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Thousands of people across the nation spent Tuesday, Tax Day, demonstrating against economic inequality. Actions were organized in at least 43 states to draw attention to the concentration of wealth and regressive tax policies that burden lower-income residents while sparing the richest 1 percent. The rallies came one day after Senate Republicans blocked an effort by Democrats to advance the so-called “Buffett rule” to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes. Tuesday’s actions included a protest outside the birthday party of Ann Romney in New York, a march on the U.S. Bank shareholders’ meeting in Minneapolis, a demonstration at the headquarters of the online retailer Amazon in Seattle, and a march through the financial sector of Los Angeles. The day of action was billed as the first protest of the “99% Spring,” an effort to rejuvenate the Occupy movement after a winter lull.
The White House has unveiled new measures to combat illegal manipulation of the oil market amidst a period of skyrocketing gas prices. Speaking at the White House, President Obama announced a five-step plan that includes increased monitors at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission as well as harsher penalties for illegal manipulation.
President Obama: “We can’t afford a situation where speculators artificially manipulate markets by buying up oil, creating the perception of a shortage, and driving prices higher — only to flip the oil for a quick profit. We can’t afford a situation where some speculators can reap millions, while millions of American families get the short end of the stick. So today we’re announcing new steps to strengthen oversight of energy markets. Things that we can do administratively, we are doing. And I call on Congress to pass a package of measures to crack down on illegal activity and hold accountable those who manipulate the market for private gain at the expense of millions of working families.”
Despite being billed as a crackdown on speculation, critics say the administration’s plan will fail to stem rising gas prices by focusing on illegal activities instead of the oil speculation legally practiced by the financial sector. Recent figures from Goldman Sachs show large amounts of car owners’ gas expenditures are going directly to Wall Street speculators who bet on oil prices. According to widely cited estimates, gas is now costing an extra $10 per barrel because of financial market speculation. In a statement, the advocacy group Better Markets said, “We welcome … more cops on the beat, but the problem with rising oil and gas prices is excess speculation. Claiming to 'crack down' on manipulation and 'single traders' will do nothing to stop Wall Street speculators from running amok … and that is causing prices to jump.”
The right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, has announced it is dropping its campaign to push the “Stand Your Ground ” and voter ID laws nationwide. Stand Your Ground has come under intense criticism from opponents who say it enabled the killing of Travyon Martin. The public outcry prompted a number of major corporations to drop their membership in ALEC.
A U.S. appeals court meanwhile has upheld part of a controversial Arizona ballot measure saying the state can require voters to show identification at the polls. But the court also ruled the state cannot require proof of U.S. citizenship from those registering to vote in federal elections. The ruling adds to a growing debate over voter identification laws enacted in 30 states that critics say disenfranchise people of color, students and the elderly. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department blocked Texas from enforcing a law requiring voters to present photo ID, saying it would discriminate against Latino voters. A similar law has been blocked in Wisconsin.
Government forces in Syria continue to attack rebel strongholds in Homs, Hama and other cities in violation of a U.N.-backed ceasefire that took effect last week. The United Nations Security Council is expected to authorize the deployment of 250 monitors later today. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has questioned whether that number will suffice.
Palestinians rallied across the Occupied West Bank on Tuesday to mark Prisoners’ Day in solidarity with the thousands held in Israeli jails. The rallies coincided with a massive act of civil resistance inside the prisons, with at least 1,200 Palestinian prisoners launching an open-ended hunger strike. In the Gaza Strip, Hana Shalabi, a former Palestinian prisoner who recently staged a five-week hunger strike to protest her detention without charge, offered support for the action.
Hana Shalabi: “I regard their steadiness, and I support them, and all the Palestinians support them, to end their suffering in the enemy’s prisons. I support their strike to reach their demand and to get back their dignity. And I tell them I hope they will be released soon.”
The day also coincided with the release of Khader Adnan, a Palestinian prisoner who staged a 66-day hunger strike that ended in February. Israeli human rights attorney Lea Tsemel said the hunger strikes were an expected response to worsening conditions for Palestinian prisoners.
Lea Tsemel: “I see only deterioration, in the punishments, in the attitude, in the interrogation. The law has changed in order to impose more and more pressure on the Palestinian prisoners. You know, a hunger strike is always the last resort of a person who is under pressure. It’s aimed against oneself. It’s torturing oneself. It’s threatening perhaps in death to oneself. And yet, it is the last possibility for the Palestinians to get together and shout out the voice of the prisoners.”
The Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has confirmed plans to travel outside Burma for the first time in 24 years. Suu Kyi has accepted invitations to visit Norway and Britain in June for what will be her first trip since her detention in 1989. Suu Kyi was elected to Burma’s parliament earlier this month.
A new investigative report has found the U.S. Justice Department has long withheld critical evidence that could have exonerated hundreds of prisoners and parolees. According to the Washington Post, prosecutors have failed to inform scores of defendants and their attorneys of flawed forensic work that could have led to acquittals. The Justice Department has reviewed forensic cases dating back to 1995, but has only made their findings available to prosecutors in the affected cases. The Justice Department review only focused on a limited amount of cases and mainly on the work of one scientist, despite complaints the problem of sloppy forensic work was more widespread. At least one defense attorney says he will seek a new trial for his client after being informed of the Washington Post’s findings that prosecutors withheld knowledge of forensic problems in his client’s case.
The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether a law aimed at reducing sentencing disparities between users of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine should apply to those whose cases were pending when the law took effect. The Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010 to address a racial gap in prison terms between users of crack cocaine, who tend to more commonly be African American, and users of powdered cocaine, who are more often white. The law loosened harsh mandatory prison terms imposed in the mid-1980s that set one gram of crack cocaine equal to 100 grams of powdered cocaine. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding two Illinois men who were sentenced to 10-year prison terms for selling crack. While their offenses were committed before the law took effect, both were sentenced after it was signed by President Obama. Stephen Eberhardt, a lawyer for the men, argued they should be given lesser sentences retroactively, saying, “Why would Congress want district courts to continue to impose sentences that were universally viewed as unfair and racially discriminatory?”
New research shows a Florida law requiring welfare seekers to pass a drug test has had no effect on the number of welfare applications and has actually cost the government tens of thousands of dollars. Over a four-month period when the law was in effect, only 2.6 percent of Florida applicants actually failed the tests. The most common reason for failure was marijuana use. Proponents of the law had argued it would save the state money. But data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union shows the state paid more than $118,000 for the tests, which the group said was nearly $46,000 more than it would have spent on welfare benefits for those who were disqualified by the tests. Another document shows the drug testing requirement had no impact on the number of people on welfare. The ACLU sued the state of Florida over the drug tests last year, and a judge temporarily halted the law in October, saying it would likely be deemed unconstitutional. Earlier this week, Georgia enacted a similar law requiring drug tests for welfare.
The Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire has pulled out of an upcoming gathering of Nobel winners in Chicago over the involvement of the State Department. Maguire, a 1976 Nobel winner for her peacemaking efforts in Northern Ireland, says she will not attend the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates: “I have, as a Nobel Peace Laureate, (and in the spirit of Alfred Nobel) often called for disbandment of NATO, end of militarism and war, and for disarmament and demilitarization. I cannot therefore, in good conscience, be part of a partnership with the U.S. state government.”
More than 20 manufacturers have agreed to pay a $14.8 million settlement to thousands of hurricane victims who were exposed to dangerous levels of formaldehyde gas while living in mobile trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Researchers have found toxic levels in the trailers at between four to 11 times higher than those in average U.S. homes.
Defense attorneys for George Zimmerman have filed a request for the recusal of the presiding judge in Zimmerman’s trial for killing Trayvon Martin. The judge, Jessica Recksiedler, is married to an attorney who is a law partner of Florida lawyer Mark Nejame, who has been hired by CNN to provide legal commentary on the case.
The Secret Service is investigating the musician Ted Nugent for making potentially threatening comments about President Obama. Speaking at the annual National Rifle Association meeting last weekend, Nugent said, “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year. … We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November. Any questions?” He added: “It isn’t the enemy that ruined America. It’s good people who bent over and let the enemy in. If the coyote’s in your living room pissing on your couch, it’s not the coyote’s fault. It’s your fault for not shooting him.” Democrats have called on Republican front-runner Mitt Romney to denounce Nugent’s comments after Romney’s appearance at the same conference.