California Blames Incarcerated Slave Laborers for Unsafe Conditions and Amputations

by Spencer Woodman
The Intercept

IN SEPTEMBER, AFTER months of organizing via smuggled cellphones and outside go-betweens, prisoners across the country launched a nationwide strike to demand better working conditions at the numerous facilities that employ inmate labor for little or no pay.
The strike, which spread to dozens of institutions in 22 states, briefly called attention to a fact about prison labor that is well-understood in America’s penal institutions but scarcely known to the general public: Inmates in America’s state prisons — who make everything from license plates to college diploma covers — are not only excluded from the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on slave labor, but also exist largely outside the reach of federal safety regulations meant to ensure that Americans are not injured or killed on the job. Excluded from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mandate of protecting American workers, these inmates lack some of the most basic labor protections other workers take for granted.
This vacuum of oversight causes the labor performed behind prison walls to be doubly invisible because it excludes inmates from federal record-keeping rules requiring non-prison employers to report serious job-site injuries to the federal government.
Yet injury logs generated by the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) — the agency in charge of overseeing the prison work programs in the country’s second largest prison system — provide a rare window into the varied dangers that face inmate laborers. Since 2012, inmates in California have reported more than 600 injuries while working for as little as a 35 cents an hour, according to the documents obtained by The Intercept. The logs contain a wide range of job-site harms, from fingers being smashed in steel molds or sucked under sewing machine needles to less serious maladies like carpel tunnel syndrome and other common overuse conditions.
In some severe cases, inmates’ appendages were amputated after being crushed or severed in machinery. “[The inmate’s] sleeve became caught in gear and pulled hand into assembly,” one log reads, “resulting in amputation of r. hand.”
California generally pays its some 7,000 inmate workers between 35 and 95 cents an hour for their labor, and it is unclear whether any of the inmates listed as having lost appendages while working in California prisons have yet received any compensation for the amputations. A CALPIA spokesperson told The Intercept that the state had provided each of the inmate amputees with workers’ compensation forms, but the injured prisoners could take no action to pursue their claims until released from prison. California state law prohibits inmates from receiving workers’ compensation while still incarcerated, meaning that inmates serving life without parole sentences would never be entitled to a penny of compensation even for losing limbs on the job.
A common theme running among throughout the logs is the potential for many of the injuries to have been averted. “I did not really see anything in here that wouldn’t have been preventable,” said Linda Delp, the director of University of California Los Angeles’s Labor Occupational Safety and Health program, who reviewed the injury logs. Delp said that entries in the CALPIA logs conform to patterns she has seen on non-prison worksites where there is too little training of workers or where the employees are impelled to cut corners because management is requiring too much work to be done in too little time — or both.
A variety of recurring and preventable injury-types caught Delp’s attention. For instance, repeated entries describe objects becoming lodged in inmates’ eyes while they use industrial grinders. A possible solution, according to Delp, would be to ensure that inmate workers wear appropriate safety goggles or visors and have adequate training. Many other logs involve workers losing control of unwieldy objects, which then fall on workers, causing injuries in which body parts are strained, crushed, or lacerated. A solution to this, said Delp, would be to make sure inmates have enough help lifting and maneuvering heavy objects. There are also recurring cases where workers’ fingers become stitched through under sewing machine needles, or have their hands pulled into moving parts on sanders or other machinery — all of which could be prevented by proper machine guarding mechanisms and training, Delp said.
“In looking at these,” Delp said, “there’s something going on in terms of not providing the training and equipment that they need.”
Michele Kane, a CALPIA spokesperson told The Intercept that the office reports all inmate injuries to the state’s department of labor. “They implement and enforce safety regulations over all employers in California,” Kane said, “including state agencies such as CALPIA.”  In response to questions from The Intercept regarding the potential preventability of injuries, a CALPIA spokesperson assigned workers responsibility for their injuries. “In spite of training and proper safety equipment provided by CALPIA,” Kane said in a statement, “there are times when inmates violate training protocols.”
While Delp cannot say anything for certain about CALPIA management practices by reviewing the logs alone, she took notice of the agency’s tendency to blame workers for their injuries.
“I always look for how these things are described and whether individual workers are blamed for what happened,” Delp said. “What’s fairly common across different types of jobs is for management to look the other way when people are breaking the safety rules because they want them to work faster, until someone gets hurt. And then that person is blamed for not following the safety rules.”
A typical example of CALPIA’s allocation of blame appears in one of the several logs that describe an incident resulting in an inmate suffering an amputation, in this case, a finger in garment machinery at the California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo County in April 2014. “While inmate was cutting fabric, inmate removed his glove to adjust machine, and failed to put his glove back prior to operating the machine,” the log reads, adding no additional information other aside from its result: amputation of “Finger(s)/Thumb(s).”
Top photo: James Dickert, age 68, sews socks together in a prison factory at California Men’s Colony prison on December 19, 2013 in San Luis Obispo, California.


Arrests of Journalists at Standing Rock Test the Boundaries of the First Amendment

by Alleen Brown
The Intercept

PAT BOYLE, A Denver-based journalist, was shot in the abdomen last Sunday by a rubber bullet as he reported from North Dakota on a clash between demonstrators and police that would end with 26 protesters sent to hospitals and 300 requiring other medical treatment. One woman was severely injured and underwent emergency surgery on her arm after officers unleashed “less than lethal” weapons, including rubber bullets, icy cold water, and, reportedly, concussion grenades on the crowd. Police were reacting to an attempt by Dakota Access pipeline opponents to tow away burned vehicles that officers had secured in place to act as a highway blockade, preventing access to pipeline construction sites down the road. The rubber bullet that hit Boyle tore right through his press pass, leaving a jagged hole through the words “Unicorn Riot,” his news organization’s name.

This wasn’t Unicorn Riot’s first run-in with police while covering the pipeline conflict, nor was it the media collective’s most serious. Reporters for Unicorn Riot have been arrested three times in North Dakota and twice while covering Dakota Access pipeline protests in Iowa. In North Dakota, at least seven journalists in total have been arrested while covering the clashes, according to a count by the Bismarck Tribune. Others have been stung by tear gas, pepper spray, or rubber bullets.

The arrests of journalists and filmmakers covering the front lines of the Dakota Access pipeline fight highlight the limits of press protections and the central role of police, prosecutor, and court discretion in deciding whether or not members of the press should face legal consequences when covering protests. The arrests and violent crowd suppression tactics also reflect the refusal of police to discriminate between peaceful protesters, aggressive agitators, and journalists.

Unicorn Riot was one of the few media outlets that showed up on April 1, when members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe arrived on horseback to set up a camp called Sacred Stone as a base for prayer and protest against the planned Dakota Access Pipeline, which if completed will transport half a million barrels of oil per day from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota to a hub in Illinois. And the media collective has remained a presence as the standoff reaches into the winter months with few signs of abating.

On Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued the Standing Rock Sioux tribe an eviction notice, demanding that thousands of people clear out of a second camp, known as Oceti Sakowin, located on land the Corps controls. “This decision is necessary to protect the general public from the violent confrontations between protesters and law enforcement officials that have occurred in this area, and to prevent death, illness, or serious injury to inhabitants of encampments due to the harsh North Dakota winter conditions.” The letter directed inhabitants to a site farther away from the pipeline construction area, dubbed a “free speech zone.”

“They’re giving us notice because the Corps of Engineers wants to reduce their liability when something serious happens,” said Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault during a press conference Saturday. “If [the Morton County Sheriff’s Department] wanted to, they would be able to come in and remove us. I don’t think that will happen.”

Nick Tilsen, co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Power Project, which trains native people in direct action tactics, added, “Indigenous people are here to stay. And we’re not going to move unless it’s on our own terms, because this is our treaty land, this is our ancestral land, this is where our people have been for thousands of years.”

If nothing else, the eviction notice is likely to amplify tensions between pipeline opponents and police. The dynamic will play out on the front lines of protest actions, a space Unicorn Riot specializes in covering. It’s a space that can be legally precarious for journalists, where citizens with grievances meet publicly funded police straining (or failing) to balance law and order with constitutional speech rights. These situations often test the limits of the First Amendment, so video dispatches from the front lines provide distinct information about public life and the use of force to control a dissenting citizenry.

For example, video published by Unicorn Riot and others of tear gas canisters and water cannons sprayed directly into crowds of protesters last Sunday night, when temperatures stood well below freezing, countered police claims that the water was being used primarily to protect people from fire.

By comparison, footage published by the local Morton County Sheriff’s Department of a projectile landing on the far side of the police line came off as tame.

Unicorn Riot’s coverage is sympathetic to the pipeline opponents and is rarely favorable to the police, and its members are often mistaken for activists. They can be counted on to provide live-streams of pipeline protests that are later edited into more easily digestible short pieces. More immersive than mainstream media and more polished than the work of most activist documentarians, the collective’s coverage has been essential to understanding the events in North Dakota.

Yet police have repeatedly questioned the press status of Unicorn Riot reporters, and during mass arrests, they and other journalists have often been swooped up with protesters. “I’m not participating. I’m not building the barricade. I’m not pushing off against the police. I’m not going to pray at the water ceremony. I’m literally there observing,” said Lorenzo Serna, another Unicorn Riot reporter.

“If you come from too radical perspective, your right to report is somehow in question, because you’re outside the ideological frameworks,” said Chris Schiano, who has also been arrested covering the protests. “Most news organizations assume that nation states are legitimate and should exist. We try to report things outside of some of the central assumptions.”

The first time members of Unicorn Riot were detained in North Dakota was on September 13, during one of the earliest mass arrests. Pipeline protesters had locked themselves to construction equipment, and 26-year-old Chris Schiano came with Niko Georgiades, 34, to film it. By the end of the day, 23 people were arrested, including the two reporters.

As police moved in, Unicorn Riot’s Facebook live-feed was cut off. Facebook told Motherboard it was because of a mistake by an automatic spam filter. In a video of their arrests, Schiano can be seen standing apart from a throng of police clad in riot gear as he points to his press ID before he’s cuffed. Georgiades, filming the arrest, was detained shortly afterward and can be heard declaring, “I’m press, sir. I’m press.”

Georgiades’s press status didn’t count for much: The First Amendment does not protect journalists from trespassing charges. Ultimately, whether or not to arrest a journalist covering a protest on private property is up to the cops, and that day the two men were treated as protesters.

A month later, another Unicorn Riot reporter, 30-year-old Jenn Schreiter, was arrested and charged with trespassing while covering a lockdown at a Dakota Access construction site in Iowa.

Chief Deputy Scott Bonar of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office said deputies don’t distinguish between protesters and journalists when it comes to trespassing. “They were told by security and deputies to leave the property. They could have walked to the roadway and did reporting there. They stayed on property and were arrested.”

In response, Schreiter said, “It’s part of the organization I work for, a nonprofit, educational media organization, to report from the front lines. The equipment I had was my cellphone. In order to capture audio and video, I needed to be where the action was.”

When Schreiter’s colleagues went to inquire about the reporter’s whereabouts, a deputy replied, “You don’t have a journalist. You claim you’re press; you don’t even have credentials.”

This AM, when asked about our journalist he arrested, Lee County,Iowa Sheriff Deputy Dakota Foley says "you don't have a journalist" #NoDAPL pic.twitter.com/8Mq2t1PlOu

His words echoed those of Ladd Erickson, the McLean County state attorney in North Dakota who charged Democracy Now host Amy Goodman with trespassing on September 3. Goodman and a film crew had followed a group of people opposing the pipeline onto private land, where they were met with pepper spray and biting dogs.

“She’s a protester, basically. Everything she reported on was from the position of justifying the protest actions,” Erickson told the Bismarck Tribune, arguing that Goodman’s reporting hadn’t noted alleged injuries to private security guards. “Is everybody that’s putting out a YouTube video from down there a journalist down there, too?” The charges against Goodman were eventually changed to rioting, then dropped entirely.

“In the old days you could count on them dismissing those charges,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school. “But increasingly public officials are not cutting journalists much slack.”

Dalglish blames the shift on “a lot more people having cameras and saying I’m not a journalist, I’m a documentarian. I’m going to document police brutality. This kind of puts cops on edge. They’re thinking, ‘You’re going to think the worst of me? Well guess what, buddy, I’m going to get you, too.’ Plus, you cannot dismiss the tension that is out there in situations like Dallas, where there is a demonstration and cops end up being assassinated.”

Dalglish agreed that political objectivity is not a prerequisite for calling a product journalism. “This country was founded by a bunch of folks who were crusading journalists. There’s nothing that says you can’t do that,” she said. However, she added, “If [police] see you being really friendly with some folks that they have their eyes on, it probably does put you at risk.”

Unicorn Riot came together as a project in 2014. Some of the founding members met while filming direct actions in support of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Tar Sands Blockade. The idea for a collective grew out of a desire to control the production and publication of their work but also out of an interest in watching out for one another when undertaking legally risky reporting. They are volunteer-run, and their meager budget comes from viewer donations.
The project drew early attention for its coverage in 2015 of protests in Minneapolis after Jamar Clark was shot and killed by local police. While covering the shut-down of Interstate 94, Georgiades was arrested along with 33 others. Unlawful assembly and traffic charges were eventually dropped.

“There’s been a lot of times where one of these guys will get arrested and our team is remotely getting us out of jail,” said 33-year-old Andrew Neef, another reporter for the collective. “We keep track of each other and make sure that we’re watching out for each other.”

Unicorn Riot reporters carry cards identifying them as members of the press, but the bullet hole in the card Boyle carried is a pretty good metaphor for how police view the IDs. And a document recently uncovered by the collective via a public records request provides insight into law enforcement’s approach to interpreting press badges. It’s a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) manual that was recently emailed to the director of training for the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declaring, “Some protesters will attempt to design fictitious media credentials to gain access to events or special consideration by law enforcement.”

At the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota, which serves as a base for opposing the pipeline, volunteers distribute press IDs that give journalists permission to take photos on camp premises, after they attend an orientation. When I was at the camp recently, pass distributors suggested putting the passes away during protest actions, saying that pass carriers seemed to become police targets.

Others believe it’s less about targeting and more about police who decline to discriminate between journalists and activists. “I think that as the boundaries between journalists and non-journalists continue to erode, and any definition of journalism becomes more elusive, journalists have to realize that their rights are not protected by the special realm of press freedom,” said Carlos Lauria, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ program director for the Americas. Instead, he said, reporters should seek protection by “guaranteeing that the rights of free expression are extended to all.”

As of November 14, according to the Morton County Sheriff’s Department, 473 people had been arrested attempting to stand in the oil pipeline’s way. Freelance reporters, documentary filmmakers, producers of movement-building media, and independent activists armed with cellphones have all been swept up in mass arrests that have been carried out almost weekly since October.

Sara Lafleur-Vetter, a filmmaker who has been covering the pipeline fight since August, was charged on October 22 with trespassing and engaging in a riot in one of the largest mass arrests, when 127 were detained. Her camera was confiscated and eventually returned without its memory cards, and she said her bail agreement stipulated that she should not have any direct or indirect contact with Dakota Access pipeline property. “I can still go out,” she said. “I just have to be really careful.”

Serna was arrested that day, too, and issued the same charges as Lafleur-Vetter. It was more than a week before his camera was returned.

“By the time we go to court, we’ll have a new president,” Lafleur-Vetter said. “It’s scarier now. The risks are bigger now.”

Human Rights observers have also been prevented from monitoring protests. Twenty-five people were arrested on November 15 for protesting at a Dakota Access equipment site against the disappearances and murders of indigenous women. Demonstrators blocked a road used to access the equipment yard, and police in turn blocked off a public thoroughfare adjacent to the site, preventing journalists and human rights observers from monitoring the events.

In response, Amnesty International director Margaret Huang wrote a letter to Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier. “Our observers are wearing yellow shirts clearly identifying them as human rights observers and carry with them authorization letters from Amnesty International USA explaining their role in the observation of protests taking place in North Dakota,” she wrote. “Providing access to legal and human rights observers and journalists is a necessary component of policing protests to ensure that police facilitate the right to protest and that the rights to peaceful assembly and association are protected as required under international law and standards.”

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Amnesty has visited Dakota Access protests during two other visits. “It’s worrisome and troubling when you have law enforcement really overzealously engaging in mass arrests that are actually geared at shutting down a protest,” said spokesperson Eric Ferrero. “If the whole mindset is that protesters are the enemy, and they’re on some kind of a battlefield, those are not police that are being set up to facilitate peaceful protest.”

“Ultimately our concern is that these interactions chill people’s human rights to free speech,” he said.

Unicorn Riot reporter Neef predicted Donald Trump’s election victory would increase the frequency of protests the collective covers. It has certainly diminished the chances that an executive branch order will halt the pipeline, but he was less sure that Trump would significantly alter the dynamics of the front line. “We might go through more tear gas filters for our gas masks, but it’s pretty much the same stuff that we’re dealing with,” he said.

“There’s a militarized fortress around the drill pad, enforced by mercenaries with automatic weapons, supported by the Morton County Sheriff’s Department,” said Serna. “Where does it go from here?”

Top photo: Members of the Oceti Sakowen security team monitor police activity.


Still Not Thanking Native Americans

Returned to its historical roots, Thanksgiving would be a day to express thanks to Native Americans whose generosity saved the Pilgrims, but that never seems to be a lesson learned, as Dennis J Bernstein reports on the Dakota pipeline standoff.

By Dennis J Bernstein

Late Sunday night -- at the start of Thanksgiving week -- Native American protesters were attacked by law enforcement agents near the site of the Dakota Access pipeline, a project that Native Americans and environmentalists have been trying to block.

Police and other security forces deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, percussion grenades and water hoses to stop about 400 protesters from crossing the Blackwater Bridge on state Highway 1806, about a mile from an uncompleted section under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir, where work has been on hold by order of federal agencies.

“As medical professionals, we are concerned for the real risk of loss of life due to severe hypothermia under these conditions,” the Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council said in a statement posted on Facebook. One hundred sixty-seven people were injured and seven were taken to the hospital, according to Jade Begay, a spokeswoman for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Sunday’s standoff began around 6 p.m. local time, when a group of about 100 “water protectors” attempted to clear burned out trucks that were blocking the bridge, which is on the most direct route from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to Bismarck, North Dakota. The trucks have been in place for several weeks, and law enforcement has constructed a barricade behind them, forcing all traffic to take an approximately 20-mile detour.

“The purpose of this action was to do something to remove that barricade because it’s dangerous,” said Begay, a member of the Tesuque Pueblo and Dine, who has been at the Standing Rock encampments since September. “That barricade poses a danger not just to everyone at the camp, but also to Cannon Ball and other communities that are south.”

“They’re using that barricade as an excuse for us not to be able to lawfully protest,” said Frank Archambault, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe from Little Eagle, South Dakota. “We got word that the drill is now on the pad so tensions are high right now.”

The 1,200-mile, four-state pipeline is intended to carry oil from western North Dakota to a shipping point in Illinois. But construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline has been protested for months by the Standing Rock Sioux, whose reservation lies near the pipeline route and there are fears a leak could contaminate the drinking water. They also worry that construction could threaten sacred sites.

Cheryl Angel, an Elder member of the Rosebud Nation, was an eyewitness to what happened Sunday night [Nov. 20] in sub-freezing weather with water hoses.

Cheryl Angel: I’m a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. I am Sasusaku, Lakota. I currently live at Cannonball, to support Standing Rock, in their efforts to save the water that millions of Americans [depend upon]. [On the evening of November 20th], after a day of prayer and ceremony at all three camps, our security attempted to open the bridge by removing the burnt out trucks that the North Dakota authorities had put there themselves, and had started on fire themselves and left on the bridge.

So our security forces tried to remove them from the bridge and the North Dakota authorities then decided to escalate their presence by calling in a militarized vehicle, and I’m going to say … maybe 100 more law enforcement vehicles. There were so many you couldn’t even count them. You need to understand that … what separates the tribe from the pipeline area that’s being excavated is the Cannonball River. At some points it’s about 40 feet wide, at other points it’s only 20 feet wide. But there is a bridge that connects between those two lands, those two boundaries. And that’s where the armored vehicles were parked that were already burnt out.

Dennis Bernstein: And, in terms of what happened… we understand that a number of people were wounded with these tear gas canisters. We understand that they were using water hoses in, I guess, 20 - 25 degree [Fahrenheit] weather. Tell us more about that kind of violence. So people can really, you know, get a human face on what’s going on there.

CA: I felt like I was in a war zone. I had … been called to a meeting so I was heading for the meeting. I could hear young warriors running through the camps, saying “Everybody to the north bridge.” So everybody answered the call. They got in their vehicles and they drove to the north bridge. So both sides of the road had cars facing north. People were walking on the sides of the road.

I had taken a back path that the deer, the wildlife, use and I entered from between two hills on a deer path. And I walked through the trees up along the fence and then from that point on … there was flood lights, there was at least 40 floodlights on the north side of the river, about a quarter mile apart, along the entire path of that pipeline. So it’s like moonlight… it’s like daylight on the north side of the river. On the south side, not so much. And people had gathered there, they had… they were singing at the front line. They were playing music at the front line. They were chanting “Water is life.”

By the time I had gotten there, people were coming back, soaked in water, and it was really cold out, and the wind had picked up. And truckloads of people with assistance had brought blankets and jackets, and water, and goggles and face masks. So when you entered the bridge you could look to your right and pick up a blanket, and pick up a goggle, and pick up a face mask, and you could walk further to where the encounter was taking place.

So, I kept to the right of the bridge, and I went down to where the razor wire is, because it’s like a war zone there. I’m not kidding. They have floodlights, they have the tank right centered on the bridge, and there was no instructions. They … had a water cannon there. I heard throughout the night that they had used seven fire engine trucks. They emptied seven of them. It was unbelievable. I didn’t think that they would continue to water cannon people. And I asked them… I went to the front lines and said “Stop this… please go home. We’re here praying for you. We’ll find you new jobs. Pray with us, stand with us. We’re protecting the water for millions.”

And they didn’t listen, they stood behind the barbed wire and they continued … they would lift their rifles and they would pick out, literally pick out, individuals in the crowd and they would shoot them. And so water protectors had plastic container tops, and they were using those as shields. And they were protecting people whenever they could. I was on the front line. I was very, very lucky, because I didn’t get shot. I got maced, I got peppered sprayed, I got water cannoned.

The force of a water cannon if you haven’t had one… it knocks you off your feet. And we had built fires to warm up the people who were soaking wet, in the frigid weather, people are shaking, they were drenched in water and tear gas.
Our medics were out there in full force, doing what was necessary to keep people breathing. People were sharing their inhalers. Those who couldn’t breathe… it was unbelievable. I didn’t think that things would come to this end. But unless Obama stands up, unless people start calling their senators, our lives are in danger, not only the water, but our lives, are physically in danger. So, it hurts me to talk like this.But a call needs to be made. Hundreds of calls need to be made.

Our water needs to be protected. We need support up here. We need wool blankets. We need wool clothes. We need to replenish our first aid kits. We need more thermal blankets. We need batteries. We need jerky. We need those snack bars that you eat, when you’re not able to eat a hot meal. Thermoses. We need… I think we need hundreds of thermoses, because we can’t even carry hot water with us anywhere we go. It was just unbelievable. It was… between being shot with water and then dodging bullets, I’m trying to deliver a peaceful message, and saying prayer. It was hard.

I mean, I slid down the hill, I was knocked off the hill by a water cannon, people picked me up. There was a man standing right next to … a military vehicle, without any face protection, without any blanket and he was singing. And he kept singing, and they just kept spraying him over and over. I picked up an army blanket, I covered him up with it. I stood beside him. We sang together, we prayed together. And they still shot at us, they still maced us, and they still used the water cannon on whoever they wanted to… on everybody that was within their reach, everybody.

And the fires that were started to protect everybody, to warm people up… those fires that were set to warm people up because there was no warming station at that site, were targeted by the police… were targeted by the water cannons. […] The fires that were keeping us warm, they intended on [extinguishing the fires that were there for warmth] and that was there intent.

We didn’t start the fires, only the warming stations. The fires that were started randomly out in the field those were by the tear gas canisters that they were shooting off there. They were shooting canisters at us, into the crowd, everybody at one point thought they were trapped on the bridge because lights were coming over from the south of us. And those turned out to be our own warriors, our own water protectors, our own horse riders to support us. They stood up on the hill, on both sides of the bridge, on the south end, and we were down at the bottom on the bridge, up against the razor wire. I asked them to stop, repeatedly, repeatedly. They wouldn’t stop. They just kept going.

But the thing that really hurt me the most, is when they were trying to put out the fires that were literally saving peoples’ lives. I had got knocked down and was totally drenched in water, I walked over to the fire to warm up and I was only there long enough to empty the water out of my shoes and then they started targeting the fires. So the protectors put up a shield. And for thirty seconds they stood there with a continuous blast of water, and they were totally drenched. And then they all split. First the water hit the fire and there was so much steam and smoke that came out of there. We were blinded.

But there were two of us and we grabbed one of those Teflon, Mylar body armors, and we stretched it between us, and we knelt down on it, and held it between us, we crouched together, we covered one end of the fire. And we just sat there and we prayed. And they kept putting the water over us, until we were completely drenched, again, over and over.

And I could hear a young girl, when the smoke cleared, she was saying “grab the logs, grab the logs” and so people ran over, they grabbed the logs out of the fire and they ran a few yards south, put them together and started another fire, so people could warm up before they were taken to the medic tents. Because there were hundreds of people soaking wet. They weren’t dressed in wool.

When I make a call out for clothing it’s not for any cotton, it’s not for polyester, it’s for waterproof jackets and there’s hardly any waterproof tents at all, snow pants, snow bibs, anything that’s waterproof, and wool. We need wool sweaters, wool socks, wool gloves, wool jackets. Those are the things that we need right now.

I wish the Red Cross would show up. I really do wish that whoever has power to send the Red Cross over there [would]. We could do that because we are in a state of emergency. That’s how it was on the front line.

DB: It’s really important … you sort of hit this really hard but just to underline it… because places like NPR and the local police are saying that they had the water there because you all were starting fires, and that you were throwing Molotov cocktails. That was the story that was coming out of the police, and the local press. You want to talk a little bit more about that?

CA: I’m not afraid to call a liar to their face. If they’re going to post things like that they should be standing on the front lines, getting eyewitness testimony, instead of just passing on the lies [that] the sheriff, … and the governor of North Dakota, and the DAPL are putting out. Because they are taking their own words and using them against the people, to not know the truth. And that should be a crime. It should be.

If I was lying to get people to hurt other people, would I be called a good person? Would I be fit to wear a uniform? Would I be fit to lead a state? I don’t think so. Not according to the values that America claims that it follows. And so, NPR, get on the front line, take your own video, because you weren’t there. So I would like all these major media outlets to quit reprinting lies that are undocumented, undocumented statements from the police.

All that happened is our security wanted to open that road, because it is a public road. And that’s what they said to us when we had our vehicles parked on it. On October 24th they said “go on” they said “we need to open the road. It’s a public road. Move your cars.” So why can’t we move those 3 trucks off the bridge? It’s a public road. That’s how it all started.

DB: But those are two burnt trucks?

CA: That the military forces had placed there themselves. The North Dakota officials put those there and they started them on fire. And before they left they said, “Please stay away from the vehicles. They have propane inside of them, they’re explosive devices.” Which, of course, made everybody to move back from the bridge. And they left them there. And then they put razor wire, which is also unconstitutional. You cannot use that type of razor wire. I mean you only see those in war zones. You don’t see them in the United States. But I’m starting to feel we’re in a war zone. So it’s a battle, people. We need bodies, up front.

We need the world to know that water is a precious commodity and it is sacred to natives. When you understand its relationship to life you will understand the sacredness of it. And we need your support. We need this economy to stop being the oil and gas industries, it’s not good for our country. We need to divest from fossil fuels, and start being a leader in the world by adopting a green policy and getting new jobs for these people who are in the oil industry. Thank you for listening to me. My flight is about to leave. And I’m leaving for ceremony. I’ll be in ceremony for four days. And I’ll be available after four days. And things will probably change by then too.


A Tradition of Forgetting Indian Rights

Ironically, as Americans commemorate how Native Americans helped save the Pilgrims in 1621, Indian-rights activists are under attack today in defense of land that a 1868 treaty guaranteed as theirs, observes Nat Parry.

By Nat Parry
Making official a quintessential American tradition dating back to the 1621 feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe, President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declared the last Thursday of November to be the national day of Thanksgiving ? a vain attempt to unite the North and South at the height of the Civil War.

Five years later, continuing a closely paralleled American tradition, the U.S. government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which established the Great Sioux Reservation west of the Missouri River and promised no more white settlement in a huge, 18-million acre swath of land.

Over the next two decades, as Civil War Reconstruction was completed and a nationwide Thanksgiving date was finally agreed upon by Northern and Southern states, the U.S. continuously reneged on the Fort Laramie Treaty, eventually breaking the Great Sioux Reservation up into five smaller reservations: Cheyenne River Reservation, Lower Brule Indian Reservation, Rosebud Indian Reservation, Pine Ridge Reservation, and Standing Rock Reservation.

More than a century later, in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government had illegally taken this land, and awarded $120.5 million to the Sioux Nation, based on the market value of the land in 1877, plus interest. For nearly four decades, however, the Lakota Sioux have refused to accept payment and instead continued to demand that the United States return the territory.

Today, the Sioux people are continuing to take a stand on these principles ? the flashpoint now being the Dakota Access Pipeline, which, upon its completion is expected to transport some 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day across several states. Sioux tribe members and their allies have protested this pipeline for months, raising concerns about the threat it poses to their water supply, the effects that the fracked oil will have on the climate, and the process by which the project was approved, saying that it failed to take into account Native rights.

“We live with so many broken promises, there’s no reason for it,” said Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. “We understand what lands we own, and what lands were illegally taken from us.”

The government, of course, is responding the way it always has to Native American resistance ? through brute force. Over the past few months, police and private security forces have viciously suppressed the water protectors, siccing dogs on them and arresting them for “trespassing.” The repression, which a group of United Nations experts called “excessive” and “increasingly militarized,” culminated Sunday night in some of worst violence against Native people seen since the 1973 siege of nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and water at hundreds of protesters in the subfreezing North Dakota weather late Sunday night and early Monday morning, following an attempt by protesters to remove burned vehicles blocking Backwater Bridge in order to enable emergency vehicles and local traffic to move freely.

The police assault led to several reported cases of life-threatening hypothermia. “It is below freezing right now and the Morton County Sheriff’s Department is using a water cannon on our people ? that is an excessive and potentially deadly use of force,” said activist Dallas Goldtooth.

Every aspect of this appears to violate the letter and spirit of the 1868 Laramie Treaty, in which the federal government not only promised to respect Sioux land rights, but also to come to the aid of Native people if they are wronged by outside forces.

“If bad men among the whites, or among other people subject to the authority of the United States, shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians, the United States will … proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also re-imburse the injured person for the loss sustained,” the treaty reads.

At this time of Thanksgiving, it would only be appropriate for President Barack Obama to insist that the “bad men” who are committing wrongs “upon the person or property of the Indians” stand down immediately, as well as to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and reimburse the Sioux for losses already sustained.

Then, perhaps, the shameful tradition of breaking treaties while giving thanks might itself be broken, and Americans might be able to enjoy their turkey dinners and family reunions without a cloud of hypocrisy hanging over their heads.


One Iraqi Family’s Struggle amid Chaos

Amid the mainstream U.S. media’s focus on Syria, the ongoing U.S.-provoked humanitarian crisis in Iraq get little attention as victims of the post-invasion chaos still suffer.

by Cathy Breen

I’ve written often about our Iraqi refugee friend and his oldest son from Baghdad. I will call them Mohammed and Ahmed. They made the torturous flight last year from Baghdad to Kurdistan and then across Turkey. They were on three Greek islands before permission was granted them to continue their trip. They passed through several countries at the time the borders were being closed. They arrived finally at their destination in late September 2015. Finland.

Having lived with this family in Baghdad, I have the faces of the wife and each of the children before me.

Iraqi children caught in the ongoing chaos of Iraq. (Photo credit: Cathy Breen)
Mohammed’s children, caught in the ongoing chaos of Iraq. (Photo credit: Cathy Breen)
Generally, I use Mohammed’s words, quoting him in a first person narrative. He told the story of their desperate life-threatening journey over a year ago. They went to Finland with the hope that fewer refugees would travel so far, that they would get asylum quicker and be reunited with their family, Mohammed’s wife and the other six children in Iraq.

Together with a small group of friends, Kathy Kelly and I were able to visit them in Finland in the deep winter cold this past January. We were able to bring them for a few days from the camp to Helsinki where they were warmly received by many Finnish people involved in the peace movement, journalists among them.

In late June Mohammed wrote us about the depression and frustration among refugees in their camp as many of them were getting rejected for asylum. He wrote that even Iraqi refugees from Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul were getting rejections. “I don’t know what I will do if I get a bad answer. For the last three weeks only bad answers are coming.” Then in late July came the crushing news that his own case had been denied.

“Today I got the immigration decision that my case was rejected. Me and Ahmed are not welcomed to Finland. Thanks for everything you did.” The next day he wrote again. “Today is one of the heaviest days of my life. Everybody, my son, my cousin and myself….we just kept silent. We are shocked from the decision. Losing my brother, jailed for 2 years, kidnapped, tortured, losing my house, parents, father-in-law, death threat letter and assassination attempt. Over 50 relatives killed. What more must I give them for them to believe me? Only one thing I forgot, to submit my death certificate. I feel I am being slaughtered. I don’t know what to tell my wife and children [in Baghdad].”

We have since learned that Finland is granting residency to only 10 percent of asylum seekers. An appeal is in progress, and several people have written letters on Mohammed’s behalf. It is by no means clear however that his request will be accepted.

In the meantime, the situation in Iraq and in Baghdad continues to worsen in terms of daily explosions, suicide bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, ISIS, police, army and militia activity. His wife lives in a particularly open and vulnerable rural area. His brother, who used to live a stone’s throw away, had to flee with his family several months ago due to death threats. This left Mohammed’s wife and children without protection.

During Ramadan Mohammed wrote: “The situation is really terrible during these days. My wife was planning to take the kids to her mother’s village during EID but she cancelled this idea.”

The U.S. military's "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad at the start of the Iraq War, as broadcast on CNN.
The U.S. military’s “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad at the start of the Iraq War, as broadcast on CNN.
On another occasion he wrote, “My wife is very worried about our second oldest son, afraid he will be kidnapped. She is thinking of moving from the village. Today we argued very hard as she blames me, telling me that I said we would be reunited within 6 months.”

On two recent occasions armed uniformed men came to Mohammed’s house seeking information about Mohammed and Ahmed. Mohammed wrote: “Yesterday at 5 a.m. the house was raided by armed official military guys in uniforms. Maybe the police? Maybe the militia or ISIS?”

It is hard to imagine the fright of Mohammed’s defenseless wife and the children, the youngest of whom is only 3 years old. It is hard to imagine Mohammed and Ahmed’s fright being so far away. At times Mohammed’s wife has hidden the oldest boy in the reeds by their house, afraid he will be recruited by force by ISIS or the militia! She has also been afraid to send the children to school because the security situation is so dangerous. She is angry at Mohammed, scared and not understanding why they have not been reunited after a year’s time.

Recently Mohammed emailed: “Honestly, Cathy, every night I am thinking of returning home and ending these arguments. Living away from your beloved kids is really hard. If I get killed alongside of my family, then everyone will understand why we had to leave and the arguments will finish. Even the Finnish immigration will understand that what I told them was true. But the next morning I changed my mind and decided to await the court’s final decision.”

“Every night I am afraid from the next morning’s news from my family. My daughter asked me by phone last week ‘Dad, when can we live together again. I am now 14 years and you have been away so long.’ She broke my heart.”

Just a few days ago he wrote: “I’m so happy because the ice has melted between my wife and I.” His little boy, 6 years, and his youngest daughter 8 years went to school today. My wife is so brave…. She decided to pay for a school bus for all of the kids. She said ‘I believe in God and I am sending the children and taking the risk.'”

I often ask myself how Mohammed gets up in the morning. How are he and his wife able to face the day? Their courage, their faith and their resilience inspires me, challenges me and pushes me to get out of my own bed in the morning.

Cathy Breen (newsfromcathy@gmail.com), lives and works at Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York City. She is also co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence.


Shimon Peres was no peacemaker. I’ll never forget the sight of pouring blood and burning bodies at Qana

by Robert Fisk
The Independent

Peres said the massacre came as a ‘bitter surprise’. It was a lie: the UN had repeatedly told Israel the camp was packed with refugees

When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted “Peacemaker!” But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter.

I saw the results: babies torn apart, shrieking refugees, smouldering bodies. It was a place called Qana and most of the 106 bodies ? half of them children ? now lie beneath the UN camp where they were torn to pieces by Israeli shells in 1996. I had been on a UN aid convoy just outside the south Lebanese village. Those shells swished right over our heads and into the refugees packed below us. It lasted for 17 minutes.

Shimon Peres, standing for election as Israel’s prime minister ? a post he inherited when his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated ? decided to increase his military credentials before polling day by assaulting Lebanon. The joint Nobel Peace Prize holder used as an excuse the firing of Katyusha rockets over the Lebanese border by the Hezbollah. In fact, their rockets were retaliation for the killing of a small Lebanese boy by a booby-trap bomb they suspected had been left by an Israeli patrol. It mattered not.

A few days later, Israeli troops inside Lebanon came under attack close to Qana and retaliated by opening fire into the village. Their first shells hit a cemetery used by Hezbollah; the rest flew directly into the UN Fijian army camp where hundreds of civilians were sheltering. Peres announced that “we did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp. It came to us as a bitter surprise.”

It was a lie. The Israelis had occupied Qana for years after their 1982 invasion, they had video film of the camp, they were even flying a drone over the camp during the 1996 massacre ? a fact they denied until a UN soldier gave me his video of the drone, frames from which we published in The Independent. The UN had repeatedly told Israel that the camp was packed with refugees.

This was Peres’s contribution to Lebanese peace. He lost the election and probably never thought much more about Qana. But I never forgot it.

When I reached the UN gates, blood was pouring through them in torrents. I could smell it. It washed over our shoes and stuck to them like glue. There were legs and arms, babies without heads, old men’s heads without bodies. A man’s body was hanging in two pieces in a burning tree. What was left of him was on fire.

On the steps of the barracks, a girl sat holding a man with grey hair, her arm round his shoulder, rocking the corpse back and forth in her arms. His eyes were staring at her. She was keening and weeping and crying, over and over: “My father, my father.” If she is still alive ? and there was to be another Qana massacre in the years to come, this time from the Israeli air force ? I doubt if the word “peacemaker” will be crossing her lips.

There was a UN enquiry which stated in its bland way that it did not believe the slaughter was an accident. The UN report was accused of being anti-Semitic. Much later, a brave Israeli magazine published an interview with the artillery soldiers who fired at Qana. An officer had referred to the villagers as “just a bunch of Arabs” (‘arabushim’ in Hebrew). “A few Arabushim die, there is no harm in that,” he was quoted as saying. Peres’s chief of staff was almost equally carefree: “I don’t know any other rules of the game, either for the [Israeli] army or for civilians…”

Peres called his Lebanese invasion “Operation Grapes of Wrath”, which ? if it wasn’t inspired by John Steinbeck ? must have come from the Book of Deuteronomy. “The sword without and terror within,” it says in Chapter 32, “shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of grey hairs.” Could there be a better description of those 17 minutes at Qana?

Yes, of course, Peres changed in later years. They claimed that Ariel Sharon ? whose soldiers watched the massacre at Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982 by their Lebanese Christian allies ? was also a “peacemaker” when he died. At least he didn’t receive the Nobel Prize.

Peres later became an advocate of a “two state solution”, even as the Jewish colonies on Palestinian land ? which he once so fervently supported ? continued to grow.

Now we must call him a “peacemaker”. And count, if you can, how often the word “peace” is used in the Peres obituaries over the next few days. Then count how many times the word Qana appears.