Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Bringing Detroit's Black Bottom Back to (virtual) Life

Bill McGraw
Special to the Free Press

St. Aubin and Jay. Monroe and Orleans. Hastings and Fort.

Those Detroit intersections sound familiar, but they no longer exist. You can still drive on the individual streets, but the corners have been gone for more than 50 years, along with the adjacent homes, schools, churches, stores, bars, nightclubs, pool halls, barber shops and apartments, not to mention music, street life and preaching.

Those corners were part of the street grid of Black Bottom, where many of metro Detroit's African Americans can trace their  roots in Michigan. From World War I through the 1940s, the neighborhood rested on the eastern flank of the central business district.

Then, in the early 1950s, in one of the most controversial episodes of mass gentrification in Detroit history, the virtually all-white city government bulldozed Black Bottom in the name of “slum clearance,” eventually to replace it with the Chrysler Freeway and Lafayette Park, an upscale residential community that initially was occupied by mostly white residents..

Black Bottom is so long gone that you have to be at least Social Security age to have walked its streets, and its memory fades a little each day.

Emily Kutil is hoping to change that.

Kutil, a 28-year-old Detroit architect, has a plan to make Black Bottom visible again for anyone who cares to look. She has embarked on a project to recreate the neighborhood out of about 800 rarely seen photos of individual homes and buildings that she found in the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection.

Kutil plans to build a virtual Black Bottom, an interactive website that maps the images and allows viewers to put themselves in the middle of those vanished streets, like Google Street View allows for contemporary cityscapes. Her site also will serve as a platform to collect former residents’ oral histories.

“Just to realize that that archive exists was amazing,” Kutil said.

“It needs to be made public. There is so much family history, and neighborhood history and community history that has been erased in Detroit. I want to give people some sort of infrastructure to share those histories.”

The photos, taken in 1949 and 1950, are black-and-white images from the Black Bottom eminent domain legal case, the process under which the city took the land from property owners and compensated them for their losses.

Mark Bowden, the library’s coordinator of special collections, says the photos — plus dozens of boxes of legal documents —  sat in a Detroit Public Library warehouse for many years before being moved to the Burton Collection. In about 2008, when Bowden and colleague Romie Minor opened the boxes that contained the photos, “We knew we had gold,” Bowden said.

A few people have used some of the photos for small-scale personal projects, Bowden said, but the pictures have not circulated widely.

“Most of them have never been seen. It’s like bringing to life the Lost City of Atlantis,” said the Detroit writer who goes by the name of Marsha Music.

Music's father, Joe Von Battle, ran a famous record store on Hastings Street, Black Bottom’s main commercial thoroughfare, and recorded sermons by the Rev. C.L. Franklin — Aretha’s father, whose New Bethel Baptist Church was nearby. One of Von Battle’s friends was blues legend John Lee Hooker.

Hastings and neighboring Paradise Valley to the north, another celebrated African-American district that included a number of restaurants, bars and night clubs, are gone from downtown maps, swallowed by the construction of I-375 and I-75, which traced its north-south route.

'A thrilling convergence of people'

Black Bottom’s boundaries were informal, never set down in any legal document, and people differ about the specifics. But the borders were generally described as Gratiot, Brush, St. Aubin or the Grand Trunk rail tracks (now the Dequindre Cut recreation path) and Congress.

Ford Field sits on part of the area that was Paradise Valley.

“People often see Paradise Valley and Black Bottom as interchangeable,” said Ken Coleman, a Detroit writer and author of “Million Dollars Worth of Nerve,” a 2015 book about the leading figures in those neighborhoods.

Once the home of numerous immigrant groups, especially Jewish people, the area that became known as Black Bottom became an African-American neighborhood as black migration exploded throughout the first half of the 20th Century and white Detroiters made it difficult for black residents to move into many areas of the city. In 1910, the city’s black population of fewer than 6,000 was only 1.2% of the city's population, but by 1950, there were 300,000 black residents, 16% of the 1.8 million Detroiters.

As late as the 1920s, Black Bottom was home to both black Detroiters and other newcomers. Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, moved there from Alabama with his family in 1923, when Young was 5. He often recalled that his neighbors were Italian and Syrian immigrants, with German and Jewish stores nearby.

But as black people poured into booming Detroit to find jobs and escape the Jim Crow South, the color line hardened, and Black Bottom became one of the few districts in the city where African Americans could live.

In his autobiography, Young wrote that he did not recall much racial tension when Black Bottom was integrated, but noted “the adversarial attitude was gathering ominously around the city as the new immigrant groups staked their competing claims for social status, housing and jobs.”

Given Detroit’s segregation in that era, Black Bottom was isolated economically and socially, but it became a city within a city, with black merchants, doctors and lawyers living and working in the neighborhood. Its sidewalks were crowded and its blocks were a mixing bowl of classes: An accountant might live on the same block as blue-collar workers, musicians and hustlers, partly because the accountant had few other other choices. Poverty and prosperity co-existed in Black Bottom.

Many residents of Black Bottom lived in their own house with their own yard, but most were renters. The legal documents in the Burton Collection indicate a lot of the landlords had addresses in what were then white sections of Detroit.

Like many members of his generation, Young, who died in 1997, spoke of Black Bottom with fondness.

“I loved that neighborhood,” Young wrote, calling the community “a thrilling convergence of people, a wonderfully versatile and self-contained society.”

City officials began setting their sights on Black Bottom after World War II. They called their plan urban renewal. Critics slammed it as “negro removal” and noted the city provided no housing for the several thousand people who would be evicted.

The mayor at the time, Albert Cobo, largely ignored Detroit’s black community and drew his support from neighborhood associations that wanted to keep their areas white. When Cobo announced his plans for Black Bottom, the black-owned Michigan Chronicle slammed them as a “Jim Crow project.”

The neighborhood’s demise came as part of a sweeping blueprint for the city’s postwar future called the Detroit Plan, which included freeways, hospitals, housing, the Cultural Center, the expansion of Wayne State University and a renovated riverfront.

In a 2004 study of the city’s "urban renewal" efforts in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Robert Goodspeed, a professor at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, concluded that perhaps in no other U.S. city were the ideas of planners so fully realized as in Detroit.

But Goodspeed, like other experts who have studied the era, said the process of condemning Black Bottom was brutal.

While the taxable value of the land increased about eight-fold when Lafayette Park replaced Black Bottom, Goodspeed contends the financial, social and moral costs of the project were extreme.

“Tens of thousands of poor and mostly black citizens dislocated in the name of civic progress saw their homes, businesses and communities appraised, bought and destroyed without their input or permission,” he wrote.

Furthermore, Detroit experienced a citywide housing crisis after the war, and black people were limited in where they could move. Attempts to enter many white neighborhoods in the city were met with white mob violence, and black renters had to pay higher rents in neighborhoods where they were able to live, such as 12th Street north of West Grand Boulevard.

In addition to the Chrysler Freeway, the glass, steel and trees of the Lafayette Park residential development replaced Black Bottom. Designed by the pioneering architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lafayette Park has been considered a success story, receiving international acclaim for its design and architecture and remaining a stable and integrated neighborhood for decades.

There was such bitterness over the demolition of the African-American neighborhood that 30 years later, when Mayor Young announced his controversial plan to condemn the Poletown district for the General Motors’ assembly plant, there was never-proven speculation Young was seeking revenge for what the city had done to Black Bottom. Poletown included blacks and Arab Americans, but many of its residents were white.

Digging into history

Kutil describes herself as a “history nerd” who spends considerable time digging into local history. She says she would like to “to figure out why Detroit is like it is.”

She adds: “It’s the most mind-bending city I’ve ever lived in.”

Kutil grew up in Waterford and graduated from the University of Cincinnati before earning a master’s degree in architecture from U-M. She moved to Los Angeles before returning to Detroit in 2014.

She was looking for photos of Hastings Street once day in online archives when she stumbled upon the Black Bottom cache.

“I was like, ‘What is this?’ ” Kutil recalled.

The photos show a remarkable variety of houses and buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the homes are in the working-class Victorian style of many homes in Corktown. Some of the Black Bottom streets remind you of 120-year-old streets today on the north side of Chicago.

In shooting the properties, the photographer also captured a number of everyday scenes that show residents going about their lives, including children and teenagers mugging for the camera. Most photos carry data such as an address, date and legal parcel number of the house.

Kutil’s “Black Bottom Street View” project won a $15,000 matching grant late last year through the Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge. She has to raise $15,000 on her own this year to receive the grant, and plans to launch a fund-raiser in the coming weeks. Her website —  — shows some of her work.

Music, who grew up in Highland Park but spent time in her father’s store in Black Bottom when she was a child, is offering Kutil advice on the project. She sees the photos as a correction to history.

“Those photos belie the narrative that Black Bottom was merely a slum, worthy of destruction,” she said.

Kutil is eager to get going. She’s well aware that anyone who lived in — or visited — Black Bottom is growing old, and memories are disappearing. At some point in the coming years, there will be no one left who walked by the corner of Monroe and Orleans, or knew what it was like to be inside New Bethel Baptist on Hastings when Franklin was preaching or who bought a record at Joe Von Battle’s store.

“That’s why I think we should do it now,” Kutil said.
Black Bottom facts

The Name: Most references to Black Bottom say its name refers to the rich black soil of the area going back to Detroit’s French period. But some observers, including Detroit writer Desiree Cooper, have raised questions about the possible racial origins of the name. Neighborhoods known as Black Bottom during the segregation era were home to African Americans in other cities, such as Philadelphia and Nashville, and the Black Bottom dance — widely considered to be invented in black areas of the South — became popular among white people across the country in the 1920s, just when many black migrants were coming to Detroit.

The borders: While never defined in a legal sense, the boundaries are generally given as Gratiot on the north, Brush on the west, Congress on the south and the Grand Trunk railroad tracks or St. Aubin on the east.

Some famous residents: Mayor Coleman Young, singer/actress Della Reese, star athlete Charlie Primus, former Detroit Police Chief Ike McKinnon.
IRENE MORGAN: Defied Segregation Laws in Public Transportation in 1944

IRENE MORGAN was feeling poorly the muggy July morning when her refusal to bow to bigotry would alter history.

Still recovering from a miscarriage, she boarded a crowded Greyhound bus at a crossroads stop in Gloucester, Virginia, bound for Baltimore. She walked back to the fourth row from the rear, well within the section where segregation laws required black passengers to sit. She picked an aisle seat beside a young mother holding an infant. A few miles up the road, the driver ordered the two black women to stand so a young white couple could take their seats.

But Irene Morgan said no, a bold and dangerous act of defiance and dignity in rural Virginia or anywhere in the South of 1944.

"I can't see how anybody in the same circumstances could do otherwise," recalled Morgan, brushing off suggestions that she did something brave. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'd paid for my seat; I was sitting where I was supposed to."

Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to cede her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus and sparked a new chapter in the civil rights movement, Irene Morgan's spirited and unflinching "No" was a stick of dynamite in a cornerstone of institutionalized segregation.

Her arrest and $10 fine were appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court by a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, resulting in a landmark 1946 decision striking down Jim Crow segregation in interstate transportation. She inspired the first Freedom Ride in 1947, when 16 civil rights activists rode buses and trains through the South to test the law enunciated in Morgan v. Virginia.

But Morgan's name and her contribution have been all but forgotten, reduced to little more than a footnote in the history books. Even many scholars of African-American history have never heard of Morgan or her case.

Now an 83-year-old great-grandmother living on Long Island, Irene Morgan Kirkaldy will have a measure of her legacy restored Saturday in Gloucester. The town where she got on the bus and challenged an ugly fact of life for black Americans will honor her with a day called "A Homecoming for Irene Morgan." Four scholarships will be established in her name.

Even in Gloucester, a town in which her family has deep roots dating back to slavery, Morgan's is not a household name. Volunteers researching local history for the county's 350th anniversary next year came across her connection to Gloucester by chance. Testing her name recognition, they asked everyone they knew whether they'd ever heard of Irene Morgan. They got blank looks.


"It's the most amazing story," said Jann Alexander, who is coordinating the homecoming. "She's a role model for our children and a link to our past. When I think about honoring someone who made such a sacrifice, I get all choked up."

Morgan's story began on a Grey-hound bus in 1944, when many of the pillars of segregation already were under attack.

As World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, the black press in this country was urging a "double V campaign" for victory against the enemies abroad and the enemies at home. Black GIs who had fought for freedom overseas returned home with a heightened sensitivity to their lack of freedom here. There were numerous incidents in which black soldiers were shot, beaten, or forcibly ejected from buses and trains for sitting in sections reserved for whites or taking too long at a rest stop.

Throughout the South, with little national attention, many blacks were refusing to vacate their seats in individual acts of resistance.

"Rosa Parks deserves a great deal of credit for turning the tide, but there were many Rosa Parkses and a big number of Irene Morgans, too," said Leon F. Litwack, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.

Unlike Parks, however, Morgan was not seeking a showdown. Her Seventh-day Adventist family eschewed all signs of aggrandizement, such as jewelry and makeup, and stressed the need to act righteously and trust in God. The sixth of nine children who were just two generations free of slavery, she came of age during the Depression. Her father did whatever work he could find, from painting houses to mowing lawns. Morgan drifted in and out of high school, depending on whether she had a job cleaning houses, washing clothes, or caring for the children of white people.

"We were born into a segregated world," said Morgan's slightly younger sister, James Laforest, who was named after an uncle. "From birth, we knew there were certain things that could not be. We were persona non grata in certain stores downtown. But we stayed away from confrontation. Our family instilled in us to do the best we could, because one day this, too, would be gone."

Morgan was 27 in the summer of 1944. She had left her daughter and son with her mother in Gloucester so she could return home to Baltimore for a checkup after the miscarriage. The events of that day roll off her tongue as vividly as if they had happened an hour ago instead of 56 years ago.

Dressed for travel, as people did in those days, she was wearing a nice dress and high-heeled shoes when she bought her $5 ticket from the "Colored" window at Haye's grocery store.

A half hour or so out of Gloucester, a white couple boarded. The driver ordered Morgan and her seatmate to move. Not only did Morgan refuse to budge, but she refused to let the woman next to her relinquish her seat.

"Where do you think you're going with that baby in your arms?" Morgan recalls telling her.

Faced with two recalcitrant passengers who refused to be intimidated into obeying the day's segregation mores and law, the driver headed into the Middlesex County town of Saluda and stopped outside the jail. A sheriff's deputy came aboard and told Morgan that he had a warrant for her arrest.
She ripped it up and threw it out the window.

"I hadn't done anything wrong," she said.

But after her cavalier shredding of the warrant, the deputy grasped her arm to yank her off the bus.

"He touched me," she said. "That's when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he'd use his nightstick. I said, "We'll whip each other."

To this day, she recalls no grander purpose in mind than doing what the moment called for.

"I was just minding my own business," says Morgan, whose face shows few signs of age and whose hair is just beginning to be salted with white. "I'd paid my money. I was sitting where I was supposed to sit. And I wasn't going to take it."

Dragged off the bus and thrown in jail, she yelled out the barred window to ask some passing black youths to call a local minister and have him contact her mother. Within an hour her mother arrived to post a hefty $500 bail.

Morgan's trial was held in Middlesex Circuit Court. Two details stood out to Morgan: The court was packed with black and white spectators sitting side by side, and on the courthouse door was posted a charter for the Ku Klux Klan.

Morgan pleaded guilty to the charge of resisting arrest and was fined $100. But she refused to plead guilty to violating Virginia's segregation law.

Her attorney, the late Spottswood Robinson III, of Richmond, made the practical argument that segregation laws unfairly impeded interstate commerce. Robinson, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, purposely did not make the moral argument that segregation laws were unfair under the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection.

"The Supreme Court wasn't ready to take that argument," said U.S. District Judge Robert Carter, who as a young NAACP lawyer assisted Robinson. "The case was significant in that what we were trying to do was break down segregation."

Still, Morgan was found guilty and fined $10.

She never heard the appeals argued on her behalf by two NAACP lawyers: Marshall and William Hastie, the dean of Howard Law School, which was at the center of the civil rights struggle.

In a 6-1 decision handed down June 3, 1946, the Supreme Court struck down Virginia's segregation statute on buses traveling from one state to another.

Robinson telephoned Morgan to tell her about the ruling.

"We all laughed and said, 'She won,'" recalled Laforest. "We were so proud of her. It was a big step, not only for Irene but for all black people. And not just for my race, but for the people of America."

Although the Morgan case was front-page news and Greyhound immediately ordered its drivers not to enforce segregation, change did not come overnight.

A year later, eight white and eight black activists with the newly formed Congress of Racial Equality set off on a two-week "Journey of Reconciliation" through four Southern states to explain and test the Morgan decision.

On buses and trains, they sang a song they called "You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!"

"On June the third the High Court said,
When you ride interstate Jim Crow is dead.
Get on the bus, sit anyplace,
'Cause Irene Morgan won her case.
You don't have to ride Jim Crow."

Along the way, however, 12 of them were arrested on six occasions for sitting together, black and white, in both the front and back of the bus and refusing drivers' orders to segregate.

"The decision of June 3, 1946, outlawed segregation in interstate travel, but June 4 was pretty much the same as June 2," said Robin Washington, who produced an award-winning documentary on the Journey of Reconciliation. "On the other hand, the decision certainly laid the groundwork for changing everything. We may not know it, but we owe a lot to Irene Morgan."

As Morgan gets the recognition that so long eluded her, it may be tempting to consider her a remarkable woman for one long-ago heroic act. But friends and family say her whole life has been about doing right and good.

"She takes on otherwise Herculean efforts, but only when conflict touches her and her family," said her granddaughter Aleah Bacquie. "She doesn't seek it out."

Othe past five decades, Morgan has led a quiet but extraordinary life. Widowed by her first husband, she married Stanley Kirkaldy, a dry cleaner, in 1949. Her two children from her first marriage have given her five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

For many years, she ran her own business providing maid service and child care in Queens. But she always dreamed of continuing her education. So after winning a scholarship in a radio contest, she earned a bachelor's degree in communications from St. John's University in 1985-at age 68. She was awarded a master's degree in urban studies from Queens College in 1990-at age 73.

She has continued to inspire her family with acts grand and neighborly. In Baltimore, she passed out petitions demanding an end to school segregation without telling anyone who she is. She wrote to the pope seeking his intervention in the case of a Haitian whose children had been barred from parochial school. She rescued a neighborhood boy from a burning building. Every Thanksgiving, she invites two homeless residents over for dinner and laundry.

"She always taught us that if you know you're right, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks," said her daughter, Brenda Bacquie. "It's a moral thing. It's something you have to do. She doesn't see herself as a hero. She saw something that had to be done, and she rushed in, like all heroes."

Morgan is unruffled about being overlooked in the pantheon of civil rights heroes. Even her neighbors have no clue who she is.

"It never bothered me, not being in front," she said demurely. "If there's a job to be done, you do it and get it over with and go on to the next thing."

She remains a private woman, reserved and modest in an age when neither attribute is valued much. When Howard University wanted to award her an honorary doctorate, she declined, saying, "Oh, no, I didn't earn it."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2/28/17 AT 6:40 AM

Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed sworn-in

A political newcomer, a regional director in a humanitarian organization and a senior official in an oil exploration company: Hassan Ali Khaire can now add the title of prime minister of Somalia to his résumé.

Somalia’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, appointed the 48-year-old Somali-Norwegian dual citizen on Thursday to be his right-hand man in transforming the Horn of Africa country. In a video statement reported by The New York Times, Khaire said he would accept the appointment—providing it was approved by the Somali parliament—and pledged to form a representative government.

The challenges facing Khaire, who has no political experience in Somalia, are vast: an impending famine; a destructive Islamist insurgency; and widespread allegations of government corruption.

Khaire was born in central Somalia and is a member of the Hawiye tribe, one of Somalia’s five principal clans. It is the same tribe as Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia’s previous president who was defeated by Mohamed in February’s election, and Khaire has close ties with Mohamud, according to pro-democracy Somali group Wakiil. Khaire was educated in Oslo and Edinburgh and has lived in the Scandinavian country since the late 1980s, when Somalia’s decades-long civil war began to boil over.

The new prime minister has extensive experience in the humanitarian field, having worked as a county and then regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)—a humanitarian organization that works in the Horn of Africa, among other regions. Khaire led the Council’s operations in East Africa and the Horn of Africa between 2011 and 2014, before taking up the position of executive director for Africa at Soma Oil & Gas, a U.K.-based company conducting oil exploration in Somalia, according to a copy of his CV seen by Newsweek.

Khaire encountered controversy at the oil and gas firm, which is chaired by the former leader of the Conservative Party in the U.K., Michael Howard. BuzzFeed News revealed in March 2016 that the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) was investigating the activities of the company and, specifically, was looking into alleged connections between Khaire and East African militant groups, including al-Shabaab, which has been waging war on the federal government in Somalia since the early 2000s. Soma consistently denied the allegations against Khaire, and a U.N. panel cleared Khaire of any connections to al-Shabaab or other extremist groups.

The newly appointed Somali prime minister resigned from his role at Soma on Thursday as his new appointment was announced in order to avoid any possible conflict of interest. “Hassan Khaire has been a highly valued member of [Soma’s] management team but we fully understand his decision and wish him every success in his new role,” said a Soma statement.

Commentators in Somalia and abroad have welcomed Khaire’s appointment on social media. Fadumo Dayib, who was the first female presidential candidate in Somalia’s elections before dropping out of the race in December 2016 due to alleged corruption, praised the new prime minister, while his appointment was also hailed by the former deputy speaker of Kenya’s parliament, Farah Maalim.

In Norway, however, the anti-immigration Progress Party has called for Khaire to be stripped of his Norwegian passport. “A country’s prime minister cannot have multiple nationalities. If conflicts occur, where will their loyalties lie?” the party’s immigration spokesman Mazyar Keshvari told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

Two-thirds of the presidential candidates in Somalia’s election were dual passport holders, according to Quartz. President Mohamed is a dual Somali-U.S. national.
Pentagon Seeks to Expand Fight Against Extremists in Somalia
February 26, 2017 at 9:57 pm
By Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon wants to expand the military’s ability to battle al-Qaida-linked militants in Somalia, potentially putting U.S. forces closer to the fight against a stubborn extremist group that has plotted attacks against America, senior U.S. officials said.

The recommendations sent to the White House would allow U.S special operations forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army in the struggle against al-Shabab militants in the fragile Horn of Africa nation, the officials said. They said the proposal would give the military greater flexibility to launch airstrikes against extremists that appear to be a threat.

Beefing up the military effort in Somalia fits with President Donald Trump’s broader request for a Pentagon plan to accelerate the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and defeat other extremist groups, including al-Qaida and its affiliates. U.S. concerns about al-Shabab escalated in recent years as young Americans from Somali communities traveled to training camps in Somalia, raising fears they might return to the United States and conduct terror attacks.

Somalia was one of the seven predominantly Muslim countries included in Trump’s travel ban last month. The executive order has since been suspended by federal courts.

Somalia is “our most perplexing challenge,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The United States is “trying to take a look at Somalia from a fresh perspective in the way ahead,” he said, describing the need to weaken the decade-old al-Shabab insurgency so that the African nation’s military forces can defeat it.

Waldhauser declined to provide details of the new options that have been proposed.

But other officials said elements include giving U.S. special operations forces greater ability to accompany local troops on military operations against al-Shabab and easing restrictions on when the U.S. can conduct airstrikes against the group. The officials weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the confidential review and spoke on condition of anonymity

Currently there are about 50 U.S. commandos rotating in and out of Somalia to advise and assist the local troops. The new authorities could result in a small increase in the number of U.S. forces in Somalia, officials said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has approved the recommendations and sent the plan to the White House earlier this month, they added. But no final decisions have been made, and the proposal could prove politically sensitive because of the disastrous downing of two U.S. helicopters over Mogadishu in 1993 that killed 18 American troops.

The White House declined to comment, deferring questions to the Defense Department.

Somalia has been without a truly functioning government for two-and-a-half decades. After warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre in 1991, they quickly turned on one another, making Somalia infamous for its extreme rates of violence and the proliferation of pirates operating off its coasts. Security has improved in recent years as international efforts against al-Shabab gained ground.

After the bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu when the helicopters were shot down, the U.S. withdrew from the country. Since then, Islamist hard-liners have vied for power and al-Shabab’s attacks have spread to Uganda and Kenya.

Some of the U.S. officials with knowledge of the new military proposal said it is aimed at improving the U.S. advisory mission because the African Union is planning to pull out its 20,000 peacekeeping forces in Somalia in 2020. Observers say Somali troops are unprepared to fight the extremist threat on their own.

Currently, U.S. forces can transport and accompany local troops. But they must keep their distance from front lines and can only engage the enemy if they come under attack or if Somali forces are in danger of being defeated. The new proposal would give U.S. forces the ability to move along with Somali troops into the fight if needed.

While the American military right now can conduct airstrikes in self-defense or to protect Somali troops if they come under attack and request help, the new authorities would be broader.

Officials said that under the new recommendations, the military would be able to launch airstrikes against militants on a more pre-emptive basis. For example, the U.S. could target al-Shabab fighters gathering for an attack rather than waiting until friendly forces were under fire.

Al-Shabab has been ousted from most Somali cities and towns, but its suicide bombers continue to kill across large parts of the south and center of the country. That includes Mogadishu, the capital.

Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, inaugurated Wednesday, warned that it will take another two decades to “fix” his country. Mohamed, who also holds U.S. citizenship, won election earlier this month as Somalia tries to restore effective governance.

Waldhauser said the U.S. sees an opportunity to work with Mohamed to “train the Somalia national security forces to a level that they can take on al-Shabab on their own.”
Somalia Declares 'National Disaster' Over Drought
More than 6.2 million people in need of urgent humanitarian aid, including nearly three million who are going hungry.

There are worries that the drought is exacerbating the country's on-going humanitarian crisis [Karel Prinsloo/UNICEF]There are worries that the drought is exacerbating the country's on-going humanitarian crisis [Karel Prinsloo/UNICEF]

Somalia's new leader has declared a national disaster for a prolonged drought that has forced about half of the country's population to seek urgent food assistance and sparked fears of a potential famine.

The announcement on Tuesday by President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed's office came a day after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that Somalia was at risk of its third famine in 25 years - the last one in 2011 killed some 260,000 people.

"The president has appealed to the international community to urgently respond to the calamity in order to help families and individuals to recover from the effects of the drought disaster to avoid humanitarian tragedy," read a statement from the presidency.

According to WHO, more than 6.2 million people - half of Somalia's population - needed urgent humanitarian aid, including almost three million who are going hungry.

The agency said more than 363,000 acutely malnourished children and 70,000 severely malnourished children needed urgent, life-saving support.

Somalia is one of three countries, along with Yemen and Nigeria, on the verge of famine which has already been declared in South Sudan.

Last week, the UN said more than 20 million people face starvation in the four countries, adding it needed $4.4bn by the end of next month to prevent "a catastrophe" of hunger and famine.

Aid agencies are concerned that the drought is exacerbating the country's on-going humanitarian crisis, while there are reports that the ongoing conflict with the al-Shabab armed group is further blocking access to food.

Al Jazeera's Fahmida Miller, reporting from Dolow in southern Somalia, said she spoke to a number of refugees and internally displaced people.

"One woman we spoke to said it took her 11 days to find food and water. She said trying to get the assistance was near impossible because of threats from al-Shabab," she said.

"People here are losing livestock; rivers and water points have dried up; and there is a huge issue around internally displaced people and refugees moving through Somalia looking for food and water," Miller added.

"As the rainfall is expected to stay low, there have already been a number of failed crop seasons, and people can't grow their own food and have to move through the country looking for assistance."

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies
Countdown to AMISOM Withdrawal: Is Somalia Ready?
Samuel Okiror
IRIN contributor based in Kampala
KAMPALA, 28 February 2017

The swearing-in last week of Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” was greeted with a surge of optimism on the streets of Mogadishu that a new era of stability was on its way.

He won by a landslide, on a wave of nationalist fervour. But the fact that the ceremony took place in a highly secured airport zone, under the control of African Union peacekeepers, in a city repeatedly bombed by the jihadist group al-Shabab, betrays how huge the task confronting him is.

The International Crisis Group’s latest report said Farmajo had benefited from being seen as the right leader “to build a robust Somali National Army (SNA), speed up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s exit, stabilise security, curb interventions by neighbouring countries, and protect Somalia’s dignity and sovereignty.”

But this is an ambitious wish list and the path ahead is fraught with danger.


Central to Somalia’s security is the 22,000-strong AMISOM multinational force. It has been in Somalia for a decade, battling al-Shabab and helping slowly expand state authority.

AMISOM is due to start withdrawing its troops from October next year and is expected to be fully out of the country by December 2020, handing over to the SNA, which will probably number just 20,000.

“AMISOM alone cannot defeat al-Shabab,” said a report last year by Mogadishu’s Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS). “This can only happen if AMISOM can partner with a capable, legitimate and inclusive set of Somali security forces.”

But the Somali National Army is a force beset with problems, particularly over corruption, capacity and its acceptance in regions beyond Mogadishu. At the moment, there are doubts it will be able to stand up to a degraded, but still dangerous, insurgency.

Francisco Madeira, AU special representative to Somalia, is painfully aware of that challenge. “Building the capacity of the Somali National Security Forces is something that is central to the mandate of AMISOM, and we are doing this to the best of our ability and within the available resources,” he told IRIN.

Too soon?

Given this, and the historically weak and divided nature of the Somali state, experts fear AMISOM’s departure will be premature.

“It seems highly unlikely to me that the Somali army [and state institutions] would be ready in just three years, given the current state of the security situation,” said Nina Wilen, a research fellow at Université Libre de Bruxelles.

“A withdrawal of AMISOM in 2020 will be untimely,” agreed Christian Ani Ndubuisi, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. A more viable option, he believes, is for international donors to support a longer transition, of five to 10 years.

The challenge for AMISOM is that exiting Somalia with some honour hinges on several factors beyond its control. Crucially, it relies on international funding, and not enough has been forthcoming “to seriously degrade rather than simply displace al-Shabab”, said the HIPS report.

AMISOM draws its main fighting forces from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi. Allowances for the troops are paid by the EU, and logistical support – from food to medical supplies – is provided by the UN. The attack helicopters it desperately needs have not been available.

There is also now trouble in the ranks of the troop-contributing nations, which have threatened to withdraw ever since the EU cut the monthly allowance paid to soldiers by 20 percent in January 2016, from $1,028 to $822.

While the AU argues that its soldiers bleed and the West provides only money, the EU counters that there are other peace operations on the continent deserving of its support, including Central African Republic, Mali and the Lake Chad crisis.

“AMISOM will celebrate its 10th year this year, and the main funder [the EU] does not see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Thierry Vircoulon, ICG project director for Central Africa. “It is not ready to fund another never-ending peacekeeping mission as the UN usually does.”

Chicken and egg

AMISOM does not have the manpower or equipment to comprehensively defeat al-Shabab, yet cannot secure additional funding until it demonstrates greater battlefield success.

But defeating al-Shabab is not just a military undertaking. The Somali government has been unable to consolidate the territorial gains made by the AU troops, including providing much-needed services and security to the people.

That means the “ideological foundation of the group remains hard to dismantle within the local population,” said Ndubuisi of ISS.

Additionally, Somalia is a federal state with its autonomous regions in uneasy alliance with Mogadishu and at times testy relations with each other. These regional forces have greater local acceptance than the SNA.

“The state formation project in Somalia is still marred by ongoing disputes between autonomous regions,” explained Ndubuisi. “How can the different regions in the country collaborate for a common purpose?”

More troops?

The AU’s answer is a surge of troops to weaken al-Shabab before the 2018 draw down. On 16 January, it asked the UN Security Council to authorise an additional 4,500 soldiers for a non-renewable period of six months.

“We have concluded plans to recover the last strongholds that the al-Shabaab holds in Somalia, specifically in the Lower Juba region,” said Madeira, the AU representative. “To do this, however, we need additional troops, just for this assignment, after which the troop numbers will return to previous levels.”

But AMISOM may not be the perfect instrument for Somalia’s renewal, especially for nationalists in Mogadishu. For a start, there have always been question marks in Somalia over the AU intervention, especially when regional rivals – Ethiopia and Kenya – joined the mission.

“Initially, [AMISOM] did a lot, particularly pushing al-Shabab from urban centres,” said Abdirashid Hashi, one of the HIPS report’s authors. “Then Kenya and Ethiopia entered Somalia, pursuing their own national security interests, and were rehatted [as AMISOM] so the UN/EU can foot the bill.”

The critical piece in the puzzle, argues the HIPS report, is the need for a political settlement in Somalia that encompasses the federal government and the regional administrations.

“This settlement must include agreement on how to govern Somalia, a shared vision of the roles of the country’s security forces and a roadmap for integrating the numerous armed groups that currently proliferate,” it noted.

Hashi argued that “only a well-armed and well-trained Somali security apparatus can, in the long run, address the insecurity and instability enveloping the country.”

“Much could be achieved in three years if Somalis get their act together and seriously focus on fixing their ailing state, and if the international partners provide genuine support,” he added.

Farmajo’s mandate is indispensable to make progress on those multiple fronts, particularly reconciliation, addressing corruption and finalising the constitution, said the ICG report. The upcoming London conference in May, where donors will be present, could also help.

Al-Shabab, meanwhile, has vowed to fight Farmajo as an “apostate”. In a defiant message released earlier this month, a commander bragged: “We know how to eat cheese,” a reference to the president’s nickname, an approximation of the Italian word for “cheese”.

But there have been suggestions that the insurgency is worried by his popularity. Dissident commander Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur, who leads a “nationalist” wing of al-Shabab, has reportedly considered surrendering.

Any concrete signs of a splintering of the insurgency – there are none yet – would represent a real victory for Farmajo and his project to rebuild Somalia.
Detroit Church Leaders Call Drainage Fees ‘Unholy’
Christine Ferretti, The Detroit News 12:58 p.m. ET
Feb. 28, 2017

Detroit — A coalition of city churches is urging Mayor Mike Duggan to intervene and renegotiate what they contend are “unjust and unholy” drainage fees being imposed by the city’s water department.

Pastors of the Detroit Water Equity Coalition, comprised of about 300 faith-based groups, came together Tuesday to argue churches in Detroit are “being punished” by a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department policy unveiled last summer to transition all parcels in Detroit to a uniform and equitable system for drainage charges over several years.

“Mr. Mayor, we the church community appeal to you to rethink this unjust, unfair and unholy charge on those who live, run their businesses and worship in the city of Detroit,” said the Rev. Dr. Deedee Coleman, president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit, during a news conference at New St. Paul Tabernacle Church of God in Christ. “Fight for us; be our champion. It’s the right thing to do.”

The city’s Board of Water Commissioners adopted the policy last September designed to transition all city parcels to a uniform billing system.

Since 1975, most in Detroit had paid for drainage as part of their water and sewer bills. Some paid on an outdated fixed-rate meter system, while others are were charged based on impervious acreage — a model that will be fully implemented when the transition period concludes. Some 22,000 customers had not been charged at all, water officials have said.

Most city churches are currently paying a fixed-rate for drainage each month based on their water meter size, some others previously had not been charged at all and a number of newer churches already are paying based on impervious acreage, water officials said.

The current rate is $750 per acre per month based on the acreage charge. Come January, the city’s churches will become the final group of DWSD customers charged under the new drainage rate. Additionally, church-owned properties that have never been billed for water and sewer services for vacant land or parking lots they own will also now be charged for under the impervious rate, water officials said.

Although the specific cost per acre for 2018 won’t be set until July.

The Tuesday gathering comes after the coalition sent a letter to Duggan’s office last week, demanding he meet with church representatives within the next 30 days to work out reforms that would make the system more equitable.

Coleman said the religious leaders want Duggan to “be our champion” for water equality. The current program, she contends, will harm the churches and leave them vulnerable to closure.

Alexis Wiley, the mayor’s chief of staff, said Tuesday that Duggan believes the concerns are legitimate and he is working to craft a “fair and equitable solution.”

“We have a responsibility to make sure we have a system where sewage isn’t backing up into people’s basements, but also have a responsibility to make sure charges are rolled out in a fair and equitable manner,” she said. “He is really diving into this to make sure that is getting done.”

Duggan, Wiley added, has attended at least a half-dozen meetings with faith-based groups and will continue to do so.

Bishop P.A. Brooks, chairman of the Michigan Council of Bishops of the Church of God in Christ, said the group’s opposition is “nothing personal, it’s about water.”

“This is not political,” said Brooks, adding he believes Duggan will be able to help resolve the concerns. “It’s about survival.”

The existing rates would mean the Cathedral of St. Anthony on Detroit’s east side will see its monthly water bill go from $165 on the metering system to about $1,200 per month for the 1.5-acre property, said Bishop Karl Rodig.

At that cost, Rodig said, the congregation’s clothes and food pantry for the surrounding community will suffer.

“That means we’re taking away from the poor,” said Rodig, adding the services of the church help about 8,000 people. “It affects the whole community.”

The coalition argued Detroit is bearing the cost for drainage on its own and that it should instead be “common to all” in the regional agreement forged during Detroit’s bankruptcy. The deal turned operation of its water and sewer system over to the Great Lakes Water Authority for 40 years.

DWSD Director Gary Brown countered the communities in the authority are contributing their fare share to the wet weather overflow costs. Even so, Brown said he does recognize the churches are struggling with the new costs.

“We’re going to sit down with them and try to figure out what method we can use that would best suit their needs as churches,” he said. “... We are trying to be fair and equitable to all of our customers.”

Duggan briefly addressed the drainage fees Thursday during a budget presentation to Detroit’s City Council in response to concerns raised by Councilman Scott Benson, who said he’s worried the move will push business out of Detroit.

Duggan said the city “did a poor job” of explaining the fee structure before notices went out and “we’re recovering from that now.”

“But I think at the end of the day, everybody’s rates on a per acre basis is going to be down in a few years,” Duggan told council members. “It’s going to be lower, and it’s going to be fair. But we’ve got 30 to 40 years of inequity that we’re trying to make up for now, and it’s got some emotion in it, and I’m well aware of it.”
Racist Assault At A Child's Birthday Party Yields Long Prison Terms In Georgia
February 28, 201710:23 AM ET

Photo; Jose "Joe" Torres (left) weeps in his seat during his sentencing at the Douglas County Courthouse in Douglasville, Ga., on Monday. Superior Court Judge William McClain sentenced Torres and Kayla Norton to lengthy prison terms Monday for their role in the disruption of a black child's birthday party through the use of Confederate battle flags, racial slurs and armed threats.
Henry P. Taylor/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

A Georgia judge has sentenced Kayla Norton, 25, and Jose "Joe" Torres, 26, to spend a combined 19 years in prison for their role in a group's racist rampage at an 8-year-old's birthday party — an assault that included shouting racial slurs, making armed threats and waving Confederate battle flags.

"I'm so sorry that happened to you," Norton told the family that endured the assault, weeping in the courtroom at Monday's sentencing. "I am so sorry."

After telling the court that she accepted responsibility for her actions, Norton turned to the area of the courtroom where families who attended the birthday party were seated.

"But I want you all to know that that is not me," Norton told them. "That is not me."

Norton and Torres, who are not married, have three children together. Prosecutors say they were part of a gang of white supremacists who targeted African-Americans with racist taunts and threatened to murder minorities.

In court Monday, both Norton and Torres sat hunched over and crying after Superior Court Judge William "Beau" McClain handed down his sentence: 13 years in prison and seven years' probation for Torres, and six years in prison with nine years' probation for Norton. Both of them are also banished from Douglas County, McClain said.

The sentencing comes weeks after a jury found Torres and Norton guilty of making terroristic threats and violating the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act. The jury also convicted Torres of aggravated assault. Although Georgia doesn't have a law specifying a hate crime, that's the term both McClain and District Attorney Brian Fortner used to describe the group's behavior.

The assault occurred in July 2015, one month after a racist gunman killed nine worshippers at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C. Prosecutors say Norton, Torres and other members of a group that called itself "Respect the Flag" went on an alcohol-fueled racist spree in Douglas and Paulding counties, west of Atlanta.

With Confederate battle flags affixed to the beds of their pickup trucks, the group gathered for a ride that was purportedly meant to celebrate the flag's heritage.

"However, Paulding County 911 began immediately receiving calls that members associated with this group were threatening African American citizens at various locations in Paulding County and hurling numerous racial slurs in the process as well," according to the Douglas County District Attorney's Office.

After threatening black motorists, the group headed to Douglasville, where they happened upon an outdoor birthday party that included a cookout and bouncy castle.

"Victims and witnesses from the party, who were predominantly African-American, testified to observing the group of trucks whose passengers were hurling a litany of racial slurs at them as they passed by," prosecutors said.

Several members of the group — some of whom are now serving prison terms of their own — got out of their trucks and approached the partygoers, threatening to kill them all. According to their fellow defendants and witnesses, it was Norton who retrieved Torres' shotgun — a tactical 12-gauge with a pistol grip — and loaded it before giving it to him.

Cellphone footage from the party shows police attempting to form a barrier in front of the families as the trucks drove off.

During his trial, Torres told the court he was carrying the shotgun for this own defense. But he then acknowledged lying to police about the gun — and to selling the weapon before he was arrested.

Months after the attack, the "Respect the Flag" group was indicted as a street gang by a Douglas County grand jury.

"They recognized that it was not about flying a flag but it was about pointing a shotgun at other people and threatening to kill them because of the color of their skin," Fortner said Monday.

Testifying for the victims at Monday's sentencing, Hyesha Bryant, who attended the party, said she forgave the couple.

"I never thought this would be something I'd have to endure in 2017," Bryant said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As adults and parents, we have to instill in our children the values of right and wrong. That moment you had to choose to leave, you stayed."

"I forgive you. I forgive all of you," she said, as Torres and Norton sat weeping. "I don't have any hate in my heart. Life is too short for that."

The stiff punishment is being both celebrated and questioned, in a debate that touches on free speech and the nature of terrorism.

Some of those points are summed up in two top-rated responses to the district attorney's Facebook posting that announced the punishment.

One commenter writes:

"To all the people on here saying the punishment was unjust. Let's be real, if it had been any other terrorist group committing these felonies you guys wouldn't bat an eye if they went away for life.... but when the terrorist look like you all of a sudden you get a soft heart."
But another commenter says:

"Did they actually attack anyone or just guilty of being racists? Not condoning their actions by any means but I'm not sure the punishment fit the crime here. If they attacked the kids or something, let them rot, but just being ignorant racists shouldn't constitute a 20 year sentence. Does that not seem a little extreme?? What am I missing? If everyone in Douglas County that is ignorant and racist (on both sides of the fence) had to serve 20 years, they'd have to build many new jails."
Yemen SEAL Raid Has Yielded No Significant Intelligence: Officials
Yemen child killed in raid.
NBC News

Last month's deadly commando raid in Yemen, which cost the lives of a U.S. Navy SEAL and a number of children, has so far yielded no significant intelligence, U.S. officials told NBC News.

Although Pentagon officials have said the raid produced "actionable intelligence," senior officials who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of any, even as the father of the dead SEAL questioned the premise of the raid in an interview with the Miami Herald published Sunday.

"Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn't even barely a week into [President Trump's] administration?" Bill Owens, whose youngest son Ryan was killed during the raid, said. "For two years prior ... everything was missiles and drones (in Yemen)....Now all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?"

A senior Congressional official briefed on the matter said the Trump administration has yet to explain what prompted the rare use of American ground troops in Yemen, but he said he was not aware of any new threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda affiliate that was targeted.

The official, and others briefed on the matter who spoke to NBC News, echoed the remarks of Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., that the raid was designed to kill or capture one or more militants — something the military did not initially acknowledge.

Instead, Pentagon officials called it a "site exploitation mission" designed to gather intelligence. Defense officials later did not dispute McCain's characterization, saying they were hoping to kill or capture certain militants, though they declined to name them. NBC News and other media outlets have reported that Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab was among the dead. The Pentagon calls him an al Qaeda leader; the Yemeni government disagrees.

Plans for the raid were begun during the Obama administration, but Obama officials declined to sign off on what officials described as a significant escalation in Yemen. Just five days in, Trump greenlighted the mission.

"Certainly the Obama administration, particularly by the end of its eight-year run, was very cautious in moving forward with any kind of military activity," retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO commander and current NBC News security analyst, said. "A new administration I think naturally is going to be spring-loaded to move out and demonstrate something."

The White House has repeatedly called the Yemen mission a success. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Feb. 8 that anyone "who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does] a disservice to the life of Chief Owens."

"We gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil," said Spicer.

A Defense Department official also pushed back Monday afternoon, saying the raid has yielded "a significant amount" of intelligence.

But the only example the military has provided turned out to be an old bomb-making video that was of no current value.

On Monday, Spicer addressed the remarks of Bill Owens, whose son died.

"I can tell him that on behalf of the president, his son died a hero and the information that he was able to help obtain through that raid, as I said before, is going to save American lives," he said. "The mission was successful in helping prevent a future attack or attacks on this nation."

Multiple senior officials told NBC News they have not seen evidence to support that claim.

In addition to the death of Ryan Owens, six other U.S. service members were wounded. And at least 25 civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of 13, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. One of them was the 8-year-old daughter of U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

A Pentagon official told NBC News today the Pentagon does not dispute these numbers.

A $70 million U.S. aircraft also was destroyed. The Pentagon already has at least three investigations into the raid underway.

"When we look at evidently very little actual intelligence out, the loss of a high-performance aircraft and above all the loss of a highly trained special forces member of SEAL Team 6, I think we need to understand why this mission, why now, what happened, and what the actual output was," Stavridis said.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trump to Seek $54 Billion Increase in Military Spending
New York Times
FEB. 27, 2017

WASHINGTON — President Trump put both political parties on notice Monday that he intends to slash spending on many of the federal government’s most politically sensitive programs — relating to education, the environment, science and poverty — to protect the economic security of retirees and to shift billions more to the armed forces.

The proposal to increase military spending by $54 billion and cut nonmilitary programs by the same amount was unveiled by White House officials as they prepare the president’s plans for next year’s federal budget. Aides to the president said final decisions about Medicare and Social Security would not be made until later in the year, when he announces his full budget. But Sean Spicer, his spokesman, cited Mr. Trump’s campaign commitments about protecting those programs and vowed that “he’s going to keep his word to the American people.”

In effect, Mr. Trump appears determined to take sides in a generational struggle between older, sicker Americans who depend on the entitlement programs, and their younger, poorer counterparts whose livelihoods are shaped by the domestic programs likely to see steep cuts.

He also set up a battle for control of Republican Party ideology with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who for years has staked his policy-making reputation on the argument that taming the budget deficit without tax increases would require that Congress change, and cut, the programs that swallow the bulk of the government’s spending — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“I don’t know how you take $54 billion out without wholesale taking out entire departments,” said Bill Hoagland, a longtime Republican budget aide in the Senate and now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “You need to control it in the area of the entitlement programs, which he’s taken off the table. It is a proposal, I dare say, that will be dead on arrival even with a Republican Congress.”

Speaking to governors at the White House, Mr. Trump said his spending demands would be at the core of the speech he gives Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress. “This budget follows through on my promise to keep Americans safe,” he said, calling it a “public safety and national security” budget that will send a “message to the world in these dangerous times of American strength, security and resolve.”

In the first part of the speech, Mr. Trump will recount “promises made and promises kept,” said the aides, who requested anonymity during a briefing with reporters. The rest of the speech will focus on how he will help people with their problems and how he intends to protect the nation.

The president’s budget proposals — which were short on detail but are said to exempt not just Medicare and Social Security but also veterans’ benefits and law enforcement efforts — would lead to deep reductions in federal programs that touch millions of lives. The White House signaled that it would begin with agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service and social safety-net programs.

A budget with no entitlement cuts and one that does not balance most likely has no chance of passing the House, and could be rejected by Senate Republicans as well. Mr. Trump’s proposals are too far to the right in terms of domestic cuts and too far to the left in terms of balance. Its failure could have practical implications for the White House.

If Congress fails to pass a budget blueprint for the fiscal year that begins in October, Mr. Trump’s promise to drastically rewrite the tax code could also die, since the president was counting on that budget resolution to include special parliamentary language that would shield his tax cuts from a Democratic filibuster. Without it, any tax legislation would have to be bipartisan enough to clear the Senate with 60 votes.

But beyond legislative considerations, the fate of Mr. Trump’s proposal will go a long way toward determining how significantly his brand of economic populism has changed Republican orthodoxy.

Mr. Trump repeatedly said during the campaign that Republican promises to transform Medicare, and slash entitlement spending, were the reason the party lost the White House in 2012, helpfully name-checking Mr. Ryan, who sat at the bottom of the ticket that year, in his analysis. Social Security, health care and net interest now comprise nearly 60 percent of all federal spending, and that figure is expected to soar to 82 percent over the next 10 years.

“Paul Ryan’s budget plans with cuts to Social Security and Medicare are not that popular with most voters, and what helped elect Donald Trump was the promise not to cut benefits and programs,” said Douglas Elmendorf, the recently departed director of the Congressional Budget Office and current dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “That is an unresolved tension.”

White House officials said the broad outlines of a spending plan represented the logical culmination of Mr. Trump’s efforts to make good on his campaign pledges to prune what he considers wasteful government spending even as he expands what he considers an underfunded military.

“It will show the president is keeping his promises and doing exactly what he said he was going to do,” said Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director. “We are taking his words and turning them into policies and dollars.”

Mr. Trump’s advisers said aid to foreign governments, which makes up a tiny fraction of federal spending, was one such target.

The budget for the I.R.S., which was the target of Republican criticism during Barack Obama’s administration, would be slashed by 14 percent, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. The Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, which provides grants for community banks and local development, would be all but eliminated.

The White House blueprint calls for a 24 percent cut to the E.P.A.’s budget, according to a person who had seen the document but was not authorized to speak on the record. That would amount to a reduction of about $2 billion from the agency’s annual budget of about $8.1 billion, reducing its spending to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

But it is far from clear whether Congress will approve such steep cuts in popular programs.

While congressional Republicans have long targeted the E.P.A.’s regulatory authority, they are also aware that about half the agency’s annual budget is passed through to popular state-level programs, like converting abandoned industrial sites into sports stadiums and other public facilities, which lawmakers of both parties are loath to cut. And most of the agency’s federal office spending goes toward funding programs that are required by existing laws. Last year, even as congressional Republicans railed against the Obama administration’s E.P.A. regulations, they proposed cutting only $291 million from the agency’s budget.

Environmental advocates denounced the proposed cuts, saying they would devastate environmental protection and public health programs while doing little to increase national security.

“The assault on human health begins now with President Trump’s plan to slash the E.P.A.’s resources, which are vital to protecting Americans’ drinking water and air from pollution,” said Scott Faber, president of the Environmental Working Group.

But the information to emerge about the budget for the fiscal year that begins in October raises more questions than it answers.

Democrats, of course, will be no friend, either.

“Democrats will make crystal clear the misplaced priorities of the administration and the Republican majority,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey of New York, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, “and we will fight tooth and nail to protect services and investments that are critical to hard-working American families and communities across the country.”

But the budget may be the most striking example in Mr. Trump’s young presidency of the ways in which he is challenging the orthodoxy of his own party. Since the start of his insurgent campaign, Mr. Trump has opposed the Republican Party’s long-held positions on a range of policies, including free trade, how to deal with Russia and the future of government entitlement programs.

Republicans in Congress had hoped that the influence of the two former Republican House members in Mr. Trump’s cabinet — Tom Price, head of health and human services, and Mr. Mulvaney — would have led to new conclusions about the need to address entitlement programs that are swelling drastically with baby boomers’ retirement.

Instead, Mr. Trump appears intent on extracting the savings he needs for military spending from the one part of the budget already most squeezed, domestic discretionary spending.

Coral Davenport, Helene Cooper and Matt Apuzzo contributed reporting.
Cuban Resistance to External Provocation Highlighted
The Cuban government’s response to OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro Lemes’ intention to travel to Havana, in order to receive a "prize" invented by an illegal grouplet, was met with various reactions from around the world

Granma |
February 24, 2017 14:02:38
Photo: Quintana Roo

The Cuban government’s response to OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro Lemes’ intention to travel to Havana, in order to receive a "prize" invented by an illegal grouplet, was met with various reactions from around the world.

Also implicated in the scheme were former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, and Chile’s ex Minister of Education, Mariana Aylwin.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales expressed his admiration for the Cuban people who prevented imperialist intervention in their country and frustrated a provocative scheme hatched by right wing organizations in the region.

“Thank you for upholding the dignity of the people of Latin America,” wrote the Bolivian leader on his Twitter account.

Meanwhile Nicaragua’s Friends of Cuba Association (AAC) condemned the actions intended to provoke the country, describing them as vicious.

We consider preposterous the plan to try and violate Cuba’s sovereignty under the ridiculous pretense of awarding Almagro a prize, noted the AAC in a statement cited by Prensa Latina.

The text also read: “Not satisfied with discrediting the Cuban government or with committing any kind of vile act against the Cuban people, they now wish to enter Cuban territory to honor an enemy of the people.”

The AAC condemned those wishing to provoke and interfere in Cuba affairs, noting that since 1959 the country, with its revolutionary government led by Comandante Fidel Castro, decided to never again be the victim of imperial violations, or suffer abuse or mistreatment at the hands of its lackeys.

The organization reiterated its rejection of this recent provocation, describing it as “stupid and crazy.”

The AAC noted that the Cuban government would never allow this disgraceful act of honoring the enemy, or be forced to ingratiate itself with the OAS, a body which has never served the peoples of the Third World, and to which the country has no need to belong to, highlighted the AAC.

The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) also expressed its solidarity with Cuba in the face of what it described as provocations and interventionist media maneuvers against the island.

In a statement, the progressive Salvadoran political party emphasized its rejection of the media show “against the sister Republic of Cuba, through the alleged organization of an awards event for people linked to destabilization groups.”

The FMLN noted that such media and political provocations represent another defamation campaign seeking to damage Cuba’s excellent relations with countries in the region.

“We reject any attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and support Cuba’s decision, based on its right as recognized by international law, to decide who it does, and does not, allow into its territory,” read the organization’s statement.

The FMLN went on to reaffirm its “solidarity and support of the Cuban government and people, who continue fighting for a more just and equal society, and whose dignity, solidarity, and non-negotiable defense of their sovereignty and self-determination, have won them the respect and admiration of the peoples of the world.”

Meanwhile, the Cuban Embassy in Chile issued a declaration categorically rejecting the “serious international provocation” against the country’s government.

“The scheme, rejected by the people, was organized by an illegal anti-Cuban group acting in violation of constitutional order and with the support and financing of foreign politicians and institutions,” stated the country’s diplomatic mission in the Chilean capital.

“The Cuban Embassy in the Republic of Chile declares that the Cuban government, respecting the memory of former President Patricio Aylwin, in a discrete and constructive manner, did everything within its power to inform, dissuade, and prevent the consummation of the provocation, and deeply regrets its manipulation for internal political means within Chile,” noted the Cuban mission.

It likewise stressed that Cuba exercises its sovereign right to make decisions regarding the entrance of foreign citizens into national territory and defend itself against these types of interventionist acts, aimed at subverting the country’s current legal order.


The majority of comments posted on Granma’s webpage recognized Cuba’s position as one based on principles of sovereignty and respect.

“Fitting response ,Cuba, your people will never be humiliated,” wrote Roberto Llonch.

Meanwhile, a user named Francisco added that the whole episode was just a pretext to bring together the ultra-right in Latin America against Cuba in our own country.

“Not one step back in the face of right wing threats, out-dated imperialism and murderers,” stated José Luis Valdés Lozano.

Jesús Alquisira highlighted the dignity of the Cuban people, the product of a victorious revolution which no one will ever be able to destabilize, least of all the lackeys of the international right.

For her part, Efi Barrera praised Cuba’s integrity, describing the country as “noble and brave,” and posing the question: “When will they learn that Cuba must be respected? If democracy means the right of the majority to decide, then we Cubans have already decided on socialism.”

Likewise other users noted that the OAS continues to serve the interests of pro-U.S. oligarchs and imperialists.

Granma also received messages of solidarity from other countries across the world. Antonio Rodríguez from Paraguay for example, expressed his whole hearted support for the Cuban government’s actions.

“It would be stupid to allow someone into your house, with the express aim of generating conflicts with those who live there,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Bianca from Uruguay noted that “As an Uruguayan I’m ashamed of Almagro’s behavior. He is clearly a puppet serving imperialist interests.”

At the same time Iván Quintana, also from Uruguay, stated, “What can we expect of a traitor like Almagro, a lawyer whose only principle is money, unfortunately this lackey is from my country.”

On the other hand, Belén Araujo Díaz from Mexico noted, “I have always admired the dignity of the Cuban people;” while user Emiliano from Argentina posted, “A big salute to the Cuban people, an example of love for the homeland.”
Anti-Cuban Provocation Fails
Declaration by Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations

February 23, 2017 12:02:39
Photo: Molina, Vladimir Photo: MINREX

Over the last few weeks, international media have reported the intention of OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro Lemes to travel to Havana, in order to receive a "prize" invented by an illegal grouplet, which operates in concert with the ultra-right wing Foundation for Pan American Democracy, created in the days of the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama, to channel efforts and resources in opposition to legitimate, independent governments in Our America.

The plan, plotted during several trips to Washington and other capitals of the region, consisted of mounting a serious, open provocation against the Cuban government in Havana, generating internal instability, damaging the country's international image, and at the same time, affecting the positive development of Cuba's diplomatic relations with other states. Perhaps some calculated poorly and thought that Cuba would sacrifice its fundamental principles to maintain appearances.

Drawn into the spectacle were Almagro himself and other right wing figures who are members of the so-called Democratic Initiative for Spain and the Americas (IDEA), which has also behaved in an aggressive manner toward the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, over the last several years, as well as other Latin American and Caribbean countries with progressive and leftist governments.

Also conniving and supporting the attempted plan were other organizations with well established anti-Cuban credentials, such as the Democracy and Community Center; the Latin American Development Research and Management Center (CADAL); and the Inter-American Institute for Democracy, run by the terrorist CIA agent Carlos Alberto Montaner. Additionally, since 2015, well known are the ties which exist between these groups and the United States' National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which receives funding from the government of this country to implement its subversive programs against Cuba.

Aware of these plans, and enforcing laws which sustain the country's sovereignty, the Cuban government decided to deny entry into national territory to foreign citizens linked to the acts described.

In an irreproachable act of transparency, in accordance with the principles which govern diplomatic relations between states, Cuban authorities contacted the governments of countries from which these persons would be traveling, and informed them, attempted to dissuade those involved, and prevent the consummation of these acts.

As international civil aviation regulations stipulate, the airlines cancelled the reservations of these passengers upon learning that they would not be welcome. Some were rerouted. There were some who attempted to manipulate the facts to serve strictly political interests within their own countries, given internal processes taking place there.

Abounding were statements by defenders of those who falsely claimed to have been persecuted, associates of dictatorships and unemployed politicians disposed to allying themselves with common mercenaries, at the service of and paid by foreign interests, which do not enjoy any recognition in Cuba, live off unsubstantiated slander, pose as victims, and act against the interests of the Cuban people and the political, economic, and social system they freely chose and have defended heroically.

In regards to Almagro and the OAS, we are not surprised by his declarations and openly anti-Cuban acts. Within a very short period of time as head of this organization, he has drawn attention by generating, with no mandate whatsoever from member states, an ambitious plan of self-promotion with attacks on progressive governments such as those in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

At this time, imperialist and oligarchic attacks have been redoubled against Latin American and Caribbean integration, and against democratic institutionality in several of our countries. In a neoliberal offensive, millions of Latin Americans have returned to poverty, hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, they have been forced to emigrate, or were murdered or disappeared by mafias and traffickers - while isolationist and protectionist ideas, environmental deterioration, deportations, religious and racial discrimination, insecurity, and brutal repression are expanding across the hemisphere.

Where has the OAS been? Remaining as always silent in the face of these realities. Why so silent? Only someone completely out of touch with the times would attempt to sell Cubans "the values and principles of the Inter-American system," given the harsh, anti-democratic reality created by this very system.

One must have a short memory to fail to recall that, in February of 1962, Cuba stood up alone before this "immoral conclave," as Fidel described it in the Second Declaration of Havana. Fifty-five years later, accompanied by peoples and governments from the entire world, it is worth reiterating that, as President Raúl Castro said, Cuba will never return to the OAS.

José Martí warned, "Neither peoples nor men respect those who do not demand respect… men and peoples travel the world poking a finger into the flesh of others to see if it is soft, or if it resists. We must make our flesh hard, to repel the insolent fingers."

In Cuba, we do not forget history's lessons.

Havana, February 22, 2017

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Remembering Ali Osman: Composer, Academic and Conductor of Egypt's Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra
Ati Metwaly
Ahram Online
Saturday 25 Feb 2017

Egypt’s music scene lost Ali Osman, Sudanese composer, conductor, educator and a man whose work with Al Nour Wal Amal, the visually impaired and blind women orchestra was among his most precious accomplishments

On 16 February, Egypt’s music scene lost the renowned composer Ali Osman Al Haj (also known as Ali Osman). Born in 1958 in Omdurman, Sudan, Osman’s passion for music brought him to Cairo in 1978. Though at first he thought Egypt would be a stop on his way further, he made his second home here and founded a family. Adopted by Egypt, Ali Osman is considered among the third generation of Egyptian composers, listed beside names such as Baligh Hamdi (1932-1993), Rageh Daoud (born 1954) and Omar Khayrat (born 1949), among others.

Besides his compositions, Osman’s biography is rich in academic accomplishments, while as a dynamic artist he made a strong impact on the community, particularly through his work as artistic director and principal conductor of the Al Nour Wal Amal (or Light and Hope) Orchestra, an ensemble consisting of visually impaired and blind women musicians.

I had the chance to meet Ali Osman on several occasions in the context of his work with the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra, which even if it represented an important part of his activities, remains but a fraction of the musical depth and versatility he represents. In November last year, as I was interviewing Ali Osman for a project, he spoke mostly about his arrival to Egypt and work with the orchestra, revealing one side of his musical passion.

“In Sudan I was a self-taught musician, playing rock music on guitar and drums. I got to a stage when I needed more knowledge and skill. I felt that my self-teaching techniques started being a limitation. I realised that either I should start studying professionally or give up music altogether,” he spoke with his characteristic soft tonality.

Naturally, Osman could not give up music and, following his secondary education, he began looking for a conservatory oversees.

“At first I wanted to study in Canada, but there was no Canadian embassy in Sudan, so I had to come to Egypt to proceed with visa. I arrived in the late 1970s only to discover the daunting procedures required in order to get a student visa to Canada. This is when I thought of trying my luck at the Cairo Conservatory. I was accepted and began my formal musical education, giving up my Canada plan.”

This change of plan proved very rewarding for the young musician. At the Cairo Conservatory, he studied double bass with Rodney Slatford (USA) and then composition with a number of renowned Egyptian professors including Gamal Abdel-Rahim, and during his postgraduate studies with Awatif Abdel-Kerim. His professors also included Bertold Hummel (Germany) and Robert Woshborn (USA). As he graduated and matured academically, writing his thesis on traditional Sudanese and Arabic music, Osman began teaching composition, counterpoint and harmony at the Cairo Conservatory in 1990, and in 1999 at the Higher Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo.

“It was also in 1990 that one of the professors working with Al Nour Wal Amal Association had to travel abroad for his PhD. He asked me to replace him in teaching solfège at the association,” Osman recalled the days when he joined the team working with the visually impaired and blind women musicians. “I began working on many aspects of the orchestra, while the maestro Ahmed Abul Eid was their music director, conductor and main person responsible for their artistic development.”

Alongside his work at Al Nour Wal Amal and the conservatory, Osman kept making his mark in composition. In 2000, he was granted a four month scholarship as “composer in residence” by Prohelvetia Cairo, and travelled to Switzerland where he also recorded his first full CD by the Swiss Radio.

That same year, Ahmed Abul Eid began looking for an assistant. “He called me at midnight, I remember, and told me that since I’ve known and worked with the girls for many years, I should join him,” Osman explained, underlining that at that time, he was not sure if he was ready for the added responsibility. “But since he almost ordered me I could not say ‘no’.”

Following Abul Eid’s passing in 2004, Osman became fully in charge of the orchestra, a task he carried out with profound dedication until the last days of his life. Acting as a mentor, conductor and often a father, Osman shaped the musicians, patiently carved their understanding of the material and helped them create the most beautiful art. He was their conductor, artistic director and tutor, but also in many ways their friend.

Shocked by his passing, the girls from the Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra shared the news on social media stating: “Today we have lost the smile, the joy and the great support of the orchestra, the brother and friend to all the people working in the Al Nour Wal Amal Association.”

And though the association relies on the expertise of a number of professional musicians, Osman was the orchestra’s solid artistic backbone. He chose the repertoire, deepened the delivery of already mastered compositions and pushed the musicians to learn new ones, often walking them through the work note by note. With all the challenges that can come with this ensemble, he not only embraced the work but also seemed to be enjoying it on the musical and human levels.

“It is a different kind of work from working with sighted musicians,” he told me during the interview.

“With the visually impaired orchestra, we have to go through each detail and help the musicians memorise the score. I would then work with each section of the orchestra separately, and in the final stage combine all the sections and begin to implement a musical vision. It is not an easy work and requires a lot of patience, but it is worth it,” he added with fatherly warmth before moving onto the topic of performing to an audience. “What you see on stage are the women playing alone. I no longer conduct. My work is completely within the rehearsal walls. If you are dedicated to your work during the rehearsals, you will have good results in the concert.”

On the very few occasions when I had the chance to watch him working with the girls, he would walk them through the score, making sure that each note is clean and well heard, and each motion well respected. At times, he would sit at the piano, with one or two musicians by his side duly following his instructions. During the final rehearsals the association’s hall was filled with musicians. Osman would walk in among the girls, whisper to them or tap them on the shoulder and then the music would take on a new, more vibrant shape.

During their performances, he often stood to the side of the stage, or at the back, watching and listening. As the orchestra received strong applause, time and again, in Egypt and abroad, Ali Osman was proud and happy for the musicians, but always very humble.

As a prolific composer Osman’s interest in traditional music and his formal conservatory education merged in a unique creative manner, translating into works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, solo instruments and voices. Representing the third generation of Egyptian composers, he remained deeply rooted in his origins, touching on the idioms of the south, only to create rich amalgams at the thematic and formal levels. He juggled Arabic musical modes and rhythmic patterns and Western harmonies; he explored and experimented, pushing the music towards a contemporary imagery of sound.

Always nurtured by traditional material, Osman would find in it inspiration for many of his compositions, from orchestral works such as a symphonic poem, A Day in the Life of a Shepherd in the Sudan or A Nile Trip from the South to the North, to chamber works. Many of Osman’s compositions featured the instruments in their original contexts and formats, such as El-Maqamat El-Masri (Modes of Egypt), a work that revives the solo harpsichord embedded in Arabic modes or El-Mohager, a short piece for flute, oboe and riq (Arabic tambourine).

On his blog, Osman explained his approach to music in those words: “My main principle is that music is a human activity and I would like to keep it that way. It does not mean that I do not like experimental or abstract music but I deal with these styles when I am dealing with something beyond imagination. I basically depend on national musical elements but I do not lock myself in them. I use the technique that I need to express myself, depending on the idea that I am trying to present.”

A number of Osman’s works were published by Oxford University Press and Peermusic in Germany. Many of his compositions have been performed in Egypt – at the Cairo Opera House, the American University in Cairo, among other venues – and internationally, in Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, China, the USA and the UK.

His Afromood for violin, piano and tambourine, was performed very recently, on 8 February 2017, by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, USA. Entitled “Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven,” this series of free concerts was the orchestra’s project aiming to raise awareness of and give a platform to music from the countries (including Sudan) that are subject to Trump’s travel ban. A few months earlier, in September 2016, Osman’s compositions were featured by the Arab Youth Philharmonic Orchestra at the Young Euro Classic music festival in Berlin.

Osman also contributed to numerous publications, writing on folk and traditional music idioms and their contemporary contexts. He co-wrote with several scholars, including Samha El-Kholy, the series of books issued by the Culture Ministry: Egyptian Contemporary Music (2000–03). He was also on the musical jury of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2012.

Whether working in academia, on his compositions or with the blind musicians, Osman made music his whole life; he turned it into the language in which he could best express himself. On his blog he notes, “If all aesthetics books identify music as completely abstract, how could it be an international language? This definition goes well with the modern abstract music of today, but conventional music is an international language, one that allows people to attend a concert and unite in the feelings that the musical style and the mood carry.”

As the creative field mourns the composer, conductor and educator, it seeks consolation in the strong mark he left on the music field – and in the many valuable offerings he leaves us with.

This obituary was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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