CVIndependent

Fri07282017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

In the early years of the Obama era, then-Sen. Jim DeMint embodied a series of contradictions in the American character.

The hard-jawed and bitter-faced South Carolinian was simultaneously a theocrat, a cynic and a salesman. What he sold, as salvation, was hate and fear. He realized before the rest of us that it does not matter what politicians say or do, as long as they can demonize their enemies, turning them into villains that the American people can love to hate.

DeMint came from the fundamentalist, mill-village town of Greenville, nestled in the piedmont at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from the North Carolina border. BMW and Michelin have recently turned the town into a somewhat more cosmopolitan place. But 20 years ago—when I finally escaped—it was a town that produced dire, dour and yet grimly visionary people, a severe, joyless place whose preachers obsessed over hell fire and the enjoyable things other people may be doing to hasten it.

DeMint galvanized the Tea Party with this shtick, but he could only take it so far: It was a little too grim for the American Sucker. DeMint played the part like a great character actor—Harry Dean Stanton playing Ronald Reagan. Trump came along and brought a little P.T. Barnum to the act, taking DeMint’s gruesome view of America at war with itself and carnivalizing the carnage, in the same way televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart made the hell-fire sermons they heard in small Southern churches palatable to the masses on television.

“The bigger government gets, the smaller God gets,” DeMint said in a radio appearance in 2011. Trump echoed this in May when he told a crowd at the fundamentalist Liberty University, “In America, we don’t worship government; we worship God.”

Perhaps DeMint was savvy enough to know he would do better as a vicar or an éminence grise, providing ideas to the crown rather than being the front man: The Greenville in him was still a little too mirthless to break through to the next level. He left the Senate on Jan. 1, 2013, to take over the ultra-conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

During last year’s presidential election, the foundation remained largely silent on Trump, putting DeMint in a perfect position to help guide the seemingly shocked and ill-prepared transition team. It provided policy papers, personnel and a list of Supreme Court nominees, deeply influencing the beginning of the Trump era.

So it was a shocker—and sort of admirable—when the Heritage board ousted DeMint in May, with influential members arguing he had dulled the intellectual edge of the foundation by making it too activist.

After his Heritage ouster, the former senator went to work for the Convention of States Project. This is a group that wants to invoke Article V of the Constitution to call for a convention to amend the Constitution.

Article V outlines two ways to add an amendment to the Constitution—and one of them has never been successfully employed before. Each of the 27 existing amendments has been proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states. In the other way, two-thirds of the legislatures of the states can “call a convention for proposing amendments.”

The conventional, previously used way is politically impossible at present, and to a man like DeMint, undesirable. But the alternate way, relying on the states as it does, is almost too perfect an ideological vehicle. DeMint calls the Convention of States the next stage of the Tea Party, which wanted to limit federal power. It makes ideological sense for him to latch onto state legislatures’ ability to change the Constitution to limit federal power.

But the crazy thing: It might actually be possible. Two-thirds of 50 is 34. That’s how many state legislatures would have to request a convention. Republicans hold both houses in 32 states. If a convention relying on state legislatures would ever work for the right, it would now.

Twelve states have already requested a convention to amend the Constitution. Over the last few weeks, DeMint was lobbying hard in North Carolina to make it the 13th. It passed the Senate, and failed in the House, which later voted to reconsider it.

One of the big problems is the possibility of a “runaway convention.” The Convention of States argues that such a convention could be limited to a single topic: limiting federal control. But because a constitutional convention has never happened, no one knows how it will go.

As for the desire of DeMint and his crew to limit federal control: They want to institute congressional and Supreme Court term limits; mandate a balanced budget; and eliminate federal regulations. While it seems like such a focus may be opposed to the Trump regime, it fits in perfectly with its stated goal of the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Steve Bannon put it.

And Trump’s new voter commission—headed up by Kris Kobach, a dour Kansas extremist who is the perfect DeMint counterpart—might make the possibility of a new states-driven, conservative-leaning constitutional convention even more likely. The Trump/Kobach commission is requiring states to give voter data to the federal government (although many have refused), claiming, sans any evidence, that widespread voter fraud cost Trump the popular vote. Many fear there is an alternative motive to this data collection—namely, that it will be used to further restrict voting.

The state-level dominance that Republicans presently enjoy is due in large part to gerrymandering, and successful attempts to limit the votes of minorities and others who might vote Democrat. (The pusillanimous posturing of the Democrats doesn’t help.) If they are further able to control the turnout, Republicans will be more likely to gain even more states, increasing the likelihood of a constitutional convention.

The contradiction gives yet another glimpse into today’s so-called conservative movement, and is reminiscent of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ own hypocrisy—he claims to be pro-states’ rights, but is rejecting state decisions to legalize cannabis and is trying to force states to comply with big-government mandatory minimum sentencing. Conservatives are speaking out of both sides of their mouths, saying they want to strip power from the federal government, but using the federal government’s power to do so, by first attacking citizens’ voting rights.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in Politics

Dozens of defendants, each sitting with their own lawyer, fill a Washington, D.C., courtroom, looking like college students wearing their nicest clothes for a job interview.

However, the situation here is far more serious: They are all facing charges of felony rioting, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property on the morning of Donald Trump’s inauguration, when they were scooped up en masse by police with a controversial crowd-control technique which corrals protesters in a “kettle.”

This is only one of the four groups among the 215 defendants who have been indicted on nearly identical charges. Many had to travel back to the District of Columbia to be arraigned on this Friday, June 9.

One man who traveled here from Santa Fe, N.M., is sitting with his lawyer off to the side. He wears a black suit, has a black goatee and identifies himself as Tejano. He looks around the room like he is taking notes. Everyone else has already been arraigned before Judge Lynn Leibovitz. But this man, Aaron Cantú, wasn’t indicted until May 30, just a week before the hearing. He is a journalist, who has written about policing, propaganda, drugs and politics for The Intercept, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, and many other publications. Reporting from the Republican National Convention on the possibility of a Trump presidency, Cantú wrote, “dream darker.”

Like the others being charged, he’s now facing up to 70 years in prison.

As various protests spread through the city on the morning of the inauguration, one group used “black bloc” techniques—wearing all black and acting in concert to attack symbols of multinational capitalism in a semi-anonymous fashion—in an attempt to disrupt the spectacle of the event, breaking windows of businesses like Starbucks and Bank of America.

“Individuals participating in the Black Bloc broke the windows of a limousine parked on the north side of K Street NW, and assaulted the limousine driver as he stood near the vehicle,” the indictment reads, “as Aaron Cantu and others moved west on K Street NW.”

These black blocs have received widespread media attention in America since 1999, beginning with the Battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organization summit. A black bloc action is newsworthy—and yet, according to the indictment, Cantú is being charged for moving in proximity to the group he was covering.

The indictment alleges that Cantú wore black and discarded a backpack as evidence of his part in the conspiracy. Because members of a conspiracy to riot wore black, anyone wearing black, it seems, is a member of the conspiracy.

It is a crazy, complicated, sprawling case involving evidence from somewhere around 200 cell phones and various cameras. The discovery process will take months.

In Washington, D.C., criminal cases that elsewhere would be handled by the state are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office—so each prosecutor here ultimately answers to the president of the United States. Although most of the charges were first brought by an Obama appointee, this is a perfect example of what justice may look like in the Trump era. Like the travel ban, it is a grand draconian gesture followed by a lot of confusion.

During the arraignment, prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff expressed concerns about finding herself in a “Brady trick bag,” referring to the law that requires the prosecution to turn over all relevant evidence in discovery. How does she know what material on someone’s phone might be relevant to another’s case? And how does the prosecution protect the privacy of co-defendants with data that is not relevant?

“Can I just stop you?” Judge Leibovitz says to Kerkhoff as she talks about efficiency. “You brought charges against 215 people.”

The judge does not have to finish.

Leibovitz set most of the trial dates for October 2018, so that all evidence can be properly dealt with.

“It’s concerning and confusing,” says Christopher Gowen, an American University law professor and partner at his own firm who was appointed to the case. “The fact that we are already here and the amount of resources being spent to get to where we are now leads me to believe we are going to have to sit through all these trials. All this taxpayer money is going to be wasted.”

Gowen says that his client, Cabal Bhatt, was charged on the basis of wearing a bandana on his face to protect himself from police pepper spray.

As the names of each of the defendants are called—Cantú and his co-defendants all plead not guilty—I think about how I was almost arrested reporting on the same events that day. I watched as the black bloc came around the corner, flanked by police. Trash cans rolled through the street. Pepper spray came out. An officer ran at me with her stick. I held up the media credentials hanging around my neck and yelled, “Press!” She went around me. I was lucky.

At the advice of his lawyers, Cantú isn’t talking to the press. I ask Julie Ann Grimm, his editor at the Santa Fe Reporter, which hired him in April, if the charges make her more reluctant to assign him to certain stories.

“His arrest was scary. The threat of being imprisoned for the rest of your life for just doing your job and observing a protest is … I don’t even know how to finish that sentence,” she says over the phone. “I think Aaron is nervous about covering protests. I’m slightly nervous about sending him out to them. But we’re really not going to let this action by the federal government or by the prosecutors in Washington, D.C., slow him down or to put a muzzle on his voice as a journalist.”

Still, she says, he might do a couple things differently now. “He will probably try to stay very separate from the people who are a part of the news event, and he will probably wear something like a tie.”

But Grimm is quick to stress that Cantú is not the only one in this case whose rights are being violated.

“We’re all standing up for Aaron, and this affects our industry and our identity as journalists,” Grimm says. “But the larger sort of corralling, the kettling, the mass-arresting is also troubling.”

As Cantú wrote from the RNC: “Imagining the worst possible future your mind can conjure is an essential step to avoiding a world you do not want to live in. Things are bad, very bad, and we will fuck them up even worse if we can’t acknowledge how very bad they are.”

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com. Below: The black bloc in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. Photo by Baynard Woods.

Published in National/International

Hundreds of people were lined up in the marble hallways of a Senate office building, hoping to get one of the 88 public seats in Room 216, where James Comey, the FBI director Trump fired over the Russia investigation, was scheduled to testify at 10 a.m. on Thursday, June 8.

That was at 8:30 a.m. More came. Some of the people waiting in the winding line said they’d arrived at 4 a.m. Bars were opening early, and for once, it seemed like reporters and senators were the only people in Washington, D.C., not day-drinking.

Yes, this was serious shit.

Comey said that Trump asked him for loyalty. It freaked the then-director out—because if the FBI is not independent of political factions, it becomes a secret police force abetting tyranny or totalitarian control.

At one point, Comey tried to explain why he had assured Trump that he wasn’t personally under an investigation on several occasions.

Comey also said he told the president about salacious material—the Russian sex workers pissing on the bed the Obamas slept in, I guess—in a dossier gathered by a former intelligence official and later published by BuzzFeed; he didn’t want Trump to think the FBI would use the material against him.

“I was worried very much of being in kind of a—kind of a J. Edgar Hoover-type situation,” Comey said, referring to the legendary director—you might say dictator—of the FBI for half a century.

It was remarkable to hear Comey talk this way about the man more associated with the bureau than anyone else—but he had good reason: It helps us contextualize what is happening now, because things were even more fucked-up a century ago. That should make us feel a little better.

Hoover—a powerful, paranoid and proud eccentric—crafted the modern FBI. He started working for the Department of Justice in 1917. The country had finally entered World War I in April of that year. Two years earlier, in 1915, as the war in Europe escalated, Germany feared U.S. involvement and began a propaganda campaign (or “active measures,” as we’re calling it). As Tim Weiner writes in his book Enemies: A History of the FBI, a German official “began to build a propaganda machine in the United States; the Germans secretly gained control of a major New York newspaper, the Evening Mail; their front men negotiated to buy The Washington Post and the New York Sun. Political fixers, corrupt Germans and crooked detectives served the German cause.”

The U.S. eventually entered the war, and the government—especially the bureau, which worked under the Department of Justice—began to arrest and surveil German immigrants.

“The bureau launched its first nationwide domestic surveillance programs under the Espionage Act of 1917, rounding up radicals, wiretapping conversations, and opening mail,” Weiner writes, noting that more than 1,000 people were convicted under the act.

In 1920, a few years later, Hoover orchestrated the “biggest mass arrest in U.S. history,” according to Weiner’s research in unclassified documents, when the bureau “broke into political meetings, private homes, social clubs, dance halls and saloons across America,” arresting more than 6,000 people, for many of whom there were no warrants.

Back in the modern day, 200 people, including a reporter, were charged with felony rioting after protests on inauguration day; the reporter was arraigned the day after Comey’s testimony. Reality Winner, the federal contractor who leaked secrets about Russian attempts to hack voting machines in 2016, was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act a couple of days earlier.

It’s still hard to imagine the scope of those 1920 raids. It shouldn’t be.

Hoover later distanced himself from the raids and denied involvement. But rather than backing off as outrage grew over the violations of civil liberties, Hoover started to collect secret files on his political enemies. That’s what Comey was referring to when he referred to a Hoover-type situation.

David Grann’s stunning new book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, shows how valuable a centralized investigative force can be in its detailing of the early FBI’s role in solving at least some of the murders of the indigenous Osage people in Oklahoma in the early 20th century, committed as a means to steal their money. The entire white power structure—from businesspeople to police to doctors—were in on the conspiracy to kill the Osage. But the FBI was outside of that local structure and was able to solve and prosecute some of the crimes as a result.

But much of the bureau’s history is shameful, reactionary and racist, as in COINTELPRO, or Counterintelligence Program, which targeted civil rights and peace activists in the 1960s. In a 2015 talk, Comey said he kept Hoover’s application for a warrant to wiretap Martin Luther King Jr., which cited “Communist influence in the racial situation,” on his desk. He said he required agents to study the Bureau’s MLK files and other instances of injustice, “to ensure that we remember our mistakes and that we learn from them.”

The idea of remembering our mistakes and learning from them is about as far as you can get from the whitewashed view of history implicit in Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Trump doesn’t seem like a person who is capable of admitting, much less learning from, a mistake, so the Senate needs to be particularly vigilant in their confirmation of Christopher Wray, Chris Christie’s Bridgegate lawyer, whose appointment as Comey’s replacement was announced over Twitter the day before Comey testified.

Things may seem bad now, but the bureau’s previous political persecution of the left, immigrants and minorities should remind us that they can always get worse.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in National/International

We are living in unprecedented times, as far as national politics is concerned.

This thought kept coming to mind as I read the latest installment of Democracy in Crisis published by the Independent. Writer Baynard Woods, simply and briefly, lays out 13 anecdotes that show how authoritarianism is on the rise in our country.

Reporters arrested. Protesters arrested. Conflicts of interest being flouted and going unchecked. Sigh.

However, there’s at least one silver lining I’m finding in all the chaos: It’s clear that great journalism is alive and well in the United States.

Some of the reporting we’ve seen from The New York Times and the Washington Post, just for starters, has been amazing. In recent weeks, these papers exposed the fact that our president apparently revealed classified information to the Russians—jeopardizing, at the very least, relationships with countries with whom we partner on intelligence. They reported that our president apparently asked our FBI director to lay off of an investigation of him—before the president would go on to fire that very FBI director.

Closer to home, the Los Angeles Times in April published an unprecedented six-part editorial series titled “Our Dishonest President,” which made the clear case that Donald Trump is unfit for office.

As always, smaller news outlets are doing great work, too. Take Democracy in Crisis as an example; it’s a joint project of alternative papers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent.

While it’s inspiring and amazing to see all of this great journalism, it’s important to point out that these aforementioned newspapers are operating with a fraction of the resources they had, say, 10 or 15 years ago.

That’s why it’s vital that you support great journalism: Buy a newspaper subscription, or two, or three. Advertise. Pay for online articles. It costs money to do well-reported, well-written, well-edited stories.

In that vein, if you like what the Independent is doing, consider throwing a few bucks our way. Both our print version and CVIndependent.com have always been and always will be free to all—but you can join our Supporters of the Independent program for just $10, or even less. Find details at CVindependent.com/supporters.

By the way, pick up the June 2017 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent, hitting streets this week and early next week. As always, thanks for reading—and if you have thoughts or feedback, email me anytime.

Published in Editor's Note

FBI Director James Comey was speaking to federal agents when news of his firing flashed across the television behind him.

The regime blamed new Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and cited Comey’s treatment of the Clinton email investigation—as if daring us to pretend they are telling the truth.


More than 200 people arrested en masse on Inauguration Day are now facing decades in jail. Authorities issued search warrants and slapped others, like Dylan Petrohilos, with conspiracy charges after the fact. “Prosecuting people based on participation in a public protest,” Petrohilos said, “seems like something that would happen in an authoritarian society.”


Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from anything having to do with the investigation into Russian collusion with the Trump campaign after he was caught lying to the Senate about his meetings with Sergey Kislyak, a Russian ambassador widely considered to be a spy. But Sessions still wrote a letter recommending Comey’s canning. He is also involved in hiring the new FBI director, who will be expected to lead the investigation of the Trump campaign.


Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina congressman best known for heading up the endless Benghazi hearings, has been floated as a candidate for FBI chief.

If you can’t get Rudy Giuliani or Joe Arpaio, Gowdy is perfect. Not only did he direct the 11-hour grilling of the ever-hated Hillary, but when the House Intelligence Committee questioned Comey in March, Gowdy demonstrated no interest in finding out how Russia had influenced the election. He was, however, quite interested in prosecuting journalists who publish leaked materials.


The rest of the Republicans, meanwhile, have been busy stripping healthcare from people with pre-existing conditions.

When Dan Heyman, a reporter in West Virginia, repeatedly asked Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price if domestic violence would count as a pre-existing condition, he was arrested. He faces up to six months in jail for disrupting the work of government. Price commended the police on the arrest.


Desiree Fairooz, an activist with Code Pink, was found guilty of disorderly and disruptive conduct and parading or demonstrating on Capitol grounds—for laughing when Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, said that Sessions’ record of “treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.”

Sessions sent a memo ordering federal prosecutors to seek the stiffest possible penalties in all of their cases, reversing an Obama-era policy that steered away from “enhanced” penalties and mandatory minimums for minor or nonviolent drug crimes.


Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired when she refused to enforce Trump’s Muslim ban. She was supposed to testify to the House Intelligence Committee about Russia back before its chair, Devin Nunes, flipped out and jumped out of an Uber at midnight to go to a mysterious White House meeting. Finally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, no fan of Trump or Russia, called her to testify before the Senate, where she said that she had warned the Trump team that then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn had been compromised by Russia—a whole 18 days before he was fired. During that time, Flynn sat in on a call with Putin.


Back in July, a week before Trump asked the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, he gave out Lindsey Graham’s phone number and told his supporters to call the senator.

Graham later recorded a video called “How to Destroy Your Cell Phone With Sen. Lindsey Graham,” where he chops, stabs, sets fire to, blends, toasts, bats and drops bricks on his phone.

But now it seems like the punch line is the fact Graham was using a Samsung flip phone—maybe digital illiteracy saved him from being hacked.


While dismissing concerns about Russia, Trump created a “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” to investigate virtually non-existent voter fraud, putting the presidential seal on his false claims that illegal voters cost him the popular vote.

Again, he dares us to believe him.


Shortly after Comey’s firing, the initial story of Rosenstein’s concern over the treatment of Clinton started to fall apart, and it soon became clear Trump himself had initiated the action. But Trump’s story about the decision continues to change. Now Comey is a “showboat,” says the preening reality star.

When you lie constantly, it is no longer a problem to be caught in a lie. “Maybe the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???” Trump tweeted when the press asked about the contradictory stories.


The day after Comey got canned, Trump met with Sergey Kislyak, the same ambassador both Flynn and Sessions lied about meeting with.

The U.S. press was kept out of the meeting, but Russian state media covered it and sent out pictures of Trump and Kislyak shaking hands—with big, arrogant smiles, on the faces of men who could have been celebrating something.

Later, Press Secretary Sean Spicer hid from reporters in the dark, between two bushes.


Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, another cabinet member with long-term business ties to Russia, also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov—at Putin’s request.

When a reporter asked about the firing of Comey, Lavrov laughed.

“Was he fired? You’re kidding,” Lavrov said sarcastically as Tillerson stood by. Then the two men left the room without answering any further questions.

Later, a reporter asked Putin about Comey. He was wearing a hockey uniform in a tunnel that created an icon-like halo around his head on the television screen.

Putin, too, said the question was funny.

“President Trump is acting in accordance with his competence and in accordance with his law and Constitution,” Putin said. “You see, I am going to play hockey with the hockey fans. And I invite you to do the same.”

The team was made up of world-class athletes. Putin scored six goals.


Later, the administration claimed Russia tricked them into the state-media photo op. Donald Trump recently called himself a “nationalist and a globalist.” Since contradiction doesn’t seem to bother him, perhaps he is also a weak strongman.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in Politics

One of the biggest issues of the Palm Springs city election back in 2015 was the ever-increasing amount of homelessness in downtown Palm Springs.

While I think the Palm Springs City Council has done an admirable job, more or less, since that November 2015 election, the City Council has done a flat-out awful job of addressing homelessness.

Make sure you read Brian Blueskye’s excellent piece on the state of the homelessness problem in the Coachella Valley. As Brian notes, the problem is getting worse—especially on the west side of the valley—and it’s going to become a full-blown crisis when Roy’s Resource Center, the only west side shelter for the homeless, closes its doors at the end of June.

That means 90 people are going to lose their only shelter—in the midst of the summer heat.

In other news: I also recommend you read Baynard Woods’ recent “Democracy in Crisis” dispatch. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, and one point that Baynard makes has haunted me ever since I first read it: Many critics of President Trump heaped effusive praise on him—for the first time—after he ordered an April 7 missile strike in Syria, following the use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan Shaykhun three days prior. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria even went so far as to say that the missile strike marked the moment when “Trump became president of the United States.”

Putting aside the question of whether or not the missile strikes were the right thing to do: What does it say about our country when a violent act of war, justified or not, is the ONE thing that made Donald Trump suddenly become “presidential”?

I’ve been pondering that question now for almost three weeks. I am not at all happy about any of the answers I’ve been able to come up with.

Anyway … for those of you dismayed by the troubling nature of the aforementioned stories, never fear: As always, the Independent has plenty of happy, positive arts, food and music coverage that’ll make you feel a bit better about things.

As always, thanks for reading the Coachella Valley Independent. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and be sure to pick up the May 2017 print edition, being distributed valley-wide this week

Published in Editor's Note

Not far from the White House, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., Yayoi Kusama’s blockbuster retrospective show Infinity Mirrors has been attracting insanely large crowds of people who stand in line, eager for the 20-second stretches of disorientation inside Kusama’s infinity rooms.

The rooms use facing mirrors, hanging lights and polka dots to create vistas of infinite regress. As art, it is perhaps underwhelming—an empty spectacle with no real depth. But as I stood in “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” I snapped a picture and realized it was far more compelling on my screen than in life—perfect art for the age of the selfie.

On my phone, I saw myself in a Blade Runner-like world of “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion” as the lights created towering psychedelic spires surrounded by replicants of myself. It was impossible to tell which one was real—because none of them were. They were all reflections on the screen.

I felt a similar sense of vertigo a few days earlier at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing regarding Russian active measures—or propaganda—intended to use the refracting mirrors of the Internet to disrupt our election.

“What’s hard to distinguish sometimes is: Did the Russians put it out first, or did Trump say it and the Russians amplify it?” said Clint Watts, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, to reporters after his testimony on Trump’s embrace of propaganda conspiracies. “He actually repeats propaganda put out by RT or Russian sources and, vice versa, they parrot him.”

Reflections reflecting reflections again and again so that nothing is true.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Russia’s propaganda strategy was designed and perfected by Vladislav Surkov, who brought postmodern theory to the Kremlin, creating and managing Russian political reality like performance art. When he was sanctioned by the United States for his role in the invasion of eastern Ukraine, which he largely orchestrated, he said he didn’t mind. “The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

In Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, he writes that “Surkov’s genius has been … to marry authoritarianism and modern art, to use the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny, to recut and paste democratic capitalism until it means the reverse of its original purpose.”

Pomerantsev says that Surkov turned Russian politics into a reality show.

Then, as if in a new kind of arms race, we elected a real reality-show star as president.


I wrote that just before I heard that Trump had ordered missile strikes against a Syrian airbase after pictures of gassed children in that country changed the president’s mind about intervention. He explained the strike to the nation in a statement recorded at his country club.

Our country is making one of the most serious decisions possible, and yet, locked in our mirror rooms of constant conspiracy, we have no way to know what is actually happening. We don’t know whether Trump is trying to show that he is independent of the Kremlin, or whether this is another one of Putin’s ploys as he manipulates Trump. Trump himself has told us not to trust the intelligence community, and no one has any reason to trust Trump.

In “Without Sky,” a pseudonymous short story generally attributed to Surkov and set after the “fifth world war,” he describes the “the first non-linear war,” a war “of all against all.”

“A few provinces would join one side,” he writes. “A few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle. Their aims were quite different. Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part.”

This sounds precisely like the situation we are getting into—Assad, ISIS, Russia, American-backed rebels, Iran, and now Trump’s Tomahawks. All sides shifting. Regardless of the aims of this attack, the spectacle and confusion are good for Trump and Putin. And bad for the Syrian people who will continue to die. Those who escape will be denied entry into the U.S. as refugees.

“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” NBC’s noted fabulist Brian Williams said. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”

Surkov couldn’t have scripted it better. It is so disorienting, but it all feels somehow familiar.

I was 18 the night we went into the Gulf War in 1991. Those missile launches were prompted in part by the PR firm Hill and Knowlton, which collaborated with one of the chairs of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to present fabricated testimony to the caucus about atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait. But we were all mesmerized by the night-vision green missiles flying through doors.

In 2003, we went back to Iraq on the basis of another massive PR campaign.

Perhaps the best way now to know if something is propaganda is when they say it is not. Marco Rubio—who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, by the way—went on CNN to praise Trump and call the attack “an important decisive step ... not a message.”

But a step toward what? Do we want to take out Assad? At this moment, nobody knows. But people are lining up behind Trump. He will realize war, the ultimate image enhancer, is good for him.

“Trump became president of the United States (last night),” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said the next morning.

It’s like we’re all trapped in one of Kusama’s infinity rooms, waiting for the missile to burst through the door. But we don’t know where the door is. We have lost all orientation.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in National/International

It is snowing in Washington, D.C.—strange in early March after an insanely warm winter, but nothing compared to the cold many of the activists and tribal members gathered here endured in North Dakota while fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Kristen Tuske, a 39-year-old woman from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, stands with several other women in front of the White House, her back to it, fist raised in the air. She has pink hair, sculpted arches for eyebrows and tattoos on the side of her face. She lived at the camp where thousands of “water protectors” gathered to fight the pipeline for seven months.

“The last couple weeks at the camp were sad, and everyone was a little angry,” she said. “A lot of feelings are hurt. ... That was our home, and we got kicked out.”

The last protesters left the camp on Feb. 23.

The struggle started last summer when the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the construction of the oil pipeline, claiming it could contaminate their water supply and destroy significant archeological sites. That kicked off months of protests, often pitting camps of indigenous people—and the environmentalists and veterans that had come to fight with them—against an increasingly militarized police presence. President Obama twice ordered construction stopped, but, after taking office, Trump gave the go-ahead to the pipeline, insisting publicly that it must be constructed of American steel (a stance he quietly reversed this month).

The evacuation of the camp may be a defeat for Standing Rock, but, in the eyes of those gathered in front of the White House, it may also signal the beginning of something greater—the possibility of a real environmental movement in America.

“The reason I am here is to represent our future generations and be their voice, part of the resistance in decolonizing our minds,” said JoRee LaFrance, a member of the Crow tribe from Montana. “Protecting our waters should be our No. 1 priority, and that’s why we’re all here is to unite and protect tribal sovereignty and to protect indigenous people and their waters. People need to realize indigenous people are doing this for all people, not just indigenous people. We’re here to protect the water for all people.”

As I talk to people at the rally, I hear that sentiment again and again. It is not just about the water at Standing Rock. It is a symbolic battle, a turning point. Indigenous people are stepping forward to save the planet—and to save us from ourselves.

Little Thunder, an elder from South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, is standing apart from the crowd in full ceremonial regalia: a feathered headdress, a circular feather shield, and some mirrored sunglasses. He came all the way to Washington to “let people know and let Trump know that this is not just a Standing Rock or a Washington, D.C., or a politics issue. This is for the whole Earth. We’re trying to save the water, because water is life.”

Little Thunder says he is a single father of six children, four of them living at Standing Rock. His voice is high and pinched; he’s almost singing as he speaks.

“Once he let (Standing Rock) go through, they think they can destroy the water, which is life every place else on this Earth, not just Standing Rock,” he says.

David Kenny, a member of the Seneca Nation, is standing with a sign that reads “Water Is Life.”

“It’s not just about Native Americans anymore. It’s about everyone,” he says. “Because if you keep poisoning the water, you’re going to start paying for it, and they’re going to shoot that price up. You’re going to be paying $20 for a bottle of it. It’s not just about the tribes anymore.”

He turns his attention toward the White House and the white man inside it. “Can you stop this pipeline, please?” he asks, his voice soft. “It’s not about business anymore. It’s not just us that’s going to fall—it’s you, too. Everybody is going to die if this continues. The Earth is dying.”

There is no indication that Trump or anyone else in the White House hears this, despite the fact that native nations have spent the last four days with teepees set up on the mall, raising awareness of indigenous and environmental issues. On March 9, the day before the gathering across from the White House, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he would not agree that climate change caused by human activity is “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

But as the Native Nations Rise rally went down, thousands more people were calling the EPA to complain about Pruitt’s disavowal of accepted science.

On the very same day as the rally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study reporting that carbon dioxide levels rose at a “record pace for second straight year.”

“The two-year, 6-ppm surge in the greenhouse gas between 2015 and 2017 is unprecedented in the observatory’s 59-year record,” the report read.

Trump’s budget proposal, released a week after the rally, slashed the EPA by more than 30 percent. NOAA is not included in the final proposal, but a leaked draft showed a 17 percent decrease in funding.

Back at the rally, the snow falls on the demonstrators, as well as the dancers and the speakers on the stage. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas takes the stage. He is part Shoshone and organized the release of a song recorded by a collection of mostly native artists to bring attention to Native American issues.

It is a strange moment, watching the snow fall as this pop star in a floppy hat sings over a recording of his band’s song “I Gotta Feeling,” and people sway and dance and sing along, making it feel, for a moment, more like spring break than a deadly serious fight for the fate of the world.

Looking over at the White House, I have a feeling that tonight’s probably not gonna be a good night. But if we listen to the water protectors, we may still have some good nights left.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at www.democracyincrisis.com.

Published in Environment

“When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

This was Donald Trump talking to Billy Bush about assaulting women more than a decade ago, but it has proven to be the ultimate expression of Trumpism.

When Matt Lauer, a rich celebrity, asked Trump, another rich celebrity, about North Carolina’s discriminatory “bathroom bill,” it became a question of whether Trump “would be fine with (Caitlyn Jenner) using any bathroom she chooses” in Trump Tower.

Jenner, like Trump, is a reality TV star with complicated lines between business and family. Of course, she can pee wherever she wants. But trans people who aren’t stars and who have to go to the bathroom in less-glamorous places than Trump Tower are shit out of luck after the administration declared in late February it would not protect the rights of trans students.

Jenner spoke out against Trump’s reversal on trans issues, telling him to call her. But because she is also a star, her plea misses the point: Trump attacks the most vulnerable.

If Trump wanted to understand how it feels to be denied access to basic services, he could talk to Gavin Grimm, a trans high school student whose lawsuit against his Virginia school district—for forcing him to use a refashioned janitor’s closet instead of the men’s room—was scheduled to reach the Supreme Court later this month. However, on Monday, March 6, the case was sent back to a lower court because of the new guidelines set by Trump’s justice department.

Or when Trump spoke at the ultra-right Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, he could have talked to Jennifer Williams and Jordan Evans, two trans women who stood out in the hallway holding a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a sign that said, “Proud to be Conservative, Proud to Be Transgender, Proud to be American #sameteam.”

“We spent the last year fighting for transgender rights and being part of a presidential campaign, (and) we didn’t know what we were walking into,” Williams said of the anti-trans fervor once again spiking in the ruling party.

Williams has attended the conference since 2006, when she was working on a film called Fear of a Black Republican. She felt that the conference and the conservative movement was moving toward the libertarianism of Ron Paul and away from the “traditional values” of Mike Huckabee.

Until 2016, she attended the conference presenting as a man, rather than as Jennifer, her authentic self. She says she was received warmly when she reintroduced herself last year; her friends asked if she was still a conservative and when she said she was, they were cool.

But after a brief moment of high hopes, the mood shifted.

First, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos got a keynote spot on CPAC’s program. Yiannopoulos regularly called trans people “mentally ill” and used a December speech in Milwaukee to mock a trans student.

Like Yiannopoulos, some other openly gay people at CPAC seemed eager to put down trans people in order to cement their own endangered status among the bigots. One conservative lesbian blogger sitting in the press section “explained” to a Breitbart editor how trans women were really just men who like to dress in women’s clothes and masturbate. “Autogynephiles,” she said, talking high and punching down.

“It’s going to be hard for the administration to go after lesbian, gay and bi people, because they have numbers; they have resources; they have money. We don’t necessarily have that,” Williams said. “You’re going after transgender people ... We’re only 0.6 percent of the population.”

Williams was briefly relieved when Yiannopoulos was disinvited from CPAC, but the night before the conference began, the regime rescinded the Obama-era directive offering federal protection for students to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identities rather than their birth certificates. So when Williams and her friend walked in with their signs and their flag, they didn’t know what to expect.

“I was really worried because people were hyped up. We didn’t expect it to be the issue du jour by 8 in the morning, walking into CPAC with 11,000 or 12,000 conservatives of all different stripes from all over the country.”

Although Williams’ access to public facilities is legally protected in Maryland, where the conference took place, she and her friend located single-occupancy restrooms where they knew they would be safe.

“Hopefully nothing bad will happen. I don’t expect it to. This is my tribe, just as LGBTQ is my tribe. People at CPAC don’t start fights,” she said. “But there’s always that one person you have to be careful about.”

She is especially worried for young trans kids. “When I grew up, we had no hope, and you knew that if you were going to be out and proud and live your life authentically, it was just going to be tough,” she said. “These kids have had a great run for several years, making life better and easier so they can live openly. But now if I’m them, everybody knows who I am. What’s going to happen to me now?”

The fear, she says “has to be overwhelming, because at least the federal government had your back. Now they don’t.”

At its best, the federal government protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. But Trump’s populism says, in essence, “Fuck that shit.”

On the same day Trump press secretary Sean Spicer said that trans protections are “states’ rights issues,” he also said that recreational cannabis would become a federal issue. In this regime, there are no real principles—only power and the repression of anyone vulnerable enough to repress.

Williams has placed whatever hope she has left in the U.S. Supreme Court. “If we lose the Gavin Grimm case, it could be pretty dismal for a long time. I don’t want to say ‘until a Democrat gets elected,’ because I’m a Republican committee person,” she said. “Hopefully our party will be the ones to make freedom happen for everyone.”

That’s the thing about freedom: If it doesn’t happen for everyone, it doesn’t happen for anyone.

Column updated Monday, March 6. Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington PostVox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications.

Published in National/International

The far, far right started freaking out when “lock her up”-chanting former Gen. Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in the wake of revelations that he discussed loosening sanctions with a Russian ambassador while Obama was still president.

Mike Cernovich, one of those DeploraBallers whom others on the far right sometimes like to call a cuck, started the hysteria almost immediately after the announcement, tweeting: “The coup is on, Flynn resigned. Bannon, Kellyanne, and Miller next on the chopping block.”

A few minutes later, far, far right cop-worshipper John Cardillo also used the C word: “Flynn was the first casualty in Reince and the establishment’s palace coup.” He followed with a direct appeal to Trump: “You have traitors within. Do not let them conspire with the MSM to remove your circle of loyalists.”

Cernovich agreed that Flynn’s resignation was a “HUGE win for fake news.”

These guys are extremists, but they are smart enough to know the only strategy for Trump is to deny reality and all other sources of truth. The corruption, impropriety and legally dubious dealings of the regime seem so widespread that the admission that one thing is wrong could lead quickly to the revelation that everything is wrong.

Breitbart, meanwhile, was doing its best to ignore Flynn’s resignation, proving, perhaps, the old conservative point about the inefficiency of government workers, not tweeting about it at all until 9:30 a.m. the next morning. State news moves slow.

It is premature to rejoice about any of this, because the Trump propaganda machine has been wildly effective at erasing reality so far—and when Trump dumped Paul Manafort because of his Russian ties, the dirt just seemed to disappear. But the questions of, “What did the president know, and when?” may still prove powerful in Washington, D.C.


THE INTELLECTUAL GODFATHER

Senators shuffle by the desk to cast their votes on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, chattering like kids returning from summer break to find that everything has changed. Somehow, even the victors seem confused. None of them really expected the world to look like this.

Except, maybe, Sen. Jeff Sessions. He is standing toward the front of the Senate chambers, his hands behind his back, at ease. There is a grin on his face. He has just cast what will be his final vote as senator—to confirm DeVos.

Though he is not attorney general yet, he was instrumental in planning the flurry of authoritarian executive orders marking Trump’s first weeks in office, including the now-contested Muslim ban. Sessions wanted to go even harder, hoping for a “shock and awe” approach, overwhelming the opposition with the dramatic pace of change.

In a Washington Post story that called Sessions the “intellectual godfather” of “Trump’s hard-line actions,” the director of a conservative immigration think tank compared the Republican senator to a “guerrilla in the hinterlands preparing for the next hopeless assault on the government” who suddenly learns that “the capital has fallen.”

With his dark suit, white hair and wrinkled white peach of a face, Sessions does not look like he’s spent much time training in the jungle.

He walks slowly to his seat. Sitting down, he bows his head. His eyes seem to be closed, as if praying. He brings the tips of his fingers together, facing upward, on his lap.

A few moments later, he takes out a silver object and holds it gingerly between the first two fingers and thumbs of each hand, almost as if unwrapping foil on a stick of gum. But it doesn’t seem to be gum—it’s impossible to tell what it is from the press gallery above the Senate floor—and he does not unwrap it, he just fingers it, his head bowed.

Then the vote is called. He puts away the silver object. It is 50-50.

As expected, Vice President Mike Pence confirms DeVos with a historic tie-breaking vote. It is a huge blow to anyone who cares about competency, public education or ethics in government. The Democrats spent the last 24 hours complaining about all of these issues, but that doesn’t matter now. They have no control. The whole process demonstrated that the new regime can do as it wishes on the Hill.

Across the room, Sen. Al Franken acts like he is charging someone with a podium, making a clear reference to Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live skit satirizing Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham sit beside each other talking quietly, as if conspiring or gossiping. McCain says something and sucks his bottom lip. Graham scans the room from left to right.

Sessions gets up and looks around the room again before he heads toward the door.

When he returns to the Senate later that day, Sessions is the nominee under consideration. He sits behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell while Sen. Elizabeth Warren quotes the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who called Sessions a “disgrace to the Justice Department” during a 1986 confirmation hearing, when Sessions was denied a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism. Now Warren reads from a letter that Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., sent to the Senate during that same failed confirmation.

“Mr. President, Mr. President,” McConnell interrupts, defending Sessions. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. Senator Warren said, ‘Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.’

“I call the senator to order under the provisions of Rule 19,” McConnell says.

The crazy thing about Rule 19, in this context, is that it was created in 1902, after Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a notorious white terrorist, beat up a colleague who had defected to the other side of a debate. Tillman founded a group called the Red Shirts, which terrorized African Americans as Reconstruction bled into Jim Crow. He was an early mentor of white supremacist Strom Thurmond, who, as the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, was the guy who both smashed Sessions’ hopes of becoming a federal judge and the guy who kept King’s 1986 letter out of the Senate record. When Warren read the letter, she was correcting Thurmond’s 30-year-old error.

So it is grimly fitting that McConnell, who has learned to manipulate the Senate in order to grab control of the judiciary for his party, cites Rule 19 to defend Jeff Sessions, the old-school law-and-order white supremacist who stuck around long enough to make it mainstream again.

During the exchange (in which McConnell now famously uttered the iconic sentences: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”), Sessions picks his nose, rubbing it with a handkerchief, making sure he gets it all, blowing again.

Nearly 24 hours later, McConnell uses the last few minutes of debate to offer a cornpone encomium to his departing colleague, calling Sessions a “true Southern gentleman,” like that’s an unquestionably good thing, eliding the difficult history connecting Sessions’ home state and the fight for civil rights.

Later, Pence swears in Sessions, who cites a “dangerous permanent trend” of increasing crime and pledges to end “lawlessness.”

Like Sessions, Trump regularly exaggerates the increase in violent crime. He uses the occasion of Sessions’ swearing in to sign three executive orders that further empower the already vast police state, now overseen by Sessions.

Neither man mentions the epidemic of African Americans shot and killed by police.

“A new era of justice begins, and it begins right now,” Trump says.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney's, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications.

Published in National/International

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