American Takes the Life of Yet Another Black Boy

by Jennifer Gonnerman
The New Yorker

In the early hours of Saturday, May 15, 2010, ten days before his seventeenth birthday, Kalief Browder and a friend were returning home from a party in the Belmont section of the Bronx. They walked along Arthur Avenue, the main street of Little Italy, past bakeries and cafes with their metal shutters pulled down for the night. As they passed East 186th Street, Browder saw a police car driving toward them. More squad cars arrived, and soon Browder and his friend found themselves squinting in the glare of a police spotlight. An officer said that a man had just reported that they had robbed him. “I didn’t rob anybody,” Browder replied. “You can check my pockets.”

The officers searched him and his friend but found nothing. As Browder recalls, one of the officers walked back to his car, where the alleged victim was, and returned with a new story: the man said that they had robbed him not that night but two weeks earlier. The police handcuffed the teens and pressed them into the back of a squad car. “What am I being charged for?” Browder asked. “I didn’t do anything!” He remembers an officer telling them, “We’re just going to take you to the precinct. Most likely you can go home.” Browder whispered to his friend, “Are you sure you didn’t do anything?” His friend insisted that he hadn’t.

At the Forty-eighth Precinct, the pair were fingerprinted and locked in a holding cell. A few hours later, when an officer opened the door, Browder jumped up: “I can leave now?” Instead, the teens were taken to Central Booking at the Bronx County Criminal Court.

Browder had already had a few run-ins with the police, including an incident eight months earlier, when an officer reported seeing him take a delivery truck for a joyride and crash into a parked car. Browder was charged with grand larceny. He told me that his friends drove the truck and that he had only watched, but he figured that he had no defense, and so he pleaded guilty. The judge gave him probation and “youthful offender” status, which insured that he wouldn’t have a criminal record.

Late on Saturday, seventeen hours after the police picked Browder up, an officer and a prosecutor interrogated him, and he again maintained his innocence. The next day, he was led into a courtroom, where he learned that he had been charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. The judge released his friend, permitting him to remain free while the case moved through the courts. But, because Browder was still on probation, the judge ordered him to be held and set bail at three thousand dollars. The amount was out of reach for his family, and soon Browder found himself aboard a Department of Correction bus. He fought back panic, he told me later. Staring through the grating on the bus window, he watched the Bronx disappear. Soon, there was water on either side as the bus made its way across a long, narrow bridge to Rikers Island.

Of the eight million people living in New York City, some eleven thousand are confined in the city’s jails on any given day, most of them on Rikers, a four-hundred-acre island in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx. New Yorkers who have never visited often think of Rikers as a single, terrifying building, but the island has ten jails--eight for men, one for women, and one so decrepit that it hasn’t housed anyone since 2000.

Male adolescents are confined in the Robert N. Davoren Center--known as R.N.D.C. When Browder arrived, the jail held some six hundred boys, aged sixteen to eighteen. Conditions there are notoriously grim. In August of this year, a report by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York described R.N.D.C. as a place with a “deep-seated culture of violence,” where attacks by officers and among inmates are rampant. The report featured a list of inmate injuries: “broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches.”

Browder’s family could not afford to hire an attorney, so the judge appointed a lawyer named Brendan O’Meara to represent him. Browder told O’Meara that he was innocent and assumed that his case would conclude quickly. Even the assistant district attorney handling the prosecution later acknowledged in court papers that it was a “relatively straightforward case.” There weren’t hours of wiretaps or piles of complicated evidence to sift through; there was just the memory of one alleged victim. But Browder had entered the legal system through the Bronx criminal courts, which are chronically overwhelmed. Last year, the Times, in an extended expose, described them as “crippled” and among the most backlogged in the country. One reason is budgetary. There are not nearly enough judges and court staff to handle the workload; in 2010, Browder’s case was one of five thousand six hundred and ninety-five felonies that the Bronx District Attorney’s office prosecuted. The problem is compounded by defense attorneys who drag out cases to improve their odds of winning, judges who permit endless adjournments, prosecutors who are perpetually unprepared. Although the Sixth Amendment guarantees “the right to a speedy and public trial,” in the Bronx the concept of speedy justice barely exists.

For as long as Browder could remember, he had lived in the same place, a two-story brick house near the Bronx Zoo. He was the youngest of seven siblings; except for the oldest two, all the children were adopted, and the mother fostered other children as well. “Kalief was the last brought into the family,” an older brother told me. “By the time it came to Kalief, my mom had already raised--in foster care or adoption--a total of thirty-four kids.” Kalief was the smallest, he recalled, “so my mom called him Peanut.”

As a child, Browder loved Pokemon, the W.W.E., free Wednesdays at the Bronx Zoo, and mimicking his brother’s workout routine. “At six years old, he had an eight-pack,” his brother said. When Browder was ten, their father, who worked as a subway cleaner, moved out, though he continued to help support the family.

For high school, Browder went to the small, progressive New Day Academy. A former staff member remembered him as a “fun guy,” the type of kid others wanted to be around. Occasionally, he would grab a hall pass, sneak into a friend’s classroom, and stay until the teacher caught on. He told me that his report cards were full of C’s, but the staff member I spoke to said, “I thought he was very smart.”

Inside R.N.D.C., Browder soon realized that he was not going to make many friends. He was assigned to a dorm where about fifty teen-age boys slept in an open room, each with a plastic bucket to store his possessions in. “Their conversations bored me,” he told me. As far as he could tell, the other inmates were interested only in “crimes they committed and girls that they did.” When Browder asked a guard how inmates were supposed to get their clothes cleaned, he was told that they had to wash them themselves. He thought this was a joke until he noticed other inmates scrubbing their clothes by hand, using their bucket and jailhouse soap. After he did the same and hung his wet clothes on the rail of his bed, he wound up with brown rust stains on his white T-shirt, his socks, and his boxers. That day, he told himself, “I don’t know how I’m going to live in this place.”

Browder’s mother visited every weekend. In the visiting room, he would hand her his dirty clothes and get a stack of freshly laundered clothes in return. She also put money in a jail commissary account for him, so he could buy snacks. He knew that such privileges made him a target for his fellow-prisoners, who would take any opportunity to empty someone else’s bucket of snacks and clothes, so he slept with his head off the side of his bed, atop his bucket. To survive inside R.N.D.C., he decided that the best strategy was to keep to himself and to work out. Before Rikers, he told me, “every here and there I did a couple pullups or pushups. When I went in there, that’s when I decided I wanted to get big.”

The dayroom was ruled over by a gang leader and his friends, who controlled inmates’ access to the prison phones and dictated who could sit on a bench to watch TV and who had to sit on the floor. “A lot of times, I’d say, ‘I’m not sitting on the floor,’ ” Browder said. “And then they’ll come with five or six dudes. They’d swing on me. I’d have to fight back.” There was no escape, no protection, and a suspicion that some of the guards had an agreement with the gang members.

Browder told me that, one night soon after he arrived, a group of guards lined him and several other inmates up against a wall, trying to figure out who had been responsible for an earlier fight. “They’re talking to us about why did we jump these guys,” he said. “And as they’re talking they’re punching us one by one.” Browder said that he had nothing to do with the fight, but still the officers beat him; the other inmates endured much worse. “Their noses were leaking, their faces were bloody, their eyes were swollen,” he said. Afterward, the officers gave the teens a choice: go to the medical clinic or go back to bed. But they made it clear that, if the inmates went to the clinic and told the medical staff what had happened, they would write up charges against them, and get them sent to solitary confinement. “I just told them I’ll act like nothing happened,” Browder said. “So they didn’t send us to the clinic; they didn’t write anything up; they just sent us back.” The Department of Correction refused to respond to these allegations, or to answer any questions about Browder’s stay on Rikers. But the recent U.S. Attorney’s report about R.N.D.C. recounts many instances in which officers pressured inmates not to report beatings--to “hold it down,” in Rikers parlance.

On the morning of July 28, 2010, Browder was awakened at around half past four. He was handcuffed to another inmate and herded onto a bus with a group of other prisoners. At the Bronx County Hall of Justice, they spent the day in a basement holding pen, each waiting for his chance to see a judge. When Browder’s turn came, an officer led him into a courtroom and he caught a glimpse of his mother in the spectator area. Seventy-four days had passed since his arrest. Already he had missed his seventeenth birthday, the end of his sophomore year, and half the summer.

A grand jury had voted to indict Browder. The criminal complaint alleged that he and his friend had robbed a Mexican immigrant named Roberto Bautista--pursuing him, pushing him against a fence, and taking his backpack. Bautista told the police that his backpack contained a credit card, a debit card, a digital camera, an iPod Touch, and seven hundred dollars. Browder was also accused of punching Bautista in the face.

A clerk read out the charges--“Robbery in the second degree and other crimes”--and asked Browder, “How do you plead, sir, guilty or not guilty?”

“Not guilty,” Browder said.

An officer escorted him out of the courtroom and back downstairs to return to Rikers. It no longer mattered whether his mother could find the money to bail him out. The Department of Probation had filed a “violation of probation” against him--standard procedure when someone on probation is indicted on a new violent felony--and the judge had remanded him without bail.

Browder repeatedly told O’Meara, his court-appointed lawyer, that he would never plead guilty and that he wanted to go to trial. O’Meara assumed that his courtroom defense would be “Listen, they got the wrong kid.” After all, the accusation had been made a week or two after the alleged robbery, and the victim had later changed his mind about when it occurred. (The original police report said “on or about May 2,” but Bautista later told a detective that it happened on May 8th.)

With each day he spent in jail, Browder imagined that he was getting closer to trial. Many states have so-called speedy-trial laws, which require trials to start within a certain time frame. New York State’s version is slightly different, and is known as the “ready rule.” This rule stipulates that all felony cases (except homicides) must be ready for trial within six months of arraignment, or else the charges can be dismissed. In practice, however, this time limit is subject to technicalities. The clock stops for many reasons--for example, when defense attorneys submit motions before trial--so that the amount of time that is officially held to have elapsed can be wildly different from the amount of time that really has. In 2011, seventy-four per cent of felony cases in the Bronx were older than six months.

In order for a trial to start, both the defense attorney and the prosecutor have to declare that they are ready; the court clerk then searches for a trial judge who is free and transfers the case, and jury selection can begin. Not long after Browder was indicted, an assistant district attorney sent the court a “Notice of Readiness,” stating that “the People are ready for trial.” The case was put on the calendar for possible trial on December 10th, but it did not start that day. On January 28, 2011, Browder’s two-hundred-and-fifty-eighth day in jail, he was brought back to the courthouse once again. This time, the prosecutor said, “The People are not ready. We are requesting one week.” The next court date set by the judge--March 9th--was not one week away but six. As it happened, Browder didn’t go to trial anytime that year. An index card in the court file explains:

June 23, 2011: People not ready, request 1 week.
August 24, 2011: People not ready, request 1 day.
November 4, 2011: People not ready, prosecutor on trial, request 2 weeks.
December 2, 2011: Prosecutor on trial, request January 3rd.

The Bronx courts are so clogged that when a lawyer asks for a one-week adjournment the next court date usually doesn’t happen for six weeks or more. As long as a prosecutor has filed a Notice of Readiness, however, delays caused by court congestion don’t count toward the number of days that are officially held to have elapsed. Every time a prosecutor stood before a judge in Browder’s case, requested a one-week adjournment, and got six weeks instead, this counted as only one week against the six-month deadline. Meanwhile, Browder remained on Rikers, where six weeks still felt like six weeks--and often much longer.

Like many defendants with court-appointed lawyers, Browder thought his attorney was not doing enough to help him. O’Meara, who works mostly in the Bronx and in Westchester County, never made the trip out to Rikers to see him, since a visit there can devour at least half a day. To avoid this trek, some lawyers set up video conferences at the Bronx courthouse with their clients who are in jail. O’Meara says he’s “pretty sure” he did this with Browder, but Browder says he never did. Court papers suggest a lawyer in a hurry: in the fall of 2010, O’Meara filed a notice with the court in which he mistakenly wrote that he would soon be making a motion on Browder’s case in “Westchester County Court,” instead of in the Bronx.

New York City pays lawyers like O’Meara (known locally as “18-B attorneys”) seventy-five dollars an hour for a felony case, sixty dollars for a misdemeanor. O’Meara handles all types of cases, from misdemeanors to homicides. When I met him, earlier this year, he was eating a hamburger and drinking coffee at a diner in Brooklyn after an appearance at a courthouse there. He was about to take the subway back to the Bronx, and his briefcase was bulging with papers. He told me that Browder, compared with some of his other clients, “was quiet, respectful--he wasn’t rude.” He also noted that, as the months passed, his client looked “tougher and bigger.”

Most of the time, however, Browder had no direct contact with O’Meara; the few times he tried to phone him, he couldn’t get through, so he was dependent on his mother to talk to O’Meara on his behalf. Every time Browder got the chance, he asked O’Meara the same question: “Can you get me out?” O’Meara says that he made multiple bail applications on his client’s behalf, but was unsuccessful because of the violation of probation. Meanwhile, other inmates advised Browder to tell his lawyer to file a speedy-trial motion--a motion to dismiss the case, because it hadn’t been brought to trial within six months. But, with so many one-week requests that had turned into six-week delays, Browder had yet to reach the six-month mark.

For a defendant who is in jail, the more a case drags on the greater the pressure to give up and plead guilty. By early 2012, prosecutors had offered Browder a deal--three and a half years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He refused. “I want to go to trial,” he told O’Meara, even though he knew that if he lost he could get up to fifteen years in state prison. Stories circulate on Rikers about inmates who plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just to put an end to their ordeal, but Browder was determined to get his day in court. He had no idea how rare trials actually are. In 2011, in the Bronx, only a hundred and sixty-five felony cases went to trial; in three thousand nine hundred and ninety-one cases, the defendant pleaded guilty.

Not long after arriving on Rikers, Browder made his first trip to solitary confinement. It lasted about two weeks, he recalls, and followed a scuffle with another inmate. “He was throwing shoes at people--I told him to stop,” Browder said. “I actually took his sneaker and I threw it, and he got mad. He swung on me, and we started fighting.” Browder was placed in shackles and transferred by bus to the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, which everyone on Rikers calls the Bing. Housed in one of the island’s newer jails, the Bing has four hundred cells, each about twelve feet by seven.

In recent years, the use of solitary confinement has spread in New York’s jails. Between 2007 and mid-2013, the total number of solitary-confinement beds on Rikers increased by more than sixty per cent, and a report last fall found that nearly twenty-seven per cent of the adolescent inmates were in solitary. “I think the department became severely addicted to solitary confinement,” Daniel Selling, who served as the executive director of mental health for New York City’s jails, told me in April; he had quit his job two weeks earlier. “It’s a way to control an environment that feels out of control--lock people in their cell,” he said. “Adolescents can’t handle it. Nobody could handle that.” (In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a new jails commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who promised to “end the culture of excessive solitary confinement.”)

For Browder, this was the first of several trips to the Bing. As he soon discovered, a prisoner there doesn’t leave his cell except to go to rec, the shower, the visit room, the medical clinic, or court; whenever he does leave, he is handcuffed and strip-searched. To pass the time, Browder read magazines--XXL, Sports Illustrated, Hip Hop Weekly--and street novels handed on by other inmates; one was Sister Souljah’s “Midnight.” He’d always preferred video games, but he told me, “I feel like I broke myself into books through street novels.” He moved on to more demanding reading and said that his favorite book was Craig Unger’s “House of Bush, House of Saud.”

Summer is the worst time of year to be stuck in the Bing, since the cells lack air-conditioning. In the hope of feeling a breeze, Browder would sleep with the window open, only to be awakened at 5 A.M., when the cell filled with the roar of planes taking off from LaGuardia, one of whose runways is less than three hundred feet from Rikers. He would spend all day smelling his own sweat and counting the hours until his next shower. He thought about the places he would have been visiting if he were not spending the summer in jail: Mapes Pool, Coney Island, Six Flags. One day, when he called home to talk to his mother--he was allowed one six-minute call a day while in solitary--he could make out the familiar jingle of an ice-cream truck in the background.
There hadn’t been much to do at R.N.D.C., but at least there was school--classrooms where the inmates were supposed to be taken every day, to study for a G.E.D. or a high-school diploma. The Bing had only “cell study”: a correction officer slid work sheets under the door in the morning, collected them a few days later, and, eventually, returned them with a teacher’s marks. Some inmates never bothered to fill in the work sheets, but Browder told himself, “I’m already in jail--I might as well keep trying to do something.” There were times, however, when nobody came by to collect the work sheets on the day he’d been told they were due. If Browder saw a captain walk by through the small window in his door, he would shout, “Where is the school correction officer to pick up the work?”

Near the end of 2010, Browder returned to the Bing; he was there for about ten months, through the summer of 2011. He recalls that he got sent there initially after another fight. (Once an inmate is in solitary, further minor infractions can extend his stay.) When Browder first went to Rikers, his brother had advised him to get himself sent to solitary whenever he felt at risk from other inmates. “I told him, ‘When you get into a house and you don’t feel safe, do whatever you have to to get out,’ ” the brother said. “ ‘It’s better than coming home with a slice on your face.’ ”

Even in solitary, however, violence was a threat. Verbal spats with officers could escalate. At one point, Browder said, “I had words with a correction officer, and he told me he wanted to fight. That was his way of handling it.” He’d already seen the officer challenge other inmates to fights in the shower, where there are no surveillance cameras. “So I agreed to it; I said, ‘I’ll fight you.’ ” The next day, the officer came to escort him to the shower, but before they even got there, he said, the officer knocked him down: “He put his forearm on my face, and my face was on the floor, and he just started punching me in the leg.” Browder isn’t the first inmate to make such an allegation; the U.S. Attorney’s report described similar incidents.

Browder’s brother reconsidered his advice when he saw him in the Bing visiting area. For one thing, he says, Browder was losing weight. “Several times when I visited him, he said, ‘They’re not feeding me,’ ” the brother told me. “He definitely looked really skinny.” In solitary, food arrived through a slot in the cell door three times a day. For a growing teen-ager, the portions were never big enough, and in solitary Browder couldn’t supplement the rations with snacks bought at the commissary. He took to begging the officers for leftovers: “Can I get that bread?” Sometimes they would slip him an extra slice or two; often, they refused.

Browder’s brother also noticed a growing tendency toward despair. When Browder talked about his case, he was “strong, adamant: ‘No, they can’t do this to me!’ ” But, when the conversation turned to life in jail, “it’s a totally different personality, which is depressed. He’s, like, ‘I don’t know how long I can take this.’ ”

Browder got out of the Bing in the fall of 2011, but by the end of the year he was back--after yet another fight, he says. On the night of February 8, 2012--his six-hundred-and-thirty-fourth day on Rikers--he said to himself, “I can’t take it anymore. I give up.” That night, he tore his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture, and tried to hang himself. He was taken to the clinic, then returned to solitary. Browder told me that his sheets, magazines, and clothes were removed--everything except his white plastic bucket.

On February 17th, he was shuttled to the courthouse once again, but this time he was not brought up from the court pen in time to hear his case called. (“I’ll waive his appearance for today’s purposes,” his lawyer told the judge.) For more than a year, he had heard various excuses about why his trial had to be delayed, among them that the prosecutor assigned to the case was on trial elsewhere, was on jury duty, or, as he once told the judge, had “conflicts in my schedule.” If Browder had been in the courtroom on this day, he would have heard a prosecutor offer a new excuse: “Your Honor, the assigned assistant is currently on vacation.” The prosecutor asked for a five-day adjournment; Browder’s lawyer requested March 16th, and the judge scheduled the next court date for then.

The following night, in his solitary cell on Rikers, Browder shattered his plastic bucket by stomping on it, then picked up a piece, sharpened it, and began sawing his wrist. He was stopped after an officer saw him through the cell window and intervened.

Browder was still on Rikers Island in June of 2012, when his high-school classmates collected their diplomas, and in September, when some of them enrolled in college. In the fall, prosecutors offered him a new deal: if he pleaded guilty, he’d get two and a half years in prison, which meant that, with time served, he could go home soon. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred would take the offer that gets you out of jail,” O’Meara told me. “He just said, ‘Nah, I’m not taking it.’ He didn’t flinch. Never talked about it. He was not taking a plea.”

Meanwhile, Browder kept travelling from Rikers to the Bronx courthouse and back again, shuttling between two of New York City’s most dysfunctional bureaucracies, each system exacerbating the flaws of the other. With every trip Browder made to the courthouse, another line was added to a growing stack of index cards kept in the court file:

June 29, 2012: People not ready, request one week.
September 28, 2012: People not ready, request two weeks.
November 2, 2012: People not ready, request one week.
December 14, 2012: People not ready, request one week.

By the end of 2012, Browder had been in jail for nine hundred and sixty-one days and had stood before eight different judges. He always maintained his composure, never berating his attorney or yelling protests in court. O’Meara was impressed by his control. “I can’t imagine most people sitting in there for three years and not becoming very upset with their attorney,” he says. “He just never complained to me.” Privately, though, Browder was angry. About the prosecutors, he would tell himself, “These guys are just playing with my case.”

On March 13, 2013, Browder appeared before a new judge, Patricia M. DiMango, who had been transferred from Brooklyn as part of a larger effort to tackle the Bronx’s backlog. She was known for her no-nonsense style when dealing with defendants; at the Brooklyn courthouse, she was referred to as Judge Judy. (As it happens, this year she became a judge on “Hot Bench,” a new courtroom TV show created by Judge Judy.) In the Bronx, DiMango’s job was to review cases and clear them: by getting weak cases dismissed, extracting guilty pleas from defendants, or referring cases to trial in another courtroom. At the start of 2013, there were nine hundred and fifty-two felony cases in the Bronx, including Browder’s, that were more than two years old. In the next twelve months, DiMango disposed of a thousand cases, some as old as five years.

Judge DiMango explained to Browder, “If you go to trial and lose, you could get up to fifteen.” Then she offered him an even more tempting deal: plead guilty to two misdemeanors--the equivalent of sixteen months in jail--and go home now, on the time already served. “If you want that, I will do that today,” DiMango said. “I could sentence you today. . . . It’s up to you.”

“I’m all right,” Browder said. “I did not do it. I’m all right.”

“You are all right?” DiMango said.

“Yes,” he said. “I want to go to trial.”

Back at Rikers, other prisoners were stunned. “You’re bugging,” they told him. “You’re stupid. If that was me, I would’ve said I did it and went home.” Browder knew that it was a gamble; even though he was innocent, he could lose at trial. “I used to go to my cell and lie down and think, like, Maybe I am crazy; maybe I am going too far,” he recalled. “But I just did what I thought was right.”

On May 29th, the thirty-first court date on Browder’s case, there was another development. DiMango peered down from the bench. “The District Attorney is really in a position right now where they cannot proceed,” she said. “It is their intention to dismiss the case.” She explained that this could not officially happen until the next court date, which ended up being a week later. “I will release you today, but you have to come back here on time without any new cases,” she said. “Do you think you can do that, Mr. Browder?”

“Yes,” he said.

Browder could not believe what was happening. His battle to prove his innocence had ended. No trial, no jury, no verdict. An assistant district attorney filed a memo with the court explaining that Bautista, the man who had accused Browder, had gone back to Mexico. The District Attorney’s office had reached his brother in the Bronx and tried to arrange for him to return and testify, but then the office lost contact with the brother, too. “Without the Complainant, we are unable to meet our burden of proof at trial,” the prosecutor wrote.

Browder had to spend one more night on Rikers. By now, he had missed his junior year of high school, his senior year, graduation, the prom. He was no longer a teen-ager; four days earlier, he had turned twenty.

He didn’t know what time he would be released, so he told his mother not to bother picking him up. The next afternoon, he walked out of jail, a single thought in his mind: “I’m going home!” He took the bus to Queens Plaza, then two subways to the Bronx, and his euphoria began to dissipate. Being around so many people felt strange. Except for a few weeks, he had been in solitary confinement for the previous seventeen months.

After leaving Rikers, Browder moved back home, where his mother and two of his brothers were living. Everybody could see that he had changed. Most of the clothes in his bedroom no longer fit; he had grown an inch or two while he was away and had become brawnier. Many of his former pastimes--playing video games, watching movies, shooting hoops in the park--no longer engaged him. He preferred to spend time by himself, alone in his bedroom, with the door closed. Sometimes he found himself pacing, as he had done in solitary. When he saw old friends, he was reminded of their accomplishments and what he had not achieved: no high-school diploma, no job, no money, no apartment of his own.

Before he went to jail, he used to like sitting on his front steps with his friends, and when a group of attractive girls walked by he’d call out, “Hi. What are you doing? Where’s the party at? Can I go with you?” Now, if he managed to get a girl’s number, the first real conversation would always go the same way: she would ask him if he was in school or working, and he would feel his anxiety rise. Once he revealed that he was still living at home, without a job or a diploma, “they look at me like I ain’t worth nothing. Like I ain’t shit. It hurts to have people look at you like that.” He could explain that he’d been wrongfully arrested, but the truth felt too complicated, too raw and personal. “If I tell them the story, then I gotta hear a hundred questions,” he said. “It gets emotional for me. And those emotions I don’t feel comfortable with.”

Not long after Browder returned home, one of his relatives called an attorney named Paul V. Prestia and told him that Browder had spent three years on Rikers only to have his case dismissed. “Send him down,” Prestia said. A former prosecutor in Brooklyn, Prestia now has his own firm. On his office wall hangs a 2011 Post story about a Haitian chef from the Bronx who was mistakenly arrested for rape and spent eight days on Rikers; Prestia got the case dismissed.

When Prestia first heard Browder’s story, he thought there must be a catch; even by the sorry standards of justice in the Bronx, the case was extreme. “It’s something that could’ve been tried in a court in a matter of days,” he told me. “I don’t know how each and every prosecutor who looked at this case continued to let this happen. It’s like Kalief Browder didn’t even exist.” Earlier this year, Prestia filed a suit on Browder’s behalf against the city, the N.Y.P.D., the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Correction.

Robert T. Johnson, the Bronx District Attorney, will not answer questions about Browder’s case, because, once the charges were dismissed, the court records were sealed. But recently when I asked him a general question about cases that drag on and on, he was quick to deflect blame. “These long delays--two, three years--they’re horrendous, but the D.A. is not really accountable for that kind of delay,” he said. His explanation was that either the case did not actually exceed the six-month speedy-trial deadline or the defense attorney failed to bring a speedy-trial motion.

Prestia, in his lawsuit, alleges “malicious prosecution,” charging that Johnson’s prosecutors were “representing to the court that they would be ‘ready’ for trial, when in fact, they never were.” Prestia said, “The million-dollar question is: When did they really know they didn’t have a witness? Did they really not know until 2013?” He suspects that, as he wrote in his complaint, they were “seeking long, undue adjournments of these cases to procure a guilty plea from plaintiff.” The city has denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and Johnson, when I asked about these accusations, said, “Certainly if there is something uncovered that we did wrong, I will deal with that here. But I don’t expect that to be the case.”

Prestia has represented many clients who were wrongfully arrested, but Browder’s story troubles him most deeply. “Kalief was deprived of his right to a fair and speedy trial, his education, and, I would even argue, his entire adolescence,” he says. “If you took a sixteen-year-old kid and locked him in a room for twenty-three hours, your son or daughter, you’d be arrested for endangering the welfare of a child.” Browder doesn’t know exactly how many days he was in solitary--and Rikers officials, citing pending litigation, won’t divulge any details about his stay--but he remembers that it was “about seven hundred, eight hundred.”

One day last November, six months after his release, Browder retreated to his bedroom with a steak knife, intending to slit his wrists. A friend happened to stop by, saw the knife, and grabbed it. When he left the house to find Browder’s mother, Browder tried to hang himself from a bannister. An ambulance rushed him to St. Barnabas Hospital, where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward. In his medical record, a social worker describes the suicide attempt as “serious.”

One afternoon this past spring, I sat with Browder in a quiet restaurant in lower Manhattan. He is five feet seven, with a high forehead, tired eyes, and a few wisps of hair above his upper lip. “Being home is way better than being in jail,” he told me. “But in my mind right now I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

When I first asked if I could interview him, he was reluctant, but eventually he agreed, and we met many times. We always met in downtown Manhattan, near Prestia’s office. He didn’t want to meet in the Bronx, and seemed to feel more comfortable speaking where nobody knew him. He almost always wore the same uniform: a hoodie with the hood pulled down; a pair of earbuds, one stuck in an ear and the other swinging free; rosary beads dangling from his neck--not because he is Catholic (his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses) but “for fashion,” he said. When I asked him about Rikers, he surprised me with his willingness to speak. At times, he seemed almost unable to stop, as if he had long been craving the chance to tell somebody about what he endured. Other times, though, the act of remembering seemed almost physically painful: he would fall silent, drop his gaze, and shake his head.

Ever since Browder left Rikers, he has tried to stay busy. He sat through G.E.D. prep classes, signed up for a computer course, searched for a job, and attended weekly counselling sessions. This past March, he learned that he had passed the G.E.D. on the first try. “I gained some of my pride back,” he told me. He landed a job as a security guard--not his dream position, but it would serve while he looked for something better. By coincidence, one of the places he was sent was St. Barnabas. On his second day there, he overheard some employees talking about him; somebody seemed to have figured out that he had been in the psychiatric ward. Soon afterward, with a vague explanation, he was fired.

Prestia helped him find a part-time job, working for a friend who runs a jewelry business in the same building as Prestia’s office, near Wall Street. On May 29th--four days after his twenty-first birthday, and a year to the day after DiMango told him that he would be set free--Browder stood on a sidewalk in front of a Chase bank, handing out flyers advertising the jewelry business. He told me that he liked Wall Street--being surrounded by people with briefcases and suits, everyone walking with a sense of purpose. “When I see professional people, I see myself,” he said. “I say, ‘I want to be like them.’ ”

Exactly how he would manage this he was not sure. Most days, the progress he had made since coming home did not feel like progress to him. “It’s been a year now, and I got a part-time job, and I got my G.E.D.,” he said. “But, when you think about it, that’s nothing. People tell me because I have this case against the city I’m all right. But I’m not all right. I’m messed up. I know that I might see some money from this case, but that’s not going to help me mentally. I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. Because there are certain things that changed about me and they might not go back.”

This month, Browder started classes at Bronx Community College. But, even now, he thinks about Rikers every day. He says that his flashbacks to that time are becoming more frequent. Almost anything can trigger them. It might be the sight of a police cruiser or something more innocuous. When his mother cooks rice and chili, he says, he can’t help remembering the rice and chili he was fed on Rikers, and suddenly, in his mind, he is back in the Bing, recalling how hungry he was all the time, especially at night, when he’d have to wait twelve hours for his next meal.

Even with his friends, things aren’t the same. “I’m trying to break out of my shell, but I guess there is no shell. I guess this is just how I am--I’m just quiet and distant,” he says. “I don’t like being this way, but it’s just natural to me now.” Every night before he goes to sleep, he checks that every window in the house is locked. When he rides the subway, he often feels terrified. “I might be attacked; I might be robbed,” he says. “Because, believe me, in jail you know there’s all type of criminal stuff that goes on.” No matter how hard he tries, he cannot forget what he saw: inmates stealing from each other, officers attacking teens, blood on the dayroom floor. “Before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid,” he says. “I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.”

Kaleif Browder, 1993-2015

Kalief Browder, 1993–2015

by Jennifer Gonnerman
The New Yorker

Last fall, I wrote about a young man named Kalief Browder, who spent three years on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime. He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times. Once, in February, 2012, he ripped his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to create a noose, and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell.

In November of 2013, six months after he left Rikers, Browder attempted suicide again. This time, he tried to hang himself at home, from a bannister, and he was taken to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, not far from his home, in the Bronx. When I met him, in the spring of 2014, he appeared to be more stable.

Then, late last year, about two months after my story about him appeared, he stopped going to classes at Bronx Community College. During the week of Christmas, he was confined in the psych ward at Harlem Hospital. One day after his release, he was hospitalized again, this time back at St. Barnabas. When I visited him there on January 9th, he did not seem like himself. He was gaunt, restless, and deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, “because it was watching me.”

After two weeks at St. Barnabas, Browder was released and sent back home. The next day, his lawyer, Paul V. Prestia, got a call from an official at Bronx Community College. An anonymous donor (who had likely read the New Yorker story) had offered to pay his tuition for the semester. This happy news prompted Browder to reenroll. For the next few months he seemed to thrive. He rode his bicycle back and forth to school every day, he no longer got panic attacks sitting in a classroom, and he earned better grades than he had the prior semester.

Ever since I’d met him, Browder had been telling me stories about having been abused by officers and inmates on Rikers. The stories were disturbing, but I did not fully appreciate what he had experienced until this past April when I obtained surveillance footage of an officer assaulting him and of a large group of inmates pummeling and kicking him. I sat next to Kalief while he watched these videos for the first time. Afterward, we discussed whether they should be published on The New Yorker’s Web site. I told him that it was his decision. He said to put them online.

He was driven by the same motive that led him to talk to me for the first time, a year earlier. He wanted the public to know what he had gone through, so that nobody else would have to endure the same ordeals. His willingness to tell his story publicly--and his ability to recount it with great insight--ultimately helped persuade Mayor Bill de Blasio to try to reform the city’s court system and end the sort of excessive delays that kept him in jail for so long.

Browder’s story also caught the attention of Rand Paul, who began talking about him on the campaign trail. Jay Z met with Browder after watching the videos. Rosie O’Donnell invited him on “The View” last year and recently had him over for dinner. Browder could be a very private person, and he told almost nobody about meeting O’Donnell or Jay Z. However, in a picture taken of him with Jay Z, who draped an arm around his shoulders, Browder looked euphoric.

Last Monday, Prestia, who had filed a lawsuit on Browder’s behalf against the city, noticed that Browder had put up a couple of odd posts on Facebook. When Prestia sent him a text message, asking what was going on, Browder insisted he was O.K. “Are you sure everything is cool?” Prestia wrote. Browder replied: “Yea I’m alright thanks man.” The two spoke on Wednesday, and Browder did seem fine. On Saturday afternoon, Prestia got a call from Browder’s mother: he had committed suicide.

That night, Prestia and I visited the family’s home in the Bronx. Fifteen relatives--aunts, uncles, cousins--sat crammed together in the front room with his parents and siblings. The mood was alternately depressed, angry, and confused. Two empty bottles of Browder’s antipsychotic drug sat on a table. Was it possible that taking the drug had caused him to commit suicide? Or could he have stopped taking it and become suicidal as a result?

His relatives recounted stories he’d told them about being starved and beaten by guards on Rikers. They spoke about his paranoia, about how he often suspected that the cops or some other authority figures were after him. His mother explained that the night before he told her, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore.” “Kalief, you’ve got a lot of people in your corner,” she told him.

One cousin recalled that when Browder first got home from jail, he would walk to G.E.D. prep class every day, almost an hour each way. Another cousin remembered seeing him seated by the kitchen each morning with his schoolwork spread out before him.

His parents showed me his bedroom on the second floor. Next to his bed was his MacBook Air. (Rosie O’Donnell had given it to him.) A bicycle stood by the closet. There were two holes near the door, which he had made with his fist some months earlier. Mustard-yellow sheets covered his bed. And, to the side of the room, atop a jumble of clothes, there were two mustard-yellow strips that he had evidently torn from his bedsheets.

As his father explained, he’d apparently decided that these torn strips of sheet were not strong enough. That afternoon, at about 12:15 P.M., he went into another bedroom, pulled out the air conditioner, and pushed himself out through the hole in the wall, feet first, with a cord wrapped around his neck. His mother was the only other person home at the time. After she heard a loud thumping noise, she went upstairs to investigate, but couldn’t figure out what had happened. It wasn’t until she went outside to the backyard and looked up that she realized that her youngest child had hanged himself.

That evening, in a room packed with family members, Prestia said, “This case is bigger than Michael Brown!” In that case, in which a police officer shot Brown, an unarmed teen-ager, in Ferguson, Missouri, Prestia recalled that there were conflicting stories about what happened. And the incident took, he said, “one minute in time.” In the case of Kalief Browder, he said, “When you go over the three years that he spent [in jail] and all the horrific details he endured, it’s unbelievable that this could happen to a teen-ager in New York City. He didn’t get tortured in some prison camp in another country. It was right here!”


State Terror Against People of Color

by Chris Hedges

SANTA ANA, Calif.--The police murder of poor people of color--occurring at a rate of roughly two a day across the country--is not only about the indiscriminate use of lethal force. It is also about maintaining an ongoing climate of terror in marginal communities. It is about making it impossible for the poor, cast aside by corporate capitalists as surplus labor, to organize and build meaningful lives and to resist. It is terror by design. And it will not stop until police are disarmed--the authority to use lethal force should be restricted to specialized, highly regulated police units--and finally held accountable under the law. Until the rule of law becomes a reality for those who live in marginal communities, until we obliterate the poverty--the mechanism that keeps people trapped in squalor like penned animals--until we stop gunning the poor down in our streets, the nightmare will not stop. In fact, as poverty and inequality expand, this nightmare will only grow.

Families, suffocating in grief, terrified for their children, unable to find justice, rendered invisible by the media and crushed by poverty--the worst of all crimes--endure a hell that is directly linked to the plague of mass incarceration, Jim and Jane Crow laws, sunset laws, lynching and slave patrols. This terror is the latest manifestation of white supremacy and the expression of a corporate capitalist state that consciously creates huge pools of unemployed and underemployed. The destitute, desperate for work and kept in a state of constant fear, are easily exploited and unable to rise up against their oppressors.

Joel Acevedo
Several days ago I met three mothers in Santa Ana whose sons had been murdered by police here in Orange County, Calif. Manuel Diaz, who was unarmed, was shot to death July 21, 2012, by Anaheim police Officer Nicholas Bennallack, also responsible for a fatal shooting in 2012. Bennallack was cleared in both killings. During protests over the Diaz killing, Joel Acevedo, 21, was killed July 22, 2012, by Anaheim police Officer Kelly Phillips, who had been involved in the fatal shooting of Caesar Cruz in 2009. Phillips too was cleared twice. Paul Joseph Quintanar, 19, died when he was struck by freeway traffic as officers of the Tustin Police Department tried to arrest him on Sept. 8, 2011. He had been on his way to buy a bottle of water from a 7-Eleven. Marcel Ceja, on Nov. 4, 2011, was shot to death by a police officer in Anaheim as he was walking to a store with two friends.

In Anaheim alone, where Disneyland markets a fantasy vision of a happy America, the police shot 37 people between 2003 and 2011, killing 21 of them, mostly people of color. As is usual across the United States, all of the police officers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

“It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon--in the neighborhood, there was a couple of children’s parties going on,” said Genevieve Huizar, the mother of Manuel Diaz. “They had jumpers for children to play on. My son was in the alley talking to a couple of friends. A police car came into the alley. The police got out. They pointed at him for some reason. When they pointed at him he ran. He ran around our apartment building, to the right. He was blocked by a gate. Officer Nick Bennallack came around the corner. He said he thought my son had a gun in his hand. It turned out to be my son’s cellphone. My son was shot in the lower back. As Manuel was falling to his knees, the second bullet got him in the right side of the head.”

Manuel Diaz
How could the police do this in broad daylight in front of children?” she asked. “My son wasn’t doing anything. He wasn’t on parole or probation. He wasn’t committing a crime.”

The Diaz shooting triggered an uprising in Anaheim. Residents hauled mattresses onto the streets and set them on fire. Crowds threw rocks, bottles and other projectiles at police. Police officers fanned out in the neighborhood to buy the cellphones of witnesses to the Diaz shooting in an attempt to keep any video of the killing from being made public, neighborhood residents told the media. The day after the killing, with protests still taking place, police chased and fatally shot Joel Acevedo. In response to the protests, members of the police force patrolled the streets in camouflage uniforms, as if they were at war.

First they [the police] pushed him down,” Marie Sales said of her son Paul Quintanar. “They searched him. Then they started to rough him up. He was talking to them. He complied with everything that they wanted. Then two to three officers were on top of him. He got scared. He was chased onto the 5 Freeway. They pulled guns on him. He was hit [by vehicles] and thrown to the onramp on the 5 Freeway. The police were never investigated.”

Paul Quintanar
Barbara Padilla lost her son Marcel Ceja on Nov. 4, 2011, in Anaheim as he was walking to the store with two friends. Anaheim police Officer David Garcia approached the young men. Ceja ran. Garcia shot him twice in the chest.

“My son was taken to UCI hospital,” Padilla said. “Nobody called me. He died alone at the hospital. The police then appeared at my house and searched it without a warrant. The officer was never charged. We went to trial twice [after filing lawsuits]. We lost both times.”

These killings do not end with the funerals of the young men. They reverberate, as they are meant to do, through poor neighborhoods, leaving in their wake constant stress, anxiety and fear that infect households.

The message this violence sends to poor people of color is this: We can kill you and your children with impunity. There is nothing you can do about it. You have no rights. You will never be safe. And if you attempt rise up and resist we will kill you and your children en masse.

“I’m constantly screaming, ‘Where are my kids?’ ” Sales said. “I am constantly calling them to make sure they’re not outside, or that they are at least inside the gate. Your mind is always on ‘it’s gonna happen again, it’s not gonna stop here.’ My son’s little brother was beaten by the cops two days before my son was killed. I think, ‘They are going to kill another one of my kids.’ I can’t get that out of my head. I constantly ask, ‘Who is next, what are they going to do to us next?’ I don’t have any ease. You can’t let your kids go down the street to the store because the cops are there. You don’t know if they are going to get stopped, or if they are going to get beat up, or worse. My son was just getting a bottle of water, no crime, no dispatch, no call, and now he’s not here. Who’s to say it won’t happen again?”

The killings routinely shatter and at times destroy the lives of families left behind.

“My daughter turned to drugs and alcohol because she misses her brother so much,” Huizar said. “She can’t stand to be sober. It impacts your whole family. It impacts her children.”

Huizar asked me if she could read some of the names of those killed by police in Anaheim and other cities in Orange County. She pulled out a paper and recited from the long list, made up almost entirely of the names of people of color. The women remained silent after she finished, grief etched across their faces.

After losing a child to police violence, said Padilla, “it is like you just barely exist.” She has two other sons. One is a U.S. Marine.

Orange County is divided between the wealthy white elites, notorious as conservative Republicans, and impoverished Hispanic and black populations, especially in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Tustin. Police shootings take place almost exclusively in the areas where poor people of color reside. Those who hold power, however, even in cities such as Anaheim, where Hispanics are at least half the population, are usually rich and white. And in cities where people of color are integrated into the power elite, such as Santa Ana, quislings doggedly protect the status quo.

It is common to see rows of poor black and brown men seated abjectly in a line along a curb in poor neighborhoods as police officers check their documents. Police routinely search backpacks as children leave schools, uttering threats, according to mothers, such as “You could be next.”

“I’ve lived in Anaheim my whole life, my parents were born in Anaheim,” Padilla said. “It’s been going on for forever. Anaheim has always been a racist city. The Ku Klux Klan used to meet at Pearson Park.”

“And it’s gotten worse,” she added. “The police are now on a killing spree.”

The mothers said they discovered online posts by gang-unit police officers boasting that they were part of a “shooting squad.” The posts included drawings of high-caliber weapons, skulls and the Grim Reaper. After the mothers used the downloaded images in a street protest against police violence, the images were hastily removed from the Internet.

“Revolt is simmering,” said Chicanos Unidos’ Gaby Hernandez, whose nephew’s father was murdered by police. “People don’t even want the police to come in anymore. They say, ‘We’ll handle our own issues. Stay away.’ ”

The killings and police intimidation in Anaheim are carried out within sight of Disneyland, a tourist attraction the women detest. And when the one-year anniversary of the uprising put protesters in the streets, the Anaheim Police Department brought in military-style gear and armored vehicles to protect Disneyland and intimidate the marchers.

“Disney is a corporation that wants to take these neighborhoods and pretty much wipe them out,” Huizar said, “even though we are the ones serving the food and cleaning up around Disney for minimal pay without medical benefits.”

“Disney functions as a Brave New World form of oppression,” Gabriel San Roman, a journalist for the OC Weekly, said to me in an interview. “There’s this corporate image of childhood innocence. Then, when riots happen, you have ‘1984.’ It’s the bludgeon of repression.”

San Roman said participants in a July 2012 street protest against police were startled to hear huge explosions. “There were people’s cathartic outbursts in the streets, yelling, people getting out their frustrations against what they’ve experienced for years, and at that very moment at 9:30 everyone heard explosions in the sky,” he said. “It was the Disneyland fireworks. That moment tells you everything you need to know about Anaheim and about corporations like Disneyland.”


The One Thing Pope Francis Could Say That Would Truly Stun Congress

by Jon Schwarz
The Intercept

There are many things Pope Francis could say in his Thursday address to Congress that would make them uncomfortable. Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican Catholic from Arizona, has already announced that he’s refusing to attend because the Pope may urge action on global warming. The Pope could also strongly criticize capitalism, as he did in great detail in his 2013 apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.

But the Pope’s critique of the world has an even more radical component, one that’s gotten little notice in the United States -- maybe because it’s so radical that many Americans, members of Congress in particular, might not even understand what he’s saying.

And what Francis is saying is that capitalism and our growing environmental disasters are rooted in an even older, larger problem: centuries of European colonialism. Moreover, he suggests this colonialism has never really ended, but merely changed forms -- and much of U.S. foreign policy that’s purportedly about terrorism, or drugs, or corruption, or “free trade,” is actually colonialism in disguise.

That’s a perspective that no one in Congress -- from Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders or anyone in between -- is going to get behind.

The Pope’s most extensive denunciation of colonialism is probably his speech last June at the World Meeting of Popular Movements (an event nurtured by the Vatican at the Pope’s initiative) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It’s genuinely startling. Read this and try to imagine what would happen if it were spoken at the U.S. Capitol:

The Earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil.” … Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women …

Let us always have at heart the Virgin Mary, a humble girl from small people lost on the fringes of a great empire. … Mary is a sign of hope for peoples suffering the birth pangs of justice. …

[W]e see the rise of new forms of colonialism which seriously prejudice the possibility of peace and justice. … The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain “free trade” treaties, and the imposition of measures of “austerity” which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor. …  At other times, under the noble guise of battling corruption, the narcotics trade and terrorism -- grave evils of our time which call for coordinated international action -- we see states being saddled with measures which have little to do with the resolution of these problems and which not infrequently worsen matters.

Moreover, the location of the event and the Pope’s speech was certainly not random. Bolivia today is an international symbol of both the evils of European colonialism and resistance to it, with history running from the founding of La Paz in 1548 to right now.

For instance, while it’s almost completely unknown in Europe and the U.S., an estimated eight million indigenous Bolivians and enslaved Africans died mining silver for Spain from the Bolivian mountain Cerro Rico -- or as it’s known in Bolivia, “The Mountain That Eats Men.” Potosi, the city that grew up around Cerro Rico, is now extraordinarily polluted, and the mountain is still being mined, often by children. On the conquerors’ side of the ledger, Potosi was the source of tens of thousands of tons of silver, leading to the Spanish phrase vale un potosi -- i.e., worth a fortune. (Some also believe the U.S. dollar sign originated from the design of coins minted there.)

More recently, in a faint echo of Potosi, the International Monetary Fund tried to force the Bolivian city of Cochabamba to lease its water system to a consortium of international investors. Enormous, successful protests helped make then-Congressman Evo Morales famous -enough so that he went on to become Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president.

Morales kicked out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 2008, and now the U.S. has secretly indicted several Bolivian officials connected to his administration -- under, as the Pope might put it, “the noble guise of battling the narcotics trade.” The U.S. also appears to have been behind the forcing down of Morales’ presidential plane as it flew across Europe from Moscow, because the U.S. believed Morales might have had Edward Snowden onboard.

This history is why the Pope could tell Bolivians, “I do not need to go on describing the evil effects of this subtle dictatorship: you are well aware of them.”

And whether white people are ready to hear it or not, Bolivia’s experience is the norm across the planet, not the exception. It’s why President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina said what happened to Morales’ plane was “the vestiges of a colonialism that we thought was completely overcome.” Or why most of the world sees the Israel-Palestine conflict as not about democracy vs. terrorism, but about colonialism. Or why it sees the Trans-Pacific Partership as not about free trade vs. protectionism, but about colonialism. Or why it saw the invasion of Iraq as not about weapons of mass destruction, but colonialism.

Based on the current presidential race, I’d estimate that the U.S. political system will have the maturity and grace to hear this in maybe 300 years. And if the Pope brings any of this up at the Capitol, it’s safe to say he’s not going to be invited back.


Free Money for Everyone! What’s the World Coming To?

by Daniel Raventos - Julie Wark

From Liberia, to Tokyo, to the Cherokee Nation and Old Europe, more and more people are talking about Basic Income in all kinds of different forums. If the global economic and environmental crises have had any positive effect it would be that people are fighting back. As history has so often shown, the neediest people are those who best understand human rights (in their absence). For more than three millennia the three basic principles of human rights, freedom, justice and human dignity, have been inscribed on clay and stone tablets, parchment and paper, usually after they have been shouted for and fought for, all around the world, in streets, squares and a variety of battlefields, from Mount Vesuvius (Spartacus) to slave ships. Nobody has to be taught these principles because all humans understand them as their rights. In the concept of “universal human rights”, “universal” is redundant since the qualifier “human” means all humans. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), it qualifies “Declaration”, suggesting the geographical scope of the proclamation rather than rights for all humans. In any case, the “universal” rights it pledged were swiftly rendered into separate “generations” of broken promises floating above and outside social and juridical institutions, without any mechanisms of guarantee and bestowed piecemeal by leaders or in the warped forms of humanitarianism and charity, although it is obvious that the generalised nature of a human right theoretically distinguishes it from any privilege confined to a group, class or caste. Now, with the obscenely growing gap between rich and poor, when it is estimated that by 2016 the richest 1% will own more than the rest of the world, the universal principle is more urgent than ever.

Basic Income is one very practical example of a universal human right. It is not just an economic measure to eradicate poverty but an income paid by the State to each member or accredited resident of a society, regardless of whether he or she wishes to engage in paid employment, or is rich or poor, independently of any other sources of income and irrespective of cohabitation arrangements in the domestic sphere. The fact that everyone receives a Basic Income doesn’t mean that everyone gains: the rich lose. How to finance it is as important as the quantity involved and we favour progressive tax reform which redistributes wealth from the rich to the rest of the population. Precisely the opposite of recent trends. In guaranteeing the most basic right of all, that of material existence, it would bring a host of side benefits, as many studies show. In the case of work, for example, it could have a major positive impact, not only in this regard but also in other spheres. With her momentous climate change alert This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein pulls together elements of science, politics, geopolitics, economics, the “stupid growth” and “stupid profits” of capitalism, “extractivism”, patriarchy, psychology, ethics and activism, inter alia, which shape the future of the planet. She concludes that there is an urgent need for valuing work that we currently don’t value and specifically mentions Basic Income, saying, “there has to be a stronger social safety net because when people don’t have options, they’re going to make bad choices”. For Klein, the “universal” sense of Basic Income is that it could help to transform the way we treat and think about our whole (social and physical) environment.

After years of having relatively few supporters, the idea of Basic Income is now spreading around the world. In Spain ? probably “the place on Earth where the debate around Basic Income is most advanced” ? after five years of public spending cuts, depressed demand, record unemployment, burgeoning poverty, and a growing public debt now at around 100% of GDP, and after twenty years of discussion in universities, grassroots movements and social networks, Basic Income is finally going mainstream. Although the new game-changing left-wing political party Podemos has temporarily retreated from its initial Basic Income proposal in favour of “full employment” (more fitting, perhaps, for the welfare states of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s), many party members are Basic Income stalwarts. Other political organisations now proposing it include Equo, Pirata and Bildu (a coalition in the Basque Country) and, in Galicia, Anova, while still more small parties have projects which, while not strictly a Basic Income, come close.

A recent number of the Basic Income Earth Network newsletter gives an idea of the worldwide spread of different versions of Basic Income. In Greece the new ruling party Syriza has declared its aim to establish “a closer link between pension contribution and income… and provide targeted assistance to employees between 50 and 65, including through a Guaranteed Basic Income scheme so as to eliminate the social and political pressure of early retirement which over-burdens the pension funds”. In Finland, 65.5% of 1,642 (out of nearly 2,000) candidates for the parliamentary elections on 19 April publicly support the policy. Cyprus has passed a new law giving low income families a Guaranteed Minimum Income of ?480 a month. In 2013, a grassroots movement in Switzerland called for a Basic Income of 2,500 Swiss francs per month and received over 100,000 signatures needed to force a referendum on the proposal. Ninety per cent of the members of Hungary’s Green-Left party Parbeszed Magyarorszagert (“Dialogue for Hungary”) have voted for a Basic Income to which all citizens would be entitled, ?80 per month for children, ?160 for adults and ?240 for young mothers. The poverty line in Hungary is estimated at around ?200 for a single adult. In Portugal, where Basic Income is relatively unknown and misunderstood, the political party LIVRE has included Basic Income in its draft political programme for the autumn elections this year. Now recognising that inequality and social justice are also “green” issues, the fast-growing Green Party of England and Wales has announced that a Basic Income will be included in its manifesto.

Outside Europe, Basic Income is gaining support in other industrialised countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Alaska is an outstanding example because since 1982 it has had its own particular form of Basic Income, an unconditional annual dividend paid on an individual basis to all people who have lived there for at least twelve months (except those convicted of felony in the past year). The Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), consisting of 25% of the proceeds of the state’s mineral (oil and gas) sales or royalties, foots the bill. The annual payout is based on a five-year average of APF earnings and has varied from $331.29 in 1984 to $3,269 in 2008. Although this “Basic Income” doesn’t entail tax reform, its benefits are undeniable. Alaska features among the states with the lowest poverty rates in the United States and is one of the least unequal. In 2009, the dividend added US$900 million to Alaskans’ purchasing power, the equivalent of 10,000 new jobs.

The idea of Basic Income has taken root in the countries of the South as an anti-poverty measure, for example in Brazil, Namibia and South Africa. Brazil is the world’s first country to have adopted a law (2003) calling for gradual introduction of a Basic Income. In South Africa, trade unions, churches and many NGOs are calling for it and, in Namibia, the Basic Income Grant Coalition (headed by the Council of Churches, National Union of Namibian Workers, Namibian NGO Forum, National Youth Council and the Namibian Network of AIDS Service Organisations) conducted a two-year pilot project (2007?2009) in Otjivero-Omitara, a low-income rural area, where 930 inhabitants received a monthly payment of 100 Namibian dollars each (US$12.4). The payment was small but the results were surprising: numbers of underweight children went from 42% to 10%; school dropout rates fell from 40% to almost 0%; the number of small businesses increased, as did the purchasing power of the inhabitants, thereby creating a market for the new products. However, the Namibian government has thus far balked at introducing a national Basic Income. In Mexico City a pension paid as a right to all people (some 410,000) of 68 years and over has also paid social dividends: increased autonomy and freedom of the aged, more respect in the family milieu, greater public visibility, improved self esteem, better nutrition and health, and a decrease in social inequality. In 2010, a partial Basic Income was introduced in India in a UNICEF-supported pilot scheme conducted by the trade union Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). For one year, 6,000 individuals in rural areas of Madhya Pradesh received an unconditional payment, working out at about US$24 per month for the average family. The project ended with improved nutrition, health, education, housing and infrastructure, economic activity and, especially, educational attainment.

Other initiatives, related to Basic Income to the extent that they are “free money programmes” have given one-off payments to homeless people in London, to the poor inhabitants of a village in the west of Kenya, and to girls and women in Malawi. All of them show clear correlations between free money and lower crime rates, reduced inequality, less malnutrition, lower infant mortality and teenage pregnancy rates, less truancy, better school completion rates, greater economic growth and higher emancipation rates. Then there is the interesting case of Cherokee, North Carolina (population 8,000) where the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation owns the casino. In 1996, the tribal council voted to distribute half the casino’s profits evenly among its approximately 15,000 members so as to give the community a share in the gambling wealth. The payouts have risen from $500 to about $10,000 per person per year. Jane Costello, a Duke University researcher who has been studying the effects of these payments on 1,420 Cherokee-area children over the last twenty years, comparing the lives of poor children who got the payments with those who didn’t, found that, some years on, those getting the payments were one grade ahead in school compared with those who didn’t, overall mental health improved, and behavioural problems in this group decreased by 40% and crime rates by 22%.

The “partial” Basic Income programmes and one-off “free money” initiatives are instructive because they demonstrate that small unconditional payments can make great differences in social and mental health. If a one-off non-universal payment can have such positive effects, what could a “true” Basic Income do? But what is a Basic Income? There is some confusion here because what is often thought to be “Basic Income” takes many forms and different names. Spain, for example, has a “renda garantida de ciutadania” in the Statute of Catalonia, while in other Autonomous Regions it appears as a “salario social” or “renta minima de insercion”. However, these are all conditioned subsidies for people below a certain income threshold. Podemos came up with an impeccably defined Basic Income in the heady days of its win at the European elections but then opted out, while the smaller parties, Bildu, Anova and Equo, have programmed a Basic Income close to the definition used by the Spanish Red Renta Basica (Basic Income Network). This coincides with that adopted in November 2007 by the Universal Declaration of Emergent Human Rights, approved at the Universal Forum of Cultures in Monterrey. Basic Income is enshrined as a human right in Article 1 (3):

The right to a basic income or universal citizen’s income that guarantees to every human being, independently of age, gender, sexual orientation, civil or employment status, the right to live in material conditions of dignity. To this end, a regular cash payment, financed by tax reforms and covered by the state budget, and sufficient to cover his or her basic needs, is recognised as a right of citizenship of every member-resident of the society, whatever his or her other sources of income may be.

Rather than holding out a right to having certain minimal vital needs covered in cases of poverty or some catastrophe, Article 1 (3) enshrines Basic Income as a right, an ongoing guarantee to every single individual of being able “to live in material conditions of dignity”. No one would be excluded by poverty from engaging in social life and exercising her or his rights and duties as a citizen. It conceives of this right on a universal scale, for rich and poor, developed or developing countries alike.

A guaranteed basic income, above the poverty line, for everybody, would offer a much firmer, autonomous base of existence to (theoretically) all the world’s citizens. The economic independence furnished by a basic income, paid not to households but to individuals, would establish a kind of domestic “counter-power” that could strengthen the bargaining position of women, especially those dependent on the husband or male head of the family, or low earners in exploitative, part time or discontinuous employment. Many farmers in poor countries and workers in developed countries are struggling to survive. In capitalist economies, unemployment is comparable with the landlessness of small farmers in agrarian societies because both economies are characterised by dispossession of land and other means of production. The dispossessed must then sell their labour, usually in crushing conditions, in order to subsist. One of the basic features of today’s economic functioning is the great power of capital to bring the working population to heel. Underlying this disciplinary capacity is the existence of a large, jobless part of the population. When the possibility of dismissal looms ever-larger, the working population must accept increasingly worse conditions from bosses having the whip hand. In a situation close to full employment, when this existed, the power of employers was diminished. A Basic Income would represent an effective tool for countering the disciplinary power of capital and would make leaving the job market a viable option. Although it may seem paradoxical at first sight, many unions (with a few honorable exceptions) have failed to understand the enormous capacity of Basic Income for undermining the discipline that capital can and does impose in a situation of widespread unemployment.

In poor countries this possibility of non-dominated organisation of labour power could bring into being alternative networks of production while also protecting traditional ways of life. For example, a group of small farmers could buy a tractor to increase food production, and a truck to take their produce to a market. This would expand productive networks and encourage sustainable community development, which would then give villagers more effective leverage in claiming essential or improved infrastructure, for example schools, clinics, roads and bridges. In a post-conflict situation, a Basic Income would also have beneficial effects by enabling a return to traditional forms of community-based production and, thus reintegrating people, would help to defuse the potential for violence that flares up periodically and dramatically especially among uprooted young people who have no opportunities to work, or because evident signs of increasing social inequality in a traumatised society are a permanent flashpoint for a generalised feeling of injustice. Food security is vitally important. Such a basic matter as a well-balanced diet could be greatly favoured, for example, if people could transport vegetables to the coast and fish to inland villages. This alone could make a notable difference in the overall health of the population. Economic development is better achieved by breaking ties of dependency and promoting robust productive initiatives at both individual and group levels, projects that are conceived and planned within the society as opposed to the often drastically inappropriate schemes that are imposed from outside aid agencies.

A Basic Income is not difficult to finance, as a recent exhaustive study for Catalonia has shown. Another study recently carried out for the Kingdom of Spain as a whole, based on a sample of almost two million income tax declarations, showed that a Basic Income at the poverty threshold of ?7,500 per year (and a fifth of that to under-eighteens) could be financed without touching any social service and, moreover, saving a lot in administrative costs and welfare payments of lesser sums, which would be abolished. A person getting a pension of ?1,500 per month would receive the same (?650 as Basic Income and ?850 as a pension) but the person now receiving benefits or a pension of ?400 would receive ?650, more than 60% extra. These two studies are based on a system of progressive income tax redistribution in which the richest 20% would finance the Basic Income, which they would also receive. The lower-income 70% of the population would gain; a neat reverse of the present situation. Introducing a Basic Income is not an economic problem but a political one.

Each zone and country is different, but financing should basically entail changing budgetary priorities, reform of taxation systems or increasing VAT and excise duties on luxury goods, cars, alcohol or tobacco, and financial transaction taxes, for example. This achieves a substantial reduction in inequality of income distribution and greater simplicity and internal coherence in taxation and welfare systems. Basic Income isn’t a panacea that would solve all the world’s social and economic problems, but it would mean wider-spread opportunities for people to participate in productive activities, enhanced social inclusion within stronger communities, greater political and social participation, and a major reduction of poverty and poverty-related problems. It is not an isolated economic policy but part of an overall project in the domain of political economy, aiming to guarantee and fortify the material existence of the whole population. It is an institutionally guaranteed and inclusive form of property that might also be seen as a kind of indemnification of past and present wrongs because it calls upon the more privileged citizens to contribute towards achieving the right of existence for everyone. Herein resides the political obstacle to Basic Income.

Daniel Raventos is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso

Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

The Basic Income Debate: Political, Philosophical and Economic Issues

by Daniel Raventos - Julie Wark

Support for a universal basic income (defined here) is growing. In Europe, for example, the City of Utrecht is about to introduce an experiment that aims “to challenge the notion that people who receive public money need to be patrolled and punished,” in the words of a project manager for the Utrecht city council. Nijmegen, Wageningen, Tilburg and Groningen are awaiting permission from The Hague in order to conduct similar programmes. In Switzerland, the necessary 100,000 signatures have been obtained for holding a referendum on whether Swiss citizens should receive an unconditional basic income of ?2,500 per month, independently of whether they are employed or not. On 16 June, the centre-right government of Finland, where 79% of the population is in favour of a universal basic income, made good on its electoral promise and ratified the implementation of an “experimental basic income”. A recent survey in Catalonia (13 to 17 July) shows that 72.3% of the population (basically excepting the right-wing and wealthiest sectors) would support a basic income of ?650 per month, and, contrary to a tiresomely hackneyed claim, 86.2% say they would continue working if the measure were introduced. More notably, 84.4% of the unemployed say they’d still want to work.

These are tentative or incomplete measures but they’re also significant because they mean empowering individuals, economically ? and also politically ? in a situation where global power is largely in the hands of unelected institutions and other obscure organs, as the recent mauling of Greece has made more than clear. However, growing interest in basic income doesn’t mean smooth sailing ahead towards implementation. Long-disproved arguments are still being raised against it and dubious “alternative” proposals such as “guaranteed work”, “full employment” and conditional minimum guaranteed income are brandished. With a basic income people won’t engage in wage labour, women will be confined to the home, immigrants will “swarm” in (as David Cameron would say), it would take a revolution to introduce it, and it would kill off the welfare state. Never mind that these assertions have been soundly rebutted in several different languages, they still rear their silly heads. There are still other misunderstandings (or downright lies) that need to be addressed because social and economic inequalities are increasing so fast, and basic income is an ideal measure for combating them.

First is the question of financing. There’s not a lot of detailed material on this key aspect yet but a recent study carried out in Spain, based on two million income tax declarations made in 2010 (in the midst of the economic crisis) is eloquent. The study was based on three criteria: 1) the basic income of ?623 per month should be self-financing and not affect public spending in health, education, etc.; 2) the distributive impact should be highly progressive so that over 80% of the population would benefit; and 3) that effective tax rates after the reform should not be very high. The basic income has to be at or above the poverty line (?623 in Spain). It would not be subject to personal income tax and would replace all welfare benefits of a lesser sum than ?623, while people receiving more than this in benefits would still get the full amount.

Financing this basic income for all adults in Spain ? 43.7 million people ? is possible with a single tax rate of 49% which, combined with a tax-exempt basic income, would be highly progressive. For the poorest decile, this 49% would effectively become -209% (negative because, in this case, it would be a net transfer). Approximately 80% of the population would gain and the total amount transferred from rich to non-rich would be some ?35,000 million. This is not to take into account the problem of tax evasion (calculated at some ?80,000 million) in Spain.

Ah yes, they say, but this model of financing would “adversely affect the middle classes”. Middle classes? In Spain, a person earning just ?3,500 per month is in the top two deciles, while those earning ?4,500 are in the top 5%. These figures come from official tax declarations! Whether from ignorance or bad faith, many people won’t recognise that this points to a huge problem of tax fraud, which needs urgent attention, especially if any tax reform in favour of the non-rich population is to be undertaken. Data published by the Swiss global financial services company UBS AG reveals that just 22 Spanish billionaires have a total fortune equalling 5% of Spanish GDP (or about 60% of the national healthcare budget, for example). If the real richest members of the population were detected through personal income tax, basic income financing would be easier, the tax rate lower and sectors that might lose in the present model would end up gaining. This stubborn idea that basic income would be an assault on the middle classes encourages some farcical fence-sitting postures. Hence, the PSOE (Socialist Party) claims it supports “basic income” (but means guaranteed minimum income), while others on the more or less postmodern left have entered the premier league of intellectual contortionism when asserting that basic income and guaranteed minimum income are “more or less the same”. These misconceptions are politically damaging because they’ve led progressives to support “more moderate” proposals.

Unfortunately, the new left-wing party Podemos is trying to dodge the basic income question. Although its grassroots members are pushing quite hard for a basic income, Podemos has put forth a Guaranteed Minimum Income Plan, without apparently doing the sums. Our calculations show that 50% of the population would be adversely affected because of changing the present income tax structure without compensating with a basic income. This is very different from a policy affecting the richest 20%. It seems that some Podemos leaders, turning a deaf ear to the views of its grassroots members, are saying that basic income is “too radical”. But, really? Is guaranteeing the material existence of the whole population too scary when Spain’s wealth gap is the biggest in Europe and, in global terms, the top 1% will own more than the 99% by 2016?

What’s really scary is the general acceptance of a status quo in which most people are getting poorer and poorer, even while recent studies demonstrate that so-called “trickle-down” economics actually means an upwards flow of income until it stagnates as hoarded wealth. This stymies wealth creation in the economy, as the Institute for Policy Studies concluded after using standard economic multiplier models to show that every extra dollar paid to low-wage workers adds about $1.21 to the US economy. If this dollar went to a high-wage worker it would add only 39 cents to GDP. In other words, if the $26.7 billion paid in bonuses to Wall Street punters in 2013 had gone to poor workers, GDP would have risen by some $32.3 billion.

Money at the bottom is over three times more effective at driving economic growth than money at the top. It’s common sense, though the theory has the fancy title of “marginal propensity to consume”: people with small incomes spend their money quickly and the rich hoard theirs. With today’s monstrous wealth gap, the velocity of the dollar in the total money supply is lower than it has ever been. Also logical. Indeed, a new model produced by Ricardo Reis and Alistair McKay shows that “tax-and-transfer programs that affect inequality and social insurance can have a large effect on aggregate volatility”. Even IMF data suggest that increasing the share of the top 20% by just 1% of total wealth lowers economic growth by 0.08 points. But if the bottom 20% receives the same 1% share, economic growth increases by 0.38 points. So wouldn’t it be a good idea to introduce a universal basic income? Scott Santens calculates that, in the United States, redistribution in the form of a basic income of $1,000 per month for every adult citizen and $300 for under-eighteens would cost about $1.5 trillion ? about 8.5% of GDP ? taking into account the elimination of benefits that are no longer required once a basic income is operational. The total cost of child poverty alone is around 5.7% of GDP.

If inequality is killing economic growth, then neoliberal economics have surely failed. The OECD finds that, “Rising inequality is estimated to have knocked more than 10 percentage points off growth in Mexico and New Zealand over the past two decades up to the Great Recession. In Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States, the cumulative growth rate would have been six to nine percentage points higher had income disparities not widened….” The key point here is that anti-poverty programmes can never be enough because the, “impact of inequality on growth stems from the gap between the bottom 40 percent with the rest of society, not just the poorest 10 percent”. If the cash transfer programme is to be effective about half the population must benefit. This sounds very like the universal basic income proposal that has been presented in Spain. Reducing income concentration at the top where money makes money to hoard is more than a moral issue or matter of justice but is economic savvy, as increasing numbers of reputable economists are now realising, for example (Baron) Robert Skidelsky.

However sound the economic arguments may be and however long they’ve been around in Spain, partial solutions keep being touted as “alternatives” to basic income. Guaranteed work is one, pushed, inter alia, by the left-wing party Izquierda Unida (IU), although it’s much more expensive (?10 gross per hour would cost the state ?233,422 million) in the long term and less effective than a basic income, which would come into immediate effect to alleviate the distressing working (or non-working) and living conditions of the poorest sector. Worse, “guaranteed work” (which doesn’t take domestic or voluntary work into account) has a pathetic notion of freedom. It assumes that people must work for a salary, the inference being that if people have a basic income they’d hang around all day twiddling their thumbs. Spain has the worst unemployment figures in the OECD countries (over 15% for 25 out of the last 37 years, while the second-worst showing, by Ireland, has hit this figure in only nine of these 37 years) and, moreover, guaranteed work proposals have been devised for economies with relatively small numbers of unemployed workers. In short, the idea is pure codswallop, especially when it is demonstrated that a basic income would strengthen workers’ bargaining positions and stimulate more small businesses.

One outlandish (but no less widespread for that) criticism of basic income is that it wouldn’t combat the “sexual division of labour”. Neither would the public health system put an end to the sexual division of labour! Basic income would tackle quite a few social problems but not this one. What it can do is give women a lot more autonomy in many aspects of their lives, which is no small thing. Basic income isn’t a whole economic policy. It would be part of an economic policy favouring the non-rich population. Other social problems like the sexual division of labour, generalised indifference to scientific knowledge, private powers imposing their Weltanschauung on everyone else, corruption, human trafficking, brutality towards refugees and immigrants… must also be dealt with, but with specific, appropriate instruments. It could be argued that a society with less inequality and more concern for human beings would be more likely to produce such instruments.

Then we get to some more economic argy-bargy. Wielding Austrian School arguments, some right-wingers proclaim the advantages of low tax rates on a broad base. An increased tax rate for a basic income, they say, would reduce the tax base, the tax collected and the elasticity of the tax base, adding that not taking this elasticity into account would annul any conclusion. In fact, the empirical evidence from studies in Spain shows that increased taxes wouldn’t cause lower elasticity with a negative effect on economic activity but would give higher elasticity: more tax, more GDP, and higher tax collection. Higher taxes for the rich allow for more public spending, which has a positive effect on economic activity, generating more income and compensating for possible disincentives. It was beyond the scope of the Spanish basic income study to calculate in detail the positive effects the basic income might have on economic activity and hence tax collection but, clearly, the poorer 80% of the population which gains would consume more than the richer 20%, so a strong welfare state, financed by taxes and with a system of social benefits, including a basic income, would achieve higher labour force participation and employment rates and, it follows, greater equality and general well-being, as well as a much more resilient economy in an unstable global system.

Basic income isn’t just a measure against poverty but would be an integral part of an overall economic policy which would stimulate economic growth and give a guaranteed material existence and hence effective freedom to all members of society. This effective freedom of the non-rich bears the seed of subversive political power, which is why the right presents sops such as the minimum guaranteed income which Hayek enthusiasts, who believe that taxes are robbery, support as a kind of charity. But charity is the antithesis of justice. It depends on the freely determined whims of the better-off giving to the unfree poor who are denied human dignity precisely because they’re forced to be on the receiving end of charity. Basic income doesn’t benefit everyone but is concerned to improve the lot of the non-rich part of the population. Its anti-neoliberal foundations are to be found in classical republican thought and its insistence that a person can’t be free if the means of his or her material existence are not guaranteed. One of the main advantages of a universal basic income is that it would free people from the tyranny of the job market in which they are mere commodities by guaranteeing the most basic human right of all, that of material existence. A basic income upholds not just the right to a dignified life but, in practical terms, would allow people to expand their lives and defend themselves against assaults on their freedom and dignity.

Finally, since these basic human rights are declared as universal, there’s one more basic income myth that should be knocked on the head, namely that it’s a policy that only rich countries can contemplate. Experiments in Brazil, Namibia and South Africa, Mexico, India, Kenya and Malawi show that modest, partial, basic income projects have impressive economic and social results. In Namibia, for example, a two-year pilot project (2007?2009) in Otjivero-Omitara, a low-income rural area, where 930 inhabitants received a monthly payment of 100 Namibian dollars each (US$12.4), reduced poverty from 76% to 16%; child malnutrition fell from 42% to 10%; school dropout rates plummeted from 40% to almost 0%; average family debt dropped by 36%; and local police reported that delinquency figures were 42% lower; and the number of small businesses increased, as did the purchasing power of the inhabitants, thereby creating a market for new products.

The main obstacle to basic income today is political (and psychological if greed is understood as pathological) because, no, it doesn’t favour the rich but, rather, in moral terms and sound economics, it calls on them to contribute just a smidgen of their wealth to safeguard the right of a dignified existence for everyone. But, it’s not just a matter of getting the rich to pony up. The real snag is that people at the bottom, instead of helplessly holding out their hands to catch the non-existent trickle, might start transforming society and the economy according to their own lights and in defence of their own dignity. It’s unlikely that the 1% of revoltingly rich people will sit back and let their own extinction happen.

Daniel Raventos is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso. Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).