Thursday, December 17, 2009

What is Democracy?

I, along with a number of activists in the Albany area, have formed a socialist discussion group in which we read material and hold a discussion on the reading and issues of the day. One new member of our group e-mailed me and asked my opinion on democracy. He asked if there are any examples of democratic functioning states. He also suggested that it might be good to have a 4th branch of government comprised of scientist and other experts who might be better able to respond to climate change and similar issues. Below is my response to his e-mail.

Your e-mail brings up many questions. First of all, I don’t think that we need a panel of experts, such as scientists, as a 4th branch of government. I think that if people were given the facts, we can make decisions that are in our own interest and the interest of all. This is why there is secrecy in our country, they don’t want people to know the truth, it would expose too much. They don’t want people to see the pictures of torture or hear the facts about global warming, etc. Too often we are told that we are too stupid to make decisions for ourselves. This is one way they take democracy away from us; they tell us to leave it in the hands of the experts or the politicians.

I think there have been very few examples of a true democracy in the modern world. In fact, maybe you can’t have a true democracy in a class society because the ruling class, if it is a minority, as in this country, would not want to see its power taken away. On the other hand, if the working class truly took power, the only way we could rule would be democratically because we are the vast majority. There is actually a lot more to talk about here like what happened in the Soviet Union, etc., but that would better be discussed at another time because there is a long history about this.

Although there have been no real models of democracy in the modern world, there have been many attempts that give us a glimpse of what a true democracy might look like. The Paris Commune, where workers took over Paris and parts of France before being crushed by invading armies was one example. Some attempts in Cuba, Nicaragua and other places helped give us a glimpse of what democracy could look like. Basically, Marxist don’t typically equate voting and democracy, like we do in the US. Voting is part of democracy. But in most other industrial countries they have a better system of voting such as proportional representation, requirements for equal access to the media and less involvement of money. In the US, you have to be rich or supported by the rich to run for national office. This is a filter that insures the interests of the rich will be those represented by the government.

In some of the places mentioned above, they tried to organize people on a block by block level. In Cuba, these block committees were called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They discuss everything from health care and education in their communities to international politics. They then elect representatives to committees organized on a regional level who elect people to the national level. These are in addition to direct national elections. Additionally, they helped organize women’s organization, labor, farmers, youth and other constituency groups. These groups discuss issues related to their constituencies and also elect people to the regional and national governing bodies.

Additionally, Cuba included the right to have a union as a democratic right. The right to a job is also seen as a democratic right. There are many other areas, besides elections where equality needs to be seen as a democratic right.

I have a friend at work who comes from China. He and many others at our work had a big problem with one of our managers. But nothing could be done about it. Work in the US is a dictatorship. He told me in China, if the workers did not like a manager they would have a meeting and decide that the manager was not good and would be able to get rid of him. In the US, he says, you can criticize the president, which you can’t do in China, but you can not criticize your manager, which you can do in China. Perhaps, if we did not have a capitalist society where work means making a profit for the boss, we would be able to criticize our manager too.

So, I think that in a socialist society, democracy would mean something very different. Since we grew up in a capitalist society we think of it as being the same as voting. In the original US constitution, only white men who owned property could vote. Later, through amendments we allowed all adults citizens to vote. After an uprising the first amendment was added to the constitution which included other rights like the right to free speech and assembly, which we now call democratic rights, but were not there in the beginning. But in a socialist society, we may add the right to housing, healthcare, a job, the right for women to control their own bodies, the right for gays to marry, etc.

Also, in a non-hierarchical society the entire idea of democracy would be different and less adversarial.

So, that’s a longer answer to your e-mail than I intended, but much shorter than needed. Perhaps it would be a good topic to discuss at one of our meetings.

Joe Lombardo

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Meeting of the National Assembly

For the last 4 days, I was in San Francisco for a meeting of the coordinating committee of the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations. Of the 45 members of the coordinating committee, about 30 people from across the country were present (we also hold meetings once per month by phone conference). One member of the coordinating committee who was not present was Lynne Stewart. As you know, Lynne, a now-disbarred attorney, is in jail, having been convicted of aiding terrorism for defending her client, who was accused of being involved with the plot to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. (For more information on that case and Lynne’s situation, please go to The group gathered at the meeting sent Lynne a note of support, and each of us who know her also wrote a personal note. Mine was also from the Muslim Solidarity Committee, a group that she always thought was doing exemplary work. Lynne let us know that she would like protests at federal buildings on her behalf. People who want to send her a message can write to: Lynne Stewart, 53504-054, MCC-NY, 150 Park Row, New York, NY 10007.

There were two important points that came out of the meeting. The first is that we decided to endorse the call from the ANSWER coalition to have demonstrations on March 20 to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Iraq War. The National Assembly would have preferred that the ANSWER coalition not put out this call unilaterally but rather to work in conjunction with other national anti-war groups, including the National Assembly, before deciding what to do on the 7th anniversary of the Iraq war. But in the interest of promoting unity in the anti-war movement—a principle that the National Assembly was founded on--we agreed to support and build this action and to try to get other forces to join us.

The second point of importance that came out of the meeting was that we agreed to hold our 3rd national conference in Albany, New York on July 23rd-25th, 2010. This means that national leaders along with hundreds of peace activists from around the country will be coming to meet in Albany. Also present will be members of the peace and progressive movements from other countries. The main function of the National Assembly conference is to assess the state of the movement and to decide on a program of actions during the upcoming period. This will occur during plenary sessions where everyone present will have voice and vote. Additionally, there will be workshops and a large public meeting on Saturday night, along with a panel discussion on Friday. Besides having a fairly strong peace movement in the Capital District, we have done some very good defense work with Muslims who have been attacked in our area and have done some important work with Iraqi refugees. It would be important to showcase this work for the rest of the country and international guests.

The San Francisco meeting also heard reports and discussed situations in Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Palestine, and Honduras. In addition, we had a discussion on the current state of the anti-war movement. As we all know, the anti-war movement is at a low point. Some of the national groups are not functioning well, if at all. Despite polls that continue to show that the majority are against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and occupations, anti-war demonstrations and rallies have been much smaller recently than in the past. On October 17, demonstrations took place in 54 cities around the country, but all of them were small. However, discontent with U.S. policies is growing, especially given the present economic environment. We can expect to see a surge in Afghanistan soon, and cities all across the country are preparing a response. The National Assembly believes that this is a very important moment when we must continue to build anti-war organizations and activities in preparation for what we believe will be an inevitable explosion of anti-war sentiment and activity as the wars continue and the honeymoon with the Obama administration ends.

You have probably heard about the explosion of protests on the California campuses after the California a 33% tuition increase was announced. While in California, I was able to take two trips to the Berkley campus, where students have been demonstrating and occupying buildings. These activities are going on throughout the state. The students tie their protest in to the issue of the war using slogans like “Money for schools not for war.” They are also chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and “The people united will never be defeated.” Some can argue that the birth of the student movement of the 60s and 70s began with the Berkley Free Speech movement. The students are also aware of the connection of their movement to the plight of union workers who are being laid off; the biggest cheers at their rally came when some fired janitors spoke. Teachers and other workers throughout California are suffering from the cutbacks and protesting too. California reflects the future of all states across the country, as our nation's corporate elite try to shift more and more wealth from the working people and the poor to the corporations and the already obscenely rich. People working on all issues, from war to healthcare to tuition hikes, need to come together and join in one fight against a common enemy. With this understanding in mind, the National Assembly sent a message of support to the striking students.

There are many union activists on the coordinating committee of the national assembly, included the presidents of two state-wide labor federations. The group took note of the resolution that came from our own Troy Area Labor Council calling for the AFL-CIO leadership to organize a mass action around the issues of jobs, the war, and health care. A similar call was passed by the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO federation, the San Francisco Labor Council and a number of other labor groups. We see such calls as extremely hopeful signs and as a way forward for the movement as a whole. They point toward our developing a real fight-back against the attacks being directed at the American people today. The Albany conference in 2010 will be a very important step in that direction, as well. I hope all activists in our area will join me in building this conference.

Joe Lombardo

Monday, October 12, 2009

Health Care Costs

The following is a letter of mine that was in the Albany Times Union today. The letter is on healthcare costs and advocates for a single payer solution. The only piece that the editors took out of my letter was a sentence where I supported my statement that the insurance executives get "over-the-top salaries and bonuses" by using the example of Stephen Hemsley, CEO of United Healthcare who makes $102,742.00 per hour

Health plan may benefit wealthy
First published: Monday, October 12, 2009

In "Health costs hit home" (Oct. 3), the Times Union reports that
health care costs will rise steeply again this year. This is at the
same moment when health care reform bills are making their way through Congress without serious consideration being given to single-payer health care or even the nebulous public option.

With the way things are headed, it looks like people who can barely
afford the co-pay for a visit to their doctor will be mandated to buy
a defective and exorbitant health insurance policy or else face a
fine. This is a huge giveaway to the health insurance industry and,
like the recent corporate bailouts, is essentially another transfer of
wealth from working people and the poor to the rich.

A recent study comparing the U.S. health care system to that of five
other industrial countries, reported by the New York Daily News,
concludes that ours is twice as costly per capita as any of the others
and has worse outcomes, to boot. The other five countries all have
some form of single-payer system.

The high cost of health care in the U.S. is the direct result of
greedy insurance companies, with their high overhead and over-the-top salaries and bonuses for their executives.

Health care costs more in this country than any place else on the
planet because we put the profits of the corporations above the needs of the people. The only way to remove the insurance companies -- the Number One enemy of meaningful health care reform in this country -- from the equation is to adopt a single payer system.

Joe Lombardo

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Right-wing Mobilizes in Washington

Today, tens of thousands of right-wing tea bag supporters marched on Washington. From the images I saw on the internet, there were well over 100,000 (it turned out that the images I saw on the internet were forged. They were of a previous demonstration and the tea-bag demo had far few people). While we on the left debate whether demonstrations do or don't work, the right-wing is mobilizing and is out on the streets like I have never seen them do before in my lifetime. These mobilizations have had a big effect. They have moved the healthcare debate to the right and taken the momentum that the left felt with the ending of the Bush administration and the election of a Black president and turned it into a right-wing momentum against any progressive change.

One of the key differences between a right-wing government and a fascist movement is that a fascist movement gets people mobilized in the streets. When they get strong enough, they break up union meetings and physically attack their political opponents. I characterize the right-wing mobilizations that we have seen as an incipient fascist movement. It is clear to me that there are people, such as the talk show hosts, who are trying to build such a movement. This is both a huge threat and a big challenge to the left. During this period of history, I believe we are the ones who will literally make the decision of whether or not humankind is going to make it. The only way we'll survive is if we can stop the ravages of war, build a peaceful world without nuclear weapons, put the brakes on global warming and the end the depletion of our natural resources.

These right-wingers are motivated in part by the realities of our times. The lives of working people are getting worse and worse as healthcare becomes less affordable, people are losing their jobs due to corporate greed, and the living standard of the vast majority of the working class continues its downward slide. In this rampantly racist country, we've elected a black president, signaling to the right wing that they are losing what blacks are gaining. Besides the blacks, they scapegoat immigrants and Muslims, whom they blame for their misery. It is this anger that is moving them into the streets.

The left should always be able to out-mobilize the right even though we don’t have corporate wealth and the media behind us like they do. This is because our issues of peace and justice speak to the real needs of people and to viable solutions to our collective problems. It's also because our movement is inclusive of everyone--young or old, black or white, gay or straight, Christian, Muslim, or atheist.

I urge people to get out in the streets. Join your local peace vigil; come to the events sponsored by our progressive organizations; join the picket line of the hotel workers at the Holiday Inn Express in Latham as they fight to form a union. I urge you to join in our local anti-war protest on October 17, which will coincide with similar rallies throughout the country (see The right is taking our tactic of mass mobilization and using it their advantage. Let's not let that happen.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Health Care Town Hall Meetings

In the Capital District we have had a series of congressional town meetings like those in other areas; however, in our case, the right-wing has not been allowed the upper hand and hasn't been successful in disrupting the meetings. At the two town hall meetings that I attended, progressives have outnumbered the right-wing and prevented them from shouting down single-payer or government option opinions.

The left needs to take stock of what is going on at these meetings and insure that they are not disrupted by these modern day Brown Shirts. There are fewer and fewer places for public debate in this country, as the media becomes more and more tightly controlled and as public spaces give way to privately owned malls. So, when congress members come back to their districts to hold town hall meetings to hear what their constituents think, we should use them to make our progressive voices heard and not allow them to be taken over by the right-wing.

These right-wingers must be confused and demoralized when they find themselves outnumbered at these meetings. If their primary news sources are FOX News and the fascist minded talk show hosts, they must not understand a forum where opposing voices are allowed to be heard and where the propaganda that they hear gets challenged. The right-wing talk show hosts use the technique of talking over opinions that they don’t want you to hear, and so their listeners try to do the same thing at these health care reform meetings. But when we outnumber them, they can't get away with this.

Additionally, some who come from the Ron Paul or Libertarian perspective agree with us on many issues like the ending the wars and occupations or opposing the bank bailouts. They typically support gay rights and the right to abortion. Others are against any government healthcare option or single-payer because they believe that they will pay for abortions. We should exploit these differences, divide them from each other and even make common cause with some where we can.

Can Government Do Anything Right?

Although there are many issues that bring right-wingers to these town hall meetings with obvious anger and passion, when you cut away the lies and misinformation, the main issue is mistrust of government. Some of this is justified; there is reasonable anger from both the right and the left over the bank bailouts and the welfare for the rich, for example. However, when this criticism comes from the right, it takes the form of scapegoating. Many of the right-wingers that I see at these meetings look like they are not well off. One man told me that it was a government lie that 50,000,000 people don’t have health care in the US. During the discussion, he admitted that he himself did not have healthcare. But he sure as hell did not want any “illegal aliens” to get it, and his unrestrained racist anger at Obama was clearly coming from the same racist position, where he believed people whom he considered beneath him were getting ahead of him. It is this same racism, along with anti-Semitism and sexism and homophobia that has always fueled right-wing movements.

The difference between the right-wing and left-wing positions on the failures of our government is this: the right insists that the government do nothing, while the left demands that the government does what it is supposed to do: provide for human needs that the people cannot do for themselves, like building the roads and bridges, organizing fire departments, running schools, and making sure that we all have healthcare.

The Downside

While the local meetings are forcing progressives to mobilize in response to the right-wing mobilizations, and while we support the kind of participatory democracy that these meetings may represent, there are downsides to these meetings too. They have shifted the health care debate to the right. There are many who support a single-payer option but feel a need to defend the public option because that is the brunt of the attack from the insurance companies and the Republicans. So the debate has become the status quo verses the public option, and single-payer has become marginalized. However, at the meetings I attended, if there had been a vote on what the people wanted, I'm pretty sure that single-payer would have won. Because of this, those of us who support single-payer must be bold in expressing this at these meetings and elsewhere.

Another downside of these meetings is that the centrality of the health care debate during this period has pushed other issues to the side. This is most apparent with anti-war issue; while the wars continue to escalate, our attention has been focused on healthcare. As a result, terrible decisions have been coming out of the Obama administration, with little opposition. These include escalating the wars, continuing of extraordinary renditions, continued cover-ups of war crimes, etc. The fall anti-war actions will be an important step towards moving these issues back to center stage (see


It is important that we continue to mobilize when these types of situations arise. By doing so, at least in this area, we have been able to change the news coverage from the national perspective of mobs of people opposing any government involvement in health care to one of a public debate on healthcare. A debate on the issue will always work in our favor, since it allows us to show the superior single-payer type systems that exist in other countries.

During these mobilizations, single-payer advocates have made common cause with government option advocates in opposition to the misinformation and behavior of the right-wing. In my opinion, this is good and necessary. It would be a mistake for us to allow ourselves to be split from good folks with whom we can work on a number of issues. The divide and conquer tactic of the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan has been used very effectively. It has also been used in the US anti-war movement, where some coalitions will not even admit the existence of other peace coalitions let alone join in actions with them. We cannot let this happen to the healthcare movement. I say this even though I believe that the only viable option is the single-payer option, since a government option would still keep the insurance companies in the picture, keep health care costs high, and continue to allow abuses, which will eventually lead to a rejection of any public option and prove the right-wing's point that government can’t do anything right.

It is very important for people to understand that voting or having one's own position on an issue is not enough. It is important for people to understand that they need to act and that their actions have an effect. This is not taught by the media, the government, or the schools. We learn that democracy equals voting; then you go shopping or watch commercials on TV and let the elected officials do the work for you. As we mobilize for these town meetings, we feel our strength. We see that our mobilization is able to change the character of these meeting. Although we don’t have the money or control that the insurance companies and other private corporations have, and we don’t have the lobbying power or money to make the large campaign contributions, the power of a united people is the greatest power of all. Just by putting our hands in our pockets and refusing to cooperate, we can bring the country to a standstill. So as people start demanding to take the profit out of healthcare and see resistance from the government and the corporations, we become a little more conscious of the fact that we are not on the same side and that they are not working for our benefit. It brings us a little closer to understanding that if we are to make the basic changes that we need, the only thing we can rely on is our own collective, organized strength.

Single-payer verses Socialized Medicine

A single-payer system is what we need to fight for now. It is the demand that addresses the concerns of the American people, including rising medical costs, rising unemployment, and increasingly unscrupulous practices of the insurance companies during this period of neo-liberalism. However, what single-payer does is replace the insurance industry with the government. Despite the rhetoric of the right-wing, it is not socialized medicine. The hospitals and the pharmaceutical companies and other health care services will still remain private, for-profit organizations. These institutions will continue to put profit over the needs of people. This will remain an obstacle to providing quality healthcare, even with a single-payer system. During this debate, we should point out that the right-wing claims that a public option or single-payer system is socialized medicine are wrong and use the debate to talk about what a real socialize system would look like and tie it into the devastating effects that private industry has had in all areas from Enron to the bank bailouts.

The debate around healthcare will push the debate around what kind of society we need in general.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thoughts on the 5th anniversary of the arrest of Yassim Aref and Mohammed Hossain.

On Tuesday, August 4, 2009 over 100 people marched through the streets of Albany, New York to protest the FBI's tricking Yassim Aref and Mohammed Hossain into doing something that could look as if it was illegal and then putting them in jail for 15 years. The protesters marched from downtown Albany to a rally at the Masjid As-Salam Mosque, where both men used to worship. The march and rally was sponsored by the Muslim Solidarity Committee and a number of other local peace and justice groups, including my own, Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. The Troy Record article on the march and rally can be found at the link below:

Five years ago, I was with Mark Dunlea, an Albany activist, and Dave McReynolds, a peace activist (who was then the Green Party candidate for Senator from New York), when we heard that two "terrorists" had been arrested in Albany and that there would be a press conference about the arrests. The three of us jumped into my car and drove down to the press conference, where we found Governor Pataki, New York Senator Schumer and Albany Mayor Jennings talking tough about fighting terrorist activity in Albany. We decided to go to the mosque that had been attacked to hear their side of the story. When we arrived, we found a wall of cameras and press from everywhere in the country taking pictures of the inner-city, store-front mosque. The door was locked, but we noticed that there was a grocery store next to the mosque in which there were several men wearing Muslim garb. We went in and found that one of the men, named Faisal, was the son of the president of the mosque. We talked a little about what had happened, and it became clear to me that the arrested men were victims, not criminals, and needed support, especially from the non-Muslim community. I exchanged contact information with Faisal. A few weeks later, he and a couple of others from the mosque joined a support meeting at the Women’s Building on Central Avenue that had been called by Erin O’Brien and me. At the meeting, Faisal welcomed our support, but he was not sure about conducting a public campaign, so we agreed to stay in contact and to continue to discuss what we could do.

From the very start of this case, it was clear to me that this case had nothing to do with terrorism. This is because:
1. I was an anti-war activist, and as such, I had thought about the phony War on Terror and had come to understand it as the US government’s justification for its imperial wars;
2. I had been involved in defending another man from the same mosque, Imam Umar, who was also attacked for fabricated reasons used to justify their war on Terror.

The Case of Imam Umar

Imam Umar had worked for 25 years as a Muslim chaplain in the New York state prison system, eventually becoming the head of all chaplains in the state prisons. He was one of the first two Muslim chaplains in the US prisons; he founded the National Association of Muslim Chaplains and became its president. After the attacks on 9/11, the U.S. government sought to foster an atmosphere of fear in this country as a way of mobilizing people for war. The targets of their fear campaign were Arabs and Muslims in this country and around the world, who were branded as terrorists or supporters of terrorism. President Bush claimed that the US was attacked because these people hated our freedom and democracy. Imam Umar explained that this was not true, that people throughout the world all love freedom and democracy but that many people, especially in the third world, have legitimate grievances against the United States. Unless these were seriously addressed, he believed, we could never hope to stop terrorism.

This kind of talk coming from a Black man and a Muslim could not be tolerated during the US build up for war, so Imam Umar was attacked by the government and the news media. They characterized him as promoting terrorism within the Muslim prison population. Articles attacking him appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other news media. New York Governor Pataki and Senator Schumer spoke out against him. Pataki denied him access to the New York State prisons, and Schumer called for the firing of all Muslim chaplains in the New York state prison system.

Eventually, police raided Imam Umar’s home and carted away books, tapes, computers, financial records, his kids' game systems, and other personally possessions. They charged him with owning a .22 caliber rifle and a shot gun, which he had owned for several decades, since the time he had owned a farm in upstate New York. This was a crime, according to a law that Imam Umar wasn't aware of, which didn't allow him to own guns because he'd been arrested on a felony charge as a teenager over 38 years earlier. The government prosecuted him on this charge and tried to get him put in jail for 10 years.

Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace (BNP) organized a defense. It was a very public defense with rallies, press conferences, petitions, and letter writing campaigns. We had Imam Umar speak at anti-war demonstrations, and we mobilized public support for him. We organized people to attend the court appearances in Manhattan. The government tried to get Imam Umar to take a plea deal requiring him not to appeal his conviction and to serve a little over a year and a half in prison. Umar refused the plea deal, and he went to trial, where he admitted owning the rifle and shotgun. BNP then organized a campaign to send letters to the judge asking for leniency in his sentencing. Letters came from neighbors, teachers, professors, doctors, and others representing a broad cross section of the population in the Bethlehem and Albany communities.

At the sentencing hearing, Umar gave a political talk explaining what the prosecution of him was about. Then the judge gave a long talk that was sympathetic to Imam Umar; the judge seemed to understand that he had done nothing wrong and took the prosecution to task for prosecuting the case. For Imam Umar's “crime,” he received a $100 fine and one-year's worth of home imprisonment with very liberal exceptions. Umar was allowed to leave home to work, for medical reasons, and for religious practice. Umar then stood up in court and told the judge that he would refuse to wear an ankle bracelet, a device used to ensure that he is where he is mandated to be. He stated that this ankle bracelet was a throwback to the shackles worn by slaves, and he would not allow his children to see him this way. The judge agreed that he did not have to wear the ankle bracelet.

Today, Imam Umar is back in court, but this time, Umar is the plaintiff and the government is the defendant. The government has refused to return Umar’s belongings, which they took when they raided his home and have never returned.

Forming the Muslim Solidarity Committee

After the arrests of Aref and Hosssain, and after the first meeting at the Women’s Building, a second meeting was held at the Quaker Meeting House, on Washington Avenue in Albany, to form a defense committee for Aref and Hossain. About 50 people attended this meeting, including five or so from the mosque. Cathy Callan and May Safar took the leadership of the organization and were essential in its initial development. Cathy had experience as a member of the Imam Umar defense committee, which had been organized earlier by Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, and the Muslim Solidarity Committee took a similar open and public posture. We organized petitions, rallies, and public meetings. We reached out to the media, and as the trial started, we organized vigils outside of the court house and packed the court room with supporters.

In an Alice in Wonderland trial where everything was upside down and inside out, Aref and Hossain were convicted. The trial was tainted by secret evidence, “experts” with no knowledge of the field they were supposedly expert in, mistranslations, a government witness who was also a criminal, and a judge who instructed the jury that they could not hear all the evidence because it was classified, although he assured them that the unseen evidence was good. Above all, there had been no crime.

What the FBI had done was to invent a crime and then did what it had to do to make it look like Aref and Hossain went along with it. The FBI did this so they could make Americans feel we are in danger from Muslims and that we should therefore support the murders of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan and willingly sign away our civil liberties here at home. They used a tactic described as “pre-emptive prosecution," which has as much validity as the “pre-emptive wars” that the U.S. has been fighting, neither of which make the people of the United States any more safe or secure--in fact, quite the opposite.

The brief details of the case are that the government caught a Pakistani man name Malik selling illegal drivers licenses to other immigrants. They told him he was facing long prison time, but they could make the crime and prison time go away if he would participate in a sting operation to put Aref and Hossain in jail. When all of this started, Hossain, who owned a local pizza place, was having financial trouble. Malik started going to the mosque, befriended Hossain, and offered to loan him money. In the Muslim religion, interest on a loan is not permitted, so Malik made other arraignments: he would give Hossain more than the $5,000 he needed, and Hossain would return the rest. He explained that having money come from Hossain in this way was something that was needed for his import business. Hossain agreed, but he wanted it all in writing and wanted Aref, the Imam of the mosque, to validate that it was all legal according to Islamic law. This is a common practice among Muslims. All the meetings between Malik and Hossain, and later with Aref, were taped by the FBI.

Slowly, as the meetings progressed, Malik started telling Hossain that he was going to use some of the money returned from Hossain for a hand-held missile to be used against a Pakistani official. Hossain objected, but continued with the loan arrangements and didn’t turn Malik in, so he was an accessory to a phony terrorist plot invented by the FBI. Aref claims that he did not know about the hand held missile but the government claims that he did. Although the government was taping the meetings the tape that had the “proof” that Aref knew had a problem and the “proof” never got taped. However, Malik’s FBI handler claimed that he was listening over Milik’s wire from his car and he heard Aref being told about the plot. Aref and Hossain were convicted in an atmosphere of fear and anger directed towards Muslims after 9/11.

The Muslim Solidarity Committee organized the community to send letters to the judge, just as we had done with Imam Umar. We packed the courtroom during the sentencing and had others outside the court holding a vigil. Aref and Hossain made statements at the sentencing hearing Aref’s statement was defiant and political; he condemned the government as the real criminal. The federal sentencing guidelines called for each man to be sentenced to 30 years in prison, but the judge recognized mitigating circumstances, including the large amount of community support, and instead sentenced each man to 15 years in prison.

The sentence of Aref and Hossain not only was a tremendous blow to them and to all Muslims and justice loving people, but it was tremendously devastating to their families. The Muslim Solidarity Committee and other community members have been doing their best to support the families. We have helped them with housing, schooling for their children, visits to the prisons, and other basic needs. If the aim of the FBI was to create a wedge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, they did not succeed.

As the Muslim Solidarity Committee took form with listservs, websites, and a group of very committed people, we started learning about other similar cases in upstate New York and throughout the country. As a result, on the fourth anniversary of the arrest of Aref and Hossain, the Muslim Solidarity Committee held a conference with others working on similar cases. There, the Muslim Innocence Project, which became Project Salam (, a web site that seeks to collect Muslims throughout the country who also have been wrongly prosecuted, was formed. We hope to use this project as a way to further expose the government's crimes.

As a result of this effort to reach out to others who have been wrongly prosecuted, we came in contact with the other groups of Muslims in similar situations, including a group from Newburgh, New York that the FBI and Malik tricked, and another group from Philadelphia known as the Ft. Dix Five. Family members and supporters of these groups joined our march and rally in Albany. While at the rally at the mosque, I spoke to one of the supporters from Philadelphia. He was trying to figure how the Muslim Solidarity Committee had accomplished so much. He mentioned that in Philadelphia, the mosques would not touch the case of the Fort Dix Five and would never have held a rally for the wrongly prosecuted Muslims. He was very impressed that non-Muslims and Muslims were working together and marching together for justice.

Thinking about his question inspired me to write up this account. I think the answer to his question is our decision to be very public with our campaign and because we have incredibly committed people.

Going Public

It is not always obvious to people that they should run a public campaign to defend someone who has been wrongfully prosecuted. Some people think that if you were to go public, you could anger the prosecution and the judge and they might therefore be harsher on the defendant. Lawyers sometimes advise against doing a public defense campaign, believing that they can make the best arguments to sway the court and that a public campaign could hurt their efforts. In my experience, both of these positions are wrong. They come from the notion that the government and the prosecution must have just made a mistake and so, with enough logic and argument, we could point this out to them and they would then do the right thing. I don’t think so. The firing of federal prosecutors who refused to conduct political prosecutions under the Bush administration is a clear sign that they know exactly what they are doing. Unfortunately, under the Obama administration, the same group of federal prosecutors is still doing the same thing as they did under Bush.

The analysis presented in this article takes the position that the government and the prosecution know they are going after innocent men, are doing it for their own political reasons, and will not be swayed by argument. What might sway them is shining the light of day to their crimes, exposing their egregious violations of civil liberties and due process rights. This might cause them to back off, because the only power that can oppose the power of the courts, the police, and the government is the power of the people. This can happen only if people see the truth of what is going on and thus have a consciousness raising experience. Our campaigns in support of Aref and Hossain and other wrongfully prosecuted Muslims have helped expose the misdeed of the government. The government and the FBI have been made to pay a price, which they are still paying.

Committed people

To conduct such a public campaign requires committed and brave people. The Muslim Solidarity Committee consists of such courageous people. It includes lawyers who have given of their time and efforts, for no pay, to achieve justice. We have the brave people from the Mosque who attended our rally and prayed and ate with us on August 4th, at a time when Muslims are still being set up. We have courageous and articulate defendants like Hossain and Aref, and a great group of people organizing meetings, web sites, transportation, editing writings and raising money.

It is my hope that some of the lessons of our experience will be learned and replicated throughout the country. If this were to happen, the government would think twice about wrongfully prosecuting people. They would have to decide if they have more to lose than gain.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

National Assembly Conference Report

Last weekend, July 10 – 12, the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations held its 2nd national conference. Although recently there has been a downturn in anti-war and other protest activity in the U.S., even as the conference was going on, the people of Honduras were fighting against a right-wing coup, Iranians were taking to the streets, efforts were being made to break the blockade of Gaza, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan were continuing to escalate.

The Conference was attended by more than 250 people including people from all of the major national coalitions: ANSWER, UFPJ, The World Can’t Wait, Bail and Out the People Coalition, and others. There also were members of Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War. Code Pink, American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, US Labor Against the War, Pax Christi, the Iraq Moratorium, Progressive Democrats of America, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Green Party, and other national groups. People from local peace groups across the country, including Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace members Tim Herr, Trudy Quaif, and I, were present, as well. BNP set up its literature table and did brisk business throughout the weekend.

The conference was held at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh and was hosted by the peace committee of the Thomas Merton Center, the main peace group in Pittsburgh. National leaders in attendance included Cindy Sheehan, Col. Ann Wright, and long time peace activist Molly Rush of the Plowshares 8, who also is a founding member of the Thomas Merton Center.

Keynotes and talks were given by Michael McPhearson, Executive Director of Veterans for Peace and Co-Chair of UFPJ, Iraqi poet and National Assembly leader Zaineb Alani, National Assembly leader and human rights attorney Lynne Stewart, Michael Zweig, an economics professor and leader of U.S. Labor Against the War, and a others. A special presentation was given by Elie Domota, the General Secretary of the General Union of Workers of Guadalupe, which recently conducted a 45-day general strike on the Island of Guadalupe, where they are fighting against French colonial domination. There were also representative of the peace and labor movements from Canada and Haiti.

All those in attendance had a voice and a vote in all proceedings of the conference.

The main plenary sessions were dedicated to 1) developing an action proposal for the coming period; 2) deciding on an structure proposal for the National Assembly, including electing an Administrative Body to lead the organization until our next conference. The National Assembly continues to aim to bring unity to the anti-war movement in the US and hopes to do this around specific actions. The action proposal, in particular, was discussed in this light.

Five action proposals were circulated to the activists who were present. One, from the National Assembly leadership, had been worked out over the prior four months. A second was withdrawn at the conference. The remaining three came from David Swanson, an author and activists and leader of the After Downing Street group; the World Can’t Wait coalition; and a group of 9/11 truth activists. All proposals were discussed and debated, and in the end, in the spirit of unity, all of the resolutions, with the exception of the proposal from the 9/11 truth activists, were consolidated into a unified action proposal. That proposal calls for building a series of actions in the fall and holding a national action next spring around the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The fall actions will take place on two dates: the first is September 24-25, when the G-20 summit will be held in Pittsburgh, and the second is October 17, around the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. The National Assembly will build the October 17th actions around the following demands:

Immediately and unconditionally withdrawal of all U.S. troops, military personnel, bases,
contractors and mercenaries from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan!
End U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine! End to the siege against Gaza!
U.S. hands off Iran and North Korea!
Self-determination for all oppressed nations and peoples!
End war crimes, including torture!

In addition, the National Assembly will support and endorse a two-week period of united mass actions beginning October 3 and culminating on October 17. This includes Monday, October 5, as the date for a national mass march and non-violent civil resistance at the U.S. House of Representatives office buildings and at the White House.

This is an ambitious program of action, but there are enough people and groups committed to working on it, and every effort will be made to bring the entire anti-war movement into unified actions around these dates. The larger than expected attendance at this conference and the statements made there by leaders of the national anti-war groups suggests that we will be successful in this effort. To help build these actions, the National Assembly will sponsor a national speaking tour of one or more prominent people during the fall.

In addition to the action proposal and the structure proposal, the conference also passed resolutions on the Honduras, Palestine, and Haiti and had a discussion and debate on the situation in Iran. These resolutions, along with this report, are posted on the Northeast Peace and Justice Action Coalition web site at They also will be posted on the National Assembly web site at

The Iran discussion was friendly, although vastly differing opinions were expressed. Some felt that the anti-war movement must stand strong with the demonstrator in the streets in Iran while others believed that doing so could open the door to US or Israeli intervention. This issue could not be fully resolved at the conference, but all agreed on the importance of opposing any outside intervention in the Iranian struggle. The conference, therefore, supports the position of US hands off Iran! No Sanctions, No Intervention! Self determination for the Iranian people!

The leadership body of the National Assembly is called the Continuations Body. It is comprised of representatives of national and local groups from throughout the country. I would encourage you to have a representative of your group on the Continuations Body. The Continuations Body meets monthly through a conference call.

Finally, the conference elected a 14 member Administrative Body. The fourteen members are:

Colia Clark – Chair, Richard Wright Centennial Committee; Grandmothers for Mumia Abu-Jamal
Alan Dale – Iraq Peace Action Coalition (Minnesota)
Donna Dewitt – President, South Carolina AFL-CIO
Mike Ferner – President, Veterans for Peace
Chris Geauvreau – Connecticut United for Peace
Jerry Gordon – National co-coordinator of the Vietnam-era National Peace Action Coalition and member of US Labor Against the War steering committee
Marilyn Levin – Boston United for Justice and Peace
Joe Lombardo – Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace (Albany, NY)
Jeff Mackler – Mobilization for Peace, Jobs and Justice (San Francisco)
Fred Mason – President, Maryland State and District of Columbia AFL-CIO and co-convener of US Labor Against the War.
Mary Nichols-Rhodes – Progressive Democrats of America (Ohio)
Peter Shell – Thomas Merton Center Anti-war Committee (Pittsburgh)
Ashley Smith – International Socialist Organization (Vermont)
Lynne Stewart – Human Rights Attorney (New York)

There were also a series of workshops at the conference on issues including the economy, Iran, Women and War, Students and many more. At the G-20 workshop, some of the first organizing for the G-20 demonstrations in Pitssburgh took place. An important workshop for our area that I attended was called Torture, Renditions, Detentions, Guantanamo and Wrongful Prosecutions: Holding Those Who Give the Orders Accountable. This workshop discussed many of the cases of Muslims who have been unjustly targeted which we in this area have been involved in. The workshop included Lynne Stewart; Jules Lobel, law professor University of Pittsburgh, author "Less Safe, Less Free," U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights litigator; Janet McMahon, Manging Editor, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; David Swanson, confounder After Downing Street and Katherine Huges from the Dr. Dhafir Defense committee in Syracuse. The workshop was very well attended.

I would like to have a NEPAJAC meeting in the near future to start discussions among all peace and justice groups in the Capital District of the actions planned for this fall. Although it is now the summer and anti-war activity is at a low point, the issues that brought us together in this struggle have not gone away. There is an escalation of the wars at a time of economic crisis that that is deeper than most of us have ever seen before. We have celebrated the end of the Bush era. It is now time to get back out in the streets.

Joe Lombardo

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Events in Iran

The elections as a whole were not democratic. The Mullahs, the Guardian Council, decided who can run and who couldn’t; this excluded most people who wanted to run. Those who were allowed to run were all people who the Mullahs could support. Mousavi is not much of a radical or moderate and not someone deserving of our support.

In many ways, this is like the election between Kerry and Bush. Kerry would have carried out Bush’s agenda as is Obama because they are all representative of the Capitalist class. All the candidates in Iran are representative of the theocracy that rules there.

In the US, it is not the Mullahs, but the capitalist class that decides who can run. In the US it is not done by decree, but through money, as is the preferred way in a capitalist democracy.

Although the elections in Iran were rigged from the start, the Iranian system is more democratic than in other countries that the US does support such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

Although the Iranian elections were rigged, I think there is mass support for Ahmadinejad. I think he probably won the election. This is not like the case in Mexico in 2006 where Calderon was declared the winner but most observers felt that Obrador won. In the Mexican case there were huge demonstrations for a long period of time but they were not looked at favorably by the US government or the US media unlike the Iranian demonstrations that are looked at favorably by both. In the case of Mexico, the opposition was deserving of our support.

This is also unlike the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. There, the 2 candidates got about equal vote in the election but the US had a lot of influence in that country and was interested in furthering the break-up of the Soviet Union. The US played a crucial role in the Ukraine organizing demonstrations for the pro-western candidate and financing the opposition. As a result, today, the Ukraine is pro-US imperialism and supports the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the US is pushing to have them join NATO. In the Ukraine I think it would have been better for the Pro-US candidate to lose.

In Iran, neither candidate is pro-US. In fact, Mousavi, who was the prime-minister in Iran during the 1980s, has been one of the biggest advocates for pushing Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t believe that the US wants to see him in any more than Ahmadinejad. Also, the US does not have the same influence in Iran as it had in the Ukraine. The US cannot direct the mobilizations as it did in the Ukraine. I think this is why the US response has been muted, unlike in the Ukrainian situation.

Also, I think that the US assessment of the situation in Iran is that Mousavi will not be put in office and will not win this round with Ahmadinajad. So, by giving him support, they will not gain. All the US can hope for in Iran is to use it for propaganda value to build more support for invasion.

The main point about the US and the Iranian situation is that the US government would love an excuse to invade Iran. We, in the US, must build opposition to any moves to invade. This is one of the reasons that it is important to maintain a strong anti-war movement in the US. War will continue to be an ever-present part of US foreign police.

I think it is important for us to point out the hypocrisy of the US in this situation. It was the US government who overthrew the democratically elected, secular Mossadegh government in Iran and installed the brutal Shah in power. When the Iranian people went out into the streets and overthrew the Shah, his forces shot them down by the thousands but we saw no outcry from the US politicians or the media.

So, I think the position of the US left should not be in support of the Ahmadinejad regime because they “won the elections,” or because they will be more anti-imperialist than Mousavi. I think neither is true. The elections were not democratic from the start, and Mousavi will stand up for the theocracy and against the US to the same extent as Ahmadinejad – and maybe as a better representative for them than Ahmadinejad. And the theocracy running the country makes Iran a not so good anti-imperialist power in any case. Eventually the Iranian people will need to overthrow the theocracy, but that is not the fight going on in Iran today regardless of the fact that many in the streets want to overthrow them.

Similarly, I don’t think that the left should support the opposition because it will not lead to change for the Iranian people and it will be wrong to imply that it will.

That said, I think that many people in Iran who are opposed to the repression in Iran have been drawn into the demonstrations. It is always possible that people in motion can take a situation further than it was intended to go. I think it is important to watch this process in Iran as it develops.

Joe Lombardo

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Who are the Terrorists?

I was unable to find the word “terrorist” in my local paper, the Times Union, in the AP article on the murder of Dr. George Tiller. I was terribly shocked at this brutal murder of a man who devoted his life to helping women, but I was also shocked to see his killer described as “An activist abortion opponent.” Why not terrorist?

Is this word reserved only for Muslims? Is the murdering of doctors who perform abortions terrorism? Is the bombing of abortion clinics terrorism? Was the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics terrorism? What about the bombing of the federal building in Okalahoma city or the bombing of Black churches in the South or the killing of gays because they are gay? Are these acts terrorism? Is it because these perpetrators are Christians that they are not called terrorists?

The most terror that this world has seen has been from Christian groups like the Nazi’s and fascists in Europe, like the inquisitions of the Catholic Church or the cross burnings of the KKK or the killings and bombings of US troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Swine Flu and Economic Meltdown

There is a connection between the economic meltdown that is bringing the economies of the world to their knees and the swine flu. The connection is deregulation. Many are now calling the swine flu the NAFTA flu because it is believed to have started on a pig farm in Mexico owned by the US pork giant Smithfield Farms. The first known case of the swine flu was in the Mexican town of La Gloria, near the farm. Hundreds of other people in that town were infected.

In 1985, Virginia-based Smithfield Farms was fined by the EPA for dumping toxic hog waste into the Chesapeake Bay. In 1994, soon after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, Smithfield Farms moved its operations to Mexico, where it would not have to follow strict environmental regulations. This move not only cost the US jobs but may now have cost us our health.

The Smithfield Farms facility in Mexico is an environmental nightmare. A Mexican paper described it as, “Clouds of flies emanate from the rusty lagoons where the Carroll Ranches business tosses the fecal wastes of its pig farms.”

Deregulation similarly affected the financial industry in the US and brought down the rest of the world’s economies. It was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act in 1999, a law geared to protect bank deposits from the speculative activity of investment bankers that contributed to the present economic crisis. It was congressional legislation forbidding the regulation of exotic financial dealings like Collateralized Debt Obligations(CDOs) and Credit Default Swaps (CDS) that put our economy at risk.

Yet, there has been no move to repeal NAFTA, reinstate Glass-Steagall, or outlaw CDOs or CDSs. Instead we ask working people to weather the flu and give our tax dollars to bail out the financial institution, so they can keep doing what caused the crisis in the first place. Instead of stopping the evils of unbridled capitalism, we ask state workers to accept layoffs, pay lags, and wage freezes. Perhaps its time to rethink these policies.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pirates, Terrorists and War Lords

Although we are all relieved by the release of Captain Richard Phillips from his Somalia captors, there seems to be much more to the story than is being reported. First of all, Captain Phillips' ship, the Maersk Alabama, is part of the fleet owned by the Denmark-based Moller-Maersk company, which is one of the US Department of Defense’s primary shipping contractors. However, according to the DoD, it was not under contract at the time it was overtaken. But the Maersk Alabama, a ship used by the US DoD and carrying an all American crew, was supposedly delivering food aid to Kenya and going right through the so called pirate infested waters off Somalia. Why did they not simply avoid those waters? Some have suggested that it was a provocation, done as a prelude to a US military intervention on the horn of Africa. As former UN Ambassador John Bolton said on April 11, we need a “coalition of the willing” to invade Somalia.

Other important questions are, who are these pirates? Why do other countries not have such bands of pirates? Recently, a New York Times article quoted one of them, Sugule Ali, as saying, “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits...we consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump wastes in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.” Every country claims 12 miles beyond its shores as its territorial waters and an additional 250 miles as its “exclusive economic zone.” Each country is allowed to control all economic activities in these waters.

After the Somali civil war in the late 1980's, the central government was no longer able to patrol and control activity in these waters. Fleets from other countries started fishing in this area, devastating the Somalia fishing industry; other countries started dumping industrial waste off the Somalia coast, including nuclear waste that sickened the coastal populations. Around that time, the Somalia fishing cooperatives banded together to patrol their waters and save their industry and people. Instead of the US and other advanced countries' condemning and stopping the illegal activities of other countries off the Somalia coast, they branded the Somalian protectors as "pirates," and they are now on a full scale campaign to stop them.

The word pirate is just one in a growing lexicon used by our government and the media to sway public opinion. If we don’t like a government, its leaders are "war lords." If a band of people don’t like what the US is doing in their country and try to stop it, they are "terrorists," and if fishing cooperatives band together to protect their territorial waters, they are "pirates."

Certainly, some of these so called pirates are out for their own economic gain. But there is illegal activity in all devastatingly poor areas around the world, including in inner cities of the US. Using strong-armed tactics against the Somalian people will never correct the situation, because it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem of the wealthy nations taking advantage of the poor.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Protests on the 6th Anniversary of the Iraq Invasion

The March 21 anti-war rally in Washington was an important success, but smaller than past rallies. It was very important that it happened because if not, there would have been no national action on the 6th anniversary of the war in Iraq in the country that is responsible for the war, the US. Actions also took place in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as several other places. Other important features of the march were the diversity and youthfulness of the demonstrators.

We had a bus from Albany. There were also a few from Albany who could not get on our bus and went with a bus from Kingston, some left from the Yankee Trails bus barn in East Greenbush. Other area buses that I am aware of are 2 from Rochester, 1 from Ithaca, 1 from Syracuse and 3 from Hartford. Our bus included a number of students from SUNY, Siena and Bethlehem High School. About half of our bus was students. A number of others from our area came down by their own means and I saw several at the rally.

The march was very long and took us past a number of corporate war profiteers where we left coffins to show the effects of their work.

At the demonstrations there were provocations, ostensibly organized by anarchists. Below is a quote from a report by Jerry Gordon, a central leader of the National Assembly, based upon a discussion with Brian Becker, a leader of the ANSWER coalition.

“In D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles, there were planned provocations ostensibly conducted by anarchists but actually the work of police agents and the Feds. In D.C. this group put up a mesh fence which prevented marchers from passing without doing a detour around the obstruction. Those participating in the provocation yelled out slogans denouncing and redbaiting ANSWER and other forces as racists. But when the march reached the corporate headquarters of one of the big plane manufacturers, five of the "anarchists" showed their police credentials and were admitted into the building. Pictures of this were taken by demonstrators and when this was discovered, a frantic but unsuccessful effort was made by the cops to seize the pictures. In the course of this, a cop had a gun pointed only inches from Brian's face. ANSWER has the pictures and will launch an initiative to pull together a coalition of civil liberty groups to cope with and expose an evolving trend of federal law enforcement and local police activity designed to disrupt peaceful antiwar demonstrations”

Besides the importance of the national peace movement demonstrating on the 6th anniversary of the war, I believe that building the demonstration was essential for the peace movement. It was difficult to build the rally even though sentiment in this country against the wars has never been greater. People organizing the rally nationally like ANSWER and the National Assembly, which I was working with, understood that the rally would be smaller because of the political period that we are in. Obama is still in his honeymoon period with the American people who are convinced, in their majority, that he is ending the war in Iraq. There also appears to be less violence in Iraq. The government and media attribute this to the surge; however, most observers in the peace movement understand that it has to due with other factors including the success of US government’s tactic of divide and rule. This has manifested itself in Iraq through outright bribery of Sunni leaders outside of Baghdad and ethnic cleansing in Baghdad. The ethnic cleansing has reduced the population of Baghdad from roughly 50% Sunni to 10% Sunni. It has caused millions of refugees and thousands of deaths. Additionally, I think other factors contributed to the size of the rally including the economic meltdown which has dominated the media and the thinking of the American people. Also, as you know, the divisions in the anti-war movement have had an effect as UFPJ moves away from the issue of the wars and the bitter split between ANSWER and UFPJ continues. It will take some time for these factors to play out.

If there was no national demonstration on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the anti-war movement would become invisible. It would go into retreat and have to be rebuilt at a future date. As it stands now, the organizing for this demonstration has kept the issues in front of the American people and helped build a new young leadership for our movement that is beginning to step forward. In July, the National Assembly will hold its second nation conference. All national and local anti-war groups will be invited. As with the first conference anyone who comes will have voice and vote. Here we hope to assess where the anti-war movement is and how to move forward. If you are interested in coming to this conference in Pittsburg, please let me know.

Joe Lombardo

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Battered Women, Child Custody and the Progressive Movement

Over the weekend of January 9th – 11th, 2009, I attended the 6th Annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference in Albany, NY. I had also attended the previous five conferences. Each conference was organized by my partner, Dr. Mo Hannah, a professor of psychology at Siena College, near Albany.

I have been a political activist all my life. I grew up in a family of political activists, and I have devoted my entire life, as my parents did, to making the world a better place. During my journey, I have learned much that is deplorable about our government and its institutions. Yet even I had a hard time believing the cruelty and injustice of the family court system toward battered mothers and their children, which this conference is dedicated to exposing. Today, I am a believer.

The stories I heard each year at the conference go something like this:

I was in an abusive marriage and finally found the courage to leave. I was living in fear of my husband but afraid to leave. I didn’t know what he would do to me and I had no means to live on my own. But, when I discovered that he was abusing our daughter, I knew I had no choice. I came to the shelter and I filed for divorce.

In the course of the divorce hearing, when I told the judge of the abuse that my daughter and I suffered at my husband’s hands, he seemed skeptical. Although he seemed to understand that there was some abuse, he said that he did not see a “pattern” of abuse and thought I was “overreacting.” I was accused of “parental alienation,” meaning he thought that I was trying to keep my child away from her father out of vindictiveness. As a result, my husband was given custody of our daughter and I was given supervised visitation.

When they came to get my daughter and bring her to her father, she tried to hold onto me and she cried and begged me to not let her go. I tried not to cry and told her I would do everything I could. When she left, I did to cry, and I still cannot stop crying. How can they prevent me from protecting my daughter? How can I survive knowing what she is suffering at the hands of her abuser, and I am not allowed to help her?

You can hear some of these mothers telling their stories at:

One such story at this year’s conference was told by Jennifer Collins ( Jennifer is a 22 year old woman who survived this kind of experience as a child. When she told her mother that her father was hurting her and her brother, her mother, Holly, told this to the judge. The judge told Holly that she was “overreacting,” probably because she was abused herself as a child. Jennifer, who was seven years old at the time, and her brother were taken from their mother and given to their father. Jennifer described the abuse in her father’s home including the time her father broke her brother’s skull by knocking his head against the wall. Holly was given supervised visitation. At one visit, when Jennifer told her mother that her father was hitting her and showed her mother the bruises, the supervisor told Jennifer that she cannot talk to her mother about that. After 18 months, Jennifer and her brother snuck out of their father’s home and found their way to their mother’s house. Their mother took the kids and ran. Eventually, she was discovered in the Netherlands. The US demanded Holly’s extradition in order to prosecute her for child kidnapping. For three years, she fought the extradition while she and her kids lived in a Dutch refugee camp with refugees from Somalia and other repressive governments. After three years, the Dutch government granted them asylum.

Jennifer is now a 22-year old adult who travels throughout the United States speaking out against family court injustice. She has formed an organization of adult children who have “aged out” of the court system’s jurisdiction. The name of her organization is “Children Against Court Appointed Child Abuse – CA3” ( ). A similar organization called Courageous Kids ( was formed several years earlier by other adult child victims. Several members of the Courageous Kids group were at this and previous conferences.


For many who hear about these travesties the question is, why? Why would the courts respond to domestic violence victims this way? The question of “why” is always difficult to answer because those running the courts, and judges, like other abusers, deny the abuse and therefore see no need to explain their actions.

The most important thing allies of abused women and children can do for them is to keep on believing them. It took a very long time for the criminal courts to believe the victims of domestic violence or rape. They would often blame the victim or dismiss the case as a “domestic situation,” telling the parties to go home and resolve their issues. This has changed somewhat in the criminal courts over the past two decades, largely due to the women’s and domestic violence movements. But the family courts still have a long way to go.

In custody situations, the presumption once was that the mother would get custody because she was the primary care giver for the children. That has now changed. In the overwhelming majority of cases the mother is still the primary care giver but the courts have changed from the presumption that the mother should have custody to a presumption that it is better for the children if both parents have equal access to the children. This is fine when there are two loving and caring parents, but when the children are used as pawns in on-going disputes between the divorcing parents or when there is domestic violence or child abuse involved, equal access and joint custody are the exact wrong solutions.

We live in a country facing tremendous economic and social pressures, a society that glorifies violence and remains in a state of almost perpetual war. These features have contributed to the epidemic of domestic abuse we see today. However, family courts continue in their refusal to acknowledge this reality, and judges with no understanding of domestic violence continue to re-victimize battered mothers and their children with their disastrous court decisions.

A woman who has been abused is not only hurt physically but also mentally and emotionally. Many display symptoms similar to the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms that soldiers returning from war zones exhibit. When these women go before a judge and are confronted with the possibility that their children may be taken from them and given to their abuser, they often become emotional. The abusive partner, on the other hand, may come across as cool, calm, and logical. While the mother’s emotion may be taken as a negative, if the father shows emotion it is usually viewed far more sympathetically as if it shows he is a good father and cares about his children. The judge may, therefore, see him as the better parent.

All through the family courts there is a double standard that works against mothers. If she is emotional, it's a negative; if she is not emotional, it's also a negative. If she has a job, she cares more about her work than about her children; if she doesn't work for a living, she's seen as unable to adequately provide for her children. If she does not fight to keep her children away from the abuser, she is accused of "failure to protect"; if she does fight for them, she is seen as trying to alienate the children from their father or not being open to his having "equal access" to them. Protective mothers find themselves in a Catch 22 hell in family court.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

The rationale often used for taking children away from a protective mother and giving them to an abusive father is called "parental alienation syndrome" (PAS). Parental alienation syndrome is the invention of an anti-Semitic, quack, now-deceased psychiatrist named Richard Gardner. PAS is based on pseudo-science and not accepted as a credible syndrome by any of the relevant psychiatric or psychological associations. While it is possible for one parent to speak badly of the other in the course of divorce proceedings and probably happens often, to claim that this is a psychological syndrome, a "disorder" that makes its sufferer an unfit parent is both fraudulent and absurd. Gardner actually claimed that PAS does more damage to children than real physical and sexual abuse.

PAS is almost never used against men. It is not uncommon for abusive fathers to claim that they are not abusive and that the mother is only saying so to discredit them in the course of the custody hearing. According to an American Psychological Association's report of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s study, “Fathers who batter the mother are twice as likely to seek sole physical custody of their children than are nonviolent fathers.” Various other studies report that these men will get custody in anywhere from 33% to 70% of the cases, depending on the study. In these cases PAS is typically used to support their position.

The Father Supremacy Movement

PAS is championed by the so called Fathers Rights movement (FRs), also known as the Father Supremacy movement. These groups claim that men are as likely as women to be victims of domestic violence--this despite U.S. Dept. of Justice statistics that show women as the victims of domestic violence in 86% of cases. FRs claim that most reports of domestic violence are false and that these false claims, rather than domestic violence, are the real problem. However, numerous studies have shown that false claims of rape or domestic violence are uncommon. The Father Supremacy groups direct batterers towards legal services that will help them build a PAS argument in their cases and teach them how to use their typically superior financial positions to harass their former partners through the court system, driving them into bankruptcy in their quest to hurt these women the most--by taking their children away from them.

Many men who have gone through a divorce, including this author, are repulsed by the belligerent, vindictive, anti-women tone of these organizations and their many web sites. These groups are organized remnants of the fight against equality for women. They are throwbacks to a time when women and children were considered the man’s property. These men become incensed when “their” woman stands up to them on behalf of herself and her children. This anger is what drives these groups: one of the last vestiges of male supremacy in our society. Unfortunately, these men all too often find a receptive ear in the family court system.

The case of Barry Goldstein

Sometimes family court judges go so far as to discipline lawyers for vigorously defending protective mothers. Such is what happened to attorney Barry Goldstein, who has defended many victims of domestic violence and has been a tireless advocate for them inside and outside the courtroom.

Barry was, for awhile, the attorney for Genia Shockome, a protective mother living in Dutchess County, New York. Genia is a Russian born engineer whose ex-husband, Tim Shockome, had two prior foreign brides before he married Genia. They had two children together before Genia filed for divorce and custody of the children, stating that he had been abusing her for years. At one point, he was convicted in criminal court for harassing her, but in family court, he was able to use Parental Alienation against Genia, and he eventually won sole custody of the children. The case was described in an article in Newsweek magazine (

At one point, while 8 month pregnant, Genia was appearing on her own behalf in front of the family court judge, who ruled that her ex-husband could move away with the children to Texas. After Genia persisted in objecting to the judge's ruling thinking she was establishing a record for an appeal, the judge ordered her jailed for one month. Barry then posted an article on an internet blog criticizing the judge’s action.

In retaliation, this same judge filed attorney disciplinary charges against Barry, claiming that his statements on the blog were false. The appellate court of the State of New York convicted Barry of this and other charges and suspended Barry's license to practice law for an astonishing five years. The message this sends to other attorneys in these cases is don't defend your clients too strongly and you don't have first amendment rights to speak to the public if the court disagrees with what you are saying.

At the Sixth Battered Mothers Custody Conference, a resolution supporting Barry Goldstein and condemning the decision of the appellate court was proposed and passed. The text of the resolution, signed by the Battered Mothers Custody Conference, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and NOW New York State, was sent to the justices of the appellate court, the New York State Attorney General and the Governor of New York.

The Progressive Movement, Domestic Violence, and Child Custody

The issues addressed by the Battered Mothers Custody Conference that are affecting thousands of women today are not typically addressed by the progressive movement in this country but ought to be. Some may believe that these issues are personal, not political. The same justification was used by many progressives in the early days of the women’s movement. Today, however, we understand that much of what is considered personal is political. Those of us who fight for social justice are motivated by the image of a society where there is true equality. We envision a world where people are not driven by economic needs, fear and insecurity, which play a big part in divorce proceedings. In such a society human relations will change; Violence would be an anathema. In such a society, the need of the small elite, who rule today, to divide and conquer, will wither away and equality for all will become the norm. In such a society, the concept of the family will change as will divorce and custody issues. However, the fight to achieve such a society is embodied in each and every struggle for equality and justice--including the struggle on behalf of protective mothers and their children.

The web site for the Battered Mothers Custody Conference is I urge those in the peace and justice movement and other progressive causes to go to the web site, consider attending the next conference and to use the weight of your organizations to support women in your community who are facing this abuse from their partner or the family court system.

Joe Lombardo

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A program to save the working people of New York

The following is flyer that I and others wrote and handed out at a mass rally of New York State workers opposing the Governor's Budget cuts.

New York, thanks to the worldwide economic crisis, faces a projected state budget shortfall of over $13 billion. In a move worthy of Herbert Hoover, Governor Paterson wants to cut education, healthcare and local government and levy new taxes on everything form haircuts to cable TV.

Working people already bear the brunt of this crisis. A trillion-dollar “bailout” of our tax money has already gone to the titans of Wall Street. Yet the Governor wants New York’s public employees to shoulder more than others. He wants to confiscate a week’s pay, a “lag,” meaning we work a week but don’t get paid for it until we die or retire. He wants us to re-open union contracts to give back what we won at the bargaining table and earned through hard work.

The gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has never been so severe. Today the top 1% of the population is wealthier than the bottom 95%. The richest 400 people possess more wealth than the bottom 150,000,000 people, combined. But the rich are not being asked to pay for the crisis their own greed created -- we have bailed them out. Now Governor Paterson asks us for further sacrifice. Instead, we can make New York a better place to live and work!

A 4-point plan to solve the state’s fiscal crisis:

Tax the Rich!
Those with top incomes in the state previously paid over 15% in taxes. Today they pay less than 7%. More than 400 New Yorkers make over $35 million per year. By requiring those who make over $250,000 per year to pay their fair share in taxes, and with an additional 1% income tax surcharge for those with incomes over $1 million per year, the state would erase the projected budget shortfall.

Tax All Financial Transactions!

When you buy a new shirt you pay sales tax (8% or more for 85% of New Yorkers). However, when a Wall Street investor buys or sells $1 million in stocks or futures or bonds or interest rate swaps, he pays no tax. All financial transactions should be charged a minimum tax, for example a national tax of one-half of 1%, an amount estimated to yield over $150 billion in national revenue. This would also deter the day trading and speculation that exacerbates wild price swings. New York would completely rescue its state budget with a tiny state tax of just 5/100ths of 1% per financial transaction.

End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!
The Iraq war costs around $5,000 per second. The US plans to further escalate the war in Afghanistan. New York National Guard members fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and US troops are stationed in over 120 countries around the world. We can no longer tolerate spending trillions for war. New York’s share for the war in Iraq alone has been more that $66 billion, $12 billion this fiscal year. If the taxes paid by New York residents for war in Iraq and Afghanistan went into the state treasury instead, it would balance the state budget.

Single-payer healthcare!
When we lose our job we lose our health insurance. A single-payer health system, like proposal in Congressional bill HR 676, will insure that ALL people have ALL necessary medical care. It would also yield a massive economic stimulus, liberating money that now goes to out-of-pocket health expenses and creating healthcare jobs. It would remove the confusion, waste, advertising and profit of private health insurers. A single-payer medical care system would reduce health spending in New York by at least $20 billion annually.