Suzy Khimm

Can Women Voters Save the Democrats?

The yawning enthusiasm gap between the Democrats and Republicans this election cycle also reflects a big gender gap, as men have led the conservative surge that's revived the GOP. Though women are still more likely to vote Democratic, they're also more likely to stay home. Ben Smith explains:

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How Immigration Reform Could Split the Right

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently declared that Democrats would take up immigration reform "this year," defying the conventional wisdom that the issue is too perilous for the party to push during an election year. But maybe it's Republicans who should be nervous—because a high-octane immigration fight could drive a wedge between the Republican Party and the Tea Party right.

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Avalanche Against Prop 54

The message cut across all the hoopla of recall election day, banding together teachers, health officials, police officers, political leaders, and voters of all racial and ethnic categories. The message was simple: Voting against Proposition 54 will help save your life. And its success was resounding.

Defeated by a 64-36 margin, the so-called "Racial Privacy Initiative" would have banned California from collecting data on race and ethnicity in all but a few exempted areas -- restricting, among other things, information crucial for identifying and containing public health epidemics. The defeat of Prop 54 has cheered on civil rights advocates, who believe that the campaign's success may mark a turn toward a more progressive, pro-diversity agenda in California and across the country.

"Prop 54 got more 'no' votes than Arnold Schwarzenegger got in support. The Prop 54 vote wasn't a landslide, it was an avalanche," said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas in an October 8 press release. "California shouted down this attempt to erode civil rights, eviscerate health research, block hate crime enforcement and undermine school accountability."

Prop 54 was the brainchild of Ward Connerly, a conservative businessman and member of the California Board of Regents. In 1996, Connerly had spearheaded Prop 209, the ballot initiative that banned the use of racial and ethnic preferences in California's public hiring and university admissions. Dubbed by some as the "Son of 209," Prop 54 was another one of Connerly's attempts to create a "color-blind" society by removing all racial and ethnic classifications from the public sphere.

But, as the initiative's opponents pointed out, Prop 54 would have effectively eliminated any quantitative evidence of racial disparities, crippling the state's ability to track or remedy discrimination. Prop 54 would have barred state agencies, the University of California, public hospitals, and law enforcement officials from gathering data on citizens' race or ethnicity in all but a few -- and, according to Prop 54's opponents, poorly described instances. Rather than creating a color-blind society, the initiative would have simply turned a blind eye to discrimination.

Forming a broad-based, ever-expanding coalition, the opponents of Prop 54 ran a focused and pragmatically minded campaign. They explained that schools would lose accountability, no longer being able to track whether some groups of students were improving more than others. Local police would no longer be required to collect data on victims and suspects, hindering hate crime enforcement. And -- in what proved to be the most compelling argument -- public health officials would be severely hampered in their ability to identify and prevent diseases, as certain health problems have a disproportionate effect on different racial and ethnic groups.

It was the potential threat to public health that ultimately won the public over. "Nobody thinks you get better advice from your doctor when they have less information on you," Jay Ziegler, co-director of the No on 54 Campaign, told the Sacramento Bee. Bringing together hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals across social, racial, and political lines, the coalition opposing Prop 54 was unprecedented for a ballot initiative. Exits polls indicated that three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics and a majority of whites voted against the initiative.

Ziegler compares last week's victory to the passing of Prop 209 in 1996. Back then, civil rights groups and progressive leaders were taken aback when the advocates of Prop 209 appropriated the language of the civil rights movement itself to support their campaign. Prop 209's opponents then attempted to demonize the supporters of initiative as racists, running an infamous television ad featuring former Klansman David Duke as a supporter of Prop 209. The move backfired, alienating white suburbanites who were incensed at the KKK comparison.

"We really learned some important lessons from 209 that we applied this time around: You can't make it personal or make it look like it's a negative campaign," said Ziegler. "Diseases aren't colorblind," says Paul Turner, senior project manager of the Greenlining Institute. "That message resonated with the bulk of the electorate -- we didn't make it about affirmative action."

The proponents of Prop 54 once again tried to use civil rights-oriented rhetoric, comparing the existing racial categories to those that slave owners and Nazis used and placing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside those of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But this time, the television ad the opponents aired featured former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who simply declared that Prop 54 was "bad medicine" and that the public was making a "life-and-death decision."

Turner also credits the campaign's success to its organization and strategic outreach to the public, media outlets, and politicians. "We put pressure on the Democratic Party early on -- it wasn't enough for them just to be opposed to campaign. They had to prove it through fundraising and getting others on board."

In contrast to 209, Prop 54 attracted a significant degree of bi-partisan support. "Some might have declared that the recall election part of a Republican conspiracy, but Prop 54 was actually a product of the right-wing agenda -- it came straight out of the Federalist Society," says Turner.

Aside from the conservative right-winger Sen. Tom McClintock, nearly all of the major gubernatorial candidates openly opposed the initiative. Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, under fire for the contributions he received from Indian tribes, transferred $3.8 million to the campaign opposing Prop 54. And, in early September, Schwarzenegger announced on a Spanish-language television station that he opposed the initiative.

Schwarzenegger's open opposition to Prop 54 fell in line with the socially inclusive and moderate platform that gained him votes on election day. His open embrace of diversity and progressive social positions have not only put conservative Republicans on the alert; they have also sparked some liberals' hope that Schwarzenegger will follow through on his promises and use his new prominence within the party to influence the national debate over divisive issues like affirmative action.

"Arnold has the opportunity to lead the Republican Party back to moderation -- to shed its image as a party that is hostile to minorities, a stance that has allowed California to be a one-party state," says Turner. "The new competition will help minority groups."

The defeat of Prop 54 will lead to "positive change on the state level," affirmed Mary Ann Mitchell, chairwoman of the National Black Business Council, and John C. Gamboa, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, in the San Francisco Chronicle last week. While racial and ethnic preferences remained barred under Prop 209, Mitchell and Gamboa see Prop 54 as paving the way for future pro-diversity initiatives that would actively recruit minority students and employees.

Mitchell and Gamboa go so far as to project that Schwarzenegger's openly embracing diversity will prompt change on the federal level; that President Bush will move to ensure equal opportunity within federal agencies, and that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan will encourage economic growth by gathering data on race, ethnicity and gender within bank-lending practices.

But all of this, of course, is still the stuff of dreams. Whether Schwarzenegger will step forward and push for a socially inclusive and progressive agenda remains to be seen -- or, given the state's budgetary concerns and his conservative economic positions, whether he will even be able to afford to.

It's clear, though, that the opposition to Prop 54 maintained its focus and broad-based appeal in spite of Arnold, and the pro-diversity movement may continue to gain support regardless of what happens in Sacramento. For while the anti-Prop-54 movement played up the public health card to widen its base of support, many believe that the success of the campaign can only strengthen future pro-diversity proposals.

Whatever people's reasons for opposing Prop 54, its defeat has clearly re-affirmed the importance of tracking and preventing discrimination in the public sphere. While affirmative action was not the key issue, Turner believes that the campaign's success will prompt the public "to go back and revisit 209 and realize its unintended consequences on university admissions and state-sponsored contracting."

Prop 54's defeat was, moreover, a resounding repudiation of Connerly himself. While Connerly has announced that he intends to return with a new version of Prop 54 -- with greater attention to public health concerns -- many believe that he has lost his public credibility and legitimacy. Even aside from his political future, Connerly is clearly on the down, if not the down-and-out: He is currently being sued by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to disclose the source of $1.9 million in funding for his campaign.

Celebrating last week's victory, the opponents of Prop 54 are optimistic that their message will continue to resound with the public: that ignoring race is dangerous -- for people's health, for public safety, and for the education of their children.

As Justin Pritchard of the Associated Press wrote: "Those who said Proposition 54 would help unify California's racial group and create a colorblind society turned out to be right in one respect: Voters of every race united to defeat it."

Freelance writer Suzy Khimm is an editorial intern at AlterNet.

The Death Chambers of Rio de Janeiro

Chan Kim Chang never made it to San Diego. He never even got on the plane at Rio de Janeiro's Tom Jobim International Airport. The 46-year-old Chinese businessman instead found himself in one of Brazil's most brutal prisons, where he would meet a violent and untimely death.

After 20 years of living in Brazil Chang, along with his 13-year-old son, was ready to fly out to meet his wife and relatives who had already relocated to the United States. At the airport, he was apprehended by police and arrested for attempting to bring $30,000 in undeclared U.S. dollars on board. That evening, on August 25, Chang was taken to Rio's Ary Franco prison. Two days later, he was found in a coma in his cell, where he appeared to have been severely beaten and tortured. He died in the hospital on September 4, less than a week later.

Seven prison guards are now accused of torturing Chang, who was found with a severe blow to the head, a large bruise over one eye, bruises on the arms, lesions on the heels, and wounds on the legs, wrists, and ankles.

Heavily publicized by both the local and national media, the Chang case has unleashed a public outcry about the calamitous state of Rio's prison system and the systematic use of torture by prison officials across the country. Days after Chang's death, the Rio's Secretary of Prison Administration asked the state governor to declare a "state of emergency" within Rio's prisons, an action four other Brazilian states have already taken.

Chang's death is hardly unusual, nor is the systematic use of torture a new phenomenon. From October 2001 through the beginning of this year, the Brazilian advocacy group SOS Tortura received 2,075 denunciations of torture, 78 percent of which were against prison guards or police officers. But the number of denunciations do not begin to reflect the rampant use of torture and abuse within prisons and holding facilities.

The use of torture in Brazil can be traced back to the military dictatorship between 1964-1985, when thousands of political dissidents were persecuted, tortured, and "disappeared." After the re-democratization of the country, many of the military officials responsible for these abuses became police officers, prison guards, and other state officials left free to inflict their brutal methods on inmates.

Torture has now become "the primary method of police investigation in the country," according to the 2001 report issued by Nigel Rodley, a UN representative. Out of the 348 denunciations detailed in the report, 33 were based in Rio: 13 of them against police officers, one against a federal agent, and 20 against prison guards. To date, not one of the accused has been found guilty. Most of the cases, in fact, have yet to come to trial, with 14 of them still in the phase of inquiry.

Criminal impunity and legal delays are routine in Brazil. While a federal anti-torture law was passed in 1997, not one person in the past six years has been found guilty under the law. "The technical proof is difficult, justice many times is not served, and those who bring denouncements forward end up being threatened, losing their jobs, their families and their homes," says Marcelo Freixo, the president of Rio's Community Council.

Chang's death is unusual, however, in the public attention it has received. Unlike the overwhelming majority of torture victims and Brazilian prisoners, Chang was an educated, middle-class foreigner. "From the moment that the first details of the case came out, it was clear that Chang was different," says Ivanilda Figueiredo, a lawyer from the advocacy group Justiça Global. "He wasn't poor, he had no previous criminal history. The public is thinking, 'It could have been them.' "

"If it were me (who was killed)," says "Vítor," an ex-police officer and ex-prison guard who does not want his real name used, "There wouldn't be any repercussions," says the 41-year-old black man. Vítor began working as a Rio de Janeiro police officer in 1990. Often colluding -- as well as colliding -- with the drug cartels that dominate large parts of the city, the Rio de Janeiro police force is infamous for its widespread corruption and brutality. In the first six months of 2003 alone, 621 people were killed by police officers in Rio, as Amnesty International reported in late August.

Officers are placed in teams of four or five, making complicity, if not outright participation, in criminal activity all the harder to avoid. "Within each team, one doesn't denounce the other; one doesn't criticize the other. Even if you don't commit a wrong act, if the others do, you can either leave that team or stay there and risk being killed by the others," he says. "They'll end up taking your life and blaming it on the criminal."

After witnessing countless acts of torture and brutality and having his own life threatened twice by other officers, Vítor left the police force in 1993. In 1996, Vítor began working as a prison guard, a job he left at the beginning of this year. "I'm having a hard time right now, because I don't want to return to this kind of work," he admits.

He soon realized that the penitentiary system was no different from the police force. Even behind prison walls, the most powerful drug traffickers remain king, coordinating a regular flow of money, weapons and drugs into the prison, frequently with the help of the prison guards themselves.

The physical conditions within prisons are in themselves abusive: wet, fetid cells, infested with insects and rats. Within special cells, he continues, beatings and torture using electric shock are common. Vítor describes the time he witnessed a man's penis being put inside a restraining device and beaten into pulp. Denied medical treatment, the prisoner eventually had to be castrated because of an infection.

When asked how he could withstand witnessing such acts for so many years, Vítor responds: "Much of the time, I wrongly thought the following: 'It wasn't me who was doing these things, so I didn't have anything to do with it.' I never lay a hand on anyone, but I was there -- I had to be there watching." Most prison guards, however, cannot afford to leave. While the salary of the average guard is meager, it still pays the bills. Since his job ended earlier this year, Vítor and his family have been struggling to get by.

The lack of sufficient training and poor working conditions all but make abuse inevitable. Says Dr. Marcos Pinheiro, director of Rio's Talavera Bruce prison, "The prison guard and the prisoner and two victims of a faulty system. If you're working in an unsatisfactory environment, and you're poorly prepared, what's going to happen? Only bad things to the clientele." Says a prison guard who worked in Ary Franco for four months before deciding to leave: "If you’re working in a clean place, you’ll be clean; if you’re in a dirty place, you’ll be dirty."

According to Bruno, a prisoner from Rio's Bangú district, guards find in torture a way to boost their own sense of power. "They say the guards use violence and torture to control prisoners who seem 'rebellious,' but a 'real' motivation never really exists -- it can be something about the tone of your voice," he says. "It's the poor beating up the poor; the oppressed beating up the oppressed."

Despite the glaring need to invest in and re-structure Rio's penitentiary system, the only concrete action the state government has taken thus far has been to install cell-phone blockers within a series of prisons. While politicians at all levels of government have vehemently condemned the torture of Chang, long-standing reform is no simple matter for a system built on decades of corruption and complicity.

"What's disturbing about the Chang case is the demonstrated complicity between various levels of state apparatuses -- between the police officers who made the arrest at airport, the guards at the prison, and the administrators who attempted to cover it all up," says Paul Heritage, the director of the non-profit People's Palace Projects.

As of late, the most significant proposals have come from the federal government in Brasília. The National Secretary of Human Rights, Nilmário Mirando, has promised that a special team of investigators will conduct inspection raids of detention centers and prisons. Calling the end to torture "our primary objective," the National Secretary of Public Security, Luiz Eduardo Soares has proposed special training for judges and prosecutors and the creating new policies to push through the most urgent cases mired in delays.

While legislation moves forward in Brasília, some are struggling to implement immediate reform at the grassroot level. Pinheiro, who became the director of Rio's Talavera Bruce prison last December, advocates a policy of mutual respect. "We have to respect the prisoner for him not to disrespect us. It's his obligation to be disciplined, and he's going to receive consideration in return."

Talavera Bruce has become a rare oasis of reform in Rio, providing a number of work, educational, and cultural opportunities for its inmates as part of a dramatic transformation engineered by Pinheiro since December. While vocal about the reforms still needing to be made, one of the inmates at Talavera affirms that "a dialogue has begun" and that prison life has changed for that better. "Not to say that we're 'negotiating' with the staff but at least things have opened up between us," he says.

In the past few weeks, state and federal politicians have unleashed a flurry of proposals to reform the Brazilian penitentiary system and to combat the shocking degree of impunity that perpetrators of torture enjoy. At a major anti-gun march two weeks ago, members of Rio's Chinese community and others supporters of Chang formed a visible contingent in the crowd of 40,000. And the media continues to play up every new story about Rio's penitentiary system. For the moment, at least, everyone seems to be paying attention.

While these developments are heartening, it's hard to avoid the constant reminders of the system's deep-rooted flaws. September 8 -- four days after Chang died -- marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Antônio Gonçalves de Abreu. Accused of killing a federal police agent in Rio, Abreu was tortured while in police custody and died from a cranial fracture and hemorrhaging. Much like the Chang case, Abreu's death had created a public furor. A year later, the case has yet to be brought to trial.

As Chang's story begins to fade from the newspapers and television stations, there is the lingering fear that life in the prisons will return to torture as usual. "The police and guards know that people are going to forget about what happened," warns Vítor. "They know that we're going to forget about Chang."

Search Engines Charged with False Advertising

Anyone who uses the Internet knows the daily irritation of spam email and flashing banner ads. But according to a new Federal Trade Commission complaint, there are far more insidious ways that corporate advertisers are manipulating our time on the Web.

Commercial Alert, a consumer watchdog organization formed by a group of activists, including Ralph Nader, filed a complaint on Monday against eight of the Web's largest search engines, accusing them of violating federal laws against deceptive advertising.

The complaint stems from the practice of companies paying to have their sites strategically highlighted or bumped up in a search engine's results. This pay for placement service is becoming an increasingly popular way to make money among search engines since the dot-com bust and the subsequent reduction in banner ad sales. The search engines Commercial Alert has accused are: MSN, owned by Microsoft Corp.; Netscape, owned by AOL Time Warner Inc.; Directhit, owned by Ask Jeeves Inc.; Hotbot and Lycos, owned by Terra Lycos; AltaVista, owned by CMGI Inc.; LookSmart, owned by Looksmart Ltd.; and iWon, owned by a privately held company with the same name.

The complaint purports that users have not received "clear and conspicuous disclosure that the ads are ads." Instead, users are misled to believe that their search results are based on relevancy alone, "like information from an objective database selected by an objective algorithm. But they are really ads in disguise."

"These search engines have chosen crass commercialism over editorial integrity," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert.

Used by nearly every segment of society, search engines have become an increasingly central mode of sorting and receiving information. "With more than 2 billion pages and 14 billion hyperlinks on the Web, search engine requests rank as the second most popular online activity after email," writes the AP's Michael Liedtke.

Given these sites' privileged role in mediating facts and knowledge, there is particular concern about the impact of deceptively packaged advertising.

"We are asking the FTC to make sure that no one is tricked by the search engines' descent into commercial deception," Ruskin said. "If they are going to stuff ads into search results, they should be required to say that ads are ads."

Commercial Alert also points out that many search engine users, particularly children and teenagers, may not have the where-with-all to realize the impact and implications of commercial advertisements.

By late Monday, three of the search engines responded to inquires about the complaint, according to the AP. Two, AltaVista and LookSmart, denied the charges outright. "Based on the feedback we have received, our users are very clear about the distinctions," said AltaVista spokesperson Kristi Kaspar.

The search engines contend that their fee-paying sites are clearly labeled under special headings, such as "featured" or "partner sites," a practice called "paid placement."

Commercial Alert, however, also attacks the practice of "paid inclusion," a more insidious form of deception than paid placement. Paid inclusion allows a company to bump its site up in the results, regardless of their actual relevancy.

Not all search engines have adopted these advertising practices. Google, for example, clearly notes that its paid placements are "Sponsored Links," and it will not put paid ads within its search results.

"We have no plans for a paid inclusion program," Google spokesperson Cindy McCaffrey told "[O]ur search results represent our editorial integrity, and we have no plans to alter our automated process, which works very well in gathering information and delivering highly relevant results."

Ruskin describes the search engines' practices as "just the latest example of how advertising is creeping into every nook and cranny of our lives and culture. Americans are tired of it, and the backlash is growing."


Happy Holidays!