Category Archives: Politics and Law

Prosecute the Police

Vice recently ran a piece by Molly Crabapple that seeks to answer the question of how to stop cops from beating and killing people all the time. It’s an important question, given that police really do beat and kill people all of the time. There’s no national database, but there are many who have tried to keep an eye on police violence – but how can we stop it?

In the piece, Crabapple expounds on the fact that police aren’t held accountable for their actions, even when this involves injuring or killing civilians. Watchdog groups and accountability processes are toothless and impossible to navigate, and police departments quickly engage in cover-ups and character assassination of victims to discredit any allegations that there was police misconduct. In the rare occurrence that a police officer actually faces punishment, usually he is merely given paid leave or a desk job while the city or county pays out huge fines or settlements to victims and their families. The actual officers face little punishment at all.

In a country where daily life is increasingly criminalized—especially in poorer communities—police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. Instead of being jailed, their punishment might be getting assigned to desk duty.

“It is virtually unheard of for police officers to be arrested and charged for assaults committed against ordinary civilians. It just never happens.” Scott Levy, a lawyer who is director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at the Bronx Defenders, told me.

[...]

The money for settlements comes from taxpayers, not the abusive officers or the police departments that employ them. In New York City, payouts for Bronx detective Peter Valentine’s illegal raids cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 million. Valentine, meanwhile, continues to “serve” the city.

If a victim accepts a settlement, the cop generally does not admit wrongdoing, which means the assault that led to the payout will not be held against him if and when he attacks others.

Crabapple’s solution is to police the police:

These meta-cops could be given quotas of officers to arrest each month. They’d no doubt lean heavily on quality-of-life violations, arresting cops who made communities unpleasant by groping black teens or hassling street vendors. As cops do now, these meta-cops could be promoted based on their arrest numbers. They might sometimes detain cops for rudeness, or failing to present ID, but that’s to be expected. Their jobs would be stressful. They’d have to lay down the law.

Of course, cops who used force against citizens would be handcuffed immediately, held for up to 72 hours in order to be processed and charged. If they didn’t plea out to a lesser crime, they’d be brought to trial, to determine if force was really used in self-defense or defense of others.

She admits that it’s a facetious idea, but the idea of using the police’s tools to crack down on their violence is not unthinkable. Reining in their impunity would require some kind of enforcement.

Reading through her piece, though, I was reminded of something I wrote a long time ago, about private criminal prosecutions. In some countries, civilians could bring criminal charges against state officials (such as police) in an attempt to hold them accountable where the state had failed. Given that, as Crabapple admits earlier in her piece, states attorneys are just as complicit by refusing to prosecute renegade officers and politicians are just as complicit by always supporting their boys in blue, perhaps accountability is better in the hands of the people.

The idea of using private prosecutions to hold police accountable is in the same vein as “meta-police,” in that we use the state’s usual channels for perpetuating violence (stats, quotas, lawyers) to try to curtail it. While “meta-police” may be better than allowing police to police themselves, any police overseers are still police. Any government attorney still works for the government. Taking action in the courtrooms, but outside of the state’s bureaucracy, could be a more sure way to hold police accountable.

Obviously, changing a fundamental piece of our judicial structure isn’t exactly an option on the table. And, as one person featured in her article states, the best solution is to abolish the police. In the meantime, finding ways to hold police officers accountable is an important thing to do.

Coates on Reparations

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an important piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue of reparations for the U.S.’s racist history. It went live on Thursday to a lot of hubbub, but I wanted to dedicate a short post to tell you all to read the whole thing in full.

Coates uses housing as his framework for viewing America’s history, focusing on the long plunder of the 20th century. He spends much of the rest of the article arguing for reparations by showing how the repercussions of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration continue to punish black people. He also criticizes efforts to help the disadvantaged without taking race into account.

Coates also wrote here about tracing his line of thinking from opposing reparations four years ago. It includes links to several interesting pieces, all factors in his thought process. Coates also penned this short footnote to the article, highlighting why it is an important issue to tackle. Both are worth perusing if you’re interested.

In response, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this piece about education’s role in inequality and the (lack of) potential it has for being the channel through which we can attain a more equitable future. She brings numbers to the game, for those who like them, from a recent economic policy paper. Summarizing the findings, she states: “No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees.” She closes by arguing that “[w]hen we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.”

Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote this piece reflecting on how culture would have to change in order for such reparations to occur. She sheds some light on American media and how much attention has been paid to slavery and racism through what we watch. There’s also an interesting piece on the recent Caribbean effort to gain reparations from European countries for 400 years of slavery and colonization, and this piece outlining ways to actually see reparations through.

(If you know of other good pieces on Coates’ article, leave them in the comments.)

AFRICOM is Everywhere

Nick Turse wrote up a report last month detailing some of the U.S. Africa Command’s presence in Africa, some of which is widely known, much of which is more opaque. The whole thing is worth a read, but here is a snippet:

Here, however, is the reality as we know it today.  Over the last several years, the U.S. has been building a constellation of drone bases across Africa, flying intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions out of not only Niger, but also Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the island nation of the Seychelles.  Meanwhile, an airbase in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, serves as the home of a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment, as well as of the Trans-Sahara Short Take-Off and Landing Airlift Support initiative.  According to military documents, that “initiative” supports “high-risk activities” carried out by elite forces from Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara.  U.S. Army Africa documents obtained by TomDispatch also mention the deployment to Chad of an ISR liaison team.  And according to Sam Cooks, a liaison officer with the Defense Logistics Agency, the U.S. military has 29 agreements to use international airports in Africa as refueling centers. 

AFRICOM is also engaging in a lot of humanitarian-like activity, leaving USAID and the State Department in its wake as it launches numerous programs across the continent. More from Turse:

When I spoke with Chris Gatz of the Army Corps of Engineers, the first projects he mentioned and the only ones he seemed eager to talk about were those for African nations.  This year, $6.5 million in projects had been funded when we spoke and of that, the majority were for “humanitarian assistance” or HA construction projects, mostly in Togo and Tunisia, and “peacekeeping” operations in Ghana and Djibouti.

[Wayne] Uhl [chief of the International Engineering Center for the Europe District of the Army Corps of Engineers] talked about humanitarian projects, too.  “HA projects are small, difficult, challenging for the Corps of Engineers to accomplish at a low, in-house cost… but despite all this, HA projects are extremely rewarding,” he said.  “The appreciation expressed by the locals is fantastic.”  He then drew attention to another added benefit: “Each successful project is a photo opportunity.”

All this reminds me of is this money-quote from Adam Branch’s book on humanitarian intervention in northern Uganda. Citing correspondence with an anthropologist working in Kitgum, Branch discusses a U.S. Army training exercise in that town. I won’t add commentary, because it really speaks for itself:

As a public relations officer at the American camp set up during the operation put it, “We want people to see the military as something other than soldiers. In the U.S. soldiers are seen as heroes. In Uganda they have much more fear, so we are trying to change that image. The intention is to blur the demarcations between civilian and military.” This is a frightening testament to the militarization of U.S. society, in which exporting American values now becomes equated with exporting the U.S. military.

US Ramps Up Counter-LRA Operations

Last night, news came out that the Obama administration is doubling down on the efforts to help hunt down the top commanders of the LRA. According to the Washington Post:

At least four CV-22 Osprey aircraft will arrive in Uganda by midweek, along with refueling aircraft and about 150 Air Force Special Forces and other airmen to fly and maintain the planes.

For those who’ve been following this for a long time, 100 special force advisers were sent to Uganda in 2011 to help track down the LRA. This recent news is a huge increase in troop commitment and in other material.

So far, the U.S. presence there has helped implement safe reporting sites and coordinate defection messaging efforts, including dropping fliers and flying helicopters with speakers to encourage LRA rebels to surrender. The presence has also helped bolster the Ugandan security sector and further militarized central Africa, though it may have had an effect in monitoring UPDF abuses.

The Ospreys are on loan from a base in Djibouti, where they have been under Centcom control. Africom is borrowing them for counter-LRA efforts, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were there on standby in a region where more and more problems are arising. The Ospreys were already active in the region, attempting to respond when South Sudan descended into chaos in December.

The buried lede is that Kony and the LRA aren’t the only (or maybe not even the main) reason to send troops to Uganda:

The LRA poses no threat to the United States, but the administration sees assistance to the A.U. mission as a useful way to build military and political partnerships with African governments in a region where al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are rapidly expanding, as well as to demonstrate adherence to human rights principles.

The Constitutions of Africa

The University of Konstanz in southwestern Germany has put together a really wonderful tool, the Database of Constitutions of Sub-Saharan Africa. Using it, you can glance through constitutions, amendments, and various constitutional documents for most of sub-Saharan Africa, using web sources and pdfs. It’s a work in progress, but it already has a sizable number of founding documents included. If you’re interested in constitutional law or politics in Africa, it’s a great resource to bookmark.

One Day I’ll Be Thankful for a Welfare State

In a recent column about empathy, Nick Kristof responded to terrible critics of his call for people to take care of one another:

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

[...]

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?

This isn’t new. People who don’t want to help each other and don’t feel like they have to really like to blame others for their circumstances. But then Kristof kind of allows it, in defense of the children:

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

He takes it as a given that some adults are to blame for their bad decisions, and chooses to guilt-trip the assholes by pointing to the children that are the innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Nevermind that A. poor adults make the same kinds of bad decisions as middle class and rich adults, they just don’t have a personal safety net, and B. adults who need help deserve it – no matter what the reason, just like children.

When rich and even middle-class, especially white, people enjoy privileges that are invisible to them but incredibly apparent to everyone else, it demands that everyone else receive the help that they deserve. In my city, if you’re caught doing drugs in one part of town you’ll probably get a reprimand, maybe get sent to rehab, if you get caught on the other side of town you’ll probably meet the carceral state up close. Being injured or sick when you’re rich is still a terrible thing to be, but at least you can get treatment while the uninsured are merely kept alive. Missing in all of this is that the middle-class and rich get government help all of the time: income tax credits, quality education for their children, well-maintained highways – things that are meant for everybody but really don’t benefit those who don’t have much of an income, who send their children to under-funded schools due to property tax inequity, who take the bus for an hour to work. A proper safety net is the only way to help these people, and that’s what we should be doing.

Why Samantha Power is Speaking at Fourth Estate

Tonight, newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will give the keynote address at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit. The summit is the second or third* such conference hosted by IC to bring together young leaders to learn more about the LRA conflict in particular, but also to learn about and discuss activism, development, justice, and trendy ways to change lives. The keynote will be Power’s first speech since assuming the role of ambassador to the UN.

Some people are a little surprised that this will be Power’s first event. But, regardless of whether it was booked before or after her nomination, her attendance at the conference representing the government is very appropriate. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide has been cited by a lot of activists as a call to action and a blueprint for what the U.S. government’s role in preventing and responding to mass atrocities should look like. In the book, citing how the U.S. failed to intervene when genocide occurred in the past, Power advocates for increased humanitarian intervention through engaged diplomatic efforts and military action.

While her call for intervention is not without criticism, Power’s advocacy for U.S. involvement in stemming and preventing mass atrocities has been central to groups like Invisible Children, Enough, and Save Darfur, groups that have led grassroots movements to bring attention to and take action to stop human rights abuses. In addition to making films about the LRA and running education, employment, and sanitation programs in Uganda, IC is also behind the years-long advocacy push for U.S. action to bring leaders of the LRA to justice. This is why it’s no surprise that Invisible Children would want Samantha Power to speak at their summit.

But why would the U.S. Mission to the UN send its highest official to the conference, and for her first official speech at that? Again, while this might seem surprising at first, it actually makes all sorts of sense. Invisible Children has been the central figure in the campaign to get the U.S. government to take action on the LRA conflict. There are several groups trying to shed light on the LRA’s actions, but IC has pretty much been in the driver’s seat of the effort to urge U.S. action since around 2007 or 2009. The May 2010 passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was the most widely co-sponsored Africa-related bill in modern U.S. legislative history. And in October of 2011 President Obama sent 100 military advisers to help track down Kony.

This is all to say that Invisible Children is a powerful player in helping advocate for policy decisions. But IC has also played into the broader U.S. policy in the region. President Museveni of Uganda has been a pretty bad leader recently, but the War on Terror gave both Presidents Bush and Obama reason to lend him financial support and military assistance as part of the trend in which we support autocrats for being tough on terrorists. Uganda is one of the main contributors to the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where they are fighting al Shabaab. Museveni has been a long-time opponent of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir. And this is on top of Museveni’s fight against the LRA, whom were labeled terrorists by both the U.S. and Ugandan governments in the early 2000s. Because of all of this, Museveni needs U.S. support – rigged elections and brutal crackdowns on protests be damned. And so, by mustering a grassroots movement of thousands of millenials to call for the U.S. to commit to helping stop the LRA, IC helps the Obama administration explain why Museveni deserves millions of dollars of military aid.

And that brings us to today, when an advocate of U.S. humanitarian intervention and a person who has been in the center of Obama’s foreign policy decision-making will speak to 1500 youth that helped call for intervention in central Africa that supported an autocrat. There are good and bad things that arise from such parallel work between an advocacy group and the government, from effectively getting aid money to development agencies and raising awareness of the effects of displacement to further militarizing an already dangerous region. But, as IC’s activism in the U.S. and their protection programs in DRC and CAR continue to support and shape U.S. policy, the relationship between the two will remain like that.


* This is the second Fourth Estate conference – the first was in 2011. I attended a conference in 2007 that was a sort of precursor to Fourth Estate, in which 200 IC supporters also learned about the LRA, discussed activism, justice, world-changing, etc.

Caesar Achellam’s Defection Story

This morning former LRA Maj. Gen. Achellam Caesar spoke to a group of Congolese and Central African civil society, government, and religious leaders in Gulu. A Central African asked him whether he defected or was captured, and I’m summarizing what Achellam responded. I recorded the event, and will try to get a full transcript up later. But, according to Achellam:

He was first abducted in 1988 for being an NRM collaborator. He was told that if he tried to escape the LRA would attack his home village, so he decided to stay with the rebels. In July of 2007, Achellam was detained by the LRA on suspicion of encouraging other rebels to defect. He was beaten and placed in solitary confinement. It was around this time that Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command, was executed. Achellam remained in detention until June of 2009, when continued attacks from the UPDF-led Operation Lightning Thunder forced the LRA to flee. He was detained again in 2011, and escaped in May of 2012. He fled with a few others across into CAR and followed tracks that the UPDF had left behind, surrendering to them when they met.

If this story is true, and who knows if it is, then it seems Achellam’s capture was  more of a defection. This is important in terms of the legal aspects of amnesty – which is granted automatically upon application after escape or defection, but must be approved by the Director of Public Prosecution if the applicant was captured.

Achellam’s status is very, very vague. He lives in the army barracks in Gulu with his family, and many assure that he is a free man. But when he arrived today it was with military personnel in tow, and his freedom is rather questionable. That said, an army spokesman said yesterday that Achellam may be in the process of negotiating a leadership role in the UPDF, which is important to note. We’ll see how this all pans out. I’ll add more later if I get more information about his case.

Some Thoughts on Justice in The Hunger Games

After many years of people telling me to read The Hunger Games, I used my first weeks without school to read through the trilogy. I liked it quite a bit, and it was nice to sink back into some good fiction of the fantasy/sci-fi variety (it’s been a while). I hope to write about it some in the future, but for now, some thoughts on justice. Obviously, spoilers abound.

One thing central to the series is the role of justice. The building at the center of the town square in every district, the building in front of which the Reapings occur and the Victor’s Tours stop, is the Justice Building. Not the Treasury or State Building, not a library or monument. The Justice Building. And the Hunger Games themselves are held every year as punishment for a previous secession. But it’s bizarre just how central of a role justice plays in the events that transpire in Mockingjay.

When Katniss Everdeen takes up her role as the symbolic leader – the Mockingjay – of the rebellion in the districts, she is tasked with being filmed in a series of propaganda spots. The first one the rebels film, one that they have worked on for a long time with a script prepared specifically for this moment, is one in which Katniss declares, “People of Panem, we fight, we dare, we end our hunger for justice!” I think it’s particularly interesting that District Thirteen, which has spent generations plotting how to fight back against the Capitol, has decided that justice would be the rallying point for overthrowing the government. Reading the previous two books, of course there is a sense of injustice in Panem, but the daily lives of citizens seems to be one wrought with inequality, oppression, poverty, and isolation. Why would a farmer from District Eleven find “fight for justice!” more appealing than “fight for freedom!”?

Perhaps this is a hint to the nature of District Thirteen’s mission. There are several hints that President Coin of Thirteen doesn’t want to tear down the Capitol and refashion a new system, she wants merely to take President Snow’s place. Perhaps fighting for equality or freedom didn’t occur to a people who didn’t want actual equality and freedom. But justice, something which traditionally has a victor and a victim, a judge and a prisoner, allowed for Thirteen to come out on top. It’s later revealed that Thirteen didn’t care about the people of the other districts beyond their ability to help fight the Capitol. According to President Snow’s theory, Thirteen planned to allow the other districts to bear the brunt of the fighting so that it could rule. If true, it’s surely not equality or freedom they’re after, but rule. And you can’t have absolute rule until you have justice on your side.

If Thirteen is concerned with justice because it allows the new regime to punish the old, Katniss preempts this early on. In accepting the role of the Mockingjay, she establishes conditions that include an amnesty for captured victors from the 75th Hunger Games. After those Games resulted in a number of heroes surviving to either escape to Thirteen or be taken away to the Capitol, Katniss quickly realizes that the government in Thirteen assumes the prisoners have given up information and are therefore the enemy. In asking for amnesty before they are even in Thirteen’s custody, Katniss pushes transitional justice forwards, establishing the grounds for how those who cooperate with the Capitol are to be treated. She does this primarily for her love for Peeta, but she asks for the amnesty to be extended to all of the victors, because of the fact that they have been taken prisoner by the Capitol and therefore their allegiance to the war shouldn’t be up for debate. They’re prisoners and conscripts, brainwashed and interrogated by the enemy.

In Uganda, amnesty plays a huge role precisely because the rank and file of the Lord’s Resistance Army are viewed as prisoners and conscripts, indoctrinated by Joseph Kony’s spiritual rituals. Forced to fight against their own people in Acholiland and elsewhere, these soldiers are never fully viewed as the enemy for their former communities. And so many civil society groups petitioned for the amnesty program that lasted from 2000 to 2012 (and was recently reinstated). It was a blanket amnesty that encouraged escapes, if you surrendered you were forgiven, no matter what. This is radically different from other amnesties such as the ones that Argentinian and Uruguayan military juntas required before relinquishing power. Those amnesties protected those that society as a whole deemed most guilty. The amnesty in Mockingjay, like in Uganda, is predicated on the fact that the target population is as much victim as traitor/perpetrator. District Thirteen even has a rehabilitation program in which some of the rescued victors undergo treatment to deal with their PTSD and other effects of their torture.

If we fast forward to the final chapters of the book, though, this conception of justice shifts dramatically. After the war ends, we are left trying to piece together recent events as a trial that we never see finds President Snow guilty of a crime we never know, sentenced to death. Meanwhile, it is slowly revealed that the rebel leaders may have planned an attack that both murdered Capitol children and rebel nurses in an act that is simultaneously the last nail in the Capitol’s coffin and also an egregious war crime. As Katniss navigates the immediate aftermath of the war, it is never fully revealed how it was decided that Snow should be executed, all that matters is that he is.

When Coin assembles the remaining victors to decide the fate of the Capitol, they are told that popular opinion is to wipe out all of the citizens of the Capitol. Whether this is true or just something Coin uses to justify more atrocities, genocide as punishment for the previous regime’s crimes is perhaps the most extreme and total form of victor’s justice. It eliminates the enemy completely, while cleansing the rebels’ crimes by framing them through justice. The only way around such atrocities, according to Coin, is to host a final Hunger Games to serve as punishment for the citizens of the Capitol. The victors, themselves victims of the Hunger Games specifically and Capitol crimes broadly, debate the issue. During the debate, Peeta questions the cycle of violence, a common complaint that arises amid accusations of victor’s justice. If the new rulers simply trade places with the former ones without addressing grievances in a constructive way, resumption of violence is almost guaranteed. Half of peace deals fail in the first five years partially because of this failure to embrace true transitional justice. That’s what Panem faces as the victors debate revenge killings.

After the group ends up endorsing the next Hunger Games, with Katniss’s vote, we see that she never intended for Coin to follow through with the plan. When she serves as President Snow’s executioner, instead of killing him she looses an arrow into President Coin, avenging her sister’s death (who was a nurse targeted in the attack on Capitol children) and delivering some justice against District Thirteen, which she has never fully trusted. But in the aftermath she is diagnosed as crazed with grief for her sister and what can only amount to PTSD from her wartime experience instead of coherently acting on a legitimate grievance. Her trial goes on without her, and she is cleared of all charges. Because she is tried in absentia, she never gets to defend herself. While this may actually have saved her life, given her unwillingness to play a role unless it is to save others, it also papered over the past. The new republic misses an opportunity to truly address atrocities on both sides and perhaps get a true – or at least truer – history of what happened during the war. Transitional justice has a huge role to play during such a radical change as this, but it is completely sidelined by the rebels’ desire to be the victors. Instead, the Capitol remains evil and the rebels immaculate. Justice has been doled out, albeit in incredibly uneven ways.

The world we’re left with at the end of Mockingjay isn’t clear. A new president is elected, and there is talk to trying to run the country as a democratic republic. Public services like hospitals are being established across the country in order to better serve the people of Panem. But the question of what the government does with citizens of the Capitol and – more importantly – captured Peacekeepers is not answered. The question of whether the atrocities committed by District Thirteen and the rebels have been revealed is also unanswered, although odds are that they haven’t. As Plutarch argues, “we’re in a sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated… [b]ut collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.” Without an effective transition to bring the two sides together and balanced justice to begin mending wounds, the future of Panem may be bleak.

Against Teach for America

I’ve never been a big fan of Teach for America, and in the last few years I’ve grown to downright hate the organization. And yet, I’ve never actually explicated about it on this, my more enduring venting platform. Now seems like the time, though, as a conference called Free Minds, Free People is organizing against TFA this summer. This is happening despite TFA’s broad popularity among education “reformers” and neoliberal bureaucrats that would love nothing more than to break teachers’ unions and privatize the education sector. Can you tell a rant is forming?

None of this is groundbreaking opinion if you’ve been paying attention to the education scene. Governments at all levels are tightening their purses when it comes to education, and public schools are doing what they can to continue teaching the students entrusted to them. And by doing what they can I mean by and large students are being funneled into giant classrooms where they’re being prepared for the next standardized test. Social studies took the brunt of the class size increases while English, math, and more recently science absorbed the standardized testing aspect. But right now the English classrooms and science labs are growing too, and there’s perennial talk of state-standardized social studies exams. And as this continues across the country, some states are working hard to shut down teachers’ unions and shuttering schools. Only now are we finally seeing resistance, but even this is a little defense against an onslaught of government and business efforts to radically alter education for the worse.

Enter Teach for America. Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.

Take, for example, a statistic my friend (a former TFA-er) told me: Teach for America has the same number of staff tasked with recruiting at Columbia University as it does tasked with organizing teacher placement for all of the New York City area. That number is two. You could also take this professor’s widely-shared reasoning for why he refuses to let TFA recruit in his classroom:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

Treating youth in need as stepping stones to graduate school is but one of the major flaws with TFA. TFA’s woefully inadequate preparation for its teachers and tremendous lack of support for them is exacerbated by the fact that the two-year volunteers crowd out qualified teachers who are looking for work and create cracks in the fragile labor system that is teaching. I studied for four years and spent over 1000 hours teaching – including a semester in my own classroom – just to gain the experience and tools needed to be a good teacher, and even then I knew I had several years to go before I would be able to say that I excelled at the job. I’m desperate to get back in the classroom now solely because I want to continue that climb. But if I were to join TFA, I would be out the door and onto the next professional achievement outside the classroom before I could even get the hang of taking attendance. That is, of course, if I were accepted by TFA, which is notorious for rejecting people who want to be teachers and accepting future leaders in business and administration.

One former TFA-er reflected on the statistics of TFA teachers versus new, credentialed, trained teachers:

 Compare the performance of Teach For America corps members to another cohort: credentialed, non-TFA corps members. The same study indicates that novice TFA teachers actually perform significantly less well in reading and math than credentialed beginning teachers at the same schools. Keep in mind that to “perform significantly less well” as a teacher is quite literally to have a group of 10, 100, or even 200 students learn less than they would had you not been their teacher.

If you’re interested, you can read others’ thoughts on TFA here and here. While I think he gives a little too much credit to TFA, this former participanstill advocates for shuttering the program, citing the experience at his school:

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

This teacher goes on to inspect the budget of TFA and it reflects what was mentioned above: 40% of TFA money doesn’t even show up in the classroom. Keep in mind that a number of school districts hire TFA teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers who want to be teachers. As cities like Chicago move towards mass closings of schools and cities like Philadelphia privatize their school districts, and teachers that remain employed in the schools that remain open find themselves saddled with excess work that stresses the system to its breaking point, TFA is breaking apart teachers – the only group still working to actually educate students. It’s efforts like this, aimed at keeping needy students in the margins in order to benefit elite future business and law school students while our school systems crumble, that tears me up. Teaching is my absolute passion, and I’m sitting here watching the whole education system torn down by TFA, by high-stakes testing, by No Child Left Behind, by Race to the Top, by reformers, by administrators, by governments. But these groups and objects have operated all as one. As Andrew Hartman explains, in a brilliant look at TFA:

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.

[...]

Successful charter schools, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are “public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results.” And yet, “results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools. Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.

[...]

From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy—the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools—further codifies high-stakes testing by allocating scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing these so-called accountability measures. The multi-billion dollar testing industry—dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests—has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.

Teach for America. High-stakes testing. Charter schools. Union-busting. School-closing. It’s all part of the same, terrible effort to throw our education system in the trash, and I’m glad to see more people resisting. With the economy making its slow climb out of the recession, many states are gaining or expecting surpluses. Schools are right to demand that this money go into education and not into privatizing more of our public goods. Teachers are organizing, and hopefully it isn’t too little, too late. The fight’s just starting, but – with hope – we can save our schools.