The “Janes,” Heather Booth, and Underground Abortions

New Orleans    I’ve known Heather Booth for a long time, probably forty years, as a respected colleague within the allied trades of our work. I first knew her as the director and one of the founders of the Midwest Academy, which was, and still is, a Chicago-based training center for organizers. Later in Washington she managed voter registration and engagement programs and was an excellent partner on our joint efforts, and continued to be a voice and advisor with considered and valued opinions. Prior to meeting her, I admired the fact that she had spent time as an organizer in the South during the civil rights movement.

In many ways I now feel I only knew the half of it as I read a snippet of the oral history of the “Janes” in the recent issue of Harper’s Magazine and Heather’s history in founding this pivotal service for women in the fraught times before the Roe decision made the right-to-choose a foundational principle of our time and legalized women’s access to abortion, which is threatened so acutely now. My admiration for her work now knows no bounds.

The story is straightforward though, despite the courage and conviction it evidenced. Heather tells of being a college student in 1965 at the University of Chicago. A friend’s sister found herself pregnant, desperate, and without options. When her friend asked her for help, she reached out for the Medical Committee for Human Rights who then in turn put her in touch with a Dr. T.RM. Howard, and her sister’s friend’s problem was solved. Next thing she knew “word must have spread.” One called and then another, and Heather realized this was a real situation crying for a solution. She arranged a system with Dr. Howard. She was living in a dormitory and all of this was illegal then, so she would tell people to “ask for Jane.” And, so it continued for another three years until 1968. Heather threw out a rope looking for help when she attended various political meetings asking if any women wanted to help provide counseling for other women, and thereby recruited a team of “new” Janes to take her place.

This went through a number of iterations with various folks handling women looking for help and forced to follow the surreptitious route necessary to receive it successfully. People would donate their homes for the procedures. Women would meet other women off-site, make them comfortable, and bring them into the homes. These were feisty sisters, more formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation or Janes, as everyone called them. Doctors would refer people to them and the Janes would call the doctor and say, hey, this is Jane, help us, but few did. Eventually, they were raided in one of the homes and seven were arrested. No one was willing to testify against them. Eventually the Supreme Court decision in 1973 made the matter moot and the Janes shut down, but by that time they had facilitated about 11,000 abortions.

I’m proud of Heather, but there may need to be many more Heathers who are willing to become Janes and fire up this underground railroad to provide this service and meet this life changing need, so this story is one worth learning and learning well.

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Gorsuch, Like Mother, Like Son?

The chemical plant responsible for the Love Canal problem is the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, in this aerial view, which dumped toxic waste in the Love Canal neighborhood from 1940 until 1950 and which was investigated and exposed in 1980.

New Orleans   All heck seemed to be breaking loose in Washington. The FBI says they were investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and that there is no evidence that the Trump claim that Obama tapped his phones is true. In another hearing room, Neil Gorsuch, was being queried about a job as a Supreme Court Justice, and claiming he was “above politics.”

More disturbing to me in some ways was reading a piece in High Country News reprising his mother’s controversial stint and resignation as director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Ronald Reagan. Her mission at the EPA was search-and-destroy, much like that of Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who has sued the agency more than a dozen times and is now the newly confirmed department secretary. Both of them have beaten the drums on department overreach and the need to cut the budget and the staff and push more regulation – or lack of it – back to the states. Pruitt reportedly has already had to learn to be careful what he asked for and scurried, unsuccessfully, over to the White House to see if he could limit the budget reduction at the EPA to only a billion bucks, down to $7 billion. The White House instead responded by taking the EPA number down to $5.7 billion.

Anne Gorsuch Burford had been a firebrand Republican Colorado state senator before being raised up to a post in Washington to try and dismantle the EPA. Reading the article it all floods back in the memory of the hard times of the 1980s under Reagan. Gorsuch Burford was the administrator of the Superfund program, created by the EPA and Congress in the wake of the Love Canal, which, as many remember, was built to devastating effect on top of toxic wastes. Gorsuch Burford’s administrative under reach was her undoing. As High Country News reported:

“At a defunct chemical waste processing facility in Indiana…Gorsuch’s EPA allowed a company to pay only a third of the cost of cleaning up underground pollution, and then granted it immunity from liability for underground waste. Accusations of mismanagement let to multiple congressional investigations, and the FBI also investigated the agency for shedding documents related to Superfund probes…Gorsuch herself was cited by Congress for contempt after refusing to turn over documents during the investigation. By Gorsuch’s own admission, the resulting political meltdown paralyzed the agency, preventing it from getting any work done. Gorsuch resigned in 1983 after learning the Justice Department wouldn’t defend her on the contempt charge.”

Neil Gorsuch has been reported as upset and confused by his mother’s resignation as a teen, and arguing for her to stand and fight. Judge Gorsuch has also been noted for his decisions pushing against the so-called “administrative state,” where agencies have acted to interpret Congressional actions in accord with their regulatory authority, as well as his closeness to corporations and their interests.

None of these judicial nominees do much besides dancing at hearings of the Judiciary Committee, and certainly the anger of child is not the same as the maturity of an adult, but nonetheless it’s unsettling still because the child is still father to the man, and there are too many payback coincidences in Judge Gorsuch’s current views that seem to flow directly from those seminal experiences in the 1980s. He may have learned how to get along better than his mother, but the views seem a little too close for comfort to me.

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Security and Whistleblowing with Signal and Moxie Marlinspike

Signal

New Orleans   Not long ago in the Edinburgh office of ACORN, I got a crash course in some simple things about basic email and text protection from spying and other weirdness thanks to one of our leader/organizers, Jon Black, who has done a deep dive on some of this stuff, so now that everyone is looking over our shoulders, maybe it’s time to share some tips.

I had fooled Black and masked my basic techno-peasantness because I knew about the legendary Moxie Marlinspike who is seen by many as the world’s expert on encryption. Of course I only really knew about Marlinspike because I had read a number of articles by him, thought the name was fantastic, and liked the fact that he was not your standard issue Silicon Valley greed grubber. Jon has actually read all of the terms and conditions so he was able to explain to me exactly why Moxie’s Signal was better than WhatsApp, which Marlinspike also developed and is now owned by Facebook. There was an important difference involving setting specific controls on WhatsApp for the user to be notified if someone was creeping up on their account, which are automatic for Signal. At least I think that’s what he told me.

But, anyway, Signal is actually owned and run by Marlinspike, so that should just be enough. Importantly, when WikiLeaks dropped the dime on the CIA at first I shouted out for Jon that they had managed to break through the encryption at Signal, but that was wrong. I heard the Moxie-man on the radio and he made it very clear, and it’s been confirmed elsewhere since, that they cracked the smartphones, not the apps. Of course one thing is still important to remember. To really encrypt your phone calls, video calls, and texts on Signal, the other party also needs to be on Signal. It’s an easy switch, and I’d recommend it as a “why not be safe rather than sorry” move.

Another recommendation for moving in this direction were some tips I saw recently in the magazine, “Wired,” for being a leaker or whistleblower and hoping to protect your anonymity. When it came to doing so with a phone they made the following suggestions, which many would have known form any close viewing of the great HBO series, “The Wire:”

“Buy a burner – a cheap, prepaid Android phone – with cash from a nonchain store in an area you’ve never been to before. Don’t carry your regular phone and the burner at the same time, and never turn on the burner at home or work. Create a Gmail and Google Play account from the burner, then install the encrypted calling and texting app Signal. When you’re done, destroy the burner and ditch its corpse far from home.”

They never say the words GPS, cell tower triangulation, or Stringer Bell, but almost all of these cautions underscore the fact that when you’re rolling with your phone – especially if it’s switched on – anyone and everyone can track you anywhere and anytime. Regardless, I would call those instructions a huge product endorsement for Signal as top of the line, best in class now especially for the price. Heck, it’s free, so you get more security for nothing. What’s to lose?

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Book Banning and the Fight to Stop It

Montreal    Representative Kim Hendren had an idea and in the Age of Trump no one probably told him to just take a deep breath or think twice, so he probably thought it was a dandy idea to introduce a bill in the Arkansas legislature to ban Howard Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States and pretty much anything that Zinn had ever written, believing all of the late Boston University historian’s work was a threat to the country itself. He’s probably right in a weird way. Zinn’s history definitely tells stories of people and events left out of most books, yet still a vital fabric of the American experience regardless of the efforts of Rep. Hendren and others to whitewash the past to fit their own ideologies.

Hendren clearly didn’t realize that when it comes to book banning that he was kicking the hornets’ nest, but talking to Deborah Menkart, the executive director of Teaching for Change and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project, it was clear to me that he has met his match, no matter what happens to his little hater bill. Menkart and the Zinn Education Project responded to news of the bill by offering to make available copies of Zinn’s book and related teaching materials without cost to any Arkansas teacher or librarian that was interested. In the first blush they were overwhelmed with requests within days for 300 books, virtually depleting their entire stock. In the subsequent weeks the requests for copies has now crossed 700 volumes by the time I was interviewing her on Wade’s World. Thanks to Hendren the book has now gained a wider audience, something he clearly did not realize was going to happen.

Teaching for Change is no neophyte when it comes to insuring that the whole story gets told. They have been in business for twenty-five years and provide tools for teachers and students that are going to be even more valuable in this time when the US Department of Education is facing a leadership crisis at the top of their structure trying to go to war against public schools altogether. Menkart detailed a program that makes deep contributions in Latin American studies and a special project in Mississippi that has focused on allowing people in McComb in the southern part of that state to relearn the important role that courageous neighbors and community residents played, working largely with SNCC organizers, during the civil rights movement. Menkart’s points were telling. Fast forward three or four decades and the story becomes Cesar Chavez, Delores Huerta, Martin Luther King, and a few others rather than the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of small, but earth shattering, roles played by regular people saying “Yes” and saying “No,” in ways that were different and profound.

More than Howard Zinn’s book, the real fear that Representative Hendren and so many hundreds of legislators around the country have now is that they might have unleashed a level of people power that they can no longer contain. And, supporting Teaching for Change and the Zinn Education Project may be part of way loosens the bounds and allows for harder questions and a new way of thinking.

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The IRS Enables the Return of Refund Anticipation Loans

New Orleans   Refund anticipation loans or RALs, as they were known, were one of the most predatory products on the market in their heyday targeted solely to low-and-moderate income workers who were most desperate for their tax returns. They were on the other side of the digital divide so less likely to file with the IRS electronically. The money was theirs, and tax preparers, especially the big boys of the market, H&R Block, Jackson & Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Services all exploited this desperation.

This was a 21st century national campaign for ACORN, and we forced the first negotiations with H&R Block after 330 actions in a 6 week time period during the height of the tax season, and eventually ended up with agreements with all three of the companies to wind down RALs. Disclosures of the interest rates were part all of the agreements, but it didn’t really matter since even if it said the interest rate on the loan to get their money one week earlier than the IRS would deliver it would cost them 349%, displayed in a poster or on the computer screen, if you have to have the money to pay rent or buy groceries or fix the car and you have to have it right now, disclosures, no matter how predatory don’t matter. Eventually we got HSBC to withdraw as the primary lender to the companies for RALs for what they termed, “reputational reasons” because the loans were so exploitative. Finally, the IRS and eventually other government agencies jumped in and also condemned RALs, and they finally faded from the market.

Now, thanks to the IRS, they are back, and there is even less doubt about the potential victims now. In 2017, the IRS decided to deliberately delay refunds until February for any taxpayer that claimed the earned-income tax credit or the child tax credit. These credits are only available to lower income workers. Presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have argued that EITC is the best and largest “anti-poverty program in the United States.”

On their website the IRS claimed they were concerned about an “error rate” of between 20 and 27% for filers in order to justify these delays. Something is fishy here. This is the IRS. The error rate should be an exact number based on information they have at hand on how many corrected filings they required, so giving a fudged number raises questions in my mind. Furthermore, their advice is to preparers who enable incorrect filings, which the IRS concedes are largely based on the complexity and confusion involved in the EITC program. Why was the pain not pushed to the preparers, rather than the families filing who were delayed unreasonably in receiving their returns? Oh, and meanwhile the number of audits of higher income filers is in the dumps now!

The preparers saw an opportunity and seized it by offering RALs again. Admittedly, these were no-interest loans this time offered against the amount of the return, and they had loan limits depending on the company’s policies. The big boys report over 1.5 million RALs are reported already this tax season with a month to go. Block did 840,000, Liberty175,000, and Jackson Hewitt 485,000. For the preparers, this is just the cost of customer acquisition, since it is cheese in the trap to catch low-income workers who would be forced to fork over the preparation cost to get their refunds.

No matter how much sugar you put in the coffee, this is once again the IRS partnering with private preparers to expand their businesses. The only real question is how long it will be before RALs are back in full and terrible force again?

The only good news in this tawdry story is that overall filings are down so far this year, so some people at least have decided to wait all of the vultures out.

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Just When You Think It Can’t Get Worse, It Just Gets More Bizarre

New Orleans   We’re living in bizarre times without easy explanations, making it hard not to start drawing straight lines in our mind about things that might normally have seemed simply examples of random events, but the examples abound.

The legislature is meeting currently in Arkansas for instance. News reports indicated that there was a difficulty in the conservative Republican legislature in passing an “open carry” law for college campuses in the state similar to what exists in Texas. They worked it out a compromise by passing the “open carry” for colleges but also adding that “open carry” would be extended to bars and other venues. Yikes!

They had a similar problem when some of them wanted to make the Bible the state book. A number of them thought that was a grand idea, but a couple of wet blankets among the thumping crowd thought it might demean the Bible and be sacrilegious. More seriously, I listened to a lot of discussion about a bill that kept failing and being pulled back up until it passed that essentially said that any time a school district closed a school for any reason a charter school operator would have first dibs on taking the school over. Since Little Rock schools were pretty arbitrarily taken over by the state, many of the opponents of the takeover see the state legislature’s action as just another backdoor move to force charter schools into the district to make the Waltons happy.

But, before anyone gets the big head, looking at state legislatures in many of the Republican controlled states is clear evidence that Arkansas is neither the first, nor the last, in this kind of weird world. Federal courts had to strike down a Louisiana legislative act that tried to bar nude dancing in strip clubs in that famously wide open state for young women between 18 and 20, because it not only abridged their free speech as determined in the past by the US Supreme Court, but there was also no way the judge could find any evidence that the bill was really about sex trafficking despite the legislatures cover story.

Seems a bit like Muslim Ban 1.0 and now Muslim Ban 2.0. It really isn’t enough to protect you from the US Constitution and the rights it offers against discrimination because of religion or national origin, to insert a sentence or two in the new ban that says, hey, this isn’t discrimination. Judges and lawyers may have been born at night, just not last night.

Meanwhile as Russian knocks on the door of the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1917 in a surprise Prime Minister Putin has put the kibosh on any kind of big celebration of what any would acknowledge as one of the seminal events of world history in the 20th century. According to spokespeople in Russia, the government is of two minds. On one hand Putin doesn’t want to remind anyone that revolution might be a good idea, because in his view that would be a very bad idea. And, on the other hand there are many others in the country who see the end of the Soviet era, according to a spokesperson, as being “like Brexit,” the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. You can’t make this stuff up!

Ok, all this is random, but so bizarrely connected that it’s enough to prevent anything like clear thinking on any given morning. That’s my excuse anyway. I wonder what theirs might be.

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