump, our bombs fell at the rate of one every 12 minutes, killing thousands of defenseless Black and Brown people in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen—surpassing Obama's record of one bomb every half hour. Many of the people we slaughter are civilians; none were threatening to invade the United States.

Manufacturers of big-ticket items demand hostile relations with larger nations like Russia and China to justify new sales of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, F-35 fighter jets, and new generations of nuclear bombs. The mineral extracting industries demand that we maintain our empire of nearly 800 foreign military bases to crush the will of local people who oppose foreign exploitation of their lands.

None of this will significantly change under President Biden. In early December, while Congress bickered over whether to provide relief to desperate Americans, both parties joined together to approve $741 billion for the Pentagon, assuring that the war machine will be well funded for another year.

The status quo also ensures the continued deterioration of the planet. The U.S. war machine is one of the largest polluters in history, consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries. In 2017, the U.S. military bought about 269,230 barrels of oil a day and emitted more than 25,000 kilotons of carbon dioxide by burning those fuels.

If the American people could choose our next secretary of state—the nation's chief diplomat—they would select someone skilled at negotiating with our adversaries and easing tensions around the world. But the war industry demands a toady with the opposite skill set. So Biden has selected Antony Blinken, a man whose career has been a pendulum between government and the defense industry, where he made himself rich by writing memos advocating for new smarter, more sustainable wars, and by selling his Rolodex of government contacts to help clients obtain defense contracts. Within the Obama administration, Blinken backed the interventions in Libya and Syria as well as the 2014 Ukraine coup, and he was a major proponent of backing the Saudi-led mass atrocities in Yemen. The fact that all these policies were disastrous for the people on the ground is not a negative for Blinken, because they were also highly profitable for the war industry. Blinken's greatest career achievement appears to be his ability to keep Pentagon budgets rising while transitioning from Bush-era ground wars to smaller-scale "sustainable operations."

Thus, under Biden, we must expect more dead children, more destabilization and suffering, and more global warming.

Some believe that the Democratic Party can still be rescued from the clutches of its corporate masters by electing progressives. This strategy is currently being tested. Progressives get themselves elected to Congress promising to stand up to the establishment Democrats and to fight for things like universal health care. Right now, they have a chance to demand a debate and floor vote on Medicare for All (MFA), a bill introduced in February 2019 by Representative Pramila Jayapal with dozens of cosponsors, but never brought to the floor despite its overwhelming popularity with Democratic voters. Because the Democrats now have such a slim majority in the House, a handful of progressives in Congress could force a vote on Medicare for All in exchange for their support for Nancy Pelosi's reelection as speaker.

This idea that progressives might use their leverage to force a vote on Medicare for All was not proposed by any member of Congress but by Jimmy Dore, a comedian and activist, on his YouTube show. Yet his plan has gained wide support on social media. Dore has called out Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives for shrinking away from the fight over MFA after running on the issue and promising to stand up to Pelosi and the corporate Democrats. Forced to respond, AOC called Dore's strategy too risky because the Dems might lose the speakership. But Speaker Pelosi can guarantee her reelection simply by scheduling a floor vote on a bill introduced almost two years ago with dozens of cosponsors, supported by 85 percent of Democratic voters, and about half of Republican voters. That is not an unreasonable demand of the speaker.

AOC also says we might lose the vote on MFA. But if not now, when? We are in the middle of a deadly pandemic, and we all need our neighbors to be able to go see a doctor if they feel sick without fear of bankrupting their families. Fifteen million Americans have already lost their health insurance and their jobs. Dore asks—are the House progressives fighters or are they posers?

The progressives had similar leverage back in the spring when the big donors demanded that Congress pass the CARES Act, giving Wall Street trillions of dollars and an assurance that it would face no hardship from the shutdown. But progressives let that leverage slip away and then accepted only scraps for working people, many of whom have been forced to stay home for months with no income. Now is the time to demand that the richest country on Earth provide health care to its people.

Of course, a government-run health care system will hurt the profits for big pharma, big insurance, and big hospital groups. But we all must sacrifice in times of great struggle.

Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the newly independent Reader.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The scary truth is many Senate Democrats share Amy Coney Barrett's corporate agenda

This story was produce by The Reader.

On March 16, 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court to succeed Antonin Scalia, who had died one month earlier. But Senate Republicans blocked his nomination on the grounds that it was too close to the presidential election, which was then seven months away. Four and a half years later, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. Although Barrett's nomination was made just over one month from the presidential election (which Trump appears to be losing), she was confirmed.

The Democrats claimed to be united in their opposition to Barrett's confirmation. Yet their resistance to having a justice rammed through at the 11th hour of a lame duck presidency feels like the resistance that the Washington Generals used to show against the Harlem Globetrotters. That is, pure theater in which the outcome is never in doubt.

What this tells us is that the corporate donors who control the Democratic Party are happy with a Justice Barrett. In her short time on the bench, she has ruled consistently in favor of corporations. Just weeks before her nomination to the high court, Judge Barrett delivered a key ruling blocking many gig workers from suing in court when tech companies cheat them out of overtime pay. This and other business-friendly rulings are why corporations have given millions to groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to campaign for Barrett's appointment to the court. Barrett also belongs to the business-backed Federalist Society and will join five other Federalists on the Supreme Court.

The differences between Democrats and Republicans on issues like abortion and gay rights are important to be sure. But the areas of agreement between the two parties—both parties favor the interests of corporations over their workers and the environment—are also important. And these issues don't get discussed because there is no disagreement. It is just accepted by both parties that a lawyer must be business-friendly to qualify for a federal judgeship.

In a true representative democracy, a lawyer should not have to demonstrate her fealty to corporate power to become a federal judge. The interests of corporate America are closely aligned with only a small fraction of Americans: the investor class. Most of our interests are more closely aligned with those of workers and consumers. There are scores of talented lawyers who go to top law schools but do not go to work at corporate firms. Many of these lawyers devote their careers to representing ordinary people, often taking on the most powerful interests in industry and in government. These pro-people lawyers should also have a place on the federal courts.

Thurgood Marshall was a civil rights activist who distinguished himself representing victims of racial injustice before being nominated by President John F. Kennedy for a federal judgeship, and later to the Supreme Court. Marshall would never get on the court today. Without a track record of pro-corporate advocacy, the donors would reject him.

Some lawyers distinguish themselves by taking on powerful corporations that harm ordinary people through negligence or deliberate malfeasance, such as the lawyers who took on a power company's illegal dumping of toxic waste portrayed in the movie Erin Brockovich. These lawyers often exhibit great skill, resourcefulness, and integrity in fighting powerful and ruthless corporations.

Probably the most successful lawyer ever in taking on the criminal acts of massive corporations is Steven Donziger. Donziger graduated from Harvard Law School, worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., and in 1993 agreed to represent a group of 30,000 Indigenous people and villagers in Ecuador who had been deliberately poisoned by Chevron, one of the world's largest corporations with over $260 billion in assets.

Beginning in 1964, Chevron (then Texaco) began extracting oil in Ecuador. To save about $3 per barrel of oil produced, the company decided to ignore waste regulations and dump some 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and pits, polluting groundwater and farmland, and destroying a large section of the Ecuadorian Amazon in what came to be called the "Amazon Chernobyl" by locals and experts. Local drinking water became noxious, and citizens became ill. This has all been confirmed by courts in Ecuador after an eight-year trial, the submission of 105 technical evidentiary reports, and testimony from numerous witnesses.

"I did not set out to be an environmental lawyer," Donziger recently told Greenpeace. "I simply agreed to seek a remedy for 30,000 victims for the destruction of their lands and water; to seek care for the health impacts including birth defects, leukemia, and other cancers; and to help them restore their Amazon ecosystem and basic dignity."

Donziger made more than 250 trips to Ecuador over the next two decades as he led the legal fight against Chevron. Then in 2011, Donziger and his team secured a $9.5 billion judgment on behalf of the victims. The trial court decision was affirmed on the merits or for enforcement by multiple appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada, including the supreme courts of both countries.

Chevron refused to pay. During the trial, it threatened the affected communities with a "lifetime of litigation." Afterwards, Chevron engaged a team of 2,000 corporate lawyers from at least 60 firms to retaliate against Donziger and the lead plaintiffs in the case, filing a barrage of SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) and RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) suits, legal tools used—and abused—by large companies to punish people who take them to court.

Chevron's vile and cynical legal strategy—designed to avoid paying compensation to the Indigenous people whose lives it deliberately destroyed to earn an extra $5 billion over 20 years—could not succeed without a federal judiciary populated by corporate-friendly judges willing to bend the law to protect corporate profits.

Chevron's RICO suit against Donziger was filed in the Southern District of New York, a Wall Street-friendly court. The case was presided over by U.S. district Judge Lewis Kaplan who, before being appointed to the bench by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, spent decades as a corporate lawyer representing tobacco companies and banks. The record of the RICO case shows that Chevron paid a disgraced former Ecuadoran judge named Alberto Guerra about $2 million to testify that the verdict in Ecuador was the product of a bribe. Chevron's cash payments to Guerra should have disqualified him as a witness. Moreover, Guerra admitted to lying about the bribe in another international proceeding. Nevertheless, after denying Donziger his right to a jury trial, Judge Kaplan found that Guerra's story was credible.

Judge Kaplan later charged Donziger with criminal contempt, but the New York prosecutor's office refused to take the case. In a rare legal move, Kaplan then appointed a private corporate law firm (that also represents Chevron) to prosecute Donziger. Kaplan personally assigned Judge Loretta Preska, a member of the corporatist Federalist Society, to hear the case. Preska placed Donziger under house arrest and confiscated his passport.

I reached Donziger by phone at his apartment in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and teenage son. He says that his contempt trial before Judge Preska is scheduled for November 4, the day after the election. He is again being denied a jury trial.

Some 29 Nobel laureates, including nine Peace Prize winners, have signed a letter declaring that Chevron's legal assault on Donziger is "one of the most egregious cases of judicial harassment and defamation" ever seen. He has also been backed by 475 lawyers and bar associations who wrote an open letter outlining his wrongful detention and mistreatment by U.S. judicial authorities.

Donziger's story is also a story about the sad condition of the U.S. court system which, like the other two branches of our government, primarily serves the interests of the wealthy. On this topic, I strongly recommend a new book by Ronald Goldfarb called The Price of Justice.

Although the Democrats will do nothing to stop Barrett's nomination to the Supreme Court, their leader, Joe Biden, has pledged that if elected, he would establish a bipartisan commission to study whether to expand the courts to achieve greater balance.

We recall from history class that President Franklin D. Roosevelt also threatened, in 1937, to add enough liberal justices to the court to protect his programs from the "obstructionist" conservatives. The key difference then was that FDR had an agenda of bold programs to pull the country out of the Great Depression, such as putting Americans to work building post offices, bridges, schools, highways, and parks; supporting farmers and labor unions; and ending alcohol prohibition.

The Democrats of today, however, are offering nothing but a promise to wear a face mask and to not send mean tweets at 3 a.m., while Joe Biden assured his wealthy donors at a New York fundraiser that "nothing would fundamentally change" if he is elected president. Even a Supreme Court packed with Republicans is likely to go along with that agenda.

Click here for the defense fund established on Donziger's behalf.

Leonard C. Goodman is a Chicago criminal defense attorney and co-owner of the newly independent Reader.

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