Peace & Justice News is a collection of news items collected by Bloomington Alternative contributor Linda Greene. Today's edition includes:

  • Living well without God
  • Animal rights activist plaintiff in First Amendment case
  • Military spending, taxes unending
  • Help end 21 years of solitary confinement for prisoner
  • Single-payer health care can save $570 billion
  • Mali union activist Tiecoura Traore visits the U.S.
  • If you have a large student loan debt, it’s your fault
  • 43rd Venceremos Brigade to leave for Cuba
  • Corporations profiteering on women’s health
  • Rio Tinto supports Olympic Summer Games, locks out workers
  • Read Peace & Justice news archive on The Bloomington Alternative.

    Living well without God

    A new billboard on State Road 37 north of Bloomington has a special message -- “You don’t need God to hope, to care, to love, to live.” Bloomington resident Kimberly MacKay created it through the Center for Inquiry (CFI) in Indianapolis.

    The billboard is three miles south of State Road 144 and is visible from the northbound lane.

    For months MacKay had driven past a billboard on 37 that read, “Avoid Hell/Repent/Trust Jesus Today.”

    “It’s such a negative message,” she said in a phone interview. “I think there’s a lot of things wrong with that line of thinking.”

    MacKay started her billboard campaign over the religious billboard.

    "There is something quite bothersome when people are so egotistical that they feel it is perfectly fine to condemn another group or subgroup to eternal hell,” she said.

    Furthermore, she said, religion is also an environmental issue. People who believe in an afterlife don’t value the earth and exploit its valuable resources.

    MacKay said in an email, “Everyone has the right to label themselves whatever they like. My husband disbelieves essentially the same things I do but refuses to refer to himself as an atheist. He simply doesn't like to label himself, and I can respect that. Nonbeliever and atheist have identical meanings.

    “Personally,” she continued, “I prefer to use the term atheist because it is an emotionally charged word for most people. Throwing it around in conversation introduces the word to the public, and if they hear the word enough, they come to see the word as something other than "inherently evil."

    Plus, McKay said, she is a proud to be an atheist.

    "I make no apologies," she said. "I've found that atheists usually have done a great deal of introspection. They tend to be some of the most educated, intelligent and productive members of society."

    MacKay started the campaign by attending atheist meetings in Bloomington and asked the group if they had any ideas for messages on an atheist billboard. One of the best suggestions came from CFI’s Reba Wooden.

    MacKay took all the suggestions people had made, posted them on the local atheist email listserv and asked everybody to vote. The CFI message won.

    MacKay raised the $900 required to post the billboard message for a month.

    She had wanted to rent a billboard facing the ”repent” one so they would contrast, but the company that owned that billboard refused on the grounds that the message would attract too much public attention. She finally found another company that rented her the billboard just north of the “repent” one.

    MacKay said that two-thirds of the comments she’s received on the billboard have been positive.

    The Martinsville Reporter-Times reported on the billboard but gave it what MacKay called “skewed” publicity, with quotes from local ministers but none by local atheists.

    On the first Friday of every month at 5:30 p.m. an atheist happy hour takes place in the back room of Player’s Pub. The public is welcome.

    Animal rights activist plaintiff in First Amendment case

    Lauren Gazzola spent 40 months in a federal prison for “animal enterprise terrorism” after she protested against the infamous animal-testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences, as she reported in the Center for Constitutional Rights spring newsletter.

    Gazzola, a communications staff member at the center, had been a defendant before for her animal-rights activity. She’d been arrested at demonstrations, sued by those she was protesting and dragged off in flexi-cuffs after blockading the doors of fur stores. But it was in 2004 that she had to face an indictment on federal domestic terrorism charges.

    Since 2001 Gazzola had worked with a few other activists (the SHAC 7) to publish a website that advocated and reported on protests against Huntingdon. The global Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign had driven the company to the brink of bankruptcy more than once.

    In the 2004 indictment, Gazzola wasn’t charged with harming anyone or damaging property, only with “conspiring” to publish the website and thereby “physically disrupt[ing]” the company’s activities.

    Today Gazzola is a plaintiff in a new center lawsuit, Blum v. Holder, requesting a federal court to strike down the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) because it violates the First Amendment. The attorneys are arguing that AETA criminalizes protected speech and casts a pall over activists in the animal rights movement who want to protest against “animal enterprises.”

    Carrying a maximum of 20 years in prison, AETA penalizes anyone found to have caused a loss of property or profits to a business or institution that uses or sells animals or that has any relation to an animal enterprise.

    The organizations that lobbied for AETA included the Fur Commission USA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and several pharmaceutical companies.

    “Lost profits,” Gazzola said, “are … the very purpose of boycotts and much other political protest. As in the civil rights boycotts and the divestment campaigns against South African apartheid, activists have routinely sought to make injustice unprofitable. The AETA makes this traditional, nonviolent protest tactic a terrorist offense.”

    Gazzola pointed out that though the AETA unconstitutionally singles out animal rights activists, “it is also a harbinger for any social movement that powerful interests perceive as vulnerable to repression.”

    Labor activists could be prosecuted under the AETA for a successful boycott of Walmart because it sells animal products. Occupy Wall Street activists could be vulnerable to an AETA prosecution for protesting against banks that invest in animal testing labs.

    “History is riddled with governmental silencing of controversial and effective advocacy,” Gazzola said. “Fortunately, the core of our modern free speech tradition has been courts striking down these attempts. [The center’s] case challenging the AETA is another opportunity to declare, in no uncertain terms, that free speech cannot be criminalized.”

    Military spending, taxes unending

    “There's a reason the United States has a hard time funding green energy, healthcare, education, infrastructure, or transportation” according to RootsAction.

    “We have 5 percent of the world's people and over 50 percent of the world's military spending -- and through that spending we enrich the richest 1 percent.”

    According to a letter from the American Friends Service Committee, annually the U.S. spends $1.16 trillion on the military. That’s $2.2 million each minute.

    In Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, military spending will become 57 percent of U.S. discretionary spending.

    Many human needs will suffer as a result of this budget: it will drain our economy, endanger our country, strip our civil liberties, destroy our natural environment and kill many people, including civilians.

    Discretionary programs, the National Priorities Project says, which include education, the military and environmental protection, account for $1.15 trillion, or 31 percent, of the 2013 budget.

    In Indiana, according to the project:

    • The grant for Medicaid will be $5.2 million, for a reduction of 0.04 percent from the 2012 level.
    • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) will fall by 0.89 percent.
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will decrease by 1.63 percent.
    • The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will fall by 22.19 percent.
    • Head Start will decrease by 1.05 percent.
    • The Community Development Block Grants will decrease by 5.30 percent.

    Help end 21 years of solitary confinement for prisoner

    Russell Maroon Shoats is one of the millions of African-American men incarcerated in American prisons, mostly for minor drug offenses. Whereas African Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 43 percent of prisoners, according to Democracy Now!

    Shoats, 68, has lived in solitary confinement for 21 years at the State Correctional Institution Greene in southwestern Pennsylvania. He has spent almost 40 years in the Pennsylvania prison system, 30 of those years in solitary confinement, according to an email from the Center for Constitutional Rights.

    During his incarceration, Shoats has earned a reputation among prison staff and prisoners as a leader because of his consistent support for human rights inside and outside the prisons he’s resided in.

    Shoats’s supporters have launched a campaign to release him from solitary confinement. The letter-writing and petition campaign is supported by the Human Rights Coalition, a prison-abolition organization that Shoats founded, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild.

    Shoats’s supporters are urging prison authorities to release him into the prison’s general population. During his incarceration under solitary confinement, Shoats has been unable to touch his children or grandchildren or interact with others in a humane setting despite his not having violated prison rules for 20 years.

    Shoats has experienced severe psychological stress, and his physical health as worsened as a result of his prolonged isolation.

    Single-payer health care can save $570 billion

    In Dollars & Sense, University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor of economics Gerald Friedman claimed that Medicare for all, or a single-payer health plan, could greatly improve health care while also enhancing millions of Americans’ lives.

    The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act (HR 676), introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), would authorize the federal government to pay for health care for all Americans but leave that care in the hands of the current system of private delivery.

    In other words, the government would only pay for, not operate, the system.

    Though single payer “would raise some costs by providing access to care for those currently uninsured or under-insured, it would save much larger sums by eliminating insurance middlemen and radically simplifying payment to doctors and hospitals,” Friedman said.

    The $570 billion single payer would save is “now wasted on administrative overhead and monopoly profits,” according to Friedman.

    Single payer would also make health-care financing hugely more progressive by replacing fixed, income-invariant health-care expenditures with progressive taxes,” Friedman said.

    Mali union activist Tiecoura Traore visits the U.S.

    Tiecoura Traori, a railworker’s son and Ph.D. in transport engineering, is speaking in the United States. He’s the former general secretary of SYTRAIL, the Mali railway workers’ union. Traori is well known in Mali for campaigning against privatization of Mali’s railways and is founder and president of the Citizens’ Collective for Developing and Taking Back the Railways in Mali, a national campaign “to take back the railways for the people of Mali,” according to the April 17 edition of Portside.

    On his U.S. tour Traori is speaking about the recent coup in Mali. He gave a talk in Albany and will end his tour at a Labor Notes conference in Chicago.

    A video of Traori’s Albany talk is on YouTube.

    If you have a large student loan debt, it’s your fault

    Congressperson Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said on the radio last week, “I have very little tolerance for people who tell me that they graduate with $200,000 of debt or even $80,000 of debt, because there’s no reason for that.”

    Foxx isn’t just any old Congress member. She’s the chair of the Higher Education & Workforce Training Subcommittee of the House. In other words, she controls policy on student debt, and “she thinks you're a loser and a whiner if you have student loans,” said Rebuild the Dream in an email.

    Rebuild the Dream says someone with Foxx’s views has no business determining education policy.

    At a time when over half the students at public, four-year-colleges graduate with debt, Foxx's comments are “out of touch, inadmissible, and ignorant,” says Rebuild the Dream.

    Foxx sponsored the Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act, a bill that would terminate federal regulation of for-profit colleges, which are infamous for preying on low-income students, have unusually low graduation rates and leave their students with debts that are higher than average ones.

    Foxx's top campaign contributors are for-profit colleges.

    Student debt is nearly a trillion dollars total, and an increasing number of Americans are finding it impossible to maintain their student loan payments in the depressed economy. Rebuild the Dream says, “We need leaders in Congress who are in touch with reality. Rep. Foxx's views have no place in the discourse and debate on this issue.”

    You can sign a petition urging Speaker of the House John Boehner and other members of Congress “to publicly and immediately denounce Foxx's remarks,” according to Rebuild the Dream. The petition is available on the Rebuild the Dream website. At this writing it had 47,000 signatures.

    43rd Venceremos Brigade to leave for Cuba

    The 43rd Venceremos (“We Shall Overcome”) Brigade will travel to Cuba this summer, tentatively July 8–22, according to the July 18 Portside.

    The first brigade took place in 1969 with a group of young people.

    As in the past, the upcoming brigade will work side by side with Cuban workers and challenge U.S. policies toward our island neighbor, including the economic blockage and the U.S. government’s ban on travel to Cuba.

    The first brigades took part in the sugar harvest, and following brigades have performed agricultural and construction work.

    In the last 39 years, the brigade has provided more than 8,000 people with the opportunity to work in Cuba, thereby showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution.

    Though the activities have evolved over the years, the brigade has maintained its format of work, educational activities and travel.

    “[The organizers remain] committed,” Portside reported, “to organizing the most diverse contingents possible; Brigadistas are young and older, of many races, nationalities, socio-economic classes, and sexual orientations.”

    The Venceremos Brigade is the world’s oldest solidarity organization. It travels to Cuba without receiving permission from the U.S. government.

    “We also believe that we have much to learn from Cuba,” Portside quoted the organizers as saying, “and the best way to do that is to travel there and see for ourselves.”

    The cost of the trip is about $1,500.

    For more information contact or Venceremos Brigade.

    Corporations profiteering on women’s health

    Thanks to activists, more than 30 years ago international public health experts established the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. It prohibits manufacturers of infant formula from marketing their products in health-care facilities and from promoting free samples to pregnant women and mothers, the National Women’s Health Network reported in an email.

    Breast milk is proven to be much better for infants and children than formula. When hospitals provide free formula samples to patients, the network says, they violate the code and imply women’s health-care providers endorse formula over breast-feeding.

    Even the U.S. Surgeon General says that exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life is best for protecting babies from infections, asthma, obesity and sudden infant death syndrome.

    Breast-feeding aids mothers by reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer and by saving them money.

    Research published in the journal Pediatrics has shown that women who receive infant formula samples from hospitals and clinics breast-feed for less time than others and are less likely to feed their offspring with breast milk only.

    Go here to sign a Public Citizen petition demanding infant-formula manufacturers stop using hospitals and clinics as marketing tools.

    The petition is addressed to Abbott (Similac), Mead Johnson (Enfamil) and Nestle (Gerber).

    Rio Tinto supports Olympic Summer Games, locks out workers

    Huge mining corporation Rio Tinto is providing 99 percent of the metals that constitute the 2012 Olympic Summer Games medals while locking out hundreds of aluminum-smelter workers at its Alma plant in Quebec, according to an email from LabourStart.

    The workers are refusing to accept the company’s demand to replace retiring unionized workers with contract workers earning 50 percent less for the same work.

    The company’s move is typical of globalization’s efforts to wrest more profits by lowering wages.

    Also, Rio Tinto’s actions flout the Olympic spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play, LabourStart says.

    A representative of Rio Tinto workers, the United Steelworkers has initiated a campaign, Off the Podium, to convince the International Olympic Committee to stop letting Rio Tinto supply the Olympic games with metals for its medals.

    As the email says, “No athlete should have to wear a medal tarnished by Rio Tinto’s practices.”

    Send a message here to Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge to drop Rio Tinto.

    Linda Greene can be reached at .