US prisoners demand an end to prison slavery

phoenix

On 9 September, prisoners across the US marked the 45th anniversary of the historic Attica prison uprising in 1971 by commencing a series of strikes and actions which is continuing as we go to press. Nicki Jameson reports.

This wave of protest is the most widespread expression of discontent and resistance to hit the US prison system since the 1970s; however the mainstream press has been largely silent about it. Alternative news website The Intercept, one of the few news sources to report on the strike, described the prisoners’ demands as follows:

‘...inmates are protesting a wide range of issues: from harsh parole systems and three-strike laws to the lack of educational services, medical neglect, and overcrowding. But the issue that has unified protesters is that of prison labor – a $2 billion a year industry that employs nearly 900,000 prisoners while paying them a few cents an hour in some states, and nothing at all in others. In addition to work for private companies, prisoners also cook, clean, and work on maintenance and construction in the prisons themselves.’

 

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US presidential election farce drags on

tump and hilary

The primary elections are over, the party conventions have finished. Now the two main contenders, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump are facing off in the Presidential race proper, leading up to election day in November. Steve Palmer reports.

Cynics often repeat the jibe that the US ‘has the finest democracy money can buy’. Both candidates are buying big. By the end of August, Clinton had raised $795m while Trump had raised $403.1m, and the cycle of fundraisers continues apace, lubricating the election process, squeezing out third-party candidates and buying influence with the future President.

Both candidates are millionaires individually, yet, hypocritically, both claim to be defending US workers’ jobs and wages, though Clinton has long supported and promoted globalisation and Trump has a history of exploiting cheap labour and opposing labour organising in his hotel chain.

 

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US election woes

Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton

Nothing is working out the way the US ruling class hoped for the 2016 Presidential elections. Early last year it expected that Hillary Clinton would already be the Democratic candidate, while Governor Jeb Bush or Senator Marco Rubio would be well on the way to receiving the nomination of the Republican Party. Today, that plan lies tattered and all hell has broken loose, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump receiving massive popular endorsements and scaring the daylights out of the ruling class.

The trouble began a year ago. On 26 May 2015 Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination; on 16 June Trump announced he was standing for the Republican nomination. They were initially dismissed by the ruling class and its lackeys with contempt. But then people began voting for them – in large numbers. Contempt turned to concern, then consternation, then condemnation, then fear. Trump is feared because he has whipped up a racist mob and threatens to sweep away the cosy political games the ruling class plays. Sanders is feared because he has a social democratic programme of civil rights, free education and healthcare, which US imperialism can’t afford without threatening its profits.

 

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Prisoners’ work strike in Alabama

On 1 May, International Workers’ Day, a month-long prison labour strike began across the US state of Alabama. Stating ‘We will no longer contribute to our own oppression’, leaders of the Free Alabama Movement, a national movement against mass incarceration and prison slavery, have been organising for this state-wide prison work stoppage since 2015.

The strike began at Alabama’s Holman, Staton and Elmore Correctional Facilities, with St Clair’s and Donaldson Facilities following on 9 May. Prisoners announced that unless their demands were met they would refuse to leave their cells to perform the unpaid work which allows the prison to function. A statement on behalf of the striking prisoners said:

‘The Free Alabama Movement has chosen the non-violent and peaceful protest strategy of “shutdowns”/work stoppages to combat the multi-billion dollar Prison Industrial Complex that has incarcerated over two million people for the sole purpose of exploitation through free labour, private prisons, exorbitant fees, and more.

 

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Muhammad Ali: Revolutionary

Muhammad Ali, born on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, is dead. An immense figure in social and political life as much as boxing, his death will undoubtedly be the leading story of all mainstream media outlets for days to come. Already, celebrators of his life are searching to find superlatives to describe a man known by most as simply 'the greatest'. For all the outpouring, one word is noticeably missing from the description of one of the most significant and iconic figures of the twentieth century: revolutionary.

Between hardcore boxing fans the debate will continue as to whether Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano is truly the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Regardless of the outcome, in terms of thrilling the fans of the sport with his inimitable style in the ring and electrifying charisma outside, Ali is the undisputed champion. In his prime he presided over the strongest era in heavyweight boxing, beating all competitors, losing only to Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, losses which he later avenged. From winning his Olympic gold medal in 1960 to a series of brutal and punishing fights which would lead to him becoming a three-time world champion, Ali fought the strongest and won. He would describe his bout with Joe Frazier in 1975 as 'the closest thing to dying that I know'. His greatest fight however, was not against an opponent in the ring but against the establishment, racism and imperialism.

 

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Trump knocks Republicans out

Frankensteins monster

Every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, he vomits up reactionary sewage, yet he is still the most likely Republican presidential candidate. Liberals are appalled, shocked and have no idea how to respond except to vent their repulsion. The grandees of the Republican Party establishment are also appalled because they fear that Trump’s candour will cost them the presidency. Much is at stake: with Justice Scalia’s death in February, the Republicans lost one of the five conservatives who control the nine-judge Supreme Court. The Court is the final court of appeal and interpreter of the Constitution, so can have enormous power over the final effects of legislation. Justices are nominated by the President and have to be approved by the Senate, so whoever gets to appoint Scalia’s replacement will shape the court for a generation, determining the social programme of the United States with respect to abortion, civil rights, the relationship between church and state, gun control and many other social issues. If Trump wins the Republican presidential nomination, the Republican leaderships fears that the conservative programme is doomed and a vital opportunity lost, since they believe he is either unelectable in the November general election or completely inappropriate to be President.

From reconstruction …

It has taken the Republican Party 150 years to transform the ‘Party of Lincoln’ into the filthy racist sewer Donald Trump wallows in. It was founded in 1854, bringing together Whigs and ‘Free Soilers’, a coalition of northern business, free white labour and independent farmers, opposed to the extension of slavery to the western states and territories where labour was free. Attitudes to slavery in the party ranged from simply maintaining the status quo, to full abolitionism. Lincoln was elected President in 1860, defeating a Democrat coalition. Seven (later joined by another four) of 15 slave states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederacy. With the Confederacy’s attack on Fort Sumter, the Civil War began. Secession led to the resignation of most Southern Congressmen and enabled the Republicans to pass their economic programme, including building the transcontinental railroad, introducing tariffs to protect northern industry and to secure higher wages for white workers, establishing a national banking system, the issue of fiat currency, and passing the Homestead Act which was intended to grant land to independent farmers rather than plantation owners.

 

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US economy: a moribund giant

In his last State of the Union address on 12 January 2016, President Obama claimed that ‘the United States of America, right now, has the strongest most durable economy in the world’; in its last report the US Federal Reserve Bank talked optimistically of ‘economic momentum’, ‘solid gains in household spending’ and ‘a strengthening economic recovery’. Yet a closer examination shows that this economic miracle is something entirely different. Steve Palmer reports.

US capitalism has had a difficult year. Despite all media talk of a ‘strong recovery’, there are critical indicators of stagnation. The inability to accumulate profitably was shown by the year-on-year decline, in the second and third quarters, of capital expenditure by the largest 500 non-financial corporations (the S&P 500 ex-fin). At the same time idle cash and short term investments amounted to $1.45 trillion, the second highest level in ten years. Capital expenditure has decreased almost 5% over the year.

 

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US interest rate dilemma

According to the mythology of capitalist economics, adjusting interest rates and the money supply can enable capitalist economies to negotiate their way successfully between maintaining full employment, ensuring a stable currency and controlling inflation. This is precisely the charter of the US Federal Reserve Bank, the US central bank. For the last seven years, the Fed has feverishly printed dollars, while keeping interest rates near zero, attempting to revive the US economy. Last December, with the US economy supposedly recovering, the Fed started talking about the need to ‘normalise’ monetary policy. Ever since, capitalist markets, companies and commentators have been asking: will they raise interest rates or won’t they? Now it finally seems likely that the Federal Open Market Committee will go ahead and raise rates at its meeting on 15-16 December 2015. Why should this tinkering with the capitalist economy be of any interest to us?

 

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California prisoners win victory against solitary confinement

On 1 September 2015 prisoners in California who had since 2011 been waging a sustained struggle against the oppressive and torturous use of solitary confinement won a significant victory, as a legal agreement was reached between prisoners and the state. Nicki Jameson reports.

In 2011 FRFI reported how on 1 July that year prisoners in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay prison, California began an indefinite hunger strike in protest at their prolonged detention in conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. By the following week, at least 6,600 prisoners in 13 prisons across the state had joined the protest. On 15 July the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) responded to pressure from the prisoners and their supporters by commencing negotiations, but these quickly broke down as it became clear that the CDCR was not interested in meeting any of the prisoners’ demands. 

On 26 September 2011, hundreds of SHU prisoners resumed hunger striking. As a result there were further negotiations, which again broke down, followed by further protests in July 2013. All the protests focused around Five Core Demands:

 

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Remember the MOVE massacre

13 May 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of an indelible and bloody day in US history – an event that shocked the world. GRACE UHURU reports.

The MOVE organisation was formed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1972 by John Africa. It was a loose-knit, mostly black group whose members all adopted the surname Africa, advocated a back-to-nature lifestyle and preached against materialism and the injustices of the establishment.

On 13 May 1985, after years of police brutality against MOVE, the state police shot 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the MOVE house, before dropping a bomb on its roof. This horrific attack resulted in a blazing fire and ultimately the deaths of six adults and five children. Among the dead was John Africa. The only survivors of the bombing were Birdie Africa, aged 13, and Ramona Africa. Following the attack Ramona was hospitalised for a month with severe burns and taken into custody before being given a seven-year sentence for ‘inciting a riot’.

 

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Student loans: lessons from the US

Owe the bank £100, the old saying goes, and you have a problem; owe the bank £1 million and the bank has a problem. In the US almost 40 million people owe a total of $1.16 trillion in student loans. Since British capitalists have decided to follow their US counterparts onto the same slippery slope of financing higher education privately, it is worth having a closer look at the contradictions in this system.

Loans in the US

Student loan delinquencies are rising fast: loans more than 90 days delinquent are 4.3% of all consumer debt and 3.1% for mortgages: for student loans, the rate is 11.3% and increasing. When we take account of the fact that half of all these loans are in deferment, grace periods, or forbearance – in short, not in the repayment cycle – the delinquency rate more than doubles. With some putting it as high as 30%, it is clear there is a problem.

 

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The rage undammed

UCLA rally shortly after the Rodney King Verdict.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 107 June/July 1992

‘lt is no coincidence, either, that it all happened in the American city that most epitomises the burgeoning growth under Presidents Reagan and Bush, of a powerless underclass – a Rich v Poor polarisation in a city here the world’s most obscene conspicuous consumption of wealth exists so closely alongside Third World-type ghettoes, where Bel Air can seem like exclusive parts of Johannesburg and South Central Los Angeles more like Soweto.’ Andrew Stephen, Observer  

On 29 April, following the acquittal of four police filmed beating a black man, Los Angeles erupted in the fiercest uprising seen in the US since the 1960s. The rising left 58 people – mostly black or Hispanic – dead, 12,000 arrested, 3,700 buildings and 10,000 businesses destroyed. An estimated $1 billion damage was done. The fighting, which continued for over two days, only stopped when the Bush government deployed 5,000 police, 1,590 sheriffs, 2,300 state police, 1,000 FBI, 6,000 National Guard, 3,000 7th Infantry and 1,500 marines.

 

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Fire next time... US uprisings in the 1960s

watts

‘What White Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, White institutions maintain it, and White society condones it.’

 

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Solidarity with the Baltimore uprising: justice for Freddie Gray – PSL statement

Below we reprint the statement from our comrades in the US Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), on the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent rebellion led by the black youth of Baltimore. Visit the PSL’s website for more reports and analysis of events in the US: www.liberationnews.org

Baltimore’s rebellion: what happens to a dream deferred

If the young people of Ferguson had not rebelled, Mike Brown’s name would have been forgotten. The town would still have the same mayor and police chief. The cops would still be fining and arresting Black people for every conceivable thing, including 'Manner of Walking in Roadway,' 'High Grass and Weeds,' and even bleeding on police uniforms during a beat-down. There would have been no Justice Department investigations or presidential commissions. If the young people of Ferguson had not rebelled, the city would be, for most of the country, just another dot on the map; just another forgotten impoverished Black community.

 

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Behind the US ‘recovery’

It is taken for granted in the bourgeois financial media that the US is experiencing a ‘recovery’ of its economy; debate then moves to the possibility of it pulling the rest of the world out of stagnation and deflation. It is true that the US economy gives the impression of some kind of growth since the depths of the Great Recession: the Dow Jones Industrial Average, a stock market index, has risen from a low of 6547 in March 2009 to around 17500 today – an increase of more than 260%. Since the second quarter (Q2) of 2007, before the crunch hit, real GDP has risen by 8.5%. The official unemployment rate has fallen from 9.9% in Q3 of 2009 to just 5.7% five years later.

 

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Ferguson burns as racist cop walks free

Once again the people of Ferguson have had to display their righteous anger in protest over the death of Michael Brown. This time it was provoked by the announcement that Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson, would not face any indictment. This was compounded by Wilson’s remorse-free announcement that his conscience was clear. What feeling breathing person, faced with this injustice and contempt, could easily restrain themselves from venting their anger? The furious people of Ferguson burnt cars and businesses and fought the police. In response the ‘Civil Rights’ fire brigade showed up to pour cold water on the popular rebellion, to condemn rioting and insist that all protests be peaceful, ie ineffectual. But their efforts at collaboration were themselves ineffectual as justice-minded people across the United States and internationally protested against this travesty of justice. In California, roads were blocked for three consecutive nights and hundreds arrested as they marched through Oakland and Los Angeles.

 

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Mid-term blues in the United States

The US mid-term elections, where 36 Senate seats and all 435 House of Representatives seats were contested, were held at the beginning of November. Polls had been divided about the predicted outcome, but when the dust settled Republicans won 244 House seats versus 186 for the Democrats, and 53 Republican seats in the Senate versuss 46 for the Democrats (five House races were undecided at time of writing, while Louisiana’s Senator will be decided in a December run-off election).

 

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Support the struggle of prisoners in Georgia

Recent years have seen repeated protests and hunger strikes in US penitentiaries, as prisoners in the world’s largest and most brutal system of incarceration desperately attempt to highlight the consistent use of solitary confinement as a form of torture, together with a sea of other abuses which, had they taken place anywhere else on the planet, would have resulted in an international outcry. The persistence of protesters in California has succeeded in galvanising some national and international attention; however similar actions in Georgia have been largely ignored. In December 2010 tens of thousands of Georgia prisoners participated in the biggest work strike in US prison history, alongside a hunger strike (see ‘Georgia prison strike’ in FRFI 219). There were further protests in 2011 and earlier this year. FRFI has received a letter from Tamarkus Wright, setting out the background to the February/ March 2014 protest in the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison/Special Management Unit (GDCP/SMU).

 

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United States: Low-paid workers rebel

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

According to official census statistics, in 2012, the official US poverty rate was 15 per cent, with some 46.5 million people living in poverty. Most of the adults counted in these figures are ‘working poor’ – employed, but paid a very low wage. Official inflation figures do not represent real changes in the cost of living, and the cost of living index has been manipulated for political reasons. Independent statisticians calculate that the real inflation rate is about three percentage points higher than the official rate. It is therefore no surprise that low-paid workers are fighting back. Our US correspondent STEVE PALMER reports.

 

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Review: Shackled and Chained – Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America

Eugene Puryear, PSL Publications, 2013

A great deal has been written in recent years about the US prison and criminal justice system. Much simply graphically describes the absolute horror of torture and death which exists at the heart of the world’s largest ‘democracy’, exposing death row, solitary confinement, mandatory minimum sentencing, juvenile detention and so on, while some commentators try to explain how US society got to the point where a staggering 7.1 million people are either in prison or being monitored by the criminal justice system (on probation, parole etc).

Eugene Puryear writes from an overt Marxist perspective and Shackled and Chained locates mass incarceration squarely in the framework of the development of US capitalism, as well as exposing the key role of ‘liberals’ and the Democratic Party in making mass imprisonment the norm in late 20th and 21st century USA. Writing in a non-academic and accessible style, the author also seeks to debunk a range of right-wing ‘theories of crime’ and critiques some popular liberal view on mass incarceration, in particular the prevalent idea of the ‘prison industrial complex’.

 

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Obama’s immigration dragnet

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Family members of those detained inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., rallied outside the facility on Monday in solidarity with detainees on hunger strike.

On 7 March, 1,200 immigration detainees at the North West Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington State, began a hunger strike, demanding an end to deportations and the separation of families, better food, medical care and wages for work inside the prison, where they currently receive just $1 a day for their labour. STEVE PALMER reports from the US on the struggle against Obama’s repressive immigration policies.

 

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The phoney US recovery

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

According to the people who decide these things, the US economy has been recovering since June 2009. At first glance the economy does seem to be improving. Unemployment is down from 10% in October 2009 to 6.7% in December 2013. GDP rose at a 4.1% annual rate during the third quarter of last year. Housing starts in 2013 were some 18.3% up on 2012 and house prices increased by over 7%. The S&P 500 stock index closed the year at its highest ever level of 1846.87, up 31.8% over the year. Yet something is not quite right with this rosy picture. STEVE PALMER reports.

 

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Obamacare debacle

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

‘Capitalist apologists are always trumpeting the supposed efficiencies of “competitive capitalism” compared to the supposedly “inefficient”, “bureaucratic” practices of socialism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of $2.5 trillion of US health spending in 2009, a staggering 31% ($765bn) was wasted.’

In mid-October, following a bitter battle over fiscal issues and a Republican-led government shutdown, polls showed that 50% of registered voters would vote Democrat, and 42% Republican. Democrats were smugly discussing taking back the House of Representatives in next year’s elections. Now, a month later, polls show 47% voting for Democrats and 49% for Republicans – a huge 10% swing. What happened? Steve Palmer reports from the United States.

 

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Herman Wallace released!

UPDATE - Herman Wallace died, shortly after this article was published, on 4 October 2013. He was 71 years old. Surrounded by friends and family, his last words were "I am free, I am free". 

[ORIGINAL ARTICLE 4.10.2013] Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3 held in solitary confinement for 40 years following a corrupt, racist trial, and who is in the late stages of liver cancer, has been freed. To the surprise of both his defence campaign and the US ‘justice’ system, a judge ordered his release after finding that the exclusion of women from his original jury breached his constitutional rights.

 

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Free Herman Wallace!

Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3, who were unjustly jailed in the United States following the death of a guard in a prison riot, has announced that he is in the final stages of cancer. Following 40 years in solitary confinement, Wallace has been transferred to a hospice for his final few weeks of life.

 

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Officer Dorner hits the reset button

Former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and ex US Navy Reservist, Officer Christopher Dorner died, apparently by his own hand on February 12 2013, in a blazing mountain cabin set on fire by surrounding police after a gun battle lasting several hours. Variously described by the media as ‘rogue’, ‘insane’ and ‘revenge-seeking’, Dorner had allegedly killed two police officers, two civilians with a police connection and wounded two more officers. Thousands of police officers spent days searching for the ex-cop in an unprecedented manhunt extending through California, surrounding states and Mexico, with a reward of $1 million.

 

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Trayvon Martin: racist justice

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

Every so often, something happens to remind us how racist the United States really is. One such incident is the murder trial of George Zimmerman. The agreed facts of the case are well known: at 7.09pm, 26 February 2012, Zimmerman, a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, called his local police department and reported ‘a real suspicious guy ... looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something’. When the emergency services dispatcher asked him if he was following the man, he replied ‘Yeah’ and the dispatcher said ‘We don’t need you to do that’. Zimmerman ignored the dispatcher and continued to follow the man, who, minutes later was dead, shot to death by Zimmerman. The ‘real suspicious guy’ was Trayvon Martin, a black youth aged 17, who was returning home after visiting a local convenience store to pick up some snacks. There were no reliable witnesses to what happened between the two. Zimmerman alleged that Martin attacked him, so he shot him in self-defence. Martin, of course, is dead, so we don’t have his side of the story.

 

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Snoopers exposed

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 234 August/September 2013

The recent revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the activities of the US National Security Agency (NSA) have really put the cat among the pigeons. It is difficult to think of peaceful actions by any other single individual which have ever created such an international stir. US correspondent STEVE PALMER reports.

 

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Guantanamo hunger strike: dying for justice

‘Let them kill us, as we have nothing left to lose. We died when Obama indefinitely detained us. Respect us – or kill us. It’s your choice.’ (Hunger striker Faiz Al Kandari)

16 May marked 100 days since the start of a hunger strike amongst detainees at the US concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay. By 20 May, 103 out of the 166 men detained at the facility had joined the action, with 30 of them now being force fed. Force-feeding, in which the hunger strikers are strapped down while a plastic tube is painfully forced down through the nasal passage to the stomach, is considered torture by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

 

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US budget crisis drags on and on

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013

Marx wrote that ‘all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice... the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’ (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852). He was fortunate enough not to have to sit through the endlessly repeated episodes of ‘the budget crisis’, as staged by the US Congress. What he would have said about them is difficult to imagine, but would probably be unprintable: ‘farce’ is far too feeble a description. The latest episode in the world’s most expensive and overlong soap opera has been playing itself out as we go to press.

 

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