What Just Happened? A Weekly Roundup of Politics

03.08.2019 Arts & Culture
Ann Lewis
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This week we saw the good, the bad, and the ugly reverberate out of Washington. Here’s a look at the controversy surrounding Ilhan Omar’s comments about Israel, Trump’s quiet move to kill transparency around the reporting of civilians killed by drone strikes, and, in a surprise action, JP Morgan Chase divests out of the private prison industry.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on Israel. They range from staunch support to the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) Movement which protests Israel’s continued territorial encroachment on Palestine. Freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (MN) has been all over the news lately with her denouncement of Congressional support of Israel — in both tweets and verbal statements. Many have labeled her anti-Semitic as she’s challenged the perceived power lobbying groups (such as the AIPAC — American Israel Public Affairs Committee) have over Congress members in part due to campaign contributions.

Like many regions divided after WWII and the colonial era, the Israel/Palestine conflict is hyper-complicated and may always be a hotbed for war and territory disputes. While some recognize Israel’s decimation of Palestine and the growing humanitarian crisis, others see Omar’s comments strike specifically at the concept of dual allegiance and the racist ideologies that Jews use money to influence people.

If we’re worried about special interest groups swaying the votes of our elected officials, maybe we should get rid of the Citizen United Supreme Court ruling that equates money with votes and allows major corporations to spend freely in our government elections to get their favorite candidates elected. (Super PACs spent just over $500 million on the midterm elections alone.) Washington D.C. has become a place where special interest groups write the bills and hand them to a representative to champion and pass. Money in politics fuels corruption regardless of who cuts the check — and it happens on both sides of the aisle. Omar likens organizations like AIPAC to the NRA and the fossil fuel industry.

The backlash has been tremendous, and Congress has begun working to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism. It has since been expanded to also include Islamophobia after Omar’s portrait was photoshopped under the Twin Towers engulfed in flames during a West Virginia Republican rally last week, likening her to a terrorist.

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America and across the globe. 2017 saw a massive spike in anti-Semitic hate speech here in the US. While Omar’s statements were condemned, many Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate recently voted against a bill that allows states to refuse to do business with companies that boycott Israel. The measure is mostly symbolic, but with Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and others voting against it, the riff in the Democratic Party regarding the United States’ relationship to Israel seems to become more complicated by the day.

It’s estimated that American drone strikes have killed somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people since recording started in 2010. Drone warfare was dramatically increased from the Bush to the Obama Administration and then again since Trump’s election. The total number of strikes during the eight-year Obama Administration is estimated at 1,878. Within the two-plus years of the Trump Administration, the estimation is staggering at 2,243 attacks.

In an effort for transparency, a 2016 Obama Era executive order required US intelligence officials to report the number of civilians killed outside of war zones on an annual basis. While those numbers are ironically hard to find, President Trump has signed an executive order erasing this requirement put forth by Obama. The White House called the order “superfluous reporting requirements” that “distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission.” However, many transparency and human rights advocates disagree, stating that without regular reporting backed up by facts, terrorist groups have the opportunity to inflate numbers to garner more support for their causes. The reporting is difficult and time consuming with the identification of the dead nearly impossible after a drone strike.

That being said, hundreds of children have been caught in the crossfire of America’s war on terror through drone strikes. Attacks that accidentally strike civilians are often understood to be catalysts for the radicalization of non-combatants. This information, while difficult to attain, may aid in finding solutions to quelling the expansion of terror cells throughout the Middle East.

In a surprise move this week, JP Morgan Chase has said it will divest from the private prison industry. Many of the private prisons that house immigrants and refugees awaiting legal hearings are technically categorized as real estate companies for tax purposes, but that comes with a requirement that they don’t carry a lot of cash on hand. This stipulation in the tax law requires them to acquire massive loans from banks to grow their businesses frequently. Without JP Morgan Chase available prisons will just go to a different bank, but rumors are circulating that Wells Fargo may too soon step away from profiting off companies that are imprisoning children and families. This could create a domino effect or just consolidate the working relationships between most private prisons and a few banks.

While Chase claims that the divestment comes after the bank found the investment to be too risky, many point to the dedicated activist groups that have put pressure on the bank for years. One such protest this year on Valentine’s Day sent a mariachi band to play outside of Jamie Dimon’s home, the company’s chief executive officer. Perhaps the concerted effort and chants like “Break up with prisons” finally touched at the heart of the issue. While it’s often said that protesting does nothing but make the protestors feel good about themselves, we should not underestimate the power of humor and music to change the world.

Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects up social and environmental justice issues.

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