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Seniors to Congress: Protect Social Security

Hundreds of seniors, backed by community and labor groups, will perform the “Scrap the Cap Shuffle” in Federal Plaza tomorrow and deliver bags of bottle caps to congressional leaders to kick off a campaign to lift the cap on payroll taxes in order to strengthen Social Security.

The “Scrap the Cap” rally takes place at noon Tuesday, April 2, at the Federal Plaza, Dearborn and Adams.   Representative Danny K. Davis will participate, organizers said.

Delegations of seniors will attempt to meet with Senators Richard Durbin and Mark Kirk to urge them to oppose cuts to Social Security and focus on strengthening the program by lifting the limit on income levels subject to FICA taxes.

Currently income over $113,700 is exempt from FICA taxes.  “Scrapping the cap” would solve solvency issues for Social Security far into the future. The program’s trust fund now has a $2.7 trillion surplus, enough to fully cover benefits for at least 25 years.  And the fund is entirely separate from the federal budget.

Durbin in particular has backed implementing the so-called Chained CPI — which seeks to predict how consumers will substitute cheaper items when prices rise — and raising the retirement age.

“Older women, especially older women of color will suffer the most from switching to a Chained CPI formula,” said Audrey Douglas, vice chair of the Jane Addams Senior Caucus. “Senators Durbin and Kirk need to hear that older women have something to say about this issue.   Any cuts to Social Security are unacceptable.”

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Here we go again

The Donors Forum is warning of “an immediate series of drastic cuts to community services,” along with the loss of thousands of jobs in Illinois, unless Congress acts this week to head off spending reductions contained in sequestration.

While sequestration is “framed as an impersonal budget deficit fix for the future,” the reality is “these cuts will damage people now,” said Delia Coleman, public policy director of the group, in an e-mail.

Sequestration would mean $33.4 million less for primary and secondary education in Illinois, $24.7 million less for children with disabilities, and millions of dollars in cuts to pollution prevention, health and human services, public safety and domestic violence programs.

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The situation results from the political and economic miscalculations of President Obama, beginning with his embrace of deficit reduction as a priority in his first term, writes Robert Kuttner in American Prospect.

At stake, he writes, are the economic recovery and the success of Obama’s presidency.

“The automated reductions of the sequester are only the prologue to a decade-long drama, in which the economy faces one budget squeeze after another, all but guaranteeing a prolonged slump. Unless Congress repudiates the 2011 Budget Control Act, and President Obama blows up the entire paradigm that produced it, a fragile recovery will be the victim of budgetary masochism.”

Currently Obama is offering Republicans a “grand bargain,” in which he would trade $130 billion in cuts to Social Security benefits in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy.

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Call on Obama to block tar sands oil pipeline

As busloands of Chicagoans head to Washington D.C. for what’s billed as the largest climate change rally in history, local activists are planning a conference Saturday and rally Sunday calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.

A Climate Crisis Summit – a day-long conference starting at 9 a.m., Saturday, February 16, at IIT Kent College of Law, 565 W. Adams – will feature discussion of a range of grassroots action, including campaigns at local universities calling for divestment from oil companies and efforts to win a moratorium on fracking in Illinois.

In morning sessions, Professor Mark Potosnak of DePaul University will review climate science and discuss worst-case scenarios; Carl Wassilie, a Yup’ik Alaskan, will discuss the struggle to save native villages in Alaska now threatened by climate-related flooding.

On Sunday, February 17, an 11 a.m. rally at Michigan and Congress will show solidarity with thousands of protestors in Washington D.C., who will be surrounding the White House to demand that President Obama reject the Keystone pipeline, a $7 billion project which would carry 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil daily from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries.

Tar sands oil are even more carbon-intensive than conventional oil, and scientists say the Keystone pipeline would boost annual carbon pollution in the U.S. by 27 million metric tons.  In addition its extraction is energy intensive, uses vast amounts of water, and would destroy huge stretches of Canada’s boreal forests, which capture more carbon than rainforests.

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Two actions target Fannie Mae

Four years after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put under federal conservatorship, actions tomorrow and next Monday are targeting the agencies for blocking principal reduction in mortgage refinances.

On Wednesday, September 5, Occupy Chicago will rally at 5 p.m. at Fannie Mae’s office at 1 S. Wacker, where families facing eviction will speak out, and then march to President Obama’s campaign headquarters, 130 E. Randolph, where protestors will be chained together with balls representing mortgage debt.

It’s part of three days of actions targeting “Obama’s failures as president” and “how both Obama and Romney fail to represent the interests of the 99 Percent,” according to a Facebook announcement.

On Monday, September 10, local community groups joined by Occupy Our Homes groups from Minneapolis and Detroit will march from Daley Plaza at noon and rally in front of Fannie Mae (1 S. Wacker) at 1 p.m. and Freddie Mac (333 W. Wacker) at 2.

That protest is part of a national day of action against Fannie and Freddie by community groups working to stop foreclosures in several cities, said Stuart Schussler of Centro Autonomo of Albany ParkChicago Anti-Eviction Campaign is also participating.

Centro Autonomo protests at bank branches to support families in foreclosure who are seeking loan modifications. Principal reduction is a vital component of affordable loan mods, Schussler said.

“Sometimes we get a favorable response from the bank” that’s servicing the mortgage, but but if Fannie or Freddie holds the morgage – as they do in a large proportion of cases – “they’ll say it’s out of our hands,” he said.

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Hondurans mark coup anniversary

Local Hondurans and human rights activists will protest at the Honduran Consulate, 4439 W. Fullerton, on Thursday, June 28 from noon to 2 p.m. to mark the third anniversary of the 2009 coup and demand an end to U.S. military support, including financial assistance and “boots on the ground.”

A deadly attack on Honduran campesinos travelling by canoe on May 11, apparently killed by Honduran police officers accompanying U.S. DEA agents in a U.S. State Department helicopter, reveals the “quiet escalation” of the U.S. military presence there, according to a June 11 Nation article.

While Latin American nations have refused to recognize the post-coup government, the U.S. has embraced it, with President Obama welcoming Honduran President Porfirio Lobo to the White House last October and Vice President Biden travelling to Honduras to pledge continuing support in March.

Obama’s 2013 budget more than doubles military and police aid to Honduras, according to the Nation.

The pretext is the war on drugs, but the vice president of the Honduran Congress estimates that 40 percent of the nation’s police are involved in organized crime, and other officials have exposed “narco-judges” and representatives of drug cartels in Congress.

Human rights abuses have continued to mount, with 22 journalists among hundreds of Hondurans killed, the AFL-CIO reporting “numerous murders” of trade unionists, and the UN reporting that “human rights defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture” and other abuses.

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Not NATO’s kind of town

Mayor Emanuel is congratulating himself for a successful NATO summit – successful mainly because no disasters occurred, though the only real threats seem to have been those manufactured by police.

No doubt the black bloc is also congratulating itself that day-after front pages carried pictures of scuffles with police, rather than veterans returning their medals with members of Afghans For Peace looking on, certainly the most moving and meaningful drama of the weekend.

What would a real accounting of the summit’s costs and benefits look like?

“Obama projects desired image,” the Sun-Times titles one story, but the summit itself had some signal failures.  Two major goals – getting commitments from member states to fund the next phase of the war in Afghanistan, and reopening supply routes through Pakistan – did not pan out.

The protests cast a long shadow over Obama’s attempt to play the summit as a withdrawal from Afghanistan for the domestic audience (while lining up support from other countries for continuing operations).

Unfortunately for Emanuel’s legacy, the “Chicago Accord” that he was boasting last week would be signed at the summit – an agreement on how to proceed on Afghanistan – wasn’t to be, Rick Rozoff of Stop NATO points out.

Even the summit’s biggest actual accomplishment – the announcement that NATO’s missile defense system is going online – comes with no noticeable benefit and at great cost: major tensions with Russia, whose cooperation is needed for the alternative supply route to Afghanistan, Rozoff says.

He points out that the announcement included new plans for satellite technology, which he calls a fulfillment of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars dreams, and a dangerous and costly step toward the militarization of space.

Largest anti-NATO protest ever

Meanwhile, NATO was subject to a great deal of negative attention – and Chicago hosted the largest anti-NATO demonstration in the entire history of the alliance, Rozoff said.

(Four city blocks – a half mile – of marchers filling four lanes of State Street probably amounts to two or three times the police/media estimate of 3,000 protestors.)

And there’s renewed attention to the obscene amounts the U.S. and NATO nations spend on armaments.  This at a time when suffering from a lingering economic crisis continues to grow, when cities and states are mired in crisis and slashing public services – and while Obama’s defense secretary is opposing relatively minor spending cuts agreed to in last year’s budget deal.

The media tends to see the protestors as bearing a confusing mish-mash of causes.  But listen to them and you see that they are all connected on a fundamental level. At the Grant Park rally on Sunday, speaker after speaker tied issue after issue to the question of war and militarization.

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NATO summit: drone warfare challenged

Drone warfare will be an issue at the NATO summit, though it’s a far more urgent one for many of NATO’s critics.

NATO will review the strategic agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, which will allow drone attacks to continue, despite Afghanistan’s attempt to negotiate an end to them. NATO will also review a deal reached earlier this year for members to kick in $1.4 billion to start building its own drone force.

Drone war is also behind the decision not to invite Pakistan to the Chicago summit, although the nation is one of dozens of NATO “partners,” and an important one. The U.S. reportedly pressed for its exclusion because Pakistan refused to reopen NATO supply routes closed after a U.S. drone attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.

Pakistan, previously in tacit support of the drone war, has now demanded it be ended, to no avail.

Farce

Pakistan’s exclusion from the summit “makes the whole thing a farce,” said Pakistani-American human rights activist Rafia Zakaria. “You’re supposed to be figuring out the future of the Afghanistan mission and the negotiations with the Taliban, and you don’t have the country that’s integral to all of that.”

Zakaria will be speaking along with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, author of the new book, “Drone Wars,” at the Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood, on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m.

The book is an attempt “to make the American people aware of how counterproductive drone warfare is, how many innocent civilians it kills, how it creates blowback and anti-U.S. sentiment – and to get more people involved in calling for an end to it,” Benjamin said.

Code Pink has protested at drone bases, as has the locally-based group Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Last month VCNV and grassroots peace groups in Missouri, upstate New York, and Wisconsin held protests and committed civil disobedience at air bases where drones are maintained and deployed.

Killing civilians

They delivered a war crimes indictment charging the U.S. chain of command, from the president on down, with violations of U.S. and international law including “extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty, and the killing of innocent civilians.”

Kathy Kelly of VCNV said she and colleagues “have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan and become aware of how much fear and mistrust the drone attacks have caused. We’ve talked to people who’ve lost loved ones” in drone attacks. One young girl she met in an Afghan refugee camp lost an arm in a drone attack; her brother was seriously injured; her uncle lost his wife and five daughters.

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Bank fraud investigation hailed

President Obama’s State of the Union announcement of a new investigation into bank fraud represents a victory for community groups, said National Peoples Action on Wednesday.

“We’ve been calling for a full investigation for over a year,” said Liz Ryan Murphy of NPA.  “This is a big win, but we still need to see results.

“We need a complete investigation to get to the bottom  of what they’ve done, with penalties and restitution that are commensurate with the crimes.”

The Woodstock Institute also hailed the announcement.  “Making it clear that criminal activity in the financial sector will not be tolerated is necessary to restore confidence in the mortgage market and the broader financial system,” said Tom Feltner.

Obama announced that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman will head a new task force looking into abuses in the mortgage origination and securitization sector.

Schneiderman’s appointment came as NPA and other groups (including IIRON in Chicago) expressed concern that the administration was pressing for a settlement in the robo-signing scandal that would release banks from legal claims covering a sweeping range of misconduct.  Schneiderman was among state attorney generals said to be raising similar concerns

Principal reduction

If it is narrowly focused on relieving claims arising from fraudulent foreclosure filings, a settlement could begin to bring relief to hard-hit communities in the form of loan modifications which reduce principal to reflect depressed home values, Feltner said.

Principal reduction is “a critical missing piece in the response to the foreclosure crisis,” he said.

NPA has argued that homeowners have lost billions of dollars of equity since the housing market collapsed due to the malfeasance of big banks, and that wholesale principal reduction would constitute a massive economic stimulus.

Both groups have called on the Federal Home Finance Authority to direct Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own 70 percent of home mortgages, to allow principal reduction.

Murray said Obama should replace Edward DeMarco, acting director of the FHFA, who has ruled out principal reduction.

The president “should consider a change in leadership” at FHFA, Feltner said.



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