Hundreds of thousands of students and teachers took part in protests Thursday as part of the National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. Much of the day’s focus was on the university and state college campuses of California, where students face a 32 percent tuition hike. Thousands of California students staged a one-day strike and took part in rallies from San Diego to Sacramento to Humboldt County. Actions were held in at least thirty other states, including here in New York, where protesters rallied outside the offices of Governor David Paterson. It was the largest day of coordinated student protest in years.
In Washington, DC, a gunman has died in a shootout at the Pentagon that also left two police officers wounded. The gunman, John Patrick Bedell of Hollister, California, opened fire after approaching the security area at the Pentagon’s entrance to the DC subway system. Pentagon Police Chief Richard Keevil described the attack.
Pentagon Police Chief Richard Keevil: "A person came toward the Pentagon pre-screen area, appeared to be pretty calm. As the officers started to ask him for his pass to get into the Pentagon, he drew a weapon from his pocket and started shooting immediately also. He didn’t say anything, he just engaged the officers. Both officers were hit. The injuries were not life-threatening. They returned fire. The suspect was also hit. His injury is pretty critical. He was transported to a local hospital."
Online postings show Bedell harbored resentment to the US government and armed forces and had questioned the circumstances around the 9/11 attacks. The attack comes two weeks after a Texas pilot flew a small plane into a building housing the Internal Revenue Service, killing an IRS employee and himself.
The White House played host to a group of insurance executives on Thursday, pressuring them over the rising cost of healthcare premiums and urging their endorsement of President Obama’s healthcare reform initiative. Obama read a letter from a cancer patient in Ohio who said she can no longer afford the cost of medical care. The meeting came as Obama hosted a separate gathering with congressional Democrats, urging them to pass legislation before he leaves for a foreign trip on March 18th.
On Capitol Hill, the House has approved a $15 billion jobs bill that would provide tax incentives for hiring new workers. Six Republicans joined with a majority of Democrats to approve the measure 217 to 201. Some progressive Democrats voted against the measure over concerns the bill isn’t big enough and too focused on tax cuts. The Senate passed its version last week but must now hold another vote before President Obama can sign it into law. On Thursday, Democratic Senators Jim Webb and Barbara Boxer introduced an amendment that would impose a 50 percent tax on bonuses above $400,000 at firms receiving over $5 billion in government bailouts.
In other news from Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has approved a non-binding resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. Turkey has long opposed passage of such a measure, which refers to the World War I-era massacre of Armenians by Turkish troops. Republican lawmaker Dan Burton of Indiana opposed the measure, saying it would alienate an important Mideast ally.
Rep. Dan Burton: "We have sympathy for the people that suffered during that time. We understand tragedies occurred. We understand horrible atrocities occurred. There’s no question about that. But we’re in the twenty-first century. We have troops in the field, and we run the risk of losing a base of operation...in Turkey."
After the vote, Turkey announced it would recall its US ambassador in protest. Meanwhile, Armenian National Committee chair Kenneth Hachikian praised the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kenneth Hachikian: "We’re very gratified that the House Foreign Affairs Committee chose to prevent Turkey from imposing a gag rule on US foreign policy and decided to stand up for truth and justice and to bring forward the truth of the Armenian genocide. Clearly the members of the committee were under incredible pressure from the Turkish government, and even as late as last night apparently from the administration, to not do this, and so we applaud the bipartisan endorsement of what occurred, and we look forward to moving this forward on the House floor."
Although many progressives have long called for recognizing the Armenian genocide, there’s been speculation around the motives for the vote. Critics say lawmakers strongly backing the Israeli government are punishing Turkey for its opposition to the Israeli assault on and blockade of the Gaza Strip.
A top Senate Democrat is raising concern over the private military firm Blackwater’s bid for a $1 billion contract to train Afghan forces. On Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to "consider the deficiencies" in Blackwater’s operations before making a decision. Levin cited a series of Blackwater-linked scandals that he said "appear to have...undermined our mission in Afghanistan." In a separate letter, Levin asked the Justice Department to investigate allegations Blackwater established a shell company called Paravant to win a separate $25 million contract in Afghanistan. In other Blackwater news, the company is denying a report the Republican Party is scheduled to host a fundraiser at Blackwater’s North Carolina headquarters. On Thursday, Politico reported the Republican group for donors under forty known as the "Young Eagles" had announced an event at the sprawling Moyock training facility for April 16th.
A new report says nearly one in three people killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan is a civilian. The New America Foundation analyzed 114 drone attacks, in which more than 1,200 people died, going back to 2004. The report says at least 32 percent of the victims were civilians. With at least fifty-one drone attacks under his watch, President Obama has already exceeded the forty-five carried out under President George W. Bush’s two terms.
Chile has been hit with a strong aftershock today just under a week since Saturday’s devastating earthquake. The US Geological Survey said the aftershock had a magnitude of 6.6 and struck just twenty-five miles off the area of Concepción, which was badly damaged in the initial quake. The Chilean government, meanwhile, has significantly lowered the estimated death toll from over 800 people to around 279. Chilean officials say missing people were mistakenly included on the initial list of the dead. The toll could significantly rise again, however, with many people still missing and bodies still uncounted. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said Chile suffered an estimated $30 billion in damages and would need at least three to four years to recover. Bachelet has declared a three-day period of mourning beginning on Sunday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues a Latin American tour today with a stop in Honduras. Clinton will meet with Honduran President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, whose election was boycotted by opponents of the coup that overthrew then-President Manuel Zelaya. On Thursday, Clinton urged Latin American countries to normalize ties with Lobo’s government and said the Obama administration has asked Congress to restore full aid to Honduras.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We think that Honduras has taken important and necessary steps that deserve the recognition and the normalization of relations. I have just sent a letter to the Congress of the United States notifying them that we will be restoring aid to Honduras. Other countries in the region say that, you know, they want to wait a while. I don’t know what they’re waiting for, but that’s their right to wait."
Clinton’s comments come as a group of nine congressional Democrats have written a letter urging her to "fully investigate reports of severe human rights abuses in Honduras." The Members of Congress say that the US "must make it clear that the ongoing intimidation and persecution of activists and dissidents is unacceptable." This week, Human Rights Watch warned attacks on anti-coup activists are increasing, with at least three killings and eight jailings over the past month.
In Mexico, scores of gay couples lined up in Mexico City Thursday as a gay marriage law took effect. In December, city lawmakers voted to include gay and lesbian couples within existing marriage laws, going beyond a previous measure granting them the same marriage rights as straight couples. Mexico City resident Ema Villanueva was among those to line up on Thursday.
Ema Villanueva: "This is something we have fought for for many years, not only us, but also activists who have fought for equal rights for over thirty years. This has been a day we have been expecting, and we didn’t know it would come so soon. We still haven’t been able to soak in the happiness, excitement and everything we feel."
A group of Mississippi residents has filed a class-action lawsuit against companies they say helped fuel the global warming that worsened the impact of Hurricane Katrina. The suit accuses the companies’ "operation of energy, fossil fuels, and chemical industries" as a factor in rising sea levels that "added to the ferocity of Hurricane Katrina." The companies include the energy giants Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, Honeywell, American Electric Power and Chevron.
Back in the United States, a Utah lawmaker has withdrawn a sweeping anti-abortion measure that would allow women to be charged with murder if they commit "an intentional, knowing or reckless act" that causes a miscarriage. Critics have feared the measure could target women for all kinds of actions, including staying with an abusive partner. On Thursday, the bill’s Republican sponsor, State Representative Carl Wimmer, said he would revise the measure to omit the clause making a "reckless" act punishable by law. But Wimmer says the new measure will retain the provision outlawing "intentional" actions.
Meanwhile, in Virginia a Republican state delegate is facing calls to step down after claiming that disabled children are God’s punishment to women who aborted their first pregnancy. Bob Marshall made the comments at a news conference to oppose state funding to the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood.
Bob Marshall: "The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children. In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment, Christians would suggest."
Marshall has since claimed his comments were taken out of context.
Two units of the insurance giant AIG have settled claims around allegations they systematically discriminated against African American borrowers. AIG Federal Savings Bank and Wilmington Finance have agreed to pay up to $6.1 million to African Americans who were charged higher fees on loans than white clients.
And the Washington Post is reporting Obama administration officials are nearing a decision to recommend trying alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a military tribunal instead of in federal court. White House advisers are said to have made the decision due to bipartisan opposition to granting Mohammed a civilian trial. Marine Colonel Jeffrey Colwell, the acting chief defense counsel at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, criticized the rumored move, saying it would be "a sad day for the rule of law" if a civilian trial is abandoned. Colwell added, "I thought the decision where to put people on trial — whether federal court or military commissions — was based on what was right, not what is politically advantageous."