Monday, February 26, 2024

After Setting Himself on Fire, US Airman Aaron Bushnell Dies Declaring 'Free Palestine'

By Brett Wilkins

"Many of us like to ask ourselves, 'What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?' The answer is, you're doing it."


"My name is Aaron Bushnell, I am an active-duty member of the United States Air Force, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I'm about to engage in an extreme act of protest, but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it's not extreme at all."

That's how the 25-year-old introduced himself—and bade farewell—to the world in a livestream video of his Sunday afternoon walk to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Arriving outside the front gate, Bushnell set down his phone, took eight paces, turned to face the camera, doused himself in an unknown accelerant, donned his service cap, and set himself alight. He repeatedly screamed "Free Palestine" as he burned.

Uniformed Secret Service officers arrived on the scene even before Bushnell was able to ignite the fire. They repeatedly ordered him to "get on the ground."

"Get on the ground, you fucker," someone—presumably an officer—can be heard saying in the video as Bushnell screams and writhes in agony. He managed one final, garbled yet unmistakable shout of "free Palestine" as his body was engulfed in flames.

Note: The following video contains blurred graphic images that some readers may find disturbing.

Nearly two-and-a-half minutes into the video, an officer in a white shirt rushes in with an extinguisher while an officer points his pistol at Bushnell's burning body.

"I don't need guns," implored the man in the white shirt, "I need fire extinguishers."

NPR reported Bushnell was rushed to a hospital in critical condition. He died Sunday evening.

Bushnell left a final message on social media early Sunday morning.

"Many of us like to ask ourselves, 'What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?'" he wrote in his first Facebook post in nearly six years. "The answer is, you're doing it. Right now."

Some observers criticized U.S. corporate media outlets for publishing articles with headlines omitting the words "Gaza," "Palestine," or "genocide."

Others took aim at reports attributing Bushnell's act to mental health issues.

"They will try to spin-doctor it as mental health issues, but he was rational and clear about his political reasoning, which resonates with [the] majority of the world," Syracuse University professor Farhana Sultana said on social media. "May his sacrifice not be in vain. Indeed. it was legitimate moral outrage and courage against the holocaust and barbarity in Palestine with U.S. full participation. May his sacrifice not be in vain, may his last words on this earth ring true. #FreePalestine."

CounterPunch editor Joshua Frank wrote: "Please, stop saying Aaron Bushnell was mentally ill. The real mental illness is witnessing a genocide taking place and not doing a thing to stop it."

More than 100,000 Palestinians—mostly women and children—have been killed or wounded by Israeli bombs and bullets since the October 7 attacks on Israel. Around 90% of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been forcibly displaced, and at least hundreds of thousands of Gazans are on the brink of starvation.

The U.S. government backs Israel with nearly $4 billion in annual military aid and diplomatic support including three vetoes of United Nations Security Council cease-fire resolutions. The Biden administration is seeking an additional $14.3 billion in armed assistance for Israel, and has twice sidestepped Congress to fast-track emergency military aid.

Last month, The Intercept reported that documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request suggested that the Biden administration deployed a U.S. Air Force team to Israel to assist the Israel Defense Forces with targeting intelligence.

Bushnell's death is the second reported U.S. self-immolation since the start of the Gaza genocide. On December 1, a woman—whose identity and outcome remain unknown—carrying a Palestinian flag was hospitalized in critical condition after setting herself alight outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta.

Police called it an "act of extreme political protest." Israeli Consul-General Anat Sultan-Dadon called it an act of "hate and incitement toward Israel."

People have set themselves on fire as an act of political protest for many centuries. Following the examples of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns who self-immolated in 1963 to protest persecution by the U.S.-backed Ngô Đình Diệm dictatorship, at least half a dozen Americans burned themselves to death to protest the Vietnam War. Americans also self-immolated over the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq, the climate emergency, alleged corruption at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and other reasons.

In December 2010, the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was a major catalyst for the Arab Spring uprising that swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

The late Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, and author Thích Nhất Hạnh explained in a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that the monks and nuns who self-immolated were not committing suicide. Rather, their self-sacrifices were aimed "at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured."

"It is done," he explained, "to wake us up."

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline—which offers 24/7, free, and confidential support—can be reached by calling or texting 988, or through chat at 988lifeline.org.

This article originally appeared in Common Dreams on February 26th, 2024.  

Photo credit: Talia Jane via X

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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Michigan State Police releases independent report on racial bias, ACLU calls it ‘concerning’

BY:  

The Michigan State Police (MSP) has released an independent report centered on the issue of whether it has carried out racially discriminatory policing practices.

In a news release, MSP said that “racial disparities observed in the traffic enforcement activities of Michigan State Police troopers do not appear to be the result of widespread discriminatory policing practices.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan has argued that African Americans have been stopped disproportionately by state troopers. The group pushed for the external review.

The 18-month independent evaluation report conducted by the CNA Corp. was released in December. It came after MSP announced in January 2022 a five-point plan to address racial disparities in its traffic stops

“As a law enforcement agency, we are committed to fair and equitable policing,” stated Col. James Grady, MSP director, who is African American. “Although previous research conducted by the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University has identified the presence of racial and ethnic disparities in MSP traffic stops, the reasons for such disparities remain unknown.

“Discriminatory behavior is not an acceptable practice within this agency and anyone engaging in it will be addressed through training, discipline or termination, dependent on the circumstances of the incident. Today, as always, we reaffirm our commitment to the highest standards of anti-discrimination education and training and always look to serve Michigan to the best of our ability.” 

To assess the department’s traffic enforcement policies and programs, CNA studied document reviews, targeted interviews, focus groups, ride-alongs and quantitative data analysis. MSP commissioned as part of its five-point plan announced in January 2022 to address racial disparities in its traffic stops. 

Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan, told the Advance that MSP has some “cultural, systemic features of the agency that lead to discriminatory outcomes.” 

“We find the conclusions very concerning, if not alarming,” he said. 

However, Fancher did point out the ACLU was “pleased” that MSP agreed to have the independent review carried out. 

“The report validates many of the conclusions that we reached on our own, and identifies some specific problems that make it possible for MSP to try and address them in an effective way,” Fancher added. 

The report includes 54 findings and associated recommendations. Among them emphasize policies and programs that require greater attention and improvement.

Key findings of the independent evaluation: 

  • MSP has a defined, comprehensive hiring process for applicants. 
  • MSP has consistently emphasized a written commitment to recruiting a diverse workforce in its strategic plans and recruiting strategy, but the department can improve on its followthrough and accountability for such commitments. 
  • As part of recruit training, MSP provides eight hours of implicit bias training, six hours of ethics training, and 15 hours of a cultural diversity speaker series. 
  • Disparities exist in graduation and attrition rates by demographics. 
  • MSP has made tangible efforts to institute recruiting and hiring practices that reduce barriers to applying for the trooper position.
  • MSP has several policies that provide guidance to troopers to ensure constitutional and bias-free policing. 
  • MSP’s policies on traffic enforcement do not sufficiently recognize the community being served nor provide sufficient guidance on the use of discretion. 
  • MSP has recently delivered two trainings on bias and policing, one that was not well received and a more recent one that was well received. 
  • MSP does not provide sufficient training on the use of discretion, particularly with the concept of “going beyond the stop.” 
  • Supervisors do not sufficiently manage where and how troopers patrol, leading to disproportionate “congregation in high-population areas with greater minority populations.” 
  • MSP now takes a more systematic approach to provide training and address identified gaps. 

On Friday, MSP issued a statement that the “employee-led African American Employee Resource Group (AAERG), one of the department’s commitments to diversity” that has been highlighted in a new video series celebrating Black History Month.

“Being part of and leading the AAERG is a source of gratitude for me,” said Sgt. DiJon Ware, AAERG co-chair. “It not only instills a sense of belonging but also nurtures inclusivity, fosters a supportive community and encourages diverse perspectives, thereby enriching the workplace culture. Over the past year, we’ve educated both our members and allies about African American culture and we’ve proactively forged connections within our communities through various outreach events across the state.”

This article originally appeared in Michigan Advance on February 21st, 2021. 

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Bill to make juvenile crime records public advances to Louisiana House

By:  


Juvenile crime once again took center stage at the State Capitol as a bill that would publicize the confidential court records of young people accused of crimes moved forward to the Louisiana State House.

The Administration of Criminal Justice Committee approved the proposed legislation 13-1 Wednesday, just one day after a Senate committee greenlit a bill that would lower the age teens can be tried as adults from 18 to 17.

House Bill 1 by Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, would create a “Truth and Transparency” program to require clerks of court to provide public electronic access to some criminal court records of teenagers accused of serious crimes, including their names.

The public information would include but not be limited to the name of the defendant, arrest details, custody or bail decisions, and court dates, among other facts associated with the case.

Most youth criminal case records are currently confidential in Louisiana.

A similar bill introduced last year by Rep. Debbie Villio was dogged by accusations of racism as it proposed a two-year pilot program focusing on three majority-Black parishes: Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans. Last year’s bill passed the House but ultimately died in the Senate; the bill lacked funding to enable parishes to implement the initiative. Bacala said his new bill will be funded through a fee collected by the Louisiana Clerks Remote Access Authority.

The juvenile records bill was introduced as part of a special session on crime called by Gov. Jeff Landry that started this week and will run through March 6. The newly elected governor made juvenile crime a key issue throughout his campaign and during a speech he gave Monday to open the session.

“These juveniles are not innocent children any longer; they are hardened criminals,” Landry said during his comments before the Legislature. “They violently attack our citizens, our law enforcement officers, and even our juvenile correction officers without hesitation.”

During the debate on Bacala’s bill, supporters of the measure included the mothers and grandmothers of crime victims who were fatally shot or left permanently disabled. Sheralyn Price, whose son Brandon “Boogie B” Montrell was shot to death in 2022, pushed back against those who voiced concerns about privacy.

“If your kid’s name is splattered all over the internet, you won’t have to pick out a casket. You won’t have to plan a funeral,” Price told committee members. “My child is dead. … I buried him in the last gift I gave him for Christmas, his Saints jersey.”

In 2019, Darrelle Scott, was shot and paralyzed by 13-year-old Lynell Reynolds, who was later found guilty and sentenced to remain in state custody until the age of 21. Scott’s grandmother, Dorothy White, told lawmakers that making the public aware of the extensive criminal histories of juveniles might spare someone from suffering the same fate as Scott.

“We must hold these juveniles accountable,” White said during Wednesday’s hearing. “This is not about Black and white. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about our lives, our safety. We have to go out and tell the public. We need to put the names out. We need the faces out.”

Opponents of Bacala’s bill warned that the goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate juveniles. The bill’s critics argued that publicizing the names of young defendants, especially of those later found to be innocent, will make it harder, if not impossible for them to get a job, housing, or even go to college.

“For juveniles who are adjudicated and are not convicted, that has an extremely serious impact on them in their future,” said Sarah Whittington, an attorney with the Justice and Accountability Center. “It is not the same as losing a child. It is not the same as losing a family member. I am not making that correlation. But it will follow that child forever.”

Others noted that the law already requires the courts and district attorneys to provide information to victims and their families, but in many cases they are failing to do so. Instead of passing legislation that might harm children, the state should ensure that prosecutors are following the existing law, said Natalie Sharp, an investigator with the Promise of Justice Initiative.

“I recently spoke with a person whose brother was shot and killed in the 1990s. They never even knew that an arrest had been made, let alone that someone had been incarcerated for decades,” Sharp said. “The prosecutor never took the time to speak with them.”

Despite later voting in favor of Bacala’s proposal, Rep. Alonzo Knox, D-New Orleans, said the bill would not prevent or deter crime. Knox warned that publicizing the names of youths suspected of shooting or killing someone could lead to retaliation, causing “chaos in the streets.”

“I think that’s an unintended consequence, that many of my colleagues sitting up here don’t know and realize about our community,” Knox said, referring to the majority-white committee. “And when I say our community, let me specify and be clear if there’s any doubt: in my Black community, in my district of New Orleans. When this goes out, and someone’s actually not guilty, we’re going to have some serious unintended consequences.”

Bacala defended his bill as being about one thing: transparency.

“If I have a son or daughter who’s murdered, and someone is arrested who happens to be a juvenile, should I have the ability to see what’s happening with the case?” Bacala said.

Ashley Hamilton, director of policy with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, rejected Bacala’s argument, saying the public’s money would be better spent on programs helping disadvantaged children who might resort to violence.

Hamilton told the committee members she spoke from experience, noting that yesterday would have been her sister’s 31st birthday.

In 2021, Hamilton’s sister was murdered. Knowing the killer’s identity has not brought her family any comfort, Hamilton said.

“What does bring me comfort is being in a community, with organizations … working tooth and nail with limited resources to ensure disadvantaged children have the support they need to prevent things like this from happening, and to build healthy and productive adults. Any money we have, put it there.”

Rep. Joy Walters, D-Shreveport, was the lone vote against the bill.

This article originally appeared in Verite on February 22nd, 2024. 




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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New sheriff in town: Gov. Jeff Landry ready to reverse Edwards’ criminal justice policy

BY:  - FEBRUARY 19, 2024 

Longer sentences, more executions and harsher penalties for juveniles. These are among the proposals Gov. Jeff Landry wants the Republican-supermajority Louisiana Legislature to approve in a special session on crime. 

The self-styled, tough-on-crime GOP governor also wants to allow people to carry concealed firearms without a permit, place more police in New Orleans, expanded immunity for law enforcement and provide more public access to juvenile records. 

In his speech Monday to lawmakers to start the session, Landry said he’s thinking of victims. 

“Today, I ask you to place the voices of the tired, the weary and the broken-hearted victims of crime in this state above the irresponsible rhetoric that is destroying our quality of life,” Landry said. 

The governor’s requests, and others from far-right lawmakers, amount to a near-complete rollback of Louisiana’s 2017 criminal justice overhaul under former Gov. John Bel Edwards. That bipartisan effort was meant to save the state money by reducing its nation-leading incarceration rate, shortening non-violent criminal sentences and providing flexibility on parole. 

Landry opposed those measures as attorney general and is seizing his first opportunity as governor to roll back the changes. 

“As attorney general, I warned that the goal of criminal justice reform should not be about letting people out of jail, but how to keep people from going to jail,” Landry said. “Those warnings went unheeded.” 

Edwards’ criminal justice reinvestment initiative resulted in the state spending millions less on incarceration and using some of that money for crime victim services. The proposals from Landry and Republican legislators could undo those savings and perhaps cost the state additional money. 

A proposal that Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, a former prosecutor, has submitted would effectively eliminate parole in Louisiana, except for groups from whom it is constitutionally required — including those sentenced to life terms as juveniles. 

Villio’s House Bill 9 could cost the state more than $14 million annually, according to a fiscal note generated by the Legislative Fiscal Office. 

Landry said fiscal impact shouldn’t be the deciding factor for lawmakers. 

“While many say focus on the cost, I say focus on the cost to society. I say focus on the cost to our citizens in loss of property, in the disruption of their lives and in the irreparable tragedy of losing a loved one,” the governor said. 

In the audience for Landry’s speech at the State Capitol were victims of violent crime, relatives of murder victims and law enforcement leaders. The governor told the Legislature these three groups represent his priorities.

“The propensity of some to signal their virtuous compassion for criminals has become a liberal custom to many, without forethought of the consequences to society and the danger it creates in our neighborhoods and homes,” Landry said. 

While the governor insisted criminal justice reform should be about preventing crime, he offered few proposals addressing this aim.  

“Every proposal that his team has put forward is reactive. None of it will help to reduce crime and keep our community safe,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Matthew Willard said at a press conference after Landry’s speech. 

“If we want to talk about addressing crime, we need to talk about mental health, substance use disorder, reentry programs and eliminating barriers for kids coming home from prison so that they can successfully reintegrate into society,” Willard added. 

Democrats noted none of their members were consulted in putting together the call for the special session, resulting in an agenda in which few bipartisan measures will even be discussed. 

Along with a lack of bipartisanship came a lack of transparency, Democrats argued — despite Landry’s overtures toward openness in his speech. 

“The lack of transparency in our criminal justice system is unacceptable,” Landry said. 

House Republicans moved to suspend the rules on each of their proposals, allowing them to be heard in committee the next day. Despite Democratic objection, Republicans used their supermajority to fast-track the bills. That means the public will have less time to process a serious policy proposal, Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said. 

The Landry-backed bill to expand the methods by which Louisiana executes people also limits transparency. 

House Bill 6, by Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond, would add electrocution and nitrogen gas inhalation to the acceptable methods of execution. It also shields all records related to the execution, including which companies provide execution drugs and how much they cost, from public disclosure. If anybody were to leak those records, they could face jail time. 

Louisiana banned use of the electric chair in 1991, when it was last used, in favor of lethal injection.  

Landry’s vision of transparency involves public access to juvenile justice records that are typically shielded to protect minors’ right to privacy. 

“Our transparency legislation will allow people to access this information and provide online access to the data from our criminal and juvenile courts,” Landry said. “Through this simple and common-sense measure, we hope to ease the suffering of victims, offer more transparency in the legal process, and find better solutions to our crime problem.” 

Democrats say the proposal would punish children who commit offenses well into their adulthood. 

“We don’t want to penalize juveniles by having those records public and having them exposed as adults for something that they did in childhood,” Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said. 

This article originally appeared in Louisiana Illuminator on February 19th, 2023. 

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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Gaza: Israeli advance on Rafah would have ‘dire humanitarian consequences’

 19 February 2024 Peace and Security

An extension of Israel’s military operation in Rafah, where over a million internally displaced Palestinians have been forced to shelter, will have “dire humanitarian consequences”, the UN Senior Humanitarian Coordinator for Gaza said on Monday.

Sigrid Kaag reiterated Secretary-General António Guterres’s concern that such an operation at present time would be potentially disastrous for innocent civilians.

“There are more than a million people crammed in Rafah. It's not intended for a million people in shelters, in random sort of plastic sheeted constructions. Health conditions are very worrisome,” she told correspondents in Brussels after briefing European Union foreign ministers.

She also voiced deep concern over getting aid into the Gaza Strip and distributing it to those in need.

“We have to acknowledge the fact that the security conditions, separate from military operations, due to what is called self-distribution by desperate civilians, but also looting and criminalization, is hampering efforts by the humanitarian community…to deliver assistance to the people that actually need it,” she said.

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More needs to be done 

Also on Monday, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, visited the Gaza Strip, where he met with internally displaced families.

He also met with NGO and UN personnel the see the challenges they face first hand, including the breakdown of law and order which is impacting the distribution of humanitarian supplies.

“It’s clear that more needs to be done,” UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told correspondents in New York at the regular press briefing.

“The UN needs the tools to deliver on the ground, including the need for Israel to allow entry of items critical to UN operations and to improve deconfliction,” he added. 

Continued hostilities

Intense Israeli bombardment from air, land and sea continues across much of the war-torn enclave, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), resulting in further civilian casualties, displacement, and destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Widespread ground operations and heavy fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups also continue to be reported, especially in Khan Younis and Deir al Balah, OCHA said in a flash update on Monday.

Between 17 and 19 February, dozens of rockets were also reportedly fired by armed Palestinians toward Israel, it added.

Nasser hospital evacuations

Furthermore, the Israeli military operation in the Nasser Hospital complex in Khan Younis have continued, OCHA said, noting that on Sunday, the UN and the Palestine Red Crescent Society evacuated 14 patients. Negotiations are ongoing for the evacuation of the remaining patients.

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), over 180 patients and 15 doctors and nurses remain inside the hospital.

“The hospital is still experiencing an acute shortage of food, basic medical supplies, and oxygen. There is no tap water and no electricity, except a backup generator maintaining some lifesaving machines,” WHO said.

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‘Steep rise’ in child malnutrition

UN agencies on Monday warned of a steep rise in malnutrition among children and pregnant and breastfeeding women, posing grave threat to health.

The situation is especially serious in north Gaza, which has been almost completely cut off from aid for weeks, and where one in six children under the age of two is acutely malnourished.

The situation is not much better in southern Gaza Strip the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), WHO and the World Food Programme (WFP), said in a new report.

In Rafah, where aid has been more available, five per cent of children under two are acutely malnourished.

“This is clear evidence that access to humanitarian aid is needed and can help prevent the worst outcomes,” the agencies said, reiterating the call to protect Rafah from the threat of intensified military operations. 

West Bank violence

OCHA also reported further violent incidents in the West Bank over the weekend, claiming both Israeli and Palestinian lives.

On 16 February, two Israeli men were shot and killed in southern Israel, and four others including a child were injured, by a Palestinian man from Shu’fat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian man was then shot and killed by an armed Israeli civilian.

On Sunday, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian men in Tulkarm Refugee camp, during an exchange of fire with a Palestinian man whose body was later withheld by Israeli forces from being handed over.

The second fatality was an unarmed Palestinian who was reportedly killed by an Israeli army sniper while standing on the rooftop of his house, OCHA said.

Between 7 October 2023 and 18 February, 393 Palestinians have been killed, including 100 children, and 4,511 Palestinians, including 699 children, have been injured in conflict-related incidents across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Israel.  

During the same period, 12 Israelis, including four members of Israeli forces, were killed and 80 injured in conflict-related incidents in the same areas, according to OCHA.

World court asked for legal opinion

Meanwhile, at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is holding a hearing concerning an advisory opinion on the Legal Consequences arising from the Policies and Practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.

The advisory, non-binding, opinion on the occupation was requested by the General Assembly in December 2022.

The hearings will be held from 19 to 26 February, with over 50 countries, groups and the State of Palestine scheduled to speak.


This article originally appeared in UN News on February 19th, 2023. 

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