Month: May 2003

Olympia’s Child Sacrifice

The state legislature adjourned in Olympia last week with a big piece of unfinished business still in the works: the state budget. The legislature reconvenes May 12 to work on a budget compromise. It’ll be tough going, and nobody’s looking forward to it.

When Gov. Gary Locke set out to draft a budget proposal last year, he asked all of his department heads to undertake a comprehensive review of each element of the budget, assigning a rank of importance to each spending item. >From these lists, Locke drafted a budget that relied entirely on spending cuts to fill an estimated $2.6 billion deficit. In short, he focused only on one side of the balance sheet (expenses) and entirely ignored the other side (taxes, fees, grants, and other sources of income for the state), even refusing to consider options to restructure the state’s tax system, as recommended by his own blue ribbon task force.

In addition, Locke somehow forgot to propose eliminating any of the state’s 431 tax exemptions that total about $46 billion per year. The most idiotic of these exemptions is the lack of a tax on airplane fuel–a tax levied by most other states in the union. This has always been a direct giveaway for Boeing; with Boeing’s gone, we should consider asking airlines and Boeing’s remnants to pay their fair share.

Locke, our Republican governor in disguise, won high praise from Republicans in the state legislature and howls of protest from his own party. The Republican majority in the state Senate quickly passed a budget that looked almost identical to Locke’s slash-and-burn, balance-on-the-backs-of-the-poor proposal. The Democrats and their slim majority in the House have been playing catch-up ever since.

By session’s end, Democrats had a proposal that restored some of Locke’s enormous cuts by proposing a two-tenths of a penny increase in the state sales tax, an increase in sin taxes on booze and cigarettes, extending the sales tax to candy and gum, and increasing gambling revenues. House Republicans fought it tooth and nail, and Senate Republicans have vowed to wipe out any proposals for new taxes when the two budget bills are reconciled in conference committee. A bloody fight is in store when the special session reconvenes in mid-May, and Democrats are likely to lose.

So what’s on the line? Here’s what “compassionate conservatives,” wimpy Dems, and Gov. Jellyfish have slashed from the state budget:

* Low-paid state employees who bargained hard for cost-of-living increases will see salaries frozen. Likewise, teacher raises mandated by voter-passed initiatives may be axed in conference committee. Much of the money for class-size reductions is also on the line.

* A total of $60 million will be cut from programs that serve low income and at-risk children. Yes, that’s children being sacrificed so high tech businesses can continue to enjoy tax exemptions for research and development expenses. When we put Microsoft and before our kids, you know something’s wrong.

* Children’s health care is also being slashed. The Child Health Insurance Program is likely to be eliminated. Cuts in Medicaid will dump between 40,000 and 63,000 low-income kids off the rolls, depending on how the two budget bills are reconciled. Add to that deep cuts in foster family and adoption services, and the picture is clear: children come last in this state.

* Other social and health services are hit almost as badly. Tens of thousands of low-income people will be pushed off the state’s Basic Health Plan. In addition, Gov. Locke’s budget proposal and the Senate Republican bill that flowed out of it both make an astounding assumption that could mean the death of the BHP. They both assume that health care costs will increase only by single digits, when such costs have grown by double digits every year for a decade. This assumption, written into law in the next budget, will mean that the legislature will be forced to revisit state health care costs again and again in the coming years, likely forcing the state to dump the plan altogether. This, in turn, will throw hundreds of thousands of people into the growing pool of uninsured, and force hospital emergency rooms to treat more and more critical-care patients who can’t pay–a process that makes healthcare costs more expensive for everyone.

* Perhaps the most sickening of all the cuts in the Locke/Senate plan is the elimination of subsistence payments for 10,000 unemployable disabled and/or mentally ill people. These small payments–usually around $300 to $400 per month–help people who can live on their own in the community, but are too disabled to hold down a job and who don’t qualify for federal assistance. They keep people who’d otherwise fall through the cracks fed and housed (barely). In eliminating these payments, the state would move closer to the status of many Third World nations, where disabled folks are forced to live on the streets.

As if acknowledging this grim future, the legislature passed a bill that requires police officer training in how to interact with developmentally disabled people and those who’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness. Cops will be taught how to recognize, communicate with, and deescalate conflicts with disabled and mentally ill folks. Of course, with mental health services suffering $20 million in cuts, cops won’t be able to actually do anything helpful for these folks. But, hey, we have to support our troops, right?

If we learn nothing else from this budget fiasco, it should be this: Gary Locke must go. In the interim, we need to push hard for revisions in the state’s revenue sources. That should include working toward a state income tax, a decrease and/or repeal of sales taxes, a decrease in property taxes, and a serious look at tax exemptions for special business interests. These are not radical notions–they are, in fact, what Gov. Locke’s own blue ribbon commission recommended.

The Incident at Fallujah

On Monday, April 28, the US media focused on Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to Baghdad, while a shocking event played out in a town just 30 miles to the west. US troops opened fire on Iraqi civilians, killing 15 people and wounding dozens of demonstrators protesting the US occupation of their town.

Piecing together what really happened in Fallujah is difficult; the main US news sources are contradictory and rely heavily on official military sources. But some truth can be found from careful sifting.

Wire service reports are usually a good place to start. Reuters correspondent Edmund Blair filed the first report directly from the town of Fallujah. US troops camped at a school in the town shot dead 13 protesters after firing live bullets into a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. His short article, “US Troops Kill at Least 13 Iraqis–Witnesses,” relies heavily on direct quotes from Iraqi witnesses, including a local Sunni cleric, who told Blair that the demonstrators had gone to the school to demand that US troops leave the building so that the school could reopen. The cleric stressed that it was a peaceful demonstration and that none of the demonstrators were carrying weapons. The article ends with a single paragraph: “US military officials did not immediately comment. But Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite television quotes American troops as saying they had come under fire after asking the crowd to disperse and were then forced to retaliate.”

Next came an AP article by Ellen Knickmeyer, “US Forces Return Fire at Iraq Protest,” which, as its title suggests, took pains to present the viewpoint of US troops to the near total exclusion of any Iraqi eyewitness testimony.

Knickmeyer’s article seems to be the source for a number of questionable claims about the Fallujah massacre. The article repeatedly claims that the demonstrators were armed and opened fire directly at the school building, forcing US troops in the school to shoot back–the article mentions this in seven separate sections. She only mentions once that protesters claim they were unarmed and peaceful.

Another dubious claim is that the protesters were celebrating Saddam’s birthday; Knickmeyer attributes this quote to the operations director at US Central Command. She goes further with her own assumptions of demonstrators’ goals that night: “…it appeared a clash of cultures, at least, was involved…Residents repeatedly denounced battalion members’ use of binoculars and night-vision goggles. They accuse soldiers of spying on women from the school’s upper floors and rooftop.” She also earnestly describes Fallujah as, “a city long considered a stronghold of Saddam support and site of factories suspected of involvement in banned weapons programs” (never mind that no evidence has been found) and as a “Baath Party stronghold,” lest we forget that the protesters are to blame for their own deaths.

She also echoes US claims that, when protesters moved to within 10 feet of the schoolhouse wall, three Iraqi men on the roof of a building “nearby” started firing weapons. It was the muzzle flashes, US troops said, that made them start firing down into the crowd. She doesn’t even attempt to reconcile the contradiction between Iraqi gunmen on rooftops and, in response, US troops firing downward into a street filled with demonstrators.

Knickmeyer’s reportorial instincts eventually come to the fore, near the end of her article: “No bullet holes from incoming fire were obvious at the school, although soldiers said windows had been shot out.” Her direct observation is trumped by the second-hand assurances that the windows had been shot out by Iraqi protesters and not broken out by the troops themselves so that they could use the windows for firing positions.

She also notes that US soldiers “fired automatic weapons fire for 20 to 30 minutes.” This little bon mot is near the end of her article, while at the beginning of her article, she repeats the absurd assertion that the US troops “only opened fire upon armed men.” This is immediately contradicted when she quotes the director of Fallujah’s general hospital, who said that three of the dead were boys aged 8 to 10.

The other article picked up and reprinted by local newspapers across the nation was from the New York Times: “US Troops Fire on Iraqi Protesters, Leaving 15 Dead,” by Ian Fisher. The Times article was more balanced in the number of sources quoted from each side. Fisher, however, repeats the contention that the demonstrators were armed and were celebrating Saddam Hussein’s birthday.

Fisher does includes a few details that Knickmeyer missed. For example, we find that demonstrators had stopped first at the headquarters of another unit of US troops in the Nazzal neighborhood before moving on to the school. Fisher quotes that unit’s captain, Mike Riedmuller, who said that some people in the crowd fired off rifles into the air, but that his troops didn’t shoot into the crowd because they weren’t being shot at directly. They didn’t feel threatened. Fisher then says that the same group of people moved on to the school building, where they continued to fire their guns into the air. It was then, according to US troops in the school building, that “several more people with rifles” appeared from houses across the street and began firing at US troops. The three guys on a nearby rooftop have somehow transformed into several people with rifles in the houses across the street.

Fisher also says that the second story of the school building was “pocked with bullet holes, most of them apparently from low caliber guns, and there were half a dozen more holes in the school’s concrete wall”–a direct contradiction to what Knickmeyer reported. Fisher also adds that US troops “recovered nine automatic rifles, two pistols and 2,000 rounds of ammunition from the houses across the street, and that the roofs were littered with spent ammunition shells”–more evidence that would point to shooters on the roof and not amongst the crowd, where US troops directed their fire. (Also, rifles are ubiquitous in Iraq, where $25 can buy a looted AK-47 at the local market; indeed, many Iraqis have armed themselves to protect their homes from looters.)

As to the reason why demonstrators were at the school, Fisher cites the night-vision goggles, but also adds that residents were angry at US soldiers for showing pornography to Iraqi children.

A second version of Fisher’s article–“US Troops Fire on Iraqi Protesters, Leaving 15 Dead”–was heavily re-edited to give prominence to the US version of events. It replaced most of the eyewitness testimony of Iraqis with quotes from US Central Command.

The Washington Post (“Troops Kill Anti-US Protesters,” by Rajiv Chandrasekaran) more clearly lays out the timeline that night. A group of 100 people gathered to protest at the mayor’s office at 7:30 PM; some were armed with rifles, which they fired into the air. The group dispersed after US troops warned them away with loudspeakers. Later, a second group gathered at the command post in Nazzal. Again, US troops used loudspeakers to disperse the crowd. Then, at about 9 PM, a third and final group gathered at the school building, but this time the crowd was “boisterous, but unarmed,” according to Iraqi witnesses.

Demonstrators in the third group were demanding that soldiers vacate the school so that classes could resume. While some of the conservative men in the crowd complained about night-vision goggles, Chandrasekaran makes it clear that it’s common practice for Iraqi women to sleep outside on rooftops in hot weather. From this simple explanation, the reader can surmise that maybe there’s some substance to the protesters’ complaints.

Chandrasekaran reports, “three other witnesses said they saw some of the protesters shooting into the air as they approached the school, although none said they saw anybody shoot directly at the school…Some of the witnesses said they believed the firing into the air spooked the soldiers, who began shooting at the demonstrators. Others insisted that the US firing was largely unprovoked, save for some rocks that were hurled over the schoolhouse gates.”

Other bits can be gleaned from other sources. The LA Times reported that residents of Fallujah were angry at troops not just for seizing a school, but also for removing school desks and piling them up in the street to use as roadblocks (“Tense Standoff Between Troops and Iraqis Erupts in Bloodshed,” by Michael Slackman). Slackman depicts Fallujah as a powder keg, with a few twitchy US troops in charge: “privately, soldiers said they have constantly been shot at, stoned and berated. They said the Monday night attack was the last straw.”

Slackman also mentions that US troops recovered weapons from the houses across the street, but also says, “They declined to show the weapons or casings to reporters”–an important detail left out of both the AP and New York Times articles. Slackman also writes that the school building “did not appear to have any bullet marks.”

There was another Western reporter in Fallujah: Phil Reeves of the British newspaper The Independent (“At least 10 dead as US soldiers fire on school protest”). Reeves reports that some witnesses saw members of the crowd with rifles who were firing into the air. Then Reeves quotes four wounded Iraqis who say that there were no guns among the crowd. To reconcile these two contradictory accounts, Reeves looks at the physical evidence. He writes, “there are no bullet holes visible at the front of the school building or telltale marks of a firefight. The place is unmarked. By contrast, the houses opposite–numbers 5, 7, 9, and 13–are punctured with machine-gun fire, which tore away lumps of concrete the size of a hand and punched holes as deep as the length of a ballpoint pen. Asked to explain the absence of bullet holes, Lt. Col. Nantz said that the Iraqi fire had gone over the soldiers’ heads. We were taken to see two bullet holes in an upper window and some marks on a wall, but they were on another side of the school building.”

So we have three reporters who saw no bullet holes (Knickmeyer, Slackman, and Reeves) and one who did (Fisher), although it was only a half-dozen or so. Nor does Fisher tell us which side of the building sustained the bullet holes, as Reeves does. Reeves’ quote from Nantz that weapons fire went over the soldiers’ heads would be more consistent with people firing their weapons straight up into the air. Both Reeves and Slackman portray the tense atmosphere in Fallujah, where residents routinely throw rocks at occupying troops. Slackman suggests that US troops snapped after days, if not weeks, of tension. Four reporters (Blair, Chandrasekaran, Slackman, and Reeves) all report that the main goal of the demonstrators was to reopen their local school, a reasonable demand met with unreasonable force.

Physical evidence seems to support the conclusion that although the demonstration was “boisterous.” with a few participants carrying light weapons that they fired up into the air, US troops overreacted and sprayed a crowd of largely unarmed people with deadly, automatic weapons fire for 20 to 30 minutes to “disperse the crowd”–a technique that should qualify the incident at Fallujah as a war crime.

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