[Washington, DC] Outgoing Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia is single-handedly attempting to kill a critical governmental transparency bill. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 (S. 2520) is the product of over six months of bipartisan work that would enact desperately needed reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The bill enjoys overwhelming support on both sides of the aisle and its passage is almost certain. Or at least it would be if it could only come up for a vote. Despite a very similar bill passing the House 410-0, and also passing unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Rockefeller placed an 11th hour hold on the bill this Thursday.
Sen. Rockefeller refused to comment on his hold for more than 24 hours, and then finally issued a vague and equivocating statement Friday evening after most newsrooms had already closed. If Rockefeller doesn’t lift his ill-considered hold by Monday, the bill dies. Journalists, scholars, open government advocates, and watchdog organizations are decrying Rockefeller’s hold as a threat to the fundamental democratic principle of an informed citizenry.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the landmark legislation that allows for public access to government records. But since its initial passage in 1966, many governmental agencies have routinely attempted to avoid compliance with FOIA’s provisions. As a result, Congress has repeatedly amended FOIA to better ensure the American people can learn what their government is doing and why. In light of continued systemic agency FOIA abuses, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 is designed to again further safeguard the public’s right to know.
What the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 Will Do:
Critically, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 targets rampant agency abuse of FOIA exemption b(5), commonly derided as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption. As it currently stands, FOIA exemption b(5) is worded so broadly it allows an agency to withhold any “interagency or intra-agency communication,” as well as any document purported by an agency to be a “draft.” This language covers such a wide swath of records that agencies routinely invoke b(5) to prevent the otherwise required release of potentially embarrassing documents.
[FERGUSON, MO] At 8PM CT, Ferguson Action issued the following statement in response to the St. Louis County Grand Jury’s failure to levy charges against Darren Wilson for the August 9th killing of Michael Brown Jr.
“We are devastated that the grand jury has failed to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Mike Brown,” said Montague Simmons Chair of The Organization for Black Struggle. “All this community wanted was simple justice. Wilson killed an unarmed man and should face a trial by jury. Instead, he benefited from a highly unusual grand jury process, led by a prosecutor with whom the local community pleaded to step down or be removed from the case. Mike Brown was a young man with his entire life ahead of him. He could have been any of us. In fact, since his murder, we have seen more police killings of unarmed Black people. In the last week alone, the killings of Akai Gurley in New York City and Tamir Rice in Cleveland have served as stark reminders that the problems with policing in Ferguson are rampant throughout the country.”
“In this moment, we all have a choice to make,” said Tef Poe, Co-Founder of Hands Up United, “We can stand by while police and their apologists in prosecutors’ offices and city halls continue to kill, harass and criminalize our communities – or stand up in this moment to demand that our elected officials lead and finally deal with our broken policing system.”
[FERGUSON, MO] A St. Louis County Grand Jury returned on Thursday with a possible decision whether or not to levy charges against Darren Wilson for the August 9th shooting of Michael Brown Jr.. St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch considered announcing the jurors’ conclusions this Sunday morning. Area schools have responded by announcing closures for next week, and until the announcement is made, the media, who has once again descended upon Ferguson, MO, will repeat iterations of the same lede, variations of hysterical accounts, or ominous foreshadows of impending violence. Few will ask locals about their desires to create a more equitable Ferguson and fewer will provide a platform to those already laying the foundation for that prospect. We set out to fill this void.
Last week, with support from Hands Up United, Sparrow’s Andy Stepanian and Jeff Wirth of Burning Hearts Media created this video communiqué. This 9-minute clip provides a surreal temperature check of what it is truly like during these uncertain hours on the ground. In an effort to forego our own analysis and keep focus on the community of Ferguson, attached below are statements from community members and activists we interviewed. Please consider sharing their words this weekend in place of the hyperbolic headlines that will otherwise occupy your timelines:
“I’m not here to try to validate the justice system, because there’s a lot of changes that need to occur. But the indictment of Darren Wilson is the first step of many that need to take place. We got to get him indicted first.” — David Whitt, The Canfield Watchmen
“Until the Governor chooses to truly address the systemic issues that the murder of Michael Brown brought to the surface for many Americans, no press release or commission board will truly help this community move forward from this tragedy” — Ashley Yates, Millennial Activists United
[MENDOCINO, CA] On Monday, September 15, 2014, in a crass marketing exercise, —shoddily enveloped in deniability— Urban Outfitters made available on their website, a sweatshirt, with a Kent State University insignia, appearing to be tattered and blood spattered. The launch of this item cut deep with many, triggering painful thoughts of contemporary school shootings, ugly reflections of the current state of police violence in communities, and worse yet, it seemed to relegate the memory of the Kent State University protestors who were brutally murdered by the national guard into a frame of hipster irony. Pushback was inevitable —a petition was quickly created, media was quick to indict UO on the move, and shortly thereafter the company issued a half-cocked apology.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the exchange came on Tuesday September 16, 2014 when Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne refused to speak to Laurel Krause, sister of slain Kent State University student Allison Krause, presumably because he was busy conjuring up this email to UO staff about how the sale was a mistake.
Since Richard Hayne has prioritized courting controversy over reading a letter from a family member of a young woman whose life was stolen by the predicate tragedy, we are posting the complete text of Laurel Krause’s letter here:
“My sister Allison Krause was one of four students killed at Kent State University in May 1970 when United States military personnel opened fire on unarmed students protesting against the Vietnam War. I was 15 at the time and Allison was 19, the age range of many Urban Outfitters customers.
[NEW YORK, NY] On the third anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Rolling Jubilee has, for the first time ever, bought and abolished student debt: $3,856,866.11 of student debt owed by 2,761 people across the United States.
With the aim of building a broad-based debt resistance movement, the Rolling Jubilee relieves debtors by buying debt for pennies on the dollar. The project highlights the injustice of having to go into debt for things that should be publicly provided, like healthcare and education. This is the fourth announcement by the Rolling Jubilee, which has abolished over $15 million of medical bills for thousands of people across the United States since the campaign was launched and went viral in November of 2012.
While medical debt is widely available to debt collectors on secondary markets, most student debt is not, because it is guaranteed by the federal government. The debt purchased by the Rolling Jubilee is private debt from Everest College, which is part of Corinthian Colleges, Inc., a nationwide system of for-profit colleges that receives approximately 90% of its funding from federal student loans. Corinthian has been subject to numerous investigations by state and federal authorities for fraud. The company is on the verge of collapse and the Department of Education is aiding Corinthian in its quest to find a buyer for its over one hundred campuses and online operations. Strike Debt member Luke Herrine explains: “The Department of Education needs to stop acting as a debt collector for a predatory lender, and start discharging the debt of these students. It is fully within its statutory powers to do so.”